Car crash theatre: Why won’t the critics defend quality in the West End?

Apparently, Lindsay Lohan has finished her West End stint as Karen in David Mamet’s ‘Speed the Plow’, and she is so delighted with how it all went that she is now contemplating a second Mamet play.  ‘One Mamet down’ she tweets, ‘Next stop Oleanna’.  Oleanna?! It’s a play we saw more than twenty years ago with Lia Williams and David Suchet, and a classic that deserves a revival.  We’d have gone again.  But as we are not interested in indulging a Hollywood star as she ‘learns her craft’ in front of paying audiences, we’ll have to give it a miss and wait another twenty years until one of the huge number of lesser known stage actresses who might have done the part justice gets a chance.

No, this is not a review.  We did not see this production of ‘Speed the Plow’.  But what really fascinates us is watching the critics as they squirm while trying to decide how exactly to review a performance which has been overshadowed by the actress and the publicity juggernaut she comes with.  They are choosing their words very carefully, but unqualified superlatives are notably absent.  Mark Shenton started the ball rolling early by declaring her casting a new low for the West End, but ends by saying that ‘now that the run has ended it is time to give credit where credit is due’.  Credit where it is due.  Of course!  But what for?  The amazing reviews she got perhaps?  Proving that lack of experience is no bar to delivering a stand-out performance?  No, she played out her full run, he says.  Perhaps he is being facetious.  This, he points out, may all be an elaborate ruse by the producers to lower expectations so far that people will be pleasantly surprised that she can even stand upright on stage.  As Stage colleague Richard Jordan puts it ‘Have critics been brainwashed into praising Lindsay Lohan?’  Well, er, no, not really, unless by praise you mean ‘damning with faint praise’.  Lindsay Lohan’s performance ‘Isn’t really that bad’ screams the headline for the Vanity Fair review.  The Hollywood reporter declares her ‘Okay’.  Quentin Letts is perhaps the most withering, declaring her acting as ‘that of a not specially gifted schoolgirl.’  The attempts at self-conscious humour are pretty cringeworthy.  Although not as embarrassing as the attempts of some critics to conflate her physical attributes with acting ability.  Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph describes her as ‘Attractive, leggy and arrestingly husky of voice’ and bizarrely gives her age as if he is writing for the tabloids.

It seems rather ironic that critics, currently bemoaning their fate as they become ever more marginalised in the papers, are determined to brush this debacle under the carpet with a few sarcastic comments rather than tearing their literary hair out with rage at the greed and arrogance which brings unqualified ‘stars’ to the West End to steal the jobs of those better than they are and charge premium prices just to add insult to injury.  The question doesn’t seem to be, ‘Should this be happening?’ but ‘How badly did this particular star do compared to all the other ‘names’ of mediocre talent who have graced the West End stage?’  Perhaps they hope it will all go away if they ignore it, like a child throwing a tantrum, but given the growing popularity of car-crash TV where the sight of celebrities doing anything new (and preferably humiliating) is more important than whether they do it well or badly, there is no reason to assume the West End will be immune in future.  We’ve had the casting show blight, now it’s another rash of ever more inept stunt casting.

Another interesting aspect of the coverage is the patronising assumption that Lohan has been ‘used’ in some way.  It’s sad to see her face plastered all over the publicity, indicating that the producers didn’t think Mamet or the two main stars were enough of a draw for the show – but she has to bear some responsibility for her actions.  Being ‘vulnerable’ is not the same as being stupid, and she cannot have been in any doubt that she was hired primarily for her star name.  She seems sincere in her desire to prove worthy of the opportunity she has (undeservedly) been given.  Sadly, however, instead of heaving a sigh of relief after a distinctly luke-warm set of reviews and being grateful that she ‘got away with it’ without too many personal attacks, she has decided that this is a green light to continue her quest for a stage career by going from a minor part in this three-hander, to a two-hander in which she would be very much the equal partner.  If the critics had done their jobs properly, she would not want to set foot on a West End stage again for a very long time.

