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Posts Tagged ‘Joanna Riding’

This is a musical theatre adaptation of one of prolific American novelist Paul Gallico’s four Mrs Harris books. Quite how an American gets to write about a post-war British char lady I don’t know, but I’m pleased he did, and even more pleased Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor have turned it into a charming, heart warming, quintessentially British show which gets a short run in Chichester following it’s premiere in Sheffield two years ago.

Set in the late forties, war widow Ada Harris lives in Battersea, working as a char lady, as does her best friend and neighbour Violet. She talks to the spirit of her husband, who is always with her. Her ‘clients’ include an accountant, a wannabe actress, a retired major and a foreign Countess trading in antiques. She is forever undertaking acts of kindness for them all.

Violet’s clients include Lady Dant and when Ada covers for her there, she is spellbound by a Christian Dior dress and becomes obsessed with owning something so beautiful. Somehow she manages to get enough money together and heads to Paris where she is initially greeted with disbelief and disdain, but eventually charms everyone in her path until she returns with a Dior dress made for her. She also spreads her kindness in Paris, the results of which follow her home in flowers, but not until after another act of kindness back home ends tragically.

Taylor builds on his experience with The Go-Between (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/the-go-between) and produces an even better score. I would describe his very original musical voice as tuneful but song-less and (almost) sung-through! It suits the story so well, flowing beautifully, as does Daniel Evans impeccable staging, with much use of the revolve. Lez Brotherston’s designs are simple but gorgeous, with the private fashion show in the House of Dior taking your breathe away as eight models descent the stairs in stunning gowns.

Evans has got himself a faultless cast, led by Clare Burt, who follows her star turn as working class theatrical hero Joan Littlewood with another star turn as another working class hero. Clare Machin delights once again, this time as friend Violet, morphing deliciously into the French cleaner at Dior. Louis Maskall is terrific as Bob the accountant and Dior’s Head of Finance Andre; his leg acting alone deserves an award! Joanna Riding, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Mark Meadows, Nicola Sloane, Gary Wilmot, Rhona McGregor and Luke Latchman are all excellent, doubling up as London and Paris characters, with five of them adding one, two or three more. It was lovely to see Tom Brady’s ten-piece band leave the pit to get a well earned ovation.

The show’s message about kindness seems particularly welcome today. Another wonderful feel-good afternoon in Chichester. I do hope it gets a London transfer as it’s too good to see only once!

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The smile didn’t leave my face for the duration of this chamber musical in the lovely Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s got bucket-loads of charm and romance aplenty. Emma Rice’s staging is a delight, from the chocolates distributed before it begins to the badges as you leave, with an interval song in the foyer to keep that smile on your face. I defy anyone not to be charmed by it.

Based on the 2010 French-Belgian film of the same name (Les Emotifs Anonymes in French), it tells the story of desperately shy chocolatier Jean-Rene, who has inherited an ailing business from his father, and Angelique, the equally shy secret ingredient of competing chocolatier Mercier. After her employer dies and she’s out of a job, Angelique attends the shyness support group of the title, where an employee of Jean-Rene meets her and subsequently introduces her to her boss, who gives her a thoroughly unsuitable sales job. Fortunately, she talks herself into a role commensurate with her talents, rescues Jean-Rene’s business and navigates the difficult path to true love.

Emma Rice has adapted Jean-Pierre Ameris & Philippe Blasband’s screenplay of the sort of film only the French seem to be able to do these days (oh for a return of the Ealing comedies). American music & lyrics partners Michael Kooman & Christopher Dimond are new to me, and the UK, and they’ve done a lovely job producing songs that suit the subject matter perfectly. The SWP is a design in itself, but Les Brotherston has added some neon signs (shock, horror!) which signpost locations and become a running joke in themselves. Etta Murfitt’s choreography adds much to Emma Rice’s inventive staging. Dominic Marsh and Carly Bowden are superb in the lead roles and there’s luxury casting in the ensemble, with includes Joanna Riding, Lauren Samuels and Marc Antolin no less, with multiple cameos from Philip Cox and Gareth Snook.

