Friday, December 29, 2017

CINDERELLA at Sadler's Wells: Cinders Bourne again...

If it's Christmas then there will be a Matthew Bourne production at Sadler's Wells and this year it's a return for his version of Prokofiev's CINDERELLA which we last saw there in 2010.

It was a delight to see it again but I also feel a bit more able to critique it now after having had more exposure to dance through seeing the work of the Royal Ballet.

Bourne sets his CINDERELLA in wartime London 1941 which is a good framework for the story as the chances of happiness were fleeting and could be snatched away quickly.  Cinderella is the put-upon child of a withdrawn father, isolated in his wheelchair, and her stepmother, a glamorous Joan Crawfordesque drunken maneater.  She shares the house with her 5 step-siblings: two vain sisters and 3 brothers: one a gay clothes designer, a shoe fetishist and a hyper-active lad.

Into their life stumbles an RAF pilot, disorientated and dishevelled, who Cinderella instantly falls for.  He runs out of the house with Cinders in hot pursuit and her life changes forever.  Cinderella is watched over by a ghostly angel who guides her through the London blitz and who even recreates the just-bombed nightclub the Cafe de Paris so Cinderella can have her moment in a pretty dress dancing with her RAF prince.

A night of love between them ends with the angel summoning Cinderella to flee at midnight but, caught again in the dangerous streets, Cinderella and her pilot both end up in the hospital - what chance for a happy ending now?

What dazzled most was the excellent set and costume design by Lez Brotherston who conjures haunting imagery - none more so than in the Cafe de Paris scene, based on the real event in March 1941 when the assumed-safe underground club was struck by two bombs that fell through a ventilation shaft and exploded on the dancefloor, killing 34 people and injuring 80.  Neil Austin's excellent lighting adds to the thrilling visual power.

Bourne excels in strong narratives but in CINDERELLA he loses clarity towards the end especially in the lengthy hospital scene which also includes a confusing flashback of her stepmother shooting her father then appearing in the hospital to smother Cinderella - why?  Up until then, the stepmother is portrayed as a comic vamp; the sudden lurch into melodrama just feels forced.

The central relationship between Cinderella and the pilot also feels ultimately negligible, they seem to be do a lot of rushing around chasing each other through the blackouts but they never really seem to connect as a couple, their best duet being in his bedroom while air-raids threaten overhead.  The idea of having five siblings for Cinderella dissipates the tension within their relationships; her two sisters are oddly anonymous as the brothers are given more attention-getting characters.

Bourne's choreography has it's signature moves but it would be good if you were not able to second guess some of them: the straight arms crossing at the elbows as couples dance being one.  As I said, some natural, clean lines would be nice occasionally.

However Ashley Shaw was delightful as Cinderella, creating a real sympathetic character - none more so than in her lovely solo with her brother's tailoring dummy which then turns into a duet with her hero - and Bourne regulars Michela Meazza and Liam Mower were excellent as nasty Sybil the stepmother and Cinderella's other-worldly Angel.

CINDERELLA is still a wonderful theatrical experience with our charming heroine, tormented hero, heavenly guide, nocturnal trouser-jiggling rentboys, brassy tarts, gas-mask dogs, glamorous nightclub patrons and lonely love-lorn Londoners all mixing together as the bombs fall and Prokofiev's dramatic, moody score soars. 

Next Christmas at Sadler's Wells?  Let's just say I'll be there...

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at the Old Vic - Rhys Ifan's Ghost Dance

Yes it's that time of the year when Owen seeks out a new adaptation of Charles Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL - more often than not to be able to say "They don't do *that* in the book".  This year it was to the Old Vic we ventured to see how Ebenezer Scrooge saw the light on Christmas Eve night and became a better man for it...

The Old Vic has been radically changed with a transom stage that dissects the auditorium in two - and audience seating on the stage too - for a production that brings the audience right into the centre of the Jack Thorne's version of the story though it wasn't used to it's fullest extent, most of the action still took place in the centre of the stage crossroads - the transom just made for some room for dancing and, at it's best, for Jacob Marley's lengthy train of chains and cashboxes.

For all the production's explosion of theatricality - more of that later - Thorne's adaptation felt thin and uninvolved, maybe I am over-familiar with the story but it felt like they were playing the synopsis and not the script.  Maybe it was Thorne's take on Dickens tale; Thorne has invented the character of Scrooge's father who is emotionally distant and uncaring - ah so that's it - Scrooge isn't nasty he just never had enough love in his childhood - and to quote Roxie Hart in CHICAGO - "and that's show biz, kids".  I think I prefer my Scrooge to just be a bastard.

