Monday, 26 November 2012

Boy Meets Boy - Jermyn Street Theatre - Sunday 25 November *****

This was a momentous occasion for us, following the Chocolate Factory’s perfect take on Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along on Saturday night, we spent a joyous Sunday afternoon in the tiny Jermyn Street theatre, resulting in our first ever 10 star weekend.

As soon as I had read the words “1930’s gay tap dancing musical” I was hooked and booked a couple of early bird tickets immediately, but nothing prepared me for what a totally delicious ball of delight this UK premiere of the 1975 off-Broadway hit this would be.

Bill Solly (music, lyrics & book) and Donald Ward (book) take us to a parallel 1930’s where being gay is the most natural thing in the world and no-one blinks an eye at same-sex nuptials (unimaginable I know). American hack and party boy Casey O’Brien is trying to uncover the dirt on the upcoming marriage of convenience between wealthy American socialite Clarence Cutler and mysterious, broke, but titled, English aristocrat Guy Rose.

When Rose jilts Cutler at the altar, the press, O’Brien included, are desperate to get the scoop but no-one knows what Rose looks like. There follows an almost Shakespearan two hours of mistaken identity and found and lost love, taking us from London to Paris and a raucous second act recreation of Guy’s aunt’s nightclub act complete with naked male fan dancer. Along the way are fabulous pastiches of songs of the era and the most incredible dance routines, courtesy of fringe choreographer du jour, the remarkable Lee Proud. Proud has the ability to create virtually Busby Berkeley style numbers in the tiniest of spaces. If you think he did wonders with Victor/Victoria at the Southwark Playhouse recently (and he did), just wait until you see what he does with this talented company in a space the size of your average bathroom.

Stephen Ashfield, the original Bob Gaudio in the West End’s Jersey Boys and soon to be a fully fledged Mormon, holds the show as Casey O’Brien and owns the tiny stage in true leading man fashion. His O'Brien manages to fall head over heels in love with Craig Fletcher’s cute-as-a-button Guy Rose when he’s scrubbed up and in tails, but doesn’t give him a second glance when he’s in mufti wearing his specs (yes you do have to suspend your disbelief quite heavily in this show, but that’s all part of the fun). However, watch out for Ben Kavanagh’s hysterical scene stealing turn as would-be Machiavelli Clarence Cutler, what that boy does with a quip and a gap-toothed sneer should be bottled and sold over the counter at Boots as an anti-depressant. In fact the entire show should be prescribed on the NHS. Anna Nicholas, as both Guy’s mother and black sheep aunt Josephine, raises the roof in her tiny sequinned shorts with Josephine's “It’s A Dolly”, the bastard love child of Cabaret’s Two Ladies and Rocky Horror’s Time Warp.

From the opening chorus of “Boy Meets Boy, Boy Loses Boy, Boy Gets Boy In The End” (i.e. the entire plot) to the glittering ticker tape finale, I had a grin from ear to ear and much like the previous day’s Merrily, I shed a few tears at the end, but this time from pure joy (I know silly old sod).

As a final salvo from Jermyn Street’s Artistic Director Gene David Kirk, who is leaving for pastures new at the end of 2012, this could not be a better parting gift and if there was an Olivier for the cutest company (boys and girls), this show would win hands down.

Booking until 20 December 2012, saucy yet tender, the most fun you can have with your clothes on - Boy Meets Boy

Merrily We Roll Along - Menier Chocolate Factory - Saturday 24 November *****

Words cannot describe the excitement that has been building chez Front Row Dress since rumours surfaced back in March of a production of Steve’s “difficult” musical covering themes of friendship, unrequited love and the corrupting nature of success, directed by none other than arch Sondheim interpreter Maria Friedman. Then came the announcement of a cast the likes of which we had previously only fantasised about (Umbers, Russell, Humbley, Gabrielle, Foster, Kerslake, even a Strallen, baby sister Zizi). The last few weeks have seen the hysteria reach fever pitch as we began to resemble toddlers in the weeks before Christmas counting down the sleeps until M-Day. How on earth we managed to let them have the luxury of a week of previews before taking up our seats in the second row I’ll never know.

On Soutra Gilmore’s sleek Frank Lloyd Wright-esque set, it is 1976 and Hollywood producer Franklin Shepard and his glamorous second wife, movie star Gussie Carnegie, are throwing a party at their beautiful LA home to celebrate yet another triumph. Surrounded by sycophants and Frank's latest conquest ingenue Meg (Zizi Strallen doing her family name proud), only Frank’s old friend Mary Flynn, an overweight chain-smoking drunk, pricks the bubble and she reminds him of old times and old friends. From here the story is told in reverse and we discover that Frank was once half of a successful Broadway composing team together with Charley Kringas, a dishevelled lovable lyricist with smart line in barbed comments.

