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Posts Tagged ‘Theatre Royal Stratford East’

I’ve had a big soft spot for this show since its first outing at my then local theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, in 1990 (local boy Dudley Moore was in that night!). It got the quickest West End transfer ever when Cameron Mackintosh came, was blown away by the first half and sealed the deal in the interval. I followed it ‘up west’, unexpectedly caught the international tour in Germany and then saw a new production at the Edinburgh fringe seven years ago. Now here it is in a rather luxurious tent in the middle of the Marble Arch roundabout, and it’s still huge fun – the ultimate party show.

Clarke Peters’ homage to influential jazz legend Louis Jordan uses the story of Nomax to link together Jordan’s characterful songs, sending five Moe’s out of the radio to straighten him out after his woman’s gone and he’s turned to drink. Peters may well have invented the modern-day juke-box musical – a whole nine years before Mamma Mia. They are terrific songs that tell stories, often funny, sometimes poignant, always a joy to hear, with some of the funniest and cheekiest titles ever – I Like ‘Em Fat Like That. Messy Bessy, Pettin’ And Pokin’, Saturday Night Fish Fry, What’s The Use Of Getting Sober and Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens!

This new production by Peters himself sits well in the big circular luxury tent, with a revolving stage around the central seating, the band coming forward on its moving platform for the club scene and New Orleans brilliantly evoked on the walls in the second half. All six performers, which included an alternate Big Moe and Four-Eyed Moe on the night I went, were excellent at singing, dancing and engaging with the audience and there’s a cracking six-piece band which does full justice to the music. The second half packs more punches than the first, but it’s well paced overall, with maybe a touch too much time devoted to audience participation for my liking.

Though it probably won’t match its original five year West End run, I suspect it will be revived regularly in the future, keeping this infectious music alive for future generations.

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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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I’m very partial to a Rikki Beadle-Blair play, but I’m afraid this one has none of the sweep or depth of the other two plays of his I’ve seen (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/gutted). It’s a Rom Com, a genre I’m generally fond of, but it arrives on a wave of implausibility which sadly lost me early on.

Four homeless boys, though you’d never believe it by looking at them, compete for the affections of Summer, a Philippine woman living in London. She’s the protégé of life coach Joan, who’s romance with the boys’ friend, sandwich seller Justine, provides a sub-plot. The boys take it in turns to spend a day with Summer, a difficult job when you have no money.

We’re told it’s the first completely trans cast, which is very laudable, though I have to confess this baffled me with at least two of them. When you know this, there is a tendency to confuse the gender of the actors with the gender of the characters and I got in a right pickle trying to understand the various sexual orientations (of the characters).

I admired the ambition and I enjoyed the performances, but it didn’t really work for me, probably because I was expecting a play with more bite, as I have come to expect from Beadle-Blair.

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Verbatim theatre can be very powerful in presenting real issues, and this look at last year’s referendum is amongst the most powerful I’ve seen; thought-provoking but also highly entertaining. I’m rather glad I missed it at the National in February, as it seems to take on extra meaning post-election, and feels more at home in ‘a people’s theatre’ at the end of it’s 14-venue tour, mostly visiting the cities and towns in which the interviews that it features took place.

Britannia has convened a gathering and Caledonia, Cymru, Northern Ireland, the South West, North East and East Midlands arrive. After pleasantries, each conveys the words of the interviewees from their location, which eventually descend into inaudibility, talking over one another; no-one’s listening. Britannia represents and conveys the words of the politicians – Cameron, Johnson, Gove, Farage and May. Beyond this, each representative presents the best of their country / region in song, dance and poetry, with others commenting. It ends thoughtfully with the voices of the interviewees themselves as the representatives leave the stage. Carol Ann Duffy has put this together expertly.

The ensemble is outstanding, perhaps benefiting from being together for almost four months now. Penny Layden is terrific conveying the politicians. Christian Patterson represented my home country very well; his rendition of Goldfinger a highlight, as was Cavan Clarke’s Irish dance! Stuart McQuarrie is a superbly feisty Scot and Laura Elphinstone a brash Geordie. There were many laughs at the expense of Adam Ewan representing the South West as somewhat new age and Seema Bowri represented the diversity of the East Midlands well. Rufus Norris’ production manages to make this entertaining without belittling the seriousness of the situation, though I did feel uneasy at times laughing at the words of real people.

Excellent, relevant theatre, which does help you understand how we’ve got into this mess, though it didn’t lift my depression over it!

 

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I fell in love with Tommy, the world’s first ‘rock opera’, when the concept album was released in 1969. I liked rather than loved Ken Russell’s 1975 star-studded film, but fell in love with it all over again when the new stage adaptation hit the West End in 1996, and here I am again completely smitten by this thrilling and uplifting revival.