None of the ghostly apparitions changed the tempo either - maybe because they were all played by similar-looking women - and the Ghost of Christmas Future was profoundly unscary, what is the point of that??  Scrooge really didn't have far to jump from being just narked to embracing life.

It felt like director Matthew Warchus couldn't wait to get to the scene where Scrooge wakes up a changed man on Christmas morning and the preparations for the biggest Xmas feat ever take over the whole of the auditorium while the audience experiences the wonder of a white Christmas.  But is Scrooge just dreaming?

I loved the theatricality of it all - the ensemble handing out free mince pies and oranges before the show started, the bell-ringing for lovely hushed versions of Christmas carols, the snow blizzards, the It's A Knockout feel to the Xmas dinner preparations but it all felt a bit added on; none of it seemed to rise from Thorne's text.

Rhys Ifans is good as Scrooge looking like a wizened husk of a man who blooms into an excitable beanstalk at the joy of life, he has great charisma on stage and it has just been announced that he will make a third Old Vic appearance in 2018 in a new play about the music business.

There was fine contributions from John Dagleish as Bob Cratchett, Alex Gaumond as Bob Marley and Golda Rosheuvel as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  I also liked Erin Doherty as Belle who has an invented scene at the close of the play where Scrooge visits her to apologize for his behaviour as a young man and she replies in a very non-Dickensian way that without him in her earlier life she would not be happily married and able to forgive him all these years later.

Warchus directs with a steady hand but the show does belong to designer Rob Howell and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone who create a very unique theatrical experience.  The music adds greatly to the feel of the show and Christopher Nightingale deserves plaudits for his composing and arranging of carols.

I would recommend A CHRISTMAS CAROL for it's exuberant festive finale and nice performances but do we really need a psychologically-profiled Scrooge?  I don't think so.

Friday, December 22, 2017

THE BOX OF DELIGHTS at Wilton's Music Hall - Step back in time...

Before Harry Potter, before Narnia, before The Lord of The Rings, before The Hobbit, there was John Masefield's 1935 fantasy novel THE BOX OF DELIGHTS - and even that was a sequel to THE MIDNIGHT FOLK written in 1927.  I always wondered what would be the production that finally lured me east of the Tower of London to the famous Wilton's Music Hall... I would never have guessed it was a stage version of this English fantasy classic!

It was all very charming but the real thrill was to finally see inside Wilton's.  It is a real curiosity and is hugely evocative of the several uses the building has seen since John Wilton opened the existing building up as a Music Hall in 1859.  Since then it has been a Methodist Mission - staying open during the two World Wars and the battle of Cable Street - and a rag warehouse.  Threatened with demolition it was saved in the early 70s but struggled through neglect and under-investment until the early 2000s were a more structured conservation was launched.

The faded history of the auditorium was a good fit for this nostalgic winter entertainment, even down to a Christmas tree next to the stage - it's evocative crumbling quality matching the 1930s tale of public school boys, guardians, a slinky witch and both good and bad magicians.

The action all took place on the oddly high proscenium stage with various levels built up and shrouded in dust-cloths.  When revealed there were old mahogany wardrobes and cupboards which were used for entrances for every sort of room and of course - because I did not get my fill in PINOCCHIO - yes, more puppets.  However these were done n a fraction of the budget of the National Theatre show so could be forgiven - especially as one was for Toby the utter scamp of a dog owned by the good magician Cole Hawlings.

Young orphan Kay Harker (a boy despite the name) is on a train heading for the country town of Tatchester where he will plans to spend Christmas with his guardian.  He meets a mysterious older man who says he is a Punch & Judy puppeteer and shows him a mysterious box which he claims can be used for magic by whoever owns it.

Kay soon discovers that an evil magician wants the box too and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it with the help of his two accomplices, the glamorous witch Pouncer and the hapless Charles.  Kay teams up with the scrappy tomboy Mariah and her more nervous brother Peter to stop the evil magician from stealing the box and also spoiling the Christmas service in Tatchester Cathedral.  Of course Kay triumphs - this was the 1930s after all - but he has to use all his ingenuity to do it as well as a climax under water - or blue silk as it is here.

Children's author Piers Torday has adapted the book for the stage - it has been done countless times on radio and television - and although there were some muddy moments when the plot seems to get lost in all the opening and closing of cupboard doors, I actually had a very pleasant time sitting in that space, watching that play.

