Monday, 30 July 2012

Curtains - Landor Theatre - Sunday 29 July 2012 *****

In something of a coup for the Landor, they follow Kander and Ebb’s first musical, Flora the Red Menace, with the European professional debut of their final collaboration (update - it looks like the Landor shot the gun somewhat, an anonymous comment on this blog points out that a professional production took place in Germany last year - Curtains at Coburg 2011). Sadly both lyricist Fred Ebb and book writer Peter Stone (Titanic, 1776, The Will Rogers Follies. Woman of the Year, My One and Only) passed away before the project was completed and multi-talented Rupert Holmes (Edwin Drood, Where Truth Lies, Pina Colada song) came on board to complete the project. The Broadway production starred David Hyde Pierce who won a Tony award for his portrayal of Lieutenant Cioffi and ran throughout 2007 and 2008.

Billed as a “Musical Comedy Whodunit”, set in 1959 in a Boston theatre on opening night of a new musical, the untalented and unpopular leading lady is murdered during curtain call. Lieutenant Cioffi a stage struck cop with showbiz aspirations arrives and discovering the entire company has guilty secrets, making each one a potential suspect, quarantines them all in the theatre until the crime is solved.

What follows is two hours of pure joy as the funniest of scripts is punctuated with classic Kander and Ebb songs performed with absolute conviction by an extraordinarily talented 19 strong cast.

In normal circumstances they are accompanied by a 5 piece band but unfortunately the Landor, along with the similarly afflicted Southwark Playhouse, falls foul of what will henceforth be known as the great South London drummer shortage of 2012, so the first act is percussion-less and the trumpet player doesn’t put in an appearance at all, but I will admit to enjoying myself so much that it takes me about 45 minutes to even notice the depleted musician’s corner.

Jeremy Legat is a dream as Cioffi, part Columbo, part Danny Kaye. His deadpan delivery of lines belies masterful comic timing and he sings and dances with a twinkle in his eye and a sparkle in his step. His budding romance with understudy Niki, played with delightful faux innocence by Bronwyn Andrews, is beautifully understated.
Stealing every scene with the most gloriously hammy overacting imaginable is Bryan Kennedy as director Christopher Belling, a snide comment never far from his sharp tongue, eyebrows raised as he takes credit for every success and apportions blame elsewhere for every failure.

A sub-plot involving the show’s once married writers, Georgia and Aaron, is skilfully handled by Fiona O’Carroll and Leo Andrew, as neither wants to admit that they are still in love with the other. The audience are rooting for a reunion of this likeable pair with gorgeous voices and winning personalities.

As the evening progresses the quarantined company use their enforced imprisonment to work on their show but further foul deeds are committed and Cioffi edges ever closer to unmasking the killer and falling in love with Niki.

Despite the magnificence of the leads, what makes this production so special is the ensemble. You will not believe the fabulous song and dance routines that this large cast perform in this tiny room. All credit to them, director Robert McWhir and choreographer Robbie O’Reilly, who manages to sneak in a couple of nods to Bob Fosse in his use of chairs and white gloves. Beneath half a gold proscenium arch with a solitary gold Doric column and a red curtain, a Broadway bound show comes to life before our eyes.

One tiny quibble is Buster Skeggs’ costume as long suffering producer Carmen Bernstein. The slacks and leopard print chiffon blouse ensemble don’t so much conjure up 1950’s Boston as 2012 Torrevieja. A minor detail though that may have something to do with this being a final preview.

If you fancy some light relief from the Olympics, I guarantee you will leave the Landor with aching sides from all the laughter and sore hands from all the applause.  You will also be singing “Show People” for at least 24 hours. A fabulous production of a wonderfully silly witty show full of memorable songs written by titans of musical theatre and performed with total sincerity by an engaging supremely gifted cast.

Booking until 1 September 2012, two hours of pure joy - Curtains

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Ragtime - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre - Saturday 28 July ****

So we played this one cool. Despite being desperate to see Ahrens & Flaherty’s sprawling turn of the 20th century musical at our favourite place in the whole wide world, past experience during May and June at the Open Air Theatre had taught us a sobering and very damp lesson. Holding out until the height of this blink and you missed it scorcher of a summer means we can leave the cagoules at home and take advantage of the dreaded Olympic effect by bagging the best seats in the house for £20.12.

