Thursday, December 30, 2010

It wouldn't be Christmas without a Matthew Bourne show at Sadler's Wells and this year I was thrilled that finally he has revived his 1997 version of Prokofiev's CINDERELLA.

I missed that production but here it is again: all revised and specially timed to tie-in with the 70th anniversary of the Blitz which is utilised in the plot. Needless to say, Bourne's CINDERELLA was a triumph, by turns (no pun intended) moving and thrilling.

The story is set in London, 1941 and Cinderella is the picked-on daughter of Robert, an ineffectual cripple. Sybil, her alcoholic Joan Crawford-esque stepmother rules the household with her five grown children allowed to run riot.

Into Cinderella's life crashes Harry, a disorientated and wounded RAF pilot but when Sybil throws him out onto the dangerous streets, Cinderella follows him. Luckily the lovers have help on their side in the shape of an Angel who is overseeing their fortunes and who certainly has a lot to contend with to see them through to a Happy Ending.
It is the Angel who provides Cinderella with the means to attend the ball - a glamorous night which Bourne stages in the shattered ruins of a dance hall, based on the 1941 bombing of the London's Cafe de Paris.

Bourne gives you image after image that captivate you while his choreography whips you along through his story. Indeed it's his plot that is most at risk with his love of a great stage image or sequence, the Second Act in particular is a bit difficult to follow - is the ball and her romantic tryst with the Airman in his garret just a dream of Cinderella's and if it is, how does she end up wearing the sparkling shoes? And why does the Stepmother want to kill Cinderella? I saw him in the foyer after the show, I really should have asked him!However who needs a cohesive plot when you have wondrously evocative sets and costumes by his regular collaborator Lez Brotherston who summons up so many memorable stage images: the austere family home and outfits, all black and grey; the view from Harry's lodgings utilising the famous photo of St Pauls, the drab Underground, the dreamy fantasy world of the club and a romantic train station. CINDERELLA is also awash with the sumptuous lighting of the great Neil Austin, swamping the stage with icy blues or lustrous ambers.As usual Matthew Bourne has many eye-catching characters which give the ensemble a chance to shine: Cinderella's oldest step-brother is a waspish gayer who meets his own love, another step-brother is a covert foot fetishist, when Harry descends to the underground platforms searching for Cinderella he instead finds aggressive prostitutes and pocket-jiggling rentboys and at the final wartime railway station, there are Alec and Laura from BRIEF ENCOUNTER, stealing another stolen moment between their respective train timetables.A special mention must be made of Brett Morris' wonderful leadership of the 82-piece orchestra which is actually recorded, all the better to make Prokofiev's score so full and encompassing the audience as is the production soundscape of sirens and shattering bomb blasts.

The company we had seemed to be the alternate cast and while Noi Tolmer (previously seen as Kim in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS) and Neil Westmoreland certainly danced up a storm, particularly in the Act One 'dummy' scene I didn't feel a particular emotional connection to them which might have been different with the delightful Kerry Biggin and Sam Archer.

No such problem with the wonderful Michaela Meazza (Sugar NUTCRACKER; Lana CAR MAN; Lady H DORIAN GRAY) as the villainous Sybil or Shaun Walters (Fritz/Prince BonBon NUTCRACKER) as Malcolm her gay son. Adam Maskell also stood out as the Angel always on hand to turn back time or bring the chance of love to the lonely.The production runs at Sadler's Wells until 23 January and is followed by a short tour so click here to book your ticket for the chance to fall under the spell of Matthew Bourne's CINDERELLA.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oh yes - it's THAT time of the year again!

My Top 10 Gigs of the year....

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I can't say I am feeling Christmassie (I never know how to spell that) yet but Constant Reader I am on my way musically thanks to three gigs that have left me wreathed in smiles. I have seen all three acts before so I knew I was in for three class acts.