Torday has shifted the tale a few years closer to 1939 to give the tale a more obvious England-in-peril from outside influences feel and the rather glum proceedings are rarely given a kid-friendly spin so it at times felt like a very austere fairy tale but there was always something inventive happening... a puppet phoenix suddenly flaring into video life, a car turning into an airplane before our eyes, etc.  I also think we should have had more of Toby the scruffy mutt who belongs to the good magician - he's a real hero.

Matthew Kelly had the double role of good magician Cole Hawlings and the bad magician Abner Brown and was more successful as the former than the latter while Josefina Gabrielle had great fun as Pouncer, the glamorous Fenella Fielding-like witch and doubled up as the careworn guardian Caroline Louisa.

I also liked the slippery, hissable villain Charles played by Tom Kanji; our young heroes were well-played by Alistair Toovey as the resourceful Kay, Saffiya Ingar as Mariah and Samuel Simmonds as Peter and there was steady, unshowy direction from Justin Audibert.  The something-out-of-nothing design was by Tom Piper and the spooky lighting was by Anna Watson.

It was a good way to get started on my Christmas week theatregoing and - finally - I can say I have seen a production inside Wilton's Music Hall.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

PINOCCHIO at the National Theatre - strung out...

The new National Theatre production of PINOCCHIO has been the subject of some conjecture leading up to it's opening: should the National Theatre's resources be used for such a commercial enterprise that easily could have opened in the West End when the National's remit is to present plays that commercial managements would not stage, etc.

Well it's here now, with Disney trumpeting loudly that they have had no influence over director John Tiffany's vision for the work - has it proved the doubters wrong?  Well...

So we all know the plot: toymaker Gepetto carves a boy puppet and makes a wish that he could be real; the Blue Fairy gives the puppet life and promises to make him into a real boy if he proves he can be good, allocating him a knowledgeable cricket as his exterior conscience.  Pinocchio however cannot help falling in with bad company and suffers many setbacks before achieving his goal.

Dennis Kelly - the bookwriter for MATILDA - has tweaked the plot to reflect the darker 1883 original by Carlo Collodi but if anything it felt like he had simply fitted PINOCCHIO into the MATILDA template - it has the same moralistic tone behind the cod-psychobabble of "finding yourself" and how pain reveals you are human etc.  Rather than being enlightening it's just a buzzkill.

It's as if Tiffany and Kelly decided that to have too much levity, too much pure fun for fun's sake, in the show would open it up to accusations of being frivolous - this PINOCCHIO has to be about something more profound - but what is wrong with fun for fun's sake?  They certainly don't mind piling on the sentiment especially at the end - but it appears that this is allowed as you have to have the tearjerker ending; and actually the ending works better than most of the rest.

The sentiment is set up early by having the Blue Fairy slowly revealed to be the spirit of Gepetto's dead wife which helps the sentimental pay-off at the end but again it's as if a deliberate thought was "make it integrated, she can't JUST be a fairy".  The thinking constantly leads to an odd struggle within the show, knowing they have to do the big numbers like I HAVE NO STRINGS or HI-DIDDLE-DEE-DEE while trying to keep the story and characters meaningful.  You can't have it both ways.

In fact for large stretches of the show I found it to be an oddly charmless production, deliberately ugly and exaggeratedly so.  The use of oversized puppets for the humans that Pinocchio meets - while admittedly clever in keeping human-sized actor Joe Idris-Roberts seemingly puppet-sized - seemed to work only intermittently; I think that the success of the large-headed puppets oddly relied on the human element so while Mark Hadfield managed to make Gepetto a really rounded character, the performances of Gershwyn Eustache Jr as Stromboli and David Kirkbride as the Coachman outstayed their welcome very quickly.

There didn't seem to be any particular inner-engine in the show either: the two Pinocchio-in-peril scenes - trapped in Stomboli's marionette theatre and on the frightening Pleasure Island - seemed to go on and on and on.  The last scene was made more interminable by a grating performance by Dawn Sievewright as Pinocchio's yob mate Lampy, played here as an obnoxious Glaswegian yoof.  She couldn't turn into a donkey quick enough.  David Langham played the louche Fox who is intent on stopping Pinocchio becoming a real boy - for a reason that was garbled to say the least - but I found him fairly blah, when you are playing a dandy fox there is really no need to play the subtext.

There is also another show-stalling performance from Audrey Brisson as Jiminy Cricket; the odd thing here is that despite the technical expertise in creating the puppets, the Cricket one seems fairly static so is literally bounced around the stage by Brisson and the allocated puppeteer so it looks a bit amateur.  I suppose it's alright that Jiminy has had a sex change but, dear God, why saddle the character with a bizarre screechy voice which kills any laugh lines stone dead?  The name rang a bell with me and sure enough I had seen Brisson playing Bella Chagall in THE FLYING LOVERS OF VITEBSK so Jiminy was given the Emma Rice treatment - do it in a childish screechy voice and play it like Theatre In Education in a remedial school.  The puppet had nice glittery red eyes though.

