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Sunday, 25 March 2012

Filumena - Almeida Theatre - Saturday 24 March ***

The Almeida is our local big-time player and, despite having an exceptionally poor record on our beloved musical theatre, we have been consistently rewarded by the calibre of plays we have seen there. The main draw for us this time was Samantha Spiro as Filumena, an ex-prostitute tricking her long-time lover into marriage by feigning terminal illness. Written in 1946 by Italian Eduardo de Filippo, this new translation is by Tanya Ronder, who received much acclaim for her adaptation of Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, and is directed by Michael Attenborough, artistic director of the Almeida.

A gorgeous Saturday afternoon saw us trudging along Upper Street in blinding sunshine with blinding hangovers and wishing we were lying on the sofa with a dvd of All About Eve playing in the background. A quick vodka and tonic in the Almeida’s foyer bar soon sorted us out and we began to feel human again.

The Almeida has form for fabulous sets and they do not disappoint this time, a stunning sun-baked shuttered Neapolitan courtyard on two levels filled with plants and trees sets the scene perfectly, all credit to designer Robert Jones. To a soundtrack of chirruping crickets, a blustering Clive Wood as Domenico has just uncovered a dishevelled but unbowed Filumena’s subterfuge and is determined she should not get away with it. A trio of sons puts the cat amongst the pigeons and harrowing back stories from both Samantha Spiro’s Filumena and Sheila Reid’s worldly wise and unflappable Rosalia, Filumena’s faithful sidekick, prove quite a grim scenario for comedy. The extremely dark first act gives way to a much lighter, shorter second act, set 10 months later, and a final happy, if not altogether believable, resolution.

I appreciate that this is a classic play, but, despite first-rate performances from Samantha Spiro, Sheila Reid and Emily Plumtree, as Domenico’s younger mistress Diana, the whole thing is somewhat unfulfilling. The change in personalities of Filumena and Domenico between acts struck me as totally implausible. Would the Filumena who can barely disguise her utter contempt for Domenico in act one, go on to describe him as a god in act two, would he express undying love for a woman he has treated as a live-in hooker-cum-housekeeper for the previous 27 years? Some very “broad” acting, especially from Clive Wood, who was so good in last year’s Flare Path, feels clunky and doesn’t ring true and the main characters are such machiavellian manipulators it is hard to empathise or feel much sympathy.

Possible SPOILER alert! One thing troubled me and has been on my mind ever since, why at the climax does Filumena very pointedly drink water when everyone else celebrates with wine? I assumed an announcement of pregnancy and a joyful genuine reconciliation with Domenico was the imminent denouement, but it was unforthcoming. Perhaps she was really ill this time and the happy ending was to be short-lived. Would anyone even bother about the effects of wine on a pregnant or ill woman in 1940’s Naples? Maybe Filumena didn't think there was cause for celebration or maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate the sub-text. Whatever the reason, it only served to add to my sense of frustration.

I did enjoy the play, mainly for Samantha Spiro’s spirited portrayal of a lioness who would stop at nothing to protect her cubs. There are also two great supporting turns from Sheila Reid and Emily Plumtree, both actors perfectly balancing comedy and sadness. As a whole though, the piece feels distinctly of its time and poses more questions than it answers.

Booking until 12 May 2012, worth a visit for a spirited Spiro - Filumena

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Parade - Unicorn Theatre - Friday 23 March *****

A musical about a 1913 miscarriage of justice when a Jewish factory supervisor in Georgia is wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a 13 year old girl, leading to a wave of anti-semitism across the United States and the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan did not sound like a barrel of laughs. However, Jason Robert Brown, music and lyrics, and Alfred Uhry, book, both won Tonys for the original 1999 Broadway production and we kicked ourselves for having missed the production at Southwark Playhouse last year, for which we heard nothing but praise.

