Not So Easy to Love: Anything Goes Upstairs at the Gatehouse

31st December 2016, matinée

It wasn’t a difficult decision for us to go and see ‘Anything Goes’ at Upstairs at the Gatehouse.  This is a musical we hadn’t seen before, and after their fantastic version of Singin’ in the Rain which we saw two years ago, we were eager to see another musical classic get the UATG treatment.

We are very familiar with Cole Porter’s Music, or at least the 2002 National Theatre cast recording; by extension we were vaguely familiar with the characters, but with no idea at all what the plot was.  It turns out that really doesn’t matter – it is not so much a plot as a song delivery system – and what songs!  Most musicals have a couple of showstoppers and some nice tunes, but here we were reminded of the prolific talent of Porter, penning both music and lyrics for a cornucopia of hits including the title song, ‘You’re the Top’, ‘I Get Kick out of you’, ‘De-Lovely’, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Let’s Misbehave’.  OK, so one of those was recycled, but you can hardly begrudge him that!

The plot revolves around two old friends, nightclub singer and part time evangelist Reno Sweeney and wall-street broker and chancer Billy Crocker, as they get into various hilarious scrapes and romantic entanglements on a voyage from New York to London.
So did they manage to pull off a second theatrical coup?  Sadly, not this time.  There seemed to be some key elements which were missing.  The main plot involves Billy Crocker’s love of Hope Harcourt, a woman he has only met once before when he shared a taxi with her.  He stows away on the ship in order to convince her to marry him and ditch her English fiance.  It’s a common enough plot device, but there is little chemistry between them, and without that he comes across more as a stalker than a lover whose feelings are reciprocated, and the superficiality of the premise is cruelly exposed.

Then there is the traverse staging layout.  We noted with Singin’ in the Rain, which had a similar layout, that they just about got away with it ‘by keeping the staging very simple and making the ends of the stage the main focus’.  But in this case, perhaps because the action is more comedic and revolves around farce, and the dance numbers more ambitious in scale (it’s all relative), all the disadvantages of a traverse layout came to the fore.  The most notable being that with the seats arranged on either side of a thin strip of stage area, even in a venue this small, one cannot even see all the action without getting ‘tennis neck’.  And as we noted in our review of Victor/Victoria at the old Southwark Playhouse, traverse staging is not a good way to do farce, where the action needs to be clearly signposted and easy to follow.  Although some of the dance duets worked very well, any more than three on stage suddenly felt like a very large crowd, and with choreography that was more suited to a large stage, the effect was magnified.  Perhaps more scaled down choreography would have been more effective, but then, why start out with a stage layout that offers so many problems in the first place?

There were some positives, but before we go on to them there is one more element of the show which in our opinion was an unforgiveable ‘sin’.  There does of course need to be some kind of silly pretext for resolving the situation so that the right couples can marry each other, that’s traditional.  And perhaps in the 1930s it was also a tradition to laugh at racial stereotypes.  But we couldn’t quite believe our eyes when Billy Crocker came on in a Chinese outfit and proceeded to impersonate a Chinese character with a cod Chinese accent in order to break up the marriage ceremony before revealing his true identity.  Would this have been OK if he had blacked up and adopted a Jamaican or African accent?  We think not.  Yet for some reason there are still Directors out there who think this kind of ‘yellowface’ is OK.

But it was not all gloom and doom – there were some stand-out performances to savour. Taryn Erickson was brimming with confidence as Reno Sweeney from the moment she made her entrance, and walked a nice line throughout between world-weariness and unabashed optimism.  She had a captivating stage presence and gave a strong vocal performance too, ably supported by her ‘angels’ Lucie Horsfall and Chloe Porter.  As Evelyn Oakleigh, Jack Keane gave an assured performance which belied his very recent graduation from Drama School.  Extracting every possible opportunity for humour, particularly physical comedy, he had an impressive command of the stage, and pulled off the unexpected feat of making the ‘stuffy’ Englishman a rather attractive proposition through his relentless eccentricity.  David Pendlebury nicely captured the humour of Moonface Martin’s situation as a gangster well out of his comfort zone.  We loved Samantha Dorsey’s pure singing voice which was used to good effect in the soaring ‘De-Lovely’ and ‘All Through the Night’, although we would question whether she was the right character to sing ‘I Get A Kick out of you’, which is normally given to Reno Sweeney. Finally the band, under Musical Director and Orchestrator Dan Glover, deserve a big shout-out for recreating the richness and glamour of Porter’s music in a small space with only six musicians.

