Due to “events, dear boy, events”, certain producers have been scrambling to provide online content to tide audiences over until such time as it is safe theatres and other venues to re-open. One of the first production teams to make their show available to the masses, free of charge, is the team behind Eugenius The Musical. I had intended to see the show during its planned West End run, having secured a transfer from The Other Palace Theatre, but the run never happened in the end: nothing to do with Covid-19, as the run was to have taken place towards the end of 2019. A key investor pulled out at the eleventh hour, and an alternative funding source could not be found in time.
The show takes its audiences back to 1988, when, according to the Space Lord (the voice of Brian Blessed), it was “a simpler time for earthlings where hair was big, colours were neon, and Milli Vanilli pretended to sing. But in the dreams of a boy named Eugene (Rob Houchen), things were far more complex. A disaster loomed as beings far beyond our reckoning invaded!” A world of science fiction, then – well, a superhero, to be more precise, called Tough Man (Simon Thomas) who would take on the Evil Lord Hector (Neil McDermott) in (quelle surprise) yet another triumph of good over evil.
In terms of narrative, then, there isn’t much that can’t be seen elsewhere. But at least this show has the good grace to acknowledge some of the sources of its material, with nods to the likes of Star Wars and at one point, even the stage version of Les Misérables. Eugene is socially distant, to coin a phrase, one of those schoolboys that isn’t part of the in-crowd, like the title character in Dear Evan Hansen, or Jeremy Heere in Be More Chill, or Marty McFly in Back To The Future (the film and/or the musical, take your pick). He does have Janey (Laura Baldwin) and Feris (Daniel Buckley) on his side, the latter displaying some particularly nifty footwork both in ‘Who’s That Guy’ in the first half and ‘No Pants Dance’ in the second.
The songs are, taken together, sufficiently varied in tone and pace. The choreography is sometimes too repetitive, though – I should have done a tally of how many times one of characters’ arms went up in the air with their hands made into fists steadily before the other one did the same but suddenly. Or, as they say on BBC Television’s Strictly Come Dancing, ‘too much armography, darling’. It’s a simple enough action that most of the audience in the front rows followed the cast doing it during at the end of the show, and this musical would appear to have something of a cult following even with its relatively limited exposure on this side of the Atlantic.
Mr Houchen is not entirely convincing as a socially awkward young man, though vocally he is in this recording in fine form, as ever. In Thomas’ Tough Man lies the epitome of bad acting: I hasten to add this is deliberately so for comic purposes, and much humour is derived from Tough Man not delivering lines in the way prescribed by filmmaker Lex Hogan (Alex Bourne). Tough Man’s sidekick, Super Hot Lady (Emily Tierney) is almost as bad (in a sort of Springtime For Hitler kind of way). I have to admit I found it difficult to maintain interest throughout, but this show has the kind of silliness much needed in these unusually difficult times.
Available to view at https://www.facebook.com/eugeniusthemusical/ for a limited time only.
Photo credit: Scott Rylander
The Red Shoes
Whenever I have the privilege of seeing Dominic North in a New Adventures production, I continue to be amazed at how he was born in 1983 and yet still looks like a school leaver. In The Red Shoes, yet another of Sir Matthew Bourne’s dance adaptations of well-known stories, North’s Julian Craster, a composer and musical director, is one of two main love interests of ballerina Victoria Page (Cordelia Braithwaite), the other being the ballet producer Boris Lermontov (Reece Causton). The ending, or rather the end result, at the risk of giving too much away, is pretty much the same as it is in the motion picture. Here, the staging of a train on stage really isn’t bad for a touring production (and I’ve seen a production of The Railway Children in what used to be the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo Station, in which an actual steam train came rolling in towards the end).
