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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Atkins’

I hadn’t read any reviews, so my expectation was a biographical play about Josephine Baker – but this is a much more ambitious, complex, brave and multi-layered piece that truly wears its heart on its sleeve. It also features one of those rare virtuoso performances that stand alone regardless of the material.

What Cush Jumbo does is weave her personal story (some of the ‘current’ story is so personal, it surely can’t be entirely autobiographical?) with that of the extraordinary life of the icon. Cush became obsessed with Baker at an early age and we see her Josephine doll and her scrapbook. She finds parallels between their lives, notably the racism both experienced. She often switches between the character and her real self in mid-flow. At first this is all a bit puzzling, but it does find its rhythm and it’s surprising how much you learn about Baker’s life, albeit occasionally rushed.

Cush is both writer and performer and she’s lucky enough to have world-class director Phyllida Lloyd and world-class designer Anthony Ward to help provide a highly original, inventive and superlative staging. They’ve turned The Bush into a lovely night club with table seating on two levels (and chilli table cloths to die for!) and a bare stage which transforms with curtains and projections. There are props all over the place, which enables her to pick one up and move quickly into the next episode. On the side of the stage, pianist Joseph Atkins plays as both soloist and accompanist.

Whatever you think of the show, it is impossible not to be impressed by Cush’s passionate, energetic full-on performance. She can sing and dance as well as act. She has the ability to transform, to switch characters, to age and above all to connect with the audience whoever she is at that moment. I hardly took my eyes off her for 100 minutes. She has gone from a delightful turn in From She Stoops to Conquer at the NT to a thrilling one in Julius Caesar at the Donmar to this mesmerizing and extraordinary performance in just eighteen months. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is a very special actor indeed.

This has to be seen, so if you haven’t or haven’t planned to, you know what you have to do!

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This show started life as a film, made by Blake (Pink Panther) Edwards as a vehicle for his wife Julie Andrews some 30 years ago. It got to Broadway 13 years later but took another 9 years to get to London; a fringe production by Phil Wilmott at the then home of fringe musicals, The Bridewell Theatre. It’s only taken 8 more years for its second London outing (I think), this time at one of our now multiple fringe musical homes, Southwark Playhouse, in a production by the talented and prolific Thom Sutherland.

It owes a lot to Cabaret. English girl abroad. Decadent nightclubs. Cross-dressing. It’s the story of Victoria Grant who after a failed audition as a club singer is persuaded by new friend Toddy to pose as Polish Victor playing a woman – a woman playing a man playing a woman; very Shakespearian.

She falls for visiting American nightclub owner King Marchand (and he for him/her in a nice touch of confused sexuality) but is rumbled by competing club owner Henri Labisse for whom she originally auditioned.  All is revealed so that she can get her man (and his sidekick can get his man i.e Toddy!). It’s a bit of a slight story and the score isn’t much more than OK, but it scrubs up well in this excellent production.

It’s a traverse staging with a (rather too noisy) entrance and stairway at one end and an (underused) staircase and eight club tables with table-top lights (occupied by audience members) at the other end. A few tables and chairs constitute the minimal props but its an effective design by Martin Thomas, well lit by Howard Hudson.

The key to its success is a star turn from the wonderful Anna Francolini who is perfectly cast and believable as both Victor and Victoria. Richard Demsey is good as Toddy, as is Matthew Cutts as King. Mark Curry had real presence as the club owner / manager and Kate Nelson did a lovely job as King’s dumb blonde Norma. In the supporting cast, Jean Perkins gave a fine set of cameos, including a warm-up magic act!

The show was still in preview and it didn’t seem quite ready; in particular there was some ragged playing from the eight piece band under Joseph Atkins. I suspect it will settle and improve as the run continues, but in any event it’s well worth a visit.

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Fringe powerhouse The Finborough Theatre and one-man musicals machine Thom Sutherland have teamed up again to give us another European premiere of a Rogers & Hammerstein show that proves to be even more of a delight than State Fair.

It’s got nothing to do with Shakespeare’s R&J; it’s a simple onstage-backstage love story, but you get a real baddie and a second love story for your money. Clearly it’s not in the Oklahoma / South Pacific league, but it’s a decent show and therefore astonishing that it’s taken 27 years to be seen here. It didn’t take long to sweep me away.

Designer Alex Marker has cleverly reversed the usual theatre configuration and integrated both audience and cast entrance doors and the spaces above them into the set. There’s some terrific staging, including scenes of the show-within-the-show lighting men from both above the stage and looking down from the stage which are inspired, and there’s a brilliant surprise entrance. The chorus numbers are delicious Busby Berkley miniatures staged with tongue slightly in cheek looking back 50 years very affectionately.

The singing and acting are first class. Laura Main and Robert Hands are great romantic leads. John Addison was so menacing he brought a believability to the bad-guy character which could easily have been a caricature.  Jodie Jacobs was so spot in every way she could have time-travelled from the 50’s for the evening. Dafydd Gwyn Howells (wonder where he’s from?!) and Anthony Wise also impressed as Company Manager and Lighting Man respectively. The musical standards are outstanding with MD Joseph Atkins alone playing the whole score on his upright piano.

Charming and irresistible, I hope that, like State Fair, it gets a second outing . We’re so lucky to have theatres like the Finborough, Landor and Union putting on musical productions of this quality and people like Thom Sutherland to present us with opportunities to see rare gems like this. I’d say GO GO GO, but it’s probably sold out by now!

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