Saturday, 28 April 2012

Top Hat - Aldwych Theatre - Friday 27 April *****

It probably goes without saying that we had been looking forward to this since the pre-West End tour was announced last year. The first time the classic 1930’s Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers film musical has been produced on stage and including all the Irving Berlin standards from the movie (Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t This a Lovely Day? Top Hat, White Ties & Tails) plus a few more that have been imported from elsewhere (Let’s Face The Music & Dance, Puttin’ on The Ritz), it was really only a matter of time before we were gracing the Aldwych with our presence. We allowed them a week of previews before snapping up a couple of dress circle slips seats for £27.50, which is all our budget runs to in these double dipping days. You do miss a chunk of the stage on the side you’re sitting but, in the words of Mrs Lovett via Mr Sondheim, times is hard. Coincidentally, as the slips seats are at the side of row A, this is the first time anything on this blog has actually been viewed from Front Row Dress. That alone was worth a celebratory double vodka and tonic in the stunning dress circle bar before curtain up.

In the Astaire role of Jerry Travers, a Broadway hoofer lured to London to star in a new show, is Tom Chambers, former Holby City dreamboat and worthy winner of Strictly Come Dancing 2008. Taking the Rogers part of society fashion model, Dale Tremont, is Summer Strallen, West End veteran (Drowsy Chaperone, Sound of Music, Love Never Dies) and part of the Strallen dynasty, without whom half of the theatres in London would have no leading lady.

The action opens with Travers’ final night on Broadway and, as it is a tap production number of Puttin’ on The Ritz, we were won over immediately. Chambers is a magnificent dancer with a winning personality and slips easily into the skin of Travers. The slightly reedy tone of his singing voice suits the mood perfectly, recalling so many movie musicals of the golden age.

Moving to a hotel in London, Travers meets up with his friend and producer of his West End show, bumbling would-be lothario Horace Hardwick, played by Martin Ball, one of three magnificent male comic creations that run throughout the evening. The other two being Stephen Boswell as Bates, Hardwick’s long-suffering but endlessly creative butler-cum-amateur sleuth, and the scene-stealing and occasionally scene chewing, Ricardo Afonso as Alberto Beddini, the Italian fashion designer whose muse is Summer Strallen’s Dale Tremont.

Travers attempts to woo Tremont but, in a case of mistaken identity, she thinks she is being romantically pursued by her best friend’s husband and is suitably horrified. The first act ends with an enormous production number of Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and, as we had also already had our first tap-dancing bell boys of the evening, we were grinning from ear to ear as we imbibed our interval refreshments.

The second act takes place in Venice, where Beddini is to show his new collection, modelled by Tremont, and where Hardwick’s wife, Vivien Parry’s sophisticated, wise-cracking, slightly world weary Madge, is currently ensconced. I’d better not reveal the ending, but you probably have a good idea of the trajectory of the story. Along the way there are dance numbers aplenty, wonderfully evocative sets, gorgeous costumes and fabulously witty dialogue, adapted from the original film script by director Matthew White.

I think it’s fair to say we loved this production. The actors are at the top of their game, the choreography by Bill Deamer is sensational and Hildegard Bechtler’s sets and Jon Morrell’s costumes evoke the period faultlessly. The laughs come thick and fast and the additional songs have been seamlessly inserted so it genuinely feels that they belong in the piece. I’d never heard the comic duet between the warring Hardwick’s before, Outside of That, I Love You, but it seemed such a perfect fit that I had to check that it wasn’t written for the movie, which it wasn’t.

Summer Strallen keeps her family’s good name intact and is every inch the likeable triple threat. Tom Chambers, already a star on the small screen, can now add West End star to his resume. The supporting cast and ensemble never put a foot wrong, in fact it was only Chambers who had a “cane incident”, from which he quickly recovered with a twinkle in his eye and a wry grin to the audience.

Apparently tickets are deservedly selling like hot cakes, I did wonder if competition from Singin’ In The Rain, starring another Strallen, Scarlett, might beat them with the recognition factor, but there is certainly room for two classic escapist musicals to alleviate the gloom in these dark days.

