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Posts Tagged ‘Southwark Playhouse’

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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The West End premiere of this show in 1988 must be one of the shortest runs ever – just over a month – though it did well in Manchester en route to London. The Broadway premiere four years earlier ran longer, but wasn’t a great success, despite the casting of Chita Riviera and Liza Minnelli as mother and daughter Anna and Angel. It fared better in the UK ten years later, in productions in Leicester (Paul Kerryson reviving his 1988 production) and at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Watching this wondrous revival a whole twenty years later, I just can’t fathom why it wasn’t a huge hit. Now it seems as good as any other Kander & Ebb show, and that includes Cabaret and Chicago.

Anna has sold her boardwalk roller-skating rink and the demolition men arrive as she is sorting through her stuff and packing up. Her estranged daughter Angel arrives unexpectedly, horrified at what her mother has done, particularly as she is the co-owner. In a series of expertly crafted and expertly executed flashbacks, we see their relationship unfold from Angel’s birth to that moment. There’s a superb male chorus of six (delightfully named Dino, Lino, Lucky, Benny, Lenny and Tony!) from which other characters step out, including an excellent Stewart Clarke as Angel’s dad Dino, Ross Dawes as her grandfather Lino and Ben Redfern as Anna’s childhood sweetheart Lenny. It’s extraordinary how much story they pack into 120 minutes, interspersed with songs. Terrence McNally’s book is very funny and Kander & Ebb’s music and lyrics are way better than the production history would have you believe, with song after song getting roars of approval from the full house.

It’s great to have Caroline O’Connor back on these shores, beloved of musical theatre fans on three continents. I’d almost forgotten how good she is, in all departments – song, dance, comedy and acting – and here she’s paired with one of the best of the next generation, the hugely talented Gemma Sutton – two star performances indeed. I love the fact that O’Conner has gone from being Dianne Langton’s understudy for Angel in the UK premiere to co-lead as Anna here. Bec Chippendale’s design is an evocative and atmospheric fading structure, poignantly littered with some of her recently deceased dad’s stuff, and there’s a brilliant light feature which somehow brings even more intimacy. Adam Lenson’s staging and Fabian Aloise’s choreography are superb, making great use of the small space; it seemed to go from showstopper to showstopper without pausing for breath, the audience erupting at the end.

A revival this good can’t be seen only once, so as soon as I got home I booked to go back. A hugely underrated show which last night felt like a masterpiece uncovered.

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This Stephen Schwartz show came just one year after his debut hit Godspell. That was 45 years ago. It took another thirty years for his mega-hit Wicked. Pippin hasn’t been revived very often, but it was a big hit again on Broadway in 2013. The last time we saw it here was six years ago, in a misguided production at the Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/pippin). This new production has come from the new Northern musicals powerhouse in Manchester, Hope Mill. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so impressed by a production of a musical I’m so unimpressed by.

Pippin is the son of the 9th century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. We follow him from graduation, as he tries to make his way in the world, through war, sex, rebellion, politics and ordinary life. I’m afraid I find it impossible to relate to the story and the music is undistinguished bland pop to my ears, though its fair to say it was so well sung and played here, I warmed to the score.

When it comes to the production, it’s hugely impressive, with Jonathan O’Boyle’s staging, William Whelton’s choreography, Maeve Black’s design, Aaron J Dootson’s lighting and James Nicholson’s sound all outstanding. The cast is hugely talented, not a weak link amongst them. Newcomer Jonathan Charlton is a very likeable Pippin, Genevieve Nicole is a charismatic presence as the Lead Player, the narrator, and there’s a great doubling-up by Mairi Barclay as Charlemagne’s second wife Fastrada and mother Berthe. The eight-piece band under MD Zach Flis sounded great.

I can’t imagine a better production, so I have to warmly recommend it, whatever I think of the material. As for Hope Mill, more please!

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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I’m not sure I’ve seen a one-person musical before. I went with some trepidation, but I returned with a lot of admiration. I was surprised how well it told a story and how captivating the form could be.

Our Superhero is Colin Bradley, a Londoner fighting to stop his estranged wife Christine taking his beloved daughter Emily to the US. He’s reading a prepared statement at a hearing, from which we flash back all the way to Emily’s birth and early life, covering all of those parental fears and anxieties. Colin becomes principle carer when Christine gets a job offer they can’t refuse, and Colin’s bond with Emily strengthens. A confessed moment of madness results in separation and reasonably amicable informal joint custody. Christine makes a business trip to the US, taking Emily with her. It is extended, disrupting the arrangement, which becomes formalised with much more limited access, which is where Colin’s fight begins, embroiling him in campaign group Fathers 4 Justice.

There are thirteen songs, accompanied by a piano / bass / drum trio under Joe Bunker, which propel the story brilliantly, and there’s plenty of humour, most at Colin’s expense. Michael Rouse gives a virtuoso performance, with great vocals and deftly handled humour, which becomes deeply moving. You get completely wrapped up in the story of this one loving dad, which illustrates very well how much the custody system is prejudiced against fathers and completely out-of-touch with modern parenting, where shared responsibility is much more common. Michael becomes Colin and you can’t avoid feeling for him. With a well structured book by Michael Conley, excellent songs by Joseph Finlay and sharp lyrics by Richy Hughes – a team to watch, I’d say – it’s a lovely balance between entertainment, storytelling and real issues. Adam Lenson’s staging uses the intimate space well.

