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Posts Tagged ‘Menier Chocolate Factory’

In my experience, you rarely see a show at it’s best on press night – too much pressure – and this one appears to have had a bad one. Well, based on a performance two days later, even though it has its faults, I’m much more positive than the critics.

When I first heard they were going to do it at the Menier, I thought it was an unsuitable venue. I first saw it 35 years ago in the Palladium, then 4 years ago in a big top outside Chichester Festival Theatre, so this is on an entirely different scale. As it turns out, in the round, with a big floor to play on, it combines spectacle and intimacy, and there’s a certain frisson having a man juggling with knives inches away from your face!

It’s a very American story, about a real life showman and proprietor of a circus and ‘museum’, which seem to be more like ‘freak shows’, featuring as they do the world’s oldest woman and tiny Tom Thumb. He goes on to promote (and bed) Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, and later into politics, though not quite as far as President Barnum – this is the late 19th century, not the early 21st! He eventually returns to the circus in partnership with James Bailey to form the very successful Barnum & Bailey.

Cy Coleman’s score has some great tunes, with some particularly good ensemble set pieces such as One Brick at a Time, Come Follow the Band and Join the Circus. It is here we find the real strength of the show, and this production, with a terrific ensemble who can sing and dance and is full of circus skills, some of which take your breath away.

Laura Pitt-Pulford is excellent as Barnum’s wife Chairy and it’s great to see another Corrie exile, Tupele Dorgu, prove to be as good on stage as the small screen. In truth Marcus Brigstocke isn’t a good enough singer or a seasoned enough performer for the role of Barnum, but his likeability means he pulls it off, just, and he stayed on the tightrope the night we went!

I loved Paul Farnsworth’s design, and Gordon Greenberg’s staging and Rebecca Howell’s sensational choreography deliver the spectacle the show needs. There were some sightline issues; we missed a couple of key moments on what appeared to be an elevated platform in front of the band but for us behind a pillar, and a few more short ones high behind us, but overall it was a great use of the Menier space, which in this configuration seemed a lot bigger.

Better than the critics will have you believe and well worth a punt.

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The four Florian Zeller plays we’ve seen here in London in the last few years have been in a different order to how they were written / first produced. We’ve had The Father, The Mother, The Truth and now The Lie in that order, but The Mother, The Truth, The Father and The Lie is how they were written. The significance of this is that The Lie follows The Truth, 18 months later rather than the three years after, and this, in my view, affects its welcome. I felt it was more of the same and I left the theatre disappointed.

The Lie concerns a couple, Paul & Alice, and their friends, another couple, Michel & Laurence (female). It’s a who’s-having-an-affair-with-whom concoction full of false trails and even a false ending, which to be honest I found irritating. It’s clever, but that’s about all. I felt I was being manipulated by a writer for his enjoyment rather than mine.

The whole thing is set in Paul & Alice’s apartment and we don’t know how much time has passed between scenes. It’s expertly performed by real-life husband and wife Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond, supported by Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath, all of whom who also seemed to be enjoying it more than me.

There’s a fine, elegant apartment setting by Anna Fleischle and Lindsay Posner’s staging works like clockwork, but I’m afraid it left me cold. Cleverness for its own sake, it just seemed pointless. I have enjoyed this other three plays and I hope we have better to come as I’d identified Zeller as a real find. Hopefully a blip rather than a burst bubble.

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National Youth Music Theatre UK have been extraordinarily ambitious in recent years – two new shows, The Battle of Boat and Brass, Howard Goodall’s The Dreaming & The Hired Man, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and now this second Sondheim, which may well be the biggest mountain they’ve chosen to climb; it’s difficulty may be why it has only been revived twice (Leicester Haymarket and Menier to West End to Broadway) since it’s NT UK premiere 27 years ago. To say they have risen to the challenge would be an understatement. There were times when I could hardly believe what I was seeing and hearing from an amateur company and the song Sunday has been on permanent loop in my head since I left the theatre.

The only musical based on a painting is in two very different parts. In the first, Georges Seurat is painting on the Island of La Grande Jatte in the River Seine in Paris, where we are introduced to his muse Dot, his mother and her nurse and the other characters in the famous painting now in the Art Institute of Chicago – including shop girls, soldiers, an American couple, another artist, a baker and a boatman. In the second half we zip forward to contemporary times, to the gallery where the painting resides, where Seurat’s grandson George is unveiling his new work with his grandmother, the daughter of Seurat’s muse, in attendance. I consider it Sondheim’s most challenging piece.

The very effective design consists of a picture frame backdrop and nine easels, with excellent period costumes. In the first half, the easels contain canvas sketches of parts of the picture and in the second half they become the illuminated modern work. It’s a small space which sometimes feels a touch cramped but the staging is very good. Sunday, which ends the first half, was staged and performed with such delicacy, restraint and beauty it quite took my breath away. The contemporary gallery scene somehow felt more effective than I remember it being staged before. The segue from Move On into the reprise of Sunday at the end was an uplifting emotional wave.

After a tentative start, the band played beautifully. The ensemble was outstanding, and the two leads – Thomas Josling as Georges / George and Laura Barnard as Dot / Marie – were simply sensational. Two stars are born, I’d say.

Great to see it again after a ten year famine, and great to report that the future of musical theatre in Britain is safe in these hands. The audience, quite rightly, erupted.

