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Posts Tagged ‘Les Brotherston’

The smile didn’t leave my face for the duration of this chamber musical in the lovely Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s got bucket-loads of charm and romance aplenty. Emma Rice’s staging is a delight, from the chocolates distributed before it begins to the badges as you leave, with an interval song in the foyer to keep that smile on your face. I defy anyone not to be charmed by it.

Based on the 2010 French-Belgian film of the same name (Les Emotifs Anonymes in French), it tells the story of desperately shy chocolatier Jean-Rene, who has inherited an ailing business from his father, and Angelique, the equally shy secret ingredient of competing chocolatier Mercier. After her employer dies and she’s out of a job, Angelique attends the shyness support group of the title, where an employee of Jean-Rene meets her and subsequently introduces her to her boss, who gives her a thoroughly unsuitable sales job. Fortunately, she talks herself into a role commensurate with her talents, rescues Jean-Rene’s business and navigates the difficult path to true love.

Emma Rice has adapted Jean-Pierre Ameris & Philippe Blasband’s screenplay of the sort of film only the French seem to be able to do these days (oh for a return of the Ealing comedies). American music & lyrics partners Michael Kooman & Christopher Dimond are new to me, and the UK, and they’ve done a lovely job producing songs that suit the subject matter perfectly. The SWP is a design in itself, but Les Brotherston has added some neon signs (shock, horror!) which signpost locations and become a running joke in themselves. Etta Murfitt’s choreography adds much to Emma Rice’s inventive staging. Dominic Marsh and Carly Bowden are superb in the lead roles and there’s luxury casting in the ensemble, with includes Joanna Riding, Lauren Samuels and Marc Antolin no less, with multiple cameos from Philip Cox and Gareth Snook.

I left the theatre with a warm glow, which hasn’t really gone yet; it’s a delightful evening. It’s Emma Rice doing what she does best, a heart-warming evening, her last production here as AD. You have until early January and you know what you have to do…..

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Daniel Evans’ reign at Chichester begins with a rare revival of an early Alan Bennett play, almost fifty years old now, not seen in London since the 1968 premiere production. It might be flawed, and somewhat dated, but its given a fine production that’s well worth catching. 

It’s set in a boys public school where the headmaster is about to retire and pass the reigns to senior master Franklin, a more reforming figure, who has put together a play, to be performed by both staff and boys, and we, the audience, are the parents. The play-within-the-play weaves in and out and appears to be historical scenes from two world wars, plus satirical sketches involving contemporaries like T E Lawrence and the Bloomsbury set, and that’s the crux of the problem – it’s a bit of a muddle; well at least until the interval, when I did some belated research to understand what Bennett was getting at, which appears to be a review of changes in society since the end of the First World War, well, forty years on.

CFT has been turned into an authentic public school, dominated by a huge pipe organ and two big war memorial plaques in Les Brotherston’s superb design. There’s even organ accompaniment to rousing hymns and the school song which sounds like it’s coming from the onstage organ pipes, though it clearly can’t be. The apron stage is invaded by some fifty ‘extras’ in uniform, on one occasion straight from the rugby pitch, in addition to the ten actors playing named pupil roles, with just a handful of staff. It’s highly animated and oozes authenticity. The Headmaster has a lot of speeches and Richard Wilson is clearly reading some, but it doesn’t really matter; he has great presence and is every bit the old school head. In the supporting cast, I very much liked Danny Lee Wynter’s younger master, Tempest, a part originally played by Bennett himself.

The critical reception this has received is, in my view, a bit unfair and I was glad I caught it – but mug up first to get the most out of it.

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I’m late to the party with this one, which didn’t turn out to be as much of a party as I was hoping and expecting. Though I accept it is hugely important in the history of musical theatre, it’s very dated and I’m afraid I didn’t think Daniel Evans production did much to breathe new life into it.

It was the first musical as we know them today, the tale of the Hawks family, and in particular daughter Magnolia Hawks, staging shows aboard a boat which moved up and down the Mississippi river to find its audience. Magnolia becomes a leading lady by covering for someone else, falls in love with her leading man and heads for Chicago where they have a daughter, but he lets them down badly and disappears. She returns to her career and then to her home aboard the show boat where they are eventually reconciled many years later.

What was radical at the time was the race and segregation themes, plus alcoholism, gambling and prostitution. This was no song and dancing girls piece. I’ve seen it twice before – the RSC / Opera North at the Palladium around 25 years ago, and a spectacular in-the-round production in the Royal Albert Hall ten years ago – and my recollection is more positive than my impression last night. I can’t help comparing it with the European premiere of Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro which I saw just five days ago and which is superior in just about every way – staging, choreography, band and sound in particular. I liked Lez Brotherston’s design, though.

