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Posts Tagged ‘Sheridan Smith’

National Youth Music Theatre are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a programme of four shows, of which two have timely World War I themes – a revival of 2014’s Brass which I will be seeing in Hackney Empire in a couple of weeks time, and this ambitious new musical at the Rose Theatre Kingston – and its great to report that its ambition has really paid off with this one.

It’s 1916 and a group of kids are trying to figure out what they can do for the war effort when the eldest of them lies about his age and enlists. Those left behind eventually decide to build boat to sail to France and help, but a group of local bullies is intent on scuppering their plans. However, what they don’t have in might they more than make up for with ingenuity and bravery. It has a great children’s adventure story feel to it and its heart-warming stuff.

It has an outstanding score by Jenna Donnelly and Ethan Lewis Maltby, very melodic, with rousing choruses and some complex sub-operatic moments. It’s superbly played by a 12-piece band under Candida Caldicot and the young cast more than rise to the demands of the score with some terrific singing. Director Kate Golledge makes great use of the Rose’s wide apron stage, with a backdrop of maps and a handful of wooden boxes and towers by Diego Pitarch, whose costumes are excellent. Darragh O’Leary’s choreography and movement creates some great moments. Above all, though, its a stage brimming with talent that sweeps you away – twenty-seven young actors whose enthusiasm and energy is completely infectious.

I’ve been going to NYMT shows for many years (though not 40!) and this is as good as any. When you look at their alumni, the chances are very high that you’ll be seeing some of these on professional stages in the future. Only twenty years ago I was seeing Sheridan Smith in three shows. Stars are born indeed.

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I can’t help comparing this show with Jules Styne’s other big hit, Gypsy. It’s another quintessentially American showbiz story with a gutsy heroine, and like the recent Chichester Gypsy, this production has a diminutive leading lady with the triple threat – acting, singing and dancing all sensational.

It’s the true story of Fanny Brice, who gets her vaudeville break by being funny and is soon top of the bill at the Ziegfeld Follies. She falls in love with businessman and gambler Nick Arnstein, moves to a mansion on Long Island and starts a family. Nick makes some bad, even dodgy, business decisions and she soon finds herself returning to work and bail him out. It backfires when her attempts to help become secretive, hurting his pride, and when he comes out of prison he doesn’t return to the family home.

It’s a conservative show, which here gets a very conservative production, including the design and the choreography. It’s as if its American director is scared to mess with it. I also don’t think it fits the Menier space well, a big show desperate to break out of this confined space. For once, the venue’s intimacy works against it. I think it will suit The Savoy, where Gypsy was and where this is heading, better.

That said, it has a good score, played to perfection by Alan Williams’ band, and it’s superbly cast. Darius Campbell continues to impress with great presence and a fine voice (here towering over his leading lady). Marilyn Cutts is excellent as Fanny’s mother, no more so than when she’s with her two friends, played superbly by Gay Soper and Valda Aviks. In fact, the more mature members of this cast all shine, with Bruce Montague a wonderful Ziegfeld too. Praise as well for Joel Montague as Fanny’s showbiz chum and dance coach Eddie, another fine performance.

It’s Fanny’s show, of course, and musical theatre lovers and Sheridan Smith fans have been seriously over-excited at the prospect of her in this role and she doesn’t disappoint. When she sings Don’t Rain on My Parade to end Act One you want to punch the air. In the final scene, alone in front of her dressing room mirror, she breaks your heart then breaks out and lifts you up to close the show. Terrific stuff. 2016 Olivier sorted.

Time to book for The Savoy, I think, if only to prove my prediction eight.

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The conceit of this show by Yiannis Koutsakos, James Oban & James Rottger is that we’re at the opening night of a Britney Spears bio-musical called Oops I Did It Again (with Sheridan Smith as Britney & Michael Ball as her mum!) in the flagship London theatre of a giant corporate chain owned by a larger-than-life impresario; but we’re front of house with the ushers while the show is being played offstage. It’s a clever idea.

Packed full of (up-to-date) musical theatre references and in-jokes (including a cheeky recycling of The West End Whingers re-naming of Love Never Dies as Paint Never Dries), the show follows the fortunes of five wannabe actors and their bullying failed opera singer boss. A gay relationship is threatened as one decides to seek fame in Austria (cue lots of jokes about other places beginning with A) and a straight relationship is formed as pretty boy Stephen falls for new girl Lucy (who has a secret). Starstruck Rosie is obsessed with, well stars – and selfies. It’s all good fun and it’s very well performed by a cast of familiar fringe faces. I particularly like the way they use the characters natural home i.e. the auditorium aisles. It’s stronger lyrically than musically, but the songs are perfectly acceptable.

