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Posts Tagged ‘Union Theatre’

I don’t often do cabaret or revue as I like my musical theatre songs in context, in the shows they were written for, but when I go I almost always wonder why I don’t go more often! I didn’t think I’d heard of John Bucchino, until I realised he wrote a show I saw and loved at the Royal Academy of Music five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/little-me-a-catered-affair-at-the-royal-academy-of-music). He’s first and foremost a songwriter, though, and his songs are mini-stories, which is why this revue stands out in the crowd.

There are twenty-three songs and seven ‘transitions’ linking them, shared amongst five performers, mostly as solos but with a few duets and ensemble numbers. Somehow, they feel like a song cycle; meant to be sung together like this. One of the great successes of the show is that the songs are interpreted, not merely sung, which ensures you hear the stories. Another success is the staging, movement and design, which between them bring an organic flow and cohesion.

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s design is a playful white and pastel home which both the songs and the performers inhabit. Tania Azevedo’s direction and William Whelton’s choreography create a pleasing seamlessness. I loved the fact experienced performers Jennifer Harding, Jordan Shaw and Noel Sullivan are joined by two making their professional debuts, Sammy Graham and Will Carey (who stole the show with On My Bedside Table, until Noel stole it back with Grateful!); five lovely, well matched performances.

I left wanting to get a recording of Bucchino songs, and already have. A delightful evening.

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This was the fifth of five shows for which Lionel Bart was the sole composer and lyricist over a six year period in the early sixties, the most famous of which was of course Oliver. I’ve seen the others, though they are rarely put on, and though they’re not as good as his masterpiece, they are decent populist fare and they did well at the time. This last one was a troubled show which the director, his friend and mentor Joan Littlewood, walked out of before its opening. Bert Shevelove (book writer of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) came to the rescue, but he couldn’t. The opening night was a fiasco and the show a critical and commercial flop (closing early, allowing one of it’s stars, Ronnie Corbett, to take a job on the Frost Report. It’s other stars included Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw and Long John Baldry!). The fact Bart had added an LSD habit to his heavy drinking may have something to do with it. I’m not sure it’s been seen in London since; this Bart fan certainly hasn’t seen it.

There’s a new book by Guildford School of Acting’s Julian Woolford, commissioned by the Bart estate ten years ago and first performed at GSD, and the music has been adapted by Richard John, but I’m not sure what that means. It doesn’t breathe new life into the story of Robin Hood, who’s lost his twang, hence the title, but the production does, by effectively sending itself, and musical theatre, up in a bawdy innuendo-laden romp. There are lots of quotations from and references to other musicals – Les Mis, Phantom, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Legally Blonde, Wicked etc., a running joke where character Alan-A-Dale is trying to write a song called Living Doll (one of Bart’s, of course), somewhat like the title character in a much later musical Blondel, set in the Crusades with King Richard at the same time as this in Britain featuring his brother, and a lot of jazz hands choreography.

Whatever you think of the show, panto in my case, you have to admire the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast, under Bryan Hodgson’s direction, who give it their all and whose fun is infectious. After the first few minutes, I wasn’t expecting a fun night, but they swept me away and it was.

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Opera directors regularly take liberties with the work of dead composers, but this isn’t Carmen the opera, and Phil Willmott won’t be the first person to rob Bizet’s grave – Oscar Hammerstein did it for his musical Carmen Jones and Matthew Bourne for his dance piece Car Man. What Willmott has done is create a largely new story, set some 12 years before Prosper Merimee’s novella, on which the book for the opera was based, when Napoleon’s army had taken Spain. It’s inspired by a Goya painting, which appears to have dramatically changed his life. In two highly effective coup d’theatre, they create a tableau of this painting and dramatise the effect on Goya, who is the narrator.

There are elements of Merimee’s  story – the cigarette factory and Carmen herself, now a resistance spy  – but not a bullfight in sight. In essence, it’s the story of a fight for independence, though it sometimes can’t make its mind up if it’s Spain or Catalonia, in recognition of recent events. He’s placed Bizet’s tunes into this story, arranged by Teddy Clements, with new lyrics and book by himself. The recycling of the tunes works well.

Justin Williams & Jonny Rust’s design is excellent, as are the costumes of Penn O’Gara and the lighting of Ben Jacobs, and it’s a great use of the Union’s space. There are some thrilling dances choreographed by Adam Haigh, where recordings of Bizet’s orchestral score are used to rousing effect. Otherwise, it was played on piano, with occasional guitar. Rachel Lea-Gray was very good indeed as Carmen, supported by an enthusiastic and passionate cast of sixteen.

I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but there’s much to enjoy here.

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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It’s hard to believe that it’s the 40th anniversary of this Peter Nichols play (with songs by Dennis King), inspired by his own period in forces entertainment in the CSEU, and what a superb revival it is.

