Photo credit: Besell McNamee
Better late than never, and mostly because no producer wants press in to review their show on a public holiday (though I did review a show on Good Friday this year), I decided to stop reading up about the General Election and get out of the house on a typically rainy Bank Holiday and head up to the Bunker Theatre for a performance of This Is Not Culturally Significant. This is a show that is, for those who haven’t read the infamous press release, performed entirely by one man, Adam Scott-Rowley, and in the nude. Scott-Rowley has also written and directed his own show. As Barry Humphries once pointed out, if you do your own show, and win an award for it, “there is nobody else to thank”.
Is it necessary for the show to be performed entirely naked? No. The effect would have been the same if he’d worn a nice shirt and a pair of trousers.
The no-holds-barred in more ways than one approach does, however, allow for lightning-paced scene changes, and the only things on-stage are a chair and a lamp light that hangs from the ceiling almost to the floor. It isn’t the nudity that bothers me. It’s the sheer repetitiveness of it. A scene involving a man, Dennis, indulging in a combination of misogyny and cybersex, took far too long, and to be honest, it became boring. I am pleased to report that at least the wife gets her own back, even if the punishment rather outweighs the crime. Or does it?
There’s a gay guy, there’s an academic giving a lecture apparently on spiritualism, and there’s a woman in sing-song mourning for her same-sex partner. The performances of these various characters (and more besides) are hammed up as much as is humanly possible, presumably for dramatic effect. But there’s drama, and then there’s melodrama, and then there’s this, not just an overcooked meal but a thoroughly incinerated one.
But, let’s be fair to Scott-Rowley. The audience at the performance I attended lapped it up, or at least most of it, even laughing not just at the first ‘fart’ but at the twenty-first one too. Here’s a man, in the buff, on stage, blowing raspberries, and people loved it. Call it the deterioration of cultural standards if you must. I will only reiterate what so many have said before: each to their own. Scott-Rowley is, by any stretch of the imagination, a highly competent actor who also sings very well, but I couldn’t help feeling the show could have been even shorter than its 55 minutes.
At least the show lives up to its title. There’s nothing that really moved me, it was mildly amusing in places, and it was indeed not culturally significant.
“I know there was a sound issue, it’s not his [the sound engineer’s] fault, it’s the Church,” quipped either Jordan Langford or Nathan Lodge, the closest thing to Ant and Dec that the Giggin4Good team had on stage for the latest in a series of concerts in aid of miscellaneous charities. Quite why that was the most memorable thing they said I have no idea, especially as they shortly thereafter invited the audience to stand and participate in a one minute ovation in support of the victims of the recent Manchester massacre. One of the people murdered was someone close to the pair.
This wasn’t an event I intended to say anything about, mostly because I hadn’t planned on being there. But, a spur of the moment decision to go was made by some last-minute tickets going on sale for the princely sum of £10 (£11, really, once the booking fee was taken into account), and I just chanced to notice a Tweet or two about it, with less than half an hour to go before the £10 offer was to expire. Giggin4Good, for the uninitiated (as I was before going to this concert, which I didn’t even know was called Songs4Soi before I was given a programme, which consisted of nothing more than a list of songs and performers, was set up in the summer of 2011 by Emma Howe, Hayley Guild and Karen Howe.
Inspired by what they had seen at Great Ormond Street Hospital after one of their younger relatives was treated there, they set about putting together a concert to support GOSH. Then another one followed, and another, and another: this particular one was the tenth, something of a landmark for those who have supported this worthwhile venture from the outset. I can’t comment on the previous nine events, but this time around they secured a number of guest performers, some of whom are very well known to those who know their musical theatre productions like they know their own name. I’m not one of those people – for some years now, I have seen far more plays than musicals, mostly because there are far more plays than musicals to see.
I don’t really know what the overarching theme was meant to be, as the selection of tunes was very good, but rather random, save for two numbers. Firstly, ‘Last Night of the World’ from Miss Saigon, sung here by Adam Bayjou and Savannah Stevenson, was put in because the Soi Dog Foundation’s founders, John Dalley and his wife, the late Gill, were huge fans of musical theatre in general and of Miss Saigon in particular. Secondly, ‘Times Like This’ from Lucky Stiff, an obscure musical, was performed by Mikaela Newton, and was, as far as I recall, the only tune to even mention dogs throughout the evening.
Soi Dog is an organisation based in Phuket, Thailand, with the aim of eradicating the stray dog population of southeast Asia through emergency treatment, sterilisation and vaccination. Stray dogs are a huge problem, because such animals are used to supply the dog meat trade, now a black market industry. An information leaflet available at the benefit concert adds, “Dogs are often skinned and boiled alive, tortured because of a belief that pain tenderises the meat. This multi-million dollar trade is run by criminals who deal in pain and misery.”
I turn to the rest of the music, as per John Dalley’s wishes – in a short address towards the end of the evening’s proceedings, he made as much reference to the performances as he did about his charitable enterprises. Hosted by Benjamin-Vivian Jones, who also performed a delightful King George III in ‘You’ll Be Back’ from Hamilton, this truly was a live experience, with a small band under the direction of Jack Bennett, and not a single backing track used for any of the 20 songs (hurrah!).
