Saturday, May 31, 2014

FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE production trailer!

A trailer for Stratford East's wonderfully enjoyable revival of Lionel Bart and Frank Norman's FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE....

The State of FINGS

This year marks the centinery of visionary theatre director Joan Littlewood's birth and Theatre Royal Stratford East are celebrating by staging revivals of two of her iconic shows, both directed by Terry Johnson.  A few months ago I saw the affecting but slightly under-powered OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR but now he is on surer ground with a punchy and rollicking production of Lionel Bart and Frank Norman's FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE.  As with OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR it was so exciting to see these on the stage where they were created by Littlewood.

In 1958 Frank Norman submitted his first play to Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. She thought his story of Soho crooks and prostitutes - drawn from a milieu that ex-con Norman knew all too well - would be more effective with songs from a previous collaborator Lionel Bart, mainly known as a pop song writer, who had recently written the score for his first musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS. The show was a huge success, transferring to the Garrick where it ran for 886 performances and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.  By the way, the choreographer for the production was Jean Newlove, pregnant at the time with her daughter Kirsty MacColl.

The West End cast - recorded 'live' on the album - was one I would now kill to see: Glynn Edwards as Fred Cochran, the crook who owns a gambling club/brothel, Miriam Karlin as Lil, his long-suffering lover who runs his decrepit knocking shop, James Booth as Tosher, Fred's second-in-command who pimps the brasses Rosie and Betty, played by Barbara Windsor and Toni Palmer, Wallis Eaton as the camp interior decorator Horace, Tom Chatto as the bent local Police Inspector and, among the supporting cast, a young Yootha Joyce. That album is so packed with larger-than-life vocal performances that it's hard for any revival to match it but Johnson has given us a production which leaps off the stage with full-on attack and neon-lit characterisations.

I had seen the show when it was revived in 2011 by the Union Theatre and while that production was compromised by bad design and a shocking supporting performance - see here for that blog review - it's nice to see two of the better performers appearing here, Ruth Alfie Adams and the unstoppable Suzie Chard.

Norman's book has been revised by Bart afficianado Elliot Davis so it was a bit jolting for songs to pop up out of their usual context and sung by different characters.  The score has been filled out with three of Bart's early hits - WOULD YOU MIND?, LIVING DOLL and SPARRERS CAN'T SING - which are nice to hear but do stand out from the score's particular sound but I must admit that even Davis has not managed to fix the plot's odd climax which seems to stop too soon and then take a long time about it.  Davis is also the musical director of the onstage band.

A big plus is William Dudley's evocative basement spieler and costumes as well as a clever use of video footage to suggest the Soho world above.  The show was enlivened by Nathan M. Wright's inventive choreography, a constant delight.  But what raised the roof and rattled the rafters were the vibrant performances.

Jessie Wallace, while essentially playing a variation of her "Eastenders" character Kat, gave a full-on performance as Lil, her weariness at her unfulfilled life with Fred very palpable and she belted Lil's great songs with real brio.  Mark Arden played Fred with a real menace although his 'dead 'ard' accent was a bit overdone.  One of the surprises was Gary Kemp who played the bent copper PC Collins with a welcome light touch and sang his big number COP A BIT OF PRIDE well.

He had the added pleasure of sharing his number with the fabulous Suzie Chard who brought big hair, big personality, big boobs and more importantly a big voice to the role of Betty the tart with a heart of pure brass.  She belted over her number BIG TIME with the attack of the late and great Georgia Brown and it was lovely to see her again.  Oddly enough although she played the same character at the Union Theatre, there she was named Barbara!

A real standout was Sarah Middleton as Rosie, the young runaway who Tosher recuits as the latest addition to his stable.  She had a nice presence on stage and her performance of Rosie's big song WHERE DO LITTLE BIRDS GO TO? was wonderful.  Christopher Ryan also made a big impression as the eternal jailbird Red Hot, always on the cadge and with knocked-off goods to sell.  The supporting cast also featured fine work by Will Barton and Vivien Carter as the posh couple who arrive at the spieler.

