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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Francolini’

When booking opened for this I decided I didn’t need another Peter Pan. Then I realised it was the same team who brought a brilliant Jane Eyre to this very stage. Need became want and all willpower was lost. A good decision and a brilliant 12th night ending to the festive season.

Visually grungy but colourful, all scrapyard and striped pyjamas, Michael Vale & Katie Sykes design gives it a home-made feel. A huge metal frame, to facilitate flying with people as counter-balances, fills the Olivier. There’s a giant white brick wall at the back, with holes smashed through for two spaces for musicians and action. It looks like Jackson Pollock painted the floor, in one of his more cheerful, colourful moments. When the pirate ship sails in, we all gasped. The look is terrific.

Without messing with J M Barrie’s story, Dramaturg Mike Akers and director Sally Cookson have somehow enhanced both the playfulness and the morality of the tale. There’s a great rock and reggae infused score by Benji Bower, with the lost boys food song an absolute joy. The whole thing has been developed by the company and it shows in a tightly knit ensemble.

Anna Francolini is excellent as both Mrs Darling and Captain Hook, played by a woman as Barrie apparently originally intended. I adored Felix Hayes characterisation of Mr Darling (he also plays Smee and a lost boy). Madeleine Worrall is a delight as Wendy, with Marc Antolin and John Pfumojena equally delightful as John and Michael. Paul Hilton is an unlikely Peter but he makes it his own. Saikat Ahamed’s Tinker Bell is an extraordinary interpretation, as is Ekow Quartey as Nana the dog nanny. You can’t help falling in love with the pyjama-clad lost boys, some with brightly coloured woolly jumpers and hats.

It’s a long way from the National’s classic Peter Pan exactly 20 years ago (with Ian McKellern, Jenny Agutter, Daniel Evans, Alec McCowan and Clive Rowe!) and in many ways more magical. Another import from / co-production with the very enterprising Bristol Old Vic. Great stuff.

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At the core of this piece is an inspired idea. An Alice for the internet generation. Apparently substantially rewritten since its Manchester International Festival debut it still isn’t finished though. 

Aly’s parents have split. She lives with her mum and baby brother and misses her dad. School is shit. She’s got cyber-bullies on her back. Then she discovers a virtual reality world in wonder.land and with her new avatar she enters it and meets her alter ego Alice and the rest of Lewis Carroll’s cast. Until, that is, school headmistress Ms Manxome confiscates her smart phone, steals her avatar and plays a darker game in wonder.land.

The music is OK, but not great, as if Damon Albarn hasn’t really found his musical theatre voice (his last two music theatre works were billed as operas). There’s a ‘look’ but its a bit obvious – shades of grey in the real world, with a multi-coloured wonder.land. There’s also no cohesive style to the staging; it’s a bit all over the place. The projections are good, though. 

Anna Francolini makes a good baddie, but it’s a panto villain nonetheless. Carley Bawden is uncannily her double as Alice. Lois Chimimba is a sweet Aly and Enyi Okoronkwo cute as her friend Luke. Hal Fowler is a larger than life presence as the MC (Cheshire Cat / Caterpillar). Above all, I liked Paul Hilton’s dad, though his role in the tea party scene suggests he may not get through the run without breaking a bone or two.

It’s still in preview, but I saw the 6th of 7 previews, so it’s hard to see how they can improve it enough by the press night to get a better reception than V.1 got in Manchester. I have a soft spot for polymath Damon Albarn, but I enjoyed this a lot less than Monkey or Dr. Dee, I’m afraid.

 

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This show started life as a film, made by Blake (Pink Panther) Edwards as a vehicle for his wife Julie Andrews some 30 years ago. It got to Broadway 13 years later but took another 9 years to get to London; a fringe production by Phil Wilmott at the then home of fringe musicals, The Bridewell Theatre. It’s only taken 8 more years for its second London outing (I think), this time at one of our now multiple fringe musical homes, Southwark Playhouse, in a production by the talented and prolific Thom Sutherland.

It owes a lot to Cabaret. English girl abroad. Decadent nightclubs. Cross-dressing. It’s the story of Victoria Grant who after a failed audition as a club singer is persuaded by new friend Toddy to pose as Polish Victor playing a woman – a woman playing a man playing a woman; very Shakespearian.

She falls for visiting American nightclub owner King Marchand (and he for him/her in a nice touch of confused sexuality) but is rumbled by competing club owner Henri Labisse for whom she originally auditioned.  All is revealed so that she can get her man (and his sidekick can get his man i.e Toddy!). It’s a bit of a slight story and the score isn’t much more than OK, but it scrubs up well in this excellent production.

It’s a traverse staging with a (rather too noisy) entrance and stairway at one end and an (underused) staircase and eight club tables with table-top lights (occupied by audience members) at the other end. A few tables and chairs constitute the minimal props but its an effective design by Martin Thomas, well lit by Howard Hudson.

