Saturday, 22 December 2012

Privates On Parade - Noël Coward Theatre - Friday 21 December ****

The Michael Grandage season at the Noël Coward starts gently with one of this year’s many “alternatives to panto” (Scrooge, Once Upon A Mattress, Cinderella at the St James). It does beg the question, why does nobody just bite the bullet and mount a big old-fashioned star-studded pantomime in the West End? Mind you this revival of Peter Nichols 1977 play with songs by Nichols and Denis King is so liberally peppered with “language”, as my dear old great aunt Polly used to call it, and naked men that even the most enlightened 7 year old might be begging to be taken to The Cherry Orchard next year.

It is 1948 and SADUSEA (Song and Dance Unit, South East Asia) are entertaining the troops during the oft forgotten “Malayan Emergency”. Led by the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis, an old school queen with a battle scarred heart and shoulders big enough for everyone to cry on, the motley bunch head off the beaten track on an ill thought campaign to entrap the enemy. Along the way the only female member gets pregnant, boys become men and officers are shown to be fools who can’t see further than the end of their nose.

However, the main reason for the existence of this production of this undeniably creaky play is as a vehicle for Simon Russell Beale to have a ball as Capt Dennis. Whether in drag as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda or in civvies pricking pomposity with double entendres, Beale allows Dennis’s tenderness to shine and his complicity with the audience when commenting on the action gives the play its heart.

The piece itself is warm and witty but showing its age like a Betamax VCR and the dips in audience interest when Beale is not on stage are palpable. The remainder of the cast do their best and in most cases literally give their all, but nothing can disguise the fact that what once must have seemed edgy is now a period piece akin to the Carry Ons and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum with questionable attitudes to other cultures and homosexuality.

It sounds like I hated it, I didn’t I had a laugh hence the four stars, the Vera Lynn number complete with white cliffs and bluebirds is worth the price of a ticket alone, but in the cold grey light of day it has left me feeling empty. Maybe more songs from Simon Russell Beale in a frock would have helped. Here’s a thought why not get him in the West End as Widow Twankey next year, surely that would pack them in? Michael, Cameron, Andrew, Nica, Max, Howard, Rosemary can you hear me?

Booking until 2 March 2013, creaky but fun - Privates on Parade

Monday, 17 December 2012

Once Upon A Mattress - Union Theatre - Sunday 16 December ****

The Union comes up trumps again with this charming retelling of the Princess and the Pea fairytale with music by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard, so no weight of expectation bearing down on those shoulders), lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Barer, Jay Thompson & Dean Fuller.

Ryan Limb as a likeable conspiratorial Minstrel sets the scene as Paddy Glynn’s taciturn Queen Aggravain does everything in her powers to stop her loveable but dim son Prince Dauntless, Mark Anderson as adorable as an Andrex puppy, from finding a suitable wife. In a blustering whirlwind the only remaining candidate, Jenny O’Leary’s tomboyish Princess Winifred (Fred to her friends), arrives having swum the moat surrounding the royal residence and the fun really begins. Protesting that beneath her bravado she is a retiring type, O’Leary livens up events with “Shy” and from hereon in the action never lets up, reaching a pinnacle with the ridiculously enjoyable “Spanish Panic” dance number during a ball at the palace.

The spark between the two young leads is enchanting, as Dauntless and Fred fall in love against the odds and Fred’s royal credentials are tested when she retires from the ball exhausted to a bed of 20 mattresses with a pea secreted underneath.

I don’t suppose it is much of a spoiler to reveal that Fred passes the test with flying colours and everyone lives happily ever after, apart from Queen Aggravain.

A lovely sub plot involving a commitment phobic vain knight Harry, Stiofan O’Doherty with a warm rich tone and a nice line in self-deprecation, and his troubled pregnant Lady, Kimberley Blake a classic ingénue beautiful of face and voice, gives proceedings an edge as we remain unsure if Harry will do the right thing. However, the evening belongs to Messrs Anderson and O’Leary, of whom I expect to be seeing a lot more in the future.