I left the theatre with a warm glow, which hasn’t really gone yet; it’s a delightful evening. It’s Emma Rice doing what she does best, a heart-warming evening, her last production here as AD. You have until early January and you know what you have to do…..

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We’re used to screen to stage and play to musical transformations, but screen to play to musical? Before I went, I did wonder what a musical adaptation of Calendar Girls would add. 

Tim Frith has been behind all three versions of this true, heart-warming and charming story, partnering with musicals virgin Gary Barlow no less for this new adaptation. In the first half, it takes us through the illness of Annie’s husband John, which leads to the unorthodox fundraising idea, and the everyday lives and activities of the village’s WI ladies. They visit the WI National Conference to head off their new local leader’s spoiler motion, and then it’s all steam ahead to the calendar’s creation and surprising international publicity.

I found the back story more personal, intimate and moving in this form, and the photo shoot way funnier, so yes, it does add something. Barlow’s score is less a series of songs, more musical storytelling, with a distinctive northern sound, sitting comfortably with Firth’s witty book and lyrics. Firth also directs and it’s an impressive achievement for a team with limited experience in this genre. This, together with many of the cast having limited musical theatre experience, makes it refreshingly free of musical theatre clichés.

The casting is also key to its success. This is where it’s also very unorthodox for a musical, with parts for normal people of all ages, shapes and sizes. I can now see why the Olivier Awards panel has nominated all six leading actresses together; it’s the combination, contrast and chemistry that makes them a superb team. Joanna Riding, Claire Moore, Sophie-Louise Dann, Debbie Chazen, Claire Machin and Michelle Dotrice (continuing her late career flowering, hot on the hells of Nell Gwynn) are a combined delight, and very brave! There’s excellent support too, not least a charming pair of performances as schoolboy sons from Ben Hunter (another worthy Olivier nominee) and Josh Benson.

Like Billy Elliott, Betty Blue Eyes and Made in Dagenham, it’s a quintessentially British show, and oh so welcome when we’re surrounded by long runners, Broadway revivals and juke-box musicals. Definitely worth catching.

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Having failed to revitalise his flagging career with the Phantom sequel, Lloyd Webber returns to the docu-musical style of Evita, which was probably his best show. Sadly, Stephen Ward is nowhere near as interesting as Eva Peron and the music isn’t a patch on the earlier show. That notwithstanding, the creative team and performers do their best and there’s enough to enjoy to keep you interested for a couple of hours.

ALW’s premise is that Ward was the fall guy for those more powerful than him. The show takes a swipe at politicians, police, lawyers & the gutter press which is fine by me as they’re amongst my least favourite people. I don’t know how true it is, but it sounds plausible and is interesting but hardly fascinating or riveting.

I never thought I’d hear an ALW score containing a reggae song or a chorus number set in a sex party. It’s good that he’s moved on from the pompous pucciniesque pop opera mush (though he can’t resisit an overuse of ‘incidental’ music behind dialogue), but he’s replaced it with a score that’s a ragbag of musical styles. Wheras his music used to sound like other people’s (you know what I mean!), it now sounds like he’s re-cycling his own tunes. Christopher Hampton & Don Black have provided some witty lines and sharp lyrics, but they don’t rescue it.

A lot rests on Alexander Hanson’s performance as Ward, on stage virtually all of the time, and he is very good indeed. In an excellent supporting cast, Joanna Riding’s huge talent is underused in a small role as Profumo’s wife with just one song, though possibly the show’s best, and Ian Conningham is great as Yevgeny Ivanov, a journo and a copper.

I’m enjoying Richard Eyre’s late flowering as a director of musicals (Mary Poppins, Betty Blue Eyes & the Pajama Game) and he stages this very well, with choreography by Stephen Mear & excellent designs by Rob Howell featuring Jon Driscoll’s projections. The 24 scenes on 15 different locations are slickly handled.

For me, a great production of mediocre material. It has just extended by three months though on a Friday night with best seats discounted by over 40% (one of the reasons I went!) it was a far from full house, so it’s difficult to see why.

