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Posts Tagged ‘Playhouse Theatre’

As in ‘may the best man win’, this is a 1960 play by Gore Vidal about a fictitious 1960 US political party convention to select a presidential candidate (though some believe the protagonists are modelled on Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy). Though it has a sort of timeliness today, the lifeless first half lets it down.

The leading candidates are William Russell, intellectual and establishmentarian, in the current government, and Joseph Cantwell, a charismatic populist. See what I mean? Though Russell is leading, Cantwell has some dirt to dish out. Russell has some too, but he’s seemingly a more principled man who’s reluctant to use it. The behind-the-scenes activities in hotel bedrooms in convention city Philadelphia show the selection process to be flawed and broken. The candidates are surrounded by their campaign managers, wives and the press and we move between camps as the intrigue unfolds. Nothing much happens in the first half, which is the fundamental problem with the play. It does get interesting in the second half, when the two candidates confront each other in a high stakes game of dare, and the conclusion is a surprise, but its too late really.

The two contrasting candidates are well played by Martin Shaw and Jeff Fahey, particularly the latter, but the female roles are badly underwritten, even patronising, though they might genuinely represent attitudes at that time. Glynis Barber comes off best as Alice Russell, Honeysuckle Weeks is forced to play the supportive wife without a mind of her own and Maureen Lipman’s character, Mrs Gamadge, appears to be light comic relief. It’s good to see Jack Shepherd again, playing the outgoing ailing president who’s playing hard-to-get with his support. The play seems trapped in Michael Taylor’s hotel room set and Simon Evans’ staging feels rather conservative. It rarely comes to life, and though it resonates almost sixty years on, not enough to forgive its flaws, I’m afraid.

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Picking up steam now; my first four-show day, though it started with a couple of small exhibitions. At the National Library of Scotland, Enduring Eye featured new prints from the original negatives of the photographer in Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition, and they are extraordinary. They bring to life this amazing adventure on the other end of the Earth whilst World War One is taking place. At the University of Edinburgh Library, Highlands to Hindustan brings together items from their collection given by people returning from India; a small but fascinating collection of pictures, sculptures, books and even some video and sound footage.

Enterprise was a show I added when it got a Fringe First Award and I’m glad I did. At Assembly Studio Two, it’s a satire on corporate behaviour, featuring four men in suits in various permutations in a series of short scenes which added up to a rather accurate and very funny expose of corporate greed and ruthlessness. Back at the Traverse One, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam was the fascinating true story of an Egyptian refugee girl’s journey to Glasgow and to manhood, with Adam telling the story himself, with the help of another actor. The closing scene, where video clips of hundreds of people with similar stories from around the world singing ‘I am Adam’ was deeply moving. The Last Queen of Scotland overcame the handicap of being in one of the fringe’s worst venues – Underbelly, a damp, caverness, airless space without natural light – and proved to be a very original story of a Ugandan Asian woman’s childhood flight from Kampala to Dundee in 1972 when Idi Amin, himself bizarrely obsessed with Scotland, expelled them. The Dundee accent was sometimes impenetrable and the superb actor playing her was young and white, but the true story of her return to her home country and the Kent refugee camp shone through. Only time for a solo pasta today as we were all in different places with busy days, before ending with comedy – Mark Steel at Assembly Hall. Steel’s recent divorce loomed large and my companions thought him bitter, which he was, but I thought he was also bloody funny, with insightful views of what’s happening in our society to go with the personal story. One of my favourite comedians with an excellent, very personal show.

