Photo: Nutcracker Suite featuring human-sized plant life in The Vaults presents Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney Fantasia. Credit Hanson Leatherby
It’s an ambitious feat, and not an immediately obvious method to pay tribute to an animated motion picture. The Vaults presents Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney Fantasia, as this production is rather cumbersomely called, is one of those shows where, fortunately or unfortunately, it helps to have sat down for a couple of hours and watched the original in the first place, or at least read freely available information about Fantasia online. Otherwise, there’s a chance one might come out of the multisensory experience thinking, as one lady almost yelled, what on earth the show is all about.
The thing about this particular production is that it’s not really ‘about’ anything, and yet it is about lots of things – the human experience, the beauty of various species of the world’s plants and flowers, and – perhaps unexpectedly for anyone encountering the world of Fantasia for the first time, copious amounts of classical music. There is some interest amongst younger people in orchestral music, perhaps because of its prevalence in the modern world. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, for instance, recently performed a PlayStation concert at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Resident Evil’, ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ and ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ are titles that mean nothing to me, but to people who indulge in computer games, they will have listened to certain pieces of orchestral music many times before.
The same probably can’t be said of The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, or Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria. (That said, both of those are regularly heard during Advent and Christmas.) Fantasia, being a Disney film, was aimed at children, and so it is with ‘Sounds and Sorcery’. Not that the ‘big people’ get bored, but it seemed to me that children were more enthralled than anyone, captivated by, for instance, a room with patterns on the floor created by moving lights, or a live performance of dance and one-upmanship in a section called ‘The Dance of The Hours’.
I have to admit I probably spent longer in ‘timed’ sections of this immersive experience, as opposed to parts of the production which were to be enjoyed at one’s own leisure. Sufficient numbers of members of staff are on hand to guide people through, and at least on press night, the number of audience members was kept sensible, and no part of the venue ever felt overcrowded.
There is a need to wear headphones: the sound balance is smooth and consistent, though there is, perhaps inevitably, the odd moment of static interference, or ‘radio noise’, particularly when going from one room to another. There’s plenty of animation, and some care has been taken not to merely replicate the motion picture on stage – the experience closes with ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ and ‘Ave Maria’, but the images are very different from the ones in the film.
I found it difficult to warm to ‘The Rite of Spring’ – not so much the music, but at times it was so dark that I found myself standing around waiting for more light to appear in order to see where I was going. More resourceful members of the audience than I plumped for the ‘flashlight’ facility on their smartphones. Far better was ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, a rapidly paced brief performance involving physical theatre and some credible demonstrations of the power of magic. Let’s just say there are privileges afforded to those who sit in the front row.
All things considered, it’s a bit of a cliché, but there is something for (almost) everyone in this dynamic and highly kaleidoscopic production.
Now this is what a good theatrical comedy should be like – a serious message but with hilarity, even absurdity. The elephant in the room with regards to The Lieutenant of Inishmore seems to be the backdrop: it’s 1993, and IRA bombs are still going off in London. The show itself is set over in Ireland, and centres on Padraic (Aidan Turner: why is it that people off the telly aren’t as tall in real life as one anticipates they would be?), a man so violent the IRA didn’t want him in their ranks because he was considered too extreme. But the play highlights the stupidity, vacuity and superfluity of a lot of terrorism out there.
The nature of terrorism may have changed, and online attacks may be more of a threat now that guns and knives. There are still bombs, as a 2017 incident at Manchester Arena demonstrated, but at least the IRA used to phone up beforehand and say there was a bomb about to go off in a certain location. Anyway, the production uses a copious amount of fake blood in what becomes ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ (and thus a life for a life). So, what’s with all the guffawing in the stalls (and, as far as I could deduce, the circle)?
Well, a cat, Wee Thomas, has been Padraic’s only (and therefore best) friend for fifteen years, but now he has become part of a splinter group, he’s traversing Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, with a view to making it part of the Republic. So Wee Thomas is being looked after by his father Donny (Denis Conway) – but there’s a problem, which is a bit too much of a spoiler to state specifically. But it means Padraic interrupts his torturing of James (Brian Martin), yet another one of his many victims, and drops everything to return to Inishmore and see to Wee Thomas.
