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Posts Tagged ‘Phil Wilmott’

I’ve waited almost thirty years to see this Lionel Bart show again. The last time it was in London it was staged by the National Youth Theatre in the West End with a sensational performance from Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) in the leading role. It’s the third of only five British musicals Bart wrote, coming immediately after Oliver! which was still running in the West End at the time. It now seems at home in a 70-seat theatre under the railway arches near Waterloo.

When it was first produced in 1962, the Second World War was far enough, but near enough for the spirit of the blitz to provide a nostalgic setting for the story of two families, the Blitztein’s and the Locke’s, whose lives become intertwined. Mrs Blitztein and Mr Locke are both market traders in Petticoat Lane, but they can’t stand each other, Locke being somewhat anti-semitic. Despite this, Locke’s son George and Blitztein’s daughter Carol are in love, a love that survives George’s war injuries and Carol’s blindness by bombing. Their parents’ melt and marry and there’s even a frisson between the grandparents. Three generations, two cultures, love conquers all. I love the populism of Bart’s work, and this is as packed full of great tunes as his other shows are.

Phil Wilmott’s staging turns the small space to an advantage, given that most of the show is set in the underground shelters. The choruses are fantastic and there are a whole load of excellent performances, with Jessica Martin terrific as Mrs Blitztein, Michael Martin as Locke and Caitlin Anderson, Conner Carson and Robbie McArtney as Carol, George & Harry respectively are great, with a lovely cameo from James Horne as grandad Locke.

Lovely to see it again.

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It may be one of the most preposterous stories in musical theatre, but how can you resist a show with a leprechaun called Og who is fast becoming mortal, a mute character who communicates through dance steps, a corrupt racist US senator who gets magicked into poverty (and back again, reformed) and a song called How Are Things in Glocca Morra?! Oh, and a very good score that includes rousing gospel choruses led by Preacher Michael and his three singing ‘sisters’.

The Finian of the title brings the leprechaun’s crock of gold from Ireland to deep south USA, where the poor people of Rainbow Valley are struggling. The drought has put pay to the tobacco crop and the Senator and his corrupt Sheriff are trying to steal their land. Finian’s grand-daughter Sharon falls in love with local boy Woody and the soon to be mortal leprechaun with Woody’s mute sister Susan who is soon to be mute no more. The crock makes wishes come true and news of a gold find spreads to Chicago encouraging swanky retailer Shears & Robust to extend credit to the whole community to allow them to buy the things of their dreams.

Phil Wilmott’s production has it’s tongue firmly in its cheek and as long as you are prepared to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours, it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. Twenty-three might break even the tiny Union’s cast record and there’s a three piece band too (plus the bassist’s friend sitting in silence!). There’s no designer credited but it looks good, and there’s some great choreography from Thomas Michael Voss. Above all it’s the music what makes it and it’s well sung, particularly by sweet voiced Christina Bennington as Sharon, and the choruses are rousing. James Horne and Raymond Walsh, playing Finian and Og respectively, have the appropriate gift of the gab and lots of charm and Michael Moulton makes a great larger-than-life baddie as the Senator.

Given it was written in 1947, Burton Lane & E.Y. Harburg’s show may have been a touch satirical then, with swipes at racism and corruption, but its the fun factor that makes it worth a visit today, the first opportunity to see it here for over 50 years.

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This show started life as a film, made by Blake (Pink Panther) Edwards as a vehicle for his wife Julie Andrews some 30 years ago. It got to Broadway 13 years later but took another 9 years to get to London; a fringe production by Phil Wilmott at the then home of fringe musicals, The Bridewell Theatre. It’s only taken 8 more years for its second London outing (I think), this time at one of our now multiple fringe musical homes, Southwark Playhouse, in a production by the talented and prolific Thom Sutherland.

It owes a lot to Cabaret. English girl abroad. Decadent nightclubs. Cross-dressing. It’s the story of Victoria Grant who after a failed audition as a club singer is persuaded by new friend Toddy to pose as Polish Victor playing a woman – a woman playing a man playing a woman; very Shakespearian.

She falls for visiting American nightclub owner King Marchand (and he for him/her in a nice touch of confused sexuality) but is rumbled by competing club owner Henri Labisse for whom she originally auditioned.  All is revealed so that she can get her man (and his sidekick can get his man i.e Toddy!). It’s a bit of a slight story and the score isn’t much more than OK, but it scrubs up well in this excellent production.

It’s a traverse staging with a (rather too noisy) entrance and stairway at one end and an (underused) staircase and eight club tables with table-top lights (occupied by audience members) at the other end. A few tables and chairs constitute the minimal props but its an effective design by Martin Thomas, well lit by Howard Hudson.

