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Posts Tagged ‘Jenna Russell’

This musical is based on the 1992 debut novel of American writer Robert James Waller. It sold 60 million copies and became one of bestselling books of the 20th Century. He probably couldn’t believe his luck. Clint Eastwood made it into a film three years later, starring himself and Meryl Streep. Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation got to Broadway nine years later, and now has its UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory, for which it has received the whole gamut of stars, from five to one; marmite indeed.

The story revolves around Francesca, who left Naples at the end of the Second World War, following American GI Bud Johnson to the US. In the brilliant opening number she tells us her story from wartime loss of boyfriend Paolo, the sea journey to New York and train across the US to her new life in Winterset, Iowa where she becomes a farmer’s wife, bringing up two children. When we join her there, the family head off to the State Fair in Springfield Illinois, where daughter Carolyn is showing her prize steer. While they’re away she meets and falls for National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, who’s in town to take pictures of those bridges of the title. It’s a sort of mid-west Brief Encounter!

Jon Bausor’s brilliant design seems to enlarge the Menier space, with three huge barn like doors, onto which images are projected, and two revolves moving us from the main location of the family kitchen to the State Fair, a neighbouring home, the fields outside, one of those covered bridges and a truck on the road, though it’s sometimes a bit noisy, during as well as between scenes, with involuntary movements of furniture occasionally comic (oh, and they need to repair the fridge door!). That aside, it’s a truly evocative design matched by Trevor Nunn’s staging, which flows beautifully.

It seems to me that the different views on the show are probably driven by the score and your attitude to love stories. Well, I’m a sucker for the latter (yes, there were tears again) and I think the lush eclectic Americana score is gorgeous, an antidote to the bland formulaic pop of most contemporary musicals. The songs, and there are a lot of them, maybe a few too many, really do propel the story and develop the characters, keeping just the right side of sentimentality, well, until the very end. I liked the way many of the cast get a number that brings their character briefly to the fore, enabling them to showcase their talents, notably Shanay Holmes and Georgia Brown.

Francesca provides yet another career high for Jenna Russell, as a very different character which she inhabits with conviction and authenticity. She’s well matched by Edward Baker-Duly as Robert, the finest performance I’ve seen by this actor, with a Glenn Campbell like velvet voice which so suited the songs. Dale Rapley provides fine support as Bud and there’s a lovely cameo from Gillian Kirkpatrick as neighbour Marge and an auspicious professional stage debut by the appropriately named Maddison Bulleyment as Carolyn.

Well, I’m with the four star gang. A lovely show staged and performed to perfection. Go and make your own mind up

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Last Monday, I visited the Museum of Musical Theatre, seeing the lavish but dated The King & I at the London Palladium. As if the musical theatre gods were intent on contrast, on Friday I visited this fresh, original new musical at the appropriately named Young Vic, and it swept me away.

Alison Bechel writes graphic novels (illustrated rather than graphic in the explicit sense!). Fun Home, though, was a memoir about her life growing up in Pennsylvania with her parents and two brothers, going to college and coming out and the tragic loss of her dad, who unlike her had lived a lie (with his wife’s full knowledge). She acts as a narrator, with her young self and her college self on stage. We see her childhood, tomboyish, playing with her two brothers, both in fear of and in awe of her dad Bruce, who teaches and runs the family business, a Fun(eral) Home. She spends more time with her dad as her mom Helen is an actress. Her arrival in college, realisation that she’s gay and coming out are interwoven.

It’s a deeply moving portrait of a life, expertly adapted by Lisa Kron with lovely music by Jane Tesori. It’s extraordinary how much you can immerse yourself in someone’s life story in just 100 minutes. It took me a short while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but I soon became captivated. It was funny and moving and ever so real, with stylistic and set changes altering its feel and tone. It’s beautifully staged by Sam Gold, with choreography by Danny Mefford which is particularly good at conveying the young kids playfulness. David Zinn’s design constantly surprises you as it morphs, not just to change location, but also to reflect changes in the story.