First off the rank: The Human League at the Royal Festival Hall.We saw Phil, Joanne and Susan Ann /Susanne 2 years ago when they headlined the Steel City Tour at Hammersmith and this show was to promote their new single NIGHT PEOPLE (which sadly hasn't bothered the dreary shite in the charts) and of course give us wave after wave of their Electro classics. Well - apart from the ones I wanted to hear...

White stage? Check! White mic stands? Check! Huge video screen? Check! Excitable fans? Check! Cue Mr. Phil Oakey in his big top coat... pacing across the stage like a pacey thing possessed. He does not stop! No wonder he is as thin as a whip. The bugger. After every few numbers another layer would come off until he was a vision in black shirt and black trews.I must say I do prefer Phil's appearance now - but that WAS one fierce 'do.

Needless to say most of the time my gaze (and my gays) were fixed on the gloriousness that is Susan Ann Sulley. Even back in the day she was my favorite Humaness which was ignited by a moment during a performance of DON'T YOU WANT ME on Top Of The Pops. As the camera tracked back at the end, Sooz who was doing her usual shimmy with arms outstretched shot the camera a look of such knowing pleasure, she was having the time of her life and enjoying every second. And time and again on stage all those years on, her attempts at haughty disdain where dispelled by a massive smile - still there, still dancing, still exactly where she wants to be. With her slinky black halterneck, trousers, red shoes and blonde backcomb & plait she looked like a disco Medea and then she changed it up to be a vision in white with sculpted shoulder-pads and a peplumed front and deliciously sequined ankleboots! The encore saw her in black again with a domino mask - she is Unstoppable!

Joanne wasn't too shabby either first in black trousers and waistcoat then a black mini with suspenders, stockings and boots - someone in the front row was no doubt happy - but Susan Ann is just too damn magnetic to ignore for long! Both of them looked a lot more in trim than when we saw them last.Oh and they did songs too! I won't list them, y'all know them, but particular favorites were BEING BOILED, EMPIRE STATE HUMAN, SECONDS, MIRROR MAN, THE SOUND OF THE CROWD, THE LEBANON (they once had shops you know), LOUISE, HEART LIKE A WHEEL, TELL ME WHEN and of course DON'T YOU WANT ME and TOGETHER IN ELECTRIC DREAMS.

But where were HUMAN and LOVE IS ALL THAT MATTERS? What *is* it with them (and even worse that Moyet hag who has stated she will *never* sing INVISIBLE again) who are happy to use the creative input of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Lamont Dozier respectively to get hits then *refuse* to sing them live? It all looks a bit racialist but I suspect it boils down more to not wanting to pay any royalties. It would be great to hear them sometime.

Next up was a schlep to the wastes of Bethnel Green - the things you have to do, as Julie Covington sang in ROCK FOLLIES OF 77. It was worth the tsouris though, as it was the second time seeing the glorious David McAlmont in almost as many weeks.

All year David has been finding new ways of getting his music to the people who want to hear it and with collaborator Guy Davies he has been performing in a variety of locations - both ordinary stage spaces and smaller, more intimate gigs - and this was definitely one of the latter as the People's Show Studios seats 80! In keeping with the intimate feel of the show we were greeted on arrival with a choice of tasty bite-size pies and much-needed mulled fruit drinks - David even worked the room with the pie-trays before the show!

Then it was time for a delightful show - including a singing drag Xmas tree - where David and Guy took a leisurely stroll through his favorite songs - his own and a healthy sprinkling of covers. I was over the moon he included Bessie Smith's KITCHEN MAN and even more so to hear him wax lyrical about Tammi Terrell before singing a lovely version of MY HEART. He did a second Motown song with a heartfelt version of Stevie Wonder's SOMEDAY AT CHRISTMAS.As usual there were tears and smiles along the way - his voice is such a glorious gift. He generously turned the stage over to two other performers, the fractured New Orleans blues of Todd Sharpville and the new singer Jake Emlyn who when he drops the Kate Nash-style Mockney singing should have a bright future.An extra encore involved a solo from Guy which was great and a delicious impromptu version of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. David has announced a tour at the start of 2011 to promote his Leicester Square Theatre cd/dvd package so do yourself a favour and see this most special of singers - and I'm not just saying that because I got a huge hug from him before the show!

