Posts Tagged ‘Tim McArthur’

All Star Productions last produced this Stephen Sondheim show just four years ago at their regular home in Walthamstow (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/into-the-woods). Now it’s in central London, fully in-the-round at the Cockpit Theatre, substantially re-cast, but essentially the same production.

Director Tim McArthur seems to have extended his contemporary characterisations, some of which work – Towie ugly sisters, Little Red Ridinghood with headphones and Sloane prince’s – but some which don’t – the witch as bag-lady and Jack’s chavy single mum (with such an impenetrable accent I could hardly understand a word she spoke or sang). The first half is meant to smother you in fairytale charm and lull you into a false sense of security, before it turns very dark after the interval; the problem with this interpretation is that it robs you of that, and that’s where it fails.

They’ve kept the adventure playground design aesthetic, albeit with a different designer. Aaron Clingham’s band sounded great, as ever, though there were amplification problems at the performance I attended. The cast is a great combination of young newcomers, like Florence Odumosu as Little Red Ridinghood and Abigail Carter-Simpson as Cinderella, both delightful, and seasoned performers like Michele Moran and Mary Lincoln, who was in the UK premiere in 1990 – a great singer in a virtually non-singing role here! Jo Wickham is excellent as an older Baker’s Wife than we’re used to, Macey Cherrett & Francesca Pim give great turns as Cinderella’s sisters and Ashley Daniels & Michael Duke make a lovely pair of prince’s.

It was only the fifth performance (but after the press night) so it may well improve. There’s much to enjoy; what I saw was flawed, but worth catching nonetheless.

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I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.


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A musical based on a 2500-year-old Greek play featuring Shakespeare and G B Shaw as characters to be staged in a swimming pool. Well, you have to admire the ambition of Bert Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim. This later version was meant for theatres and here we are getting the UK professional premiere at Jermyn Street Theatre more than twenty years after Broadway and more than forty years after the Yale original.

Sondheim appears to have only contributed choruses to the Yale show, perhaps as a favour for Shevelove as by now he’d had success with Company, Follies and A Little Night Music, but wrote extra songs for Nathan Lane’s revision. The Yale original is now probably just as famous for featuring actresses Meryl Streep & Sigourney Weaver and playwright Christopher Durang in the cast.

It’s faithful to Aristophanes in that Dionysos, the god of drama, decides that there’s a desperate need for good dramatists and heads off to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw. He meets Shakespeare there too and decides to stage a contest to choose between them (Euripides and Aeschylus in the original). Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare beats the old windbag (Aeschylus wins in the original) and returns with Dionysos. A simple story, but with a timeless theme of the importance of the arts.

Lane’s version is a bit of a romp and, though far from Sondheim’s best score, there are some nice tunes and witty lyrics to propel the story, with cheeky contemporary references which delight. It’s well staged by Grace Wessels, with great use of Jermyn Street’s tiny space and nifty movement from Tim McArthur. The fun that the cast of just nine, let by Michael Matus as Dionysos and George Rae as his sidekick Xanthias, are clearly having is infectious and the musical standards under MD Tim Sutton were particularly high.

An unmissable opportunity for Sondheim fans. 

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This appears to be the first London production of this Bernstein / Comden & Green musical comedy for thirty years. I think the last one was the the 1986 revival, which featured Maureen Lipman. There was a touring production with Connie Fisher and the Halle Orchestra no less, but the nearest that got to London was Woking, where I went to see it. I’m a bit surprised as it’s really a lot of fun.

Ruth & Eileen are sisters who arrive in Greenwich Village from Ohio intent on making their names, Ruth as a writer and Eileen as a performer. They get a poky, noisy apartment formerly occupied by a prostitute, and soon their circle includes neighbours Helen & Wreck, drugstore manager Frank, their landlord and sometime artist Appopolous, night club owner Valentin, editor Baker, newspaperman Chick and most of the local police, all Irish and all besotted with Eileen, as are Frank, Baker and Chick. They get into scrapes trying to get work, notably with most of the Brazilian navy, but eventually end up with a press card and a cabaret job respectively.

