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Posts Tagged ‘Open Air Theatre Regents Park’

Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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Whenever I see this Gershwin ‘show’ I’m always amazed that it made it to Broadway in the 30’s – an all-black cast, sex, drugs, murder and racism on stage 80 years ago! Every time it’s produced, we get the same debate about whether it’s an opera or a musical – it was probably the first ever ‘crossover’ piece – classical, jazz, blues, spiritual….In both ways, such a ground-breaking show. This is my fourth P&G, after Trevor Nunn’s ‘opera’ at Covent Garden in 1992, his ‘musical’ at the Savoy in 2006, Cape Town Opera’s ‘opera’ here in London in 2012 and now a ‘musical’ again, this time adapted by Suzan-Lori Parks & Diedre L. Murray, at the Open Air Theatre on a gorgeous warm evening that could have been in the American south where its set.

The fishing community of Catfish Row are unsettled by the arrival of Bess, a woman of dubious morals with a drug habit fueled by city boy Sporting Life and her bullying boyfriend Crown, who kills Robbins over the result of a crap game. Disabled Porgy falls for Bess who responds to his overtures, naively thinking Crown is going to let her go. When Jake doesn’t return from fishing in a storm, his wife Clara recklessly goes to find him only to be lost too, leaving their new child an orphan. Bess agrees to turn over a new leaf and bring up their baby, but Crown and Sporting Life have other plans. Porgy deals with Crown, but Sporting Life is still around to scupper Bess’ plans.

The first half is a touch slow and ponderous, despite the presence of gorgeous songs like Summertime and I Got Plenty Of Nothing, but it really takes off in the second half, with more great songs like It Ain’t Necessarily So and much more drama. In this production, the staging of the storm scene is outstanding and Bess’ struggle with drink and drugs realistically played with great sensitivity by Nicola Hughes. It also creates a real sense of a community struggling but surviving by sticking together and supporting one another. The staging of Porgy’s final exit is masterly. Timothy Sheader’s very physical production, with Liam Steel’s stylised movement, are highly effective.

I don’t know why they have imported all three male leads from the US (a co-production?) but they are all good – a positively scary Crown from Phillip Boykin, a slick and slimy Sporting Life from Cedric Neal, and a deeply empathetic Porgy from Rufus Bonds Jr. Sharon D Clark gives us another acting masterclass as Mariah and there are excellent performances from Leon Lopez and Jade Ewen as Jake and Clara and Golda Rosheuvel as Serena. I’m still not sure what to make of designer Katrina Lindsay’s giant metallic cliff backdrop, but as it got dark and Rick Fisher’s lighting made it change colour, which changed the mood, it did look pretty. There’s a decent size 14-piece orchestra, though the sound was sometimes a touch harsh, particularly the first half voocals.

Great to see this landmark show again, feeling very a home in the Open Air Theatre. Not to be missed, I’d say.

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Timothy Sheader made a brave decision when he introduced 20th century classics to the Open Air Theatre, but boy has it paid off. The Crucible led the way, Lord of the Flies & To Kill a Mockingbird confirmed his wisdom and now All My Sons proves conclusively that this space can be great for modern drama as well as Shakespeare and musicals. Set over one day, the onset of natural darkness co-incides with the heightening of the drama – and for once planes flying overhead have some connection with what’s happening onstage!

Arthur Miller’s play is based on a true story and is influenced by both Greek tragedy and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. It centres on the post-war all-American suburbia of the Keller family. Son Larry went missing in action towards the end of the war and son Chris now works with his dad Joe in the family engineering firm. Joe’s former business partner Steve is in prison for allowing faulty aircraft parts to be supplied to the US Air Force, resulting in more than twenty deaths. Some, including neighbour Sue, believe he’s the fall guy for Joe who is really to blame. Mom Kate is convinced Larry is still alive 3.5 years on, egged on my neighbour Frank’s horoscopes. Chris wants to marry Larry’s sweetheart Ann, Steve’s daughter. Then Anne’s brother George arrives and the truth is revealed, propelling the drama to its tragic conclusion.

This was only Miller’s second (produced) play and the first of four classics over a ten year period from 1946 to 1955.There isn’t a wasted moment or unnecessary line and every character has a purpose. In Sheader’s fine production, the first act lulls you into a false sense of security which heightens the tension of the second act before bringing a passionate emotionality to the third. I wasn’t sure about Lizzie Clachan’s billboard house at first, but it grew on me. Brid Brennan is magnificent as Kate and Tom Mannion plays Joe ‘s transition from denial to confession brilliantly. Charles Aitkin is excellent as Chris, as is Amy Nuttall as Ann and there ‘s a fine supporting cast.