Rocking up early with the well trained hordes attempting to outdo each other with the latest John Lewis picnic hampers, we manage to nab a coveted table and chairs and lay out our spread. Our homemade feast of spinach and red pepper tortilla with a pasta nicoise salad  (very tasty indeed, email me if you would like the recipes) goes down a treat with two bottles of wine. Needless to say we are in extraordinarily receptive moods by the time we take our bargain central row G seats an hour and a half later.

Set in 1906 with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally from E L Doctorow's orignal novel, Ragtime follows the varying fortunes of three family groups, white middle class Mother, Father, their son Edgar, Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother; African-American Coalhouse Walker, his girlfriend Sarah and their baby son and newly arrived Jewish Eastern European immigrant Tateh and his daughter. Together with the domestic dramas that the participants face, the sweeping story also explores horrendous racism and the birth of the civil rights movement, feminism and the blossoming of the trade unions.

Director Timothy Sheader has opted for a high concept framing device set in a post apocalyptic USA on a set strewn with the debris of consumerism (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pepsi) topped by an enormous crane and a half destroyed billboard bearing the face of Barack Obama and the slogan “Dare To Dream”. The cast, in modern dress, begin to tell story and slowly inhabit the characters and in doing so change into period costume. Unfortunately this transition happens gradually over the first act and also has the consequence that the white grandfather is played by a black actor and Booker T Washington, the most prominent and inflential of the early black community leaders, is played by a woman. Usually I am all for creative decisions that think out of the box, but in a piece so strongly rooted in cultural identity and race and gender issues this really does feel, in the words of the great Graham Gouldman, like Art for Art’s Sake.

However, the gripping and interwoven storylines and the sumptuous score, full of spine tingling ballads, aching gospel laments and numerous inventively staged ensemble numbers rise above any flawed directorial decisions. A highlight being when the auditorium is transformed into a baseball diamond, as David Birrell’s Father, a polar explorer but a cold and neglectful husband and father,  takes Edgar to a game and is appalled by the language of his fellow spectators and the multiculturalism of the team members.

Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker and new Mountview graduate Claudia Kariuki as Sarah are outstanding, she initially catatonic as the result of an unwanted pregnancy, he a free spirited ragtime musician, we witness them mature until disaster causes Coalhouse to seek justice via murderous revenge. Their first act hymn to their hopes for their son's future "Wheels of a Dream" elicits whoops and hollers from the appreciative crowd and a tissue from my pocket. Similarly Rosalie Craig’s Mother outgrows the confines of a stifling marriage and has her own aspirations other than being a wife and parent. By her second act eleven o’clock barnstormer “Back to Before” we know that this woman, clad in stars and stripes, will no longer settle for a life unfulfilled.

Joan Marquez’s Taleh, penniless but focused on protecting and providing for his daughter, is spellbinding. Handsome and charismatic, his is the American Dream personified as a humble street artist selling silhouette portraits for a nickel becomes a successful wealthy film director. His chaste interactions with Mother, who showed him respect when no-on else would, hint at a rather more passionate burgeoning relationship.

A special mention for Sandra Marvin who makes the most of her small part as Sarah’s friend and positively dazzles leading the first act closer "Till We Reach That Day" with fire and intensity. Her gorgeous gospel tones soar into the night time sky over Regent’s Park leaving me emotionally drained and desperate for an interval tipple.

By the end of the second act we have been privy to elation, despair, triumph and tragedy, the cast are back in modern dress and the Dream seems to have transformed into the American Nightmare, although we are left to fill in the blanks for ourselves on that one.

It would be difficult to go wrong with such a well written, finely acted, beautifully sung piece, I just feel Timothy Sheader has unnecessarily over-egged the pudding. I love the Open Air Theatre, it is a truly magical place and we had a lovely evening, it just could have been incredible, as it has been so many times in the past. Remember to take a jumper, as once the sun sets over the trees no amount of alcohol will warm you up.

