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Hairspray

I can’t imagine a more exhilarating return to the West End than this, a revival of the 2007 UK premiere by the same creative team (director Jack O’Brien, designers David Rockwell & William Ivey Long and choreographer Jerry Mitchell) with Michael Ball returning to his Olivier Award winning role. Oddly enough, it was amongst the last musicals I saw before lockdown, just as good though in a rather different venue (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2020/03/10/hairspray-HM-prison-bronzefield).

I first fell in love with the show when I took a punt on a Broadway preview almost exactly 19 years ago. This was followed by three visits to the West End run between 2007 and 2009 and a couple of regional outings before last year’s rather unorthodox revival and Sunday’s barnstorming return. I simply adore the 60’s aesthetic, the catchy tunes and witty lyrics of Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, the anti-segregation, body positive and anti-racist messages (book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan) and the sheer loud, brash, colourful, tongue-in-cheekiness of it all.

Nothing much is changed from the UK premiere (there was nothing to fix) but the joy of a bunch of people returning to what they do is infectious. It’s as if they are doing it for the very first time. Lizzie Bea is a match for all those other Tracy’s, and a great tribute to NYT and NYMT. Such is his range that the last time I saw Michael Ball he terrified me as Sweeney Todd (so unrecognisable, people were asking for their money back because they thought he wasn’t in it!), now he’s padded and in drag as Tracy’s mom Edna. Les Dennis clearly delights in playing the loving father / husband Wilbur, a role he too has played before, with his show-stopping duet with Ball, (You’re) Timeless To Me, packed with delicious moments. Rita Simons (East Enders’ Roxy) was a bit of a revelation as baddie Velma and Marisha Wallace wowed as Motormouth Maybelle, as she did in Dreamgirls and Waitress, with I Know Where I’ve Been bringing the house down.

Though attentive and receptive during scenes and numbers, the audience continually erupted between them and the atmosphere in the vast London Coliseum (too vast for this show really) was extraordinary, as if the pent up euphoria after 16 months of musical theatre famine exploded all at once. An absolute joy.

From Here

I’ve lost count of the number of four-hander chamber musicals / song cycles I’ve seen, most involving the relationships of 20 or 30-somethings, mostly American. This is refreshingly British and more random in its themes, though the writers have taken their inspiration from our search for perfect endings or new beginnings. It’s also an extraordinary showcase for the talent of writers Ben Barrow and Lucy Ireland, who only graduated two years ago, and wrote this in lockdown over zoom.

The four performers play multiple characters who tell their stories in song, from childhood friendship to adult relationships through work & careers and, well, life’s many experiences. I struggled with the concept and decided to settle down and enjoy each story and each song individually, experiencing it as a song cycle. They were beautifully sung by Nicola Espallardo, Aidan Harkins, Grace Mount and Andrew Patrick-Walker, with only the occasional touch of over-singing, and fine accompaniment from Ian Oakley’s trio.

It was a delightful 70 minutes from two very promising new writers from whom I can’t wait to hear more.

Anna X

Firstly, Sonia Friedman is to be congratulated for her RE:EMERGE season, a re-opening initiative with three new plays by West End debutantes, of which this is the third. Re-opening was brave enough, this doubly so.

This two-hander tells the story of a con artist and her gullible mark. Anna is a glamorous young and seemingly wealthy Russian who purports to be some sort of art philanthropist. Ariel is a relatively wealthy young American geek who has set up a dating app for the beautiful and well-to-do and now comes under her spell. Their story and relationship unravel in short punchy scenes, slickly delivered in front of a shape-shifting video wall which moves us from place to place. It’s an impressive piece of stagecraft.

Emma Corrin (fresh from her turn as Diana in The Crown) and Nabhaan Rizwan (fresh from his in BBC’s The Informer and Industry) are making their West End debuts, possibly their stage debuts (?) and both impress, playing multiple roles as well as the leads, with great chemistry between them. They do their best with the material, but that’s where the evening falls short. The play lacks depth; the characters aren’t fully developed and the story lacks substance, particularly the motivation which underlies both characters actions.

Still, it’s a thrilling 75 minute theatrical ride as Joseph Charlton’s play gets a dazzling production from Daniel Raggett, in no small part due to the extraordinary work of the design team of Mikaela Liakata, Tal Yarden, Jessica Hung Han and Mike Winship.