This Christmas cracker ensures the entire audience leave with a warm fuzzy feeling inside and a huge grin on their face as the, mostly, young cast enthral and entertain with sharp direction from Kirk Jameson, who has his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, and wonderfully fluid dance routines from choreographer Racky Plews.

Congratulations to the Union, we have spent many happy hours there in 2012 and look forward to many more in 2013.

Booking until 5 January 2013, a real Christmas cracker - Once Upon A Mattress

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Scrooge - London Palladium - Wednesday 12 December ***

After the dismal would-be cash cow that is Viva Forever, Leslie Bricusse’s stage adaption of his own 1970 musicalisation of the Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol could only benefit by comparison, and so it does.

With Tommy Steele as the eponymous miserly grump enlightened by Christmas Eve visitations from three ghosts who show him the error of his ways, this is a rollicking fun alternative to panto. With strong performances from the large cast, a fine band and a star turn from Steele himself, playing effortlessly to every distant corner of the Palladium’s huge auditorium, his is no mere seasonal meander to top up his pension, he gives us a genuine sense of a man transformed.

Looking like a card your nan would send you from a box she bought off the market, the production is peopled with innumerable Dickensian stereotypes, no more so than during the finale when a Santa coated Scrooge, finally at peace with the world and himself, ambles towards a snow covered St Paul’s, but it does what it says on the tin.

The much loved parable is gripping; there are some spooky, but not too scary, magical moments; Bricusse’s songs are adequate but, apart from the magnificent Thank You Very Much, a little bland; the heart tugging is blatant, but works (there was something wet on my face when Tiny Tim’s fate was revealed) and as a festive night out for all the family I cannot fault it.

Steele may be a little long in the tooth, but he is on stage for virtually the entire two and a half hours and knows how to work a crowd and sell a song, there is a very good reason why he has headlined the Palladium more than any other star.

It’s not Merrily We Roll Along, but it’s not pretending to be, it is top notch family entertainment that will offend no-one and should offer all but the stroppiest teenager something to enjoy. My mum loved it.

Booking until 12 January 2013, top notch family entertainment - Scrooge

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Viva Forever - Piccadilly Theatre - Monday 10 December **

We tried to convince ourselves that we really, really, really didn’t want to see a jukebox musical based on the Spice Girls back catalogue with a book by Jennifer Saunders, even if all six women have provided us with countless hours of guilt-free fun over the past 20 years, but we faltered at the last minute and couldn’t stop ourselves paying far too much for premium seats for the final preview before press night.

Forty-something single mother Lauren lives an alternative lifestyle on a houseboat in London with her 19 year old adopted daughter, Viva, and both are wondering about her birth parents (so far, so Mamma Mia, even to the extraneous exclamation mark and Judy Craymer reprising her producer role). Viva is part of girl group Eternity, who are contestants on “Starmaker”, a not remotely veiled caricature of X-Factor. A judging panel is led by Johhny, a Cowell-esque creator, and includes a hardened been-there-done-it all-middle aged bitch who is more Sable Colby than Sharon Osborne and a Jordan airhead constantly shadowed by a reality TV crew. Opportunities come and go for Eternity and Viva, including a Spanish love interest, whose accent morphs into cut glass English for a few minutes in act one before reverting quickly back to cod Catalan for the remainder of the show and is never referred to again.

I presume the proceedings are meant to teach us the true value of friendship, but the biggest lesson I learnt was the number of sickly sweet saccharine ballads that make up the majority of the Spice oeuvre. My failing memory recalls five feisty girls and an endless stream of up-tempo Girl Power pop anthems, but the list begins and ends with Wannabe, Stop and Spice Up Your Life.

If the songs don’t stand up to scrutiny, it pains me to say that the major problem is Jennifer Saunder’s wafer-thin book, scant of plot and devoid of jokes. I love Jennifer Saunders and I mean I truly LOVE Jennifer Saunders, no-one knows my sense of humour better than Jennifer Saunders. She has never met me, but she knows me inside out like no other and has never previously let me down. I can hardly bear to say that this is so far removed from even the very worst of Absolutely Fabulous or French & Saunders that you would be hard pushed to find any lineage.