The key to its success is a star turn from the wonderful Anna Francolini who is perfectly cast and believable as both Victor and Victoria. Richard Demsey is good as Toddy, as is Matthew Cutts as King. Mark Curry had real presence as the club owner / manager and Kate Nelson did a lovely job as King’s dumb blonde Norma. In the supporting cast, Jean Perkins gave a fine set of cameos, including a warm-up magic act!

The show was still in preview and it didn’t seem quite ready; in particular there was some ragged playing from the eight piece band under Joseph Atkins. I suspect it will settle and improve as the run continues, but in any event it’s well worth a visit.

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When I can travel in time, I will go to a lot of first nights of iconic shows. One of them will be in 1959 for the opening of Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop production of this show at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

I’ve been banging on about the lack of revivals of British musicals, particularly those of Lionel Bart and Howard Goodall, and now we get one of each in successive months. In truth, this one is a bit light on story but it’s got good songs and makes you nostalgic for a singalong in an old East End boozer.

Having never seen the show, I don’t know how much is this production (depiction of the Krays?) and how much is faithful to the original, but given the original was partly improvised, it seems fair game to change it. It certainly comes up fresh, though the cockney’s are all now more caricatures and stereotypes.

When it transferred to the West End, they didn’t comply entirely with censor Lord Chamberlain’s demands for cuts and after he visited (according to Frank Norman, on whose book it is based,) he asked for the following:

  1. The interior decorator is not to be played as a homosexual
  2. The labourer is not to carry the plank of wood in the erotic place and at the erotic angle that he does
  3. Tosher is not to put his hand on Red Hot’s bottom with finger aligned as he does at the moment and not to push her backwards against the table when dancing in such a manner that her legs appear through his open legs in a manner indicative of copulation (this is a particular puzzle, as Red Hot as a male character!)

Well, a lot changes in 50 years and Phil Wilmot’s production at the Union Theatre seems to be more faithful to the pre-censored edition than the post-censored edition. It’s actually rather racy, probably more than it was but maybe as they’d have liked at the time.

We’re in a brothel in Soho, whose owner Fred has just left prison to find things in his manor somewhat different. His long-suffering girlfriend Lil has been keeping things running, but the power balance has changed. There are working girls, lovable rogues, a hapless thief, a camp interior decorator, a toff and a few harmless coppers. Fred sells the ‘club’ to the retiring police inspector and his working girlfriend and finally marries Lil. The characters Fred and Lil owe a lot to Nathan and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, as indeed does the show –well, in a seedier and tackier way.

The staging really is spot on with excellent choreography from Nick Winston and Oliver Townsend’s design makes great use of the Union Theatre space. Hannah-Jane Fox and Neil McCall are great as Fred and Lil, with excellent chemistry, and have superb support from Susie Chard & Ruth Alfie Adams as girls, Jo Parsons as Tosher & Robert Donald as Red Hot and Hadrian Delacey as the police inspector. I’m afraid Richard Foster-King over-acted mercilessly as interior decorator Horace (which a cast member’s uninhibited granddad pointed out loudly at the time!). The East End boozer feel was helped at the performance I attended by granddad’s companions – a large group of a cast member’s cockney family and friends who whooped, screeched, cheered and, well, sang along.

This is a rare and very welcome revival that comes out fresh and funny and another feather in the Union’s cap.

 

 

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I’m used to low Audience:Performer ratios at the Union Theatre, but this one is 2:1 with a full house – and they’re all so young, I actually aged several years in two hours.

Phil Wilmott’s musical is a love story set in that (in)famous Liverpool hotel which switches (rather confusingly and a bit clumsily, I thought) between the 20’s / 30’s and now. It’s a simple tale with some Adelphi myths woven in – cowboy Roy Rodgers and his horse on the hotel roof and a trainee Nazi in the kitchens! I’m sure I’m being scouse-ist, but it reminded me of Blood Brothers, with musical themes recurring and the old Alice looking rather like Mrs Johnstone.

The positioning of the band between the two banks of seats meant they drowned out (well, at least from where I was sitting) a lot of the solo vocals, though the chorus singing was excellent. The fact that the entire cast seemed teenagers meant you had to suspend belief even more than usual with a musical. The design coup was the back of an illuminated HOLLYWOOD-like hotel sign, though this did restrict the already restricted playing area; apart from that they seem to have spent the rest (plus most of their salaries, I’d say) on a huge number of costumes.

It’s not a great show, but it’s one of that endangered species, a NEW MUSICAL, and it’s in a lovely theatre, so you have to go!

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