An unrecognisable Kaisa Hammerland plays Alison looking back, newcomer Eleanor Kane college Alison and, on the night I went, Harriett Turnbull young Alison and all three were terrific; you could really believe they were the same person at different stages of their life. In my head, Zubin Varla is still the RSC’s Romeo – where did all those years go! – but here he’s a middle-aged dad, a very complex character which he plays brilliantly. Helen the mother is by contrast a relatively underwritten part, as the real Helen seems to have been in Alison’s life, but she’s played by Jenna Russell, who can make something wonderful from just about anything.

David Lan’s final four years at the Young Vic have been extraordinary, with A Streetcar Named Desire, A View From the Bridge, Yerma, The Jungle, The Inheritance and surely this going on to continue their lives elsewhere, to be seen by more people. Another thrilling evening in The Cut.

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Has there ever been a musical based on a documentary film before? This 2006 Off-Broadway-to-Broadway show, getting its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse, is based on the film of the same name, a true account of the mother-daughter relationship of Edith & Edith Bouvier Beale, Long Island socialites with connections to the Kennedy’s.

After a brief prologue looking back, the first act is set in 1941, their heyday hosting parties and mixing with the rich and famous. Young Edie is betrothed to the future president’s elder brother Joseph Kennedy (may be true) and her cousins include a young Jaqueline (Kennedy nee Bouvier – definately true). Big Edie’s dad is an eccentric retired major, perhaps even a bit barking. They even have an in-house pianist to accompany Big Edie in her vocal entertainments. Think Philadelphia Story with eccentricity scaled up 10-fold.

In the second half we move forward 32 years to 1973. Mother and daughter are recluses, living with 54 cats in filthy surroundings unable to look after themselves. The press have made the connection with the former first lady and the neighbours protest. Their only friend is a teenage handyman whose motivation is ambiguous and who Big Edie has an unhealthy attraction to.

The difference between the two acts is extraordinary, very much a show in two halves. For me this is its flaw. I can see the necessity of showing their heyday, but a whole act seems to overplay it and rob us of more depth to the story at the heart of the piece – the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship and how they got that way.

That said, there is so much to admire and enjoy that it’s an unmissable evening. Chief amongst this are the performances. Producer Danielle Tarento and Director Thom Southerland must have wet themselves when they secured Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell for the leads; it’s hard to imagine a pair more suited to these roles and they are both sensational. Russell combines pathos with tragi-comedy and quirkiness to give a performance that is a career highlight, even in her illustrious career. Hancock’s stage presence and audience engagement are extraordinary; she completely inhabits the role.

As if that wasn’t enough, Aaron Sidwell follows his brilliant turn in American Idiot with a brilliant pair of performances, as dashing young naval man Joseph Kennedy and the teenager who befriends the ladies, and Rachel Anne Rayham is hugely impressive as Little Edie in 1941. There’s superb support from Billy Boyle as dad / granddad, Jeremy Legat as the pianist and friend and Ako Mitchell as two generations of household staff. I don’t know which pair of girls played the cousins, but they were superb.

The surprisingly big 10-piece band make a lovely sound (and the venue’s former sound problems seem to have gone, as they had in Grand Hotel). Tom Rogers impressive design is a touch cramped in the first act but suitably chlaustrophobic in the second. Thom Southerland’s staging is as good as we’ve come to expect from him.

Southwark Playhouse starting the year on a high. Don’t miss.

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This is a difficult piece to review for two reasons – the first is that it defies categorisation and the second is that there aren’t enough superlatives available for the performances!

It’s not a musical as there’s no ‘book’. It’s not a concert or a song cycle as they’re more than just songs. I think I’ll just call it a show. It was the first Jason Robert Brown work to be staged, 20 years ago this year. He’s done six musicals since, though we’ve only see three in London – The Last Five Years (recently made it into a film) Parade & 13. He’s had two shows on Broadway in less than two years.

