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Posts Tagged ‘Lotte Wakeham’

I thought Islington only had one claim to fame in modern history – the meeting between Blair and Brown in Granita Restaurant which laid the foundations for the next sixteen years of British politics. It turns out another meeting twenty-two years later, over dinner in Boris Johnson’s home, may have sealed the fate of the recent referendum. Ironic that it took place in what is probably a remain stronghold.

The first half of Jonathan Maitland’s play seeks to re-enact the dinner where the Johnson’s were joined by the Gove’s and Evgeny Lebedev. His date Liz Hurley didn’t show up, apparently. Boris is yet to decide on Leave or Remain, a complex decision concerning his career more than the fate of his party and country. Everyone else is egging him on to go for Leave, though he is visited by three ghosts, two of which – Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill – favour Leave and Tony Blair Remain. Lebedev is too busy name-dropping, including a cheeky moment where the theory that he intervenes in the Evening Standard theatre awards gets promulgated, to have much of an opinion about such a trivial issue. We get a couple of interviews with Huw Edwards bookending this act. The second act leaps forward to 2029. Boris has a new wife and a knighthood, Gove has a new career and Lebedev is still dropping names with wild abandon. We continue to be visited by the three ghosts. To say much more would spoil it, so I won’t.

The first half pulls more punches, the satire is on the light side, but it’s often very funny, it’s superbly performed and it pandered to my prejudices (though not vicious enough for me!) and there’s a coup d’theatre from designer Louie Whitemore that was particularly dramatic from the front row. Will Barton is outstanding as Boris, relying on speech, mannerisms, hair and disheveled clothing rather than physical similarity. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart captures Gove’s obsequious oiliness brilliantly. Steve Nallon almost steals the show as Maggie, but he’s been playing her since Spitting Image, so he’s had a longer rehearsal period. Tim Wallers gets to switch between a newly beardless Lebedev, Blair and Huw Edwards. Annabel Weir is very good as Gove’s wife Sarah Vine and Churchill (!) and Devina Moon plays both Mrs Johnson’s very well indeed.

It’s light entertainment rather than biting satire, but in the 34th month of the shit-storm it proved to be a therapeutic fun night out. If you go in liking the two main protagonists, it probably won’t change anything. If, like me, you think they are self-serving careerists with no interest in their country, or even their party, who history will look back on as two of the biggest post-war political assholes, you’ll walk out feeling just the same!

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There have been countless productions and adaptations of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera since it was first performed in 1728, the most famous of which was Brecht & Weil’s The Threepenny Opera exactly two-hundred years later in 1928. It wasn’t an opera, but a musical satire on opera, and it is believed to be the first musical. Only last year Kneehigh gave us their take on it, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/dead-dog-in-a-suitcase-and-other-love-songs). Sixteen years ago it was adapted as The Villain’s Opera at the National, which did a great production of the original in the 80’s. Out Of Joint did a version called The Convict’s Opera seven years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2009/03/22/the-convicts-opera). The RSC did it in the 90’s. The Open Air Theatre did it five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/the-beggars-opera). Now Dougal Irvine gives us his own modern take, set in London during the 2012 Olympics. Though I don’t share his cynical view of The Games, I did like his adaptation and I think its the best of the modern ones.

He starts by putting it in the context of the Gay original and Brecht & Weill’s adaptation in an opening explanatory scene, which helps an audience new to it. Macheath is the busker, wannabe rock star and former talent show contestant. He marries Polly Peachum, daughter of a newspaper baron, and impregnates Lucy Lockit, design goods obsessed daughter of the London Mayor, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the outdoing buffoon. Peachum’s sidekick Macheath and Polly are part of a protest group called 99%, intent on disrupting The Games and exposing London’s oppression of its underclass. It’s a clever adaptation, all in rhyming couplets, with a higher body count than I remember from other productions and adaptations.

One of its great strengths is the quality of Irvine’s music; he really does know how to write a good tune. He also writes sharp satirical, witty lyrics, though I did wonder if a book writer might have helped to give the show more shape. It’s other strength is in the casting. George Maguire, pretty much direct from his Olivier winning performance as Dave Davies in Sunny Afternoon, is perfectly cast as Macheath, with great charisma and swagger. Simon Kane’s Boris inspired Mayor is a hoot, aided by seeing it on the eve of the London Mayoral election. They are very lucky to have someone of the calibre and experience of David Burt, who delivers a rather sinister Peachum (he was Peachum in The Villain’s Opera and Macheath in the RSC’s production!). Lauren Samuels, herself direct from her superb performance in Bend It Like Beckham, is a sweet but feisty Polly and recent Mountview graduate Natasha Lockitt is in terrific vocal form as Lucy.

