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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Kenny’

Great to report that London’s newest theatre opens with a big hit, a song cycle by Dave Malloy, whose Preludes we saw recently at Southwark Playhouse, performed to perfection by a cast of four, which could have been written especially for this space.

It consists of interwoven stories that between them cover a contemporary subway murder, a quirky fairy tale, Scheherazade & jazz musician Thelonius Monk and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher! It’s like a jigsaw and I learned early on that trying to follow the narrative and complete the jigsaw got in the way of enjoying the music, so I immersed myself in the very eclectic selection of songs of many styles and shades, as songs

It’s in the round and you encircle a pile of musical instruments, all of which are played by the cast, and lots of props, some of which perform themselves. Bill Buckhurst’s staging carefully creates and changes moods with some lovely touches of audience engagement that included additional percussion and the consumption of whisky, with an inspired ending. Simon Kenny’s design is full of fascinating detail, and David Gregory’s sound is absolutely superb.

The four performers engage with each other and the audience, with moments when they sing or play out songs together, but most alone. They play a vast array of instruments and the vocals are simply gorgeous. It’s hard to imagine a better quartet than Zubin Varla, Carly Bawden, Maimauna Memon & Niccolo Curradi; they are all on fine form.

I loved the intimacy, flexibility and elegance of the space and it seemed to me to be the perfect opening show. Don’t miss it.

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This is one of the less frequently revived Sondheim shows, but I’ve been lucky enough to see it four times since its UK premiere at the Donmar in 1992, and it always repays a fresh look, as it does again here.

Designer Simon Kenny has turned the Watermill into a distressed red striped barn, which creates the perfect intimate space for the nine successful and failed assassins to tell their stories and reveal their motivation. From Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, the father of them all, to more recent attempts on the lives of Regan, Nixon and Ford, some are deranged, some motivated by perceived grievances. It can sometimes seem like a series of individual stories, but in Bill Buckhurst’s production, connections are emphasised and common psychological themes revealed, and the handling of the final assassin’s story brings them together superbly.

The clever references to contemporary gun crime are chilling, with a vending machine and a surprise late arrival. The transformation to, and pivotal scene in, Dallas is deftly handled, with Alex Mugnaioni showing great presence as Booth. The balladeer is played by a woman for the first time, and Lillie Flynn sang the role beautifully. The staging of Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau’s hanging was brilliant, with Eddie Elliott making a great job of I Am Going To The Lordy. Steve Simmonds’ meltdowns’ as Nixon’s would be assassin Samuel Byck were terrific. The whole ensemble acts, sings and plays all of the the instruments brilliantly.

It’s only five years since I last saw it, but it resonated differently again, and it was great to see this small scale production in one of my favourite theatres. Too late for Newbury, but it’s heading to Nottingham, you lucky East Midlands peeps.

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My personal history with Sweeney Todd goes back 29 years to a production of Christopher Bond’s play (which Sondheim saw in its original Stratford East production and on which he based his musical) in the now defunct Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green. For the last 21 years I’ve followed the musical around London and to Leeds and Chichester, including the NT, Opera North and the Royal Opera. For my 12th production / 15th performance, I only had a 20 minute walk to Harrington’s Pie & Mash shop (106 years old – London’s oldest) – well, actually the barbers across the road where we assembled for drinks beforehand. A doubly delicious bit of site specific theatre, but so much more than that. This is up there with the best of them.

With an audience of just 32 in the shop’s snug bench seating, this redefines intimate theatre. The whole space is used – on and behind the counter, the stairs and behind the stairs, the tables at which we’re seated. You have to twist and turn a bit, but the tale has never been more thrillingly told. Characters turn up to surprise and shock you, Sweeney’s stare chills you and Mrs Lovett gets laughs where they’ve never been before and bigger ones where they have. By necessity, some things usually staged are here offstage, but so inventively that it hardly matters (and no washing clothes when I got home, unlike the recent Twickenham experience).  Director Bill Buckhurst and designer Simon Kenny have turned every problem and restriction the space presents into dramatic opportunities and a masterclass in intimate staging. It’s scarier and funnier.

I think what blew me away most though was the sky high musical standards. MD Benjamin Cox on piano, with help from occasional violin and clarinet, played the score brilliantly (adding yet more weight to the current debate about awards for Musical Directors). In addition to his exceptional acting, Jeremy Secomb’s vocals were outstanding. Siobhan McCarthy is a terrific Mrs Lovett and I relished her expressions at close quarters and savoured every syllable of her show-stopping song A Little Priest. Nadim Naaman and Grace Chapman are wonderful as Anthony & Johanna, the former singing Johanna and the latter Green Finch & Linnet Bird beautifully. I’ve seen and enjoyed much of Ian Mowat’s work and his performance as Beadle Bamford is one of his best, and one of the best Beadle’s I’ve seen. Duncan Smith has great presence to go with a great voice; a fine Judge Turpin. Pirelli played by a woman must be a first and Kiara Jay, who doubles up as the beggar woman, is excellent. Joseph Taylor makes much more of Tobias, very moving in his Not While I’m Around duet with Mrs Lovett. I’ve run out of superlatives just as I’ve run out of cast, but they were all so good they have to be mentioned.

