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Posts Tagged ‘St. James Theatre’

Looking at those on stage and in the audience on Tuesday, it was clear Jonathan Larson’s ground-breaking 20-year-old rock opera is being played by and for a new generation, and indeed it felt more like a new show than a revival. This production is grungier and edgier, and probably the better for it.

A modern spin on Puccini’s La Boheme (a melody from which weaves through it), it’s the most emotional of shows and I was surprised at how much it swept me away all over again. The original production opened in 1996 in New York, the first preview on the day after Larson’s death; he never knew the impact it would make. It opened in London two years later; I think I saw it three times. There was a somewhat sanitised ‘remix’ in London ten years ago and here we are now with a 20th Anniversary production. Even though the spectre of AIDS is important to the show, as TB was to Puccini’s, we’re now in a world of living with it rather than dying of it, yet it still seems timeless.

It’s set amongst a young Bohemian artistic community in East Village, New York City at Christmas, centred on the apartment of budding film-maker Mark and musician Roger. They struugle to pay the rent and to stay warm. Their former flatmate Benny is now their unsympathetic landlord. Their gay friend Collins is befriended by drag queen Angel, both HIV positive, and they form a relationship. Their neighbour and exotic dancer Mimi has her eyes on Roger, who is also HIV positive. Mark’s ex Maureen is now in a relationship with Joanne. The story of the relationships is interspersed with the story of their art, the disease and their housing crises.

I call it a rock opera because there is very little dialogue, and because the score propels the story in what in opera is called recitative between the songs. It is a great score and the musical and vocal standards here are very high, not least in the gorgeous second act opener Seasons of Love, which enables those in smaller roles to move briefly into the spotlight. There’s a lot of music to tell a lot of story and the first half is a touch too long, but it’s a pacey production by Bruce Guthrie, with great choreograhy by Lee Proud. Anna Fleischele’s set conveys the fire escape covered apartment blocks of this part of NYC very effectively. All eight leads are excellent, with a stand-out performance by Layton Williams as Angel, and there’s a fine ensemble of another eight in support.

It was great to see it again, to see how much it meant to another generation, and to see it staged with such energy and passion.

 

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This 15-year-old two-hander by Jason Robert Brown, a somg cycle rather than a musical, was first seen here at the Menier ten years ago with Damian Humbley & Lara Pulver. I recall being more enthusiatic about it then than I am now.

It tells the story of Jamie and Cathy’s five-year relationship in a series of solo songs, Jamie chronologically and Cathy reverse chronologically, with one duet when their stories intersect at their wedding. They are well-crafted songs, if a touch bland, and they are beautifully sung by Jonathan Bailey and Samantha Barks, though Bailey is more animated and connects more with the audience. The music is played beautifully by the six-piece string-heavy band.

My problem with the show is that I found it impossible to engage with it emotionally and didn’t really care much about the characters or their relationship. Because it is merely songs, there’s little room for the development of characters and this is where it fails. A song cycle has its limits and this is a song cycle. I admired the craftsmanship but it felt cold and clinical. I left the theatre disappointed, I’m afraid.

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Charlotte Keatley’s play is apparently the most performed play in English written by a woman, translated into 22 languages, so it’s somewhat surprising that it has taken twenty-seven years to get a London professional revival. Still, lets be thankful that it has at last, and that if anything it has matured with age, or maybe that’s me, or both.

We follow four generations of women over almost fifty years, from the Second World War to the late eighties. Doris has a daughter Margaret who marries an American airman. Margaret has a daughter called Jackie who becomes the first generation to go to college. Three months after the (unplanned) birth of her daughter Rosie, Jackie asks Margaret to bring her up. Margaret decides that to do so Rosie must think she is her mother. Over the years they all become distant and their meetings irregular, two generations in London and two in Manchester. When Rosie is in her mid-teens and her real mother has matured and become successful, it’s time for some truth, and tears.

The scenes are not chronological, so its structure is like a jigsaw which you gradually put together. There are also childhood scenes which appear to be more generic than specific. The lovely relationship between Doris and her great-granddaughter is constant, the others fluctuate and strain. The backdrop is both the events of the period and the changing roles of women, so it’s a slice of social history as well as a personal story. I was captivated even more so than I remember being by the original production at the Royal Court back in 1989. Paul Robinson’s excellent new production uses onstage TV’s to show dates, locations and footage contemporary to the scenes, which I thought helped you unravel it.

Serena Manteghi is terrific as Rosie, perfectly capturing the energy and naivety of her at every age. It’s lovely to be reminded how good a dramatic actress Katie Brayben is; Jackie is her first role since wowing us as Carole King in Beautiful. Maureen Lipman gives one of her best ever performances as Doris, and as one of the four very believable children. Hilary Tones took over the role of Margaret at short notice, following the withdrawal of another actress, but you wouldn’t know it as she plays her with great skill and empathy.

Great to see this again, and particularly pleasing that the play and I have aged so well!

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This is a difficult piece to review for two reasons – the first is that it defies categorisation and the second is that there aren’t enough superlatives available for the performances!

It’s not a musical as there’s no ‘book’. It’s not a concert or a song cycle as they’re more than just songs. I think I’ll just call it a show. It was the first Jason Robert Brown work to be staged, 20 years ago this year. He’s done six musicals since, though we’ve only see three in London – The Last Five Years (recently made it into a film) Parade & 13. He’s had two shows on Broadway in less than two years.