The trio of shows was completed - by a trio! Yes it was time to see again Motown legend Martha Reeves and The Vandellas at the Jazz Cafe.
We first saw Martha and siblings Lois and Delphine there in 2007 (see above) and have managed to see them every year since! We had 2008: Bloomsbury Ballroom; 2009: Wembley Arena (on the night Michael Jackson died) and now back to the Jazz Cafe (still with the same over-priced, under-whelming food).

I have just checked my blog for that first show and not surprisingly there wasn't too much deviation from that set list - we still got COME AND GET THESE MEMORIES, HEAT WAVE, DANCING IN THE STREET, NOWHERE TO RUN, LOVE (MAKES ME DO FOOLISH THINGS), I'M READY FOR LOVE, THIRD FINGER LEFT HAND, JIMMY MACK, ONE WAY OUT, FORGET ME NOT, GOD BLESS THE CHILD, WATCH YOUR BACK and the 1960s MOTOWN/SOUL MEDLEY - and why not? It's one Hell of a musical legacy.

But we also were treated to a lengthy but captivating version of Marvin Gaye's WHAT'S GOING ON? , A LOVE LIKE YOURS (DON'T COME KNOCKING EVERYDAY) and the real Christmas present for me was them singing NO ONE THERE - a song I have truly adored from the first time I heard it on their 1972 album Black Magic.There are songs you just never expect to hear your favorite singers sing in concert - especially when they have such a well-honed Greatest Hits show as Martha - but this was the best Christmas present they could have given me. I told Martha afterwards and she said she was a little worried about singing it as her voice is not what it was. Which is very true - but NO ONE THERE sounded great!

One more thing about Martha, she always names the writers of the songs, fully believing they deserve the credit she can give them. She also namechecks most of the artists who covered DANCING IN THE STREET - she misses out The Kinks! - and always gives pride of place to "My dear friend Dusty Springfield" which always gets the biggest cheer - which always brings a tear to my eye.

Despite their quite lengthy set Martha handled the after-show signing session with great dignity and grace even though she must have been tired, Lois and Delphine looked more than happy to sit it out behind her! They all liked the copy of the photo of me with them from after the 2008 Bloomsbury Ballroom show - oddly enough another pre-Christmas event - and no, I ain't blogging it, some things HAVE to remain private Constant Reader.

But here's me and the magnificent Martha from 2007!So there you go - three great acts - three great gigs.

The live Human League and Martha Reeves shots are by the one and only Owen McConnell and the McAlmont shots were taken by his good friend William Willcox - who I sat behind at the gig and was too shy to thank for the photo he took of me and David at Leicester Square Theatre. I must work on my bashfulness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A few weeks ago I was given a great dvd called BROADWAY:THE GOLDEN AGE which is one man's attempt to interview as many actors, composers and directors from the Golden Age of Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s.

He is surprised when he asks his interviewees what was the single greatest performance they saw on stage expecting it to be either Marlon Brando, Ethel Merman or Mary Martin - no, more often than not they replied "Laurette Taylor in THE GLASS MENAGERIE".All of them remember vividly the naturalness she brought to the stage, Martin Landau indeed said she gave you the impression that someone had wandered in off the street through the stage door and was making up the lines as she went along.

The same cannot be said of Deborah Findlay in the Joe Hill-Gibbins' Young Vic production as the whole enterprise is pitched at a highly theatrical level but that only adds to the power of this revelatory production.THE GLASS MENAGERIE was Tennessee Williams' breakthrough hit in 1944 when it opened first in Chicago then on Broadway the following year. The highly autobiographical play transcends it's inspiration and hits a universal chord of longing and loss which has ensured it's enduring popularity down the years.