Cue panic, because all is not well with Wee Thomas (again, without giving too much away, if everything were, Padraic would simply carry on torturing whoever he believes to be unionists). It is Padraic’s melodramatic reaction that elicits laughter, not because people shouldn’t care for their pets (of course they should), but because it’s clearly the terrorist’s (very) soft spot, which James gloriously exploits, winning his freedom in the process. Here is the Big Man who terrifies as well as terrorises, slumped and reduced to tears because his father has phoned him to report a problem with his pet cat.
All is well with Wee Thomas in the end (though other cats are not so lucky). Thanks to Padraic jumping to conclusions, and some panicky actions on the part of Donny and young Davey (Chris Walley), it gets rather anarchic. Add to the mix Mairead (Charlie Murphy, whose diction meant I couldn’t fully understand what the character was saying, though much of it sounded aggressive), Davey’s sister, who is in love with Padraic, and successfully woos him. Christy (Will Irvine), leader of the splinter group that Padraic wishes to breakaway from, thus forming a splinter group from a splinter group, isn’t happy at Padraic’s actions. It all comes to blows, in more ways than one.
The strength of the production is in both the comic timing and the script itself. Lines need not be complicated to be both amusing and profound: for instance, Davey’s “Oh, will it never end? Will it never fecking end?” proves a great response to the sheer insanity of the final scenes. There may have been moments when certain fellow theatregoers were questioning whether they should be laughing at what goes on, but there’s no denying the brilliance of this delightful production.
I’m with Ken (Alfred Enoch) when it comes to the sort of abstract art that Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) was known for. “What do you see?” Rothko wants to know. “Red,” replies Ken. But Rothko is not the sort of person that understands what ‘red’ is on its own, so when red is suggested as a colour to be added to a bucket of paint that is already a mixture of a variety of shades, he explodes – figuratively speaking, of course. ‘Red’ isn’t specific enough; it is a mere suggestion. He does have a point. A quick look at the ‘Dulux Colour Palette’ reveals that there’s no ‘red’. The sort of red in a red ballpoint pen is Volcanic Red, but there’s Jasmine Shimmer, Spring Rose, Blossom White, Sweet Pink, Blush Pink, Pretty Pink, Satin Bow, Love Note (don’t ask), Berry Smoothie, Fuchsia Lily, Raspberry Bellini, Pepper Red, Raspberry Diva, Roasted Red, Salsa Red, Cranberry Crunch, Sumptuous Plum, Redcurrent Glory, Monarch and Ruby Starlet.
Thus far, I’ve made Red sound like a show that gets bogged down in the details. If it does so, this is quite deliberate, in its portrayal of a painter that is, perhaps by necessity, obsessed with perfecting every aspect of his work. Molina’s Rothko is bitter and bad-tempered, because people don’t understand his art. I don’t know about everyone else, but I know I don’t get his sort of paintings: if I were ever to see something like it in an art gallery, I would need to read the description next to it to even begin to appreciate what it is supposed to represent.
The show doesn’t in any way change that view: his creation of a mural to hang in some restaurant or other seems to involve a lot of red and black. At least he actually goes to the restaurant once it is opened to see the situation for himself, and finally sees the light – people are going to the restaurant to eat, drink and converse, not to glare at paintings and be mesmerised by them. Rothko, frankly (or this version of him, anyway), is an idiot – he objects to knives and forks clinking against plates in a restaurant. That is like objecting to beer being served in a pub.
Rothko is, however, intense and passionate, and rightly instructs his employee Ken to indulge in reading classics and develop an understanding of “philosophy, theology, literature, poetry, drama, history, archaeology, anthropology, mythology, music”. The scene changes are nothing to write home about, meanwhile – quite dull, really – music accompanied by the changing of canvasses, which I couldn’t see the point of, apart from one scene where some paint is actually applied to a blank canvas (not the same, as Rothko points out, as ‘painting’).
