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Posts Tagged ‘Menier Chocolate Factory’

Oh, what a tonic. Sandy Wilson’s pastiche of the 1920’s, written in the 1950’s, sparkles in the 21st Century.

Set in a finishing school in Nice run by Madame Dubonnet, its the tale of Polly and her chums as they prepare for a ball, choosing their costumes, all looking for love. Polly falls for delivery boy Tony when he brings her costume to the school. It seems like a hopeless match, rich girl and poor boy, but they meet on the corniche and agree to go to the ball together as Pierette and Pierrot. Polly’s dad arrives to find that Madame Dubonnet is an old flame. Tony’s parents arrive and we find out he isn’t who he seems. At the ball no less than six couples become engaged.

It’s pure escapist fun with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Bill Deamer’s period choreography is simply fabulous, as light as air, totally uplifting. Paul Farnsworth’s design is gorgeous, particularly his costumes, which are beyond sumptuous in the Act Three ball – from where we were sitting in the front row, you could clearly see the astonishing craftsmanship. MD Simon Beck’s band sound fantastic. Director Matthew White has squeezed every ounce of humour out of this 66-year-old show and made it as fresh and funny as you could wish for. The smile never left my face for the duration.

It’s brilliantly cast, with Amara Okereke & Dylan Mason making a delightful young couple and Janine Dee & Robert Portal a charming older one. Tiffany Graves wows again as Hortense and both Adrian Edmondson & Issy Van Randwyck give great comic cameos, the former not exactly known for musicals. The casting is in fact faultless, and their joy becomes your joy.

An antidote for election blues, but it’s not the sort of production you can only see once, so I’ve already booked to go again as a tonic for my post-election blues.

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This is based on one of two unfinished works by Jane Austen. Coincidentally, the TV adaptation of the other, Sanditon, is currently on our screens. There have been other attempts to complete The Watsons, though not as a play it seems. Laura Wade takes this as her starting point, but it goes way beyond that in a brilliant Pirandellian concoction.

As soon as you walk into the Menier the stage and the two actors on it scream Austen. Dad is in his sick bed, with his daughter Elizabeth looking on. We soon meet her sister, eighteen-year-old Emma, who has been living with her aunt since she was five, other sister Margaret and brother Robert and his wife. They are all rather preoccupied with getting the sisters married.

We move to a society ball where Lord Osborne takes a fancy to Emma, she takes a fancy to Mr Howard the clergyman and local gentleman Tom Musgrave takes a fancy to any woman in sight. Despite hardly engaging with her at the ball, Osborne visits Emma at home and surprises everyone by proposing. When he leaves, she discusses her intentions, at which point she is interrupted by a maid questioning her choice.

We soon realise this is Laura the writer who has had to intervene as her character appears to have taken over her story. From here, it’s meta theatre all the way as the characters mutiny and we discuss Austen’s intentions, enact the characters wishes and explore the process of writing in an anarchic, hilarious romp. Laura even takes a call from her producer David, who asks how the writing is going! It’s hugely entertaining, but you do delve into the mind of Austen, her period and the reasons why she may have abandoned the piece.

Sam West has staged it expertly and Ben Stones has created an authentic period design. It’s a big cast for a play and they seem to be having a ball. Grace Molony is lovely as Emma and Louise Ford delightful as Laura the writer. In a uniformly excellent supporting ensemble, Joe Bannister is superb as the timid Osborne, Jane Booker superb as his officious mother, Sophie Duval a treat as bossy Mrs Robert and there’s a very assured performance from Isaac Forward as the ten-year-old Charles.

A real fun evening. Don’t miss.

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This musical is based on the 1992 debut novel of American writer Robert James Waller. It sold 60 million copies and became one of bestselling books of the 20th Century. He probably couldn’t believe his luck. Clint Eastwood made it into a film three years later, starring himself and Meryl Streep. Jason Robert Brown’s musical adaptation got to Broadway nine years later, and now has its UK premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory, for which it has received the whole gamut of stars, from five to one; marmite indeed.

The story revolves around Francesca, who left Naples at the end of the Second World War, following American GI Bud Johnson to the US. In the brilliant opening number she tells us her story from wartime loss of boyfriend Paolo, the sea journey to New York and train across the US to her new life in Winterset, Iowa where she becomes a farmer’s wife, bringing up two children. When we join her there, the family head off to the State Fair in Springfield Illinois, where daughter Carolyn is showing her prize steer. While they’re away she meets and falls for National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, who’s in town to take pictures of those bridges of the title. It’s a sort of mid-west Brief Encounter!

