Saturday, 30 June 2012

Flora The Red Menace - Landor Theatre - Friday 29 June ****

Regular readers of this blog (hello Mum, hello auntie Hazel) will know that I have an ongoing love affair with the Landor that verges on the pornographic, so it was with a spring in my step that I skipped to Clapham on a balmy Friday evening. I actually took the Northern line from Angel but what’s a little poetic licence between chums?

Unusually for the Landor, this production of Kander and Ebb’s first ever Broadway show is a transfer that originated at the Rose and Crown in Walthamstow.

Set in New York during the Great Depression, a feisty fashion illustrator, Flora, has established a co-operative of fellow creative types in a disused hotel ballroom. She gets offered a job she can’t refuse designing for a department store but has to compromise her left-leaning ideals. Falling in love with artist Harry, a card carrying communist, Flora finds herself in competition for Harry’s affections with communist activist Charlotte and at loggerheads with her union denying boss.

Katy Baker positively sparkles in the title role of Flora, for which Liza Minnelli won her first Tony, so no pressure there then, although I doubt many of us upstairs in a south London boozer witnessed Liza on Broadway 47 years ago. Last week I raved about Louis Maskell’s central performance in The Fix at the Union. Here Katy Baker is every bit his equal, a leading lady in waiting to his leading man. Astoundingly this is her first musical theatre role since leaving drama school three years ago, to which the only sane reaction is – why? With echoes of the great Caroline O’Connor, she banishes any thoughts of Liza and makes Flora all her own, a warm, strong, yet vulnerable portrayal coupled with a belter of a voice. Her 11 o’clock number, Sing Happy, bought down the house and a tear to my eye. Baker is a gifted eminently likeable performer who I cannot wait to see in many more musicals in the years to come.

If Baker is the undoubted star of the night, she is given strong support from the remainder of the 9 strong cast, in particular Ellen Verenieks as Charlotte. Nominally a baddie, I nevertheless found myself rooting for her idealistic would-be maneater. With feline grace and comedic flair she manages to turn the villain of the piece into a most unlikely anti-heroine.

A sub-plot involving two co-workers Kenny and Maggie and their dreams of becoming professional dancers is totally enchanting with nimble footwork from the cutest couple this side of Wills and Kate, Greg Sheffield and Kimberley Moses.

As a document of the start of an exceptionally fruitful writing partnership that produced two genuine masterpieces of musical theatre, Flora is an intriguing prospect. In its’ treatment of capitalism, the working class and the effects of mass unemployment, it manages to be totally relevant and I can only begin to imagine how well a production in Athens or Madrid would go down at the moment.

The first act does drag at points and could probably lose 10 minutes without any discernible damage to the plot. The downbeat ending leaving the audience to fill in the gaps with a cowed but unbroken Flora presumably pulling herself up by her bootstraps is also a little unsatisfying. To be brutally honest, I would also have loved a drummer to accompany the undoubtedly hardworking duo of piano and bass. However, whenever Katy Baker is on stage, which is fortunately most of the evening, these concerns disappear and this production soars.

While it never manages to scale the peaks of Cabaret and Chicago, both also grounded in the early part of the 20th century, Flora The Red Menace has a lively jazz influenced score and hints of the greatness that was to quickly follow. Coupled with some smart, sassy performances this makes for another wonderful night out at the Landor.

Finally, I was going to congratulate the designer and choreographer for such beautiful 1930's costumes and clever fluid dance routines and was astounded to find both roles are tackled by Kate McPhee. High fives to Ms McPhee, you have done a grand job. The Busby Berkeley-esque end of act one ensemble number, Dear Love, featuring cherubs with wire coat hanger bows, has to be seen to be believed.

Booking until 14 July 2012, smart, sassy and relevant with a star-making turn from Katy Baker - Flora The Red Menace

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Bob Downe Smokin' - Royal Vauxhall Tavern - Wednesday 27 June *****

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was once a Victorian music hall but is now a leading light on London’s alternative cabaret scene. Saturday night’s Duckie was the last outpost of our clubbing days, the venue of choice for confirmed bachelors of a certain age who are still raging against the light to loosen their belts and wiggle their no longer bubble butts to the Readers Wifes (sic) favourite records of all time. All good things come to an end and it had been a while since we’d stepped through the RVT’s hallowed portals, but the presence of comedy legend Bob Downe with a short season of Edinburgh warm-ups was enough to convince us to head south of the river on a school night.