The actors’ performances are excellent, given what they have to work with, and the Saturday matinee performance I attended did, in the end, deserve the standing ovation given. An intriguing piece of theatre with some good insights into Rothko’s life and work, even if we’ve been here before at a macro level – he wasn’t the first Tortured Artist, and he won’t be the last.
I had some trouble keeping up with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love, or at least this Hope Mill Theatre production of it. Any show that covers a period of seventeen years might be a bit much for people to absorb entirely on a first visit. It might have partially been to do with the weather – as I remarked to the theatre’s co-artistic director, Joseph Houston (the other one is musical producer Katy Lipson), I was slightly disappointed to discover it was just as hot in Manchester as it was in London. His theatre (co-owned with his husband William Whelton) was doing what London’s smaller performing arts venues do in a heatwave: fans were blasting hot air around, only to be switched off just before the show was about to start (too much of a distraction, apparently), and then whacked back on the second the house lights come up for the interval.
The lighting (Aaron J Dootson) is good – it’s night when it’s night and it’s day when it’s day. The orchestrations have been pared back, perhaps a little too much, with just two pianos (Gareth Bretherton and Johnny James) and a percussionist (Phil Stevenson). In these days of the #MeToo ‘trend’ and revelations about instances of inappropriate behaviour, it’s easy to think of Alex Dillingham (Felix Mosse) as someone who simply can’t keep his dick in his trousers. But in the living room ambience created by this production, it becomes clear that sometimes it is the determination of others that gets him tangled up.
Still, who is sleeping with whom? It also doesn’t help that not very many people are particularly likeable. Rose Vibert (Kelly Price) is not quite a diva actress but there is an air of snootiness about her, while George (Jerome Pradon), Alex’s uncle, is charming to begin with but becomes ultra-defensive to the point where his health suffers for his rage and bitterness. Jenny (Eleanor Walsh), can’t help being the daughter of George and Rose. I didn’t get much sense of there being a same-sex affair between Rose and Giulietta (Kimberly Blake), apart from a full-on kiss at the close of Act One. Hopelessly underwritten. Oh, and Giulietta was at one point shagging George. See what I mean about struggling to keep up?
There’s a Lloyd Webber musical about cats, and another about trains. Both are preferable to this one about people. There wasn’t anything wrong with the production, at least not for me – it’s not like Alex’s lyric about a night seeming like a lifetime in ‘Love Changes Everything’ is a metaphor for the show. Mind you, other lyrics in that song are just odd. Take, “Love, love changes everything / Hands and faces, earth and sky.” Love changes someone’s hands? How? But the true irony of the song, and of the show, is that there’s a seeming lack of understanding amongst characters between what constitutes true love, and what is really just lust. Thus, spoiler alert, despite the title of the show’s most famous song, most characters remain resolutely unchanged.
Felix Mosse in the lead role sings brilliantly, beautifully even, seemingly effortlessly gliding through the soaring melodies as the romp-a-thon goes on. Some charming choreography (Sam Spencer-Lane) is to be enjoyed in circus scenes, and without giving too much away, the production does extremely well in navigating the many scene changes inevitably required in a show that keeps jumping between Pau, Paris and Venice. The slickness and high standards of this production win out over a bizarre plot.
I can almost hear the grammar police in my schooldays (which constituted the sort of teachers who relished giving detentions out for the most puerile of reasons) yelling, “How daaaaaa-re you! It’s ‘My Girl and I’!” They would probably spontaneously combust if they were ever to listen to ‘Our Time’ from the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, which ends with the lyric “Me and you” repeated eight times. Such people would not enjoy Me and My Girl, grammatical conventions aside, at least in the sense that they do not enjoy anything, and always, always have something negative to say about everything: this is the Chichester Festival Theatre’s summer musical, and it’s fun, fun, fun.
