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Posts Tagged ‘Hackney Empire’

Suzie McKenna’s sensational revival of this 1980’s Sheldon Epps show, first seen in London in 1987, had a short run at Hackney Empire five years ago. It’s now moved West to the more intimate Kiln Theatre with the wonderful Debbie Kurup joining the cast, and it’s even better.

It’s more of a song cycle than a musical, though its surprising how much characterisation there is, with so little dialogue. The songs themselves tell the stories of The Lady, The Woman, The Girl and The Man who are all in residence in a Chicago hotel, three in their rooms and The Man mostly in the bar, with limited interaction between them. The twenty-six songs are more than just blues but they all come from the same period. They include a lot of numbers by Bessie Smith, with others by Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer and many more. Standards like Lover Man, beautifully sung by Sharon D Clarke, Taking a Chance on Love, Baby Doll and Take It Right Back sit side by side with less well known songs.

The four star performances just blow you away. Sharon D Clarke, within days of her last performance of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, delivers every song with conviction as The Lady looking back at her life. Debbie Kurup inhabits the troubled character of The Woman and delivers her songs such that we feel her pain. There’s a naivety to Gemma Sutton as The Girl, so vulnerable and needy that you want to protect her. Clive Rowe’s worldly wise The Man struts his stuff without a care in the world. They are accompanied by a superb band led by Mark Dickman, and Avgoustos Psillas’ impeccable sound ensures you hear every word and every note.

Robert Jones’ design and Lotte Collett’s gorgeous costumes locate the show firmly in its place and time, with beautiful lighting by Neil,Austin, and Susie McKenna’s direction and Frank Thornton’s choreography use the space to great effect, with the intimacy bringing something extra.

A faultless production with as fine a set of musical performances as you’ll find on any stage. Absolutely unmissable.

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Opera

Scottish Opera visited Hackney Empire with new operatic thriller Anthropocene, which was multi-layered, brilliantly dramatic and superbly sung and played. It’s the first of the four Stuart MacRae / Louise Welsh operas I’ve seen and has whetted my appetite for more. Exciting stuff.

The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was terrific. The story of Norse Goddess Hel was brilliantly staged with gothic punk sensibilities and the music was strikingly original. They called it their first opera ‘for teenage audiences’ but there didn’t appear to be any in the lovely recently renovated space!

My winter opera visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff paired a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with another look at their fourteen-year-old Magic Flute. The musical standards were as high as ever, with Ballo a thrilling gothic creation, taking its inspiration from the love of theatre of the real life king upon whose life / death the opera was originally based, and Zauberflöte a revival of the Magritte inspired Dominic Cook staging, with terrific designs from Julian Crouch. Loved them both.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy SO was on blistering form again under Sir Mark Elder with a thrilling if melancholic lunchtime programme of Britten, Bax & Sibelius. Magic.

I’m very fond of baritone Roderick Williams, whom I’ve seen as an oratorio soloist and in opera, but never in recital. In Milton Court he sang beautifully, but the largely 18th Century German programme (Brahms and Schuman) isn’t really to my taste and the three British song groupings were lovely but not enough for a satisfying evening, for me anyway.

Film

Another great month leading up to and during the awards season, beginning with If Beale Street Could Talk, a superbly filmed and beautifully performed adaptation of a James Baldwin novel; the first, I think.

Boy Erased was a chilling true story of amateur gay aversion therapy in the name of god, which fortunately ended with the reconciliation of parents and son. Young actor Lucas Hedges impresses for the third time in recent years.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another true story, beautifully told, with delightful performances from Melisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. A bit of a slow burn, but ultimately satisfying.

I loved Green Book, a great comedy with heart, beautifully performed, anchored in a shameful period of American history, just 60 years ago.

All Is True looked gorgeous, but seemed slight and somewhat melancholic. Judi Dench was of course incandescent, Kenneth Branagh virtually unrecognisable and if you blinked you might miss Ian McKellen, the third person on the poster, suggesting a leading role.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery have discovered another Scandinavian artist, Harald Sohlberg, whose gorgeous landscapes I found enthralling. I was completely captivated by the colourful beauty of Painting Norway.

Don McCullin is a hugely important photographer who’s documented conflicts and their consequences worldwide for many years. His B&W pictures are stunning, but twelve rooms of Tate Britain is a lot to take in and it becomes relentlessly depressing, I’m afraid.

I like Bill Viola’s video works, which for some reason almost always feature people under water, but I’m not sure their juxtaposition with works by Michelangelo in Life Death Rebirth at the Royal Academy made much sense to me. It seemed like a curatorial conceit to elevate the dominant modern component and / or sell tickets.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern was beautiful. This underrated contemporary of Monet, Matisse et al filled all thirteen rooms with a riot of colour; his landscapes in particular, many taken through windows, doors and from balconies, were stunning.