I first stumbled upon the glorious creation that is Mark Trevorrow’s Aussie lounge singer and daytime TV royalty Bob Downe in 1989. Times were simpler then and Bob was a naïf abroad, part Tommy Steele, part My Little Pony. In the intervening years, Bob has circumnavigated the globe annually and has lost his innocence but thankfully none of his vituperative charm and coruscating wit. He has an extraordinary gift for connecting with an audience and delivers guilty pleasure pop classics in a mellifluous baritone whilst clad head to toe (and I do mean head) in synthetic fibre.

Smokin’ sees a worldy wise Bob offering us wry insights on the global financial crisis, the Olympics, Wimbledon, gay marriage and more. For someone who spends most of the year away from this sceptred isle, he really has his finger on the pulse of British preoccupations, with a scorching routine on the Queen’s meeting with Martin McGuinness which had only happened hours previously. Apparently McGuinness and Bob are members of the same Facebook group, boho-homo-provos.  Along the way are silly competitions, with Bob’s CD Cold August Night a much cherished prize, and plenty of downesque renditions of everything from Disco Inferno to Cracklin’ Rosie. With good natured crowd participation, self deprecation and some gentle ribbing, he could bludgeon even the dourest soul into submission and builds to a second act crescendo of biblical proportions, climaxing with a barnstorming encore of Daydream Believer in tribute to Davey Jones, his first schoolboy crush. By now the entire room, fuelled by endless gags, long forgotten easy-listening gems and alcohol (natch) is singing along and tears are streaming down my face, threatening to dilute my second (ahem) vodka and tonic.

If you are looking for two hours of pure unadulterated joy, few can hold a torch to Mr Downe, neither would he want them to, he has to be very careful around a naked flame. Forget the recession, forget the football, forget the eurozone crisis, who cares when you could be tapping your toes to Down Under whilst doubled up with laughter trying not to spill your favourite tipple, all for a tenner (drinks not included).

This is a not to be missed opportunity to catch an international treasure up close and personal. If you live or intend to venture north of Hadrian’s Wall, the Prince of Polyester will also be doing a month’s run at the Edinburgh festival.

Two hours of pure, unadulterated joy from an international treasure. Wednesdays at the RVT until 18 July 2012 (Bob Downe London) and at Edinburgh Festival 1 to 26 August 2012 (Bob Downe Edinburgh)

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Last of the Haussmans - National Theatre - Saturday 23 June ***

As a Black Country boy who spent my first five years just a walk along the cut from where Julie Walters grew up, I had been looking forward to finally seeing her perform on stage since Stephen Beresford’s debut play was announced, so my Saturday night at the National’s Lyttleton was bristling with anticipation.

Judy Haussman is a baby boomer ex-devotee of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s 1970’s Sansyassin movement, who abandoned her two small children, Libby and Nick, to the care of her parents while she sought spiritual enlightenment in India. Ensconced in her long-deceased parent’s run-down Devonshire home amongst nouveau riche second homers, she needs the help of her now adult children to clean up the house, which has been subject of an enforcement notice by the local council, and also some TLC to recover from a minor operation to remove a melanoma.

The house is virtually fully realised on an impressive revolving set that takes us into every nook and cranny of a dilapidated art deco seaside villa.

Julie Walter’s Judy, her long grey hair flowing over her snoopy nightie or colourful shapeless dresses, is not a million miles from Petunia Gordeno, Victoria Wood’s grotesque mother in dinnerladies. An idealistic dreamer who has nevertheless selfishly stumbled her way through life without a thought for the consequences of her actions, she misses the simpler life of meditation, acid and rough sex in Poonah, without a resident’s association of interlopers breathing down her neck.

Helen McCrory’s Libby and Rory Kinnear’s Nick, both damaged by their childhood, have financially driven ulterior motives to their presence. Neither has made much of their life, he a hopelessly romantic gay heroin addict, she a romantically hopeless single parent of 15 year-old Summer, an archetypal stroppy teenager who can smell the bullshit wafting from her mother, uncle and granny at 50 paces.

Also thrown into the mix are Matthew Marsh’s local GP Peter, with a hidden agenda and designs on both Judy and Libby, and sweet, troubled, competitive swimmer Daniel, who uses Judy’s pool for practice and much needed respite from caring for his bed-bound clinically obese mother.

So far so good. However, the whole is nowhere near equal to the sum of the parts. There seems to be an obsession with the damage that greed and material wealth does to family relationships at the moment. Unfortunately for Stephen Beresford, Matthew Dunster’s Children’s Children, Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love and David Eldridge’s In Basildon all address similar issues much more successfully. Additionally, director Howard Davies appears to have done little more than block the action, leaving the actors free to delve into their stock of stereotypes, Helen McCrory in particular appears to think she is in Private Lives. Despite plenty of laughs, not once did I get the sense that they were a family, no matter how dysfunctional. The only two truly believable characters are the teenagers, both of whom take an emotional journey that the adults can only fantasise about which finds them blossoming by the end of an overlong second act.