It seems (almost) all about Craster (though there’s some nifty footwork from Liam Mower’s Ivan Boleslawsky too) gliding about the stage composing away like a man on a mission. There are lifts and pulls, struggles and desperation. Lermontov, on the other hand, demonstrates some serious commitment to getting Page back, or at least seeing to it if he can’t have her, Craster can’t either, but otherwise, there isn’t nearly as much for him to do. As with the other New Adventures shows I’ve come across (and there are many I haven’t seen, mind you) this is highly accessible stuff – and highly enjoyable too.
As various people have spoken and written so positively about this Korean movie, it was in the back of my mind of films to check out if the opportunity arose. There is more than a sufficient number of plot twists in this movie, which has some incredible cinematography to enjoy as it follows its characters around. In Seoul, poverty is as abound as it is anywhere else in the world, and the Kims can’t get enough income together to keep themselves going as they would like, so when a neighbour sets a password on her WiFi, the family lose ‘their’ internet connection. Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang Ho) and his wife Kim Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin) are doing their best for their teenage children, son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo Shik) and daughter Kim Ki-jung (Park So Dam), and to cut a long story short, they sneak their way into well-paid jobs with the same employer with, well, trickery.
“Times is hard, sir, times is hard,” as Mrs Lovett put it in the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. (I’m such a theatre buff: this may well be the only commentary on Parasite that references Sondheim.) The family’s creativity and resourcefulness are admirable, so much so that despite the high levels of deceit that occur, one finds it difficult not to sympathise even when they get their comeuppance. And boy, is the price they pay very steep. Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun Kyun), on the other hand, is a business tycoon, whose wife Park Yeon-kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong) is in charge of domestic affairs, including tutors for their children, daughter Park Da-hye (Jung Ziso) and son Park Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) and a busy social schedule – very much the polar opposite of the Kim family.
There’s a fair amount of moral ambiguity here – yes, the Kims lie, but only to get jobs. It’s not exactly the Great Train Robbery or the Hatton Garden heist. But there is something to be said about social injustice, and this film makes its points clear without a scintilla of preachiness. This was certainly a memorable movie experience.
In the days before theatre became something an obsession for yours truly, I used to watch something called television. One of the series I found rather inspirational was BBC Television’s The Choir, in which choirmaster Gareth Malone set up various choirs in various situations, including the Northolt High School, the Lancaster School (actually in Leicester), the community of South Oxhey in Hertfordshire, and then various workplaces. The fourth series, however, The Choir: Military Wives was probably the most emotional, looking at the lives of the wives and girlfriends of military personnel whilst the lads are away on overseas operations. At the time the war in Afghanistan was still raging, and the show eventually resulted in the establishment of various Military Wives Choirs across the country and elsewhere.
But even without having known all that, the ending of this film, which culminates in everybody coming together and smashing a performance at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, could be seen from a mile off, and it is absolutely no surprise that a standing ovation ensues. The narrative, broadly speaking, has been done before, in Sister Act: a bunch of ladies who cannot really sing very well eventually do so after much perseverance and disagreement.
It does, at least, portray the sort of nonsense that goes on in military barracks, when Kate (Kirstin Scott Thomas), ‘the Colonel’s wife’ considers herself to have ‘responsibilities’ towards the other people on the base, even stating that Lisa (Sharon Horgan) must step up too, what with her husband having secured a promotion. There’s Jess (Gaby French), the one who doesn’t think she can sing very well but is actually very good, and Ruby (Lara Rossi), who thinks she can sing but really can’t, at least not brilliantly. But I can see why some actual military wives would have nothing to do with their fellow ladies – there is a certain amount of pressure, whether they realise it or not, to conform. That said, it’s a crowd-pleasing charmer and sends one away from the cinema feeling quite warm and comforted.
Okay, so there’s a script on stage, and it’s occasionally referred to. That’s still better than not having a show at all. The Last Five Years, as musical theatre aficionados will be well aware, is a two-hander, and this particular production has no understudies. So, when Molly Lynch was, in the words of the producers, “signed off with illness”, they’d brought in Lydia White to play Cathy Wallerstein: I was watching her second performance in front of a paying audience – and, goodness me, she did extremely well indeed, especially given the very short rehearsal time (I believe only a couple of days) she was given.