Any awkward silences were minimal, and the music kept flowing at a decent pace, allowing the audience to get back home at a reasonable hour (I even had time for a post-show meal in Covent Garden). I politely declined the offer to enter a raffle, in which it was only explained that a ‘strip’ was £2 and two ‘strips’ were £3, but no information as to what I could potentially have won. Just as well: in the darkness of the church nave and the brightness of the chancel (I refuse to call it the stage – this is a consecrated Christian church that still actively functions as such), it was difficult to see the colours of the various ‘strips’. There may or may not have been the odd prize unfairly doled out, given the speed with which the prizegiving was done. But everyone seemed happy, whether they won anything or not, and that’s the main thing.
A girl band called Houston, (www.facebook.com/HoustonUK) a trio, Lauren Byrne, Holly-Anne Hull and Charlotte Steele, specialising in country music (but not, at least on this occasion, matching cowgirl outfits), kicked off proceedings with a lilting melody of their own, ‘Fake’, and a wonderful harmony cover of Seal’s ‘Kiss From A Rose’. Two musicals on Broadway that are all the rage (aside from the continuing success of Hamilton) were also featured. Firstly, I was already intrigued by Waitress after hearing Louise Dearman sing ‘She Used To Be Mine’ at the Royal Festival Hall recently, and Harry Francis’ rendering of ‘Never Ever Getting Rid of Me’ showed that the show includes cheery melodies as well as powerful laments.
Secondly, there was an entire section given over to songs from Dear Evan Hansen, and having listened to this selection, it’s easy to see why it’s already gaining fans even before any hint of a London production, particularly with these arrangements, which included a contribution from ‘The MTA Choir’. There was no explanation given as to who they are, and I can only assume they are comprised of current students of ‘The MTA’, which used to stand for Musical Theatre Academy, but as I understand it, it is no longer technically an acronym.
The MTA is run by Annemarie Lewis Thomas, who styles herself ‘Principal and Head of Musical Theatre’, and apparently insists on all her faculty being actively involved in the theatre industry. (Does she fire them if a show they are involved in posts closing notices and they don’t happen to have something else lined up immediately after closing night?) They did very well, singing largely unamplified but still clearly heard, though the acoustics of the church may have assisted with that – presumably the church’s own choir also sings without boom microphones in place.
There was familiar fodder for this London audience to enjoy too, with Savannah Stevenson providing a perfectly serviceable rendering of ‘When I Marry Mr Snow’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, and the ever-sublime Emma Williams reprising ‘If Mountains Were Easy To Climb’, the eleven o’clock number from Mrs Henderson Presents, which had too short a run in the West End in 2016. A rather eclectic selection of songs, but all to the sort of high standard that surpasses certain offerings elsewhere on the West End stage. As is customary with charity events at which I attend in a personal capacity, I dispense with star ratings (this does not make this a no-star show, in this case quite the contrary).
Charlie Gallacher as Noah Gellman, and Sharon D Clarke as Caroline Thibodeaux, in 'Caroline, Or Change'. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The thing about the 53 musical numbers in Caroline, Or Change is that, for someone experiencing the show for the first time, like yours truly, it doesn’t feel as though there are 53 musical numbers. The show, in case you were wondering, was 2 hours 40 minutes including a 20-minute interval. As you can imagine, some of the numbers were quite short, moulding into one another. There were only three times that the audience at the performance I attended felt it appropriate to applaud – at the end of the first act, after the eleven o’clock number ‘Lot’s Wife’, and the curtain call. For a fellow theatregoer it felt too long, with some songs morphing into others but retaining a similar theme, such that it was as though several songs were actually just one song that dragged on and on.
It is almost entirely sung through, with perhaps just the odd sentence here and there in spoken form. I wasn’t, I must confess, prepared for this, and part way through the first act, I momentarily nodded off. I wasn’t alone in losing consciousness: there was some consternation in the second half when someone in my row started snoring. My Southern Rail train from London to Chichester arrived on time – I’d left such a comfortable time buffer that I had time for a meal beforehand (the plan was to allow for Southern Rail delays, and then eat somewhere in Chichester after the show, before heading back into London). I plumped for Prezzo, on South Street, and afterwards went into the Minerva Theatre very full indeed, which may well have explained my subsequent lethargy. Not that I’ll be going back to Prezzo in Chichester: the ‘large garlic pizza bread’ was far too dry, such that I had finished my glass of prosecco and a glass of tap water before my main had arrived. The ‘spaghetti with giant meatballs’ was tasty enough, but the restaurant itself was far too hot and stuffy, with only a solitary electric fan blasting hot air around. Not pleasant.