After Life

Great to be back in the NT’s Dorfman Theatre, one of my favourite spaces, configured as a large room in an institution where we go for a week when we die to choose the one memory we will take with us to the afterlife. Filing cabinets and shoes represent the people who have, will and are passing through. We watch a handful of arrivals on Monday and follow them through the week, each led by a guide, someone who came before but never passed through.

It may sound like a depressing premise, but it leads to a lighter, charming and thought-provoking play in the hands of favourite Jack Thorne (based on the Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-eda), developed by him with designer Bunny Christie and director Jeremy Herrin. It does have the feeling of a collaboration about it, with every component – performances, staging, movement, design, lighting, music, sound – working in harmony. I’ve been rather preoccupied since trying to decide which memory I would choose!

The new arrivals at first struggle with the concept of making such a choice, then grapple with the process of choosing, but by Saturday they are fully absorbed by the memory; well, most of them. The guides take their roles with different levels of seriousness, but all become engaged with their subject’s former life in the process. It’s a necessary process, but a benevolent one; they are genuinely trying to help them move on. They are of all ages and backgrounds, but of all of them, its 90-year-old Beatrice, beautifully played by June Watson, who melts your heart.

The production has a lightness of touch that gives it an other-worldliness in keeping with the material. I found it captivating, moving without being sentimental, it lulled me into a very reflective state. Lovely.

Like the Kiln Theatre the night before, the Royal Court have chosen to revive something for their re-opening, on this occasion their 2019 Theatre Upstairs hit. I knew I wasn’t anywhere near the target demographic, and it often felt like watching a foreign language production, but that didn’t stop me admiring it, and realising its importance for a new generation of theatre-goers.

Cleo and Kara have known each other since school. One is straight and one is gay, both are black, though Cleo sometimes disparagingly refers to Kara as being ‘lighter’. Cleo’s boyfriend has dumped her and she sits in her room venting her frustration on Twitter. When she discovers that Kylie Jenner has become the youngest ‘self-made’ female billionaire, her frustration turns to rage as she tweets the seven methods, which go viral.

After each tweet we are treated to an extraordinary scene to illustrate their impact. In between, Cleo and Kara discuss their lives, loves and feelings, Watching this from a distant age (!) does feel like observing another world, and I missed dialogue and references which did impact my engagement with both the story and the characters of Jasmine Lee-Jones piece. I did however admire its originality and freshness, the theatre-craft of its staging by Milli Bhatia and her design team, and above all two outstanding performances by Leanne Henlon and Tia Bannon.

Well done Royal Court for championing these new voices which, judging by the reaction last night, have an audience ready and waiting.

The Invisible Hand

The Kiln Theatre have revived their production of this play after only five years, giving me an opportunity to catch what I missed last time. A four character play entirely set in a ‘prison’ cell may not seem to have that much dramatic potential, but it turns out to be a very clever and gripping political thriller.

American banker Nick has been kidnapped by a terrorist group in Pakistan, not a premiere league one like the Taliban, but one that gets the wrong man; their target was his boss. Realising he doesn’t have the value they have placed on him, he does a deal whereby he makes them money by doing what he does best, trading futures and shorting. One of his captors Bashir, an idealistic British Pakistani, becomes his right-hand man in pursuit of money. The Imam in charge welcomes the money they make ‘for the people’. In the end, though, greed proves not to be the exclusive province of bankers and the terrorist group becomes fatally divided.

It’s a clever and plausible premise, and it unravels in a series of short and sharp scenes which increasingly grab you and add up to a riveting ride. Lizzie Clachan’s designs, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Alexander Caplen’s sound combine to create the tension in Indhu Rubasingham’s excellent production. Scott Karim (the only one who wasn’t in the premiere production here) is brilliantly terrifying as Bashir, later absorbing knowledge to take action in support of his values. Daniel Lapaine is excellent as the incarcerated American, on stage virtually the whole time, indulging his passion for making money whilst attempting to save his life. Tony Jaywardena conveys gentle authority as imam Saleem, with a more steely character just below the surface. I really liked Sid Sagar’s performance as the much put upon Dar, a punchbag for both Bashir and Imam Seleem.

I wasn’t keen on Ayad Akhtar’s only other UK produced play, Disgraced at the Bush in 2013, which I thought was contrived, but this is is great drama, revealing the similarities between the seemingly disparate worlds of high finance, politics and terrorism.

