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Posts Tagged ‘Clive Rowe’

As much as I enjoyed this when it was first produced at the Donmar / Piccadilly in 1987 (I was on the Olivier Awards panel that nominated it as Best Musical, though it didn’t win; Sondheim’s Follies did), I wasn’t prepared to be as blown over as I was by this Hackney Empire revival. Sheldon Epps’ show is more semi-staged concert than musical, but I doubt it has ever been better sung or played as it is here. Faultless.

The setting is a Chicago hotel in 1939. Three women, each from a different generation, each with a different story, each with a connection to the man. This is really just a device to link and interweave the wonderful songs of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and others. Each character has their own space on stage – their hotel room, except the man who seems to be permanently in the bar! A couple of mute actor / dancers come on occasionally and interact with the four singers, but it is of course all about the music.

These are songs that you live, full of life experience and feeling, and the four performers all inhabit them like they lived them first, then wrote them. Sharon D Clarke, Clive Rowe, Paulette Ivory and Gemma Sutton are all sensational and superbly matched to their characters and each other. Their interpretation of the songs is extraordinary and I can’t imagine anything better. Mark Dickman’s band sounds wonderful, with the help of some of the best theatre sound I’ve ever experienced by Avgoustos Psillas.

I’ve enjoyed Gemma Sutton in fringe musicals, but here she’s a revelation (taking the role of a young Maria Friedman 27 years ago, so no pressure there then!). I know the work of Paulette Ivory less, but can’t wait to see her again. Sharon D Clarke has wowed me before, most recently in her Olivier Award winning performance in The Amen Corner, but this was the biggest wow. I think I’ve seen almost everything Clive Rowe has done since (and at) GSMD and he never disappoints.

Hackney’s brilliant regular panto team, director Susie McKenna and designer Lotte Collett, prove just as adept at staging premiere league musical theatre. As always at Hackney, the audience and the venue add that extra bit of magic that propels a good evening to greatness. A triumph.

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Is there no limit to the joy Hackney Empire can unleash during the festive season? Last year they lost (hopefully not forever) their regular Dame Clive Rowe and still came up trumps. This year they go ‘off piste’ with the rarer Puss in Boots and it feels like something new and familiar at the same time. Bliss.

Puss in Boots has somehow slipped from the panto repertoire. A 500 year-old tale made famous by Charles Perrault 200 years later, introduced to the UK another 100 years after that, with Joseph Grimaldi in the first cast. Now the cunning cat (brilliantly played with great athleticism by Kat B!) comes to Hackneyonia with his master who has inherited him from his father, whilst his elder brother got the mill and the donkey!

Here we get two dames – mother Nettie Knowall and daughter Amnesiah, played brilliantly by Stephen Matthews and Darren Hart respectively – a wicked witch played by Josefina Gabrielle and a wicked queen by Sharon D Clarke, both stars of musical theatre who shine just as brightly here, and King Konkers the Bonkers (an excellently hapless Tony Timberlake) and spoilt brat Princess Petunia (the lovely irritating Amy Lennox). Add in Matt Dempsey’s Thomas, a giant Ogre and a good sorceress and you have an abundance of superb performances.

Amongst the treats are a dance routine for colourful giant trainers (without people!), a trio of mice as backing singers for Puss, a tap dance to end Act I and a superb Les Mis spoof to open Act II. Just before the finale we got the singalong, obviously, and the sight of a couple of thousand people singing Madness’ It Must be Love in cat language with cat masks was a surreal delight. Lotte Collett’s design is a riot of colour and invention, with Dame Nettie’s costumes (and there a lot of them!) a particular treat.

This is Susie McKenna’s 15th Hackney panto. It’s only my 5th, but the imagination, enthusiasm, talent and energy hasn’t waned one bit. Steven Eadis has written a lot of excellent new music to add to a handful of known songs with a fair few nods to musical theatre, performed with exceptional musical standards by a small 5-piece band and singers who really can sing.

It might have West End production values and West End stars, but above all its a community pantomime which generates enough warmth to keep you going until the next one – here’s to Mother Goose in less than 12 months time!

