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Posts Tagged ‘Ryan Sampson’

This play is about the period during the first half of the Second World War when Benjamin Britten was in exile in New York City, staying with his friend W H Auden in a sort of up-market arty commune in a Brooklyn brownstone, with the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar as their mentor.  Gypsy Rose Lee and novelist Carson McCullers also stayed there, and people like Picasso and Dali regularly dropped in. The parties were renowned and the lifestyle hedonistic. During their time there, Britten and Auden wrote the ground-breaking but poorly received American folk operetta Paul Bunyan. Playwright Zoe Lewis and director Oli Rose have turned this fascinating situation into a deeply dull play.

It starts with a flash forward to Britten’s tribunal (on his return) as a conscientious objector. Much is made, in flashbacks, of his mother’s recent death. A British Naval Officer comes to make the British exiles situation clear, though on what authority, in a foreign land, is unclear. Other than that, it’s mostly dull conversations, excessive drinking and the on-off lesbian relationship between Lee & McCullers. It doesn’t really go anywhere and the journey is very dull. 

Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to convey such an interesting situation with just four main characters. The absence of Britten’s partner Peter Pears in particular is mystifying; they were virtually inseparable. The characters are merely sketched and both the structure and dialogue are weak. Ryan Sampson and John Hollingsworth do the best they can with the material they’re given to create Britten and Auden respectively. Ruby Bentall tries too hard and seems uncomfortable conveying McCullers masculinity. Sadie Frost doesn’t really act, she poses.

A big disappointment.

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This new musical is full of superb ingredients. Soutra Gilmore’s design is brilliant. Javier de Frutos choreography is thrilling. Tamara Harvey’s staging is impeccable. The ensemble and the five leads are all excellent. Yet there’s something missing.

We start and end on a ship leaving Hawaii after Pearl Harbour. We spend the 2.5 hours in between with the American military back on the island in the days leading up to the Japanese attack in 1941. Two love stories intertwine – First Sargent Warden’s affair with Captain Holmes’ wife Karen and Private Prewitt’s love for prostitute Lorene. Prewitt has just arrived with high hopes he’ll boost both the boxing and musical credentials of G Company.

In the first half, the focus is on the development of these relationships and Prewitt’s reluctance to box or play and the show fails to engage or come alive. The second half is much grittier as the pressure mounts on Prewitt and choices have to be made by all of the lovers. There’s a realism to the situation (the late James Jones, on whose novel it is based, was there at this time) but Bill Oakes’ adaptation doesn’t entirely work. Stuart Brayson’s score is a bit uneven, but there are some good songs (the choruses are particularly good) and I very much liked David White’s orchestrations. If I hadn’t known Tim Rice was the lyricist, I don’t think I’d have noticed; it seems to lack his trademark sharpness and wit.

You can’t question the craftsmanship, though. The location and period are perfectly evoked in an impressionistic set based on a post-Pearl Harbour theatre and barracks with excellent projections by Jon Driscoll and lighting by Bruno Poet. De Frutos does the same as he did in Rufus Norris’ Cabaret – original and fresh choreography with a contemporary dance feel, which works particularly well in a barrack room scene, a boxing match and the air attack. Tamara Harvey’s staging has so much more intelligent detail than most musicals and the finale is hugely impressive.

Darius Campbell has great presence as Warden and real chemistry with Rebecca Thornhill’s Karen. Robert Lonsdale plays Prewitt with an appropriate edginess and great passion and is well matched with Siobhan Harrison as Lorene. Ryan Sampson first impressed me in DNA at the NT, then Canary at Hampstead, followed by The Kitchen Sink at the Bush (also directed by Tamara Harvey). He showed us his musicals potential in Floyd Collins at Southwark Playhouse and here he almost steals the show with a superb performance in the pivotal role of Angelo. The ensemble – all shapes and sizes, like the real world, for a change! – is uniformly excellent.

It’s a shame it doesn’t quite come together, but this is quality British musical theatre which is to be welcomed nonetheless. Only the lyricist and orchestrator have a strong West End Musicals track record and maybe that’s the crux of it – it brings a freshness of approach but doesn’t have the combined experience to quite pull it off. A bit like The Light Princess, really, and like that, you should still go.

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The last time I went to Southwark Playhouse, it was to see a musical called Parade I hadn’t really rated at the Donmar three years before but loved second time round. Well, now its the other way round – I loved this at the Bridewell 13 years ago, yet I’m now not so sure it’s a good show (though it is a good production).

