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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Samuels’

Harry Hill & Steve Bown’s first musical I Can’t Sing, an X-Factor parody, went straight into the West End in 2014, to the London Palladium no less. It got a critical mauling and didn’t survive long, but based on a late preview I thought it was great fun, in an anarchic, shambolic sort of way, probably helped by having Simon Cowell in the audience that night, adding a palpable frisson. It was also an early career showcase for Cynthia Erivo and we all know what that led to. Seven years later I went to a workshop of this, their second show (Brown had written the superb Spend Spend Spend before, without Hill), also anarchic & shambolic, but also great fun. Seven months on and we have its world premiere production at the same venue, the Park Theatre.

It takes us from Blair’s birth to his demise in a series of sketches with songs in which you can hear musical theatre styles, references and tropes, Sondheim featuring heavily. In Oxford University he meets Gordon Brown and they agree he gets the top bunk first. When he’s a new MP, Neil Kinnock endorses him, and Brown, as future leaders. John Smith comes and goes quickly, as he did, so their time comes earlier than expected, and they’re left to agree who goes first again, as they did in uni, and as the real Blair and Brown did at Granita, here played out as a wrestling match. The death of Diana brings a more cynical tone and in no time we’re at the interval anticipating a second half mired in the Middle East. So far so good.

This is where it begins to lose it’s sense of fun and balance as the satire gets even more biting and cynical and the laughs fade. The cast of Labour characters includes John Prescott, Robin Cook, Clare Short and of course Peter Mandleson, but no Alistair Campbell (surely a lost opportunity for an expletive-laden song a la Jerry Springer The Opera?). International characters include George Bush, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. They’re all played for laughs, with gusto, by a cast of ten led by Charlie Baker’s smily Blair and Howard Samuels oily Mandelson.

It picks up again to end by tarring all leaders with the same brush, taking us right up to date, but it did lose its way in this second half. The production values improve on the workshop of course, but they retain the dodgy wigs and beards that keep the shambolic element, which is one of its charms. It needs to lose the branding of rock opera or musical though, because it isn’t really either. It’s a panto, a satire composed of sketches and songs, an irreverent comedic entertainment. Musical theatre purists and critics will turn against it because of this branding, which is a shame because it’s great fun, despite the imbalance of the second half.

The shit show we’ve lived through since its workshop somehow makes you look more affectionately at Blair. They could get away with the satirical bite and cynicism more if this were Bozza! The Boris Johnson Rock Opera. I’m glad I went back and would recommend you go, but don’t go expecting a rock opera or a musical as we know it.

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Back at the Union for the first of what I hope will be many musicals this year.

This is an intriguing one, because its sub-operatic score make it very different  from almost any other Broadway musical comedy. It’s also a late 70’s show masquerading as a 50’s show; I was shocked when I read the date of the first production in the programme.

The Americans have a lovely practice of naming long train journeys and The 20th Century in the show (but not on Amtrak) runs from Chicago to New York City and the whole show takes place on it. Hapless theatre producer Oscar Jaffee is running from his investors after three flops. En route he tries to set up a new show with the movie starlet he discovered (the flashback to that isn’t really clear enough in this staging) and a rich old lady as ‘angel’.

Here it’s given a manic / cartoonish / slapstick / silent movie style which works well. I’m not sure playing it along the length of the Union space works as well here as it did with the recent Bells Are Ringing and the design (on a shoestring) is pretty basic, but good enough. The staging of the chorus numbers is particularly good, as is the rather novel band configuration of piano and six saxophones.

What really makes this show though is outstanding casting by Amy Rycroft (not sure I ‘ve ever name-checked a casting director before?!) who hasn’t put a foot wrong. Howard Samuels producer is a terrific lead in Marx Brothers mode and his excellent leading lady Rebecca Vere is perfect for the period (of the story, rather the first production). Musicals veteran Valda Avkis is made for the role of rich naive Letitia (who turns out to be a ‘nut’ in a delicious politically incorrect twist). Matt Harrop and Chris David Storer are very good as Jaffee’s sidekicks.

This is better than the two previous productions I’ve seen. The youngsters at the Guildhall School were hampered by being, well, youngsters and the Bridewell production had less fizz (I refuse to believe that was only just over three years ago!). Yet again, we have to say what would we do without the Union….

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