Tennessee's narrator and theatrical incarnation is Tom Wingfield, in his early twenties in the late 1930s and sharing the genteel poverty that his family have been reduced to following the disappearance of his father some years previously. He shares the apartment with his overbearing mother Amanda, forever harking back to her Antebellum youth, and his sister Laura, made chronically shy due to her self-consciousness at school from having a brace on her crippled leg.

Tom - as did Tennessee - works in a dead-end job in a shoe factory and longs to make a career as a writer but is burdened with the guilt of being his family's only means of support with his pay-cheque. When Amanda reveals she knows he has made overtures to the US Navy she pressures him to find a man for his sister so she will be provided for in the future. For once Tom complies with his mother's demands and invites a work colleague to dinner. The Gentleman Caller is Jim O'Connor who Tom vaguely knew in High School when Jim was the hero of the sports field but what he doesn't know is that Jim was the boy that Laura had an unrequited love for. Jim's visit will have a life-changing effect on the Wingfields....Jeremy Herbert's design takes over most of the open auditorium - a right-angled stage with metal walkways surrounding it with the dining table on a riser surrounded by the bric-a-brac of the house including Laura's beloved collection of glass figurines, her glass menagerie. The acts are ushered in by a curtain that stretches around the playing area and that can be raised above or below the stage level.

The stage is also dominated by the WWI photo of the absent Mr Wingfield, castigated at by Amanda but a potent symbol of escape to Tom. Although wide and empty the space also feels claustrophobic as soon as mother and son start their eternal bickering. It actually works remarkably well aided by James Farncombe's lighting.As I said, Joe Hill-Gibbins' has directed the play in a slightly larger-than-life way but he also shows remarkably well how there are no villains in the piece - although Tom's actions can seem heartless and while Amanda can seem to be smothering her children with her vaunted dreams for them they are not villains, just people who find themselves trapped by circumstances somewhere other than where they want to be.

Leo Bill as Tom was the one I felt least able to transcend the shoutiness of his character. He certainly plays the fact that Tom is on course for a nervous breakdown - Tennessee suffered a nervous collapse while working at the shoe factory - but only occasionally let the character have three dimensions. I did like the way he changed his style in his scenes with Jim, suggesting that maybe Laura wasn't the only one under his All-American spell at High School.Being Tennessee Williams the roles for the two actresses are the most defined and the production is graced with two memorable performances from Deborah Findlay as Amanda and Sinéad Matthews as Laura.

Sinéad was quite heartbreaking as the pathologically shy Laura, one truly can imagine how she would haunt the dreams of her brother. In the magnificent duologue between Laura and Jim, with only the smallest of calibrations she charted a course from mortified terror at being confronted with the boy of her dreams to her blossoming under the warmth of his kindness to all her hopes being as broken as her favorite figurine. I saw her play a similarly devastating role as Hedwig in Ibsen's THE WILD DUCK a few years back at the Donmar and she really is an actress of rare subtlety.Deborah Findlay has an absolute field day as Amanda, not for her the fluttery relic of the South but a woman resolutely hanging on to life in reduced circumstances. She certainly didn't attempt to play the character for sympathy and one can truly understand the exasperation of Tom at her relentlessness but she certainly came into her own in the second act, first with the beautiful speech where she tells Laura of her magical summer of Jonquils and meeting her future husband and then with her flirtatiously gracious welcoming of the all-important Gentleman Caller, her crushed hopes on hearing of Jim's status was beautifully pitched. After seeing Findlay play a couple of dowdy, starchy roles recently it was a joy to see her rip it up as Amanda.

I also liked Kyle Soller as Jim O'Connor. Along with Jim's breezy good humour he also suggested the inner life of the former Boy-Most-Likely-To whose life has not turned out so rosy and for all his attendance of night classes you know his life when married will turn out to be as equally mundane.As familiar as I am with the play I still got caught up in the emotional pull of the story and was quite an emotional wreck by the end - proof positive that the production worked.

