Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Terry Johnson’

I wasn’t planning to see Terry Johnson’s loving, funny & moving homage to his friend Ken Campbell. I wasn’t a Campbell fan (loved the eccentricity, struggled with the self-indulgent excess), so I didn’t think it was for me. On its last day, impulse propelled me to the Bunker Theatre for the matinee and now I feel I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The last time I was instantly captivated by a design was upstairs at the Menier when I gasped as I walked into What’s It All About?, the Bert Bacharach homage. Tim Shortall has created an immersive carpeted environment with seating on three sides and three levels, populated by settees and chairs, lamps and plants, pouffes and cushions. Johnson himself spends most of the 90 minutes at a lectern telling us about his personal experiences in Campbell’s orbit. Jeremy Stockwell as Campbell turns up all over the place, mostly in the audience, illustrating Johnson’s memoir. A lot of it involves the ten-part 24-hour play The Warp staged in a disused cinema at the Edinburgh fringe almost forty years ago, but we also hear of the misguided disaster that was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at the Rainbow Theatre, Campbell’s spectacular prank on the RSC (publicising it’s transformation into the RDC shortly after Nicholas Nickelby) and other shorter stories.

It’s beautifully written and inventively staged by Lisa Spirling and I was enthralled. It left me wanting to to travel back in time and live life all over again, this time as a Ken Campbell fan.

Read Full Post »

A biographical play about a cinematographer? Jack Cardiff’s career reads like a history of 20th Century cinema, but why a play? It seems to have been suggested by its leading man, Robert Lindsay, and playwright / director Terry Johnson has dramatised it for him.

We’re at the end of Cardiff’s life, at his country home, with his wife Nicola, played by Claire Skinner, his son Mason, Barnaby Kay, and new ‘assistant’ Lucy, played by Rebecca Night. He’s got dementia, so it’s all recollection and reflection, and attempts to write a biography.

In the brilliant opening scene, he tells the history of screen shapes and sizes by opening a garage door. The first act ends as superbly as the second begins when we flash back to the filming of The African Queen in Kenya, where Barnaby Kay transforms into Humphrey Bogart, Rebecca Night into his wife Lauren Bacall and Claire Skinner becomes Katherine Hepburn – all brilliantly, as Kay and Night are again later as Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (not the first time she’s featured in a Johnson play!). Before and after this though it’s all a bit slight, and I came to the conclusion the life was less interesting, name-dropping and possible infidelities aside, and stageable than they at first thought.

That said, there are four fine performances, an excellent design from Tim Shortall and enough to make you pleased you went.

Read Full Post »

Baz Luhrmann’s stage to screen to stage show gets it’s UK premiere in Leeds in a new adaptation by Terry Johnson directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. I caught the Australian production in Melbourne 21 months ago and couldn’t resist a trip north to see it on its last day. A very good decision!

Scott Hastings has been groomed as a ballroom dancer since childhood by his mum Shirley and her dancing school partner Les Kendall. They have their eyes on the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship, but his partner Lisa deserts him over his insistence on freestyling. His mum, Les and Federation president Barry Fife are determined to reign him back in, but he’s secretly working with frumpy Fran. She introduces him to her Spanish family, who inject some true Latin spirit into his pasodoble. Barry lies to convince Scott to stick to rules. He relents for a while, until he learns the truth and dances with Fran after all. Crooked Barry gets found out and Scott & Fran triumph and fall in love – and ballroom dancing is liberated from its straight-jacket. It’s a tale of a free spirit seeking to break out of a framework of rules which stifle creativity.

The score is a mash-up of original songs and existing numbers and I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory. It feels like a bit of a rag-bag and I can’t help wondering if a fully original score might feel more cohesive and serve the show better. I thought this production brought out more comedy which, given it has its tongue firmly in its cheek, is a good thing. Soutra Gilmour’s excellent design gives the Quarry Theatre a stage with a revolving metal frame incorporating a proscenium, which actors can climb and occupy. It moves easily from the dance studio to the roof, Fran’s family home and competition venues. Catherine Martin was also responsible for the costumes for the film and the Australian production and they are sensational – a riot of colour and glitter beyond your wildest imagination.

