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Posts Tagged ‘Theatre Royal Stratford East’

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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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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Janis Joplin has a very small part in the soundtrack of my life. Piece of My Heart might get into my Desert Island Discs if they allowed a few hundred rather than eight. Still, she’s an important part of a key musical period, so I decided to give this a go.

The first thing to say is that it really isn’t a musical, not even an example of the much maligned juke box musical. The second thing to say is it’s musically very good. Both the singing of the alternate Janis, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, and the playing of the four piece band are exceptional. There are no characters other than Janis (apart from a brief intervention by the guitarist) who chips in biographical nuggets between songs. It’s really a concert tribute interspersed with some biographical monologues and on those terms it works.

It wasn’t the sort of show to see on a Saturday afternoon (but it was the only time I could fit it in) but The Stratford East audience lapped it up and gave them a worthy ovation.

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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Whilst commercial panto’s continue their decline with stale, recycled work (performed by recycled soap and reality TV stars), the subsidised sector continues to produce freshly minted pantos annually for and in their communities, and the East End has always been at the forefront. When I lived three miles away, Stratford East was my regular panto haunt. When I moved South West I dabbled a bit with the inferior fare in Richmond and Wimbledon, before I was lured to the big lights and big heart of Hackney Empire which I’ve made my panto home for the last six years. This year I got greedy and took in both Hackney and Stratford. 

Stratford’s offering is Robin Hood, something different. We saw the first preview, so we had to forgive a few teething problems, but their fresh take on an old tale was a treat. A cast of twelve and a three-piece band created enough raucous fun to have us participating in no time. Derek Elroy’s nurse was a damely treat and Michael Bertenshaw’s King John a great baddie. Oliver Wellington was a charming young Robin. Harriet Barsby and Jenny Tiramani conjured up forests, castles and prisons in bright primary colours. 

The difference in theatre size didn’t dawn on me until I got to Hackney Empire eight days later. It’s so much bigger and needs a panto on a much bigger scale – which it certainly gets in Susie McKenna’s glorious production of Jack in the Beanstalk, with sensational sets and costumes again by Lotte Collett. Both the production values and the performers will match or probably better any theatre in the land, and there’s a real sense of community on stage and in the audience. They’re back, and we’re back. Regular Dame Clive Rowe with a wardrobe to die for that this year included hats with cows, watering cans and a replica of the theatre itself. Kat B in his 11th year, this time as a Jamaican snowman! Tony Timberlake back to be booed again as Nasty Bug and Darren Hart charming once more as Clumsy Colin. The big bonus this year was the wonderful Debbie Kurup as a terrific thigh-slapping Jack. 

We had video contributions from Jon Snow and Robert Peston, the voices of Matthew Kelly as the giant and Sharon D Clarke as a singing gold harp, Buttercup the cow (obviously), and a brilliant giant. Jack climbed the beanstalk through space surrounded by silver dancing stars. There were dancing bugs and dancing penguins, kids from the local community, Goldiniah the chicken and a delightful Mother Nature from veteran Julia Sutton, which enabled some serious stuff about climate change to be woven in seamlessly (and very timely, the day after the Paris accord).

Two very contrasting pantos, but both huge fun, and both anchored in their community, refreshingly free of tacky commercialism and way better value. Deciding where to go next year is the easiest decision I’ll make all year.

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So David beat Goliath in the battle of the Antigone’s. Pilot Theatre’s UK touring version, currently at Stratford East (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/02/28/antigone-theatre-royal-stratford), proves to have more energy, passion, creativity and contemporary relevance than Ivo van Hove’s big international touring show with the star actress, hot on the heels of the West End transfer of his much more emotionally engaging A View From the Bridge.

There’s nothing bad about it, but there’s nothing particularly illuminating or innovative about it either. I thought it was rather conservative, unnecessarily slow and it didn’t engage me emotionally at all; the acid test for Greek tragedy. Set in front of a giant screen on which projections sometimes appear, the setting is contemporary, all black leather sofas and dark clothing. The actors are miked, which adds a feeling of detachment. It tells the story of Antigone’s defiance of King Creon over the burial of her brother perfectly well, but in a rather pedestrian way that failed to truly engage me.

van Hove has surrounded Juliet Binoche with a fine British & Irish cast including Patrick O’Kane as Antigone’s nemesis King Creon, Kirsty Bushell as Antigone’s more compliant sister Ismene and Finbar Lynch as the blind prophet Teiresias. Though the performances are often passionate, somehow they didn’t seem real enough to move you – you could see the acting! There’s another of van Hove’s atmospheric soundscapes, but even that didn’t heighten the tension as it did with A View.

I’m a bit puzzled why this one didn’t work. I saw van Hove’s Medea in Amsterdam last month and that engaged and moved me a lot more (in Dutch!), but in the Antigone stakes, Pilot Theatre win hands down.

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