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Posts Tagged ‘Jon Driscoll’

I haven’t read Andrea Levy’s book, but I did see the TV adaptation ten years ago. Now Helen Edmundson has adapted it for the stage where she had her greatest triumph with Coram Boy.

It starts in Jamaica when young Hortense is sent to live with relatives, and we glimpse her childhood with her god-fearing adopted parents and her cousin Michael, who becomes a playmate and close friend. We move to wartime London and meet our other protagonist, cheery cockney Queenie. The rest of the first half moves between Queenie’s story, Jamaicans in London joining the forces and Hortense back in Jamaica, now grown up. I thought this first half was overlong and structurally weak. It lacked cohesion and clarity, though it ended brilliantly as we see people boarding the now infamous Empire Windrush, bound for the UK.

The second half opens as Hortense arrives in London six months after her husband Gilbert, who came on the Windrush, shocked by the conditions in the boarding house Queenie now runs after her husband Bernard’s failure to return from the war and her father-in-law’s death. This shorter second half is absolutely brilliant as we see what these immigrants have to put up with and the trials and tribulations facing Queenie before, when and after Bernard returns. This second half, though, covers less than a year. It’s very uncomfortable listening to the racism of the post-war period.

Small intimate scenes sometimes seem lost on that vast stage, but it’s used to great effect when the whole cast of over 40 populate it and when Jon Driscoll’s brilliant giant projections shrink it. Director Rufus Norris marshals his cast well, with excellent movement by Coral Messam. There’s superb incidental music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a fine ensemble with particularly good performances by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus as Hortense and Queenie respectively. If only the first half had been tighter and shorter.

The warmth of the reception was a striking contrast with the period racism on show. We have come a long way, even if the journey’s not over and may never be.

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Ibsen is the second most performed playwright in the world (no guessing who’s first) but this late play is one of his least performed. In Richard Eyre’s new version, it’s a devastating but brilliant eighty minutes. I left the theatre emotionally drained.

Alfred and Rita’s relationship is very rocky. Rita feels Alfred’s sister Asta and their son Eyolf somehow come between them. Alfred comes back from a spot of self-imposed solitude determined to devote more time and energy to Eyolf, but before he even begins the boy drowns and all three adults, plus Bjarne who is desperately wooing Asta, are plunged into deep grief during which the complex web of their relationships unravels.

It packs so much into eighty minutes and doesn’t feel anything like a 120-year-old play. It has great psychological depth and unfolds like a thriller. The intimacy of the Almeida increases the intensity of the drama whilst Tim Hatley’s elegantly, simple design (with superb projections by Jon Driscoll, beautiful lighting by Peter Mumford and an atmospheric soundscape by John Leonard) provides a window to the world around them.

Though I’ve seen all of the actors before, they blew me away last night, especially Lydia Leonard and Eve Ponsonby as Rita and Asta respectively, who invested so much emotional energy into their performances.

I’ve only seen the play once before but this definitive production was a revelation, placing it up there with Ibsen’s masterpieces. Unmissable. 

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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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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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This new musical is full of superb ingredients. Soutra Gilmore’s design is brilliant. Javier de Frutos choreography is thrilling. Tamara Harvey’s staging is impeccable. The ensemble and the five leads are all excellent. Yet there’s something missing.

We start and end on a ship leaving Hawaii after Pearl Harbour. We spend the 2.5 hours in between with the American military back on the island in the days leading up to the Japanese attack in 1941. Two love stories intertwine – First Sargent Warden’s affair with Captain Holmes’ wife Karen and Private Prewitt’s love for prostitute Lorene. Prewitt has just arrived with high hopes he’ll boost both the boxing and musical credentials of G Company.

In the first half, the focus is on the development of these relationships and Prewitt’s reluctance to box or play and the show fails to engage or come alive. The second half is much grittier as the pressure mounts on Prewitt and choices have to be made by all of the lovers. There’s a realism to the situation (the late James Jones, on whose novel it is based, was there at this time) but Bill Oakes’ adaptation doesn’t entirely work. Stuart Brayson’s score is a bit uneven, but there are some good songs (the choruses are particularly good) and I very much liked David White’s orchestrations. If I hadn’t known Tim Rice was the lyricist, I don’t think I’d have noticed; it seems to lack his trademark sharpness and wit.