The play stands as a testament to Tennessee and to his guilt over his older sister Rose who did not have the physical affliction of Laura but was mentally unstable for most of her life. The intention behind the play is fully realised when one knows that, unknown to Tennessee, his mother consented to Rose having a lobotomy which went wrong leaving her irretrievably brain-damaged.

Tennessee's guilt was that he had grown distant from her in the years leading up to this, in part due to Rose informing their mother of his homosexuality. He couldn't save her but the following year he wrote THE GLASS MENAGERIE and the success of this and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE a few years later ensured he had enough money to keep Rose in private nursing care for the rest of her life. She outlived him by 13 years.

In a year that has seen some excellent revivals, THE GLASS MENAGERIE is one of the very best. It's run at the Young Vic has been extended until January 15th - rush to see it!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Constant Reader I am only now reclaiming the power of speech after having some face time with the Pope of Trash himself John Waters.

I have seen him twice before live and his droll take on his career and life in general always makes him great value. He was interviewed on stage by professional gay Philip Hoare who at times seemed to be trying to make it "Me And My Friend John" but Waters has been to that rodeo before I am sure and carefully maneuvered the talk back to himself deftly.

He was promoting his latest book ROLE MODELS and at the signing session afterwards I could not resist doing the fanboy thing after he signed the book and my paperback copy of CRACKPOT, a collection of his magazine articles. I am sure ROLE MODELS will be a blast.

I have been on such a Watery wave - see what I did there - I finally got round to watching his 1998 film PECKER that mate Michael had found cheap for me a few weeks back. Despite having the wonderful Christina Ricci in it I never saw it when it came out, probably down to the fact that "it wasn't Pink Flamingos".

Well it's not Pink Flamingos - but then what else is! - but it is a charming and delightful film, packed with enjoyable performances particularly from Ricci and Martha Plimpton as Baltimore's ultimate bar-room faghag!

Of course it also boasts a director's commentary and no one gives as good commentary as John Waters!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sometimes there is a particular thrill in seeing a performer who has consistently performed well through the years finally getting the moment to truly shine - it happened with Clarke Peters in PORGY AND BESS and now Tracie Bennett is receiving nightly standing ovations for recreating Judy Garland in Peter Quilter's END OF THE RAINBOW.

Although still best known from her stint in "Coronation Street" in the early 1980s, Tracie has for years been working away in theatres in the provinces and West End, in the process winning 2 Olivier Awards for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical out of 3 nominations. I suspect she will have to clear the mantelpiece for a few more and while there is no denying her achievement... Tracie, someone done rained on your Easter Parade.Sadly the play is annoying in the extreme - and the more I have dwelt on it, wanting to like it for the sake of Bennett's performance, the more I have wanted to kick it. Peter Quilter has, I presume, set out to write his own PIAF about Judy Garland's stay in London for 5 weeks over the new year of 1968/69 when she appeared at the Talk Of The Town but Mr. Quilter... you ain't no Pam Gems.

Quilter has been beavering away since 2001 on his subject when the first attempt LAST SONG OF THE NIGHTINGALE which starred Tracie Bennett as his un-named heroine came and went at the New End Theatre Hampstead. The play then popped up four years later in Australia with Caroline O'Connor in the lead who later reprised the role in Edinburgh.So here we are finally in the West End and the play does have the distinct whiff of something that has been toured to death just like the star it's depicting. It's hard to know where to start with this woeful script.

Particular moments where I ripped up the Trafalgar Studios carpet with my curled toes include when Hilton McRae's gay pianist tells Garland's overbearing husband-to-be that it will be the gays who will keep Judy alive long after she's dead - stressing the line so much one wonders if this is all Quilter wanted us to take from the show - and the obligatory scene where said gay pianist is briefly overcome with a heterosexual snogging fit.
Director Terry Johnson also needs a dry hard slap for the endless playing out of the consequences of Garland stealing pills from her pianist's bag which turn out to be his dog's mange pills, hours of business of Judy cocking her leg - not once but twice - then rolling on the floor to be tickled, barking, snuffling around the furniture - YES WE FUCKING GET IT!!!