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Happy Birthday Royal Academy of Music! ‘Curtain Up’ puts the future into Musical Theatre

Sunday 30th November 2014

Having been fans of the Royal Academy of Music musical theatre student shows for some time, we were delighted to discover that there would be a twentieth anniversary concert – it would be a chance to see students new and old and a tribute to the two most instrumental figures in the history of the Musical Theatre department – Karen Rabinowitz and Mary Hammond.  We were promised a musical extravaganza and we weren’t disappointed.  With the RAM’s own massive concert orchestra, the well-established concert choir expanded with alumni to form a 100-strong choir under Stephen Hill’s direction, and a rich selection of soloists drawn from current students, recent graduates and established West End stars, we were in for a treat.

The programme was genuinely eclectic, moving from the ‘Ballad of Sweeney Todd’ with truly spine-tingling crescendos of cacophony from the choir (well, it is Sondheim), to mass African chanting for the ‘Circle of Life’ featuring Laura Tebbutt, to small scale cabaret numbers under the direction of George Hall, including two of our old favourites, ‘Maud’ performed by a convincingly sozzled George Dyer, and a reprise of Michelle Whitney’s turn as the cleaner who wants to be a ‘Moo-vie star’.  Add in the comedic talents of Vikki Stone whose co-compere Julia Mackenzie was unfortunately unwell, and we had a pacy evening full of musical and comic treats which went by all too quickly.

Shona White opened proceedings appropriately enough with ‘Magic to Do’, and later delivered a terrific rendition of ‘What I Did for Love’, while Patrick Smyth brought us an energetic and witty ‘Rhythm of Life’, complete with mass choreography from the choir, and came back to give us a storming ‘Sit down you’re rocking the boat’.  A particular treat for us was to hear Stephen Ashfield performing a song from Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins, one of those under-rated musical gems.  Backed by a full orchestra and harmonica from Noa Bodner, ‘How Glory Goes’ sounded as haunting as ever, and brought a note of mournful beauty to the show.  The ‘Primary Academy Choir’ put in an appearance too – part of the Junior Academy programme, these under 12s are the future of the profession, and hopefully they got a taste for performing on the Prince Edward Theatre stage.

Just to show how far the influence of the ‘Royal Academy of Music’ has spread, we had a video-taped appearance from Chris Martin, one of Mary Hammond’s vocal pupils.  In a hilariously self-deprecating tribute, he bemoaned his failure to gain recognition after years of lessons before performing a song that Mary had frequently ‘told him he can’t sing’ – ‘Fix you’.  His simple piano and vocal performance was gradually augmented by the live musicians on stage until choir and orchestra raised this already anthemic song to even grander proportions.  We’re not sure how Mary felt (‘Oh no, not that song again!’?) but what an original and musically apt way to pay tribute.

Directed by Paul Warwick Griffin, with music direction by Bjorn Dobbelaere, current head of department, every aspect of this show seemed to have been lovingly crafted, whether the choice of songs, the casting and combining of experienced performers and students, and the musical arrangements and adaptations.  They clearly had many enthusiastic helpers on hand happy to be involved.  This show was classy and thoroughly entertaining and a timely and heartening reminder of what it is all about – doing one thing really well.  Happy Birthday RAM, and we wish you another twenty years of musical theatre delights!

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It’s all in the execution: The Mikado holds court at the Charing Cross Theatre

Saturday 29th November 2014, matinée

Ambitious, wordy and overblown would be our verdict.  We are, of course, talking about the publicity leaflet for Thom Southerland’s ‘radically reconceived’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’ at the Charing Cross Theatre.  We are also informed that the production not only ‘boasts a Noel Coward sensitivity [sic]‘ but is ‘Hobson’s choice-inspired’.  We haven’t seen this many euphemisms since we looked into an Estate Agent’s window.  We’re not sure what any of it means, but none of it seemed to help the story along.  However, with a plot that makes Noel Coward look like Ibsen, this is not really a problem.

