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Posts Tagged ‘LAMDA’

This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

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This was only Rodney Ackland’s third play, written when he was just 23 and first staged in 1932, directed by John Gielgud. Like the other plays of his I’ve seen – After October, Before the Party & Absolute Hell – it’s a character-driven piece. It’s good to catch it in LAMDA’s summer season and add it to my small collection of this underrated playwright’s work.

Divorcee Vera lives in a big London house with her three adult children, sisters Esther & Jenny and their half-brother Gordon. She takes in lodgers, some of whom she treats with more than a little disdain, particularly vacuous toff George and flighty film actress Freda, two of her current crop, alongside writer Val and couple Laura & Jimmie. Val is in love with Esther, but it doesn’t seem to be reciprocated (but her mother worships him). George brings his friend Sylvia to a party and she falls for Gordon. Jenny invites artist Peter into the home, who isn’t who he says he is and appears to be attracted to Freda too. Jenny is going blind.

Though characters have their stories, there isn’t enough time to develop them all, so like the other plays, it comes over as a slice-of-life, in this case young arty middle-class people in the pre-war 30’s. Only Jenny Wall has to act outside her age range as Vera, and she does so very well. I thought Georgina Duncan managed Jenny’s difficult journey extremely well. It’s a fine cast, who are particularly good at creating the behaviour, mannerisms and speech of the period. Ruari Murchison’s terrific set has people coming and going through one external and four internal doors and stairs, which contributes significantly to the animation of Ackland’s play, which is finely staged by Philip Watson.

I saw these eleven players (one wearing a waistcoat) on the evening another eleven were occupied elsewhere, so it was small audience, but I suspect we had a more relaxed and satisfying evening! The play may not be up to the others, but it gets a very good production and was a great opportunity to catch another Ackland. Only 12 to go!

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Given that it’s such a milestone in musical theatre, I haven’t seen this Kander & Ebb show anywhere near enough times. I first saw it in Sam Mendes extraordinary Donmar production twenty-five years ago, when they turned the theatre into the Kit Kat club, and last saw it in Rufus Norris’ chilling West End revival 12 years ago. This is the 50th anniversary of its London premiere, in the brand new LAMDA theatre. It’s a tough call for a drama school, particularly one like LAMDA, better known for drama than musical theatre. The result is a bit uneven, but worth seeing.

Writing a show about the rise of the Nazi’s revolving around a decadent Berlin nightclub would be brave now let alone fifty years ago and in Joanna Read’s production they’ve made it dark virtually throughout. For some reason, on this occasion, it struck me that apart from the handful of well-known songs, there are a lot of mediocre ones. Philip Engleheart’s design gives the Kit Kat Club an excellent, original aesthetic. The ending is absolutely chilling, but brilliant. It’s better acted than it is sung, but there’s an excellent five-piece band under Jonathan Williams.

It’s tough for drama school students to play a lot older, but here I thought Helena Antoniou and Scott Gordon did well as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. I liked Dylan La Rocque’s take on the MC, just about the right amount of camp. James Trent was an excellent Clifford and Harry McMullen and Milly Roberts impressed as Ernst Ludwig and Fraulien Kost.

Good to see it again.

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In the US, this audacious 2006 musical by Steven Slater & Duncan Sheik, based on Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, was both a critical and commercial success, running for two years on Broadway. The West End run was as much of a critical success but not a commercial one. It ran for just two months, though it launched the careers of Aneurin Bernard, Charlotte Wakefield, Iwan Rheon, Natasha J Barnes & Lucy May Barker and won four Olivier awards including Beat New Musical and gongs for Bernard and Rheon. It made tens of millions in New York and lost a wardrobe full of shirts in the West End. One of them was mine.

Though a late 19th Century story and rock music shouldn’t really go together, it somehow works, though quite where they got the idea from is beyond me. It’s a story of sexual awakening by repressed teenagers in a strict school with strict parents. It features onstage sex, masturbation and gay kissing (all tastefully done!) and themes including teenage pregnancy, suicide, homosexuality and abortion. While events are staged, feelings are sung, as they take microphones from pockets to belt out a tune. It’s a great score.