Booking until 26 January 2013, joyous, escapist, top-notch fun - Top Hat

Monday, 23 April 2012

Babes in Arms - Union Theatre - Sunday 22 April ****

Despite us having no prior knowledge of Babes in Arms, a bit of googling suggested that it might be right up our alley. Originally a 1937 Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical with a “let’s put the show on right here” plot, it was quickly made into a film starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Featuring the standards My Funny Valentine and The Lady is a Tramp, it sounded like it had the perfect credentials to cheer up a soggy Sunday night in London, especially after the words “tap shoes” were mentioned.

I am slightly ashamed to say that this was our first visit to the Union theatre, which was created from an old paper warehouse underneath railway arches in Southwark 14 years ago. I offer no defence for this oversight m’lud and, looking at their past productions, it certainly seems like it was our loss. Anyhow, that is now ancient history and we arrived hoping to atone for our sins by becoming regulars, as we have already pencilled in their next production, Jekyll and Hyde.

In the spirit of full disclosure I should also add that we had horrendous hangovers, the result of a six year old’s birthday party in Camden on Saturday afternoon that had morphed into an all-nighter in Islington. The six year old was fine, but he hadn’t mixed his drinks like we had. We self-medicated with vodka and tonics in the Union’s comfy bar-cum-box office before show time and by curtain up we were as right as rain.

From the moment the overture began, led by DIY percussion from the cast, a huge grin stretched across my face which didn’t leave for two hours.

In a rundown out of town theatre, a team of “apprentices” are assisting in the production of a terrible sub-Tennessee Williams play, The Deep North, featuring movie star Jennifer Owen in her stage debut, here played by the striking Carly Thoms, who possesses the most glorious singing voice. Meanwhile they are also rehearsing their own musical revue written by one of their number, Valentine White, a terrific James Lacey bringing to mind Matthew Broderick, which is no bad thing in my book. Valentine falls for Jennifer but is also pursued by spunky Susie, Catriona Mackenzie who has great stage presence, a beautiful voice and a lovely take on stoic when her advances are spurned.

Jenny Perry plays Bunny Byron, part owner of the theatre who stands to lose her share unless the play is a hit. Perry gets some of the best numbers, including The Lady is a Tramp and performs them with pizzazz and then some. Comic relief is provided by Ben Redfern and Anna McGarahan, both fantastic in a love-hate relationship which may just have a chance of resolving itself by the end of act two.

As the action continues, a hot shot producer arrives and before you know it, the revue is Broadway bound, Bunny Byron’s theatre is saved and the cast are belting out the finale.

There really is not a weak member in the surprisingly large cast and the dance numbers, choreographed by Lizzi Gee, are sensational. One thing I rarely even notice, but which is amazing here, is the gorgeous lighting, designed by Steve Miller. The three piece band of bass, drums and piano, led by Sam Cable, are perfect and never overpower the unmiked ensemble.

Director David Ball has produced a show full of top notch performances and fabulous set pieces. With Singin’ In The Rain and Top Hat currently wowing audiences in the West End, Babes In Arms provides the same fun for a fraction of the cost in this funky, friendly space just south of the river. It really is one not to miss and they even do two shows on Sundays, which really does make you forget that Monday morning is just around the corner.

PS The gents’ urinal should be saved for the nation.

Booking until 12 May 2012, tremendous fun with terrific performances - Babes In Arms

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Landor Theatre - Sunday 15 April ****

Eight days without a trip to the theatre and we were getting withdrawal symptoms, playing Patti Lupone’s Gypsy on repeat with Bernadette Peters’ Into The Woods DVD on mute in the background. To alleviate the cold turkey and give our neighbours a break, we took ourselves down to Clapham to see what delights the Landor was serving up with this new production of Rupert Holmes musicalisation of Charles Dickens’ famously unfinished final novel.

The Landor never seems to put a foot wrong and they manage to keep a 100% strike rate with this riotous romp. The central conceit being that we are watching a Victorian music hall company staging the show. There is plenty of audience participation from the moment we step into the auditorium, but none of it cruel, simply teasing interaction with the cast, joining in songs and choosing the outcome of the proceedings.

Overseeing the evening in the dual roles of music hall chairman and mayor of Cloisterham, where the action occurs, is Denis Delahunt who is the perfect mixture of sauce and gravitas and soldiers on gamely through an unscripted 5 minute power cut.