It’s a collection of sixteen songs, each of which tells a story of someone at a turning point in their lives. Every song features a different person (or occasionally persons), time and place and though they aren’t connected as such, they feel as if they belong together. They’re written in a diverse range of styles – pop, gospel, jazz, R&B – but somehow there is a cohesiveness about them. They’re just bloody good songs.

The four performers occupy the same space for all of its unbroken 90 minutes. It has windows as the back wall, behind which is a New York skyline (and band just about visible). In front, there’s an unfinished wall, making it a generic room. They rarely interact, though they often make eye contact. Most songs are solos but there are some sung in permutations of the four. It’s vocal perfection.

Jenna Russell interprets some of her songs, notably the Weill parody Surabaya Santa, with comic flair as well as vocal perfection. Damian Humbley’s voice has great control and a gorgeous tone. Cynthia Erivo sings with such soul and conviction she brought herself and me to tears, in my case tears at the sheer beauty of her voice. Dean John-Wilson adds a youthfulness and edginess to his fine vocals. Daniel A Weiss’ quintet play beautifully and the sound balance (Mike Thacker) ensures you hear every word and every note. It’s always captivating, sometimes mesmerising, and though Adam Lenson’s staging isn’t really necessary for the stories, it somehow contributes on an intuitive level.

You will by now have gathered that I was more than a bit bowled over. Now all I want for Christmas is a recording so that it can fill my living room with beauty as it did the St. James’ Theatre.

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I was lucky to be working in the North-West in the summer of 1986 when this show had it’s world premiere. With the music of Howard Goodall’s first show The Hired Man still ringing in my ears, off I went to Oldham Coliseum. The cast were a bunch of then unknowns, many of who went on to become musical theatre royalty – Maria Friedman, Jenna Russell, Clare Burt, Andrew C Wadsworth….. I loved the show and the following year I was on the Olivier Awards panel when it re-opened the Playhouse Theatre in London, substantially re-cast. I was expecting to lead the campaign to nominate it as Best Musical, but it was a different show and for some reason had nothing like the impact it had in Oldham. I’ve never entirely understood why.

It was 24 years before its second London outing, this time at Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre (in a room above a pub in Walthamstow), and it proved to be a delightful chamber piece. So here we are another three years on and it’s the third in the Union Theatre’s Howard Goodall Season, with a production whose musical standards may well be the best. It sounds gorgeous.

Set in the the second world war in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ten ‘girlfriends’ are carrying out admin duties, parachute packing and tea making. We have just two airmen representing the RAF and one of them is caught in a love triangle with best friends Amy and Louise (the other one is trying hard to get laid). The former is toff Guy and the latter Welsh boy Gareth (co-incidence). Everything is told in song – there’s next to no dialogue – which often makes it feel more of a song cycle than a musical. The lack of a good book is its flaw (according to Goodall, Richard Curtis no less added to his research notes with ‘a rambling inventive script’) but the music is glorious.

The vocals here really are beautiful, in solos and ensembles with overlapping melodies. You don’t often here ten women’s voices in harmony and it’s a lovely sound, but the mens contributions, equally good vocals, provide some necessary colour and contrast. The accompaniment of two keyboards, winds and double bass under MD Freddie Tapner ( a professional debut!) is also excellent. The singers and players all do full justice to Goodall’s score and they look like they are having the time of their lives. Bronagh Lagan’s simple staging, with inventive movement and choreography by Iona Holland, suits the piece well. Nik Corall’s design focuses more on costumes than set and you know you’re in the forties by the girls hairdos alone!

