Saturday, May 23, 2015

New Play, New Theatre (kinda): BOMBER'S MOON

A week or so ago we went to see a new play at the Trafalgar Studios (aka the old Whitehall theatre).  It was in the smaller 'studio' theatre (aka the old stalls seats) and was the first time I had been to this alarmingly small space.  It would be advised that anyone with 'touching' issues stay well away from it.


We saw BOMBER'S MOON, a new play by William Ivory about the burgeoning friendship between an old man and his younger carer.  It had moments but mostly felt a bit padded and could have done with a shorter running time.

Jimmy is a cantankerous old man who lives alone in a sheltered accommodation flat who at night is haunted by memories of the bombing raids over Germany he was involved in during World War 2.  He relies very much on his daily carer but is upset when his usual help is replaced by David, a hesitant newcomer.


Slowly a trusting relationship develops between them with Jimmy providing David with encouragement in his new job and in his personal life as a recently-separated husband while David encourages Jimmy to talk about his World War experiences, especially when Jimmy discovers that David has strong religious beliefs which remind him of his best friend who was killed in the war.

And that's about it, towards the end David is arrested after a fracas with his ex's new partner and Jimmy finally reveals the true extent of his feelings for his long-dead friend.  This last revelation was the only part in the play that took me by surprise and it is a measure of James Bolam's performance that it rang true as he suggested a man who has lived many years with a genuine feeling of loss.


 I can't stay Steve John Shepherd ever made much of an impression on me before but here he gave a fine performance of a man trying desperately to do good for others to cover up his own troubled life.  It is more the fault of Ivory that ultimately the character is less of a real person than a series of
attitudes for Jimmy to argue against.

Matt Aston's direction certainly brought out the best in the actors but in the end it was a two-hander that could have done with at least one other person knocking on Jimmy's door, although I will admit the play's final moments gave it an emotionalism that it had lacked up until then.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dvd/150: FOLLIES IN CONCERT (Michael Houldey, 1986, tv)

Originally shown on the BBC's Omnibus, this documentary covers the lead-up to two concert performances of Stephen Sondheim's musical FOLLIES at New York's Lincoln Center with the Philharmonic Orchestra.


Sondheim and record producer Thomas Z. Shepherd were unhappy that the 1971 cast recording of FOLLIES was severely edited to fit on one album so in 1985 they had the opportunity to record two semi-staged concert performances of the full score.


It stars Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin and George Hearn with remarkable supporting performances from Elaine Stritch, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Newman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Liliane Montevecchi, André Gregory and Licia Albanese among others.


We see them nervously rehearsing quickly-learnt songs in the few days leading up to the concerts and sharing their thoughts on the resonance of the material as they are all contemporaries.


A touching, entertaining tribute to the show and it's cast.


Shelf or charity shop? You're kidding right?


CLOSER TO HEAVEN is still out of reach

Since it's unsuccessful first run in 2001 I have often wondered when the Pet Shop Boys musical CLOSER TO HEAVEN would get a revival.  Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's electronic score finds room for both their signature dance beats and their introspective ballads and I've played the original cast recording regularly over the years.


Despite showcasing a magnificent star performance from Frances Barber as the drug-addled Eurotrash hostess Billie Trix, the original production foundered at the Arts Theatre after 5 months with most critics pointing the finger at Jonathan Harvey's paper-thin book which fundamentally damaged the show despite the goodwill that the score and cast generated.


But now - and I might have guessed this would be the case - the enterprising Union Theatre in Southwark have revived the show and the fact that it sold out in a few days shows that I wasn't the only one wanting to see it again.  I had hoped that Harvey's book would be re-hauled for this second twirl round the go-go pole.  Sadly that is not the case - and it looks even more threadbare on the unadorned Union stage.