Jon Bausor’s brilliant design seems to enlarge the Menier space, with three huge barn like doors, onto which images are projected, and two revolves moving us from the main location of the family kitchen to the State Fair, a neighbouring home, the fields outside, one of those covered bridges and a truck on the road, though it’s sometimes a bit noisy, during as well as between scenes, with involuntary movements of furniture occasionally comic (oh, and they need to repair the fridge door!). That aside, it’s a truly evocative design matched by Trevor Nunn’s staging, which flows beautifully.

It seems to me that the different views on the show are probably driven by the score and your attitude to love stories. Well, I’m a sucker for the latter (yes, there were tears again) and I think the lush eclectic Americana score is gorgeous, an antidote to the bland formulaic pop of most contemporary musicals. The songs, and there are a lot of them, maybe a few too many, really do propel the story and develop the characters, keeping just the right side of sentimentality, well, until the very end. I liked the way many of the cast get a number that brings their character briefly to the fore, enabling them to showcase their talents, notably Shanay Holmes and Georgia Brown.

Francesca provides yet another career high for Jenna Russell, as a very different character which she inhabits with conviction and authenticity. She’s well matched by Edward Baker-Duly as Robert, the finest performance I’ve seen by this actor, with a Glenn Campbell like velvet voice which so suited the songs. Dale Rapley provides fine support as Bud and there’s a lovely cameo from Gillian Kirkpatrick as neighbour Marge and an auspicious professional stage debut by the appropriately named Maddison Bulleyment as Carolyn.

Well, I’m with the four star gang. A lovely show staged and performed to perfection. Go and make your own mind up

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Even though this isn’t a classic Tennessee Williams work, it’s the third major London revival in thirty years – Peter Hall’s with Vanessa Redgrave in 1988, Nicholas Hytner’s with Helen Mirren nineteen years ago, and now Tamara Harvey directing Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich in a co-production by the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Clwyd. It’s inspired by the Orpheus myth, but it’s an uneven play, with a dull first half and an action-packed second. It’s also not easy for modern audiences to swallow the racism, however authentic it is of the period. The production, though, is first class.

Lady is a southern belle of Sicilian descent. Her father, a street performer back home, came to the US and became a bootlegger in prohibition times. He was murdered when he crossed a line that was unacceptable to the white locals. After a relationship with David Cutere, who left her, Lady ends up marrying store owner Jabe Torrence. As the play begins, he returns from major surgery at the hospital in Memphis, but the prognosis isn’t good.

In comes drifter Valentine Xavier looking for work, and Lady employs him, the sexual chemistry obvious from the outset. The relationship develops whilst Jabe stays upstairs with his nurse and sisters, the locals gossip and David’s sister Carol, a persona non grata in this community, seeks to lure Val for herself. Other characters, including Jabe’s friends Pee Wee and Dog, Sheriff Talbott and his wife Vee and local gossips Beulah and Dolly, come and go and another, Uncle Pleasant, becomes a sort of narrator, who occasionally gives us TW’s stage directions.

The problem with the play is that the 75 minute first half is virtually all scene-setting, and plays out so slowly that it risks losing the audience. The second half is a complete contrast as Lady discovers more about her father’s murder, makes a confession of her own and Val, who just about every woman in the neighbourhood is now smitten by, is driven out of town by their men, as the play is propelled to its tragic conclusion.

With the audience on three sides and just the back of the shopfront as a backdrop and a few tables and chairs for props, the Menier space seems vast, and is used very well in this staging. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, led by terrific performances from Hattie Morahan as Lady and Seth Numrich as Val, with great chemistry between them. Jemima Rooper is superb as Carol and Carol Royle makes much of the strange character of god-fearing Vee. The supporting roles are all well cast; I was particularly impressed by Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson as gossips Beulah & Dolly.

Despite the play’s problems, the fine production and exceptional performances make it worth seeing again.

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This early David Hare play was first staged at the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre 33 years ago, paired with another called Wrecked Eggs. It’s now flying solo at the Menier in an impeccable production by Richard Eyre with a stunning design by Fotini Dimou, but I’m not sure its substantial enough to hold an evening on its own.

It’s 1955 and Valentina Nrovka has been invited to the Hermitage in St Petersburg to contribute to the debate about the provenance of a painting believed to be by Matisse, who was her friend. Valentina’s daughter Sophia comes too, and much of the play is in fact about their relationship and Sophia’s intention to leave her husband for a much older man, Peter, who also turns up. The personal story, the art and the Soviet state are interwoven to form the narrative.

Valentina is acid tongued and Hare has written some brilliant lines for her, delivered to perfection by Penelope Wilton, so much so that she dominates the piece, a bit like Lady Bracknell does in The Importance of Being Earnest. Ophelia Lovibond provides fine support as Sophia, and David Rintoul as Peter and Martin Hutson as the Assistant Curator give fine cameos, but it’s Wilton’s evening, worth the visit for her masterclass in acting, plus a truly evocative design of a seemingly vast room in the Winter Palace.

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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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