Friday, 31 July 2015

CD Review: Godspell (New Broadway Cast Recording 2011)

“Learnin' every line and every last commandment
May not help you but it couldn't hurt"

Of course Crazy Eyes has a beautifully soulful voice, of course she does. In all honesty, I wasn’t much enjoying my listen of the New Broadway Cast Recording of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell until I got to the luxuriously chilled version of ‘By My Side’ when I suddenly took notice and realised that I recognised the name of the singer Uzo Aduba. She is now much more famous due to her award-winning role in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black but back in 2011, she was part of the cast of this production at Circle in the Square Theatre.

The cast recording is a very full one, featuring the 16 tracks of the show plus a (frankly unnecessary) bonus rendition of ‘Beautiful City’ by Five for Fighting’s John Ondrasik and an acoustic rendition of ‘Learn Your Lessons Well’. Michael Holland’s new arrangements certainly make their stamp on the songs, stripping them back to a near-hippyish vibe but wedded as I am to my early 90s version of the soundtrack, I do find it hard to really appreciate them as they’re just so different.

CD Review: Godspell (1993 Studio Cast)

“See ya later I'm going to the front of the thee-AY-ter"

Full disclosure, I’ve been listening to this version of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell for more years than I care to remember and before anyone really knew what luminaries many of these performers would become – Clive Rowe, Ruthie Henshall, John Barrowman…though perhaps we’ll skip past Darren Day. Using the composer’s original arrangements and conducted by himself, it is perhaps a tad traditional for the taste of some but for me, it hit the marks from top to bottom. 

Henshall going full-on Mae West in a vampy ‘Turn Back O Man’, Elisabeth Sastre and Jacqueline Dankworth complementing each other well in a beautifully harmonised ‘By My Side’, Day and Glyn Kerslake’s amusing romp through ‘All For The Best’, it’s all highly slick and professional. The air of reverence is strong throughout, mark Paul Manuel leading ‘All Good Gifts’ or Dankworth’s ‘Day By Day’ for example, classically done almost note for note from the sheet music.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

CD Review: The Kissing Dance or She Stoops To Conquer (2008 Cast)

"The sage shall play the knave tonight,
The maid shall misbehave tonight"

Howard Goodall's fruitful relationship with the National Youth Music Theatre has long been a mutually beneficial one and it was they who premiered The Kissing-Dance, his musical adaptation of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer back in 1998. What is truly remarkable is just who happened to be in that year-group - Sheridan Smith, Gina Beck, Simon Thomas, Alex Hassell, Michael Jibson...the list goes on. And 10 years on, they gathered once again to record Howard Goodall's score.

The show received its professional premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2011 and in a neat twist, saw Gina Beck reprise the very same role of the headstrong Kate Hardcastle and Ian Virgo also return to the cast but graduating from scallywag Tony Lumpkin to impecunious but irresistible Charles Marlow. And having that familiarity with the score meant it was a delight to go back and delve into its melodic wonderment once again. It is recognisably Goodall to be sure but with a distinct pastoral bent to it which has a pleasingly differentiating effect.

Review: Bakkhai, Almeida

"I am somewhat...supernatural"

What is most fascinating about the way that the Almeida Greeks season is unfolding is that it is as interested in interrogating storytelling as much as stories. As with Aeschylus' Oresteia and now Euripides' Bakkhai, we're being presented with striking new versions of these familiar tales which simultaneously make a case for why they have endured into a third millennium rather than complacently assuming they will just speak to modern audiences regardless.

Robert Icke incisively opened up the domestic and legal ramifications of the House of Atreus in forensic detail. And now Anne Carson, following her version of Antigone for Ivo van Hove, and director James Macdonald position their Bakkhai deep in the recesses of folk memory, a guttural song passed from generation to generation with its cautionary tale of the consequences of leading society to defy convention. It is sure to be divisive but I have to say that I found it endlessly interesting.

CD Review: Closer to Heaven (Original Cast Recording)

“Give me hope
Give me all your love" 

Everything is better with Frances Barber in it, it’s kind of a mantra for life. The Union Theatre’s recent production of Closer to Heaven shifted its entire allocation of tickets before it had even started but I wonder if that would have been the case if people had had a sneak preview of it. Despite its hard-working cast, it didn’t quite hit all the bases that would have warranted a sell-out success from after press night but you can’t begrudge them for that, the producers clearly tapped into a desire to see the show revived. 

Its original run at the Arts Theatre was not a runaway hit, being curtailed after lacklustre sales (blamed in part on 9/11 affecting tourism) but an original cast recording of the soundtrack, featuring studio versions of the songs, was released, helping the show to maintain and even build on its cult status. And listening to the album, you can see why people were keen for it to return. Shorn of most of Jonathan Harvey’s lumpen book, the focus falls squarely on the cracking score by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe and the real depth of feeling that the cast bring to the material.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

CD Review: Songs for a New World (1996 Original Cast)

“I'll give you hope to bring out all the life inside you ”

Haven't got a huge amount more to say about Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World as the recent St James' Theatre production is still looming fresh in the mind. This recording from the original production 20 years ago is well-accomplished though and certainly has more of that authentic New York feel to it that characterises so much of his early work.