Stephen Beresford has an undeniable ear for dialogue and a clever way with sharp one-liners (Have you had anything to eat? Yes, a Gaviscon), but has not written a fully cohesive play. The weight of expectation is probably far too heavy for a first time playwright and a couple of implausible plot devices betray the immaturity of the writing. If this had been given further time for script development and mounted on a single static set in the smaller studio space of Cottesloe with a less starry cast, I would maybe be heralding the arrival of a major new dramatist. As it stands, it feels like a wasted opportunity, especially with the much anticipated return of Julie Walters simply giving us a character that we have already seen in much more successful guises.

I had a fun night out, the problem is I was expecting greatness. Having said that, I am genuinely looking forward to Stephen Beresford’s next play.

Booking until 10 October 2012, a wasted opportunity -  The Last of the Haussmans

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Fix - Union Theatre - Friday 22 June *****

Can you remember what you did on Friday 22 June 2012? I witnessed the birth of a star, but more of that later.

I hadn’t previously encountered this loose adaptation of the Manchurian Candidate by John Dempsey (book & lyrics) and Dana P.Rowe (music) and I’ve stopped doing too much pre-show internet research as the risk of spoilers is too great (sometimes Wikipedia gets straight to the point). We arrived suitably uninformed at the gloriously ramshackled Union with no preconceptions and settled into our usual table in the funky bar for pre-show vodka and tonics like a post-modern Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples. Joy of joys, they even had ice and slices of lime.

I have seen some truly incredible productions on the fringe this year, but what director Michael Strassen and his team have done with this sophisticated, intelligent, witty show sweeps all competition aside.

Cal Chandler, the son of a likely future US president who dies while in flagrante with a mistress, is groomed by Violet, his scheming mother, and Grahame, his Machiavellian uncle, with whom he has a disturbing relationship, to take his father’s mantle.

Initially reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps, Cal is seduced by the trappings of power, but becomes a liability with a serious drug problem, an affair with an ex-stripper and links to the mafia. As Cal finally sees the error of his ways and tries to right his wrongs, the action steamrolls towards an inevitable but still shocking climax.

With no set and just a handful of props, including a stars and stripes flag, the production team’s creativity has been left to speak for itself. Every inch of the Union’s performance space is used for stylish staging and startling dance routines. The lighting by Steve Miller, mainly red, white and blue with atmospheric back lighting changes the mood in an instant and the four-piece band of piano, guitar, bass and drums, led by musical director Simon Lambert, keep the contemporary score driving the action.

I have left comments on the cast to the end for very good reason, the entire company seems to be performing as if Cameron Mackintosh is in the front row and about to cast the lead in his new musical. However, the triumvirate of Cal, Violet and Grahame are little less than miraculous.

Liz May Brice as Val, in a Jackie O wig and black cocktail dress, is an exercise in understatement, reluctant to let her social position slip from her grasp. Fuelled by gin and with her own dark secret, she dreams of being the power behind the throne, the matriarch of a Kennedy-esque clan and will let nothing stand in her way. Only towards the end of the second act does Brice let the mask and the wig slip and we see a broken lonely woman. She also has one of the best lines of the evening “is it possible to be drunk and hungover at the same time?”.

Miles Western’s arch manipulator Grahame is the sleazy love child of Richard III, Kaiser Soze, Alastair Campbell and Simon Cowell. Rotten through and through, closeted and crippled by childhood polio, his rage at the world and the hand he has been dealt is never far from the surface, but is sometimes pricked with bitter asides revealing the glimmer of a soul somewhere deep inside.

Finally, Louis Maskell as Cal. This takes me back to my first sentence. Very occasionally someone appears and you wonder where on earth did all this talent come from. This was one of those moments. Starting off a good looking tousle haired layabout, he slowly metamorphoses into a handsome, sharp-suited monster, but all the time there is a pain etched into his face that communicates directly to the audience that he is just a boy floundering in an adult world. Maskell gets right to the heart of Cal and has a control and range to his voice that is equal to a young Mandy Patinkin. If Cameron Mackintosh had been sitting in the front row instead of me, the ink would already be dry on Maskell’s contract. He is truly astonishing.

With the cleverest book and lyrics this side of Sondheim, a pounding score full of light and shade and an entire company firing on all cylinders, this is quite simply the best production I have seen on the fringe this year. I feel like having a Spinal Tap moment and awarding it six stars but, unlike the Chandlers, I’ll play by the rules and give it a resounding five. 