In this production they really play it for laughs, with some pretty broad performances, but it works as it’s not at the expense of the musical standards, which are as high as we’ve come to expect in this fringe venue. MD Aaron Clingham is flying solo at the piano this time, and that works too. There’s some cracking musical staging and choreography from director Tim McArthur and choreographer Ian Pyle, who throw in some Irish dancing by the policemen with Eileen, and some great ensemble work in Christopher Street and The Wrong Note Rag. Can there be another show with a conga in it? and here one which exits the auditorium at the interval, picking up audience members along the way.

Lizzie Wofford (who I first saw six years ago as a brilliant Mrs Lovett in the NYMT’s Sweeney Todd at the Village Underground) and Francesca Benton-Stace are both terrific as Ruth and Eileen respectively, and they have a fine young, enthusiastic, energetic supporting cast (casting by Benjamin Newsome again).

I’ve come to very much enjoy my trips to Walthamstow, and this is no exception. It’s over now, but look out for their next show.


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Into the Woods is a challenge for any theatre company, even more so for a fringe company with limited resources and often less experienced performers. So well done Rose & Crown for having the balls – just before the film will hit our screens too.

Sondheim weaves a number of fairytales into one narrative – well known ones like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack & the Beanstalk and less well known ones like Rapunzel and The Baker’s Wife. In order to break the spell that has left his wife barren, the baker has to find a red cloak, yellow hair, white cow and gold slipper, which of course are all available from the other characters, at a price. They get on the wrong side of the giantess after Jack climbs the beanstalk and steals stuff, which means they have to work to rescue the situation – those that remain, anyway. What starts with a light touch gets ever so dark and it ends as a morality tail. It’s a masterpiece of musical theatre.

With what is clearly a shoestring budget, designer Gregor Donnelly has created a surprisingly large playing space in this room above a pub that looks like a children’s adventure playground. It’s amazing what you can do with some pallets, a few ladders, camouflage netting, hessian sacks and a whole load of wood chips. The narrator seems to be a workman and Jack and his mum have become very chavvy. I liked the way Tim McArthur’s staging used this space, even though a far side view wasn’t ideal, with particularly quick and surprising entrances.  Aaron Clingham’s five-piece piano – strings – woodwind ensemble played the score beautifully. The choruses sounded great, but the solo vocals were variable and some of the intricate ensemble pieces were a touch ragged. I missed some of the lyrics because the balance wasn’t ideal from my position near the band – but ideal to hear the quality of the playing.

The show overran significantly – just under three hours – which in a hot space with not particularly comfortable seating didn’t help, but it’s an ambitious undertaking and they just about pulled it off. Whatever I think, the full house roared their approval and they clearly have a well-earned hit on their hands.

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There’s a biography, a film and a play charting the relationship between playwright Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, but I never thought I’d see a musical. As it turns out, Richard Silver & Sean J Hume’s show proves better at showing the complexity of their relationship, as well as being an impressive small-scale musical.

It follows the pair from their first meeting at RADA in 1951 through to Orton’s murder by a by now psychotic Halliwell 16 years later. The unlikely relationship takes us through 50’s drama school life, their hermit-like existence in a small Islington flat, Orton’s promiscuity, imprisonment for defacing library books and North African holidays with Kenneth Williams through to success in the 60’s, when Orton overshadows Halliwell as he becomes a darling of the glitterati. It’s a fascinating story and here it’s entertainingly told, yet still manages to convey the psychological depth of the relationship and its tragic ending.

I thought both Richard Dawes and Andrew Rowney (who appears to have had his head shaved in the line of duty!) were outstanding as Orton and Halliwell respectively. Valerie Cutko was excellent as both of the contrasting older women in their lives – landlady Mrs Cordon and literary agent Peggy Ramsay – and there’s a terrific turn from Simon Kingsley as Kenneth Williams. In an excellent small ensemble, Katie Brennan stands out.

