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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Scutt’

Summer wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, though I missed it last year and contemplated missing it this year, as this is another show I wasn’t sure I wanted to see again (yet) after the Arcola Theatre’s stunning revival seven years ago. I hadn’t really enjoyed my last three trips to OAT (Jesus Christ Superstar, Little Shop of Horrors & Evita), but news of a radical but good production and a lovely evening resulted in an impulsive outing at a few hours notice. Some of the best things happen that way.

It’s relocated to a British mill town close to the sea. From the moment a small brass band walks through the audience and onto the stage and strikes up the Carousel Waltz I felt I was in safe hands. The key to the resetting is Tom Deering’s brilliant new orchestrations, and in particular the iconic brass band sound which hijacked You’ll Never Walk Alone as others in Britain already have. Everyone uses their natural accents, so it’s a northern Nettie and a Welsh Carrie. I thought it all worked brilliantly.

The show has fewer ‘standards’ than other Rogers & Hammerstein shows, but for some reason this time I appreciated the overall quality of the score more. The story, with its antiquated sexual politics, domestic violence and suicide seemed edgier too, and they even managed to make the incongruous afterlife scene work. You can’t possibly excuse Billy, but this production helps you understand him.

When I first saw the show, at the NT almost 30 years ago, Joanna Riding was Julie and here she is a lovely Nettie, with the responsibility of being in charge of ‘that song’. Carly Bawden is in fine voice and her Julie captures your heart. Christina Modestou makes much more of the role of Carrie than I’ve seen before, warm, loving, optimistic. Sam Mackay’s Jigger is the very bad influence he should be, John Pfumojena’s Enoch is beautifully matched with Carrie and Declan Bennett navigates the emotional carousel that Billy is on very well.

I wasn’t sure about Tom Scutt’s set at first – a steep wooden hill cut by a small revolving stage – until I realised it brought intimacy to scenes that needed it, but allowed the fairground, the clam bake and the afterlife to burst out. Drew McOnie’s choreography is terrific, with group scenes like the opener and the clam bake plus individual dances like Louise’s in the afterlife scene flowing organically. The band sounded great and you could hear every word in this big open air space. Director Timothy Sheader continues the reinvention he showed with Jesus Christ Superstar, but for me this remained a show, not turned into a rock concert.

This is my 5th Carousel and it holds its own, a very welcome reinvention. With the Shakespeare’s Globe and The Proms both visited, this is summer traditions completed, with OAT thankfully back on musical theatre form.

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I’m pleased I saw this before I saw any reviews, though its going to be interesting reading them. It’s difficult to say much withouts spoilers, but I’ll try. Whatever you think of Jackie Sibbles Drury’s Pulitzer prizewinning play, it will certainly generate a debate.

Her subject is the perceptions, preconceptions and attitudes white people have of black people and the stereotypes that result. In the first part we’re watching a black middle class family in what feels like an American TV sitcom. They’re about to celebrate grandma’s birthday. I can best describe the second part as ‘gogglebox, sound only’ as the first part is repeated and extended. The table is laid, and some, and grandma and the remaining guests arrive. I would describe the third part as ‘invasion of the sitcom’. In the fourth part the audience are set a challenge, take some time to rise to it, and the first part characters leave the stage.

She has some good points to make, but they lose their impact under the weight of its heavy-handedness. The first part gets a bit dull, as you’re waiting to see where its going, the second part is way too long, the third is surreal and OTT and the fourth somewhat manipulative and preachy. I’m afraid she lost my engagement with the message by metaphorically hitting me on the head for 100 minutes. It’s clever, it’s original, its brave, it’s well performed, and Tom Scutt’s design is brilliant, but it’s too forthright and angry and this becomes counter-productive.

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As playwright Lucy Prebble proved with Enron, you can learn a lot about a subject of which you know little in a few hours in a theatre, and when it concisely summarises what you may have followed over years, it can be illuminating. This clearly well researched play packs in so much knowledge yet, also like Enron, you are royally entertained.

We were drip-fed information about the Litvinenko poisoning as the facts emerged. Here they are presented to you in less than 2.5 hours playing time in a very concise and lucid account. It starts after his death with his wife Marina discussing the possibilities of an inquest or public enquiry, the government having shamefully washed its hands of the case for political reasons. It then goes back further to the days immediately after the poisoning, and back again to the Litvinenko’s life in Russia and the events which led to him becoming a subject for assassination by the Russian state, moving chronologically forward to where it begins. The defiant Marina acts as a narrator, with Putin a counter-narrator in the second half.