Written in the 1880s, the Japanese setting is a very thin disguise for a satire that is closer to home: Britain’s entrenched class system, its out of date legal institutions, and widespread corruption in Government.  The story starts with Nanki-Poo, son of the Mikado (the emperor of Japan), who runs away in fear of his life after refusing to marry his father’s choice of bride, and disguises himself as a ‘wandering minstrel’ in order to woo his true love, Yum-yum, who in turn must marry her guardian Ko-ko, who happens to be the Lord High Executioner.  Hilarity ensues.

This was our first outing to see ‘The Mikado’, but we felt immediately at home when we started to recognise so many of the songs, not least among them ‘Three little maids’, ‘A wandering minstrel I’, ‘Tit willow’, ‘I’ve got a little list’, and ‘Let the Punishment fit the crime’.  The situations and characters are also frighteningly recognisable, and the logical absurdities not too far-fetched.

Rebecca Caine, whose name caught our eye when we decided to book, lives up to her star billing as the aged ‘daughter in law elect’ of the Mikado, Katisha. She raised the bar and the roof as soon as she came on stage, with powerful vocals and a fine comic turn of scary desperation hiding a soft-centred sweetness.  She is ably supported by her father-in-law elect Mark Heenehan as the Mikado, who perfectly captures the smug self-satisfaction of a ruler surrounded by yes-men, although he is quite entitled to be smug about his rich voice.  As Ko-Ko, Hugh Osborne is the archetypal spineless middleman, totally unsuited to political office, but desperate to hang to the power he doesn’t deserve.  His cynical wooing of Katisha with the song ‘Tit willow’ (‘I knew the bird myself’ – he exclaims) is hilarious.  Leigh Coggins has very strong vocals as Yum-yum, and is delightfully pragmatic as she prepares for her wedding and waits for fate to decide who she will marry.  Jacob Chapman brings some slinky moves and strong diction to the role of Pish-Tush, leading the frivolity with aplomb.  All were ably supported by a strong chorus.

There was a lot of fun to be had with this production – there were plenty of comedic moments and Joey McKneely’s twenties-style choreography worked well and kept the energy levels high in the big numbers. We do have a niggle about use of two baby grand pianos in place of a band.  Although trumpeted (!) in the publicity as though it’s a good thing, for us, it brought back dark memories of the 2009 production of ‘Annie Get your Gun’ we saw at the Young Vic.  That show ‘boasted’ four pianos, and removed the opportunity for subtlety and variation in the music.  Similarly with the ‘Mikado’, we kept having the sensation of being in a rehearsal room, as if the music was a work in progress.  We don’t understand why a more creative alternative wasn’t used, after all it is opera, not music hall.

Ultimately though, the show didn’t quite take off, and this may have been due to lack of a clear vision about how the overall acting style should serve the piece.  We’ve now seen four Thom Southerland productions and a pattern seems to be emerging.  Two of them, Titanic and Mack and Mabel, were outstanding, whereas the issues we had with Victor/Victoria and this production were similar, ie, the technical aspects of the comedy.  It’s hard to be a master of all trades though, and when it comes to tragedy, drama, and sweeping storylines, Southerland is truly in his element.

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Passion amongst the parachutes: Girlfriends at the Union Theatre

Saturday 1st November 2014, matinée

We are grateful to the Union Theatre for putting on a Howard Goodall ‘season’, a selection of three of his musicals, beginning with ‘Love Story’, followed by The Dreaming, and finally ‘Girlfriends’.  We eagerly anticipated this early work, Goodall’s second musical, written in collaboration with John Retallack and Richard Curtis.

Having focussed on men in ‘The Hired Man’, Goodall wanted to do something which would say more about women’s experience of war, and, inspired by Mary Lee Settle’s memoires of her time in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, he researched the subject and, along with Retallack and Curtis, created a musical set on an RAF base in Norfolk, exploring the emotional entanglements of the women and the men they supported.  The setting evokes the hothouse atmosphere of a community living in close quarters, where trivial events become magnified, and the horror of war is suppressed behind a facade of politeness.  The piece also explores the moral ambiguities of a ‘just’ war and the difficulties ordinary people faced in becoming part of the momentous operations of war.  The title is itself ironic, since it celebrates the vital role of women in the war, yet acknowledges the underlying feeling that they are still dependent on and subordinate to men, their contribution undervalued.

