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Posts Tagged ‘Leicester Curve’

A gold star to the Curve Theatre Leicester for putting a new British musical by a relatively unknown team on their main stage. The fact that both Sue Townsend, the writer of the original book, and her main character hail from their city means it truly belongs there, and there is much to enjoy in this world première.

Adrian tells us the story of one year of his life (most of the first of what became eight books!) from one New Years Eve to the next, during which his mum runs away with Mr Lucas, his dad gets together with Doreen Slater, he gets bullied by Barry Kent, he befriends left-wing pensioner Bert Baxter and he falls in love with Pandora Braithwaite. Oh, the trials of puberty and growing up, particularly when you’re an intellectual lost at sea in Leicester.

Adrian’s diary is now an iconic book and for those of us who read this first (and later) instalments in real time, this is all very nostalgic. It works well as a musical, with a book by Jake Brunger and a simple tuneful score by Pippa Cleary and lyrics by both which contribute to telling the story. The second half has more pace than the first, reaching its peak in an unforgettable scene where Adrian gives us his version of a Nativity play.

I very much liked Tom Rogers design of houses that open out to provide interiors and giant pens and pencils which nod to the source. The thirteen characters are played by four extraordinarily talented children (I don’t know which of the 3 / 4 of each we had on Saturday evening) and six adult actors including the excellent Neil Ditt and Kirsty Hoiles as Adrian’s dad and mum, Amy Booth-Steel tripling up brilliantly as teacher, Mrs Lucas and Doreen Slater and Rosemary Ashe no less as Grandma Mole. Some haven’t taken to the adults playing child ‘extras’ but I thought it was rather fun. Director Luke Sheppard marshals his resources well and MD Mark Collins 5-piece band played with zest.

It’s the first showing of the work, so we shouldn’t perhaps expect a fully finished piece, but it’s a welcome and successful musical adaptation which brings Adrian to a new generation and will no doubt improve with age.

 

 

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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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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It’s amazing how much biography Pam Gems’ play packs into 2.5 hours; so much, in fact, that sometimes you have to catch your breath. Still, it’s a fascinating life and her songs are extraordinary, so it’s a rewarding if speedy ride.

This is the third time I’ve seen this play with music and it varies little by production; whether that’s faithfulness to the script or no room for directorial concept, I don’t know. Paul Kerryson’s seemed a touch faster paced and a bit cruder (but that might have been a reaction to the lady in front of us who was clearly horrified by its rudeness). The design and staging are simple but effective, as they need to be given the number of scenes, and that puts the story centre stage.

We move c.30 years from the young street singer to the international star’s untimely death. In between, her neediness is manifested in drink, drugs and men; her addictive personality means she can’t get enough of any of them and is herself abused in the process. Somehow she manages to, or maybe because of this she does, produce a catalogue of songs with an emotional depth most songwriters would envy, and perform them with a conviction like each was for one time only.

The success of the play does of course depend on the leading lady and Frances Ruffelle is outstanding as Piaf, both dramatically and musically. In this production, the roles of friend Madelein and colleague Marlene seem further to the fore, and this may well be because Tiffany Graves is simply superb as both. The supporting cast of six men and just one woman play all the other people in her life and do so uniformly well; no weak links here.

It was good to see it again, and good to visit Leicester Curve’s studio space for the first time. I hope the lucky people of Leicester know just how lucky they are – West End quality for half the price.

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