Also like Enron, the story is told with great ingenuity, playfully, employing a variety of clever theatrical devices. The fourth wall is broken continually, with characters talking directly to the audience, and there are some deliciously cheeky swipes at the form and the venue. It took a while to take off, but from halfway through the first half it was gripping like a thriller. It’s already lost c. 20 minutes from the published running time; another 10 minutes from the first half would probably make it even better. It’s a fine ensemble, with almost everyone in multiple roles, led by an outstanding performance by Tom Brooke as Litvinenko. Tom Scutt’s design is clever; I particularly liked the way it moves between London meeting locations leading up to the poisoning, with all of them remaining on stage. John Crowley’s inventive staging even makes use of Peter Polycarpou’s musical theatre talent to great effect.

I suspect it will still tighten before press night, but even at this late preview it proves to be a thrilling ride. What more can you ask for when going to the theatre than leaving it feeling both informed and entertained?

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I never saw Peter Strickland’s 2012 film, on which this is based, so I come to Tom Scutt & Joel Horwood’s stage adaptation fresh. It concerns the Italian horror genre Giallo, cult films that reached their peak in the 70’s.

Santini, the film-maker at the heart of this particular story, likes to add dialogue and other sound after filming. He doesn’t like the voice of some actors, so he uses another for the dialogue. For his latest film, he’s invited sound man Gilderoy from England, Dorking to be precise, who’s more used to wildlife documentaries, a real fish out of water at these studios where he has a pair of retro sound effects men who use everything from curtain rails to fresh fruit.

Soon after he arrives we see the craft of this type of film-making as they add dialogue and effects live while the film is screened for them; this is a brilliant scene where Sylvia & Carla are speaking the lines in their sound booth and Massimo & Massimo are adding all manner of sounds before our eyes in the most animated fashion. From here we see Gilderoy’s struggle to communicate and adapt, and Sylvia’s discomfort with the film’s content; its ending in particular. Studio manager Francesco tries to keep things together and Santini pays a brief visit. We learn of Gilderoy’s life at home with mother.

It’s an impressive directorial debut from Scutt, who’s design, with Anna Yates, is terrific – immersive, authentic and quirky – and the sound work of Ben & Max Ringham is simply stunning. Tom Brooke is superb as Gilderoy, his very expressive face communicating his feelings without need of words. Tom Espiner (a genuine sound expert) and Hemi Yeroham are a brilliant silent double-act as the Massimo’s and Lara Rossi & Beatrice Scirocchi are both excellent as the voice-over pair. Enzo Cilenti’s Francesco seems like an oasis of sanity alongside these. The authenticity is enhanced by much speech in Italian, without translation, but somehow you manage to get the gist.

I’m not sure it really goes anywhere – its more of a scenario than a story – but I was enthralled by the meticulous stagecraft and the performances, which are reasons alone to see it.

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I’ve had a soft spot for this Howard Ashman / Alan Menken musical since I saw the original London production 35 years ago. It was successfully revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory 12 years ago, heading off on tour afterwards. Now it’s the latest in the Open Air Theatre’s summer musicals, the 31st I think, reinvented by director Maria Aberg and designer Tom Scutt.

Based on Roger Corman’s iconic 1960 b-movie, the musical was an instant hit off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the West End, where it ran for two years. When it was itself made into a film, the budget was 1000 times that of the original (which gave Jack Nicholson his screen debut). You wouldn’t think it was a natural for the leafy green Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, but it works. Scutt has built a B&W cartoon New York City, with a riot of colour provided by the characters and the plants of Mushnik’s shop where geeky Seymour breeds Audrey II and is in love with Audrey (I), his fellow shop assistant, who has a sadistic dentist as a boyfriend.