The story is told in vignettes, and we are introduced to a large cast of characters and situations – we hear about the women and their reasons for joining up, their triumphs and disappointments with the work they are doing, and their rivalries as they vie for the affections of the airmen, knowing they risk having their hearts broken.  The problem with this approach is that ultimately there is not much build up of dramatic tension, and although the storylines feel authentic and are sometimes refreshingly downbeat, it makes it hard to engage with the characters when they have little opportunity to grow and develop.

In this production, the pace of the story was also hampered by the direction, which allowed too much ‘dead time’ between the short scenes.  The choreography was at times obtrusive too, veering between being too literal and too expansive for the space, or becoming rather ‘interpretive’, which didn’t seem to fit with the style of the story either. The scenes seemed to work best when the action was continuous and then the focus was changed from character to character, as in the party scene where much of the drama came to a head, and the production might have benefited more from this style of flexible approach in such as small space.

As we never tire of saying of Goodall, the music makes it all worthwhile: full of rich melodies and harmonies, we would happily buy the cast album and listen to it all again, if such as thing was available (quite a surprise considering the original production contained rising stars such as Maria Friedman and Jenna Russell).  Again, we are reduced to a few clips on youtube and song samples courtesy of Faber.  The music is particularly strong on upbeat melodies, such as the cheerful ‘We Dance On’, which describes the experience of putting a brave face on everything while the war continues; the romantic moments are well served, with some delightful duets between the lovers, and there is some darker humour in songs such as ‘In the Messes and Clubs’, which cleverly describes the attempts of the pilots to deal with the extreme emotions they experience on every mission.  Overall, though, in terms of musical theatre there seems to be less of the emotional depth, range and sophistication of Goodall’s later works.

The excellent cast certainly had their moments, although here we must pause for a quick comment on the Union, and the lack of information on their website.  We are not routine programme-buyers – sometimes it’s nice to have a souvenir and more information, but we work on the assumption that we will always be able to find out about the cast online. In this case, we were glad that we scribbled down a few names from the pictures on the wall, as we were astonished to find no trace of the actors anywhere on the Union’s website.  What’s the big secret? We can only apologise to any of the cast we failed to note, but we particularly enjoyed Michael Rees as Gareth, the airman who thinks he’s a bit of a charmer with a corny joke for every occasion.  Tom Sterling, with a pleasant and pure voice, nicely portrayed the glamour and charm of airman Guy, whilst revealing his youth and inexperience as the mask slips.  Perry Lambert and Corrine Priest as friends and rivals in love Louise and Amy have strong voices and brought out the inner strength of the women struggling not to have their hearts broken, while Catherine Mort delivered the touching ‘The Chances Are’ with powerful dignity.

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Sunday in the Dark with Stephen: Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Ye Olde Rose and Crown

Sunday 26th October 2014, matinée

We can see why All Star Productions were tempted by Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre – it’s a piece that is challenging both musically, dramatically, and practically, and anyone who has been to this remarkable pub theatre will know they don’t have a lot of space to play with.  With this company’s track record, we didn’t hesitate to book for their latest show, eager to add to our collection of Sondheim classics.

We won’t spend too much time on the plot of James Lapine’s book, although if you are interested wikipedia boasts a plot summary which runs over 1500 words, and that’s just for act one.  Suffice to say, this is a mash-up of fairytale characters such as Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel, all of whom end up in the woods on various missions, and who start to interact in ever more complex and witty ways.  The theme purports to be ‘be careful what you wish for’, as the ‘happy ever after’ of the typical fairytale is deconstructed mercilessly, and the characters revealed not just as shallow and two-dimensional, but selfish and unfeeling too.  Give people what they say they want, the message seems to be, and they will only find a way to mess it up.  Modern psychology has found plenty of evidence to back up this view, but as a musical drama, the success of this approach is variable.  Everything feels just a little bit over-complicated, and Lapine and Sondheim seem to have sacrificed emotional content on the altar of cleverness.  For once, we fear, Forbidden Broadway was not exaggerating.  After an action-packed first half full of comedy with moments of sharp satire, the second half seems to get tied up in its own loose ends, and there is a bit too much sermonising.