It’s quite an intense musical, though some moments of banality were difficult – no, impossible – to tolerate. Me’sha Bryan plays ‘The Washing Machine’, and a trio play ‘The Radio’ (Gloria Onitiri, Jennifer Saayeng, Keisha Amponsa Banson). ‘The Dryer’ is played by Ako Mitchell, who will always be ‘Sweaty Eddie’ to me, to borrow a line from the 2009 London Palladium production of Sister Act The Musical, in which Mitchell played Lt Eddie Souther. Mitchell also plays ‘The Bus’, and ‘The Moon’ is played by Angela Caesar. All sing. Yup, the moon sings. Or perhaps it is actually the sun singing, the moon merely reflecting it. Whatever. Caesar sings very well, mind you, but it was beyond ridiculous for me, especially in a show set in the real world, specifically Lake Charles, Louisiana, in late 1963.
Some of the humour, however, is sublime. I loved a quip by Grandma Gellman (Beverley Klein), Grandpa Gellman (Vincent Pirillo) and Mr Stopnick (Teddy Kempner), guests at the dinner table of Stuart Gellman (Alex Gaumond, who gets to be an actor-musician, as his Stuart plays the clarinet, and to a high standard) and his second wife Rose Stopnick Gellman (a sublime if slightly sarcastic Lauren Ward). It’s about aspects of the Chanukah festival being celebrated despite not being “in the Torah”, and is probably applicable to most faiths. It’s certainly applicable to Western Christianity – there’s no mention of Christmas cards, Christmas crackers or Christmas trees in the New Testament. Noah, an elementary schoolboy (Charlie Gallacher at this performance, the role is shared with Daniel Luniku) is a further source of wit, seeing things through a child’s perspective.
It’s the title character, Caroline Thibodeaux (Sharon D Clarke), that stands out. To see Caroline just as a domestic servant who does her duties, largely in the basement of the Gellman home, is to fail to properly acknowledge the full scope of the character. Fed up of being fed up, the ‘change’ referred to in the show’s title is inevitable, not just because the title becomes redundant otherwise, but partly because of the civil rights movement, embraced by her daughter Emmie (Abiona Omonua). It’s an interesting mother-daughter relationship, where battle-weary forbearance meets youthful vigour and optimism. And there is a powerhouse performance from Clarke, whether silent or belting, or somewhere in between.
The introduction of another sort of ‘change’, the leaving of smaller denominations of coin money in one of the Gellmans’ ‘pants’ (meaning trousers), seems a rather blunt instrument to forward the narrative. Mind you, change is driven by money, and money, as they sing in a different musical, makes the world go round. But part of the beauty of this show is in its simplicity, when it comes, dealing as it does with both the historical persecution of both Jews and blacks.
The revolves, which worked so well at Chichester last summer for their reworked Half A Sixpence (and still do, at the time of writing, in the West End), are back for Caroline, Or Change. The orchestra, under the baton of Nigel Lilley, are, like the audience, in three blocks around the relatively small Minerva space, and the sound balance between musicians and performers is spot on. Overall, a lot of food for thought in this stunning and spectacular production.
I wonder whether Bella Soroush (Jasmine Hyde) should have toughened up a little. Did nobody tell her when she was doing teacher training that there were going to be pupils like Kane McCarthy (Harry Melling)? Kane, some years later, confesses to being a “twat” – I say ‘some’ years later: the maths, ironically for a play in an educational setting, doesn’t entirely add up when it comes to how old each character is. It’s hardly the salient point here, in a play that’s not for the faint-hearted. Let’s just say there are relatively few people in Britain today who possess a baseball bat purely, if at all, for the purposes of recreational sport.
I don’t know why Jam is called Jam, and that’s having seen Jam. There’s no jam in the show, and as far as I can recall, the word ‘jam’ isn’t in the dialogue. Anyway, the pre-show stage atmosphere attempts to be eerie with voices echoing in the background. It isn’t possible to decipher who is saying what, but it gave a strong impression this was representative of voices from the past returning to haunt one or both characters. The set itself could have been a visual portrayal of almost any workplace, and it was the distant sound of a school bell that brought back unpleasant memories of my own school days.
The script develops both characters well. Neither is wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’, so what initially was a question about whether it is ever right for a teacher to strike a pupil – self-defence being the mitigating circumstance here – becomes a fascinating and somewhat complex examination (pardon the pun) about lying and the reasons why people lie. Sometimes, as with Kane, it isn’t always possible to pinpoint why there was lying going on, but here, rather like an alcoholic admitting their situation, acknowledging the fault is a major breakthrough.
It’s not an entirely watertight script, and it’s not an entirely watertight production. Some of the pauses, particularly early on, are a tad too long, and I failed to understand, for instance, what right Bella had to rummage through Kane’s personal belongings, or why Kane tacitly agreed to her doing so by not raising an objection. More widely, however, it’s Kane’s differing moods that made a slightly dull first half more tolerable. The play does, to be fair, find its stride eventually and settles into a decent pace. It veered too close to melodrama on occasion for my liking, and in the dying moments of the play, the background sound effects began to irritate.