The key to its success is a star turn from the wonderful Anna Francolini who is perfectly cast and believable as both Victor and Victoria. Richard Demsey is good as Toddy, as is Matthew Cutts as King. Mark Curry had real presence as the club owner / manager and Kate Nelson did a lovely job as King’s dumb blonde Norma. In the supporting cast, Jean Perkins gave a fine set of cameos, including a warm-up magic act!

The show was still in preview and it didn’t seem quite ready; in particular there was some ragged playing from the eight piece band under Joseph Atkins. I suspect it will settle and improve as the run continues, but in any event it’s well worth a visit.

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In addition to a staged production of Passion and a couple of talks and discussions, the Donmar Warehouse Sondheim at 80 celebrations includes a couple of concert performances of former productions. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too!

The first concert was Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 London premiere cast. This is the show which runs backwards to the time its protagonists first meet. I have very fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of Sondheim’s most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved.

I turned up at the second one – Company – thinking ‘they can’t match that’ and it wasn’t long before my inner voice was saying ‘they will!’ This one was staged at the Donmar in 1995 and they managed to get nine of the original 14 back. In the first half, Anna Francolini brought the house down with Another Hundred People (she’s doing eight performances a week as Maria Callas in Onassis and came here on two of her Sundays off!), as did Sophie Thompson with the incredibly difficult Getting Married Today . In the second half, Haydn Gwynne inhabited rather than just singing Ladies Who Lunch, taking the role originally played by the now sadly departed Sheila Gish, then leading man Adrian Lester put so much emotion and passion into Being Alive that his voice began to break and tears began to flow in the audience; how could this come alive like this in concert?! The band continued after the encore so the audience sang Side By Side again without the cast. Another standing ovation, another unforgettable night.

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Sondheim’s 80th celebrations continued with a concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along, re-uniting 80% of the Donmar’s 2000 UK premiere cast. I have fond memories of the production, and have seen two more since, but I really wasn’t expecting this to be quite so thrilling. The dream cast included Daniel Evans, Anna Francolini, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro. This show contains some of his most complex songs and to achieve such perfection in a one-off concert performance 10 years after you performed it on stage is astonishing. Gareth Valentine’s band was terrific and the cheers and standing ovation were richly deserved. For years I avoided opera in concert as I couldn’t see why or how you could bring alive something that was meant to be staged – well, now I’ll have to change my mind about musicals in concert too.

Earlier in the month I attended the ceremony to confer an Honorary Doctorate on Sondheim at the Royal Academy of Music. There was a terrific brass fanfare and a procession of men in robes which included a bearded man in sports jacket, yellow shirt and chinos looking uncomfortable in his. I don’t know whether he wrote it himself, but John Suchet’s citation was wonderful and an emotional Sondheim clearly appreciated the honour. It was followed by a 30-minute performance by students and recent graduates which was an unusual selection and a little hampered by failing amplification, but the chorus numbers were fabulous. Julia Mackenzie, Trevor Nunn, Simon Callow and Lesley Garrett were also in the audience to honour the great man. It’s proving a great 80th celebration and we aren’t finished yet!

Contemporary Music

At his Cadogan Hall concert, Nils Lofgren reminded us of his first UK visit in 1973 as part of Neil Young’s band on the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour ‘when we played all this new stuff and pissed everyone off’. I can still hear the hissing but refuse to believe it was 37 years ago. Anyway, this concert was by far his best acoustic outing, with just one other person on keyboards / trumpet / guitar & rock tap dancing! It was mostly old stuff, but he’s a great guitar player and has a distinctive voice; add in terrific sound and a lovely atmosphere and you have a treat. 

Classical Music

The Houston Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets beneath a giant screen showing footage of the planets themselves was an intriguing prospect and proved to be a unique experience. In truth though, I was more impressed by the orchestra’s playing that the projections, possibly because the darkness and visuals heightened the aural experience where every sound was crisp and clear. I also loved the Barber and Stravinsky symphonic suits which preceded the main event.

Tenor Ian Bostridge has a Cecilia Bartoli-style project called ‘The Three Tenors’ which focuses on three early 18th century singers and the pieces that were composed for them by contemporary composers. It’s an album and tour with baroque ensemble Europa Galante and in concert it was very much one of two halves – the first a distinctly underpowered and underwhelming affair and a much better second half when a clearly unwell Bostridge rose to the exciting heights the ensemble had achieved throughout. I’m not sure the repertoire really suited this sweetest of sweet tenors, though the Handel pieces certainly did. The animated ensemble, which stands to play, were often thrilling.

There was a lovely Sunday afternoon affair at the Royal Academy of Music examining the relationship between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten & Lennox Berkley, both of whom set his poems to music. It took the form of an informative discussion / readings followed by afternoon tea (with homemade cakes!) followed by a recital / reading by college students followed by wine – and all for a tenner! Katie Bray stole the show with spirited renditions of Britten’s Cabaret Songs.