Brooks Ashmanskas, Andréa Burns, Jessica Molaskey and Ty Taylor are the awesome foursome here - Molaskey the real stand-out as her character gets the lion's share of the vividly memorable songs - the witty Surabaya-Santa, the almost slapstick comedy of Just One Step and the elegiac beauty of Stars and the Moon, probably the show's best known break-out hit.

CD Review: Parade (Original London Cast 2007)

“Call for justice! We need justice!
Beat the bastard! Kill the bum!"

Based on historical events from the turn of the last century in Atlanta, Georgia, Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade has been something of a slow-burning theatrical success – its original 1998 Broadway run criminally short, ending way before it won 2 Tonys, but later tours and overseas productions cementing its reputation as a sterling piece of new musical theatre. In the UK, Southwark Playhouse had a grand production in 2011 but 2007 saw the Donmar deliver a work of small-scale genius which was captured in its entirety on this double-disc recording.

Perhaps not the most likely of subjects for a piece of musical theatre, the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank - Bertie Carvel in the role here - for the rape and murder of a 13 year old employee Mary Phagan benefits hugely from the musical treatment. The trial caused a big media sensation in the US and forced an examination of the (not so) latent anti-Semitism in this southern state offering a wide range of opportunities to explore musical styles, estimably executed by Thomas Murray’s 9-strong band playing David Cullen’s new orchestrations. 

Cast of Parade Cast Recording continued

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

CD Review: The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

“We had such hopes..."

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Phantom of the Opera decamped to the Royal Albert Hall for 3 performances, the highlights of which were spliced together to give a full CD/DVD release package which contains as full a rendering of the entire score as it currently available. Maybe it was a rush job though as the sound quality on this CD really isn’t good enough for it to be genuinely recommendable, even for a live recording. 

I also had mixed feelings about the production itself. I just can’t get on with Sierra Boggess’ voice, her soprano voice always erring to the too shrill for my liking and the vibrato she employs has all the subtlety of a jackhammer. Christine isn’t the strongest-written of roles at the best of times and Boggess just feels too emotionally vapid to be the inspiration of such all-conquering adoration as she is served with in this story.

Cast of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall continued

Cast of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall continued

Cast of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall continued

Cast of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall continued

CD Review: The Phantom of the Opera (Highlights from the Original Canadian Cast)

“Our passion-play has now at last begun”

Despite being a London institution these days, I haven’t visited The Phantom of the Opera since moving to London more than a decade ago now and so I couldn’t tell you very much about the life it has had over the past 30 years or so (or indeed the show, it’s probably more like 20 since I last saw it). And one of the fascinating things about picking up random theatrically-inclined CDs over the last wee while has been uncovering some of the history about the productions and plugging it into the more general theatrical knowledge that I’ve accumulated.

So whilst I knew Rebecca Caine was known for her Christine as a consequence of seeing her cabarets, I didn’t know that she started off her Phantom life as an alternate in the West End production before heading up the cast of the original Canadian production. And I didn’t know that Colm Wilkinson originally workshopped the role of the Phantom but declined to take the role proper in favour of a little known show called Les Misérables (where his stage daughter was played by no other than Rebecca Caine!). His time to play the Phantom came a couple of years later in Toronto and having relocated his family in the process, has lived there ever since.

Monday, 27 July 2015

CD Review: Will Barratt - Confessions of a Justified Sinner

"Take my hand..."

There's always something a little tricky when performers best known for musical theatre release an album of original material as a natural gift for song-writing clearly doesn't automatically follow being able to sing the songs of others well. Fortunately, in the case of Will Barratt, an actor who has performed in such huge shows as Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera and Jersey Boys, that musical ability is clear and present in his album Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

15 years in the making, Barratt has been writing since starting music college and this collection of 14 self-penned songs both stretches back to that time as well as representing the singer he has become. And it is a hugely accomplished affair, produced by Joe Davison and Auburn Jam Records it has the kind of contemporary sheen that means you really could imagine it appearing in the Top 40 but equally importantly, the song-writing has the confidence and brio to pull it off. 

Sunday, 26 July 2015

CD Review: Gypsy (2015 London Cast Recording)

“I had a dream, a wonderful dream"

From the moment Imelda Staunton shook the very foundations of the Chichester Festival Theatre as Mama Rose, it was pretty much a given that a West End transfer of this Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim show would be on the cards and that this incredible performance would be immortalised in an official cast recording. And it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Staunton is wowing audiences nightly at the Savoy and that we have been blessed with an album, for this is the kind of musical theatre perfection that surely only comes along once in a lifetime. 

Much of the attention rightly falls on Staunton’s astonishingly nuanced portrayal of the ultimate stage mom but it would be a mistake to label this a one-woman show, Jonathan Kent’s production is far too good for that. She is supported by an extremely skilful performance from Lara Pulver as Gypsy Rose Lee, tracing this overlooked sister’s journey to unexpected stardom and listening to the growing confidence ‘Let Me Entertain You (Gypsy Strip)', her shyness is cast off vocally as well as physically, like a chrysalis revealing the shimmering showgirl beneath. 

Cast of Gypsy London Cast Recording continued

CD Review: Gypsy (2008 Broadway Cast Recording)

“Here she is she is world!” 