LAMDA have been faithful to the original production and the creative inputs are excellent – staging, design and especially choreography and lighting, though I felt the band was underpowered (you need a rock band for a rock musical); this lost it a bit of edge. It’s an excellent ensemble, with a fine Wendla from Katharine Orchard and passionate performances by Colson Dorafshar and Isaiah Ellis as Moritz and Melchior respectively. 

Good to remind myself how good it is and good to see such talent ready to launch their careers like the original cast.

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This show features in many lists of all-time Best Musicals; it’s certainly in my top 10, maybe my top 5. Yet there have only been two major London productions in the 33 years I’ve lived here, though the NT one had three incarnations (including a 1990 one day only tribute to their original Sky, Ian Charleson; for me, a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going) and between the two they ran for six years at the NT or in the West End. To stave off withdrawal symptoms, we got a very impressive fringe production Upstairs at the Gatehouse a couple of years ago and a LAMDA one a couple of years before that. So there was no hesitation on my part in making the trip to Chichester!

Damon Runyon’s story of loveable rogues, gullible girls and evangelical (homeland) missionaries is timeless. The characters are beautifully drawn and the situations ripe for both comedy and romance. Good and bad are pitted against one another only to become mutually dependent and mutually beneficial. The bad guy gets his good doll, the good doll gets her bad guy and we send them off on a wave of warmth and goodwill. From the Runyonland overture to the wedding finale, it captivates you. It’s the epitome of the feel-good show.

Peter McKintosh’s brilliant set has an arc of hoarding fragments surrounded by lightbulbs reflected in the shiny black stage. When only the lightbulbs are lit, it’s the New York skyline, when the signs are lit you’re on the street. I’m not sure why they needed to import an American director, but his staging is very good. I’m also not sure why they need ballet star Carlos Acosta as choreographer as ‘co-choreographer’ Andrew Wright is perfectly capable on his own – given that they ‘have form’ with Adam Cooper, perhaps it’s all part of a ballet dancer Career Management ‘transitions’ programme. Anyway, it’s great choreography, particularly in showstoppers Luck Be A Lady & Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.

At first I thought Sophie Thompson was over-cooking Miss Adelaide, as she has a tendency to do, but she won me over, providing many of the shows laughs but still breaking our hearts in her Second Lament. Peter Polycarpou was simply perfect as Nathan, the most loveable of all the rogues; a lighter touch than previous interpretations. Less experienced in musicals, Jamie Parker was a revelation as Sky, light on his feet and vocally assured. Clare Foster also took a while to convince as Sarah, but when the actress let go as the character let go, she too won me over.  Harry Morrison follows two illustrious Nicely-Nicely’s (David Healy and Clive Rowe) but I liked his sweeter characterisation and he brought the house down rockin’ the boat. The rest of the cast rises to the occasion, busting with energy and enthusiasm.

I’m always nervous seeing a show when you think you’ve seen the definitive production, in this case Richard Eyre for the NT, but yet again it entertains and thrills. It’s like seeing your best friend again after many years apart; hopefully (inevitably?!) this particular best friend will pay a visit to London in the not-too-distant future so that we can get together one more time.

 

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The first of two visits this week to see graduating musical theatre students at two of London’s drama schools, and this first one an opportunity to catch something that seems to have passed me by when it was at the Landor Theatre seven years ago – or did it? These contemporary American chamber musicals are beginning to blur; they’re all set in New York City, with a handful of 20 or 30-something characters, they’re all about relationships and the scores are strikingly similar. At several points, I was thinking maybe I did see it at the Landor – or maybe I’m confusing it with composer / writer Joshua Salzman & Ryan Cunningham’s other show, Next Thing You Know, at the Landor a year ago!

