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Posts Tagged ‘West Yorkshire Playhouse’

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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Baz Luhrmann’s stage to screen to stage show gets it’s UK premiere in Leeds in a new adaptation by Terry Johnson directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. I caught the Australian production in Melbourne 21 months ago and couldn’t resist a trip north to see it on its last day. A very good decision!

Scott Hastings has been groomed as a ballroom dancer since childhood by his mum Shirley and her dancing school partner Les Kendall. They have their eyes on the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Championship, but his partner Lisa deserts him over his insistence on freestyling. His mum, Les and Federation president Barry Fife are determined to reign him back in, but he’s secretly working with frumpy Fran. She introduces him to her Spanish family, who inject some true Latin spirit into his pasodoble. Barry lies to convince Scott to stick to rules. He relents for a while, until he learns the truth and dances with Fran after all. Crooked Barry gets found out and Scott & Fran triumph and fall in love – and ballroom dancing is liberated from its straight-jacket. It’s a tale of a free spirit seeking to break out of a framework of rules which stifle creativity.

The score is a mash-up of original songs and existing numbers and I’m not sure this is entirely satisfactory. It feels like a bit of a rag-bag and I can’t help wondering if a fully original score might feel more cohesive and serve the show better. I thought this production brought out more comedy which, given it has its tongue firmly in its cheek, is a good thing. Soutra Gilmour’s excellent design gives the Quarry Theatre a stage with a revolving metal frame incorporating a proscenium, which actors can climb and occupy. It moves easily from the dance studio to the roof, Fran’s family home and competition venues. Catherine Martin was also responsible for the costumes for the film and the Australian production and they are sensational – a riot of colour and glitter beyond your wildest imagination.

It’s hard to know where to start with the performances; the casting is faultless. Fernando Mira reprises his wonderful Australian performance as Fran’s dad, but the rest are fresh to the UK production. American Sam Lips and our own Gemma Sutton are terrific romantic leads, the former taking dancing honours and the latter vocal honours. Richard Dempsey is a delightfully camp MC, J J Silvers. Tamsin Carroll and Richard Grieve are excellent as Shirley and Les, with Stephen Matthews great as the virtually mute, deadpan dad (until he turns). Julius D’Silva is as oily as they get with his terrific turn as bent dancing federation ‘policeman’ Barry. Eve Polycarpou gives us another of her delightful cameos as Fran’s gran.

It’s a superb feel-good show and this betters the Australian production. It’s West End ready, though it appears to be heading for Toronto. I was very glad I made the trip north.

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Opera companies are attracted to Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece and it’s easy to see why, though it’s been to mixed success. I’ve seen it done by Opera North and at Covent Garden. This year, ENO imported a New York production, though more of a concert, and with only one kosher opera singer. Now it’s Welsh National Opera’s turn. I’ve also seen ten productions by theatre companies (two of them four times each) so you could say I’m familiar with and fond of the piece! WNO is also my ‘opera home’.

The production is an import from the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It’s a sort of industrial building with two double-height containers for the barber’s shop and Joanna’s bedroom. The chorus are the inhabitants of Bedlam. The setting isn’t Victorian, but more recent, with hints of the 50s / 60s in some of the props and costumes. One of its best ideas is fake barber / faux Italian Pirelli’s use of a Reliant Robin. The stage seemed much further away than it has when I’ve sat in similar seats for the opera on many occasions here before.

One of the chief pleasures of opera company productions is the musical standards and here the orchestra shine. Even though I’ve seen it work perfectly well with little more than a piano, the full orchestra brings out every nuance of the score. Using opera singers is sometimes less successful, though Janis Kelly is a fine Mrs Lovett and Steven Page an excellent Judge Turpin, neither falling into the opera singer trap of putting vocal perfection above lyrical clarity. Kelly is a good actress, with good comic timing too, and Page is suitably intimidating, with great presence. I also liked Paul Charles Clarke’s Pirelli. Soraya Mafi was less successful as Joanna, with a voice that was too high and too operatic. During God, That’s Good the chorus chewed the lyrics as opera choruses sometimes do.

Three roles are cast by musical theatre performers, with London fringe favourite Jamie Muscato a particularly good Anthony and George Ure delivering as Tobias, particularly in his duet with Mrs Lovett, Not While I’m Around. The weak link, I’m afraid, is David Amsperger’s Sweeney, with an inappropriate mannered performance style and nowhere near enough menace (though I have been spoilt by having Jeremy Secomb staring me in the face and scaring the pants off me on four occasions in the past thirteen months in Tooting Arts Club’s Pie Shop Sweeney). He also lost a few too many lyrics when it mattered, notably in A Little Priest.

Good to see (at a fraction of the price of ENO’s unstaged American import), but overall both the Twickenham and Tooting Sweeney’s of the last year or so have delivered more. Perhaps its time for opera companies to stick to opera?

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If you accept that critics influence a show’s success, I wonder how much theatre producers consider what they will like when deciding what to put on. The average age of London’s top six critics is c.60. Is that why we get so much bloody Chekov and Shaw? What hope is there for a show that’s clearly aimed at an audience of the critics children and grandchildren? Loserville isn’t aimed at me (I’m the age of the average critic) but I admired and liked it. In fact, I wish my godchildren were still young enough to take to it.

It’s set in 1971 when the computer was younger than the show’s target audience and if you’d prophesied the internet they’d either laugh or section you. Our geek hero Michael is in a race to develop the concept of email against a nasty corporation who’s boss’ son Eddie is at school with him. When he falls for fellow geek Holly he gets closer – until Eddie blackmails Holly and Michael’s friend Lucas. Of course, it all ends happily.

The story is a perfectly good vehicle for musical comedy and Elliot Davis, co-writer of the much more grown up Soho Cinders, and Busted’s James Bourne have produced a good pop score which is played exceptionally well by the five-piece partly onstage band. Francis O’Connor’s design is colourful and clever and Nick Winston’s choreography is fast and witty. Director Steven Dexter’s speedy staging means it never lags and is fast enough to satisfy the shortest teenage attention span. The cast have great energy and charm, but it’s hard to mention anyone in particular because the four ‘indispositions’ resulted in nine role changes so I’m a bit confused (though that could of course be a senior moment).

The show provides well written, well staged and well performed fare for an audience that the West End hardly ever caters for and it’s sad that it hasn’t found its audience and is closing less than three months after it began. My speculation is that its the parents (and godparents!) who buy the tickets and they read the critics, so they’re taking them to Matilda instead. Frankly, I think they’d have more fun here.

It wasn’t meant for me but I’ll happily champion it.

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