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Posts Tagged ‘Sharon D Clarke’

Suzie McKenna’s sensational revival of this 1980’s Sheldon Epps show, first seen in London in 1987, had a short run at Hackney Empire five years ago. It’s now moved West to the more intimate Kiln Theatre with the wonderful Debbie Kurup joining the cast, and it’s even better.

It’s more of a song cycle than a musical, though its surprising how much characterisation there is, with so little dialogue. The songs themselves tell the stories of The Lady, The Woman, The Girl and The Man who are all in residence in a Chicago hotel, three in their rooms and The Man mostly in the bar, with limited interaction between them. The twenty-six songs are more than just blues but they all come from the same period. They include a lot of numbers by Bessie Smith, with others by Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer and many more. Standards like Lover Man, beautifully sung by Sharon D Clarke, Taking a Chance on Love, Baby Doll and Take It Right Back sit side by side with less well known songs.

The four star performances just blow you away. Sharon D Clarke, within days of her last performance of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, delivers every song with conviction as The Lady looking back at her life. Debbie Kurup inhabits the troubled character of The Woman and delivers her songs such that we feel her pain. There’s a naivety to Gemma Sutton as The Girl, so vulnerable and needy that you want to protect her. Clive Rowe’s worldly wise The Man struts his stuff without a care in the world. They are accompanied by a superb band led by Mark Dickman, and Avgoustos Psillas’ impeccable sound ensures you hear every word and every note.

Robert Jones’ design and Lotte Collett’s gorgeous costumes locate the show firmly in its place and time, with beautiful lighting by Neil,Austin, and Susie McKenna’s direction and Frank Thornton’s choreography use the space to great effect, with the intimacy bringing something extra.

A faultless production with as fine a set of musical performances as you’ll find on any stage. Absolutely unmissable.

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It’s seventy years since this iconic American play first appeared on Broadway, the second of Arthur Miller’s four big hits between 1947 and 1955, and it’s forty years since I first saw it in Michael Rudman’s production for the NT, with Warren Mitchel’s revelatory award-winning performance as Willy Loman. For some reason, I’ve only seen it a few times since, less than the other tree. It’s a timeless piece, and now Marianne Elliott & Miranda Cromwell have breathed new life into it, in an extraordinary revival at the Young Vic.

Most productions focus so much on Willy Loman and his late career meltdown that they ignore the greater sweep of family tragedy and its many layers. Willy is indeed burnt out by a relentless life on the road. When he tries to get his employer to let him return to base, he gets fired. His loyalty and service mean nothing to the son of the man who hired him, and his mental health declines, but added to his woes are the fact that his sons have been disappointments, Biff a failed sportsman who ended up as a farm labourer, Happy a womaniser with a low level job. His wife Linda struggles to manage the tensions and keep the peace. Their neighbour Charley, whose son, a contemporary of Biff, is a successful lawyer, loans them money to keep them afloat. Flashbacks to times past include Willy’s visits to his mistress, once witnessed by Biff, and there are imaginary conversations with his dead Uncle Ben, both interspersed with the family saga’s inevitable progress to its tragic conclusion.

In this production, the Loman’s are a black Brooklyn family and this adds another layer but changes nothing. Wendell Pierce is outstanding as Willy, navigating this emotional roller-coaster of a role with great skill. Sharon D Clarke’s Linda loves her man and her boys but shares his disappointments and frustrations; as stunning a performance as we’ve become used to from this fine actress. Arinze Kene and Martins Imhangbe are simply terrific as Biff and Happy, trying but failing to please, carrying their own disappointments on their shoulders. They are supported by another eight performances in a fine ensemble, including superb cameos from Joseph Mydell as Uncle Ben and Matthew Seadon-Young as Willy’s young employer Howard. Femi Temowo’s music adds much, particularly with fine singers like Sharon D Clarke and Arinze Kene in the company. Anna Fleischle’s design serves the play well.

The unofficial Miller mini-fest reaches it’s pinnacle here with a revival that’s too good to see only once. I’ll be back!

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This is the Hackney Empire team’s 20th panto, and my 10th (and second Aladdin). Five of the six leads clock up forty between them, led by Kat B with 15. Designer Lotte Collett clocks up 15 too, and MD Mark Dickman’s on his 9th. The loyalty of the creative team, the performers and the audience speaks volumes. Christmas would not be Christmas without a visit to Hackney. This year it’s a pleasure to have Clive Rowe and Tameka Empson back, as well as the wonderful Gemma Sutton make her debut.

If you were contemplating going ‘up west’ for ‘Disney’s Aladdin’, think again. There’s way more fun in the East End for a lot less money, and now I’ve seen both, I speak from experience. The seats might be plusher, but you won’t be with your panto family like you are in Hackney, and there’s absolutely no chance of Clive Rowe’s Widow Twanky flirting with you at the Prince Edward Theatre.

