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.
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!
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!
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!
Based on the 1973 Jean Poiret play of the same name the musical version of La Cage aux Folles has long been one of the glitziest of musicals to grace our stages since its American premiere back in 1983. With just a few revisits in this country following its 1986 London opening it is astonishing that it has never toured. The master of UK touring Bill Kenwright is the man to finally bring it out on the road after all these years and he has done so with all the glamour and Joie de Vivre it deserves.
If you peel away some of the gloss there is the recipe for real heartfelt drama just beneath the surface with an examination of love and its challenges as well as acceptance around sexuality and individuality. Harvey Fierstein’s book never really challenges any of these possibilities and instead rides along with Jerry Herman’s sumptuous music and lyrics with nothing but sequined and dazzling glamour.
Young Jean-Michele wants to bring his new fiancée home to meet his parents and introduce them to his prospective but very conservative in-laws. His parents though are St Tropez nightclub owner George and his star turn drag queen and long term partner Albin. In trying to hide the true identity of Albin there is plenty of comedy to be had but more importantly there is the upset that this man has raised Jean-Michele as his own for 20 years and is now being asked to hide his true identity to please the right wing politician Father who is also hell bent on closing the nightclubs of St Tropez.
Any production of La Cage rests firmly on its Albin and more importantly on his drag alter ego Za Za. In the main John Partridge does a rather fabulous job and positively drips glamour. The fine line to a perfect Albin though is keeping the drag queen in him tamed enough to allow that wonderfully maternal side out that has spent so many years raising and nurturing Jean-Michele. It is here that Partridge is less convincing. In his somewhat savage approach to Za Za Partridge is sadly more of the Lily Savage style drag queen than the wholly ladylike Danny La Rue style emale impersonator that is more believably family orientated. His slightly self-indulgent attacks on the audience immediately create barriers to likability. That being said Partridge has moments of real emotion and belts out his numbers with great power, and is particularly moving when singing the shows rousing anthem to acceptance ‘I am what I am’.
Adrian Zmed is George and rightly plays down the camp as he tries to keep all of his loved ones happy at once. Zmed is understated and proves himself a perfectly acceptable George without ever really hogging the limelight. Despite his strong voice he doesn’t always look comfortable onstage but manages to convince nonetheless.
Support is strong throughout with likeable performances from Dougie Carter as Jean-Michele and Alexandra Robinson as Anne. Samson Ajewole ramps up the camp with his ridiculously raucous Jacob the maid with legs that most women would sell their Grandmother for! There is also an oddly underused Marti Webb as local restaurateur Jacqueline that provides an element of gravitas to the ensemble.
Alongside Partridges flamboyant Albin though it is the remaining ensemble that makes up the Cagelles that really steal the show. Dripping in sequins and ostrich feathers and with legs to die for and heel defying dance moves these guys are what La Cage Aux Folles is really about. Who cares about the message when we have this level of glamour to gawk at. These really are the best of times!
There is an endless stream of comment within the industry of the lack of roles for older women on our stages at the moment. No real surprise then that political activist and feminist comedienne Sandi Toksvig has gallantly ridden out to provide a platform to try and adjust the balance. It is sad to report however that for such an intelligent and witty lady to have penned this rather feeble and lazily written play of nonsense does her or her cause very little justice at all.
The message behind the piece is obvious and justified. The state of our nation that is able to forget our old people and lose sight of their contribution and value is a crisis and a scandal that must be addressed. The framing device with which Toksvig has chosen to give this message is far less effective.
Five residents of a care home are awaiting rescue as storm Vera approaches them with apparent biblical proportions. However it would appear that they have been forgotten and have been left to their own devices in their attempts to either stay safe or to make a break for some kind of misguided freedom. The only assistance on hand is that of an entirely unbelievable carer that would appear to fit every kind of attitude filled teenager stereotype in the manual.
