Saturday, December 31, 2011

Luckily the National Theatre has highlighted the word COMEDY on the programme cover for their new production of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. You would be hard-pressed to know it was one from Dominic Cooke's production.

Oh Mr. Cooke... your production of CLYBOURNE PARK was one of the best of last year - by turns hilarious and thought-provoking. Here all one can marvel at is why such a such a dreary 'concept' has been clamped down over this play.

I can't say I am the biggest fan of Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity as it plays into my infamous irritation at farce but here any potential for interest is stymied by an ugly production in which the action is needlessly transported to current day South London.
I knew I was in for trouble within a few minutes during the opening scene of the merchant from Syracuse explaining to the Duke of Ephesus why he is in the country when it is forbidden. It is played as a gangland kidnapping with ex-work colleague Ian Burfield playing the Duke like a long-lost brother of The Krays. It was totally disorientating as well as being poorly acted. I felt for veteran actor Joseph Mydell as his speech about the shipwreck that cost him his wife. one of his twin sons and their allotted servant being totally upstaged by a needless reenactment of it including an on-stage airlift.

After that I sat watching the action with a diminishing interest which was only fully engaged oddly enough when Bunny Christie's overly-elaborate set refused to work! Lenny Henry is cast as the Antipholus and gives a nice enough performance but why does he have to use an unnecessary African accent? He could just as well as used his natural Brummie accent to highlight the fact that he is a visitor to Ephesus/Peckham? Even regular favorites like Claudie Blakely and Michelle Terry failed to impress.

It goes without saying that the verse speaking is beyond bad and it was lucky that I had a knowledge of the play beforehand - truly the nadir of the evening was a farting competition via intercom between the Dromios.

I saw Ian Charleson's Hamlet on that stage.

Just as the final scene started - and I was grasping under the seat for my bag to high-tail it out of there - something extraordinary happened. Cooke just let Pamela Nomvete as the long-lost Aemilia perform her speech without any distracting business going on and she stole the show in those few minutes. How odd to sit through a show for about 2 hours and only become fully engaged in the last scene.

I left the Olivier thinking that if the National had wanted to stage THE COMEDY OF ERRORS but in a radical new way all they had to do was stage the Rodgers & Hart musical version THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE, at least then we would have had a good laugh *and* also have got FALLING IN LOVE WITH LOVE, THIS CAN'T BE LOVE and SING FOR YOUR SUPPER.
I suspect that the continued success of WICKED in the West End has played it's part in the Menier Chocolate Factory staging of Stephen Schwartz' 1972 musical PIPPIN. The Menier has now an established success with reviving musicals that deserve being revisited in different production styles from their originals - A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SWEET CHARITY, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES and most famously of all SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. Timothy Bird's video-based production design, which made SUNDAY such a gloriously visual experience, features again in this production but sadly the effect is not as successful in the hands of director Mitch Sebastian.

PIPPIN was first seen on Broadway in 1972 in an acclaimed production directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. It was Fosse's golden year which also saw the release of his iconic screen version of CABARET and within a year he became the only person to win the Best Director Academy Award, Best Director Tony Award and Best Director Emmy Award (for the tv special LIZA WITH A Z).

John Rubenstein played Pippin, the questioning, drop-out son of Emperor Charlemagne, whose CANDIDE-like journey through his life was told by a 70s' style Comedia dell'Arte troupe of strolling players and narrated by the charismatic Leading Player which provided a perfect vehicle (and Tony Award) for the wonderful Ben Vereen.

The cast also included
BEVERLY HILLBILLIES star Irene Ryan as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, Leland Palmer as Pippin's scheming stepmother Fastrada, Jill Clayburgh as the widow Catherine - a role understudied by the young Ann Reinking who was also in the chorus, in only her third Broadway role.

The show's pop/rock score - released on Motown of all labels - and Fosse's signature style caught the time's anti-establishment vibe and the show ran for a remarkable five years.

In London it ran a mere 85 performances when Fosse brought it to the Her Majesty's Theatre in 1973 despite a great cast of Paul Jones (Pippin), Elisabeth Welch (Berthe), Diane Langton (Fastrada) and Patricia Hodge (Catherine).

