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Posts Tagged ‘Ian Mowat’

My personal history with Sweeney Todd goes back 29 years to a production of Christopher Bond’s play (which Sondheim saw in its original Stratford East production and on which he based his musical) in the now defunct Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green. For the last 21 years I’ve followed the musical around London and to Leeds and Chichester, including the NT, Opera North and the Royal Opera. For my 12th production / 15th performance, I only had a 20 minute walk to Harrington’s Pie & Mash shop (106 years old – London’s oldest) – well, actually the barbers across the road where we assembled for drinks beforehand. A doubly delicious bit of site specific theatre, but so much more than that. This is up there with the best of them.

With an audience of just 32 in the shop’s snug bench seating, this redefines intimate theatre. The whole space is used – on and behind the counter, the stairs and behind the stairs, the tables at which we’re seated. You have to twist and turn a bit, but the tale has never been more thrillingly told. Characters turn up to surprise and shock you, Sweeney’s stare chills you and Mrs Lovett gets laughs where they’ve never been before and bigger ones where they have. By necessity, some things usually staged are here offstage, but so inventively that it hardly matters (and no washing clothes when I got home, unlike the recent Twickenham experience).  Director Bill Buckhurst and designer Simon Kenny have turned every problem and restriction the space presents into dramatic opportunities and a masterclass in intimate staging. It’s scarier and funnier.

I think what blew me away most though was the sky high musical standards. MD Benjamin Cox on piano, with help from occasional violin and clarinet, played the score brilliantly (adding yet more weight to the current debate about awards for Musical Directors). In addition to his exceptional acting, Jeremy Secomb’s vocals were outstanding. Siobhan McCarthy is a terrific Mrs Lovett and I relished her expressions at close quarters and savoured every syllable of her show-stopping song A Little Priest. Nadim Naaman and Grace Chapman are wonderful as Anthony & Johanna, the former singing Johanna and the latter Green Finch & Linnet Bird beautifully. I’ve seen and enjoyed much of Ian Mowat’s work and his performance as Beadle Bamford is one of his best, and one of the best Beadle’s I’ve seen. Duncan Smith has great presence to go with a great voice; a fine Judge Turpin. Pirelli played by a woman must be a first and Kiara Jay, who doubles up as the beggar woman, is excellent. Joseph Taylor makes much more of Tobias, very moving in his Not While I’m Around duet with Mrs Lovett. I’ve run out of superlatives just as I’ve run out of cast, but they were all so good they have to be mentioned.

This would be a good Sweeney in a black box, but it becomes a great one in this space. I feel privileged to have been one of what must only be c.1000 people to see this landmark production. I wish Sondheim could as I’m convinced he’d adore it. A triumph for Tooting Arts Club, a nomadic institution like those other two national theatres in Scotland & Wales, and its producer Rachel Edwards and indeed for Tooting!

 

 

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The first time I saw this Sondheim show was English National Opera’s London premiere at one of the capital’s biggest theatres, the Coliseum. Now here I am 27 years later at the opposite end of the theatre scale at the tiny Union Theatre, which has just 2% of the Coli’s capacity. In between, there have been a few more, most notably a visiting production from Chicago at the Donmar in the round (square) in 2003, which was the best of them all. This show, one of Sondheim’s most ambitious and cleverest, but difficult to pull off, suits more intimate spaces.

It starts in Japan in the mid-19th century; the country has been isolated for 250 years when an American ship turns up demanding an audience with the Emperor. The first half is mostly a description of life in Japan, it’s cultural peculiarities and political intricacies. They find an elegant solution to the American’s demand by finding a stand-in for the Emperor and creating an audience space of mats that can be destroyed afterwards, enabling them to claim the barbarians never set foot on Japanese soil. The show is telling the story from the Japanese perspective and the score has a strong Japanese influence. In truth, this part is too long and too slow, though its imaginative and intriguing with some lovely tunes.

The much shorter second half packs a real punch, starting with Please Hello, a terrific comic number with ambassadors turning up from the US, UK, Holland, Russia and France, all wanting a piece of the trading action. The initial brush-off clearly hasn’t worked. We see the effect of the ‘westernisation’ distilled into just one song, A Bowler Hat, then the backlash distilled into another, Pretty Lady. In the end we jump forward to the present day to see how this all plays out in Next.

Here, the musical standards are high, with Richard Bates band sounding lovely with reeds and cello, and some great singing from a vocally strong cast. Director Michael Strassen applies his trademark minimalist elegance with a simple but evocative design and costumes by Jean Gray. The puppet emperor is indeed a puppet, screens are used to great effect, actors transform quickly from locals to visitors with the addition of sailor collars and the staging is infused with Japanese theatrical motifs. I felt the choreography was sometimes over-elaborate and the performances sometimes too camp, but overall the staging was effective.

In an all-male cast, Ken Christiansen had great presence as the Reciter (narrator) and Ian Mowat was excellent in multiple roles as diverse as geisha Madam and British Admiral. Oli Reynolds was so good as Kayama it’s hard to believe he’s graduating this year, and there were a number of other impressive performances and professional debuts from recent drama school graduates. A very talented ensemble indeed.

It’s great to see this show again (after eleven years!), and great to see it in an intimate space once more.

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From Page to Stage is an excellent initiative promoting new musical theatre. For four weeks at the Landor they will put on two fully staged premieres, three ‘readings’ and a couple of showcase ‘concerts’. This is the first of the two premieres – a musical comedy thriller – and it’s huge fun.