Booking until 14 July 2012, perfection, at the risk of seeming shouty, DO NOT MISS - The Fix

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Children's Children - Almeida Theatre - Saturday 16 June ****

Well we didn’t stray far from the manor this weekend, the Kings Head on Friday night and the Almeida on Saturday, both just a hop, skip and a jump from home. A swift vodka and tonic in the Almeida's Frank Lloyd Wright-esque bar and then we took up our bargain £8 restricted view seats in row F of the stalls. Don't tell anyone else but these really are one of the best kept secrets in London's theatre world and are our second home just off Upper Street.

Firstly the set. The Almeida always gives good set and designer Robert Innes Hopkins exceeds even the wildest expectations this time round. A stylish Holland Park apartment is transformed into a Dorset terrace replete with an actual swimming pool in which a naked blonde with newly darkened roots splashes defiantly, whilst the second act finds us in the kitchen of a well appointed family house in Camberwell.

Matthew Dunster’s play follows the fortunes of Michael and Gordon, both northerners and friends from drama school, whose careers have taken wildly diverging paths. Michael is now the host of a prime time TV game show, is rich beyond his wildest dreams and onto his second wife, Louisa. Gordon’s acting career started off promisingly but has now stalled and he is reduced to tending neighbour’s gardens for pocket money. Gordon is married to his long time partner Sally, also an actress on her uppers, and they have an annoying brat of a daughter Effie who, by dint of being young, beautiful and spoilt, is used to getting her own way.

Gordon, Sally, Effie and her boyfriend Castro arrive at Michael and Louisa’s smart flat and Gordon begs Michael for money to pay off his debts and to start a landscape gardening business. Gordon willingly agrees but over the course of the next two hours/two years things go from bad to worse as we follow the ups and downs of six symbiotic damaged lives. Long-held jealousies and slights rear their ugly heads and relationships flounder under the weight of festering resentments and mistrust.

It would be an understatement to say that the majority of the characters in this discourse on the nature of fame, friendship, success and power are not very nice people. Only Sally Rogers’ Sally reaches the end of the second act with her dignity intact, the remainder are all selfish to varying degrees, reaching the pinnacle or nadir, depending on which way you look at it, in Emily Berrington’s uber-brat Effie. Even John MacMilan’s worthy documentary film-maker, Castro, desperate to expose the corporate greed of the major oil companies, which he does to mind numbing effect in a second act speech-cum-lecture, withers in the face of a milf.

The entire evening is car-crash captivating as dreams turn to nightmares and the men in particular are crushed and emasculated by the drama’s close. Darrell D’Silva’s portrayal of the successful TV star supposedly unbothered by fame and fortune, but newly self-educated on the merits of fine sherry and whisky, contrasts sharply with that of Trevor Fox’s bitter family man, resentful of his friend’s success, yet not too proud to greedily ask for handouts to improve his social standing.

Both Beth Cordingly and Sally Rogers as the long-suffering wives convey a sense of weary patience with husbands who are not all they dreamed they’d be and who are grudgingly tolerated rather than adored. Emily Berrington, still at drama school and making her stage debut, is terrific as the monstrous Effie, exploiting her sexuality to her own ends, inappropriately disrobing in front of her father and god-father to elicit a reaction and using her own progeny to further her burgeoning celebrity driven fashion career.

Tables are turned by the end of the evening and women are applauded as the stronger sex, while the men, blinkered in their pursuit of money and sex, find their lives have crumbled.

Matthew Dunster has written a painful yet engrossing play which reflects many of the obsessions of the 21st century and says much about the differing aspirations of the sexes and generations. I could have done without the “big business is bad” soap box moments which felt laboured and held up the action, but which may well mirror the concerns of the young chattering classes. There is also a wonderful line about the fact that in the brave new on-line world no-one pays writers any more.

Booking until 30 June 2012, "never a lender or a borrower be". Painfully engrossing -  Children's Children

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Spinach - Kings Head Theatre - Friday 15 June *****

The Kings Head is one of our locals and we used to grace it frequently, but, as I alluded to earlier in the year, it seems to have lost its’ way of late both in terms of programming and pricing and in a fit of pique we hadn’t visited for ages. I had high hopes that things were about to change as the first week of shows were a bargain £10 for this new-ish sung-through play (sounds like a musical to me) with music by Simon Waters and book/lyrics and direction by his sister/wife/mother/aunt/granny/daughter/friendwhohappenstohavethesamesurname (Google failed me and I never did find out) Janine Waters.

