Friday, 22 February 2013

The Route To Happiness - Landor Theatre - Thursday 21 February ***

It’s been ages since we’ve troubled one of our favourite theatres, but the Landor’s Page to Stage initiative mounting brand new musical theatre was enough to coax us down to Clapham on a school night.

Alexander S Bermange’s interwoven story takes us through the lives, loves and aspirations of three present day Londoners as each strives to attain something they don't have (a partner, a career and fame).

With a phenomenal cast more used to gracing the stages of the West End, director Robert McWhir must have had a dream job, as Niall Sheehy’s would be entrepreneur,  Marcus, begins a romantic relationship with Shona White’s celebrity autobiography ghost-writer, Lorna, and a working relationship with Cassidy Janson’s hopeless wannabe (can’t sing, can’t dance) Trinity.

Over two, sung-through, hours the three come tantalisingly close to achieving their ambitions only to discover that none of them are all that they hoped they would be.

Bermange’s contemporary score manages to be challenging and tuneful, with plenty of dissonance when things are going wrong, balanced by some gorgeous ballads, notably Lorna’s stunning 11 o’clock number, I’ll Never Change A Single Thing. There is also an hysterical ghetto rap from Trinty as she tries one of a myriad of ways of becoming famous.

The cast are, as to be expected, top notch, all making the most of the often complicated songs and all, dare I say it, taking us on journeys of self-discovery. It may seem churlish to single out anyone in particular, but Shona White makes her mark spectacularly with a stupendous voice in what seems at first glance to be the most underwritten role, but ends up being a feminist triumph.

I don’t really know what the show is attempting to say apart from “be careful what you wish for as it may come true” and the fact that you can always rely on your Mum, but as a chamber piece in a room above a pub and as a celebration of new musical theatre writing it is worth £12 of anyone’s money.

As part of the Page to Stage season, this 6 day run is presumably a showcase for a work still in progress and the first act would maybe benefit from a judicious trimming of 15 minutes or so, but it has certainly whetted my appetite for more work from Mr Bermange and what a dream it is to enjoy three performers of this calibre up close and personal.
Booking until 24 February 2013, a treat that leaves you wanting more - The Route To Happiness

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Macbeth - Trafalgar Studios - Saturday 16 February ****

Director Jamie Lloyd’s high-concept Macbeth is set in the not too distant future in a dystopian independent Scotland where the oil has run out, the economy is in tatters, and the population is in turmoil (are you listening Alex Salmond?).

Led by the pride of Port Glasgow, James McAvoy, as the ultimate social climber and Claire Foy as his equally driven Lady, virtually all of the cast were born north of Hadrian’s Wall and they all do the accent.  I am, of course, well accustomed to a Scottish tongue as Mrs Front Row Dress was born on the banks of the Clyde. I knew my talent to untangle a highland burr would come in useful one day, but if the closest you’ve ever been to Sauchiehall Street is dunking a petticoat tail into your skinny cappuccino, you may want to plough through a couple of episodes of Monarch of the Glen before parting with your hard-earned cash.

I presume Soutra Gilmlour’s set is being used on Sundays to film SAW VIII – Kill Your Friends, all distressed metal panels, doors & grills with water dripping from overhead. Meanwhile the cast appear to have been clothed by the wardrobe department from Mad Mac –  The Woad Warrior (Max's Scottish cousin).

In a volley of crash, bangs, wallops and lighting flashes, McAvoy’s Macbeth takes the gas-mask wearing Riot Grrrl witches at their word as they confirm he is bound for greater things, only his friend Banquo, a beautifully calm centred Forbes Masson, strikes a note of caution. Once Claire Foy’s Lady Macbeth arrives on the scene full of angry nervous energy, scheming to ensure her greatness by matrimonial association, things take a turn for the worse as the Macbeths’ single minded pursuit of the prize engulfs them to the exclusion of all else.

Like a mid-21st century Fred and Rose West, their sense of morality disappears, according to the programme notes his due to battleground induced post traumatic stress, hers from post natal depression following a miscarriage. Achievements realised, paranoia descends on both, trusting no-one and seeing all as the enemy. When an army led by the slaughtered king’s son Malcolm and former ally Macduff amasses, Macbeth is initially incredulous and then stoic in the face of overwhelming odds. In an utterly fantastic coup de theatre, the back wall of the stage opens onto the streets outside, sirens blaring in the West End, as troops, woad faces and all, clamber in seeking Macbeth.

