Friday, 21 October 2016

Review: The House of Usher, Hope

"I didn't like to mention that I had imagined his sister singing to me in my sleep"

Ever ambitious, the Hope Theatre have launched a Gothic Season which will run right up until Christmas, taking in play The Worst Was This, lesbian bonkbuster Her Aching Heart and opening with this Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The House of Usher. Created by Luke Adamson and Dan Bottomley and directed by Adamson with Phil Croft, it takes an actor-musician approach to the material and is very much its own version of the short story, pulling in influences from elsewhere in Poe's oeuvre and also the depths of the writers' own imaginations.

The House of Usher is told to us by the nameless figure of The Narrator, who unexpectedly finds himself invited to visit his old childhood friend Roderick Usher in their stately home. This he does, but he's shocked to find him in the throes of an illness that has heightened his sensitivities to unbearable levels. And he's not alone, Roderick's twin sister Madeline appears similarly afflicted but has a different take on the matter from her overly protective sibling, forcing the Narrator into a series of difficult decisions, something made more challenging by the eeriness of the house itself.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Review: The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

“In you, I found all the pleasure and pain I could ever hope to feel"

All the best birthday celebrations go on for a while and Bristol Old Vic's 250th Anniversary programme has been no exception, featuring productions from each of the four centuries of the theatre's life. I took in the Lesley Manville opus Long Day's Journey Into Night earlier in the year and returned to the South West with great anticipation for the 21st century strand of work, which is the macabre, and excellent, new musical The Grinning Man

Based on the Victor Hugo novel L'Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughs), the show tells the dark tale of Grinpayne, a young man mutilated as a child who scrapes a living as part of a carnival troupe with his adopted family. Grinpayne keeps the lower part of his face covered but the highlight of the fair comes when he reveals his scarred 'smile', a sight that moves people in unpredictable ways, not least the royal family in whose intrigues Grinpayne finds himself increasingly embroiled.

Review: A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer, National

"Fingers crossed
Make a wish
What gruesome game of chance is this?
Cross your chest
Count 1 in 3
And pray it doesn't grow in me"

A musical about cancer? As unlikely as it might seem, A Pacifist's Guide To The War On Cancer isn't even the first one that I've seen. That dubious honour goes to Happy Ending, one of the most misjudged shows I saw last year, but fortunately this Complicite and National Theatre co-production in association with HOME Manchester rejoices in a much stronger pedigree, a collaboration between performance artist Bryony Kimmings (book and lyrics), Brian Lobel (book) and Tom Parkinson (music).

A Pacifist's Guide... posits itself as "an all-singing, all-dancing celebration of ordinary life and death" and this it does by collating varying stories of people diagnosed with cancer into a single hospital waiting room, watched over by Emma, a single mother waiting for some tests or suspected bone cancer to be conducted on her baby son. And over the course of a long night, we hear their tales of living with the disease, the trials of having to deal with other people's reactions to it, the wells of emotion it taps into.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Review: Moby Dick, Union

"The critics won't like it"

Sometimes, returning to shows that might not have lived up to original expectations can reveal real treasures and several of London's fringe theatres have built up a reputation in doing just that, notably the Finborough and the Union. And it is the latter who have opted to tackle notorious 90s flop musical Moby Dick, a frankly batshit meta-adaptation of the Herman Melville novel by Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden.

Moby Dick's conceit is that it is a show-within-in-a-show, the students and staff of St Godley's Academy for Girls putting on a performance in order to save their school, and what a frantically high-energy performance it is. So much so that it's frightfully difficult to work out exactly what the hell is going on - a tongue-in-cheek synopsis of Moby Dick (the novel) is helpfully provided but there's no guide to navigating the whirlpool of this production. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Review: The Wind in the Willows, Theatre Royal Plymouth

“Messing about in a boat"

Messrs Stiles, Drewe and Fellowes clearly have an affinity for working with each other as hot on the heels of Half A Sixpence, about to open in West End after a successful run in Chichester, comes another collaboration on a musical version of The Wind in the Willows. Destined for an as yet unconfirmed West End residency, it is currently touring from Plymouth to Salford and then on to Southampton, spreading its gentle, pastoral charms across the UK.

And its charms are gentle, befitting any iteration of the beloved children's novel by Kenneth Grahame. Julian Fellowes' adaptation is faithful to that story and though the scale of Rachel Kavanaugh's production is suitably large, it is also refreshingly simple. Peter McKintosh's design is atmospheric but uncomplicated, playful rather than epic in its idyllic evocation of the British countryside, ably assisted by Aletta Collins' languid choreography.

Review: The Red Barn, National

"It's as if I have lived my whole life with the handbrake on"

On booking for The Red Barn, you're advised that "due to the tense nature of the play, there will be no re-admittance". The play - written by David Hare from the 1968 novel La Main by Georges Simenon - is also described as a psychological thriller on the website. It all adds up to a certain degree of expectation about what kind of show it is one is going to see and even though this isn't my first time at the rodeo, I've seen a few shows and know the danger of anticipation, it is often hard not to carry the weight of those expectations with you as you take your seat.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Robert Icke's production of The Red Barn was not the play I thought it would be. And that my initial slightly cool reaction was as much a response to that as it was to the material itself. Set in the depths of a Connecticut winter, two couples make their way home from a party and when one of the men doesn't make it back, it is the consequences of that that makes up the meat of the play. Specifically, it's how the other man of the group reacts, both right then and from then on, that Simenon and Hare and Icke probe into.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: Ragtime, Charing Cross

"And say to those who blame us for the way we chose to fight
That sometimes there are battles that are more than black or white."