It’s hard to know where to start with the performances; the casting is faultless. Fernando Mira reprises his wonderful Australian performance as Fran’s dad, but the rest are fresh to the UK production. American Sam Lips and our own Gemma Sutton are terrific romantic leads, the former taking dancing honours and the latter vocal honours. Richard Dempsey is a delightfully camp MC, J J Silvers. Tamsin Carroll and Richard Grieve are excellent as Shirley and Les, with Stephen Matthews great as the virtually mute, deadpan dad (until he turns). Julius D’Silva is as oily as they get with his terrific turn as bent dancing federation ‘policeman’ Barry. Eve Polycarpou gives us another of her delightful cameos as Fran’s gran.

It’s a superb feel-good show and this betters the Australian production. It’s West End ready, though it appears to be heading for Toronto. I was very glad I made the trip north.

Read Full Post »

The 20(ish)-year revival rule applies again for this Terry Johnson play, which I first saw at Hampstead Theatre in 1994. Natural justice was served that night when David Haig was indisposed and the playwright had to step in to play a role he wrote for a middle-aged man with a paunch who has to get his kit off!

The play follows members of a society which celebrates the classic British comedy of the 1960’s to 1980’s. They meet to reminisce, recollect and relive classic characters and shows, in this case the recently departed Benny Hill and, as news of his death arrives during the play, Frankie Howard. Couple Nick & Lisa, singleton Brian and host Richard are all committed members, but Richard’s wife Ellie isn’t. During the play we learn that Richard & Ellie are having problems having sex (and a baby) and Nick hasn’t really taken to his new-born, for reasons that emerge.

It does start slowly, with few laughs at first, and this time around I felt there was an imbalance between the light comedy of the first act and the significantly darker and much better second half. It’s natural audience is British people of a certain age and there were a number in the audience (young or foreign!), who missed many of the references, including my Icelandic companion, even though he was of a certain age and brought up in a country and at a time when British TV was plentiful. This is a homage to the comedy families used to stay in and watch together on a Saturday night and that narrows its demographic significantly.

You can’t fault the performances or the staging by the playwright or the design of a 90’s suburban living room by Richard Kent. Katherine Parkinson is particularly good as Ellie, having to play against the flow, a role played by Zoe Wanamaker in the original production. I don’t really know the work of Rufus Jones, but he too was impressive as Richard, having to be believable as a surgeon who likes Benny Hill! Steve Pemberton handles the impressions best as Brian, perhaps because he started in TV comedy, as well as his touching revelation towards the end.

I was glad I revisited it, but it wasn’t the classic I thought it might be. I suspect this is partly due to the passage of time, partly due to its suitability for my companion (though he loved the second half) and partly due to the fact that James Graham’s recent Monster Raving Loony (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/monster-raving-loony) is a better and more comprehensive homage to the same British comedy, even though it’s actually a biography of a politician, albeit a comic one.

 

Read Full Post »

Terry Johnson’s idea to turn this into a musical is as good as the late Bob Hoskins idea to put it on screen. It’s one of the best screen-to-stage transitions and a must-see in its final two months.

The Windmill was an iconic institution. It brought revue to London. It brought nudity to the stage. It was the only theatre still open in the blitz. It was the heart of Soho. It’s a great story for the stage and for a musical and Terry Johnson’s adaptation, book and staging are outstanding. It tells the story from the meeting of unlikely business partners Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm through their unsuccessful first shows, their negotiations with the government’s censor, the Lord Chamberlain, the successful nude tableaux shows to performing for soldiers during the second world war. The personal story of Maureen, from tea lady to star, her love (or not) for Eddie and her unwanted pregnancy is woven through it.

George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain are more used to producing film and TV music and their score is somewhat old-fashioned, but it suits the period being presented and it’s got some great tunes. Don Black’s excellent lyrics benefit from his significant musical theatre experience. I very much liked Tim Shorthall’s design, moving us successfully from backstage to onstage (and on the roof) with a couple of quick visits to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and Paul Wills’ costumes are delightful. I loved Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in comic numbers like the Lord Chamberlain’s song – and his fan dance is masterly!

It’s exceptionally well cast, led by Tracie Bennett, yet again inhabiting a musical theatre role, and in this case banishing the memory of Judi Dench. I don’t think of Ian Bartholomew as a musical theatre man but when I read his biog in the programme I realised I’d seen him in a handful of musical theatre roles and he’s excellent here (and in fine voice) as Van Damm. Emma Williams delivers yet again and is sensational in her big Act II number If Mountains Were Easy to Climb (one day she’ll be in a commercial hit again!). In a very strong supporting case, I was particularly impressed by Samuel Holmes as Bertie and Robert Hands as the Lord Chamberlain.

