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Posts Tagged ‘Chichester Festival Theatre’

Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

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I criticised the new London production of The King & I for being conservative and overly reverential; like visiting the Museum of Musical Theatre. Well, this show is 14 years older, but that’s the last thing you’d say about this brilliant revival; it feels freshly minted, with an extraordinary sense of fun and its full of joy.

It’s a quintessentially British story. The trustees of the aristocratic Hareford family have been looking for a male heir born to a working class girl and solicitor Parchester thinks she’s found him, cockney lad Bill Snibson. He’s about as interested in joining the nobility as they are in having him, but the Duchess of Dene is determined to gentrify him and get rid of his girlfriend Sally Smith. Fellow trustee Sir John has a different view. Cue lots of lovely class culture clash involving a lot of toffs and pearly kings and queens.

Sally feels she should leave Bill so that he can inherit the title and all that goes with it, but Bill is having none of it. Sir John decides to gentrify Sally instead. Cue references to Pygmalion (if they were in the original) or perhaps My Fair Lady (if they were added by Stephen Fry for the hugely successful 1985 revival). It works, and Bill and Sally are reunited and wed, as are the Duchess and Sir John. Along the way, we get a brilliant scene where they conjure up the ancestors – tap dancing knights in armour! – a great drunken scene which bonds Bill and Sir John, and sensational ensemble set pieces to end Act I and start Act II.

My recollection of the 1985 London revival, with Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson, which ran twice as long as the original – eight years! – was ‘too twee for me’, but this time it swept me away and my spirits soared. It’s a terrific music hall inspired score by Noel Gay, including the title song, The Sun Has Got His Hat On, Leaning On A Lamppost and of course The Lambeth Walk. The combination of Les Brotherston’s superb design (in particular, his costumes), Alistair David’s light-as-air choreography and Daniel Evans astute direction ensures it sparkles like a diamond, literally some of the time. Gareth Valentine’s arrangements are thrilling and his band sound sensational; he even gets to do a turn at the curtain call.

Matt Lucas is a revelation as Bill. He talent for comedy is well known, but he adds good vocals and sprightly dance to create a classic cheeky cockney. Alex Young is lovely as his intended Sally, whether she’s leading a knees-up or breaking her heart and yours with Once You Lose Your Heart. Caroline Quentin and favourite of mine Clive Rowe are delightful as the Duchess and the Knight. What I love most about this cast is that it’s all shapes, sizes and races whose talent, energy and enthusiasm sweep you away.

I’ve often left Chichester musicals on a high, but this and Half a Sixpence are special because they bring great British shows alive for today. Daniel Evans apparently said he wanted a new lick of paint, well in my book its a thrilling makeover. Don’t even think about not transferring it; London needs it !

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This late 50’s Tennessee Williams play started out as a one-act, two-character piece, until he bolted on another play called Pink Bedroom to form the second act. In this production, you can see the join. The part of the faded movie star, written for Tallulah Bankhead, has always attracted star actresses. I saw Lauren Bacall play it 32 years ago in the West End and Kim Cattrall played her in the last London outing at the Old Vic. Here we have American stage and film actress Marcia Gay Harden, with another American Brian J Smith hot-footing it from his superb turn in The Glass Menagerie in the West End. I assumed, with only a three-week Chichester run, it was West End or Broadway bound.

Chance Wayne is a gigolo and his latest customer is Hollywood’s Alexandra Del Lago, travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis (was TW taking the piss?!). Their booze and drug fuelled journey West stops off in his Mississippi home town of St. Cloud so that he can see the love of his life, Heavenly(!). Unbeknown to him, he gave her an STD when he was last back and this resulted in a life-changing medical condition. Oh, and his mother has died and been given an undignified burial by charitable contributions. He’s not good at leaving contact details. Heavenly’s dad is standing for political office on a somewhat disingenuous ticket disguising his racism and they get caught up in the campaign and the revenge plotted by Heavenly’s brother Tom.

It’s not one of TW’s best and the two acts really are a contrast. It does come alive in the second, but it’s sometimes farfetched and overly melodramatic in writing and too reverential and melodramatic in Jonathan Kent’s production. The entire first act takes place in a hotel bedroom, and its asking a lot of the Chichester main stage to create such an intimate setting. The hotel bar scene which takes up much of the second act opens it up, but also shows up the differences. Anthony Ward’s design is excellent, as are the performances, if a bit OTT in the TW way, with Richard Cordery as Boss Finley and Graham Butler as Tom Finlay deserving mention alongside the star pairing.