Booking until 8 September 2012, finely acted, beautifully sung, conceptually flawed - Ragtime

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Vieux Carré - KIngs Head Theatre - Sunday 22 July ****

Thanks to a “catastrophic computer failure” at Islington Council our imminent move has been delayed. I wonder if they’ve tried rebooting as the council tax is still miraculously managing to disappear from my bank account every month. Leaving a flat full of boxes and bubble wrap, we decide to take in a Sunday matinee at the Kings Head, which has the added bonus of being a perfectly reasonable excuse to drown our sorrows with guilt-free lunchtime vodka and tonics.

Tennessee Williams was nothing if not prolific and, after the plethora of plays in 2011 celebrating 100 years of his unique southern outlook, Vieux Carré, 40 years in the writing, gets its first London outing for 34 years. Unashamedly autobiographical, the plays’ cipher is a young gay writer sharing a boarding house in New Orleans with a motley cross section of 1930’s Louisiana society.

Tom Ross-Williams plays the unnamed writer transparently based upon Williams. Unsure of himself, his burgeoning sexuality and his worth as a writer, Ross-Williams endows the character with vulnerability and an unassuming sexiness, this boy has it in spades but just doesn’t realise it. The landlady of “the most reputable rooming house in the French Quarter” Mrs Wire thinks she rules her house with a rod of iron but virtually all of her tenants are up to no good right under her nose. There are a pair of starving faded southern belles in the attic surviving on the scraps they can gather from fancy restaurant bins, a lecherous consumptive gay artist who can’t keep his hands to himself, an abusive relationship between Jane an East Coast fashion illustrator who is flirting with prostitution and her muscled brute of a boyfriend Tye who will sleep with anyone if the price is right and a society bad boy organising orgies in the basement. While Mrs Wire and her tenants head relentlessly for death and disaster, we are rooting for the writer as he provides the narrative focus and we watch him blossom and eventually leave the nest of vipers.

Samantha Coughlan and Paul Standell as Jane, a yellow taxi girl with limousine aspirations, and Tye, yours for $100, are electrifying as the couple bound together out of symbiotic necessity. Their stormy sex driven relationship is as flimsy as the walls between the cubicle bedrooms through which everyone can hear everyone else’s business. The frisson is heightened during a second act appearance by Standell in nothing but a gym toned body and a challenging sneer.

David Whitworth’s Mr Nightingale, a potty mouthed low rent portrait painter, delivers each line as if it is his last, wringing every drop of pathos from a life lived in the shadows and relishing every double entendre in what is an admittedly seemingly endless supply of glorious one liners. His sleazy predatory gay opportunist is horrifying and enthralling at the same time and is unrepentant as he slowly succumbs to TB.

Nancy Crane’s Mrs Wire appears to be a tough as old boots no nonsense southern broad who is too mean to replace the lightbulbs in the house, finding her way around by torchlight and sleeping in the hall to limit the shenanigans her tenants get up to.  With the help of Eva Fontaine’s backchatting maid Nursie, we eventually discover that the pain of a long lost son sometimes pushes Mrs Wire towards a forgetful melancholia. Nancy Crane is a commanding presence and her softness towards the writer knows no bounds as she attempts to mould him into a surrogate child, with unsettling incestuous undertones. She even forgives his supposed betrayal at night court, giving evidence at her trial for a misdemeanour.

The evening however belongs to Tom Ross-Williams and it his character that metamorphoses as he questions his lot in life and breaks free of his insecurities, the claustrophobic darkness of the house and the tropical damp heat of New Orleans, hitching a lift out of town with a clarinet playing hustler. We know that this young man has a fruitful life ahead of him just as sure as we know that those that he leaves behind at 722 Toulouse Street are headed downwards in a spiral of drink, drugs, homelessness, prostitution and terminal illness. Ross-Williams is someone I will keeping a watchful eye on, he even sang a bit, so fingers crossed that we get to see him in a musical. The Menier Chocolate Factory has yet to cast Merrily We Roll Along, so may I be so bold as to suggest young Mr Ross-Williams for one of the leads?

