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Posts Tagged ‘Menier Chocolate Factory’

Playwright Hugh Whitemore, who died this year, was better known as a TV writer, but between 1977 and 1987 he wrote four outstanding plays, all factually based, of which this was the second. The original West End production 35 years ago starred Judi Dench and her husband Michael Williams and ran for almost a year. This first major London revival at the Menier sees their daughter Finty Williams take on her mother’s role.

It’s set in 1960 in the Ruislip home of the Jackson family, a model of suburban ordinariness. Their best friends and neighbours the Krogers are apparently Canadians; the two families are very fond of each another. One day a man called Stewart enters the Jacksons’ lives and persuades them to allow surveillance from their upstairs bedroom. As the surveillance period is lengthened, Stewart feels obliged to feed them information about the reasons for it, until they discover it’s their best friends who are being watched. The highly-strung wife Barbara struggles to reconcile the reality of the warm friendship with the likelihood the Krogers are spies.

The period feel is extraordinary, from Paul Farnsworth’s brilliantly detailed design – the depth of a suburban house the width of the theatre, furniture, fittings and everyday items spot on – to the pitch perfect performances, with behaviour very much of the time. Chris Larkin and Finty Williams play the empathetic Jackson’s, the heart of the play, beautifully and Macy Nyman is terrific as their daughter Julie. Jasper Britton navigates the role of Stewart from gently persuasive to assertively determined extremely well. Tracy-Ann Oberman is excellent as brassy but loving Helen Kroger.

The attention to period detail and suspense does slow the pace, but I felt it just about sustained its length. In many ways its an old-fashioned evening, but Hannah Chissick’s impeccable production brings out all the psychological and emotional impact of this true story and makes it a very worthwhile revival.

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It’s eight years since the Menier transferred their superb revival of this show to the West End, so enough time has lapsed for me to want to see it again, though with a tinge of sadness in the week its book writer Neil Simon died. The Watermill’s revival is in its customary actor-musician style, with a touch of updating for good measure.

Based on a Fellini film, the adaptation by Simon, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, tells the story of dance-hall hostess Charity and her search for love. It starts with her being dumped, and almost drowned, by then boyfriend Charlie, before a one-night stand with Italian film star Vittorio and a two-week infatuation with nerdy accountant Oscar. It’s one of the few musical comedies without a happy ending.

The wonderful Gemma Sutton plays Charity with a combination of dippy charm, naivety, gullibility and eternal optimism, more vulnerable than usual, and she’s sensational. Her fellow hostesses try to inject some realism to prevent her exploitation, but her rosy specs are irremovable. Even though they are ‘taxi dancers’ (present day lap dancers), there’s a strong suggestion that ‘clients’ can pay more for additional services, which must have been a bit shocking when it premiered fifty years ago, though its also suggested Charity is more innocent than the rest.

The story seems a bit thinner this time around, particularly in the first half, but the score is packed with great songs – Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This, The Rhythm of Life – and they are sung and played very well. As usual, they work wonders with the small space. Diego Pitarch’s design is all black, white and red, with heart-shaped arches that light up and a small video screen at the back to signpost locations like Central Park. The costumes are more contemporary than 60’s.

The rest of the cast is excellent, with an auspicious professional debut from Alex Cardall as Oscar, and another from Tomi Ogbaro as the bass playing head of the hippy dope-smoking Rhythm of Life Church. In Paul Hart’s production, they all play instruments, in brass-dominant arrangements, and the hostesses as showgirls moving whilst playing saxes and trumpets prove irresistible.

Another treat at the lovely Watermill.

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I’ve had a soft spot for this Howard Ashman / Alan Menken musical since I saw the original London production 35 years ago. It was successfully revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory 12 years ago, heading off on tour afterwards. Now it’s the latest in the Open Air Theatre’s summer musicals, the 31st I think, reinvented by director Maria Aberg and designer Tom Scutt.