Austin and Marcy’s relationships have ended. Austin’s brother Jeff and Marcy’s friend Diana (who don’t know each other) encourage them to date again and they end up with each other, as do Jeff and Diana. Nice but dim Jeff, with a tendency to malapropism, and actuary (!) Diana start out with a simple uncomplicated affair. Greeting card ‘poet’ (!), deeply traditional Austin plays the longer settling down game, though he’s still not over his ex. A lot of it takes place in the local bar (Friends – the musical!) where the stereotypical NYC man and woman bar tenders (that’s what the characters are called) dispense sympathy and advice with the beer and shots, hiding their feelings for one another. Of course, it all ends happily – this is a fairytale of New York.

The score is very generic, perfectly acceptable but completely unmemorable. The show differentiates itself from others of the genre by it’s humour – not just funnier, but also spikier. This production is better in the acting than it is in the singing, with the cast, accompanied by two keyboards, often failing to rise to its vocal challenges (pitching and tuning issues, as they say in TV talent shows). I particularly liked the comic goofiness of Garmon Rhys as Jeff and the versatility and quirky charm of Douggie McMeekin in multiple roles as NYC man. This was the first performance, so I’m sure it will all become slicker as the week’s run progresses.

I think it’s time I gave this genre a wide berth though, lest I confuse similarity with senior moments.

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OK, so nine short plays on the history of women in politics (and the ‘testimonies’ of five living politicians) isn’t everyone’s idea of fun on a hot, sunny Saturday in June! Well, helped by the Tricycle’s aircon, it proved to be a theatrical feast I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

The Tricycle is the only theatre with the bravery and balls (inappropriate terminology, I know) to stage this. It’s only a year since they did a thrilling whole day history of Afghanistan in the same way and I have to confess I never thought they’d match it – but they have.

The nine plays take us from Elizabeth I to all-women selection lists and the writing, by nine different women playwrights, was even more consistent than The Great Game, with an intriguing and unpredictable selection of subjects and innovative approaches to them. There really wasn’t a dud amongst them, though Sue Townsend’s albeit funny contribution steered furthest from the theme in the cause of her cartoon-like relentless and tired snipes at the New Labour project.

Marie Jones and Rebecca Lenkiewicz gave us fascinating new historical perspectives on the suffragettes and Liz I respectively. Moira Buffini’s take on Thatch & Liz II was clever and funny yet insightful. Lucy Kirkwood reminded us how we’ve virtually eliminated Greenham Common from history. Joy Wilkinson shows us that little has changed between the 1994 and 2010 Labour leadership contests. Zinnie Harris viciously but accurately shows us many men’s attitudes to all-women selection lists. Sam Holcroft stages a very intelligent debate about pornography through a conversation between a successful pornographer and a PM let down by her husband. Bola Agbaje is bang up-to-date with her study of the power of sex. Add to that verbatim contributions from Shirley Williams, Edwina Currie, Oona King,  Jacqui Smith & Anne Widdicombe, and a late addition (?) from Nick Clegg which proves to be the most chilling of all! Well if that doesn’t live up to my ‘theatrical feast’ epithet, I don’t know what does!  

Indira Rubasingham, assisted by Amy Hodge, has given each play a fresh directorial perspective with Handbagged, Bloody Wimmin and Acting Leader getting particularly inventive staging. She’s assembled an excellent ensemble of twelve actors who play up to six roles each, except Lara Rossi who gets to play Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Clare Short and Margaret Beckett’s husband in the same play – a tremendous debut from someone still at LAMDA! It was particularly good to see Kika Markham, Tom Mannion and Stella Gonet again.

If you saw The Great Game, you shouldn’t miss this different but equally exhilarating experience. If you didn’t, suspend disbelief and go see this and you’ll be back for The Great Game when it’s revival follows it. Seeing them all together, it’s an intelligent, relevant and thought-provoking experience – and great entertainment too.  

Yet again, The Tricycle leads the way.

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