Kate and Tom awake from a drug induced torpor to find themselves tied back to back in a darkened basement. He is from Manchester, she from London and they appear to have no connection. With only vague memories of their day to day lives and virtually none of the past 24 hours, they painstakingly piece together the events that have led to their current situation, which seems to involve a Cuban gang flooding the pharmaceutical market with rogue prescription drugs that lead to life threatening wasting diseases. Fearing for their lives as they hear footsteps in the room above and with explanatory flashback scenes, they try to free themselves and slowly think that they have uncovered a dastardly plot that would make the most hardened conspiracy theorist proud, all of which is turned on its’ head on the last five minutes.

On paper it sounds like an American schlock horror movie, but in reality it is an immensely enjoyable 80 minutes of gripping theatre that is entirely sung with no spoken dialogue. There a very few actual songs and certainly no dance routines, but there are twists and turns aplenty, all set to a tuneful contemporary score matched with flawless performances from the four strong cast.

Cassandra Compton and Ben Gerrard as Tom and Kate are the perfect leading pair, he with his matinee idol looks making for a chisel featured nerd, she switching from sweet do-gooding vegetarian to annoyed finger pointing gamine. Claire Greenway and Craig Whittaker as the supporting cast are every bit their equals and even augment Simon Waters piano accompaniment with guitar, ukulele and, sometimes to deliberately hilarious effect, saxophone. All four have exceptional voices and cope with the often split second changes in the tone of narrative admirably.

With snappy direction from Janine Waters the pace never lets up and we fear for the fate of Tom and Kate, especially as it’s patently obvious that they are meant for each other. An angry shocking denouement exposes a formerly hidden bitterness but we are left with a final heart-warming, partially heaven set, coda.

With no verse-chorus-verse-chorus songs that could find themselves used as audition pieces and with a dark but funny heart, this really is one of those rare instances when you happen upon a truly original piece of musical theatre. I shall be keeping a careful eye on the careers of Messrs Waters and Waters.

A quick mention for designer Kevin Freeman who has created a multi-purpose set of exposed brickwork and crumbling walls that is the best I’ve ever seen at the King’s Head.

My faith in this once much loved pub theatre has been restored and I am looking forward to their new season which includes a new musical version of The Great Gatsby and productions of both The Pirates of Penzance and Tosca.

I have started to follow the herd in awarding stars and really agonised over this, as there are no stand-out songs, but finally decided that it is churlish to compare this unique theatrical experience to other traditional musicals and it deserves every single one of those five stars.

I also reviewed Spinach for What's On The Fringe, here's a link - Spinach review

Booking until 7 July 2012,  a truly original piece of musical theatre - Spinach

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Torch Song Trilogy - Menier Chocolate Factory - Friday 8 June *****

My heart was fit to burst when the Menier Chocolate Factory announced both Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along as part of their new season. I have such fond memories of the original London production of Fierstein’s linked triptych of plays, having caught the great man himself in the central role of drag queen and eternal optimist Arnold, before hysteria about AIDS caused the premature closure of both this and the Fierstein scripted La Cage Aux Folles. It also managed the often difficult transformation into a very different but equally successful film, with Fierstein again taking the lead. Then came dark murmurs of a shorter, more “experimental” version taking shape in Southwark and I started having sleepless nights worrying at what might have befallen my beloved Arnold. It was with some trepidation that we descended on south London on a stormy June evening, having taken advantage of the Chocolate Factory’s “meal deal”, where you get dinner and a show for a bargain £32.50 during previews, £37 during the main run.

I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. There has been some judicious editing to reduce the original four hour running time to a more audience friendly two and a half hours and the scene linking titular “torch songs”, previously performed by a cabaret singer removed from the main action, are now sung by the cast accompanied by a harpist. This simple device works exceptionally well and gives the songs added poignancy, accentuating what has happened and hinting at what is to come. I would have loved to have witnessed Harvey Fierstein tackling Someone to Watch Over Me in his fabulously raspy Brooklyn tones.

David Bedella, more usually associated with musicals, assumes the mantle of Arnold and we follow roughly five years in his life and his relationships with his two lovers Ed, a bisexual teacher, and Alan, a much younger model; Ed’s eventual wife, Laurel; David a gay teenage tearaway and Arnold’s mother who would prefer not to have to acknowledge her son’s sexuality.

David Bedella sets the tone from the first scene as, addressing the audience conspiratorially and with the help of heavy make-up, a wig, a red sequinned evening gown and matching heels, he transforms from Arnold into Virginia Ham, “an entertainer”. The audience are on his side within seconds and the transformation gets a well deserved round of applause.  Joe McFadden’s Ed is sexy, confident but, unlike Arnold, uncomfortable in his own skin and he brings just the right amount of charm with a hint of self-loathing to what must be an difficult character to play, as we watch Arnold falling head over heels for him while he keeps Arnold at arm’s length until it suits him otherwise.

