King Lear – Minerva Theatre

To coin a phrase, Oh the difference between Lear and Lear!

Ian McKellen is no stranger to King Lear. Even before he took on the title role in Trevor Nunn’s 2006 production for the RSC he had already played Edgar and Kent in other productions. I was unmoved by his previous outing in the role in what was a large and overblown production in the Courtyard theatre before heading off on an international tour and then landing in the West End for a healthy run. It was also released as a film version.

It ticked all the right boxes of course and did well at playing to the masses. It was spectacular to look at and McKellen was as you would expect completely faultless in his performance. But it was always just that, a performance. This was Ian McKellen playing King Lear and as technically brilliant as it all was it never fully got beneath the skin of this huge and unforgiving role.

Having said that he had “unfinished business” with it McKellen has now returned to Lear, some ten years later. The theatrical knight is nearly at the “four score and upward” age that is given in the play. Perhaps it is age, perhaps it is his previous experience of the play (good and bad) or perhaps it is the intimate Minerva space that this new version is playing in, whatever it is McKellen has found his Lear and it is something quite exceptional and brilliant to witness.

Jonathan Munby’s brilliantly clear and narratively driven production allows Sir Ian to shine. The sumptuously regal setting by Paul Wills offers one of the most accessible openings to the piece that I have ever seen. McKellen resists heading into madness too quickly and takes a slow pace at his descent. This makes it feel all the worse as unlike many productions you feel as though you get to know the King before the madness and see the man that commands such loyalty from so many of his followers.

His followers are all solid in their portrayals. Danny Webb is an unusually feisty Gloucester whilst in another gender swapped Kent (the Globe played the same trick earlier this year) Sinead Cusack is heartfelt in her loyalty. Phil Daniels makes a quirky and musical Fool with strong performances too from a cold a bristly Dervla Kirwin as Goneril and an excitable and sexual Kirsty Bushall as Regan.

But all eyes are rightly on McKellen. As he lets the madness quietly take hold he manages to rage and to move with a deft craftsman-like ability. His awakening scenes are beautifully observed with his disturbingly realistic and desperately rattling death scene being both emotionally charged and devastatingly hard to watch.

Paul Wills has designed a stunning production that Mckellen clearly revels in. There is no fuss and nonsense just sheer class and brilliance from all quarters. This will go down as one of the great Lear’s and is a production that I hope will have some further life after Chichester.


Queen Anne – Theatre Royal Haymarket

Queen Anne was an interesting choice of subject matter for the RSC to produce a play about in its Stratford season in 2015. Like the National the RSC receives its subsidy in order to inject the bravery needed for exploring new work on subjects very few of us know about. However as a commercial transfer into the West End the decision making is less clear.

It’s a fascinating enough story however and is one that is worth telling. There is clearly a desire for costume drama and tales of a Royal nature particularly in demand so in the ever glorious surrounds of the time appropriate Theatre Royal Haymarket this production does all seem to fit together rather well. Perhaps it will be a runaway success but I’m not sure that the tourists of London will be quite as enticed as I’m sure the producers are hoping them to be.

Anne was a surprise Queen when she ascended in 1702. She was shy and crippled in pain. Her weaknesses led to exploitation by some around her who attempted to control her and manoeuvre themselves into positions of power. None more so than the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, a woman who bullied and tormented in a cleverly crafted and psychologically tortuous way.

Emma Cunniffe gives a pained and tortured portrayal of the bullied Queen. Cunniffe captures the quiet determination that lies beneath the surface with flashes of steeliness that defy the crippling posture that she endures throughout. This is a quietly brilliant performance that never over sympathises the ailments of the beleaguered monarch yet stirs a rousing support for her more from a domestic rather than political viewpoint.

Romola Garai is a strong Sarah Churchill but never fully expresses the rare moments of doubt that creep in on occasions. As she faces the prospect of being cut loose to fend for herself and lose the glittering notoriety that she has become accustomed to her desperation should be electrifying but Garai never fully lights that fuse.