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With a cast including favourites Simon Russell Beale, John Simm, John Heffernan, Harry Melling and Clive Rowe, it didn’t take much to break my self-imposed Pinter ban, and indeed it lived up to expectations – it was the brilliant acting that made the evening worthwhile.

It seemed a very different play to the one I saw at the NT in 2007 – Jamie Lloyd’s production is 30 minutes shorter, more hysterical than chilling and could easily be retitled ‘When did you last see the patient?’ and billed as farce. Its point about state repression and torture is still made, still obtusely, though somewhat hidden by more laughs. I still think it’s pumped up and over-rated as a play.

Simon Russell Beale continues to show us his range with a masterclass in manic comedy as Roote. When he’s got the specs on, he’s a dead ringer for Ronnie Barker and yet again he acts with those big white eyes. Like Elling, John Simm’s channelling his inner nerd again as Gibbs and it’s delicious. John Heffernan’s very physical performance as Lush is simply superb. Harry Melling’s Lamb’s electrocution is masterly. Indira Varma is a delight as the predatory Miss Cutts.

Well worth the trip for such fine acting. Pity about the play.

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For the fourth year running I ended the theatrical year at the New Year’s Eve panto matinée at the Hackney Empire. Last year they survived without Dame Clive Rowe – Cinderella didn’t really need a dame, just two ugly sisters. This year I was a bit nervous going to see someone else (metaphorically) wearing his frocks and wigs, but from the moment of her aerial arrival to the bond theme (remember when you last saw someone do that?), Steve Elias’s Welsher-than-Welsh Sarah the Cook had us in her / his spell. Brilliant comic timing, superb costumes (Lotte Collett) and a great voice. Until then, it had been a slow start, but from then on it was a treat.

Last year’s baddie, Joanna Riding, was a lovely principal boy able to show off her even finer voice to full effect this time. Tony Whittle and Kat B move from ugly sisters to nice Alderman Fitzwarren and nasty King Rat respectively. There were lovely performances from Alexia Khadime as Dicks’ love interest Alice (another great voice), Darren Hart as Idle Jack and Stephen Emery as a very acrobatic cat. The fairy’s a trainee from Bollywood and there’s a terrific gorilla.

Add to that an underwater ballet populated by a mermaid, an octopus and all manner of tropical fish, a troop of monkeys back on land and of course, King Rat’s horde of smaller rats. There’s a great cat singalong with actions from the entire audience on its feet.. …and just to prove panto can be topical, all this usual cross-dressing means we end with three weddings, two of which are same-sex weddings! The customary singing of Auld Lang Syne with audience and cast linking hands makes a lovelier end to the year than bucketloads of booze and a sky full of fireworks. 

So it’s official – Hackney’s pantos are the best AND prove to be Rowe-proof. Oh yes they are! Now, Steve Elias AND Clive Rowe; a panto with two dames, Susie McKenna?…..

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For a lover of musicals, ‘owing to the indisposition of Hannah Waddingham…….’. are amongst the most depressing words in the English language. I was very close to going home, but didn’t. All credit then to her understudy, Carolyn Maitland, for blowing away a lot of my disappointment with an outstanding stand in.

I last saw this show when the RSC brought it to the Old Vic in 1987 during my 15 minutes of fame (well, 12 months, actually) as a member of the Laurence Olivier Awards Panel. When it came to the voting, I was determined that BOTH John Barton and Emil Wolk would share the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award for the gangsters as it would be invidious to choose one. This required a lot of persuasion as it meant another statuette had to be made, but when you only have 15 minutes (12 months) of fame, you can be very persistent and insistent. It wasn’t until 2012 that they did it again, this time for Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller’s role sharing in Frankenstein.

Even though it didn’t seem that dated then, 40 years after it was written, it does now, another 25 years on, but perhaps that’s because Trevor Nunn’s production is a bit conservative and Robert Jones design a bit dated. The choreography of Stephen Mear is about the only thing that seemed fresh. It does fit the Old Vic better than it would probably fit any other theatre though.