I suspect that this is also down to the equally threadbare casting.  Like the Bridewell Theatre in the 1990s, it's great to have a theatre which regularly stages musicals that otherwise would not be revived but it must be said that the shows are cast with performers from the second or third rungs of performers.  A scan through the programme mostly reveal understudies, fringe and regional productions, cruise ship performers or first-job from Drama School.  Now I know everyone has to start somewhere... but not the lead surely?

CLOSER THAN HEAVEN follows two young characters whose lives intersect at a Soho gay club run by Vic, a hard-drinking, hard-snorting self-confessed "vampire" who lives at night.  Vic's daughter Shell from a short-lived straight relationship makes contact with him after many years and they struggle to establish a relationship.  At the same time, the effortlessly sexy - and Irish - Straight Dave arrives looking for work as a bartender although he soon establishes himself as the club's lead dancer.


Shell and Dave are attracted to each other and through her job as a PA to a gay record producer Bob Saunders, Dave is lined up to be the new member of his boy band Up & Coming.  Dave warily keeps the nasty Saunders at arm's length but finds himself attracted to the surly Mile End Lee, a young drug dealer who supplies Vic and his temperamental Eurotrash hostess Billie Trix in drugs.

Vic tries to clean up his life and club to impress Shell but when he discovers Mile End Lee delivering a large drugs package to Billie, he fires her and confiscates it.  Shell sees Dave and Lee getting physical in the club toilet and she dumps him.  Lee and Dave have a night together but Dave later dies from a ketamine overdose.  Dave becomes a pop star in his own right.

The End.


All the characters are expertly introduced during the opening number MY NIGHT but after the interval, Harvey's anorexic book starts coming apart at the seams.  Vic, Shell and Billie are neglected midway through the second act as the spotlight is switched to Straight Dave and Mile End Lee who promptly dies which leads to the big eleven o'clock teary ballad FOR ALL OF US, but it's efforts to get the tear ducts working fail because we are being asked to care for a secondary character who has had minimal effect on our sympathies up until then.

The show's climax - Dave's ascent to stardom - is unexplained and is obviously there to end the show with an uptempo number - but in this revival, the original last number, the excellent Barry White-sampled POSITIVE ROLE MODEL is ditched for VOCAL, a track from the last Pet Shop Boys album.


Director Gene David Kirk plods through the troublesome second act relying on the lights, music and his seven-strong ensemble to bump their crotches - no hiding when you are in the front row believe me - and grind their bums to hopefully distract from the paucity of content.  Said ensemble are excellent by the way but sadly Owen pointed out the similarity in Philip Joel's choreography to the famous, embarrassing flailing-about of Westlife's first appearance on Irish TV.  Once pointed out I couldn't get it out of my mind.

As in the original production some actors made the most of what they had to work with.  Although a bit shrill, I liked Amy Matthews' Shell as well as Craig Berry's blokey Vic while Ken Christiansen made the most of the viperous Bob Saunders.  Praise too for Ben Kavanagh as Flynn, Saunders' bitchy assistant.


The main problem was in the performances of Katie Meller as Billie Trix and Jared Thompson as Straight Dave.  As I said above, Frances Barber created a wonderful sacre monstre that covered up some of the dodgy, fag-haggy type lines Harvey gives her and sang her big solo FRIENDLY FIRE with a world-weary sadness that was really stopped the show.  Sadly Meller just doesn't have the wattage to deliver, her casting is a complete mystery other than I guess she's affordable.

Jared Thompson was even more problematic.  Paul Keating played Straight Dave at the Arts and was believable as the sexually-confused new kid on the go-go box while also being charismatic enough to make you believe in the other characters' interest in him but Thompson appears to not so much act as point his lantern jaw, floppy hair and erect nipples at people.  There was another more irritating problem - I had to laugh when he lisped through the line "Why does everyone think I'm gay".  Because they have ears?  What made me truly baffled though was in Thompson's duet with Connor Brabyn's Mile End Lee in the second act, Brabyn showed he had an excellent, strong singing voice - how on earth was he not cast as the lead?