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Drones Baby Drones finds its target at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 5th November 2016, matinée

Despite the lurid title, a quote from a former US defence secretary, Drones, Baby,Drones is a serious attempt to explore a form of warfare which needs to be brought out from the shadows.  Some of the names on the bill were already familiar to us from the marathon cycle of plays about nuclear weapons which Nicolas Kent put on at the Tricycle four years ago – The Bomb – A Partial History.  Here he directs while Ron Hutchinson and David Grieg write (or in Hutchinson’s case, co-write) a play each to make a compelling double-bill. At 110 minutes total running time, it’s a little shorter than the ten play spectacular they previously contributed to, but this creative team have lost none of their edge, and they have homed in on another timely and disturbing subject.

The first play refers to the regular Tuesday meetings at the White House where the targets for drone strikes were chosen.  The second explores the aftermath of a strike from the point of view of the ‘pilots’ who carry out strikes on the other side of the world.  Both plays are introduced by quotations from Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, giving some unpalatable facts about the realities of drone warfare.

‘This Tuesday’, written by Ron Hutchinson and Christina Lamb, is skilfully put together and engaging, and hits the ground running with a serious car accident that becomes a pivotal event for one of the leading characters, as well as a metaphor for the strikes themselves.  The personal lives and political arguments are interwoven seamlessly, pressing home the message that however sophisticated the technology, there will always be a human, with all their limitations and failings, somewhere in the mix.  The various justifications, all claiming some kind of logic and objectivity, are paraded before us leaving a powerful sense that these meetings may not be as objective and rational as they claim. At well under an hour, though, this play does feel unfinished, and in such as short time, there is not much opportunity for the political arguments to get beyond the superficial.

David Grieg’s ‘The Kid’ explores what drone warfare does to the perpetrators, puncturing the myth of the ‘surgical strike’ and the idea that the such wars can be ‘casualty free’.  They may escape physical injury, but the mental toll is clear.  This drama is less fragmented, and with a cast of four (two drone operators and their partners), it has the feel of a cosy domestic drama ready to turn into something much darker.  The play starts with a celebration of the assassination of a long-pursued terrorist, except that one of the operators saw a small boy running towards the explosion, the other didn’t.  As the truth comes out along with the recriminations, the unnatural demands become clear.  The play ends with a spine-chilling and challenging proposition from the least likely character, the newly pregnant wife of one of the pilots.

The cast of these plays don’t waste any time establishing their characters, and they all rise to the challenge.  Anne Adams raises the emotional pitch right from the start with her performance as the mother, hysterical with grief and panic, who has just found out that her daughter may die from her injuries in a horrific car crash.  In the midst of the horror of her personal situation, she tries to ensure she can attend the Tuesday meeting to ensure the decision goes her way – she is desperate that her chosen ‘target’ is eliminated.  Not many actresses can be sympathetic and repellent at the same time, but she manages the feat. In her portrayal of the drone pilot in ‘The Kid’ she subtly suggests the gradual mental attrition of the work, which no amount of glorification can seem to alleviate.

Rose Reynolds effortlessly glides from the cocky intern, who takes great delight in taunting her married boyfriend about his Tuesday meetings, to the conflicted mother-to-be married to a drone operator and pleased to be able to enjoy the comforts of living in the suburbs on the other side of the world and have her husband home every night.  Tom McKay portrays a naive ambition in both of his characters, making a neat connection between the gung-ho security adviser who helps to choose the targets, and the drone pilot who carries out the orders.  The confident, childlike, facade is easily dented, revealing a deeper struggle with denial. Joseph Balderrama brings a grounded quality to the action, firstly as the jaded lawyer, and secondly as the partner who desperately wants to be supportive but lacks the imagination to do so.

