Monday, April 24, 2017


Happy birthday to William Shakespeare... born 453 years ago (and died 401 years ago).

Eight years ago I compiled four Top Ten lists of my favourite Shakespeare performances - lead & supporting male and lead & supporting female.

Eight years is a long time in theatre-going so to celebrate the greatest playwright ever, here is my updated list of favourite lead actors and their performances in key roles; these are the ones that all new interpretations are judged against.

BEST ACTOR (in alphabetical order):

 SIMON RUSSELL BEALE (King Lear - 2014)


 IAN CHARLESON (Hamlet - 1989)

 RALPH FIENNES (Richard III - 2016)

 HENRY GOODMAN (Shylock - 1999)

 IAN HOLM (King Lear - 1997)

 DEREK JACOBI (King Lear - 2010)

 RORY KINNEAR (Hamlet - 2010)

 IAN McKELLEN (Richard III - 1990)

 JONATHAN PRYCE (Shylock - 2015)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Dvd/150: EVERGREEN (Victor Saville, 1934)

A favourite of my friend Andrew, this is the 1934 film which consolidated Jessie Matthews as a genuine film star, EVERGREEN.

She had starred in the 1930 stage version which featured songs by Rodgers and Hart but only a few were used in the film, thankfully the lovely DANCING ON THE CEILING survived.

Music Hall star Harriet Green retires to marry a Lord but her estranged husband threatens to expose she has a baby. Harriet flees abroad and after her death, her daughter, also named Harriet, arrives in London to become a musicals performer.

Discovered by old showgirl Maudie and publicist Tommy, they convince Leslie Benn to star her in his upcoming show, masquerading as her 60 year-old mother returning to the stage ensuring the show's success.

Jessie Matthews is radiant but it is annoying that her co-star could have been Fred Astaire but his studio RKO refused.

Shelf or charity shop? I think I will hang onto it for a while...

THE GLASS MENAGERIE at the Duke of Yorks - truth through illusion...

By a lovely coincidence one of my favourite plays is currently on in London, just in time for my birthday!  I had been quietly - and not-so-quietly - looking forward to seeing this Broadway import and I am happy to say I wasn't disappointed!

With it's 1945 Broadway premiere, THE GLASS MENAGERIE catapulted Tennessee Williams into the forefront of American playwrights which was confirmed with his second play A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE - his remarkable style of autobiographical poetic realism hitting an unknown chord at the time which has resounded down the years.  They remain his most revived plays and for good reason, they have become plays that actors want to test themselves against.  Personally I find them both incredibly moving plays to experience.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE is a four-hander and each role is wonderfully mined by Williams to give any actor who plays them so many opportunities.  The play's premiere delivered a seismic shock across the theatre world and not only just for Tennessee's writing, as Laurette Taylor's performance as Amanda has echoed down the years - anyone who saw it said her naturalness in playing burned itself onto their memories and her death in 1946 aged only 63 surely robbed us of it being immortalized on screen, in the 1950 film version the British musical star Gertrude Lawrence played Amanda, a decision that Williams called "a dismal error".

What is interesting is that Taylor's performance was acclaimed because of the naturalness of her acting - Martin Landau said it was like an ordinary woman had wandered through the stage door and was moving around the stage - however it is usually the tendency for Amanda to be played in a barnstorming diva-style manner but in John Tiffany's excellent revival Cherry Jones is certainly barn-storming but totally within the world of the production; Tom, the narrator, tells us at the start that what we will see is what plays in his memory and his mother Amanda simply swamps his memory of life at home.

Tom Wingfield is a man haunted by memories of when he lived with his southern belle mother Amanda and his shy, withdrawn sister Laura in a cramped apartment in St Louis during the 1930s.  Mr Wingfield left 16 years before - "a telephone man who fell in love with long distances" as Amanda bitterly says - and since then she has managed to raise her children but her overbearing love drives them to distraction.  Tom longs to be a writer but has to work as a clerk in a shoe factory which he loathes and stays out at night to visit local cinemas and bars.  This piece of autobiographical writing is given resonance when we read that Williams' regular trips to his local cinema were, in part, to have sex with men in the dark.

