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Posts Tagged ‘Claire Machin’

This is a musical theatre adaptation of one of prolific American novelist Paul Gallico’s four Mrs Harris books. Quite how an American gets to write about a post-war British char lady I don’t know, but I’m pleased he did, and even more pleased Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor have turned it into a charming, heart warming, quintessentially British show which gets a short run in Chichester following it’s premiere in Sheffield two years ago.

Set in the late forties, war widow Ada Harris lives in Battersea, working as a char lady, as does her best friend and neighbour Violet. She talks to the spirit of her husband, who is always with her. Her ‘clients’ include an accountant, a wannabe actress, a retired major and a foreign Countess trading in antiques. She is forever undertaking acts of kindness for them all.

Violet’s clients include Lady Dant and when Ada covers for her there, she is spellbound by a Christian Dior dress and becomes obsessed with owning something so beautiful. Somehow she manages to get enough money together and heads to Paris where she is initially greeted with disbelief and disdain, but eventually charms everyone in her path until she returns with a Dior dress made for her. She also spreads her kindness in Paris, the results of which follow her home in flowers, but not until after another act of kindness back home ends tragically.

Taylor builds on his experience with The Go-Between (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/the-go-between) and produces an even better score. I would describe his very original musical voice as tuneful but song-less and (almost) sung-through! It suits the story so well, flowing beautifully, as does Daniel Evans impeccable staging, with much use of the revolve. Lez Brotherston’s designs are simple but gorgeous, with the private fashion show in the House of Dior taking your breathe away as eight models descent the stairs in stunning gowns.

Evans has got himself a faultless cast, led by Clare Burt, who follows her star turn as working class theatrical hero Joan Littlewood with another star turn as another working class hero. Clare Machin delights once again, this time as friend Violet, morphing deliciously into the French cleaner at Dior. Louis Maskall is terrific as Bob the accountant and Dior’s Head of Finance Andre; his leg acting alone deserves an award! Joanna Riding, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Mark Meadows, Nicola Sloane, Gary Wilmot, Rhona McGregor and Luke Latchman are all excellent, doubling up as London and Paris characters, with five of them adding one, two or three more. It was lovely to see Tom Brady’s ten-piece band leave the pit to get a well earned ovation.

The show’s message about kindness seems particularly welcome today. Another wonderful feel-good afternoon in Chichester. I do hope it gets a London transfer as it’s too good to see only once!

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We’re used to screen to stage and play to musical transformations, but screen to play to musical? Before I went, I did wonder what a musical adaptation of Calendar Girls would add. 

Tim Frith has been behind all three versions of this true, heart-warming and charming story, partnering with musicals virgin Gary Barlow no less for this new adaptation. In the first half, it takes us through the illness of Annie’s husband John, which leads to the unorthodox fundraising idea, and the everyday lives and activities of the village’s WI ladies. They visit the WI National Conference to head off their new local leader’s spoiler motion, and then it’s all steam ahead to the calendar’s creation and surprising international publicity.

I found the back story more personal, intimate and moving in this form, and the photo shoot way funnier, so yes, it does add something. Barlow’s score is less a series of songs, more musical storytelling, with a distinctive northern sound, sitting comfortably with Firth’s witty book and lyrics. Firth also directs and it’s an impressive achievement for a team with limited experience in this genre. This, together with many of the cast having limited musical theatre experience, makes it refreshingly free of musical theatre clichés.

The casting is also key to its success. This is where it’s also very unorthodox for a musical, with parts for normal people of all ages, shapes and sizes. I can now see why the Olivier Awards panel has nominated all six leading actresses together; it’s the combination, contrast and chemistry that makes them a superb team. Joanna Riding, Claire Moore, Sophie-Louise Dann, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin and Michelle Dotrice (continuing her late career flowering, hot on the hells of Nell Gwynn) are a combined delight, and very brave! There’s excellent support too, not least a charming pair of performances as schoolboy sons from Ben Hunter (another worthy Olivier nominee) and Josh Benson.

Like Billy Elliott, Betty Blue Eyes and Made in Dagenham, it’s a quintessentially British show, and oh so welcome when we’re surrounded by long runners, Broadway revivals and juke-box musicals. Definitely worth catching.