The second act, which takes place entirely on a huge bed, examines the ramifications of an awkward weekend spent in the country by two couples. Arnold is newly loved up with Tom Rhys Harries’s super cute Alan, the product of a troubled past who has used sex as a tool the whole of his short life, and Ed is partnered to a woman, Laurel. Laura Pyper’s Laurel is spot-on, obsessed with her man’s past and desperate to know every detail no matter how painful it is to all concerned.

The third act sees Arnold’s mother, played by Sara Kestelman, visiting from Florida and finding Arnold sharing his flat with newly separated Ed and 15 year-old David. Despite appearing in only this third act, Perry Millward walks away with the acting honours as young David, who Arnold hopes to eventually adopt. Millward has a swagger and vulnerability coupled with great comic timing that gets right to the heart of why Arnold would do anything for this boy and contrasts sharply with the relationship with his own mother, which uncomfortably implodes in a spate of inter-generational arguments before our eyes.

One tiny quibble which may be entirely unjustified and I apologise in advance if it is, the key line in the movie for me, which may not be in the original play, has Arnold’s mother exclaiming “you cut me out of your life and then blamed me for not being there”. This single line suddenly elicits huge sympathy for what has been up until that point an unsympathetic character and lets us see things from her perspective. It’s not in this production and I wish it was.

Cleverly and unlike the Chocolate Factory’s current hit transfer of Abigail’s Party, the designers have chosen not to anchor the play in the time in which it was written. Set and costumes are ambivalent, receding whitewashed brick walls, the odd poster of Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, Cabaret and, in a nod to Mr Fierstein who was in the original production, Andy Warhol’s Pork. Even the hysterical first act “back room” scene could be happening just down the road in Vauxhall (so I’m led to believe).

Because of the great affection with which I hold both the original production and the film, which I must have watched at least 20 times (I know, nerd, get a life), I was worried that I would be disappointed. How wrong I was, this revival proves what a timeless piece of theatre Harvey Fierstein created and director Douglas Hodge has proved that the universal themes of friendship, love and being honest and true to yourself are just as relevant today as they were in the supposedly less enlightened times of 30 years ago. David Bedella is mesmerising in the central role of Arnold, simply wanting to love and be loved, and proves that he's not only a musical theatre star but is just as fine a dramatic and comedy actor, bringing true emotional depth to the role. This really is one revival you will want not to miss, I will definitely be returning.

Booking until 12 August 2012, a beautifully realised production of a theatrical masterpiece - Torch Song Trilogy

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Boys - Soho Theatre - Thursday 7 June ****

Ella Hickson’s new play, Boys, is set in a shared Edinburgh flat towards the end of the academic year. Its’ male occupants, two graduating students, a “teenage” violin prodigy and an immature 29 year old drug guzzling chef, are celebrating the end of their time together and the anticipation of new beginnings with a seemingly endless party. A refuse collectors strike means bags of rubbish are piling up in the kitchen and demonstrations on the streets outside threaten to spill over into the uneasy confines of their home.

A secret which has been heavily signposted is revealed towards the end of the first act and we find out what happened to the original fifth flatmate, although not why.  Two girlfriends, one a student who appears to be slumming it, the other a waitress seemingly resigned to her lot, gradually uncover or reveal further infidelities and indiscretions. A second act coup de theatre pillow fight with the bulging refuse sacks ends with them splitting and emptying their rotting contents onto the kitchen floor as the residents do the same with their guilty secrets.

This not an easy ride, an intense examination of what happens when emotions and blame are left to fester with questions unanswered and problems unresolved. The six strong cast are note perfect with Danny Kirrane in the central role of Benny, the weight of the world on his young shoulders and uncomfortable with the way his flatmates treat women, is magnetic throughout. Tom Mothersdale's Timp, a mohawked Peter Pan man-child still longing for the school holidays and clinging to his youth by aligning himself with students and a ready supply of recreational drugs, cuts a tragic fugure no matter how much he tries to convince otherwise. Samuel Cook's brutish Mack, an educated northern Stanley Kowalski, is an enigmatic presence who may or may not be a bully. Lorn Macdonald as Cam, a child genius who has been living a lie and a life he does not want, provides a heartbreaking end to an exhilarating two hours that says much about forgiveness and friendship, especially the fleeting relationships of our youth. The two young women Alison O'Donnell's Laura, who would really love to settle down and have a family, and Eve Ponsonby's Sophie, off to pastures new in Italy, provide a mature counterpoint to the boys posturing and posing.