Of course, it’s one of the few musicals adapted from Shakespeare . Taming of the Shrew – The Musical; though in all fairness, it weaves in the backstage story of a warring pair of ex’s and the world of American touring theatre in the 40’s.  It may be the only show with a showstopper to open each act – Another Opn’in, Another Show the first and Too Dam Hot the second. Then there’s a third showstopper in Brush Up Your Shakespeare, this time with David Burt and Clive Rowe as the gangsters (they don’t have a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award any more, so that’ll save SOLT a few quid in these tough times).

It’s a fine cast, with Wendy Mae Brown and Jason Pennycooke giving excellent performances in their respective act openers and an excellent Fred / Petruchio from Alex Bourne; someone new to me. The dancing and Gareth Valentine’s great band are what make this production shine most; otherwise it seemed a bit slow (well, Trevor Nunn….) and occasionally flat.

Despite its scale, it’s surprising none of our fringe musical venues have revived it (well, they’ve done some pretty big shows). I think there has only been one (an import from Broadway) in the 25 years since it was last here at the Old Vic, so it is good to see it again (and I may have to return to see Ms Waddingham) but oh how I’d love to have seen it at the Open Air Theatre.

 

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Well, the highlight of the month was undoubtedly my trip to the rehearsal of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. We didn’t get the whole lot (sadly not the winged bicyclists, but thankfully not the never-ending entrance of the teams!) but we got most of it and it was truly spectacular. My front row seat may not have been the best, but I was privileged to be there and it was an experience I will never forget. You know the rest, but here are some photos!

Another unexpected treat was getting tickets to one of Eddie Izzard‘s work-in-progess shows in the cabaret space at Soho Theatre. A late Monday night (after dinner and drinks) was a challenge, but it was fun. He really is a one-off.

Opera-wise, it was Cape Town Opera‘s visit with Porgy & Bess, which proved itself to be more of an opera than a musical in this excellent production. Moving it to a South African township worked, though the highlights were all vocal – the soloists and chorus were thrilling.

I’m not sure I know how to categorise Desdemona, a collaboration between poet Toni Morrison, director Peter Sellers and favourite Malian singer Rokia Traore, but given it was Rokia that largely drew me to it and was the best thing about it, I’ve decided it’s music. Her songs were lovely, but the narrative that accompanied it was never-ending and somewhat pretentious. It would have made a great concert!

I never made it to Bryn Terfel’s festival in his back yard in North Wales (though we had tickets for the last one, which was cancelled!) so well done Southbank Centre for bringing Bryn Fest to me! The evening of songs from the Golden Age of Broadway featured a quartet of favourites – Julian Ovenden, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham and Emma Williams – as well as the man himself, and it was full of highlights. You rarely hear these songs with a full orchestra and that was a huge bonus. It was lovely to see Bryn & Clive’s take on Brush Up Your Shakespeare. I expected Clive to be word-perfect given he’s currently playing it in Chichester, but Bryn was too – no mean feat with all those Shakespeare references.

Though I had a ticket, I missed the opera evening because I had a better offer (a freebie return to the wonderful Sweeney Todd!) and I caught only half of pianist Huw Warren‘s free foyer concert, which featured a trumpeter and a jazz version of a Welsh hymn, but was glad I caught what I caught. The Wales Choir of the World event was another treat, featuring choirs from 11 countries on 5 continents. The highlights were the South African choir, the Cory Band and the massed choir & brass band rendition of the world premiere of a Karl Jenkins The Hero’s Journey. As I left the RFH, a large audience on the riverside were being taught to sing in Welsh for Bryn’s Big Sing which was a fitting end to this mini-festival.

