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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Fry’

I criticised the new London production of The King & I for being conservative and overly reverential; like visiting the Museum of Musical Theatre. Well, this show is 14 years older, but that’s the last thing you’d say about this brilliant revival; it feels freshly minted, with an extraordinary sense of fun and its full of joy.

It’s a quintessentially British story. The trustees of the aristocratic Hareford family have been looking for a male heir born to a working class girl and solicitor Parchester thinks she’s found him, cockney lad Bill Snibson. He’s about as interested in joining the nobility as they are in having him, but the Duchess of Dene is determined to gentrify him and get rid of his girlfriend Sally Smith. Fellow trustee Sir John has a different view. Cue lots of lovely class culture clash involving a lot of toffs and pearly kings and queens.

Sally feels she should leave Bill so that he can inherit the title and all that goes with it, but Bill is having none of it. Sir John decides to gentrify Sally instead. Cue references to Pygmalion (if they were in the original) or perhaps My Fair Lady (if they were added by Stephen Fry for the hugely successful 1985 revival). It works, and Bill and Sally are reunited and wed, as are the Duchess and Sir John. Along the way, we get a brilliant scene where they conjure up the ancestors – tap dancing knights in armour! – a great drunken scene which bonds Bill and Sir John, and sensational ensemble set pieces to end Act I and start Act II.

My recollection of the 1985 London revival, with Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson, which ran twice as long as the original – eight years! – was ‘too twee for me’, but this time it swept me away and my spirits soared. It’s a terrific music hall inspired score by Noel Gay, including the title song, The Sun Has Got His Hat On, Leaning On A Lamppost and of course The Lambeth Walk. The combination of Les Brotherston’s superb design (in particular, his costumes), Alistair David’s light-as-air choreography and Daniel Evans astute direction ensures it sparkles like a diamond, literally some of the time. Gareth Valentine’s arrangements are thrilling and his band sound sensational; he even gets to do a turn at the curtain call.

Matt Lucas is a revelation as Bill. He talent for comedy is well known, but he adds good vocals and sprightly dance to create a classic cheeky cockney. Alex Young is lovely as his intended Sally, whether she’s leading a knees-up or breaking her heart and yours with Once You Lose Your Heart. Caroline Quentin and favourite of mine Clive Rowe are delightful as the Duchess and the Knight. What I love most about this cast is that it’s all shapes, sizes and races whose talent, energy and enthusiasm sweep you away.

I’ve often left Chichester musicals on a high, but this and Half a Sixpence are special because they bring great British shows alive for today. Daniel Evans apparently said he wanted a new lick of paint, well in my book its a thrilling makeover. Don’t even think about not transferring it; London needs it !

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This 1995 Simon Gray play is more famous for one of its stars, Stephen Fry, going AWOL a few days after it opened, bringing about it’s early closure after just over a month. It’s gestation was problematic too – rejected as a TV script, a failed attempt to turn it into a film script, abandoned by its first theatre producer and getting its first outing on the radio. It even changed title several times, ending up as Cell Mates, but they weren’t. I think this might be it’s only London stage revival. It would have been nice to have added ‘long overdue’.

It concerns the real life case, in 1966, of infamous spy and traitor George Blake and his break-out from Wormwood Scrubs and escape to Russia. Blake was assisted by a young Irishman, Sean Bourke, who he met inside, and the play starts at their first meeting in the prison library, where Blake invites him to help (in reality this didn’t happen at their first meeting). We then see them holed up in a bedsit awaiting departure to Russia after Bourke, newly released, has sprung him. Bourke is persuaded to accompany Blake to Moscow and the rest of the play sees them in a KGB flat there, in four scenes over some ten months, during which time they separately record their memoirs, receive regular visits from their handlers and are cared for by a maid who takes a shine to Bourke.

Gray skirts around the issue of the nature of the relationship between the two, and in particular why Bourke is so loyal to Blake, who betrays him as he did his country. As this is fundamental to the story, it derails the play and it ends up a rather dull telling of a fascinating true story; even speculation would be better than nothing. This is compounded by Edward Hall’s tentative, rather conservative production which rarely comes to life, despite some fine performances. Not really worthy of revival, I’m afraid.

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I’ve been a fan of Stiles & Drew since Honk. They’re not particularly prolific, but last year brought us – in my view – the best new musical of the year in Betty Blue Eyes. It looks like they may have done it again in 2012.

This is an inventive, modern & very radical updating of the Cinderella story. Cinderella is a gay male escort with step-sisters who run a Soho strip club. Buttons is a girl called Velcro (!) who runs the launderette below his flat and the prince is a London mayoral candidate! Stephen Fry is an off-stage narrator (he was actually in the row behind me). It may sound preposterous but it works! Some of Anthony Drewe & Elliott Davies’ book and Drewe’s lyrics are corny, but for me that’s part of its charm. It’s a very pop score which may prove one of George Stiles’ best.

Designer Morgan Large’s backdrop is a street scene with giant neon signage telling you we’re in Old Compton Street, W1 which allows speedy movement from location to location. His costumes for the step-sisters are hysterical. There’s some excellent choreography from Drew McOnie and Jonathan Butterell has staged it with pace, humour and just a touch of sentimentality.

What makes it though is a hugely talented cast. Tom Milner is a real find as Robbie (Cinders). Though he’s done much TV, this is his stage debut; he has bucketloads of charm and a fine voice. Amy Lennox is just as good as Velcro, a bit dim but ever so lovable. They are both upstaged in the comedy department by the simply terrific double act of Suzy Chard and Beverley Rudd as step-sisters Clodah & Dana; brilliant creations in every way. Gerard Carey is a great baddie as spin doctor George and Michael Xavier continues to impress, here perfectly cast as the Tory ex-swimming champion with a secret. The wonderful Jenna Russell is underutilized as his fiancée Marilyn, but she has excellent chemistry with Xavier and she sings and acts beautifully, particularly when betrayed – it must be hard to provide the serious side to a largely rumbustious story.

This was such a heart-warming uplifting evening. You’ll have to accept its risque content and grossness (the sisters!), but you will be rewarded with lots of laughs and some lovely music, but ultimately a story for our times. This isn’t actually that implausible!

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