Listening to the 2008 Broadway Cast Recording of Gypsy hard on the heels of the London cast recording, I was a little worried that it might just pale by comparison, especially since I was able to see the show at the Savoy and pay endless tribute to Imelda Staunton. But with the formidable Patti LuPone at the helm, this is just as strong a Mama Rose, if dramatically and musically much different. This album has the added bonus of a suite of songs that were cut from the original production.

The production is perhaps most infamous for being the scene of one of LuPone’s first recorded outbursts against audiences members using devices in her presence (see video below) but having seen the show here in London and listened to LuPone’s rendition of the show-stopping Rose’s Turn, I don’t think you can blame her for criticising someone for shocking a performer out of in the intensity of such a moment (and not simply bathing in it themselves).

Saturday, 25 July 2015

CD Review: Made in Dagenham (Original London Cast Recording 2015)

“And still we're only dreaming for change, change, change..."

Any semi-regular reader will know the love I had for the late lamented musical of Made in Dagenham so my pleasure at a live cast recording being released was boundless indeed as I always thought that David Arnold’s score was one of the more under-rated parts of the production. And it is so nice to have this kind of full reminder of a much-beloved show although I have to say the first couple of times I listened to this soundtrack, I was still too filled with sadness at its early closing.

But now I’m fully in the appreciating stage and there’s lots to love here. This recording really emphasises the female voice(s) and picks out the sophistication of much of the harmony that wasn’t always immediately apparent at the Adelphi. The spit-wielding mothers of ‘Busy Woman’, the wary onlookers of ‘Storm Clouds’, the weary strikers of ‘We Nearly Had It All’, the depth of the female ensemble just sounds like a dream.

Cast of Made in Dagenham Cast Recording continued

Cast of Made in Dagenham Cast Recording continued

Friday, 24 July 2015

Review: Songs for a New World, St James

“I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly 
The way you used to look at me”

Like many things in real life, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World defies easy description. Not really a musical, not quite a song cycle, it’s an abstract anthology of diverse songs that circle around a similar theme of making a decision. One of his first shows to be produced and now 20 years old, it represents perhaps the purest distillation of his piano-based pop-rock stylings even as we skip between the various times, places and people woven together into the patchwork of this one emotional journey.

A show like this stands or falls by its cast but director Adam Lenson has cast it to the hilt. Fresh off the hugely successful Here Lies Love, Dean John-Wilson brings real energy; perhaps a little undersung, Damian Humbley has built up a hugely impressive musical theatre CV; Cynthia Erivo has been making waves for a while now and this is her last UK engagement before heading to Broadway to reprise her role in The Color Purple; and Jenna Russell, oh Jenna Russell, as fine an exponent of Sondheim as she is of Bart Simpson, she’s the kind of performer who illuminates the stage even with just a hint of her presence.

CD Review: Songs from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

“Now there's lots o' things you gotta know”

A sneaky thing this. What might ostensibly look like a cast recording for the Open Air Theatre’s production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is actually a record “inspired” by said production, featuring vocals from three of its stars – Alex Gaumond, Sam O’Rourke and Laura Pitt-Pulford. What’s more, and what I find hardest to take, is the music and company backing vocals were actually recorded back in 1995! The lead vocals were done in May of this year, so well before the production had started, and with that knowledge it is hard not to feel a little cheated.

For once you know this Frankenstein nature, it’s hard to forget it. As the vocals work beautifully with the The National Symphony Orchestra’s playing, and rise up with the company of supporting vocalists, the fact remains that there is 20 years between them. Not that you’d notice, the stitching together has been done seamlessly and the CD as a whole really does sound good. And the songs are such classics that it is easy to get swept off your feet to ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’, ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’ and ‘We Gotta Make It Through The Winter’ amongst many many others.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Review: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Open Air Theatre

“Secretly they was overjoyed”

Rachel Kavanaugh’s glorious take on The Sound of Music two years ago for the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park was a wonderful thing indeed so it is little surprise to see her welcomed back to this venue to tackle another Golden Age classic, this time Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It’s a canny decision as her familiarity with the space shows, utterly unafraid to use its full width and depth for unexpected arrivals, slow reveals and thrilling chase sequences and of course, the coup de théâtre that is the pinnacle of Peter McKintosh’s design which is a real piece of old-fashioned theatre magic.

Kavanaugh also makes small but pointed attempts to address the dubious gender politics of the show, without ever sacrificing the spirit of fun that should always characterise such classic musical theatre. So from the first moment Adam and Milly clap eyes on each other, there’s no doubting that the erotic charge between them is mutual, her lustful glances perhaps even more overt than his. And the strength of Laura Pitt-Pulford’s performance is that she never lets us forget she’s a woman making her own choices, even if its just making the best of a bad lot. It’s not a perfect reconciliation of the issues but it feels enough for her, for now.

Cast of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers continued

Review: Showstopper, Udderbelly

“Ooh look at my spices"

A first trip back in ages to Showstopper and instant regret that I'd left it this long. I think perhaps I saw them too many times too close together so I took them for granted but regardless, their brief engagement on the South Bank ahead of an Edinburgh run enabled me to rectify this. The Showstopper company are an improv group who specialise in making up musicals on the spot, taking audience suggestions for titles, musical theatre styles and random plot points and somehow weaving them together into comedy gold.

