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Posts Tagged ‘Bridewell Theatre’

I don’t think London has seen this early Michael John LaChiusa musical since it’s UK premiere at the Bridewell Theatre eighteen years ago. It was the first of the five very diverse shows of his I’ve seen, the latest being Queen of the Mist earlier this year, now transferred to the Charing Cross Theatre.

More song cycle than musical, it’s based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde and consists of ten scenes, or sexual liaisons, each in a different decade of the 20th century (LaChiusa’s innovation) from 1900 to 1999, though not chronologically. One of each pair of characters (‘the nurse’, the writer’ etc) moves from one scene to the next, where they are in a new pairing, in a new decade, so we meet each generic character twice, with ‘the whore’ from the first scene turning up in the last to take us full circle.

Paul Callan’s production is staged in costume but ‘without decor’, so the pressure is on the material, and it doesn’t really come up to the mark. The eclectic score seeks to reflect the period of each scene but in truth the songs aren’t really that memorable. That in turn puts pressure on the performers and its to their credit that much of the time they make it shine more brightly, particularly in the way better second half. Henry Brennan’s trio play the score well, but you do miss some of the lyrics and sung dialogue without amplification.

I liked the idea but it didn’t really go anywhere, and the material wasn’t good enough to make up for that, so more of a curiosity than a satisfying show, I’m afraid.

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Opera

I didn’t get off to a good start with the ENO’s Peter Grimes after a twitter spat over their withdrawal of standby concessions, despite a large number of empty seats. No production will probably ever match Grimes on the Beach, but musically this is top notch, mostly due to the fact that conductor Edward Gardiner, the orchestra and the chorus were as good as it gets.

Though I’ve seen Tippet’s King Priam before, I’d forgotten how challenging it is musically. This ETO production at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was quality fare, but I found it hard to engage with the story and even harder to penetrate the music.

Death & the Powers is a SciFi opera by the Royal Academy of Music’s visiting professor of composition Tod Machover, so we (staff, students and Friends) were privileged to participate in its global simulcast from Dallas Opera. It’s more of a technological marvel than a musical one, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, including interaction through the specially created app on my iPhone!

I enjoyed the second ETO offering, Britten’s Paul Bunyan, a lot. I’ve only seen it once before, 15 years ago, but preferred this smaller scale more homespun folk opera treatment. It’s not really an opera, more a musical drama with a mythic quality and some lovely tunes. It was a bit cramped on the Linbury Studio stage, but better seen in such an intimate space.

I ventured to Godalming for the first time to see a friend in one of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas I’ve never seen, Princess Ida. Somehow, it seemed completely at home performed by an amateur company (of 43!) in the Borough Hall, even though they were almost falling over each other on the tiny stage! The second act is a bit long, but it’s the usual G & S fun, here with terrific costumes and a proper orchestra of 26.

The trio of operas in my latest visit to WNO in Cardiff were programmed as ‘Fallen Women‘. It started with Puccini’s early and rarely performed Manon Lescaut which had a striking modern production and was beautifully sung and played. Henze’s Boulevard Solitude takes the same source and story and gives in a mid-20th century spin with a surprisingly accessible score and a similar modern staging, again with sky high musical standards. I’d seen this La Traviata before, which is why I wanted to see it again and it didn’t disappoint. It’s elegant and moving, though two intervals and a twenty minute overrun did mar the dramatic flow this time. Three operas, two talks, a programme and a drink all for less than £70; opera at its most accessible.

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Theodora is quite possible the most perfect performance of a Handel oratorio I have ever heard. All five soloists were outstanding and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street sounded gorgeous. It’s not a particularly engaging story, but the music is consistently good and the 3h 45m flew by.

Contemporary Music

Kings Place was the perfect venue for Laura Cantrell, with just another guitarist rather than her band. It was a perfect 75 minute set culled from all of her records, plus some covers, but mostly her lovely new album. Her personality comes over so well on stage, too. Sturgill Simpson, supporting, sounded good when his singing wasn’t too nasal and I liked his songs (though too many covers for a man with an interesting new album) but I couldn’t understand a word of any of them, such was his heavily accented diction!

Dance

I wasn’t sure whether to categorise this dansical, Drunk, as a musical or dance, but the lack of a story as such made me plump for dance! Eight performers, solo, as an ensemble and in different combinations dance scenes about being the worse for wear. There’s terrific music from Grant Olding and the talent on show is extraordinary. It has bags of energy and its slick, sassy and sexy, but it’s also a bit relentless and a bit samey, without much shade to break up the light. Choreographer Drew McOnie’s ambitious and welcoming new company, though, is one to watch.

