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Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

This new jukebox musical comes twenty years after Mamma Mia, which of course featured the catalogue of Swedish group ABBA and is still running in London. This
latest one features the compositions and collaborations of another Swede, songwriter Max Martin, with a book by David West Read. I’m not the target demographic and I didn’t know many of the songs, but I thought it was huge fun, quite possibly the most successful non-biographical example of the genre since Mamma Mia.

The company are in rehearsal with William Shakespeare at the Curtain Theatre for the premiere of Romeo & Juliet when his wife Ann, visiting London, intervenes wanting to change the ending. From here we embark on Juliet’s ongoing story, written and rewritten live on stage by Will and Ann. The sixteenth century meets the twenty-first, in costume, language and behaviour, as the songs are fitted in with great skill to the narrative of this new tale with a contemporary spin by both Shakespeares.

One of the joys of seeing Mamma Mia for the first time was those delicious moments as you hear a song audaciously slotted in, and it felt the same here. It’s tongue is firmly in its cheek and you find yourself laughing and smiling with it. The play within the show takes us from Verona to Paris and has great pace and energy, propelling us to the happy ending that the first version doesn’t, with no less than four unions to celebrate.

Though it’s look is loud, gaudy and colourful, there are a lot of clever touches in the meeting of periods 400 years apart in Soutra Gilmour’s set and Paloma Young’s costumes. Howard Hudson lighting and Andrezej Goulding’s projections add to the pop concert aesthetic and Jennifer Weber’s pop video choreography completes the picture. This must be director Luke Sheppard’s biggest gig and he rises to the occasion with a slick, sassy, funny show, with has more depth and layers than you might expect in this genre.

Miriam-Teak Lee, in only her third West End show, is sensational as Juliet, with the complete ‘triple threat’ of acting, singing and dancing. Oliver Tompsett and Cassidy Janson are a great pairing as Will and Ann, sparring affectionately with each other, and there’s another great pairing in David Badella and Melanie La Barrie, both of whom its great to see on stage again. The rest of the cast of twenty-five are brimming with talent and infectious enthusiasm. It was good to see the fine but hidden nine-piece band get an onstage curtain call.

The Shaftesbury Theatre hasn’t had that many long runners, but I suspect that is about to change. Great fun.

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Despite writing lots of songs that have become standards, only two Cole Porter stage musicals have continued to be revived with any regularity – this and Anything Goes – and there have only been four West End productions of Kiss Me Kate since the UK premiere nearly seventy years ago. This is a hugely ambitious actor-musician production with a cast of just twelve, but it’s in the theatre that developed this form, with Chioma Uma, a graduate of the drama school actor-musician course it spawned, making an auspicious professional debut as Hattie no less.

The play-within-a-play idea was inspired. A theatre company touring Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with the relationship of the leading actors Lilli and Fred mirroring that of Kate & Petruchio. It provided lots of opportunities for Porter and his book writers Sam & Bella Spewack to include references to, and puns on, Shakespeare’s plays, notably the showstopper Brush Up Your Shakespeare, without making them in any way highbrow or inaccessible to the average musical theatre goer. It’s a very witty concoction with a lot of now instantly recognisable songs and it has two of the greatest act openers with Another Op’nin, Another Show and Two Darn Hot.

Though it’s a ‘big’ show, and all four productions I’ve seen have had more resources and bigger spaces, I’ve always wondered how it would work scaled down. As it turns out it adds to the touring production aesthetic, as does the actor-musician form. You don’t have to do much to the Watermill to provide stage locations, so designer Frankie Bradshaw does so with a backstage wall, a few fly-ins and a stage curtain, concentrating more on good period costumes. Oti Manuse’s choreography has limited space but comes into its own during Too Darn Hot, which was sizzling. Brush Up Your Shakespeare is tough to pull and make your own, but Sheldon Greenland & Robert Jackson made a great job of it, donning different hats for the two reprises. I don’t remember seeing the references to segregated audiences before, but it adds a wholly relevant period detail and a welcome serious note.

Rebecca Trehearn captures the feistiness of Lilli / Kate perfectly, with great vocals. I’m less familiar with the work of David Ricardo-Pearce, but he turned in a fine performance as Fred / Petruchio, working the audience brilliantly in Where Is The Life That Late I Led? Kimmy Edwards was a bundle of joy as Lois and there was a great cameo from Tom Sowinski as rich and powerful Harrison, out to bag Lilli. Paul Hart marshals his limited resources but plenty of talent to great effect.

Our visits to Watermill’s summer musicals have long been a tradition and a treat, but this year we had the lovely Amelie preceding this, and the hotly anticipated Assassins to come. Our cups runneth over.

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The Bridge Theatre’s biggest success so far was probably their promenade Julius Caesar last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/julius-caesar-bridge-theatre). This even more immersive promenade staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream proves how suitable the space is for this style of performance. I found it captivating from start to finish.

They’ve really cracked the promenade form at the Bridge, largely because of their ability to bring platforms up from the floor, and this time flying in the space above. There are no sightline issues for either promenaders or those looking on from the galleries, and the marshalling is very unobtrusive. This Dream starts in serious tone with Athenians dressed like puritans as Hermia’s arranged marriage is confirmed, emphasising its unacceptability like I’ve never seen before, before we’re whisked away to the forest.

The very acrobatic fairies swing above the promenaders and the lovers and royal couple move along platforms with leaf-strewn beds on. The simple change of spell from Titania to Oberon heightens the comedy greatly. The lovers are particularly feisty and modern, and Puck is a marvellous creation, looking like a punk, wicked, funny and brilliantly athletic. The use of music is terrific, with the promenaders, seemingly unprompted, breaking into moves in unison. They take a lot of liberties with Shakespeare’s words, and there are ad libs and audience involvement, but they are all completely justified by the result.