Perhaps it was deliberately meant to add to the level of discomfort the last few minutes gives the audience. I stifled a yawn at some point in the first half-hour; in the last half-hour of this ninety minute show I was gripped as the story built to a crescendo. Some excellent use is made of the available stage space. On one level, however, the play doesn’t tell its audiences anything new. It’s the sort of message one would expect from a feel-good musical. Go out there, do your thing, live for the moment, throw caution to the wind and seize the day. On a deeper level, this is one of those shows that raises far more questions than it even attempts to answer. It’s a provocative and forthright play. And that’s the truth.
Jam, by Matt Parvin
Until Saturday 17 June
Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED
Box Office 0844 847 1652
Tuesday to Saturday evenings at 7.30pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm
I came, I saw, I rather enjoyed it. It appears to me that the naysayers who didn’t care much for The Addams Family stage musical adaptation don’t like the changes from the motion picture. Now, I couldn’t tell you what those changes are, not having seen the movie, and to be honest, I saw this production mostly out of geographical convenience (the New Wimbledon Theatre, not really ‘new’ but rather refurbished in the 1990s, is walking distance from my front door) and partly out of loyalty to one of the co-producers, whose work I have supported previously.
I was, therefore, popping my Addams Family cherry with this production. I’d heard the opening number before, of course, complete in this touring show with the finger clicks. You know the one – creepy, kooky and altogether ooky. (Ooky? What is ‘ooky’?) The fantasy world in which an aristocratic family indulges in all things dark and gruesome never particularly appealed to me (quite honestly, it still doesn’t) – isn’t the world miserable enough as it is? But I found this production light-hearted enough, and this rendering of the Addams clan was more quirky than spooky. Could it be that there have been scarier portrayals of ghastly activity since the Addams Family debut as a comic strip in 1938? It also seemed that the musical is deliberately geared at a family audience, though again, with even children exposed these days to things more shocking and startling than Pugsley (Grant McIntyre) sleeping in a coffin-like chest.
The musical numbers are, on the whole, likeable but not all that memorable. Andrew Hilton impresses as musical director, as does the eight-strong band. The absurdly named Wednesday (Carrie Hope Fletcher) is a convincing moody teenager, with a lovely singing vocal – yes, a contradiction in terms, I appreciate, but I stand by it. Her relationship with boyfriend Lucas (Oliver Ormson) reminded me of the one between Jean-Michel and Ann in La Cage Aux Folles, a production of which I saw earlier this year in the same theatre.
Lurch (Dickon Gough), the butler, gets a late showcase musical number, having spent most of the time ‘conversing’ in monosyllabic grunts or otherwise deliberately taking longer than necessary to move across the stage. Les Dennis as Fester is surprisingly spot-on, doing even better than his supporting role in She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which I saw in late December 2016. It’s Gomez (Cameron Blakely) who steals the show for me, however, providing a demonstrably decent rapport with the audience. Only occasionally, as in ‘Full Disclosure’, does this production go full-out, and even then the intermingling spoken dialogue gives it a frustratingly stop-start feel, as though the song were stuck in a traffic jam. ‘Crazier Than You’, in Act Two, is worth waiting for, though even that is a tad too repetitive.
It’s not a show I would put in the West End, but it should do well on tour – at the Saturday matinee I attended, the theatre staff made a point of making clear ‘all three levels’ were open (more often than not, the upper circle is closed), and the evening performance was virtually sold out, with the theatre requesting patrons collecting tickets to arrive early as queues were likely. A display of weirdness, I suppose, is more interesting than a display of mundane normality.
On tour until 4 November 2017
Canterbury Marlow: 23 May to 27 May 2017
Southend Cliffs Pavilion: 30 May to 3 June 2017
Birmingham Hippodrme: 6 June to 10 June 2017
Theatre Royal Bath: 13 June to 17 June 2017
Hall for Cornwall, Truro: 20 June to 24 June 2017
Nottingham Theatre Royal: 27 June to 1 July 2017
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford: 4 July to 8 July 2017
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton: 18 July to 29 July 2017
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff: 1 August to 12 August 2017
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin: 15 August to 26 August 2017
The Lowry, Salford: 29 August to 9 September 2017
Sheffield Lyceum: 12 September to 16 September 2017
Bristol Hippodrome: 19 September to 23 September 2017
New Victoria Theatre, Woking: 26 September to 30 September 2017
Grand Opera House, Belfast: 3 October to 7 October 2017
Glasgow King’s Theatre: 10 October to 14 October 2017
Wolverhampton Grand: 17 October to 21 October 2017
Milton Keynes Theatre: 24 October to 28 October 2017
Orchard Theatre, Dartford: 31 October to 4 November 2017
Photo credit: Claire Bilyard
Been there, seen it, and worn the proverbial T-shirt. Or so I thought, having seen a production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! starring Paul Keating, Julie Atherton and Leon Lopez in May 2009 at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street (currently home to The Play That Goes Wrong), when it played for a week alongside a production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. But I suppose I was still at a point in life where I was still discovering different theatrical styles. Eight years later, I’m glad I managed to squeeze in a visit to this revival at the Park Theatre, 90 minutes of musical theatre in the 1990s in a 90-seater studio space.