I saw the show when it was revived at the Bridewell Theatre in 1996 by Mitch Sebastian which starred David Burt, Michael Jibson, Mazz Murray and Juliette Caton which highlighted the troublesome book by Roger O. Hirson which strives for a Brechtian approach to telling Pippin's story but without a director like Fosse's ultra-theatrical style, it looks pretty threadbare.

So Mitch Sebastian is having another crack at it at the Menier, only now he has rehauled the show to give it the appearance of a computer game which, while intriguing to watch, can do nothing to hide the limited range of the book - indeed by the end of it it the show can't help but collapse under the weight of the concept.
Retaining some of Fosse's original choreography only highlights the slight desperation of other part's of the concept - and sadly that's all it remains: a concept, not a thought through production. The show's structure of Pippin going through various different adventures can certainly lend themselves to the idea of going through computer game levels but it only serves to make the piece darker (in all ways) than it needs to be - the Leading Player's final twist to Pippin's tale comes as no surprise as we are now used to Sebastian's heavy-hand.

There are hidden gems lurking within the production however. Harry Hepple is an engaging Pippin with a fine singing voice, a charming playing style and it made you wish he was in a better production. Carly Bawden was a delight as Catherine, bringing a freshness to the show's jadedness.Ian Kelsey was anonymous as Charlemagne and Matt Rawle over-played the Leading Player to such an extent that he was practically unwatchable by the end. However Frances Ruffelle made the most of the scheming Fastrada and, in the performance of the show, Louise Gold made Berthe's solo number "Time To Start Living" into a real wake-up number, performing it in a Gracie Fields style. I have always had a fondness for Schwartz's score and the original Broadway score is a much-played cd - the songs just about came through unscathed in this production but the score's Broadway roots constantly strained against Sebastian's TRON effects.
And still they come...

The West End listings are fast resembling IMDB as there are so many film-to-stage versions playing and Owen and I went to see one of the more individual, Graham Linehan's take on the classic Ealing comedy THE LADYKILLERS at the Gielgud.

Constant Reader, it's admissions time - I have not seen the original Alexander Mackendrick film from 1955 which is the play's source. Wiliiam Rose's oddball idea of a little old lady foiling the plans of a gang of criminals who are using her home as cover for a robbery adapts well to a stage treatment with all it's action taking place within Mrs. Wilberforce's Kings Cross house.

The original cast of Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Herbert Lom and Katie Johnson would make anyone think long and hard about recreating them on stage as they were all such memorable performers but here the production is well-served by the casting of Peter Capaldi, James Fleet, Stephen Wight, Clive Rowe, Ben Miller and Marcia Warren.

Capaldi is a sheer delight as Professor Marcus, the criminal mastermind who runs his criminal network under the guise of being a music professor from Mrs. Wilberforce's spare room. With his loping gait, trailing scarf and wheedling voice he has the right mix of inspired lunacy with the undertow of genuine menace. He galvanises the production and keeps up the energy which has a tendency to flag occasionally.

Director Sean Foley also elicits nice performances from James Fleet as a secret cross-dressing ex-major, Stephen Wight as the young wired Harry and Clive Rowe as the punch-drunk ex-boxer One Round. Sadly I was less impressed with Ben Miller as Louis, the lethal crook from Romania. He seemed very muted on stage which I can only suspect is down to his inexperience as a stage actor apart from his Edinburgh stand-up shows. It was a pity as I had been looking forward to seeing him.

The production's secret weapon is the ever-glorious Marcia Warren as Mrs. Wilberforce who more than matches the flashier performances of the criminals. The role could almost have been written for her as it plays to all her onstage strengths - the sweet, daffy and smiling persona that hides a moral core of steel.

Marcia's sneaky stage craft stole the show from her thieves co-stars. It doesn't seem 27 years since I first saw her onstage in her Olivier-award winning role as the impossibly nouveau rich Vera in the original production of Ayckbourn's STEPPING OUT.