Director Robert Chevera is to be applauded for dusting down this rarely performed long forgotten gem of a play and staging it so beautifully in the confines of the Kings Head. It is no coincidence that Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set basically consists of three beds upon and around which the majority of the action takes place. The entire production exudes sex, heat, passion and the frustration of lives misspent, but leaves us hopeful for a young man coming to terms with his talent and his sexuality.

Booking until 4 August 2012, sometimes painful, often funny, unnervingly sexy - Vieux Carré

I also reviewed this play for What’s On The Fringe, here's a link - Vieux Carré review

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Timon of Athens - National Theatre - Saturday 14 July ****

Saturday night finds us at the National’s Olivier theatre in bargain £12 row C stalls seats thanks to the Travelex sponsorship deal and me being glued to my laptop the morning tickets went on sale. We knew nothing of Timon of Athens, but the lure of Simon Russell Beale in the title role of a play co-authored by Shakespeare in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, coupled with the minimal outlay, was enough to convince us take a punt.

Immediately upon entering the auditorium it is clear that director Nicholas Hytner is intending to tap into the zeitgeist as the rear of the Olivier’s vast stage is filled with an Occupy style encampment. A wall with an enormous painting descends and we are at the opening of a Timon sponsored wing of a gallery where he is feted by the great and the good of Athenian society. Simon Russell Beale's Timon is amiable and generous and hosts a sumptuous banquet. While accepting small gifts he makes vast payments to help friends out of debt, pay dowries and stand bail, all of which appear to be part of his normal modus operandi. Deborah Findlay as his loyal steward Flavia appears worried by his munificence and Hilton McRae’s cynical philosopher Apermantus immediately recognises the worthlessness of these so-called friendships. He warns Timon, who brushes asides his concerns and invites him to join the feast.

It becomes all too clear that Timon’s apparent wealth is based on over mortgaged property, leverage in modern parlance, and when debtors come calling he turns to his friends for help, all of whom deny him. Throwing another banquet a bitter and betrayed Timon reveals the most unpalatable food imaginable and, leaving his guests in no doubt as to what he thinks of them, he disappears. Act two finds a dishevelled Timon living like a tramp but discovering a hidden trove of treasure he may have found a way back into Athenian society, as both the unsettled populace and pillars of society get wind of his good fortune and seek him out. Only the ever faithful Flavia comes looking for the man rather than his money.

Nicholas Hytner gives us an exceptionally accessible production reflecting current concerns with corruption, greed and the damage financial excess can cause. Together with 2012’s domestic dramas at the Royal Court, In Basildon and Love, Love, Love; the Almeida’s Children’s Children and, currently playing in the National’s Lyttleton, The Last of the Haussmanns; this illustrates on a grander scale the old adage that money is the root of all evil.

Simon Russell Beale is his usual understated brilliant self, effortlessly taking us on Timon’s journey of self-discovery as a once powerful seemingly popular man is broken and virtually friendless but nonetheless wiser. However, it is Deborah Findlay as the only person that Timon can truly rely on that steals the evening with a heartbreaking performance of almost unbearable intensity as her loyalty is tested and teeters on unrequited love.

The simple stylish sets designed by Tim Hatley, grand red drapes, huge doors and lavish banqueting tables in the first act, concrete supports with angular angry looking steel rods rising ominously in the second, are fluently effective and Grant Olding’s atmospheric music adds eloquently and unobtrusively to the drama.

This is an elegant, clear, supremely confident production that in the wake of the scandals surrounding News International, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Northern Rock et al could hardly be more relevant. A newly contemporary parable starkly illustrating that happiness and true friendship cannot be bought or measured in monetary terms.

Booking until 1 November 2012, but may extend. Elegant and relevant with tickets from £12 - Timon of Athens

Monday, 9 July 2012

Eyes Down! Bingo with Ida Barr - Arts Theatre - Sunday 8 July ****

After the disappointment of the cancellation of the afternoon’s performance of the Sondheim revue Putting It Together, we decided to cheer ourselves up with a game of bingo hosted by the one and only music hall/ rap superstar Ida Barr. Both shows were scheduled as part of the Arts Theatre’s Summer Sundays initiative, creatively using the lovely 350-seat centrally located theatre in the down time from its normal programming.