In a lucky twist of fate, the final year students from Rose Bruford’s Actor/Musician course, who did such a good job with Sondheim’s Assassins in 2011, were staging Parade at the Unicorn theatre the day after we’d seen 2nd Company’s professional take on Assassins at the Pleasance, so we bagged a couple of tickets and headed down to London Bridge on a gorgeous sunny Spring afternoon. After making a detour via Gilbert and George’s London Pictures at the fabulous new White Cube Bermondsey, same old G & G but at least you know what you’re going to get, we arrived at the Unicorn in time for a post-lunch pre-show snifter. However, nothing could prepare us for what was to follow.

You probably won’t believe me, but this was quite simply the best production we have seen so far this year in London. Admittedly that excludes Sheffield Crucible’s Company and Leicester Curve’s Gypsy, but that is an extremely high bar to reach.

The performances are sensational, the band/cast sound incredible, I was in floods of tears throughout and, despite us loving their Assassins last year, it was quite unexpected. We were totally transported to the southern states of the USA in the early part of the last century and completely transfixed and appalled by the drama that unfolded in front of us.

As the entire ensemble is flawless, it would be churlish to single out individuals for praise, so I won’t. The shining cast comprises Mark Newnham, Megan Leigh Mason, Alicia Marsden, Stewart McCheyne, Khali Best, Sheridan Lloyd, Holly Cassidy, Max Runham, Max Gallagher, Dean Ryan, Claire Lore Petzal, Rolf Morck, Alex Tosh and Grace Bird. All of them are astonishing.

To hear Jason Robert Brown’s sumptuous score, encompassing ragtime, gospel, blues, folk and traditional ballads, played by what is effectively a 14 piece orchestra is a total delight. All of the actors play at least one instrument, many play several, and we were simply floored by the talent on show in front of us.

They received a well deserved standing ovation and should have returned for a further curtain call, but were probably entirely unprepared for the reaction they received. I blogged earlier this month how the future of musical theatre is in safe hands after seeing Mountview’s production of the Light in the Piazza, I am happy to know that my twilight years will be also filled with alumni from Rose Bruford.

Booking until 24 March 2012 only, don’t miss, it is sensational - Parade

Friday, 23 March 2012

Assassins - Pleasance Theatre - Thursday 22 March ***

Assassins, dating from 1990, is usually regarded as one of Stephen Sondheim’s “difficult” musicals. With a non-linear book by John Weidman and score and lyrics by Sondheim, this revue style one act show attempts to illustrate common ground and suggest a causal link between a whole host of actual and would-be murderers of US presidents. The only production of this we had previously seen was by the final year students from the Actor/Musician course at Rose Bruford College last year at the Unicorn theatre, which was great, but we were exceptionally excited about our first professional production at North London’s Pleasance theatre, on Mr Sondheim’s 82nd birthday no less.

Despite its name, the Pleasance is situated in a spectacularly unpleasant urban hinterland between Camden and Islington, but it is thankfully adjacent to Shillibeers bar and restaurant, where we took advantage of the food and drink menu before wending our way up the concrete stairs and metal gantry to the theatre in time for a vodka and tonic ahead of curtain up.

Opening in a fairground shooting gallery, the assassins appear and are given their weapons by the proprietor, a menacing Paul Burnham. A narrator arrives in the form of the Balladeer, a buff Johnjo Flynn who, inexplicably, has a sweater jauntily tied around his neck in the manner of a mid-80’s A-list gay on a summer evening in the Hamptons. Anyway I digress, Johnjo Flynn has a strong voice, easy charm and takes us through the individual stories, beginning with Martin Dickinson’s John Wilkes Booth, a failed actor who kills Abraham Lincoln. Dickinson is a towering presence throughout the production, his barely suppressed rage against the world allowing us to glimpse the motivation of a murderer. However, he does have possibly the worst false moustache I have ever seen, think early Groucho Marx, and it is distinctly distracting.

Brandon Force as Charles Guiteau, the assassin of James Garfield, is absolutely incredible. So much so that the only time the production truly soars is when he is centre stage and you wish everyone else would up their game to join him. His big number, a fabulous tableau when Guiteau is heading for the gallows, is both funny and heartbreaking and even when he has the odd line, his portrayal of a needy nerdy pitiable fantasist effortlessly outshines the rest of the cast.