Michael Taylor's set is also a potential scene stealer - all crooked and wonky angles and playing surfaces which must be a difficult space to act on so well done again to the cast. In a fun little segue, the set rotates to reveal the building's front where the robbery is enacted on the wall with little cars racing all over it.So despite all this why were there times when I was less than gripped and found my attention easily wandered? There seemed at times to be an overly cosy atmosphere which seemed to make the action simply coast along, the scene changes seemed to last forever and despite the play's second half being primarily about the gang's internecine killing spree, there was little genuine menace apart from the final scene between Marcus and Louis played in the gloomy darkness of James Farncombe's inventive lighting design.

The production was rapturously received by my fellow audience members so go figure, maybe it was me.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Last month Owen and I went to the Hampstead Theatre - um... my first visit since it moved to it's new home 8 years ago! But finally something was on that I was eager to see. I mean... the combination of Richard Eyre directing a play about the Duchess of Windsor starring Sheila Hancock - bring it!!

The Hampstead Theatre is actually quite a nice space which I should make an effort to revisit more but the main excitement was the play itself (which is how it should be eh?)
Nicolas Wright's play THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS is the latest of his works that takes it's inspiration from a real life person such as Melanie Klein, Vincent van Gogh and Terence Rattigan only here he takes on three larger than life women - and another invisible one.

The play is based on Lady Caroline Blackwood's book which she wrote after her experiences trying to obtain an interview with The Duchess of Windsor in 1980. The Duchess, a virtual recluse in her home in Paris after the death of the Duke, was the hoped-for subject of a Sunday Times article by Caroline Blackwood who found her every approach blocked by the Duchess' lawyer Maitre Suzanne Blum. Blum proves such a fascinating but secretive character that Caroline soon realises that she is the more worthy subject for an article and even arranges for Lord Snowden to take her photograph. The article however causes more arguments and a final showdown.
Nicholas Wright's play managed to keep you thoroughly entertained with the character's barbed dialogue but it also quietly raised subjects such as loyalty, loneliness, marriage and honour that stayed with you long after.

Richard Eyre directed with his customary lightness of touch that suited the gossamer atmosphere of the play and he elicited full-bodied memorable performances from his three leading ladies.

Sheila Hancock was at her vinegary, caustic best as Suzanne Blum, the watchful and secretive keeper of the Duchess of Windsor's secrets and if Caroline Blackwood's suspicions are realised, her possible jailer. Hancock once again proved she is an actress who has been under-valued for too long.

I must say I have never been a big Anna Chancellor fan, I always seem to have seen performances that echoed her jolly hockeysticks character in FOUR WEDDINGS but here she was a quiet revelation. Effusive and outspoken, her Lady Caroline was the perfect foil to the buttoned-down Blum with her hands forever trying to calm her unruly mane and knocking back another drink.As Wright points out , it's one of the quirks of the aristocracy that their relatives can turn up in the oddest places and such was the case when Carolyn turned for help to one of the Duchess' oldest friends Lady Diana Mosley - a distant relative thanks to her mother being one of the Guinness family as was Diana's first husband! Angela Thorne was wonderful as Diana, nailing the ultra-posh Mitford drawl, deaf as a post in one ear and still unrepentant in her support of Sir Oswald despite his failing health. It's a rare play that can pull off having Diana Mosley as the comic relief but this managed it.

With excellent work from designer Anthony Ward and lighting designer Peter Mumford, THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS was one of the best nights in the theatre this year.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I would like to give you, Constant Reader, A Tale Of Two Ricksons.

A couple of weeks back Owen and I *finally* caught up with Ian Rickson's production of JERUSALEM which is now back on in the West End. After opening at the Royal Court to tumultuous reviews for Jez Butterworth's play and Mark Rylance's lead performance, it transferred to the Apollo Theatre then onto Broadway winning in close succession the Olivier Award and the Tony Award for Best Actor. Now the production has returned to the Apollo for one last hurrah.

Rylance - in a performance that threatens to eat you alive - plays Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, a drop-out who lives in a caravan deep in a forest in Wiltshere that borders a small town. Byron, although hated by the town's community as a supplier of drugs, is a natural focus for the town's bored and restless youth who party the night away with Johnny and his slacker mate Ginger (Mackenzie Cook).
As the play opens, Lee, one of Rooster's clique, is travelling to Australia and as his friends try to put him off, Rooster faces his own life-changing events - the local council are going to enforce an overdue eviction notice; his ex-lover threatens to stop him seeing his young son and the father of an absconded girl threatens to lynch Rooster if the father finds out Rooster is involved. All this and it's St. George's Day too.