It works better in this more intimate environment than my first encounter with this show, though the Duchess is amongst the smallest of the West End playhouses in any event. The band, led by Gareth Bretherton, play at a soft volume, allowing the performers’ vocals to be heard clearly and without subjecting the audience to the hair dryer treatment. The choreography (Philip Michael Thomas) is stunning and occasionally surprising, at one point leaving Jordan Shaw’s Michael within inches of crashing into a member of the audience, at least from my vantage point.
An enthusiastic ‘Director’s Note’ in the show’s programme encourages the audience to look out for references to the composer Stephen Sondheim. I can only echo that sentiment, and found myself enjoying the show much more than I would have done if I hadn’t borne that in mind. Not for nothing, for those who know their Sondheim, is one of the musical numbers called ‘Sunday’. There are references and homages to other musicals dotted around elsewhere. Now this is a semi-autobiographical show by the late Larson, who (as any aficionado of his more famous musical, Rent, will tell you) died just before the first preview of the Off-Broadway run of Rent, on 25 January 1996.
Chris Jenkins returns to the Park Theatre, having previously played Jake in its larger theatre space in The Boys in the Band. Here, he plays Jon (told you this was semi-autobiographical), a composer who lives a hand-to-mouth existence even as his best friend Michael’s corporate career continues to climb. Jon’s girlfriend Susan (Gillian Saker), makes a living as a ballet teacher. The ‘I wish’ number, ‘No More’, is more Michael’s than Jon’s – Jon is more torn between his girlfriend’s wishes to settle and raise a family and his own desires to be a professional composer, with all the volatility that comes with such a career choice. Either way, Jenkins possesses an intensity and warmth that makes his Jon hugely likeable. When so many musicals have their actors ignore their audiences, it’s pleasing to have direct eye contact. I never personally felt like it was a ‘breach of the fourth wall’, though others at the performance I attended definitely thought so.
As for Jenkins’ co-stars, Jordan Shaw is just as infectious (an insensitive term for his Michael, perhaps, given what happens to him), and it would take a very ardent anti-capitalist indeed not to feel pleased for Michael as he continues to work hard and reap the benefits accordingly. Shaw plays a number of minor roles, as does Gillian Saker – both their portrayals of Jon’s passionate but acerbic agent, Rosa Stevens, are a hoot. Saker’s Susan doesn’t have that much in the way of character development, but she does get what Broadway calls the ’11 o’clock number’, a stirring ballad called ‘Come To Your Senses’, and throughout the evening, the sheer range of Saker’s vocal talent shines.
It’s the final number, ‘Louder Than Words’ that suitably brings together the various strands of the narrative, and simultaneously asks some pertinent questions that remain remarkably relevant today, and I suspect will remain so for some years to come. “Why do we refuse to hang a light / When the streets are dangerous? / Why does it take an accident / Before the truth gets through to us?” A beautiful and energetic production.
Photo credits: Raymond Gubbay Ltd and Live at Zédel /The Crazy Coqs
I stepped away from the reviewing circuit this weekend to enjoy three shows (it would have been four but there was a cancellation due to some sort of scheduling conflict). The first, the current Trafalgar Studios run of the American comedy Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road, had a subtler audience response than the rip-roars going on around me the first time around, but remains an absolute hoot. The other two are not so much shows as concerts, very different in scale and style, but both pushing boundaries, in their own ways, presenting familiar works as well as new ones, and with certain songs performed in a manner that is refreshing in its inventiveness, and for not being a copy-and-paste-from-the-original-cast-recording job.
The Sound of Musicals is a show that usually hits the Barbican just after Christmas, and one I hadn’t returned to since I attended it in December 2011. One of the performers, James Graeme, buggered up the final note in ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Misérables. It’s not an easy song to sing: one of the most popular numbers from the musical revue Forbidden Broadway changes the first lines of ‘Bring Him Home’ to, “God, it’s high! / This song’s too high / Pity me! Change the key!” Nonetheless, there were mutterings from the cultured audience, and the critic in me wanted to shout, “Refund!” I resisted then. I am not sure I would do so now, and if I got turfed out of the concert hall for being disorderly then I would have left with pleasure.
Anyway, this Spring 2017 small tour, taking in Birmingham and Manchester before coming to the Royal Festival Hall, brings in more contemporary tunes as well as the usual musical theatre concert standards. The programme has, as conductor Richard Balcombe, pointed out, been refreshed. This latest edition had a decent mixture of older and newer showtunes The London Concert Orchestra did well with fully orchestrated renderings of ‘Seasons of Love’ from Rent (you know, the one about five-hundred-twenty-five-thousand-six-hundred minutes) and ‘Falling Slowly’ from Once. I refer again to Forbidden Broadway with their alternative lyrics: “Take this cramping hand, and hire a band / We’ve still got time! / But we have no choice, no union voice / And it’s a crime!” This was, of course, in reference to the actor-musician prevalence in Once. It would have upset the purists to have an orchestra playing the melody. More fool them. Elsewhere, it was left to Tim Howar to bring the house down songs in the second half from rock musicals, ‘Pinball Wizard’ from Tommy and ‘Gethsemane’ from Jesus Christ Superstar.
