Saturday, April 25, 2015

GYPSY - now at the Savoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Dvd/150: TALKING HEADS (Stuart Burge/Giles Foster/Alan Bennett/Tristram Powell/Patrick Garland/Udayan Prasad/Gavin Miller, 1988/98, tv)

Alan Bennett's incisive monologues never lose the power to draw you in, make you smile but leave you drained at the quietly desperate lives they depict.

They are performed by a dazzling cast: Bennett, Patricia Routledge (twice), Maggie Smith, Stephanie Cole, Julie Walters (twice), Thora Hird (twice), Eileen Atkins, David Haig and Penelope Wilton.

Standouts from Series 1 are Maggie Smith as the depressed vicar's wife whose secret drinking leads to the arms of an Asian shopkeeper and the BAFTA-winning performance by Thora Hird as Doris, reviewing her life in the dying light of day after suffering a fall.

Series 2 wasn't as consistent but several are stunning: David Haig as the park cleaner struggling to hide his secret, Julie Walters as the sour wife realising her husband is a serial killer, and a second BAFTA-winning performance by Hird as Violet, a stroke victim in her 90s.

Shelf or charity shop?  They can soliloquize from the shelf...

Monday, April 06, 2015

STEVIE at Hampstead Theatre

"Who or what is Stevie Smith? Is she woman? Is she myth?"
In his 1977 play Hugh Whitmore attempted to answer the humorist Ogden Nash's question, helped by an acclaimed performance from Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith, the quirky, profound poet who lived in Palmers Green, North London with her maiden aunt.  Jackson's performance, with that of Mona Washbourne as her 'lion aunt', were immortalised on screen the next year.

38 years on, the play has been revived in a production that is illuminated by Zoe Wanamaker giving one of her best performances - at times I forgot it was her which I guess is the ultimate compliment you can gave a star performer.

It has been a good few years since I saw the film but every so often a certain scene would jog my memory, in particular Smith's visit to Buckingham Palace to receive the Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969 and having to make painful small-talk with the Queen.

Christopher Morahan has directed a subtle, nuanced production that doesn't completely overcome the drawbacks of Whitmore's style of playwriting; similar to his Portland Spies play PACK OF LIES which was narrated by a number of characters direct to the audience, STEVIE is narrated by The Man who also plays various men in Smith's life as well as Stevie who tells the story of her life to her aunt.  I couldn't help wondering why this was as surely her aunt would know it having lived with her most of her life!

However where Whitmore is wholly successful is in weaving Smith's poetry into his play so they seem to come directly from her life and really lift the play.  I cannot be the only one who left the show itching to read more of her work.  Smith seems to float in and out of popularity but she deserves to be reclaimed as one of the greats.

Complementing Wanamaker's performance is Lynda Baron as her redoubtable 'lion aunt' Margaret, barging around the house making tea or dinner, only stopping to have a glass of sherry and a flick through the local newspaper.  Less pixieish than Mona Washbourne, Baron came into her own in her final scene when the aunt appears suddenly changed, losing her robustness to become a shuffling querulous invalid.

Less successful was Chris Larkin as The Man but I suspect that was more due to the writing than any particular fault with the actor.  I suspect if anyone was asked to play a waspish, literary queen that dipping into a Maggie Smith impression would be top of your acting choices so it was a bit jaw-dropping to see Larkin do it as he is her eldest son.

But it's Zoe Wanamaker's show and from the start she gave an idiosyncratic performance as the hunched, scuttling Smith, barking her lines in a slightly lower register, turning on a sixpence from biting wit to pathos.  She brought Stevie Smith, ungainly in her odd clothes and awkward posture, to life and as I said earlier, there were times when I felt that Wanamaker disappeared completely within her.  She also beautifully suggests at the end of the play the tragedy of the encroaching brain tumour which robbed Stevie of her ability to write or speak.

Simon Higlett's stage design also contributed to the show's overall success, the detailed representation of the Palmers Green house on one side slowly breaking up and drifting away to seemingly mingle with the tall trees beyond.