Despite our doubts about the format, we feel that this production brings out the strengths of the piece with a strong cast, tight and pacy direction and a set which perfectly suits the action and mood of the story.  The updating works well and fits the characters without being obtrusive.  Hence we have Sloane rangers for Princes, with their Chelsea drawl and unfeasibly elaborate greeting rituals; Jack’s mum might be straight off ‘Benefits Street’, her acquisition of riches signalled mainly by an upgrade of her visible thong and jogging pants combination and the addition of some serious bling (Jack gets new underpants too). Cinderella’s step-sisters, meanwhile, would slot quite happily into ‘The only way is Essex’, although probably preferring to think of themselves as Kardashians.

As Jack, Hugh O’Donnell has strong vocals, and a great line in well-meaning but hopeless stupidity, redeemed only by his great affection for the milky white cow he is forced to sell.  Sarah Waddell as Jack’s Mum is hilariously shameless in her exasperation with her useless offspring, and her final stand in the woods where she tells the giantess where to go is a tour de force of rage and sheer bloody-mindedness.  Emma Ralston is delightfully dark as the ‘too good to be true’ Little Red Ridinghood whose encounter with the wolf has some uncomfortable overtones, as illustrated in the song ‘I know things now’ which she imbues with youthful intensity and knowing humour.  Josh Pugh is by equal turns hilarious and disturbing as the wolf whose love of flesh appears to be more than just gastronomic, and he scrubs up nicely as Cinderella’s vacuous prince, teaming up with fellow Prince Tim Phelps for one of the stand-out songs of the show, ‘Agony’. Paul Hutton as the Baker is the perfect underdog, and brings a nice sense of bemused willingness as he pursues his bizarre quest in the forest, wanting to do it on his own but reluctantly having to concede that ‘It takes two’ when his wife insists on helping.  As the Baker’s wife Jo Wickham is the power behind her husband, doggedly ambitious, and she has a powerful and calming stage presence which helps to hold the action together – after all it is her desire for a child which sets everything into motion.

Overall this was a high quality and energetic production, full of enjoyable moments. We had the ‘luxury’ of a five-piece band under Aaron Clingham’s direction playing a variety of instruments and bringing out the nuance and subtlety of the music, a simple yet atmospheric set designed by Gregor Donnelly, and Tim McArthur’s direction pulled all the elements together skilfully.  If the afternoon ultimately dragged, it was because of a lack of pay-off – too much complexity and not enough depth.  And one other cautionary note for a show which lasts nearly three hours – the chairs.  We thought perhaps we had been singled out for special fairy-sized chairs until we saw that they were all the same – not only very small, but tightly packed, bringing their own form of ‘Agony’.

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Richard Bean hacks off the tabloids in ‘Great Britain’ at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Saturday 13th September 2014, matinée

Richard Bean’s new play ‘Great Britain’, recently transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from the National Theatre, is part of a long tradition of satire poking fun at the media, from ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’ to ‘The Thick of It’.  Nearly thirty years ago Brenton and Hare’s iconic play ‘Pravda’, which portrayed a monstrous character bearing similarities to Rupert Murdoch, was premiered at the National, and it seems only fitting that the National should host this play which charts another Murdoch-like character’s downfall.  Bean’s play brings us right up to date with his satirical and sharp analysis of the way that phone-hacking gave an amoral boost to the dubious privacy-invading tactics of the tabloid press before blowing up in its face.  Bean doesn’t have to stretch the truth very far to make his point, and he has created a completely convincing world that seems shockingly familiar and plausible, reflecting a society which has become disturbingly de-sensitised.  Throughout the play, mock headlines are displayed for the fictional paper ‘The Free Press’, and there is a glimmer of recognition that makes it impossible to say whether they have been made up or are based on real headlines.