With fine support from the rest of the company in Natalie Abrahami’s production there are moments of brilliance that bring Helen Edmunson’s writing to life. Interlaced with bawdy songs that poke satirical fun at the key players in the court of the time this is an intriguing evening that makes for a particularly interesting history lesson rather than an emotionally stirring evening of provocation.

King Lear – Globe Theatre

As the final production in Emma Rice’s short lived tenure at the Globe comes to its conclusion we can reflect on what has come to pass down on the South Bank. The hopes were that Rice would bring with her the winds of change for the venue that has always caused a discussion point between heritage establishment and museum or working creative space for vibrant and timeless theatre.

What actually happened is those winds of change became a hurricane like force that left in its wake a path of destruction the kind of which is still shocking that the Board of the Globe didn’t see coming. The use of amplified sound and modern lighting suddenly brought the sixteenth Century screaming into the twentieth. Of course with the never very distant sound of airplanes overhead and the music from local pubs and clubs never too far from the ear we were never really fully transported back in time.

So why shouldn’t we have some snazzy effects thrown in to a show in order to entice those much lauded new audiences that we hear so much about and that are apparently so desperately needed. Shakespeare himself was a modern and outward looking playwright that’s for sure. If he were writing and producing theatre today surely he would be using every trick in the box wouldn’t he?

The Globe must be careful that it doesn’t simply become a museum piece. As short as it has been Emma Rice’s time has kept that discussion at the forefront of what goes on in the wonderful outdoor space. She’s shaken things up and allowed us all to rethink what our expectations are and I hope that while keeping an eye on the past at all times we are also able to look to the future of theatre making in this space where and when it is appropriate.

In the case of Nancy Meckler’s new King Lear it is not the sound and lights that hold the piece back, but the attempt at contemporising the play that simply hasn’t worked. Drawing comparisons to the plight of the homeless in Lear is a worthy enough way of finding a route to get under the skin of the poor old King, after all he finds himself homeless with devastating enough consequences. Yet the conceit of Meckler’s production that starts with an army of squatters ransacking a boarded up stage and then randomly decided to put on a play never quite hits the mark or really catches on for the rest of the night.

Kevin R McNally gives a strong enough Lear although never fully manages to touch the heart in those excruciatingly painful final scenes. Bedecked in just a tatty old anorak it is hard to get him off the starting block of regal superiority for him to make the huge dissension that he must. Emily Bruni’s Goneril and Sirine Saba’s Regan are appropriately venomous with a gender swapped Kent given plenty of guts from Saskia Reeves.

There are some stirring uses of music, particularly in the battle scene that sees the cast using drums to thump out their charge upon each other. Elsewhere there are moments that just leave you baffled though. Wheeling around a large warehouse trolley seems to me like a step too far in what is an over egged attempt at modernising. The play must always be the thing.

The House They Grew Up In – Minerva Theatre

Chichester’s small and perfectly formed Minerva theatre is always at its best when telling a really human story. The proximity in which the audience sit with its company of actors is sometimes challenging (for actors and audience alike) but is most powerfully moving when examining the human condition.

When a space that is not much bigger than someone’s front room actually becomes someone’s front room there is an uncomfortable yet deliciously intriguing voyeuristic quality that can only be met in none but a few theatre spaces. Designer Max Jones has used this to his full advantage in his brilliantly detailed set for this co-production with the always terrific Headlong.

The piles of rubbish and clutter that form the house they grew up in of the title create a confused, oppressive and frightening world for us as spectators, but for Peppy and Daniel the siblings that have lived here since birth there is comfort in the chaos and familiarity in the filth.

Deborah Bruce’s play examines a kaleidoscope of issues around mental health and attitudes towards those living with the challenges that it presents. There are moments of clumsiness as Bruce uses external characters to invade the insular world of the struggling brother and sister but these are only brief. It is in the relationship between these two and in the portrayals given to them by the superb pairing of Samantha Spiro and Daniel Ryan that the piece excels in a beautifully poignant way which results in a rare display of hope and positivity in its conclusion.