STEVIE plays until April 18th at Hampstead Theatre and is well worth a visit.  By the way how ironic that the production should transfer from Chichester to Hampstead where the original Stevie, Glenda Jackson, has been the Member of Parliament!  I wonder if she has been to see it?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

PLAY MAS - Richmond Revivalists

After the enjoyable production of Shaw's WIDOWERS' HOUSES earlier this year, it was revival time again at the Orange Tree Theatre as we went to see their latest offering from the neglected plays of yesteryear, Mustapha Matura's PLAY MAS, first staged in 1974.

PLAY MAS was first seen at the Royal Court with a stellar cast including Norman Beaton, Mona Hammond, Stefan Kalipha and Rudolph Walker, and not only transferred to the West End but also won Matura an Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright award; and now 41 years later it gets it's first revival, and at the Orange Tree no less.

As I noted for WIDOWERS' HOUSES, the audience at the Orange Tree appears to have a very specific demographic (mature, white, clubby) but it was good to see a diverse audience for this play.  Being in a theatre which is only three rows deep presents all sorts of challenges - especially if the lights are turned up to 11 to suggest the tropical atmosphere of Trinidad.  In other words, it was very easy to start nodding off.  But honestly, cast - I did enjoy the play!

The play is set in Port of Spain, Trinidad in the late 1950s: Samuel, a young Trinidadian is the overworked assistant/dogsbody in a tailor shop owned by an Indian mother and son.  Although feckless and picked on by Miss Gookool, Samuel is indulged by Ramjohn who takes time to explain the trade to him and chat about "flims".  However when Miss Gookool fires him for wanting to attend a political rally for Dr Eric Williams' PNM Independence party, Ramjohn does nothing to help him.

Soon afterwards, with Port of Spain exploding with noisy bedlam during the annual carnival or Play Mas (Masquerade), a drunk Samuel crashes into the Gookool's shop in fatigues, brandishing an automatic rifle and threatening to kill them as class enemies.  Ramjohn protects his terrified mother and pleads for their lives only for Samuel to laughingly reveal that he is joking.  However Miss Gookool dies from a heart attack and Ramjohn is driven to despair by the increasingly nightmarish parade of visitors.

We then jump to 1963, the PNM party are now in power and have secured Independence from Great Britain.  Samuel has risen through the ranks to become the new Commissioner of Police and adapts quickly to the corrupt life endemic to this position of power.  He has also acquired a nagging, social-climbing wife who demands all that privileges she think she deserves.

The irony is that the government now face a new wave of student rioters, angry at the PNM's wholehearted flooding of the country with American expansionism.  Increasingly desperate to show his US backers he can deliver security, Samuel threatens to cancel his once beloved Mas to stop any public show of dissent and even tries to recruit former friend Ramjohn to be a spy among his neighbours.

I enjoyed Matura's use of ironic contrasts to Samuel's progress to power: his former love of Hollywood movies replaced by his attending European foreign-language films to show his new status in life; his former shabby outfit in the tailor-shop now replaced by expensive imported suits; his blindness to replacing one colonialist power - Great Britain - with another - the USA and ultimately his use of the Mas festivities to hide a darker purpose.

Seun Shote was excellent as Samuel, going from the clueless assistant to the equally clueless Commissioner while suggesting the insecurity of a man promoted above his ability and aware it could all come crashing down at any minute.

Director Paulette Randall elicits fine performances from Melanie La Barrie as the bossy Miss Gookool, Victor Romero Evans as the chancer Frank who makes it big when the Americans come to town and Llewella Gideon in two contrasted roles of religious females.  I felt though that Johann Myers faded into the background too easily as the hapless Ramjohn.

I felt Randall's best work was in the two middle acts - there was a tangible air of unease in Ramjohn's nightmarish Mas night and a great satirical edge to the comedy of Samuel's delight in power.  However the final act seemed oddly misjudged.  I suspect Matura is at fault too with a too-sudden shift in tone, but Randall had so much happening on the limited stage area that the intended powerful ending actually felt mistimed and cack-handed.

On the whole however, I enjoyed the production and the Orange Tree are to be congratulated again on a long-overdue revival.