One by one we hear pathetic defences of atrocious deeds, all claiming that their dismal lives would be turned around if they only killed a president. This climaxes with the assassination of John F Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, also played by Johnjo Flynn sans sweater. Flynn finally comes into his own as Oswald, believably touching as a broken man with a troubled home life, and I found myself having genuine sympathy for the character. Oswald, the reluctant pin-up boy of all the others, is persuaded by Martin Dickinson’s malevolent Booth that this one supremely violent deed will secure not only his own place in the record books, but that of all the others, who gather around egging him on. The rest, as they say, is history.

This is a strong, workmanlike production of a demanding show, with a couple of standout performances, especially that of Brandon Force. This was only the second night, but it had been designated “press night”, so no excuses there. I do imagine it will get better as the run progresses and you can never have too much Sondheim, so I am making a return visit in a couple of weeks. The band sounded great and it was a real joy to hear songs like Another National Anthem and Everybody’s Got The Right belted out by a professional cast, they just need some of Brandon Force’s magic to rub off on them and it could be stupendous.

Booking until 7 April 2012, Brandon is a Force of nature - Assassins

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Gypsy - Leicester Curve - Saturday 17 March *****

After the Landor tantalisingly dangled the carrot of Rosemary Ashe giving us her Mama Rose last year, only to pull it away as the rights were withdrawn from them, we were finally getting to see our first production of Gypsy. Not only that, the fabulous Caroline O’Connor was stepping into the shoes of Mama Rose. Now I really don’t know how these things work and I do know there was a Broadway transfer featuring Tyne Daly mooted, which never materialised, but I do find it really strange that there has been no production of Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim & Arthur Laurent’s 1959 musical take on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee and her family in the West End since the original 1973 outing starring Angela Lansbury and a very young Bonnie Langford. Things were not changing with this production either, as we found ourselves on the 11.15 from St Pancras bound for Leicester and a matinee at the city’s Curve theatre.

To confirmed bachelors of a certain age, Gypsy really is the holy grail of musical theatre, featuring as it does the archetypal stage mother, Mama Rose, bullying, cajoling and living vicariously through her two daughters. The talented younger sister, doomed to be forever trapped as “baby” June, elopes with a chorus boy, leaving behind her older, less talented sibling, Louise, who, despite Rose’s best efforts, is never going to be moulded into a vaudeville headliner. Eventually Louise rebels too, becoming a stripper and ultimately the biggest star that burlesque has ever known, Gypsy Rose Lee. All this to a fabulous score by Messrs Styne and Sondheim featuring, amongst others, such standards as “Let Me Entertain You”, “Some People”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “You Gotta Get A Gimmick”. What’s not to like?

As the train rolled into Leicester station, the anticipation and excitement were such that I feared I was about to have a heart attack. We mooched around trying to kill time until the 2.15pm start, but couldn’t concentrate on the delights that Leicester city centre has to offer, so we ended up arriving at the theatre way too early. The only thing to do was to hit Manhattan’s cocktail bar opposite, where we managed to down a couple of strictly medicinal vodka and tonics and share a savoury platter (£9 for two, including two glasses of prosecco, a total bargain) before curtain up and that worked a treat.

Before I go any further, I have to warn you that Caroline O’Connor’s powerhouse portrayal of Mama Rose is one of the finest I have ever seen in 32 years of theatre going. The whole company are great, but while they are at 10, O’Connor is constantly at 11. Prepare yourself for some total fan-boy (fan-man?) gushing.

During the first act, we were treated to the most amazing child actors playing baby June & young Louise, 9 year old Hannah Everest and 10 year old Hollie Pugh, both of whom  had us eating out of the palms of their hands as we follow their vaudevillian troupe and their mother Rose’s dreams of bigger and better things for them. Along the way they hook up with reluctant agent Herbie, a tender down-trodden, perpetually hopeful David Fleeshman. Once, via a clever strobe-lit dance sequence, Daisy Maywood and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt take over as the older June & Louise, things become distinctly darker, as Mama Rose, forever optimistic that stardom is around the next corner, attempts to keep her daughters eternally adolescent in her quest for fame.
 

