Wednesday, 29 August 2012

London Road - National Theatre - Wednesday 29 August *****

I had resisted Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork’s musical retelling of the events surrounding the murders of five women by serial killer Steven Wright in Ipswich in 2006, as my other half refused point blank to accompany me and it didn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs. Additionally the fact that all dialogue and lyrics are the result of Alecky Blythe’s “verbatim” documentary style of working and are drawn directly from taped interviews with the real people on which the characters are based alienated me even further. Unexpectedly though a £12 Travelex row B stalls ticket popped up on a rainy Wednesday afternoon when I had bugger all else to do, so I thought I may as well take a punt and see what all the fuss is about. After all, it did win the 2011 Critics’ Circle Best Musical and has transferred from the tiny Cottesloe to the vast Olivier. The current cast also includes a couple of my favourite West End leading ladies, Claire Moore and Linzi Hateley.

On the Olivier’s large stage a Neighbourhood Watch meeting commences, chaired by Kate Fleetwood’s Julie who proposes a “London Road in Bloom” competition in an attempt to nurture the fragile community relationships and cleanse the area of its’ “red light district” reputation which has grown since the arrest of the resident of number 79, Steven Wright, for the murders of five women, all of whom were working as prostitutes on London Road.

We flashback to the initial discovery of the bodies and the next two hours takes us through two years in the lives of the residents of London Road and the investigation into the murders.

It is quite simply one of the best theatrical events I have ever witnessed. Almost operatic in its reach, the cadences, pauses and stumblings of the original interviewees are present, correct and celebrated which, with the use of repetition, adds an almost percussive quality to the sung dialogue. There are also plenty of laugh out loud moments and one genuinely shocking sharp intake of breath admission from Julie once Wright has been found guilty. It’s a little like a post watershed Creature Comforts The Musical.

We hear the concerns of the residents for their homes and their families, once blighted by the presence of prostitutes, now free of the working girls but with a murderer in their midst. Once the fear has gone, the dreadful events do the unimaginable and unite a community, inspiring neighbours to make friends with one another and to work together to create a better environment in which to live.

The simple staging, with dark armchairs and sofas, Julian Opie style life size sculptures and a huge ominous bay window above echoing those of the houses on London Road, is supplemented with effective devices such as the use of police tape to divide the inhabitants once the police and press have descended on the area and the road has been cordoned off. There is the most sinister light festooned Santa looming above the action at Christmas and a simply gorgeous final scene during the judging of “London Road in Bloom” when the auditorium and stage are filled with bountiful hanging baskets.

Despite it being an ensemble piece with an extraordinarily accomplished cast, Kate Fleetwood, who plays Julie along with several other roles, deserves singling out for special praise, as she engages the audience, sometimes with a glance, often addressing us directly, in a brutally honest truthful manner. She is also one of a trio of former prostitutes who emerge from the shadows towards the end of the second act and stare unblinkingly at us for several long uncomfortable minutes before relating how the murders have impacted on their lives.

Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork have pushed the form forward and this is truly musical theatre for the 21st century. With a faultless cast, sure footed direction from Rufus Norris and beautifully effective design from Katrina Lindsay, this is a special piece of theatre that I know I will remember always.

Booking until 6 September 2012, call it what you will, drama-documentary-musical-opera, it is simply one of the best theatrical events I have ever witnessed - London Road

Monday, 27 August 2012

Carousel - Barbican Theatre - Sunday 26 August ****

Following last night’s Guys and Dolls featuring Dennis Waterman (Guys and Dolls), the second part of our “Wife-beaters and the Golden Age of Broadway Musicals” bank holiday weekend is Opera North’s take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel at the Barbican, which is luckily just a short stroll from home.

Firstly an enormous thank you to the box office staff at the Barbican who bumped us up from £12.50 restricted view gallery seats to fantastic central row K stalls, so my opera glasses stayed firmly tucked inside my purse.

Immediately the curtain rises it is clear that this is going to be a visually stunning production and it is quite simply the most beautifully designed and lit show I have ever seen. The costumes and set by Anthony Ward and lighting by Bruno Poet perfectly evoke  Victorian New England. The lush orchestra conducted by James Holmes fills the auditorium with the wonderful overture and we witness our protagonists grow from children to adults riding a stunning light filled carousel.