Four Proms this month, starting with the much criticised populist opening night. Well, I enjoyed it; what’s wrong with a bit of populist patriotism?! More Bryn (the 5th time in 17 days!) in Delius’ lovely Sea Drift, a quartet of premiere league soloists for Elgar’s full Coronation Ode and orchestral pieces from Tippett and Elgar again – oh and a Mark Anthony Turnage world premiere, just in case you were feeling a bit too nostalgic! Six days later, Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus was given a rare but enjoyable outing by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment with another quartet of fine soloists. This was followed three days later by a concert version of Berlioz The Trojans – long but lovely! Again, some great solo turns from Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Anna Caterina Antonacci, this time with the superb orchestra and chorus of the ROH under Antonio Pappano. So to the night of the opening of the Olympics where an early start for Beethoven’s 9th meant we (and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who later carried in the Olympic flag!) wouldn’t miss Danny Boyle’s spectacular on TV. Barenboim’s West-East Divan Orchestra, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was right for the occasion but also played brilliantly and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, also right for the occasion, were stunning. What a prologue for the evening that followed!

It was time to catch up with some art this month and I started at the De Morgan Centre where the work of ceramicist William and his painter wife Evelyn is showcased in a small but superb collection; eye-poppingly beautiful (if you’re into Arts & Crafts and / or the pre-Raphaelites) .  Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain was a brilliantly curated show putting Picasso alongside those he influenced, including Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland & David Hockney. I was less enamoured by Migrations – Journeys into British Art at the same place, more because of the quality of the work than the idea of the exhibition, which was a good one.

My annual trip to the Serpentine Gallery to see their Pavilion (an excellent, largely below ground, collaboration between Ai Wei Wei and Herzog & De Meuron, the team that did the Beijing birds nest Olympic stadium) was extended to see Yoko Ono‘s show which was more interesting, and a lot less pretentiously avant-garde, than I was expecting.

Finally, during a weekend in Bath, I popped into their newly renovated Holburne Art Museum for a lovely small portrait sculpture exhibition and stayed for What Are You Like (based on the Victorian parlour game, where people draw their favourite things) and their permanent collection. This is now one of the best regional art galleries; well worth a visit.

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Contemporary Music

I’m not sure how to categorise the Hofesh Shechter / Anthony Gormley collaboration Survivor at the Barbican but it felt more like a staged concert than anything else, so here it is! The 30-piece string / percussion band are on three platforms high above the stage. At one stage they come down onto the stage and are supplemented by a vast ‘community’ percussion band. Six performers use the space below (and at one point the auditorium) though occasionally a screen is lowered for projections, as is the metal safety curtain which is part of the performance, as is the whole stage really. The music is largely rhythmic and there doesn’t appear to be a story. It’s all very clever and diverting but felt like they were just throwing in every idea they could think of, including a bath instead of a kitchen sink. The rest of the audience appeared to love it. I was a bit indifferent.

I’ve been following the career of Clive Rowe since I saw him in Lady Be Good at the Guildhall school many years ago. He’s one of our best musical performers and for his ‘cabaret’ at the Landor he selected an unpredictable, idiosyncratic and very personal group of songs which I really enjoyed. He gave us a potted biography between songs and a Q&A in the second half and it was like being entertained by a friend in your front room. The highlights included Putting on the Ritz and an interpretation of Sondheim’s Being Alive which brought a tear to my eye (again!).

I’m new to Laura Veirs and attending her QEH concert was a bit of an afterthought. Apart from a couple of new songs and a pair from her recent children’s album, most of the set was from her impressive back catalogue. The combination of acoustic and electric guitar with viola makes for a very pleasing sound and her lovely songs sounded even better live than they do on record. She engaged enough with the audience to convey her upbeat personality but not too much that it got in the way. A short but perfectly formed set.

Classical Music

I love choral oratorios, but as they are mostly on religious themes (and often settings of the requiem mass) they become a bit samey and one yearns for something more secular. Haydn’s The Seasons is therefore a breath of fresh air and performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under Paul McCreesh (who provided a new English translation) at the Barbican, it was lovely, particularly jolly old Autumn which moves from love duet to hunting songs to drinking songs. The three soloists – Christiane Karg, Allan Clayton and Christopher Purves – were all exceptional. A treat!

Art

Postmodernism: Style & Subversion is another of the V&A’s reviews of a design movement. Though not as good as some of the others, it’s still indispensable if, like me, you want to understand and absorb the history of design. It’s an eclectic collection of architecture, furniture, fashion, graphics etc and a lot to take in during one visit. Also at the V&A (if you can find it!) is a two room review of Private Eye’s first 50 years which made me smile and laugh. Made up of cartoons, comic strips and memorabilia, it brings home to you the indispensability of a satirical institution in any civilised society.

