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Posts Tagged ‘Nigel Lilley’

How can you not like a musical whose characters include a washing machine, dryer, radio, bus and the moon?! That makes it sound silly, but it certainly isn’t. Tony Kushner’s highly innovative, ground-breaking, partly autobiographical Olivier Award winning show, with an operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, is ten years old, not seen since it’s NT UK premiere, and this is a hugely successful revival at Chichester’s intimate Minerva Theatre.

Caroline is the black maid in the Louisiana household of the Jewish Gellman family. Young Noah’s mum has died and he lives with his dad Stuart, with whom his relationship isn’t strong, his step-mom Rose, who’s trying hard but has yet to be accepted, and grandma and granddad Gellman. He’s fond of Caroline, who seems to spend most of her time in the basement doing a seemingly endless volume of laundry, where her appliances come alive to sing, her radio as an archetypal black girl trio. There’s often money left in trouser pockets and Rose tells Caroline to keep it, to teach the lazy a lesson, but perhaps as charity too.

Outside this world there is a lot going on, notably the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It’s a time of change, represented by Caroline’s friend Dotty who is going to night school to attempt to improve her lot, and her daughter Emmie who challenges the servile, reverential attitudes of Caroline’s generation. We learn how Caroline became a single mom, and how she struggles to bring up Emmie and her two younger brothers on $30 a week. The blending of the personal stories of Noah and Caroline with the social history of the deep south in the sixties is deftly handled and Tesori’s sung-through score is packed full of lovely melodies rather than songs as such.

It’s a fabulous, faultless cast, with people of the calibre of Alex Gaumond and Beverley Klein in relatively minor roles. Nicola Hughes and Abiona Omouna are terrific as Dotty and Emmie respectively. Ako Mitchell, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson are all wonderful in their various non-human, but far from inanimate, roles. Daniel Luniku is sensational as Noah, and there is yet another towering performance from Sharon D Clarke, the second in as many months, as Caroline. She is absolutely perfect for this role, acting of real power and soaring vocals. 

It’s only six month’s since Kushner’s great new play iHo at Hampstead and his masterpiece Angels in America is currently blowing people’s minds at the NT, all three proving his importance to world theatre. Michael Longhurst’s staging of this is masterly, Fly Davies design is brilliant and the musical standards under MD Nigel Lilley are sky high. I left on a high. This is why I go to the theatre. 

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I have to confess I’ve never read the L P Hartley novel on which this is based, or seen the film (adapted by the man-most-unlikely Harold Pinter!), or the TV adaptation, or heard the radio play, and obviously not the American stage adaptation or the South African opera! It’s clearly a popular source and now we have the musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood. It has its faults, but on the whole I liked it.

It starts in 62-year-old Leo Colston’s attic, from which we flash back fifty years to the summer holidays of 1900 when as a twelve-year-old he visits the home and family of his more well-to-do school friend Marcus. Marcus’ sister Marian befriends Leo, with the ulterior motive of using him as postman to send messages to her secret bit of rough Ted in the neighbouring farm. Leo obliges (he’s got a bit of a crush on Marian) and gets drawn into a world of intrigue, deceit and lies which has such a profound impact on him he is still affected by it fifty years on.

The show flows beautifully in Roger Haines staging, on a lovely impressionistic set by Michael Pavelka. The score isn’t entirely sung through, but it is sub-operatic, with snatches of recurring melodies and sung dialogue rather than songs. I loved the fact it was played onstage by a grand piano (the excellent Nigel Lilley), which really suited the material. The narrative is very clear (a writer used to writing for children again!) and progresses satisfyingly to its flashback conclusion, a flash forward, then return to the attic. At the interval, after a relatively slow first half, I wasn’t sure about it, but it picked up significantly in the second half and I was glad I went.

Though he is playing a character significantly younger, I thought Michael Crawford did so with great dignity and poignancy, on stage throughout like a ghost, and the boy playing young Leo – Luka Green on the night I went – was terrific. Gemma Sutton and Stuart Ward are superb as the lovers Marian and Ted and Samuel Menhinick as young Marcus was excellent. There were just seven other characters, all played with sensitivity in true ensemble fashion.

Based on the proliferation of offers and the audience size on Tuesday, it looks like its heading for an early bath, which is a shame as it is something fresh and different in the West End – a gentle and rather captivating chamber musical. Catch it while you can.

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