Set in the Malayan peninsula after the Second World War, when Britain was having a spot of bother with Chinese commies, SADUSEA entertains what’s left of the troops in Singapore before embarking on a Malayan tour to perform for an altogether different audience. The military leader is god-fearing Major Flank (brilliantly played by Callum Coates), assisted by corrupt Sergeant Major Drummond (Matt Beveridge, excellent), but the entertainment is led by Captain Dennis, outrageously camp and openly gay at a time when he would no doubt have been imprisoned back home. His entertainment troop includes a brummie, a cockney, a posh boy, a mixed race (Welsh-Indian) woman and newcomer Flowers. Their lives and loves are interspersed with rehearsals and performances. It starts as light and frothy but gets very dark indeed, though it’s often hilarious. I enjoyed Dennis King’s songs much more in this small-scale production, because they felt more authentic.

Mike Lees superb design and Kirk Jameson’s staging serve the play very well. Simon Green is outstanding as Captain Terri Dennis, with terrific turns as Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward and Carmen Miranda. I’ve been lucky enough to see the late Dennis Quilley in the original production, Roger Allam’s Olivier Award winning turn in 2001 and Simon Russell Beale just five years ago and Green is a match for all of them. There’s a most auspicious professional debut by Martha Pothen and a fine ensemble, most of which were new to me – Samuel Curry, Paul Sloss, Tom Pearce, Matt Hayden, Tom Bowen and Mikey Howe as the mute native help.

Well worth catching, whether you’ve seen it before or not.

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If there was an award for the silliest plot of a musical, this would definitely be on the shortlist. Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty’s first show is about an English shoe salesman called Harry who will inherit $6m from his Uncle Tony as long as he takes his corpse on a holiday to Monte Carlo. As you can imagine, it’s a musical comedy, well musical farce, or perhaps farcical musical. Bonkers but fun.

It’s a bit more complicated because the inheritance is in diamonds and it has been stolen from his casino owner employer, in cahoots with the employer’s wife Rita, who is herself determined to get her hands on it. Oh, and there’s a dogs home representative watching carefully because if he doesn’t stick to every detail of the instructions, they cop the lot. Harry heads to Monte Carlo with the corpse, where he encounters Rita, accompanied by her optometrist brother Vincent, and Annabel from the dogs home who he falls for, and her him.

The chief strength if this production is the choruses, both in their singing and their staging; they are like quick-fire cartoon sequences and they take your breath away. Tom Elliot Reade is excellent as Harry, well paired with Natasha Hoeberigs as the equally meek Annabel. Natalie Moore-Williams makes a terrific job of Rita and Ian McCurrach gives a more playful take on the corpse than the first time I saw the show five years ago at the Landor (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/lucky-stiff).

It’s actor Paul Callen’s first stab at directing, though he’s cut his teeth assisting, and a fine job he makes of it too. For once at the Union, there was a good balance between Richard Baker’s duo and the solo vocals, perhaps because they appear to have lost the bass player! Good fun, though the run is now over.

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This Julian Slade / Dorothy Reynolds show shouldn’t really work in 2017. A frothy concoction from 1954 with twee music, a preposterous tale involving a piano with magical properties and visitors from Planet Z and characters that could be in a living museum. Yet it does. Somehow it makes you smile, you find yourself laughing with it rather than at it, and at times you giggle uncontrollably.

It begins with a graduation, as Jane & Timothy leave university, with a plan to meet in the park the following week. He’s under pressure to get a job and is despatched to meet various uncles, and she’s under pressure to find a husband, with a party arranged to forward this plan. A tramp pays them to look after his piano, which they discover makes people dance uncontrollably. They decide to stay with the piano, a mute companion and each other, though they are pursued by the police and the government, who want to stop all this fun. Add in spies (one an uncle), the attempted blackmail of a government minister (uncle) in an Egyptian-themed night club and the arrival of the spaceship from Planet Z (with uncle) and you have the ingredients for a cheesy but tongue-in-cheek and infectious romp.

Designer Catherine Morgan has fitted out the Union with fake turf and put the band onto a sort of bandstand, and Mike Lees has provided excellent costumes. Bryan Hodgson’s nifty staging is complimented by some very witty choreography by Joanne McShane. It’s an excellent cast, many of them recent Guildford graduates. Lowri Hamer and Laurie Denham are charming leads, with the former in fine voice, but the latter sometimes too quiet. James Gulliford and Francesca Pim are also a fine pairing as friends Nigel and Fiona. Tom Norman and Stephen Patrick have a cracking scene together as dancing PC and Inspector, the latter also shining as the night club manager. Maeve Byrne almost steals the show twice, as nightclub performer Asphynxia and a woman from outer space.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again, for the third time in twenty-one years, so I didn’t book at first, but I’m glad I changed my mind. Great fun.

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