June 4, 2011
This time last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Atherton, who I’ve long admired since seeing her early on in Avenue Q and later in The Last Five Years. She’s performing at The Pheasantry on the Kings Road tonight and tomorrow night, and although she didn’t give much away in our chat, you can bet it will be a stunning show.
Since then two more pieces of Atherton news have popped up (every interviewer’s nightmare – just missing the big questions by a week): her biggest solo gig to date at the Apollo Theatre on 26th June, and her casting as Sister Mary Robert in the Sister Act UK tour.
Julie had hinted at a tour in our interview, but news of this role came as a surprise. It was posted on the BroadwayWorld message boards and confirmed by the lady herself on Twitter today. Not many people have both the charm and the lungs for the role originated by Katie Rowley Jones, but Miss Atherton has oodles of both. I’m really looking forward to seeing what she brings to it.
I had a great time at Sister Act when I went in its first week, and thought it closed far too quickly. We still haven’t found out who will be our Deloris – I have my fingers crossed for some fabulous unknown talent from the open auditions – but with this piece of news further casting announcements can’t be far behind.*
Look out for a review of the Apollo gig on here – I’m looking forward to seeing Julie paired with guests such as Daniel Boys for some great songs; she has impeccable taste when it comes to up and coming musical theatre. She’s set to perform tracks from her brilliantly-received album No Space for Air, alongside songs from her most famous shows. Favoured composers Lance Horne and Michael Bruce will even pop up to accompany her, and Richard Fleeshman is taking a break from his Ghost duties to join her for a duet.
Congrats to Julie on the new role, the new concert, and her Pheasantry shows this weekend. If you aren’t yet a fan, get yourself to one of these – I promise you will be afterwards.
*Rumours are rife that Deloris will be played by Cynthia Erivo of Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame. Cynthia reportedly announced the casting in a tweet some weeks ago – unlike the demure Patina Miller, she’s pretty outspoken on Twitter, so WEG has high hopes for some Van Cartier attitude! However, the tweet and a blog post about it have both been removed, so this isn’t 100% official.
April 6, 2011
Writer: Charles Dickens
Adapted by: Tanika Gupta
Director: Nikolai Foster
I was very eager to see Great Expectations after speaking to its director, Nikolai Foster, as he started on the project last year. As a great fan of the classic Dickens novel, I knew the writers were working with a wonderful story. The only problem, as Foster mentioned in our interview, would be condensing its epic 59 chapters, spanning protagonist Pip’s childhood and adult life, into something suitable for the stage. Playwright Tanika Gupta (White Boy) was commissioned to adapt it, and transferred the story to the English Raj, using the backdrop of colonial India for the timeless tale of love, fate and class divides. Obviously this applied the layer of race and even caste to the already complex plot, and the English Touring Theatre company had the hefty task of making it all clear and captivating for its audience.
The plot was faithful to the book with a few exceptions; a young village boy, Pip, comes into contact with the world of the rich and privileged when he is invited to play at the ghoulish Miss Havisham’s manor house. Falling in love with her haughty and cold ward, Estella, Pip struggles between loyalty to his humble working family (especially father figure Joe Gargery), and the allure of becoming an educated gentleman. When a mystery benefactor offers to set him up with this life of leisure, he moves to the city, but struggles with his transformation when that benefactor’s identity is revealed.
The production had a lot of energy, with fast-moving scenes and dialogue that seemed on occasion to throw away a few of the best lines. One highlight was the fairly minimal set, with a bold red gauze and hints of sizzling sunset in the background, as well as decrepit-looking shutters to indicate Miss Havisham’s house. Another show stealer was the choreography, with excellently crafted scenes from Pip’s small-boy antics (played by the adult Tariq Jordan) to the convicts coming in from the stalls fighting and growling. The best scenes were between Pip and Herbert Pocket (Giles Cooper) – both their fight as small boys and their bachelor life together in Calcutta were charmingly acted and directed.
Jordan coped well with being onstage almost the entire time, but for me, the use of he and Simone James as both the child and adult Pip and Estella didn’t quite work. Their portrayal of youth could be simplistic (fidgeting and sticking out tongues) and my companion and I were somewhat baffled by the use of a mournful-looking small boy and elder woman on the front of the programme, neither of whom featured in the play itself.
Like the programme, unfortunately, this adaptation just did not seem adequately thought through. The Indian setting, while interesting, did not add any real depth or perspective to the plot, instead half-heartedly changing matters or confusing them. We saw Mrs Joe Gargery’s (Pooja Ghai) injury in Act 1, but this was never followed up or referred to after. Similarly, the convict Magwitch was African in this version (strongly performed by Jude Akuwudike), but there seemed to be no clear reason for this decision. It also linked him early on to Estella, the only other black character, dismantling some of the mystery at once. Tony Jayarwadena as Joe Gargery was full of heart and genuinely comic, but there was simply not enough time to feel the vital bond between him and Pip.