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A very early revival for this 2014 show, a new smaller scale actor-musician production, is showing at the nearest producing theatre to the Ford Dagenham plant, just five miles away. You could hear and feel the connection the audience made with the story. I’d loved the show in the West End and couldn’t resist seeing it again. One of my better decisions as it turns out; it’s an excellent production. 

The 1968 strike by the Dagenham machinists started as a dispute about down-grading through job evaluation but became a key moment in the campaign for equal pay, a battle which in truth continues to this day. They had to win over their own union reps, their male colleagues (many their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers) and the TUC before the government would intervene. It’s largely told through Rita, their unlikely and reluctant leader, whose relationship with her husband Eddie comes under great strain. She finds an unlikely ally in the Ford site manager’s posh wife and a powerful enemy in the parent company’s hit man (who seemed very Trump-like last night!).

The show works well because it presents us with important social history in a very entertaining way. Richard Bean’s book and Richard Thomas’ lyrics are very funny and very authentic. As Mark Shenton says in his programme note, there have been a few of musicals revolving around strikes – Billy Elliott, The Pajama Game, The Cradle Will Rock – but surely this is the funniest and the edgiest. I will forever be puzzled why it had such a mixed reception and a ridiculously short life in the West End, as this lovely revival reminds me.

The musical standards are very high with 20 of the 21 cast contributing instrumentation. Daniella Bowen and Alex Tomkins were excellent as Rita and Eddie O’Grady. Foul-mouthed Beryl is a peach of a part and Angela Bain was terrific. The always wonderful Claire Machin made a great job of Barbara Castle, clearly relishing the role. The rest of the ensemble, half of them doubling or tripling, was first class. I don’t think I’ve seen the work of director Douglas Rintoul, the Queens newly appointed AD, but on this showing I’d very much like to see more.

The show was 45 minutes shorter than my round-trip to Hornchurch, but it was well worth going. Head East, folks.

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For a man who gave us one of the greatest musical productions ever (Guys & Dolls at the NT in 1982 and 1996), Richard Eyre hasn’t directed many musicals. I can only remember two more before this (Mary Poppins & Betty Blue Eyes) and both were great. The question you have to ask after a fourth gem is Why?

There haven’t been many ‘blue collar’ musicals either, so this one, about a labour dispute in the Sleep Tite pyjama factory, is unusual. It hasn’t had many productions (another Why?), the last in London at the indispensable Union Theatre five years ago. With a track record of four musical transfers in the last 2.5 years, I’ll be surprised if this terrific Chichester production doesn’t follow.

The factory is run by tyrant Hasler (an excellent Colin Stinton, who doubles up as the leading lady’s dad) who has employed new superintendent Sid, a go-getter from Chicago, the third in next to no time. His Time & Motion man Vernon (a superb Peter Polycarpou, back for his third Chichester musical in as many years) stalks the shop floor. Union president Prez and union rep Babe are pushing for a 7.5c rise and it looks like they’ll have to strike to get it. Then Babe falls for Sid and it all gets a lot more complicated.

From the opening number, Racing with the Clock, it goes from one showstopper to another. There are a couple of standards – Hey There (You With the Stars in Your Eyes) & Hernando’s Hideaway – but the whole score’s good. We move swiftly and slickly from factory to office to picnic to nightclub to Babe’s home with little time to catch your breath in-between. Designer Tim Hatley puts a two-story building at the back of the space, from which sewing and pressing work stations emerge for the shop floor, desks for the offices and a kitchen for the home. Stephen Mear’s choreography is bright and fresh and with Gareth Valentine in charge of the music it all sounds great.

For a musicals obsessive like me, it’s a bit of a shock to come across a leading man I’m not sure I’ve seen before and Hadley Fraser is simply terrific as Sid, with a particularly fine voice. Joanna Riding is a delight as icy, feisty Babe who melts in the hands of Sid. Alexis Owen-Hobbs is great as secretary Gladys, and Vernon’s unlikely love interest, who follows Hasler everywhere except when she struts her stuff in the Act II opener Steam Heat (with actual steam!) and there’s a delightful cameo from Claire Machin as Sid’s secretary Mabel.

An uplifting delight from start to finish, which benefits from the smaller space if the Minerva Theatre, and well worth the trip south.

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