Audrey II becomes a sensation, leading to radio & TV interviews for Seymour and lots of new customers for the shop, but Seymour has been feeding the plant with his own blood and can hardly keep up. He ends up feeding it whole people, starting with Audrey’s boyfriend Orin, as the fame leads to magazine features, TV’s first gardening programme and a plant cutting franchise which sees plants take over America. Audrey II is normally voiced by an offstage actor / singer, but Aberg’s big idea is to bring her alive and onstage in the form of American drag queen Vicky Vox and a handful of assistants, and though a good idea, I didn’t think it really worked. Towards the end, they turned up the excess dial and it became pure fantasy with a stage full of colourful SciFi plants raising the non-existent roof in the finale of Don’t Feed the Plants. With what seemed like an additional song turning it into a bit of a rock concert, the cast invading the auditorium and green pods flying around, the audience went wild and you just had to give in.

It’s very well cast, with Marc Antolin shining as Seymour. I don’t associate Jemima Rooper and Forbes Mason with musical theatre, but they both did a great job as Audrey and Mr Mushnik. Busted’s Matt Willis was excellent as Orin the sadistic dentist, plus four great cameos as TV exec, (female) magazine editor, agent and business guru. Ms Vox was outrageous and cheeky; I’m not sure what the parents of the kids in the audience made of it. The show is famous for it’s chorus of three black girl singers (Crystal, Chiffon and Ronnette – get it), an idea Tony Kushner and Jane Tesori stole for Caroline, or Change twenty years later, and Seyi Omoomba, Renee Lamb and Christina Modestou were all great.

I’ve got mixed views really. Part of me missed the nostalgic, b-movie aesthetic and part of me admired the reinvention, but I’m glad I went nonetheless.

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Strindberg’s 130-year-old play has been successfully updated / adapted before, most notably to apartheid South Africa as Mies Julie (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/mies-julie), and this is another successful interpretation by playwright Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell. I found it edgy and bleak, but brilliant.

We’re in present day North London. Julie is the daughter of a rich man who seems to ignore her. Her mum is dead and her boyfriend has dumped her. It’s her 33rd birthday and a party is in progress, though it seems to be populated by hangers on. Back in the kitchen, the maid and her fiancée the driver, go about their business – until, that is, the suppressed attraction between Julie and driver Jean comes to the surface and it progresses to its tragic conclusion.

I thought the rave aesthetic worked well, but the kitchen scenes sometimes lacked intimacy. That said, there was a real sexual chemistry between Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean, whose movements around one another seem animalistic. Kirby’s Julie comes over as a lonely, very troubled contemporary thirty-something who’s lost her way. Jean is torn between his perceived place in life and his desires. Thalissa Teixeira is excellent as Kristina, loyal and loving until she is betrayed by both. There are twenty non-speaking roles to ensure we get a realistic party.

Designer Tom Scutt has created a giant white rectangular box with a kitchen up front and a screen rising to reveal the party, but it is a big space for a play that is often just a two-hander, so as much as I admired the adaptation, the staging and the performances, there were times when it did feel a bit lost on the Lyttleton stage. Well worth catching, though.

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This 1948 Tennessee Williams play immediately followed the much more successful A Streetcar Named Desire, but it took 58 years to get to London, a 2006 transfer from Nottingham to the West End which was pulled early. The director of this revival staged the only other London production, at Southwark Playhouse in 2012, but this is a new one. It’s typical TW fare, set in the deep south at the beginning of the 20th century, a minister’s daughter having a troubled relationship with the son of the doctor next door, who is about to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

The design appears to take its lead from Alma’s musicality, an arc of nine pianos each with a metronome on top. In front, a shallow pit strewn with earth two steps down. Impressionistic rather than realistic, and with music and a soundscape fully utilising the pianos, it’s highly atmospheric and sensuous, totally in keeping with the material.

Alma and John dance around each other, repressed emotions getting in the way of their real feelings. He starts a doomed relationship with a Mexican girl with a dubious but rich dad and much later with the much younger Nellie. Before Alma knows about the latter, she lets her guard down and reveals her true feelings, but its too late.

I was mesmerised by both Patsy Ferran as Alma and Matthew Needham as John, both performances emotionally raw. Ankana Vasan delivers beautifully stylised dance-influenced performances as Rosa and Nellie and Seb Carrington, in an auspicious professional debut, plays some mean piano as well as playing young travelling salesman Archie, who’s in the right place when Alma realises John will never be hers. The doubling-up of roles works OK, except for Forbes Masson as both dads, preacher and doctor, carrying a bible to signify which; I think it would have been better to have two actors here.

Rebecca Frecknall’s staging, Tom Scutt’s design, Lee Curran’s lighting and Angus MacRae’s compositions combine to create something very fresh from timeless material. A must-see.

