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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Umbers’

For the second time in a month, I am in awe of a talented team’s ability to breathe new life into a somewhat twee old warhorse. This is as much of a treat as Half a Sixpence.

It’s a love story set in a perfumerie in 1940’s Budapest. Amalia is in love with her pen pal ‘Dear Friend’ who’s closer to home than she thinks. One of the shop’s sales clerks is having an affair with owner Maraczek’s wife. Young delivery boy Arpad is desperate to become a sales clerk. It’s the third adaptation of Hungarian Miklos Laszio’s novel, following a James Stewart film and a Judy Garland film musical, originally staged in London in 1964. They don’t come sweeter than this.

I wasn’t that keen on the 1994 West End revival, in which life imitated art as it brought stars John Gordon Sinclair and Ruthie Henshall together, but I warmed to it in the Landor’s revival last year. Now, like Sixpence, a combination of perfect ingredients – venue, staging & choreography, design, and performances – combine to create what may prove to be the definitive production. There’s a terrific café scene to end Act I, and the second half is full of show-stopping numbers like Arpad’s Try Me, Amalia’s Where’s My Shoe, Georg’s title song and Ilona’s Trip to the Library

Let’s start with Paul Farnsworth’s stunning design, creating a beautiful period parfumerie (with a lot of bottles), with no less than four revolves, that smoothly turns into a cafe, bedroom and the street, and his gorgeous costumes. Rebecca Howell’s chirpy choreography is a delight, especially in the somewhat manic Twelve Days if Christmas. Catherine Jayes’ band plays brilliantly.

The whole cast is terrific, but Scarlett Strallen deserves a special mention, returning to the Menier after her success in Candide, as does Mark Umbers as Georg, returning to the scene of two previous triumphs in Sweet Charity & Merrily We Roll Along, as her love interest. Katherine  Kingsley provides another of her show-stealing turns as Ilona and 17-year-old Callum Howells is an absolute delight as Arpad. It’s staged to perfection by Matthew White, who already has three Menier hits under his belt.

This is an absolutely unmissable seasonal treat.

 

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There are two things that propel Maria Friedman’s production of this most complicated of Sondheim shows from good to great  – faultless casting (well, she’s a musical theatre actress; it takes one to know one?) and Catherine Jayes terrific 9-piece band.

The show tells the story of composer Franklin Shepherd, his partnership with writer Charley Kringas and his relationships with wife Beth, lover Gussie & friend Mary…..but it tells it backwards from when he’s ‘sold out’ to Hollywood in 1976 to a night on the roof of their NYC apartment block as they begin their careers and as Sputnik is launched, heralding a new world. Chronologically, Frank & Charley start with their own fringe review, get picked up by a Broadway producer to write a musical and break up the partnership on live TV along the way. The producer’s wife, Broadway star Gussie, steals Frank from Beth and we learn that all the time he has been the (unrequited) love of Mary’s life.

In this production, the score really does shine. It doesn’t have showstoppers, but it has some terrific melodies and brilliant bittersweet lyrics with tunes weaving in and out and overlapping in a way only Sondheim can do. It’s the third production of the show I’ve seen, plus the Donmar’s extraordinary concert version as part of Sondheim’s 80th which is still ringing in my ears, but I still saw and heard new things; such is the depth and density of the material. It had a lot to live up to, but it did.

Jenna Russell is cast against type (until the end/beginning) but she’s wonderful as both initially cynical & bitter and  later/earlier excited & naiive Mary. Mark Umbers is superb as Frank, with an agelessness which enables him to be believable over the 20 year span. I didn’t think I knew Damien Humbley, who plays Charley brilliantly, until I read the programme and realised I’d seen and liked him in a handful of shows – he clearly inhabits characters rather than stars in shows. Josefina Gabrielle excels as predatory Gussie, propelled herself from PA to star. Having seen Glyn Kerslake as Frank in Derby in 2007, it was great to see him as Broadway producer Joe here. I thought Clare Foster perfectly captured small-town Beth, more comfortable as wife and mother than in the company of more superficial minor celebs. Amongst a fine supporting company, Martin Callaghan and Amanda Minihan made a much biger impression than the size of their roles.

I was less convinced by Soutra Gilmour’s design, perhaps a bit over-engineered, though in all fairness it does have to become a Californian beach house with pool, TV studio, NYC apartment, apartment roof and townhouse, Broadway theatre and club with side orders of stage door and greenhouse! The costumes (and wigs!) have a big role to play in moving the period back from the mid-70’s to the late 50’s and they do it very well though, perhaps like the set, somewhat  unattractively. 

It’s a big show for a small theatre but they get away with it and for a directorial debut, its hugely impressive. A second visit looks as as if it’s in order……

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This is the sixth, and probably last, of my Rattigan centenary productions. His short one-acter, The Browning Version, set in a public school in the 40’s is usually paired with another one-acter called Harlequinade. Here it’s paired with a new play from David Hare set in a similar school 20 years later.

Rattigan’s play is a deeply moving tale of a school master with an unfaithful wife and unfair employer, but at its heart is an act of kindness by a pupil. A set of superb performances make Angus Jackson’s production shine like a gem. Nicholas Farrell as the master is initially pompous and irritating, but then almost breaks your heart. Anna Chancellor is icy cold as his unfaithful wife and Mark Umbers diffident but ultimately sympathetic as her lover. Liam Morton gives a very nuanced performance as the boy, a most auspicious professional debut. It’s a subtle and sensitive staging which benefits greatly from the intimacy of the Minerva space.

Hare’s ‘curtain raiser’ shows 60’s boys more questioning and challenging, but little else has changed in public schools with bullying a fact of daily school life. Older pupil Jeremy takes young John under his wing introducing him to his mother, Anna Chancellor now in a much more sympathetic role.  Again, an act of kindness is at the heart of the play, but this time we see things from the perspective of the pupil. The younger boys – Alex Lawther’s John, Jack Elliott’s Gunter (two more outstanding professional debuts) and Bradley Hall’s Jenkins are terrific and again the staging, this time by Jeremy Herrin, is subtle and sensitive.

Though they are very different plays, they sit very comfortably together and provide a deeply rewarding and very human evening, linked by these acts of kindness 20 years apart and 50-70 years ago, yet timeless.

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