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Posts Tagged ‘Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre’

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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I’ve been banging on about the extraordinary ambition of the All Star Productions team in Walthamstow for a while now, but I really thought they’d lost the plot when I heard they were mounting this infamous West End flop. Wrong again; they’ve turned into a cult fringe hit.

In 1989 it went straight into the cavernous Piccadilly Theatre. I liked it. It was an unusual pairing of American composer Joe Brooks (music) and British playwright Dusty Hughes (book & lyrics). Before becoming a playwright, Hughes had been Time Out’s theatre editor and the Bush Theatre’s joint AD. His plays had been put on at the NT, RSC & Royal Court, but he had no musicals pedigree. Brooks had written America’s biggest selling song in the 70’s, an Academy & Grammy award winner, but hadn’t written a musical. They chose to adapt Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 film.

It occupies that sparsely populated SciFi musical sub-genre. Set in a dystopian future, the overground world of the Elitists of Metropolis is powered by the Workers underground, in a city founded by John Freemen. The workers have a new-found charismatic leader in Maria, who has fallen in love with Freeman’s son Steven. Freeman has her abducted. He’s also hired an inventor to find a robotic alternative to the troublesome and increasingly scarce workers. These two actions come together.

The big surprise for me was how good the score is, with some great tunes and rousing choruses, freshly orchestrated and arranged by MD Aaron Clingham. The vocal quality is sky high, with particularly strong vocals from Rob Herron as Steven. My namesake Gareth James makes a fine baddie (Brian Blessed in the West End!) and there’s a hugely impressive professional debut by Miiya Alexandra as Maria. The excellent ensemble deliver the choruses with passion, expertly choreographed by Ian Pyle. The design team of Justin Williams, Jonny Rust & Joana Dias work wonders with limited resources, creating an inventive set and costumes. The show seems to be a favourite of director Tim McArthur, and it shows.

So by now you know you have three weeks to head to the northern end of the Victoria Line, where the centre of gravity of fringe musicals now clearly resides.

 

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This is the 50th anniversary of the British premiere of this Broadway show by the team more famous for the longest running musical ever, The Fantasticks (42 years, 17,000 performances, I’ve never seen it!), Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (no relation!), with N Richard Nash adapting his own play. I don’t think it’s been seen here since, so another gold star to the Walthamstow team for the opportunity.

Set in the 30’s in South West USA, they’re desperate for rain. The Curry family is at the heart of the piece and they’re desperate for a man for plain Lizzie, in danger of remaining on the shelf. A chancer arrives claiming to be a rainmaker and Pa Curry gives him $100 to make it rain. Lizzie has returned from a trip where she failed to bag a man and her Pa and brothers Noah and Jimmy now set about matchmaking with their eyes on Sheriff File. The rainmaker needs no encouragement and woos Lizzie, which boosts her confidence and makes Fine realise what he’s missing, leaving Lizzie with a choice to make.

In the first half it’s a bit too light and a bit too sweet, but it gets more substantial after the interval, when Lizzie’s predicament is handled more seriously and sensitively, and ends well. Whatever you think of the show, though, it’s another fine production from the Walthamstow team. Joana Dias’ simple but evocative design comprises painted screens and a backdrop, with very good costumes. Randy Smartnick’s staging and Kate McPhee’s choreography use the space very well.

I liked all of the six leads. Christopher Lyne is the father who wants the best for his kids, David West the elder brother who’s a bit of a bully and Julian Quijano is simple Jimmy, who has no problem getting his girl Snookie, a lovely cameo from Rebecca Withers. Daniel Urch as rainmaker Starbuck (!) and Nick Wyschna are excellent as Lizzie’s love interest, but it’s Laurel Dougall’s show, with a pitch perfect Lizzie.

It isn’t a classic, and I can see why it isn’t revived, but there are some nice songs and this production does it proud, with limited resources on a small scale, and I’m very glad I got a chance to see it.

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If any further proof were needed that Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow is fast becoming the most ambitious fringe musical theatre venue, with the highest musical standards, here it is. The confidence that Christopher J Orton & Robert Gould, the writers of this superb new musical, sixteen years in the making, already nicknamed the Welsh Les Mis, have placed in the Walthamstow team for its world premiere is richly rewarded with passionate performances and glorious singing.  

Set in the South Wales valleys in 1831, in Merthyr Tydfil to be precise (20 miles from my childhood home in a another valley, though many years later, but that doesn’t make me biased!) it tells the story of the Merthyr Rising and its martyr Dic Penderyn. It was the culmination of years of unrest created by unemployment, wage reductions and price rises. Men can barely feed their families with their wages from the mines and ironworks and things come to a head when they try to organise to present their grievances, adding demands for representation and universal suffrage. At its heart is the personal story of Richard Lewis (Dic Penderyn) who takes on single mother Angharad and her eight-year-old son Jonathan. The political and and the personal stories eventually converge and we learn of the events leading up to Angharad’s pregnancy. The authorities, encouraged by the mine and ironworks owners, violently put down what they call a revolt. Troops kill innocent protestors and their leader Lewis Lewis and Dic are sentenced to hang.