The five residents all take it in turns to reveal something about themselves and about their past. Each has their carefully apportioned comedy moment with an equally measured amount of sentimentality. The touching moments are far and few between however in this great sandwich of caricature and stereotype and this is where Toksvig falls down, does anybody really speak like this in real life? Of course they don’t. Even the most absurd of comedies needs to be rooted in some kind of reality and both characterisation and situation in this case are woefully detached from any kind of reality that I know.
Most effective are Maggie McCarthy and Joanne Monro as sparring sisters May and June. Competitiveness and envy have masked each other’s views of the ultimately unfulfilled lives that they have each led. Rachel Davies makes a gallant effort at a likeably ditsy Maureen while Amanda Walker spends the most part mute with only flurries of dialogue as the inexplicable St Michael clinging on to a chest filled with sex aids. As Gloria, Sheila Reid gives a fairly uninteresting turn with striking similarities to her Benidorm character Madge. There is also an utterly nepotistic cameo from Toksvig’s son that brings nothing to the plot in any way.
There were of course others in the audience that were positively guffawing with laughter. For me though the only silver lining was the knowledge that it would end.
Its a brave man to tackle Lear but an even braver one to tackle it twice in as many years. Michael Pennington is one of those quietly modest but quite exceptional actors that plies away at his trade without any fuss or starriness whilst always offering a quality and a professionalism that is a lesson in acting in itself.
Pennington took on Shakespeare’s tale of woe and emotional breakdown in New York in 2014. His soon to be released book of his time there and his approach to the role will be a must-read for any fan of theatre, so it is now a real treat for him to revisit the role as well as for UK audiences to see what he can do (the production embarks on a UK tour after its run in Northampton).
The most remarkable thing about Pennington is the power that comes from his otherwise frail and delicate looking frame. He commands a level of presence and speaks with a delicious air of authority that exudes regal command whilst being able to drop to a heart breaking whisper as well. He clearly revels in the language and is at home searching his way through the verse.
Following the indisposition of director Philip Franks it is Max Webster who has gallantly stepped in and picked up the reigns on this production. It is unclear as to how much involvement each of them had and which bits belong to whom, it probably doesn’t matter. There is nothing really new or different about this production which is never going to set the world ablaze, but it is done with a clear narrative and a solid base.
Whilst Pennington is superb it is in those around him that the production falters. Pip Donaghy is a fine Gloucester as to is Tom McGovern as Kent with Gavin Fowler giving his well defined form to a nice portrayal of Edgar. But there are then some real misfires with Scott Karim’s ridiculously foppish Edmund and Joshua Elliott’s strangely unengaging Fool. Rather than conceited, manipulative, dashing and womanising Karim’s Edmund is more tortured poet, complete with floppy hair and bandy legs he even dresses in black velvet as opposed to military or manly refinery. Elliott’s Fool is difficult to pin down as well. What is his relationship with the King? He appears not to be very funny and there is no great sense of him being in the inner circle of knowledge, so why is he there? And why is he wearing a dress?
In the three daughters there is a lack of real feeling. Catherine Bailey’s Goneril and Sally Scott’s Regan are more spoilt well-to-do Stepford Wives than scheming and vindictive murderers, unnatural hags they appear not. So where the venom has come from in them it is never fully explained. Beth Cooke’s Cordelia is equally unmoving despite not setting a foot wrong in her portrayal.
For all of this productions merits there is much that is also strangely unsatisfying. Perhaps the change in director midway has meant the production losing its way somewhat and never really getting under the skin of the piece. With his previous Lear experience Pennington is already got it sussed and pulls it off with ease, but the others appear to be lacking in real persuasion when it comes to their own characters. As they explore their roles as the tour sets off perhaps this will change.
It’s a big year for Shakespeare as the festivities to commemorate 400 years since his death are well and truly underway. Odd really that we are celebrating someone’s death, although in doing so we are really celebrating his life of course. Certainly there can be no other playwright that has endured in quite the way that he has. His writing continues to transcend barriers of race, culture, language and age. There is still an insatiable appetite for his work. No wonder really as it is masterly.