Because of the weather, it took two attempts before I saw this, but I’m glad I persisted. It’s a lot better than the (paid) critics would have you believe; a fine revival indeed.

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NEW PLAYS

Chimerica – Lucy Kirkwood’s play takes an historical starting point for a very contemporary debate on an epic scale at the Almeida

Jumpers for Goalposts – Tom Wells’ warm-hearted play had me laughing and crying simultaneously for the first time ever – Paines Plough at Watford Palace and the Bush Theatre

Handbagged – with HMQ and just one PM, Moira Buffini’s 2010 playlet expanded to bring more depth and more laughs than The Audience (Tricycle Theatre)

Gutted – Rikki Beale-Blair’s ambitious, brave, sprawling, epic, passionate family saga at the people’s theatre, Stratford East

Di & Viv & Rose – Amelia Bullimore’s delightful exploration of human friendship at Hampstead Theatre

Honourable mentions to the Young Vic’s Season in the Congo and NTS’ Let the Right One In at the Royal Court

SHAKESPEARE

2013 will go down as the year when some of our finest young actors took to the boards and made Shakespeare exciting, seriously cool and the hottest ticket in town. Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar and James McAvoy’s Macbeth for Jamie Lloyd Productions were both raw, visceral, physical & thrilling interpretations. The dream team of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear provided psychological depth in a very contemporary Othello at the NT. Jude Law and David Tennant as King’s Henry V for Michael Grandage Company and the RSC’s Richard II led more elegant, traditional but lucid interpretations. They all enhanced the theatrical year and I feel privileged to have seen them.

OTHER REVIVALS

Mies Julie – Strindberg in South Africa, tense and riveting, brilliantly acted (Riverside)

Edward II – a superb contemporary staging which illuminated this 400-year-old Marlowe play at the NT

Rutherford & Son – Northern Broadsides in an underated 100-year-old northern play visiting Kingston

Amen Corner – The NT director designate’s very musical staging of this 1950’s Black American play

The Pride – speedy revival but justified and timely, and one of many highlights of the Jamie Lloyd season

London Wall & Laburnam Grove – not one, but two early 20th century plays that came alive at the tiny Finborough Theatre

Honorable mentions for To Kill A Mockingbird at the Open Air, Beautiful Thing at the Arts, Fences in the West End, Purple Heart – early Bruce (Clybourne Park) Norris – at the Gate and The EL Train at Hoxton Hall, where the Eugene O’Neill experience included the venue.

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This is the perfect show to fill Chichester’s temporary ‘Theatre in the Park’. It’s an up-market, comfortable big-top with a great atmosphere and the show’s about 19th century American circus legend Phineas T Barnum. I don’t think it has been seen in the UK since it’s UK premiere 30 years ago and its a lot better than I remembered.

In truth, the story of Barnum’s life has little depth. We follow his relationship with his wife, his fling with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and his business dealings with Brit Julius Goldschmidt and eventual partner James A Bailey, but this is family entertainment and on those terms it succeeds. There’s singing, dancing, acrobatics, clowns and marching bands. Cy Coleman’s music has a lot of numbers you didn’t think you knew and is often rather rousing.

Scott Pask’s design and Paul Willis’ costumes are superb. There’s a two-tier backdrop with the band hidden on the second tier and twin spiral staircases that revolve! Performers enter from the back, the auditorium and down ropes from above. Liam Steel & Andrew Wright’s choreography has people becoming props and doubled-up to play one person. The arrival of a giant elephant is simple but breathtaking and the acrobatics even happen in the auditorium. Director Timothy Sheader, moonlighting from the Open Air Theatre where he has had much musical theatre success, does a cracking job pulling this together into a cohesive entertainment that lifts you up and keeps you on a high.

Given this country is awash with musical theatre talent, I’m not sure why they’ve had to import their Barnum from the US (or his wife from Australia, come to that), but Christopher Fitzgerald is hugely impressive and very hard-working. Walking a tightrope whilst singing a song can be no mean feat. The extraordinarily good-looking, athletic and energetic ensemble is outstanding.

