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Posts Tagged ‘Lionel Bart’

This show came just two years after Lionel Bart’s mega-hit Oliver. Based on a folk ballad about a Liverpool prostitute, featuring unions, dock strikes and political boycotts of cargos of arms destined for misuse in Africa, I’m not sure it had ‘hit’ written all over it. The great British public had other ideas, though, and it ran for 1.5 years, though this is the first professional revival 55 years later. I did see an NYT production 27 years ago, though, in which this theatre’s AD apparently appeared! The Finborough certainly gets my gold star for reviving it at last.

Maggie’s childhood sweetheart Casey decided not to follow in his dad’s unionist footsteps and goes off to be a seaman. When he returns, she’s a professional woman, an empathetic character, and they struggle to rekindle their relationship, as Casey struggles to re-establish himself in the docks. It’s a very working class story, anchored in Liverpool, with a book by local boy Alun Owen. Designer Verity Johnson works wonders conjuring up a dockside setting with some pulleys, steps and crates and I thought it had an authenticity of both location and period, and decent accents.

The story is a bit of a cocktail of ingredients, as is the musical style. If you’re being generous, you might say eclectic; a less positive take would be a bit of a rag-bag, including ballads and knees-ups with snatches of the Mersey sound of the period.  It’s played gamely on solo piano, occasionally breathlessly, by MD Harry Brennan. After a shaky start, Matthew Iliffe’s production gets into its stride with some fine choreography from Sam Spencer-Lane and an enthusiastic ensemble led by Kara Lily Hayworth as Maggie and James Darch as Casey.

It’s amazing the things you find out when you’re reading around a show, on this occasion that Judy Garland, a friend of Bart’s, recorded an EP of four songs from it!

Great to see it staged professionally after all these years. Unmissable for historians and lovers of musical theatre.

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Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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This was the fifth of five shows for which Lionel Bart was the sole composer and lyricist over a six year period in the early sixties, the most famous of which was of course Oliver. I’ve seen the others, though they are rarely put on, and though they’re not as good as his masterpiece, they are decent populist fare and they did well at the time. This last one was a troubled show which the director, his friend and mentor Joan Littlewood, walked out of before its opening. Bert Shevelove (book writer of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) came to the rescue, but he couldn’t. The opening night was a fiasco and the show a critical and commercial flop (closing early, allowing one of it’s stars, Ronnie Corbett, to take a job on the Frost Report. It’s other stars included Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw and Long John Baldry!). The fact Bart had added an LSD habit to his heavy drinking may have something to do with it. I’m not sure it’s been seen in London since; this Bart fan certainly hasn’t seen it.

There’s a new book by Guildford School of Acting’s Julian Woolford, commissioned by the Bart estate ten years ago and first performed at GSD, and the music has been adapted by Richard John, but I’m not sure what that means. It doesn’t breathe new life into the story of Robin Hood, who’s lost his twang, hence the title, but the production does, by effectively sending itself, and musical theatre, up in a bawdy innuendo-laden romp. There are lots of quotations from and references to other musicals – Les Mis, Phantom, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Legally Blonde, Wicked etc., a running joke where character Alan-A-Dale is trying to write a song called Living Doll (one of Bart’s, of course), somewhat like the title character in a much later musical Blondel, set in the Crusades with King Richard at the same time as this in Britain featuring his brother, and a lot of jazz hands choreography.

Whatever you think of the show, panto in my case, you have to admire the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast, under Bryan Hodgson’s direction, who give it their all and whose fun is infectious. After the first few minutes, I wasn’t expecting a fun night, but they swept me away and it was.

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There’s nothing like a bit of child labour & abduction, domestic abuse & murder to lift your New Year spirits! It struck me more than ever on Saturday how dark this show is. Perhaps it’s the passage of time, or perhaps its Paul Kerryson’s very un-twee production. It also struck me how great the score is too; Lionel Bart’s masterpiece.