None more so than the mightiest of them all in King Lear. There is an abundance of them this year with Manchester being the first out of the starting blocks. Michael Pennington will be in Northampton and then touring with his, before we see Timothy West follow in Bristol, Anthony Sher in Stratford and then tantalisingly Glenda Jackson at the Old Vic.
Here though is Don Warrington’s turn in the dazzling space that is the Royal Exchange under the Talawa theatre company banner. Talawa has become the leading theatre company in the UK for Black actors. Diversity in theatre is the hot topic of the moment and frankly is getting quite boring yet I am pleased to see that White actors have been included in this company that could otherwise have been accused of being just as prejudiced as the many other areas of theatre are suggested to be.
To be honest I don’t give a jot what colour skin any of these performers have. It should be nothing more and nothing less then being about the performance they give and the interpretation of this remarkable work, and in Michael Buffong’s very earthy and ancient production there are some terrific performances.
Warrington takes a thoughtful and leisurely approach to his Lear. He resists the trap of leaping into madness too soon and develops an approach to him that resonates more with the modern understanding of mental health then the usual immediate decay into dementia. His clipped and precise delivery as he calmly divides his kingdom and the control of his rage when banishing Cordelia is striking. It is only once the vicious claws of his two elder daughters are fully and savagely under his skin do we see him really being driven to madness. Is this emotional breakdown more than dementia caused by the horror and devastation that he can be treated thus by his offspring.
In Rakie Ayola’s Goneril and Debbie Korley’s Regan rarely have I seen such a terrifyingly unified and venomous pair of daughters. Immediately believable are they in the way that they mentally torture and savagely break the King. They truly chill each time they take the stage.
Alfred Enoch is an energetic Edgar with a great likability about him although at times is too frenetic as Poor Tom for somewhat inexplicable reasons. Fraser Ayre’s Edmund is solid and just about holds his own against both women to whom he has become promised. Philip Whitchurch is less convincing as Gloucester with a lack of warmth to his relationship with the King and Wil Johnson makes the odd decision to turn his Kent into a cheeky chappie with a cockney twang to his cheery banter that would rival Dick Van Dyke.
The revelation in this production however is Miltos Yerolemou as the always very complicated and rarely ever successful Fool. There is a painful affection in Yerolemou’s portrayal who looks upon the unfolding tragedy displaying all of the pain in his face that his dear old Master cannot. As the King descends into madness Yerolemou cleverly uncloaks his Fool to counter it by way of his own ascent into sanity. The silly outfit is removed and the make-up disappears. The tenderest scene of the evening is not the normal awakening or the reunion of the King and Gloucester, but is actually the King and his Fool having just been cast from the house. As Warrington utters his “Let me not be mad” and his Fool holds him and looks on with desperation he is hoping for the same. It is a beautiful, simple and incredibly moving moment between two soul mates.
It has been billed as the theatrical event of 2016 and judging by the reaction of audiences that have paid some extraordinary prices for seats in the magnificence of the London Coliseum it might be just that.
It is a coup indeed that the newly created partnership that brought Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd to the Coliseum last year has managed to persuade Hollywood icon Glenn Close to recreate her portrayal of deluded and fragile Norma Desmond. Many have been sniffy that English National Opera have resorted to offering the frivolousness of musical theatre on their stage, however ENO need to pay the bills somehow and Opera is increasingly not doing that for them.
Close first starred in Sunset Boulevard, without doubt Andrew Lloyd Webbers finest score to date, back in 1994. Opening in Los Angeles before heading to Broadway Close was generally agreed to have been a fine Norma. Now some twenty years later to return to the role again is a rare opportunity for her to refine her portrayal with the added insight of age on her side at 69 and I am happy to report that it is an astonishing portrayal at that.
With Lonny Price in the directors seat it strikes me that there is more than just a mere nod to Trevor Nunn’s original direction. However there is also some great original work going on in this ‘semi-staged’ version as well. The heavenly ENO orchestra under the fine baton of Michael Reed is nestled under a series of black wrought iron staircases and gantries that lend themselves to a number of different uses and settings. With Anthony Powell’s original Norma costume designs having been resurrected as well this is still a feast for the eyes and is a good gear shift up from just being ‘semi’ staged.