It is with the arrival of the young boy from next door that really starts a chain of events to highlight the plight of Peppy and Daniel. Just as we, the audience begins to fear that we are to be taken down a very dark road with references to child abuse being made Bruce snatches us back just in time and shines the spotlight very firmly back on our perceptions of mental health and learning difficulties. A day to day struggle for the pairing along with a Godot like wait for the appearance of the elusive Uncle Manny results in a beautifully crafted twist towards the end that holds a magnifying glass up to our perceptions to that point.

Spiro gives an exhaustingly high energy performance as Peppy. With words racing from her at a hundred miles an hour and a physicality to match she is simply brilliant as her hyper activity gives way to utter confusion and bafflement of the world. In contrast it is in the beautifully observed stillness that Daniel Ryan succeeds in his portrayal of Daniel. The strength of both performances is that the tranquillity, kindness and love is never far from the surface. These are real people that deserve to be seen beyond their disability or their mental health label that people are always so quick to make.

Chiefly what Bruce has managed to write is a piece that refuses to follow normal dramatic rules in creating high drama but has written something truthful, thought provoking and genuinely touching.

Fiddler on the Roof – Chichester Festival Theatre

We seem to switch on our televisions almost daily and see entire communities being forced to resettle or disband due to violence and intolerance around the world. It makes Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s 1964 musical just as relevant, if not more so than it has ever been. So it is a canny move from Daniel Evans to make Fiddler on the Roof his first musical to direct on the main stage at Chichester.

Most striking of all is how at home Iranian born stand-up comic Omid Djalili is as he beautifully inhabits that wonderfully brow beaten yet uncompromisingly proud Father, Husband and community lynchpin Tevye. He’s a man that clings to his traditions whilst being the first to set them aside for the love of his daughters to ensure their happiness.

Lez Brotherson uses every available inch of the deceptively large Chichester stage in his clean and crisp designs. Using cleverly constructed pieces of the unsettled community’s luggage to create homes and locations he wittily and ingeniously evokes the Russian countryside and the rustic environment. The ever creative Brotherson has clearly enjoyed playing in the toy box with Evans as well for the dream sequence that sees manifestations of Tevye’s ancestors in-law thundering around the stage to great effect.

As the fiddler of the title sits aloft the false proscenium that has been installed, the Jewish settlers arrive to make the small town of Anatevka their home. Its a great use of the overture to see the town from its very beginnings through to its sad demise. The painful dispersal of Jews by the Tsarist forces in Russia left communities homeless and forced to leave the country in their droves. Stein captures this well in his book but it is in the domestic that he really scores the big hit.

As each of Tevye’s daughters find love Stein evokes the anguish, confusion and pride in him perfectly. Bock’s music and Harnick’s lyrics to beautiful songs like Do You Love Me also gently affirm Tevye’s love for the women he entered into an arranged marriage with 25 years earlier. It is touching without moving into schmaltz and always with a lightness of comedy that keeps this show feeling as fresh as a daisy at every turn.

Djalili may not be the best singer ever but it matters not. He has a relaxed and easy-going manner to his Tevye that is conversational and likeable. He dances and moves in a delightfully carefree way but always suggests a man that has responsibility weighing heavy on his shoulders. Tracy-Ann Oberman is equally matched with her fussing and mildly domineering Golde, his wife. Her love and commitment to her husband is never in doubt though.

This production boasts new choreography by Alistair David which is great throughout along with new orchestrations by David White which in parts add a delicious colour to some numbers whilst over complicating some of the simpler melodies in others.

This is a Fiddler that will be a very easy hit with the Chichester audience. It is nice to see that under Evan’s new tenure the Chichester hit machine continues with this fine production surely having life beyond West Sussex.

