Monday, 19 May 2014

Miss Saigon - Prince Edward Theatre - Saturday 17 May ***

Many moons ago when Mrs Front Row Dress and I were first courting, we got bored with necking Breakers at the Bell and feasting on the all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizzaland, so had our first musical theatre date at the original London production of Boublil and Schonberg’s transposing of Madame Butterfly to 1970’s Vietnam. We loved every minute of it and it has had a special place in our hearts ever since. 23 years and gallons of wine and vodka later, we find ourselves coming full cricle at Cameron Mackintosh’s revival on our old stomping ground, Old Compton Street.

American GI Chris, a buff Alastair Brammer, has a brief fling with reluctant 17-year old Vietnamese hooker Kim, a sweet 17-year old Eva Nobledaza making her professional debut. Kim and John get separated in the chaos surrounding the US withdrawal from Vietnam and he returns to the US leaving a pregnant Kim behind and marries Ellen, Tamsin Carroll in a thankless role that makes Les Miserables' Cosette seems spunky. Three years later a US charity headed by Chris’s former GI pal John, Hugh Maynard, reunite Kim and Chris in Bangkok and she makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the future of their son.

My memory, obviously clouded by the first flush of falling in love, has been kinder to Miss Saigon than the passage of time. A relentless flow of saccharine ballads, full of swelling strings and minor chords, whose sole aim appears to be to manipulate the tear ducts of the audience, is punctuated by a brace of up-tempo big production numbers headed by Vietnamese pimp the Engineer, a delicious crowd pleasing turn from Jon Jon Briones, who should be good in the role as he has played it on and off for the best part of two decades. Even these songs come with their own baggage, one being a paean to the joys of the flesh, “The Heat Is On In Saigon”, and the other an ode to greed, “The American Dream”.

Maybe it’s because I’m a middle aged git now, but the whole thing smacks of a cynical money making exercise with Cameron Mackintosh cast as the Engineer, putting the business into show. From the ticking of the design boxes, helicopter – yes, Cadillac – yes, giant statue of Ho Chi Minh – yes, to the wheeling on of the cute three year old, it all feels like a West-End-Hit-By-Numbers. Even Ellen’s new song “Maybe” strives to make her more sympathetic to her poor husband’s plight, I much preferred her defiant “It’s Her Or Me” from the original score. Not once do the narrative or performances engage enough to transport me out of my seat in, yes you guessed, front row dress circle. 

My whinging aside, there are some fine touches, Adrian Vaux’s design uses the vertical space of the Prince Edward’s stage in tremendous fashion and there are some spectacular Edinburgh Tattoo style dance sequences courtesy of Bob Avian. But spectacular is what I guess they are going for and the spectacle does nothing to disguise the black hole at the heart of this shameless pitch for the tourist dollar. How could the updating of the lyrics by Michael Mahler have left the worst line in the history of musical theatre intact “Christ, I’m an American, how could I fail to do good?”? At least it provided me with a solitary belly laugh in an evening of self-perpetuating gloom.

The cast are top notch, the orchestra sounds great and all your hard earned ticket money is up there on stage for you to see, so you shouldn’t feel cheated, but I left as deflated as one of the Engineer’s poor suckers having been promised Cara Delevingne and ending up with White Dee.

Booking until 20 December 2014,  an empty spectacle which will probably run for 25 years - Miss Saigon

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be - Theatre Royal Stratford East - Friday 9 May ****

The self-proclaimed “people’s theatre” goes back to its roots to revive Joan Littlewood’s acclaimed 1959 production of Lionel Bart and Frank Norman’s then contemporary tale of life in a down-market Soho knocking shop.

With a stellar cast including Jessie “Kat” Wallace, Gary “Spandau” Kemp, Christopher “AbFab” Ryan, Stefan “Hollyoaks” Booth and Ryan “Valli” Molloy, the supporting company also includes some of my favourite West End performers, Joanna Woodward, Vivien Carter and the incomparable FREDA award winning Suzie Chard.
Low-life characters duck and dive under the watchful eye of bent cop Collins, Gary Kemp putting all those years at Anna Scher to good use. Tarts with hearts dream of wedded bliss and villains contemplate life on the straight and narrow, accompanied by Bart’s hybrid score juxtaposing late fifties pop with music hall.

Fair enough the title song stands head and shoulders above the others, so much so that it gets four outings and musical director Elliott Davis has shoe-horned in Cliff’s “Living Doll” as a second act crowd pleaser, but this show has a great big East End heart which dares you not to love it. Sure it’s a period piece, but the warmth emanating from the stage is enough to melt the hardest of hardmen.

Jessie Wallace’s Lil oversees proceedings as the ex-brass come barmaid who longs for a new frock and shows off a fine pair of vocal pipes. Mark Arden,  as Lil's love interest Fred, fights the looming spectre of middle-aged respectability, marriage and Lil’s brother’s market barrow.
Gary Kemp’s world-weary copper perfectly illustrates the fine line between good and evil, his scruples long-lost, wanting an ever larger slice of the Soho pie and falling in love with the magnificent Suzie Chard’s Big Betty. Chard truly is phenomenal, whether strutting around or “Layin’ Abaht” it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. She graduallly allows chinks to develop in her tough exterior and hints of melancholia surface, as she mothers Sarah Middleton’s new girl Rosie and Christopher Ryan’s old lag Red Hot.

The one slightly cloying note is Ryan Molloy’s over the top camp interior designer, who may get more laughs if he tones it down a little, as the easy relationship between villains and queens in the East End has a long history, but this was a first preview and a minor quibble, which I’m sure will be sorted come opening night.

In what would have been Joan Littlewood’s centenary, the People’s Theatre, still standing amongst the shiny new shrines to the 21st century, has done her proud.

Booking until 8 June 2014, East End Boys & West End Girls spark and sparkle - Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be

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