Based on Roger Corman’s iconic 1960 b-movie, the musical was an instant hit off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the West End, where it ran for two years. When it was itself made into a film, the budget was 1000 times that of the original (which gave Jack Nicholson his screen debut). You wouldn’t think it was a natural for the leafy green Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but it works. Scutt has built a B&W cartoon New York City, with a riot of colour provided by the characters and the plants of Mushnik’s shop where geeky Seymour breeds Audrey II and is in love with Audrey (I), his fellow shop assistant, who has a sadistic dentist as a boyfriend.

Audrey II becomes a sensation, leading to radio & TV interviews for Seymour and lots of new customers for the shop, but Seymour has been feeding the plant with his own blood and can hardly keep up. He ends up feeding it whole people, starting with Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, as the fame leads to magazine features, TV’s first gardening programme and a plant cutting franchise which sees plants take over America. Audrey II is normally voiced by an offstage actor / singer, but Aberg’s big idea is to bring her alive and onstage in the form of American drag queen Vicky Vox and a handful of assistants, and though a good idea, I didn’t think it really worked. Towards the end, they turned up the excess dial and it became pure fantasy with a stage full of colourful SciFi plants raising the non-existent roof in the finale of Don’t Feed the Plants. With what seemed like an additional song turning it into a bit of a rock concert, the cast invading the auditorium and green pods flying around, the audience went wild and you just had to give in.

It’s very well cast, with Marc Antolin shining as Seymour. I don’t associate Jemima Rooper and Forbes Mason with musical theatre, but they both did a great job as Audrey and Mr Mushnik. Busted’s Matt Willis was excellent as Orin the sadistic dentist, plus four great cameos as TV exec, (female) magazine editor, agent and business guru. Ms Vox was outrageous and cheeky; I’m not sure what the parents of the kids in the audience made of it. The show is famous for it’s chorus of three black girl singers (Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette – get it), an idea Tony Kushner and Jane Tesori stole for Caroline, or Change twenty years later, and Seyi Omoomba, Renee Lamb and Christina Modestou were all great.

I’ve got mixed views really. Part of me missed the nostalgic, b-movie aesthetic and part of me admired the reinvention, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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Musical theatre parody Forbidden Broadway has been running in NYC for thirty-six years in a large number of incarnations and has had two London runs in the last ten years, one even transferring to the West End. I think its a mark of respect that they’ve renamed this 2016 incarnation after the show they’ve built it around.

Morgan Large’s design is a mini-Hamilton set and cloned costumes. Most of the show contains numbers from Hamilton with new lyrics, performed by just five actors. The way they’ve structured it, about as well as parodying Hamilton, they are able to go off at tangents with references to writers like Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, spoofing their shows too, plus others like Wicked and Annie, and we even get a visit from a famous diva.

It’s great fun, but I do think the pace is relentlessly fast. Though I’ve seen Hamilton, and most of the other shows it parodies, even I couldn’t keep up, missing more than I was happy with. It’s faster than Hamilton, which is probably the point, but it’s at the expense of total comprehension. I wished it would have come up for air and given the audience a breather every now and again.

The five main performers – Marc Akinfolarin, Jason Denton, Eddie Elliott, Liam Tamne and Julie Yammanee – are all terrific, good enough to be in the show they are spoofing. There are lovely cameos from Damian Humbley, notably as Hamilton’s King George, and Sophie-Louise Dann, including that infamous diva. Simon Beck gamely and brilliantly accompanies on a grand piano. The energy and enthusiasm of all eight is infectious; you have a ball because they are.

Writer / director Gerard Alessandrini gives us a parody that is also a homage to a show he clearly loves, and a musical form he’s a big fan of. Great fun.

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This is one of those occasions where some knowledge of the subject – corporate executive selection – goes against enjoying it fully, because it seems dated (it was written fifteen years ago, but is set today) and exposed implausibilities that weakened it in my eyes. It’s a reasonably entertaining ninety minutes, but I suspect it would have been more entertaining if I’d come fresh to the subject.