It’s great to see this year’s Sondheim Student Performer Award winner Corrine Priest, who made an excellent contribution to the society’s ‘God’ revue, making such a terrific impression in the leading role like Amy, and Perry Lambert is an equally impressive the other leading lady Lou. Both of the boys, Tom Sterling and Michael Ress (a real Welshman, thankfully!), have exceptional voices and act brilliantly. There isn’t a weak link in this young, hugely talented cast.

Though I missed the first show because of my travels, this has been a fabulous Howard Goodall season, so I will end by placing my order for 2015…….Dear Sasha & Howard, the London premiere of Two Cities, please. Thank you. Love, Gareth.

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Contemporary Music

In Laura Muvla‘s late night Prom she performed the whole of her one and only album, Sing to the Moon, with an orchestra and choir. Some of the arrangements were a bit overcooked, smothering the lovely songs a bit, but overall it was a success as the writing and singing shone through. The sound was great and the audience even more quiet and attentive than most classical Proms. Now we need a new album, Laura.

Anything Goes at Cadogan Hall was anything but another one of those song compilation shows. First it was Cole Porter and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Second, it was musical theatre royalty with Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell & Graham Bickley all at the top of their game, with obvious chemistry, mutual respect and friendship. It was great to see the Royal Academy of Music MTC Chorus given a chance to work with such musical theatre icons and with a band as good as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under Richard Balcome. You rarely hear musical theatre songs played this well, and the winds and brass were positively glorious.

Opera

A return to Opera Holland Park after a few years to see an early 20th century  relative rarity by Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur. My enjoyment of the first half was badly hampered by a full-on view of the conductor and not a lot else – a relatively expensive restricted view front row seat that wasn’t sold as restricted view! The highlight of the evening was the fantastic orchestra under said conductor, Manlio Benzi. There was some good (rather than great) singing and the updated production just about pulled it off. Sadly, OHP seems to be turning into a London version of those country house operas – rising prices, conspicuous corporate hospitality, dressing up…..if they introduce long picnic intervals, the transformation will be complete!

Classical Music

I don’t often go to piano recitals, then when I do I ask myself why?! A visit to Oxfordshire included one by John Lill at Christ Church Cathedral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a great programme of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven, the Schumann and Beethoven shone and the venue was a real bonus.

My first proper Prom of 2014 was an all-English affair, with three works from Vaughan Williams and a real rarity from someone I’ve never heard of – William Alwyn. Alwyn’s 1st Symphony isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough and not worthy of such neglect (like the rest of his work). By contrast, The Lark Ascending is by all accounts the most popular classical work and here it was beautifully played by Janine Jansen. The gung-ho Wasps Overture and rarer Job ballet suite made up an excellent programme conducted by the BBC SO’s new chief conductor Sakari Oramo, whose enthusiasm and joy were infectious.

The next Prom was named Lest We Forget and it was a melancholy but very beautiful affair, featuring four composers, one German, who fought in the First World War, three never coming back. Two were completely new to me (the German, Rudi Stephan, was getting his Proms debut and Australian Brit Frederick Kelly is rarely performed). George Butterworth‘s song cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung beautifully by Roderick Williams and the BBC Scottish SO under Andrew Manze played all four pieces wonderfully. Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony (with tenor Allan Clayton, instead of the more usual soprano) has never sounded better. The loss of three talented composers was very sad, but it was a lovely tribute.

My final Prom for 2014 saw Andrew Davies back where he belongs and he chose a terrific programme of Strauss (R), Elgar & Berlioz to show off his great new band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who got a great welcome from the Proms audience. Music by German  British & French composers spanning 89 years, an Australian orchestra & a Norwegian cellist & a British conductor and an audience of real music lovers – that’s what I like about the Proms.

Cabaret

Celia Imrie’s show Laughing Matters at St James Studio was a quirky and sometimes surreal affair. Songs accompanied by a pianist and drummer (I wish I knew who wrote them), monologues and anecdotes and two male assistants! It ended with a panto-style sing-along complete with song sheet, with the cast dressed as sailors and the audience in sailor hats emblazoned with ‘R.M.S. Celia’! She can’t really sing, the show had a certain amateurishness about it, but her charm won you over and made you smile – a lot.

