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Posts Tagged ‘George Stiles’

The programme for this caught my imagination this year, so I booked for six of the eight showcases of new musicals at the Turbine Theatre. The first was cancelled, so I ended up seeing five. Each was around an hour long, with no set but some costumes and props.

I started with Jet Set Go!, not exactly new, a reworking of an eleven year old Edinburgh fringe show by Pippa Cleary & Jake Brunger, who went on to give us a superb adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole which I saw in Leicester, the Menier & the West End. It’s a very funny piece set on a transatlantic flight (and during their stopover in NYC) exploring the lives of the crew. Great fun, with a brilliant cast, in which Lizzy Connolly and Samantha Thomas shone with show-stopping comedy numbers.

The Assassination of Katie Hopkins wasn’t new either, having had a full production at Theatre Clwyd in 2018. I’m not sure this unstaged one hour version did it full justice, but the originality of the score and the suitability of the subject matter to the form left me wanting to see a full production. MD Mark Dickman did a fine job playing Mark Winkworth’s score on solo piano and the cast of six delivered Chris Bush’s lyrics with relish.

The festival hit a high note with veteran musical theatre partnership Stiles & Drew’s new musical adaptation of the film Soapdish, whose writer, Robert Harding, also responsible for the show’s book, made the transatlantic journey to be part of it. The premiere league cast included Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford, who squeezed every ounce of comedy from this hilarious piece about a soap star and her nemesis. It was great to see Alice Croft and Nic Myers, Arts Ed students who wowed me there in Freaky Friday last month, in this exceptional cast. I can’t wait to see a full production.

Another established writer, Jason Carr, better known as an orchestrator, arranger and accompanist, was responsible, with Poppy Burton-Morgan, for the fourth offering, Coldfront. This is a very different, original two-hander set on a park bench where an unlikely relationship unfolds. The songs were nice, but there was a little too much sung dialogue and the performances weren’t well matched, though it was good to see Anna Francolini again.

The final showcase wasn’t new either, the third iteration over 12 years of Craig Christie’s Eurobeat, a satire / homage to that contest. They weren’t able to camp it up as much as it needed, with no set and few costumes, though Daniel Jacob was excellent as the glittery drag host Marlene Cabana. The four entries – Spain, Ukraine, Norway and Vatican City (!) – were very good, but there were only four, plus one for the compere.

For some reason, I was expecting brand new shows as work-in-progress from people new to musical theatre, so with only two out of four shows not produced before and those from established writers, one which had been workshopped twice before, it didn’t really fulfil my expectations, though I didn’t dislike any of them, the performances were excellent and I had a lot of fun.

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Well, it looks like I’m going against the critical flow again on this one; I rather liked it, particularly the design, the songs and the infectious enthusiasm of the cast. Treating it as a family show might be the key.

It doesn’t have the storytelling quality of Alan Bennet’s iconic non-musical NT adaptation. It’s more character-driven, though there’s more of a story, well, caper, in the second half. Once we’ve established who’s who on the riverbank, the mysteries of the wild wood and Toad’s status, it’s basically about his imprisonment and escape and the takeover and reclaiming of Toad Hall. Julian Fellowes book isn’t up to much, but George Stiles catchy tunes and Anthony Drewe’s witty lyrics do enough plot driving to make up for it.

Peter McKintosh’s design is cute for the riverbank and grand and imposing for Toad Hall, with some excellent train, car and boat journeys in-between. The costumes help define the characters and I thought they were lovely. Aletta Collins choreography also adds much to the characterisations. Rachel Kavanaugh’s production has, above all, a lot of charm, helped by delightful performances like Simon Lipkin as Ratty, Craig Mather as Mole and Gary Wilmot as Badger. I liked Rufus Hound’s very brash, loud, athletic (and green) Toad and Denise Welch’s Geordie mother Otter. Neil McDermott is a good baddie, a suitably oily weasel.

The 6 and 10-year-old seemed to enjoy it as much as the older members of my party and the producers get a gold star for the accessibility that the children-go-free policy provides. Much better than those cynical paid critics would have you believe.

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In 2000 this Stiles & Drewe show surprised many by beating Mamma Mia, The Lion King & Spend Spend Spend to win the Olivier Best New Musical Award. I like underdogs so I was rather pleased. Two of the others (guess!) have gone on, and continue, to play to zillions all over the world, but another surprise to many would be that this has also been seen by 6 million people in 8000 productions in 20 languages. It returns to London almost twenty years later on a much smaller scale than the NT’s Olivier production, with a cast of seven and a three-piece band in a 50-something seat theatre under a railway line!

It’s based on the 175-year old Hans Christian Anderson tale of The Ugly Duckling, a source of ridicule for his dad, his siblings and just about everyone else he meets, but loved regardless by his mum. She searches high and low for him when he goes AWOL, during which he meets an array of characters including a predatory cat and an encouraging frog, eventually discovering he’s a swan and falling in love. In this interpretation we get a more modern spin on diversity and respect. George Stiles has written better scores since, but this one has its moments. Anthony Drewe’s pun-laden book and lyrics are a delight.

It works well on this scale, swept along on a wave of charm, energy and enthusiasm. Andy Room’s staging and Emily Bestow’s design are inventive, in a homespun way. The performers play an array of instruments, from cello to saxophone, to supplement the small band, but it’s not really a full-blown actor-musician show. It’s a very good ensemble. I’m a great advocate of un-amplified chamber musicals, though here some of Drewe’s witty lyrics are lost when singers compete with electric instrumentation, percussion and saxes.

It’s good to see it again, though somehow it now feels even more like a kids show, and I do wish the director’s programme note hadn’t talked about post-Brexit / Trump relevance!