So there we are, CLOSER TO HEAVEN has been revived and it is still has problems.  Not the first time a great score has been allied to a weak book but all the more frustrating when you can see it's obvious potential.  I am guessing we might not see another production anytime soon.

PSB have been very supportive of the show which is good of them and Neil Tennant was actually in the third row at our performance - I was quite sanguine about it, I only looked round a handful of times!  Oh for the chance to question him about what he really thinks of it.


I have been playing the original cast recording ever since seeing it and believe that this show could be successful if they dropped Jonathan Harvey's script which has all the depth of a Boyz magazine comic strip.

Three months after CLOSER TO HEAVEN closed, Boy George's TABOO opened a few minutes walk away from the Arts and ran for over a year.  Both dealt with gay club culture, had a bisexual leading character and of course both had scores by artists who had come to prominence in the 1980s.  In retrospect I think why TABOO survived was down to a sympathetic, inclusive outlook which CLOSER TO HEAVEN ultimately lacks.  You simply don't care for any of Harvey's characters no matter how good the songs they are singing.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

ROMEO AND JULIET at The Globe

On Monday we made our way through the Bankside Bank Holiday crowds to visit the Globe Theatre for the first time this year - believe me, there will be a few blogs from there this season!  Odd as up until last year it was a theatre I was not keen on but with several involving 2014 productions (TITUS ANDRONICUS, ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, JULIUS CAESAR) this year we are going Globe crazy.


My two previous visits to productions of Shakespeare's tale of star-cross'd lovers have left me rather unsatisfied - the most recent being the underwhelming National Theatre one in 2000 which was only memorable for Chiwetel Ejiofor's Romeo.  Neither was a patch on Baz Luhrmann's wonderful updated 1996 film with it's charismatic pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Although I was apprehensive that the Globe's production is a touring version with a cast of only 8 actors it actually proved to be a good production that certainly concentrated the mind for the "two hours traffic" of the stage.


Being the Globe needless to say the production was bookended with a song and dance routine, this time a frantic Eastern European-style tune.  I know it's all part of the roister-doistering Globe ethos but it's a bit jarring after the big death scene at the end.

As I said it's only a cast of 8 so there is a lot of doubling-up - almost comically so at one point when Matt Doherty as Tybalt walks upstage, slings on a robe and is back as Paris!  Maybe one more actor would have given the rest of the cast at least a chance to catch their breath.


Luckily Samuel Valentine's Romeo and Cassie Layton's Juliet don't get to double up - that really would be daft!  I really liked Cassie Layton's performance, she spoke the verse with great passion and made the most of her soliloquies, Valentine (ha!) was suitably trouble-tossed as our ginger Romeo but couldn't quite match Layton in the desperate passion stakes.

The stand-out supporting performance was Sarah Higgins as the Nurse, played with a broad Scottish accent, who stole every scene she was in with brio.  Also making an impression was the louche tattooed Mercutio of Steffan Donnelly (sadly his Queen Mab speech was nearly drowned out by a circling helicopter!) and the muscular Tybalt, clueless servant Peter and impassioned Paris of Matt Doherty.


Dominic Dromgoole (in his last season as Artistic Director) and Tim Hoare's direction focuses the action well with a stripped down production acted in and around a tall trestle platform and gives us a ROMEO AND JULIET which grips and moves in equal measure.

As I said the production is touring around the UK until August so it is well worth checking the website to see if it's coming near you.



Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Dvd/150: NIGHT GALLERY: THE FIRST SEASON (various directors, 1969-70, tv)

Rod Serling's portmanteau horror tv series ran for four years, each episode involving several stories.  They range in quality: the better ones are models of spooky brevity, the jokey ones outstay their welcome.


