Sunday, 30 September 2012

Antony and Cleopatra - Chichester Festival Theatre - Saturday 29 September

We finally made it down to our beloved Chichester to catch Shakespeare’s cautionary tale of passion, power and betrayal in ancient Greece and Rome on its’ very last day. Starring Sex and the City’s resident cougar Kim Cattrall, who made a radiantly bitchy Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives a couple of years ago, and big-hitting Shakespearian thespian Michael Pennington, Chichester has never let us down yet and we were hoping for more of the same on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the fag end of the Summer.

I would love to file a full report but we went to a party back in London straight after the play where we behaved like teenagers let loose in a brewery and didn't get home until 6am. I can barely remember the past 24 hours, but can vaguely recall that Kim Cattrall acted her socks off and looked about 32 and Michael Pennington shouted a lot. My favourite was Martin Hutson as a waspishly petulant Caesar. Oh and the costume metaphors featured Egyptians mostly barefoot in floaty white muslin and the Romans tightly buttoned in uniforms and suits.

It’s closed now so whatever I say will make even less difference than it normally does - Antony and Cleopatra

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Rent - Greenwich Theatre - Friday 7 September ****

Having never ventured to Greenwich theatre, which is a bit of a trek for us to be honest, we were hoping for great things from this revival of Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking update of La Boheme, especially following just a week after original cast member Anthony Rapp’s musical memoir Without You, which had simultaneously disappointed but whetted our appetite for a full production of Rent.

With the presence of two reality TV stars who have maintained careers through talent not tabloid inches, Pop Idol’s Zoe Birkett and Over The Rainbow’s Steph Fearon, as Maureen and Mimi the omens were good that the lengthy journey on TFL’s finest would be worthwhile.

Rent’s tale of bohemian artists in New York’s East Village struggling against the redevelopment plans of their landlord and the rigours of drug addiction and AIDS is a classic coming of age story that has found a faithful young audience in much the same way as Hair, The Rocky Horror Show and Wicked. Focussing on three couples of mixed sexual orientation (gay, lesbian & straight) whose lives are documented by nascent film maker Mark, Larson plays to the crowd as his achingly fashionable characters ignore messages from home from their well meaning but patently boring middle class parents.

Larson’s pumping pop-rock score is full of memorable high octane songs here performed with incredible energy by a talented cast and tight on-stage 6 piece band.

On David Shields' simple set of fairy light festooned platforms with the stars and stripes underfoot a sign of the trampling of the American dream, Benjamin Stratton’s affable Mark anchors the piece and guides us through the ups and downs in a year when love almost conquers all. Opening with what really is a sign of Larson’s genius, Edward Handoll’s would-be rock star Roger sings the first song to the familiar strains of someone tuning a guitar. He meets and quickly falls in love with Steph Fearon’s tiny fragile junkie Mimi but finds it difficult to cope with her addiction. Towards the end of the first act as our protagonists are steeling themselves for a battle to keep their homes, we finally encounter Zoe Birkett’s performance artist Maureen and the evening really takes off. Proving that she truly does have the x factor, Birkett prowls the stage and blasts out a thinly veiled attack on landlord and former friend Benny, a sincere take on the role from David Hinton-Gale who makes the enemy seem reasonable.

The second act gets darker as the friends come to terms with the death of one of their number. Roger and Mimi fall out, eventually reuniting on what appears to be Mimi’s deathbed, although an almost biblical resurrection ensures we are not left too despondent. Ending with a reprise of Seasons of Love and well deserved cheers, whoops, hollers and a partial standing ovation from the packed young audience, this electrifying production could be moved lock, stock and barrel into the West End as soon as it finishes its’ run here at Greenwich. I hear the Wyndham’s is going to be dark for a while, I don’t suppose you are reading this are you Cameron?

One tiny niggle, the programme notes describe Zoe Birkett as “the winning female contestant on Pop Idol” which seems a little disingenuous as she came fourth, it’s just that the three ahead of her were all male. It also states that her single Get Happy went straight in at number one when the only evidence I could find of her bothering the upper echelons of the charts was her number 12 hit Treat Me Like A Lady. Birkett is a truly exceptional performer and really does have the chops to be a West End star, biographies that distort the truth simply detract from her undeniable talent. Rant over, go see Rent.