It’s a very good score, full of great tunes and sharp lyrics. The book doesn’t veer from the other forms, though there were a few new facts (to me), most notably that Terence Rattigan invested in the original production of Entertaining Mr Sloane. Director Tim McArthur has done well to make the show work in such a small space and his staging has great pace, using the six doors of Andrew Holton’s design to great effect.

A fine new British musical that’s about to close, but will hopefully turn up again.

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It’s hard to believe its 22 years since the London premiere of this Howard Goodall musical set in the Spanish Civil War. It wasn’t revived for ages and has since (I think) only received two other London productions, at the Kings Head & the Landor. Hearing the title song in Ye Olde Rose & Crown’s Goodall compilation Love & War last year fired me up to see it again, so this trip to the northern end of the Victoria line was a must.

The Spanish Civil War has come to and end, Franco is in the process of setting up his Fascist state and the Second World War has just begun. Republican fighter Carlos has returned home with the young British communist Stanley, who has been leading his brigade. Stanley falls in love with Carlos’ daughter Sofia and plans to escape home to Scarborough (!) with her and her parents. Carlos’ comrade Jose and niece Teresa’s intended Pablo remind us how this war divided a nation, communities and families.

Christopher Dingli & Jo Wickham do well playing older as bickering but still in love parents Carlos and Maria, with the latter leading the Act II opener Market Day particularly well. Annie Kirkman is a great Sofia and her duet, Lorca, with Lydia Marcazzo’s Teresa was another highlight. Emanuel Alba and Alexander Barria both bring passion to the opposing roles of Jose & Pablo, handling their respective songs – Long Live Death and Democracy – well. Though Rupert Baldwin acted well, I’m afraid he didn’t rise to the solo vocal challenge that is Song of the English Volunteer, faring better backed by the company in Song of the Brigades.

I liked the immediacy and intimacy of Tim McArthur’s in-the-round (well, in-the-square) staging with no set and just a table and chairs for props; a lot of the action takes place at and around the dinner table after all. Aaron Clingham’s little band sounded great, with a pair of acoustic guitars anchoring the score in Spain and the company numbers were more rousing than you ‘d expect from a cast of seven.

This is a short two-week run and given the limited rehearsal time and resources, they’ve done well. Definitely worth the trip to the far north-east!

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Of course, I was never going to see all 15 Sondheim shows in his 80th year – there’s the one that takes place in a swimming pool that hasn’t to my knowledge ever been staged here, and the one that hasn’t yet had its UK premiere – but I thought it would be fun to pack in as many as I could; I’ll make 10 (counting one in concert). This was one of the ones I wasn’t expecting to catch, and given its scale certainly not a professional production in a room above a pub in that theatrical black hole known as Walthamstow!

When I dish out the awards, it won’t win the one for excellence, but I think it has the bravery & ambition award in the bag. After three people failed to return after the interval, there were three more on stage than in the audience – and the house was still half full on a tube strike evening!

Though it has some of his best songs (Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here, Losing My Mind…..)I’ve rarely engaged with the story of retired follies girls returning for the closure of the theatre and looking back at their lives, but Tim McArthur has done a good job of staging it and marshalling the 26 performers with some particularly good staging in Act II and I liked the arrangements for an ensemble of piano, cello, violin & flute (MD Aaron Clingham). Ye Olde Rose & Crown (yes!) is a faded Victorian pub so it was a somewhat appropriate venue and Fiona Russell worked wonders with what I suspect was a miniscule budget.

The last production of Follies I saw, at the even tinier Landor Theatre, was probably the best so making comparisons would be unfair. It also comes so soon after Sunday’s magnificent concert performance of Merrily We Roll Along. However, I don’t regret schlepping out to Walthamstow, even with travel difficulties, and I applaud All Star Productions for their contribution to the 80th – and all for £12 (40p per performer)!

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