Director Robert Icke has drawn incredible performances from the young cast and designers Chloe Lamford (set & costume), Michael Nabarro (lighting) and Tom Mills (sound) have created the ideal environment in which this thrilling drama unfolds. It brought back so many memories of flat-sharing, parties and people that I had all but forgotten, I was left with knots in my stomach as not all the newly recalled emotions were ones that I would have wished to have recovered. 

Ella Hickson has created a play that should resonate with anyone who is or ever has been young. A total blast, visceral engaging theatre that makes you sit up and take notice. Who said youth was wasted on the young?

Booking until 16 June 2012, thrilling - Boys

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Travelling Light - National Theatre - Saturday 2 June ***

I cut this one a bit fine. I’d kind of wanted to see Nicholas Wright’s play about the impact early east European Jewish immigrants had on the birth of US film industry, but my other half wasn’t that bothered and I hadn’t pushed it. As he was away for the weekend I took the opportunity to go to the matinee on the final day of the run, as much to find temporary sanctuary from the Jubilee fever engulfing London as anything else.

As this was the last day, I will be cavalier and ignore the possibility of spoilers. The entire story is semi-narrated by Paul Jesson’s Hollywood film director Maurice Montgomery in the 1940’s and he relates the tale of his much younger self, then called Motl Mendl, who returns to the shetl of his birth after the death of his father. Claiming his father’s original Lumiere brothers film camera as his inheritance and with the financial backing of Anthony Sher’s wealthy timber merchant, Jacob Bindel, he initially makes short films of the shetl’s inhabitants and then a drama, featuring his gentile muse and lover Anna Mazowiecka. Eventually the lure of the West proves too strong and he leaves a now pregnant Anna to find his fortune in America. The second act finds the older Mendl, newly named Montgomery, casting his own autobiographical movie and by a convoluted twist of fate finds both redemption and his perfect leading man in his own hitherto unknown grandson, up and coming actor Nate Dershowitz. There you go that’s the plot.

Damien Molony is the best thing in the production and makes a fine job in the dual role of Mendl and Dershowitz, harried by Anthony Sher’s nascent producer then, with blind ambition, abandoning the girl he loves and his roots to chase the Hollywood dream. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast give very broad interpretations of their roles, Anthony Sher in particular seems to be auditioning either for Fiddler on the Roof or Borat’s father, with a little bit of Yul Brynner’s King of Siam thrown in for good measure.

The play, particularly the first act, feels like an O level text explaining the history of early cinema, so we get almost caveman attempts at editing, close-ups, zooms and clunky examples of the way the money men interfere in the creative process. It is also agonisingly sentimental and the grandfather/grandson denouement comes straight from Jackie Collins via Mills and Boon. One other thing really rankled, would a young Jewish man in a tiny east European village at the start of the last century really have said "fucking" so readily, especially in front of the woman he's meant to love?

On the plus side, the recreations of Mendl’s early movies are beautiful, as is the set, with the interior of Mendl’s aunt’s house lying in the shadow of the remainder of a beautifully realised miniature shetl and young Damien Molony is surely destined for greater things.

It was a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but I suppose I’ve just come to expect better things from the National. Don't lose any sleep if you missed it.

Friday, 1 June 2012

It's June and I'm Busting Out All Over

Well summer is finally here (sort of), but the run of dreadful weather means I’ve only just found the motivation to start the diet that should have begun in January, so it’s baggy linen all season for me.

May saw us at the same number of plays as musicals for the first time in living memory and we’re even play heavier in June. We’ve already booked Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory, the intriguing Children’s Children at the Almeida, Last of the Haussmans at the National starring Smethwick’s own Julie Walters and finally a musical birthday treat for me, a trip to Chichester to see my favourite musical theatre leading lady Hannah Waddingham in Kiss Me Kate (June 30th if you were thinking of sending a card). We might manage to squeeze a few more in along the way, especially if they include a-singin’ and a-dancin’.

The results of May’s poll to find your favourite Norma Desmond are in and Betty Buckley stormed it, romping home with a massive 42% of the vote. National treasure Elaine Paige was a worthy runner-up with 12% and tying at 11% saw the bronze awarded jointly to Patti Lupone, Glenn Close and Petula Clark.

Here's the divine Ms B with "As If We Never Said Goodbye".