There is no development of any of the three characters, no particular insights into the nature of fame or celebrity or any feeling that, as has been claimed by Liza Minnelli or Lorna Luft, even at her lowest ebb Judy was someone you just wanted to be around. Oh and don't get me started on William Dudley's idea to paint a carpet on the bare stage only for people to loudly clump all over it.
Hilton McRae as her diffident but caring pianist Anthony seems overwhelmed by Hurricaine Tracie and underplays laughlines to a worrying degree and Stephen Hagen is given no help in building the character of Mickey Deens into anything other than an over-bearing, joyless user. In a bizarre wordless moment at the end he moves towards Judy who shrinks away from him and he leaves... so this would be the same man she married a few months after these events took place?

But no, Quilter only allows the fictional Anthony to be the one who cares for Judy - and who of course delivers the obligatory "Judy Garland was found dead etc etc" verbal wikipedia obit at the end of the play. Where the evening takes off are in the moments when the action switches to the Talk Of the Town stage and Bennett is allowed to let rip into several Garland standards although there was a distinct whiff of "Tonight Matthew I will be..." about it - imagine my amusement to see she had in fact won a Celebrity Stars In their Eyes as Judy Garland. To be honest I also found it difficult to totally give myeslf over to the illusion as she looked more like Lucille Ball.

Capturing exactly Garland's soaring open-throated belt voice however, Tracie Bennett turned her songs into genuine showstoppers and took the roof off with an incredible version of THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY. It is typical of the botched thinking behind the production however that building to the obvious climax of OVER THE RAINBOW followed by her thoroughly deserved rapturous curtain call, Bennett suddenly launches into a coda of BY MYSELF which ruins the moment.To be honest in the duller moments of Quilter's play I was watching Tracie Bennett and thinking how much I would love to see her as a future Mama Rose in GYPSY.

One can only hope that she does not go the way of Lesley Mackie, the West End's last 'Judy' back in 1986. Yes she won a deserved Olivier Award for her performance - in an equally ho-hum piece it must be said - but all it got her was a supporting role in BRIGADOON and then she returned to her native Scotland never to grace the West End again.

Friday, November 26, 2010

On Monday the cold weather was swept aside for a few hours by immersing in the sunny warmth of David McAlmont's voice at a special gig at the Leicester Square Theatre being filmed and recorded for future release on dvd/cd.
I have been a fan of David's for a while now having seen him twice before as McAlmont and Butler when he and Bernard were touring their great BRING IT BACK album and I was lucky to see him two years ago doing a short set of Harold Arlen songs at the Festival Hall. However recently I have become more involved in his music since becoming part of his Facebook army of fans.

Realizing that the music business has changed beyond what artists have been accustomed to, David is seeking new ways of connecting with his audience and certainly has taken to the immediacy that Facebook offers - it is genuinely thrilling to connect with him personally as opposed to a page which is managed by PR companies.
David certainly made a jaw-dropping entrance on stage, appearing like a male Grace Jones in huge feather boa, dark silk suit, a black lace domino mask with vertical feather detailing and a headdress of gold autumnal leaves - oh and more flashing, glittery jewels than you could shake a stick at! When you are in the front row that's a lot to take in.

You gotta have something to bring to the table to make this outfit seem natural and McAlmont certainly has that. Drawing on all areas of his 18 year career, he gave us a memorable show with a marvellously thought-out setlist with some telling covers sprinkled throughout.As I said before David is seeking new ways of connecting with his audience - he said he had always hated the natural divide that being on stage brings - so he came up with the idea of everyone getting a number which corresponded to a question eg. Who? What? Why? Where? etc. and occasionally at the roll of a dice these questions could be asked as to the next song. It was certainly an interesting experiment in hearing his thoughts on certain songs and as to why they had been included. There were occasional longueurs but these can be forgiven when what is being attempted is so new.