Both Maywood and Hamilton-Barritt are perfect as young women caught in a pubescent neverland, not knowing their real ages and pushing the same old act with ever decreasing rewards. Maywood has plenty of chances to shine and seizes them with gusto, as baby June morphs into the slightly more mature dainty June. Hamilton-Barritt has the much more challenging role, but takes us convincingly from awkward talentless supporting artiste to Gypsy’s over-confident nouveau riche flavour of the month as she, almost accidentally, and with a glorious tutorial from three hardened strippers, each with their own unique gimmick, finally becomes a burlesque superstar, leaving her mother surplus to requirements.

However, it is Caroline O’Connor’s barnstorming Rose that keeps you transfixed for every second that she is on stage. During the climactic “Rose’s Turn”, when Rose finally admits to us and to herself that she wishes she had been the star of the family, almost breaking down in the process, she produces one of the finest five minutes of stage time it has ever been my privilege to witness and there were plenty of damp tissues under my seat to produce as evidence.
 

Director Paul Kerryson’s tremendous staging, with simple monochrome advertising hoardings giving us a sense of place and time, gloriously sassy band, great dance routines and uniformly majestic cast ensure that this tremendous production could be lifted lock, stock and barrel and relocated to Shaftesbury Avenue without a single modification and O’Connor would walk away with the Olivier, leaving the competition trailing in her wake. The rumours are that Imelda Staunton will be giving us her Rose at the National once she has finished baking pies on the Aldwych and I am sure she will be terrific. However, sitting in row E of the stalls on a damp Saturday afternoon in Leicester, I truly felt I was in the presence of greatness.

The best seats in the house are £29.75, the train from London is 75 minutes, the savoury platter for two in Manhattan’s is £9 including prosecco, Caroline O’Connor gives a once-in-a-lifetime performance, what are you waiting for, do yourself a favour and go.

Booking until 15 April 2012, no superlatives could do it justice - Gypsy

Friday, 16 March 2012

Song of the Seagull - Menier Gallery - Thursday 15 March **

This sounded intriguing, a site specific musical drama inspired by real events in late 19th century Russia, as Anton Chekov, surrounded by his creative bohemian friends, forgoes the medical profession to become a full-time writer. The result of a collaboration between Linnie Reedman, director and book writer, and composer Joe Evans, who together formed “musicscape” (their word, not mine) production company, Ruby in the Dust,  in 2006 with the express intent of pushing the boundaries of musical theatre.  All to be played out around a specially commissioned art installation in the basement space of the Menier Gallery, part of the building that houses the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre. This really captured my interest, which really is half the battle, the other is being able to live up to the expectations now created, which is where the whole endeavour fails miserably.

The first disappointment is that it is not remotely “site specific” and there is no “art installation”, simply some paintings of varying quality hung on the walls as set decoration.

As the action begins, it becomes clear that the story is really that of Nina, Chekov’s friend who marries his medical colleague Osip. Nina, the one truly well-rounded character from actor/soprano Lindsey Crow, is a dilettante, an amateur painter and cellist, who surrounds herself with the latest fashionable artists, writers and actors, basking in their reflected glory. Abandoning Osip, played with much dignity by the exceptionally handsome Nicholas Gauci, Nina joins her friends for the summer at an artist’s retreat in the country and has an affair with Raphael Verrion’s Zac. When guilt finally gets the better of her, she returns to St Petersburg for a doomed reunion with Osip.

