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Posts Tagged ‘Union Theatre’

This 1950 adaptation of Ibsen by Arthur Miller came midway between All My Sons & Death Of A Salesman and The Crucible & A View From A Bridge, an extraordinarily productive and successful eight years for Miller, fired up by the McCarthy trials. It’s rarely produced these days, so Phil Willmott’s revival at the Union Theatre is very welcome, and as it turns out very timely.

Miller didn’t change much, just gave it contemporary relevance 68 years later and Willmott has done the same another 68 years on. The small town of Kirsten Springs is in the process of building a spa resort. Town doctor Thomas Stockmann has been following up patterns of illness by having the water tested and he’s ready to go public, with the local newspaper on his side. It will delay and increase the cost of the project and when his sister the Mayor gets wind of it she points out how much damage it will do to the town and how much extra tax the people will have to cough up. The newspaper withdraws its support so Stockmann calls a public meeting, which is hijacked by the mayor and newspaper in cahoots. He becomes an enemy of the people, with consequences to his family’s safety, job loss, eviction and blackmail from the mayor, the newspaper and even his father-in-law, but not everyone can be bought.

It proves to be absolutely timeless, resonating in our current political climate where finding anyone with principles is like finding a needle in a haystack and where fake news rules. The production has great pace and passion. They even manage to make the public meeting rousing with just nine actors and some recorded crowd noise. It’s an excellent ensemble led by terrific performances from David Mildon as Stockman and Mary Stewart as his sister The Mayor. Willmott has breathed new life into it as he did to The Incident at Vichy two years ago. An absolute must for Miller fans and strongly recommended for anyone who likes gripping drama.

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This show by Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda & Rachel Sheinkin is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. It started as an album in 2002 and became an Off-Broadway show four years later. It appears to have lost half of it’s songs since the album (I’m not sure about the US show) and the big question about this UK premiere is Why?

It’s set on New Years Eve in New York City where Brendan is torn between staying at work and partying. The match girl is now a seller of electric lights. There are just three other actors who play a narrator, other characters and musical instruments like drums and violin, and there’s a pianist. With fourteen songs in seventy minutes there isn’t much time for story or character development and it felt more like a song cycle than a musical.

I liked Oliver Kaderbhai’s lively staging and Natalie Johnson’s design and there are good performances all round, led by Declan Bennett as Brendan and Bronte Barbe as The Match Girl, both in fine voice. I was particularly impressed by Kate Robson-Scott, who played a mean violin. Even though they had already played more than a handful of performances, they hadn’t got the sound balance right the night after the press night, which marred the performance. Using a drum kit necessitates the amplification of vocals in this small space. Despite this, lyrics were lost and acoustic instruments sometimes buried.

Though it’s an eclectic score with some good tunes, and the creatives and cast do their best, sound issues notwithstanding, it’s a slight piece which I’m not sure justifies the transatlantic journey.

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This WWI set musical was commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre and when I saw the London premiere of their production just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/brass-nymt-at-hackney-empire) it had a cast twice the size, an 18-piece band doing what a solo pianist does here, in a theatre with a capacity twenty times the Union Theatre. Despite that, this very timely professional premiere packs as much, if not more, of an emotional punch.

It moves between Leeds and the Somme as a brass band enlist together and their loved ones at home manufacture the munitions they need. At the front we glimpse the horrors and hopelessness as one dies, an underage recruit is executed for desertion, two men supress their desire for one another and the troops are sent to their death on ‘the big push’ by officers knowing full well what their fate was likely to be. Back home, the girls health deteriorates as their bosses expose them to risk in the munitions factory, and they form their own brass band as a tribute to their men. Relationships are lived through letters.

Benjamin Till’s excellent score is quintessentially British, with folk and choral influences, very melodic. Sasha Regan’s staging has great pace and energy, handling moving moments sensitively, not least the chilling ending to the first half, though I did think some of the soldier’s choreography was a touch quirky. A couple of large tables help to created the trenches and the factory in a simple and uncluttered set. The talented young cast serve the play well; I particularly liked Sam Kipling and Emma Harrold as brother and sister Alf and Eliza, and Samantha Richards feisty Titty, whose brother Morrie is beautifully played by Lawrence Smith, a fine trumpeter too. Henry Brennan does a terrific job playing the whole score on piano.

A lovely, heartfelt musical that again proves British musical theatre is alive and thriving, and a fitting tribute during the centenary of the events and times it represents.

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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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