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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Brown’

Harry Hill & Steve Bown’s first musical I Can’t Sing, an X-Factor parody, went straight into the West End in 2014, to the London Palladium no less. It got a critical mauling and didn’t survive long, but based on a late preview I thought it was great fun, in an anarchic, shambolic sort of way, probably helped by having Simon Cowell in the audience that night, adding a palpable frisson. It was also an early career showcase for Cynthia Erivo and we all know what that led to. Seven years later I went to a workshop of this, their second show (Brown had written the superb Spend Spend Spend before, without Hill), also anarchic & shambolic, but also great fun. Seven months on and we have its world premiere production at the same venue, the Park Theatre.

It takes us from Blair’s birth to his demise in a series of sketches with songs in which you can hear musical theatre styles, references and tropes, Sondheim featuring heavily. In Oxford University he meets Gordon Brown and they agree he gets the top bunk first. When he’s a new MP, Neil Kinnock endorses him, and Brown, as future leaders. John Smith comes and goes quickly, as he did, so their time comes earlier than expected, and they’re left to agree who goes first again, as they did in uni, and as the real Blair and Brown did at Granita, here played out as a wrestling match. The death of Diana brings a more cynical tone and in no time we’re at the interval anticipating a second half mired in the Middle East. So far so good.

This is where it begins to lose it’s sense of fun and balance as the satire gets even more biting and cynical and the laughs fade. The cast of Labour characters includes John Prescott, Robin Cook, Clare Short and of course Peter Mandleson, but no Alistair Campbell (surely a lost opportunity for an expletive-laden song a la Jerry Springer The Opera?). International characters include George Bush, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. They’re all played for laughs, with gusto, by a cast of ten led by Charlie Baker’s smily Blair and Howard Samuels oily Mandelson.

It picks up again to end by tarring all leaders with the same brush, taking us right up to date, but it did lose its way in this second half. The production values improve on the workshop of course, but they retain the dodgy wigs and beards that keep the shambolic element, which is one of its charms. It needs to lose the branding of rock opera or musical though, because it isn’t really either. It’s a panto, a satire composed of sketches and songs, an irreverent comedic entertainment. Musical theatre purists and critics will turn against it because of this branding, which is a shame because it’s great fun, despite the imbalance of the second half.

The shit show we’ve lived through since its workshop somehow makes you look more affectionately at Blair. They could get away with the satirical bite and cynicism more if this were Bozza! The Boris Johnson Rock Opera. I’m glad I went back and would recommend you go, but don’t go expecting a rock opera or a musical as we know it.

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This Olivier nominated show (7 noms!) was up against Mamma Mia and The Lion King for Best Musical, but it lost to Stiles & Drew’s Honk! It pre-dates Billy Elliott as a British working class musical and if I ever write the history of the great British musicals it will be up there with Billy and The Hired Man. The shows original choreographer, Craig Revel Horward (for it is he) directed a splendid small scale actor/musician revival at the Watermill in Newbury on its 10th anniversary and now we have a new young team ripping it up under the arches in SE1 and its a delight from start to finish.

Could there be a more glamorous and romantic setting than Castleford for this biographical show about pools winner Viv Nicholson (using her infamous press call quote as its title)?! It takes us from her youth, through the big win (which now seems not at all big), the exploitation by friends family and begging letters, the spending spree, the new home in a posh neighbourhood, the rejection by new and old neighbours and friends, the four husbands, her boutique venture and the inevitable bankruptcy – starting and ending in the hairdressing salon where Viv ended up, being visited by the forever inquisitive. The story is brilliantly told by Steve Brown & Justin Greene’s book and deliciously witty lyrics.

There’s a grittiness about it which I love and Katy Dean captures young Viv’s combination of naivety, greed, feistiness and defiance superbly. I loved Julie Armstrong’s older Viv, narrating the story of her rise and fall with resignation rather than regret. The show is packed full of catchy tunes and Christian Durham’s production has great pace and energy, with witty, quirky choreography from Heather Douglas and an excellent four-piece band. In a fine ensemble, Dave Haydn stood out as Viv’s dad, Tom Brandon as hapless first hubby Matt and newcomer James Lyne as second husband Keith.

Great to see it again, and in such a lovely production at the Union. Don’t miss!

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Any new musical is a big risk, which is why we don’t get many. Go straight to the West End, into the UK’s highest profile theatre, with a writer, director and choreographer with no musicals credits and a composer with one, and you significantly increase the risk. It’s midway through previews, still being rewritten, with cancellations, lengthened intervals and a half-time abandonment behind it and it’s clearly not ready yet BUT I thought it was great fun and I think they’re going to pull it off.

There’s a great opening scene as we see the ambition of a young Simon (brilliantly played by one of four young actors, I know not which). Then we meet X-Factor hopeful Chenice, her Grandpa and dog Barlow, in the family caravan under a London flyover. She has the back story to end all back stories. Another hopeful, Northern plumber Max, is just passing by. Later, we are introduced to other contestants – Welsh supermarket checkout girl Brenda, Irish duo The Alter Boys, Hunchback and Vladimir. In the first half, its the live auditions and a whistle-stop trip through to the live final which is the focus of the second half, on and off stage.

I liked Steve Brown’s songs (as I liked his score for Spend Spend Spend), lyrically funny with particularly good ‘big numbers’. There’s a somewhat haphazard, anarchic quality to the staging, perhaps because of a lack of readiness, but somehow adding to the fun. There’s a lot of cheeky references, clever parodies and some topicality in Harry Hill’s book and the targets are well and truly sent up, but in a friendly rather than a malicious way. It does lag at times and needs tightening up, but that’s doable. Like The Book of Mormon and The Commitments, it’s a different sort of musical aiming at a different audience and I think it succeeds.

Nigel Harman seemed a bit hesitant as Simon, perhaps because the real Simon was in the audience or perhaps due to his prosthetic teeth and high trousers! Cynthia Erivo certainly can sing, with bells on, and is terrific as Chenice. Alan Morrissey is also in fine voice as loveable Max and Simon Lipkin almost steals the show as Barlow the dog with a crush on Simon. The parts of judges Louis and Jordy (guess!) seemed underwritten to me, but Ashley Knight & Victoria Elliott do their best with what they’re given. Charlie Baker is unrecognisable, and also in fine voice, as Hunchback and I liked both Billy Carter’s camp producer and Simon Bailey’s host Liam, who has a song sung entirely whilst hugging Max!

Designer Es Devlin pulls a lot out of the bag, all of which worked the night I went, but I can see why it takes some breaking in. It’s not as slick as Mormon, but it’s also less cynical and more warm-hearted. If you know what they are parodying and just go for a fun night out, you are unlikely to be disappointed. A full house, the previous night’s aborted performance and the real Simon in the audience probably added a certain frisson, but fun was had regardless.

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