He was complemented wonderfully by Guy Davies on piano, John Miller on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass with several appearances by surprise guest Bernard Butler - it was a particular joy to see them on stage together again. When they careened into their classic YES I was blinking back some very happy tears. It was great also to see them laughing and joking when David kept going off-piste during FALLING.The whole show was a highlight but among the songs that made me glad it was being recorded were SNOW, LOSE MY FAITH, WHO LOVES YOU. I'M A BETTER MAN, PLACED ASIDE and DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.

Shirl was also returned to when he performed AS GOD IS MY WITNESS which he co-wrote for Bassey's THE PERFORMANCE album as well as a heartfelt version of NEVER, NEVER, NEVER which had him climbing off the stage and singing to the mother of a friend in the third row!

After leaving the stage to a standing ovation he returned to give us a final cover, a lovely version of Tom Waits' GRAPEFRUIT MOON which he sang as he slowly dressed to leave us with a scarf, overcoat, hat and gloves. The song ended with him slowly opening an umbrella and sauntering offstage - who says a gig can't be theatre too? Like Owen I was just a little disappointed that the opened umbrella didn't rain down glitter!

We are seeing him again in a few weeks time for a seasonal evening in a space that seats only 80 so I cannot wait to see him in an even more intimate space. Oh and the cherry on the evening's cake? Having my picture taken with David in the foyer before the show when he had his friend William Willcox ready with a camera to photograph him with his 'peops'.

Friday, November 19, 2010

For the second time this year a show has arrived in London I had seen on our NY trip in February: first was Diane Paulus' glorious production of HAIR and now we have Bill T. Jones' equally big 'n' colourful production FELA! I can't think what is keeping Bartlett Sher's SOUTH PACIFIC - NEXT TO NORMAL however can stay in the Booth Theatre where it belongs.

As is the case with HAIR, I enjoyed the London FELA! much more, with both shows I think I was too busy reacting to the show first time round than actually taking them in fully.

What lives in the memory of the NY version was that we saw it on the night of Snowmageddon when Manhattan was hit by a huge blizzard. It was such a sensory experience to step from the wintry streets into the colourful, vibrant auditorium recreating Fela Kuti's Lagos Shrine club - also it was a pleasure to FINALLY have friendly front-of-house staff, namely the bar girl who happily informed us we could take our drinks to our seats with "we're a party house here!"Re-reading my February blog - here it is - I find that what I didn't like about the show then still applies now. No amount of deliriously exciting choreography or hypnotic Afrobeat beats can disguise the frustratingly thin book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones.

Despite vignettes in the first act about Fela's musical education which led to his developing the Afrobeat sound and his political education bizarrely courtesy of the Black Panthers while visiting America, the second act - despite one stunning coup-de-theatre which brought shocked gasps and exclamations from the rapt audience - meanders around before getting completely lost up it's own yanch via an extended dream ballet of Fela visiting the underworld which sadly only made me think of a "Talk Of The Town" floorshow routine with it's ultra-violet lighting and projections on a scrim. The book keeps Fela's actual political manifesto unknown, just that he was against the corrupt government, and his death from AIDS in 1997 is glossed over.What is undeniable however is the burning intensity of Sahr Ngaujah's performance as Fela, effortless charisma added to a natural ability to handle the more excitable members of the peanut gallery. It might not be the most sympathetic performance - Fela is a difficult character to empathise with - but Ngaujah's Tony-nominated performance makes you realise how Kuti could galvanise an audience. Hell, he even got all the Olivier audience up to dance about 20 minutes into the show!