Film

I was lured to The Inbetweeners 2 by rave reviews (4* in The Times!) and even though it was fun, it was like watching a triple episode of the TV series with big screen technicolour projectile vomiting. A peculiarly British take on gross-out teen comedy.

Positive reviews also lured me to Guardians of the Galaxy (another 4* in The Times), but it was no time at all before I was bored with the banal story and just watched the 3D effects, but they became relentlessly repetitive too. There were some nice tongue-in-cheek touches, but I’m now wondering why I stayed.

I refused to pay Sonia Freidman’s obscene prices for Skylight in the West End but I eventually succumbed to the ‘encore’ of the live cinema transmission. Carey Mulligan proves to be an exceptional stage actor and Bill Nighy has lost none of his charisma. The 19-year-old play seemed bang up-to-date and the interval interview with Hare was a bonus. I’d have loved to see Bob Crowley’s brilliant set live, but hey it came over as a great production and I thoroughly enjoyed my first NT Live experience, even though it wasn’t the NT and it wasn’t live!

Art

I think I’m going to have to stop going to the Saatchi Gallery as, yet again, only a small fraction of what was on show appealed. This time it was Abstract America Today upstairs and Pangaea: New Art from Africa & Latin America downstairs. When the best room has walls covered with giant insects, you know you’re in trouble.

I’m not a fan of fashion and if I’d had to pay I probably wouldn’t have gone, but The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican was great fun and extremely well curated with a nice tongue-in-cheek touch (some of the dummies had holographic talking heads!). Whatever you think of his clothes, you have to accept that he has a colossal imagination.

No less than three exhibitions for an afternoon at the Royal Academy. The Summer Exhibition never changes but it’s an important institution and it’s always worth a visit. The highlights this year were the model of Thomas Hetherwick’s garden bridge (I can’t wait to see it built) and a couple of hilarious Glenn Baxter cartoons. Upstairs, Radical Geometry is an exhibition of 20th Century South American art which you’d never know was South American if it wasn’t billed as such. It’s well executed but they are very derivative abstract, geometric works. Interesting, but…..Round the back, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is a very personal record of six years in the sixties which would never be seen if the photographer wasn’t a famous film actor / director. Interesting, but…..

In just six years the Travel Photography Awards exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society has become so popular that my usual amble through it has become a scrum, partly because I left it until the final day I suspect. It was hard to get close enough to what seemed like a less impressive collection this year. Down the road at the V &A Disobedient Objects is an original, fascinating and wide-ranging look at items associated with protest, including banners, posters and even vehicles. Well done, V&A!

The British Library Comics Unmasked exhibition was a frustrating affair – low lighting combined with small print labels, but above all lots of nerds stooped over the exhibits reading every word of every cartoon and monopolising them. Again I was probably hampered by catching it on its last day, but it could have been curated so much better. The Enduring War exhibition, part of the WWI commemorations, was a lovely unexpected bonus which I enjoyed more!

The Photographers Gallery continues to be an essential regular visit and this time it was a fascinating exhibition tracing colour in Russian photography over 120 years. It proved to be a social and political history as well as a photographic history. At the entrance, they currently have a video wall which shows how a couple of Germans mined Facebook for images then put them on a spoof dating site with categorisations based on the images. It includes the victims comments, TV coverage and the legal threats they received. Clever, fascinating but spooky! I shall brush over the other exhibition – still life photos (and installations including them) of decaying fruit from Ridley Road market!

The first few rooms of the Malecvich exhibition at Tate Modern are spectacular – bright, colourful, original paintings of people and landscapes with a geometric spin. Then he goes all dull and abstract before returning to his earlier style. Frankly, it would be a better exhibition if it was ‘The early and late works of…’ and reduced from 12 rooms to 6!