Arrogant, ambitious and ruthless, Frank’s drive ensures that he and Charley achieve success beyond Charley’s wildest dreams, but the artistic compromise inherent in selling their souls to the highest bidder causes irreparable cracks in their relationship. Only Mary, lovelorn and lonely, pining for Frank, remains a constant in both of their lives.

The cast are tremendous. Mark Umbers, tall, handsome and snake hipped, is a dreamy yet boorish Frank, one eye on the prize the other on the latest starlet and constantly looking after number one. Jenna Russell’s portrayal of Mary is devastating, the depth of her feeling for Frank becoming apparent as a life that once held such hope is consumed in a haze of alcohol and nicotine. I did initially wonder if she'd eaten all the pies, but she gets slimmer as the years fall away until she's a mere slip of a girl, thanks to the marvels of removable padding. Damian Humbley’s Charley, artistic integrity battling financial reward, is the cute dreamy nerd with the voice of an angel, god knows why Frank gets all the girls when Charley’s around. The leading triumvirate to die for are more than ably supported by Josefina Gabrielle’s fabulous turn as social climbing secretary turned movie star Gussie; Glyn Kerslake as Gussie’s first husband and big-shot producer Joe, turning a blind eye to his wife's indiscretions, and Clare Foster as Frank’s first wife Beth, the southern belle out of her depth in the big city longing for a normal family life.

The big bold brassy score gives the nine piece band plenty of opportunities to shine, which they seize with gusto, and an unexpected big dance number opening the second act as Gussie stars in Frank and Charley’s first big hit gives the Mary Janes a welcome airing.

By the time we arrive back in 1957, the early twenty somethings have their whole lives ahead of them and the dreams and aspirations of youth to propel them forward. Sitting on the roof of their apartment block, they scan the night sky for a glimpse of the newly launched Sputnik passing overhead and a sadness encroaches, perfectly encapsulated in Jenna Russell’s gaze at Mark Umbers as they sing the final paean to hope, Our Time, and I brush a tear or two from my cheek. Only we the audience know the heartache and disappointment that lies ahead for all of them.

Maria Friedman’s simple device of casting older actors looking back with varying degrees of regret has solved most of the piece’s problems. There is still the undeniable sticking point of having such an unlikeable character as Frank as the focus, but the score and the performances lift this way above your average West End fare, engaging the brain and heart in equal measure and allowing the undisputed genius of Stephen Sondheim to shine. This barely ran a minute during its initial Broadway run, but fringe audiences tend to welcome challenging and sophisticated, especially coupled with some of Sondheim's best tunes and George Furth's intelligent book, so whatever you do treat yourself to a ticket, it'll linger a lot longer than Dreamboats and Petticoats.

Booking until 23 February 2013, It's A Hit! - Merrily We Roll Along

Monday, 19 November 2012

Twelfth Night - Apollo Theatre - Sunday 18 November *****

Shakespeare’s sexually ambiguous, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, shipwrecked separated twins comedy gets an all-male all-star makeover with Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, Roger Lloyd Pack, Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett in this transfer from the Globe.

Mark Rylance’s Olivia, a white faced giddy hybrid of Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth I and Japanese Kabuki is the finest creation I have seen since his Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. He glides across the strange like one of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time characters. Constantly flustered and eventually fainting from self induced hysteria, Rylance is extraordinary, proving once again that he is surely the worthy recipient of that over-used phrase "the finest actor of his generation”.

Ably supported by Stephen Fry in his return to the London stage after 17 years, toweringly handsome with a full beard, he is of course born to deliver Shakespeare’s delicious prose. His Malvolio is the archetypal middle class social climber, desperate to be accepted by the aristocracy, he is an easy target for the mischievous pranks of Colin Hurley’s permanently sozzled Sir Toby Belch and Roger Lloyd Pack’s lugubrious Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

As the separated twins, Viola & Sebastian, Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett both have the melancholic air of an orphaned child, rootless, each pining for the other. Viola’s passion for Liam Brennan’s masculine confused Orsino given the inevitable added frisson of a man cast as a woman playing a man.

Managing to steal virtually every scene he is in, Paul Chahidi’s Maria, sporting an ample cleavage and a barely restrained saucy air, colludes with Belch in order to win his affections.

By the simple device of swapping reunited twin partners, all problems of unrequited love are resolved.

Staged as authentically as is possible in the 21st century, this Twelfth Night is riotous good fun, anchored by magnificent performances from all concerned. Rylance is the eighth wonder of the world, surely destined to become a bona fide national treasure alongside his co-star Stephen Fry. I cannot wait to see what he makes of Richard III.

Booking until 9 February 2013, roll up for some riotous fun with the eighth wonder of the world - Twelfth Night