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Posts Tagged ‘Declan Bennett’

Summer wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, though I missed it last year and contemplated missing it this year, as this is another show I wasn’t sure I wanted to see again (yet) after the Arcola Theatre’s stunning revival seven years ago. I hadn’t really enjoyed my last three trips to OAT (Jesus Christ Superstar, Little Shop of Horrors & Evita), but news of a radical but good production and a lovely evening resulted in an impulsive outing at a few hours notice. Some of the best things happen that way.

It’s relocated to a British mill town close to the sea. From the moment a small brass band walks through the audience and onto the stage and strikes up the Carousel Waltz I felt I was in safe hands. The key to the resetting is Tom Deering’s brilliant new orchestrations, and in particular the iconic brass band sound which hijacked You’ll Never Walk Alone as others in Britain already have. Everyone uses their natural accents, so it’s a northern Nettie and a Welsh Carrie. I thought it all worked brilliantly.

The show has fewer ‘standards’ than other Rogers & Hammerstein shows, but for some reason this time I appreciated the overall quality of the score more. The story, with its antiquated sexual politics, domestic violence and suicide seemed edgier too, and they even managed to make the incongruous afterlife scene work. You can’t possibly excuse Billy, but this production helps you understand him.

When I first saw the show, at the NT almost 30 years ago, Joanna Riding was Julie and here she is a lovely Nettie, with the responsibility of being in charge of ‘that song’. Carly Bawden is in fine voice and her Julie captures your heart. Christina Modestou makes much more of the role of Carrie than I’ve seen before, warm, loving, optimistic. Sam Mackay’s Jigger is the very bad influence he should be, John Pfumojena’s Enoch is beautifully matched with Carrie and Declan Bennett navigates the emotional carousel that Billy is on very well.

I wasn’t sure about Tom Scutt’s set at first – a steep wooden hill cut by a small revolving stage – until I realised it brought intimacy to scenes that needed it, but allowed the fairground, the clam bake and the afterlife to burst out. Drew McOnie’s choreography is terrific, with group scenes like the opener and the clam bake plus individual dances like Louise’s in the afterlife scene flowing organically. The band sounded great and you could hear every word in this big open air space. Director Timothy Sheader continues the reinvention he showed with Jesus Christ Superstar, but for me this remained a show, not turned into a rock concert.

This is my 5th Carousel and it holds its own, a very welcome reinvention. With the Shakespeare’s Globe and The Proms both visited, this is summer traditions completed, with OAT thankfully back on musical theatre form.

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This musical has been created to raise awareness and pay tribute to the victims of a little publicised 1973 hate crime when a New Orleans gay bar was subjected to an arson attack killing 32, the biggest toll of such a crime before Orlando in 2016.

We meet fashion designer Wes in the present time. He’s relocating from New York to his home town of New Orleans, buying premises to showcase his work, without realising it’s the scene of the 1973 attack. As soon as he’s signed the deal, the magic of theatre brings the club alive again and we’re back in 1973 on the evening of the tragedy. Thus begins a conversation between two generations of gay people across more than forty years, with the seventies set as shocked at Wes’ openness as he is at their secrecy. The eight characters tell their stories, which together show the contrasting lives in the two periods.

Max Vernon‘s score goes from one ballsy number to another for the whole 120 minutes, with the vocal honours going to Tyrone Huntley as Wes, Carley Mercedes Dyer as bar tender Henri and Cedric Neal as Willie, with excellent backing from Bob Broad’s invisible band. Declan Bennett and Andy Mientus bring the homeless hustler Dale and Patrick, the boy abandoned by his parents at fourteen who ends up doing the same, to life with fine acting. It’s great to see Victoria Hamilton-Barritt again and she’s superb as Inez, the Latin mum of drag queen Freddy, a breathless high energy performance from Garry Lee. Lee Newby has created a realistic period bar and director Jonathan O’Boyle and choreographer Fabian Aloise use the small Soho space well.

You have to go with the fantasy of the time warp, but if you do you will be rewarded with a fascinating contrast between gay life then and now illustrated by some great songs.

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This show by Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda & Rachel Sheinkin is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. It started as an album in 2002 and became an Off-Broadway show four years later. It appears to have lost half of it’s songs since the album (I’m not sure about the US show) and the big question about this UK premiere is Why?

It’s set on New Years Eve in New York City where Brendan is torn between staying at work and partying. The match girl is now a seller of electric lights. There are just three other actors who play a narrator, other characters and musical instruments like drums and violin, and there’s a pianist. With fourteen songs in seventy minutes there isn’t much time for story or character development and it felt more like a song cycle than a musical.

I liked Oliver Kaderbhai’s lively staging and Natalie Johnson’s design and there are good performances all round, led by Declan Bennett as Brendan and Bronte Barbe as The Match Girl, both in fine voice. I was particularly impressed by Kate Robson-Scott, who played a mean violin. Even though they had already played more than a handful of performances, they hadn’t got the sound balance right the night after the press night, which marred the performance. Using a drum kit necessitates the amplification of vocals in this small space. Despite this, lyrics were lost and acoustic instruments sometimes buried.

Though it’s an eclectic score with some good tunes, and the creatives and cast do their best, sound issues notwithstanding, it’s a slight piece which I’m not sure justifies the transatlantic journey.

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Yet another occasion where the critical reception lowered expectations only for them to be exceed on the night! I saw the world premiere of this Manuel Puig play in the tiny (old) Bush Theatre in 1985, with Mark Rylance and Simon Callow no less, but this production of a new version by Jose Rivera & Allan Baker opens it up, and seems to me to have even more power in its coruscating examination of the evils of tyrannical regimes.

Valentin is a political prisoner in a Buenos Aires jail in 1975. He has clearly been tortured. His cellmate Molina is a gay window-dresser, imprisoned for alleged indecency, who the authorities are hoping to use to get information on Valentin’s activities and associates. As a result, Molina is given supplies after each supposed visit by his mother or lawyer, in reality meetings with the authorities, so that they don’t have to eat the vile prison food. In order to kill time, Molina describes his favourite movies, a ritual which initially irritates Valentin, but one he learns to embrace and enjoy. The unlikely relationship between the chalk-and-cheese cellmates becomes affectionate, and more.

Designer Jon Bausor has used the concrete of the Menier space to create the prison, with cell doors along a corridor above and around around the cell of our subjects. When Molina is outlining the stories of his films, sound and projections onto the prison walls illustrate the fantasies. The design, and Laurie Sansom’s staging, are effective in conveying the claustrophobic intimacy of the cell, bringing a cinematic quality to the fantasies and underlining the power of the opressive state. Declan Bennett as Valentin and Samuel Barnett as Molina are both outstanding, playing very different characters with different motivations, but also making their intimacy and affection for one another believable.

This is way better than the critics will have you believe; go and make up your own mind!

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