This was a welcome taste of serious political drama, but it did leave us wanting more.  And just a few days later we were reading about new attempts to improve the performance of pilots and the difficulty of retaining them.

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Puccini at the Pub: La Boheme returns to the Kings Head Theatre

Saturday 3rd September 2016

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than five years since we first saw La Boheme at the Soho Theatre.  Little did we know that we were witnessing a phenomenon that would go from strength to strength, with both the ‘Operaupclose’ brand and the King’s Head very much alive and well (even if they have gone their separate ways).

This new version by Adam Spreadbury Maher and Becca Mariott builds on and expands a winning formula – the chance to experience the full force of operatic voices in an intimate space, with updated and audible lyrics.

We were bowled over by La Boheme in 2011, but in this version, everything has been turned up a notch.  The swearing is full on but wittily used, and of course it is always a pleasure to hear a neatly placed expletive in the middle of a gorgeous operatic aria or section of recitative.  The contemporary references and props are used to full comic and dramatic effect, and the ‘intimacy’ extends to some very amusing audience participation – if you sit at the end of a row expect to be on coat or drink holding duty, and one lucky man gets to be the ‘bait’ for Musetta’s attempts to make her boyfriend jealous with some outrageous flirting.  The characters have been cut down to just four, giving it a clear structure and the feel of a rom-com, and there is always something going on – very rarely do the characters simply stand and sing, and when they do it is all the more powerful.

Another really important element of the story is also updated, in the form of Mimi’s ‘illness’.  Here it is not just her physical but mental state that is vulnerable, and Maher and Mariott have made sense of the plot in modern terms in a way which the original couldn’t. This more sophisticated reading also gives the ending a much more powerful message about fear and acceptance and gives the characters more agency than just being victims of fate.

The production we saw was perfectly cast, with excellent performances all round.  Becca Mariott not only co-wrote the new version but also plays Mimi with great insight, showing both her torment and the strength of character lying beneath.  It is a hugely sympathetic performance because she is not just a victim – she is fighting until the end.  Matthew Kimble as ‘Ralph’ (Rudolpho) conveys a down to earth warmth and kindness beneath the slightly nerdy exterior.  Thomas Humphreys as ‘Mark’ (Marcello) conveys an effortless ‘posh-boy’ arrogance that works very well as a double-act with his flatmate.  It is a delight to see his transformation to puppyish dependence when the beautiful Musetta comes onto the scene.  Honey Rouhani is on sparkling form as Musetta, terrorising cast and audience alike with supreme confidence.  Her set piece seduction scene is played for maximum comic effect at full tilt and provides an enthralling centre-piece to the more serious romantic entanglements that precede and follow it.

Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis has brought out as much of the original beauty of the music as one can with an upright piano, ably supported by Alison Holford on cello. Both he and Maher have pulled off a great feat here, blending music and drama so well that we were completely absorbed in both – not always a feature of opera productions.

Maher and Marriot have not just given the opera a tweak to update it or superimposed a few modern references – this really is a re-imagining of the original and a fine example of the ‘intimate opera’ genre.  There will be more to come and we are particularly looking forward to new version of Madame Butterfly in the Spring.

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Why Should We Bother to Care? The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre

Saturday 27th August 2016, matinée

We’re sure it was no coincidence that Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick Theatre has been topped and tailed by two plays about performers – Harlequinade, an affectionate homage to a post-war travelling theatre company, perhaps a little rose-tinted; and ‘The Entertainer’, a bitter and rage-filled howl of desperation, where any rosy spectacles have long since been crushed underfoot.  This was a must-see for us – having see Michael Sheen on electrifying form as Jimmy Porter in ‘Look Back in Anger’ many years ago, we wanted to see what all the fuss was about with what is sometimes dubbed John Osborne’s attempt to portray an ‘Angry Old Man’, Archie Rice, the failing music hall performer trying to avoid the moment when he has to hang up his tap shoes for the last time.