Starting at 5pm on the day of the most eagerly awaited men’s Wimbledon finals in living memory, this is unfortunately reflected in the turnout. Ida Barr, the creation of multi-faceted writer and performer Christopher Green, dismisses the paucity of attendees with a swift aside that she dislikes crowds anyway and off we go. Despite or because of our lack of numbers Ida has us eating out of her evening gloved hands from the offset. A warm gently subversive character that may well be post-modern but never resorts to the all too prevalent default of malice disguised as irony, Ida has much to say on the treatment of the elderly in our youth and beauty obsessed society. She is also very, very, very funny.

Starting with one of her infamous mash-ups, Ida gives us the First World War classic If You Were The Only Girl In The World in a medley with Rihanna’s Only Girl In The World with the added bonus of an Ida rap in the middle.

Then it’s uniquely Barr bingo, complete with Ida’s “signature” calls, none of which bear any resemblance to the traditional calls we all know. “The year of my first hip replacement” is 70 (as in 1970), “the age of my grandson who’s light on his feet” is 21, “the forgotten conflict” is of course Kuwait, which I think is 28, but you get the idea. Throughout we get glimpses of Ida’s life in her retirement home and her thoughts on the Olympics, the value afforded by a kipper lunch, the educational benefits of shopping at Lidl and all manner of insightful gems. Ida amiably interacts with the small but appreciative and noisy audience of all ages, genders and races, each of whom are desperate to win one of the array of Poundland prizes, and shares her Werther's Originals with us. I excitedly shout “house” as I get a line on pink and eagerly collect my winnings of a tin opener.

After a rousing sing-along of Jerusalem, replete with another of Ida’s raps, it’s time for a final celebratory Okey-Cokey. Somehow on a damp Sunday afternoon I find myself on stage with the great lady herself and a whole group of people I have never met putting it all in, taking it all out and shaking it all about with a huge grin on my face that refuses to go away.

If ever there was a way to dispel the Sunday blues, an hour with Ida Barr is it. Christopher Green proves how performance art can be clever, inclusive, challenging and of course immensely funny without being cruel or elitist, a very difficult task to pull off, but which he does with intelligence, wit, charm and plenty of laughs.

As we retire to the bar for a post-show vodka and tonic, even the torrential rain outside and the news of Andy Murray’s defeat are not enough to remove our broad smiles or dampen our warm glows, as the tin-opener and a commemorative Raquel Wolstenhulme Coronation Street mug take pride of place on our table.

Much like the Divine Ms Barr herself, this was a one-off. However, information on the remainder of the Arts Theatre Summer Sundays can be found here - Arts Theatre, on Ida Barr here - Ida Barr and on Christopher Green here - Christopher Green

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Mack and Mabel - Southwark Playhouse - Saturday 7 July *****

Another Saturday spent in what is fast becoming my favourite London post code, SE1 (sorry EC1, can we have an open relationship now?). With the Union and Menier Chocolate Factory within spitting distance and both receiving out and out raves from me for their current productions of The Fix and Torch Song Trilogy, dreams of a Southwark grand slam loom tantalisingly close as the Southwark Playhouse presents Mack and Mabel.

With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, La Cage Aux Folles) and book by Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly, Barnum, 42nd Street) the original 1974 Broadway production starred Bernadette Peters as silent movie star Mabel Normand, the muse of Hollywood director Mack Sennett in the early part of the 20th century. This production features a book updated by Francine Pascal in 2006.

Returning to his Brooklyn film studio hours before it is to be sold in the 1930’s, Norman Bowman as Mack reminisces about how things have changed since his heyday. He recalls his first meeting with the great love of his life, Mabel. Flashing back to 1910 Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Mabel, a sandwich girl delivering on-set, gets into a fight with Jessica Martin’s Lottie, an actress who hasn’t got enough money to pay for her lunch. Impressed with her feistiness, Mack offers Mabel a role in his next film and we follow their stormy personal and professional relationship over the next twenty years, as both achieve great success, he with the Bathing Beauties and Keystone Cops, she with Sennett and later with other directors. He is controlling and manipulative with an eye for the ladies and she, understandably, finds comfort elsewhere before misfortune engineers a reunion worthy of La Traviata.