I don’t think it was jaded after four months, in its final fortnight before its early bath, or because there were three understudies in leading roles, as they were all excellent. The reviews had been very positive and the audience reception on the night I went was enthusiastic, so maybe it’s just me……

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This time around, I couldn’t help feeling how Stoppardian this Terry Johnson play is – though maybe not as glib. Revived 20 years on, with Johnson directing, it seems as fresh as when I first saw it at The Royal Court.

It’s hard to describe without spoiling it. Sigmund Freud is in exile in London, dying of cancer,  just as the Second World War is about to break out. He’s visited by a girl who wants to revisit diagnoses of the past and pulls a few tricks out of the bag to help overcome his reluctance. Salvador Dali comes calling in homage and things take an obviously surreal turn. His doctor / friend Yahuda tries to keep him stable as events take their toll. Suffice to say it pulls a few surprises as it twists and turns and returns to where it started.

Though it’s a clever, well-written play, it does lose it’s way by stretching the first half too much. A judicious cut of 15 minutes or so would, in my view, make it a tighter and better play. Les Brotherston’s design is excellent, with a superb coup d’theatre in the second half. Anthony Sher was made to play Freud and he doesn’t disappoint. Adrain Schiller’s turn as Dali is a treat, and David Horovitch gives fine support as the doctor. I’m afraid I thought Lydia Wilson was undercast as the girl, leading to a degree of imbalance.

Great to see one of the best of underrated Terry Johnson’s plays again after so long.

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Film

January is a bit of a theatrical black hole and with film releases timed to secure awards, it’s always a bumper film month!

Once you get through the dull first third, the rest of The Hobbit is great. No-one can create fantasy worlds and magical creatures like Peter Jackson and these seemed even better than in The Lord of the Rings. It’s really only a tale of a journey, but the images and filming are so good I can forgive that; though whether I’ll still be saying that after Episodes II and III I’m not sure – he does appear to be spinning out a slight tale somewhat!

The Life of Pi is a beautifully made film, and the best use of 3D I’ve seen, but it didn’t really engage me as much as I’d thought it would, largely because I couldn’t buy into the story. I’ve never read the book, so I’m not sure if that’s part of it. Beautiful, but a bit dull?

Soon after Les Miserables started, I was unhappy with the poor quality of much of the solo vocals; this is a musical, after all. To its credit, it won me over and by the end I completely got the point that the focus on acting the roles rather than singing them served the drama better, at least in a cinematic version. The only other major reservation remained though – Russell Crow was badly miscast as Javert, because he can’t act or sing, and this almost ruined the film. It’s an odd thing too, as the casting was otherwise faultless. Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne were both simply terrific, Ann Hathaway a revelation, Helena Bonham-Carter & Sacha Baron Cohen surprisingly effective as the Thenadiers’ (the former could have been in civies, such is her normal style!) and the kids who played the young Cosette and Gavroche stunning (the latter could show Crow a thing or two about both acting and singing!).

I eventually caught up with Silver Linings Playbook and loved it. Such a brave, clever yet entertaining depiction of mental health, brilliantly acted and completely compelling. It deserves all the BAFTA & Oscar nominations.

Another catch-up proved to be just as rewarding – I loved Argo too. I knew nothing about this true story of an aspect of the Iranian hostage siege and found its telling thrilling, without being in any way earnest or heavy. In fact, there was much humour, particularly the brilliant double act between Alan Arkin and John Goodman.

Around a third of the way through What Richard Did, I was thinking ‘why has Time Out advised me to see this?’ – it seemed to be nothing more than a bunch of middle-class Irish kids partying. Then a tragedy takes it in a completely different direction as we watch Richard’s moral dilemma unfold. In the end I think I admired it, and it really made me think, but I can’t really say I enjoyed it.

Contemporary Music

I’ve loved watching Mari Wilson evolve from pop through musicals & jazz to cabaret and the Hippodrome’s Matcham Room was a great venue for her to showcase her terrific covers album, with a great trio of backing musicians. Being able to have a quick wander in the casino was a bonus!

Classical Music

The LSO’s pairing of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Mozart’s Requiem conducted by Sir Colin Davies was enticing, but ultimately underwhelming. This may have something to do with Sir Colin’s withdrawal through ill-health, possibly even more to do with the sound from my poor seat (though not cheap at £25). The chorus and orchestra were on fine form and three of the four soloists were good (particularly soprano Elizabeth Watts), but neither piece came alive like both should and have in the past.

Opera

My second visit to MetLive (NYC’s Metropolitan Opera in the cinema) was even better than the first. I’m not mad keen on bel canto operas, but David McVicar’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, with great design & costumes from John Macfarlane, was superb.The five principals were all wonderful, with favourite Joyce DiDonato soaring above them all. I’m not sure the IMAX screen added anything, so I think I’ll revert to the good old Clapham Picture House for the next one.