The cast had a few mis-steps too: Ryan Molloy played the gay interior decorator Horace but, while not as atrocious as the Union Theatre actor, again this role was over-played to the nth degree and it was not surprising that his laugh lines went for nothing while Stefan Booth was oddly over-emphatic as Tosher.

But these can be overlooked easily as the show was so hugely enjoyable, it would be great if it had a continued life after it's scheduled run.  It deserves a West End run just like it's original incarnation to enliven the current London theatre musical scene.

Well done Startford East on the genius stroke to reprint the original 1959 programme!  Who knew that the very first production featured A TASTE OF HONEY writer Shelagh Delaney playing a young "mystery" and that none other than Richard Harris played the crooked copper Collins?  I wonder whatever happened to Mrs Parham who sold drinks in the long bar, Mrs. Murphy who sold teas in the snack bar and Miss Darvill who ran the box office?

After seeing FINGS, again I find myself wondering when will we see a revival of Lionel Bart's Liverpool musical MAGGIE MAY which played at the Adelphi in 1964, first with Rachel Roberts then Georgia Brown in the title role and a young Julia McKenzie in the chorus.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

California Dreaming...


A few weeks ago we saw GOOD PEOPLE by David Lindsay-Abaire, a recent off-Broadway play about the echoes of the past catching up with a woman and last week we saw another recent off-Broadway play about, um, the past catching up with a woman.  I guess when it comes to American imports there are only seven stories.

The Old Vic has reconfigured it's auditorium for Jon Robin Baitz' OTHER DESERT CITIES so it is played in the round and it was great fun to sit in that familiar theatre but with a totally new viewing experience.

It was also a good choice for this play.  I suspect if the play had been presented within it's proscenium arch it might not have been too involving.

Baitz has had a career on both stage and small screen - he was the creator of the Sally Field TV series "Brothers and Sisters" - and towards the end of the play The Big Reveal had all the elements of a end-of-season cliffhanger.  For the most part I enjoyed it but, as with most plays that arrive here garlanded with awards and the praise of NY critics, the overall feeling is one of thinness.

The play takes place in the luxurious Palm Springs home of ex-actor Lyman Wyeth and his ex-scriptwriter wife Polly in 2003 against a backdrop of the first Iraqi war.  The Christmas family gathering includes daughter Brooke who has just flown in from her home in New York - immediate shorthand for 'rebellious daughter' - TV executive son Trip (oh those names) and Polly's outlandish sister Silda, who co-wrote with Polly in the 1960s and now spends most of her life checking in and out of rehab.

Brooke has not visited in six years as she has been struggling with depression while attempting a follow-up to her debut novel and she soon locks ideological horns with her Republican parents while Silda snipes from the sidelines.  Trip, who produces a courtroom reality tv series, is the voice for populism and just having a happy time.  Brooke has not arrived empty-handed however as she has brought the proofs for her new book: a family memoir that includes her older brother Henry, now dead after killing himself in a terrorist bomb plot.

Baitz' play has distinct echoes of Edward Albee's more enigmatic A DELICATE BALANCE - married, well-off couple are beset by the wife's alcoholic sister and their resentful daughter - but, while being a general state-of-the-nation play, his work mostly touches on the responsibility of the artist using their family as inspiration, the spiky relationships between siblings both old and young, and of course, the eternal push-pull atmosphere between parents and children.

As I said, Baitz delivers a plot twist towards the end which I felt reduced the play to a soap-opera but I guess it did set up a nicely poetic final scene for Martha Plimpton's Brooke.

What I enjoyed most about the production, which was directed with a good sense of pace by Lindsay Posner, was the three central female performances: Clare Higgins, Sinead Cusack and Martha Plimpton.