Overall this was a gutsy performance which kept the audience’s attention, but there were too many flaws in the change of setting and delivery of narrative to ignore. The Gargery family had northern accents, further confusing the situation, and Jordan’s portrayal of Pip as a slightly stiff gentleman in Act 2 seemed to squeeze some of the honesty out of the dialogue. I sensed that the material was hard to convey, narrative crammed in as it was, so the actors deserve a lot of credit for keeping the pace and the energy high. There was a notable absence of live music, unless you count the cacophony of ringtones we were treated to by the Richmond Theatre audience, but the recorded music between scenes was certainly atmospheric. I really wanted this brave adaptation to work, but it just didn’t quite pull it off.
March 24, 2011
I know as a theatre blogger I should be all Sondheim this and Larson that, but the truth is, I’m an absolute whore for a chick flick. I sat watching the movie Legally Blonde tonight (still brilliant after a decade) and it reminded me just how well-timed and spirited the songs in the musical version are.
It’s one of my favourite shows to hit the West End in the past couple of years, and even though our version didn’t quite hit the glossy highs of the original cast, fully deserved its hat-trick at the Oliviers.
Another screen-to-stage adaption I absolutely loved was the much underrated Sister Act. Although it has catchy tunes, sassy script and humour galore, I think it was a hard one to pitch to audiences who expected the Motown and Sixties classics featured in the film.
Alan Menken’s funky disco score was pastiche at its very best, and Patina Miller absolutely sublime as diva Deloris Van Cartier. Sadly, its West End run lasted just 16 months, and it is now Broadway bound (opening April 20th.)
Now faithful co-producer Whoopi Goldberg has teamed up with Stage Entertainment to look for a brand new Deloris for a UK & Ireland tour. They are holding open auditions – and I mean open; the playing age is 20-40 – at Pineapple Dance Studios on Monday 4th April.
I’m so glad that this is going on tour and, looking at the casting requirements, that the producers appear to want a certain, shimmering je ne sais quois rather than a Patina or Whoopi clone.
These are big, sparkly boots to fill, however. Whoever gets the role will need to rock an afro, a nun’s habit and this much attitude:
Good luck ladies.
The year-long tour of Sister Act will open in October 2011.
March 24, 2011
[Reviewed for The Public Reviews]
Arriving at the first performance of this one-woman show, we were told that its star, Brookside and Loose Women’s Claire Sweeney, was too unwell to perform. So the audience, many of whom appeared to be there as Sweeney fans, readjusted their expectations and watched diminutive understudy Ali James perform this marathon of a monologue instead. I will always wonder slightly how Sweeney would have done in this challenging song cycle of upbeat pop and heartfelt ballads.
This show has had more lives than most cats (and Cats), starting off at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton festival in 1979, being released as an album with Marti Webb, and subsequently re-worked as Song and Dance (with choreography by Wayne Sleep) as well as being performed by Lulu, and eventually Denise Van Outen in its modern incarnation.
The unnamed Girl written by Lloyd Webber and Black back in the late Seventies has been slightly modernised, given a pink laptop, silk sheets and a bottle of vodka, but the catchy melodies remain largely the same. The role is a hard one to pull off, originated by such West End titans as Marti Webb and Sarah Brightman, and now seems more of a one-woman soap than anything else. The plot – woman in her 20s moves to America, tries to find love – might have been more of a novelty when it was conceived, but the 21st century updates in this production just don’t seem enough.
Ali James gives a lot of energy and consistency, but holds back a little in the more emotive songs. She does a good job with the fairly limited material; as Lloyd Webber’s first post-Rice collaboration, you dearly miss the lyrical complexity of Evita when listening to these repetitive, formulaic pop songs. As Sweeney, interviewed in the programme, says, “This show is hit song after hit song.” Good for album sales, perhaps, but the storyline and substance suffer for it. Still, the audience visibly stir with anticipation at hearing the well-known openings to the title track and ‘Take That Look Off Your Face.’
Some of the pleasanter melodies, such as ‘It’s Not the End of the World’, are overused, and one of the show’s most famous numbers, ‘Unexpected Song’, inexplicably slowed down and performed with little spontaneity or sincerity. The ‘Writing Home’ sung emails to the Girl’s mum are jolly enough, but the lyrics have not been updated to the point that they are snappy, modern or shocking, as dating a married man or moving to LA might have been a few decades ago.
Janet Bird’s stylish, moody blue set with hints of shocking pink and New York skyline is simple but effective, and the lighting and sound are slick with the exception of a slightly drowsy follow spot. The band, sat high above the apartment set, were smooth, mellow and nicely balanced with James’s gutsy belt.