Tonight's show was GunWharf Souk, set in 1945 the long-established Little Morocco area of Portsmouth, where sailors on shore leave find their heart captured by the locals even though their warship is waiting to take them back to the Pacific. As with much comedy, you kinda need to be there to hear how funny it is and I can assure you that it is quite simply hilarious to watch these talented performers (Ruth Bratt is a comedy genius, Pippa Evans also brilliant too) improvise so randomly and expertly from love songs to Lloyd-Webber, Sondheim to (Gilbert &) Sullivan. 

Review: The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales

“I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri”

In terms of first world problems, being constantly distracted by fellow audience member Kate Winslet probably ranks fairly highly but it is symbolic of the utter randomness that can accompany a gala performance. I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of The Book of Mormon which meant that in the haze of A-list to Z-list celebrities, the battle to get into the theatre, the newspaper reviews that had already been published and a thousand and one opinion pieces of one of the cannier marketing campaigns of recent times, it was difficult to separate out just what I really thought of the show itself. 

With the show not exactly being the cheapest – premium tickets have now apparently broken the £200 mark for Saturday nights – it hasn’t been easy to find the optimum opportunity to go back (or taken my chances on their lottery). Until now that is, when a rare deal popped into my Twitter feed courtesy of @BargainTheatre and a £40 ticket on the end of row B in the stalls saw me making the trip once again to the Prince of Wales theatre, unencumbered by expectation or excitement and much more able to take in Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s show on its own merits. 

Cast of The Book of Mormon continued

Cast of The Book of Mormon continued

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Review: Three Days in the Country, National Theatre

“You simply can’t just jump on the back of a cow!

8 months ago

Patrick Marber: Hi, can I speak to Rufus please
National Theatre: Who is this?
PM: Patrick Marber
NT: Oh I remember you, you used to write plays…
PM: I still do. In fact I’ve got a new one I’d like you guys to put on, and an adaptation too
NT: Great news, we’ll put the new play on in the Dorfman, it’ll be fab
PM: And I’ve done an adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country too
NT: The new play will be fine thanks
PM: They’re a set. You have to take both.
NT: Ah they’re interlinked are they?
PM: No, I want you to accept both
NT: Oh…
PM: And I want to direct the Turgenev
NT: Riiight

Cast of Three Days in the Country continued

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Review: The Audience, Apollo

“A good Labour woman…”

Not content with becoming a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year, Kristin Scott Thomas was also awarded an upgraded Légion d’honneur (from chevalier to officer to be precise) in what has become something of a banner year for her. She’s also completing the not-inconsiderable feat of stepping into Helen Mirren’s award-winning shoes as Her Royal Highness Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s The Audience, whilst Dame Helen reprises the role and the award-winning on Broadway.

Morgan’s revival has updated the play a little from its first outing – Tony Blair is in, Jim Callaghan is out, the recent election gets its mention with a barbed Miliband joke, but essentially it remains the same non-confrontational easy-Sunday-evening –television style viewing. The parade of PMs mostly play off a sole predictable character note, the Queen gets an easy ride of it with a strange intimation of where her personal politics might lie, there’s not a dramatic surprise to be had in here nor anything truly arresting through all its luxuriousness.

Cast of The Audience continued

Review: The Invisible, Bush

“When I was growing up the poor were seen as unfortunates. Now they’re seen as manipulative. Grasping. Scroungers. It’s very sad”

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new drama The Invisible finds itself caught between two stools really – nominally a play about the effects of the decimating cuts to the Legal Aid system, it tries so hard not to be full of such dry legalese, instead focusing on the lives of the people who would use it - who desperately need it - that it almost goes too far in becoming something else entirely. Sponsored by The Law Society as it is with a supporting leaflet giving facts and figures, it’s thus a surprise that this is how it plays out.

At the heart of it all in Gail, an overworked solicitor working in a London law centre that is being threatened with closure due to Coalition cuts and from her spins the spider-web of stories. Like the Irishman who can’t pay his bills, or the Pakistani housewife being abused by her husband and mother-in-law. Gail tries to find some respite in online dating but even there she’s tracked down by a man looking for free legal advice – Lenkiewicz leaves us in no doubt as to just how many people have relied on this service and now find themselves in dire straits.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Review: The Effect, Sheffield Crucible

“I can tell the difference between who I am and a side effect”

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect ranked as my 12th favourite play of 2012, Rupert Goold’s Headlong production for the National Theatre proving to be a quietly devastating piece of theatre exploring notions of self and identity through the prism of depression and drugs. Two willing volunteers take part in a medical trial for a new kind of anti-depressant, despite not suffering from depression themselves, and are monitored for any side effects by a doctor and a medical rep who have their own tangled history which further impacts the study.

Stuck in isolation together, guinea pigs Tristan and Connie swiftly fall head over heels – Henry Pettigrew and Ophelia Lovibond giving two stunning performances of a palpable chemistry – and Prebble raises the question of whether love is the drug or is their connection is due to the actual drugs in their veins. From that, she also probes into perceptions of depression – Stuart Bunce’s trial director believes his pill can cure or do anything but sinking into her own bleak mental morass, Priyanga Burford’s achingly fragile Dr James isn’t so sure. 

Review: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Above the Arts

“Have you just lost your way?
‘Repressed confused or gay?’”