The cast do their best, but experienced West End names such as Sally Ann Triplett as Lauren and Bill Ward as Johnny must surely realise what an absolute crock they are performing in. The fact that virtually the entire audience remain seated throughout the finale “megamix” reprisal of Stop and Spice Up Your Life speaks volumes.

A cynical dated artless money-making exercise that will disappoint the hen parties and tourists at who it is aimed. With X-Factor on the wane, it doesn't even tap into the zeitgeist. I have never resented spending £255 (three tickets at £85 a pop) so much.

Booking until 1 June 2013, the turkey arrives two weeks early - Viva Forever

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Cabaret - Savoy Theatre - Friday 7 December ***

I love Kander and Ebb and of all their shows I love Cabaret the most. As a sensitive teenager in deepest darkest Shropshire I discovered the film and Liza Minnelli’s divinely decadent Sally Bowles which led to much pretentious flicking of Christopher Isherwood in the sixth form common room. Then came the discovery of the original London cast recording with Judi Dench proving that you can sell a song and have the x factor without being the best singer in the world (take note Gary “it’s a singing competition” Barlow). Rasping her way through the score, complete with all the songs excised for the movie, her sensuous growl cracking here and there but only adding to Sally’s mystique. If you find a long-deleted copy of the CD grab it with both hands.  The only stage production I had seen prior to today was at the Donmar in the nineties which received universal acclaim from all but me. I found Alan Cumming far too self conscious as the Emcee and Jane Horrocks’s foghorn delivery as Sally an assault on the eardrums.

In 2012 we have an updated version of Rufus Norris’s 2006 West End revival with Pop Idol Will Young and ex-Eastender and failed Bionic Woman Michelle Ryan taking up the gauntlet and the ghosts of Judi and Liza.

I have always lumped Will Young in with the annoying school of pop stars, where Robbie Williams is head boy and Jessie J milk monitor, undeniably talented but far too smug for their own good. Here he is a revelation, the perfect mix of sleaze and menace with just a hint of warmth seducing us and enticing us to spend time with him and the Kit Kat club revue in 1930’s Berlin. Even his cameo as a border guard is startlingly good and provides a perfect counterpoint to his other larger than life character. His singing is, as is to be expected, top notch and his new first act closer of Tomorrow Belongs To Me, a Nazi puppeteer controlling the psyche of a nation, is chilling and has you wondering if he is a collaborator,  the heart rending snow drenched tableau at the shows’ finale revealing his eventual fate.

The supporting cast, Matt Rawle as Cliff, a barely disguised portrayal of a young Christopher Isherwood; Sian Phillips as Fraulein Schneider, Sally & Cliff’s down at heel landlady; Linal Haft as Herr Schultz, her jewish suitor and Harriet Thorpe as Fraulein Kost, their sailor-pleasuring neighbour, are a delight. It is a total joy to hear the majority of the songs from the original score, especially Cliff’s yearning Why Should I Wake Up? and Fraulein Schneider’s funny yet aching Pineapple, although the glorious Don’t Tell Mama is truncated and reduced to a background performance.

Don’t Tell Mama should be one of Sally’s naughty shining lights. Supposedly detailing how and why she came to be singing in a tawdry German nightclub and the equally saucy exploits of her family. Sally, all bluster and green nail polish, uses sex as a tool to try to get what she wants, but is vulnerable and easily exploited by every man she meets. She is a multi-faceted character and is key to the show’s success. Michelle Ryan, making her West End debut, is way out of her depth. Sure she can sing like the talented girl at school who belts out a tune and is always picked to play Nancy in the Christmas production of Oliver, but any attempt at characterisation is reduced to annoying with the vaguest hint of petulance. Both of these should be somewhere in Sally’s mix of course, but they shouldn’t define her. We have to care about her and be interested in her journey, where has she come from and where is she going, or else what is the point of sitting through the show? I pity the excellent Matt Rawle trying to spar with and spark off Ryan’s mannequin-like Sally, dead behind the eyes sleepwalking her way through one of the finest musical theatre roles in history, talk about pissing in the wind.

