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Posts Tagged ‘Julie Atherton’

It’s always good to welcome a new British musical, and this is a promising one, but as the great Stephen Sondheim says, musicals aren’t written they’re rewritten, so I approach this as work-in-progress.

Katharine Heath’s superb design turns the Union Theatre into The Green Fairy pub, where our protagonist Jo comes to see her estranged daughter Wendy perform at their Open Mic Night. From here, we flash back, courtesy of an actual green fairy, to a the moment Jo falls in love with Eliza but decides not to accompany her on her quest for fame in the USA. We then learn that she marries Daniel, the landlord of the pub, and they have a child, Wendy. From here we move back and fore to piece together Jo’s story, facilitated by the Green Fairy.

It’s a slow and shaky start, which risks losing the audience before it takes them in its hold. Jack Sain has written the book, music and some of the lyrics, with Stephen Libby, and also directed. In my view this is one job too many and, despite his directorial experience, that’s the chair he should have relinquished to ensure some healthy creative tension that could have tightened it. They have their moments, but neither the book nor the score are currently good enough, and not all of the unamplified singers win the battle with four or five instruments, so the storytelling is hampered because not all of the lyrics are audible.

It’s good to see Julie Atherton again, and she navigates the emotional roller-coaster role of Jo very well, with strong vocals. Georgina Hellier is outstanding as Eliza / the Green Fairy and the supporting cast – Emma Whittaker, David Perkins, Emma Kidney & Harry F Brown – are all very good. MD William Bullivant has made the short journey from Preludes at the Southwark Playhouse to helm this very successfully.

I do hope we get a second version, but that doesn’t stop me from recommending this first outing for musical theatre lovers.

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This show, by Joe DiPietro & Jimmy Roberts, ran Off Broadway for 12 years / 5000 shows between 1996 and 2008 but has only managed three short runs in London. Though there are some unsung scenes, its really a song cycle for four actors, and it’s rather good.

It follows relationships from casual dating through serious courting, marriage, parenthood and empty nesting to divorce, death and back to dating! Four actors, two male and two female, play all of the nameless individuals and couples in various combinations, that represent stages in archetypal relationships. The songs are good, but its strength really lies in its humour, finding the truth in life’s twists and turns.

The great attraction of this production is four of Britain’s finest young musical theatre performers – Julie Atherton, Gina Beck, Samuel Holmes and Simon Lipkin – at the top of their game. Not only are they good delivering the songs, but they also prove very adept at the comedy, squeezing every laugh possible from the witty lyrics and sharp lines. Scott Morgan accompanies on an upright piano with no amplification which I liked, though I missed some lyrics when the performers weren’t facing me.

Staged in the small space Above the Arts Theatre by Kirk Jameson with movement by Sam Spencer Lane and just a few props but a lot of costume changes, it’s a delightful 80 minutes, though lengthened to almost two hours by an unnecessary interval and some bad timekeeping, which stretched the patience on a sweltering evening.

I took against the Arts Theatre’s new upstairs venue, Above the Arts, like a room above a pub for an open mic night, with no raking, no stage and no air, but I’m really glad I caught up with this show at last, especially with such fine casting. It deserves a better venue (St James Studio, Union Theatre, Landor Theatre….)and a longer run, though.

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This isn’t the first musical adaptation of Emil Zola’s late 19th century book / play. There have been two operas and one musical (by Harry Connick Junior!) before it. Though billed as a musical, this one’s a touch operatic, occupying the space between. It’s highly original and very inventive and Craig Adams’ music is very challenging, but maybe too ambitious.

Therese, in the care of her aunt since childhood, is in a loveless marriage to her first cousin Camille and running a business with her aunt. She begins a passionate affair with Camille’s best friend Laurent. When it becomes difficult to continue their afternoon meetings, their solution is to drown Camille in the Seine. After an appropriate period of mourning, at the suggestion of her aunt, Therese marries Laurent. The trouble is, Camille haunts them both and the relationship deteriorates until another tragic solution is found.

I loved Laura Cordery’s dolls house set, which transforms into haberdashers shop, bedroom and drawing room. Nona Sheppard’s staging is clever and highly effective, particularly the weekly domino evenings, Therese & Laurent’s moments of passion and fighting and the hauntings. Julie Atherton is excellent as the melancholic Therese, though she’s virtually mute for the first 45 minutes, Ben Lewis is great as Laurant, commanding in both voice and presence and Jeremy Legat convinces as both Camille and his ghost! I liked Tara Hugo’s characterisation of the aunt, but she struggled with the vocal demands of this complex score (though I think some of the discordant vocal hysterics were intentional), particularly in a long and pivotal second half scene where she appeared to lose her way. It’s a very good supporting ensemble; I particularly liked the chorus of women telling us what Therese was feeling.

If it were less ambitious musically, a little more restrained in performance and with one role recast, this would be a terrific show. Still worth a visit in this first incarnation, though.

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The year after I saw the first production of this wonderful show in the West End in 1984 I was interviewed for the Laurence Olivier Awards panel, during which I told them defiantly that 42nd Street was not the Best Musical the previous year, this was. Afterwards I realised the producer of 42nd Street was on the panel, so imagine my surprise when I was appointed. I wanted to think it was because I was right, because I was, but was later told it was because they wanted public panel members who would hold their own amongst the professionals; for once, being opinionated was an advantage!