To be honest I am kinda over the whole puppet thing now... there is only so often you can suspend your disbelief as the stage overflows with puppeteers manipulating a tiny object.  Yes WAR HORSE was magnificent but it is fast becoming tedious.  But apart from that Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the show?

I liked Joe Idris-Roberts as Pinocchio very much - with all the bizarreness going on around him he managed to deliver a winning performance which kept him sympathetic while all else was drab and, as I said, Mark Hadfield using just his voice managed to convey the sadness behind the kindly toymaker.  I also liked Annette McLaughlin who brought emotional ballast to the show as the Blue Fairy although she seemed to do a lot of going off and coming on, they could have used more imaginative ways for her to appear - especially as the electric blue floating flame that presaged her appearance was a constant wonder as it floated above the stage and around the set.

Bob Crowley's set was suitably lavish and spectacular when called for - I also really liked the looming presence of the ominous Whale, seemingly appearing from nowhere out of a gloomy darkness - but there was no single image that sealed the show in one's imagination.  The lighting by the ever-busy Paule Constable was one of the show's successes as was the choreography by Steven Hoggett - though I am still stumped as to why GIVE A LITTLE WHISTLE as choreographed for several ladders on coasters; it was a directorial choice too far and merely drew attention to itself.

Martin Lowe has adapted the film score cleverly - the Disney film only features five songs - but here they have been padded out and added to with music not used in the film.  However these classic songs show up in their entirety about as often as country buses - but let us not forget that the cartoon only lasts 88 minutes, the play lasts 145 minutes. As I said, the headlong dive into sentiment at the end felt almost like a relief after all the production's over-thinking, and this was in part thanks to a stirring choral version of WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR.

I wish I had liked it more... but then again, I wish they had made it more likeable.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at the Vaudeville Theatre - Wilde Women

This year has seen three top directors setting up their own companies: Nicholas Hytner has his Bridge Theatre with productions stretching into 2018, Marianne Elliott launched a production company and, after bringing her NT production of ANGELS IN AMERICA to Broadway, will direct Sondheim's COMPANY in London, and Dominic Dromgoole who is the ex-artistic director of the Globe - before the ghastly reign of Emma Rice - has launched the Classic Spring Theatre Company, it's mission to stage classic drama in the proscenium theatres they were written for.  It's inaugural season is rather spectacular - a year-long run at the Vaudeville celebrating the four major plays of Oscar Wilde.

It's first production is A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, first performed in 1893.  It's a play I have read but never seen so I jumped at the chance to see it in the very theatre where Wilde saw Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER in 1891.  Indeed Wilde was very familiar with this stretch of the Strand as he had lived in a street opposite the Vaudeville when he first arrived in London in 1879.

After the success of his first major play LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN, the actor/manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree asked Wilde to write a play for his company and Wilde wrote A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE while on holiday in Norfolk with the dreaded Lord Alfred Douglas.  It was an instant success even though Wilde disliked Beerbohm Tree's performance as the caddish Lord Illingworth.  Of course in only two years time, Wilde's world came crashing down around him and you cannot help but look for clues and hidden messages within the plays.

Lady Jane is hosting a small party of guests including the imperious Lady Caroline and her long-suffering husband Sir John, the free-thinking Mrs Allonby, the witty and urbane politician Lord Illingworth, and an orphan American visitor Miss Worsley who is attracted to young Gerald Arbuthnot whose mother is a friend of Lady Jane.  Illingworth offers Gerald a position as his secretary and Lady Jane invites his mother to join them; Mrs Arbuthnot replies that she will visit after visiting the poor of the parish, which sparks comment among the leisured-class guests.  Illingworth sees the note while flirting with Mrs Allonby who notices his change in mood but Illingworth laughs it off saying she is a "woman of no importance".

Mrs Arbuthnot arrives as Miss Worsley is denouncing the English upper-classes and, when introduced to Lord Illingworth, tells Gerald she is against him working as his secretary.  All is revealed when they are left alone - Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth were once lovers and Gerald is their son, but she was left destitute when Illingworth refused to marry her.  She begs him not to take her son away from her but Illingworth refuses saying Gerald must choose. Gerald later tells his mother he will leave her but is interrupted by Miss Worsley - who had previously shocked Mrs Arbuthnot with her puritanical views on unwed mothers - who is in tears because Illingworth has made a sexual advance.  Gerald attempts to strike Illingworth but Mrs Arbuthnot stops him by finally telling him Illingworth is his father.