Film

My confidence in film critics took another dent when August: Osage County turned out to be way better than they led me to believe. It worked as well on film as it did on stage and there were a handful of superb performances, notably Meryl Streep as an absolute monster.

I loved Nebraska, a really heart-warming film – in black & white – with wonderful performances by a cast mostly made up of actors of a certain age. It fired me up for a road trip to that part of the US; watch this space!

Private Lives was the first play filmed live that I’ve ever seen (though not shown live in this case). The ability to see things in close-up added something (I saw the same production on stage) though you do sometimes miss the reactions of other characters and the lighting was occasionally poor. I like the fact that more people can see great productions at accessible prices, but I think I’ll stick to the live experience.

Dallas Buyers Club was a slow burn, but it eventually repaid its investment with a compelling David & Goliath story with a heart-warming ending. Unquestionably a career high for Matthew McConaughey, who must be in pole position for an Oscar.

Saving Mr Banks was a big surprise; it had much more depth than I was expecting, largely because of the switch between PL Travers childhood and her Disney experience. It was one of those occasions where staying for the titles paid off as you heard the original recordings she insisted on during the script meetings, which proved it was more than a work of fiction.

I enjoyed Her a lot more than I thought I was going to. It’s a bit overlong (and occasionally soporific!) but it feels very plausible, which makes it scary indeed. I’m going to switch off Siri before it’s too late!

Common People is an independent feature film shot entirely on Tooting Common, on my doorstep. It’s a bit slow to get going, but it builds into a charming, warm-hearted slice of life. It’s been showcased in US festivals and now gets a handful of local screenings which will hopefully lead to more because it very much deserves it.

I’m amazed that The Invisible Woman hasn’t had more BAFTA or Oscar nominations. It’s such a well-made film, full of fine performances. I don’t know how true the story of Charles Dickens personal life is, but I was captivated.

Art

The annual Landscape Photography competition exhibition at the NT continues to demoralize me as a photographer but captivate me as a viewer. Some are almost too good to be true, but hopefully the organizers have ways of ensuring there’s no funny business editing-wise!

Martin Creed‘s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, What’s the Point of it?, is huge fun. The man has an imagination the size of the planet and amongst the items on show was a giant revolving neon sign just inches above your head, a room full to the brim of white talcum-filled balloons you walk through and, on the outdoor terraces, a car which comes alive when all its doors open and wipers and radio start up and a video of a penis changing from erect to flaccid & back!

The NT‘s 50th celebrations included an exhibition of its history in cartoons, National Theatre Lampoon, but I only just discovered it before it closes; it’s both informative and funny and they should keep it longer.

I’m going to have to return to David Bailey’s Stardust exhibition at the NPG. It takes over the whole ground floor with over 250 photos and was a bit crowded on my first visit. What I did see was great, with many now iconic pictures from my lifetime.

A trip to Greenwich for a couple of exhibitions was a mixed affair. There were a lot of paintings not by Turner (23, only 5 less) for an exhibition called Turner & the Sea. I didn’t care for the early work in this exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, but it was probably worth the trip for the watercolours, sketch books and late works. Up the hill at the Royal Observatory there was a small but breathtaking exhibition of astronomical photographs. You couldn’t tell the difference in composition or quality between the main prize entries and the young person’s entries, such was the quality of the work.

Spoken Word

I got in touch with my inner Welshman with a celebration of Dylan Thomas’ centenary at Kings Place. Readings by Guy Masterson were interspersed with a potted biography by Andrew Lycett and observations by other Welsh poets Gwyneth Jones and Owen Sheers. I’d have liked more voices for the readings, but that’s a little gripe. As Owen Sheers said, what other poet could pack out a venue 60 years after he died, requiring an overspill room with a video link!

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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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The last time I went to Southwark Playhouse, it was to see a musical called Parade I hadn’t really rated at the Donmar three years before but loved second time round. Well, now its the other way round – I loved this at the Bridewell 13 years ago, yet I’m now not so sure it’s a good show (though it is a good production).

Adam Guettel & Tina Landau’s musical tells the true story of a man who is trapped in a cave in Kentucky for several days in 1925 whilst seeking out a new entrance to the show cave he and his family own. A young cub reporter picks up the story and it travels like wild-fire, capturing the imagination of the whole country. A media circus and a commercial carnival ensues, a local mining executive tries to take over the rescue and the family bicker.

The Vaults, Southwark Playhouse’s space in the arches under London Bridge station, is a superb location for a show largely set in a cave – though this does bring some acoustic problems they don’t entirely overcome, and a distance from the audience which doesn’t help you engage with the story and characters. Derek Bond’s staging is imaginative and James Perkins evocative design and Sally Ferguson’s atmospheric lighting cleverly use just eighteen ladders and some rope & boxes.