The problem is that the entire production feels like a lower-sixth drama project. This was the first preview, so it will presumably improve, but as the run is only two weeks, there is really not much time left to get it right. The clichéd script and repetitive songs sound like they have been written by an angst-ridden teenage girl barricaded in her bedroom. All of the characters, with the exception of Osip, are selfish and self-absorbed, I’m unsure if this is meant to be a deliberate comment on creators of great art or not. There is a self-consciously camp performance from Persia Lawson as Vera, a musician turned actress, (think Liza as Sally Bowles in Cabaret), and Chekov is side-lined as a mere bystander, quite why the behaviour of his monstrous friends would convince him to give up medicine for literature is beyond me. An unveiling of a painting of Nina made by Zac during their summer romance is laughable, coming as it does from the same school as Beverley’s beloved erotic print in Abigail’s Party, playing to much acclaim in another room within the same walls. There are a couple of nice touches as Stephen Clarke’s Chekov is observing either from an alcove or from the audience, writing the action as we watch it, referencing heavily from The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard. However, these are not enough to rescue such poor material; honestly, how many times can one character say to another “you’ve changed”?

There are undoubtedly some capable young performers in the six strong cast, most notably Lindsey Crow, but they have so little opportunity to shine that this is simply a waste of their talents. When, towards the end of the second act Nina emotes “time drags endlessly”, I felt like jumping to my feet and shouting “I hear you sister, hallelujah and praise the Lord”.

Booking until 31 March 2012, as dead as a dodo - Song of the Seagull

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Glorious Ones - Landor Theatre - Sunday 11 March ****

After successful runs of Ragtime & Lucky Stiff, The Landor now presents the same team’s The Glorious Ones, with music by Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, from an original novel by the aptly named Francine Prose. Based on a true-life character, Flaminio Scala, head of a troupe of commedia dell’arte players in 17th century Italy and featuring West End veteran, Peter Straker, and former member of platinum selling X-factor runners-up G4, Mike Christie, it sounded like the ideal complement to another languid sunny Sunday afternoon in London.

A 4.30pm start meant we were able to spend plenty of time sunning ourselves in the spacious beer garden, surrounded by Clapham’s finest twenty-somethings drinking cider and smoking Marlboro lights in the breaks from the rugby, while we enjoyed  a couple of vodka and tonics. Unsurprisingly, we were pleasantly receptive by the time we ambled upstairs and the 5 piece band struck up the overture.

Mike Christie takes the lead as Flaminio and we follow the trials and tribulations as his company finds new members and makes an ill-fated journey to entertain the French royal family. Love blossoms, friendships are formed and enemies are made, all under the watchful eye of Peter Straker’s sanguine Pantalone. Christie plays Flaminio as a slightly deranged control freak and makes a very impressive debut in his first musical theatre production. Jodie Beth Meyer as the dwarf Armanda that Flaminio discovered scrubbing church steps has a great innuendo laden comedy number that wouldn’t be out of place in a Carry On musical, containing as it does a whole list of bawdy double entendres centred on learning to play a wind instrument. The whole cast are terrific and it seems churlish to single out individual performances, but two young actors really struck a chord. Kate Brennan as Columbina is perfect as the world-weary former courtesan whose hardened heart still has the capacity to be broken and her second act number outlining a life of unrealised dreams, My Body Wasn’t Why, had me in tears. Similarly, Christopher Berry’s Francesco, plucked from the street by Flaminio and falling in love with Anouska Eaton’s angel voiced noble woman Isabella, is a totally charming triple threat of a performer with a gorgeous voice.

As the story continues, time catches up with Flaminio and he finds it difficult to accept that he is no longer able to play the romantic lead and that the entertainment he lovingly champions is considered unfashionable and vulgar, as plays with pre-authored scripts are rapidly replacing the improvised “truth” he so adores. However, a finale coda linking the heavenly commedia dell’arte players to modern masters of comedy, including Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball and the Marx brothers amongst others, is a beautiful touch and illustrates the direct line from the 17th century to contemporary performers.

The Landor consistently boxes well above its weight for what is after all a small room above a pub, but they have done it once again, not only in the performances by the cast and band but also in all other aspects of the production, as the set, costumes and lighting are all tremendous. Director Robert McWhir marshals his seven strong cast with such conviction that several times I was totally transported to 17th century Italy and was shocked to find myself suddenly jolted back to 2012, but maybe that had a little to do with the additional interval vodka and tonic.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get better, we went downstairs and England had beaten France 24-22. A more perfect day I can’t remember.