Olivia Thompson (book, lyrics and gamely taking over the role of Verona!) & Chris Whitehead (music) have set their show in the 30’s at the birthday party of British film star Honey Quenelle (in a clever touch, designer Magdalena Iwanska has created eighteen period film posters featuring her). She’s walked out on her latest film and producer Stubby is determined to change her mind. The other guests Include jealous acting rival Verona, Honey’s ex Dickie and her new wife Farmonica, brother Monty and friends / colleagues Hilary & Margot. Butler Hugo and maid Mabel complete the picture.

The first half sets up a murder and the second unravels it in true farcical fashion. Things are not as they seem and it does become a bit convoluted as it progresses. It twists from being a whodunnit to a whodidntdoit and why. It’s a good score with a cocktail of musical styles and both the book and lyrics are very funny indeed. The writers are very lucky to have Robert McWhir direct and there are some inventive touches, including a prologue featuring a building on fire, guests arriving in three ‘cars’ and a blackout scene played with torches.

They are also lucky to have a cast of this quality and experience, assembled by Benjamin Newsome (again), including a delicious comic performance by Kate Brennan as Mabel and a glamorous leading lady in Amelia Adams-Pearce. The second half contains big numbers for Ian Mowat’s Stubby, Keiran Brown’s Hilary and Jenny Gayner’s Farmonica and they all rise to the occasion with gusto. Whitehead plays his own score on the piano, so there’s no hiding place for either composer or writer!

This is a very impressive first full scale musical. It does need a little work, and its running time cut from 2h40m (even the programme said 2h10m), but it must surely get a proper run outside From Page to Stage. Six performances just isn’t enough for such a good show. I can’t remember when I laughed so much at a musical.

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I’ve waited over 21 years for a revival of this show, which was a critical success but a commercial flop in the West End in 1989, but Michael Strassen’s production at the Union Theatre was worth the wait. This bumper year of small-scale musical revivals and of the Union Theatre’s pre-eminence continues.

Stephen (Godspell) Schwartz’s show is based on the Marcel Pagnol / Jean Giono film La Femme du Boulanger and it’s the best score he wrote. Here it’s beautifully sung, unamplified, with just piano and cello (and occasional acoustic guitar) under MD Chris Mundy. It so suits the story – delightful, funny, charming & wistful.

A French village is incomplete without its baker (I think there is still a law in France that actually prevents this) and this village has been without one for seven weeks, so withdrawal symptoms are rampant and the inhabitants seriously over-excited when the new baker arrives with his beautiful new young wife. It doesn’t take long before a dashing young man whisks her away and the baker is distraught and unable to  bake. Of course, it all ends happily ever after. It is indeed a slight tale, but frankly it doesn’t really matter.

Michael Matus brilliantly captures the lovestruck naivety of the baker (appropriately named Aimable) and Lisa Stokke the struggle between loyalty and temptation. Matthew Goodgame is as dashing as you’d wish for a lover and there is a terrific partnership from Ian Mowat and Ricky Butt as the bickering cafe owner and his wife and a fine Marquis / Mayor (with three ‘nieces’ in tow!) from Mark Turnbull. There isn’t a weak link in the ensemble; a superb supporting cast of twelve.

Though I didn’t really like the painted backdrop, which seemed to me more Munch’s The Scream than the presumably intended Chagall, there is an authentic French village feel created by a handful of props and good costumes but more than anything else by good, somewhat tongue-in-cheek acting. I loved the opening in French, before the cafe owner’s wife as narrator is reminded where she is – it lasted just long enough for panic to set in with some audience members! The staging is excellent – with particularly fluid ensemble movement.

Yet another fine production at the Union. Next stop Texas for The Best Little Whorehouse!

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The Union Theatre’s pre-eminence as the home of  musical theatre continues with this very welcome revival of a preposterous & implausible but delightful & charming 60’s American homage / spoof of the golden age of 30’s film musicals.

In the first act, we’re on the stage of a broadway theatre where final rehearsals are underway for that night’s opening of a show starring the legendary Mona Kent. Stage struck Ruby arrives by bus from Utah and gets to replace the chorus girl whisked away by a rich punter. Newly enlisted sailor and songwriting wannabe Dick (from the same town in Utah!) then turns up and gets a song accepted by predatory Mona and falls in love with Ruby. Fellow sailor Lucky arrives looking for Dick (!) and falls in love with fellow chorus girl Joan. The demolition of the theatre means the show can’t open but the sailors have a plan – and we’ve only been going 50 minutes!

In the second half, the show must go on, so it’s staged on the navy ship, Mona is seasick so Ruby gets her big break and a star is born. We end with the triple wedding of Dick & Ruby, Lucky & Joan and Mona with the ship’s captain, an old flame…..and we’ve only been going another 50 minutes in real-time and only a day in stage time!

It has an excellent score beautifully sung and played well by just two pianos (MD: Richard Bates) and there are some very funny lines. Kirk Jameson’s revival, with excellent choreography from Drew McOnie, is pitch perfect, balancing the tongue-in-cheek parody with romantic charm. They are lucky to have a stunning cast. It’s great to see Rosemary Ashe on the fringe and she’s every inch the Broadway diva with a booming voice and terrific comic timing. Gemma Sutton and Catriana Sandison are both superb as the girls and Daniel Bartlett and Alan Hunter equally superb as the boys. Ian Mowatt and Anthony Wise provide fine comic cameos as the ship’s captain and theatre director respectively. In an outstanding ensemble there’s another Strallen, Sasi (exactly how many are there?!) and two impressive professional debuts from recent Arts Ed graduates Matt Gillett and Joshua Tonks.

It’s a delightful, charing and funny evening that is unmissable for any lover of musical theatre.

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