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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Fentiman’

This musical, based on the 2001 French romantic comedy film, had a short run on Broadway two years ago and has now been reworked for a UK tour starting at the Watermill in Newbury. It’s hard to imagine a less suitable show for Broadway or a more suitable one for the Watermill. It’s a delight.

We follow Amelie from her childhood, home schooled, losing her mother in a tragic accident – crushed by a man committing suicide by jumping off Notre-Dame! – eventually leaving home at 18 to work in a Paris cafe, a place as eccentric as her home. She’s very much in her own world, living her fantasies as well as her life. Her most significant fantasy happens when Princess Diana dies, which takes us to Elton John at the funeral (a superb turn by Cadlan McCarthy)!

She devotes her life to schemes to improves the lives of others, including reuniting someone with their childhood memorabilia, persuading her father to fulfil his ambition to travel the world (inspired by the travels of his garden gnome, containing the ashes of his wife!), matchmaking between a co-worker and a customer and preventing the ill-treatment of a greengrocer’s assistant, whilst the artist she has befriended sets her off in the pursuit of love, on a trail involving photo booths.

Daniel Messe’s score is gorgeous, with a real French feel. Craig Lucas’ book and Messe and Nathan Tysen’s lyrics tell the quintessentially French story of love, kindness and loneliness beautifully. Madeleine Girling’s design uses wrought iron and faded posters to conjure up Paris, with Amelie’s charming apartment on a second level.

The Watermill is the home of actor-musician shows and I’ve seen many there, but the musical standards for this one are sky high. It’s a terrific ensemble of twelve, led by Audrey Brisson’s outstanding Amelie. She has an other-worldly quality, wistful, bucketloads of charm and the purest of voices. Michael Fentiman’s staging is completely in tune with the material.

One of the best musicals we’ve ever seen at the Watermill, and that’s a big compliment, one of the best new musicals for a while and a must-see for any lover of musical theatre.

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This final play in Classic Spring’s Oscar Wilde season seems to be dividing people on the basis of how broad the comedy is played, and the frisson between Algernon and Jack. I was happy with the former, but the latter did puzzle me, with the kissing seeming incongruous (especially with Lane, Algernon’s servant).

Wilde’s most famous and popular comedy was the fourth and last of his social satires, charting the relationships between Jack and Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen and Jack’s ward Cecily and Algernon, Gwendolen’s cousin, ending with the big reveal that Jack is more than Algernon’s friend and Gwendolen’s intended. Though these four are the main protagonists, when productions are announced, most are interested in who’s playing Lady Bracknell, in this case Sophie Thompson, who exceeded my expectations.

Designer Madeleine Girling’s palette of greens create a beautiful London flat and country house and garden, all adorned by hardly any furniture. Gabriella Slade’s period costumes are excellent. It builds in pace and interest to an excellent third act, though the story somehow felt even more contrived than usual. I assume director Michael Fentiman’s added frisson and kisses are meant to reference Wilde’s sexuality, but within the otherwise period comedy, they just jarred.

I thought relative newcomers Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd had great chemistry and brought a youthful playfulness to Algernon and Jack respectively, and Pippa Nixon and Fiona Button both sparkled and shone as Gwendolen and Cecily. Sophie Thompson resisted her normal urge to overact and her Lady Bracknell was all the better for it, and Stella Gonet gave a fine performance as Miss Prism, particularly when her past emerges. Good casting has been a feature and a strength of this Wilde season.

I’ve enjoyed seeing all four over a relatively short period, in four very different productions. The plotting creaks a bit these days, but the dialogue still crackles.

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Shortly after I saw the 1984 revival of this play in the West End, Leonard Rossiter, who played Inspector Truscott, died in the wings waiting to go on. All very Ortonesque, but I do hope Christopher Fulford survives this run! It’s around fifty years since it’s premiere and playwright Joe Orton’s death at the hands of his partner Kenneth Halliwell. This excellent revival is a superb opportunity to see it again, or for Loot virgins to see it for the first time.

It’s set in a room in the McLeavy home, where the recently deceased Mrs McLeavy lies in her coffin while her husband and nurse mourn her. Her son Hal and his friend, junior undertaker Dennis, have robbed a bank. What follows is a farcical, manic, absurd and surreal caper revolving around them hiding the money. Originally mounted before censorship was scrapped, the Lord Chamberlain insisted on a number of cuts and changes, including a dummy for the deceased, but here a brilliant Anah Ruddin lies in, and is removed from the coffin, relocated and thrown around.

This is apparently the first time the uncensored script has been staged. I don’t know the play well enough to spot the differences, but there are parts that still shock today. It satirises the police and the catholic church and sends up all sorts of societal norms. Michael Femtiman’s fast-paced production never lets up, and the play sparkles more that it has done before. I loved Gabriella Slade’s glossy black set (though the high level stained glass windows are a bit of a puzzle given we’re in a room in a home the whole time). It’s an outstanding cast, with both Sam Frenchum and Calvin Demba terrific as the sexually ambiguous Hal & Dennis respectively. I sometimes find Sinead Matthews overacts, but she can let go here as the predatory nurse with a past. Christopher Fulford has brilliant timing as Inspector Truscott and Ian Redford a suitable put upon McLeavy.

Well worth catching.

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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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