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Posts Tagged ‘Southwark Playhouse’

I’m still not sure how playwright Sam Steiner’s play about troubled souls in a bleak world turned out to be so hopeful, but it was warm hearted and funny, despite the backdrop of a crumbling planet.

It’s set in the office of Brightline, a helpline manned by four volunteers; think The Samaritans. We know the world in which they live is bleak because they arrive with breathing masks, and we can see and hear dramatic climatic events going on outside. They listen to those who call in, and have to deal with those who abuse them. We hear their personal stories too. Heavily pregnant team leader Frances, soon to bring a newcomer into this hostile world, Jon in a troubled relationship, work experience student Joey trying to make his way in this world, and lonely Ange on an emotional roller-coaster.

There’s much humour, but it doesn’t swamp or trivialise either the personal stories or the world events. There are a lot of scenes, which do make it feel a bit staccato at times, but the character development is very good, and the interweaving of the big picture backdrop with the helpline setting and the personal lives works well. It really draws you in, as you find yourself interested in, and empathising with, these people.

Amy Cook’s excellent design manages to feel both huge and intimate, with perfect sight-lines everywhere, and the invasion of the outside into the inside is really well done. Jenni Maitland is superb as the eternally positive, very motherly Frances. Andy Rush plays Jon very well, a more complex character, cynical, suspicious, a touch brittle. Lydia Larson is lovely as chatterbox Ange, a bit neurotic and fragile. Andrew Finnigan, so so good in one-man musical Drip at the Bush, gives another charming performance as 17-year-old Joey, initially seeming naive but proving to be wise beyond his years.

Director James Grieve brings this all together to create a surprisingly feel-good cocktail of big issues and personal tales, which got a rare spontaneous standing ovation on the night I went. Paines Plough on fine form again.

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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I’m so glad I caught this brilliant new play in its last week in London, before it heads off on tour. Samuel Bailey has written something very original that tackles a subject rarely covered with both empathy and humour that finds you laughing uproariously one minute and devastated the next.

We’re in a young offenders institute with three teenage boys attending parenting classes with trainer Grace. They are all about to become fathers, one already so, and they are learning things like feeding and changing nappies, though not always entirely willingly – it’s all a bit embarrassing, but its something to do. We learn why each of them are there and that the common thread in their backgrounds is parental issues themselves. Though they banter and spar with each other, you can feel a bond forming, as it questions the rehabilitative value of such incarceration, and examines the reasons why they are there in the first place. The friendship that’s forming seems the only light in a hopeless situation. You really do develop an empathy with these boys.

The writing is hugely impressive, particularly as its Bailey’s debut full production. Jasmine Swan’s set oozes authenticity and George Turvey’s staging is finely tuned and sympathetic to the material. Josh Finan is brilliant as livewire motormouth Scouser Cain, a bundle of energy that erupts continually. Ivan Oyik is superb as Riyad, more mature, intelligent and cool. New arrival JonJo, struggling in this new world for him, is played with great restraint and delicacy by Josef Davies. All three are playing below their age but all three characterisations are totally believable. Andrea Hall brings a calmness and positivity to Grace, with occasional flashes of frustration and hopelessness.

I’ve seen a lot of theatre in prisons, and once in a young offender institute. The programme biographies are often written by the residents describing their past and their hopes for the future and this plays like they read. It was great to see a full house standing and cheering such a good play given such a fine production. I do hope it returns to London so that more people can do so.

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It’s only three months since I saw newcomer Sam Tutty in the British Theatre Academy’s production of Once On This Island at Southwark Playhouse (co-incidentally, Benj Pasak & Justin Paul’s other stage show Dogfight was in the same season) and here he is starring in this enthralling Broadway transfer of a musical with the unlikley themes of teenage anxiety & depression, parenting and the irony that social media has made us more connected but lonlier. Both he and the show are extraordinary.

Evan Hansen is a troubled teenager. His parents split up when he was seven and he lives with his mum, who spends most of her time working and studying to improve her and Evan’s lives. He suffers from anxiety for which he has medication and a therapist, who has set him the task of writing letters to himself to build his confidence and self-esteem. Fellow student Connor, himself a troubled teen who uses drugs to deal with his depression, bullies Evan, stealing one of these letters. When Connor commits suicide, his parents find and misinterpret this letter, which sets Evan on a series of lies that gets out of control.

He effectively invents a friendship with Connor, and initially this has positive impact on his confidence, proving to be better therapy than therapy, and brings comfort to Connor’s parents. Even his fantasy of a relationship with Connor’s sister Zoe becomes a reality. At school it’s more surreal as a grief bandwagon begins to roll, with people who hardly knew Connor inventing friendships. It goes viral with its own hashtag #youwillbefound and Evan becomes the de facto leader, spurred on by colleagues Alana and Jared, though the latter for more cynical reasons. Throughout all of this, his mother is oblivious. Then the truth comes out…….

You rarely see an actor invest so much into a role, but Sam Tutty’s neurotic, vulnerable, emotionally raw, authentic performance captures just about every heart in the theatre. There’s another auspicious professional debut from Lucy Anderson as Zoe, a much cooler, guarded, suspicious character. Jack Loxton is great as the more worldly wise Jared who can hardly believe all this emotional stuff, Nicole Raquel Dennis delightful as Alana, fully wrapped up in it, and a fine performance from Doug Colling as Connor, who we see briefly alive, but also in Evan’s head. The parents – Lauren Ward, Rebecca McKinnis & Rupert Young – are all excellent, each having their own revelatory journey.

The design, which relies heavily on projections, is simple, facilitating an organic flow for Michael Greif’s impeccable staging. The musical theatre form suits the story because musicals are good at conveying the emotional and Steven Levenson’s book and Pasek & Paul’s music and lyrics are seamlessly conjoined and produce something even deeper, addressing serious themes delicately but with humour and heart, leading to a hopeful conclusion. I loved every moment of it and left the theatre emotionally drained but exhilarated.

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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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