The last point is quite salient as Jez Butterworth's play is a comment on the state of late 2000s England. Butterworth has Rooster represent the anarchic, subversive and pagan side of England becoming more and more threatened by the advance of the dull grey stupidity of the modern world. Butterworth and Rylance have stated in interview that the character of Rooser was further worked on during the preview period at the Royal Court and it shows. Rooster almost seems to have grown beyond the play and all the characters opposing him are made as unsympathetic as possible.Rickson directs the piece with a surety of hand which makes the running time of three hours hardly noticeable and the play's heady combination of scatter-gun scatology, dangerous undertow and ruminations on the English soul are socked over the footlights by the remarkable ensemble.

Particularly impressive were Alan David as a ruminating English professor out of step with the modern world, Geraldine Hughes as Rooster's ex- Dawn and Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, Rooster's slacker friend. A special mention to Ultz' forest setting which in the closing moments takes on a life of it's own.But bestriding the stage and play was Rylance, it's impossible to think of another actor playing the role as it seems to come as natural to him as breathing. He was quite extraordinary.

Fast forward a few weeks and along with Sharon and Eamonn we found ourselves schlepping around the side of the Young Vic auditorium to enter the soulless, authoritarian, high security asylum which was the setting for Ian Rickson's production of HAMLET.
The big selling-point of this production was the chance to see Michael Sheen give us his melancholy Dane - how I wish he had been doing it as a one-man show.

Everything that seemed so right with Rickson's direction in JERUSALEM seemed so wrong here, his first Shakespeare production. The whole thing seemed trapped in the all-encompassing 'concept'. Nicholas Hytner's version at the National Theatre last year was set in an Elsinore that was rife with surveillance cameras and ever-watchful courtiers but at least the production had room within it to live and breath - here any life is drained away by the heavy-handed concept clamped down over the text. It's view of Elsinore as a maximum security nuthouse is strained and simply ugly.What purchase can there be in Hamlet's feigned and Ophelia's genuine flights of madness if they are outdone by Sally Dexter's jittery, scratchy Gertrude, all wild hair and exposed nerves. I was greatly disappointed in her performance but at least she made an impression which is more than can be said for James Clyde's woeful Claudius. He is not helped by having his one big scene - Claudius' speech as he attempts to pray - performed in a glassed-in office, his speech relayed to the audience by intercom.

All through the play, Rickson's annoying tricks kept shouting "look at this - you never expected to see a Hamlet like THIS eh?" It all smacked of a 1970s theatre collective production - is there to be NO progress? It also didn't help that I missed the final coup-de-theatre by having a bloody actor standing in my eye line. Allegedly Fortinbrass removes his helmet and swipe me, it's Hamlet. Ooops. Spoiler alert.Every so often a performance sparked interest - Hayley Carmichael briefly shone in the last minutes as a female Horatio, Pip Donaghy's gravedigger seized his moment, Michael Gould was occasionally effective as Polonius (played in the usual office bore style) and Vinette Robinson was the latest in quietly effective Ophelias but the casting of light-skinned black actresses in this role is becoming depressingly obvious. Again she was saddled with annoying business - handing out pills instead of flowers during her mad scene - did no one realise this leads to the background to her suicide? - and P.J. Harvey's tunes for Ophelia's snatches of song merely dragged out the playing length.

I also have to say that the idea of having the stage resembling a large open grave from Ophelia's burial scene to the end of the play worked excellently when Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes and Hamlet were piled in next to Ophelia and Polonious, really bringing home the sense of two families laid waste.All of which means that Michael Sheen will be needing some serious chiropractor sessions after carrying this damn show for nearly three months.

He was certainly charismatic, switching from Hamlet's soliloquies to his gallows humour in the bat of an eye, and investing the role with moments of real humanity. Sadly the one thing I didn't feel for him was any empathy and when Hamlet is left alone with Horatio facing his encroaching mortality, surely you need to have empathy for him. I also felt I was sometimes watching "the wheels go round" during some of his line readings - by trying to speak the text as naturally as possible I was... aware of... the... odd pauses... during his... lines.