One of the great successes of this production is the integrated casting, including a deaf Tommy and his mother Nora, and actors and musicians with other disabilities. The story of a boy traumatised by his father’s death, becoming deaf dumb and blind, seems to resonate so much more cast in this way, and what talent – a stage brimming with it. The four-piece band (three of whom also have a role) led by Robert Hyman is terrific. The vocals are superb, with two actors assisting Tommy and one his mum; Max Runham is particularly strong vocally as Captain Walker. Additional wind, brass, guitar and percussion is provided by eleven members of the cast.

Kerry Michael’s staging has great pace and there’s some funny, quirky period choreography by Mark Smith. Neil Irish has provided a design which manages to create both intimate and big spaces. It was an inspired idea to cast Peter Straker as the Acid Queen, for whom Pete Townsend has written an extra number. Garry Robinson has great presence as Uncle Ernie and I very much liked Alim Jayda as Tommy’s step-dad Frank. I found William Grint’s performance as Tommy deeply moving.

This has been co-produced with Graeae and some of our finest regional theatres and I can’t imagine a better use of public funding; a terrific example of how such collaborations can produce exciting world class work. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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This is based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, which she adapted for the screen and now for the stage. Director Cora Bissett has added music by Kathryn Joseph and herself for this world premiere in Stratford East. I haven’t read the book, but I much admired the film and I think this is another very successful adaptation, more moving than the film, as you might expect from a live experience..

A girl is abducted and imprisoned for seven years by ‘Big Nick’. He keeps her in a very basic shed in his garden that she later calls Room. He visits to bring supplies, remove waste and rape her. She gives birth to Jack in Room, where she brings him up for five years. They establish a routine involving reading, exercise and imagination and Jack is happy in the only place he knows. He thinks World is something that only exists in the TV set. His mother wants them to escape and hatches a plot where Jack feigns death, is wrapped in a carpet and taken away by Big Nick in the back of his pick-up, from which he escapes when its stationary. It works and his mother is subsequently rescued.

In the second half we have a whirlwind of police questioning and medical examination until they go home to her adopted parents, now separated, where they are confronted with difficulties adjusting and settling in World, from Jack’s inability to climb stairs to her dad’s rejection of him. What was hopeless in Room becomes hopeful. There have of course been many cases like this, which itself may be based on a true story, but this manages to successfully convey both captivity and post-captivity trauma. The idea to have an older Jack speaking his more complex thoughts whilst shadowing young Jack really works well.

Lily Arnold’s design, with great use of projections, is excellent and Cora Bissett’s staging both assured and sensitive. The music didn’t always work for me, but in the second half there were several excellent songs that fitted the story. A lot of its success is down to casting and the emotional weight of the play is beautifully handled by Whitney White as Ma. Fela Lufadeju is a brilliantly omnipresence, echoing and illustrating but never overwhelming or stealing Jack’s story. Harrison Wilding as Young Jack is simply extraordinary, in Room clinging to Ma and everything familiar, then in fear, awe and wonder in World.

 Time to hot-foot it east to Stratford.

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This is a quirky sixteen-year-old Off-Broadway musical by Kirsten Childs, with quite a mouthful of a title, getting its European premiere at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It tells the story of Viveca aka Bubbly as she navigates life from her 60’s childhood in Southern California to 90’s maturity in New York City, weaving in significant black history events along the way.

She’s a vivacious black middle-class kid who is first awakened to the real world by the Klu Klux Klan killing of four black girls just like her in a chapel in Birmingham, Alabama. Racism (and sexism) are an everyday occurrence. During her school years there’s both pressure and temptation to ‘go white’ to fit in; she even chooses her white doll Chitty Chatty over her black doll. In fact, that doesn’t change for a long time. Her relationship with childhood sweetheart Gregory never really goes anywhere, though he turns up again later.

Moving to NYC, after a period as an unsuccessful secretary she takes dance lessons and tries to break into musical theatre, with some success – enough for her to be able to break free and set up her own dance academy. The original score is serviceable rather than distinguished. I was expecting it to change with the period, perhaps from Motown to Disco to 80’s electro mush(!), but it didn’t – a missed opportunity, I thought. I also thought there was a bit too much time given over to childhood over adulthood.

Rosa Maggiora’s design is excellent, a stage full of boxes in which Tim Reid’s superb projections appear, and her period costumes are terrific. Josette Bushell-Mingo’s direction and Mykal Rand’s choreography are sprightly and chirpy and, well, bubbly. Sophia Mackay and Karis Jack were both great as older and young Viveca respectively. It seemed like more than ten on stage and there was a lot of doubling and tripling, one even quadrupling, with a stand-out comic performance from Ashley Joseph, who brought the house down in the second half as Lucas.

I didn’t engage with it as much as I thought I might. The quirkiness became a bit relentless for me, trying a bit too hard and sometimes seeming forced as a result. In the end, I felt the production and performances were better than the material and I’m not sure it resonates as much over here, in 2017, but I’m not the right person to judge that.

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