I have made no secret elsewhere of Wicked not being my cup of tea, my one and only visit in 2009 marred by extremely rude audience members, and holes in the storyline. Even taking into account the fantasy world that the show inhabits plus the higher level of suspension of disbelief that this involves doesn’t make up for the unconvincing plot twists. It always seems to be those audience members who adore Wicked that are unpleasant at other shows: I was once shoved quite forcefully making my way out of the theatre after a performance of In The Heights by someone who then loudly proclaimed to her companion no other musical could ever come remotely close to the alleged superior quality of Wicked. But I have come to appreciate one or two of the showtunes from Wicked, one of which, ‘Popular’, was performed in the Royal Festival Hall by Louise Dearman, apparently the only performer to date to have been cast as both principal Glinda (as opposed to standby or alternate) and principal Elphaba, in 2010-11 and 2012-13 respectively. Dearman also sang a number from the Broadway show Waitress, ‘She Used To Be Mine’ – oh, that show must transfer to London at some point!
The other tune from Wicked which I have eventually started liking, or more accurately tolerated because of its near-ubiquity in musical theatre concerts, is ‘Defying Gravity’, which was done with such grace and poignancy in the intimate setting of Live At Zedel at a cabaret concert starring Alice Fearn. The concert – gig, really – was called Just Me and A Piano. Grammatical torture aside (why not Just A Piano and I?), Fearn’s version of ‘Defying Gravity’, a duet with Oliver Savile, the current Fiyero in the West End production of Wicked, had the right sort of emotional depth that does more justice to the lyrics than the usual vocally impressive but ultimately heartless belting.
It does seem to be the final numbers at events like these that stick in the memory, one which Fearn exploited to its fullest extent in a song expressly about leaving the audience wanting more. The encore was a version of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’, from Company. Back at the Festival Hall, The Sound of Musicals plumped for ‘Oh What A Night (December 1963)’ from Jersey Boys, a show now sadly departed from the West End, to close out with; for the encore the orchestra went full tilt with ‘I’m A Believer’, from Shrek The Musical.
I must also mention the other performers in The Sound of Musicals, Hannah Waddingham, who reprised her role of The Witch in Into The Woods (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Summer 2010), singing ‘The Last Midnight’ from that show; and Oliver Tompsett, whose version of ‘Corner of the Sky’ from Pippin reminded me why that too is a show I must see a production of sooner rather than later. Of note from Just Me and A Piano is the actual pianist, Nick Barstow, whose musical arrangements for this short but sweet gig were extremely pleasant to listen to: I’d happily sit through both concerts all over again.
There were quips, mostly infantile, swirling around in my head about seeing a musical called The Braille Legacy that were more than matched by the punchlines of Mme Marie Barber (Kate Milner-Evans) regarding the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, France. Before the show started, a member of the theatre’s front of house team enforced the strict ‘no photography’ policy, which I found more than slightly ironic. Then, I gave up trying to read the programme because there wasn’t enough light in my section of the auditorium – in other words, I couldn’t see. And should I find the show satisfactory or better, how inappropriate would it be to say a show about Louis Braille (Jack Wolfe) is ‘well worth seeing’?
Wolfe’s Braille is an eager beaver, portrayed as a pupil keen to speak his mind, sometimes tactlessly, but never with the intent to offend or aggravate. His frustration in this ‘triumph over adversity’ story boils over every so often – but the apparent school bully, Gabriel Gauthier (Jason Broderick) goes from being foe to friend of Braille; he, too, is unhappy with the status quo. There was a different system, difficult and cumbersome, used before Braille devised his own reading system based on a dots-and-dashes invention by Captain Charles Barbier de la Serre of the French Army (Michael Remick). But Braille worked and worked and worked, and eventually his alphabet came about.
But, goodness me, this musical takes the scenic route just to make the point that a child prodigy had the intelligence to devise a language (of sorts) that bears his name to this day. The obstacles to be overcome were very steep, however, to the point where the Braille alphabet was never formally recognised by the Royal Institute for Blind Youth until after Braille had passed on, and it is a pity he never saw the fruition of his labours properly acknowledged during his lifetime. It was popular with the Institute’s pupils, however, and I’m not sure why the creative team felt it more impactful for Dr Pignier (Jérôme Pradon), the headmaster, to voluntarily resign. In reality, he was fired for having had a book translated into Braille, and for me, the real story seemed more commensurate with Pignier’s demeanour and the protestations from Louis Braille, amongst others, at news of Pignier’s departure.
This is a musical, however, and perhaps it wouldn’t have worked so well after all if Pignier disappeared from view. Done this way, he is at least able to speak for himself, without the disgrace of dismissal hanging over his head. This isn’t, however, a particularly joyful musical – the choreography (Lee Proud) is mostly about movement rather than dancing. It could have been happier. There’s scope for song and dance in the fantasy atmosphere a musical conjures up, particularly when Braille completes his alphabet, but it’s not utilised, arguably a missed opportunity. Oddly, even in darker moments, such as in the aptly-named musical number The Sun Will Never Rise Again, it’s not as hard-hitting and foreboding as it could be. It’s mostly in the spoken dialogue that the gloomier aspects of this admittedly riveting storyline are most vivid. Put simply, this would work better as a straight play.