You can’t question the craftsmanship, though. The location and period are perfectly evoked in an impressionistic set based on a post-Pearl Harbour theatre and barracks with excellent projections by Jon Driscoll and lighting by Bruno Poet. De Frutos does the same as he did in Rufus Norris’ Cabaret – original and fresh choreography with a contemporary dance feel, which works particularly well in a barrack room scene, a boxing match and the air attack. Tamara Harvey’s staging has so much more intelligent detail than most musicals and the finale is hugely impressive.

Darius Campbell has great presence as Warden and real chemistry with Rebecca Thornhill’s Karen. Robert Lonsdale plays Prewitt with an appropriate edginess and great passion and is well matched with Siobhan Harrison as Lorene. Ryan Sampson first impressed me in DNA at the NT, then Canary at Hampstead, followed by The Kitchen Sink at the Bush (also directed by Tamara Harvey). He showed us his musicals potential in Floyd Collins at Southwark Playhouse and here he almost steals the show with a superb performance in the pivotal role of Angelo. The ensemble – all shapes and sizes, like the real world, for a change! – is uniformly excellent.

It’s a shame it doesn’t quite come together, but this is quality British musical theatre which is to be welcomed nonetheless. Only the lyricist and orchestrator have a strong West End Musicals track record and maybe that’s the crux of it – it brings a freshness of approach but doesn’t have the combined experience to quite pull it off. A bit like The Light Princess, really, and like that, you should still go.

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Well, I saved this one for the weekend visit of a friend, as it’s based on one of her favourite films, hence the somewhat belated visit 5 months after opening. In fact, I might have been the only one in the audience who’s never seen the film – this is clearly chick-flick-on-stage a la Dirty Dancing. Fortunately it’s a whole lot better than Dirty Dancing in Matthew Warchus staging and Rob Howell’s design (with terrific projections from Jon Driscoll).

It’s a lot more than a love story and I was pleasantly surprised by its depth. Much of it takes place in the lovers apartment, but when it moves to the streets the staging becomes spectacular. Paul Kieve’s special effects are excellent, crucial to the story and slickly executed. In fact, its impossible to fault the production – this is premiere league stagecraft. On first hearing, I found Dave Stewart’s music a bit bland and formulaic, but I didn’t dislike it and I suspect it would benefit from more listening.

Both leads – Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy – are excellent, though on Saturday they were well and truly upstaged by understudy Lisa Davina Phillip as Oda Mae who was in great voice, exceptionally funny and moving when she needed to be. Another understudy, Paul Ayers as Carl, acquitted himself extremely well too.

The slickness is, to some extent, at the price of heart, because it didn’t move this old softie as much as it probably should, but for spectacular staging it’s hard to beat. A very pleasant surprise indeed.

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Like I did with that other Covent Garden rarity – a new opera (Anna Nicole) – I’m making an exception by blogging an even rarer thing – a new full length ballet. I gather it’s c.15 years since the last one and c.20 years since one with a new score. I’m not a fan of mixed bills and I exhausted the repertoire of full evening works some time ago, so a potential treat was in store.

This is more in the Northern Ballet Theatre dance drama mould than classical ballet, which might be the reason why I enjoyed it so much – the latter can be very fusty and fussy. They’ve engaged playwright Nicholas Wright to provide a scenario, which is maybe why the dramatic flow is so good, and Joby Talbot’s score is hugely impressive. Designer Bob Crowley’s imagination has run wild and produced some stunning witty sets and even more stunning costumes. Jon Driscoll (fresh from creating the extraordinary tornado in Kansas which is one of the highlights of The Wizard of Oz) and Gemma Carrington provide brilliant projections. The production values are second to none and only Covent Garden has the resources to stage something this spectacular (If he’s sees this, NBT’s David Nixon will turn green permanently).

Zenaida Yanowsky takes your breath away as the Queen of Hearts. Eric Underwood is astonishingly agile as the Caterpillar, Steven McRae makes a wonderful Mad Hatter and all three leads – Edward Watson’s White Rabbit, Sergei Polunin as the Knave and Lauren Cuthbertson as Alice – dance brilliantly. Then there’s the Duchess…….why they cast an actor rather than a dancer I don’t know, but if you’re going to have an actor for a Panto Dame-like comic part, you won’t get better than Simon Russell Beale. Watching him take ballet bows at the end, he looked completely at home – like a dancer who has moved on to those ‘character’ parts like they do as they age.

With Anna Nicole, The Wizard of Oz and this within a fortnight, I’m in danger of overdosing on colourful spectacle, but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world and there’s so much detail, I’m just going to have to go again when it returns.

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