In his final confrontation with Macduff, McAvoy’s king is finally, unreservedly, repentant. His “Lead on Macduff” is an apology as much as a suicidal request, the enormity of the deeds he has committed in his  ascent to the throne finally resting upon his long forgotten conscience and, in what I assume to be a directorial homage to Carrie, blood pours from above soaking the isolated monarch.

McAvoy, makes a fine unpredictable warrior king, a man who other men would follow and he manages to look buff and sexy even in grey long johns, but it is Jamie Ballard’s Macduff that sneaks up in act two to steal the acting honours. His multi-layered characterisation is captivating, even when a girl on the front row of the stage seats decides that one of his most emotional scenes is an ideal time to administer eye drops. He turns utter desolation into steely resolve and transforms revenge into something altogether more honourable.

Jamie Lloyd’s avowed intent was to make Macbeth relevant and this he has achieved in spades, drawing upon the riots of two summers ago, the battle for an independent Scotland and the greater problems of global climate change. He has also created an immensely accessible Macbeth, messy, bloody, violent and exciting, one for the Call of Duty generation. Judging from the accents in the bar he has already won over a vast cross section of London’s ex-pat Celtic community, maybe a transfer north should be on the cards.

Booking until 27 April 2013, Mad Mac - The Woad Warrior - Macbeth

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Chess - Union Theatre - Friday 15 February ****

I’ve been semi-resident in the stalls since I could undo a choc ice wrapper by myself, so I'm old enogh to have caught the original London run of the Tim Rice/Benny & Bjorn big hair musical back when shoulder pads were de rigueur and no self-respecting boy’s bathroom cabinet was complete without a salon size bottle of Elnett ultra hold. This newly updated version, sanctioned by Sir Tim, promises to add clarity to the murky tale of political machinations and a doomed love story played out against the backdrop of cold war chess tournaments.

Designer Ryan Dawson Laight has reconfigured the Union’s auditorium to a thrust, with seating around three sides of a white edged square echoing a chess board. Black and white gauze panels hang at the back as if the squares have floated up and away from the playing surface. The theme continues with Laight’s monochrome costumes occasionally pierced with a shaft of colour.

Featuring two stonking lead performances from the phenomenal Sarah Galbraith (last seen at the Union in Steel Pier and surely bound for a long and illustrious career) as Florence, a Hungarian émigré now resident in Britain, and the wonderful Nadim Naaman as Anatoly, the Russian chess master who falls in love with her and defects but can never forget his homeland, this is constantly engaging and often thrilling.

With strong female support from Gillian Kirkpatrick's iron lady Alexandra, the red-clad head of Anatoly’s team, and Natasha J Barnes as Svetlana, his deserted wife, there is much to admire as the cast tackle a myriad of emotions and the complex score (Mamma Mia this ain’t). Only Craig Rhys Barlow’s lacklustre referee-cum-narrator Arbiter, who should be a pivotal player but here seems extraneous, and Tim Oxbrow as American celebrity chess champion Frederick, singing at the very edge of his range and discomforting when struggling with the high notes, fail to match their female counterparts. Having said that, Obxrow’s act two opener One Night In Bangkok is a definite highlight, suiting his voice and character to a tee.

Simon Lambert’s six piece band of piano, guitar, bass, drums, violin & cello have a whale of a time with Christopher Peake’s superb new arrangements and, as always at the Union, the lighting, this time designed by Ben M Rogers, is simply exquisite.

Both Christopher Howell and Steven Harris are credited with direction and staging and are to be congratulated for having given this often too earnest virtually sung-through show a much needed makeover. The story is clear and we are given a simple narrative arc. There are some lovely delicate touches in the choreography and a gorgeous tap-dancing typewriting scene is one of many moments of pure genius.

The downsides really stem from the show itself. Firmly rooted in the dour eighties mega-musical era, laughs are thin on the ground and it all takes itself a little too seriously (we get the chess/politics allegory, we’re not that stupid, there is no need to spell it out time and time again).