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The day after I’d hailed a golden age of new plays in my review of 2017, there I was in the Donmar seeing another impressive new play, the UK debut by American playwright Amy Herzog.

American paediatrician Zak and his wife Abby have moved to Paris for Zak’s important new research job. They’ve rented a garret in a Bohemian neighbourhood from a Senegalese couple, Alioune and Amina, who live downstairs. It’s difficult for Abby to work as she doesn’t speak French (and has given up her classes), but she is giving yoga lessons. She’s at best high maintenance, at worst neurotic and paranoid; a real handful. They are way behind with the rent, which is testing Zak’s friendship with Alioune, with whom he smokes (way too much) weed. Abby’s in daily phone contact with her widowed dad and pregnant sister back home. Just when you think Abby’s the real problem, the truth about Zak begins to unravel, and it’s all secrets and lies towards its tragic conclusion

I thought Zak and Abby were really well drawn characters and there’s a plausibility about both the relationship and the situation. The play continually surprises you, going down paths you weren’t expecting, just about keeping on the right side of melodrama. There’s palpable tension in Michael Longhurst’s masterly production, aided by Ben & Max Ringham’s soundscape, which gripped me for the whole 100 unbroken minutes. The realism and claustrophobia of Tom Scutt’s design adds much to what unfolds like a thriller.

I was very impressed by Imogen Poots’ stage debut last year in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and I was even more impressed by her characterisation of fragile, highly strung, vulnerable Abby. James Norton is hugely impressive too, a very edgy Zak, who changes from protective to controlling in a blink. Malachi Kirby and Faith Alibi provide fine support, communicating mostly in French (entirely in the final scene) but somehow comprehensible even if you don’t speak the language!

A great start to 2018, hopefully a continuation of the golden age.

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As I’ve got older, I’ve warmed to Ibsen’s plays. I now realise how much they were ahead of their time and how important they were to the development of modern drama. Elinor Cook’s adaptation moves this one forward in time and relocates it to the Caribbean and it comes up fresh, full of relevance and contemporary resonance.

Ellida, the ‘lady’ of the title, was the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lost her father and came inland to marry the older, widowed Doctor Wangel. He has two teenage daughters with differing views on the match. Ellida loses a child and becomes unsettled. Wangel sends for her friend (and his daughter Bolette’s ex tutor) Arnholm and an old flame of Ellida returns too. She is torn between returning to the sea with him or staying with Wangel, and Bolette has to decide if she stays or marries Arnholm.

It’s a very modern, even feminist story and the change of time and place suits it well as it adds another dimension without smothering it. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s staging is delicate and nuanced. He gets fine performances from his cast, with particularly enjoyable ones from Jonny Holden as fragile artist Lyngstrand and Ellie Bamber as daughter Hilde, capturing teenage frankness perfectly. Tom Scutt’s impressionistic design, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, is gorgeous.

A lovely evening.

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The weather hasn’t been kind to us this year at the Open Air Theatre. We managed to get through On the Town with delays and shivers, and this one with a thirty minutes unscheduled break in the first half. Though I’m a regular at OAT musicals, I didn’t book for this last year as I’m not that keen on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music (except Evita and his collaboration with Puccini, Phantom of the Opera!) and I’m an unbeliever (though if I was, I might take offence at some scenes). The reviews, awards and friends suggested I’d made a mistake, so we booked for this second run. Though there were things I admired, I think I was right first time.

It tells the story of the last year of Jesus’ life, sung through, more rock opera than musical, a year after The Who started the genre with Tommy. The music seems dated, much more so than other music of the period. The seriousness of the story doesn’t really allow Tim Rice to shine lyrically, with his trademark sharp wit. Timothy Sheader’s production seems more rock concert than musical theatre, returning the show to its first flash Broadway outing rather than following the more restrained London production.

Here we have Tom Scutt’s giant two-story metal structure with a huge fallen cross, something like 300 spotlights and smoke, flares and fire. I found myself admiring the spectacle, but not at all engaged with the story. The singing honours belong to Tyrone Huntly as Judas, who is as sensational, as had been suggested, and as he was in Dreamgirls, and there’s a terrific band under Tom Deering. Drew McConie’s choreography is bold and is the freshest aspect of the show.

Great spectacle, but I went to a musical not a rock concert, so not enough for me I’m afraid.

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