There’s a nice touch of actor-musicianship throughout, even if it means the stage is dominated by a grand piano in the centre. And the piano isn’t the only instrument the actors accompany their own voices with. This isn’t Once The Musical – there’s a band as well, visible above the stage. I’ve seen, I think, three different productions prior to this one of The Last Five Years, including one in the West End. This is the first I’ve seen with a revolve, perhaps a metaphor for arguments and counter-arguments in an increasingly fractious relationship that go round and round. Or maybe I’m reading far too much into that.
The other thing that musical theatre fans will tell you about this musical is that Jamie Wallerstein’s (Oli Higginson) story is told in forward chronological order, with Cathy’s story in reverse chronological order. In this production neither leaves the stage at all, so the interaction at face value comes across as cold-hearted and unconvincing, until one remembers that they are in a different time from one another, except for a few seconds in ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ (which feels like it goes on for ten minutes, but then quite a few of Jason Robert Brown’s songs, in this musical and in his other works, do). It’s also worth raising the point that having one of them piano playing whilst the other is singing away also rather detracts from the idea of the relationship gradually disintegrating.
A note in the programme asserts that to “truly grasp the show’s ingenious wit and pathos demands that it either be re-visited or at the very least, re-listened to via a cast recording”. I couldn’t agree more: I’ll admit to being the owner of three The Last Five Years recordings, the 2002 and 2013 off-Broadway casts respectively, and the third being the 2014 movie adaptation cast. All have their different takes on the characters. Here, White’s Cathy is rather likeable, leaving Higginson’s Jamie to be somewhat distant, though I hasten to add he is far from an antagonist. His career as a novelist takes flight whilst his wife’s acting career consists of a few blessings but mostly a series of rejections by casting directors. For anyone in the entertainment industry in the audience, it’s very likely to be hashtag relatable.
Both have remarkable singing voices, which go well together when in harmony as well as when each of them tells their own story. There are plenty of props to aid the narrative, but otherwise, visually, each scene is barely indistinguishable from another, and I wonder how someone without prior exposure to this musical would have been able to follow proceedings. Jason Robert Brown’s wordy compositions certainly help, but the staging felt a tad minimalist to me. But perhaps it was necessary to keep the flow of the musical numbers going.
I mean, it’s incredibly needy, with its first world problems. But it’s incredibly engaging too, the characters’ emotions palpable and the standing ovation from the audience at the end well deserved.
I don’t know whether it’s related to Covid-19 or not (and crowds consequently staying away from crowded theatres and concert halls), but there were some reasonable deals going for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie on Shaftesbury Avenue, and also for The Best of the West End, one of those musical theatre concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, so I took advantage of the situation. The ‘class of 2020’ at Jamie is in fine form, with James Gillan standing in for Rufus Hound at the performance I attended: his Loco Chanelle was particularly impressive, even if I was making a comparison between his rendering and that of Phil Nichol, who frankly couldn’t sing.
Noah Thomas in the title role captured both the vulnerability and bravado of the character quite brilliantly, with Jordan Ricketts as ‘school bully’ Dean Paxton convincingly condescending. Hiba Elchikhe’s Pritti Pasha was something of a vocal powerhouse (whenever she got the chance to demonstrate that). It’s good to see the show still drawing in new audiences: there were people in my row amazed to discover for the first time that Dan Gillespie Sells (of ‘The Feeling’ fame) had composed the music. They marvelled, too, at the staging – being able to see the orchestra is not something that happens in every production.
