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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Thomas’

A very early revival for this 2014 show, a new smaller scale actor-musician production, is showing at the nearest producing theatre to the Ford Dagenham plant, just five miles away. You could hear and feel the connection the audience made with the story. I’d loved the show in the West End and couldn’t resist seeing it again. One of my better decisions as it turns out; it’s an excellent production. 

The 1968 strike by the Dagenham machinists started as a dispute about down-grading through job evaluation but became a key moment in the campaign for equal pay, a battle which in truth continues to this day. They had to win over their own union reps, their male colleagues (many their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers) and the TUC before the government would intervene. It’s largely told through Rita, their unlikely and reluctant leader, whose relationship with her husband Eddie comes under great strain. She finds an unlikely ally in the Ford site manager’s posh wife and a powerful enemy in the parent company’s hit man (who seemed very Trump-like last night!).

The show works well because it presents us with important social history in a very entertaining way. Richard Bean’s book and Richard Thomas’ lyrics are very funny and very authentic. As Mark Shenton says in his programme note, there have been a few of musicals revolving around strikes – Billy Elliott, The Pajama Game, The Cradle Will Rock – but surely this is the funniest and the edgiest. I will forever be puzzled why it had such a mixed reception and a ridiculously short life in the West End, as this lovely revival reminds me.

The musical standards are very high with 20 of the 21 cast contributing instrumentation. Daniella Bowen and Alex Tomkins were excellent as Rita and Eddie O’Grady. Foul-mouthed Beryl is a peach of a part and Angela Bain was terrific. The always wonderful Claire Machin made a great job of Barbara Castle, clearly relishing the role. The rest of the ensemble, half of them doubling or tripling, was first class. I don’t think I’ve seen the work of director Douglas Rintoul, the Queens newly appointed AD, but on this showing I’d very much like to see more.

The show was 45 minutes shorter than my round-trip to Hornchurch, but it was well worth going. Head East, folks.

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Like Billy Elliott before it, they’ve taken a great British feel-good film and made it into an even better musical. Though the lyricist has written musicals before, the book writer and composer haven’t, which makes the achievement hugely impressive.

Of course, it’s the true story of the Ford Dagenham sewing machinists who took on the multinational, the UK government and their male colleagues over equal pay. It was a landmark in equal opportunity, with the Equal Pay Act following two years later. Many would argue that we still haven’t got true equality today, but the Ford women’s strike was the first big step on the journey. The triumph here is that they respect the true story, which is both stirring and moving, whilst injecting it with boundless energy and humour. Richard Bean’s first musical book is as funny as his plays and it propels the story well, Richard Thomas has produced lyrics that are sharp, witty, naughty and sometimes just a little bit shocking and David Arnold has come up with some great songs – some funny, some moving – and rousing choruses. Bunny Christie’s design seems to be inspired by a model aircraft kit and transforms into a busy factory floor, machine room, family home, hospital ward, Westminster office and the TUC conference in Eastbourne! The costumes are retro joy – the multi-coloured world of the swinging sixties. It’s all pulled together by director Rupert Goold with his usual inventiveness and pizzazz.

Gemma Arterton is very impressive and sweet voiced in her first musical role as Rita. It’s wonderful to see Adrian der Gregorian centre stage in the West End at last and he’s great as Rita’s husband Eddie. There are so many other excellent performances, but I have to single out Sophie Stanton, whose performance as foul-mouthed Beryl continually brings the house down, Sophie-Louise Dann who is a terrific Barbara Castle, Mark Hadfield’s hilarious Harold Wilson (though he needs to do a bit more work on the accent) and Naomi Fredericks, who has to play serious amidst all the hilarity and pulls it off brilliantly. Steve Furst plays Tooley, the American sent in the sort out the Brits, with great brash panache and there’s an excellent cameo from Scott Garnham launching the new Cortina in song with dancing girls.

There was a great buzz in the full house and a spontaneous standing ovation. The show again proves that our social history can be staged as entertainment whilst respecting the events and characters portrayed. We don’t yet know what the Dagenham ladies think, but my guess is they’ll think it as much fun as the rest of last Thursday’s audience. It’s only halfway through previews but its already in great shape and any lover of musical theatre will book now while they can. I’m certainly going back!

 

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Film

January is a bit of a theatrical black hole and with film releases timed to secure awards, it’s always a bumper film month!

Once you get through the dull first third, the rest of The Hobbit is great. No-one can create fantasy worlds and magical creatures like Peter Jackson and these seemed even better than in The Lord of the Rings. It’s really only a tale of a journey, but the images and filming are so good I can forgive that; though whether I’ll still be saying that after Episodes II and III I’m not sure – he does appear to be spinning out a slight tale somewhat!

