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Posts Tagged ‘Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre’

Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre had a great success with another rare and early Charles ‘Annie’ Rouse musical comedy, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. This was his first show, back in 1960, which I’ve only seen once, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama ten years ago. My starting point was ‘they’ve got their work cut out with this one’.

It takes its inspiration from Elvis Presley signing up to join the army. Here, Conrad Birdie is the singer who’s about to become a GI. His record company boss Albert decides to spin his story and create a photo and TV opportunity for a last kiss with a fan. Fifteen-year-old Kim is selected and her family all appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, where it all goes wrong thanks to Kim’s jealous boyfriend Hugo. There’s a parallel story about Albert losing his secretary and love interest Rose after eight years of doing nothing, largely to avoid upsetting his possessive mother Mae. As Conrad heads off to enlist, Albert finally gets some balls and chooses Rose over his mother.

When I walked into theatre I was instantly impressed by Andrew Yon’s design. It’s a red, black and chequered diner with adverts and records (remember them?) on the walls and 50’s tunes being played as you enter. Ryan Walklett’s excellent costumes complete the spot-on period feel. It gets off to a shaky start, partly because the material of the first part is weak (it pulls almost all of its punches in the second half), and partly because the playing style was a bit all over the place, some OTT, some too restrained. It does pick up significantly and is really motoring in the second half, with great choreography from Anthony Whiteman in Baby Talk to Me and the Shriner Ballet. The design leaves ample space for the ensemble scenes and I liked the band in view and (sort of) in costume at the back. It’s not a great score, though a few songs are familiar, having a life outside the show – Put On A Happy Face in particular, but A Lot Of Livin’ To Do and Kids as well.

When they’d settled, there were good performances all round, and the loud, somewhat exaggerated acting style suited the broad comedy of the material. I particularly liked Liberty Buckland’s feisty, sexy Rose (Chita Rivera in the original production!) and Abigail Matthews as teenage fan Kim (if they ever make a bio drama of Imelda Staunton’s life, she’s a shoe-in for the role). There are lovely cameos from Harry Heart as Kim’s somewhat overwrought dad, Jayne Ashley as the acid-tongued Mae, Benedikt de la Bedoyere (what a name!) as Hugo and Stephen Loriot as Kim’s young brother Randolph. MD Aaron Clingham has opted for more oomph with a band including winds, bass and drums and that seemed to suit the material without drowning out the singers (were those mic’s I saw overhead?) and the musical standards were as good as ever here.

This theatre continues its essential role of putting on rarely seen musicals. This one won’t change your life, but you’ll have a lot of fun, and who knows when you’ll get the chance to see it again.

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Well, I certainly had to suffer for my art last night, the hottest day of the year in a stifling room above a pub, but All Star Productions managed to make me whoop with joy at their UK première of this 1932 Irving Berlin / Moss Hart musical.

Why on earth has it taken so long to get here? It’s a fun story of a Broadway producer putting on a show, but it’s the depression so he’s run out of gullible investors, until a chance meeting with the wife of the chief of police leads him to persuade the corrupt NYC police to launder the proceeds of their corruption in his show. There’s something of The Producers in this storyline, but it pre-dates the original film of that show by 36 years. The cops, and the chief’s wife, interfere in the show and the producer quits, leaving them to finish off the flop. After the first night, and predictable bad reviews, a cast member suggests spicing it up and it turns into a hit, which brings attention from the FBI.

It hasn’t got much of a book, but it’s good enough for a showcase of some great songs and ends brilliantly with the number Investigation. Though none of the songs are standards in the Berlin way, they’re better than many Broadway musicals and here they are played and sung exceptionally well. Designer Joana Dias has created an impressionistic NYC skyline on the walls of the room with a can of white paint. Some packing crates, wooden chairs and a rack of clothes complete the picture. The costumes are very good and it all looks great. Sally Brooks’ choreography is outstanding, making great use of the limited space to produce uplifting movement. Brendan Matthew’s staging is superb, respecting the period but with enough of its tongue in its cheek to laugh with it. Aaron Clingham’s 4-piece band are as good as ever.

They’ve assembled another crack cast (that man Newsome again). David Anthony and Laurel Dougall are suitably OTT as the chief cop Meshbesher and his wife Myrtle, the comic heart of the piece.  Samuel Haughton takes the acting honours as archetypal Broadway producer Hal Reisman. Joanne Clifton brought the house down as the streetwalker with her Torch Song and Joanna Hughes as Kit sang beautifully. There are also a couple of impressive professional débuts from Lewis Dewar Foley and Kirsten Stark.