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For a man who gave us one of the greatest musical productions ever (Guys & Dolls at the NT in 1982 and 1996), Richard Eyre hasn’t directed many musicals. I can only remember two more before this (Mary Poppins & Betty Blue Eyes) and both were great. The question you have to ask after a fourth gem is Why?

There haven’t been many ‘blue collar’ musicals either, so this one, about a labour dispute in the Sleep Tite pyjama factory, is unusual. It hasn’t had many productions (another Why?), the last in London at the indispensable Union Theatre five years ago. With a track record of four musical transfers in the last 2.5 years, I’ll be surprised if this terrific Chichester production doesn’t follow.

The factory is run by tyrant Hasler (an excellent Colin Stinton, who doubles up as the leading lady’s dad) who has employed new superintendent Sid, a go-getter from Chicago, the third in next to no time. His Time & Motion man Vernon (a superb Peter Polycarpou, back for his third Chichester musical in as many years) stalks the shop floor. Union president Prez and union rep Babe are pushing for a 7.5c rise and it looks like they’ll have to strike to get it. Then Babe falls for Sid and it all gets a lot more complicated.

From the opening number, Racing with the Clock, it goes from one showstopper to another. There are a couple of standards – Hey There (You With the Stars in Your Eyes) & Hernando’s Hideaway – but the whole score’s good. We move swiftly and slickly from factory to office to picnic to nightclub to Babe’s home with little time to catch your breath in-between. Designer Tim Hatley puts a two-story building at the back of the space, from which sewing and pressing work stations emerge for the shop floor, desks for the offices and a kitchen for the home. Stephen Mear’s choreography is bright and fresh and with Gareth Valentine in charge of the music it all sounds great.

For a musicals obsessive like me, it’s a bit of a shock to come across a leading man I’m not sure I’ve seen before and Hadley Fraser is simply terrific as Sid, with a particularly fine voice. Joanna Riding is a delight as icy, feisty Babe who melts in the hands of Sid. Alexis Owen-Hobbs is great as secretary Gladys, and Vernon’s unlikely love interest, who follows Hasler everywhere except when she struts her stuff in the Act II opener Steam Heat (with actual steam!) and there’s a delightful cameo from Claire Machin as Sid’s secretary Mabel.

An uplifting delight from start to finish, which benefits from the smaller space if the Minerva Theatre, and well worth the trip south.

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For the fourth year running I ended the theatrical year at the New Year’s Eve panto matinée at the Hackney Empire. Last year they survived without Dame Clive Rowe – Cinderella didn’t really need a dame, just two ugly sisters. This year I was a bit nervous going to see someone else (metaphorically) wearing his frocks and wigs, but from the moment of her aerial arrival to the bond theme (remember when you last saw someone do that?), Steve Elias’s Welsher-than-Welsh Sarah the Cook had us in her / his spell. Brilliant comic timing, superb costumes (Lotte Collett) and a great voice. Until then, it had been a slow start, but from then on it was a treat.

Last year’s baddie, Joanna Riding, was a lovely principal boy able to show off her even finer voice to full effect this time. Tony Whittle and Kat B move from ugly sisters to nice Alderman Fitzwarren and nasty King Rat respectively. There were lovely performances from Alexia Khadime as Dicks’ love interest Alice (another great voice), Darren Hart as Idle Jack and Stephen Emery as a very acrobatic cat. The fairy’s a trainee from Bollywood and there’s a terrific gorilla.

Add to that an underwater ballet populated by a mermaid, an octopus and all manner of tropical fish, a troop of monkeys back on land and of course, King Rat’s horde of smaller rats. There’s a great cat singalong with actions from the entire audience on its feet.. …and just to prove panto can be topical, all this usual cross-dressing means we end with three weddings, two of which are same-sex weddings! The customary singing of Auld Lang Syne with audience and cast linking hands makes a lovelier end to the year than bucketloads of booze and a sky full of fireworks. 

So it’s official – Hackney’s pantos are the best AND prove to be Rowe-proof. Oh yes they are! Now, Steve Elias AND Clive Rowe; a panto with two dames, Susie McKenna?…..