When 10 photos constitute an exhibition, you would be justified in feeling cheated – if you’d paid! This two-floor show of Jeff Wall’s work at White Cube Mason’s Yard was a big non-event for me, I’m afraid. I was just as disappointed by Annie Leibovitz ‘Pilgrimage’ at Hamiltons. Known for her extraordinary portraits, these 26 digital pigment prints of places and objects associated with famous people (like Lincoln’s hat and gloves) seemed completely pointless.

American installation artist Paul McCarthy is never dull but often hit-and-miss. This exhibition takes over two galleries and part of St James’ Square gardens. The installation that takes up the whole of Hauser & Wirth Saville Row did nothing for me – a pile of stuff that was interesting to look at, but meant nothing (to me, anyway). It was better at the Piccadilly ‘branch’ where two of the three works (there was one on each floor!) were good, particularly a revolving hydraulic cube. I never made the gardens as it was dark and they were closed.

American photographer Catherine Opie is new to me and her exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery contained two very different collections. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the early B&W portraits of a punkish sub-culture but I was impressed by the seven pairs of sunset / sunrise photos taken on a container ship voyage across the Pacific Ocean; each had a different atmosphere created by the climatic conditions when they were taken.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries isn’t a regular affair for me, but this year at the ICA it was quite impressive. These students and recent graduates seem to be returning to more traditional art forms – paintings, photos and sculpture – which makes a refreshing change from endless films and installations!

I was expecting to like David Hockney at  the Royal Academy as I had enjoyed my first view of the first of his Yorkshire landscapes in a small gallery a few years back, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming beauty of this exhibition. It’s a riot of colour and an homage to nature and one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my entire life. Room 9 in particular was stunning – three walls of paintings showing the transition of winter to spring in the same place and a giant canvas on the fourth wall. Gorgeous.

Film

When I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I’m often disappointed when it isn’t faithful to the book and / or doesn’t match what’s in my head.  That was absolutely not the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which was true to the story and just like my mind pictures. It has great pace, as it should, but doesn’t seem rushed.

The Artist isn’t the sort of film I would usually go to, but yet again the reviews and recommendations meant I succumbed. I wish I trusted my instinct more. I didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t really satisfied by it – a 30 minute TV show spun into an overlong 100 minute feature film. There was a lot to like, buy in my book it’s over-hyped.

I much admired The Iron Lady but wished they hadn’t told the story in flashback from her current dementia. I’m no Thatcherite, but it seemed somewhat disrespectful and unnecessary. Meryl Streep was simply extraordinary, but so were the actors playing her male colleagues, a veritable who’s who of British male actors of a certain age. When you see recent history recreated, you realise how much you’ve forgotten – as it was here!

The film of War Horse was a lot more sentimental than the stage show (well, it’s Spielberg after all) but I still enjoyed it very much. The story translates to the screen well and again there are a whole host of excellent performances. I was shocked at the number of under 12’s in the audience; it’s a 12A and having seen it I think that’s right. I would never allow a youngster of mine to go and see the maiming of animals and the slaughter of men – it almost traumatized me!

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The third annual New Years Eve trip east, this year somewhat nervously in the knowledge that their resident Dame, Clive Rowe, is otherwise engaged in the hugely enjoyable Ladykillers in the West End. Still, its Cinderella, so no Dame needed……

What we do get is a simply terrific baddie in the normally lovely Joanna Riding’s Wicked Stepmother (with a range of killer costumes and a Lady Gaga song to sing) and two of the best Ugly Sisters I’ve ever seen – veteran Tony Whittle and ‘newly crossed over’ Kat B – with terrific chemistry between them and as outrageous a wardrobe as you’d hope for.

This years animal collection includes the customary pantomime horse, two mice voiced by Clarke Peters and Sharon D Clark no less and a white animatronic winged horse who rises up towards the sky pulling Cinderella’s carriage – yes, you heard me,  A White Animatronic Winged Horse! Eat your heart out, Betty Blue Eyes.