The first season includes some memorable tales: Roddy McDowall kills his artist uncle but notices a graveyard painting changing; imperious and blind Joan Crawford - directed by a young Spielberg - blackmails a doctor to operate on her eyes so she can see; fugitive Nazi Richard Kiley seeks a strange escape when finally tracked down; vagrant ex-doctor Burgess Meredith discovers a medical bag from the future; John Colicos is rescued from a lifeboat to bring doom to his rescuers and William Windom's washed-up executive is haunted by a coming-home party from years ago.


Robert Serling was a memorable host and other tales included Larry Hagman, Joseph Wiseman, Diane Keaton, Agnes Moorhead, Rachel Roberts and Raymond Massey.


Shelf or charity shop?  The best stories deserve a place on the shelf

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Design Overload: LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE and AH, WILDERNESS!

Seeing Caryl Churchill and Eugene O'Neill plays are never going to be the most laugh-heavy evenings but two recent theatre visits have been made harder by distracting scenic concepts.


Caryl Churchill wrote LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE in 1976 for the Joint Stock Theatre Group where it was performed by six actors.  Now here we are, revived at the National with a cast of eighteen with forty-four supernumeraries bulking out the stage.

I can understand why director Lyndsey Turner has wanted to flesh it out - election year, a play about the different protest factions left to flounder after the Civil War, big stage needing an epic play of the people etc. etc.  It just doesn't work - and it doesn't work with the scenic concept that has been clamped down over the text like a metal cloche.


The stage is filled with a huge wooden table - raked like a platform stage - at which are seated noblemen eating a candlelit dinner in the first act, puritan scribblers in the second.  The characters in Churchill's fragmented scenes clamber up onto the table and play their scenes with admirable commitment but without much interest generated for me as I nodded off a few times in the first act.

The play was arrived at through a research workshop and at times I felt I really ought to paying more attention as each scene felt like a 17th contemporary pamphlet being acted out but it's sheer relentless dourism made it hard to engage with anything - and just as you felt being drawn into a debate, we were treated to a group folk sing-song. Yawn.


Cromwell's New Model Army has won the Civil War but in it's wake troops of dissenters have appeared, all of whom think the time has come for their visions to be fulfilled but all of them had not realised that Cromwell was replacing one tyranny with another and he sounded the death knell for their hopes and ambitions.  The Ranters who believe that God is within and wanted sexual and political freedom, The Diggers who wanted all common ground to be given over to the common man, and the more politically-minded Levellers who drew support from unhappy members of the army are all represented.

The second act begins well with Gerrard Winstanley demanding his rights to farm on common land but again Turner's wish for a scenic Big Idea muffs the action by having the supernumeraries break up the large table with spades to disclose a huge allotment underneath.  A nice scenic idea but in practice it means that the following scenes are overshadowed by extras pulling up the planks of wood and slowly moving them off the stage, ridiculously distracting and something that should have been quashed during the technical rehearsals.


Performances from Nicholas Gleave, Ashley McGuire, Joe Caffrey and Ann Ogbomo were good, but they would have worked better in a smaller, less distracting production.  Bruno Poet's lighting is good, Soutra Gilmour's costumes are down to her usual drab standards and Es Devlin is responsible for the distracting set.  I must admit that while watching this first production under Rufus Norris' reign as NT Artistic Director, my heart sank a little - please don't let this be an omen.  I am also seeing Lyndsey Turner's HAMLET later this year at the Barbican which is again designed by Devlin.  Quakes.

Next was the Young Vic revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1933 play AH, WILDERNESS! which holds the distinction of being his only comedy.  Needless to say an O'Neill comedy is hardly Brian Rix material but it has a gentle charm where the comedy is more character-based than anything that happens within the plot.


Which is just as well as director Natalie Abrahami has thrown out O'Neill's stage directions and set it in and around sand dunes which have taken over a large clapboard house.  Oh and she has a character obviously meant to be O'Neill who hangs around the stage, pulling props out of the sand - a table yet! - and intoning in voice-over the stage directions.  This drafted-in character also has the last lines, a paraphrasing of a quote from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which O'Neill inscribed to his wife on his own copy of the play.