Well where do I start? Let’s get the negatives out the way, the lighting is a little gloomy, which may have something to do with the space (a dank railway arch) and some missed cues leave the actors faces in shadow. There are also a few loud microphone “clunks” coming from the band, but that’s it and as this is still a preview, I’m sure these blips will be ironed out by opening night because apart from that it is abso-bloody-lutely magnificent.

Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are sensational in what are intrinsically unlikeable leading roles, he a control freak she a needy malcontent. By turns tender and tough and attacking Herman’s brassy tuneful score with confident vocals, I was a blubbering wreck by the end of the first act’s statement of intent, the classic I Won’t Send Roses.  Bowman’s hard hearted Mack eventually warms in the face of Pitt-Pulford’s initially unconfident Mabel who finally blooms when she realises her own self-worth and the value of her natural talent.

Add to this mix, Jessica Martin’s terrific movie star in waiting Lottie, Stuart Matthew Price's superb portrayal of Mack’s lackey and screenwriter Frank, Steven Serlin’s fabulous peace-making producer Kessell and a spectacular ensemble, full of verve and star wattage that belies the murky lighting. Three incredible set pieces, one for each of Sennett’s biggest triumphs away from Mabel, Bathing Beauties & Keystone Cops, and a tremendous Jessica Martin as Lottie leading a sparkling Tap Your Troubles Away, are beautifully staged and choreographed with flair and wit by Lee Proud.

The 11 piece band, with strings, woodwind and brass must be one of the largest ever assembled for a fringe production and make the most glorious noise imaginable (clunks excepted).

Director Thom Sutherland has created a tight fast paced production that barely pauses for breath, there are even hardly any breaks for much warranted applause. It looks and sounds like an Olympics proof hit and by my reckoning that makes three 5 star productions in SE1.

Genius is so rife on the fringe in Southwark, it must be contagious.

Booking until 25 August 2012, tickets for a tenner if you get in quick - Mack and Mabel

Monday, 2 July 2012

HAIR - Piccadilly Theatre - Sunday 1 July ****

Hot footing it across town from the Hackney Empire, well £25 in a mincab, we got to the Piccadilly Theatre just in time to sample the free pre-show wine before the start of this one-off performance of HAIR in aid of the Help for Heroes charity.

Following a sobering and inspiring pre-show talk from soldier Derek Derenalagi, who lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan but who is now, with support from Help for Heroes, competing in the upcoming Paralympics, "The Tribe" take to the stage.

This is more or less the production that was to have toured the UK with Gareth Gates in the role of Claude, but which was cancelled and limited to a two week run at Munich’s  Deutsches Theatre, where Gates was replaced by Stephen Rolley who is remarkably still in his third year at Italia Conti.

With book and lyrics by real-life couple Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot, HAIR is a period piece that wears its’ heart on its’ sleeve and would now be squarely aimed at that demographic of teenagers who are finally growing out of their love for Wicked. The abstract plot, such as it is, follows a group of hippies railing against their parents and the Vietnam War. Only sweet gentle Claude declines to burn his draft card and joins up with inevitable results. Full of anachronisms and some very lame and dubious jokes at the expense of gays and cross dressers, it is best approached as a historical document, a record of what was once a truly ground breaking theatrical experience, not least for its’ uninhibited portrayal of sex, drugs and nudity as a normal part of the lives of the young. While it unboubtedly has flaws, what HAIR also has is an abundance of some of the most exhilarating songs to come out of the late sixties, including Aquarius, I Got Life, Good Morning Starshine and the truly spine-tingling climactic Let The Sun Shine In.

The young cast, including Amy Diamond and Zoe Birkett, two talent show rejects that are TV’s loss and musical theatre's gain, Stephen Rolley and up and coming leading man George Maguire as Berger, the unofficial spokesman of the tribe, give committed portrayals on a minimal set surrounded by a tight, funky seven piece band. Diamond in particular, tall, beautiful, blonde and with the voice of the proverbial angel has stage presence aplenty and delivers her first act solo Easy To Be Hard with aching conviction as Berger rejects a token of her love.

