London Theatre News

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Sunday, 6 April 2014

Into The Woods - Bridewell Theatre - Saturday 5 April ****



An amateur production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s updating of the Brothers Grimm may not be everyone’s ideal Saturday afternoon cup of tea, but sedos is not your ordinary amateur company and many a professional fringe theatre must weep at what this band of unpaid part-timers achieve in a converted Victorian swimming pool off Ludgate Circus.

The set is a wondrous creation by Steven King, drawing inspiration from both the original Broadway production and Soutra Gilmour’s multi-levelled design for Timothy Sheader’s definitive take at the Open Air Theatre in 2010. The first act reveal of the titular woods was the first of many times I was glad I’d packed a handkerchief. Added to this is a phenomenal 15 piece orchestra under the baton of conductor and musical director Ryan Macaulay playing Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations in all their original glory.


There’s probably no need to sketch out the story, but at the heart of the band of fairy tale characters that make up the cast are a childless Baker and his wife who are given a quest by a witch to enable them to make their family complete and this is where sedos have a trump card in Kara McLean as the Baker's Wife. Initially slightly overbearing, bossy and definitely wearing the metaphorical pants, her sense of pride and outpouring of love at Andrew Overin’s mild mannered Baker’s growing confidence and determination are superbly conveyed. I had to check in the programme that she wasn’t a pro and no, she has a day job & is also a film blogger. Even when she strays with a rogue prince and has her “Moment In The Woods” she still manages to keep the audience on her side despite her virtual lack of remorse at having her cake and eating it.


Of course not all the performances reach the dizzying heights of McLean, but many give her a run for her money, notably Fran Rafferty’s nerdish narrator, Lotte Gilmour’s voracious Little Red Riding Hood, Amanda Stewart’s burgeoning feminist Cinderella, Chris McGuigan’s wide-eyed naïf Jack, Susan Booth as his weary mother and Sam Harrison-Baker & Chris Warner as a pair of preening princes, whose two “Agonies” bring down the house.


Following a first act resolution when the baddies have got their just desserts and everyone else looks set to live happily ever after, Sondheim and Lapine deconstruct the story and in time-honoured fairy tale tradition present us with morality tales in abandon as life gets in the way of happiness. Once our merry band are down to five (Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his son), their aching “No-One Is Alone” has me reaching for my now soaked hankie for the umpteenth time.


Director Matthew Gould and choreographer Gayle Bryans marshall their enormous cast with steady inventive hands and produce something akin to magic and to hear some of Sondheim’s finest songs backed by a full orchestra is worth the price of admission alone.
 
Booking until 12 April 2014, there are big tall terrible awesome scary wonderful giants just off Fleet Street - Into The Woods
 

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Do I Hear A Waltz? - Park Theatre - Saturday 15 March ***

A day in which Mrs FRD and I get to finally see a production of one of our favourite Broadway cast recordings. With book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and score by Richard Rogers, this 1965 musical retelling of Laurents’ 1952 play, The Time of The Cuckoo, was an enormous flop and Sondheim has since all-but disowned it. Sondheim’s main gripe seems to be that the main protagonist, Leona a middle-aged American secretary looking for love during a holiday in Venice, would never sing as she doesn’t have music within her. Meanwhile, the missus and I simply love the songs on the CD.

West End veteran Rebecca Seale is a perfect Leona, bright and breezy one minute, childish and needy the next. With a supporting cast of caricatured Americans she is staying at Pensione Fioria overseen by the oversexed talents of Rosie Strobel’s voluptuous Signora Fioria.  Strobels’s Fioria is a wondrous creation, a voracious flirt in a skirt, you wouldn’t trust her with your grandfather, never mind your husband. Leona embarks on a doomed romance with Philip Lee’s shopkeeper, Renato, and sadly this is here this production falls apart. While Lee may have the singing chops, unfortunately he doesn’t have the acting skills to match. At no point am I even remotely convinced that Leona would suspend her fears and hear that elusive waltz she has dreamt she would hear when falling in love.
 