Edwin Drood, a male impersonation by Natalie Day, is betrothed to Rosa Budd, a tremendous Victoria Farley, who initially appears fragile but has a steely resolve. Rosa is lusted after by Drood’s uncle John Jasper, a powerhouse turn from Daniel Robinson, a handsome tenor with a split personality. Jasper has a secret opium addiction fuelled by Princess Puffer, a sensational Wendi Peters with a terrific singing voice, magnificent comic acting and the most awesome d├ęcolletage I have ever witnessed in such close proximity.

Throw in a pair of enigmatic twins newly arrived from Ceylon, a bumbling vicar and a couple of grave diggers and, as Drood disappears on a stormy Christmas Eve, we the audience get to decide whodunnit, as it was never revealed by Dickens, who took the answer to the mystery to his grave.

With tongues placed firmly in their cheeks, the entire cast lead us enthusiastically through the drama with witty tuneful songs and the best choreography that I have ever seen in a fringe theatre, all credit to director Matthew Gould. “Both Sides of the Coin” was quite simply one the best staged numbers I have ever seen anywhere. The costumes, by Jean Grey, are great and the simple set of blood red drapes, voile curtains and occasional monochrome screens sets the tone perfectly. The impressive five piece band manages to sound like an entire orchestra, how one trumpet and one clarinet transform into a whole brass and woodwind section is beyond me.

I defy anyone not to be won over by the charms of this infectiously funny two hours of Victorian melodrama with a winning company and production values worthy of the West End. If you need cheering up, get thee down to what is rapidly turning into my favourite winter venue (look out Regent’s Park, you may have a contender come the summer). 

Booking until 5 May 2012, an infectiously riotous romp - The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Saturday, 7 April 2012

A Tale of Two Cities - Charing Cross Theatre - Friday 6 April *

Good Friday found us wandering aimlessly around the Damien Hirst show at Tate Modern with hordes of tourists and families with small noisy children in tow eagerly queuing up to walk in between a butchered cow, but at least we managed to snaffle up a couple of spin and butterfly plates to store in the airing cupboard in lieu of a pension. After waiting an age to see the diamond encrusted skull, which strangely has a missing tooth - surely a gold replacement would have been perfect, we walked along the river in the unexpected sunshine to the West End. What happened to the snow we were promised, I had my toboggan on standby?.

Following on from Mike Christie’s confident debut in the Landor’s fabulous The Glorious Ones, his former G4 band-mate, Jonathan Ansell, stars in this new(ish) musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. With a top drawer creative team including Time alumni David Pomeranz, music, and David Soames, book; arrangements by Les Miserables’ John Cameron and direction by the original Jesus and Rum Tum Tugger, Paul Nicholas; this looked like it could well have aspirations beyond its present home in the arches below Charing Cross station. Mind you this little theatre, formerly The Players, has recently mounted several imaginative original musicals (Legacy Falls, Thrill Me, The Vaudevillains) and we have been forced to sit through Naked Boys Singing on more than one occasion. However, we were ill-prepared for what we were about to suffer.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, actually it was the latter. I really don’t have the energy or inclination to scribble more than a few words on this crime against musical theatre. There will be inevitable comparisons to Les Miserables, which it blatantly attempts to emulate, failing miserably at every step, but if you’ve ever wondered what a truly dreadful high school production of Les Mis would look like, look no further. Boring over-emoted songs, an undecipherable book, no character development and a striking resemblance to a French and Saunders parody make the entire evening unbearable. Even if Jonathan Ansell had taken his kit off like his late night Naked Boy theatre-mates, it would not have been enough to sustain my interest. How this is going to see out the run once it has exhausted Ansell’s fan club is beyond me, it makes Song of the Seagull seem like Sondheim.

Booking until 12 May 2012, if it survives that long - A Tale of Two Cities

Friday, 6 April 2012

Sweeney Todd - Adelphi Theatre - Thursday 5 April *****

8.30 am on a freezing Maundy Thursday found me second in line in the day seat queue at the Adelphi with a skinny cappuccino and a Big Issue for company. Being somewhat parsimonious of nature, I’d baulked at the £95 top price stalls and had opted to set the alarm early and wander down to the Strand to take my chances with the other cheapskates. Having bagged a bargain pair of front row tickets for £25 each, I walked home for a well-deserved bowl of ready brek with a tiny shot of brandy.