Ye Olde Rose & Crown continues to produce outstanding fringe musicals and this is amongst its best. Only three more days to catch it.

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Best New Play(s) – The James Plays

First up its plays, new ones, and when I counted I was surprised to find I’d seen 75 of them, including a pleasing half-dozen at the NT. My long list only brought that down to 31 so I had to be real hard to get to the Top Ten short-list of Versailles at the Donmar, Good People & Wonderland at Hampstead, Wet House at Soho, The Visitors at the Arcola (now at the Bush), 1927’s Golem at the Young Vic and 3 Winters & The James Plays from the National Theatre of Scotland at the NT – a three-play feast which pipped the others at the post.

Best Revival (Play) – shared by Accolade and My Night With Reg

I saw fewer revivals – a mere 44! – but 18 were there at the final cut. The Young Vic had a stonking year with Happy Days, A Streetcar Named Desire & A View From a Bridge, the latter two getting into my top ten with the Old Vic’s The Crucible, the Open Air’s All My Sons (that’s no less than 3 Millers) the NT’s Medea, Fathers & Sons at the Donmar, True West at the Tricycle and the Trafalgar Transformed Richard III. In the end I copped out, unable to choose between My Night with Reg at the Donmar and Accolade at the St James.

Best New Musical – Made in Dagenham

I was a bit taken aback at the total of 25 new musicals, 10 of which got through the first round, including the ill-fated I Can’t Sing, Superman in Walthamstow (coming soon to Leicester Square Theatre) , In the Heights at Southwark and London Theatre Workshop’s Apartment 40C. I struggled to get to one from the six remaining, which included the NT’s Here Lies Love and five I saw twice – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dogfight at Southwark, Hampstead’s Kinkfest Sunny Afternoon and Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studio Two – but eventually I settled on a great new British musical Made in Dagenham.

Best Revival (Musical) – Sweeney Todd in Harrington’s Pie Shop, Tooting

An extraordinary year for musical revivals with 38 to choose from and 22 serious contenders including 7 outside London (two of which I short-listed – Hairspray in Leicester and Gypsy in Chichester) and not one but two Sweeney Tood’s! Difficult not to choose Damn Yankees at the Landor, a lovely Love Story at the Union, more Goodall with the NYMT’s The Hired Man at St James Theatre, Blues in the Night at Hackney, Sweeney Todd at the ill-fated Twickenham Theatre and Assassins at the Menier, plus the Arcola’s Carousel which was so good I went twice in its short run. In the end though, expecting and accepting accusations of bias, I have to go for the other Sweeney Todd in Harrington”s Pie Shop here in Tooting – funnier & scarier, beautifully sung & played and in the perfect location, bringing Sondheim to Tooting – in person too!

Best Out of Town – National Theatre Wales’ Mametz

I have to recognise my out-of-town theatregoing, where great theatre happens too, and some things start out (or end up!). The best this year included a superb revival of a recent Broadway / West End show, Hairspray at Leicester Curve, and one on the way in from Chichester, Gypsy, which I will have to see again when it arrives……. but my winner was National Theatre of Wales’ extraordinary Mametz, taking us back to a World War I battle, in the woods near Usk, in this centenary year.

Best Site Specific Theatre – Symphony of a Missing Room (LIFT 2014)

Finally, a site specific theatre award – just because I love them and because it’s my list, so I can invent any categories I like! Two of the foregoing winners – Sweeney Todd and Mametz – fall into this category but are  now ineligible. The two other finalists were I Do, a wedding in the Hilton Docklands, and Symphony of a Missing Room, a blindfolded walk through the Royal Academy buildings as part of LIFT, which piped the other at the post.

With some multiple visits, 2014 saw around 200 visits to the theatre, which no other city in the world could offer. As my theatrical man of the year Stephen Sondheim put it in the musical revival of the year – There’s No Place Like London.

 

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I was lucky to be working in the North-West in the summer of 1986 when this show had it’s world premiere. With the music of Howard Goodall’s first show The Hired Man still ringing in my ears, off I went to Oldham Coliseum. The cast were a bunch of then unknowns, many of who went on to become musical theatre royalty – Maria Friedman, Jenna Russell, Clare Burt, Andrew C Wadsworth….. I loved the show and the following year I was on the Olivier Awards panel when it re-opened the Playhouse Theatre in London, substantially re-cast. I was expecting to lead the campaign to nominate it as Best Musical, but it was a different show and for some reason had nothing like the impact it had in Oldham. I’ve never entirely understood why.