The next morning Gerald writes to Illingworth demanding he marry his mother but Mrs Arbuthnot is appalled when he tells her; she will not marry the man who has caused them such misery.  When Miss Worsley overhears Mrs Arbuthnot saying that society's view of her as an unmarried mother means nothing as she has devoted her life to raising her son to be decent and honourable, the American begs for Mrs Arbuthnot's forgiveness and tells mother and son she wants them to return with her to America as her new family.

Illingworth arrives but Mrs Arbuthnot refuses his offer of money for Gerald: they do not need his tainted wealth.  They argue when he sees Gerald's unfinished letter and she tells him her love for Gerald and hatred of Illingworth feed off each other.  She strikes him with his gloves and he leaves chastened. Gerald and Miss Worsley discover her alone in tears and, when Miss Worsley again suggests they join her in her return home, they agree.  Gerald sees the dropped gloves and asks who had visited but Mrs Arbuthnot says not to bother it was "a man of no importance".

Dromgoole's direction certainly holds true to Classic Spring's idea of presenting Wilde's play of being seen on the stage as it was intended when written, indeed he has truly taken us back in time by having Anne Reid's Lady Jane and her servants appear before the front curtain during scenery changes to sing Victorian songs - the sickly Victorian sentiment of "A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother" and "Father's A Drunkard and Mother Is Dead" illustrates the double-standards Wilde was illustrating in his tale of Mrs Arbuthnot.

The production has had rather sniffy reviews but I found it a great opportunity to see Wilde's play without any added artifice and played as close to the spirit of the play as possible - each act leads up to a declamatory curtain line but the melodrama is played for truth, not moustache-twirling or tableaux staging.  The play does occasionally flag but I think this is more to do with the many characters who all pop in and out in the scenes in Lady Jane's house; indeed as Mrs Arbuthnot does not appear until halfway through the second act, it is hard to know up until then where exactly the focus of the play is.

What is undeniable is the stinging quality of Wilde's aphorisms about men, women and society and with this cast they are placed nicely without any overly-obvious verbal signposting to say "the next thing I am about to say is REALLY famous".  Indeed Dromgoole's production shows more opportunities for the women in the cast to shine, not too difficult with the casting of Eve Best, Anne Reid, Eleanor Bron and Emma Fielding.

Emma Fielding prowls and slinks around Lady Jane's house eyeing up Lord Illingworth - her equal in deceit - but Fielding's seductive maneater has less chance to shine when the main plot kicks in which is a pity.  What I liked about Dromgoole's production is the characters intelligence is their main asset, and they are played with nuanced performances that never over-spill into caricature, in particular the obviously Wildean characters such as Lord Illingworth, Lady Caroline and Lady Jane are played by Dominic Rowan, Eleanor Bron and Anne Reid with a dry naturalness unlike the usual "raised-eyebrow, eye on the dress circle" approach to his witty upper-class characters.

Unsurprisingly there are problems with the younger members of the cast but I grew to like Harry Lister Smith as the heart-on-the-sleeve Gerald Arbuthnot - despite the Ed Sheeran hair - but Crystal Clarke as the visiting Miss Worsley was the production's one disappointment; her clanging one-note sounded through her entire performance especially the long second act speech she has denouncing the English upper-class; you can hear the Irishman's provocation in Wilde's words but Clarke's stilted delivery is shown up against the silky, assured playing of her co-stars.

There are notable supporting performances however from Dromgoole's Globe performers Sam Cox as the under-the-thumb Sir John, William Gaunt as the visiting Reverend who booms out his wife's many illnesses with relish, and Paul Rider is a delightfully sleazy Kelvil, an MP who lectures on morality but who slithers over any woman within arm's reach; to see him drunkenly attempt to sit on the arm of Mrs Arbuthnot's chair was an added delight.

Eve Best has become one of our most heartfelt actresses - she has an inbuilt emotional quality which makes her character's pain plumb real depths - and that is in abundance here.  Her suffering is shot through with a wisdom that avoids any cloying sentimentality that might trip up other performers and she delivers a character that you believe every word has sprung direct from her own thoughts.  I had to hoot though as I had said earlier that I had seen her play one-too-many sad daughters who seemed to find a moment to wipe her eyes or nose with a hanky which was then thrust up her the sleeve of her dress - she only went and did it again here!  I was left to muse that maybe this emotional truthfulness might have hampered her being able to climb to the elemental greatness of the last scene in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA.