Booking until 16 September 2012, an electrifying take on a groundbreaking show - Rent

Friday, 7 September 2012

I Am A Camera - Southwark Playhouse - Thursday 6 September ****

Our first non-musical at Southwark Playhouse nonetheless has musical connotations writ large as it is of course the source for Kander and Ebb’s iconic stage and screen musical adaptation Cabaret. The play, by John Van Druten, is based on Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin, recounting his relationships with the demi-monde of the bohemian underworld of the fading Weimar Republic, most notably divinely decadent English nightclub singer and would-be actress Sally Bowles. Against a backdrop of the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party, Isherwood’s tales of dangerously attractive characters with fluid sexuality were greedily devoured by this tortured teen dreaming of escaping the stifling open spaces of Shropshire for my own adventures in the bright lights of London, which I imagined was much like 1930’s Berlin.

Southwark’s notoriously dank Vault proves to be an apt setting for the down at heel rooming house in which all the action takes place. Designer James Turner has recreated the messy room which is firstly occupied by writer and part-time English teacher Christopher Isherwood. Down on his luck, he moves to a smaller room opposite to make way for the flamboyant Sally Bowles who appears in a whirlwind of black sequins and gin.  Clive, a handsome American playboy, arrives on the scene and wooing them with champagne and the lure of a millionaire lifestyle, promises to take them both on a round the world trip.

Given that the play was originally written in 1951, Van Druten manages to cleverly circumnavigate any direct mention of Ishwerwood’s sexual orientation but it is blatantly obvious that we are witnessing the age old saga of a fag and his high maintenance hag.

With Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursely, Harry Melling unrecognisably trim, cute and magnificently hairy chested as Christopher Isherwood and Rebecca Humphries banishing all thoughts of the elephant in the room that is Liza as Sally Bowles, this play feels as fresh as the prairie oysters (raw eggs & Worcester sauce) that the cast valiantly gulp down night after night. Pausing only for Isherwood to record the action on his typewriter, the rise of fascism is told through both the burgeoning love affair between one of Isherwood’s pupils, a Jewish department store heiress, and a secretly Jewish friend and also the blatant anti-Semitism rising within the ample bosom of Christopher and Sally’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider, a wonderfully understated and easily wounded Joanne Howarth.

Harry Melling and Rebecca Humphries are outstanding in the lead roles, his vulnerability plain for all to see, hers hidden beneath a superficial cloak of bluster and bed hopping. Their friendship rings true as does the betrayal when Sally’s mother arrives to whisk her to the safety of the home counties and Sally puts up no resistance. Unbowed, Melling’s Isherwood is the stronger of the two, newly stoic and reinvigorated with the material he needs to kickstart his literary career.

Reflecting both contemporary obsessions of achieving fame without any discernible talent and also the rising influence of the far right in apportioning blame for the financial crisis to an easily identifiable minority, what could have been an interesting period piece feels newly relevant. Director Anthony Lau moves the action along at breakneck speed and all too soon we are in the bar mingling with the fully 17th century costumed cast of Tony Kushner’s The Illusion taking place in Southwark’s main performance space, adding further to the hedonistic theatricality of an already perfectly marvellous evening.

Booking until 22 September 2012, perfectly marvellous - I Am A Camera

Monday, 3 September 2012

Aladdin - Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler's Wells - Sunday 2 September ***

The second and final Lost Musicals presentation for 2012 is Cole Porter’s Aladdin, which was written for a one-off live TV broadcast in 1958 with music and lyrics by Porter and book by humourist and screenwriter S. J. Perelman (Around The World In Eighty Days, the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers). This turned out to be Porter’s final work and a project for which he declined offers to musicalise both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, his loss being Andrew Lloyd Webber's gain 35 years later.