It was 24 years before its second London outing, this time at Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre (in a room above a pub in Walthamstow), and it proved to be a delightful chamber piece. So here we are another three years on and it’s the third in the Union Theatre’s Howard Goodall Season, with a production whose musical standards may well be the best. It sounds gorgeous.

Set in the the second world war in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ten ‘girlfriends’ are carrying out admin duties, parachute packing and tea making. We have just two airmen representing the RAF and one of them is caught in a love triangle with best friends Amy and Louise (the other one is trying hard to get laid). The former is toff Guy and the latter Welsh boy Gareth (co-incidence). Everything is told in song – there’s next to no dialogue – which often makes it feel more of a song cycle than a musical. The lack of a good book is its flaw (according to Goodall, Richard Curtis no less added to his research notes with ‘a rambling inventive script’) but the music is glorious.

The vocals here really are beautiful, in solos and ensembles with overlapping melodies. You don’t often here ten women’s voices in harmony and it’s a lovely sound, but the mens contributions, equally good vocals, provide some necessary colour and contrast. The accompaniment of two keyboards, winds and double bass under MD Freddie Tapner ( a professional debut!) is also excellent. The singers and players all do full justice to Goodall’s score and they look like they are having the time of their lives. Bronagh Lagan’s simple staging, with inventive movement and choreography by Iona Holland, suits the piece well. Nik Corall’s design focuses more on costumes than set and you know you’re in the forties by the girls hairdos alone!

It’s great to see this year’s Sondheim Student Performer Award winner Corrine Priest, who made an excellent contribution to the society’s ‘God’ revue, making such a terrific impression in the leading role like Amy, and Perry Lambert is an equally impressive the other leading lady Lou. Both of the boys, Tom Sterling and Michael Ress (a real Welshman, thankfully!), have exceptional voices and act brilliantly. There isn’t a weak link in this young, hugely talented cast.

Though I missed the first show because of my travels, this has been a fabulous Howard Goodall season, so I will end by placing my order for 2015…….Dear Sasha & Howard, the London premiere of Two Cities, please. Thank you. Love, Gareth.

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Into the Woods is a challenge for any theatre company, even more so for a fringe company with limited resources and often less experienced performers. So well done Rose & Crown for having the balls – just before the film will hit our screens too.

Sondheim weaves a number of fairytales into one narrative – well known ones like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack & the Beanstalk and less well known ones like Rapunzel and The Baker’s Wife. In order to break the spell that has left his wife barren, the baker has to find a red cloak, yellow hair, white cow and gold slipper, which of course are all available from the other characters, at a price. They get on the wrong side of the giantess after Jack climbs the beanstalk and steals stuff, which means they have to work to rescue the situation – those that remain, anyway. What starts with a light touch gets ever so dark and it ends as a morality tail. It’s a masterpiece of musical theatre.

With what is clearly a shoestring budget, designer Gregor Donnelly has created a surprisingly large playing space in this room above a pub that looks like a children’s adventure playground. It’s amazing what you can do with some pallets, a few ladders, camouflage netting, hessian sacks and a whole load of wood chips. The narrator seems to be a workman and Jack and his mum have become very chavvy. I liked the way Tim McArthur’s staging used this space, even though a far side view wasn’t ideal, with particularly quick and surprising entrances.  Aaron Clingham’s five-piece piano – strings – woodwind ensemble played the score beautifully. The choruses sounded great, but the solo vocals were variable and some of the intricate ensemble pieces were a touch ragged. I missed some of the lyrics because the balance wasn’t ideal from my position near the band – but ideal to hear the quality of the playing.

The show overran significantly – just under three hours – which in a hot space with not particularly comfortable seating didn’t help, but it’s an ambitious undertaking and they just about pulled it off. Whatever I think, the full house roared their approval and they clearly have a well-earned hit on their hands.

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The Scottsboro Boys – Kander & Ebb’s masterpiece at the Young Vic, perfectly staged and performed

American Psycho – 80’s satire gets a musical adaptation and a stunning production at the Almeida

Glasgow Girls – gritty stuff from Scotland in London’s home of grittiness, the Theatre Royal Stratford

Titanic – an underated musical thrillingly staged at Southwark Playhouse

Rooms – A Rock Romance – just as thrilling, but just two people falling in and out of love on a tiny stage

The Committments – a huge stage for Roddy Doyle’s infectious slice of working class Ireland set to soul music. The only West End show in my list!