I felt Lotte Wakeham’s production was a bit rough at the edges, but I liked its chutzpah and edginess and would certainly recommend it. Next up is the National’s revival of The Threepenny Opera, newly adapted by Simon Stephens, later in the month; if only Gay knew what he’d started……

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Well, that’s a turn up for the books – an Andrew Lloyd Webber show I rather enjoyed. I’d convinced myself he only produced pompous pop operas with mushy scores after Starlight Express, but I hadn’t seen this when it was first produced fourteen years ago. It probably helps seeing it on a small scale and in an imaginative production with a fine young cast.

Set in the late 60’s in Northern Ireland, it follows a catholic soccer team and the fate of its players and their partners during ‘the troubles’. Thomas joins the IRA. John gets married. Ginger is the victim of protestant paramilitaries. Daniel turns to crime. Though only Thomas becomes a terrorist, the others are dragged in. It does a good job showing how the troubles affected peoples lives and has more edginess and less sentimentality than I was expecting.

It’s traverse staging is effective (well, unless you get a pillar to partially block your view, like me) with particularly good presentation of the football games, with spectators behind the audience. David Shields’ simple but evocative design puts the band behind barricades, political slogans painted on doors & walls and four benches creating dressing rooms, churches and coffins. The musical standards are exceptional, with both band and vocals consistently hitting the mark. It’s a fine young cast with uniformly good acting, movement & singing.

The Irish influenced music is surprisingly good, but its let down by Ben Elton’s weak book and lyrics, which delivers some excruciating moments. That said, this is the kind of high quality intimate staging that can paper over the cracks in the show itself. Director Lotte Wakeham and choreographer Tim Jackson have done a fine job.

A surprise hit for me, which made me wonder if there are other ALW shows which would benefit from more intimate and less overblown productions.

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I’ve always been puzzled by the critical indifference to Howard Goodall’s musicals. For me, in the (short) list of great British composers of musicals he comes top and his first show, the Hired Man, sits with Les Miserables and West Side Story as one of my favourite musical scores.

Even though he has a very distinctive sound, which is distinctively British, it changes subtly to suit the subject matter. Only three of his nine musicals have been produced in the West End. 25 years ago, The Hired Man lost the Olivier Award to the highly unoriginal 42nd Street (leading lady ill, chorus girl’s big break, yawn…yawn…), soon after Girlfriends closed very quickly (though in fairness, the production didn’t live up to the Bolton premiere) and then we had to wait 24 years for Love Story, one of the best chamber musicals ever, which also got an undeserved early bath.

The Hired Man gets revived on a small scale fairly frequently, Days Of Hope (a lovely show set in the Spanish Civil War) occasionally but the 2nd World War Girlfriends, as far as I know, has never been revived. Two Cities (based on Dickens) was only seen outside London and the other four, like this one, were written for youth groups. Only The Hired Man and Days of Hope have ever been recorded, so you can’t even listen to the music to find out what you’re missing!

I fondly remember seeing the NYMT production of this 12 years ago (with recent Olivier Award winning Sheridan Smith in the cast) at the Lyric Hammersmith and its astonishing that it has taken so long to be revived and to get its professional debut. We’re awash with fringe productions of musicals, but none of them are British. I yearn to see Lionel Bart’s Blitz! or Maggie May or Goodall’s Girlfriends. OK, end of rant and on with the review!

There can’t be many musicals based on restoration comedies like this one based on Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Moving it to the Edwardian period works; otherwise its faithful to the play and thanks to Charles Hart’s witty book and lyrics, even funnier. Goodall’s score is rich in lovely tunes and even more varied in style than most of his scores. It takes a little while to take off, but it proves to be a delight. It would have been even better to see it in a bigger space with better sight lines than the cramped and stuffy Jermyn Street Theatre.

Director Lotte Wakeham, who first impressed me with Austentatious at the Landor, has done a superb job on a simple set by Samal Blak (who worked wonders transforming the Cock Tavern for Pins & Needles) with elegant period costumes by Karen Frances. It’s partially in actor-musician mode, but Harriet Oughton at the piano has the primary musical responsibility and manages a bit of acting as well as playing the whole score!

Beverley Klein gives us another delicious musical comedy masterclass as Mrs Hardcastle. Ian Virgo (also in the original production, but as Lumpkin), Gina Beck, Dylan Turner and Gemma Sutton as the two couples at the heart of the story all act well and do full justice to Goodall’s music. It took me a while to warm to Jack Shalloo as Lumpkin (probably because I couldn’t get his terrific turn in Departure Lounge out of my head!) but he won me over.

A standing ovation for producers Peter Huntley and Charlotte Staynings for giving us this long-awaited opportunity to re-visit the show and for doing such a cracking job with it. Girlfriends? Blitz? Please!

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