This is it’s second outing at the Charing Cross Theatre (which seems to have become a second home for fringe musicals, with previous transfers from the Union and the Finborough) after a first showing on the fringe. The last run was as a late-night show and I couldn’t help feeling this might be a better slot – without the superfluous interval in what is only an 80 minute show.
If you like musical theatre, get a group together and have a couple of drinks and you’ll probably enjoy yourselves.

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Michael Grandage’s big idea is the have the forest as a new age encampment and the faeries as hippy eco-warriors, with snatches of The Mamas & Papas and Simon & Garfunkel playing in the background. It also comes in at 2h 10m inc. interval; quite possibly the shortest mainstream Shakespeare production ever!

It’s a patchy affair, though. I liked Christopher Oram’s design – burnished bronze panels, rising to reveal a landscape backed by a giant full moon, with side panels a nod to Arthur Rackham. The verse speaking is often weak. The forest scenes work well, with the lovers firing brilliantly off one another, but the rude mechanicals are badly let down by David Walliams’ misguided and predictably camp Bottom (Walliams does Walliams) mercilessly trying to steal the show but just being bloody irritating.

Padraig Delaney is OK as Oberon but has little presence as Theseus. Sheridan Smith is OK as both Titania and Hippolyta but she’s done much better work than this. Chief acting honours belong to the four lovers – Sam Swainsbury, Susannah Fielding, Stefano Braschi & Katherine Kingsley – who are well matched, suitable sparky and by far the best verse speakers.

It’s a bit pedestrian really. It doesn’t illuminate or add anything and is seriously undermined by the miscasting of Walliams, who’s a diva rather than a company man. You won’t miss much if you miss it, as you’ve probably seen a better one and if not a better one will come along soon!

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As an antidote to reviewing early performances, I find myself seeing this in the last week of its run. To be honest, despite the inclusion of three favourites in the cast (Sheridan Smith, Adrian Scarborough and Anne Reid) I couldn’t really get up the enthusiasm, but eventually felt it had to be done before it was too late!

Well its another case of first-half-dull-second-half-good; though I don’t recall that being the case with previous Hedda’s. Not enough happens in the 90 minutes to the interval, which for me is way too long for scene-setting, character development and plot set-up. Ill-matched couple Hedda and George return from their elongated honeymoon and she proves to be a bit of a control freak and a bit of a bitch. After the interval, it’s action packed as Hedda’s encouragement of Eilert’s suicide results in her own, presumably through guilt.

Les Brotherston’s design is a beautifully elegant 19th century Norwegian home, but a bit clumsy – with a glass room inhabiting the middle of the stage meaning a lot of unnecessary door opening and detours on foot (and challenging sight lines at the sides). Brian Friel’s translation and Anna Mackmin’s staging seem very conservative when compared with the Young Vic’s recent fresh take on A Doll’s House, though Sheridan Smith’s take on Hedda is different (a more manipulative ice queen) as is Adrian Scarborough’s George (a more lovable buffoon).

I did enjoy the (shorter) second half and admired all of the performances throughout. It’s particularly enjoyable to watch Sheridan Smith extend her range yet again; she really is proving to be one of our finest young actors. The length and dullness of the first half does prove fatal though, and I left feeling it was yet another revival rather than something special.

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I’ve always been puzzled by the critical indifference to Howard Goodall’s musicals. For me, in the (short) list of great British composers of musicals he comes top and his first show, the Hired Man, sits with Les Miserables and West Side Story as one of my favourite musical scores.

Even though he has a very distinctive sound, which is distinctively British, it changes subtly to suit the subject matter. Only three of his nine musicals have been produced in the West End. 25 years ago, The Hired Man lost the Olivier Award to the highly unoriginal 42nd Street (leading lady ill, chorus girl’s big break, yawn…yawn…), soon after Girlfriends closed very quickly (though in fairness, the production didn’t live up to the Bolton premiere) and then we had to wait 24 years for Love Story, one of the best chamber musicals ever, which also got an undeserved early bath.

The Hired Man gets revived on a small scale fairly frequently, Days Of Hope (a lovely show set in the Spanish Civil War) occasionally but the 2nd World War Girlfriends, as far as I know, has never been revived. Two Cities (based on Dickens) was only seen outside London and the other four, like this one, were written for youth groups. Only The Hired Man and Days of Hope have ever been recorded, so you can’t even listen to the music to find out what you’re missing!