The Colour Purple – the Menier on fine form in one of a large number of summer highlights for black theatre

One Touch of Venus – a pub theatre in Walthamstow shows Opera North how to do Weill

…and lots of lovely evenings at the Union and the Landor.

 

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It’s hard to believe its 22 years since the London premiere of this Howard Goodall musical set in the Spanish Civil War. It wasn’t revived for ages and has since (I think) only received two other London productions, at the Kings Head & the Landor. Hearing the title song in Ye Olde Rose & Crown’s Goodall compilation Love & War last year fired me up to see it again, so this trip to the northern end of the Victoria line was a must.

The Spanish Civil War has come to and end, Franco is in the process of setting up his Fascist state and the Second World War has just begun. Republican fighter Carlos has returned home with the young British communist Stanley, who has been leading his brigade. Stanley falls in love with Carlos’ daughter Sofia and plans to escape home to Scarborough (!) with her and her parents. Carlos’ comrade Jose and niece Teresa’s intended Pablo remind us how this war divided a nation, communities and families.

Christopher Dingli & Jo Wickham do well playing older as bickering but still in love parents Carlos and Maria, with the latter leading the Act II opener Market Day particularly well. Annie Kirkman is a great Sofia and her duet, Lorca, with Lydia Marcazzo’s Teresa was another highlight. Emanuel Alba and Alexander Barria both bring passion to the opposing roles of Jose & Pablo, handling their respective songs – Long Live Death and Democracy – well. Though Rupert Baldwin acted well, I’m afraid he didn’t rise to the solo vocal challenge that is Song of the English Volunteer, faring better backed by the company in Song of the Brigades.

I liked the immediacy and intimacy of Tim McArthur’s in-the-round (well, in-the-square) staging with no set and just a table and chairs for props; a lot of the action takes place at and around the dinner table after all. Aaron Clingham’s little band sounded great, with a pair of acoustic guitars anchoring the score in Spain and the company numbers were more rousing than you ‘d expect from a cast of seven.

This is a short two-week run and given the limited rehearsal time and resources, they’ve done well. Definitely worth the trip to the far north-east!

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The musical theatre summer shows at the Royal Academy of Music were a real treat this year.

The day started with a rare revival of Cy Coleman & Neil Simon’s Little Me (like the proverbial bus, about to be revived again at Ye Olde Rose & Crown), a show I’ve never managed to catch before now. Belle is recalling her life to biographer Patrick Dennis, during which we flash back to scenes from her action & husband-packed life. A poor kid in love with a rich kid, she set about getting wealth, culture & social position in order to get her man. By the time she does, he’s taken a turn for the worse through drink.

It’s a really funny musical farce. The plot’s preposterous twists and turns provide plenty of opportunities for fun and a fresh & sprightly production by Karen Rabinowitz (well designed by Alistair Turner) makes the most of them. The 25- piece orchestra (so rare these days) made a magnificent sound and the performances were excellent, with Kristin Lindstrom a superb Young Belle.

Hey, Look Me Over was a revue of Cy Coleman songs which reminded you how good his 12-show back catalogue is. Some familiar, some new, the 12 performers packed a lot into 60 minutes, with some lovely lyrics about the performers themselves (and their pending job search!) bookending the selection.

The second show, John Bucchino & Harvey Fierstein’s very un-American American chamber musical, A Catered Affair, was a big contrast. Somewhat like Howard Goodall (so I liked it!), it was a very beautiful piece telling the story of a working class New York family in the early 50’s. Son Terence has died in the Korean War. His sister wants a quick & simple wedding to take advantage of an expenses paid trip to California as a honeymoon, but her mum’s having none of it. Things get out of control, as they have a habit of doing with weddings, and relationships are threatened and finances become precarious.

There’s another excellent and simple design, made up of ladders and washing lines, from Alistair Turner,  fine staging by Matt Ryan and a smaller but again gorgeous sounding orchestra. In another fine cast, Christine Allado & Blair Robertson stood out as Janey’s parents. Together they created a production as close to perfect as you’d get.

The future of musical theatre is clearly safe in the hands of RAM.