The two main supporting roles of Fela's activist mother Funmilayo and his American mentor Sandra Izadore are played by Melanie Marshall and Paulette Ivory. Both are blessed with great voices and Marshall in particular is a joy to hear. Again however it is typical of this show that her big second act number - the only song written specifically for the show - is totally shapeless and meanders on interminably.As before, these three performances are supported by a phenomenal company of dancers who are worth the price of admission alone. As I said about the NY production, their wild, frantic and totally thrilling abandon is of course the result of the strictest discipline and for all the problems with the book, one wishes that Bill T. Jones just settled on the music and dancers telling Fela's story.

The Olivier is unrecognizable due to Marina Draghici's fabulous stage design which spreads out into the auditorium with huge colourful posters, paintings and strings of lights covering the walls and doors recreating the feel of Fela Kuti's Shrine club in his Kalakuti compound. Why has no designer ever done this before with this unique space? Robert Wierzel's lighting is also a major component for the show's overall success.A special mention too must go to the magnificent onstage band of 12 musicians who are the show's engine and keep the music coming with a richness of sound that is genuinely exciting.

So for all the problems mentioned with the non-existent book I would still recommend FELA! as a rare achievement in pure theatre.

"Say Yea-Yea!"

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Another Sunday, Another Sondheim!This time it was to see a concert version of Sondheim's 1970 groundbreaking musical COMPANY which reunited the cast members from the Donmar's 1995 production originally directed by Sam Mendes.

I must say from the off that COMPANY is a show that I find it hard to warm to - the score yes, the show no. The story - or non-story - of Robert arriving at his 35th birthday and being finally forced to confront his single status and commitment phobia has just never connected with me. The show was originally a series of one-act plays by George Furth and I have always felt that it has never managed to transcend that. The long and the short of it is - I can't be arsed about any of the characters, no matter how amusing they are.

I felt this performance wasn't as cohesive as last Sunday's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG which I guess is the fault of director Jamie Lloyd. I had hoped I was over my distrust of Lloyd and his more-speed-instead-of-haste approach after enjoying his production of PASSION but, opposed to Rob Ashford's MERRILY which had a depth and vibrant performances despite the concert setting, here it felt the actors had turned up, had read what was on the sheet in front of them and moved to where they were told to move to.

Some of the performers still managed to shine - Adrian Lester can still pull off the trick of making Robert a three-dimensional character and his singing of the classic BEING ALIVE was wonderfully vibrant and, yes, alive. He won the Olivier Award for this role and it's still easy to see why.

It was nice to see Rebecca Front and Clive Rowe as his married friends Sarah and Harry who are still sniping away at each other about his drinking and her eating fads, Gareth Snook as married man Peter was still clumsily trying to make a pass at Robert and the three girls who Robert is keeping hanging were very well played by Anna Francolini as the manic Marta, Summer Strallen as Kathy and Katherine Kingsley as air stewardess April.

To be honest, my main reason for wanting to see the show was to see Sophie Thompson again as Amy, the scatterbrained girlfriend of Michael Simkin's Paul who despite everything was NOT GETTING MARRIED TODAY. Once again Sophie stopped the show with the song and nailed the humour and the pathos in the scene following it.

Sophie was nominated for the Olivier Award for this performance but lost to co-star Sheila Gish who played Elaine Stritch's landmark role as Joanne, the hard-drinking, sardonic older married woman who has Robert in her sights.

Sadly Sheila Gish died five years ago - the show was dedicated to her memory - and it was stated "It’s our job to honour Sheila by getting somebody brilliant in that role" Somebody brilliant must have had her mobile turned off as we got Haydn Gwynne. She was o.k. but it would have been amazing to see someone like Frances Barber play it.

Gareth Valentine was again Music Director and did a fantastic job with a fine nine-piece onstage band in punching over Sondheim's constantly surprising score. Shame about that damn book.

And so endeth the year of Sondheim celebrations... unless someone would like to squeeze in a quick production of THE FROGS?