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Posts Tagged ‘Abigail Matthews’

The Union Theatre continues its role as London’s principal home of British musicals, this time with the world premiere of a show about the military’s treatment of its own in the First World War, together with attitudes to pacifism, homosexuality and class at that time. The show, the production and the performances combine to provide a very beautiful evening indeed.

Harry enlists, even though he’s three years below the minimum age, and finds himself in the trenches with fellow villager Peter and initially reluctant local squire Adam (he’s the recipient of the white feather of the title), immediately promoted to Captain because of his class. Harry’s sister Georgina looks after Adam’s estate in his absence and has to fire Edward, his secret lover who has feigned a disability to avoid the front. Harry is executed for dereliction of duty, considered to be equal to desertion, which sets Georgina on a course to clear his name. When the war is over, Georgina marries Adam but with the ghost of Harry and his sexuality hanging over him it doesn’t prove to be a long or happy affair. Though set primarily in East Anglia immediately before, during and after the war, we do jump forward to later periods right up to 2006, and to other locations. Given the time-hopping and the location changes it’s a remarkably lucid book.

The score contains many lovely songs, some very short, but all driving the narrative forward. I loved the arrangements for keyboards, cello and violin, played so well by MD Dustin Conrad’s trio that the audience stayed put throughout the play-out, and the unamplified vocals were a joy to hear. Tim McQuillan-Wright has created a simple but evocative set and Natasha Payne’s costumes anchor the piece in its period. Hot on the heels of her star turn in Bye Bye Birdie in Walthamstow, Abigail Matthews gives a very different performance of great dignity as Georgina. Adam Davey conveys Adam’s torment between public and private and duty and feelings very movingly. Harry Pettigrew captures the innocent patriotism of Harry and Zac Hamilton the sadness of Edward, who’s love for Adam can never be fully realised. Katie Brennan appears to have moved into the Union, following an outstanding performance in The Spitfire Grill with another terrific one here as Georgina’s friend Edith.

I was captivated by this lovely show. Andrew Keates had developed and directed it and co-wrote the book and he’s done a great job. Unmissable.

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Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre had a great success with another rare and early Charles ‘Annie’ Rouse musical comedy, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. This was his first show, back in 1960, which I’ve only seen once, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama ten years ago. My starting point was ‘they’ve got their work cut out with this one’.

It takes its inspiration from Elvis Presley signing up to join the army. Here, Conrad Birdie is the singer who’s about to become a GI. His record company boss Albert decides to spin his story and create a photo and TV opportunity for a last kiss with a fan. Fifteen-year-old Kim is selected and her family all appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, where it all goes wrong thanks to Kim’s jealous boyfriend Hugo. There’s a parallel story about Albert losing his secretary and love interest Rose after eight years of doing nothing, largely to avoid upsetting his possessive mother Mae. As Conrad heads off to enlist, Albert finally gets some balls and chooses Rose over his mother.

When I walked into theatre I was instantly impressed by Andrew Yon’s design. It’s a red, black and chequered diner with adverts and records (remember them?) on the walls and 50’s tunes being played as you enter. Ryan Walklett’s excellent costumes complete the spot-on period feel. It gets off to a shaky start, partly because the material of the first part is weak (it pulls almost all of its punches in the second half), and partly because the playing style was a bit all over the place, some OTT, some too restrained. It does pick up significantly and is really motoring in the second half, with great choreography from Anthony Whiteman in Baby Talk to Me and the Shriner Ballet. The design leaves ample space for the ensemble scenes and I liked the band in view and (sort of) in costume at the back. It’s not a great score, though a few songs are familiar, having a life outside the show – Put On A Happy Face in particular, but A Lot Of Livin’ To Do and Kids as well.

When they’d settled, there were good performances all round, and the loud, somewhat exaggerated acting style suited the broad comedy of the material. I particularly liked Liberty Buckland’s feisty, sexy Rose (Chita Rivera in the original production!) and Abigail Matthews as teenage fan Kim (if they ever make a bio drama of Imelda Staunton’s life, she’s a shoe-in for the role). There are lovely cameos from Harry Heart as Kim’s somewhat overwrought dad, Jayne Ashley as the acid-tongued Mae, Benedikt de la Bedoyere (what a name!) as Hugo and Stephen Loriot as Kim’s young brother Randolph. MD Aaron Clingham has opted for more oomph with a band including winds, bass and drums and that seemed to suit the material without drowning out the singers (were those mic’s I saw overhead?) and the musical standards were as good as ever here.

This theatre continues its essential role of putting on rarely seen musicals. This one won’t change your life, but you’ll have a lot of fun, and who knows when you’ll get the chance to see it again.

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When I first saw this Howard Goodall musical 26 years ago, it completely changed my attitude to musical theatre and opened my eyes to the possibilities of serious storytelling through music. It was a ground-breaking piece and the first British musical of its type (well, there haven’t been that many since). From the US, we’d had West Side Story of course and Rogers & Hammerstein’s attempts to tackle serious issues in their shows, but here was a very British story with a uniquely British choral score.

It’s so rarely produced that I grab any chance to see it. In 1992 there was a terrific concert version, some time later a lovely small-scale production at the Finborough, a shortened amateur one at the Edinburgh fringe and then four years ago a touring version from Eastern Angles which paid a visit to Greenwich; but here it was on my doorstep in Clapham at one of my favourite theatres. The rioters almost ruined my chances when the show I had booked for had to be cancelled, and last night was my only free night to catch it before the migration north for the Edinburgh festival.

Based on Melvyn Bragg’s book, the hirings of the title are where men and employers met and contracted with each other, and that’s where we start. The first half is set in rural Cumbria where they eke out a living on the land, some chasing a ‘better life’ in the mines where we see the beginnings of trade unionism. John & Emily are devoted to each other; their relationship even survives ‘a moment of madness’ when Emily strays with the bosses son Jackson whilst John is away. In the second half, we take in the first world war and a mining disaster before we return to the land and back to the hiring.

Last night it was as thrilling as that very first time. Andrew Keates terrific production fits the Landor so well. Freya Groves design oozes authenticity, creating fields, pubs, houses, war trenches and mines very effectively with bales of straw and barrels and simple period costumes. There’s excellent choreography from Cressida Carre and realistic fights directed by Andrew Ashenden. Even the dialects are good! It has the best score of any British musical and those choruses soared. The new orchestration for piano and string trio by MD Niall Bailey is excellent and the singing is outstanding. I can’t praise this fine cast enough; they brought great passion and commitment, shivers up my spine and a few tears to my eyes. It’s very hard to believe that Joe Maxwell as John and Catherine Mort as Emily have recently graduated (Guildford School of Acting should be very proud); they are as fine a pair of leads as you could wish for. Abigail Matthews is lovely as daughter May in the second half and amongst a uniformly fine ensemble, I much admired Ian Daniels as Jackson and Sean-Paul Jenkinson as John’s brother Seth.

My one regret is that I had to leave for Edinburgh 8 hours later so I can’t go back! This is a superb revival of a great show; a triumph for everyone involved.

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