The audience rise to their feet as one for the afore-mentioned Let The Sun Shine In, which is followed by a real treat. The original Berger and Claude from the 1968 London production, Oliver Tobias and Paul Nicholas, together with other members of that cast, but sadly not Elaine Paige (where are you EP?), join the current company for reprises of Aquarius, Let The Shine In and Hair. A good natured stage invasion is encouraged by the cast and for a few brief minutes we are transported back to the late sixties and the inherent possibilities that decade promised.

Stepping out of the theatre into the warmish night air, Piccadilly Circus is at a standstill and glowing with red and yellow as young Spaniards, the children and grandchildren of the HAIR generation, fill the streets overjoyed that they finally have something to celebrate. Let us hope that their good fortune continues as a new dawn arises.

A memorable evening. A flawed but often exhilarating piece of musical theatre history, with committed performances from a tremendously talented young cast. For more information on Help for Heroes, please follow this link - Help for Heroes

100% London - Hackney Empire - Sunday 1 July ***

Just a few brief words on Rimini Protokoll’s 100% London which ran over three days at the Hackney Empire. A self-proclaimed living portrait of London and featuring 100 everyday Londoners, it aims to tell the truth of modern London life by distilling their individual stories into an on-stage human opinion poll.

I have to confess to a vested interest as one of the cast, Patricia O’Connell, is a resident of the Westminster Society for People with Learning Disabilities, a charity at which I volunteer. The Society, which has just amended its’ constitution so it is now able to work London-wide not just in Westminster, is a leader in empowering people with learning disabilities to live happy fruitful lives and have their voices heard.

A large green earth-like circle with accompanying video screen above is gradually filled as the participants take the stage, state their name and tell us something that they consider is unique to them. This provides the two biggest laughs of the afternoon as an 11 year-old girl informs us that she has been preparing for the zombie apocalypse since she was 8 and a young boy produces a clarinet he made from sellotape during a sellotape obsession when he was four.

Once the circle is filled the group continually split into sections representing where they originally come from, where they live in London, age, religion,sexuality, etc and some life stories are fleshed out. More schoolboy geography than theatre, there are nonetheless touching moments, especially from some of the older members, and one genuine coup de theatre as the cast re-enact 24 hours in London.

An enjoyable piece of community theatre that is too long at one hour 40 minutes with no interval and which started 15 minutes later than advertised, but sterling work from a confident and funny Patricia O’Connell letting us know that she is as busy as ever made the trip to Hackney more than worthwhile.

This was the last performance of 100% London, but more information of the Westminster Society and the incredible work that they do in helping to transform the lives of people with learning disabilities can be found here - The Westminster Society for People with Learning Disabilities

Sunday, 1 July 2012

It's July and it should be too darn hot

June on the fringe was spectacularly fertile ground for musicals. I found myself unable to award any fewer than 5 stars to the Kings Head’s inventive 80 minute romcom thriller Spinach and the genius that is Michael Strassen’s take on The Fix at the Union. They are both still on for a week or two, so why not do yourself a favour and go, they knock most West End fare into the proverbial cocked hat. I was a little worried that I seem to have a preponderance of 4 and 5 stars on this blog, but of course, unlike professional theatre critics and traditional dead tree journalists, we hobby bloggers have the luxury of being able to cherry pick shows that appeal to us in the first place, so the battle is half-won before we even get to the theatre. Coupled with the fact that I am in awe of anyone who gets up on stage and performs, never mind writes, directs, designs or plays an instrument, this generally leads me to find something to enjoy in almost everything I see and consequently err on the side of praise.

Potential 5 star shows lined up for July are a one-off charity performance of Hair in aid of Help for Heroes, Mack and Mabel at the soon to be moving Southwark Playhouse, the Sondheim revue Putting It Together immediately followed by a round of bingo with the old school-cum-nu skool drag of the peerless Ida Barr as part of the Arts Theatre’s Summer Sundays mini-festival, Ragtime at my beloved Open Air Theatre and Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens at the National. Four musicals, drag-bingo and a Shakespeare sounds like the ideal mix and I’m sure we’ll find time to fit in a few other gems along on the way, if only to avoid Wimbledon and the hysteria surrounding the Olympics.