As is Lost Musicals' tradition, the cast are in evening dress accompanied solely by musical director Greg Arrowsmith on piano. There is no set, which is just as well as, in something of a coup for Lost Musicals, one of the leading roles of machiavellian magician Sul Generis is taken by none other than Coronation Street’s Fred Elliott, John Savident, who would have surely chewed any available scenery into easily digestible bite sized chunks by the time Aladdin triumphs and Generis receives his just desserts.

The story of a working class boy in old Peking falling in love with a princess, finding a magic lamp with a genie ensconced inside, losing first the princess then the lamp, only to be reunited with both by the end of the tale has been related in innumerable versions. Here Richard Dempsey’s tall blonde Aladdin seems to have been transported direct from a 1950’s officers training academy in the home counties which unbelievably works incredibly well in the context of the piece being rooted in that decade's sensibilities and he is a charming and likeable leading man.

Sadly, despite sterling efforts from the remainder of the cast, notably Lost Musicals’ stalwarts Vivienne Martin as Aladdin’s mother, Stewart Permutt in a haze of bumbling innuendo as their pickpocket neighbour Wu Fang and Michael Roberts mugging mercilessly as the Emperor of China (Mug the Merciless?), nothing can disguise the weakness of the material. Porters’ songs lack the lyrical wit and melodic flair for which his best work is rightly lauded and Perelman’s book is perfunctory and unimaginative.

Luckily the enthusiasm and vim of the company see us through the 90 minutes, but by the time we reach a reprise of Opportunity Knocks Just Once At The Door, which sounds as if it was written in less time than it takes to say, I am wishing there had been an interval where the self-medication of a double vodka and tonic may have rendered the remainder of the show more palatable.

It is always a pleasure to be present at a Lost Musicals production, it is musical theatre in its’ purest form and we have spent many a Sunday afternoon enthralled and enraptured. Unfortunately, there are very good reasons why Aladdin has been lost for so long and I foresee no need to let this particular genie out of the bottle again any time soon.

This was the last performance of this year's Lost Musicals season, but here's a link to their rather aptly old-school website - Lost Musicals

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Tell Me It's Not A Wicked Poll

What with moving home, the Olympics and a near death experience, I can’t believe we still managed get to the theatre as much as we did during August. Soho CindersA Midsummer Night's DreamLondon Road all warranted five stars and, if you haven’t seen them yet, they all close next week so hurry. September is looking like a busy month, with tickets already booked for the Lost Musicals presentation of Cole Porter’s Aladdin at Sadler’s Wells’ Lilian Baylis studio; I Am A Camera, the source material for Cabaret, at Southwark Playhouse; the first of two autumnal London revivals of Rent at Greenwich and Anthony and Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall and Michael Pennington at Chichester. No doubt there will also be some last minute temptations luring us off the sofa to add to that list.

August’s poll to find your favourite winner of the Andrew Lloyd Webber TV casting shows proved to the most popular and controversial yet as Lee Mead fans mobilised to blow all competition out of the water. A total of 270 votes were cast and Lee managed to garner a whacking great 170 of these to romp home in first place with 62%, leaving Connie Fisher trailing in his wake to come second with 17% and Danielle Hope in bronze position with 13%. For the completists amongst you, Jodie Prenger came fourth with 3%, leaving Ben Forster to bring up the rear with 2%.

To celebrate Lee’s victory, here he is with Joseph’s Close Every Door.

With a not so subtle nod to Lee’s resounding success, this month’s poll is a wickedly themed chance to vote for your favourite London Fiyero. That’s Mark Evans, Adam Garcia, Lee Mead, Oliver Tompsett or Matt Willis.

Here are the original Broadway Fiyero and Elphaba , Norbert Leo Butz and Idina Menzel, with their big Wicked duet As Long As You’re Mine.

Finally, one of the West End’s long runners has announced that it is bidding farewell later this year, just shy of its’ silver anniversary. Here is the much missed Stephanie Lawrence as Mrs Johnstone with Con O’Neill as Mickey, Mark Michael Hutchinson as Eddie and the full ensemble of Blood Brothers performing the show’s finale at the 1993 Tony Awards.