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Posts Tagged ‘Birmingham Rep’

I didn’t bother with a ‘Best of’ last year as my theatre-going, apart from a handful of open air shows, came to a standstill after just over two months. 2021 started as badly as 2020 had ended, but I managed to see something like 65 shows in the last half of the year, so it seems worth restoring the tradition.

There were nine new plays worthy of consideration as Best New Play. These include Indecent at the Menier, Deciphering at the New Diorama, Camp Siegfried at the Old Vic and Best of Enemies at the Young Vic. Something that wasn’t strictly speaking a play but was a combination of taste, smell and music, and very theatrical, was Balsam at the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival. Out of town, in the Reading Abbey ruins, The Last Abbot impressed. Three major contenders emerged. The first was Grenfell: Value Engineering at the Tabernacle, continuing the tradition of staging inquiries, verbatim but edited, very powerfully. The remaining two had puppetry and imaginative theatricality in common. Both Life of Pi, transferring to Wyndham’s from Sheffield Theatres, and The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage at The Bridge were adaptations of books, but were thrilling on stage, and both had star performances from Hiran Abeysekera and newcomer Samuel Creasey respectively – I couldn’t choose between them.

The leanest category was New Musical, where there were only a few to choose from. I liked Moulin Rouge for the spectacle, but it was really just spectacle, and I enjoyed Back to the Future too, but it was the sense of tongue-in-cheek fun of What’s New Pussycat? at Birmingham Rep and the sheer energy of Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, with a towering performance by Arinze Kene as Bob Marley, that elevated these jukebox musicals above the other two.

More to pick from with play revivals, including excellent productions of Under Milk Wood and East is East at the NT, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Lyric Hammersmith and two Beckett miniatures – Footfalls & Rockaby – at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre. GDIF’s Belgian visitors staged Blue Remembered Hills brilliantly on wasteland in Thamesmead, and Emma Rice’s Brief Encounter had a great new production at the Watermill near Newbury, but it was Yeal Farber’s Macbeth at the Almeida, as exciting as Shakespeare gets, that shone brightest, along with Hampstead’s revival of Alan Plater’s Peggy For You, with a stunning performance from Tamsin Greig, which ended my theatre-going year.

The musical revivals category was strong too, probably because we needed a dose of fun more than anything else (well, except vaccines!). I revisited productions of Come from Away and Singin’ in the Rain, though they don’t really count as revivals, likewise Hairspray which was a replica of the original, but I enjoyed all three immensely. Regents Park Open Air Theatre brought Carousel to Britain, in more ways than one, and the Mill at Sonning continued its musical roll with an excellent Top Hat. It was South Pacific at Chichester and Anything Goes at the Barbican that wowed most, though, the former bringing a more modern sensibility to an old story and the latter giving us Brits an opportunity to see what Broadway has been getting that we’ve been missing in Sutton Foster. If only we could detain her permanently.

In other theatrical and musical forms…..there were dance gems from New Adventures with Midnight Bell at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet’s Dante Project at Covent Garden, and a beautiful concert performance of Howard Goodall musical of Love Story at Cadogan Hall. There were lots of classical music highlights, but it was the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Up for Grabs at the Barbican, accompanying footage of his beloved Arsenal, that packed the hall with football fans and proved to be a refreshing and surreal experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world (and I’m not a football fan, let alone an Arsenal one!). Somewhat ironically, most of my opera-going revolved around Grimeborn and Glyndebourne and it was a scaled down but thrilling Die Walkure at Hackney Empire as part of the former that proved to be the highlight.

Let’s hope its a full year of culture in 2022.

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I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone made a jukebox musical out of the songs of Sir Tom Jones. Given that I was brought up 5 miles away, over the mountain in a neighbouring valley, a bio-musical would probably have resonated with me (particularly if they recreated that concert at Penyrheol Community Centre, though that may be a false memory). Using Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel about another Tom Jones may be the most unlikely idea for a jukebox musical ever, but I’m delighted to report it works. Just as well, given I made a 250-mile round-trip to see it. It’s great fun.

We start in 18th Century Somerset where Mrs Western – a terrific turn from an unrecognisable Melanie Walters, (Gavin &) Stacy’s mum Gwen – is seeking to marry her daughter Mary to Lord Allsworthy’s son William, but Mary is in love with Lord Allsworthy’s ward, illegitimate child and serial cad Tom Jones. Here we have to suspend disbelief as Tom heads for London and ends up in 60’s Soho. becoming the toy boy of fashion queen Lady Bellaston. Mary follows but stops pursuing Tom because of his philandering and instead pursues a fashion career, introducing mini skirts to Carnaby Street (Mary!) under the patronage of Lady Bellaston, who also helps Tom persue his career as a rock star.

The songs are distributed amongst the cast regardless of sex or age and they fit well. I still remember that delicious moment during my first visit to Mamma Mia (the first jukebox musical?) 22 years ago when Chiquitita is made to fit the show, and it was the same in the prison scene here when Big Mickey (an excellent Lemuel Knights) bursts into Delilah and brings the house down with a rousing sing-along rendition. The vocal performances are generally good, though some are too shouty (which the man himself would never do) and the high volume and poor sound quality, particularly in the first half, robs it of some moments of necessary restraint and subtlety.

Writer Joe Dipietro’s idea and book are great and Luke Sheppard’s effervescent tongue-in-cheek production, like his big hit & Juliet, is a delight. Arlene Philips is the perfect choreographer, having lived and worked through the 60’s, and there’s more than a nod to that period’s iconic dance group Pan’s People. Jon Bausor’s set and Janet Bird’s costumes are a riot of colour and totally evocative of the period, right down to the clear plastic clothing!

I refuse to believe this show’s journey will end in Birmingham in three weeks. It’s huge fun.

Footnote – No knickers were thrown at the stage during this performance.

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