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Posts Tagged ‘Tony Timberlake’

This was the ninth and last show from the team most famous for Fiddler on the Roof. It had two runs in New York, in 1970 as The Rothschilds and in 1990 in this reworked version, both running over a year. The first garnered nine Tony nominations and won two. This is its UK premiere, with two leads from the 1990 production and both director and designer crossing the Atlantic with it.

It tells the story of the beginning of the Rothschild dynasty, from shopkeeper Mayer Rothschild arriving in Frankfurt, trading old coins with the Prince to whose bankers he becomes agent, until he usurps them to begin his financial empire. He sends his five sons across Europe to collect the Prince’s debts and he underwrites the bonds that fund the war against Napoleon in exchange for a bill of rights for Jews at its successful conclusion. The Prince rats on the deal but when it comes to future transactions, the Rothschilds take the upper hand, the title Baron and begin a successful financial house that continues until the present time. Though it’s the family’s story, the plight of Jews in Europe at this time is the heart of the piece

It’s a fascinating true story. I’m sure the book by Frederic Morton on which it’s based is a good read, and I think it would have made a good play, but I’m not sure a musical is the right form. Jerry Bock’s score is serviceable but rather dull, with a classical crossover style which doesn’t always feel comfortable. Sherman Yellen’s book and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics do tell the tale well, though. The production seemed a bit lifeless, with both design and staging little more than pedestrian, as if they weren’t really confident in the material. In a good cast, I particularly liked Gary Trainor as son Nathan, who heads to London, and Tony Timberlake’s cameos as two contrasting princes.

One to add to my musicals collection, but that’s about it for me.

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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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Is there no limit to the joy Hackney Empire can unleash during the festive season? Last year they lost (hopefully not forever) their regular Dame Clive Rowe and still came up trumps. This year they go ‘off piste’ with the rarer Puss in Boots and it feels like something new and familiar at the same time. Bliss.

Puss in Boots has somehow slipped from the panto repertoire. A 500 year-old tale made famous by Charles Perrault 200 years later, introduced to the UK another 100 years after that, with Joseph Grimaldi in the first cast. Now the cunning cat (brilliantly played with great athleticism by Kat B!) comes to Hackneyonia with his master who has inherited him from his father, whilst his elder brother got the mill and the donkey!

Here we get two dames – mother Nettie Knowall and daughter Amnesiah, played brilliantly by Stephen Matthews and Darren Hart respectively – a wicked witch played by Josefina Gabrielle and a wicked queen by Sharon D Clarke, both stars of musical theatre who shine just as brightly here, and King Konkers the Bonkers (an excellently hapless Tony Timberlake) and spoilt brat Princess Petunia (the lovely irritating Amy Lennox). Add in Matt Dempsey’s Thomas, a giant Ogre and a good sorceress and you have an abundance of superb performances.

Amongst the treats are a dance routine for colourful giant trainers (without people!), a trio of mice as backing singers for Puss, a tap dance to end Act I and a superb Les Mis spoof to open Act II. Just before the finale we got the singalong, obviously, and the sight of a couple of thousand people singing Madness’ It Must be Love in cat language with cat masks was a surreal delight. Lotte Collett’s design is a riot of colour and invention, with Dame Nettie’s costumes (and there a lot of them!) a particular treat.

This is Susie McKenna’s 15th Hackney panto. It’s only my 5th, but the imagination, enthusiasm, talent and energy hasn’t waned one bit. Steven Eadis has written a lot of excellent new music to add to a handful of known songs with a fair few nods to musical theatre, performed with exceptional musical standards by a small 5-piece band and singers who really can sing.

It might have West End production values and West End stars, but above all its a community pantomime which generates enough warmth to keep you going until the next one – here’s to Mother Goose in less than 12 months time!

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