I fondly remember seeing the NYMT production of this 12 years ago (with recent Olivier Award winning Sheridan Smith in the cast) at the Lyric Hammersmith and its astonishing that it has taken so long to be revived and to get its professional debut. We’re awash with fringe productions of musicals, but none of them are British. I yearn to see Lionel Bart’s Blitz! or Maggie May or Goodall’s Girlfriends. OK, end of rant and on with the review!

There can’t be many musicals based on restoration comedies like this one based on Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Moving it to the Edwardian period works; otherwise its faithful to the play and thanks to Charles Hart’s witty book and lyrics, even funnier. Goodall’s score is rich in lovely tunes and even more varied in style than most of his scores. It takes a little while to take off, but it proves to be a delight. It would have been even better to see it in a bigger space with better sight lines than the cramped and stuffy Jermyn Street Theatre.

Director Lotte Wakeham, who first impressed me with Austentatious at the Landor, has done a superb job on a simple set by Samal Blak (who worked wonders transforming the Cock Tavern for Pins & Needles) with elegant period costumes by Karen Frances. It’s partially in actor-musician mode, but Harriet Oughton at the piano has the primary musical responsibility and manages a bit of acting as well as playing the whole score!

Beverley Klein gives us another delicious musical comedy masterclass as Mrs Hardcastle. Ian Virgo (also in the original production, but as Lumpkin), Gina Beck, Dylan Turner and Gemma Sutton as the two couples at the heart of the story all act well and do full justice to Goodall’s music. It took me a while to warm to Jack Shalloo as Lumpkin (probably because I couldn’t get his terrific turn in Departure Lounge out of my head!) but he won me over.

A standing ovation for producers Peter Huntley and Charlotte Staynings for giving us this long-awaited opportunity to re-visit the show and for doing such a cracking job with it. Girlfriends? Blitz? Please!

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I’ve always thought Britain didn’t produce 20th century dramatists to equal the three great Americans – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neil. After The Dance at the NT last year was a nudge in the ribs, but here’s a poke in the stomach; by the end of this centenary year, I may have to bury such thoughts for good.

In Flare Path, we’re at a hotel next to an airbase at wartime where aircrew are staying – Teddy, a seemingly gung-ho Flight Lieutenant whose inner insecurities are revealed as the play progresses, down-to-earth bomber Dusty doing his bit and trying to stay alive and a Polish Count set on revenge and a heroic death. Teddy’s married to a glamorous actress and can’t quite believe his luck, Dusty’s equally down-to-earth wife is a bit of a nag but clearly worships him and the Count has swept a barmaid off her feet despite their inability to communicate in English. We stay with the wives waiting for the return of their men from bombing raids and live the tension, relief and celebrations before, during and after the missions. The arrival of Teddy’s wife’s old flame – a Hollywood matinée idol – provides an additional tension to be resolved.

You can tell that Rattigan, a Second World War airman himself, knew exactly what these people were going through and it results in a set of characterisations of great depth. In any other play / production, Sheridan Smith – fresh from her wonderful Olivier Award winning musical comedy turn in Legally Blonde – would steal the show. She moves from chirpy ex-barmaid and social catalyst to tragic wife on the turn of her face and her real tears triggered real tears in the audience. The day after bagging the Olivier for a musical, she must already be on the list for another in a play……but there are nine other exceptional performances – yes, nine! – so casting Director Maggie Lunn must get a mention.

It must be much harder to play an unsympathetic character than a sympathetic one (or a downright baddie) but James Purefoy manages it superbly – every inch the Hollywood heart-throb who eventually exposes his inner emotional core. Harry Hadden-Paton and Sienna Miller grow into the roles of Teddy and his wife as the play progresses and the depths of their characters are revealed, but for some reason Miller’s appearance is the only one that doesn’t quite seem 1940’s. We empathise easily with Mark Dexter’s tongue-tied defiant Polish Count, as we do with Joe Armstrong as wartime everyman Dusty and Emma Handy as his wife visiting for just one night. There are lovely cameos from Sarah Crowden as the battle-axe hotelier, Matthew Tennyson (still at drama school!) as her barman son and Clive Wood’s archetypal Squadron Leader, determined to keep up the spirit and morale of the boys.

Trevor Nunn’s detailed and subtle production grips you for every minute of its 150 minute running time. Stephen Brimson Lewis has created another of those period sets that simply take you to the location and the period, and the projections and sound used to convey the take-offs are excellent.

If this were the only revival for the Rattigan centenary, it would do him proud; but there’s a lot more to come yet. My withdrawal symptoms following After the Dance have been temporarily sated, but I’m now even more excited about what’s to come, but if I have a more satisfying evening in the theatre this year, I shall be a very lucky boy indeed. By now, you should be on the web or the phone because you just cannot give this a miss.

 

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