Booking until 7 April 2012, simply glorious (you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) - The Glorious Ones

Sunday, 11 March 2012

In Basildon - Royal Court Theatre - Saturday 10 March *****

After two “dry” theatre trips (The Leisure Society & The Light in the Piazza) alcohol was finally back on the menu for our visit to the Royal Court. The cast had been the main attraction when booking tickets for David Eldridge’s In Basildon, featuring as it does two of our all-time favourites Ruth Sheen and Linda Bassett. The remainder aren’t exactly unknowns either with Phil Cornwell, Peter Wight, Wendy Nottingham, Lee Ross and Debbie Chazen all boasting impressive CVs. The subject matter, a family arguing over inheritances whilst the benefactor is still alive but dying in their midst, sounded very bleak, but we were promised a black comedy, so a surprisingly sunny Saturday afternoon saw us heading to Sloane Square to meet up with friends who are partial to a bit of theatrical despondency, in much the same way as we have a penchant for tap dancing bell boys and the hilarity that mistaken identities often trigger. The plan was for early cocktails, followed by a matinee, with maybe/probably/certainly an interval vodka and tonic, followed by more cocktails and a bite to eat with one or two bottles of wine. Smashing.

The theatre has been reconfigured to traverse for this production, meaning that no-one is far from the action, as the extended family gather around the bed of Phil Cornwell’s 60 year old Len, who lies in the late stages of terminal cancer. His sisters, Ruth Sheen & Linda Bassett, haven’t spoken for two decades and his nephew, Lee Ross, bickers about money and procreation with his wife, Debbie Chazen. Len’s best friend Ken, Peter Wight, and neighbour Pam, Wendy Nottingham, initially provide welcome light relief as their attendance does not appear financially motivated. A university educated niece, Shelley, Jade Willams, has turned her back on Essex, drawn to the attractions and opportunities London has to offer, and is now resident in Walthamstow, whose “village” she opines is akin to Highgate, with her downwardly mobile teacher/writer partner, Tom, Max Bennett.

Sheen and Bassett do not disappoint and are magnificent as warring siblings Doreen and Maureen. Seething tensions and bitterness bubble to the surface with no holds barred, but it is in only in the final flashback scene that we discover the blindingly obvious cause of twenty years of conflict. Rarely has the phrase “money is the root of all evil” been more apt. However, acting honours must go to Lee Ross’s commanding central performance as Barry, whose working class Essex dream of owning his own house in which to raise the next generation of duckers and divers appears to be within his grasp, despite the ball-crushing criticisms of his toilet-mouthed overbearing wife, Jackie, only to be thwarted as the contents of Len’s recently revised will are revealed at his wake.

Is this a farewell to Essex or the East End that used to be, where family comes first, no-one ever signs on and Margaret Thatcher is the best leader this country has ever had? The relocation to London of the newly educated Shelley with no desire to return to Basildon surely symbolises a dream gone sour and a snub to the county now synonymous with perma-tanned blinged-up wannabes in 4 x 4’s with personalised number plates? 

Ian MacNeil’s claustrophobic set, complete with anaglypta ceiling, and the reconfiguration of the auditorium ensure that the audience has no opportunity to be simple observers as a family tragedy unfolds literally within our midst.

Director Dominic Cooke has assembled a dream cast and is not afraid to allow longeurs to suggest their own narrative. David Eldridge, born in Romford himself,  allows plenty of room for the actors to shine in the darkest of comedy dramas you are likely to witness in a long time, with performances of almost unbearable intensity. The Royal Court once more delivers two and a half hours that will resonate with the audience long after they have left the cosy confines of the womb-like space adjacent to Sloane Square tube.

Booking until 5 April 2012, uncomfortable, uncompromising and very, very funny - In Basildon

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Light in the Piazza - Bernie Grant Arts Centre - Friday 2 March *****

Firstly an admission, as this is a Mountview Academy student production, if it had been terrible, I wouldn’t have had the heart to rip it to shreds and would have let it pass by without comment. However, it was truly wonderful and well deserves all the praise it can get.