This lovely show doesn’t deserve its early bath and I strongly recommend you catch it in its final two months.

Read Full Post »

When I went to see the workshop of this new adaptation of Joan Littlewood / Frank Norman / Lionel Bart’s 1959 show, I enjoyed it very much but never expected it to turn out this good. Elliot Davies has added songs like Do You Mind? and Living Doll from the Lional Bart ‘songbook’ to turn the show from a play-with-music into a fully fledged musical – and it works very well indeed.

We’re in a seedy Soho club in the 50’s with loveable rogues and prostitutes. It centres on club owner Fred and his ex-brass girlfriend Lil and pimp Tosher and his working girls Betty, Brenda & Margaret. Bent copper PC Collins pays regular visits to collect his cut and Paddy becomes a fixture when he wins half the club in a game of cards. Meatface (offstage) presents their greatest threat. Innocent homeless Rosie gets taken in and adopted by the girls, exploited by Tosher and hurt by Meatface. Petty criminal Red Hot takes refuge on release from prison. Outrageously camp Horace is invited in to give them a makeover and posh Percy & even posher Myrtle come to the subsequent re-opening. We love them all (well, apart from Meatface, obviously).

Writer Frank Norman was from this world, so the story, characters and situations ooze authenticity, albeit a little caricatured and romanticised. William Dudley (where has he been recently?) has created a brilliantly authentic club to match, with clever projections onto the skylights. Terry Johnson’s staging and Nathan M Wright’s choreography make it all sparkle. Above all, though, it’s the perfect casting that is probably its greatest success. I’ve only seen East Ender Jessie Wallace in Rent; here’s she’s so much more at home as Lil, with a surprisingly good voice. Mark Arden couldn’t look more the part if he had the best make-up and prosthetics money can buy; he’s the embodiment of Fred. I’ve admired Suzie Chard for a while and it’s great to see her commanding the stage and sometimes stealing the show as Betty. You love to hate but can’t help loving Stefan Booth’s Tosher and Sarah Middelton’s Rosie melts your heart with her gorgeous voice. There’s are terrific cameos from Christopher Ryan as Red Hot (there’s a delicious moment when he’s singing along to Living Doll, famously revived by The Young Ones – of which he was one – with Cliff Richard for Comic Relief) and Ryan Molloy as camp designer Horace who sweeps in and sweeps you away.

Of course, we’re back where it started at the Theatre Royal Stratford East where it fits like a glove, proving a right old East End knees-up. A treat.

Read Full Post »

When I booked for this months ago, I wasn’t expecting the world to be on the brink of yet another conflict in Ukraine. One hundred years on from the events depicted here and we’re still confronted with war on a daily basis. This timely and welcome revival also commemorates 100 years since the birth of its co-creator Joan Littlewood and 50 years since its ground-breaking first production, back where it all started at ‘a people’s theatre’ where it belongs.

It still winds up Michael Gove (something this production cheekily but appropriately recognises) so I can imagine the ‘conservative’ reaction in 1963. Presenting the First World War from the perspective of ordinary soldiers and making explicit how many millions of lives were lost as ‘a musical entertainment’ packs as much of a punch today as it must have done then. We’re told much of the true history of the war from the assassination which triggered it, interspersed with the satirical songs which would have been heard during it. Laughter pierced with moments of disbelief, horror and anger at how this was allowed to happen.

Terry Johnson’s production respects it’s heritage, most importantly the form of the Pierrot show. There’s an anarchic, ramshackle feel to it, particularly at the start and partly because of Lez Brotherston’s designs, but it achieves the right balance of entertainment and education / re-education. It zips along, changing from laughter to shock on the turn of an actor’s head. The audience are engaged and involved, which emphasises the populist nature underlying the piece.

I was delighted to learn that it is now a popular show to be performed in schools (up yours, Gove) because it tells a true story but also proves the power of theatre, something emphasised in original cast member Murray Melvin’s moving programme note recalling the show’s reception in Paris, which somewhat embarrassingly brought me to tears on the tube on the way home!

A fitting tribute to its subject and its creators and still a wake-up call 50 years on.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »