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Posts Tagged ‘Southwark Playhouse’

Another one I missed in Edinburgh, this is billed as ‘a new musical’, which is deceptive. For me it’s a folk tale with music, highly original, with bucketloads of atmosphere and charm.

Eilidh is the last child on a remote Scottish island which has been depopulating rapidly and may soon become unpopulated entirely, depending on the outcome of a referendum. Eilidh’s mum left her with her gran, a bit of a prankster. We meet other characters who live on the island, including a heavily pregnant woman (on an island without a midwife!), but the significant event is Eilidh finding a beached whale, then meeting Arran, a stranger who seems to have a connection to the creature. There are allusions to the Scots mythical Finfolk and Skelkie.

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay play Eilidh and Arran respectively, plus all other roles. They sing unaccompanied, beautifully, using live electronic loops to provide extra vocals, foot & hand percussion, harmonies and sound effects. They conjure up a strange, mysterious world and the story captivates as it unfolds. I struggled a bit with the dialect at first, particularly as the speech is underlaid with music / sound, but I got into the rhythm of it. Staging it in Southwark Playhouse’s smaller space, The Little, provides the intimacy it needs.

Stewart Melton’s has written a folk tale, Finn Anderson has added music and Amy Draper has animated it. I thought it was lovely. Go see.

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American writer / composer Dave Malloy is rather prolific – sixteen shows in the last sixteen years – though I think this is the first we’ve seen here in London; not even his multiple Tony award winning Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has crossed the Atlantic yet. This original and inventive work is subtitled A Musical Fantasia Set In The Hypnotised Mind Of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which seems like a good opener for a review!

It takes place towards the end of the three year period of depression which followed the negative reaction to Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897, when he was just 24. He’s visited hypnotherapist Dahl throughout and the show uses these sessions as a starting point for tangential leaps into scenes with his wife Natalya, opera singer friend Chaliapin and a host of famous Russians including Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and Czar Nicholas II.

I liked the idea of having two Rachmaninoff’s, one sitting at the piano playing his music and the other wild and boyish, a bit like Mozart in Amadeus, flitting between scenes expressing what’s inside his head; inner and outer characters. There are original songs, Rachmaninov pieces and hybrids. Even though it’s set in 1900, there are modern references and language which I didn’t think worked particularly well. I did like the idea of having the two keyboard players onstage, Billy Bullivant and MD Jordan Li-Smith, who sounded great.

It’s a rather surreal cocktail which by the interval hadn’t convinced me. The first half closing song, Natalya, and the second half opener, Loop, lifted it, and from then on it was a lot better, and it is a unique piece. Though I have reservations about the material, particularly its structure and unevenness, I have none about Alex Sutton’s excellent production. The design team have done a particularly fine job – Rebecca Brower’s set & costumes, Christopher Nairne’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s sound – and Ste Clough’s choreography is great.

Tom Noyes as Rachmaninoff the pianist makes a sensational professional debut, playing brilliantly throughout, and singing beautifully in the closing number. Keith Ramsey is terrific as Rach, athletic and manic, on stage for most of the show. They have superb support from Rebecca Caine as Dahl, Georgia Louise as Natalya, Norton James as Chaliapan and Steven Serlin as The Master, the Russian famous five.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of Malloy’s work, which won’t take long as, like the proverbial bus, another one comes along next month when Ghost Quartet opens the new Boulevard Theatre.

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This delightful chamber musical is based on the inspired idea of the journey of a five pound note through London over more than fifteen years. The quality of the songs and their performance elevates it above many others, and the surprising amount of story and character development it packs in makes it more than a song cycle.

The fiver starts with a busker, who becomes our narrator, and moves through shopkeepers, a homeless man and many more. Along the way we get the stories of its temporary owners, and there’s a whole fifteen year journey during the interval. Relationships form, children are born and the world goes on whilst the fiver changes hands. There’s a touch of audience involvement, which added to its charm.

Alex James Ellison, who also plays the busker, and Tom Lees, who’s both director and MD, have written something original with a fine set of songs in a diverse range of styles. In addition to Ellison, Luke Bayer, Dan Buckley, Aoife Clesman and Hiba Elchikhe play all roles, singing all of the songs superbly, accompanied by Lees’ fine band of keyboards, bass, cello and drums.

I’d previously seen a lovely show co-written by Lees, https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/apartment-40c also based on an inspired idea, and this has stylistic similarities. I can’t wait for the next one.