As always, the Union boxes way above its weight giving us a production that defies its location in a tiny railway arch in the back streets of Southwark to often soar and only occasionally disappoint. By the time Sarah Galbraith is centre stage at the end of act two giving us a beautifully restrained reprise of the hit-that-never-was, Anthem, any reservations fly out of the door and it is a wonder to behold an artist of this stature at such close quarters. I doubt she’ll be playing rooms of this size for much longer.

Booking until 16 March 2013, a qualified triumph - Chess

Monday, 11 February 2013

Gay's The Word - Jermyn Street Theatre - Sunday 10 February ****

Following a semi-staged production at the Finborough last year, this fully realised version of Ivor Novello's final work now transfers to the newly refurbished Jermyn Street, complete with wonderfully comfy new seating and, from what I could tell, great views from every one of those seats.

With music and original book by Novello, lyrics by Alan Melville and a newly updated book by Richard Stirling, this is a knowing self-referential piece. Novello is only too aware that the days of light frothy nonsense are numbered, threatened by the gritty new musical theatre emerging from the US, most notably from Rodgers and Hammerstein, and he lays his cards on the table in the opening number, Ruritania, a pastiche of a pastiche from a show within the show. What follows is basically St Trinian’s with singing and dancing.

Theatre and music hall star Gay Daventry, Sophie-Louise Dann channelling Joan Sims and Beryl Reid via a saucy Joyce Grenfell, is finding it hard to land herself a hit show and, with money tight, snatches the opportunity to open a drama school in her rambling house on the south coast. With a staff of pupil-hating spinsters who still harbour dreams of hitting the big time themselves and with continuing financial problems, she becomes unwittingly entangled with a pair of smugglers posing as European aristocracy, Paul Slack and Ben Stock finding their inner Arthur Daley and Flash Harry. Throw in a troubled romance between two students, Josh Little and Helena Blackman, sweetness personified, playing it as straight as is humanly possible, and there’s your plot.

Much like the return of Salad Days at Riverside Studios, the show is ridiculously old-fashioned, the story is complete hokum and the songs are well crafted but slight. However, the cast of 20 accompanied only by the mighty James Church on piano hit the mark with such conviction and vitality (more important than almost anything according to the first act closer), that it would take a hard heart not to be won over. With knowing winks, mugging galore and more theatrical in-jokes than are heard at a Biggins birthday bash, this is niche entertainment for the musical theatre cognoscenti, or nerds to give them their proper title.

Finding ourselves laughing uproariously at every corny line and energetically applauding every beautifully sung number, with the multiple harmonies sounding gorgeous and effortless, this is heart-warming stuff. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but as an antidote to the likes of the cynical artless grave robbing cash cows of Viva Forever, Thriller and We Will Rock You, it is manna from heaven.

Sophie-Louise Dann is without any shadow of a doubt a star-in-waiting. Owning the stage with ease and charm, she seems to telepathically communicate with the audience that it's fine, we are all in on the joke so let’s just run with it and have fun. Her next job as Dot in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George opposite the mighty Julian Ovenden in Paris could well find me heading for the Eurostar.

Apparently the run is virtually sold out, but a couple of Wednesday matinees have been added, so if it’s talent, craft and a huge dollop of camp nostalgia you’re after, take a half day, grab a ticket and let yourself be transported to simpler times.

Booking until 2 March 2013,  camp manna from heaven - Gay's The Word

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Dear World - Charing Cross Theatre - Friday 8 February *****

In something of a coup for this lovely little theatre beneath Charing Cross station, goddess of stage and screen Betty Buckley (Cats, Carrie, Sunset Boulevard) stars alongside West End, TV & chart veteran Paul Nicholas (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Just Good Friends, Dancing with the Captain) in the European premiere of legendary Broadway composer Jerry Herman’s almost mythical 1969 musical based on Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot. With direction by trailblazing West End choreographer Gillian Lynne (Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love), that’s a goddess, a veteran, a legend, a myth, a trailblazer and plenty of cats, a tremendous pedigree in anyone’s book.

Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, Mack & Mabel), second only to Stephen Sondheim in my perpetually bloodshot eyes, was diagnosed HIV positive in 1985, soon after his enormous success with La Cage Aux Folles. He gave up writing show tunes for a life of travel and a lucrative second career as a property developer. Happy to say he is still going strong today at the age of 81. I’ve spent the last 15 years refurbishing flats, so may well try to knock up a musical when the builders eventually finish the current money pit.