The play centres around Paige Britain, an unashamedly ambitious news editor who discovers the ‘superpower’ of phone hacking and uses it mercilessly to seek more and more sensational stories in order to get ahead.  She narrates the story of her own rise to power, and the play reveals the corruption that lies behind the claims that papers are only ‘giving the public what they want’ and upholding the ‘British way of life’.  The ‘public interest’ defence gets a severe battering as we see how corrupt journalists even use criminal evidence as a bargaining chip with police in order to secure either silence or publicity, depending on the agenda of the day.  Bean is a master at using humour to sugar the pill of this play’s bitter message.  The morning meetings led by ‘old-school’ editor Wilson Tikkel run through all the clichés of the tabloid press – it’s all about ‘scum’, he says, but if you can get a ‘double-scum’ headline that’s even better – ‘How about an IRA cyclist?’ somebody suggests.  Ferociously rejecting any stories in danger of being serious or complex, he runs his own special ‘c**t of the month’ scheme for disgraced employees, and there is no certificate – the accolade is written across the forehead of the unfortunate recipient.  We have all the stock characters, such as ‘Jimmy the bins’, who touts treasure from the rubbish bags of the famous in a supermarket trolley, and there’s the journalist who specialises in ‘sting’ operations using various disguises, all of which his work-mates see through immediately.  The character of the Police commissioner Sully Kassam, is a comic gem.  His media gaffes become fodder for youtube mischief as his apology of police killings of ethnic minorities comes out sounding like a promise to shoot more white people; finally he is set up to have himself tasered just as news of a fatal taser incident is announced.

In a recent interview Lucy Punch produced an eye-catching headline of her own – If the character is smug, trashy, or has dubious morals, call me!   In that case this is the part she was born to play, and as Paige Britain, her performance is absolutely fearless, with not a trace of vanity.  Her character is utterly convinced she is right and pursues her mission without a backward glance, creating and dismissing the human misery around her.  She is completely enthralling, and had us transfixed like a slow-motion car crash.

She is supported by a very large cast, who manage to evoke the hustle-bustle of the news room with great skill and energy, slipping in and out of minor characters to give the play the broad canvas it needs.  As Tikkel, Robert Glenister is wonderfully bullish, never more so than when he is promoted ‘out of the way’ to a PR job, resulting in a hilariously disastrous press conference.  Dermot Crowley as newspaper owner Paschal O’Leary is a charmer, brilliantly channelling the bastard love-child of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and Rupert Murdoch.  Aaron Neil ramps up the comedy as Sully Kassam with a fantastic deadpan sincerity, which makes the pain of his media disasters all the more hilarious.

We were amused to see the Theatre Royal Haymarket making a virtue of necessity by proudly announcing ‘150 seats at £15 for every performance’.  Perhaps a more honest headline would have ‘Roll up roll up for the worst seats in the house’.  To give them credit, our severely restricted view £15 seats have previously been on sale for a lot more in other productions at the theatre, so at least we paid a more reasonable price, and having even a large part of the stage obscured did not affect our enjoyment too much.  However, one of the features of the production was made almost impossible to see, and we can’t believe it was deliberate – three very large screens displaying various video clips and headlines somehow managed to traverse the stage in such a way that we missed most of them, hearing only the laughs of the audience.  The sight lines are very different from the Olivier theatre – did nobody think about this?

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‘The Dreaming’ casts its spell at the Union Theatre

Saturday 6th September 2014, matinée

When we heard that Howard Goodall and Charles Hart’s musical ‘The Dreaming’ was going to be put on at the Union Theatre we jumped at the chance to add to our growing collection of Goodall musicals, and to revisit a tiny venue with big ideas.  The plot is based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but Charles Hart’s book brings the action to Edwardian times, specifically 1913, which makes a good fit both musically, and adds weight to the story by evoking the sense of a golden summer lost forever on the eve of the First World War.  The key characters never change it seems, with the aristocrats who need to learn a lesson from those who live more closely with nature being a timeless theme.