So why?  Is Abrahami so unsure of the material that a concept has to be imposed on it?  To make it more 'relevant' to the Young Vic, a theatre which relishes director-imposed reinventions of texts?  When, at the start of the play, the O'Neill character describes in taped voice-over the stage description of the Miller household with it's tasteful but tasteless furnishings, none are to be seen - just banks of sand which the actors gingerly clamber over like so many turn-of-the-century mountain goats.


Richard Miller is 16 and at *that* age, discovering literature for the first time and brooding that all of his life will be stymied by his parent's conventional lifestyle and the lack of intellectual freedom in his world.  We've all been there and O'Neill's sensitive handling of the archetypal prickly teenager is charmingly done.  He is angered by his mother's blinkered ideas of his advanced reading matter - there is a nice joke when Oscar Wilde is said to have been found guilty of bigamy - but not far beneath the surface he still loves her and his amiable, newspaper-owning father.

He shares the house with his older and younger brothers as well as with a maternal uncle and paternal aunt.  Aunt Lily is on her way to becoming an old maid but quietly loves Uncle Sid but his not-so-secret drinking is getting out of hand and will always be a barrier between them - and needless to say, there is also a cheeky Irish maid too.


Richard is also struggling with his feelings for his neighbour Muriel whose father does not approve of him but when he goes out for a 5th of July drink with his older brother, he is seduced by good-time girl Belle.  It was around now that I managed to transcend Abrahami's absurd concept and started to just enjoy O'Neill's writing.

The play culminates in a scene between Richard and Muriel, full of wonderfully hesitant writing as they deny then declare their love and this is played against Richard's parents expressing their continued love for each other.  See Miss Abrahami?  The play is definitely the thing.


The usually-dependable Janie Dee played Essie the mother, but here she noticeably stumbled over a few of her lines, but there were good performances from Martin Marquez as her husband Nat, Susannah Wise as Aunt Lily and Dominic Rowan as the wastrel Uncle Sid (although his drunk acting was a bit over the top).  By far the performance of the evening was George Mackay as Richard, usually prickly and intellectually snobbish but played with great guile and he even executed a funny belly-flop into the onscreen lake.

Charles Balfour's lighting was a major plus for the production while Dick Bird's monumental set finally came into it's own when a lake suddenly appeared from nowhere.  Ultimately what made me annoyed was that Abrahami's handling of the performers proves she's a worthy director so there really is no need for the unnecessary concept imposed on the play.  I am sure if O'Neill had wanted AH, WILDERNESS! to be a dreamy, memory play he would have written it as such.


An odd footnote: AH, WILDERNESS! inspired no less than two musical adaptations - in 1948 Mickey Rooney starred as Richard in the MGM film SUMMER HOLIDAY while in 1959 Jackie Gleason won a Tony award for his role of Uncle Sid in Bob Merrill's TAKE ME ALONG.

An even odder footnote: It was Bob Merrill's second O'Neill-inspired score as in 1957 he had written the music and lyrics to NEW GIRL IN TOWN starring Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter which was based on ANNA CHRISTIE.  Go figure.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

GYPSY - now at the Savoy

Before my birthday trip to Paris - oh yes Constant Reader, I have been to Paris - I had the fabulous chance to see Jonathan Kent's revival of the classic Broadway musical GYPSY which we saw last year at Chichester.  It has now transferred to the Savoy Theatre so more people can experience the thrill of seeing Imelda Staunton's magnificent performance as archetypal stage mother Mama Rose.


I blogged about the show last year (re-read it here) but somehow Imelda's already great performance has got even better!  Scorching the silver Savoy paintwork with her act-closing solos of EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES and ROSE'S TURN, Imelda seems to have dug down into Rose's character and, while still the driven and argumentative woman blind to her children's real needs, she also reveals the inner Rose - a woman damaged by her own absent mother and who has become emotionally shellacked to deflect any more hurt.  As Herbie rightfully describes her, she is "a frontier woman without a frontier". 