It’s impossible to watch Ragtime right now without marvelling at its relevance to the current US presidential election campaign and the lessons that were right there for Donald Trump and his team to learn. For in many ways, the show – written by Ahrens and Flaherty with book by Terrence McNally from EL Doctorow’s novel – is about the development of the modern American nation and identifies three key groups instrumental in that societal change in women, African-Americans and immigrant communities, the very people Trump has done his damnedest to alienate.

Politics aside, what’s more significant is the magical touch that director Thom Southerland seems to have when it comes to reconceiving musicals, as his actor-musician production here at the Charing Cross Theatre is an extraordinary success. Keeping most of his 24-strong company onstage throughout amplifies the overarching humanity of its storytelling, reminding us that these are all of our stories regardless of whichever group we ‘belong’. Combined with the expert musicality onstage and an ingenious design from Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher, it’s an irresistible adaptation that shouldn’t be missed.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Barbican Plymouth

“Capital P

Too soon for panto? Oh no it isn’t. Although The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was actually the 2014 Christmas show for Plymouth’s Barbican Theatre and proved so popular that it returned for another run at Easter this year and once more for a final 3 performances. Conceived by Devon-based troupe Le Navet Bete, it’s a rip-roaring, cross-dressing, roller-skating, Irish-dancing, popcorn-tossing gem of a show and thus it’s easy to see why it has engendered such popularity.

Whether by accident or design, it’s a canny choice of festive show – it’s a bit tougher to put on Dick Whittington in the middle of the year – but key to its success has surely been around the decisions to aim for a timelessness with the writing. Pantos often make their mark with up-to-the-minute jokes and musical numbers which is all fine and dandy, as they’re generally not looking far beyond the middle of the following January.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Review: Musical of the Year, LOST

"I yearn as I burn"

Stephen Lanigan-O’Keeffe and Owain Rose's Musical of the Year pops up as something of a surprise, a genuinely funny musical theatre extravaganza in the mould of something like Forbidden Broadway as it parodies any number of big musicals from the last 60 years. The conceit is a simple one - the year is 1955 and college sweethearts Rudy Brown and Lizzie Conlon are looking for ways to update a musical they wrote together. They decide to ape the style of the big award-winning musical of the year and when that fails, Rudy tries time and time again.

Their show is based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so we're instantly given a helping hand in terms of the story being told. But even then, there's a clever advancement of the travails of Quasimodo, Esmeralda et al that brings real interest to the songs, in addition to the pastiches that they engender. There's an occasional urge to overegg the pudding in terms of making sure we 'get' it (the shows referenced are all in the programme) but if you can resist, there's real joy in working out what's coming next and its plot will be intertwined with the events of the show.

Review: Imogen, Shakespeare's Globe

"Is there no way for men to be, but women must be half-workers?"

Whichever way you cut it, I still find that Cymbeline is a tough play to love and it's not for a lack of trying on my part. I struggled with it at the Sam Wanamaker earlier this year and I'll be trying out the RSC's version once it hits the Barbican later this month. As for now, it's Matthew Dunster's turn to have a go at the play, this time outside at the Globe and in keeping with the new regime, the play has been "renamed and reclaimed" as Imogen, as befits the part of Cymbeline's daughter who has in fact twice as many lines.

Even with Maddy Hill (an unexpectedly moving Titania, among others, in Go People's A Midsummer Night's Dream) in the title role and a wonderfully diverse ensemble incorporating a signing deaf actor among others, Imogen remained difficult. For all the contemporary gangland setting (Jonathan McGuinness' king is now a drug lord), Imogen's o'er-hasty marriage to the feckless Posthumus (a good Ira Mandela Siobhan) and subsequent devotion to him even as he proves himself to be a righteous cock doesn't quite fly. That said, the energy in the show is one that proves largely irresistible as sexy shenanigans, modern sounds, and kick-ass choreo combine to memorable effect, 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Review: BUZZ - A New Musical, Drayton Arms

"If you'd like to come in for some tea and a chat
I've got a double-ended one and you can sit on that"

Who needs Olivier when you can have Eddie?! The latter may be a slightly lesser known award than the illustrious former, but it is arguably a more important one for upcoming talent. For The Eddies were conceived by Antonio Ferrera, Artistic Director of the Drayton Arms, for shows taking part in the Edinburgh Fringe with a top prize of a three week run to the West London venue. So congratulations to Fat Rascal Theatre whose BUZZ - A New Musical has just transferred in toto.

And it's not hard to see why it took the prize. From the moment you enter the theatre and interact with the two cave dwellers also waiting for the show to start, the attention to detail in this comedy really is beautifully thought through. From the blink-and-miss-em gags (I loved the nod to Avenue Q) to the fully realised randomness (the pink bodysuit - just genius!), the show really does pack in the jokes and crucially, doesn't labour over them so that the running time simply flies by with real comic energy.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Review: The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty's (#Phantom30th)

"There are worse things than a shattered chandelier"

I've been blogging here for a handful of years now, but I've never quite made it to The Phantom of the Opera in that time (I think I saw it last in 2002). Probably because it has that 'old faithful' air about it, especially to those of us who live in London, but also because its enduring popularity means that there's rarely any ticket deals around for the show. Perhaps with an element of that in mind, the decision to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the show represented the perfect opportunity to finally revisit as tickets were most reasonably priced at £19.86 and £30.

And I'm glad I got to go again. There's undoubtedly a hoary quality to certain aspects of the show (the synth sound will never become a classic one...) but by and large, it is looking and sounding in pretty good shape for a 30 year old. This feels mainly down to the electric charge that comes from Ben Forster and Celinde Schoenmaker's lead performances as The Phantom and Christine Daaé. There's a refreshing, almost raw, emotional energy to their connection, manifesting itself in powerfully interpreted vocals, especially in 'The Music of the Night' and 'Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again' respectively.