Gwendoline Christie has great presence as Hippolyta / Titanya, towering over Puck and the fairies in a long green dress. Oliver Chris brings his considerable gift for comedy to the role of Oberon; his scenes with Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom, as great a performance in this role as I’ve ever seen, are positively sublime. David Moorst continues to deliver on his early promise with a simply terrific Puck and a contrasting Philostrate. It was great to see half of the rude mechanicals played by women, with Ami Metcalf’s butch Snout feared by all.

The Bridge must do more in this configuration, with the unique possibilities the building affords. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bunny Christie have created a magical tale with a great sense of fun, a Dream for our times. Take every young person you know as it may convert them to live theatre for life. They were still partying as we left.

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The last time I went to Ally Pally was for an audience with the Dali Lama, a force for good. Now it’s for the personification of evil, Richard III. Alexandra Palace Theatre was opened in 1875 but never really found its place in the cultural life of London – too big, too far out, more music hall than theatre. It has now re-opened, restored rather than rebuilt, in a Wiltons kind of way, and its as much of a coup opening with Headlong’s touring RIII, as it is for Headlong to effectively inaugurate it. Win-Win.

It’s a very big space and the production is confined to a small stage, so it struggles to find any intimacy. I found it difficult to engage with the first half, which seemed a bit rushed and workmanlike, the verse sometimes failing to land, but in all fairness this might be partly due to being surrounded by American University students on their year ‘abroad’ (they appeared to find this extraordinary opportunity a sentence) who had yet to learn respectful theatre behaviour. It ramped up significantly in the second half, from my new seat, and by the end became positively thrilling. It’s modern dress, played in a circular space with seven mirrors which revolved to become doors and windows, and a second tier for the most regal scenes. I very much liked the look of it, designed by Chiara Stephenson.

I was very impressed by Tom Mothersdale’s take on RIII, the arch manipulator, evil laced with madness, dragging his contorted body around the stage. With some cuts and some doubling, it’s a small ensemble, but they all impressed. I’m not familiar with the work of director John Haidar, but notwithstanding my difficulty getting into it, I thought it was a fresh and largely exciting take. I loved the ghost of the first to die collecting those that followed him, and when they all returned to haunt Richard it was terrifically staged.

Though it was good to visit the oldest new theatre, I suspect it would have had more impact in other venues on the tour, such as Bristol Old Vic. Still, I enjoyed the spectacular night-time views of London, the good value pre-theatre tapas and a building which oozes history. In another ‘first’, there was a surreal moment in the second half with a heckler who disrupted the show shouting things like ‘This isn’t true. You know its not true’. Richard left the stage and walked up to him in contempt, crowning him and soliciting an even angrier response!

 

 

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It would be difficult to find two productions of this play as far apart as this and Joe Hill-Gibbins staging at the Olivier just over five years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/edward-II). The latter was on one of London’s biggest stages, this on one of its smallest. At the National, it was a radical take, with live video footage, here it oozes period. The NT’s thrilled me, but this left me rather cold I’m afraid.

It struck me for the first time how much weaker Marlowe’s dialogue is than Shakespeare’s verse; more accessible but nowhere near as beautiful. He packs in 20 years of history, and this production seems to have lost something like thirty minutes, which compounds the issue by making it feel rushed in a ‘let’s get it over with’ sort of way, with characters going into exile and back seeming a bit ‘here we go again’ tiresome. Like other contemporary staging’s, the true nature of Edward & Gaveston’s relationship is more overt but, given the setting of this production, the passionate kisses and embraces seemed at odds with the play. Above all, the story just didn’t engage, or even thrill, as it should. I felt no emotional involvement at all.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a very suitable theatre, and the space is used well. Jessica Worrall’s period costumes are excellent, and the glistening black & gold backdrop takes you to the 14th century. The music mostly suits it, except the use of the West African Kora, beautiful though it is, which seemed totally out of place, conjuring up exotic foreign places rather than medieval Britain. Some of the touches of humour work, like Edward’s propensity to dish out titles played like a running joke, but sometimes it feels a bit flippant. The double and triple casting, using women in male roles, also works, though you have to suspend disbelief when you see a bishop who looks like he’s still at school.

I’ve rarely been disengaged in this lovely theatre by a play I have hitherto found fascinating. Maybe it hasn’t settled yet, but I’m afraid indifference was my primary reaction.

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The RSC’s latest revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor is TOWIE does panto. I’m normally OK with updating and though there’s stuff to enjoy here its pushed a bit too far to be for me. The reference to Brexit was the last straw.

The Ford’s and Page’s are more Essex than Windsor, dressed appropriately, chavily. For some reason, other characters wear doublet and hose which makes for an incongruous combination. The stage boasts two two-storey houses which revolve to become backdrops but nothing really signposts the various locations; the denouement isn’t in Windsor Great Park, but a town square. There’s a Physical Comedy Director, so that tells you a bit about what you’re in for, though it’s mostly crude slapstick. There’s added references and changed lines and a lot of music from a live band who sounded a bit disconnected and distant playing in the wings.

The chief reason for seeing it is David Troughton’s terrific turn as Falstaff. He towers over everyone else, most of whom seem to be more caricatures than characters. He squeezes every ounce of comedy out of his character, without making him one-dimensional. In addition to the classic moments, like hiding in a basket, here a wheelie bin, there are other sublime additions, like swimming in an imaginary pool at the front of the auditorium.

Though I had reservations, the rest of the audience appeared to have none, so maybe I was ending 2018 as a grumpy old man. See for yourself, but there are only three performances left!

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We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

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