This would be a good Sweeney in a black box, but it becomes a great one in this space. I feel privileged to have been one of what must only be c.1000 people to see this landmark production. I wish Sondheim could as I’m convinced he’d adore it. A triumph for Tooting Arts Club, a nomadic institution like those other two national theatres in Scotland & Wales, and its producer Rachel Edwards and indeed for Tooting!

 

 

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The Finborough has a knack of finding a rarity in search of an audience, and an audience in search of a rarity; this one sold out before it opened. It’s an oddly titled banned 1925 Noel Coward play, getting its UK professional premiere. We must have been real prudes back in 1925, as it got staged in the US, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Egypt & South America – but not here; well, until now.

You’d know it was a Coward play even if you went to see it blind. In fact, it occasionally seems like a parody of Coward. Cads & bounders, cocktails & cigarettes and everyone’s darling, darling. In the world of the upper middle class, the play revolves around Edward Churt, a portrait painter who seems to be the only one who works. The rest visit each other for drinks and gossip, have lunch, play majong and travel to foreign parts to have drinks and gossip with their friends who’ve also travelled to foreign parts.

Right at the beginning of the play Edward discovers his wife Carol’s infidelity, but he doesn’t confront her until the end of the play. In between, his friend Evelyn decides to intervene on his behalf and it’s this overlong two-hand middle act where the play is at its weakest. It’s not a great play and it’s hard to identify with or care about any of the characters, which makes it more an experience of detached theatrical history that engaging, involving drama.

Simon Kenny has designed a simple, elegant and evocative period set and the costumes are terrific. The three leads, all of whose real names could be Coward character names(!) – Jamie De Courcey, Dorothea Myer-Bennett & Robert Portal – are all very good and there’s a superb supporting performance from Georgina Rylance as ice cool Zoe. Whatever you think of the play, this is a typically high quality Finborough production.

It isn’t the slightest bit shocking to a modern audience and the suggestion of a ban today would be laughable. Porgy & Bess, which I saw the previous night and which first appeared ten years later, would have been much more shocking. In 2014, it’s a rarity for those interested in 20th century British theatre in general and Noel Coward in particular.

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Whenever I walk into a theatre to be greeted by a retro set, I have to stop myself saying ‘we had one of those’ and try to concentrate on the play. Simon Kenny’s terrific early 70’s design is amongst the most nostalgic I’ve come across, even though it’s mid-West USA not west country UK. All brown and orange, triple ceiling lights and a stereogram – and lime green wallpaper! Fortunately, there was enough time to clock each item before the play started.

Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park was my Best New Play of 2010, a step change on his earlier The Pain & the Itch, also good and also at the Royal Court. Purple Heart was written eight years earlier and this is its UK premiere at the Gate Theatre, configured in the currently fashionable traverse setting ( is that to facilitate spectating the other half of the audience if the play lags?).

War widow Carla (Vietnam war) and her 12-year old son Thor live with well-meaning but smothering, irritating mother-in-law Grace. Carla has a drink problem and may still be grieving. Thor is precocious (in truth, he seems much more mature than a 12-year old has any right to be), loves practical jokes and shocking grandma.

An army corporal comes to visit, the latest in a long line of sympathisers (most, but not him, bearing a casserole as is customary in small town America) though he doesn’t appear to be a former colleague of deceased Lars. We learn that he met (and became obsessed with) Carla in a hospital where she was being treated for depression.

This is an extraordinarily realistic depiction of the trauma of grief and the personal impact of war on the relationships and lives of those affected. At the same time, it’s a bit of a mystery and played out (particularly in the second half) with great suspense. The silences are themselves extremely tense (and much more effective than Pinter) and there is an unpredictability and danger about it all.

The performances are all superb. Oliver Coopersmith, playing way lower than his true age, is naive and funny but hurtful in the way only children can be. Linda Broughton makes Grace seem like someone you know well, someone who irritates and charms you in equal measure; you can’t help loving her, but you wouldn’t want to live with her. Amelia Lowdell’s Carla is angry & sad, imprisoned by her loss and her mother-in-law. Trevor White is the somewhat mysterious visitor, part benevolent, part creepy; he’d win a Riding the Silence Award in any year.

Christopher Haydon’s staging is impeccable and the effect at close proximity in this small space is intense and voyeuristic. Great to see more Norris, and in such a finely staged and performed production too. More early Bruce Norris please!

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