Just a quickie for this, a late-hours performance late in the run in a vilely hot tiny auditorium perched atop no-one’s favourite West End theatre. I hadn’t been Above the Arts before and I remain unconvinced that it is an essential addition to our theatres, especially in this heat. Fortunately, Kirk Jameson’s production of Jimmy Roberts and Joe DiPietro’s off-Broadway stalwart I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change was good enough to almost take my mind off it.

With old Avenue Q friends Julie Atherton and Simon Lipkin joined by Gina Beck and Samuel Holmes, this is about as good as musical theatre casting gets, especially for a fringe production and the quality of this quartet smoothed over most of the weaknesses of the show. A revue-ish song cycle type of thing, it whips through a set of loosely connected vignettes about the various trials and tribulations between a man and a woman.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Review: She Stoops To Conquer, Theatre Royal Bath

“Pardon me madam. I was always willing to be amused. The folly of most people is rather an object 
of mirth than uneasiness."

Restoration comedies fit the Theatre Royal Bath with the snugness of centuries-old comfort but even with Lindsay Posner updating She Stoops To Conquer to the 1920s, it’s hard not to feel that there’s something inherently dusty about this austere venue. Audiences in London have been spoiled for choice with witty reinventions of the genre – Jessica Swale’s brilliant revisionist work on shows like The Rivals and The Busy Body have enlivened the Southwark Playhouse and the National has had raucous takes on The Beaux’ Stratagem (still running) and this very Oliver Goldsmith play effervescently directed by Jamie Lloyd.

But Posner ‘s direction has a near-fatal lugubriousness in the first half which, already weighed down with a considerable amount of scene-setting and expositionary dialogue, makes for very hard going. Sad to say, things are just dull for too long and nowhere near light-heartedly entertaining enough to do justice to this cracking comedy. The tropes of mismatched love affairs, disguised paramours, mistaken identities and wonderfully ambitious women are all present and correct - London gents Marlow and Hastings mistaking the Hardcastles’ country pile for a country inn and have to go a country mile around the houses to undo the damage they inflict and ensure love wins the day.

CD Review: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

“Beware, beware, for bears can be scary”

Naturally, Stiles & Drewe are big in Singapore, why wouldn’t they be?! Goldilocks and the Three Bears was originally commissioned by Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Little Company and slots into the composing duo’s trilogy of trios, which will eventually see three mini-musicals based on fairytales that can be performed by the same ensemble of five actors. The third, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, will come in 2016, the first The Three Little Pigs will be seen at the Palace Theatre throughout August having previously had a cast recording released and this, the second, now gets a similar West End studio treatment through SimG Productions

As a family show, there’s something of a simplicity about the song-writing here but there’s certainly no dip in quality. Stiles & Drewe’s propensity for a bright, direct melody is ideal for this format and the decision to focus the book on the family of bears is a clever one, allowing for a cracking opening trio of songs. ‘A Family of Bears’ introduces the tight family unit of Mother Bear, Father Bear and Baby Bear, ‘Porridge’ neatly covers a breakfast cooking lesson but ‘Beware’ sets up the most interesting notion, the parents warning their child about the scary humans who sometimes invade the woods that make up their home.

CD Review: A Spoonful of Sherman (Original London Cast Recording)

“It’s a world of wonder
A world of worth”

It’s quite something when the highlight of a show that includes excerpts from such perennial classics as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Jungle Book ends up being a pair of songs from a film that comparatively few would have heard of - The Slipper and the Rose. But such is the depth of song-writing talent in the three generations of the Sherman family celebrated in A Spoonful of Sugar, the Original London Cast Recording of which has just been released by SimG Records

From famed Tin Pan Alley composer Al Sherman to his sons Robert and Richard who became the most successful song-writing partnership in the history of Hollywood through to Robert’s son Robbie, an established writer in his own right, this revue covers nearly a century of popular song-writing by one family and the astonishing breadth of the musical legacy that they have left, and are still leaving, behind – this cabaret was indeed created by Robbie himself.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Review: Sincerely Yours, Landor

“Your eyes will tell me all I want to know
When you come home once more”

Christmas 1944 in an end-of-the-pier theatre in Clacton-on-Sea – Sincerely Yours sees a troupe of entertainers put on a show for the latest conscripts about to ship off to the front and looks at their lives both on and off the stage as Britain enters another year of war and they themselves go overseas to join the war effort. Part of the LAMBCO Fringe Festival at the Landor, it’s a sweetly-played nostalgic tribute to those who endured through wartime, and to those who did not. 

The show is at its strongest in the production numbers, which are really rather impressive. Robbie O’Reilly’s choreography works well in the limitations of this space to still give a full tap routine with ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ and keeps its tongue firmly in cheek when Carmen Miranda gets involved. Jennifer Sims, Sarah Goggin and Sarah Day are fabulous as an Andrews Sister-esque vocal trio, ‘Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree’ and ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, two highlights among many.

Cast of Sincerely Yours continued

Friday, 17 July 2015

Review: Lovett and Todd, King’s Head

“When it comes down to it, meat is still meat”

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and Another Soup’s actor-musician-ish Lovett and Todd shows us there’s another way to make meat pies out of murder. Adapting the terrible tale of Sweeney Todd, Dave Spencer spins the focus onto Mrs Cornelia Lovett, asking us to question how their partnership really came about and how she really managed to convince him to be the Paul Hollywood to her Mary Berry in her gruesome take on the Great British Bake-Off

Having come from Edinburgh last summer, Spencer’s production has an anarchic energy which revels in its rough edges and participatory feel. Will you be selected for a shave or commandeered for a dance, chances are if you’re on the front row you might well be and this genial spirit is the one that prevails despite the subject matter. There’s an almost sketch-show feel to the bawdy comedy and one can imagine it going down a storm on the fringe. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Review: Taken in Marriage, Waterloo East

"It’s too hard to be a man. And very few of them do it well, when they do it at all.”

