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Posts Tagged ‘Hackney Empire’

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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If you take out the two operas, the three foreign language productions, the deconstruction and the filleted three-hander, I think this is my 12th Hamlet. Simon Godwin’s bold and brilliant staging, with a mesmerising performance by Paapa Essiedu, may well be the best of them. I regretted not going to Stratford to see it, but now I don’t, because it’s particularly thrilling to see it at the Hackney Empire amongst an enraptured young and diverse audience.

It’s an African Denmark, colourful and throbbing with music and life, which works brilliantly. It serves the play well, adding some magic, but no gimmicks. So many scenes are superbly staged it’s hard to know where to begin. It gets off to a great start at Hamlet’s graduation ceremony, emphasising his youth and the likely effect of this on his grief at losing his dad and anger at his mother’s swift re-marriage. His confrontations with a cool Claudius are particularly spikey and the resentment of his mother palpable. As the play progresses, we get a superb play-within-the-play, Polonius’ death deftly handled, Ophelia’s grief heartbreaking, a wonderful grave digging scene and a thrilling fight between Hamlet and Laertes using double sticks. Godwin hardly puts a foot wrong and I felt I was hearing the verse afresh with new emphasis and intonation.

Paapa Essiedu really is extraordinary. His verse speaking is enthralling, he totally engages with the audience and every one of those many soliloquies, where he’s alone on that vast stage, are captivating. The rest of the cast is excellent too. I thought Clarence Smith was a particularly fine Claudius and Buom Tihngang made Laertes his own. Mimi Ndiweni is very moving as Ophelia and Lorna Brown navigates Gertrude’s emotional journey very well. Joseph Mydell is luxury casting indeed as Polonius. Paul Wills set, in red-rust colours, and colourful costumes evoke an African kingdom, with Sola Akingbola’s music adding that final touch.

It’s somewhat ironic that within 48 hours our two big national companies have given me one of the worst and one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. I can’t emphasise enough how much seeing it in Hackney Empire, surrounded by young people spellbound by the Bard, added to my experience.

DON’T MISS THIS

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The third and last of my cheapskate January catch-ups, and you can certainly see where your ticket money goes with this one. Bob Crowley’s set and Gregg Barnes’ costumes are the star of the show, though you’d be forgiven if you decided to wear dark glasses.

The surprise of this Disney animation-to-stage show is the tongue-in-cheek humour, albeit largely broad and corny. Alan Menken’s score is rather good too, though there are only a dozen songs, half of which are reprised. Other than that its a pretty bog standard recycling of the age old tale, an eighteenth century French addition to the Middle Eastern folk tales Arabian Nights.

The big number is Friend Like Me, in an extraordinarily designed cave where they throw absolutely everything at it in a truly slick, spectacular scene that seemed in itself a homage to musical theatre, with added pyrotechnics. On a smaller scale, the magic carpet ride of its most famous song A Whole New World was indeed magical and you really couldn’t see how it was done.

Trevor Dion Nicholas has great presence as the Genie and terrific, cheeky audience engagement when he breaks the fourth wall. Matthew Croke is a fine romantic lead and has great chemistry with Nicholas. It’s a fine supporting cast whose sense of fun seemed completely genuine.

It’s only panto with a mega-budget, but it’s very well staged and performed and I was glad I caught up with it, though there’s more joy at the Hackney Empire panto.

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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