Opera North has two casts for this production, so as ne’er do well fairground barker Billy Bigelow we have Michael Todd Simpson and as mill girl and object of his affections Julie Jordan, Katherine Manley. As to be expected, both are outstanding singers, as indeed are the remainder of the large cast.

Despite a haunting gorgeous score replete with standards such as “If I Loved You”, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, this is an uncomfortable evening. The problems arise not with the performances or production, which are world class. The problem is the book. The tale of an unemployed wife beater with no redeeming features, who plans to kill a man for money and later returns to make amends but ends up hitting his daughter, makes for incomprehensible viewing, even for a period piece. I’ll be so bold as to suggest that the estate of Rodgers and Hammerstein should consider revisions to the script to ensure that future generations don’t miss out on this classic.

By the time Billy has convinced his daughter that with the support of her mother she will be fine as she won’t be walking life’s rocky path alone, I am desperate for the evening to end and glad that we aren’t in our original seats in the fourth tier gallery where the temptation to throw myself off may have been too great. Even twelve hours later I am still at a loss as to how the line “he hit me, but it felt like a kiss” was ever acceptable (and I do know it was recycled later by Goffin and King).

Fabulous production values, lovely performances, classic songs, but an evening of unrepentant domestic violence simply does not float my boat. Booking until 15 September 2012 - Carousel

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Guys and Dolls - Cadogan Hall - Saturday 25 August - Act I *** Act II ****

I’ll be brutally honest, the fact that Dennis Waterman was in the cast of this concert production of Frank Loesser’s classic Broadway musical really put me off and we were going to give it a miss, but the lure of a couple of comps soon tempted me down off my high horse. My moral indignation consigned to the back burner, we found ourselves in Chelsea at the beautiful Cadogan Hall on a damp Saturday evening on the last bank holiday weekend until Christmas (cripes, better put those sprouts on Mum).

Despite the presence of slap happy Waterman, the remaining cast look like a dream, with the roles of two small time gamblers, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, being taken by West End leading man Graham Bickley and the crooning voice of Strictly Come Dancing, Lance Ellington. Meanwhile the insanely talented duo of Ruthie Henshall and Anna-Jane Casey are the two female leads, Nathan’s ever hopeful fiancĂ©e of 14 years, nightclub chanteuse Miss Adelaide, and uptight Salvation Army sergeant, Sarah Brown. If you use twitter, you really should follow Anna-Jane Casey, she lets you into both her personal and professional world with hysterical uncensored regularity, what I don’t know about her post baby norks is not worth knowing, she’s @AnnaJaneCasey.

After bumping into some old friends in the bar and a gossipy catch up over a couple of vodka and tonics, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra strike up the overture and we are away.

As I began by wearing my honesty as a badge of pride, I’ll continue in that vein. Despite being enlivened by fabulous moments from the aforementioned dream duo of Henshall and Casey, Casey’s voice soaring effortlessly on the beautiful  “I’ll Know” and Henshall using her comedic talents to full effect on “Adelaide’s Lament” (nee “A Person Could Develop A Cold”), the first act feels flat and lacking in pace. The orchestra sounds muddy and leaden and the male leads seem under rehearsed compared to their female counterparts. Bickley seems unable to find the humour inherent in Nathan Detroit’s marriage shy huckster and Ellington’s  Sky Masterson is sleazy rather than charming. Waterman in particular is awkward and bumbling in his triple roles of narrator, police chief and Sarah’s grandfather, surely it’s time he was put out to panto pasture. I nurse my interval V & T with a heavy heart, taking comfort from the fact that Ruthie is as sparkling as her gown and Anna-Jane’s transcendental soprano is lifting my spirits whenever she sings.

Who knows what happened during the break, presumably someone akin to an MT Brian Clough gave the whole team a pep talk, as the second act storms along and even the orchestra sounds brighter and snappier. The remainder of the cast, apart from Waterman who is dreadful throughout, manage to lift their game to the dizzy heights of Henshall and Casey. Gavin Spokes’ “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat” raises the roof and gets a well deserved reprise for the noisily appreciative crowd, who finally have something to cheer about. By the time the Dolls have finally got their Guys, the underwhelming first act feels like a distant memory and we file into the damp night air onto Sloane Street with a spring in our step screaming “there’s a 19” and saving the cab fare home.

A definite game of two halves with only the girls giving us premiership performances throughout. This was the last night of the short run of Guys and Dolls, but details of Cadogan Hall's programme can be found here – Cadogan Hall