We’re in a New York office with four candidates for a job. There’s no company representative. They receive instructions from a drawer which opens on its own for the purpose. They are given tasks, sometimes individually, sometimes as a group, designed to test them and differentiate between them. Things are not always as it seems and towards the end there are some very clever twists.

Tim Hatley’s design perfectly captures this world, right down to the right refreshments. The performances are all good – Laura Pitt-Pulford, who I’ve only seen in musicals, shows her versatility, Greg McHugh, who I’ve not seen on stage before, proves at home there, John Gordon-Sinclair as seemingly diffident Rick and Jonathan Cake, who clearly relishes his role as the very driven and competitive Frank.

This was my 50th visit to the Menier over the last fourteen years. There have been many better evenings there, but It’s still a decent night out, though with 200 productions in 60 countries in 20 languages since it’s initial four-year runs in Barcelona and Madrid, perhaps Jordi Galceran’s play is somewhat overrated.

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Yet another occasion where the critical reception lowered expectations only for them to be exceed on the night! I saw the world premiere of this Manuel Puig play in the tiny (old) Bush Theatre in 1985, with Mark Rylance and Simon Callow no less, but this production of a new version by Jose Rivera & Allan Baker opens it up, and seems to me to have even more power in its coruscating examination of the evils of tyrannical regimes.

Valentin is a political prisoner in a Buenos Aires jail in 1975. He has clearly been tortured. His cellmate Molina is a gay window-dresser, imprisoned for alleged indecency, who the authorities are hoping to use to get information on Valentin’s activities and associates. As a result, Molina is given supplies after each supposed visit by his mother or lawyer, in reality meetings with the authorities, so that they don’t have to eat the vile prison food. In order to kill time, Molina describes his favourite movies, a ritual which initially irritates Valentin, but one he learns to embrace and enjoy. The unlikely relationship between the chalk-and-cheese cellmates becomes affectionate, and more.

Designer Jon Bausor has used the concrete of the Menier space to create the prison, with cell doors along a corridor above and around around the cell of our subjects. When Molina is outlining the stories of his films, sound and projections onto the prison walls illustrate the fantasies. The design, and Laurie Sansom’s staging, are effective in conveying the claustrophobic intimacy of the cell, bringing a cinematic quality to the fantasies and underlining the power of the opressive state. Declan Bennett as Valentin and Samuel Barnett as Molina are both outstanding, playing very different characters with different motivations, but also making their intimacy and affection for one another believable.

This is way better than the critics will have you believe; go and make up your own mind!

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This Stephen Schwartz show came just one year after his debut hit Godspell. That was 45 years ago. It took another thirty years for his mega-hit Wicked. Pippin hasn’t been revived very often, but it was a big hit again on Broadway in 2013. The last time we saw it here was six years ago, in a misguided production at the Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/pippin). This new production has come from the new Northern musicals powerhouse in Manchester, Hope Mill. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so impressed by a production of a musical I’m so unimpressed by.

Pippin is the son of the 9th century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. We follow him from graduation, as he tries to make his way in the world, through war, sex, rebellion, politics and ordinary life. I’m afraid I find it impossible to relate to the story and the music is undistinguished bland pop to my ears, though its fair to say it was so well sung and played here, I warmed to the score.

When it comes to the production, it’s hugely impressive, with Jonathan O’Boyle’s staging, William Whelton’s choreography, Maeve Black’s design, Aaron J Dootson’s lighting and James Nicholson’s sound all outstanding. The cast is hugely talented, not a weak link amongst them. Newcomer Jonathan Charlton is a very likeable Pippin, Genevieve Nicole is a charismatic presence as the Lead Player, the narrator, and there’s a great doubling-up by Mairi Barclay as Charlemagne’s second wife Fastrada and mother Berthe. The eight-piece band under MD Zach Flis sounded great.

I can’t imagine a better production, so I have to warmly recommend it, whatever I think of the material. As for Hope Mill, more please!

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