Bat Out Of Hell – London Coliseum

It must surely be a very long time since the roof of the dear old Coli has been blown off in quite such spectacular fashion as is achieved by this bonkers night of camp, ear splitting rock! In it’s continued effort to diversify and, presumably, to make more money in its rather public hour of need ENO has ratcheted up the commercialism to bring another musical into the program. There is nothing remotely classical or even classic about this monster and is a far cry from the recent Lloyd-Webber, R&H and Sondheim efforts of the last couple of years.

The minute you enter the ornate and normally very sedate Coliseum the epic scale of Jim Steinman’s rock opera is undeniable. Jon Bausor’s immense set impressively thunders its way into the auditorium immediately challenging and directly squaring up to the audience to give the very clear message that this will not be the normal offering. The monolithic like steel work of broken buildings of a dystopian future jaggedly threaten and draw you into Steinman’s world.

Its a world that much like most of the story is given very little explanation. It’s 2100 and Manhatten is now known as Obsidian. This post-apocalyptic world is ruled by a very corporate looking Falco who would appear to have suppressed his rocker roots of the past. An underground group of rebels that never age beyond 18 known only as The Lost are led by Strat who happens to have fallen in love with Falco’s daughter Raven. Its Romeo and Juliet meets Peter Pan with a heavy dose of We Will Rock You thrown in for good measure.

Steinman’s book makes no attempt to give any real backstory to any of this or give reasoning to any of it. In the early seventies Steinman penned an ill fated rock opera of Pater Pan that featured songs that would later make their way onto the original Bat Out of Hell album performed by Meatloaf. The Pan theme remains in the name of The Lost and with the never aging beyond 18 elements. One of the lost is even given the name Tink who comes to a sticky end much like his Fairy namesake of the JM Barrie classic.

However to dwell on story seems rather churlish when Steinman himself clearly puts very little credence on it. Where the show really hits a home run and knocks every bat from the bell free is in its sheer exuberance and unashamed revelry. The band belt out the Steinman classics that were made so familiar by Meatloaf with such clout that you just stop caring that none of it really makes much sense. The cast are universally awesome as they rock their socks off and sing for their lives. Even Emma Portner’s disastrous and massively misplaced choreography can’t put the brakes on this beast.

Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as Falco and his wife Sloane power each other along with more guts than a Harley as they belt out some great duets. Christina Bennington suitably transitions from timidity to rock chick as Raven with a notable performance from a stonkingly voiced Danielle Steers as Zahara. But it is a rousing and fine voiced performance from Andrew Polec making his UK debut that really blows away the cobwebs. For such a slight young man he is able to belt out Steinman’s songs with just as much power and edge as the mighty Meatloaf himself.


Wonderland – Touring

Perhaps it is the sheer absurdity of the Alice in Wonderland story that allows it to so endure over 150 years after it was first published. Lewis Carroll’s elegantly colourful characters range from the peculiar to the downright disturbing. At the centre of it all however is a young girl that just yearns to find some sense of belonging and identity.

Fast forward to 2011 and we get Frank Wildhorn’s adaptation of the familiar tale with a smattering of Carroll’s later Alice Through the Looking Glass thrown into the mix as well. In an attempt to bring the story up to date Wildhorn and lyricist Jack Murphy turn Alice into a single Mother of one with a divorce behind her, no job and a car that has just been stolen. That production lasted for just 64 performances on Broadway where it soon sunk into a rabbit hole somewhere to lick its wounds. It now bravely takes on the UK in a new tour that ramps up the colour and cranks up the volume knob in a vibrant and ultimately hugely enjoyable new production.

Set to an array of songs that are an eclectic mix of pop and funk Alice follows the White Rabbit not into a rabbit hole but into a broken down lift in her dire looking tower block. With teenage daughter by her side the most recognisable characters come and go with very little impact initially in the form of the smooth talking Caterpillar (a cool and creatively realised Kayi Ushe) and a shabby looking Cheshire Cat (an energetic but poorly defined Dominic Owen). Dave Willets as the White Rabbit is an anchor of calm amongst the chaos. Willets is in fine voice indeed and offers a reassuring confidence to an otherwise young company and in particular to his Alice in the form of Rachael Wooding (sharing the role with Kerry Ellis at some venues).