It would be pointless to relate the story; if you don’t know it, you’ve been hibernating. Here’s it’s performed on a brilliant set by Matt Kinley, which transforms from the streets to interiors, managing to convey a sense of 19th century London yet provide intimacy for ‘smaller’ scenes. I particularly liked the way the cast could come forward, in front of the orchestra pit, for choruses. Andrew Wright’s choreography feels fresh yet faithful to the period. It feels very much like a new production, but it’s hard to pin down exactly why. I liked it a lot.

It’s superbly well cast, with Peter Polycarpou one of the best Fagin’s I’ve seen and Oliver Boot a particularly menacing Sikes. Cat Simmons (now replaced by Laura Pitt-Pulford no less) was an authentic Nancy whose voice did full justice to her lovely songs. In the smaller roles I particularly liked James Gant’s Mr Bumble (a fine voice indeed) and Jenna Boyd’s Widow Corney (whose boobs caused much debate and some nervousness that they might not remain within. 8-year-old Lily called them jelly boobies!). The kids in the workhouse and Fagin’s gang were fantastic.

It might be questionable as seasonal fare and it may not be suitable for young children, but my gang of four generations all enjoyed it.

 

 

 

 

 

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When I went to see the workshop of this new adaptation of Joan Littlewood / Frank Norman / Lionel Bart’s 1959 show, I enjoyed it very much but never expected it to turn out this good. Elliot Davies has added songs like Do You Mind? and Living Doll from the Lional Bart ‘songbook’ to turn the show from a play-with-music into a fully fledged musical – and it works very well indeed.

We’re in a seedy Soho club in the 50’s with loveable rogues and prostitutes. It centres on club owner Fred and his ex-brass girlfriend Lil and pimp Tosher and his working girls Betty, Brenda & Margaret. Bent copper PC Collins pays regular visits to collect his cut and Paddy becomes a fixture when he wins half the club in a game of cards. Meatface (offstage) presents their greatest threat. Innocent homeless Rosie gets taken in and adopted by the girls, exploited by Tosher and hurt by Meatface. Petty criminal Red Hot takes refuge on release from prison. Outrageously camp Horace is invited in to give them a makeover and posh Percy & even posher Myrtle come to the subsequent re-opening. We love them all (well, apart from Meatface, obviously).

Writer Frank Norman was from this world, so the story, characters and situations ooze authenticity, albeit a little caricatured and romanticised. William Dudley (where has he been recently?) has created a brilliantly authentic club to match, with clever projections onto the skylights. Terry Johnson’s staging and Nathan M Wright’s choreography make it all sparkle. Above all, though, it’s the perfect casting that is probably its greatest success. I’ve only seen East Ender Jessie Wallace in Rent; here’s she’s so much more at home as Lil, with a surprisingly good voice. Mark Arden couldn’t look more the part if he had the best make-up and prosthetics money can buy; he’s the embodiment of Fred. I’ve admired Suzie Chard for a while and it’s great to see her commanding the stage and sometimes stealing the show as Betty. You love to hate but can’t help loving Stefan Booth’s Tosher and Sarah Middelton’s Rosie melts your heart with her gorgeous voice. There’s are terrific cameos from Christopher Ryan as Red Hot (there’s a delicious moment when he’s singing along to Living Doll, famously revived by The Young Ones – of which he was one – with Cliff Richard for Comic Relief) and Ryan Molloy as camp designer Horace who sweeps in and sweeps you away.

Of course, we’re back where it started at the Theatre Royal Stratford East where it fits like a glove, proving a right old East End knees-up. A treat.

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This world premiere of an unfinished Lionel Bart musical is a real coup for The Kings Head Theatre, even more so since their staring point was a rough book and a CD of songs put together to woo potential investors.

You wouldn’t expect Bart to write a show like this – everything he did was quintessentially British; indeed quintessentially London – but as soon as you hear the music you know it’s him; the melodies are distinctively his – and there are some lovely songs in this show.