Wednesday started well back at Traverse One with a proper play called The Whip Hand – living room set, five characters, dense plotting, multi-layered – which was a touch melodramatic, but unpredictable, pleasingly inconclusive, covering a lot of personal and geo-political ground. Very satisfying. An unscheduled interlude at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery enabled me to revel in the beauty of the recently renovated main hall once more, to see their latest hanging of an extraordinary collection of contemporary portraits, to catch an interesting exhibition called Looking Good / The Male Gaze, spanning five centuries, and a more depressing one of Graham MacIndoe’s photos of his own addiction in Coming Clean. Across the road at Stand One Mark Watson gave us some work in progress, partly created from audience pre-show input. A touch lazy, a bit rambling, but it’s hard not to like his anarchic charm, an antidote to the slicker comedians. A lazy afternoon with a light lunch, a glass of wine or two and a view of the castle in the fourth floor restaurant at Harvey Nick’s was followed by more comedy, favourite Mark Thomas with his new show at Summerhall. It re-cycles two ideas, with a new spin on Manifesto (more audience pre-show input) and the biographical Bravo Figaro, but his passion and audience engagement is unrivalled, so you do leave thinking you’ve spent 70 mins with an old mate having a bit of a rant. Dinner at http://www.fieldrestaurant.co.uk was a welcome return to their simple seasonal and local food; but I struggle to understand how they survive with twenty-six covers, of which we comprised a fifth! At the international festival’s The Hub, a late night ‘cabaret’ proved a disappointment, though views amongst the group differed, with me the most negative. Meow Meow’s would have been better if she’d dropped the Little Mermaid concept / ‘show’ and delivered her normal edgy burlesque cabaret, rather than a contrived piece which was good when she sang but fell flat on it’s flipper with the embarrassing sequences in-between. It was intensely uncomfortable, physically and intellectually, and I would have walked if you could have done so quietly. The main festival trying to be as cool as the fringe and failing.

The final day was the sort of eclectic one you can probably only get in Edinburgh. It started with my 10th production of an old favourite, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, staged and performed in the Assembly Hall by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I very much enjoy my outings to London’s conservatoires and I enjoyed watching future talent here just as much, in an excellent production. Odd to be at a full length fringe show after a week of pieces under 90 minutes, though. At the Fruitmarket Gallery, I rather took to Brazilian Jac Leirner‘s obsessive collection and presentation of all sorts of items – wire, rulers, spirit levels, cigarette papers – part of a very limited presentation of contemporary art this year. Cathy at Pleasance Dome was campaigning theatre, urgent and important as well as being good theatre itself. It was a new play effectively updating Ken Loach’s iconic TV play on it’s 50th anniversary, staged by Cardboard Citizens on their 25th. Like Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, it puts up a mirror to modern society and in particular our approach to housing and benefits and shames us. Down in Leith, Volcano presented a riff on / deconstruction of Chekhov’s The Seagull called Seagulls in an extraordinarily atmospheric disused church. Full of surprises and, surprisingly, laughs, it was captivating if sometimes puzzling, but after processing it I realised it was quite faithful to the original, albeit with only five of the ten main characters – and a lot more entertaining! After a shaky start, seeming under rehearsed with poor sound, The Music of the Incredible String Band at the Playhouse Theatre, weaved it’s magic, bringing waves of nostalgia for 50-year-old music that is a key part of the soundtrack of my life. Eight soloists, including Mike Heron himself,  beaming in wonder, and a surprising but delightful triumvirate of ladies, opera singer Janis Kelly, folkie Karine Polwart and Barbara Dickson(!), were accompanied by seven musicians, including Heron’s daughter, a member of the McColl folk dynasty and Danny Thompson, who played on many of the original recordings. A lovely conclusion to the week.

Perhaps not up to 2015’s vintage year, but a particularly diverse one. Disappointing for art, but great for music, the Traverse on fine form and excellent food. Until 2018………

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I came to this story fresh, having not read Khaled Hosseini’s novel nor seen the film, and by the interval I was underwhelmed by a fairly pedestrian piece of storytelling that seemed to belong on the fringe rather than in the West End, but after the interval it gained pace and interest.

Amir’s father Baba is a prosperous Afghani and Hussain is the son of his long-standing servant Ali, and they are best friends. Amir turns a blind eye to a violent attack on his friend, then compounds it, seemingly through guilt, by making claims about Hussain’s dishonesty and destroying his relationship with him and his father’s with Ali. When the Taliban begin to take control of the country, Baba and Amir escape to a new life in California. Many years later, after his father has died, Amir visits his former mentor and father’s best friend in Pakistan, who persuades him to return to Kabul to rescue a child. From here, the real truth about Hussain emerges, and propels the story to its happy ending back in Northern California.

It is a very good story and when it got going it drew me in. I liked the onstage music, though I’m not sure it should have started with a solo turn. Matthew Spangler’s adaptation relies too much on narration (by Amir), though this may be the only way to tell such a dense story in a few hours. We’re used to more inventive storytelling on stage these days, and I wondered how much better it might be in the hands of Sally Cookson or Emma Rice. Putting it in the West End, at West End prices builds expectations that I don’t think it fully realises. If it wasn’t an ‘A’ level set text, would it be there? Though it was more than two weeks since its return to the West End, it didn’t seem as slick as by now it should have been.

