June 15, 2012
ALRA (the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts) is based in Wandsworth, south west London, and its third year Acting students are performing these two contemporary plays back-to-back, first at ALRA’s own theatre and then transferring to the nearby Tara Theatre.
Both plays dwell on adolescent sex. Blow jobs on a grubby rubbish tip, drug-deleted rape, sex in the dreams of a horny teenage boy, unprotected sex, naive sex – in the youthful world the ALRA students have created, everyone’s at it.
Apples, adapted by John Retallack from a novel by Richard Milward, is a gritty look at the debauchery and lust of a group of straight-talking teens, very much in the Skins vein. Slutty but charming Eve, miserable Claire, geeky Adam and wideboy Gary narrate their teenage experience in a series of pacy, brutally frank monologues.
The trouble I’ve always had with Skins, and have with Apples, is believing that all of this – daily sex, drugs and general rock’n'roll – is happening to one bunch of teenagers. Perhaps my teen experience was simply too vanilla, but the amount of action the gang get seems pretty hardcore for what appears to be lower-middle class Britain. Realism aside, the story is brilliantly acted, particularly by Maria Louis as Eve, who posesses more than a little Sheridan-Smith-esque star quality fairydust. Her cheeky expression and absolute comfort in her somewhat saddening role (Eve is quite the ‘village bicycle’) make her monologues the highlight of Apples.
Strong support is given by Alexandra da Silva as Eve’s downtrodden friend Claire, whose bleak musings on teen motherhood and being left behind by her friends have a touching sincerity to them. Craig Stratton as the sinister Gary is more than a match for Louis’ effortless Eve – he prowls round the set of rubbish bags, abandoned trolleys and mattresses, kicking rubbish in the air, swilling cheap lager and grabbing whatever he wants – usually his high-on-substances, low-on-self-esteem female classmates. Colour is added by Steph Georgeson as scouse tart Debbie and Ben Bland as the sweetly clueless Adam, though Bland’s acting does have more of a self-conscious, playing-for-laughs twinge than the grittier characters.
The material is bleak and melodramatic at times, but the voices of the characters are vivid and fully-formed, and this cast did a great job of getting the message across.
If You Really Love Me (by Mark Leiren Young) is more of a self-aware, physical representation of teen sex. Using DV8-style movement and a giant patchwork duvet as a backdrop, the cast of five pelt through relationship conundrums including buying condoms, saying you love someone to get laid, teen abstinence and loving the attention being known as easy brings.
This second piece was more scattered and less enjoyable for me – although my guest preferred the energy and inventiveness of it to the earlier play, so the ALRA group certainly offered something for everyone. Some of the dialogue was a little too knowing and preachy – “AIDS is a disease – it doesn’t care who you sleep with” – and the team felt like a particularly witty and lively educational theatre company which should be brought into high schools to shake up sex education a little.
The cast of five – Alexandra Agnew, Robbie Capaldi, Nell Clemency, Sarah Helena Ord and Alex Steadman – charge around the stage between mini-dramas, only stopping to spout quirky historical ideas about contraception. I felt this idea – the ‘if you really love me’ being that you’d sleep with someone there and then, regardless of precautions – could have been more focused and less time spent on other issues.
Both directors (Jack McNamara and Tara Robinson respectively) brought out the best in each performer and kept the material dynamic and engaging. The two sets – one cluttered, one simple – were functional and atmospheric, although not much of the story of Apples seemed set at the rubbish-strewn bridge created by designer Lauren Cameron. The lighting and sound were impeccable and the staging neat and effective.
While the overall combination of the two plays was intense and effective, I was left wishing some of the characters could have seen a bigger picture beyond their own lust, virginity or lack thereof. But that’s a pretty accurate impression of adolescence, isn’t it?
One great place to see shows not often performed in the West End is the Fringe; another is London’s generous sprinkling of drama schools. Central School of Speech and Drama has become one of the most famous dramatic institutions in the capital since being founded in 1906, and last night I attended the MA Music Theatre course’s final production, Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.