Laura's lack of self-confidence due to a crippled leg and pathological shyness have led her to pretend to go to a business school which drives Amanda to despair when she finds out.  Amanda decides that Laura's only option is to find a man like the "gentleman callers" she remembers from her youth. Tom invites his only friend at work for dinner much to Amanda's delight but Jim O'Connor's appearance sets off a chain of events that will change the Wingfields forever.  Tom tells Jim he has used the electricity bill money to register for the navy and when the lights cut out, Amanda encourages Jim to sit with Laura by candlelight but we know this is exquisite torture for her as she used to silently adore Jim at high school.

This scene is beautifully written - Williams taking the time to set the characters up so the scene plays almost like a thriller as we hang on their every words: Jim trying to build up Laura's confidence, Laura's hesitant introducing Jim to her beloved glass menagerie and, above all, the realization that Jim would be the perfect boyfriend for Laura; her hopes smashed - like her favourite glass unicorn figurine that Jim knocks against - when he reveals that he is already engaged, the sadness becoming unbearable when she gives Jim the broken unicorn as a parting gift to remember her by.  Amanda's rage at Tom's ignorance of at his friend's engagement drives him from the flat for the last time and now his mother and sister haunt his peripatetic life.

As with most of Williams' plays it was arrived at through different permutations: it first appeared as a 1943 short story "Portrait of a Girl In Glass" and one of the interesting diversions from the play is when after The Gentleman Caller leaves, Laura enigmatically suggests that maybe she wasn't the only Wingfield child who was in love with Jim....  Williams also tried out the idea as a film script in the early 1940s when he had a six-month contract with MGM.  Luckily it all came together as a play.

John Tiffany's production was beautifully realized; Bob Crowley's stripped-down set seemingly hanging in darkness and - unseen by us from the back of the stalls - surrounded by inky-black water.  There was a surprising theatre moment when Michael Esper's Tom literally pulled Kate O'Flynn's timid Laura from the depths of the living room couch only to have her disappear within it at the end - this was a production which constantly reminded us through the use of Steven Hoggett's choreographed movement and Nico Muhly's tinking score that we were watching a non-realistic representation of Tom's memories.

In all the productions I have seen before, there was an imbalance in the level of performance but here John Tiffany elicited strong performances from all four: Cherry Jones and Brian J. Smith had played their characters in Boston and New York but they have still meshed well with the UK additions of Michael Esper (straight from the Bowie musical LAZARUS) and the English actress Kate O'Flynn so they feel like a real ensemble.

Esper was fine as Tom, wanting a life denied to him by his dead-end job and unhappy home life but you still felt his inner struggle with leaving the family home while Brian J. Smith was very good as Jim The Gentleman Caller who enters the home unaware of the weight of expectations awaiting him; he also added a larger-than-life quality to Jim giving him an air of the outside world that is missing from the crepuscular Wingfield home.

Kate O'Flynn gave an unsentimental performance as Laura, her shyness even with her mother and brother shown by her swallowing every word she spoke but she also rose to the challenge of slowly flowering into happiness when finally alone with her adored Jim; her slow withdrawal back into her interior world at the news of Jim's engagement was heartbreaking to watch.  In other productions on both stage and screen Laura's crippled leg has been played up but here it is hardly noticeable; John Tiffany's take seems to be that Laura has convinced herself that she is a helpless cripple despite Amanda, Tom and Jim's protestations to the contrary. 

I had seen Cherry Jones on Broadway in 2005 as Sister Aloysius in DOUBT and now she is making her much-anticipated London debut in a dazzling star performance. Her Amanda Wingfield is a woman whose life has not measured up to what she expected; brought up to expect a life of pampered marital leisure but who has had to raise her children alone, with no work experience to fall back on, in the challenging decades of the 1920s and 1930s.  Amanda's tragedy is that she sacrifices everything for her children's future without seemingly asking what they want their future to be.  Cherry Jones was funny, formidable, affecting, terrifying and, primarily, all-too-human.

John Tiffany has since had much acclaim with his direction of the Harry Potter plays but with THE GLASS MENAGERIE he lived up to Tom's opening speech - unlike the stage magician who "gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth, I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion".

