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Posts Tagged ‘Josefina Gabrielle’

This and Follies (which I’m seeing again in three days time) haven’t been my favourite Sondheim shows – I’ve always considered them a bit conventional, even old-fashioned, in comparison with the rest of his work. Well, that was until Saturday. This is another musical theatre triumph for the Watermill in Newbury, unquestionably the best of the four staged productions of the show I’ve seen over 28 years. It looks gorgeous, it sounds great and it’s much wittier.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around three generations of Armfeldt women – actress Desiree, her mother Leonora and daughter Fredrika. Desiree is away on tour much of the time, leaving Fredrika at home to hear her grandmother’s endless tales of liaisons with European nobles. Her ex Fredrik has a new child bride Anne, who he takes to one of her performances. Her current affair is with the pompous military dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. In the second half, they all meet at the Armfeldt home for a weekend house-party where Anne and the Count’s wife Charlotte plot, Fredrik clashes with Carl-Magnus and Fredrik’s son, trainee priest Henrik, declares his love for his step-mother. It all untangles before it ends with three happy couples and a death!

Musically, it’s one long waltz, more delightful here as the actor-musicians sometimes dance with their instruments, including cellos hooked around necks, some serving an additional purpose, such as Fredrik’s trumpet seeming to duel with Carl-Magnus’ clarinet. Watermill regular Sarah Travis has created outstanding arrangements, mostly using strings and woodwind, with the brilliant use of chimes. The book and lyrics shone like never before, much funnier than I remember. David Woodhead’s design is beautiful to look at, a brilliant evocation of time and place and a superb use of the Watermill space. Amongst its delights are the transformation from house to garden as the first half ends. I haven’t seen much of director Paul Foster’s work, but he does an absolutely splendid job here.

The cast is without a weak link. Josefina Gabrielle has great presence as Desiree, her regrets palpable and deeply moving in Send in the Clowns. Dillie Keane is a revelation as Madame Arnfeldt, with an extraordinary ability to convey things like contempt or cheekiness with facial expressions alone. I loved both Alastair Brookshaw and Alex Hammond as Fredrik and Carl-Magnus respectively, one towering over the other, both determined to win. Benedict Salter’s characterisation of Henrik was excellent. Phoebe Fildes as Charlotte transforms well from naive to vengeful, Lucy Keirl is every bit the nervous bride Anne and Tilly-Mae Millbrook is a delight as granddaughter Fredrika.

This may be the definitive revival. Two more weeks to go. Don’t miss it, Sondheim fans.

 

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Is there no limit to the joy Hackney Empire can unleash during the festive season? Last year they lost (hopefully not forever) their regular Dame Clive Rowe and still came up trumps. This year they go ‘off piste’ with the rarer Puss in Boots and it feels like something new and familiar at the same time. Bliss.

Puss in Boots has somehow slipped from the panto repertoire. A 500 year-old tale made famous by Charles Perrault 200 years later, introduced to the UK another 100 years after that, with Joseph Grimaldi in the first cast. Now the cunning cat (brilliantly played with great athleticism by Kat B!) comes to Hackneyonia with his master who has inherited him from his father, whilst his elder brother got the mill and the donkey!

Here we get two dames – mother Nettie Knowall and daughter Amnesiah, played brilliantly by Stephen Matthews and Darren Hart respectively – a wicked witch played by Josefina Gabrielle and a wicked queen by Sharon D Clarke, both stars of musical theatre who shine just as brightly here, and King Konkers the Bonkers (an excellently hapless Tony Timberlake) and spoilt brat Princess Petunia (the lovely irritating Amy Lennox). Add in Matt Dempsey’s Thomas, a giant Ogre and a good sorceress and you have an abundance of superb performances.

Amongst the treats are a dance routine for colourful giant trainers (without people!), a trio of mice as backing singers for Puss, a tap dance to end Act I and a superb Les Mis spoof to open Act II. Just before the finale we got the singalong, obviously, and the sight of a couple of thousand people singing Madness’ It Must be Love in cat language with cat masks was a surreal delight. Lotte Collett’s design is a riot of colour and invention, with Dame Nettie’s costumes (and there a lot of them!) a particular treat.

This is Susie McKenna’s 15th Hackney panto. It’s only my 5th, but the imagination, enthusiasm, talent and energy hasn’t waned one bit. Steven Eadis has written a lot of excellent new music to add to a handful of known songs with a fair few nods to musical theatre, performed with exceptional musical standards by a small 5-piece band and singers who really can sing.

It might have West End production values and West End stars, but above all its a community pantomime which generates enough warmth to keep you going until the next one – here’s to Mother Goose in less than 12 months time!

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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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Turkey alert!

This play is billed as ‘A slinky, sexy new comedy to make you purr…’. Well, there weren’t many laughs, I didn’t find it the slightest bit sexy and purring was the last thing on my mind when I left the Arts Theatre. What was actually on my mind was ‘Give me a drink. Quick!’.

To say much about the story would be to spoil it for anyone already committed to or mad enough to go. Suffice to say we’re in LA with a therapist and her client(s) at couples therapy. The lack of laughter was rather embarrassing, such that when a funny line turned up you were inclined to over-compensate with a fit of hysterics. There’s a certain cleverness to Frank Strausser’s idea and the story, but it’s just poorly written. When the clumsiness of the staging engages you more than the play, you know you’re at a turkey.

Mark Walters’ set manages to be over-complicated and tacky at the same time (well, he has done a lot of pantos); the scene changes take forever and slow the play down almost as much as the writing does. Even though it was a preview, it wasn’t an early one, yet the show is a bit of a shambles technically. From side stalls seats, you can see things you’re not meant to see (offstage actors, stage hands, bits of other scene sets…). The wrong piece flies in between scenes and then out after the scene has started. A skylight tilts during performance because they forgot to do it / didn’t have time to do it before the scene started (the audience gasped as they thought it was about to fall on the actress). An actress’ exit after a scene change is blocked and we have to watch her navigate a new route. Towards the end there is an odd few minutes when Tessa Peake-Jones is walking around aimlessly. This could be bad staging (director Glen Walford), but my theory is that a sound cue was missed (a phone call) and she was improvising; in which case can we have an Olivier award for Best Cover-Up please?

I felt so sorry for the four good actors – Gray O’Brien, Josefina Gabrielle, Daniel Weyman and the aforementioned Tessa Peake-Jones. At the curtain call, their expressions said ‘thank god that’s over’ coupled with ‘oh my god, we’ve got to do this again in 22.5 hours and 7 times a week for 7 weeks’ (well, maybe not…). They have only one more performance to sort out the technical stuff before the critical rottweilers come in, but I can’t see how they will sort out what is frankly a bad play that would have me wincing at the Edinburgh fringe, let alone in the West End. Not even people off the telly can save this.

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