Only last week we were mightily impressed by Floyd Collins, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, so we were hugely looking forward to this later Tony award winning work by the same composer, Adam Guettel, with a book by Craig Lucas, based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer. Set in Tuscany in 1953, the story follows a young American woman, Clara, on holiday with her mother, who meets and falls in love with a local lad, Fabrizio. Their fledgling romance is thwarted by the mother and it is only as the story unfolds that we find out the cause of the mother’s disapproval.

As the young couple, we had Kayleigh Louise-Smith with a bell-like singing voice as Clara and Nik Parks as the love-struck Florentine, again with a great voice, conveying total emotion whilst speaking and singing much of his role in Italian. I often have problems with students playing much older characters, but the standout in the entire cast was the incredible Joanna O’Hare, as Margaret, Clara’s mother. She is an amazing musical theatre performer with great range and control and a fantastic actress to boot. I had to look at her biography during the interval and she’s not even 21 until the end of this month. Look out for her gracing a West End stage soon.

As the story progresses the focus of the piece becomes a mother's desire for only the best for their child, whatever it takes, and Margaret's initial maternal protectiveness becomes something darker, eventually at the expense of her own relationship with her husband.

Providing great support, again playing much older, Rhys Ruggerio and Robyn Grange made me eat my words yet once more giving marvellous performances as Fabrizio’s parents and Joseph Giaccone, as Fabrizio’s ne’er do well brother and Alessandra D’Aveno, as his long suffering wife were consummate performers. These four, together with Nik Parks, have a terrific act two opening number of Italian family squabbling, during which the mother’s asides to the audience reveal she is wise to her husband’s extra marital dalliances, but she turns a blind eye for the sake of her family.

With Margaret and Clara’s plans gaining momentum, their secret comes close to being exposed and the desire of a mother to fulfil the dreams of her daughter becomes dangerously all consuming.

The five piece band of strings, clarinet & piano were perfect and the entire cast did Mountview proud. I was enthralled throughout and I cannot believe that there has not been a professional run of this show in London, but really with a student production of this quality, who cares? The future of musical theatre is in very safe hands indeed. 

Booking until 3 March 2012, only one day left, hurry! The Light on the Piazza

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Leisure Society - Trafalgar Studios 2 - Thursday 1 March ****

A four-hander with no interval would normally be an anathema to me, but it’s almost perfect for a solo visit to a Thursday matinee, when intervals usually involve much studied perusing of the programme and no alcohol. Described in the promotional material as “deliciously offensive” and featuring Ed Stoppard (son of Tom & Miriam) and British supermodel Agyness Deyn making her stage debut, this one act play, first staged in Quebec in 2006, is by French-Canadian playwright Francois Archambault with English translation by fellow Canadian Bobby Theodore.

The majority of the action takes place at a dinner party to which seemingly über-successful thirty-something couple Peter and Mary have invited their recently divorced slacker of a friend Mark with the express desire of severing all ties with him (they sound like a delightful pair don’t they?).  Mark turns up with his latest squeeze, 21 year old total babe Paula, no prizes for guessing who takes this role, and the evening goes from bad to worse.

Peter and Mary are falling apart. They are in the process of adopting a Chinese girl in an attempt to shore up their relationship, despite the fact that they already have a baby that cries constantly and is left upstairs in the keep of a baby monitor. Ed Stoppard’s Peter is very much a sexier cuter Woody Allen, all angst filled neuroses, convinced he’s hopeless at sex but would welcome more practice to get better. Melanie Gray as the emotionally and sexually unfulfilled Mary can hardly bear to look at Peter and is desperate for excitement. Both have supposedly given up drinking and smoking, each blaming the other for the abandonment of these vices, but are equally up for a threesome at the drop of a hat. John Schwab, as the straightforward Mark is a testosterone filled good timer, bearing a striking resemblance to a young James Hetfield from Metallica. Agyness Deyn as Paula has the least to do but is convincing, confident and gets two of the biggest laughs of the evening.