This play continues to haunt you long after it ends, just as Tom is haunted by his memories of Laura and in reality Williams was haunted by the fate of his sister Rose who was given a frontal lobotomy on the agreement of their mother Edwina while Tennessee was away, working at MGM.  Their initial closeness had given way under the pressure of Rose's mental condition and he turned against her when she revealed his homosexuality to their mother.  But his lingering guilt at her treatment made him ensure that she was kept in the best rest homes and that she would be well cared for after his death.  But the guilt remained... as it does for Tom:
Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!  I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger - anything that can blow your candles out - for nowadays the world is lit by lightning!  Blow out your candles, Laura - and so good-bye.

Monday, April 17, 2017

THE LIFE at Southwark Playhouse: Livin' The Life In Southwark...

While walking around the long-gone Tower Records in 1998 I picked up a cast recording for THE LIFE, a new Broadway score written by musicals veteran Cy Coleman.  The only cast member I had heard of was Sam Harris, a big-voice belter who had appeared in a few one-off benefits in London - ah for the days of the Sunday evening benefit events... they appear to have gone the way of Tower Records too.

What made me buy it was Coleman's previous show was CITY OF ANGELS which had been a big favourite of mine.  The score presented an intriguing dichotomy as although the show was sent in the sleazy world of 1980s Times Square, Coleman's score sounded from an earlier era - more late 1950s/1960s showbiz with big ballads which would not have been out of place on a Streisand album.  So I sat and listened and waited for a London production.  And waited... and waited... and waited...  for 20 years!

THE LIFE certainly fits the recent niche that Southwark Playhouse has discovered and does so well - the risky musical or revival that might scare off West End producers: TITANIC, GRAND HOTEL, THE TOXIC AVENGER, XANADU, GREY GARDENS, SIDESHOW etc.  What is remarkable is that Michael Blakemore, the show's original director, has directed this version too - not bad for an 88 year-old!  His love of the material is obvious as it is directed with a sure hand, it's pace moving like a NY hooker trying to escape arrest!

Blakemore has also revised the book - originally by Ira Gasman, Coleman and David Newman - but there is still a disconnect between Cy Coleman's "Musical Theatre" score and the story that it is illuminating - the dangerous life of those in the sex trade around Times Square in the early 1980s.  There is the occasional nod to the the post-disco sound which would have been the show's characters 'obvious' music of choice but Coleman's 1950s/1960s score still surprises with cheeky, bouncy songs such as the opening number of "Use What You Got"; it's jazz-hands rhythm suggesting a Sammy Davis Jnr number rather than the credo of a two-faced hustler who will sell anyone down the river.  Ira Gasman's lyrics also are not quite a match for Coleman's music in the ballads where cliché always wins in the end...

1980s 42nd Street (before the tsunami of AIDS hit): Queen is released from jail after being arrested for soliciting which she does to make enough to get her and her Vietnam veteran lover Fleetwood away from New York forever.  However Fleetwood has a cocaine habit and she finds he has spent half their savings on it while she was inside.  She meets up again with her friend Sonja, an older streetwalker who is finding it harder to get through a night on the game.  Sonja is kept turning tricks by her powerful pimp Memphis who views Queen as a worthy addition to his girls.

Double-dealing Jojo tells Fleetwood he needs to have a fresher face working for him and they single out Mary, a young girl just arriving in NY from Minnesota.  Jojo finds her a job as a go-go bar waitress which she soon turns into being a dancer.  Mary proves to be a natural at parting men from their money and Fleetwood moves her into the apartment much to Queen's anger.   She and Sonja get arrested again and on her release Queen discovers that Fleetwood had sex with Mary; Memphis is standing by with a kindly word and at the annual Hooker's Ball, she snubs Fleetwood for the triumphant Memphis. But Queen soon discovers that Memphis' protection means her hitting the streets for him and it is left to the watchful and resourceful Sonja to help Queen in her dreams of escape...

The hidden band made their presence more than felt by BLARING the score out to the detriment of the lyrics being heard when the cast with weaker voices were singing - luckily there were some seriously good singers in the cast. 

Cornell S. John was very good as Memphis, his rich deep voice establishing his authority for all to feel and I also liked Joanna Woodward as Mary, the new girl in town who is not as dumb as she looks.  She certainly outshone David Albury who played Fleetwood with all the conviction of an X-Factor contestant and John Addison's Jojo suggested Trafalgar Square more than Times Square.