That said, it eventually captured me and I loved the story, but maybe I should have read the book. In fairness, the standing ovation around me suggested my view was not shared by the majority in the audience.

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I was lucky to be working in the North-West in the summer of 1986 when this show had it’s world premiere. With the music of Howard Goodall’s first show The Hired Man still ringing in my ears, off I went to Oldham Coliseum. The cast were a bunch of then unknowns, many of who went on to become musical theatre royalty – Maria Friedman, Jenna Russell, Clare Burt, Andrew C Wadsworth….. I loved the show and the following year I was on the Olivier Awards panel when it re-opened the Playhouse Theatre in London, substantially re-cast. I was expecting to lead the campaign to nominate it as Best Musical, but it was a different show and for some reason had nothing like the impact it had in Oldham. I’ve never entirely understood why.

It was 24 years before its second London outing, this time at Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre (in a room above a pub in Walthamstow), and it proved to be a delightful chamber piece. So here we are another three years on and it’s the third in the Union Theatre’s Howard Goodall Season, with a production whose musical standards may well be the best. It sounds gorgeous.

Set in the the second world war in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ten ‘girlfriends’ are carrying out admin duties, parachute packing and tea making. We have just two airmen representing the RAF and one of them is caught in a love triangle with best friends Amy and Louise (the other one is trying hard to get laid). The former is toff Guy and the latter Welsh boy Gareth (co-incidence). Everything is told in song – there’s next to no dialogue – which often makes it feel more of a song cycle than a musical. The lack of a good book is its flaw (according to Goodall, Richard Curtis no less added to his research notes with ‘a rambling inventive script’) but the music is glorious.

The vocals here really are beautiful, in solos and ensembles with overlapping melodies. You don’t often here ten women’s voices in harmony and it’s a lovely sound, but the mens contributions, equally good vocals, provide some necessary colour and contrast. The accompaniment of two keyboards, winds and double bass under MD Freddie Tapner ( a professional debut!) is also excellent. The singers and players all do full justice to Goodall’s score and they look like they are having the time of their lives. Bronagh Lagan’s simple staging, with inventive movement and choreography by Iona Holland, suits the piece well. Nik Corall’s design focuses more on costumes than set and you know you’re in the forties by the girls hairdos alone!

It’s great to see this year’s Sondheim Student Performer Award winner Corrine Priest, who made an excellent contribution to the society’s ‘God’ revue, making such a terrific impression in the leading role like Amy, and Perry Lambert is an equally impressive the other leading lady Lou. Both of the boys, Tom Sterling and Michael Ress (a real Welshman, thankfully!), have exceptional voices and act brilliantly. There isn’t a weak link in this young, hugely talented cast.

Though I missed the first show because of my travels, this has been a fabulous Howard Goodall season, so I will end by placing my order for 2015…….Dear Sasha & Howard, the London premiere of Two Cities, please. Thank you. Love, Gareth.

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It has become traditional to use the plethora of ticket offers in Jan / Feb to revisit a favourite long-runner or to catch ‘one that got away’. I’d pigeonholed this one as ‘coach parties & tourists’ and hence to be avoided – even if the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer (a man of a certain age and notorious enemy of jukebox musicals) loved it.

It’s set in 1961, a few years before my personal musical awakening, featuring songs of that period. There’s a teenage love story to link them together, written by TV’s Marks & Gran no less, which is surprisingly charming and funny. It’s a real nostalgiafest – tizer, waggon wheels, Juke Box Jury, love bites & brylcreem – but never takes itself seriously. Fifty years on, 1961 seems rather cool.

Given how long its been running, the big surprise is the freshness and enthusiasm with which it’s performed. The onstage band (with two girl saxophonists!) is excellent and all of the young cast sing and dance for their lives. The production values are good (design Sean Cavanagh, lighting Mark Howett, sound Ben Harrison) , Bob Thomson’s staging very effectively and there’s some great choreography from Carole Todd.

The audience is of course of a certain age (it was refreshing to bring the average age down for once) and you can hear them singing along in the second half and see them dancing in the aisles at the end. I have to say that even though life would go on without it, seeing it was a rather pleasant surprise – and no animals were harmed in staging it.

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