A universally strong cast work hard and fill the large Coliseum stage with ease. Stephen Mear’s choreography makes for some fine moments with a full ensemble giving us the hustle and bustle of film sets and back lots out of which emerge strong leads all round. Siobhan Dillon brings a touch of class to the often underwhelming role of love interest Betty whilst Fred Johanson is strength personified in his trussed up, brooding Max. Johanson’s voice is deliciously thick and dark with just enough passion laying beneath the surface to remind us that Max is a man that as made some of the ultimate sacrifices for the woman he has loved for so long.
Michael Xavier is as dashing and charming as always and gives his Joe Gillis an energy that is just enough to make these women want to throw themselves at him. Perhaps lacking on cynicism enough to make some of his anti studio talk real at times he otherwise adds a suitably dry response to the melodrama of the desperate Norma clutching at a return to fame that we all know will never come.
It is that desperation and that clutching to a dream that brings the electricity to the evening with Close positively devouring the role that she appears to have been born to play. This is a role that walks a really fine line between a tragic figure of loneliness and sorrow and a laughable caricature of high camp. Even with brief moments of comedy Close never falls into the later and plays Norma as an ogre at times, but never drops the demand on us to feel sorry for this woman. This is a fierce performance that ebbs and flows with power and danger to a trembling vulnerability that is heart-breaking to watch.
The biggest shame with this fine production is that there is such a small window of opportunity for people to see it in its fleeting 5 week run. Something tells me though that we haven’t seen the last of this Norma with rumours of Close being eyed up to bring her back to the silver screen. It is a portrayal that deserves to be captured permanently that’s for sure.
I defy any person to not feel a course of excitement run through their veins as those iconic strings bash out the legendary chords that mark the start of Jeff Wayne’s musical version of War of the Worlds. Any child of the seventies or eighties will almost certainly be familiar with the weird and wonderful sounds that used to only come sparking out of our old vinyl record players. Now though we get to hear it all played live which only goes to heighten the drama.
Following several years of arena tours with a semi staged concert version of the hit music album it is the ever canny Bill Kenwright that has reigned in the Martians and put this into a more condensed theatre sized production. It is still part concert and part musical and of course the gargantuan space that is the Dominion is merely a midway point from arena to theatre really, but nonetheless it works.
It works for one simple reason. The semi staged nature of the show means that it is the music that is the star of the show, and it is that that holds centre stage at all points with original composer Jeff Wayne conducting and holding court throughout. Wayne jerks, sways and thumps his way through the show in an almost slumped standing position centre stage on a podium that moves this way and that to ensure constant prominence. Wayne and his creation are one and it is clear in his odd collection of movements that his baby permeates his every sinew and courses through his blood.
Released in 1978 the album has been one of the biggest worldwide hits ever created and makes you pine for the carefree days of creativity that could lead to such a creation. It even makes me pine for the days of vinyl and that epic album sleeve of illustrations and story telling that is long since lost.
Kenwright stalwart and long term collaborator Bob Tomson has put together a plausibly engaging show with all reverence being given to the spectacular musicianship of a stellar orchestra and its conductor. Bells and whistles there are aplenty with Tim Oliver’s dazzling lighting design and Ric Lipson’s nifty set design. Flames shoot out of the foot of the stage and the giant three legged Martian tripod plods its way across the stage. It may not always be slick and pretty but it is never anything less than impressive.
Liam Neeson sits in for original journalist Richard Burton via projection screens that dip in and out with a bit too much regularly but the cast of real people on stage hold it together with greater ease. Michael Praed plays the ‘living’ journalist with a solid level of sincerity and in fine voice too. Original cast member David Essex runs about energetically enough with an relaxed feel to his stage time whilst Jimmy Nail as troubled Parson Nathaniel desperately looks for belonging in his role but never quite finds it.
Some of the acting is over egged to be sure but it really doesn’t matter. This is a great spectacle and is more importantly an opportunity to hear the phenomenal sound of the this classic score and is a real treat.