Designer Kingsley Hall has transformed the space very simply with the suggestion of a forest, making the floor the main feature of the space and allowing the twenty-strong cast plenty of flexibility, while director Paul Clarkson creatives an immersive experience, making maximum use of the off-stage spaces (characters often call to each other unseen, creating a real sense of remoteness), and the clever trick of getting the chorus to run behind the seats literally sends shivers up the spine, in a low tech but very effective form of 4D.  Helen Rymer’s choreography completes the creative triangle with an ingenious use of the space, whether in high energy acrobatics, comedy from the amateur dramatics troupe, or in her inventive ways of creating a magical atmosphere, for example, the beautiful sequence where Sylvia, the Queen of the woodlanders, is lulled to sleep by her handmaidens using just a large square of floating material, and her ‘romance’ with an unlikely bedfellow is played out as a mysterious dream sequence.

Howard Goodall’s music has a warmth and humanity to it which makes it a constant pleasure to listen to, as well as an emotionally engaging experience.  He focuses on harmony and hope, and even the saddest events are tinged with a sense of the greater picture and a sense that things can be better in the future.  The music is well served by musical director David Griffiths, heading a band of just four, who create a myriad of tones and sounds, combining modern technology and acoustic instruments to great effect.  Here Goodall is teamed with Charles Hart, with whom he wrote the wonderful Kissing Dance, and again they have created an engaging and witty piece.  It is hard to pick out highlights because everything flows together so well, but we would have to mention the ‘Cuckoo song’, a great introduction for the villagers, ‘Jennifer’, an incredibly catchy and joyous outpouring of drug-induced love, ‘Night and Silence’, the dreamlike and yet slightly menacing lullaby for Sylvia, ‘Catch me if you can’, which plays quite literally with the extremes of ‘love me’ and ‘kill me’ in the mayhem of confused lovers and mischievous woodland creatures.  Finally ‘The Dreaming’ sums up the action and brings a fantastic sense of resolution as each character first recounts their own experiences, and then concludes that it must all have been a dream. The conflicts are resolved and all is forgiven.

The massive cast deliver an ensemble performance which is impressive on all fronts – dancing, singing and acting, and really creates a world of fantasy and dreamlike action in the mysterious forest setting.  We particularly enjoyed David Breeds as the unremittingly energetic and over-eager youngster Walter, willing even to play the rear end of a dragon to further his acting career.  We had only very recently seen Richard Brindley in the Royal Academy of Music end of year shows, and here he shows off his singing voice and lightness of touch as the pleasant and enthusiastic Lord of the manor Julian.  Michael Burgen has a nice sense of wonder as the star player of the villagers acting troupe about to experience a very different transformation, slightly bemused but quietly enjoying the experience.  As Angel and Sylvia, the King and Queen of the woodlanders, Christopher Hancock and Daisy Tonge provide a strong focus for the whole piece, both with powerful vocals and movement.  It’s never easy pretending to be a bad actor, but Alex Green does a great job, perfectly capturing that ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look of terror, and managing the business of dodgy props and timing to maximum comic effect.  As Alexander, the runaway lover who is induced to fall in love with the ‘wrong’ person, Alistair Hill pulls out all the stops, and his rendition of the love song ‘Jennifer’ is a joy to watch, as he combines outlandishly pure vocals with a gloriously uninhibited interpretive dance.  There is a delicious moment of anticipation as his rival David, played by Joshua Tonks, instantly falls in love with the same girl, and joins him in his hypnotic refrain.  Their rivalry is beautifully played out and is one of the highlights of the afternoon.

It seems churlish to complain, but we would have to say that there were some issues with diction which meant that some of the words were lost, a shame given our admiration for Charles Hart’s lyrics!  But overall this is an impressive production of a musical which deserves a much wider audience (glad as we were to experience it on such an intimate scale), and this is a worthy (and long overdue) professional premier.

PS – Howard, if you’re reading this, please can we have a cast recording!

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