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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Shorthall’

French writers Sebastien Lancrenon & Jean-Baptiste Saudray have decamped to more musicals friendly London to mount the world premiere of their first musical. They’ve got themselves a premiere league translator in Ranjit Bolt, the best off-West End director of musicals in Thom Southerland, and the support of the RNIB to tell the true story of the inventor of the Braille language. It has its flaws, somewhat ironically more to do with the production than the writing, but there’s a lot to like.

Louis Braille was a resident in an institution for blind youth where the benevolent director, Doctor Pignier, supported learning but the teacher didn’t (!). He started with a primitive embossed system, but then Captain Barbier de la Serre brought him the ‘night language’ which he developed for communication with his troops and Braille simplified it, initially against the wishes of the Captain, to create the language still used 170 years later. In addition to the opposition of the teacher, they had to deal with his collusion with a sinister eye research doctor and the National Assembly’s disapproval. Though both writers are experienced in music, it appears to be their first musical as such, which makes it an impressive achievement. I liked the score, book and lyrics, but it’s a chamber piece getting a big production, too big I thought. Director Thom Southerland doesn’t seem to have his usual team around him too (except choreographer Lee Proud) and I think this shows.

The stage is dominated by designer Tim Shorthall’s two-story minimalist metal structure which seemed incongruous for a show set in the 19th century. I wasn’t keen on Jonathan Lipman’s costuming either, the sighted all in black and the blind in white with black blindfolds. The look just didn’t feel right for the material. It’s over-orchestrated and over-amplified. It’s at its best when Jack Wolfe’s beautiful voice is allowed to shine with just piano or strings. It sometimes becomes shouty at moments when restraint would serve the material better. Towards the end, when the language is accepted and the doctor and teacher exposed, they switch to storytelling direct to the audience – I wasn’t sure about this at first, but warmed to the idea. It is a fascinating true story and it’s told well.

It’s a hugely impressive professional debut from Jack Wolfe as Braille, with excellent acting to match his terrific vocals.. The vocal standards are high elsewhere too and I liked Lottie Henshall as the Captain’s daughter Rose, Ceili O’Connor as the matron of the institute, Jason Broderick as Gabriel, who spars with Braille before he befriends him, and Ashley Stillburn as the teacher Dufau. The six children were all impressive.

I’d very much like to see it scaled down, but its well worth catching in its present form.

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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.

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My response to this new David Mamet piece is probably affected by having seen Chimerica, a stunning new play, the night before. It’s also the second American play in six days (Disgraced at the Bush is the other) which felt cold & cynical and made me feel more than a bit manipulated.

If you like lawyers before you see this, you probably won’t after. I didn’t, so it confirmed all my prejudices. Money grabbing bastards with few principles for whom truth and justice are barely relevant.

White billionaire Charles Strickland may or may not have raped a black girl in a hotel room. He leaves one lawyer and asks another to take on his case. The two partners – one white, one black – and their young black trainee Susan debate the case, its merits, possible outcomes and whether they should take it on. It’s an interesting debate but to me it seems more about the flaws of the legal system than racism. Right and wrong don’t figure as much as what will and won’t work and truth seems irrelevant.

Tim Shorthall’s giant wood-panelled book-lined office is superb and the performances are all excellent (particularly Jasper Britton, for whom this is a career high in my view). I engaged with the debate at an intellectual level but unlike Oleanna, the Mamet play I feel its closest to, I didn’t really care about anyone and it didn’t ignite a passion in me, which plays like this usually do.

It’s clever and balanced, but without warmth and too cool and clinical for my liking.

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If you visit the old prison in Freemantle, Australia, you can look at the records of those transported across the world for their crimes. One boy from South Wales had stolen a loaf of bread; he could have been an ancestor of mine. Still, I suppose their descendants in Australia today aren’t exactly unhappy!

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play, based on Thomas Keneally’s book The Playmaker, tells the story of the first penal colony ‘down under’. Their crimes were petty but their punishment far from it. The military men who accompanied them were as merciless as the legal system which sent them, but one officer, with the senior officer’s support, attempts rehabilitation by staging a play – George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.

We start on the voyage and end on ‘opening night’ and between the two we peep into the lives of both the convicts and the enforcers and see their relationships evolve as they rehearse the play. Theatre proves to be divisive but ultimately redemptive. Anyone who has seen a performance in a prison today will attest to this. My visits to Wormwood Scrubs, Brixton, Wandsworth & Send have been amongst the most moving of my theatre-going life.

The play has now become a classic and a set text (cue schoolgirls with enough rustling sweet packets to open a shop, something which marred the first half until I escaped to a far away seat) and this revival resonates as much as the Royal Court original, perhaps more so given we have 50% more prisoners 25 years on.

It’s performed very well by a cast of 10 playing multiple roles. I was impressed by the earnest passion of Dominic Thorburn as Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who directs the play within the play, and how Laura dos Santos conveyed the extraordinary journey of convict Mary Brennan. John Hollingworth doubles up as the senior officer Captain Arthur Phillip and Jewish convict John Wisehammer most effectively. Max Stafford-Clark’s staging moves swiftly and seamlessly between scenes on Tim Shorthall’s simple versatile set.

Great to see this multi-layered play still packs a punch and still makes its points so effectively after all these years, though I would have liked to have seen it ‘in rep’ with The Recruiting Officer as it originally was.

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There have been too few plays about contemporary generational issues, so another one was welcome. Sadly, it’s so underwritten, it falls flat on its face.

We open at the funeral of Joyce’s husband. So begins her journey of rebellion – against her 45 year marriage sentence, her mother Pearl and her daughter Fiona & idle husband Graham. The rebellion starts with a red coat but its focus is befriending stripper and single mother Candy. She deserts her mother even though she has dementia and becomes hospitalised; we learn that this is repaying her for what Pearl did to her early in her life. She treats her struggling daughter’s pleas for support and help with disdain. The trouble is playwright Sarah Wooley just skirts the fascinating issues which Mike Bartlett got to the heart of in Love Love Love.

I liked Tim Shorthall’s design idea of different wallpaper projected and lampshade dropped for each room, but that’s about all it is really. National treasure Maureen Lipman is playing Maureen Lipman; like Julie Walters, whatever her character, the real person can be seen. In the rest of the cast, I liked Tracy-Ann Oberman as Fiona and Nadia Clifford as Candy who tried their best to breathe life into the play, but not even director Terry Johnson could do that. It’s just a flat evening, let down by the mediocrity of the writing.

The Hampstead audience was even less diverse than usual – middle-aged, middle-class and uni-cultural – and they clearly liked it a lot more than me, or maybe they’re just more polite and easier to please……

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