It’s both an epic story and a very human one and the score is simply superb, full of beautiful melodies and rousing choruses. Aaron Clingham’s orchestrations are beautiful too, with strings and woodwind creating an evocative musical landscape. The singing does full justice to the score. There are too many fine performances to single any out – casting director Benjamin Newsome has found some extraordinary talent again, with a welcome proportion of actual Welsh talent! Director Brendan Matthew, a regular in this venue now, marshals his cast of eighteen very effectively given the space limitations. It’s hard to conjure up mountainsides, churches, mines and family homes in any space, let alone a room above a pub, but designer Joana Dias does very well with limited resources and help from the lighting designer Sky Bembury and costume designer Celestine Healy, though it’s crying out for a bigger space.

It left me as excited as when I first saw Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man over thirty years ago. A truly British musical and a very fine one indeed. I don’t believe for one minute we won’t see more of it and I suspect sometime in the future I will be reminiscing about seeing the world premiere. You have just two weeks to get yourselves to Walthamstow.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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This appears to be the first London production of this Bernstein / Comden & Green musical comedy for thirty years. I think the last one was the the 1986 revival, which featured Maureen Lipman. There was a touring production with Connie Fisher and the Halle Orchestra no less, but the nearest that got to London was Woking, where I went to see it. I’m a bit surprised as it’s really a lot of fun.

Ruth & Eileen are sisters who arrive in Greenwich Village from Ohio intent on making their names, Ruth as a writer and Eileen as a performer. They get a poky, noisy apartment formerly occupied by a prostitute, and soon their circle includes neighbours Helen & Wreck, drugstore manager Frank, their landlord and sometime artist Appopolous, night club owner Valentin, editor Baker, newspaperman Chick and most of the local police, all Irish and all besotted with Eileen, as are Frank, Baker and Chick. They get into scrapes trying to get work, notably with most of the Brazilian navy, but eventually end up with a press card and a cabaret job respectively.

In this production they really play it for laughs, with some pretty broad performances, but it works as it’s not at the expense of the musical standards, which are as high as we’ve come to expect in this fringe venue. MD Aaron Clingham is flying solo at the piano this time, and that works too. There’s some cracking musical staging and choreography from director Tim McArthur and choreographer Ian Pyle, who throw in some Irish dancing by the policemen with Eileen, and some great ensemble work in Christopher Street and The Wrong Note Rag. Can there be another show with a conga in it? and here one which exits the auditorium at the interval, picking up audience members along the way.

Lizzie Wofford (who I first saw six years ago as a brilliant Mrs Lovett in the NYMT’s Sweeney Todd at the Village Underground) and Francesca Benton-Stace are both terrific as Ruth and Eileen respectively, and they have a fine young, enthusiastic, energetic supporting cast (casting by Benjamin Newsome again).

I’ve come to very much enjoy my trips to Walthamstow, and this is no exception. It’s over now, but look out for their next show.

 

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This 1937 Rogers & Hart musical came three-quarters of the way through their prolific 22 year partnership, straight after On Your Toes, famous for it’s jazz ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. They were clearly still into ‘ballets’ as they inserted one into each act of this show. This is the original version, not the sanitised 1959 version which removed political references and two black characters subjected to racism.

Young Val is abandoned by his parents, off on a Vaudeville tour. As he is under 21, the local sheriff decides he must go to a work farm, but gives him a two-week stay of execution to attempt to put on a charity show with his friends and new girlfriend, who turned up one night when her car broke down! They squabble too much to succeed, so they all end up on the work farm. In a surreal plot twist, a French transatlantic pilot crash lands in Val’s family field which leads to the expectation of a prosperous future. It’s one of the daftest, most contrived plots in musical theatre, but it has a handful of standards including My Fully Valentine and The Lady is a Tramp, which is no doubt what attracts revivals.

Whatever you think of the show, you have to admire the chutzpah of this production. It’s chief strength is the outstanding dancing (choreographer Carole Todd), though the musical standards are as good as we’ve got used to here, but there’s sometimes a bit of a competition between the band, a (very necessary!) giant fan and some of the solo vocals. It’s an excellent energetic young cast, with Jack McCann and Ruth Betteridge very good romantic leads, Ruth making a fine job of both My Funny Valentine and The Lady is a Tramp. Beth Brantley delivers Johnny One Note with gusto. Gus Fielding, Jamie Tait and Alex Okoampa are particularly impressive in the dancing department.

Fine work up in Walthamstow again.

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