Yes, the performance I attended coincided with a sporting fixture – namely that of England playing against Sweden in the FIFA World Cup 2018 quarter-finals. I do not mean to say that the result (which went in England’s favour) had any impact on the enjoyment or otherwise of the production, but simply that the feelgood factor was compounded by it. As ever with the Festival Theatre’s musicals in the main house, it’s a fairly large cast: twenty-four this time around, supported by an orchestra of eleven, though somehow the latter sometimes comes across as larger than the former.
There’s little, if anything, revolutionary about this show. It even appears to unashamedly borrow elements of the plotline from Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (on which My Fair Lady is based), with Sir John Tremayne (Clive Rowe) having tutored Sally Smith (Alex Young) in the mannerisms of high society in the style of Professor Henry Higgins in Shaw’s play similarly (seemingly) transforming Eliza Doolittle, though we see nothing of the process. Instead it is Maria, Duchess of Dene (Caroline Quentin) and her attempts to refine and reform Bill Snibson (Matt Lucas), a working-class man completely lacking in airs and graces, to which some stage time is given. It is, as per Pygmalion, quite a hoot.
I am still in two minds as to whether the show is too hammy. When Parchester (Jennie Dale), the solicitor to the Hareford Estate (it can, I think, be reasonably assumed she may have other clients as well), bursts into song yet again, someone will tell her to stop. So, it’s not the sort of show that takes itself too seriously. Bill Snibson, meanwhile, throws out punchline after punchline – plot takes precedence over character development. The Act One closing number, ‘The Lambeth Walk’, provokes an enthusiastic response. But the Festival Theatre has done this before: the cutlery comes out and is used as musical instruments, the dancing gets increasingly more impactful as the song goes on, and practically everyone on stage joins in, traditionalists, servants and all. ‘Pick Out A Simple Tune’ from the 2016 musical Half A Sixpence, anyone?
It works, though, for the most part – elements of the second half started to drag, and ‘Leaning On A Lamppost’, as unexciting a number as it sounds (it involves Lucas’ Bill, well, leaning on a lamppost), could do with trimming down. And, for those enough old enough to remember, Lucas isn’t quite as nuanced as Robert Lindsay (who won Best Actor in a Musical at the Laurence Olivier Awards 1985, beating Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables). But then, there’s the occasional ad-lib that Lucas does well (though I’ve seen Lindsay ad-lib too, in other productions). Of note is the musical arrangements (Gareth Valentine) – without giving too much away, I am torn between describing it as ‘versatile’ and ‘schizophrenic’.
If you’re seeing this show, don’t be late back at the end of the interval: it goes straight into ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’, which is worth seeing as a big song-and-dance number. I smell a West End transfer: it’s business as usual at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Performances until 25th August 2018
The thing about The Light Princess is that, although it’s a decent children’s story, the musical adaptation isn’t perfect – the music (Tori Amos) doesn’t have much of a ‘wow’ factor, and can be very repetitive, even by unassuming musical theatre standards. I wondered how a concert version, put on by Club 11 London (owned and operated by Darren Bell) and the Alex Parker Theatre Company, would work. I couldn’t put my finger on why it did work so well until some dedicated fans of the show filled me in on some details at the interval.
The details were so, well, detailed – these were people who knew every line of the show (a cast recording of the National Theatre production and a script can still, I think, be purchased online), but according to them, there were, to quote the late David Bowie, ch-ch-changes. Lines were added, removed, modified – this wasn’t a case of plonking the original score and script on stage without a set. Some efforts had been made to make the story accessible for anyone encountering the Tori Amos / Samuel Adamson adaptation for the first time. That’s how it should be, not leaving anyone behind.
More emphasis is placed on the lyrics and spoken dialogue, and it didn’t matter that Princess Althea (Rosalie Craig) wasn’t in any way ‘floating’ (the National Theatre production used ropes to create the idea of someone who rejected sadness as a child on the death of her mother, and in rejecting emotion, became both psychologically and physically weightless). But the orchestra were in fine form, gliding through the melodies with noticeably more verve and passion than the NT production – I saw it twice there, and would have gone a third time if they hadn’t sold out. I only went at all on the back of a one-star review from Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – he is such a tasteless critic that generally speaking, a one-star from him means it’s a show worth checking out.