THE LIFE is blessed however with two stand-out performances: newcomer T'Shan Williams as the elegant Queen and the spectacular Sharon D. Clarke as the man-weary Sonja.  T'Shan Williams sang Queen's big ballads "He's No Good" and "I'm Leaving You" with such style and power that it is hard to believe she only left drama school in 2015 - she would make an excellent Deena Jones if and when DREAMGIRLS re-cast at the Savoy.

It is always a pleasure to see Sharon D. Clarke - even more so when it's in an intimate space like the Southwark Playhouse - and she was a fabulous Sonja, yes the concept of a tart with a heart of gold has been done to death but Clarke filled her character with such raging life that all critical bets were off.  Her big number "The Oldest Profession" is placed quite early on in the show but our Sharon don't care where she stops the show honey!  She whacked that song out of the Playhouse and got a huge round for it and deservedly so.  Queen is too busy being virtuous to truly win the audience's affections but Sonja is on hand to keep you engaged in the show - as well as having the best frock at the Hooker's Ball, a blue-sequined caftan that Gloria Gaynor would give her eye-teeth for.

Their voices also melded very well in the duets "You Can't Get To Heaven" and the climactic "My Friend" and it was great to see them take their bow together and, as Owen said after, T'Shan couldn't have a better co-star than Sharon.

Despite all the niggles I have about the show, I would recommend a walk on the wild side down to Southwark Playhouse as it is still a great tribute to Cy Coleman's talent in writing a show-tune and in Williams, Clarke and John it has three performances to savour - but hurry, it's only on until April 29th.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

JEWELS at Covent Garden - Balanchine's sparklers...

What?  Another night at the Royal Opera House?  Hey don't blame me, I have to go to make sure Owen doesn't climb onstage and jig about.

This time it was to celebrate the 50th birthday of George Balanchine's three part ballet based on the jewels he once saw on a visit to Van Cleef & Arpels.  Balanchine is credited with being the father of American Ballet but is also the template for the modern choreographer who can move between the worlds of ballet, dance, musical theatre and even film.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine was the last choreographer hired by Sergei Diaghilev for his landmark company the Ballets Russes and after the impresario's death he struggled on with failing companies in Monte Carlo before making the move to the US where he flourished and found fertile ground for his exploration into abstract dance.

Indeed JEWELS is a necklace of short abstract ballets which had as a connecting thread three moments of dance development - EMERALDS is based on classical French ballet with languid movement to music by Fauré, RUBIES is pure 20th Century jazz ballet danced to music by Stravinsky and DIAMONDS is in the Russian Imperial style to music by Tchaikovsky.  It was certainly charming and showed the expertise of the Royal Ballet company but I found it an oddly disjointed affair.

EMERALDS as I said was all very languid but - and this might be a hangover from the contemporary dance seen recently - none of it seemed terribly exciting and the choreography seemed very - um - ok I'll say it - American.  It all seemed very ersatz and toothless, admittedly it did end interestingly with the four women leaving the stage slowly as the men knelt alone - as Owen opined "they have lost their emeralds" but it was all very dreary.  It was only the drama of a woman having a seizure in the row in front of me that stopped me dropping off.  She was ok after a while - but it did make me wonder how they get someone out of the precipitous amphitheatre seats if they conk out...

DIAMONDS was better only in so far as it contained a wonderful performance from Marianela Nunez as the lead ballerina in an extended pas-de-doux with Thiago Soares which must be exhausting to perform as to be honest it did outstay it's welcome for me.  Again one could not fault the performances of the company but it did ultimately - again - feel like a copy of a copy; a Las Vegas recreation of watching Pavlova.

The reason that these two nostalgic ballets felt so thin was because the middle section RUBIES was practically fizzing with inventiveness and wit!  Like a Van Cleef and Arpels necklace, tiny diamonds and emeralds surrounded a huzzing big glorious ruby slap-bang in the middle of the setting.

Vibrant and colourful, Balanchine's tribute to the American idiom of jazz ballet was the only one of the three pieces that felt original and with it's own inner dynamic which lit up the stage.  Stravinsky's 'Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra' jabs and pokes at you, keeping you - as well as the dancers - on your toes.  The delicious ruby-red costumes turn the stage incarnadine - there you go Virginia Woolf, I used one of your favourite words.  There is a very good reason why the poster art for this revival features the central couple from RUBIES - because they are sensational! 