The problem with Tell Me On a Sunday, apart from its lack of compelling narrative or naturally-flowing lyrics, is that without really stellar acting it simply becomes Moodswings: the Musical. The nature of the songs going from discordant argument to blissful contentment seems jarring if the audience isn’t sufficiently moved by the performance. I suspect that this would be hard to engineer with the material at hand, so Ali James does deserve praise for keeping the energy high, the smiles wide and the notes bright.
Runs until Saturday 26th March 2011
December 2, 2010
For years, those lucky West End Wendies had the constant warmth, fuzziness and xenophobia of Avenue Q right on their doorstep. We all shed a little tear when it closed in October, but for those nowhere near the gold-paved streets of London it was a tiny hooray moment.
For the Avenue residents go on tour from February, and us Cardiff dwellers will get a chance to enjoy their hilarious lyrics about porn, loud sex and closet homosexuality from 14-18 June 2011 at the Wales Millenium Centre. If you didn’t catch the show during it’s four year run – shame on you – this is the perfect chance to see it.
In the style of Sesame Street (complete with educational animations), it follows a group of young misfits trying to have functional relationships, pay the rent and, in Trekkie’s case, watch porn – a lot. It will be interesting to see how AQ translates to regional audiences; having started out as a very New York-specific piece, then becoming a huge hit in culturally-similar London, I do hope the rest of the UK finds it as funny. Be warned – not one to take your granny to. It is, however, one of the most touching and happy-making musicals I’ve seen in years. Also coming to Bath, Bromley, Cornwall, Richmond, Aberdeen, Norwich, Woking, Sheffield, High Wycombe, Southampton, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Birmingham, Bristol, Salford and (breathes) Glasgow. That’s plenty of puppet sex to go around!
December 1, 2010
…Shrek the Musical. The West End could use another dose of humour and fantasy – Wicked’s still a classic, but we’re about due something new. Previews start 6 May 2010. This preview video was posted today:
Here are some other projects I’m hoping to catch in the new year…
Crazy For You (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from July)
Company (Southwark Playhouse from Feb)
November 25, 2010
Here is my review of Sherman Cymru’s take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which I wrote for The Public Reviews.
Their theatre on Senghennydd road is closed for redevelopment until next autumn, but the Sherman Cymru creative team continue to champion new writing and edgy directing elsewhere in Cardiff. Their Measure for Measure, a sadly under-performed Shakespeare play, is set in an indeterminate time and place, but is hosted by the otherworldly space that is The Provincial – an old converted bank complete with classic pillars and dark vaults. Performing in the round and on various levels and platforms, the cast of seven double up on parts in a bohemian and seductive version of this tale of morality, desire and corruption. The cold-hearted, pious Angelo is put in charge of a city filled with brothels and lusty punters, and quickly makes an example of a young man, Claudio, who has impregnated his lover before marriage. His sister, a nun, is implicated when she goes to plead with Angelo on her brother’s behalf. Angelo’s repressed lust is stirred by Isabella’s purity and beauty, and he bargains with her to sleep with him in return for her brother’s freedom.
The cast, slickly masterminded by the Sherman’s associate director Amy Hodge, makes this tangled web of disguise, seduction, fantasy and punishment utterly compelling. The impressive space of The Provincial turns your head, quite literally, as characters address each other from different sides and levels as the action is constantly moved around. Martini glasses and lingerie are draped around tables near the audience, and the fascinating costume designs involve both layers of hedonism (lace, chains, nail polish, flesh) and devoutness (collars, robes, black and white.) This works especially well with the actors who play two characters; their costumes combine a bawdy, raunchy side and a conservative severity. Ifan Meredith is particularly striking as the complex Angelo, who is not simply a tyrant but a man terrified of his natural urges. His Isabella (Kezia Burrows) is a strong female lead, though her turmoil is rather too passionately acted early on, leaving little room to develop the character further. The use of a solo saxophonist and bluesy vocals by a wandering street girl (Anita Reynolds) gives the play a haunting edge, as their notes linger in the smoky air.
Eiry Thomas shines as bawdy, laddish Lucio, adding a Welsh twist to the character that makes him seem more knowing and at ease than others. She delivers some of the best lines in the piece, getting the laughs in more than one scene. For one of Shakespeare’s more intense plays, the confrontation scenes and agonizing speeches did not drag, and the suspense was kept high by the excellent pace of the acting. The company have taken the solid moral plot and added dashes of intoxicating smoke, jazz and S&M to make it modern and relevant. The Sherman’s Measure for Measure doesn’t sacrifice the story to its modern twists, but makes it a genuinely enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of theatre for a contemporary audience.