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Posts Tagged ‘Menier Chocolate Factory’

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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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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I blow hot and cold with Tom Stoppard. I wasn’t in London for the first outing of this piece, but I was for the first revival, with Anthony Sher in the lead role, and I recollect being dazzled by it. Time is a funny thing, though, and on this occasion I found it hard to engage with it. It had an air of superiority about it and made me feel like I was being patronised.

It links real people who were in Zurich during the First World War – Lenin, James Joyce, Dada founder Tzara and The British Honorary Consul Henry Carr – and weaves in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr was apparently in a production of that play at that time and Joyce was involved. The rest is an exploration of revolution and art. This time I found it glib, clever for the sake of it, and I didn’t think it had much to say. Pointless intellectual fireworks.

It has moments of delicious absurdity and humour, particularly when it unexpectedly bursts into surreal scenes of song and dance, but they were few and far between, especially in the longer first half. Patrick Marber’s direction is very assured and Tim Hatley has designed an excellent set. The whole ensemble, led by Tom Hollander as Carr, give virtuoso performances.

I’m clearly at odds with most of the audience and critics, so I’m prepared to accept it’s a matter of taste. Not for me, I’m afraid.

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When I walked into the Menier and took my seat, my reaction was the same as it was for the Bacharach Reimagined show last year. Designer Derek McLane has turned it into a magical, even more intimate space. There’s a proscenium made of piano keyboards, side ‘walls’ of grand piano innards, a back wall of ropes, three or four deep, representing the woods, and eight chandeliers above the stage and the front of the auditorium. Lovely. The show was lovely too, a very original and inventive small-scale take on Sondheim’s deceptively moral show.

It weaves the well known tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood with the less well-known (well, here at least) Rapunzel and The Baker’s Wife. The Baker has to find a white cow, red cloak, golden slipper and yellow hair to break the witches curse on his barren wife. By the interval, the baker’s wife is no longer barren, Cinderella and Rapunzel each marry a prince and Jack has solved his family’s money problems, but Cinderella’s sisters are blind, the wolf is dead, the witch has lost her powers and turned into a beautiful woman and the giantess is really pissed off! In the much darker second half Cinderella loses her prince, the baker his wife, Little Red Riding Hood her grandma and Jack has to decide what to do about the giantess.

The production has a storytelling quality totally in keeping with the material, more of a play with music, without the staginess of much musical theatre. This brings even more charm to the lighter moments, plunging into a deeper darkness in the second half. The moral of the tale comes over much more strongly. With five of the hugely talented cast doubling roles, and all playing an array proper and improvised instruments, it is all told, sung and played by just ten actors, including co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, and pianist Evan Rees. They’ve all brought the show over from the US and we appear to be benefiting from an ensemble who have worked on it for some time in more than one incarnation.

This is an original and imaginative interpretation, an excellent addition to my collection of nine productions. Definitely one for other Sondheim fans to see and a great introduction to those who don’t know the work or who have only seen the film.

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