There was some great stuff to see around town this month; two WWI tributes – the moving sea of poppies at the Tower of London, spectra – the lights illuminating the sky from Victoria Embankment Gardens – and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, like a spaceship which has landed. Up in Gateshead, Daniel Buren created glorious colourful spaces in Baltic by covering the windows and skylights with coloured panels and placing large mirrors on the gallery floor. A real regional treat.

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I was completely underwhelmed by this show when I saw it on Broadway. It was a Sunday afternoon, a while into the run, and it seemed ever so tired. So I had no plans to see it over here until I was tipped off about the superior casting and freshness of the production, and they were right.

There’s a drought and big corporate (Urine Good Company – geddit?!) and corrupt public officials ban private facilities and charge for public ones. Breaches of the rules are dealt with viciously and when Bobby Strong’s dad gets it, Bobby becomes the leader of the rebels intent on making peeing free once more.

Soutra Gilmour’s two-tier set is huge in this relatively small space; in truth the show could do with a bigger theatre – but it’s perfectly grimy. Jamie Lloyd’s production is fast-paced, high-energy and he does have a great cast. Richard Fleeshman impresses here as he did in Ghost, the perfect romantic lead, but this time showing us his comic side too. Jonathan Slinger, taking a break from leading virtually every RSC show, is a terrific bad cop / narrator (a fun commentary on the fact its a musical), with Simon Paisley Day matching him for pure comic evil. Jenna Russell proves she too can do comic gothic, with a great turn as Penelope Pennywise (don’t go for subtlety!). The four-piece band under Alan Williams make a great sound and the chorus numbers are rousing, often bringing the house down.

I think the production & performances are better than the show and for once I do think it needs a bigger space, but its a lot of fun and I’m glad I didn’t stick with my Broadway memory. Well worth catching while you can.

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There are two things that propel Maria Friedman’s production of this most complicated of Sondheim shows from good to great  – faultless casting (well, she’s a musical theatre actress; it takes one to know one?) and Catherine Jayes terrific 9-piece band.

The show tells the story of composer Franklin Shepherd, his partnership with writer Charley Kringas and his relationships with wife Beth, lover Gussie & friend Mary…..but it tells it backwards from when he’s ‘sold out’ to Hollywood in 1976 to a night on the roof of their NYC apartment block as they begin their careers and as Sputnik is launched, heralding a new world. Chronologically, Frank & Charley start with their own fringe review, get picked up by a Broadway producer to write a musical and break up the partnership on live TV along the way. The producer’s wife, Broadway star Gussie, steals Frank from Beth and we learn that all the time he has been the (unrequited) love of Mary’s life.

In this production, the score really does shine. It doesn’t have showstoppers, but it has some terrific melodies and brilliant bittersweet lyrics with tunes weaving in and out and overlapping in a way only Sondheim can do. It’s the third production of the show I’ve seen, plus the Donmar’s extraordinary concert version as part of Sondheim’s 80th which is still ringing in my ears, but I still saw and heard new things; such is the depth and density of the material. It had a lot to live up to, but it did.

Jenna Russell is cast against type (until the end/beginning) but she’s wonderful as both initially cynical & bitter and  later/earlier excited & naiive Mary. Mark Umbers is superb as Frank, with an agelessness which enables him to be believable over the 20 year span. I didn’t think I knew Damien Humbley, who plays Charley brilliantly, until I read the programme and realised I’d seen and liked him in a handful of shows – he clearly inhabits characters rather than stars in shows. Josefina Gabrielle excels as predatory Gussie, propelled herself from PA to star. Having seen Glyn Kerslake as Frank in Derby in 2007, it was great to see him as Broadway producer Joe here. I thought Clare Foster perfectly captured small-town Beth, more comfortable as wife and mother than in the company of more superficial minor celebs. Amongst a fine supporting company, Martin Callaghan and Amanda Minihan made a much biger impression than the size of their roles.

