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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Lewis’

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a new ‘edition’ of this revue show just five years after the last one, but the reviews suggested otherwise and I have zero willpower, so off to the Menier we go.

Gerard Alessandrini’s show parodies musicals and it has been running on-and-off (but mostly on) in New York City for 32 years; now in its 19th ‘edition’. It has apparently had outings in Sydney, Tokyo and Singapore and this is the 2nd UK version. The format is the same, but the shows change. Four singers, accompanied by a pianist, solo or in combination, perform parodies of 13 shows plus a few performer profiles. Some hit the mark better than others, but they’re all fun.

In this edition, the highlight for me was that old warhorse Les Mis; it’s extraordinary how many laughs you can get from a (non-existent) revolve. Miss Saigon, The Book of Mormon and Once were also huge fun, probably because they were also amongst the most biting, and the title song of Sondheim’s Into the Woods became Into the Words, with performers charting the challenges of singing Sondheim. Of the performer parodies, there was a great song duel between Rita Moreno and Chita Riviera.

You have to know and like musicals to appreciate this show, and you also have to expect things you love to be treated mercilessly, but if you do it’s great fun. What helps here is the fact that it’s delivered by four of our finest musical performers. Damian Humbley is more than good enough to sing the lead in Les Mis, but even better parodying it. Ben Lewis is a dead ringer for Charlie’s new Willy, complete with matching costume. Anna-Jane Casey is way too good for Wicked but her parody is a hoot. Sophie-Louise Dann is an absolutely hilarious Matilda.

The Menier was a bit like a sauna and there was an unscheduled 35-minute technical break 15 minutes in, but neither could dampen the immense fun had by all. Though it’s written by an American, given that 11 of the 13 shows parodied are currently in the West End (and another recently departed), with 6 starting out here, maybe it’s time to change the show’s title?

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This isn’t the first musical adaptation of Emil Zola’s late 19th century book / play. There have been two operas and one musical (by Harry Connick Junior!) before it. Though billed as a musical, this one’s a touch operatic, occupying the space between. It’s highly original and very inventive and Craig Adams’ music is very challenging, but maybe too ambitious.

Therese, in the care of her aunt since childhood, is in a loveless marriage to her first cousin Camille and running a business with her aunt. She begins a passionate affair with Camille’s best friend Laurent. When it becomes difficult to continue their afternoon meetings, their solution is to drown Camille in the Seine. After an appropriate period of mourning, at the suggestion of her aunt, Therese marries Laurent. The trouble is, Camille haunts them both and the relationship deteriorates until another tragic solution is found.

I loved Laura Cordery’s dolls house set, which transforms into haberdashers shop, bedroom and drawing room. Nona Sheppard’s staging is clever and highly effective, particularly the weekly domino evenings, Therese & Laurent’s moments of passion and fighting and the hauntings. Julie Atherton is excellent as the melancholic Therese, though she’s virtually mute for the first 45 minutes, Ben Lewis is great as Laurant, commanding in both voice and presence and Jeremy Legat convinces as both Camille and his ghost! I liked Tara Hugo’s characterisation of the aunt, but she struggled with the vocal demands of this complex score (though I think some of the discordant vocal hysterics were intentional), particularly in a long and pivotal second half scene where she appeared to lose her way. It’s a very good supporting ensemble; I particularly liked the chorus of women telling us what Therese was feeling.

If it were less ambitious musically, a little more restrained in performance and with one role recast, this would be a terrific show. Still worth a visit in this first incarnation, though.

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During the 18 years I lived in Abertridwr (the mining village in South Wales where I was brought up) I don’t recall ever seeing a show there – not even a panto. The only thing I do recall was a visit by BBC Wales to the Workman’s Hall to record a TV show with Victor Spinetti and The Flower Pot Men (well, that tells you how long ago!).

I’ve watched the rise of National Theatre Wales with great interest. The show in the Brecon Beacons intrigued me and I’d have loved to have been at the Port Talbot Passion. My first exposure was the terrific Dark Philosophers at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, which fuelled my enthusiasm and added more than a touch of pride that things that good were coming out of NTW so soon.

I was in Wales a few weeks ago when news that the premiere of their new show was in Rudry (I think I’m related to most of the inhabitants of that village, even though I’m no longer in touch with any of them!). Twitter started twittering, with the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner the first to suggest something special. I looked up the tour venues for a local friend and discovered it was going to theatre-starved Abertridwr. How could I resist?  So I rounded up five friends and relatives, bought 6 tickets for less than the price of one in the West End, and re-routed myself from York to London via Abertridwr (+200 miles and 6 hours). No pressure there then….

The show starts before the show starts with the five organisers of the annual Cae Bach (Little Field) village social making last-minute preparations, greeting people and panicking. There’s Clean Jean (as her badge says) the Health & Safety Officer (cleaner,) Security Dave feeling superior with his walkie-talkie, his wife Yvonne glamorous and just a little bit pissed, local historian yoga teacher and one-woman community force Lisa Jen, and self-appointed leader Lawrence. They’re later joined by Lawrence’s son Dion and what appear to be a ‘chorus’ of locals.

The star guest is a medium but she’s late, so there’s a lot of ‘filling in’ with songs and stories, the latter mostly folk myths and legends. When she does turn up, they get more than they bargained for as the myths come alive and more recent truths are revealed. This is all executed with great skill by Sue Roderick, Oliver Wood, Carys Eleri, Rebecca Harries, Darren Lawrence and Gwydion Rhys and there are lots of laughs and bucketloads of charm. It’s completely bonkers, becomes absolutely surreal and the smile hardly ever left my face.

There’s a small band led by co-writer Dafydd James (no relation – well, I don’t think so…) who was also responsible for that other Edinburgh Welsh hit (in Welsh) Llwyth. It’s directed, but seem not to be (this is a compliment), by co-writer Ben Lewis with authentically amateur designs (another compliment) by Cai Dyfan.

It was huge fun and I’m very glad I made the detour. I appreciate that there was an extra something ‘going home’ but I defy anyone not to find it enjoyable. Perhaps above all, for me, is that we have (and can hopefully continue to have) another National Theatre that lives up to its name. The wonderful National Theatre of Scotland pioneered this homeless outreach approach; now we have two. When I’m sitting in the National Theatre in London, which I often am, I will be thinking differently about the word ‘national’ and it took a trip back home to show me what it really means.

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