One of the first things that strikes us about his play is how slight it is, considering the huge amount of expectation that must have been placed on it.  It really is a ‘slice of life’ with no real character arc for Archie.  The structure of the play seems more like a mechanism for showing the contrast between the grim, gin-soaked triviality of the family arguments and brief moments of camaraderie, Archie’s acerbic ranting, and the paper thin mask of amused detachment with which he churns out various faded patriotic numbers, just as the Suez crisis is marking the beginning of the end of Empire (or is that the end of the end?).

Bizarrely, the truly dramatic and even tragic events seem almost incidental, but perhaps this is a reflection the central character’s self-absorbed and nihilistic perspective on life.
At one point, Archie describes his decline as a performer – he can still cut it, but there is no passion anymore – he is dead behind the eyes.  Kenneth Branagh takes this self-diagnosis to the limit, with a performance driven by a maddening lightheartedness that treats everything as meaningless.  His quick-silver intelligence cannot be pinned down, but it infuses everything with poisonous indifference.  He brings out the humour in the writing, but it only adds to the ultimate despair by giving us glimpses of a talent that seems to be constantly on the verge of bursting into life.  He is literally bouncing off the walls to try to convince himself he is still alive.

Greta Scacchi is Phoebe, Archie’s long-suffering second wife, who feels like a failure despite having pulled off the impressive feat of putting up with him for all these years and bringing up his three children.  Scacchi somehow conveys that strength of character while simultaneously denying it, making her one of the more sympathetic characters on stage. We are not sure why, but her outrage at Billy Rice making a start on the special cake she had bought for her son’s return was both tragic and hilarious.  Gawn Grainger as Billy Rice, Archie’s father and mentor has a nice line in passive aggression.  As the retired old stager, he has nothing to prove, and he seems to be the only one trying (in vain) to enjoy life.

Is there enough here to enliven and truly ‘revive’ Osborne’s original?  Sadly we’d have to say that the quality of the production exposes the flaws in a play which now seems out of its time.

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Requiem for a Spouse: The Kreutzer Sonata at the Arcola Theatre

Saturday 16th July, matinée

We can’t believe we have left it so long to go and see Greg Hicks on stage after seeing him in Little Eagles, an intriguing play about the Russian Space Race, five years ago.  Having said that, at least ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ offered us just over ninety uninterrupted minutes of Hicks alone on stage (with live musical accompaniment), in the intimate Arcola theatre.  And to top it all, this is genuine original Tolstoy.

Based on a 1890 novella which was almost immediately censored in both Russia and America, the drama is set on a train, where a man named Pozdnyshev tells us how he murdered his own wife.  He is quick to explain to his audience of fellow train passengers that he was acquitted of the crime, so they needn’t move away.  But as the narrative progresses, the comfort of his imaginary companions is clearly not his priority as he gives us an account that literally pulls no punches.

In her adaptation of the novella, Nancy Harris has avoided the temptation to ‘flesh out’ the drama by bringing the other characters onto the stage (except as projected by the musicians who give us a live performance of the eponymous piece).  She keeps a single narrative voice, and the result is a powerful portrait of a man who has completely internalised the values of a paternalistic society and yet still sees himself as a victim. In some ways he is, although not in the way he thinks.  A prisoner of his own rigid beliefs, he seems like a man incapable of being happy.

The narrative is simple, concrete and clear, and at times painfully detailed – a confessional story which makes the central character frighteningly plausible, whilst filling us with dread as each mundane occurence foreshadows something darker.

Greg Hicks raises solo drama to a new level here with a compelling performance.  There is barely any set (just a couple of benches and some clever lighting which suggests a train carriage), a few props which take on a grim significance at the end, yet he conjures the whole world of his doomed marriage, from the romantic boat trip where he proposes, to the domestic milieu, the little details which fuel his jealousy and the distorted inner world which compels him to act on it.  The biggest compliment we can pay to Greg Hicks is that he seems to have no technique at all.  He is Pozdnyshev, and this is the closest we could imagine being to joining a murderer in his cell.  Better in fact, in that he makes his strange compulsion to confess and extraordinary insight and eloquence seem like the most natural thing in the world.  The performance is flawless and utterly gripping, to the extent that we were propelled back out into the sunlight feeling emotionally and physically turned over.