There are other laughs galore as hitherto untold secrets get shared and the dubious morals that we may forgive in those closest to us get a full and frank airing. There are some great comments on the effect the current financial crisis is having on the well-off, Peter can now relate to poor people as one of their friends has just lost a house. There is many a sharp intake of breath at Archambault’s daring and there are some truly shocking revelations that make the Blisses in Coward's Hay Fever across town seem like the Von Trapps. It may not be the best play to take either a new parent or a pregnant woman to. The last three scenes, set a few days after the main event are not as successful and I found the ending a bit of a letdown but the previous 80 minutes had been one of the funniest roller coaster rides I’ve had in the theatre for a long time.

All the performances were spot on, with Ed Stoppard & Melanie Gray perfect as a couple on the edge, John Schwab great as the uncomplicated soon to be ex-friend and Agyness Deyn making an assured debut.

Booking until 31 March 2012, Abigail’s Party for the facebook generation -The Leisure Society

Marching upwards - West End and fringe prices collide

... And the winner of the competition to find your favourite Sondheim show is Company with 66% of the vote. I think that maybe my vote swung it and I’m not sure it was really ethical of me to participate, but it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. This month you are voting for your favourite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. There are some videos lurking around on here to jog your memory, so get clicking.

Now it’s soap-box time. A couple of days ago the redoubtable Mark Shenton wrote a timely piece on his blog for The Stage on how the “price creep” that is endemic in the West End is spreading to the fringe. Mark particularly highlighted the new Bush theatre, where tickets are £24, up from £15 at the old Bush three years ago. We have many local theatres in Islington and when one of them, the King’s Head, rebranded as “London’s Little Opera House”, being opera virgins, we were happy to take punts on several of their productions at £15 a ticket, greatly enjoying La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, HMS Pinafore and Pagliacci. One of the many joys of supporting local and fringe theatres in these financially straightened times is undoubtedly the affordability that they offer. However, recent increases have seen the King’s Head raise their prices to £25 for reserved seating, £21.50 unreserved. When we can “dayseat” in the West End, as we have done recently for both Ghost and Crazy for You, securing amazing stalls seats for Saturday evening performances at £25, we have had to look long and hard at our fringe outlay and it’s that we have cut back on. We will be dayseating again for Sweeney Todd, having already seen it in Chichester from the third row for the grand price of £15. Maybe more fringe theatres need to take a leaf out of Southwark Playhouse’s book, where they have three tier airline style pricing, usually £10 if you book early, £16.50 as standard and £22.50 for late bookings, you can’t get much fairer than that. Mark Shenton's full article can be found here - Inflation on the fringe

Now that I’ve got that off my chest I’ll continue. Jackie Mason aside, our lucky streak of fantastic theatrical outings continued throughout February and we’ve got plenty more to look forward to in March. I’m beginning to think that I must have become a more discerning ticket buyer in my dotage, hence the notable absence of turkeys since Christmas. Already booked for this month we have In Basildon, with a cast to die for, at the Royal Court (£12 row G stalls), our first ever Gypsy, with the incredible Caroline O’Connor, at Leicester Curve (£29.75 row E stalls), Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Pleasance (won tickets in a twitter competition, but normally £15 unreserved seats) and Filumena at the Almeida (£8 row F stalls, restricted view, but we’ve sat there before and they are fine). Filumena stars the fabulous Samantha Spiro, who we last saw in January as Amy in Sheffield Crucible’s joyous take on Company, which brings us nicely back to where we started. So that’s a one and a half Sondheim month. We may be persuaded to partake of a vodka and tonic or two in other theatre bars as the month progresses, so I’ll ensure to keep you updated.

Finally, I just heard from a very reliable source, well if I’m totally honest a rumour from someone I’ve never met on an internet message board, that the Menier Chocolate Factory will be doing Merrily We Roll Along later in the year, joy of joys, let it be true. Please, please, please can someone have a shot at Do I Hear A Waltz? (Jermyn Street, Landor, Union, Finborough?).