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Posts Tagged ‘Alastair Brookshaw’

This and Follies (which I’m seeing again in three days time) haven’t been my favourite Sondheim shows – I’ve always considered them a bit conventional, even old-fashioned, in comparison with the rest of his work. Well, that was until Saturday. This is another musical theatre triumph for the Watermill in Newbury, unquestionably the best of the four staged productions of the show I’ve seen over 28 years. It looks gorgeous, it sounds great and it’s much wittier.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around three generations of Armfeldt women – actress Desiree, her mother Leonora and daughter Fredrika. Desiree is away on tour much of the time, leaving Fredrika at home to hear her grandmother’s endless tales of liaisons with European nobles. Her ex Fredrik has a new child bride Anne, who he takes to one of her performances. Her current affair is with the pompous military dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. In the second half, they all meet at the Armfeldt home for a weekend house-party where Anne and the Count’s wife Charlotte plot, Fredrik clashes with Carl-Magnus and Fredrik’s son, trainee priest Henrik, declares his love for his step-mother. It all untangles before it ends with three happy couples and a death!

Musically, it’s one long waltz, more delightful here as the actor-musicians sometimes dance with their instruments, including cellos hooked around necks, some serving an additional purpose, such as Fredrik’s trumpet seeming to duel with Carl-Magnus’ clarinet. Watermill regular Sarah Travis has created outstanding arrangements, mostly using strings and woodwind, with the brilliant use of chimes. The book and lyrics shone like never before, much funnier than I remember. David Woodhead’s design is beautiful to look at, a brilliant evocation of time and place and a superb use of the Watermill space. Amongst its delights are the transformation from house to garden as the first half ends. I haven’t seen much of director Paul Foster’s work, but he does an absolutely splendid job here.

The cast is without a weak link. Josefina Gabrielle has great presence as Desiree, her regrets palpable and deeply moving in Send in the Clowns. Dillie Keane is a revelation as Madame Arnfeldt, with an extraordinary ability to convey things like contempt or cheekiness with facial expressions alone. I loved both Alastair Brookshaw and Alex Hammond as Fredrik and Carl-Magnus respectively, one towering over the other, both determined to win. Benedict Salter’s characterisation of Henrik was excellent. Phoebe Fildes as Charlotte transforms well from naive to vengeful, Lucy Keirl is every bit the nervous bride Anne and Tilly-Mae Millbrook is a delight as granddaughter Fredrika.

This may be the definitive revival. Two more weeks to go. Don’t miss it, Sondheim fans.

 

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This 1979 Jerry Herman show was the third of three flops sandwiched between Hello Dolly & Mame and La Cage aux Folles. The second of the three, Mack & Mabel, was rehabilitated and is now often revived, but this one disappeared until this enterprising European premiere 35 years later. Gold stars to the Finborough Theatre and producer Danielle Tarento for enabling us to see it at last.

It’s based on S N Berman’s 1944 stage play, itself adapted from Franz Werfel, who wrote it after he’d fled to the US, via France, in the 30’s. There seems to be an autobiographical influence on the story. The National Theatre staged the play in 1986 and my recollection is that it was a comedy. This certainly isn’t.

Eternal optimist Jacobowsky is a Polish Jew who has moved around Europe and now finds himself in a France under German occupation. He befriends a Polish colonel, Stjerbinsky, and they begin a journey through France by car, train and boat. Stjerbinsky is trying to get important papers about undercover agents in Poland to the Polish government in exile in England. En route they visit a cafe where they meet Marianne, who joins them. They pair up with a circus, get split up and reunited at a Jewish wedding Jacobowsky is performing, and take refuge in a convent before getting to the port and the boat that will take them to England.

If you know Herman’s other shows, you’ll know this is hardly typical Herman fare and that’s the crux of it – the story doesn’t really work as musical theatre. That said, Director Thom Sutherland and his team have made a good fist of it. Set Designer Phil Lindley’s pop-up book set is ingenious; a giant map of Europe from which other sets fold out. Sophia Simensky has added fine period costumes and Max Pappenheim some great sound effects. Though no doubt driven by the duel needs of economy and space, the twin pianos are perfect for this music. I thought some of the performances were a little tentative, but Alastair Brookshaw and Nic Kyle were very assured as Jacobowsky and Stjerbinsky.

A flawed show, but a good production, and above all a great opportunity to catch such a rarity by a titan of musical theatre.

 

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Yet again, I find myself reflecting on how you can visit a show again and come out with a completely different reaction. Earlier in the Summer I found Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead irritatingly glib, having previously found it clever and entertaining. When I first saw Alfred Uhry & Jason Robert Brown’s show four years ago at the Donmar, even though I’m perfectly comfortable with musicals on serious subjects, the musical form seemed wholly inappropriate for the subject matter and the musical style jarred. Now, having seen Thom Sutherland’s masterly production at Southwark Playhouse, I feel completely differently. Your frame of the mind at the time is so crucial to your response. If you’re in a Mamma Mia mood, however fine the Richard III production is, it just won’t do. If you’re up for a dysfunctional Sam Shepherd mid-west family, there’s no point in going to Priscilla.

Parade tells the true story of the framing a New York Jewish man for murder in Georgia in the early 20th century. The governor makes it clear he needs a conviction and the prosecutor delivers one by dubious means including the coaching of young witnesses. Just when it appears the governor’s review of the case will lead to a reprieve, a hasty hanging is arranged.

On this occasion, I found the music heightened the intensity and emotion of the story and Sutherland’s production grips throughout. Though it’s a tiny space with a traverse staging, it somehow feels epic. It flows seamlessly from scene to scene by having the set at either end of the space and just a handful of props to bring on and off. Wherever you sit, you’re never far away, so you always engage with the characters and the story. John Risebero’s set and costumes are excellent and there’s particularly effective lighting from Howard Hudson.

Yet again, Danielle Tarento’s casting is outstanding. Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford give hugely committed performances in the central roles of Leo & Lucille Frank; Laura’s singing is exceptional. Mark Inscoe has great presence as prosecutor and would-be governor Hugh Dorsey. It’s a tribute to David Haydn that it wasn’t until the end that I realised he’d played three roles including the pivotal ones as governor and newspaperman. Terry Doe follows two fine musical performances at the Finborough, with three fine performances in one evening here. There is also an auspicious London debut from Samuel J Weir, a 2011 graduate. The 7-piece band under Michael Bradley play the score brilliantly.

It’s not without its faults. Though mostly effective, the traverse staging was occasionally irritating, the over-amplification took away some subtlety from the solo vocals and at 2 hours 40 mins it was a little too long. That said, this production turned around my view of the show, won me over and deserved its spontaneous standing ovation.

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