The established partnership of Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb lit up the stage and not just because of their bejewelled costumes.  They gave the piece a real sense of personality and their style made it seem as if it was all coming naturally to them, belying the intensive training needed to achieve it.  Steven McRae's cheeky persona shone out but his dancing prowess was also in evidence as his dizzying pirouette into the wings at top speed attested to.  Sarah Lamb's extraordinary suppleness and grace thrilled with her gravity-defying extensions and spins.  They were complemented by Melissa Hamilton whose angular jazz movements suggested the influence that Balanchine had on Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.

Lamb and McRae's larger-than-life performances are what I will remember about JEWELS, two dancers at the top of their talent given the perfect showcase to dazzle.

Monday, April 10, 2017

MADAMA BUTTERFLY at Covent Garden: the long wait is over...

...for Butterfly and me!  Yes I have finally seen her opera.

Constant Reader, you are probably bored with my reiterating that in 2015 we decided to explore a more diverse cultural map which including those imposing monoliths opera and dance.  Dance was an immediate winner but opera has been a harder sell - a truly unmagical PETER PAN from Welsh National Opera put paid to that.  However we seem to have had a new plan of attack which is to see the Big Diva operas and so far they are paying off.  First was Verdi's LA TRAVIATA at the Opera House, then TOSCA at the English National Opera and now it's back to the welcoming plush of Covent Garden to see Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY.

I've just noticed that these operas are all based on plays - maybe that should be the criteria for choosing ones to see?  It was only a stone's throw from the Opera House - at the more humble Duke of Yorks Theatre - that Puccini saw the original stage production in 1900.  He didn't understand what was being said but what connected with him was the intimate drama that was so powerfully staged by David Belasco who also wrote it.

A particular moment that struck Puccini was how Belasco had his lead actress sit still for over 10 minutes while lighting effects suggested the shift from night to day as Butterfly waits all through the night for her husband who does not appear - Puccini would later score this moment in his opera with an offstage choir providing the haunting "Humming Chorus".

Oddly enough, along with TOSCA and TRAVIATA, BUTTERFLY was not well received but the great composers were not precious about these things and after some judicious editing - changing it from a 3-act opera to a 2 act one - BUTTERFLY has fluttered down the years to be not just one of the most popular operas of all time but to also become an icon in other areas of performance: Mary Pickford and Anna May Wong played her in silent films while Helen Hayes played her in the sound era, Malcolm McLaren reinvented the aria 'Un Bel Di Vedremo' into his hip-hop classic "Madame Butterfly" and, of course, it was transposed to Vietnam for the bore-fest MISS SAIGON.

1900, Nagasaki: American sailor Lt Pinkerton marries a 15 year-old girl called Cio-Cio-San whose family have fallen on hard times after her father committed an honour suicide.  The US Consul Sharpless tries to stop Pinkerton from going through with the contract - arranged with the oily marriage broker Goro - but the Lieutenant has no qualms about saying he will get married 'properly' when he returns to America. After the ceremony, Cio-Cio-San's uncle appears to announce to her family that she has betrayed them by secretly becoming a Christian which causes them all to desert her, leaving her alone with her-seemingly loving husband.

Three years later, Cio-Cio-San waits unfailingly for Pinkerton to return as he left Japan soon after the marriage.  Cared for by faithful servant Suzuki, she fends off Goro who is trying to marry her off again and is visited by Sharpless who tells her that Pinkerton's ship is returning.  He also has a letter from Pinkerton telling Cio-Cio-San that he has brought with him his new American wife Kate but the Consul cannot break the news as she is so happy to hear of her husband's return and she surprises him with her 2 year-old son who Pinkerton knows nothing about; Cio-Cio-San stays up through the night just in case Pinkerton arrives home.

Suzuki entreats her to sleep in the morning so she misses the arrival of Sharpless with Pinkerton and Kate who are now aware of the existence of the son.  Pinkerton, overcome with shame, cannot face his first wife and it is left to Suzuki, Sharpless and Kate to persuade her that the marriage is over and to relinquish her son to be raised in America.  Cio-Cio-San realizes that her dream of love is over and agrees to hand over her son, but only to Pinkerton...  She leaves her son outside blindfolded and holding an American flag then retrieves one of her few possessions - her father's suicide dagger....