I have a slight confession, I know most people regard Sweeney Todd as Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece and I do love it, but I would place it behind Company, Into the Woods and Follies in my appreciation of the Sondheim canon. That said, we had been totally blown away by this production in Chichester last year, where row C side stalls had cost £15 and were bookable in advance, some may say I’m tight, I say careful. As I am verging on the ancient, I had previously witnessed Michael Ball tackle serious roles as a youngster (both him and me) in Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Passion, before he became “Mr Musical Theatre” of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hairspray and Radio 2 fame. I also had fond, but hazy memories of Imelda Staunton’s turn as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods over twenty years ago and she had completely stolen the show in A Delicate Balance at the Almeida last year. Neither of them had disappointed at Chichester, with Ball unrecognisable as Sweeney Todd, the bloodthirsty barber hell-bent on revenge, and Staunton malevolently comic as Nellie Lovett, the opportunistic pie-maker with an unrequited devotion to Sweeney. This transfer was well deserved, especially considering the lacklustre response to Sweeney’s short-lived West End debut in 1980, which bagged the Olivier for Best Musical, but not the audiences.

As luck would have it, some old friends that we hadn’t seen in donkey’s years tweeted that were also going, so we met up in the Adelphi’s Jessie Matthews bar as soon as it opened and, fuelled by several vodka & tonics, reminisced about the good old days (the 1980’s), with me constantly breathing in and berating myself for not yet starting the post-Christmas diet (I’ll start on Tuesday once the Easter eggs have been demolished).

Entering the auditorium, the ensemble are already on stage, in character and mooching about the ominously grim set, rising up into the rafters with the back walls of the theatre visible through a semi-circular metal grid of walkways. The action has been bought forward from Victorian London to the 1930’s post and pre-war depression and this suits the mood of the piece perfectly, as Michael Ball’s Sweeney, deported to Australia on a trumped up charge by a judge that wanted to get his hands on both his wife and daughter, returns to wreak his own form of justice.

However, behind every mad, bad man there is an even madder, badder woman and the tension of this truly great production, which has unbelievably got even better since its’ Chichester incarnation, lies between Ball’s brooding brute and Staunton’s lovelorn schemer, neither of whom let anyone or anything stand in their way, with Mrs Lovett egging Sweeney on to even greater depravities in the hysterical act one finale, A Little Priest. As the body count rises and her cannibalistic pies become a roaring success, this reaches its’ zenith, or nadir depending on which way you look at it, once she persuades him that the orphan they have taken in has uncovered their secret and should also be dispatched, immediately following one of Sondheim’s most touching paeans to compassion, Not While I’m Around.

While the two leads are sensational, and Staunton’s attempts to woo a disinterested Ball are both hilarious and pitiful, the two young actors playing Sweeney’s daughter Joanna, Lucy May Barker, and her suitor Anthony, Luke Brady, who I had found just too drippy to be convincing in Chichester, are now superb and I was totally involved in their plight, rather than just wishing Ball & Staunton would return to centre stage. Both are gorgeous with beautiful voices and I reckon we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the West End.

As Sweeney discovers the fate of his wife, the full extent of Mrs Lovett’s deception is exposed and in a terrifying climax just desserts are served.

A bloody brilliant night out, career defining for both Ball and Staunton and one of Sondheim’s most complex moving scores with smart witty lyrics and a book that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and never lets go. This is only a short run, as we have the delights of the Whitney Houston jukebox musical The Bodyguard to look forward to at the Adelphi in the autumn, so if you want to see how great musical theatre can really be, make sure you see this, even at £95 you won’t be disappointed.

Booking until 22 September 2012, bloody brilliant - Sweeney Todd

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Assassins - Pleasance Theatre - Sunday 1 April ****

We thought we’d give this another go, having already attended the press night and been blown away by Brandon Force’s  hyper-charged turn as Charles Guiteau, but a little underwhelmed by the remainder of the production, which was strong, solid but just not special enough (my original thoughts are here - Assassins Thursday 22 March).

If ever there was a case against too few previews this is it. Only one preview had taken place before press night and the difference a week and a half of shows in front of an audience makes is all too clear in what is now an impressive take on a challenging piece.