I was very impressed with Trevor Dion Nicholas’ portrayal of King Darius of Lagobel, taking on a very different role from the Genie in the Disney Corporation’s West End musical adaptation of Aladdin. Darius is not the type of character that is perennially joyful, playing to the gallery – there are miscellaneous affairs of state he must attend to, as well as making efforts to get his only remaining heir, Princess Althea, literally and figuratively back down to earth. Convincingly terrifying when asserting his kingship in the face of accusations from a borderline traitor, his commanding voice was an appropriate and definite stand out.
There were no weak links in the cast – the ensemble, effectively forming a choir – Sharif Afifi, Daniel Amity, Liberty Buckland, Francesca Lara Gordon, Howard Jenkins, Michael Larcombe, Francesca Leyland and Hannah Ponting – were sublime. I doubt there is enough commercial interest to mount another full production of The Light Princess in London – despite this improved concert version, it remains quite quirky. But it was nice to experience it again.
The Sweet Smell of Success, is above all, a comprehensive rebuttal to the assertion that what is printed in newspapers (or, these days, published online), particularly about the movements and actions of celebrity figures in society, is credible. On an entirely separate note, there have been concerns from fellow reviewers who have been around the block a few times more than yours truly about musical theatre training courses not teaching students how to sing with clarity and precision in the way they did before. I never really noticed it until catching this summer showcase production, which ran for four days (two days longer than most summer showcases, mind you) at the Royal Academy of Music.
Rita (Natalie Dunne) gets a musical number all to herself, the unimaginatively titled ‘Rita’s Tune’; Dunne can’t help but insert chart music style riffs in a song which shouldn’t have any. Thomas Grant’s Sidney – a young press agent trying to make it big – sings with such variation he is at one point incomparable and at another barely comprehensible, with a strong vibrato that, to be blunt, needs taming. I may well be being harsh on students, but these are people on the cusp of graduating – in the show’s programme, there’s a list of ‘student successes’, people in the class who have secured professional work at the time the programme was printed. The two aforementioned people aren’t on the list. Make of that what you will.
(I do not mean to say that snapping up a job in musical theatre before one has even graduated necessarily makes one a ‘better’ performer than another: there are Olivier Award winners who sometimes find themselves out of work, a similar phenomenon to the ‘Nobel Prize effect’, where winners find that they have fewer commissions for work in their specialised field because there is a perception they are too expensive and/or too busy elsewhere, so potential clients don’t even bother asking about their availability.)
At least the leading man is well and truly a leading man, with decent stage presence and an excellent singing vocal. James Penniston as JJ Hunsecker is both cynical and conniving, willing to say whatever he thinks will sell papers in his gossip column, irrespective of whether any of what he says is true. But these were the days before social media and the proliferation of various news media channels and streams – he claims he has 60 million readers, and his column is powerful enough to make or break a person.
One such person is Dallas (Jeremy Sartori), a piano player in a jazz bar (yep, like Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian Wilder in the romantic comedy motion picture La La Land). He has the privilege of being both made and broken by Hunsecker, the former on account of Sidney’s persistence, the latter on Hunsecker’s over-protectiveness towards his sister Susan (Camille Rieu). It’s an unusual musical, not so much in terms of musicality, which is very much like the other compositions of Marvin Hamlisch (1944-2012), but the plotline was unpredictable – or, rather, less predictable than many a musical.
The choreography sparkled in this production, and there was further fun to be had afterwards in a late night ‘musical theatre cabaret’, though that performance was so short it is almost barely worth mentioning. There were relatively few solo performances: ‘Featuring The Company’ was as much detail as was given for who was singing on seven out of the ten numbers in the show. Hairs stood on end during an acapella rendering of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.