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The last time I saw this show, it had the resources of Opera North – probably enough to run this fringe venue for a decade – and tickets were four times as much. Big budgets don’t always result in the best shows though and I enjoyed this production a lot more – perhaps the best this enterprising venue has (so far) given.

Kurt Weill’s score only has one real standard – Speak Low – but it’s a consistently good score, and here it’s beautifully played by MD Aaron Clingham on his baby grand (in the room this time, thank goodness!) and beautifully sung (unamplified) by an exceptional cast.

The story is a bit daft. An ancient lost statue of Venus ends up in a New York gallery where it is kissed by a drunken man, comes alive and they fall in love. Rodney is already engaged (bring on dumped fiancée with screechy voice and stroppy mom) so Venus makes her disappear. It takes a farcical turn as Gloria’s mum wants justice and the gods want Venus back.

Sarah June Mills has created an excellent modern art gallery with paintings that are more than they seem. Lydia Milman Schmidt’s staging is excellent and choreographer Rhiannon Faith manages to create a superb second act  ‘ballet’ in this tiny space. The production values are very high for the fringe and a lot higher than we’ve seen at Ye Olde Rose & Crown before.

The ensemble is outstanding and the leads are great. Kendra McMillan is appropriately statuesque and other-worldly as Venus and David Jay-Douglas captures the naivety of lovestruck Rodney. The world of modern art is brilliantly represented by James Wolstenholme’s gallery owner Savory and his protective secretary Molly; a fine performance from Danielle Morris.

Weill was unique amongst the composers of Broadway’s golden age (well, as a man from decadent Berlin escaping the Nazi’s, he would be wouldn’t he!) and his shows are distinctive because they are not formulaic; each one tells a different story differently. We don’t have revivals anywhere near often enough and this outstanding production is very welcome. Don’t miss!

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I failed to get to Walthamstow for the first run of this All Star Productions show, so I was delighted when Walthamstow came to me – well, the Landor Theatre in Clapham, anyway. It’s 17 years since we last saw it in London, in a lovely production at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, so it’s a great opportunity to take another look – and in a recession too; a time when it might resonate even more.

Kander and Ebb have of course two iconic shows in their back-catalogue – Cabaret and Chicago. This pre-dates both, a commercial flop when it opened on Broadway in 1965, though it did win a young Lisa Minnelli a Tony award. Not surprising in my book – a Broadway show about workers struggles and the communist party! This revised version hails from 1987. I’m not sure how much it changed, but it did get ‘framed’ by scenes of a workers theatre troupe putting on a show. Since I saw it last, I’ve seen Pins & Needles (revived at the now defunct Cock Tavern a couple of years ago) which I suspect is the only other Broadway show anything like it.

Flora is the catalyst in a co-operative / commune of struggling artists and crafts people in New York City. There’s a jeweller, a dressmaker, a pair of dancers and Harry, like Flora a textile designer. Harry wins the heart of Flora and also wins her for the Communist Party. When she gets a job in a big department store, she starts recruiting behind the backs of the management. Fellow party activist Charlotte seeks to lure Flora away from Harry and persuades the party to protest outside her employer’s store. The lives of 32 of Flora’s co-workers are jeopardized.

Kander and Ebb did select some unusual and brave themes for their shows and this is no exception, but it’s extraordinary that it got to Broadway as they weren’t established names at this point. It’s not a great show, but it is fascinating and there’s some great music and staging possibilities which director Randy Smartnick and choreographer Kate McPhee (doubling as costume designer) fully exploit. They’ve found lots of fun in the story without losing its sociopolitical essence.

There are great set pieces as Charlotte addresses the party, the dancers rehearse for their audition, the workers protest outside the store and a delightful Busby Berkley number to end the first act! Aaron Clingham’s musical direction is outstanding, as always, this time with just piano and double bass. The standard of singing is exceptional.

Heading a fine cast, Katy Baker is superb as Flora – feisty and passionate, yet lovable. This is her first musical; if she’s not in leading roles in the West End soon, I shall be very surprised – one of the most promising musical theatre debuts I’ve ever seen. Ellen Verenieks is excellent as Charlotte, as is Steven Sparling as a stuttering Harry. There wasn’t a fault in the supporting cast and they played to a sparce Sunday matinee audience as if it was opening night.

The Landor should be packed to the rafters, with queues for returns, for important musical theatre work of this quality. You have two more weeks to find out if you agree with me!

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