The Life of Pi is a beautifully made film, and the best use of 3D I’ve seen, but it didn’t really engage me as much as I’d thought it would, largely because I couldn’t buy into the story. I’ve never read the book, so I’m not sure if that’s part of it. Beautiful, but a bit dull?

Soon after Les Miserables started, I was unhappy with the poor quality of much of the solo vocals; this is a musical, after all. To its credit, it won me over and by the end I completely got the point that the focus on acting the roles rather than singing them served the drama better, at least in a cinematic version. The only other major reservation remained though – Russell Crow was badly miscast as Javert, because he can’t act or sing, and this almost ruined the film. It’s an odd thing too, as the casting was otherwise faultless. Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne were both simply terrific, Ann Hathaway a revelation, Helena Bonham-Carter & Sacha Baron Cohen surprisingly effective as the Thenadiers’ (the former could have been in civies, such is her normal style!) and the kids who played the young Cosette and Gavroche stunning (the latter could show Crow a thing or two about both acting and singing!).

I eventually caught up with Silver Linings Playbook and loved it. Such a brave, clever yet entertaining depiction of mental health, brilliantly acted and completely compelling. It deserves all the BAFTA & Oscar nominations.

Another catch-up proved to be just as rewarding – I loved Argo too. I knew nothing about this true story of an aspect of the Iranian hostage siege and found its telling thrilling, without being in any way earnest or heavy. In fact, there was much humour, particularly the brilliant double act between Alan Arkin and John Goodman.

Around a third of the way through What Richard Did, I was thinking ‘why has Time Out advised me to see this?’ – it seemed to be nothing more than a bunch of middle-class Irish kids partying. Then a tragedy takes it in a completely different direction as we watch Richard’s moral dilemma unfold. In the end I think I admired it, and it really made me think, but I can’t really say I enjoyed it.

Contemporary Music

I’ve loved watching Mari Wilson evolve from pop through musicals & jazz to cabaret and the Hippodrome’s Matcham Room was a great venue for her to showcase her terrific covers album, with a great trio of backing musicians. Being able to have a quick wander in the casino was a bonus!

Classical Music

The LSO’s pairing of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Mozart’s Requiem conducted by Sir Colin Davies was enticing, but ultimately underwhelming. This may have something to do with Sir Colin’s withdrawal through ill-health, possibly even more to do with the sound from my poor seat (though not cheap at £25). The chorus and orchestra were on fine form and three of the four soloists were good (particularly soprano Elizabeth Watts), but neither piece came alive like both should and have in the past.

Opera

My second visit to MetLive (NYC’s Metropolitan Opera in the cinema) was even better than the first. I’m not mad keen on bel canto operas, but David McVicar’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, with great design & costumes from John Macfarlane, was superb.The five principals were all wonderful, with favourite Joyce DiDonato soaring above them all. I’m not sure the IMAX screen added anything, so I think I’ll revert to the good old Clapham Picture House for the next one.

Dance

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is his best work since the iconic Swan Lake (though I’ve enjoyed everything in between). It’s a masterpiece of re-invention taking us from Aurora’s birth in 1890 to her coming of age (and falling asleep) in 1911, waking up 100 years later in 2011. Les Brotherston’s design and costumes are brilliant, there’s a superb puppet baby and the dancing is always inventive. I loved every minute and can’t wait to see it again.

Cabaret

It was the involvement of Richard Thomas, co-writer of one of the best musicals (Jerry Springer – The Opera, which isn’t) and one of the best operas (Anna Nicole, which is) of the last decade, which led me to the antidote to Christmas shows, Merrie Hell. The two-hander, with David Hoyle in drag, is largely made up of songs which range from cheeky & naughty to rude & shocking, with semi-improvised dialogue in-between involving selected members of the audience. Tough it took a short while to settle, I found it refreshing fun and something very different, particularly at this time of year.

Art

I caught the Cecil Beaton War Photographs exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on its last day and was very glad I did. For a man largely known for highly staged fashion, royalty and celebrity photography, it was a revelation. Putting some of this better known work (plus theatre, ballet and opera designs) alongside the extraordinary wartime photos taken around the world showed both his range and his talent and, for me at least, that he was no posh toff one-trick-pony.

Anthony Gormley’s exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey is a departure from his obsession with bodies – a lot of rectangles and squares – which I found dull until the final room where, after signing a disclaimer(!), you enter a giant steel structure somewhat like a maze. Overall though, I’d rather he returned to his obsession as the work is a whole lot more engaging.

