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Posts Tagged ‘Menier Chocolate Factory’

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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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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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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