I can’t imagine a better revival or a more appropriate space. With Cameron Mackintosh on board as co-producer, I think we should expect a London outing (bringing the theatre with it when it finishes its time here at the end of September or, with a few changes, Mr Sheader could take it to his Open Air Theatre next summer?). This continues Chichester’s important role in musical theatre. They’ve transferred Singing in the Rain, Sweeney Todd, Love Story & Kiss Me Kate in the last few years, so why not Barnum?

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Once the perfect setting for Shakespeare, then a wonderful home for musicals, then reinvented for 20th century drama, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park now feels absolutely the right pace for storytelling. This adaptation of Harper Lee’s 60’s classic American novel (and the only thing she ever wrote!) is completely at home.

The actors start reading it from the audience, and continue doing so between scenes throughout the play. The simple staging starts with the town being chalked onto the stage floor. The props are on the sides of the stage, where the actors wait their turn. The only thing on stage for the duration is a tree. It’s all so very simple and so very perfect for storytelling as it draws you in and never lets you go. The charm and innocence of the children is contrasted with the hate of the white racists as the story of misjustice in small town America is played out. Timothy Sheader’s production is enthralling and deeply moving.

I’m not entirely sure which of the three groups of three children performed, but they were sensational. Robert Sean Leonard had great presence as Atticus; father, lawyer and liberal. Both Ritchie Campbell as the accused Tom and Hattie Ladbury as his alleged victim Maudie were hugely impressive. In fact, it’s a bit invidious naming actors, as there isn’t a fault in the casting.

On a clear, dry evening there’s nowhere better than the Open Air Theatre and on this occasion, apart from a tantalising short dusting of a delicate spray (as if to discourage us from becoming complacent), it spun its magic spell yet again and reinvented itself for yet another genre.

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For a lover of musicals, ‘owing to the indisposition of Hannah Waddingham…….’. are amongst the most depressing words in the English language. I was very close to going home, but didn’t. All credit then to her understudy, Carolyn Maitland, for blowing away a lot of my disappointment with an outstanding stand in.

I last saw this show when the RSC brought it to the Old Vic in 1987 during my 15 minutes of fame (well, 12 months, actually) as a member of the Laurence Olivier Awards Panel. When it came to the voting, I was determined that BOTH John Barton and Emil Wolk would share the Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award for the gangsters as it would be invidious to choose one. This required a lot of persuasion as it meant another statuette had to be made, but when you only have 15 minutes (12 months) of fame, you can be very persistent and insistent. It wasn’t until 2012 that they did it again, this time for Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller’s role sharing in Frankenstein.

Even though it didn’t seem that dated then, 40 years after it was written, it does now, another 25 years on, but perhaps that’s because Trevor Nunn’s production is a bit conservative and Robert Jones design a bit dated. The choreography of Stephen Mear is about the only thing that seemed fresh. It does fit the Old Vic better than it would probably fit any other theatre though.

Of course, it’s one of the few musicals adapted from Shakespeare . Taming of the Shrew – The Musical; though in all fairness, it weaves in the backstage story of a warring pair of ex’s and the world of American touring theatre in the 40’s.  It may be the only show with a showstopper to open each act – Another Opn’in, Another Show the first and Too Dam Hot the second. Then there’s a third showstopper in Brush Up Your Shakespeare, this time with David Burt and Clive Rowe as the gangsters (they don’t have a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award any more, so that’ll save SOLT a few quid in these tough times).

It’s a fine cast, with Wendy Mae Brown and Jason Pennycooke giving excellent performances in their respective act openers and an excellent Fred / Petruchio from Alex Bourne; someone new to me. The dancing and Gareth Valentine’s great band are what make this production shine most; otherwise it seemed a bit slow (well, Trevor Nunn….) and occasionally flat.

Despite its scale, it’s surprising none of our fringe musical venues have revived it (well, they’ve done some pretty big shows). I think there has only been one (an import from Broadway) in the 25 years since it was last here at the Old Vic, so it is good to see it again (and I may have to return to see Ms Waddingham) but oh how I’d love to have seen it at the Open Air Theatre.

 

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This was Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty’s first musical, back in 1988. They went on to write a classic – Ragtime (brilliantly revived here at the Landor last year and included in this years Open Air season) – plus some good but less successful shows like Once on This Island, My Favourite Year and A Man of No Importance.

Based on Michael Butterworth’s book, the show tells the somewhat preposterous story of an English shoe salesman who inherits his American uncle’s fortune – provided he takes his corpse on holiday to Monte Carlo! He’s followed by a dog’s home representative who is checking he meets the conditions in full as otherwise they cop the lot. Of course, its musical comedy (farce) so nothing is as it seems and nothing turns out as planned.