As I said, I admired Dominic Dromgoole's direction and in particular, the way he allows the audience to draw out the ever-topical themes of women's abuse by more powerful men, political and moral hypocrisy and in particular for me, the way that the play's title was effortlessly put into context: Lord Illingworth's dismissal of Mrs Arbuthnot as "a woman of no importance" carries within it the patriarchal disdain of a woman who is an unwanted trifle while Mrs Arbuthnot's calling him "a man of no importance" at the end comes from her humanity, making him meaningless despite all his wealth and influence.

I am now looking forward to my next visit to the season, Simon Callow's reading of DE PROFUNDIS, the lengthy letter written in Reading Prison to Lord Alfred Douglas, looking back on the events that led to him to that desolate cell.

Monday, December 11, 2017

EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE at the Apollo Theatre - Prom Teen Drag Queen

London has a plethora of shows based on films: ALADDIN, KINKY BOOTS, THE LION KING, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, 42ND STREET, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, BIG FISH, THE EXORCIST, NETWORK - and we have STRICTLY BALLROOM, FANNY AND ALEXANDER, HAROLD AND MAUDE and JUBILEE on the way as well.  Not many based on tv programmes - THE TWILIGHT ZONE at the Almeida anyone? - but even rarer, a tv documentary?  Sashay forward EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE.

In 2011 director Jonathan Butterell happened to catch the BBC3 documentary JAMIE: DRAG QUEEN AT 16 and was intrigued by Jamie Campbell, who was indeed 16 and was indeed into drag.  So much so that he wanted to attend his last year school disco - nope, not calling it a prom - in a dress.  The ever-resourceful Jamie googled "how do I make a documentary" and he found his way to BBC3 who commissioned a film of his big event.  Butterell felt the story had musical potential and turned to Daniel Evans, then-artistic director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield who also was interested.

Cut to Chichester Theatre - where spookily, Daniel Evans was due to move to - and Michael Ball is talking to two new theatre composers Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells (from the pop band The Feeling).  Ball put them in touch with Butterell, Butterell told them about his JAMIE idea and a musical was born!  It opened at the Crucible in February 2017, producer Nica Burns saw it's last matinee and nine months later she is producing it at the Apollo Theatre,

Jamie is in his last year at school and has a burning ambition - to be a drag queen.  As the last year disco - nope, not calling it a prom - is all about their launch into adulthood, Jamie decides to attend in drag, a secret he shares only with his mother Margaret, her friend Ray and his closest school friend Pritti, a put-upon Muslim girl who shares the bond of the bullied with Jamie.  Jamie wants the approval of his divorced dad but apart from sending him birthday and Christmas cards he dislikes his son's gayness and refuses to help him.

Jamie plucks up the courage to go into a Manchester drag shop and is befriended by the owner Hugo who still performs in a local drag club.  Jamie decides he will launch his career there and brazenly invites his classmates to it.  Backstage he discovers a dress he has coveted in the shop with a bunch of flowers, seemingly a present from his dad - but it's actually from his mum.  Jamie's club-date is a success and he finds his classmates are mostly happy for him, but the class bully Dean secretly tips off the teachers and Jamie is told he cannot attend the school event in a dress.

Jamie goes to his father for help but he is told the presents were not from him and he thinks Jamie is disgusting.  Jamie confronts his mum with the truth and berates her for her lies, he storms out, gets drunk and is beaten up in a homophobic attack.  Hugo discovers him and helps him home where he and his mum realize their love is too strong to break.  Now for that final hurdle... can Jamie get into the school party?

A bit of dramatic licence has ramped up the conflicts in Jamie's story but the book still cannot quite make us ever doubt that Jamie will get his wish.  There is a lengthy scene where Hugo recalls his drag superstar days but it feels unnecessary as it's Jamie we are emotionally involved with.  The club night is also oddly muffed: it introduces us to three seen-it-all drag queens which feels too much of a GYPSY rip-off to be interesting and Jamie's club debut in front of his schoolmates happens offstage and during the interval.  The next thing we see are all his schoolmates obsessing about it in class the next day - but shouldn't we the audience have seen how our 16 year-old hero fared onstage in front of paying punters for the first time?