All we can say is, this was well worth the wait, a brilliantly tight production from Director John Terry given an extra touch of class by pianist Alice Pinto and violinist Phillip Granell. It was Tolstoy’s wish to have the story performed with live music, such a powerful transformative force did he believe it to be, and it is hard to disagree with him.

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Groomed for stardom: Royal Academy of Music presents Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

Sunday 10th July 2016

If someone had asked us if we wanted to see a group of twenty-something amateurs put on a production of Sweeney Todd, we would probably run a mile, if we hadn’t already sampled the brilliance of the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre students.  RAM has an impressive track record, and having nailed Follies, a musical about aging showgirls, we were intrigued and excited to see what they would do with this rather darker Sondheim piece.  We had already heard a spine-tingling version of the opening prologue at their 30th birthday concert, and although we would have to go a bit further afield to the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the journey was well worth it.

We last saw Sweeney Todd four years ago, when Michael Ball literally proved that he was more than just a pretty face.  It was an impressive production, and we reviewed it and synopsised the plot here.  Seeing it again, we were struck by what a good choice this is for the RAM.  Everyone has something to get their teeth into (sometimes literally), and the music is rich and dense, demanding but ultimately rewarding in the right hands.  Musical Director Torquil Munro has pulled off an amazing feat by bringing the music to life in all its glory – from shrieking choruses to heartbreaking melodies.

Director Michael Fentiman and choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane have served the students very well too.  This is a bold production with a clear vision, but without pretensions.  There are a few well chosen coups de theatre that heighten the action without detracting from it.  The show opens with a post mortem going on in a gloomy upstairs room, while bodies hang below.  At the end, the ‘body’ who has had his heart removed, rises up and reveals himself to be….Sweeney Todd himself.  Quite an entrance. Instead of being dispatched directly via trapdoor, the victims process down a staircase, and jump into the ovens below of their own accord, falling with an eerie grace.  This motif enables an emotionally powerful moment of ‘reconciliation’ at the end when Sweeney discovers the truth about his dead wife too late.  Mostly the production is focused on telling the story with clarity and pace, and, perhaps most important of all, bringing out the dark humour of the piece (aided by some excellent diction).

Lawrence Smith as Sweeney exhibits a strong stage presence whilst simultaneously convincing us that he is dead inside – his energy is palpable but contained with remarkable intensity, allowing only the smallest indications of humanity from his former life.  He seems to have literally stripped the character down to the bones.  Musically, he conveys great emotional range, bringing out the complexity and inner conflict of painful and distorted emotions in songs such as ‘Pretty Women’ (a touching piece about the beauty of women leading up to his first murder attempt) and ‘My Friends’, where the affection shines through – for his set of cut-throat razors.

Mrs Lovett is one of the great roles for women in Musical Theatre, and Elissa Churchill grabs it with every bone in her body and doesn’t let a single opportunity slip by.  She comes on in full tilt, extracting every comedic moment from her predicament as owner of the worst pie shop in London, with great delivery both vocally and visually – the gruesome lyrics are backed up with some great comic business that rams home just how disgusting these pies are.  She starts out a bit scatty and eccentric and leads us on a subtle and disturbing descent to reveal a controlling and manipulating women who rivals Sweeney in evil intent.

Francisco del Solar bubbles with energy as Pirelli, the flamboyant charlatan and rival barber.  One of the few truly vibrant and colourful characters, del Solar embodies him perfectly.  Ruben Van Keer is convincing as the hot-headed lovestruck sailor Anthony Hope.  We’ve always thought his keynote song ‘Johanna’ as little strange for a love song ‘I feel you Johanna/I’ll steal you Johanna’ but Van Keer infuses the it with genuine warmth and pure passion, leaving us in no doubt that this is one couple who have a chance of a happy ending.  Charlotte Clitherow does a great job of capturing the bizarre beggar woman with a big secret.  Veering between haunting pleas for ‘alms’ and some pretty vivid invitations to more carnel pleasures, her delivery is spot on.  It’s impossible to mention everyone, except to say that the ultimate success of this production rests on its ensemble and the atmosphere they create.  The music and action is multilayered and constantly shifting, demanding a great deal of musical and acting prowess.

