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Posts Tagged ‘Hal Prince’

A musical at the Open Air Theatre has been one of my summer institutions for decades. Evita is one of the few Andrew Lloyd-Webber shows I like, I hadn’t seen it for thirteen years and the director and designer are favourites of mine, but it didn’t catch my imagination and I didn’t book early as usual. The reviews suggested it was more of a rock concert and I hadn’t liked a similar treatment of Jesus Christ Superstar, so decision confirmed. Then in its final week, a free evening, sunny days, a few single tickets available, a dose of FOMO and no willpower…….

It’s staged on eight large steps the width of the theatre with the band at the back in a corrugated roofed shed behind a giant EVITA sign. It isn’t long before the smoke and confetti bombs confirm the rock concert aesthetic, later joined by more of the same plus fire and fireworks. Even Fabian Aloise’s quirky, grungy choreography owes more to pop videos that musical theatre. Soutra Gilmour’s design palette goes from funereal black through greys to the Peronist pale blue, with at one point Evita’s white dress spectacularly coloured before our eyes.

Some of this works well, particularly big numbers like the opening Requiem, Act I’s closer A New Argentina, the European visit’s Rainbow Tour & the charity fundraising The Money Keeps Rolling In, but it doesn’t always serve the story well, with some of Tim Rice’s sharp lyrics inaudible. Somewhat ironically, presenting it as a rock concert emphasised how operatic it is, but opera really needs more subtlety and some restraint to go with its spectacle. This is a bit of a one dimensional Evita and I couldn’t help fondly recalling Hal Prince’s ground-breaking original in 1978 and Michael Grandage’s stylish revival in 2006.

I liked the all-shapes-sizes-and-colours ensemble very much, and Alan Williams’ band was simply terrific. Trent Saunders was an excellent Che and Ektor Rivera good as Peron. I felt Samantha Pauly was too shouty as Eva and her vocals sometimes shaky, though in all fairness it was a cool evening (I had a jumper and fleece on) and she was clothed in next to nothing, albeit under bright lights most of the time. I can’t help wondering why all three leads are American when we have many here, some no doubt unemployed, who would jump at and excel in these roles.

I enjoyed it more than Superstar, I respect and admire Jamie Lloyd for taking a fresh look and I don’t regret going, but can we move on from ALW revivals in concert and get back to business as usual please? Ah, Carousel next year – now you’re talking……

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Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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