One of the many strengths of GYPSY is it's magnificent book by Arthur Laurents which provides the jumping off point for the actresses playing Rose and Louise but without the emotional truth of director Jonathan Kent and Imelda Staunton, the characters can sometimes come across as unlikeable.


But not here, Staunton's Rose and Lara Pulver's Louise are vibrantly human and their final confrontation scene is a titanic clash that is all too painful.  Lara Pulver is quite marvellous as the neglected Louise, all too aware of her lack of talent but who parlays that into becoming her own special creation Gypsy Rose Lee, the classy burlesque queen.

Kevin Whateley has vanished during the move from Chichester to the Savoy and Herbie is now played by Peter Davidson in a fairly anonymous performance which is the one disappointment of the production.


And of course there is the glorious score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim which, 56 years on, sounds as fresh and magnificent as ever, especially under the music direction and new orchestration of Nicholas Skilbeck.

One of the score's great showstoppers did just that!  Mazeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura, the frowzy, hard-bitten strippers in a seedy Wichita burlesque theatre, stop their squabbling to teach Louise the most important rule of stripping YOU GOTTA GET A GIMMICK and Louise Gold, Julie Legrand and Anita Louise Combe rightfully earned a huge ovation.  Louise Gold is also covering the role of Mama Rose... now *that* would be something to see.


A special mention must go to Gemma Sutton's disgruntled Baby June and Dan Burton's Tulsa who dances the heck out of ALL I NEED IS THE GIRL.

It has just been announced that the production's run is being extended to Nov 28th - but why wait?  Book now!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

SWEENEY TODD: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Attend the tale...


Some productions are anticipated more than others.  One of my favourite musicals starring one of my favourite actresses who I first became acquainted with through her stage work but who has seemed lost to it forever since embracing films - oh and a birthday treat from two lovely friends.  I was on spilkes all day!

As I said, I first met Emma Thompson (both physically and artistically!) when she starred opposite Robert Lindsay in the marvellous revival of ME AND MY GIRL at the Adelphi in 1985.  For the intervening 30 years - 30 years!! - I have marvelled and felt great pride in her attaining the acclaim she has so rightly deserved as actress and writer, but have been quietly frustrated at her absence from the stage.  Her last stage performances were in 1990 when she played a caustic Helena and other-worldly Fool in the repertory season of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM/KING LEAR at the Dominon Theatre with then-husband Kenneth Branagh.


Emma has since said that the grind of being all-singing, all-dancing in ME AND MY GIRL for her run in the show was a strain which I suspect played a part in her absence from the stage although I also heard from an inside source that she had lost the bottle for live performance.

I asked her in 2006 when she was going to return to the stage and she joked that she couldn't do it while bringing up a daughter too - but who is that hidden in the chorus of SWEENEY TODD but Gaia Wise?  As I joined in the roof-raising ovation for Emma's bow I wondered "how can you turn your back on this?"  Hopefully this very short run has given her the confidence again as she really is wonderfully charismatic onstage.


Lonny Price's semi-staged production filled the Coliseum stage and spilled out into the auditorium which made it particularly thrilling to see from our great seats in the centre of the 2nd row of the Dress Circle.  SWEENEY TODD was the first in a new initiative to give the Coliseum, the home of the English National Opera and Ballet, over to a musical production once a year in attempt to get some cold, hard cash into the coffers.  How successful this idea will be is open to conjecture as a fully staged production would probably be too costly to stage for a limited run and a semi-staged usually leaves you wanting more.

It's right for big musicals to be performed on the Coliseum stage as in the 1950s KISS ME KATE, GUYS AND DOLLS, DAMN YANKEES, CAN-CAN and PYJAMA GAME all opened there, the relative failure of BELLS ARE RINGING ending this period of the theatre's history.  Of course the occasional musical has been staged by the English National Opera with varying degrees of success.