This month we are looking for your favourite musical written or co-written by a pop star (or stars), excluding juke box shows. I was going to wait until Lily Allen’s shot at Bridget Jones had opened but that is looking increasingly unlikely to see the light of day any time soon. Towards the end of the year we could be having a separate poll on juke box musicals as the Spice Girls’ Viva Forever has finally announced that it will replace Ghost at the Piccadilly theatre with previews beginning in November.

The world and his wife have been compiling lists of their favourite theatres so, for what it’s worth, here are mine (and my old man’s). Many are influenced by shows that we particularly enjoyed, as that inextricably influences our fondness for the venue. None are traditional West End theatres which have increasingly become homes for idle chitchat, texting and tweeting during the performance, ending up with me doing a “Lupone” or a “Shenton” and wishing we’d stuck to the fringe where punters know how to behave.

1.    Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – my favourite place in the entire world. Obviously the vagaries of the British weather can sometimes put a dampener on the proceedings, but on a warm dry summer’s evening there is no place on earth I would rather be. Plus you can arrive early with your own picnic and alcohol. Timothy Sheader’s reimagining of Into The Woods is my all-time theatrical highlight, so good that we went three times. We already have tickets for Ragtime and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but not until the end of July, beginning of August when the weather is slightly more reliable.

2.    The Landor – officially the best pub in the universe. This friendly inclusive Clapham hostelry always has something going on, barbecues in the garden, cup-cake decorating for the kids, live music in the bar, sport on the big screen and it also serves great food. If that wasn’t enough, it has a first floor theatre which, under the watchful eye of manager Andrew Keates, specialises in producing top notch musicals. What’s not to like?

3.    Menier Chocolate Factory – the first of the many great spaces in SE1 that make my list. I love the building, the restaurant, the gallery and the theatre and have seen so many great productions here, including their marmite “Pippin” which divided audiences, but I loved. Has any other fringe theatre produced so many West End and Broadway transfers?

4.    Almeida – a beautiful Victorian building steeped in history. Originally the Islington Literary & Scientific Society, it had a chequered history until it was converted into a theatre 40 years ago. Despite pillars sometimes affecting sightlines, at £8 the restricted view seats are exceptionally good value and the calibre of plays produced here with internationally renowned actors is extraordinary. Despite the fact they never mount musicals it is our local and we love it.

5.    National Theatre – specifically the Olivier and Cottesloe. This hard to love example of brutalist architecture transforms once you enter the public spaces and the grain of the wood used to form the concrete building blocks reveals warmer more organic textures. The Olivier is such an amazing auditorium, a virtual indoor roman amphitheatre on the South Bank. The intimate Cottesloe, soon to be refurbished, feels like a hidden treasure as you make your way down a darkened alley past rubbish bins only to find yourself transported once you enter the tiny, adaptable space.

6.    Donmar Warehouse – a truly innovative theatre slap bang in the middle of Covent Garden. With A list stars clamouring to perform in the converted brewery, it is an opportunity to see them in innovative classic works up close and personal. They even have a pop at a musical about once a year.

7.    Chichester Festival Theatre – we only discovered this once middle age had crept up on us and then regretted not taking the train down to this wonderful Sussex town long before. We fell in love with the town and theatre immediately, making plans to retire there once we couldn’t manage the stairs at King’s Cross station. The theatre, to be extensively remodelled over three years starting in 2013, has developed into a major producing house with many productions finding their way into the West End. The first three rows at the side of the thrust stage are also always to be had at a bargain price.

8.    Southwark Playhouse – soon to be moving to a temporary venue, rumoured to be in Elephant & Castle, while a new permanent space is developed at London Bridge. The current set-up of two flexible spaces in damp arches with a comfy bohemian bar in between has been the setting for some joyous evenings for us.

9.    Union Theatre – another recent discovery. We kicked ourselves for not venturing here previously. The quirky bar-cum-box office and toilets so ancient that they should be preserved for the nation may not be to everyone’s taste, but they push our buttons. They may have been higher on the list if they only stocked ice for our vodka and tonics.

10. Charing Cross Theatre – a wonderful venue hidden beneath the arches of Charing Cross station. Unlike the other “railway arch theatres” this has been converted into a traditional auditorium with a stage, well-raked stalls and even a small dress circle. Formerly used as a music hall, the productions here can be hit and miss, for every Thrill Me there is a Tale of Two Cities, for every Legacy Falls there is a Bowl of Cherries, but the amazing late night piano bar more than makes up for the odd disappointing production. It is also, together with the Donmar Warehouse, one of only two on my list that are in the West End.

Finally, wearing my heart on my sleeve, here’s a grainy clip from my favourite “pop star” musical, Closer To Heaven by Pet Shop Boys and Jonathan Harvey, featuring the ever wonderful Frances Barber.