Still, there is plenty to enjoy, not least a run of great comic songs (Signora Fioria’s “This Week Americans” shreds almost every nation on earth, “What Do We Do? We Fly” will strike a chord with anyone who has set foot on a plane) beautiful ballads (“Someone Like You” and “Take The Moment” are hopeful odes for the lovestruck middle-aged) and Seale’s gorgeous take on the title number.


A sparse two piece band of drums and piano do their best, but I kept wishing for a least a bass to fill out the sound. Louie Whitemore’s minimalist set of painted venetian backdrop and two sets of stairs is used effectively and the stage brightens up whenever Seale and Strobel are on it, which is luckily most of the time. The disappointing miscasting of one crucial role feels like a rare opportunity wasted. I’m glad I finally got to understand the drama behind all the wonderful songs and I still disagree with Mr Sondheim, sorry Steve.

Booking until 30 March 2014, despite two fine leading ladies, a wasted opportunity - Do I Hear A Waltz?

Friday, 14 March 2014

I Can't Sing (The X Factor Musical) - London Palladium - Thursday 13 March ****

Things are definitely picking up in the musical stakes. Following the triumph that is Urinetown, Harry Hill (book & lyrics) and Steve Brown (music & lyrics) make a brave and successful stab at satirising the omnipotent Simon Cowell and his most successful creation, X Factor.

In a caravan under the Westway, orphan Chenice (a deadpan Cynthia Erivo) has her light hidden under a bushel of which only her iron-lunged grandpa (Joe Speare) and pet dog Barlow (Simon Lipkin, a charmer with a line in sharp asides solely for the audience) are aware. Unable to receive ITV they remain blissfully ignorant of the persuasive delights of X Factor until plumber Max (Alan Morrissey, a cute northern button not a million miles away from Matt Cardle) persuades her to enter the competition to enable her to fulfil her dreams of studying at a UFO institute in Golders Green.


Act one, featuring only fleeting glimpses of Simon (Nigel Harman in high waisted trousers and Rylan’s veneers) and Louis (Ashley Knight, perfectly, permanently befuddled), but lots of Liam O’Deary (Simon Bailey nailing O’Leary with the accuracy of a top C from Leona Lewis), takes us all the way to the live show where Chenice and Max are pitted against the Altar Boyz (an annoying, over-energetic, miming Irish twosome) and Katy Secombe’s overweight, alcoholic, Welsh, Tesda checkout girl with a hatred of Shirley Bassey (now there’s a back story).


Act two ups the ante as Simon and Jordy (Victoria Elliott not even pretending to be anyone other than an ex-Girl Alouder) connive to ensure that Chenice and Max’s fledgling romance doesn’t get in the way of their own greed. Throw in plenty of knowing popular cultural references (poor Geri Halliwell), a surprising number of good songs (the title number and Max’s defiantly self-composed “Song I Wrote” are fantastic), a singing hunchback and you’re almost at the Rocky Horror Show inspired denoument.
 

Cynthia Erivo builds on last year’s sensational performance in The Color Purple with a voice that would make Beyonce proud. Nigel Harman has a ball, hamming it up relentlessly with the twinkle in his eye on slightly less bright than that bouncing off his teeth. Victoria Elliott gets more laughs from “pet” than the winner of this year’s Crufts. Alan Morrissey is simply gorgeous as Max, the northerner with a heart of gold who belatedly realises he makes a better plumber than pop star, and Simon Bailey, laying bare Liam’s desperation to be cool, had me giggling more than Sinitta when she heard So Macho for the first time.
 

This is bound to be a “marmite” show and I totally appreciate that it will be an anathema to many, but I loved it. If Harry Hill tickles your funny bone and you enjoy absurd surrealism, this will be manna from heaven. Les Miserables it ain’t, It could probably do with a few more songs of the calibre of “I Can’t Sing” and “Song I Wrote”, but it is two and a half hours of unabashed entertainment, surprisingly low on cynicism and with a great big silly heart. It has enough show girls and boys to keep the purists happy, spectacular sets, loads of laughs and some great tunes. In fact, just what I needed to set me up for the weekend, although I do wonder exactly when all concerned knew that the prodigal daughter would be returning to brighten up our TV screens on Saturday nights.
 

Booking until 25 October 2014, the professional critics can put their knife sharpeners away, because it's "Fabulous" - I Can't Sing