Dance

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is his best work since the iconic Swan Lake (though I’ve enjoyed everything in between). It’s a masterpiece of re-invention taking us from Aurora’s birth in 1890 to her coming of age (and falling asleep) in 1911, waking up 100 years later in 2011. Les Brotherston’s design and costumes are brilliant, there’s a superb puppet baby and the dancing is always inventive. I loved every minute and can’t wait to see it again.

Cabaret

It was the involvement of Richard Thomas, co-writer of one of the best musicals (Jerry Springer – The Opera, which isn’t) and one of the best operas (Anna Nicole, which is) of the last decade, which led me to the antidote to Christmas shows, Merrie Hell. The two-hander, with David Hoyle in drag, is largely made up of songs which range from cheeky & naughty to rude & shocking, with semi-improvised dialogue in-between involving selected members of the audience. Tough it took a short while to settle, I found it refreshing fun and something very different, particularly at this time of year.

Art

I caught the Cecil Beaton War Photographs exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on its last day and was very glad I did. For a man largely known for highly staged fashion, royalty and celebrity photography, it was a revelation. Putting some of this better known work (plus theatre, ballet and opera designs) alongside the extraordinary wartime photos taken around the world showed both his range and his talent and, for me at least, that he was no posh toff one-trick-pony.

Anthony Gormley’s exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey is a departure from his obsession with bodies – a lot of rectangles and squares – which I found dull until the final room where, after signing a disclaimer(!), you enter a giant steel structure somewhat like a maze. Overall though, I’d rather he returned to his obsession as the work is a whole lot more engaging.

This year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the ICA were dreadful. There is nothing more to be said! Richard Hamilton’s late works round the corner and straight after at the National Gallery were better, though even a one-room exhibition can be monotonous when all the pictures seem to be nudes posing in unlikely places doing unlikely things like hoovering!

Other

A couple of ‘visits’ this month, the first Hidden Barbican – a backstage tour that took in the stage, fly tower, orchestra pit, dressing and rehearsal rooms. For a theatre obsessive like me, a real treat.

Back in The City for another livery company which I’d previously only visited for a concert in their hall; Stationer’s Hall. The tour was full of lovely tales (stationers are so-called because their City positions were, well, stationary!) through lovely rooms with particularly good stained glass including a 19th century window commemorating Shakespeare.

 

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As an antidote to reviewing early performances, I find myself seeing this in the last week of its run. To be honest, despite the inclusion of three favourites in the cast (Sheridan Smith, Adrian Scarborough and Anne Reid) I couldn’t really get up the enthusiasm, but eventually felt it had to be done before it was too late!

Well its another case of first-half-dull-second-half-good; though I don’t recall that being the case with previous Hedda’s. Not enough happens in the 90 minutes to the interval, which for me is way too long for scene-setting, character development and plot set-up. Ill-matched couple Hedda and George return from their elongated honeymoon and she proves to be a bit of a control freak and a bit of a bitch. After the interval, it’s action packed as Hedda’s encouragement of Eilert’s suicide results in her own, presumably through guilt.

Les Brotherston’s design is a beautifully elegant 19th century Norwegian home, but a bit clumsy – with a glass room inhabiting the middle of the stage meaning a lot of unnecessary door opening and detours on foot (and challenging sight lines at the sides). Brian Friel’s translation and Anna Mackmin’s staging seem very conservative when compared with the Young Vic’s recent fresh take on A Doll’s House, though Sheridan Smith’s take on Hedda is different (a more manipulative ice queen) as is Adrian Scarborough’s George (a more lovable buffoon).

I did enjoy the (shorter) second half and admired all of the performances throughout. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch Sheridan Smith extend her range yet again; she really is proving to be one of our finest young actors. The length and dullness of the first half does prove fatal though, and I left feeling it was yet another revival rather than something special.

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This is a long three hours! Unlike his contemporary Shakespeare, Middleton doesn’t have the richness of verse, depth of characterisation or profusion of sub-plots to sustain a long evening. Though there is still a certain resonance today, it’s still surprising that 2nd division Elizabethan fare like this is being revived after almost 400 years.

A bank clerk rather implausibly bags a beautiful rich wife only to find she’s soon ‘requisitioned’ by the Duke. Another beauty is offered in marriage to a fool and abused by her uncle. Her evil aunt colluded with both. Of course, it all ends in tears with an unfeasibly high body count!

The pace of the first 80 minutes really is slow and even though it picks up in the second half, I couldn’t really recover my spirits. 15 minutes before the end it seems like they thought ‘well, we’ve got a lot of plot to cover and lots of people to kill off with little time left, so we’d better get a move on’ because these last 15 minutes are an extraordinary choreographed surreal pageant to jazz accompaniment that seems to come from a different play altogether.

I liked Les Brotherston’s set and costumes, but I’m not sure the jazz ‘soundtrack’ really works and I can’t say any of the performances caught my imagination. We’ve come to expect more from director Marianne Elliott, and I’m afraid I left disappointed.

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