It’s not too difficult to see what might have enticed RoL’n Productions to Thomas Babe’s 1979 play Taken in Marriage in the first place. As a company determined “to provide opportunities for the many talented yet underrepresented women in this industry”, a piece for 5 actresses would certainly appeal but it is hard to see how that attraction didn’t fade upon further examination of the text for it really doesn’t feel like a strong piece of writing.

In a New Hampshire church hall, the rehearsal for Annie’s imminent marriage to Henry is about to start and gathering her mother, aunt and sister around her along with a Texan wedding singer wanting to get paid, this should be a time for happiness. Instead, they find themselves sequestered in a basement revealing new aspects of their personalities and confronting any number of long-hidden home truths because, well, that’s what you do in a play.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Re-review: Oresteia, Almeida

“This cannot be a place where the woman is less important"

There was no chance I wasn't going to book for Robert Icke's Oresteia again, I came out of it first time round quite sure that I'd seen one of the shows of the year and on second viewing, I am still firmly of that view. My original review can be read here and there isn't too much more to be said aside from reiterating wow, wow, wow - how exciting it would be if this heralded just a handful more productions looking towards Europe for their inspiration and succeeding so thrillingly.

So the gauntlet has been laid for the Oresteias yet to come - at the Globe and at Manchester's HOME, but also for the rest of the Greeks season. Bakkhai may already be sold out with Medea to follow and the anticipation could not be higher.

Running time: 3 hours 40 minutes
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 18th July, sold out but returns possible and well worth queuing for

Review: Constellations, Trafalgar Studios

"If you never want to see me again, you never have to see me again"

In another universe, I've written a brilliant, brand new review of this well-deserved West End transfer of the recent UK touring production of Nick Payne's Constellations. But in this one, I wanted to get home early to take part in a Twitter discussion about blogging, I've got too much 9 to 5 work to do before heading off my hols, and I've already reviewed the show four times in each of its different major productions - so you'll have to make do with a link to my review from the beginning of the tour. But rest assured, I'd happily continue seeing this show in all its heart-breaking glory on a regular basis.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 1st August

Monday, 13 July 2015

Review: The Mentalists, Wyndhams

“People won’t like all that control stuff”

Well Stephen Merchant may be rangy but he sure ain’t got range. Which isn’t that much of a problem if you’re a fan, which I suppose is kinda the point when it comes to stunt casting, but for the regular theatre-goer is more problematic. For he is considerably exposed – literally so at times, if beanpole is your thing – for the nearly two hours of this two-hander in the Wyndham’s Theatre, marking his West End debut.

Richard Bean’s The Mentalists has been described by the playwright as “a dialectic between permissiveness and authoritarianism” but essentially it boils down to two men shooting the breeze in a hotel room somewhere in Finsbury Park, the one complaining about his lot in life, the other seemingly just going along for the ride. Naturally there’s more to it than that as the mood darkens, motives are revealed, truths come to light etc etc

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Review: Rhythm of Life, St James

“Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet”

A week bookended by cabaret turns from Debbie Kurup can be no bad thing indeed and whilst we covered the catalogue of Kander + Ebb earlier in the week, it’s now the turn of Cy Coleman to get the tribute treatment with Rhythm of Life, the world premiere of a revue which has the added bonus of 5 never-performed-in-London-before songs from the Cy Coleman archive. Joining Kurup was Marti Webb, John Barr and Cedric Neal with musical director Michael Webborn leading them from his piano.

And when focused on the music, this is some enchanted evening indeed (to borrow a phrase). Coleman’s compositions include such classics as Sweet Charity, On The Twentieth Century and City of Angels (recently seen at the Donmar Warehouse), I can’t honestly include Barnum in that number… Lesser known works also shine in this format, the best songs cherry-picked from shows like The Life and Seesaw, demonstrating the wide range of collaborators with whom he worked across his career.

Review: Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs, Southwark Playhouse

“Our ultimate goal’ll be t’realise all our dreams, take our proper place in the scheme of things, an’ achieve absolute power”

You don’t get many plays set in Huddersfield but Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs is such a one, written by the late David Halliwell who also wrote a play called K D Dufford Hears K D Dufford Ask K D Dufford How K D Dufford'll Make K D Dufford and wrote a story for the Sixth Doctor that was tantalisingly never produced. This 50th anniversary production at the Southwark Playhouse is not without its challenges – the trimmed text still flirts with the three hour mark plus the late starting time in the smaller studio and both audience and duffle-coated cast alike are suffering from the lack of air-con.

Duly warned, there’s a fascinating density to the torrent of verbosity here. Expelled from art school, Malcolm Scrawdyke fumes in his cluttered bedsit and decides to form his own political party from whence he can wreak vengeance on those who have wronged him and then wage rebellion against the world at large. Gathering fellow disillusioned souls around him, the fury of his rage elevates him – in his mind’s eye at least – to an exalted position as he rants and raves and plans and paves the way for revolution, if they could make it out of the front door that is.