It is Natalie McQueen’s Mad Hatter that steals the show however. In a strange twist that sees the Mad Hatter hog a good proportion of the story by leading a coup d’état to take control of Wonderland from the Queen of Hearts ruthless hands. The power of course is all consuming and she quickly realises that there are better ways to deal with the problem. McQueen is brilliant in her madness with a belting voice and an energy about her that engages the entire audience. She really is as mad as a hatter!

With a great band and some simple but impactful designs this is a thoroughly engaging reworking of a story that looks set to survive for many more generations to come.

The Girls – Phoenix Theatre

A brand new, home grown and very British musical. That’s reason enough to celebrate surely! But more than that this is a story that has long been taken into the hearts of the Great British public and continues to do good through its awareness raising as well as fundraising. What more reason can there be to admire such a show. Of course there is the minor point that a certain national treasure and heartthrob in the name of Gary Barlow is the man behind the music, which may also be having an affect!

International superstardom aside it is a joy to report that Barlow has stayed true to this very English story of stoicism, bravery and community. He, along with writing partner and long-time friend Tim Firth, have created and crafted a beautiful show that never gives in to pathos despite being full of emotion. As befitting the original calendar girls themselves the musical has an elegant composure about it that never tries to be too showy and never tries to overegg the drama.

The story is well known already, not least because of Tim Firths already excellent work on both the film along with the subsequent play that has had both successful West End runs and record breaking national tours. Where the musicalisation of the story benefits however is the addition of music that conveys personality and emotion in a way that film or just the spoken word cannot.

Add into the mix the always very slick and high quality production values that are always insisted on by top producing partners David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers along with a classy ensemble of ladies that include some of the West End’s finest musical theatre talent of our time and we most certainly have a hit on our hands.

Firth navigates the emotions with a steady hand in a story that in the hands of somebody else could miss how uplifting it is despite the devastation caused by the passing of Annie’s husband John to Cancer. Of course the expertly played and bravely staged posing of the ‘nude’ calendar is hysterical and the comedy moments with the teenage children are magic. But it is in the relationships of the formidable WI members that the real inspiration, humour and perfectly depicted comradery fill the emotional cup.

Joanna Riding’s gentle but mightily strong Annie is a joy to watch and hear. Her determination to carry on and her clear love of the husband that has been taken away from her are beautiful. Claire Moore’s carefree Chris is a bold and brash performance that never totally loses the vulnerability about her. Debbie Chazen, Sophie-Louise Dann, Michelle Dotrice and Claire Machin all shine in their own way with their own unique but ultimately all slightly damaged ladies that are bonded through, not only the WI but some other fundamental need and insecurity within.

The designs by Robert Jones intertwine the domestic and the scenic in a landscape of cupboard doors befitting Barlow and Firth’s opening strains of one more year in Yorkshire. This is a musical that is homely, touching and created with love and is a fine testament indeed to those inspirational women of the WI that one day, nearly 20 years ago, decided to make a difference. They sure did!

42nd Street – Theatre Royal Drury Lane

As musical director Jae Alexander strikes up his fabulous 18 piece band and begins to rise from the orchestra pit before turning to the audience with a cheesy grin and a wink you know that this is going to be a full throttle crowd pleaser that packs no punches. In traditional 42nd Street style the curtain raises a few feet to reveal all those dancing feet, and my so many dancing feet there are.

The latest addition to the West End from the relatively newly formed GradeLinnit partnership is unashamedly brash, brassy and totally Broadway! With a cast of 50 on one of the West Ends largest stages in the venue that played host to the original London production this is something very special indeed.

Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s show about Broadway hoofers seamlessly slipped into musical theatre legend with a feel of the great MGM classics of the forties and fifties. It is in fact but a mere youngster however having only opened in 1980 on Broadway before its London transfer to Drury Lane in 1984. It was in this production that a young chorus girl by the name of Catherine Zeta Jones was thrust into the limelight when in a life imitating art moment she had to step in for the lead at short notice. She seemed to do alright after that!