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The third annual New Years Eve trip east, this year somewhat nervously in the knowledge that their resident Dame, Clive Rowe, is otherwise engaged in the hugely enjoyable Ladykillers in the West End. Still, its Cinderella, so no Dame needed……

What we do get is a simply terrific baddie in the normally lovely Joanna Riding’s Wicked Stepmother (with a range of killer costumes and a Lady Gaga song to sing) and two of the best Ugly Sisters I’ve ever seen – veteran Tony Whittle and ‘newly crossed over’ Kat B – with terrific chemistry between them and as outrageous a wardrobe as you’d hope for.

This years animal collection includes the customary pantomime horse, two mice voiced by Clarke Peters and Sharon D Clark no less and a white animatronic winged horse who rises up towards the sky pulling Cinderella’s carriage – yes, you heard me,  A White Animatronic Winged Horse! Eat your heart out, Betty Blue Eyes.

The Empire was packed. The man plucked from the audience to be humiliated by the Ugly Sisters was a lawyer called Cassius! (and they managed to sew his name onto a pair of giant knickers by the shoe trying-on scene). By the time the entire audience, cast, crew and ushers were linking hands for Aulde Lang Syne, there was a glow warm enough to survive any winter.

I think three years in a row means it’s now officially annual. I can’t think of a more uplifting way to end the year, with more than a thousand strangers who feel like your best friends.

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Minutes into the frenetic first scene of this musical farce, memories of seeing the Ken Ludwig play on which it is based 25 years ago in the same theatre came flooding back and the thought ‘what am I doing here?’ went round and round in my head. I hated the play; what made me think it might make a good musical?! Gaudy sets and costumes (a mauve and gold colour scheme! – designer Paul Farnsworth) with flats that wobble and shimmer unintentionally (?), OTT performances, Italian stereotypes with shaddap you face accents, dodgy wigs, mistaken identities and more slamming doors than you’ve seen since the last farce you went to. Yet, somehow I succumbed to its old-fashioned innocent charms and found myself smiling, then giggling, then belly laughing. It turned into a guilty pleasure.

We’re in Cleveland in 1934 awaiting the arrival of Italian superstar tenor Tito Merelli, whose one-night-only performance will rescue the opera house…..provided nothing goes wrong. Of course, it does – he’s late, he’s sick, he likes a drink and forever rows with his wife. The Opera House owner’s daughter is besotted with him, as are his three ex-wives who run the opera guild, the soprano singing Desdemona to his Otello and most of the chorus. Oh, and the shrimps for the post-performance reception are on the turn!

Of course, he can’t perform and prompter Max (the opera house manager’s daughter’s suitor!) pretends to be him. As broad musical comedy morphs into farce in the second act, we get three Otello’s in costume entering and exiting the six doors as is both customary and mandatory in farce. Impersonating the tenor as Otello, manager Henry ends up with the soprano and Max with his daughter. Tito’s wife returns and the denouement unfolds…..

The real reason for seeing this is a full set of fine musical comedy performances and the slickness of the comedy timing. Sophie-Louise Dann makes a terrific American broad / diva and her opera greatest hits ‘mash-up’ is a highlight of the evening. Damian Humbley and Michael Matus are excellent as Max and Tito respectively, with voices good enough to get away with the pseudo operatic demands. It’s great to see fringe favourite Cassidy Janson get a shot at a big role and she doesn’t disappoint as Maggie. Matthew Kelly presides over this as an old pro totally in command of his material. Joanna Riding’s undoubted talents are a bit wasted in the smallish part of the tenor’s wife (for the second time this year in this very theatre, having been wasted in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg immediately before this). Amongst the supporting cast, it’s great to see Gay Soper again.

The only other  musical farce I can recall is Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. It doesn’t have a score that good, but Brad Carroll’s music is decent enough, Peter Sham’s book & lyrics are good and the 24 strong cast and 15 piece band get the best out of them. Ian Talbot’s experience as a director and actor with both musicals and comedy means it runs like a well oiled machine and the cast’s enthusiasm is infectious.

It won’t change your life, it’s unlikely to be your highlight of the year, but there are a whole lot of less enjoyable evenings in the West End and for me this one was a pleasant surprise.

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