Poor Michael Sheen... Ian Rickson done rained on your parade.

Oh and so did I when I sneezed LOUDLY towards the end of "To Be Or Not To Be"


Monday, November 21, 2011

A couple of Saturdays ago Owen and I ventured once again out of the Smoke to see a show in the provinces. This time it was to the leafy sleepiness of Chichester to see one of my favorite musicals, Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET.

It has since been announced that it will transfer to the Adelphi next year but I am glad we saw it in it's original thrust stage setting.

The last production we saw of SWEENEY was John Doyle's at the Ambassadors which started my antipathy for shows with actor-musicians and was really no way to introduce Owen to the show but no such problems here: Jonathan Kent's production is as it should be seen.

Sondheim himself is very keen on it - he stayed on in Chichester after seeing it to see it a second time.
Jonathan Kent's vision for the show is to bring it visually forward in time to a gloomy, shadowy Patrick Hamilton-esque late 1920s/early 1930s London, suggesting backstreet warehouses with smashed windows, metal grills and clattering roll-down shutters. A semi-circular gallery topped off Anthony Ward's set giving a good vantage point for members of the chorus to watch the proceedings.

Kent's direction is clean and sharp, giving the action in Hugh Wheeler's marvellous book a real momentum which builds to the show's shattering final act. I have long said that the last section of SWEENEY TODD. if handled well, can be one of the most thrilling theatrical pleasures and so it was here.

The big news around the production has been the casting of Mr. Show Business himself, Michael Ball, as the wronged barber out for bloody revenge. Not the most obvious casting but on the whole I think he succeeded in giving a fine, unexpected performance.

However to give this performance, he underplayed to such a degree that it rendered his Sweeney a trifle colourless and monotone.

Sweeney is a role that does demand a quality of disconnectedness and muffled rage but other actors I have seen play the part have managed to thread though the pea soup fog of his character a glittering dark humour which was hard to find with Ball as he was too busy downplaying. However it cannot be denied that the show probably would not have been staged had he not agreed to play the role.

His banked-down performance was all the more noticeable compared to the tsunami of Imelda Staunton's Mrs. Lovett. Imelda gave the performance I was expecting but that didn't detract from it's pure pleasure.Imelda's Nellie Lovett was the engine for the show, constantly scuttling about in her fur-lined ankle boots. She easily handled the changes from humour to horror while all the time keeping the undertow to Nellie's character strong, her passion for the former lodger who has now re-entered her life.

It was this multi-layered, naturalistic approach which stood out so against Ball's performance - in particular with the dramatic shift in the final act when Nellie's deception is fully revealed. It's almost 30 years on from first seeing her as one of the "Hot Box Girls" in Richard Eyre's landmark National Theatre production of GUYS AND DOLLS and her career has been a joy to follow.

In mentioning GUYS, it is interesting to compare her performance with Julia McKenzie's award-winning one at the National in 1993. Julia's was a gin-soaked harridan straight out of a Penny Dreadful illustration where as Imelda's is played more naturalistic. Both valid, both excellent. The show also benefited from two very hissable villains in John Bowe's venal Judge Turpin and, in particular, Peter Polycarpou's deliciously odious, bowler-hatted Beadle Bamford. The juves were a bit colourless sadly but James McConville was very good as Tobias as was Robert Burt's Pirelli - it was a delightful touch that Pirelli's travelling vehicle should look like a converted ice-cream van! Sondheim's glorious score was well played by the orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Skilbeck and Mark Henderson's lighting design was wonderfully atmospheric.The show is due in at the Adelphi in March 2012 and I urge you to see it. It would be a bloody crime if you missed it!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A few weeks back Owen and I braved the wilds of Waterloo to see the Old Vic's production of one of the classics of Irish theatre, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD by J.M. Synge.

Owen was particularly excited as he has long wanted to see a production of the play which he studied once. I had only seen the play once before when Fiona Buffini directed it at the National Theatre in 2001 which I mostly remember as being lit very murkily and featuring a fine performance by Derbhle Crotty as Pegeen, so I was curious to jog my memory of the piece.