I was less convinced by Soutra Gilmour’s design, perhaps a bit over-engineered, though in all fairness it does have to become a Californian beach house with pool, TV studio, NYC apartment, apartment roof and townhouse, Broadway theatre and club with side orders of stage door and greenhouse! The costumes (and wigs!) have a big role to play in moving the period back from the mid-70’s to the late 50’s and they do it very well though, perhaps like the set, somewhat  unattractively. 

It’s a big show for a small theatre but they get away with it and for a directorial debut, its hugely impressive. A second visit looks as as if it’s in order……

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I’ve been a fan of Stiles & Drew since Honk. They’re not particularly prolific, but last year brought us – in my view – the best new musical of the year in Betty Blue Eyes. It looks like they may have done it again in 2012.

This is an inventive, modern & very radical updating of the Cinderella story. Cinderella is a gay male escort with step-sisters who run a Soho strip club. Buttons is a girl called Velcro (!) who runs the launderette below his flat and the prince is a London mayoral candidate! Stephen Fry is an off-stage narrator (he was actually in the row behind me). It may sound preposterous but it works! Some of Anthony Drewe & Elliott Davies’ book and Drewe’s lyrics are corny, but for me that’s part of its charm. It’s a very pop score which may prove one of George Stiles’ best.

Designer Morgan Large’s backdrop is a street scene with giant neon signage telling you we’re in Old Compton Street, W1 which allows speedy movement from location to location. His costumes for the step-sisters are hysterical. There’s some excellent choreography from Drew McOnie and Jonathan Butterell has staged it with pace, humour and just a touch of sentimentality.

What makes it though is a hugely talented cast. Tom Milner is a real find as Robbie (Cinders). Though he’s done much TV, this is his stage debut; he has bucketloads of charm and a fine voice. Amy Lennox is just as good as Velcro, a bit dim but ever so lovable. They are both upstaged in the comedy department by the simply terrific double act of Suzy Chard and Beverley Rudd as step-sisters Clodah & Dana; brilliant creations in every way. Gerard Carey is a great baddie as spin doctor George and Michael Xavier continues to impress, here perfectly cast as the Tory ex-swimming champion with a secret. The wonderful Jenna Russell is underutilized as his fiancée Marilyn, but she has excellent chemistry with Xavier and she sings and acts beautifully, particularly when betrayed – it must be hard to provide the serious side to a largely rumbustious story.

This was such a heart-warming uplifting evening. You’ll have to accept its risque content and grossness (the sisters!), but you will be rewarded with lots of laughs and some lovely music, but ultimately a story for our times. This isn’t actually that implausible!

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Though marred a little this time by late information and mis-information, my second visit to MIF confirms it as a permanent new fixture for anyone interested in the arts. It’s USP is that everything is a world premiere, so what it loses in quantity it make up for in originality. This year I got to four things…..

Whilst Manchester’s own Gallagher brothers are nowhere to be seen, their former adversary, Londoner Damon Albarn, returns with his second ‘opera’. I wish they wouldn’t call it that, because it sets it up for all sorts of unfair comparisons. It’s the story of the now obscure Elizabethan renaissance man Dr. Dee, brought alive in staged scenes and songs. It is an extraordinary story, and though they’ve got the essence of the man, it’s more of an impression than a story as there isn’t enough narrative for that. Albarn’s music is a lovely combination of early music, folk, world music and Philip Glass and Rufus Norris’ staging is wonderfully inventive. There’s a 10-piece band in a giant container which rises high above the action, with Albarn perched precariously on a platform jutting out, and there’s an orchestra in the pit. As the show starts, a raven flies from the auditorium onto the top of the container and then off stage right. Characters walk onto the container roof from stage left and fall backward onto the stage (well, presumably a mattress otherwise there’d be a lot of broken backs). The scenes onstage unfold below this, each accompanied by songs – some sung by Albarn and some by onstage characters with operatic voices. I found the whole thing captivating if indescribable!

