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Posts Tagged ‘Avgoustos Psillas’

Suzie McKenna’s sensational revival of this 1980’s Sheldon Epps show, first seen in London in 1987, had a short run at Hackney Empire five years ago. It’s now moved West to the more intimate Kiln Theatre with the wonderful Debbie Kurup joining the cast, and it’s even better.

It’s more of a song cycle than a musical, though its surprising how much characterisation there is, with so little dialogue. The songs themselves tell the stories of The Lady, The Woman, The Girl and The Man who are all in residence in a Chicago hotel, three in their rooms and The Man mostly in the bar, with limited interaction between them. The twenty-six songs are more than just blues but they all come from the same period. They include a lot of numbers by Bessie Smith, with others by Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer and many more. Standards like Lover Man, beautifully sung by Sharon D Clarke, Taking a Chance on Love, Baby Doll and Take It Right Back sit side by side with less well known songs.

The four star performances just blow you away. Sharon D Clarke, within days of her last performance of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, delivers every song with conviction as The Lady looking back at her life. Debbie Kurup inhabits the troubled character of The Woman and delivers her songs such that we feel her pain. There’s a naivety to Gemma Sutton as The Girl, so vulnerable and needy that you want to protect her. Clive Rowe’s worldly wise The Man struts his stuff without a care in the world. They are accompanied by a superb band led by Mark Dickman, and Avgoustos Psillas’ impeccable sound ensures you hear every word and every note.

Robert Jones’ design and Lotte Collett’s gorgeous costumes locate the show firmly in its place and time, with beautiful lighting by Neil,Austin, and Susie McKenna’s direction and Frank Thornton’s choreography use the space to great effect, with the intimacy bringing something extra.

A faultless production with as fine a set of musical performances as you’ll find on any stage. Absolutely unmissable.

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As much as I enjoyed this when it was first produced at the Donmar / Piccadilly in 1987 (I was on the Olivier Awards panel that nominated it as Best Musical, though it didn’t win; Sondheim’s Follies did), I wasn’t prepared to be as blown over as I was by this Hackney Empire revival. Sheldon Epps’ show is more semi-staged concert than musical, but I doubt it has ever been better sung or played as it is here. Faultless.

The setting is a Chicago hotel in 1939. Three women, each from a different generation, each with a different story, each with a connection to the man. This is really just a device to link and interweave the wonderful songs of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and others. Each character has their own space on stage – their hotel room, except the man who seems to be permanently in the bar! A couple of mute actor / dancers come on occasionally and interact with the four singers, but it is of course all about the music.

These are songs that you live, full of life experience and feeling, and the four performers all inhabit them like they lived them first, then wrote them. Sharon D Clarke, Clive Rowe, Paulette Ivory and Gemma Sutton are all sensational and superbly matched to their characters and each other. Their interpretation of the songs is extraordinary and I can’t imagine anything better. Mark Dickman’s band sounds wonderful, with the help of some of the best theatre sound I’ve ever experienced by Avgoustos Psillas.

I’ve enjoyed Gemma Sutton in fringe musicals, but here she’s a revelation (taking the role of a young Maria Friedman 27 years ago, so no pressure there then!). I know the work of Paulette Ivory less, but can’t wait to see her again. Sharon D Clarke has wowed me before, most recently in her Olivier Award winning performance in The Amen Corner, but this was the biggest wow. I think I’ve seen almost everything Clive Rowe has done since (and at) GSMD and he never disappoints.

Hackney’s brilliant regular panto team, director Susie McKenna and designer Lotte Collett, prove just as adept at staging premiere league musical theatre. As always at Hackney, the audience and the venue add that extra bit of magic that propels a good evening to greatness. A triumph.

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