Clare Higgins played Silda with her usual hard-edged style but Baitz does not really give her a good meaty scene to let rip, this addicted sister was an oddly muted character for all the fireworks that were expected.  No such problems with Sinead Cusack who was excellent as the unapologeticly right-wing Polly, a mother who views her daughter as a total stranger - an addition to the Broadway cannon of unforgiving mothers.  Martha Plimpton has morphed from being a child star of the 1980s into an accomplished stage performer and, making her London stage debut as Brooke, she was always watchable and more than held her own against two of our most charismatic actresses.

The men had less chance to shine against these fine actresses but Peter Egan was less milquetoast than usual as the urbane father who cracks at the seeming betrayal of his daughter's family memoir and is the keeper of A Big Secret while Daniel Lapaine had good fun as Trip, exasperated by his warring relatives.

An enjoyable play with an excellent cast but one that seemed to choose a distinctly Hollywood ending.

Monday, May 05, 2014

They Weren't Like Everybody Else

Constant Reader, you will know that I'm not the biggest fan of jukebox musicals.  Along with the 'film-to-stage' show that have proliferated of late, the jukebox musical is the woeful sign of a race to the bottom mentality in theatre.  However, when Hampstead Theatre announced they were staging a musical based on the rise of The Kinks using their marvelous back catalogue with the blessing of Ray Davies, well it was a no-brainer.  I wasn't the only one either as the show is now sold out for it's run.  Although there are some dodgy moments, the show - and the music - is ultimately triumphant.

All the usual elements are there in Joe Penhall's book: the humble beginnings, the sudden rise to fame, the inter-group rivalries that are thrown into sharp relief by the availability of drink and drugs and the inevitable nervous breakdown.  Sadly - and although the real salient point of The Kinks' story is the shifting relationship of the brothers Ray and Dave Davies - Penhall's script settles for the sketchiest of details and told in clich├ęd lines that almost made me wonder whether he was deliberately attempting a strip-cartoon version of their story.


Luckily, the show also has Ray Davies' songs to flesh out the story.  Ray Davies' songs always have been mini-chapters from an ongoing story and here they help move the story forward as well as being joyful celebrations of this most idiosyncratic of groups.  Where Penhall does do well is sorting out the labyrinthine union politics that saw The Kinks being banned from playing in America for four years in the latter part of the 1960s.

Edward Hall directs the show at a galloping space which helps to cover the thinness of the book and wraps the action around the stalls auditorium, making full use of Miriam Buether's large stage and runway which stretches out into the middle of the stalls - and guess who was sat at the end of it?  It was actually great fun to have the cast whizzing around past you - oh and I got pulled up out of my seat to join with the dancing to Britain's favourite song about a nightclub tranny "Lola"!

The busy cast all contribute to the show's success and the four lead players deserve all the kudos they will receive.  Ned Derrington and Adam Sopp both had their moments to shine as bassist Pete Quaife and drummer Mick Avory, part of the group but always in the shadows of the fractious brothers.  John Dagleish had one hell of a job taking on the role of Ray Davies and while he gave a sympathetic performance, he never totally convinced probably due to the fact that he looked more like Paul McCartney than our Ray!

Much more successful was George Maguire as the volatile Dave Davies, he was devilishly charismatic and to quote Lady Caroline Lamb's summation of Lord Byron "mad, bad and dangerous to know"!  There were also nice supporting performances from Tam Williams and Dominic Tighe as the group's upper-class managers, Vince Leigh and Ben Caplan as their other managers and Philip Bird as the flashy Allan Klein.  Lillie Flynn as Ray's wife Rasa wrestled with a rather thankless role.

The show concludes with the creation of Ray's masterpiece "Waterloo Sunset" - and yes, Constant Reader, that song worked it's magic on me once again.  Terry and Julie crossed over the river again and I was in tearful paradise.

We flash-forward to 1970 and the magnificent "Lola", and by the time the cast had left the stage, I had a huge grin on my face and wanting this great production to transfer to the West End where it and it's wonderful score can be given a wider audience.  In a perfect world, it would be in repertory with Ray Davies' haunting musical COME DANCING from 2008 which was his take on another moment from his past.

I hope he enjoyed the opening night at Hampstead...