So here we are in Colchester 28 years later for only my 7th production (including the wonderful reunion concert in 1992) with the last one, a triumph for The Landor, still ringing in my ears (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/the-hired-man). By now I consider it to be the best British musical bar none, though it’s more of a folk opera – not a chorus girl in sight. An adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel, its epic sweep over 23 years from 1898 to 1921 takes us from the land to the mines to the first world war, back to the mines and back to the land. Within this, we have the very personal story of the Tallentire family through happy times of marriage and births to the challenge of infidelity and the tragedy of death.

We start and end at a hiring fair where employers find and bargain with farm workers. Though lured by the higher wages in the mines, and side-tracked by the war, John Tallentire eventually returns to the land. In between, we see the devastation of the great war and the conditions miners had to endure for those extra pennies, leading to the birth of the unions. The social history blends well with the personal story and the superb score, seeped in British choral tradition and folk songs, makes it deeply moving yet uplifting.

Director Daniel Buckroyd’s production evokes the Cumbrian landscape very simply but effectively with platforms and screens bathed in warmth. He has assembled a fine cast which is particularly strong in the choruses. David Hunter brings real feeling to John’s songs and Julie Atherton sings and acts her heart out (I’ve only seen her in modern – mostly American – shows, so it’s great to see her so effective in a ‘period piece’). The musical standards, under MD & pianist Richard Reeday, are outstanding; it sounds like musicians also playing roles, rather than actors playing instruments as we see in Watermill shows. I thought Rachel Gladwin’s harp playing was particularly beautiful.

I saw and enjoyed Buckroyd’s 2008 touring production when it popped in to Greenwich but this is even better. After Greenwich, I emailed the NT’s director and told him to stop neglecting British musical theatre and get over to Greenwich and tell me why this show isn’t in the Cottesloe. To his credit he replied, but all we’ve had since is London Road, another show in a genre of its own. Time for another email, I think!

A lovely production of a lovely show – two more weeks in Colchester, then The Curve in Leicester for another two. Now, where’s the Leicester train timetable…..

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This show, developed and produced by musicals laboratory Perfect Pitch, shows great promise. For me, it’s more of a song cycle than a fully formed show though, so there’s still work to do I think.

Our eight characters have one thing in common – Covent Garden tube station, and its lift in particular. They include a secretary and her boss, a French teacher, a lap dancer and a ballet dancer and it sort of revolves around a busker. There’s a maybe relationship between boss & secretary, a friendship between the dancers, a professional relationship between the teacher and lap dancer and a lot of chatroom stuff.

Some characters are developed more than others, some hardly at all, in the short 75 minutes we’re with them – and that’s why it feels like work-in-progress. It’s a clever idea, about communication in the modern world, but it isn’t fully formed yet. Modern musicals are all beginning to sound the same to me, and this is no more original than any other – but it’s a good score nonetheless, even if it is a touch formulaic, feeling like it belongs in the genre of ‘modern American chamber musical’ – slick, snappy, soundbites (though it’s not American, obviously!).

The staging is clever though occasionally too frenetic, and the sound sometimes too loud, sweeping away any subtlety. They’ve assembled a very talented cast, though someone of the calibre of Julie Atherton is rather wasted in her under-developed role. I was particularly impressed by Cynthia Erivo and Jonny Fines as the dancers.

The young audience lapped it all up and overall I’m less negative than I may seem. I do hope composer Craig Adams stays with it a while longer and / or continues to develop other musicals as he’s clearly talented.

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I first saw this Sondheimesque show four years ago at the even smaller New End Theatre in Hampstead where the young couple was Stephen Ashfield (who went on to be a Jersey Boy) and Emma Williams (soon to open in the transfer of Love Story from Chichester – more of her in the footnote!).

The show intertwines the stories of a young couple about to get married with another about to get divorced 10 tears and one son later. Both couples are on stage virtually throughout and there is little dialogue, so it feels more like a songspiel. I found it hard to get into it or even care about the characters in the first half, but things looked up in the second. It’s a clever show – maybe too clever for it own good; this might actually inhibit emotional engagement with the characters – but four years on still seems unfinished.

The Landor have attracted Jon Lee and Julie Atherton, who together with Grant Neal and Yvette Robinson, make a decent job of it. In truth, though, it wasn’t ready at this last preview. The cast do not yet seem comfortable, they and the band didn’t seem to have  quite mastered the complex score and there were issues with lighting and sound. Chris de Wilde’s design, though, is superb – an ‘Ikea’  wall of 45 large boxes onto which there are projections and into which props go in and out. 

It was often far too loud for the style and subject matter, though in contrast Julie Atherton was occasionally inaudible. I’d question the wisdom of amplification in this small space – with the inclusion of percussion, this is probably necessary, but it’s a chamber piece, so maybe a quieter orchestration without amplification would be better.

With hindsight, I wish I’d gone later in the run by which time I’m sure it will be very much the finished article.

* Emma Williams must be one of the most unlucky leading ladies in Britain. After being one of the youngest ever as Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang early in career, she was part of the Bat Boy failure (which I actually liked!) then got unsigned as the alternate Maria when Connie Fisher went public on doing all 8 shows a week, then flopped again in Desperately Seeking Susan (where I lost a money!). In between though we got successful fringe outings of this show and Model Girl plus Sweeny Todd (the show, not the role!) with Bryn Terfel & Maria Friedman during the RFH re-opening season.

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