The band, on-stage sometimes hidden and sometimes part of the action, are great, loud and brassy as they should be. Katrina Lindsay’s cheap looking set of angular chrome edged screens and mesh cages recalls Supersonic and Hot Gossip of the 1980’s rather than the Germany of the Weimar Republic in the 1930’s and is another disappointment.

I have never witnessed a production where the gulf between the two above-the-title stars was so wide. Cabaret stands or falls on its Emcee and Sally, this succeeds spectacularly with the former and fails miserably with the latter. Will Young is a terrific addition to the West End, I look forward to what I hope is a long and illustrious career in musical theatre, but Michelle Ryan would be best advised to check out regional productions of Snow White for this time next year if she wants avoid the inevitable return to Albert Square.

Booking until 19 January 2013, worth a punt on the £35 front row seats for a sensational Will Young - Cabaret

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Will December Be Magic Again?

November gave us some premiership productions of first division musicals on the fringe with Southwark Playhouse’s Victor/Victoria, the Union’s Steel Pier and the Arcola’s Sweet Smell of Success whupping the West End’s ass with their world class takes on what were all London professional premieres. Top of the Champions League and taking home the silverware this month were Daddy Long Legs at London’s newest theatre, St James; Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory and the 1930’s set gay tap dancing delight Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street. Daddy Long Legs has the most beautiful score I’ve heard in a long time, courtesy of Paul Gordon, and a touching original US cast of just two, Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock. I have played the cast recording at least once a day since I saw it. It finishes on December 8, so you’ve still got a week to fit it in while you’re up west Christmas shopping. Maria Friedman makes an exceptionally assured directorial debut with a pitch perfect Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory, it's on until 23 February but will surely sell out so get in quick. Meanwhile, the tiny Jermyn Street theatre boxes way above its weight yet again with the ray of sunshine that is Boy Meets Boy which is on until 20 December. The theatre is just behind Fortnum's, so while you're collecting your hamper why not take in a show at the same time?

We are currently in Scotland starting the festive celebrations early with the Celtic side of the family, but we're back in London next week when the Brummie contingent (i.e. my mum) arrives. She's a game bird my mum and loves the theatre, but prefers songs she already knows ideally belted out by someone she’s heard of, so we’ve booked Cabaret with that lovely Will Young, the Spice fest that is Viva Forever and Tommy Steele’s perennial stab at Scrooge at the Palladium. Tommy Steele played a pivotal role in my mum and dad’s relationship and was the cause of their very first argument. Mum loved Tommy, dad preferred Elvis (she was 14, he was 15) and dad threw her Tommy Steele badge down Mill Street muttering darkly that Tommy wasn’t fit to lick Elvis’s blue suede shoes. They made up of course and I arrived a few years later. Once mum leaves, so far we’ve only got Simon Russell Beale’s Captain Terri Denis to entertain us in the first of the Michael Grandage season, Privates on Parade, until Santa arrives, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something else crops up before the end of the year.

Out on Boxing Day, when hopefully the only turkey will be covered in cling film in the bottom of the fridge, is Tom Hooper’s long-awaited screen version of Les Miserables. To whet your appetite here’s the trailer.

Finally, I just know you'll all be shivering with anticipation when you hear that New Year’s Day will see the unveiling of the inaugural Front Row Dress Awards (or the Fredas as we fondly refer to them at home). The only criteria to be considered for a Freda is that I’ve seen the production between 1 January and 31 December 2012. I decide the winners, with a smidgen of input from Mrs Front Row Dress, and my decision is final, so no bleating and bah humbug to democracy. The victors will receive a gorgeous glass trophy, which I am sure will be a welcome addition to any mantelpiece/downstairs toilet/dressing room/car boot (delete as appropriate). Remember to check back when you’re downing your double Soldapeine on New Year’s morning to see if you or your favourites have been first time lucky. The trophies will be mailed to the relevant theatres or agents as soon as the post office opens on 2 January, hangover notwithstanding.