Opera

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the only thing 18th century composer Thomas Arne wrote was Rule Britannia. Apparently, the main reason we don’t know much more is that most of his manuscripts were burnt in a fire. Fortunately, most of the masque / opera Alfred survives and it was given a rare and very welcome outing by The Classical Opera Company at Kings Place. It’s similar to, and stands up well against, Handel’s work of the same type and period –a patriotic tale of invasion by and repulsion of the Danes populated by the king, queen & prince, a shepherd & shepherdess, a war widow and a spirit! The small orchestra was terrific, the young company of seven singers excellent and actor Michael Moloney’s tongue-in-cheek narration was an added bonus. Another treat!

I wish I could say the same for the first in our autumn pairing at WNO, Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a lovely opera, but it was given a dull, drab and inert production – clumsily staged and full of old-fashioned mannered movement. The director also designed and did the lighting, so I suspect that the lack of a creative team meant one man’s perspective and no challenge. Dennis O’Neill still has a lovely tone to his tenor voice but it was Clive Bayley’s Rocco who shone. The chorus and orchestra were again the real stars, though. It’s one of those evenings when you wished it had been one of those concert performances, or you had closed your eyes during the gorgeous overture and opened them again for the uplifting final chorus.

Fortunately, things picked up for the second opera – Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos – which had a sparkling production and twelve (yes, twelve!) first class and well matched singers, led by Sarah Connolly in the trouser role of The Composer. Though I’d seen the opera a couple of times before, I only realised this time how Wagnerian the second act is – and it also suffers from Wagner’s penchant for the overlong; if it had been 20 minutes shorter, it would have been a lot better. Another treat nonetheless.

Alexander Goehr’s Promised End is an opera based on King Lear. The libretto is entirely Shakespeare’s words and given it’s half the length of the play, it’s surprising how much of the story is told. It’s well directed and designed and the performances are uniformly good. The trouble is the music is just dull – it’s like they were about to do the play, when someone suggested they sing the lines instead of speaking them and improvised it on the spot. If the addition of music doesn’t do anything, it all seems rather pointless.

L’Isola Disabitatia is a short & silly Haydn opera with lovely music about two girls abandoned on a desert island. The musical standards of the Jette Parker Young Artists production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio were very high with excellent singing from Elizabeth Meister, Anna Devlin, Steven Ebel & Daniel Grice and lovely playing from the Southbank Sinfonia under Volker Krafft. Unfortunately, Rodula Gaitanou’s decision to set it in a post-apocalypse world was preposterous and ugly; it detracts from your enjoyment significantly – again, it would be much better with your eyes closed. With a 75-minute running time, the interval was misguided and did nothing except increase the bar profits.

Film

I haven’t been to the cinema for five months, mostly because I just haven’t fancied anything. It took a British film covering a slice of social history like Made in Dagenham to draw me back and I loved it. They’ve taken liberties with the history, compressing it somewhat, but it’s still a great story and with hindsight a much more important one than I remembered. The who’s who of British acting included fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Daniel Mays, Geraldine James and Miranda Richardson.

I was also impressed by The Kids Are Alright, which takes very contemporary subjects – gay parenting and sperm donation – and produces a charming film which moves seamlessly from funny to thoughtful with an excellent script, sensitive direction and five fine performances. When one child reaches adulthood, she asserts her right to find the sperm donor on behalf of her younger brother and their world is turn upside down when he enters all four of their lives. Very intelligent, clever, modern and grown-up. 

Art

I’d seen a small exhibition of Art by Offenders in Edinburgh, but the one in the Royal Festival Hall is more extensive and so much better exhibited. There is an extraordinary amount of talent here; you can’t like everything, but you can admire it and cheer the good work being done in using art as therapy and rehabilitation.

The V&A has three great exhibitions at the same time. The first we saw was the Raphael cartoons with the tapestries from which they are designed. It was fascinating to see them side-by-side; in one case a threesome with a century younger tapestry copy as well. I was bowled over by how good the Diaghilev & Ballets Russes exhibition was, proving conclusively how much impact they had on art and design of the period. It included lots of costume and set drawings & models as well as actual costumes and front cloths plus much more. It was a feast for the eyes and seemed so contemporary. The best was left until last though, with Shadow Catchers, showcasing five artists who make cameraless photography – their photograms were simply gorgeous.

Nearby in Kensington Gardens, there are four pieces by Anish Kapoor and walking to and between them, watching them change and grow, was a delight. The large disc on the opposite side of the Serpentine with reflections in the disc and in the water and ducks and swans passing in front was the highlight. There were no highlights in Klara Liden’s pointless installations and videos in the Serpentine Gallery I’m afraid – dreadful! 

Gaugin is one of those ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that lives up to the hype. You’d be forgiven for thinking he just painted semi-naked Tahitian women; well, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dispel that myth and see the whole range of his work. There are carvings and woodcuts as well as paintings. The oils are so soft they look like watercolours. The colours are a feast for the eyes. By the time I got to the Turbine Hall downstairs, you weren’t allowed to walk on the millions of tiny porcelain pellets that ARE the installation which makes the whole thing pointlessly expensive.

I’m not sure I got much out of Damian Ortega’s Barbican Curve installation inspired by a month of news stories, but it was original and intriguing; I think I need to go back with more time to do it justice. I’ve really got to love popping into this space before a show or concert.

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