Review: Orson's Shadow, Southwark Playhouse

“When and where did you hear the rumour that I've been playing to empty houses?”

When a play is “based on true events”, there’s always a tricky line to tread as the very nature of theatre is to be, well, theatrical and the truth be damned. And when the subjects are such well-known luminaries as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier with a side helping of Joan Plowright and Vivien Leigh and rounded off by Kenneth Tynan, the blurring between fact and fiction is even further tested, especially if you know anything about these figures.

Austin Pendleton’s Orson's Shadow centres on Welles’ ill-fated decision to direct Olivier in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, at Tynan’s instigation as the playwright would have it, all three men in their twilight of their careers or at least a crossroads on the part of Olivier. From Tynan’s machinations to make this happen to the rehearsal rooms of the Royal Court where egos clash and sparks fly - though married to Leigh, Olivier’s co-star Plowright was also his lover – it’s a titanic battle between genuine titans.

DVD Review: Wimbledon

"Four million tennis players in the world, and I'm 119th. But what that really means is this - 118 guys out there are faster, stronger, better and younger."

It seems most unlikely but I don’t think I’ve ever seen 2004 romcom Wimbledon or if I have, I’ve erased every trace of it from my mind. And as it is that time of year again in SW19, it seemed as good a time as any to load it up for a spot of viewing on a train journey this past weekend. Whilst it is no great shakes as a tennis film or really does much as a ‘com’, it has a sweet charm to it with no small thanks to a likeable Kirsten Dunst as a tennis brat of a heroine and the slightly odd decision to Hugh Grant-ify its leading man Paul Bettany, clearly the only option for a British romcom.

Bettany plays Peter Colt, a Henman-esque figure of a nearly-there British tennis number one whose recent poor form has seen him plummet in the rankings and consider retirement. A chance meeting with upcoming US player Lizzie Bradbury puts a fizz in his step and the swing back in his serve and his wildcard for Wimbledon suddenly looks like an unlikely opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory. With his barely supportive family on the sidelines and Jaime Lannister himself as a hitting partner who looks good in a sauna, it seems Centre Court is beckoning him for one last hurrah.

DVD Review: Match Point

"I'm so sick of this acting thing, it's just not working out"

If Woody Allen’s Match Point had been set in the Hamptons as it was originally meant to be, I think I would really like this film but as it is, its relocation to London proves to be a constant distraction as this glossily cinematic version of my hometown is often ludicrous. Yes it is fiction and yes it is set in the world of the idly uber-rich with all their casual trips to Ralph Lauren and chauffeured cars but as with James Bond surfing down the escalators on the tube in Skyfall it’s the little things that draw the attention. 

From the unrelenting RP accents to scarcely believable dialogue in the “London Police”, the revelation that being “born in Belgravia” is the key to a lifetime of cultural invitations and the insistence on only showing postcard-pretty shots of London, Match Point has little anchoring in the real world and especially not in the city where it is now set. Putting aside the unlikelihood of shop workers being able to afford cabs home everyday and even worse, neighbours actually talking to each other in a friendly manner, it’s all just so superficial.

Cast of Match Point continued

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Review: As Is, Trafalgar Studios 2

“You have HIV, you’re not radioactive” 

William M Hoffman’s As Is has the distinction of being the first play to be written about the Aids epidemic but what is more impressive about this production, which comes 30 years after its 1985 New York debut, is that it doesn’t feel a dated period piece. Director Andrew Keates respectfully looks to the past – a memorial wall is provided for audience members to pay tribute to those that have been lost – but firmly anchors us in the present with a wide range of post-show activity exploring the sexual health issues that are still a major part of our world today.

It also helps that Hoffman’s play is really rather well constructed. It may be set in the middle of a New York gay scene slowly coming to terms with its decimation but at its heart, it is a poignant love story. Self-satisfied and sexually voracious, Rich swaggers through the world but as he contracts the disease that is afflicting so many of those around him, his relationships with friends, family and society in general are forcefully redefined. Clinging to devoted ex Saul, it’s a deeply affecting personal odyssey but a defiantly proud one too.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Review: The House of Mirrors and Hearts, Arcola

“There’s beauty in the breaking of things”

Despite sounding like a lost novel by Gabriel García Márquez, The House of Mirror and Hearts is actually something a lot closer to home, although no less rare, an original British musical. Written by Eamonn O’Dwyer and Rob Gilbert with music and lyrics by O’Dwyer too, it is the tale of a household torn apart by grief, where secrets have been held unspoken for nearly a decade, and resentments allowed to fester into toxic antipathy. The arrival of a nerdish lodger threatens to upset the fragile balance but it is far from clear if this will bring release to the Keanes or just another seven years bad luck and misery. 