Of course the casting of Bryn Terfel as Sweeney Todd meant the opera audience would be booking too and he certainly sang the role to perfection but... This year is not only my 30th anniversary of knowing Emma but also is the 30th anniversary of my first seeing SWEENEY TODD onstage.  That was at the long-gone Half Moon Theatre in a production directed by Chris Bond, who had written the original play with music that Stephen Sondheim had seen at Stratford East in 1973.

Since then I have seen nine other productions, sometimes in raptures, sometimes baffled how they muffed it.  However the performances of Sweeney I remember fondly are when he has been played by an actor who can sing eg. Alun Armstrong and Denis Quilley at the National Theatre or Leon Greene at the Half Moon. Some have played the role in the same monotone all the way through which is annoying as Sweeney swings from despair to manic exaltation and actors like the above-named can play all that range with glee. Terfel played the role as I am sure he would in an opera production - letting his singing voice do everything but to do that is to miss so much.


Emma's Mrs Lovett on the other hand was played for all it's comedic worth and she sang it well too.  If she slightly missed out on the darker side of Mrs Lovett - she is the real engine for all the action once Sweeney walks into her shop - I suspect that can only ever really be brought out in a properly staged production. She did rise to the final scene very well when tha actress playing Mrs Lovett has to change from comedienne to tragedienne.

Emma had great fun with all the comedy business that Lonny Price found for her: making her worst pies in London on a kettledrum, stealing a seat from one of the orchestra, singling out a violinist during A LITTLE PRIEST and in a great idea, cutting Sweeney's hair while singing BY THE SEA. For her death scene - always a tricky moment in even the best production - Emma fell backwards into the orchestra pit - luckily straight into the arms of the chorus!


Philip Quast was an excellent Judge Turpin, superbly sung and as commanding as Terfel in their PRETTY WOMEN duet, and Quast was nicely partnered by Alex Gaumond as a particularly Uriah Heap-ish Beadle Bamford.  Rosalie Craig was an impressive Beggar Woman, lending her final scene a tragic pathos, and the sometimes problematic young juvs Anthony and Joanna were well sung by Matthew Seadon-Young and Katie Hall.  I felt Jack North as Tobias was a little overshadowed however.

As I said Lonny Price's vision for the sem-staging was wonderfully thought-through, using the whole of the auditorium - ingeniously so for the CITY ON FIRE scene when the lunatics really did feel all around us having escaped from Fogg's Asylum. 


The start was particularly fun: the stage was prepared for the usual concert staging, a line of music-stands along the stage apron, bouquets on stands on either side of the stage and a grand piano in front of the on-stage orchestra.  The cast walked onstage carrying their bound scripts, Emma looking regal in a flowing red dress, and launched into the brooding THE BALLAD OF SWEENEY TODD.

Halfway through, anarchy broke out with scripts hurled to the floor, music stands thrown into the orchestra pit, bouquet stands kicked over, piano toppled over and used as a podium and the large red curtain at the back is ripped down to reveal a punky backdrop - and the floaty wings of Emma's dress were ripped off!  It engaged me with Price's vision right at the get-go.  What didn't work was the obvious problem - how to do the gore?  I liked the idea of a bloody hand-print flashing on the back wall when a killing occurred but just having Sweeney's victims stand up from the chair and walk off was a bit redundant.


However what Price got exactly right was the last act which, if done right, is the most gripping theatre you will ever see as the action suddenly gathers pace and all the characters face their destinies.  Here, it was thrilling and as usual the show left me breathless!

I am sometimes asked what my favourite Stephen Sondhein score is and I have to admit the sheer range and emotional depth of SWEENEY TODD makes it my favourite and to hear it played by the English National Opera Orchestra was another absolute pleasure in a production that moved me to very happy tears.  You made me blub again Emma!!