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I caught the world premiere of Jake Brunger & Pippa Cleary’s musical adaptation of the late Sue Townsend’s book in it’s home town of Leicester just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/the-secret-diary-of-adrian-mole-aged-13-34-the-musical) so it’s good to report that I liked this London premiere even more. In a smaller space, trimmed by 20 minutes, with what seemed like a more unrestrained production and more energetic, infectious performances, it was a lot more fun.

Tom Rogers’ set is an extraordinary use of space, changing quickly from kitchen to bedroom to school and other locations, props turning up from all over the place. Luke Sheppard’s staging seems much more sprightly and the pace never lets up. A year in Adrian’s young life speeds by, through parental separations and reunions, falling in love with Pandora, being bullied by Barry, writing the school nativity play and the Royal Wedding. This is 1981, of course.

Benjamin Lewis is sensational as Adrian; a perfect characterisation with deadpan delivery and superb comic timing. Dean Chisnall has hot-footed it over from Working at Southwark Playhouse and makes a terrific dad, with Kelly Price excellent as mum. John Hopkins turns in a great cameo as neighbour Mr Lucas (and makes a hilarious schoolgirl with gymslip, pigtails and moustache!) and there’s a delightful pair of seniors in Gay Soper’s grandma and Barry James’ Bert Baxter. The whole ensemble seem to be having the time of their lives and it’s infectious.

I will be astonished if this doesn’t transfer, but I hope it isn’t scaled back up too much as it’s simply perfect as it is.

Catch it at the Menier if you can.

 

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I was very much looking forward to seeing two favourite actresses, both dames in waiting, in the revival of a play I have fond memories of first time around. It was the night after press night and the reviews hadn’t been great. The signs in the theatre said that Felicity Kendal was indisposed, the speech from the stage, somewhat differently, said personal reasons; perhaps she’d read the reviews! We were told they hadn’t scheduled understudy rehearsals until the following day, which seems like a lack of foresight to me, but her understudy Rachel Laurence had agreed to perform. You can probably guess what’s coming……word perfect and pitch perfect, she stole the show, and her generous co-star, Maureen Lipman, made a lovely speech at the curtain call.

Peter Shaffer’s 30-year-old play revolves around Lettice, a tour guide at a heritage property, with a background in acting, who is caught by her employer embellishing and exaggerating and is fired. Lotte, her employer’s Personnel Manager, feels guilty and subsequently visits Lettice to tell her that she can help her get a new job as a guide on Thames river boats, where embellishment and exaggeration will be fine. An unlikely but mutually satisfying relationship develops, where they meet to act out pieces of history, but it leads to an incident and a brush with the law over mistaken circumstances,

It has to be said that it doesn’t seem as good a play in revival. It makes one think how much of this is the passage of time and how much is the towering presence of Maggie Smith as the original Lettice. It’s an OK play and a serviceable revival, which for me probably benefitted from the extra frisson of the understudy situation. I remember going to a special afternoon understudy run of Jerusalem, to give them all a chance to play it at least once. Mark Rylance was the only one who wasn’t an understudy. It was the fourth time I’d seen it and some were better than those they understudied. Then there was Natasha J Barnes at this very venue……..I have respected this normally invisible lot ever since, and on Thursday it was good to cheer the achievement of just one of them.

 

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In 2011, Rattigan’s centenary year, Jermyn Street Theatre gave us the world premiere of Less Than Kind, the first incarnation of this play. It had never produced in this version because Rattigan de-politicised it, at the request of its star actors. This final version hasn’t been staged in London since 1945, despite the revival of interest in the playwright, though it turns out Trevor Nunn is actually giving us a hybrid of the two versions, putting some of the political edge back. 

It’s set towards the end of the Second World War. Widow Olivia Brown is co-habiting with millionaire industrialist Sir John Fletcher, separated from his much younger wife Diana, on secondment to the government to help with the war effort. Olivia’s son Michael returns from evacuation in Canada. He’s almost eighteen, he’s developed left-wing views and he takes against her mother’s new man and their relationship. Think Hamlet, to which Sir John occasionally refers. Michael tries everything, including involving Sir John’s wife, for whom he falls, to break them up. In the end Olivia is forced to choose, and she chooses her son. They return to humble Baron’s Court, from opulent Westminster, where Olivia transforms from extrovert socialite to drab and unhappy, devoting her life to looking after her son. He’s kept his job in Sir John’s ministry and still holds a torch for Diana. It all comes good, but I won’t spoil it by saying how.

Nunn starts each scene with war newsreels projected onto the curtain in front of Stephen Brimston Lewis’ excellent set, as he did in Flare Path, but even more effective here because the curtain is 90 degrees and translucent.. The transformation from the first to second scene in Act II is entertaining in itself, as the actors busy themselves changing the set from a Westminster drawing room to a Baron’s Court bedsit, diverting our attention from the newsreel. It’s a very well structured play with radical themes (for the time) of co-habitation and the politics are fascinating as  they prophesy post-war challenges, but the big surprise is how funny it is. Eve Best has long been a favourite dramatic actress, but the revelation of her performance as Olivia is how good she is at the comedy. I haven’t seen that much of Anthony Head on stage, but here he’s very impressive indeed as Sir John. I only know Edward Bluemel from the same period’s The Halcyon on TV, in which he was very good, as he is here as pouty Michael, prone to tantrums. Helen George is a vision in pink and mink, and a delight as goodtime girl Diana.

A treat for Rattigan fans (and others) which gets a well deserved transfer ‘up West’ so you have no excuse not to catch it. 

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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