I haven’t really got back into the swing of blogging theatre yet. I’ve already seen 10 shows (one twice) but have only blogged one, the actor-less Flight at the Bridge Theatre, so I thought I’d catch up. I have an interest in three of the rest, so I’ll just cover the remaining six, in one blog.

Call Mr. Robeson – Greenwich Theatre

It was almost three weeks after Flight, the actor-less one, before this one-man show, for one night only. I have to confess that even though I knew who Paul Robeson was, and was well aware of his historical significance, I didn’t know much about the man and his life. Tayo Aluko, who both wrote and plays Robeson, redressed that with a 90-minute whistle-stop biography with songs, accompanied by Roland Perrin. The vocals were sometimes shaky, and barely audible in the lower register – it was his first live performance for over a year – but it was a comprehensive and captivating biography of a fascinating life.

Out West – Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

It was another two weeks before my next outing, to not one but three one-person plays in one evening, the first of six consecutive days at the theatre. Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student told the story of Gandhi’s period in London qualifying to be a lawyer, his first exposure to the idiosyncrasies of the West. Both the play and Esh Alladi’s performance were utterly charming. In Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh, Tom Mothersdale’s Jack grapples with his relationship with his dad, whose racism comes to the surface when he embarks on a mixed race marriage which leads to a mixed race son, in a deeply moving tale. Favourite playwright Roy Williams completed the unrelated trio with Go, Girl, a lovely story of a single mum’s pride in her daughter, beautifully realised by Ayesha Antoine, an uplifting conclusion to the evening. Fine writing and fine performances all round.

Under Milk Wood – National Theatre

By now it was time for a stage full of people, a cast of 14 led Michael Sheen, a real favourite of mine, in one of the greatest literary works of my homeland, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. It wasn’t written for the stage of course, though I’ve seen it presented successfully as such twice before, once in this very theatre, the National’s Olivier. This version is ‘framed’ by scenes in an old peoples home written by Sian Owen,where Owain Jenkins, a writer, visits his dad, seemingly desperate for reconciliation. The ‘play for voices’ emerges organically as if from the memories of the home’s residents, who play all the characters. I wondered if Owain, who becomes our narrator, was meant to be Thomas. In any event, his words were beautifully spoken by an excellent cast that included Sian Phillips no less, playing three characters.

Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare’s Globe

This was less successful for me (so my search for a definitive R&J continues). Statements and facts about contemporary teenage mental health and suicide puncture the scenes of Shakespeare’s story of the star crossed lovers, underlined in neon above the stage. I felt it was aimed at a young audience, somewhat heavy-handed, and failed to engage me, despite some fine performances. It had its moments, but the choice of Juliet’s mode of despatch was the final straw for me, steering too far from Shakespeare for my liking. The ‘greatest love story ever told’ becomes a contemporary lecture on mental health.

Bach & Sons – Bridge Theatre

Nina Raine’s play focuses on Johann Sebastian’s family more than his music, as the title suggests, and in particular on the two sons who followed in his footsteps (of the 20 children he had with his two wives, only 10 of whom survived into adulthood). His favourite, Wilhelm, is a drunkard who lives with, and off, his dad. His younger brother Carl ends up working as a musician for Frederick the Great, with whom his relationship is somewhat ambiguous. A scene where JS visits Frederick only to be humiliated by him and his son for his obsession with counterpoint is the only time we see Bach away from home. Simon Russell Beale is perfect for the part and I enjoyed the play, though it was a bit slow and dark (lighting wise) in the first half. I felt it needed more than the 7 characters and more (live) music to animate it, in an Amadeus way, but Covid no doubt put paid to that.

Last Abbott of Reading – Reading Abbey Ruins

An outdoor treat from Rabble Theatre amidst the ruins of the abbey on the 900th anniversary of its founding. Staged very effectively in-the-round, it tells the story of Abbott Hugh Faringdon’s rise from nowhere to become a key religious figure and friend of Henry VIII, until the king, under Cromwell’s influence, closes the Abbey and has Hugh murdered. The Abbott’s mother Alice acts as a narrator, a device which worked really well. The costumes were excellent, the space atmospheric, the performances very good indeed; Beth Flintoff’s play was excellent storytelling. Well worth a trip to Reading.

It’s good to be back, and all venues took safety seriously and organised things well, but I can’t wait to be maskless, for me the one deterrent left to true enjoyment of theatre.