I’ve never been in such a small audience at Chichester – less than a quarter full, I’d say – which is a puzzle, and a shame for our American guests, who deserve better. I doubt we’ll see it in London, but maybe Broadway? I’ve had a lot of better TW experiences, but I don’t regret the trip.

 

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Daniel Evans’ reign at Chichester begins with a rare revival of an early Alan Bennett play, almost fifty years old now, not seen in London since the 1968 premiere production. It might be flawed, and somewhat dated, but its given a fine production that’s well worth catching. 

It’s set in a boys public school where the headmaster is about to retire and pass the reigns to senior master Franklin, a more reforming figure, who has put together a play, to be performed by both staff and boys, and we, the audience, are the parents. The play-within-the-play weaves in and out and appears to be historical scenes from two world wars, plus satirical sketches involving contemporaries like T E Lawrence and the Bloomsbury set, and that’s the crux of the problem – it’s a bit of a muddle; well at least until the interval, when I did some belated research to understand what Bennett was getting at, which appears to be a review of changes in society since the end of the First World War, well, forty years on.

CFT has been turned into an authentic public school, dominated by a huge pipe organ and two big war memorial plaques in Les Brotherston’s superb design. There’s even organ accompaniment to rousing hymns and the school song which sounds like it’s coming from the onstage organ pipes, though it clearly can’t be. The apron stage is invaded by some fifty ‘extras’ in uniform, on one occasion straight from the rugby pitch, in addition to the ten actors playing named pupil roles, with just a handful of staff. It’s highly animated and oozes authenticity. The Headmaster has a lot of speeches and Richard Wilson is clearly reading some, but it doesn’t really matter; he has great presence and is every bit the old school head. In the supporting cast, I very much liked Danny Lee Wynter’s younger master, Tempest, a part originally played by Bennett himself.

The critical reception this has received is, in my view, a bit unfair and I was glad I caught it – but mug up first to get the most out of it.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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This 1963 show was written as a vehicle for Tommy Steele, who also took it to Broadway and starred in the 1967 film. This is a substantial re-working, with a new book by Julian Fellows and new songs from Stiles and Drew. I thought it was a big old-fashioned populist treat!

It’s based on H G Wells semi-autobiographical rags-to-riches-to-rags-to riches-again novel Kipps. Getting a story from the Downton creator where the toffs are the baddies is a bit odd, but it’s a good book. Arthur Kipps is an apprentice draper until he inherits a fortune, falls in love with posh Helen Walsingham, is exploited and left penniless by her brother and mother, realises he doesn’t belong with the toffs and returns to his old world to marry his first love Ann. Working class meets upper class and wins. The characters are all rather stereotypical, but hey its musical theatre. Many of David Heneker’s original songs have been retained, with seven new ones added, including excellent ensemble pieces Look Alive, Back the Right Horse and Pick Out a Simple Tune.

The creation of the two contrasting worlds is brilliantly done by Paul Brown’s set, and even more importantly his superb costumes, and Andrew Wright’s choreography, which is amongst the best I’ve ever seen on any stage, light as air, athletic and witty. Director Rachel Kavanagh presides over this with staging of great flair. Whatever you think of the show, the production is masterly. With great vocals all round and a decent size twelve-piece band, it all sounds wonderful.

Charlie Stemp is a real find. His Arthur has bags full of charm coupled with innocence and naivety. He’s strong vocally and moves superbly. Devon-Elise Johnson and the great Emma Williams make a fine pair of romantic leads as humble Ann and silver-spooned Helen respectively. Arthur’s fellow apprentices Sid, Buggins and Flo are a delight as played by Alex Hope, Sam O’Rourke and Bethany Huckle, with John Conroy the suitably pompous boss Shalford. Vivien Parry, Jane How and Gerard Carey are all excellent as the ladies and gentlemen ‘upstairs’. Chitterlow is an odd character, a bit of an older H G Wells perhaps, but Ian Bartholomew gives another of his fine characterisations. It’s hard to imagine a finer cast.

I thought it was a delight and I predict it will be another big hit for the Chichester musicals machine.

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