At White Cube Bermondsey, Tracey Emin’s A Fortnight of Tears consisted of three giant crude bronze sculptures, a room full of big photos of her in bed and a whole load of childish paintings which wouldn’t be selected for a primary school exhibition. As you can see, I loved it. Not.

The problem with Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at the Saatchi Gallery is that it’s often not at all clear what its satirising! Better than some exhibitions there, though. The little Georgll Uvs exhibition of ultraviolet paintings Full Circle: The Beauty of Inevitability was lovely though.

Daria Martin’s installation Tonight the World in the Barbican Curve Gallery was based on her Jewish grandmother’s dream diary and featured the apartment where she lived before she left Brno to avoid the Nazis. In the first part, the apartment is the centre of a video game she has created and in the final part, film recreates some of the dreams there. In between we see pages of the dream book, too far away to read. Interesting enough to see in passing, but maybe not the Time Out 4* experience!

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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 Hackney Empire team’s 20th panto, and my 10th (and second Aladdin). Five of the six leads clock up forty between them, led by Kat B with 15. Designer Lotte Collett clocks up 15 too, and MD Mark Dickman’s on his 9th. The loyalty of the creative team, the performers and the audience speaks volumes. Christmas would not be Christmas without a visit to Hackney. This year it’s a pleasure to have Clive Rowe and Tameka Empson back, as well as the wonderful Gemma Sutton make her debut.

If you were contemplating going ‘up west’ for ‘Disney’s Aladdin’, think again. There’s way more fun in the East End for a lot less money, and now I’ve seen both, I speak from experience. The seats might be plusher, but you won’t be with your panto family like you are in Hackney, and there’s absolutely no chance of Clive Rowe’s Widow Twanky flirting with you at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Given the far east setting, we’re actually in Ha-Ka-Ney with the Empress looking for a wealthy suitor for her daughter Princess Ling Mai, who falls in love with Aladdin, one of laundress Widow Twanky’s two sons, who is poor not wealthy. We’ve got both a genie of the lamp and genie of the ring and of course baddie Abanazar who whisks us all away to colder climes.

Amongst this years treats we have dancing pandas, Gaia the goddess of light, with a blue monkey face (voiced by the sensational Sharon D Clarke no less) and a dragon that will take your breath away. Both genie of the lamp and Aladdin fly. Designer Lotte Collett’s imagination has run riot, particularly with the dame’s costumes and headwear that features everything from washing baskets lines & machines to pagodas.

This year I was particularly impressed by the make-up, especially Kat B’s genie, and above all the musical standards, with fantastic vocals all round. Susie McKenna & Steven Edis’ 20th is vintage Hackney panto, a joy and an unmissable treat.

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This WWI set musical was commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre and when I saw the London premiere of their production just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/brass-nymt-at-hackney-empire) it had a cast twice the size, an 18-piece band doing what a solo pianist does here, in a theatre with a capacity twenty times the Union Theatre. Despite that, this very timely professional premiere packs as much, if not more, of an emotional punch.

It moves between Leeds and the Somme as a brass band enlist together and their loved ones at home manufacture the munitions they need. At the front we glimpse the horrors and hopelessness as one dies, an underage recruit is executed for desertion, two men supress their desire for one another and the troops are sent to their death on ‘the big push’ by officers knowing full well what their fate was likely to be. Back home, the girls health deteriorates as their bosses expose them to risk in the munitions factory, and they form their own brass band as a tribute to their men. Relationships are lived through letters.

Benjamin Till’s excellent score is quintessentially British, with folk and choral influences, very melodic. Sasha Regan’s staging has great pace and energy, handling moving moments sensitively, not least the chilling ending to the first half, though I did think some of the soldier’s choreography was a touch quirky. A couple of large tables help to created the trenches and the factory in a simple and uncluttered set. The talented young cast serve the play well; I particularly liked Sam Kipling and Emma Harrold as brother and sister Alf and Eliza, and Samantha Richards feisty Titty, whose brother Morrie is beautifully played by Lawrence Smith, a fine trumpeter too. Henry Brennan does a terrific job playing the whole score on piano.

A lovely, heartfelt musical that again proves British musical theatre is alive and thriving, and a fitting tribute during the centenary of the events and times it represents.

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Opera

Trojan Women by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea in the newly refurbished (but you’d hardly notice!) Queen Elizabeth Hall is a pop-opera adaptation of Greek tragedy. It looked good and I liked the choruses, but I struggled with some of the strangulated solo vocals and, at two unbroken hours, it was too long. I always think visiting companies should be warmly received regardless, given they’ve travelled half-way across the world, and thankfully so it was at the QEH.