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Sometimes I walk into a theatre with no idea what to expect and I get swept away by the creativity and talent on show, and so it was at Southwark Playhouse on Friday. This musical adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, by Jethro Compton & Darren Clark, is a million miles from the overblown 2008 film, and way better storytelling. Somehow the implausibility of the story of a man who lives his life backwards doesn’t matter as you become captivated by what is now a folk tale set in Cornwall.

From his birth as a 70-year-old, unsurprisingly rejected by his parents, Benjamin tries to find his way in the world. His early life is marred by being too old for anything. As he gets younger, he falls in love with a barmaid, but when he tells her of his plight they part and he goes to war. After the war, he travels the world to understand and resolve his reverse ageing, but fails. When he finds Avoryow again years later, he discovers she’s not the only one he left behind, and they reunite for some happy years and a second child, but tragedy strikes twice, the second time as his wife overtakes him in years and dies, leaving his son to care for him as he continues the inevitable journey backwards.

It’s sub-titled ‘A Celtic Musical’ and the score is a beautifully melodic collection of folk influenced songs that tell much of the story. A highlight for me was the song A Matter of Time, which appeared in both acts telling a different part of the story brilliantly. The five hugely talented performers – Matthew Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg & James Marlow – sing beautifully, with soaring harmonies, whilst between them playing keyboards, cello, violin, guitar, drums, trombone and recorder and taking between three and twelve roles each! The staging and design totally suit the material, with a handful of crates, netting and a three highly imaginative puppets for the very old and very young. Writer Compton also directs.

In a welcome first, the programme included a breakdown of costs and funding, which proved what a tight ship they ran putting on this glorious show. A delightful evening which richly deserved the standing ovation in got from a full house. Stop reading and start booking – you’ve only got three weeks.

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I hadn’t got to London when this first hit the West End in 1979, but I did get to see it at the Tricycle Theatre in 1995, on it’s way to a West End revival. It’s a surprise we’ve had to wait 24 years for this second revival, at Southwark Playhouse.

It’s a revue subtitled ‘The Fats Waller Musical’, conceived by Richard Maltby Jr, which celebrates black American jazz performers of the 20’s and 30’s, and Waller in particular, taking its title from one of his songs. There’s no story as such, just a feast of song and dance, most of the songs mini-stories in themselves. I was surprised at how many of them were familiar to me, thirty packed into ninety frenetic minutes.

Designer takis has turned Southwark Playhouse into a period club, with a glittering gold multi-level bandstand (no room for the drummer, who’s relegated offstage!) and a shiny gold dance-floor. Tyrone Huntley’s direction and Oti Mabuse’s choreography make great use of the space, though the use of the entrances brought sightline issues. Mark Dickman’s arrangements make it sound much more than a five-piece band, who play very well. Sadly, the Southwark sound gremlins were at it again, and we missed too many lyrics.

Overall, despite a talented, hard-working cast – Adrian Hansel, Renee Lamb, Carly Mercedes Dyer, Landi Oshinowo & Wayne Robinson – it didn’t fully take off for me, but given the enthusiasm of the rest of the audience, I put this down to our front row seats and associated sound issues, though I did wonder if the space was too small for it to breathe fully.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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I never thought I’d see myself at a musical about cheerleading, which in my view vies with synchronised swimming as the most pointless ‘sport’. Fortunately, though it has pounds and pounds of cheese, it doesn’t take itself seriously, has it’s tongue in its cheek and it’s heart in the right place, and has a very good score. Above all though it’s a fireball of youthful energy and enthusiasm. I’m a regular at NYT, NYMT and the London colleges, so how come the British Theatre Academy haven’t been on my radar until now?

Campbell is re-assigned to Jackson, a school on the wrong side of the tracks, just after being elected Captain of Truman’s cheerleading squad. Jackson doesn’t have one any more, but it does have a dance crew, which she persuades to become a cheerleading squad. They get through regional heats to make it to the national final, but relationships are challenged along the way. Jeff (Avenue Q) Whitty’s book is, well, witty, as are the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda & Amanda Green, and there are some great songs by Hamilton’s Miranda and Tom Kitt (Broadway’s Next to Normal & High Fidelity).

Ewan Jones’ direction and choreography are thrillingly athletic, with a smattering of gymnastics, filling the Southwark Playhouse space to the brim. Designer Tom Paris doesn’t have room for an elaborate design so he’s rightly concentrated on costumes, a whole load of them, which cleverly differentiate between the two schools, as the musical styles sometimes do too. Chris Ma’s five-piece band attack the score with great gusto. Above all, though, it’s a stage full of enthusiastic, energetic young talent that takes your breath away. Lots of excellent acting, plenty of slick moves and some fine vocals.

BYA are now well and truly on my radar.

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