The score is beautifully played, under MD Tim Jackson, by a lovely combination of string quartet, acoustic guitar / banjo, harmonica and percussion and the performances are uniformly good. Ryan Sampson contrast his superb performance in the Kitchen Sink recently at the Bush with a completely different but equally superb one as the dimunitive cub reporter Skeets. The role of Floyd is a tough one – it carries the first 15 minutes virtually alone yet there are long scenes overground where he’s silent – and the excellent Glenn Carter works hard but doesn’t quite pull it off. I very much liked Kit Benjamin as the mine owner Carmichael and Gareth Chart as brother Homer and the three reporters – Vlach Ashton, Dayle Hodge and Roddy Peters – bring some much-needed fizz in their ‘chorus’ number.

It’s hard to imagine a better venue or a more talented cast, band and creative team, yet it ultimately fails because the subject matter, the story and the sub-operatic score just aren’t good enough. I didn’t feel engaged and the music only occasionally impressed. I felt I was observing a piece of work, not involved in the tale.

These second looks do confound sometimes!

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Back at the Union for the first of what I hope will be many musicals this year.

This is an intriguing one, because its sub-operatic score make it very different  from almost any other Broadway musical comedy. It’s also a late 70’s show masquerading as a 50’s show; I was shocked when I read the date of the first production in the programme.

The Americans have a lovely practice of naming long train journeys and The 20th Century in the show (but not on Amtrak) runs from Chicago to New York City and the whole show takes place on it. Hapless theatre producer Oscar Jaffee is running from his investors after three flops. En route he tries to set up a new show with the movie starlet he discovered (the flashback to that isn’t really clear enough in this staging) and a rich old lady as ‘angel’.

Here it’s given a manic / cartoonish / slapstick / silent movie style which works well. I’m not sure playing it along the length of the Union space works as well here as it did with the recent Bells Are Ringing and the design (on a shoestring) is pretty basic, but good enough. The staging of the chorus numbers is particularly good, as is the rather novel band configuration of piano and six saxophones.

What really makes this show though is outstanding casting by Amy Rycroft (not sure I ‘ve ever name-checked a casting director before?!) who hasn’t put a foot wrong. Howard Samuels producer is a terrific lead in Marx Brothers mode and his excellent leading lady Rebecca Vere is perfect for the period (of the story, rather the first production). Musicals veteran Valda Avkis is made for the role of rich naive Letitia (who turns out to be a ‘nut’ in a delicious politically incorrect twist). Matt Harrop and Chris David Storer are very good as Jaffee’s sidekicks.

This is better than the two previous productions I’ve seen. The youngsters at the Guildhall School were hampered by being, well, youngsters and the Bridewell production had less fizz (I refuse to believe that was only just over three years ago!). Yet again, we have to say what would we do without the Union….

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The National Youth Music Theatre doing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd? This makes the decision of RADA, the UK’s premiere drama school, to do Company seem decidedly unambitious. Despite the fact people like Jude Law, Sheridan Smith and Matt Lucas did their first work for NYMT, I was still somewhat sceptical…..

When we entered the former Victorian warehouse closer to where its set than any production before it (apart from the Bridewell Theatre’s virtually in Fleet Street itself), we’re confronted by ‘the outsiders’ wandering around the space talking to themselves, pushing supermarket trolleys and generally behaving spookily. This could be completely naff, but it’s actually rather disturbing and uncomfortable and a great scene-setter.

It’s performed on the floor of the space in a sort of traverse staging with seats on three sides and the barber shop on the fourth and it’s very atmospheric. The action mostly takes place in the centre with the ‘barbering’  and ‘baking’ on a two-level platform at one end.

The 25-piece orchestra, hidden behind screens behind & to the side of the audience plays this complicated score superbly; you’d never believe this was a youth orchestra. The performances are simply extraordinary – Matt Nalton and Lizzie Wofford are terrific as Sweeney and Mrs Lovett and in an outstanding supporting company, a very young Michael Byers as Tobias is so good it takes your breath away.

I’ve seen nine Sweeney Todd productions before this, including Covent Garden, Opera North and the National Theatre and it has never been better than this. It’s a triumph for NYMT and a highlight of Sondheim’s 80th celebrations; I really hope he’s hung around after Saturday’s Prom to see this as the enthusiasm of the young cast and the excitement of the young audience prove that his legacy as the king of musical theatre will be as long-lasting as fellow American 20th century theatrical gods  Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller.

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