It's MacRae's book which stops JAMIE being a total success but don't get me wrong, there is much to enjoy in the show and I left it smiling and thinking about a return visit, and there are relatively few new musicals that can do that these days.  Dan Gillespie Sells' score is great: the songs in the first act quickly establish a real excitement - apart from the soggy Latin pastiche fantasy number about Hugo's drag past - and I was soon thinking "cast album" but there isn't one yet, just a 'concept' album by the composers with guest singers, which isn't the same thing at all; this is a great score with some great hooks which deserves to be recorded with this cast.

The show stands or falls off it's platform heels by the actor playing Jamie who is rarely offstage but John McCrea shines like a diamond in the role: self-assured but doubtful, funny but sad, brazen but sympathetic, McCrea lights up the show and is never less than captivating.  Whether he can parlay this triumph into other suitable roles will be interesting to see but right here, right now, he is quite wonderful.

Josie Walker plays the role of Margaret the loving mum with a resigned lovingness but sings her two solos with tremendous power; they are still travelling when they hit the back wall of the upper circle.  In the programme notes, Gillespie Sells writes that her songs were written in a Dusty Springfield style as Margaret would have grown up listening to her and it shows - her big second act "He's My Boy" immediately had me thinking Dusty *wrist flick*

Lucie Shorthouse as the bookish but loving Pritti has a delightful presence on stage and excels in her big number "It Means Beautiful", Mina Anwar as Margaret's best friend Ray stands around waiting for a killer line which never quites materializes but she does what she needs to do well. It's a show where the women tend to stand out more than the men but Phil Nichol has his moments as Hugo as does Luke Baxter as the bully Dean who ultimately is hiding his own fears too.

Jonathan Butterell's direction is quick on it's heels but takes the time in the second act to give Jamie's loss of confidence a real feeling of sadness, Anna Fleischle keeps springing surprises on her standing set of a grey inner-city school which is well-lit by Lucy Carter, while Kate Prince's choreography is truly non-stop fun and adds greatly to the success of the show.

As luck would have it, a few days after seeing the musical I finally saw the original BBC3 documentary so it was interesting to compare the way moments like the refusal to let Jamie attend the school event in a dress, his bickering with his mother over whether to attend or not and his father's off-camera callousness were ramped up in the show.

EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE... and maybe you should do too.  It's booking until April 21st 2018 and will leave you with a spring in your step and a sissy in your walk...

Monday, December 04, 2017

SYLVIA at Covent Garden - Ashton's Arcadia

For my last visit to Covent Garden in 2017, we stepped back in time to see Sir Frederick Ashton's 1952 version of Léo Delibes' ballet SYLVIA, which was first seen at Paris' Palais Garnier in 1876, in fact the first ever ballet to be staged there.

The actual ballet had a checkered history down the years and Ashton primarily restructured it for the Royal Ballet for his muse Margot Fonteyn to have a whacking big star role in.  He tinkered with it through the years and his lack of confidence in it resulted in only Sylvia's third act solo still being performed, although the score has always been liked in concert.

Ashton's production got a full restaging in 2004 by the Royal Ballet for Ashton's centenary celebrations and, although still not in the first flight of ballets, the lead role has been personal successes for Darcey Bussell (who coached the lead ballerinas for this revival), Zenaida Yanowsky and Marianela Nunez in subsequent years.  Christopher Newton, who staged the 2004 revival, almost had to start from scratch as very little archive material remained from Ashton's 1952 production.  Maybe that is what accounts for the slightly flimsy feel to the ballet?  However that said, it was a perfectly pleasant diversion with many opportunities for our Sylvia to shine and as it was danced by Lauren Cuthbertson, shine she did!

The plot is fairly paper-thin - Sylvia is one of the goddess Diana's huntress nymphs and she is loved from afar by the shepherd Aminta who at a shrine to Eros strays too far and is shot by the angry Sylvia.  The statue of Eros turns into the real god and he too shoots an arrow at the huntress, slightly wounding her but making her realize her mistake in hurting someone who loved her.  Unknown to her, another hunter Orion has also been stalking her and before she can revive Aminta, Orion carries her off to his lair.  But fear not!  Eros revives Aminta to help bring her back.

At Orion's lair, he attempts to win Sylvia over with jewels but she pines for Aminta, cradling the arrow she received from the gods which proves his love.  When Orion steals it from her she pretends to carouse with the hunter and his minions until they are all passed out drunk and after a quick prayer to Eros he rescues her in his magical boat!

Back at the temple of Diana, Aminta is reunited with Sylvia during a festival for Bacchus but Orion catches up with them and when Sylvia flees into the temple he attempts to follow her.  Angered by his actions, Diana appears and fells him with another arrow.  But Diana then refuses Sylvia to love Aminta as she is one of her huntresses...  luckily Eros is on hand to remind her that she too loved a human once and all ends happily.