Now in it's 14th year, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's production was sleek and cool, maybe a bit too much to truly ignite the emotions in the piece, that was left to the unbridled passion of Puccini's score which sounded wonderful under the conducting of Antonio Pappano.

Albanian-born Ermonela Jaho was a tempest-tossed Cio-Cio-San and certainly sang her testing arias well, I just didn't feel particularly connected to her as a character.  Scott Hendricks as the put-upon Sharpless and Elizabeth Deshong as the faithful Suzuki were both excellent in their roles and Marcelo Puente played and sang the difficult role of the awful Pinkerton well.  The supporting performances of Carlo Bosi, Yuriy Yurchuk and Emily Edmonds as Goro, Prince Yamadori and Kate Pinkerton also stayed in the mind.

The performance was being shown live in cinemas on the night we went and I was only mildly disappointed that the filming in no way impinged on the actual show.  I was *hugely* disappointed instead by the shambolic scenes in the bar in the interval when 55 minutes was evidently not long enough for the bar staff to get the pre-paid interval drinks out properly.  Cue mulish attitude from the one bar staff assigned to fulfill the orders and me losing my rag at the petulant sod and the overbearing cow who was attempting to push in ahead of me.  Constant Reader, Mr Puccini's music calmed me down in the second half you will be pleased to hear...

I am really pleased to have finally seen MADAMA BUTTERFLY onstage in such a good production and hope the journey into appreciating the form will continue - next up is TURANDOT in July again at the Opera House... I can only hope that they keep the drama to the stage and not in the bar again!

Friday, April 07, 2017

LOVE IN IDLENESS at the Menier - Rattigan Reimagined

Just when it looked like the revivals of plays by Terence Rattigan were over, up pops another one at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a highly unlikely home for this writer.

It turns out that LOVE IN IDLENESS is a bit of a cut-and-shunt job.  In 1944 Terence Rattigan wanted to write a play which reflected the conflicts of the time - when confidence in winning the war was tempered by worries of what the country would do next - as well as write a typical Shaftesbury Avenue comedy star vehicle.  Gertrude Lawrence turned it down unread but the acting (and married) partnership of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne picked it up.

The title was LESS THAN KIND which hints at the play's riffing on HAMLET but Lunt felt it's plot - young man burning with Socialist idealism returns from wartime evacuation to Canada to discover that his widowed mother has moved in with an industrialist currently serving in Churchill's wartime cabinet - was not humorous enough for him so Rattigan rewrote it, dropping most of the confrontations over politics.  Later on he recanted saying that he wished he had kept the play as it was and not bowed to star power.

Fast forward to 2016: Trevor Nunn was looking for another Rattigan project after his successful revival of FLARE PATH in 2011 and discovered the two similar projects and after urging from the Rattigan estate to meld the two scripts - reinstating some of the political debate but also keeping it light and amusing - we now have LOVE IN IDLENESS.  Incidentally the unperformed LESS THAN KIND was given a belated debut in 2011 too at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre (home of the hags, don't get me started).

I must admit to some trepidation at the thought of Trevor Nunn imposing his love of playing length on what sounded like a frothy comedy (and it does come down after nearly three hours) but remarkably his production delighted in it's brio and in the winning performances.  True, Rattigan weights the plot in favour of the industrialist Sir John Fletcher but when he is played so delightfully by Anthony Head it's a point one is willing to concede.

I was also hugely surprised by Eve Best as the high society-loving Olivia Brown.  Best is *ahem* best at roles which usually find her mournful and constantly wiping away tears or blowing her nose on a hankie secreted up the arm of her dowdy dress but here she blossoms as a gushingly over-indulgent mother but whose sense of fun is nicely balanced with a sense of fair play.  There were several times during the play that I thought what a nice part this would have been for Emma Thompson to have played had she not seemingly turned her back on theatre (SWEENEY TODD withstanding).

As I said Anthony Head is utterly charming as Sir John, possibly the best I have seen him on stage.  He captures the combination of a believable powerful man of influence while also being totally thrown by the emotional devastation that Olivia's truculent son brings with his arrival back from Canada.  As Michael, Olivia's son determined to break up his mother from a man who represents everything he despises, Edward Bluemel starts a bit wobbly but gained in strength during the evening, eventually playing Michael's selfish side well.