Developed by Perfect Pitch and co-produced with Aria Entertainment, it is clear that much love and care has gone into nurturing this piece of musical theatre into life, in all its challenging, angular beauty. O’Dwyer’s score has a pleasingly complex bent to it - those who judge musicals by their instant hummability will be left (mistakenly) disappointed – full of intensely unexpected harmonies and contrapuntal melodic lines that demand rapt attention and richly reward relistens (head to the Arcola’s website where 8 of the songs can be heard) – the music emerges as a thing of a jagged beauty.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Review: The Skriker, Royal Exchange

“No mistake no mister no missed her no mist no miss no”

As my dear Aunty Mary used to say, by the crin! Sarah Frankcom’s production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker is a properly gobsmacking piece of work, the kind of theatre that leaves you reeling from its sheer audacity, its free-wheeling inventiveness and a general sense of what-the-fuckery. Maxine Peake’s acting career has been far too varied for a peak to ever be declared (though for me, Twinkle ftw) but it is hard to imagine her any more hauntingly, viscerally, intense than she is here, wrapping every sinew of her body around the often bafflingly complex wordplay and utterly owning it with an authoritative otherworldliness.

There’s a plot. Kind of. Though it is literally, and physically, hard to follow. Frankcom has lavished huge amounts of creativity onto the show and empowered her creatives to be daring, so that it becomes akin to an art installation in how densely visual it becomes. Imogen Knight’s choreography haunts every scene as an ensemble of 12 keep a strange and kinetic energy coursing through the theatre, Jack Knowles’ artistically inspired lighting playfully pulls the perspective one way then the other, and Lizzie Clachan’s reinvention of the physical space of the auditorium has to be seen to really be believed (book the stalls, seriously) as it rewrites the rules of engagement.

Cast of The Skriker continued

Music Review: Björk, Castlefield Arena

“At last the view is fierce
All that matters is”

It is four years since Björk launched her Biophilia installation with a residency at Campfield Market Hall and she now returns to the Manchester International Festival with the first European show of her Vulnicura tour. An open air gig in the north-west is a risky enterprise even in the midst of a July heatwave and sadly my nephew’s birthday party earlier in the afternoon had to draw the sting of the forecast rain so that we could get a blessedly dry and sunny evening in the Castlefield Arena.

And what an evening. Blending the intimacy and innovative song structures of her latest album Vulnicura, charting her break-up with Matthew Barney, with an exhilarating rummage through the back catalogue (look and learn, Kanye West), the seemingly indefatigable Björk remains as fresh and vital a live presence as she ever has – the uniqueness of her onstage emittances and indeed movement, the intense musicality that comes from her collaborators, the stunning clarity of that voice.

Review:, Palace Theatre

“You have to live in this world"

The lure of falling down the rabbit hole is one which has kept adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland appearing on a regular basis on screens and stages and the Manchester International Festival is no exception, commissioning this musical treatment with the National Theatre and Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet. Composer Damon Albarn (no stranger to the MIF after Monkey and Dr Dee) and writer Moira Buffini’s thoroughly modern version – stylised wonder dot land - certainly has a unique take on the story but has the feeling of something of a work-in-progress perhaps, no bad thing as longer runs in London and Paris will follow this brief engagement at the Palace Theatre.

Here, is an online world, a virtual reality where people can escape the drudgery of their own lives or pretend to be someone completely different, for a little while at least. 12-year-old Aly is one such person, trying to hide from the bullies at school and the unhappiness at home by becoming Alice, her all-conquering avatar or online identity who accepts a mysterious quest as part of joining And in her journeying, she comes across variations on many of the characters we’ve come to know but viewed through a different prism, many of them being the avatars of other players, balefully reflecting their own insecurities. 

Cast of continued

Review: The World Goes Round, Pheasantry

“What dancing in the park? What laughter in the dark?”

I always find it hard to write much about cabarets that doesn’t just end up as a list of the songs sung, so I’m keeping it short for this one. With the extensive tour of Anything Goes shortened by economic necessity, opportunities to see its leading lady Debbie Kurup again have become available sooner rather than later which has proven something of a bonus. She’ll be in Rhythm of Life, a Cy Coleman celebration later this week but right now she is delving into the work of John Kander and Fred Ebb in The World Goes Round, a cabaret first put together in 1991.

It cherry-picks from a wide range of Kander and Ebb’s collaborations, for film and TV as well as stage, and digs deep into the catalogue to feature lesser known shows like The Happy Time and The Act as well as the marquee numbers like Cabaret and Chicago. And as such it makes for an interesting journey through some brilliant songwriting and in the intimate surroundings of The Pheasantry in this Speckulation Entertainments prodiction, some excellent musicianship from the band of three led by Kris Rawlinson.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Review: HintHunt, King's Cross

Image result for hinthunt

"Don't trust your teammates to check everything properly"

So naturally, I post a review mentioning how much fun a live version of The Crystal Maze might be and within a couple of days, they launch a Kickstarter for that very thing and I found out too late to get the earlybird tickets (I don't doubt it'll be ace but £50 is a bit steep...). But in slightly more serendipitous circumstances, a walk back to the office from a meeting revealed to me that HintHunt London was actually less than 10 minutes away from us, just down a side street from Euston station. So gathering the team that tried (and failed) Time Run and adding one more to the mix, we once more attempted to escape the room.

HintHunt has been knocking around for a couple of years now but ever fashionably late to these things, the escape-the-room fad is one that has only recently come to my attention and so I am still ridiculously enthusiastic about it. And because of the nature of the game(s), it is impossible to say that much without spoiling it and I really recommend that you go in blind as it undoubtedly enhances the experience. HintHunt London has two rooms - JM's office and the Zen room (we did the latter) and is designed for teams of between 3 and 5 people (we definitely benefitted from being 4 as opposed to our Time Run trio).