As for The Best of the West End, The London Musical Theatre Orchestra (LMTO to its fans and followers) was probably the largest I’ve ever seen it at the Royal Albert Hall. There was more ‘Jamie’ to be enjoyed as its touring leading man (and previous West End lead) Layton Williams took to the stage. Marisha Wallace brought the house down with ‘And I Am Telling You’ from Dreamgirls, delivering it with the sheer vocal power that musical theatre audiences just love, especially in a concert setting. The LMTO’s orchestral arrangements were beautiful throughout, with the big-name soloists flanked by a select group of backing singers (Laura Tebbutt, Lizzie Wofford, Rebecca Ridout, Harry Mills, Danny Lane and Matthew McDonald) and a large group of MX Masterclass students, effectively forming a choir.
Ben Haenow, whose single ‘Something I Need’ was the 2014 Christmas number one in the UK following his win of ‘The X-Factor’ series that year, strutted around the stage very arrogantly, and while there’s no doubting his vocal abilities, prancing around like the great man that he clearly isn’t did not go down well with the audience, who responded to his attempt at call and response during ‘I Want It All’ from We Will Rock You with appropriate silence. And then there was Ruthie Henshall, who keeps being invited to these Albert Hall shindigs but keeps screwing up every time. This time she forced the LMTO to restart a version of ‘Being Alive’ from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and even given a second chance, sounding alive, let alone being alive, was something of a pipe dream.
Thank goodness, then, for everyone else. Frederike Krum delivered a note-perfect ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ from The Phantom of the Opera, while Lauren Samuels did the famed ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen more than justice. Mazz Murray brought the house down reprising ‘The Winner Takes It All’ from Mamma Mia!, where she still plays the leading role of Donna Sheridan, and Matthew Croke reprised ‘Proud of Your Boy’ from Disney’s Aladdin. Songs from the motion picture The Greatest Showman bookended the event. Ben Forster presented the event slickly (though he did have an autocue to help him along) and all things considered, it was a very pleasant and enjoyable evening. The programmes, priced at £10, were too expensive for their (relative lack of) content.
I had yet more time to spare over the weekend, and as I don’t really know the meaning of the term ‘downtime’ I thought I’d check out a couple of motion pictures I had thought about seeing if I could spare the time to do so on the back of recommendations from others. 1917 was quite a slow-burner, which fit the storyline well enough: during the Great War, two armed forces personnel, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George Mackay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given orders by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to crossover ‘no man’s land’, through enemy territory and into where another set of troops are stationed, with a letter commanding Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) of the Second Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, not to advance into ‘a trap’ of some sort. The journey is imperilled with danger. A lot of danger, naturally, as it would be a very short film indeed if there was only a bit of rough terrain to encounter. And couldn’t they have just used a carrier pigeon? But while the narrative is dull, the cinematography shines. To say any more than that would be giving too much away. And there are more knowledgeable people than I that could converse at length about its historical inaccuracies.
Emma, being a work of fiction, itself based on a work of fiction (a film based on a Jane Austen novel), can take whatever liberties it likes with historical verisimilitude. The film is thankfully considerably pacier than Austen’s writing style. More than two centuries after the novel was first published, a fair bit of its content continues to be relevant. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose father (Bill Nighy) is wealthy enough to grant his daughter pretty much whatever she wants, lives a comfortable life, but as ever, money doesn’t grant happiness.
Josh O’Connor’s Mr Elton was a hoot: I almost drew a comparison between him and Fleabag’s Hot Priest before realising that this being an entirely different kind of society, what was considered naughty back then results merely in a ‘U’ certification these days from the British Board of Film Classification. Elton, the local vicar, enunciates with the kind of ecclesiastical divinity that would be quite laughable in almost any other context. Mr Woodhouse’s dry sense of humour is admirable, while the overly talkative Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) was, I felt quite rightly, put in her place by a sharp observation by Emma. Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) takes her to task for it privately later, rather unfairly, though there’s something about his character that leads the film to a happy ending for him and Emma – and anyone who thinks this film has a meandering feel to it should try reading the source material.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.