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Posts Tagged ‘Louis Maskell’

This is a musical theatre adaptation of one of prolific American novelist Paul Gallico’s four Mrs Harris books. Quite how an American gets to write about a post-war British char lady I don’t know, but I’m pleased he did, and even more pleased Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor have turned it into a charming, heart warming, quintessentially British show which gets a short run in Chichester following it’s premiere in Sheffield two years ago.

Set in the late forties, war widow Ada Harris lives in Battersea, working as a char lady, as does her best friend and neighbour Violet. She talks to the spirit of her husband, who is always with her. Her ‘clients’ include an accountant, a wannabe actress, a retired major and a foreign Countess trading in antiques. She is forever undertaking acts of kindness for them all.

Violet’s clients include Lady Dant and when Ada covers for her there, she is spellbound by a Christian Dior dress and becomes obsessed with owning something so beautiful. Somehow she manages to get enough money together and heads to Paris where she is initially greeted with disbelief and disdain, but eventually charms everyone in her path until she returns with a Dior dress made for her. She also spreads her kindness in Paris, the results of which follow her home in flowers, but not until after another act of kindness back home ends tragically.

Taylor builds on his experience with The Go-Between (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/the-go-between) and produces an even better score. I would describe his very original musical voice as tuneful but song-less and (almost) sung-through! It suits the story so well, flowing beautifully, as does Daniel Evans impeccable staging, with much use of the revolve. Lez Brotherston’s designs are simple but gorgeous, with the private fashion show in the House of Dior taking your breathe away as eight models descent the stairs in stunning gowns.

Evans has got himself a faultless cast, led by Clare Burt, who follows her star turn as working class theatrical hero Joan Littlewood with another star turn as another working class hero. Clare Machin delights once again, this time as friend Violet, morphing deliciously into the French cleaner at Dior. Louis Maskall is terrific as Bob the accountant and Dior’s Head of Finance Andre; his leg acting alone deserves an award! Joanna Riding, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Mark Meadows, Nicola Sloane, Gary Wilmot, Rhona McGregor and Luke Latchman are all excellent, doubling up as London and Paris characters, with five of them adding one, two or three more. It was lovely to see Tom Brady’s ten-piece band leave the pit to get a well earned ovation.

The show’s message about kindness seems particularly welcome today. Another wonderful feel-good afternoon in Chichester. I do hope it gets a London transfer as it’s too good to see only once!

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Victor Hugo was fond of outsiders, and the grinning man seems to be the hunchback’s lesser known brother. Written in 1869, it has subsequently been adapted as a film six times and for the stage four times, twice as a musical, like this new one from Bristol Old Vic. He may also be the inspiration for Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Here the tale gets a suitably Gothic telling in a brilliant production by Tom Morris.

Set in 17th century England, young Gwynplaine’s mouth has been mutilated and now has a rather spooky perpetual grin. He rescues an infant girl when her mother is frozen to death and they are taken in by carnival proprietor Ursus, where Gwynplaine uses his misfortune to make his living in freak shows. The infant is named Dea and she’s blind. When she’s in her teens, they fall in love, but Gwynpaine is lured away to the royal court where he is destined to marry into royalty, but instead he returns to the carnival, which proves tragic.

Jon Bausor’s transformation of the problematic Trafalgar Studio I is terrific and his Gothic design and Jean Chan’s costumes combine to make a great look. Finn Caldwell & Toby Olie’s puppetry is highly effective, particularly Ursus’ pet wolf, where an actor seems to be a part of the animal. Tim Phillips & Mark Teitler’s music has a darkness to it and is unlike any other musical theatre score I’ve heard since The Tiger Lillies’ Shockheaded Peter almost 20 years ago. It’s a big book and Carl Grouse has done a fine job creating a much shorter, clear narrative.

Louis Maskell is excellent as Gwynpaine, though we never see his real face, and I loved Sanne Den Besten’s fragile, blind Dea. Their exit at the end took my breathe away. Julian Bleach as Barkilphedro and Sean Kingsley as Ursus are both outstanding and Mark Anderson brings a lighter touch to Dirry-Moir, the royal suitor Gwynpaine deposes.

It’s another breath of fresh air for the West End and I do hope it finds its audience there; on the night I went, they loved it, as did I.

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The Union Theatre is opening its new space with a revival of Michael Strassen’s 2012 production of this show by Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey. It was a US Presidential election year then, as it is now, but it feels even more timely. We begin with a quote from Trump, then a few more from current and former presidents before the opening scene where Presidential candidate Reed Chandler, tipped to win, dies on the eve of his anticipated appointment. His widow is determined that there will be a Chandler dynasty, so she goes about grooming reluctant son Cal, with the help of her dead husband’s brother and campaign manager Grahame, with a speedy rise through local and state politics with the White House in their sights. An arranged marriage and a convenient child help, but his lover, cocaine habit and mafia connections don’t.

When they mounted it last time I thought it was better than the Donmar’s world premiere in 1997, and I still do. It’s the same stripped back production ‘without decor’ but there’s some new casting which takes it to another level. I thought Lucy Williamson was sensational as the power obsessed mother Violet, Ken Christiansen was just as good as her crippled brother-in-law Grahame and Madalena Alberto was terrific as the ill-fated mistress Tina. All three are seasoned musical theatre professionals and it shows. Fra Fee did well as Cal, but in truth I didn’t think he suited the role as much as Louis Maskell did last time around. When I saw there was an electric quartet and no vocal amplification I was a bit nervous but the band was restrained and the vocals and lyrics shone through.

The new Union is having a few teething problems, notably with air handling, but I’m sure they’ll be resolved and we can revel in the new space and it’s bar, food and fragrant toilets! If they configure eight rows deep again though, they need to increase the rake as the sightlines are challenging for the short.

I’m very much looking forward to the new Union providing as much enjoyment as the old one, with two more shows already booked!

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This American musical had its first production here in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in 1997, directed by Sam Mendes no less and starring a then largely unknown John Barrowman. Writers John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe went on to write the stage musical of The Witches of Eastwick three years later, which got a big scale production in the West End under the auspices of Cameron Mackintosh, but have not done a lot in the 12 years since than.

This revival at the Union Theatre has Michael Strassen at the helm; his recent productions of Company, Assassins, The Bakers Wife and Godspell at the same venue have wowed. He has a knack of creating stylish and slick shows with next to no set, relying on costumes lighting and the odd prop or two, as it is here. It looks terrific, but there’s no set – Neil Gordon’s costumes and Steve Miller’s lighting do it all.

Senator Reed Chandler dies on the eve of becoming president and his widow Violet becomes obsessed with the objective of ensuring her son Cal follows in his footsteps and makes it to the White House. She’s helped by her scheming and spinning brother-in-law Grahame, the architect of Reed’s campaign. Cal follows a fast track trajectory from the forces through City Hall to Governor acquiring a loveless marriage (and child), a mistress or two and a cocaine habit along the way. The family’s unsavory Mafia friends become their downfall as history repeats itself.

This production is brilliantly staged and paced; you’re on the edge of your seat for much of the time. The pop rock score sounds great with a (sadly uncredited) five-pice band under MD Simon Lambert in this snug venue, and outstanding unamplified singing from all involved. The three leads are simply extraordinary – Louis Maskell as son Cal has great presence and a fantastic voice, Liz May Brice convey’s Violet’s ambition, determination and passion superbly and Miles Western is terrific as the machiavellian fixer.

A musical I remember to be OK has scrubbed up great. Maybe it’s found its time now that such scheming and manipulation is more commonplace, or maybe its just a fine cast and creative team on top form. Whatever it is, you have to go!

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