The theatre was very busy in the peanut gallery, due to the production starring Robert Sheehan of Channel 4's MISFITS. Hey... if it takes a tv star who can also act well enough to get an impressionable audience into the theatre then that's fine by me - as Malcolm X said "By any means necessary"!Synge's freewheeling black comedy shows the effect on the locals of a small coastal town in County Mayo when, into their midst, stumbles Christy Mahon. Christy is a young man who tells them that he is fleeing from the police after killing his father during an argument on their farm.

Instead of turning him in, Christy becomes the most popular man in the village and in particular, is pursued by Pegeen, the daughter of the town's publican, and the Widow Quin, a tough old broad who is actually chasing Christy because Pegeen's boorish fiancee has asked her to steer him away from his intended. When Christy wins the local donkey race he truly can do no wrong in the eyes of his adoring public but in the middle of the celebrations, another stranger appears... Christy's father who he in fact only wounded.The villagers now turn on Christy, collectively embarrassed at their lionising a 'nobody' - Christy out of desperation attacks his father again but this only inflames the crowd more, even Pegeen denounces him as a liar and a charlatan. It's only the appearance of Christy's seemingly indestructible father that stops them lynching him!

Christy realises that his one chance for fame has passed him by and he dejectedly leaves the village with his father to resume his miserable life on the farm. It is only when he leaves that Pegeen too becomes aware that she has lost her one chance of true happiness as she dejectedly cries "Oh my grief, I've lost him surely. I've lost the only Playboy of the Western World."
Synge's dialogue still twists and turns through the plot, time and again a line of dialogue leaps straight into the mind making it hard to believe it was written 104 years ago!

Sheehan makes a brave stab at the title role - it's his stage debut - but he is more a bumbling eejit rather than the master of his fate that Christy needs to project and he was easily out-matched by Niamh Cusack as the voluptuous Widow Quin and the luminous Ruth Negga as Pegeen. In the past year Cusack was excellent in CAUSE CELEBRE also at the Vic and Negga was a sympathetic Ophelia at the National so it was great to see them both again.

Special mention to Diarmuid de Faoite as the permanently woozy Jimmy Farrell, his second act slapstick pratfall was worth the price of admission alone! Also eye-catching were Kevin Traynor as Pegeen's insufferable fiancee Shawn and Frank Laverty as Pegeen's publican father.

Scott Pask's set design for Flaherty's bar was a revolving delight and wasn't overly-set dressed to detract from Synge's verbal fireworks.

Famously the 1907 premiere at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin saw rioting in the auditorium by those shocked at Synge's portrayal of small town Ireland but while Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh have reworked his themes of the glamour of violent young men and the venality in the Irish character, Synge's play still rightly holds it's place as one of the most entertaining of early 20th Century classics as well as a lasting tribute to a writer who tragically died aged 38 of Hodgkin's Disease only two years after PLAYBOY was premiered.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A few weeks ago Owen and I made a rare visit to the Strand Theatre as was, the Novello Theatre as is, to see the Regents Park Open Air transfer of it's summertime hit CRAZY FOR YOU.

The Open Air Theatre's artistic director Timothy Sheader has hit upon a winning streak with his musicals: HELLO, DOLLY! won them the Evening Standard award for Best Musical as well as 3 Olivier Awards and last year's INTO THE WOODS won the Best Musical Revival Olivier Award and CRAZY FOR YOU has gone one better than those by moving into the West End.

I must admit that looking back on the experience I am a little surprised as, although enjoyable, I found the show a little under-powered with choreography which seemed to echo 42ND STREET a little too strongly.I think my problem with the show is Ken Ludwig's rather one-note book: it has enough stock musical comedy characters such as the energetic leading man and spunky leading lady; the high-class unwanted girlfriend and the rough-and-ready joe she sets her sights on; the waspish grande dame and the egomaniac theatre director et al but none of them seem particularly well-developed and their actions are dictated by the needs of the cobbled together Gershwin songs.

