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Posts Tagged ‘Billy Cullum’

This new musical by The Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke and TV writer & producer Matt Jones takes a 360 degree view of gay marriage from the perspective of the families of both parties, as well as the couple and their friends.

Alex and Obi’s relationship has been a whirlwind ten months. Alex is an American working in London, though his employer intends to relocate him to the Middle East. Obi is British, of Nigerian decent, a successful advertising Account Manager. Their coming out stories couldn’t be more different. Alex’s mother Diane embraced his sexuality, joining him at Pride marches, his father Brian more reluctant but ultimately accepting. Obi was thrown out by his dad Kenneth when he was sixteen, his mother Grace forced to tow the line, his sister Chichi supporting him. He put himself through the rest of his schooling and both his degree and his masters.

They live together but decide to marry so that Alex can avoid his relocation and have leave to remain. They don’t plan to invite their families, but Alex breaks first, so Obi attempts a reconciliation and invite his. Alex’s parents arrive and his mom forces the issue by arranging a dinner where both families can meet. From here on it becomes an emotional roller coaster and skeletons come out of cupboards with gay abandon.

Robby Graham’s production has great pace and energy, propelled by superb dancing and movement. I really liked Okereke’s music, played by an onstage guitarist with a backing track. Some have called it a play with music, but in my book it’s a musical, as the songs move the narrative forward. The pivotal scene where the families meet over dinner is superbly staged. When current scenes are interwoven with flashbacks to Obi’s youth, the latter are cleverly staged in slo-mo. The final scene of simultaneous conversations between four couples is brilliant.

Tyrone Huntley & Billy Cullum are both terrific as Obi & Alex. Johanne Murdoch conveys the liberal, effervescent but somewhat controlling Diane superbly. Rakie Ayola is a very dignified Grace, Aretha Ayeh a feisty independent Chi Chi and Cornell S John a defiant Kenneth, all excellent, as indeed are the rest of the ensemble.

A very assured musical theatre debut, a highly original show that’s expertly staged and very well performed that’s very much to be recommended.

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Just as we were moving on from our hippie phase as the 60’s turned into 70’s, along came a few biblical musicals – two by Andrew Lloyd-Webber & Tim Rice and this one from Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz – which applied a hippie style, perhaps in an attempt to ‘get down with the kids’. Some found them refreshing and others embarassing. I was in the embaressing camp. Forty years have passed and I think we’ve only had one more (major) biblical musical – Children of Eden, also by Schwartz, making it 2-2.

It’s an edited version of the Gospel According to Matthew, so there’s no point in outlining the story. It does have a few good songs, notably Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord and Day by Day, but a lot of mediocre ones. I think Beautiful City was added after the original production; in any event, it’s a mistake to end the show with it as the preceeding Finale is much more powerful.

Director Michael Strassen presented wonderful stripped bear productions of Sondheim’s Company and Assassins at the same theatre, and he applies a similar approach here. Unfortunately, Schwartz isn’t Sondheim. I’ve never been that fond of his music; it’s melodic but lacks variety and subtlety. It often assaults you relentlessly with bland pop tunes in an attempt to beat you into submission. I didn’t even like Wicked. I’m also not a believer. So if you did and / or you are, please don’t rely on my view.

As it happens, I admire the production. They’ve dumped the hippie shit and play it in modern street cloths with no set, leaving the excellent lighting by Steve Miller to create the atmosphere. The opening is great, with lovely lighting effects, the cast dressed in black all waking up and Jesus entering in his crash helmet – this is the Union Theatre, so they couldn’t stretch to a motorbike; if it had been an ALW West End revival, no doubt it would have been a bejewelled Harley Davidson!

Though they occasionally forget how small the space is and begin shouting, resulting in even less subtlety, the singing (and acting) is uniformly good. Billy Cullum is a charismatic Jesus and Davis Brooks does well playing a sympathetic John the Baptist and an unsympathetic Judas. The synthetsised voice of god is a mistake as you can’t understand his message – unless that was the point.

If you’re fond of musicals and this has passed you by or if you’d like to see how it shapes up 40 years on or if you’re a Schwartz fan, this is the place to go. Good production, pity about the show.

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