Another performance which really surprised me was Helen George as the society girl Diana.  Nicely introduced as what you expect to be a girl that Michael has picked up, the reveal that she is in fact Sir John's estranged wife is nicely done and she plays Diana's ruthless determination very well.  She more than holds her own against her more illustrious co-stars. Sadly the other supporting cast members are all a bit weak but the four leads carry them well.

Stephen Brimson Lewis has designed a pleasing Mayfair apartment for the primary action to take place which converts nicely into a low-rent Baron's Court flat for the final scene and it's a nice touch to have the time and place so well established with old Pathe News clips projected onto the wraparound scrim curtain.

Yes it's lightweight and throwaway, and not really Rattigan's best work, but it entertains and proves that sometimes experience does count for everything.  I was somewhat surprised to hear that it will transfer to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue in May but wish it well as it is a play written to be seen on the Avenue.  I hope it finds it's audience.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at the Dominion Theatre - S'Wonderful?

It's big, it's bold, it's ballet as well as a musical - a ballical!  AN AMERICAN IN PARIS won 4 Tony Awards on Broadway and now it's opened at a recently-renovated Dominion Theatre but did it leave me dancing up Tottenham Court Road?

To be honest, I have never been a fan of the 1951 film starring the winsome (losesome) Leslie Caron and the overbearing ego of Gene Kelly - I have always thought it a fairly lumbering, unfunny film and justifiably overshadowed by Kelly's next film SINGIN' IN THE RAIN.  But here we are, sitting down to see the stage version which comes tailing success and awards...

The musical is the first to be both directed and choreographed by the British ballet choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (he had previously done the dances for the 2002 musical SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS) and was first staged in Paris at the Théatre du Chátelet - a unique theatre in that city that stages large-scale American musicals - which then did the 'coals to Newcastle' thing by transferring to New York. 

Wheeldon has done a wonderful job in making the show 'move' - even the dialogue scenes seem choreographed - and the show certainly moves along briskly.  His choreography is endlessly inventive and it really lifts the show as the book by Craig Lucas is shockingly mundane.  You get the distinct impression that a fairly straight-forward plot - American would-be artist in post-WWII Paris falls in love with an enigmatic girl who is also loved by two of his friends - is dragged out to snapping point with endless complications and a particularly drippy heroine.

The lame script ultimately gives the show no real heart and no matter how good a show's music, choreography, design or performances are, if you have no interest in the characters you are watching or care for their travails then there is no emotional engagement.  However - along with Wheeldon's wonderfully vibrant choreography which luckily punctuates Lucas' bland tale frequently - the production is always watchable thanks to Bob Crowley's wonderful design: filmic video projections of Paris streets being hand-drawn move the action along elegantly and right at the top of the show there is a wonderful moment when a Swastika is torn down to envelope the stage in a massive, billowing tricolor.

The best is left for last with two barn-storming numbers: I'LL BUILD A STAIRWAY TO PARADISE builds wonderfully from a singer's shaky performance in a Paris nightclub to a gloriously over-the-top fantasy sequence paying homage to New York's Chrysler Building, and finally the climactic 12 minute-plus title ballet explodes onto the stage with Crowley's Mondrian-inspired designs, Gershwin's evocative music and Wheeldon's delicious choreography.

The AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet also showcases the marvellous dancing of the two leads, Robert Fairchild (ex-New York City Ballet) as Jerry and Leanne Cope (ex-Royal ballet) as Lise, who are reprising their Broadway roles.  Fairchild is a real find: he has a nice personality onstage, a pleasing singing voice and needless to say his dancing is a joy to behold.  Leanne Cope has a harder task as Craig Lucas has saddled her with such a drip to play but her dancing is a true delight.  Kudos do have to go to the 15-strong orchestra who made the Gershwin songs sound great.

The supporting cast includes David Seadon-Young, Haydn Oakley, Zoe Rainey and Jane Asher but again Craig Lucas' script gives them unfunny lines to say and two-dimensional roles to play.  I also think a major problem is having the show in the Dominion; no matter what they have done to it, it was a barn before and it's a barn still with zero character.  It's a tough space to play 'heartwarming' - the elephantine quality is also matched in the programme being upgraded to an enormous souvenir brochure: bigger is not necessarily better. 

Would I recommend it?  Yes I think I would though I feel no urge to return to see it myself.  It was certainly a feast for the eyes and ears while leaving the heart unmoved.