The scenario is real wing-and-a-prayer stuff but was danced with such conviction and mounted in such a simple way that you could not help but like it, helped in part by Delibes' music - even Tchaikovsky said his own SWAN LAKE score paled into insignificance in comparison.  I think Tchaikovsky was overstating the issue but it is a delightful work and includes a genuine entry in Ballet's Greatest Hits, the Pizzicato solo...

Lauren Cuthbertson was marvellous in the lead role - there always seem to be hidden depths to this dancer so her strength in the first act, her cunning in the second act and her loving in the third all seem to come from a very genuine source, like the best ballerinas she is an actress as well as a dancer.

None of the other roles really allow for much investigation but Reece Clarke was very nice in his tiny Hellenic skirt and made the most of his solo in the last act.  As said before, Ashton really just wanted to show off the lead ballerina so Aminta spends most of the first act lying wounded on the floor, disappears for the second, and is lovestruck in the third!

All in all, a nice way to end a year of productions from the Royal Ballet.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

YOUNG MARX at the Bridge Theatre - Carry On Comrade...

Two weeks ago we visited London's latest performing space, the rather clunky-named Bridge Theatre, which is situated between London and Tower Bridges.  I find it a frankly ghastly part of town, soulless and ugly, but the theatre space should give it a bit more promise.  The theatre is the brainchild of Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr who made such a success at the National Theatre when they were artistic director and executive director.

It will take a while to "warm up": the main foyer is fairly drab and oddly-lit from fashionable single bulbs hanging from the ceiling. the security staff out front were hardly welcoming and the trendy menu/bar doesn't inspire confidence.  However the loos are plentiful and there is a very handy stalls foyer space by the auditorium, which in itself reminded me of an enlarged Cottesloe/Dorfman apace.  The side stalls, where we were seated, were angled towards the stage but at the cost of leg-room.

The auditorium was about three-quarters full for the Bridge Theatre's launch production, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman's anachronistic YOUNG MARX which gives a whacking star part to Rory Kinnear as the struggling Karl Marx and is directed by - yes you guessed - Nicholas Hytner.

The thought "Blackadder does Marx" settled into my head very early on and I could not shake that through it's running time.  It gives a comic spin to Marx in his refugee years in Soho and uses many instances from his real life to comic effect - his regular visits to the cupboard to hide from creditors and sponging fellow-refugees, the near-poverty that he and his family struggled through, the attempts to pawn the incongruously expensive possessions of his high-born wife Jenny, and the friendship with fellow political thinker Friedrich Engels is turned into a comedy double-act.

The trouble is, it's just not funny enough.  There are a couple of humorous moments and set-ups but they don't quite land - to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, it aims to soar but agrees to perch.  Bean and Coleman's gags keep coming but arrives at a skidding halt when a death happens in the young family but we are being asked to be sorry for an under-written child role and you wonder why the people are so upset when the dead boy has been such an offstage presence.

Rory Kinnear certainly gives a barn-storming performance but it's also a charmless one and you really cannot understand why his egotistical Karl is seen to be the life and soul of the party.  He is also settling into a shtick where he hits consonants like a man hitting a cow's arse with a banjo - a single line that has words beginning with p, b or d are verbal explosions which become very wearing.

Against his bells and smells performance, Oliver Chris was delightfully witty and wry as Engels, frustrated by Marx's inability to settle down and write his long-promised manifesto.  The usually-dependable Nancy Carroll is wasted as Jenny Marx, forever on the verge of leaving her unreliable husband and being noble, and Laura Elphinstone - while giving a good performance as the Marx's maid Nym - again is making bricks from the straw supplied by Bean and Coleman, the women roles are just cyphers.

There was a nice performance by Eben Figueiredo as the excitable Konrad Schramm, a committed revolutionary who hero worships Marx to the extent that he takes his hero's place in a duel - yet another actual incident - and Miltos Yerolemou makes an impression as the explosively angry French political activist Emmanuel Barthélmey but otherwise the supporting cast hide behind wigs and hats, giving hardly noticeable performances.

The revolving set by Mark Thompson was fun as it quickly changed from hovel to reading room to pub backroom but it's distance from the audience made the play again seem too remote and the production benefited from Mark Henderson's moody lighting.

The play ends on almost a Chekhovian note with Marx finally sitting down to write his great work surrounded by his family and close friends which was a nice way to end but I suspect the writers had just blown themselves out.  Nicholas Hytner directs at a frenetic pace but it eventually reflects the slightly desperate air of the writing to be more than it is.