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This new musical is based on the true story of a West Country vagrant who fooled ‘society’ into believing her to be an exotic princess. It was the subject of a 1994 film (co-written by John Wells, no less) and a 2012 novel by Catherine Johnson, but I’d never heard of it! It was intended for a big-scale production in Bristol, but that never materialised, so the Finborough Theatre has the privilege of presenting its world premiere.

An Iberian sailor introduces the ‘princess’ to benevolent aristocrats Sir Charles & Lady Elizabeth Worrall. She reminds them of their dear departed daughter and they ‘adopt’ her and introduce her to society. Their destitute nephew Eddie returns from his travels at sea and attempts to decipher her language, in the process of which he falls for her and she for him. His old school chum, now Lord Marlborough, a better catch, also courts her, though his attraction seems to be more lust than love. She is eventually found out and her benefactors humiliated by The Times revelations of the truth. She returns to poverty before finding her escape route.

It’s good subject matter for a musical and Phil Willmott has done a very good job adapting it for the stage, though the opening is a bit muddled as we’re presented with an illustrated ‘lecture’ by Worrall, with scenes played out by his staff. The lecture as narration might work better on its own without the play-within-a-play idea. The shows strongest point is a lovey, tuneful score by Willmott and Mark Collins, here very well sung (though occasionally a touch more vocal restraint by some would have made it even better) with excellent orchestrations played by a trio of keyboards, violin & winds led by MD Freddie Tapner

You can see how it would work on a bigger scale, though it works perfectly well on this scale, with ten performers playing all of the roles. Choreographer Thomas Michael Voss even manages to get some effective dance & movement in this tiny space. The production values are very good, with a simple uncluttered design by Toby Burbridge, making particularly good use of a large mirror and models of houses and ships, and Penn O’Gara’s costumes are excellent. It’s a fine cast without a weak link. Phil Sealey and Sarah Lawn were delightful as the Worrall’s, Christian James made a charming Eddie and Nikita Johal a fine Princess. I was particularly impressed by Oliver Stanley as Marlborough, as close to a baddie as we get in this show.

It’s refreshing to have a new musical whose setting isn’t contemporary, which has more than four characters and which isn’t Sondheimesque! I’m sure this won’t be its last outing, but anyone interested in musical theatre should head for the Finborough in the next two weeks.

 

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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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