Peter McKintosh's standing set which would have filled the Open Air's stage seems oddly forlorn within the proscenium stage at the Novello and rather than looking tastefully elegant tends to just look a bit cheap.It doesn't seem like I enjoyed it much does it? I did actually and my enjoyment had a lot to do with the delightful performances by the leads.

Sean Palmer gave a winning performance as Bobby, the banker who has a secret desire to dance on Broadway - I know, ONLY in musical comedy. After failing in an audition with the over-the-top Broadway producer Bela Zangler his imperious mother packs him off to foreclose a failing theatre in Nevada. Needless to say Bobby turns this to his advantage and persuades the townsfolk that he is in fact Bela Zangler and he has come to give their theatre a boost. Palmer is a real find, a likable personality who can carry a tune, and more importantly, dance up a storm!

One reason that Bobby is determined to stay is the go-getting charms of Clare Foster's theatre-owning Polly and she too, gave a performance of great charmth and warmth (to quote Sam Goldwyn said). They were a delightful couple on stage - a rarity these days.

The supporting company were a bit more uphill in the charm department but the show gave David Burt a marvellous opportunity to shine as the over-the-top Zangler. His bewildered fish-out-of-Broadway-water when he unexpectedly pops up in the town was a great comedy showcase for him and his double-takes and pratfalls were a real joy.Needless to say any show that boasts a score including SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, EMBRACEABLE YOU, I GOT RHYTHM and THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME is a must-see and there are enough lesser-known Gershwin songs to keep the show bouncing along - whatever the drawbacks of the book you know there is going to be an enjoyable song along in a while.

CRAZY FOR YOU has no obvious star performers, is not based on a film (although a few have been made from it's source show GIRL CRAZY) and is not a pop/rock songbook musical - so to transfer it into the West End which is dominated by all the above is a brave venture - and for that alone it deserves to succeed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A few weeks ago we went to the Arts Theatre (and it's not often I can say that) to see the new revival of Frank Marcus' notorious THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE.

Now I have to say that I have never liked the film - yes, I know it has Beryl Reid and Coral Browne in it but the sheer heavy-handed awfulness of Robert Aldrich's direction makes it a dreadful experience.

The play opened in 1964 with Reid and Eileen Atkins as her child-like girlfriend and the cast also included Lally Bowers as Mercy Croft and Margaret Courtenay as the neighbouring clairvoyant. A cast and a half who would more than be able to carry a play along no matter what it's deficits.

Sadly in Iqbal Khan's wonky production the performers don't have the confidence to grab the material by the scruff of the neck. Khan's direction is woefully uneven in tone and it leaves the performers all having to fend for themselves... some better than others.
Meera Syal's last stage performance was as a winning SHIRLEY VALENTINE but here she only fitfully engaged as June, the ageing actress facing the ignominious decision by her producers to bump off her popular character in a radio 'soap' series not unlike The Archers. Not helped by the ugly costume design by Pam Tait, she certainly suggested the desperation of June's situation but she seemed at sea with the odder elements of the character, namely the hints of sado-masochism between her and Alice.

By far her better scenes were with Belinda Lang who gave the best performance of the evening as Mrs. Mercy Croft, the woman from the BBC with a cut-glass accent and a redundancy letter in her handbag. Belinda Lang had no problems playing the villain but she played it with nice shadings of character and with killer timing.
Sadly the evening was scuppered by the am-dram performance of Elizabeth Cadwallader as Alice. It's a role that is as equally difficult to play as June as so much of the part is playing the girly-girl but with the ability to turn on a dime and show the character's predatory side, a survivor always on the lookout for the next protector. June's reveal at the end should also make dramatic sense but with the casting of the obviously young Cadwallader it simply didn't.

The casting of Helen Lederer as the spare-wheel character of Madam Xenia must be looked on as another of the production's problems. This utterly meaningless character was dropped from the film and Lederer's already - um - idiosyncratic performance style simply highlighted this character's absurdity.
And this was all played out on to a truly schizoid set design by Ciaran Bagnall - downstage an Agatha Christie touring production, upstage a standing set for RADIO GA-GA: THE MUSICAL.

The Arts Theatre has had an uncertain life recently with more threatened closures than hits. If they are banking on ho-hum productions like this as a lifeline then they had better think again.