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Posts Tagged ‘Hannah Chissick’

Playwright Hugh Whitemore, who died this year, was better known as a TV writer, but between 1977 and 1987 he wrote four outstanding plays, all factually based, of which this was the second. The original West End production 35 years ago starred Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams and ran for almost a year. This first major London revival at the Menier sees their daughter Finty Williams take on her mother’s role.

It’s set in 1960 in the Ruislip home of the Jackson family, a model of suburban ordinariness. Their best friends and neighbours the Krogers are apparently Canadians; the two families are very fond of each another. One day a man called Stewart enters the Jacksons’ lives and persuades them to allow surveillance from their upstairs bedroom. As the surveillance period is lengthened, Stewart feels obliged to feed them information about the reasons for it, until they discover it’s their best friends who are being watched. The highly-strung wife Barbara struggles to reconcile the reality of the warm friendship with the likelihood the Krogers are spies.

The period feel is extraordinary, from Paul Farnsworth’s brilliantly detailed design – the depth of a suburban house the width of the theatre, furniture, fittings and everyday items spot on – to the pitch perfect performances, with behaviour very much of the time. Chris Larkin and Finty Williams play the empathetic Jackson’s, the heart of the play, beautifully and Macy Nyman is terrific as their daughter Julie. Jasper Britton navigates the role of Stewart from gently persuasive to assertively determined extremely well. Tracy-Ann Oberman is excellent as brassy but loving Helen Kroger.

The attention to period detail and suspense does slow the pace, but I felt it just about sustained its length. In many ways its an old-fashioned evening, but Hannah Chissick’s impeccable production brings out all the psychological and emotional impact of this true story and makes it a very worthwhile revival.

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So this month’s musicals concern immigration & racism in the early 20th century, men replaced by machines in the 20’s, revenge against a whale, refugees in Africa in the present day, living with cancer, two American sisters intent on showbiz success in the 50’s and this, conjoined twins in a freak show. Well, you can’t say musical theatre doesn’t provide variety.

This show by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger (whose Dreamgirls is about to get it’s long overdue London premiere) is apparently the true story of the Hilton sisters. We first meet them in a freak show, with a fortune teller, tattooed girl, bearded lady, half man half woman, lizard man, three legged man, dog boy and human pin cushion! The boss owns them; they aren’t paid. Talent scout Terry and his side-kick Buddy, an entertainer, turn up and seek to woo them away from the freak show, promising a more reputable career in showbiz as a song and dance act.

Things go well in their new world until romance gets in the way, Violet becoming infatuated with Buddy and Daisy with Terry. Buddy proposes to Violet on New Years Eve, but Terry makes it clear he wants them separated first. They decide to go ahead with one wedding (the mind boggles), a big occasion in public in front of 60,000 people, when it all becomes clear it’s just a different kind of freak show. It’s not a stand-out score, but its good enough. I just couldn’t get comfortable with the subject matter. The trouble for me was that watching a musical about the sisters sometimes seemed like a freak show in itself.

It is an excellent production by Hannah Chissick. takis’ design is terrific. The band under MD Jo Cichonska sounds great. Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are both superb as Daisy and Violet respectively, looking like twins in identical costumes and wigs, with one in higher heels to even them out, and sounding great together. Haydn Oakley and Dominic Hodson are fine romantic leads, and there’s an excellent supporting performance from Jay Marsh as the twins friend and protector Jake. I just wish I could feel the same about the show.

 

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For the second time this month NYMT’s bold ambition and pool of extraordinary young talent produces something very special. This time it’s a new musical (though previously staged in Leeds in 2014) on a huge scale in a vast theatre with a cast of 33, 18 musicians and goodness knows how many behind the scenes – and it’s another timely First World War setting.

Members of a Leeds brass band sign up and soon find themselves in the trenches. Their womenfolk, now working in a munitions factory, decide to use their musical instruments and form a band to keep the tradition going, and to play for them on their return. The show moves between the munitions factory and the battlefield, exploring a lot of themes. There’s the underage recruit who the officers turn a blind eye to, until he appears to desert. An expectant dad becomes one of the first casualties. The band leader persuades his sister to write to a Brummie soldier with no letters from friends or family, which leads to much more. The munitions factory jeopardises the health of the girls, the ‘canaries’ as they were named, after the yellowing of their skin by the munitions. The class divide is evident both at home and in France. Two soldiers walk on eggshells around their attraction for one another. Above all, the callousness of privileged officers sending ordinary men to their inevitable death chills you.

Benjamin Till’s score is superb, full of moving solos and rousing choruses, very much in the style of Howard Goodall, but with more focus in solo numbers. They take a risk ending the first half with a tragedy and at just over three hours it’s a touch long, but it’s an impressive piece of work which deserves a much longer life (just three performances in London) and future productions. Director Hannah Chissick marshals her large cast well, usually keeping everyone on stage as the locations change, rather than wasting time moving people on and off. There’s excellent choreography and movement from Sam Spencer Lane and the musical standards under MD Alex Aitkin are outstanding. I was in awe of the amount of talent on stage and in the pit, many of whom we’ll no doubt be seeing again on professional stages.

A towering achievement.

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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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This musical by Michel Legrand had a short run on Broadway in 2002 and, despite being a commercial flop, managed to get some Tony nominations, including Best Score. A Broadway musical it is not, but a delightful, funny, charming, tuneful chamber musical it is, and the Royal Academy of Music’s British première is both a coup and a triumph.

Based on a short story by Marcel Ayme, and set in early 50’s Paris, the show follows civil servant Dusoleil’s through his very dull life – until he discovers he can walk through walls! – entirely in song; around 40 of them in fact, some quite short. He consults a doctor but doesn’t take the prescribed medication, and does nothing much with his new powers until he gets a nasty new boss on which he exerts revenge. This leads him into a life of crime and he ends up in prison, which of course isn’t much of a problem for a man who can walk through walls. When he escapes he meets Isabelle, abused by her husband, and he uses his powers for clandestine visits to see her. When he gets a headache, he takes the prescribed medication mistakenly for asprin and loses his powers.  When he finally ends up in court, he finds he’s a bit of a folk hero.

The story is immortalised in Paris by a statue, a fact made great use of in the show. The tunes are lovely and Jeremy Sams’ English lyrics are very funny indeed. Director Hannah Chissick’s excellent staging, with a simple monochrome design by Adrian Gee, has a lightness of touch and flow that has a lot to do with the movement of co-director and choreographer Matthew Cole. Jordan Li-Smith’s seven piece band plays the jazz influenced score beautifully and there are some fine voices in the cast of nine led by Chris McGuigan, who navigates Dusoleil’s journey from dull bureaucrat to a man uncomfortable with his powers to a more bold one using them freely. They all deliver in both the vocal and acting departments and once you’re into the unusual rhythm of the piece, you’re drawn in by its charm and humour.

A delightful show and showcase for some outstanding talent that I’m sure we’re going to be seeing much more of.

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