National treasure Victoria Wood has written a musical before (Acorn Antiques) and a play with music (Talent) and her new show That Day We Sang is billed as a play with songs. It has a true local story and with community involvement it has a Billy Elliott feel. It’s starting point is the re-union, for a Granada ‘documentary’, of four adults who as kids participated in a famous recording by a children’s choir. As it unfolds, it becomes a touching story of the unfulfilled lives and love of Tubby and Enid, two of these children. The other two child singers, now grown up, act as social catalysts which eventually leads us to our happy ending. We move back and forth between the 1929 auditions, rehearsal and concert and the filming and subsequent events of 1969. There’s a specially assembled children’s choir of 44 and the Halle Youth Orchestra are in the pit. It still needs a bit of work, but it’s already a charming, heart-warming and funny show. There are two show-stoppers – when the wonderful Jenna Russell as Enid sings about what it means to be called Enid (where scalectrix and swarfega get rhymed, as only VW would) and a quartet in a Berni Inn singing about the delights of dining at Berni’s, complete with four dancing waiters & waitresses – and Black Forest Gateaux! In a show packed with her usual nostalgic references, we also get to visit The Golden Egg and Wimpy’s and there are many nods to iconic products of the day. Vincent Franklin is brilliant as Tubby, who uses humour to cover his sadness and vulnerability. Gerald Horan and Lorraine Bruce are also excellent, doubling up as former child singers Frank and Dorothy (now obsessed with the niceties of entertaining at home; cue doilies and matchmakers) and Enid’s boss and colleague Mr Stanley and Pauline. Young Raif Clarke was absolutely adorable as young Jimmy (Tubby). I can’t believe such a good idea and such a good show won’t live beyond these 13 performances.

Well, if Dr Dee was hard to describe, The Life & Death of Marina Abramovic is impossible to describe. She’s the godmother of performance art and amongst her career highlights we have 700 hours sat silently in NYC’s MoMA being visited and observed by people, many of whom queued all night, and a walk half the length of the Great Wall to meet her partner, who walked the other half, in order to say goodbye as they split up. Well, I suppose if you’re a performance artist, you don’t write your biography, you, well, perform it – and that’s just what you get here. Eleven scenes from her life bookended by her imagined funeral. It’s narrated by Willem Dafoe no less, looking and behaving manically as a cross between the MC in Cabaret and the Joker in Batman. The music is by Anthony (as in Anthony and The Johnsons), William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic and its staged by avant guard director Robert Wilson. It was often surreal, sometimes absurd and occasionally wince-inducing with stunning visual imagery and beautiful music (and three dogs stalking the playing area during the ‘funeral’!). Somehow you just couldn’t take your eyes off the stage. It was much later that I realised how much I’d learnt about her – which I guess is what a biography is for. Extraordinary.

The fourth piece was 30 minutes at Piccadilly Station with a soundscape called Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw provided through headphones. There were no directions, but you were encouraged to explore the space. If there was a narrative, I didn’t get it. Somehow, though, you did get lost in some other world and became only semiconscious of your surroundings. I’ve had similar experiences which were better, but I don’t regret this particular ride.

The original plan included Punchdrunk’s immersive Dr. Who show, but they withheld the information that unaccompanied adults would not be admitted until after I’d booked the other three shows and only decided to allow unaccompanied adults for a few evening shows much later, by which time I couldn’t fit them in. Mis-information about the first day’s opening hours of Eleven Rooms at Manchester Art Gallery also meant I missed that, and I managed to find John Gerard’s outdoor film Infinite Freedom Exercise despite confusing direction in the publicity material. MIF needs to improve the timeliness and accuracy of its information as this is the sort of thing that screws up a carefully planned trip (and visitors from afar – well, London – do need to plan) and can easily piss of the punters!

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