This year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the ICA were dreadful. There is nothing more to be said! Richard Hamilton’s late works round the corner and straight after at the National Gallery were better, though even a one-room exhibition can be monotonous when all the pictures seem to be nudes posing in unlikely places doing unlikely things like hoovering!

Other

A couple of ‘visits’ this month, the first Hidden Barbican – a backstage tour that took in the stage, fly tower, orchestra pit, dressing and rehearsal rooms. For a theatre obsessive like me, a real treat.

Back in The City for another livery company which I’d previously only visited for a concert in their hall; Stationer’s Hall. The tour was full of lovely tales (stationers are so-called because their City positions were, well, stationary!) through lovely rooms with particularly good stained glass including a 19th century window commemorating Shakespeare.

 

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I don’t normally blog opera, except briefly in my monthly round-ups (life’s too short to blog everything fully!), but I’m making an exception as a new opera is rare on the main stage at Covent Garden (and rarely good too). The scene is set as soon as you enter. In the foyer, all the pictures and memorabilia have been replaced by Anna’s. In the auditorium, the angels behind the lights have been given Anna faces, there’s a big one above the now pink curtain and even the royal crest has changed from ER to AR!

Twenty years ago, I saw an exciting opera debut at the Edinburgh Festival by a young 30-year old based on Stephen Berkoff’s play Greek; it showed great promise. Ten years later, I saw the first and best opera of the last decade based on Sean O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie by the same composer. It’s taken another eleven years to get Mark Anthony Turnage’s third – he’s talented, but not very productive (opera-wise)!

So it’s good to report that it was worth the wait. It lives up to the hype and may well be the best modern opera ever staged at Covent Garden (it’s a small short-list, with Thomas Ades’ The Tempest and Birtwhistle’s Gawain and Minotaur vying for the accolade). It’s a very operatic modern story and Turnage has found the perfect collaborator for the subject matter – Richard (Jerry Springer – The Opera) Thomas’ libretto is sparking, shocking and suitably satirical. He has chosen a more accessible musical theatre style for the music (with added jazz) which again suits the subject matter; there are times when the score, played by the great RO orchestra under Anthony Pappano’s direction, really shines.

The first act shows us her rise to fame and it’s irreverent, blissfully funny and brash beyond belief. There is a huge shiny suited chorus of clones who narrate her story from trailer trash waitressing to marriage to an 89-year old billionaire via lap dancing. Her family is gross, the places she works tacky and even with wealth, tastelessness reigns (design Miriam Buether!).

In the second act, the billionaire (Alan Oke – terrific) dies and we see her decline through drug and food abuse, her pay-per-view birth, her son’s death and reality TV. It actually does become sympathetic and you do see her as a victim. Her predatory lawyer becomes the baddie to end all baddies (a great performance from Gerald Finley). In a brilliant stroke, the chorus become walking cameras who follow her around everywhere.

Richard Jones is the perfect director to pull all of this together and he’s done a cracking job. Eva-Maria Westbroek is excellent as Anna, Susan Bickley (though occasionally inaudible, even from the second row of the stalls) gives a fine characterisation of her mother and Peter Hoare impersonates CNN’s Larry King brilliantly. All of the many other small roles are expertly cast.

Now they have a hit on their hands, I suspect the inevitable revival will be at higher than the musicals ticket prices applied for the premiere, which would be a shame as for once, the lower parts of the house were accessible to mere mortals – appropriate for an opera about a mere mortal…….

 

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I couldn’t describe this show better than its own billing –  a ‘Dance Revue’ about shoes! This could so easily fail and come out as tacky showbiz, but in the hands of Jerry Springer – The Opera creator Richard Thomas and inventive choreographer Stephen Mear it’s a whole lot of fun.

Who’d have thought you could come up with so many clever ideas about footwear; here there are some 30 ‘numbers’ including health and safety advice for walking in high heels, how Hush Puppies can help the promiscuous, Imelda Marcos’ infamous obsession with shoes and the worship of everything from Flip Flops to Ug’s to Jimmy Choo’s (but not Crocs!).

The dancing is terrific and the songs are good (with often hysterical lyrics). Tom Pye’s design, with Laura Hopkins costumes and Tim Hope & Gaelle Denis’ projections, is a colourful gaudy feast for the eye. The dancers are hugely talented and the singers top-notch. A small 8-piece band plays as if their lives depended on it.

Not everything works as well as the high spots and they pull more punches in the first half than the second. I found the opening number too much to take in whilst adjusting to a very different type of show and the sound occasionally buried the lyrics (co-lyricist Alethea Wiles), but these are small points because this is something completely different that continually surprises you, makes you smile from start to finish and above all is original and fresh.

A wonderful post-Edinburgh treat to kick-start the autumn season in London.

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