The audience is, of course, fully aware how it ends even before the show begins – Braille is commonly known as the system used by the blind and partially sighted to read to this day. I have been made aware that there aren’t any actually visually impaired performers in this production, and that does seem something of a wasted opportunity. The blindfolds used were pointless, really, insofar as disdain from the likes of Dufau, a teacher at the Institute (Ashley Stillburn) and others were clear enough, and who the blind people (should that properly read ‘people with blindness’, as they are people first before anything else?) were is evident from their movements. And what’s with the revolving stage? When it spins around, there’s not much else on the ‘other’ side that isn’t on the previous one. At one point, it just turns and turns like the sign outside New Scotland Yard, with no narrative purpose.
A sinister subplot is in terrible taste, if only because it is untrue. Here, Catherine Lepage (at the performance I attended, Eliz Hassan: the child role is shared with Tallulah Byrne) and Gabriel Gauthier disappear from the Institute, much to the horror of Mme Demézière (Ceili O’Connor), and are murdered, apparently in the name of science. I could not find further details about what really happened to Catherine Lepage, which suggests nothing untoward happened. It transpires that Gauthier remained friends with Braille and was also given a teaching position at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. O’Connor’s Demézière was unintentionally comical with her melodramatic mannerisms, bringing to mind Helen Lovejoy out of The Simpsons yelling, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” But I have not found any evidence that there was any sort of actual scheme to find a cure for blindness that involved killing off Royal Institute for Blind Youth pupils, or indeed pupils from elsewhere. A real pity, then, that some people might come out of the show thinking there was Government-sponsored genocide going on: it was simply inserted into the narrative to heighten emotions. Tut, tut: a whole star lost because of this point, from this reviewer!
This musical abruptly runs out of steam, and rather lazily furnishes the audience with a stand-and-deliver executive summary of the adult life of Louis Braille, none of which is acted out at all. Braille went on to be an accomplished musician. And this is a musical. So why isn’t there a bit of actor-musicianship? Nonetheless, as it is, it’s an inspiring story, and one I’d never come across before in such detail (even if some aspects have been altered for dramatic effect), and the band in this production, directed by Toby Higgins, is excellent. But that doesn’t make up for a litany of weaknesses, even if I still think the fresh-faced and newly-graduated Jack Wolfe in the leading role will have a sterling career ahead of him.
Until 24 June 2017, Charing Cross Theatre.
There are certain viewpoints that (some) city people, like me, have of people from the country. Some of these views are, frankly, entirely untrue and based on my own ignorance and prejudice. Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road does, at least at first, nothing to counteract them, choosing instead, rather playfully, to magnify them in this 67-minute no-interval power-packed comedy in which more happens than in many shows twice as long as this one.
I saw this play at the Trafalgar Studios, having transferred there from an earlier run at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, which as someone who used to live there once told me, is ‘one letter away from Kensington’. It seems more at home in this venue, seen by some as being a West End theatre, partly because of its location (nearest Tube and rail: Charing Cross) and partly because it’s operated by the Ambassador Theatre Group. It’s a comedy with a capital C, without a fringe factor – I dare say, put it together with either or even both of the sequels that together make up the ‘Fried Meat Trilogy’, it might even be suitable for the Young Vic or the National Theatre.
As this play stands, set in a motel on Fried Meat Ridge Road, an actual road in Keyser, West Virginia, it’s an absolute hoot. And what a change of seating arrangement for the smaller of the two Trafalgar Studios, doing away with its usual almost-in-the-round layout for a more traditional as-though-proscenium-arch formation. JD (Keith Stevenson) is something of a big friendly giant, to borrow a phrase from Roald Dahl, the lovechild of Pollyanna and Tigger, forever seeing the positives in any situation. Mitch (Robert Moloney) is not quite the polar opposite, but is not at his most sprightly, being the victim of circumstances, or rather the subject of a country and western song, having lost his other half, his car, his job and a roof over his head.
Tommy (Alex Ferns) is an incredibly explosive man, all guns blazing in more ways than one, although his methods are no match for the wisdom – if that’s the right word – and experience of Flip (Michael Wade), whose way with words is so hard-hitting the words ‘sledgehammer’ and ‘nut’ come to mind. Completing the set of characters is the Voice of the Sherriff (Michael Rothhaar), and the drug addict Marlene (Melanie Gray). Marlene had such an, um, interesting rapport with Mitch, the latter’s new guy reticence and culture shock being repeatedly misunderstood for aloofness and an uncaring attitude.