The very nature of the structure of this musical, as a series of vignettes interspersed with monologues, automatically allows exceptionally talented performers like Brandon Force and Martin Dickinson to flourish. I am delighted to report that the rest of the cast have raised the bar and now also fully inhabit their roles, especially a sensitive Alexander Forysth as Leon Czolgosz, a Polish immigrant for whom the American dream becomes a nightmare. Tim McArthur as a filthy Father Christmas-suited psychotic Sam Byck;  Bo Frazier’s pathetic Jodie Foster-obsessed loner, John Hinckley; Bronwyn Baud’s bored, five times married housewife on the edge, Sara Jane Moore; Marcia Brown’s  Charles Manson-infatuated Lynette Fromme and Paraig Breathnach’s truly terrifying Guiseppe Zangara all now leave lasting impressions.

Johnjo Flynn has retained both his jaunty sweater and his charm, Martin Dickinson remains a commanding presence, Paul Burnham still exudes real menace and Brandon Force continues to be extraordinary, I may have to become secretary of his fan club.

A special mention must go to the 6 strong supporting ensemble, who play various roles throughout and grab their chance to shine in How I Saved Roosevelt and the penultimate, achingly poignant, Something Just Broke.

At the finale, the assassins turn their guns towards the audience, so we become the targets in the shooting gallery and it really did unnerve me to be staring down the barrel of a gun.

I am so glad we gave this 2nd Company production a 2nd chance, they may just want to think about scheduling a couple of extra previews next time. If director Ray Rackham and team are looking for inspiration for their next production, how about tackling Pacific Overtures or Do I Hear A Waltz?

Booking until 7 April 2012, impressive - Assassins

April no-show-ers & bitter-sweet Chocolate

Well April’s here and, apart from today’s return visit to Assassins, we have absolutely no other theatre visits booked until the end of May. That’s not to say there won’t be any of course, we’re simply being more hippy-trippy-happy-go-lucky-laissez-faire about the whole thing and going as the mood takes us. I have a feeling in my water that the transfer of Chichester's Sweeney Todd to the Adelphi, the Landor’s Edwin Drood, Charing Cross’s A Tale of Two Cities and Top Hat at the Aldwych will all be on the agenda this month, but I’ll keep you updated.

Meanwhile the results of the poll to find your favourite Rodgers and Hammerstein show are in and it was a resounding win for The Sound of Music, which received 39% of the vote, with Oklahoma! in second place (26%), Carousel third (17%), South Pacific fourth (13%) and The King & I bringing up the rear with 4%. The freakish nerds and eagle-eyed accountants amongst you will have noticed a missing 1%, which could be attributed to a statistical anomaly, but in my heart I’m awarding it to State Fair.

This month it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre you’ll be judging, so get clicking, and for those pedants that want to vote for Song & Dance, you can’t, you’ll have to make do with Tell Me On A Sunday.

Finally, the on-line gossip I reported last month has come to fruition and the Menier Chocolate Factory have confirmed that they will indeed be staging Merrily We Roll Along later in the year, opening in November and directed by Maria Freidman, what a fabulous early Christmas present. Also in their new season is Torch Song Trilogy, running from May to August, which I last saw when the play's author, Harvey Fierstein, took over the lead role of ever optimistic drag queen Arnold from Anthony Sher for the last few months of the original London run in 1986. It was later adapted for what has since become one of my favourite films. I think I may need to have a lie down in a darkened room with an ice-cold mint julep.

One quibble however, and I say this as a huge fan of the Chocolate Factory, it may be that the recent sell-out success of Abigail's Party has gone to the heads of the powers-that-be down at Southwark and they are anticipating a similar demand for Merrily We Roll Along and Torch Song Trilogy. I have my doubts that Charley's Aunt, which is sandwiched in between, will be such a hot ticket. Despite already being the most expensive fringe theatre in London (even their restricted view seats are £25), they have now introduced a four-tier supporter's scheme costing £45, £75, £250 and an eye-watering £2500 per annum.  I'm not naive enough to be unaware that all businesses need to find new revenue streams and I do appreciate that no-one is forced to join the scheme or even go to the theatre, but the general impression this leaves with me is pay us more money and you'll get a better choice of seats to purchase (only the very top level includes 2 free tickets per production). Surely all of us that regularly buy tickets, attend your shows and ensure that your Smirnoff and Schweppes suppliers are kept happy are "supporters". As a long-time supporter of the Menier Chocolate Factory, I shall be taking my chances when booking opens to us plebs and I shall be very cross, and not a little surprised, if all the tickets have gone.