Adam Guettel & Tina Landau’s musical tells the true story of a man who is trapped in a cave in Kentucky for several days in 1925 whilst seeking out a new entrance to the show cave he and his family own. A young cub reporter picks up the story and it travels like wild-fire, capturing the imagination of the whole country. A media circus and a commercial carnival ensues, a local mining executive tries to take over the rescue and the family bicker.

The Vaults, Southwark Playhouse’s space in the arches under London Bridge station, is a superb location for a show largely set in a cave – though this does bring some acoustic problems they don’t entirely overcome, and a distance from the audience which doesn’t help you engage with the story and characters. Derek Bond’s staging is imaginative and James Perkins evocative design and Sally Ferguson’s atmospheric lighting cleverly use just eighteen ladders and some rope & boxes.

The score is beautifully played, under MD Tim Jackson, by a lovely combination of string quartet, acoustic guitar / banjo, harmonica and percussion and the performances are uniformly good. Ryan Sampson contrast his superb performance in the Kitchen Sink recently at the Bush with a completely different but equally superb one as the dimunitive cub reporter Skeets. The role of Floyd is a tough one – it carries the first 15 minutes virtually alone yet there are long scenes overground where he’s silent – and the excellent Glenn Carter works hard but doesn’t quite pull it off. I very much liked Kit Benjamin as the mine owner Carmichael and Gareth Chart as brother Homer and the three reporters – Vlach Ashton, Dayle Hodge and Roddy Peters – bring some much-needed fizz in their ‘chorus’ number.

It’s hard to imagine a better venue or a more talented cast, band and creative team, yet it ultimately fails because the subject matter, the story and the sub-operatic score just aren’t good enough. I didn’t feel engaged and the music only occasionally impressed. I felt I was observing a piece of work, not involved in the tale.

These second looks do confound sometimes!

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The phrase ‘kitchen sink drama’ was coined in the late 50’s / early 60’s to describe plays about working class folk full of angst. Well, there’s not just a sink but an entire kitchen here – but not a lot of angst. This play is a heart-warming tale of the plight of working class people trying to make a living today that is funny and charming, but at its heart deeply perceptive. Like buses, this is my second ‘blue collar’ play on consecutive nights, albeit from two continents, after a long famine!

We’re with a family just outside Hull. Dad Martin’s milk round (and milk float) is struggling to survive now that most people do all their shopping at Tescos. Daughter Sophie and her (boy)friend Pete have lost their jobs at Woolies – Sophie is now training in Jujitsu and Pete as a plumber. Son Billy’s heading for art school after his paintings of heroine Dolly Parton are deemed postmodern kitsch. The family is held together my mum Kath, housewife and part-time lollipop lady. You even get to know offstage characters like Pete’s seemingly wild Nan and friend & advisor Danny and Sophie’s Jujitsu teacher and blue belt examiner.

Staged in the round, we’re peering into the kitchen, the centre of family life, where food is prepared, cooked and eaten, experiences shared and events and feelings communicated. In a lovely touch, scenes often end with the dishes being washed. Time and the change of seasons is cleverly marked and the kitchen sink itself performs regularly. The whole thing is enthralling and captivating; I couldn’t wait to return after the interval and really didn’t want it to end.

The performances are beautifully nuanced, particularly Andy Rush as Pete and Ryan Sampson as Billy. The scene where Pete is trying to make a move on Sophie is an absolute gem and whenever Billy is on stage, you’re watching him. Leah Brotherhead has, in many ways, the toughest role given Sophie’s emotional journey, but she pulls it off brilliantly. It doesn’t take you long to bury Gavin & Stacy’s Dave Coaches as Steffan Rhodri inhabits dad Martin, running away from the reality of change, and at the centre of all of this is a superb performance from Lisa Palfrey as mum Kath. Another night of perfect casting.

Tamara Harvey’s attention to detail results in a staging that draws you in and involves you completely in these people’s lives. The in-the-round setting doesn’t always work (there are occasions when you’d like to see the faces of all parties to a conversation) but it does give the play its intimacy. For the first time, a name check for the stage management team – Mary Hely, Amy Jewell and Sarah Barnes – as this must be a difficult play to run, yet it’s was very slickly done.

This is a triumphant first (proper) play in the new Bush and another candidate for the best new play of 2011.  If you miss it, it will be your own fault!

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