The cast were slick and assured in their delivery of this complex and intense musical. The show full of Sondheim’s signature rhythms, rhymes and scattered stream-of-consciousness lyrics, Rick Woska as intense artist George and Kate Adler as his lover Dot kept a fantastic pace and stayed on top of the relentless material. Both possessed with a strong stage presence and vocal talent, these two propelled the show along.
As someone who finds Sondheim unreasonably lofty and intellectual for a musical theatre composer, Sunday did not change my mind so much as give me a small insight into the man and his methods. ‘Art isn’t easy…’ sings the cast in the modern-day second act, and this certainly isn’t one of Sondheim’s most accessible shows. The character of George, absorbed in his work, a perfectionist, closed to the demands of everyone but his art, and the reaction of his contemporaries, seemed reflected by the show itself – Sunday may not hit you with waves of emotion or wit, but you can see a lot of thought has gone into the process. Still, the CSSD actors made it a visual treat using paint-spattered curtains, cleverly employed frames for both sketching and photography, projection and effective choreography. Not to mention the spot-on costumes for the stunning close of Act 1, where Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – the inspiration for this entire show – is recreated amid the powerful harmonies of standout number Sunday.
Each soloist had a strong and vivid voice, and the scenes were absorbing and well acted. The one sadness was that the material did not allow for much humour or passion – personally, my spine remained un-tingled and my diaphragm unstretched by laughter. But I can’t blame the cast for this; Stephen Sondheim and I largely go together like chocolate and pickled herring (he’s the herring), and I think this may be one of his driest pieces.
One of the more touching moments was George’s duet with his mother (Vassula Delli), Beautiful. Bada Ruban and Kimberley Shore also provided lightness as Mr and Mrs America, struggling to get off the island and appreciate Paris’s charms. Overall, Sunday did exactly what it was supposed to do in this instance: showcase the professionalism and confidence of its cast. It may not be a spectacularly entertaining or moving show, but it’s certainly a thinker, and this came across neatly in this CSSD production.
March 21, 2012
On Monday 19 March, Les Misérables, Love Never Dies and Phantom of the Opera star Ramin Karimloo held a small, secret gig to thank a sample of his loyal fans. The evening was an informal mix of tracks from his soon-to-be-released album, Ramin, and personal favourites, with a Greenday song and a folky hymn thrown in for good measure. WEG was lucky enough to be there and, having recently interviewed the actor for theatre website The Public Reviews, caught up with him afterwards (although he ended up quizzing me almost as much as I did him!) Here’s Ramin on nerves, song choices and hitting the road on tour in May….
Did you enjoy the gig?
I had a great time, I’m a bit tired… It hit me today, I thought I had it all together but then this morning I was like, oh crap, it’s tonight. You know, putting my own songs out there again. Some of them we orchestrated to give more of the album feel. But it went well.
Do you think everyone showed up?
I think so, I had two lovely friends help me run the door. Those who couldn’t come I think let me know.
How did you arrange the guestlist?
I basically said, anyone who has pre-ordered [the album], tell me when you pre-ordered it and your name. I put them all in the month that they ordered them, and then took 20 per cent from each one. I had to be fair – I didn’t want to make people think that just because people bought it in October they support me more. I thought it was fair. The venue was over capacity.
How did you choose the songs?
We did an album launch a few weeks ago, so I used the same album songs from that so the band didn’t have to rehearse more – because I did this off my own back. The rest was rehearsed by email sometimes! I would send them a song, have them give it a try… the drummer had never heard them until tonight, so he was just going with it. I wanted to see how the set flowed without any musical theatre. The one song we were arguing about was Bring Him Home; my guitarist Steve Young (who is Darren Hayes’ guitarist) loves to play it on classical guitar, but it would have just felt weird to do Bring Him Home then and there.
It is your night off as well! We loved the Muse cover (Guiding Light).
Great, well that’s on the album. How did you find the country stuff?