One of the things we love about the RAM Musical Theatre department is their apparently unlimited ambition.  Fortunately they also seem to have unlimited talent….





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A little more than kin and less than kind: King Lear at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

Saturday 15th June 2016

King Lear is not a play we would go to see lightly – it would take a pretty special actor to get us out to see it.  And finally, after teasing us with a New York run of the play, Michael Pennington has been touring with a production in the UK.  He is one of the very few actors who really fits the bill, with his vast stage experience and particular Shakespearean pedigree.  If Dances with Death was a nice warm-up to playing the tyrannical old man, this was the main event, and he does not disappoint.

Thanks to the BBC’s ‘Hollow Crown’ revivals, we’ve had an intensive grounding in the History plays.  But King Lear is new to us, and a fascinating study of the relinquishing of power rather than the acquisition of it.  Lear learns a hard lesson in what it really means to be powerless, and the play itself has a difficult and powerful message about unintended consequences.

King Lear expects the world to revolve around him and Pennington achieves this effect through sheer magnetism.  He is mesmerising, and his crisis is our crisis right from the start.  He demonstrates the overwhelming self-absorption that seems to have somehow managed to shield him from any suspicion that his two elder daughters and their husbands might have their own plans for his ‘retirement’.  His interpretation makes Lear’s madness the only sane reaction in an insane world.  In Pennington’s hands, the madness never descends into ranting, and however insane his words may seem to the outside world, he is mentally processing every sentence and giving it some kind of internal logic.  He keeps us guessing throughout.  Is this just the ‘infirmity of age’, or a quite natural reaction to all boundaries being removed, as if he is truly seeing the world for the first time.  He brings a preternatural energy to Lear’s journey, and if there was ever a case of never being too old to learn, this is it.  He ends the play truly enlightened, not self-pitying any more.

It is hard to describe the intensity of Pennington’s performance, and inevitably there is a drop in dramatic tension when he is off the stage.  Perhaps it is an intrinsic fault of the play, but many of the other characters seem underwritten.  It also seems plot-heavy compared to the poetry of Lear’s internal landscape.  However, there are some enjoyable performances.  We are told early on that the fool is pining for Cordelia, and Joshua Elliott really does convey the melancholy of a comedian who has lost his sense of humour.  His routines come from a place of pain and we can imagine how unwelcome his newfound honesty will be.  Shane Attwooll appears relatively briefly as the Duke of Cornwall and immediately establishes himself as a bruiser looking for trouble.  Catherine Bailey is a convincing Goneril, plausible as the concerned older sister who just wants the best for her father’s dotage, and gradually sucked into far more sinister motives almost in spite of herself.  Tom McGovern plays Kent, the loyal servant who is banished but decides to stick around by disguising himself with a new hat, a Scottish accent, and no glasses.  It works surprisingly well, and there is something touching about the liberation that he experiences once he is no longer bound by court rules – taking on the character of a tough and unpredictably violent commoner, he enjoys the licence of beating people up in the good cause of protecting his master.  The return to reality for him is abrupt and shocking.

There is no point in trying to hide it – we came for Michael Pennington and he made the trip to Cambridge worthwhile.  But we did wish that we had seen a production which really got to grips with the play – we just didn’t feel as engaged as we should have done.  To return to one of our favourite bugbears, what was the purpose of the vaguely early twentieth century costumes?  We struggled to work out what resonance there was supposed to be with this time in history.  And later in the play a Doctor appears with stethoscope and a red cross armband.  Sometimes these things can work, but we felt in this case the slightly random costuming was a symptom of a wider lack of focus in the direction.

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