The Empire was packed. The man plucked from the audience to be humiliated by the Ugly Sisters was a lawyer called Cassius! (and they managed to sew his name onto a pair of giant knickers by the shoe trying-on scene). By the time the entire audience, cast, crew and ushers were linking hands for Aulde Lang Syne, there was a glow warm enough to survive any winter.

I think three years in a row means it’s now officially annual. I can’t think of a more uplifting way to end the year, with more than a thousand strangers who feel like your best friends.

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Whoever had the idea of asking Graham Linehan to write, and Sean Foley to direct, this new version of a classic Ealing comedy was inspired. They bring a touch of absurdity, a sprinkling of surrealism and a cartoon-like quality, add lots of physical comedy and create a homage to the film rather than a film-to-stage transfer. Think Patrick Barlow’s 39 Steps meets Improbable’s Theatre of Blood and you’re getting warm.

It’s still set in 1956 and it’s faithful to the story, but freshly written. Designer Michael Taylor’s has created an enormous higgledy-piggledy multi-level house, with a nod to Heath Robinson, which moves to provide exterior locations and itself  ‘performs’, aided by terrific (and largely appropriately low-tech) special effects by Scott Penrose.

‘Professor’ Marcus has put together a team for a heist at Kings Cross and hires a room in Mrs Wilberforce’s house where, under the guise of rehearsing his string quintet, they plan their robbery. The successful (off-stage) robbery is cleverly staged, and the spoils brought to the house. Most of the play, however, revolves around their ‘getaway’.

It’s cast to perfection. Peter Capaldi is excellent as a gangling manic Professor, increasingly desperate in his attempts to keep it all together. James Fleet is perfect as a military con (gentle)man who seems a little fond of dresses. Stephen Wight is brilliant at the physical comedy required of his pill-popping cockney kleptomaniac (I just don’t understand why he isn’t covered in bruises – I winced a lot!). Clive Rowe is a wonderful big clumsy intellectually challenged bruiser with foot forever in mouth. Ben Miller is a delicious foreign Mafioso with a penchant for knives and a phobia of old ladies. Harry Peacock’s cameo as the tolerant local bobby is lovely. Then there’s Marcia Warren. What can I say? She’s so perfect as the post-war eccentric old dear who invented neighbourhood watch and quite how she keeps a straight face on stage all evening whilst all the chaos is going on is beyond me.

The original story apparently came fully formed in the dream of original screen writer William Rose and there’s a dreamlike quality to this version and this production. I found it delightfully charming; a smile never left my face and I laughed out loud often. It’s a big theatre to fill, but I do hope it finds its audience because it’s a very welcome, beautifully crafted evening.

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Maybe because it was my first theatrical day in over two weeks I was easily pleased or maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember Python first time round, but I rather enjoyed this somewhat indifferently received play about the 1975 US court case where the giant ABC network was challenged by the Pythons over the editing of its shows.

Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam travel to New York to persuade the network to restore much of its cuts and when they fail seek a legal injunction to prevent the scheduled broadcast. Starting and ending in Palin’s North London home, most of Steve Thompson’s play tales place in NYC – in a hotel room,  the network offices, the court and other locations. Along the way, it explores how humour is received differently depending on age and culture and the rights of creative people as well as the relationships between the Pythons (even those not on stage). It’s often very funny indeed.

Francis O’Connor’s design is an homage to the TV show and provides a superb surrealistic frame for the play. Edward Hall’s staging zips along and there isn’t a wasted moment. The cast is uniformly excellent. Harry Hadden-Paton broadens his range with a superb characterisation of Palin, starting as reluctant, moving to apologetic and later to indignant. Sam Alexander’s Gilliam excellently combines outrageousness with eccentricity. It’s great to see Clive Rowe in a non-musical role and he’s terrific as Python’s attorney, as is Matthew Marsh as the judge.

It’s not a great play, but I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting – and a lot more than most critics and other bloggers it seems.

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