The results of June’s poll to find your favourite musical co-written by a pop star saw the gold awarded to Pet Shop Boys, with 32% of the vote going to Closer to Heaven, their collaboration with Jonathan Harvey. Any chance of a revival Messrs Tennant, Lowe and Harvey, it would be perfect for the Chocolate Factory, Union or Landor? In a nice little quirk of fate, Tim Rice gets both silver and bronze, as his Abba co-write Chess is in second place with 17% and in joint fourth place with 14% are The Lion King, which he wrote with Elton John and Elton’s other smash hit Billy Elliott.

Here are Pet Shops Boys performing Positive Role Model from Closer to Heaven at Glastonbury in 2000.

In honour of the fact that shooting has wrapped on Tom Hooper’s silver screen adaptation of Les Miserables, this month we are looking for your favourite stage to screen musical of the past 20 years. From Phantom to Hedwig, from Evita to Sweeney and from Dreamgirls to Rent, make your vote count, but remember it’s the film you are voting for, not the original stage production.

Without wishing to unduly influence anyone’s decision, here’s Seasons of Love from Rent.

Kiss Me Kate - Chichester Festival Theatre - Saturday 30 June *****

A birthday treat for me, a trip to Chichester to see one of my favourite leading ladies, Hannah Waddingham, in a Cole Porter musical that I had never seen, but which I was reliably informed was a not to be missed classic.

Along the way we took in the new Peter Blake exhibition at the fabulous Pallant House Gallery. For such a sleepy little slice of middle England, Chichester really boxes above its’ weight when it comes to the arts and the Peter Blake show, celebrating the great man’s 80th birthday, was just the start of what turned out to be a fantastic day.

Kiss Me Kate, with a book by husband and wife team Sam and Bella Spewack, is a virtually real-time look at the out of town opening of a musical version of the Taming of the Shrew. Trevor Nunn directs Alex Bourne and Hannah Waddingham ann Has Fred Graham, who is directing “The Shrew” and taking the role of Petruchio, and his ex-wife and movie star Lilli Vanessi, who is playing the tempestuous Katharine. Echoing their on-stage relationship Fred and Lilli constantly bicker but, despite having new partners, this bickering transforms itself into renewed passion as the evening progresses. With various sub-plots involving two gangsters mistakenly chasing Fred for a supposed $10,000 debt, a general with political ambitions wanting to whisk Lilli away to Washington and a fame hungry ingénue courting Fred for stardom rather than love, there really is only one possible trajectory to the story.

Alex Bourne and Hannah Waddingham are electrifying in the lead roles, both imposing figures with sensational delivery of the contemporary dialogue, Shakespeare and the glorious Cole Porter songs. Waddingham’s solo of I Hate Men, her voice by turns snarling and soaring is an early highlight. An incredible company grab their opportunities during the many ensemble numbers, including Another Opening Another Show and We Open in Venice. The second act opener of Too Darn’ Hot featuring Jason Pennycooke was one of the most thrilling I have ever seen. Pennycooke, slight and sensuous, positively sizzles during his five minutes in the spotlight. A brass filled orchestra keeps the score plump and pumping.

Comic relief is provided to splendid effect by David Burt and Clive Rowe as bumbling gangsters who,  marooned on stage during The Shrew, cover their tracks with a magnificent and hysterical Brush Up Your Shakespeare.

Chichester’s infamous thrust strange is always a challenge for designers, but here Robert Jones has come up with the igneous idea of using simple white fabric etched in black which rises up on poles or pulleys, so that Petruchio’s house or a magnificent verdant tree appear in an instant from a small box. Echoing this, gorgeous, monochrome costumes reveal primary coloured accessories.

This show has already announced a transfer to the Old Vic and it really is no wonder, it is the ideal Christmas treat, an intelligent, witty, musical full of spectacular set pieces and superb individual performances. A Cole Porter musical with Shakespeare, starring the goddess that is Hannah Waddingham, what’s not to like?

Booking until 1 September 2012 at Chichester - Kiss Me Kate Chichester and at The Old Vic from 20 November 2012 to 2 March 2013 - Kiss Me Kate London

Peter Blake and Pop Music at the Pallant House Gallery until 7 October 2012 - Pallant House Gallery