It’s a collection of sixteen songs, each of which tells a story of someone at a turning point in their lives. Every song features a different person (or occasionally persons), time and place and though they aren’t connected as such, they feel as if they belong together. They’re written in a diverse range of styles – pop, gospel, jazz, R&B – but somehow there is a cohesiveness about them. They’re just bloody good songs.

The four performers occupy the same space for all of its unbroken 90 minutes. It has windows as the back wall, behind which is a New York skyline (and band just about visible). In front, there’s an unfinished wall, making it a generic room. They rarely interact, though they often make eye contact. Most songs are solos but there are some sung in permutations of the four. It’s vocal perfection.

Jenna Russell interprets some of her songs, notably the Weill parody Surabaya Santa, with comic flair as well as vocal perfection. Damian Humbley’s voice has great control and a gorgeous tone. Cynthia Erivo sings with such soul and conviction she brought herself and me to tears, in my case tears at the sheer beauty of her voice. Dean John-Wilson adds a youthfulness and edginess to his fine vocals. Daniel A Weiss’ quintet play beautifully and the sound balance (Mike Thacker) ensures you hear every word and every note. It’s always captivating, sometimes mesmerising, and though Adam Lenson’s staging isn’t really necessary for the stories, it somehow contributes on an intuitive level.

You will by now have gathered that I was more than a bit bowled over. Now all I want for Christmas is a recording so that it can fill my living room with beauty as it did the St. James’ Theatre.

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This play by James Phillips sets out to tell the story of fashion designer Alexander (Lee) McQueen, but in 110 minutes it doesn’t really tell us anywhere near enough. By introducing a lot of movement and music to give us a feel of the catwalk, it distracts from the story. It’s more pose than substance.

A girl called Dahlia has appeared in Lee’s workroom whilst he’s looking for inspiration for his next show, demanding a dress. She may be a burglar, a stalker, his alter ego or just a figment of his imagination. Together they visit the tailor where he was apprenticed where they meet his first tutor, on to meet his muse Isabella Blow, to his mother’s house and finally to a rooftop in Stratford, where he was brought up. A bunch of models / dancer occasionally appear to dance or pose. The story of his fascinating life is mere snatches. It doesn’t really go anywhere, feels very perfunctory and we don’t really learn much – except that he’s a genius and a tortured soul and he loves his mum. There’s a lot of stuff on the small stage but not much of it looks attractive, with the exception of a frock and a coat, which isn’t exactly what you might expect in homage to its subject.

The chief reason for seeing this is the performance of Stephen Wight as Lee, who does his best with the flimsy material. There’s a nice cameo from Tracy-Ann Oberman as Blow, making a terrific entrance laying on a chaise longue, but David Shaw-Parker and Laura Rees were wasted. I’m afraid I was unimpressed by Diana Agron as Dahlia, whose performance seemed very one-dimensional, though in fairness she didn’t have a lot to work with. Even the ensemble of eight seemed wasted, and very cramped on a stage made smaller by the design. Given the talent and pedigree of director John Caird and designer David Farley, the weakness of the production is a bit of a puzzle.

A missed opportunity to pay tribute to a design icon.

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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I missed this at regular haunt The Finborough Theatre three years ago; it was hard to get a ticket because it had someone from the Archers in it! So gold stars to young producers Nicola Seed and Sarah Loader for bringing this first London revival of Emlyn Williams’ 1950 play to St James Theatre. Given the events since the Finborogh outing, it may well be even more timely.

Highly successful novelist William Trenting leads a double life as Bill Trent, with the full knowledge and support (but not participation) of his wife Rona. He has a bedsit in Rotherhithe where he engages in morally dubious practices, including orgies, with his drinking pals from the Blue Lion and others who may be paid to participate. The play opens on New Years Day when he adds a knighthood to his Nobel Prize (a touch implausible for a 50’s novelist with seedy themes?). People visit and call to offer congratulations, including Rona’s best friend Marian and Phyllis and Harold from the Black Lion, salt of the earth swingers! His world begins to fall apart three months later on the eve of his investiture when his publisher tells him his activities may no longer be private. Then a blackmailer arrives, but he’s far from being your average blackmailer.

It must have been a real shocker in 1950 and its surprising it even got through the Lord Chamberlain, the censor of the time. Less racy fare by people like Terence Rattan had cuts, but Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams seems to have cleverly steered his play to acceptability. It feels pretty contemporary today, covering themes of privacy, celebrity and exploitation of the young. It you updated the costumes and dialogue, you could probably pass it off as a new play, which is extraordinary for something that’s 64 years old. Blanche McIntyre’s impeccable production manages the changes of tone and mood extremely well.

A faultless cast is led by Alexander Hanson as Trenting, a fine performance in a role that suits him very well indeed. Abigail Cruttenden makes you believe Rona’s love for him withstands what other wives wouldn’t tolerate. Jay Taylor and Olivia Darnley are so lovely as the Harold and Phyllis, you rather wish they frequented your local. Jay Villiers is excellent as stern, humourless but loyal publisher Thane and Bruce Alexander is wonderful (and surprisingly funny) in the key role of ‘blackmailer’ Daker. Daniel Crossley is great as retainer Albert – secretary, chauffeur, butler & more – who many years ago found his way from the pub to the home and has loyally served the Trenting’s since. There’s a lovely cameo from Claire Fox as Marian and a hugely impressive performance from Sam Clemmett as son Ian. It’s hard to imagine a better cast.

I’ve so enjoyed the Finborough finds and was very disappointed to miss this there, but I’m delighted to see it transfer and to see such a good play get such a fine production further west, if not completely ‘up west’. More Emlyn Williams revivals, please!

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