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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Harrison’

This is the first time I’ve seen a ‘big’ production of this Jerry Herman ‘problem’ musical and now I’m struggling to understand what the problem is. Fascinating true life story. Good book (revised by Francine Pascal, the original writer Michael Stewart’s sister). Great songs. I loved it.

The story is framed by scenes where silent movie maker Mack Sennett looks back at his relationship with his leading lady, and love of his life, Mabel Normand. We flash back to learn that he discovered her when she delivered food to his film set (I think this is a departure from the real life story for dramatic purposes) and she immediately begins a successful but punishing career making several ‘two reel’ movies a week. Sennett is forever innovating then milking his ideas – pie-in-the-face, bathing beauties, keystone cops etc. He’s an uncompromising slave-driver who’s ego and pride mean he eventually loses her, and just about everyone else, though he does get her back – but by now she’s lost to drink and drugs. The onset of talkies puts an end to his career as he can’t / won’t embrace the change.

There are only 12 songs but every one is a winner. The overture is terrific, and the opening scene is thrilling, as Mack is surrounded by three screens with his films projected onto them. The screens drop and he turns on the deserted studio lights and we’re back filming a movie, starting our chronological journey forward. The pace doesn’t let up as it moves between New York and Hollywood. Train journeys and boarding a liner are superbly created using projections. There are great set pieces filming movies, stunningly staged keystone cop chases, bathing beauty scenes and a show-stopping tap dance routine. It’s great when it fills the stage but it works well too in more intimate scenes.

Jonathan Church’s production is terrific, with classic period choreography by Stephen Mear. They’ve even brought in those Spymonkey boys to get the physical comedy right. Robert Jones set is excellent, enabling speedy scene changes, with Jon Driscoll’s projections and Howard Harrison’s lighting well integrated. Robert Scott’s big band sounds even bigger than fifteen and the ensemble is as fine as they come. This is the third consecutive role in twice as many tears that Michael Ball has made his own – Mack follows his Olivier award winning Sweeney and Edna! – in what appears to be a mid / late career high. I don’t know why Chichester have, like they did for Barnum, had to import a leading actor from the US again but Rebecca LaChance is indeed very good. Anna Jane Casey, herself a Mabel at the Watermill Newbury (replaced by Janine Dee when it got to the West End) almost steals the show as Lottie.

For me, this up there with the best shows the ‘National Theatre of Musicals’ has done and deserves to follow the others to the West End, if only to prove that either there was never a problem or the problem is solved. I’d certainly go again.

 

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When you watch X-Factor on the weekend, remember there was once a time when pop groups learned their craft by hard slog and trial & error. The Beatles would never have been the greatest band the world has ever seen if they hadn’t spent the best part of two years playing lengthy sets in the Cavern in Liverpool and in much seedier clubs in Hamburg.

What Backbeat does by focusing on this brief but intense and important period is show us how it all began. The fact that it uses young actors who have recently learnt, and are still learning, to sing and play gives it an authenticity which brings the story alive. It’s not a musical; it’s a play – but the musical sequences are crucial and become increasingly competent and exciting as the story develops. They’d sound a lot better played by professional musicians, but that would miss the point and be a lot less true to the story. I loved the rawness and raggedness of the music because it felt so real.

In this period, of course, original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe looms large. Lennon’s art school mate who can’t play a note but is super-cool joins the band, falls for photographer Astrid Kirchherr & steals her from fellow artist Klaus Voorman, leaves the band for Hamburg Art School (under Edward Paolozzi no less – even this Beatles obsessive didn’t know that!) and dies tragically. Paul switches to bass and Pete Best is dumped for Ringo and the rest is history. When they put on Astrid’s jackets and strike the first chords of Love Me Do, there was a shiver up my spine and a tear in my eye. This is where the musical soundtrack of my life really began.

It really does tell the story well. Comparisons with Jersey Boys are unfair –  this is not a biographical retrospective on a spectacular scale with a band’s entire back catalogue; it’s a play focusing in more depth on a short formative period. Both are great, but completely different.

They actors don’t impersonate the fab four (five) but they brilliantly convey the essence if the people. Andrew Knott has Lennon’s attitude, power and influence and Daniel Healy’s McCartney is the more serious, and seriously ambitious, musician (with spot-on nodding!). Will Payne captures the much younger George, quietly in awe of the others, growing up before your eyes. There’s less pressure on Oliver Bennett as Pete Best and Nick Blood as Sutcliffe as we know less of their characters, but they’re both excellent. Adam Sopp’s Ringo only arrives in the final scene, but his inimitable grin made me smile.

There isn’t a moment wasted in David Leveaux’s staging and the design team of Christopher Oram, Andrew D Edwards, Howard Harrison, David Holmes, Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn have created an environment which allows a fluid flow from scene to scene and location to location.

I loved this show, and I don’t think that’s entirely because of how much The Beatles meant to me. It’s a great story well told. They don’t even get to use that extraordinary back catalogue – we never get beyond Love Me Do – yet you can hear the beginnings of that sound that has not been equalled in the fifty years that have passed since. Give X-Factor a miss and find out how real talent develops.

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The US gave us three great playwrights in the 20th century and Eugene O’Neill was one of them. I’ve been lucky enough to see 10 of his plays, but this one has evaded me. So a chance to see it in a favourite theatre with a favourite actress. Treat watch!

O’Neill was apparently a seaman, and his insight into this world shows. We’re in the bar of an East Coast port with Swedish bargeman Chris and his woman Mathy. At first I wasn’t convinced by David Hayman (an actor who, surprisingly, I’ve never seen on stage before), largely because of his odd accent, but after the play settled, I got there. Jenny Galloway was, as always, excellent as Marthy. When Chris’ long lost daughter turns up, her female intuition means she susses her  profession – a prostitute – quick as a flash. Ruth Wilson in the title role is mesmerizing, with a defensive brashness masking her vulnerability. She is at times delicate and at times hard, prowls the stage with a sexiness and excitement that means you just can’t take your eyes off her. This is her finest performance so far, but I suspect there’s a lot more to come. A Dame in waiting!

We move to sea as a storm erupts, the stage becomes a barge and rises, and we get one of the most exciting stage entrances I’ve ever witnessed as Irish seaman Mat climbs a rope and boards the barge drenched and half-naked. I’ve liked the handful of Jude Law’s performances I’ve seen before, but this is on another level altogether. It’s extraordinarily physical as he picks up Chris like he was a sack of flour, throws an empty crate at a wall to see it shatter and lifts a bed on which Anna lies as if it were a bag of shopping. He acts with every inch of his body, looking every bit the seaman – at home in working clothes but clumsy in a suit, the pupils of his eyes piercing when he’s angry.

The balance of the play explores the relationship between Anna, the dad who deserted her and the man she falls for (and the relationship between the two men) as her profession is revealed. The chemistry between the three actors is terrific and the triangle completely believable and compelling. The proximity and intimacy of the Donmar again works to bring you right in to the minds of the characters and the heart of their story. Wonderful.

For a choreographer, Rob Ashford is turning into one hell of a director. This equals his Streetcar, also here, for impeccable staging. Paul Wills design and Howard Harrison’s lighting create the bar, barge at sea and barge interior superbly with next to no props. The stage tilt (a first at the Donmar?) is an inspired ides.

There have been many great evenings at the Donmar and this is up there with the best of them. I’d like to say ‘book now’ but I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat, as it were.

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