Flight

This was my third attempt to see this ‘show’, the first two cancelled late last year as we played a game of now-we’re-in-lockdown-now-we’re-not. It’s at the Bridge Theatre, but not as we know it, and it tells a story, but it’s not a play. Glasgow company Vox Motus are renowned for breaking new ground and, based on this experience, they certainly do.

You’re led to a personal booth where you don headphones and sit waiting for the lights to go down. When they do, the whole panel before you begins to move slowly, revealing tableaus of short scenes accompanied by recorded dialogue and a soundscape. Between them, they tell you the story of two Afghan brothers and their long two-year journey via Tehran, Athens, Rome and Paris to their desired destination, England.

Along the way they are befriended, exploited and abused. They work to raise money to supplement their meagre inheritance, to pay those that provide them with illegal and dangerous modes of transport. The only things that are constant are their love for one another and their determination to make it. It tells their story movingly and beautifully. The dolls house like miniatures, voices and sounds combine to fire your imagination and bring the story of orphans Aryan and Kabir alive.

Based on the novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers, adapted by Oliver Emanuel, it’s superbly directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison and beautifully designed by Harrison with Rebecca Hamilton. Original, inventive and a deeply moving spotlight on the plight of refugees.

TM

It’s almost 12 years since I first encountered the work of Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed. That show was called Internal and it took place in a hotel in Edinburgh with a handful of others (somewhat ironically, one of them was the Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre, currently facilitating this presentation). I described it as speed dating followed by group therapy. This new ‘show’ is by necessity online, yet it seems to take me back full circle, with another one-to-one encounter at the heart of it, and the same delayed impact.

When I entered the online meeting room, Gunther from Belgium was there. We were shortly joined by Shug and Jan, also from Belgium, and a short while later Siemke from Norway, drinking a beer and eating what appeared to be twiglets, rather loudly. After an introduction to TM, some sort of global movement, I was face-to-face with my interviewer. The questioning, all about me, was quite intense, and occasionally uncomfortable. It was followed by an analysis by the interviewer. I was still digesting it when I found myself back in a group being presented with the TM manifesto, after which the screen population multiplied before they disappeared and left me alone. Well, until I noticed Siemke was still online, the only other participant I suspect.

You do need openness, curiosity and a sense of adventure to tackle a Ontroerend Goed show. In between Internal and TM, there was the presentation of teenage angst in a cube in Teenage Riot and a feminist polemic in Sirens, both more traditionally staged. Then there was £¥€$, live at the Almeida reconfigured as a sort of casino, a game or financial simulation, and A Game of You, where I was observed, interviewed, recorded and given a DVD of it all to take home and see myself how they saw me. There are few theatre companies as innovative and courageous and yet again I found myself thinking about it long after it ended and, in this case, for way longer than my 35 minutes online.

I’ve lost count of the number of four-hander chamber musicals set in New York City featuring twenty or thirty-somethings with complicated relationships. They’re sometimes light on story and often seem like song cycles, with great similarity to one another. This one is Joshua Salzman & Ryan Cunningham’s 2011 follow-up to 2006’s successful I Love You Because. When I saw the UK premiere at the much missed Landor Theatre in 2013, I thought it was a cut above the rest and after this second viewing I felt the same.
Waverly is a wannabe actress with two jobs, one in a law firm and one in a bar. Her boyfriend Darren is a budding playwright. Waverly’s best friend Lisa is a singer, Darren’s ex before she came out, now looking for the right woman to start a new life with in LA. Luke is a playboy, immature and self-obsessed, determined to live life without ties. Through these four characters and their relationships, we explore the conflict between settling down and staying free, the careers we want and the ones we can get.
The strengths of the show are the development of the characters and the quality of the songs and lyrics. Director Robert McWhir, who also directed its UK premiere, as he did that of I Love You Because, has assembled an excellent young cast. Bessy Ewa navigates the roller-coaster ride of Waverley extremely well, Amelia Atherton is in fine voice as Lisa (both are 2020 graduates), Callum Henderson is earnest and charming as Darren and Nathan Shaw captures Luke’s freewheeling lifestyle.
The Garden Theatre has been given its own bar, where much of the action is centred, in David Shields excellent design, with Aaron Clingham on keys and guitarist Ashley Blasse on a platform that’s an integral part of the bar. It’s very well staged and I enjoyed it as much as I did the UK premiere seven years ago.