The story sees Broadway old timer Dorothy Brock starring in a new show that is designed to save the career of celebrated director and hard task master Julian Marsh. Chorus girl Peggy Sawyer has to step in to save the day when Dorothy can’t go on and becomes an instant star. With such a basic plotline there is no real attempt to explore the narrative too much in Mark Brambles production. The two dimensional approach to characterisation and the shallowness of emotion however are forgiven in a show that is first and foremost about spectacle.

Sheena Easton cuts a fine figure as Brock with a belting voice and a great presence on stage. Tom Lister is suitable gruff as Marsh with fine and energetic comedy work from Jasna Ivir as Maggie and Christopher Howell as Bert. Claire Hulse as Peggy is a proper firecracker and sings her heart out and dances with lightning speed and finesse.

There is a very traditional approach to the design work with painted backdrops stubbornly resisting the onslaught of projection and automation that is the norm now in so many productions. A giant staircase that appears from nowhere certainly offers the jaw drop moment that still seems to be a pre-requisite.

Where there is certainly no scrimping however is in Roger kirk’s lavish costume designs with a mightily impressive array that seems to never end. It seems right though that it is the wonderful ensemble that are the focus of this production. Their exquisite and finely tuned tap numbers leave you breathless. Never have I seen such a uniformly terrific and perfectly synchronised chorus of tap dancing delights.

Whilst there may be nothing particularly subtle about this monster show there is plenty for the eyes to feast on that make it a complete pleasure to watch and will make you want to grab your tap shoes and go and meet those dancing feet!

An American in Paris – Dominion Theatre

If ever there was a candidate for the perfect musical it must surely be this utterly spell binding production that has sailed in from Broadway. The heady mix of a glorious Gershwin score and some of the most sumptuous stage designs currently to be seen in the West End make for an utterly joyous night.

It is the former Royal Ballet and thoroughly British dancer and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon that is behind this dazzling piece of dance led musical theatre. Wheeldon has captured the worlds of ballet and dance the world over but this is his first stab at directing a Broadway show. Premiering in Paris three years ago it shone brightly on the Great White Way before travelling across the pond with its two exceptional leads in tow.

It is those two leads that are the absolute icing on this already delicious cake. In Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope Wheeldon has found two stars that easily compare to the films original Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, and that is a statement that I don’t make lightly!

Opening with the departure of the Nazi’s from occupied Paris in 1945 the locals are taking a while to adjust to life. Whilst only fleetingly referred to in the narrative it is enough to establish the setting. Bob Crowley’s designs that are brought to spectacular life with 59 Productions stunning projection work is choreographed just as beautifully as the dancing company onstage. Splashing the monochromatic post war Paris with life is achieved with such artistic aplomb that you can’t help but be filled with joy as the gargantuan Dominion stage is bathed in colour.

As Jerry Mulligan the demobbed American GI that has decided to settle in Paris Robert Fairchild has it all. He sings with ease and looks every inch the dashing Hollywood heart-throb. He dances with such power and vigour that it is easy to see why Leanne Cope’s elegant and poised Lise falls head over heels for him. Cope is stunningly understated with a beautiful naivety about her that makes her every move purposeful and utterly delightful to watch.

To make up the trio of friends with Fairchild all of whom hold the same candle for Lise are a wonderfully dishevelled David Seadon-Young as Adam and a delightfully clumsy Haydn Oakly as Henri who manages to stop the show with his Stairway to Paradise number that is sheer old fashioned MGM style musical magic. Jane Asher provides a touch of class as Madame Baurel with Zoe Rainey gives an emotionally charged edge to her Milo Davenport.

With a magnificent orchestra under the direction of John Rigby to play a score of Gershwin hits (not all of which were in the original film) An American in Paris is nothing short of divine. This one is an absolute must see!