Given the far east setting, we’re actually in Ha-Ka-Ney with the Empress looking for a wealthy suitor for her daughter Princess Ling Mai, who falls in love with Aladdin, one of laundress Widow Twanky’s two sons, who is poor not wealthy. We’ve got both a genie of the lamp and genie of the ring and of course baddie Abanazar who whisks us all away to colder climes.

Amongst this years treats we have dancing pandas, Gaia the goddess of light, with a blue monkey face (voiced by the sensational Sharon D Clarke no less) and a dragon that will take your breath away. Both genie of the lamp and Aladdin fly. Designer Lotte Collett’s imagination has run riot, particularly with the dame’s costumes and headwear that features everything from washing baskets lines & machines to pagodas.

This year I was particularly impressed by the make-up, especially Kat B’s genie, and above all the musical standards, with fantastic vocals all round. Susie McKenna & Steven Edis’ 20th is vintage Hackney panto, a joy and an unmissable treat.

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How can you not like a musical whose characters include a washing machine, dryer, radio, bus and the moon?! That makes it sound silly, but it certainly isn’t. Tony Kushner’s highly innovative, ground-breaking, partly autobiographical Olivier Award winning show, with an operatic score by Jeanine Tesori, is ten years old, not seen since it’s NT UK premiere, and this is a hugely successful revival at Chichester’s intimate Minerva Theatre.

Caroline is the black maid in the Louisiana household of the Jewish Gellman family. Young Noah’s mum has died and he lives with his dad Stuart, with whom his relationship isn’t strong, his step-mom Rose, who’s trying hard but has yet to be accepted, and grandma and granddad Gellman. He’s fond of Caroline, who seems to spend most of her time in the basement doing a seemingly endless volume of laundry, where her appliances come alive to sing, her radio as an archetypal black girl trio. There’s often money left in trouser pockets and Rose tells Caroline to keep it, to teach the lazy a lesson, but perhaps as charity too.

Outside this world there is a lot going on, notably the civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. It’s a time of change, represented by Caroline’s friend Dotty who is going to night school to attempt to improve her lot, and her daughter Emmie who challenges the servile, reverential attitudes of Caroline’s generation. We learn how Caroline became a single mom, and how she struggles to bring up Emmie and her two younger brothers on $30 a week. The blending of the personal stories of Noah and Caroline with the social history of the deep south in the sixties is deftly handled and Tesori’s sung-through score is packed full of lovely melodies rather than songs as such.

It’s a fabulous, faultless cast, with people of the calibre of Alex Gaumond and Beverley Klein in relatively minor roles. Nicola Hughes and Abiona Omouna are terrific as Dotty and Emmie respectively. Ako Mitchell, Angela Caesar, Me’sha Bryan, Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng and Keisha Amponsa Banson are all wonderful in their various non-human, but far from inanimate, roles. Daniel Luniku is sensational as Noah, and there is yet another towering performance from Sharon D Clarke, the second in as many months, as Caroline. She is absolutely perfect for this role, acting of real power and soaring vocals. 

It’s only six month’s since Kushner’s great new play iHo at Hampstead and his masterpiece Angels in America is currently blowing people’s minds at the NT, all three proving his importance to world theatre. Michael Longhurst’s staging of this is masterly, Fly Davies design is brilliant and the musical standards under MD Nigel Lilley are sky high. I left on a high. This is why I go to the theatre. 

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Why on earth has it taken 20 years for this unlikely Broadway hit musical by Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman to reach London? Like Guys & Dolls decades before it, The Life places NYC street-life centre stage, but it’s not the lovable rogues of the 50’s, it’s the prostitutes and their parasitic pimps of the 90’s. I was bowled over by it. Time to open another superlatives box.

Memphis runs most of the girls on these particular blocks, except Queen, whose small-time ex-military druggie boyfriend Fleetwood purports to be her pimp. JoJo has higher aspirations, recruiting girls for a Californian porn mogul; though his latest NYC newcomer Mary isn’t as innocent as she seems. Long-time pro Sonja is the godmother of the girls. Memphis is determined to add Queen to his roster at all costs and the show turns very dark when he seeks to implement his plan.

