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Posts Tagged ‘Oli Reynolds’

After Saturday’s adult fairy tale, Sunday’s new British musical was a fantasy in moledom! I’ve never read William Horwood’s novel of the same name (or the five sequels!) so I came to this musical adaptation cold. It’s set in communities of moles, who have a society which includes a king, some sort of religion based around a stone, a healer and rival factions.

The story begins as King (I think) Mandrake casts out his daughter Rebecca for consorting with someone from another group of moles (there are pasture moles, stone moles and Duncton moles, though I never really got to grip with these different sects). He’s even mean enough to kill her and her babies, though she is healed herself and adopts Bracken’s baby. Rune is the real baddie, who’s out to dispose of any opposition and usurp Mandrake. To be honest, the book by James Peries isn’t at all clear and I never really unravelled the story so there’s little point in me elaborating further.

Mark Carroll’s score fares better, with some nice tunes and choruses, though a little too much sung dialogue for my liking (particularly from Rune). There are moments when it becomes too pompous in a pop opera way, but there are also lovely moments like the duet Moonshine and the chorus Hulver’s Dream.

Whatever you think of the material, you can’t help but be impressed by Michael Strassen’s production. I wasn’t convinced at first by the configuration, with the audience on two sides of a square, bit it quickly made sense. Beautifully lit by Tim Deiling, with a very imaginative design by Jean Gray, the look is great and the movement by Strassen himself outstanding. There were some good vocals, particularly from Oli Reynolds as Cairn, Amelia-Rose Morgan as Rebecca and especially Josh Little as Bracken. The keyboard heavy 5-piece backstage band sounded good.

The second half is better than the first (and began to make sense before it lost me again!) and if the story were made clearer and the first half cut a bit, it would be a much better show. As it is, it’s worth a visit but not a rave.

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The first time I saw this Sondheim show was English National Opera’s London premiere at one of the capital’s biggest theatres, the Coliseum. Now here I am 27 years later at the opposite end of the theatre scale at the tiny Union Theatre, which has just 2% of the Coli’s capacity. In between, there have been a few more, most notably a visiting production from Chicago at the Donmar in the round (square) in 2003, which was the best of them all. This show, one of Sondheim’s most ambitious and cleverest, but difficult to pull off, suits more intimate spaces.

It starts in Japan in the mid-19th century; the country has been isolated for 250 years when an American ship turns up demanding an audience with the Emperor. The first half is mostly a description of life in Japan, it’s cultural peculiarities and political intricacies. They find an elegant solution to the American’s demand by finding a stand-in for the Emperor and creating an audience space of mats that can be destroyed afterwards, enabling them to claim the barbarians never set foot on Japanese soil. The show is telling the story from the Japanese perspective and the score has a strong Japanese influence. In truth, this part is too long and too slow, though its imaginative and intriguing with some lovely tunes.

The much shorter second half packs a real punch, starting with Please Hello, a terrific comic number with ambassadors turning up from the US, UK, Holland, Russia and France, all wanting a piece of the trading action. The initial brush-off clearly hasn’t worked. We see the effect of the ‘westernisation’ distilled into just one song, A Bowler Hat, then the backlash distilled into another, Pretty Lady. In the end we jump forward to the present day to see how this all plays out in Next.

Here, the musical standards are high, with Richard Bates band sounding lovely with reeds and cello, and some great singing from a vocally strong cast. Director Michael Strassen applies his trademark minimalist elegance with a simple but evocative design and costumes by Jean Gray. The puppet emperor is indeed a puppet, screens are used to great effect, actors transform quickly from locals to visitors with the addition of sailor collars and the staging is infused with Japanese theatrical motifs. I felt the choreography was sometimes over-elaborate and the performances sometimes too camp, but overall the staging was effective.

In an all-male cast, Ken Christiansen had great presence as the Reciter (narrator) and Ian Mowat was excellent in multiple roles as diverse as geisha Madam and British Admiral. Oli Reynolds was so good as Kayama it’s hard to believe he’s graduating this year, and there were a number of other impressive performances and professional debuts from recent drama school graduates. A very talented ensemble indeed.

It’s great to see this show again (after eleven years!), and great to see it in an intimate space once more.

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