A ninety-minute gem you’d be wise to catch in its final week.

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This might be the first verbatim musical, based on US oral historian Studs Terkel’s interviews with working people about their jobs, some of which are set to music by no less than six songwriters. It premiered in 1975, but this European premiere is a revised version first seen in 2009, incorporating new interviews conducted by co-adapter Stephen Schwartz and two new songs from musicals-man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda. I loved it.

Six actors tell the stories of twenty-six people in a diverse range of occupations. Some are spoken, some sung, some both. I thought it was an inspired idea to add six performers as ‘chorus’, making their professional debuts, just starting their working lives – they add life and energy to the show. In addition to Miranda, there are songs by Schwartz and singer-songwriter James Taylor amongst others, and the quality is consistently high. It’s surprising how much you learn about these people and its refreshing to see something that reflects the lives of ordinary people, their motivations and their aspirations and here, the presence of the young cast members gives it a strong sense of generational change and parental aspirations for children, particularly moving in Peter Polycarpou’s rendition of Fathers & Sons.

The characters and songs are superbly interpreted by Polycarpou plus Gillian Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison and Liam Tamne, and there’s a great band led by Isaac McCullough. I liked Jean Chan shabby workplace set & Gabriella Slade’s ‘distressed’ costumes. There’s some excellent choreography from Fabian Aloise and Luke Sheppard, who directed In The Heights here, does a fine job putting this all together into a captivating and uplifting ninety minutes.

Not to be missed.

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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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This is an impressive playwriting debut by Alex Mackeith. I don’t know much about education, but it oozed authenticity and seemed to me to present a well researched understanding of some of the issues facing a primary school Head. 

The school in question is trying hard to improve, with an immediate target of a pupil premium award which would open extra-curricular doors that these South London working class kids could never otherwise open. The governors have forced the Head to take an unqualified but bright agency temp to help get the SATS up, but he’s preoccupied with what he enjoys. The Head’s administrator is her retired predecessor’s daughter who’s desperate to qualify as a teacher but has been set back by having to look after her dad. 

The picture it paints is the Head’s struggle to reconcile the need to teach an imposed curriculum, having to follow instructions from the governors that she doesn’t necessarily agree with. the obsession with testing over learning and the expectations of parents (illustrated by a father who expects the school to shoulder all of the responsibility for his sick daughter whilst he shoulders none), all in a world where social media means nothing is secret, not even the her personal problems, going through a divorce. It took a while to take off, but when it did it was riveting.

Anna Reid’s uber-realistic, finely detailed design contributes greatly to the authenticity. There’s a terrific performance from Ann Ogbomo as Head Jo, who has to switch from distress to full emotional control in an instant. Fala Evan-Akingbola conveys her character Lara’s vocational passion and conscientiousness really well and Oliver Dench does well as posh boy Tom who’s rather let them down. Though it’s a small part, Kevin Howarth’s performance as dad David was pivotal in underlining one of the issues. It’s really well staged by Charlie Parham.

Fine new writing at Southwark Playhouse.

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Though it was revived on Broadway in 2010, this Neil Simon / Bacharach & David musical hasn’t been seen here since its 1969 London premiere. It’s based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1960 five Oscar winning film The Apartment featuring Jack Lemon and Shirley MacLaine. It may be the only musical to feature a Personnel Director!

In case you’ve never seen the film, the story concerns Chuck, a young insurance company employee who helps his career by loaning his apartment to senior executives’ for their affairs. When the Personnel Director Sheldrake becomes his fifth ‘customer’, he gets his promotion, but Sheldrake insists on exclusivity, so the other four turn on him. Then he realises Sheldrake’s mistress is Fran, the object of his own affections. With men lusting after girls young enough to be their daughters, what may have been just amusing c. 50 years ago seems more lecherous and distasteful today. It changes tone in the second half when these behaviours suddenly become unacceptable, seedy men are put in their place and true love wins.

Given the pedigree of the song-writing pair, the score is a bit of a disappointment. The best known song in the original production was I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, a hit for Dionne Warwick, but the Broadway revival added two other Bacharach & David hits – Say A Little Prayer and A House Is Not A Home – to their one and only musical score. Neil Simon’s book is pretty good though, but at just under three hours it’s desperately in need of some cuts, particularly in the longer first half. They could start with dumping the incongruous numbers Turkey Lurkey Time in the office Christmas party scene and A Young Pretty Girl Like You, when Chuck and the doctor are trying to cheer up their ‘patient’ Fran.

Simon Wells’ design and costumes capture the sixties faithfully (but he needs to do something about the dodgy door!). It’s a good ensemble, with Gabriel Vick and Daisy Maywood a fine pair of leads. There’s excellent support from John Guerrasio as the doctor and a terrific cameo from Alex Young as Marge. Paul Robinson makes a good baddie (and a believable Personnel Director, and I should know!).

It has dated more than its contemporaries, its overlong, the two contrasting halves seem like they might be from different shows and it doesn’t live up to the standards of its writers / composers, but I’m a fan of all three and I’m very glad I had the chance to catch it.

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