Like The Wild Party recently at The Other Palace, it’s a raunchy jazzy score packed with showstoppers that showcase just about everyone of the 16-strong cast, and what a cast Ann Vosser has assembled. Long time favourite Sharon D Clarke is on sparkling form, totally inhabiting the role of Sonja, with stunning vocals that seem effortless. T’Shan Williams is less known to me and she’s simply terrific as Queen; a real find. Cornell S John has huge presence and to say he’s easy to loathe is a compliment to his characterisation of Memphis. David Albury, excellent in the Union Theatre’s Love Story, excels in a very different role here as Fleetwood. Joanna Woodward navigates her character Mary from seemingly naïve new arrival to wannabe porn start well, again with fine vocals. John Addison’s JoJo is a cool but oily chancer; another great characterisation. There a faultless supporting cast and a sensational 11-piece band under Tamara Saringer.

It’s a long evening, but for me it sustained its length. I left the theatre on a high and I was still on it the following day. Unmissable stuff.

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What’s left to be said about the Hackney Empire panto? A freshly minted script and score every year by Susie McKenna and Steve Edis respectively. Production values at least as good as a West End show, and better than many, with brilliantly colourful sets and costumes by Lotte Collett. Sky high musical standards that better any other panto, anywhere (and boy, can the class of 2016 sing!). Not a talentless ‘celebrity’ in sight. A warm community feel that makes you feel at home even if you’re from south of the river like me, or 100 miles further north like my guests. The only Christmas tradition I like and will never lose.

This year we have the tale of the Princess of Hackneytonia, daughter of King Eric the Undecided, promised to the neighbouring Prince of Westminsteria when she reaches 18, under the spell of the dark fairy Carabosse. We have not one, but three good fairies, and a delightful dragon called Denzil. Our Dame is the princess’ Nanny Nora. All the usual ingredients are there, including some slapstick and a sing-along. There’s a particularly good scene in a forest with luminous insects, a lovely Ogre and the arrival of a spectacular giant dragon. Susie McKenna’s scrip has just the right amount of political bite, with excellent well deserved swipes at two of the year’s real life baddies, Boris and Trump. Steven Edis has written some fine new songs and Mark Dickman’s band do them full justice.

The force of nature that is Sharon D Clarke is the dark fairy, who fortunately turns good as I couldn’t hate her for much longer, with great presence and powerful vocals. Alexia Khadime is charming as the Princess, also with great vocal prowess. Regular dame Clive Rowe has handed his pinnie to Gavin Spokes who, after a tentative start, won us over. Regulars Kat B has bags of charm as Denzil the dragon and once he too turns good, so does Darren Hart as Carabosse’s sidekick. Other regular Tony Whittle is a delightful bumbling King in keeping with his Undecided moniker.

Raving about this institution may seem a bit boring, but I can’t lie and the real thing is far from boring. Off you go……..

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This August Wilson play, based on a real-life character – the so-called mother of blues – was his first big success in 1984, getting its first London production five years later in the Cottesloe Theatre. It became the first of his 10-play cycle covering the black American experience (each in a different decade of the 20th century) to be staged, though two are set before it. This very welcome revival is in the much bigger Lyttelton next door.

The whole play takes place in a Chicago recording studio in the 1920’s. Ma Rainey’s a bit of a diva who turns up an hour late for the recording session insisting that her stuttering nephew sings the intro to the title song using a different arrangement, that songs are changed, that her car (damaged en route) is repaired and returned to the studio and that coca cola is fetched from the deli before she starts. The band attempt to rehearse while they are waiting, but horn player Levee’s heart isn’t in it; he’s more concerned with his ambition and his new shoes.

The rest of the play moves between the band room and the studio, with Ma’s manager and the record producer regularly leaving the elevated control room, usually to argue with or placate Ma. Her daughter, the delightfully named Dussie Mae, flirts with Levee – well, more than flirts! The band banter and fight, and occasionally relate a real experience of horrific racist abuse and violence which is particularly chilling contained within the lighter tone. You’d expect the play to revolve around its title character, but in fact it’s heart is in the band room scenes, with their stories and relationships, which take a dramatic turn at the end.

It’s more of a ‘slice of life’ than a linear plotted play, but it achieves its purpose of taking us to a 20’s black American world. It’s a touch slow and low-energy in the slightly longer first half, but its still in preview so it may tighten. The Lyttelton is a much less intimate space than the Cottesloe, but Dominic Cooke’s production and Ultz design work well, with the long narrow band room rising stage front and the control room like an elevated container, both linked by a metal spiral staircase. 

At first I thought the band’s actors – an unrecognisable Clint Dyer on trombone, Giles Terera on bass, horn player O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati on piano – were playing live, but I came to the conclusion the music was recorded, which is a great compliment to both their miming and Paul Arditti’s sound design. It’s a great cast, led by the incomparable Sharon D Clarke, who commands the stage and everyone on it when she is. Fagbenle is a very edgy and passionate Levee and Msamati is superb as Toledo, a role unlike any I’ve seen him play before.

I have to confess my memories of the 1989 production are feint, but its great to see it again and the audience reception was very positive indeed.

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