There aren’t, rather like the plays of Neil LaBute, any normal characters in the play, which makes all the buffoonery a new sort of ‘normal’, once the audience accepts the ordinary lies elsewhere, in other stories and other plays. There are surprises along the way, with artistic expression coming from the least likely of sources. The character development is all present and correct, particularly with Mitch, who gradually acknowledges, however reluctantly, his new surroundings, even if he struggles to, ahem, stomach a way of life so very different from what he’s been used to.
The distinct lack of political correctness here is refreshing in a world where one increasingly feels as though one is treading on eggshells whilst carrying the weekly shop. It’s not to everyone’s taste, for sure, but I’ve already booked a return visit. A larger than life production that punches well above its weight.
Until Saturday 3 June 2017, Trafalgar Studio 2, Whitehall
Photo credit: Gavin Watson
‘Sometimes a play just works on every level… ‘
London Theatre 1
‘Hugely watchable… a laugh-out-loud human satire’
‘Bizarre, hilarious and heartbreaking’
Carn’s Theatre Passion
Things could not get any worse for Mitchell, who just lost his girlfriend, his apartment, and his job. With nowhere to go, he answers an ad for a roommate and finds himself in a West Virginia countryside motel with JD, an affable hillbilly of mysterious origins. Soon JD’s neighbours - curmudgeonly Flip, meth-head Marlene, and her hot-headed boyfriend Tommy – have all but taken over the tiny room. When the group find themselves in a hostage situation, Mitchell must decide to save himself or join this dysfunctional family and let his freak flag fly.
Directed by Harry Burton, Out There On Fried Meat Ridge Rd. is a hillbilly comedy with a heart of gold.
It may no longer be acceptable for a male presenter of an event like Magic at the Musicals to be sexually suggestive, making comments, remarks and even physical moves towards people of the opposite gender. But sadly it appears to still be permissible for Mel Giedroyc to describe Jesus Christ Superstar headliner Declan Bennett as “my future husband”, to make derogatory remarks about the fresh-faced conductor, Jon Ranger, and to touch the top rear of a stagehand’s trousers. I felt sorry for the stagehand. He does not come to work to be assaulted in that (or any other) manner. Ranger seemed to just patiently wait out Giedroyc’s ‘banter’. Bennett must have had the last laugh, though. He just so happens to be gay; his nonchalance towards Giedroyc’s cringeworthy advances was subtly telling.
What was going on in between the many musical numbers did not detract too much from the enjoyment of proceedings. The producers were keen to stress that this musical theatre concert was being recorded for broadcast three evenings later. There is thus some scope for post-production editing (necessary, in fact, given the number of slip-ups from Giedroyc and co-host Ruthie Henshall made) but there’s only so much that can be done about certain audience members insisting on talking during the performance at full conversational volume.
The Royal Albert Hall staff had their work cut out trying to stop people filming and taking photographs. A rather momentary but nonetheless disgusted look from Samantha Barks towards someone in the audience meant she saw what many people saw, some woman blatantly filming Barks’ rendering of ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. Another woman, filming Jon Robyns and Cassie Compton singing an extract from ‘The Wedding Singer’, refused to stop when asked to do so by another member of the audience, who found himself having to get up mid-performance and find a member of staff to assist. That steward then went on to run up and down catching at least half a dozen other people, one of whom had to be told more than once that recording the performance is strictly prohibited.
The musical theatre stars of tomorrow shined on the Albert Hall stage. A young adult choir comprised of students from the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts supported a number of tunes throughout the evening, and had their own chance to shine during a performance of ‘The Rhythm of Life’ from Sweet Charity. The Spirit Young Performers, whose previous credits include West End Live, gave the audience a compelling version of ‘Food Glorious Food’ from Oliver! I thought their accents could have been worked on a little harder (“’arder”?) – it all seemed a tad too polished.
My ‘exit poll’ tweet on Twitter singled out the ‘queens’ – Matt Henry’s Lola, singing ‘Hold Me In Your Heart’ from Kinky Boots, and John Partridge’s Zaza, singing the iconic ‘I Am What I Am’ from the touring production of La Cage Aux Folles. Separately, because I can never fit what I want to say in 140 characters or fewer, I congratulated Marisha Wallace, in the current London cast of Dreamgirls, for two outstanding numbers, I Am Changing in the first half, then And I Am Telling You in the second. The belting was phenomenal, and well controlled, as it was with Rachel Tucker’s Elphaba, raising the roof with ‘Defying Gravity’ (or, the satirical revue Forbidden Broadway puts it, ‘Defying Subtlety’) from Wicked.
Previews galore were in store too: I was pleased to accept a press invitation to The Wind in the Willows just as I was finishing up this review. That show starts performances for a limited engagement at the London Palladium in June. There’s a definite Stiles and Drewe ring to ‘The Amazing Mr Toad’ and ‘We’re Taking Over The Hall’, as performed in this concert. The Regents Park Open Air Theatre summer 2017 productions of On The Town and Jesus Christ Superstar are in good shape, and the newly appointed alternate Dewey Finn, Stephen Leask, gave an assured performance in ‘Teacher’s Pet’ from School of Rock. Hearing musical theatre numbers out of context may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as far as compilation concerts go, Magic at the Musicals is as good as they come.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.