Seven ladders covered with cobwebs and a clever loft, designed by Christopher Hoe, make up the Paris of the hunchback on this tiny stage. Jonathan Lipman’s punk gothic costumes add an appropriately seedy quality. Quasimodo, abandoned as a child, brought up by a priest, occupies the bell tower of Notre Dame. He’s treated as a freak by all he meets and as a possession by the priest, who’s fondness for him is more than a bit creepy. When Esmerelda is pursued by the lowlife of Paris, he takes her in, protects her and falls in love with her.

Though it’s a roughly drawn book by Christopher Bond (also responsible for the original Sweeney Todd at Stratford East, which inspired Sondheim to write his), director Robert Chevara has done well to make something of the story and most importantly to showcase the lovely music, which is beautifully played by Peter Mitchell’s small band of piano, accordion and clarinet and sung by a cast in fine voice. Steven Webb is very good as Quasimodo and amongst a small but exceptional supporting cast, Zoe George shines as Esmerelda, particularly in the vocal department.

Though it’s clearly still an unfinished work, it’s definitely worth seeing if you are a lover of musical theatre and a must for Bart fans. He was a great, and underrated, composer who was a whole lot more than Oliver! but who may only be remembered for it.

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When I can travel in time, I will go to a lot of first nights of iconic shows. One of them will be in 1959 for the opening of Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop production of this show at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

I’ve been banging on about the lack of revivals of British musicals, particularly those of Lionel Bart and Howard Goodall, and now we get one of each in successive months. In truth, this one is a bit light on story but it’s got good songs and makes you nostalgic for a singalong in an old East End boozer.

Having never seen the show, I don’t know how much is this production (depiction of the Krays?) and how much is faithful to the original, but given the original was partly improvised, it seems fair game to change it. It certainly comes up fresh, though the cockney’s are all now more caricatures and stereotypes.

When it transferred to the West End, they didn’t comply entirely with censor Lord Chamberlain’s demands for cuts and after he visited (according to Frank Norman, on whose book it is based,) he asked for the following:

  1. The interior decorator is not to be played as a homosexual
  2. The labourer is not to carry the plank of wood in the erotic place and at the erotic angle that he does
  3. Tosher is not to put his hand on Red Hot’s bottom with finger aligned as he does at the moment and not to push her backwards against the table when dancing in such a manner that her legs appear through his open legs in a manner indicative of copulation (this is a particular puzzle, as Red Hot as a male character!)

Well, a lot changes in 50 years and Phil Wilmot’s production at the Union Theatre seems to be more faithful to the pre-censored edition than the post-censored edition. It’s actually rather racy, probably more than it was but maybe as they’d have liked at the time.

We’re in a brothel in Soho, whose owner Fred has just left prison to find things in his manor somewhat different. His long-suffering girlfriend Lil has been keeping things running, but the power balance has changed. There are working girls, lovable rogues, a hapless thief, a camp interior decorator, a toff and a few harmless coppers. Fred sells the ‘club’ to the retiring police inspector and his working girlfriend and finally marries Lil. The characters Fred and Lil owe a lot to Nathan and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, as indeed does the show –well, in a seedier and tackier way.

The staging really is spot on with excellent choreography from Nick Winston and Oliver Townsend’s design makes great use of the Union Theatre space. Hannah-Jane Fox and Neil McCall are great as Fred and Lil, with excellent chemistry, and have superb support from Susie Chard & Ruth Alfie Adams as girls, Jo Parsons as Tosher & Robert Donald as Red Hot and Hadrian Delacey as the police inspector. I’m afraid Richard Foster-King over-acted mercilessly as interior decorator Horace (which a cast member’s uninhibited granddad pointed out loudly at the time!). The East End boozer feel was helped at the performance I attended by granddad’s companions – a large group of a cast member’s cockney family and friends who whooped, screeched, cheered and, well, sang along.

This is a rare and very welcome revival that comes out fresh and funny and another feather in the Union’s cap.

 

 

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