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Posts Tagged ‘The Mill at Sonning’

One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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In less than four years, Joseph Pitcher has made The Mill at Sonning an essential seasonal visit with sparkling productions of classic musicals – High Society, My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls and now Singing in the Rain, which scales new heights, beating the West End at its own game in a 200 seat theatre.

This show started as a film in 1952 and didn’t reach the stage until 1983, in London first, with Tommy Steele. We’ve has two memorable productions since – a terrific West Yorkshire Playhouse production transferred to the Olivier stage almost 20 years ago, and a great Chichester transfer around ten years after that. They don’t come along often, though there’s another one due at Sadler’s Wells next year.

It’s set in 1927 as silent movies are about to give way to talkies, with all the ramifications that brings, particularly for silent movie stars whose voices may not suit. The star partnership of Don Lockwood & Lina Lamont is likely to be be a casualty because Lina squeaks and drawls rather than speaks and the elocution lessons are getting nowhere. She doesn’t of course see that, as she doesn’t see that her love for Don is unrequited; he has become besotted with budding actress Kathy Seldon. The studio decides to remake their recent film as a musical with Lina secretly dubbed by Kathy, but when Lina finds out she turns nasty and seeks revenge.

The score is packed full of great tunes, now standards, including All I do is dream of you, Make ‘em laugh, You are my lucky star, You were meant for me, Good mornin’ and of course the title song. The period means a gorgeous design aesthetic, with particularly fine costumes from Natalie Titchener, and there’s great use of projection. Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is as light as air, with some fantastic tap routines. You struggle to believe MD Francis Goodhand’s band is only a five-piece, as they do full justice to the score. Amongst the many staging highlights, we have a brilliant elocution lesson scene, a stylish Broadway Melody and a sexy duet between Don & Kathy. The title song is superbly done, with a lot of rain on a special stage, teasing the audience as they get sprinkled on, enough but not too much. It’s encore after the curtain call, with the whole company, ends the show on a huge fun high to send you home, in our case into the rain.

Philip Bertioli is superb as Don, great vocals, light on his feet and bucketloads of charm. He creates real empathy with the audience as he plays with them cheekily in the rain. Rebecca Jayne-Davies has a beautiful voice and just as much charm as Kathy, also moving with great grace. Sammy Kelly as Lina is very funny, delivering the squeaky voice and off-key vocals, but with a great transition to manipulator too. Brendan Cull is slick, funny and vocally very strong as Don’s sidekick Cosmo. I loved Russell Wilcox’s studio head R F Simpson, looking every inch the boss with what we now see as some rather unacceptable me too behaviour. They are supported by nine others in a faultless cast.

A delightful evening, a joy from beginning to end. I can’t wait for next year.

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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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This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

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Productions of this show don’t come around that often. I can only remember one in London in more than thirty years, at the NT / West End in 2001. This is on a much smaller scale – twelve actors and four musicians – but it’s an absolute delight.

Lerner & Loewe’s adaptation of G B Shaw’s play about turning a Covent Garden flower seller into a society lady by making her talk proper is packed full of songs you know so well, including Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, With A Little Bit Of Luck, I Could Have Danced All Night, On The Street Where You Live and Get Me To The Church On Time, but what really struck me about this revival was how Shaw’s satire on class and attitudes to women shines through all this jollity. Higgins may be a clever man, an expert linguist, but he’s also a misogynist and a bully, treating Eliza as a pawn in his game.

On this scale the story and musical spectacle are more balanced and the production values and performances do more than full justice to the material. The set design is simple but flexible, and Natalie Titchener’s costumes are gorgeous, sometimes taking your breath away, especially when we first see Eliza’s ball gown. The four-piece band sounds lovely, with the fine violin of David Larkin standing out. There’s a lot of dance and movement in director Joseph Pitcher’s background, which shows with some fine choreography and musical staging. A terrific production all round.

The two leads are both excellent – Bethan Nash making a superb transition from flower seller to society lady and on to assertive woman and Martin Fisher as a naive academic with zero emotional intelligence who comes over as a patronising pratt, until Eliza finally puts him in his place. They’ve got fantastic support from Phil Snowden as Eliza’s cheeky and sprightly dad Alfred and Eric Carte as Colonel Pickering, a benign but charming presence. The superb ensemble play multiple roles, often with swift, slick changes, showing off their versatility without interfering with fine vocal performances.

I think this is only the second seasonal musical at Sonning, but I’m banking on it becoming a tradition already. A great revival, on an intimate scale that magnifies and illuminates the story.

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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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It’s a while since I’ve been to The Mill at Sunning dinner theatre – their programming of whodunit’s alternating with farce’s isn’t really to my taste – but I couldn’t resist ‘big’ musical High Society in this intimate space, even though it’s less than eighteen months since I saw it in a big space, or perhaps because I had…….

It’s set in the elegant thirties amongst the rich socialites of Long Island. Tracey is about to marry ever-so-dull George, but not before she has an elongated drunken flirt with tabloid photographer spy Mike and has been visited by her ex (and true love) Dexter. Her feisty teenage sister Dinah is determined to reignite her relationship with Dexter and spike the wedding. Her mum is rather pre-occupied with reigniting her relationship with her own ex Seth, a bit of a philanderer, and Uncle Willie chases any woman in sight, but particularly tabloid journalist spy Liz, who’s love for colleague Mike is unrequited. Liz and Mike have been promised the wedding story in exchange for burying the story of Seth’s fling with a dancer. Still with me?

It’s based on the 1939 Hollywood film The Philadelphia Story and started out as a film musical in 1956 before making it to the stage in 1987 in London in a Richard Eyre adaptation (nine years before another stage version on Broadway). The Broadway version had a very successful Ian Talbot production at the Open Air Theatre in 2003, which toured before transferring to the West End, where it only lasted a few months. The latest incarnation was Maria Friedman’s sensational in-the-round production at the Old Vic in 2015. The show’s trump card is Cole Porter’s score-to-die-for with more standards than just about any other show.

Scaled down for a cast of eleven and a three-piece band, it works superbly on this scale. Though it’s occasionally unclear which location we’re in, it’s a simple elegant design by Ryan Light (with great costumes by Natalie Titchener) which enables fast-moving action and scene changes, leaving enough space for director / choreographer Joseph Pitcher’s nifty staging and movement. The musical standards under MD Charlie Ingles are excellent. There isn’t a fault in the casting, with a lovely leading lady in Bethan Nash, a great comic turn from David Delve as Uncle Willie and Kirsty Ingrams’ spirited Dinah.

I love musicals on this scale and this was certainly a treat, and where else can you see a quality musical with a decent two-course meal, coffee and a programme for not much more than £50! On this form, a deserved winner of the 2016 UK Theatre Most Welcoming Theatre Award.

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