Though it’s an early work, it’s a quirky and funny show with some nice tunes. We move from dull English shop and lodgings to the French Riviera (cue intentionally dodgy French accents and jokes about French stereotypes) as plain Harry wheels uncle around between locations followed by equally plain Annabel from the dogs home and uncle’s more manic ex and her brother. There’s even a dream sequence which includes a tap dance!

All the leads are excellent. James Winter and Abigail Jaye both strike the right note as quiet souls at sea in a strange world. Lucy Williamson is a terrific scorned woman, brash loud and somewhat gothic; a great double-act with Miles Western as her less manic but equally mad brother. The stiff (Mark Hayden?) would win any Best Performance by a Corpse award going – on stage for most of the play, he hardly flinched.

Rob McWhir’s production has a cartoonish quality and great pace. There’s a clever set with eleven doors and a descending bed. At the interval, I was puzzled at the lack of a design credit, but witnessing the interval repairs I was less surprised! The cast dealt with the elongated interval brilliantly by including a lyric referencing the bed in the second act opener – delicious!

Its great fun and you only have two more weeks to catch it.

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Almost twenty years ago, American writer Ken Ludwig (best known for Lend Me A Tenor) and British director Mike Ockrent had the bizarre idea of staging a ‘new’ Gershwin musical. Using Girl Crazy as their starting point they created a new book and added Gershwin songs from elsewhere. Not exactly a ‘jukebox’ musical, but close. They may well have inadvertently given us the best musical the Gershwin’s (n)ever wrote.

Bobby is a banker (there, I’ve said it!) who yearns to be a Broadway boy. To divert him from his attempts to join the Zangler Follies, his haridan of a mother sends him to the Wild West to foreclose on a theatre that has defaulted on its mortgage. Of course, he falls in love with both the theatre and the owner’s daughter and sends for the Follies girls (on their vacation) to stage a show with the local rednecks to rescue the theatre.  Cue lots of east coast  meets wild west culture clash and knowing jokes about how gambling will never catch on in Nevada.

Peter McKintosh has created a terrific set which starts with the neon lights of  Broadway but soon moves to the dusty streets and saloon bars of the old west; a few real horses tied up outside the saloon and you’d think you were there. Timothy Sheader’s staging and Stephen Mear’s choreography sparkle with ingenuity and wit and there’s a fine ensemble of hapless cowboys and pretty chorus girls. It’s packed full of Gershwin tunes, from solo gems like Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You and They Can’t Take that Away From Me to big chorus numbers like the show-stopping I Got Rhythm, which closes the first act leaving you desperate for the second to start. The book is very funny and the drunken scene where the real Zangler and his imposter meet is a comic masterpiece.

Sean Palmer is terrific as Bobby and Clare Foster is delightful in her transition from tomboy to lovestruck girlfriend. David Burt and Harriet Thorpe give us great cameos as Zangler and Bobby’s mum. The band is as big and as brash as it should be when necessary, but plays tunes delicately when needs be.

This season, the OAT has gone from desert island crash site to Hogarthian London to Broadway / the Wild West and all three show have been hits. The new policy of a more varied repertoire is paying off and the space is proving it can just about stage anything. Now all they have to do is replace the caterers! Miss this at your peril.

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Though the jury’s still out on the best production in Sondheim’s 80th year, with the NYT ‘s Sweeny Todd and the Open Air’s Into the Woods currently leading the list, the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch may well have the worst production award in the bag already. I’m afraid the 3.5 hour round trip to darkest Essex on a wet Wednesday wasn’t worth it.

It’s nowhere near his best show, and you’d hardly call it subtle, but here they’ve produced a Carry On Benny Hill Farce that’s about as brash, gaudy and crude as it gets, with few redeeming features. It is a silly show, but it does have some nice tunes (notably the opening Comedy Tonight) and funny lines. The last production at the NT quite rightly sent up the form the show itself was parodying; this one doesn’t seem to have any tongues in any cheeks.

The staging was rather clumsy, the set tacky & ugly and most of the performances worthy of the local AmDram. I’m sure a half-full house, with the front 4 or 5 rows bizarrely empty, doesn’t help, but it was hard to keep your spirits up and raise a smile.

Woe, oh woe; woe I say – a turkey.

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