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I missed the (imaginary!) curtain the first time I tried to see this a couple of weeks ago, so I’m a bit late to the party, but a party it is and I’m very glad I caught it, though its only four years since I saw it at Soho Theatre.

George Stiles, Anthony Drew and Elliott Davies’ contemporary spin on the classic fairy-tale finds us in seedy Soho with gay Robbie as our Cinderella character running his late mum’s launderette with his friend Velcro and his ugly sisters Clodagh and Dana running a strip-club across the road. Our Prince is James Prince, mayoral candidate, in the closet. Robbie has a sugar daddy, Lord Bellingham, who’s a major donor to James’ campaign. Spin doctor William George is our baddie. It all kicks off at the fundraising ball hosted by Lord Bellingham when Robbie’s connections to both the Lord and the Prince are revealed.

It has some of Stiles best tunes and Drew’s lyrics and Drew & Davies’ book are very clever and very funny, but have more serious and tender moments too. The musical standards are very high and there’s witty, athletic choreography that fills the Union space by Joanne McShane. I think it’s only Will Keith’s third show flying solo as director and a fine job he’s done too.

The ugly sisters are show-stealing roles for girls willing to give it their all and that’s exactly what Suzie Chard & Beverly Rudd did in Soho and what Michaela Stern & Natalie Harman do here – terrific. That said, the rest of the leads are excellent and the ensemble is packed full of talent, enthusiasm and energy. Joshua Lewindon is a charming Robbie and Lewis Asquith has great presence, and a great voice, as James. I was hugely impressed by Emily Deamer as Velcro, particularly in her scenes with Lowri Walton, also excellent as Prince’s girlfriend Marilyn.

A great, more seasonal revival, well worth catching in its last five days.

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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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This is the second collaboration between British musical theatre team George Stiles & Anthony Drewe and American book writers Ron Cowan & Daniel Lipman and it’s just as quintessentially British as their previous offering, Betty Blue Eyes (a musical adaptation of the Alan Bennett film A Private Function). This musical adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel isn’t as good as the previous show, but it still has much to commend it.

I rather wish I’d had an Aunt Augusta; someone to lead you astray, show you the world and encourage you to live life to the full, as she does with her somewhat old, recently retired nephew Henry Pulling. Come to think of it, I didn’t really need an Aunt Augusta. Their adventures take them from London on trains, boats and planes to Paris, Milan and Istanbul, and even further afield to Argentina and Paraguay, where she is at last reunited with her former lover Visconti. It lends itself well to musical adaptation and the songs are particularly good at emphasising the location of scenes. I wouldn’t say it was a great score, but it’s OK. The feel of the novel is maintained and the characterisations are spot on.

Patricia Hodge is perfectly cast as Aunt Augusta – stern, strong willed and more than a bit naughty. She’s not really a singer, but her sung dialogue seemed in keeping with the character. Steven Pacey also perfectly captures the conservative Henry, more than a bit dull, torn between continuing to be stuck in the mud and being led astray, but plumping for the latter in the end. In a fine supporting cast, I particularly liked Hugh Maynard’s Wordsworth, the life and soul of the party. Colin Falconer’s clever design anchors it in an old-fashioned railway station, with the band in an elevated signal box, a waiting room that moves, destination board and those iconic cast iron pillars. His costumes are great too. Christopher Luscombe’s staging benefits from the intimacy of the Minerva Theatre.

I’m not sure why it doesn’t quite sparkle, but there’s enough to make it a worthwhile adaptation and a decent night out.

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I was flabbergasted when this lovely show closed early in the West End. Now the enterprising Mercury Theatre in Colchester launches a 5-month tour of this scaled-down version which has lost none of its quintessential British charm and eccentricity.

It’s set in 1947 post-war, still rationed, Britain just as Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Phillip. Chiropodist Gilbert, his wife Joyce and her ‘Mother Dear’ are new to Shepardsford and are finding it hard to fit in, and even harder to get meat. Butchers keep closing as Meat Inspector Wormold has them arrested for corruption whilst the town worthies are secretly breeding a pig for the royal wedding banquet, though one of them has named it Betty and rather fallen for it. Gilbert, somewhat uncharacteristically, steals Betty, which causes much chaos at home, what with the smells and all. The show turns farcical as mother gets confused and the worthies get suspicious. Gilbert eventually hands over Betty to be roasted for the banquet, to which they are now invited, signalling their arrival in this closed society.

It’s adapted from Alan Bennett’s film The Private Function by a pair of Americans(!), Ron Cowen & Daniel Lipman, with a score by Stiles & Drew which seemed even better than I remembered. It takes a short while to get going, but when it lifts off its great fun, with the second half working particularly well. Daniel Buckroyd’s staging and Andrew Wright’s choreography are fresh and sprightly and Sara Parks multi-level set enables speedy scene changes.

Amy Booth-Steel and Haydn Oakley (a dead ringer for Alan Bennett!) are excellent leads and there’s a lovely turn as ‘Mother Dear’ from Sally Mates. Matt Harrop is a hoot mooning over Betty and Kit Benjamin’s ears are almost steaming in his frequent rages as Dr Swaby. Tobias Beer is a suitably grotesque baddie as Wormwold. They’re all supported by a fine ensemble. The West End’s animatronic pig is replaced by a much more charming puppet, ably manipulated by Lauren Logan, which brought lots of ‘ah’s’ from an adoring audience. Richard Reeday’s quartet is supplemented by six of the cast playing instruments.

It’s great to see this show again and great that it’s going to be seen by more people around the country in such a high quality production. Gold star to the Mercury team, I’d say.

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