In what must surely be Charing Cross’s most ambitious production yet, Matt Kinley’s set of beautifully fluid art nouveau screens reveals a Parisian cafe owned by the eccentric Countess Aurelia, Buckley. Three unscrupulous businessmen and a greedy prospector have discovered oil beneath the cafe and intend to destroy it and as much of Paris as they need in their quest for wealth. All that stands in their way is Aurelia and her rag-taggle band of friends and employees, notably Aurelia’s two totally barmy mates world-weary Constance and eternal virgin Gabrielle, Annabel Leventon and Rebecca Lock dangerously close to upstaging the glorious Ms Buckley, and the star wattage of Paul Nicholas’s subterranean eco-warrior sewer-man.

It all sounds simple enough, but in actuality what follows is an almost surrealist exploration of love, ageing, friendship and the evils of unbridled capitalism all accompanied by a newly updated score including several songs excised from the original production. And what a score it is. There are barnstorming numbers, heart-rending love songs and heart breaking ballads, just wait until you see and hear Buckley sing “And I Was Beautiful” downstage with tears streaming down her face.  The first act closer “One Person” is a call to arms that comes complete with a Les Miserables style walk down and Gabrielle’s second act love song to her imaginary dog “Dickie” is so ridiculously enjoyable it should come with a health warning.

The band, hidden in the flies and uncredited so I don’t know how many of them there are (oops my mistake, 8 piece band listed in programme, see comments below), sound simply magnificent under the musical direction of Ian Townsend. The gorgeous costumes by Tony award winning Ann Hould-Ward perfectly reflect the personality of each character. Gillian Lynne’s sensitive direction and deceptively simple choreography ensure the pace never lets up and reach their apotheosis with a totally joyous finale.

The evening however, belongs to Betty Buckley. In a triumphant return to the West End, she makes Aurelia more than a bonkers caricature. She often underplays and imbues Aurelia with a subtle strength, warmth, heart and a melancholia arising from a long lost love that she manages to transform into compassion for her fellow man. Add to that a voice that has lost none of its incredible power in the intervening 20 years since she was last on the Strand in Sunset Boulevard and you have a rare treat indeed.

I went expecting it to be good but nowhere in my wildest dreams did I imagine it could be this good.

Booking until 30 March 2013, a true star in an absolute gem of a show where everyone has raised their game to meet her at the top - Dear World

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Cardboard Trees & Painted Seas

The New Year got off to an incredible start with the overwhelmingly postive response to the inaugural Front Row Dress Awards. Virtually all of the winners contacted me with lovely messages and photographs and I received 3,000 hits here on January 1st alone. Only two of the winners, who shall remain nameless, ignored me altogether, oh alright then, Sophie Thompson (best actress in a play) & Anthony Ward (best set design) are no longer on my Christmas card list.

The euphoria continued with four 5 star January theatre trips (Salad Days, The Judas KissRichard III and a return visit to the rumoured to be West End bound Merrily We Roll Along) and just one slight disappointment from Alan Bennett, whose People at the National let the side down a little, but still had plenty to enjoy.

We’ve got loads of exciting things already booked for 2013, including evenings with those grand dames of musical theatre, Liza Minnelli and Patti Lupone. I’ve seen both divas several times over the past thirty-something years, Liza only in concert, but Patti twice in the original cast of Les Miserables and twice again in Sunset Boulevard and she has never been anything less than magnificent. Here she is reminiscing about her time as Fantine and eventually showing Anne Hathaway how it should be done.

Coming up in February we have another Sunset Boulevard alumnus, the fabulous Betty Buckley, in the UK premiere of Jerry Herman's Dear World at Charing Cross, Ivor Novello’s Gay's The Word at Jermyn Street, a newly updated Chess at the Union and James McAvoy's shot at the Scottish play at the Trafalgar Studios. As usual I doubt that's all I’ll be dragging Mrs Front Row Dress to and I’ll keep you updated with any last minute additions. Meanwhile, here's Patti with her original Sydmonton festival take on the diva who manages to out-diva all of the other divas combined, Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond.

.... and remember Patti loves having her photograph taken during the performance, so make sure your iphones are fully charged.