Mamzer Bastard sees the Royal Opera on walkabout again, this time to Hackney Empire, but probably with the wrong opera, if part of the plan was to engage the local community. There were things to enjoy – beautiful Jewish cantor for the first time in opera, expertly sung, and a cinematic production which made great use of live video – but it’s cultural and musical specificity and inaccessibility robbed it of universal appeal, and the film noir monochrome monotony drained me of energy, I’m afraid.

Rhondda Rips It Up! is WNO’s tribute to Lady Rhondda, an extraordinary woman and suffragette in this centenary year, also visiting Hackney Empire. A mash-up of opera, operetta, music hall and cabaret and great fun, with singalongs and flags to wave. Madeleine Shaw was terrific as Lady R and I even liked Lesley Garrett as the MC!

Britten’s Turn of the Screw saw ENO at the Open Air Theatre, the first ever opera there, on a lovely evening. I thought it worked very well, particularly as the natural light lowered, creating a spooky atmosphere. It was by necessity amplified, but the lovely singing and playing, though not as natural as unamplified, still shone through. There were the usual audience behaviour challenges, this time amplified by the bonkers decision to dish out unnecessary librettos so they could be rustled in unison!

Dance

Xenos at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a one-man dance piece by Akram Khan inspired by the 1.5 million forgotten Indian soldiers lost in the 1st World War. I struggled to understand all of it, but was mesmerised regardless. The design was stunning, the east-meets-west music hypnotic and the movement extraordinary. A privilege to be at Kahn’s last full evening piece as a performer.

Film

I much admired Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince, about the last days of Oscar Wilde. It avoided lightening and beautifying what was a very dark period in his life and told it as it was.

Art

The Edward Bawden exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery featured an extraordinarily diverse range of works including paintings, posters, linocuts, menu cards, drawings and book illustrations & covers with subjects including animals, people, buildings, landscapes and fantasies. A really underrated 20th century illustrator and a huge treat.

The BP Portrait Award Exhibition at the NPG seemed smaller this year, but the quality remained astonishingly high. Next door at the NG, I loved British-American 19th Century artist Thomas Cole’s paintings, though they only made up 40% of the exhibition, padded out with studies & drawings and paintings by those who influenced him and those he influenced (from the NG permanent collection!), which is more than a bit cheeky.

During a short visit to Exeter I went to their superb Royal Albert Museum to catch Pop Art in Print, an excellent V&A touring exhibition which we don’t appear to be getting in London. A fascinating, diverse range of items, very well curated and presented, probably helped by being the only visitor at the time!

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I’m surprised that there’s been little or no mention that this is the second Tina Turner jukebox musical, the first just six years ago, transferring from Hackney Empire to the Savoy Theatre for a short summer run (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/soul-sister). The previous one had much to enjoy, but this is on another level altogether. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who virtually invented the modern day jukebox musical with Mamma Mia, seen in 40 countries, still running in London after 19 years, now almost next door to this, returns with what might be its pinnacle.

Like those other great jukebox musicals – Jersey Boys, Sunny Afternoon & Beautiful – it’s biographical. Tina’s story begins in her childhood church in Tennessee with a brilliant gospel version of Nutbush City Limits. She’s abandoned by her mum, then her dad, and lives with her grandma until her death, after which she goes to live with her mother and sister in St. Louis. Here she meets Ike and so begins the years of success, and abuse. When she finally plucks up the courage to leave him, he continues to exert control over her repertoire and she ends up lost and broke in Las Vegas. Her only hope is new material, and she finds that by following young Aussie Roger Davies to London. The rest, as they say, is history.

Katori Hall has made a great job of telling the story through her excellent book and the production oozes quality in every department, from Anthony van Laast’s choreography, recreating some of Tina’s somewhat quirky moves, Mark Thompson’s designs, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s sound to Tom Kelly’s terrific band. The show ends with the now customary mini-concert, allowing the audience to indulge in the singing and dancing they’ve been suppressing for 2.5 hours, during which there was a lovely moment when Tina duets with her childhood self.

Adrienne Warren is the embodiment of Tina in a sensational performance; she has the same extraordinary audience contact Tina had. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who I last saw as Laertes in Hamlet (!) is a revelation as Ike, though he did veer towards caricature occasionally. In a superb supporting cast, I really liked Ryan O’Donnell as Davies, Madeline Appiah as Tina’s mum and Lorna Gayle as grandma.

A show that lives up to the hype, and more.

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