Really good – amazing work on the banjo.
Yeah, I love bluegrass and folk. I also thought that hymn would be fun to do. I enjoy it but my band are all professional musicians who play for people like KT Tunstall – they’ll be with me on tour.
What are you looking forward to most about being on the road?
It’s just about being a songwriter and a musician, and finding myself – I’m not a character for once. It will be interesting to see the Ramin that starts it and the Ramin who finishes. Tonight, I was surprised how comfortable I felt. When I did this for industry folks, I was so stiff. I think people when they come to see this stuff, they want to see the artists enjoying their own music. It’s not about performing a character, it’s like, ‘I would do this whether you were here or not’. I felt relaxed, I didn’t feel any nerves really. Did you enjoy it?
I really enjoyed it, the band were so slick – I thought it was going to feel more impromptu than this.
Did it look like I could play the piano?
Good, because when I was in rehearsal I was like, I wanna try the piano. But then up there, with the words…!
How do you feel about wrapping up Les Mis at the end of next week?
I need it, man, I need a break. I am tired. But I’m leaving wanting more.
Do you think you would go back to it?
I hope so – if they’ll have me and I had the time to do it, that would be great.
Thanks for inviting me, and good luck on tour!Were you at Ramin’s Thank You Gig? Share your thoughts on it in the comments box below…
August 11, 2011
…goes to the release on Tuesday of Lea Salonga’s album The Journey So Far, recorded live at Café Carlyle in New York. Geek that I am, I snapped up the 16-track album pretty quickly – and it’s brilliant.
Whatever type of theatre (or music) you’re ‘into’, you cannot deny that Ms Salonga is a goddess. No one does vocal purity and passion quite like her, not to mention the sheer strength and stamina of voice she had when she became a huge star in Miss Saigon at just 18.
This release is, as you can probably gather from the title, a celebration of landmark moments, “a kind of a musical resume, a summary of my musical career.” Opening with the jazzy Salamat Salamat Musika in her native Filipino, Lea takes us through Les Mis, Flower Drum Song and her favourite standards (Someone to Watch Over Me/Let’s Fall in Love.)
OK, it’s not gritty stuff. While the woman can certainly act her socks off, her choices here pretty much reflect the uplifting romance of her voice. But my feeling is, once you’ve been a Disney princess (twice!), you have full license to be as corny as you want. In between songs she chats to the audience in a fun, relaxed way, offering some great anecdotes. It’s essentially downloading an unmissable gig direct to your iPod.
For Saigon geeks there is an extra treat; Too Much for One Heart, a gorgeous ballad written out of the original production (presumably for time and narrative reasons – it’s a bloody good song.) You’ll recognise the tune as it was used in the track Please. As a mini-Geek, listening obsessively to musical theatre soundtracks, I used to play and replay Please – which was weird, because storyline-wise it’s pretty much just a conversation (albeit a revelation) in Act 2. But something about the melody just got me, and when you listen to Too Much For One Heart you realise why the melody is so much bigger than the lyrics it ended up with.
I have massive love for Salonga for so many reasons – for being the original Miss Saigon, for being the only cast member to land a lead in both the 10th and 25th anniversary concerts of Les Misérables, for the fact that she still promotes, respects and celebrates her native country, the fact she has made 26 albums since she was 10 years old and that rather than hiding away, a fading child star, she’s still performing – not to mention being fabulously witty, political and opinionated on Twitter and her blog. Musical theatre goddess, I salute you.
The Journey So Far is available on iTunes for £7.99
August 6, 2011
I’d never been to The Landor before, I didn’t know the show and thus everything about it, from the plot to the cast to the press night drinks, were a surprise. The Hired Man was adapted by Melvyn Bragg and British musical treasure Howard Goodall from Bragg’s novel of the same name, drawn from his grandfather’s stories about pre-war life in Cumbria.
The story follows the inhabitants of a small Cumbrian village as they start out as youngsters looking for farm work at a hiring fair, their struggles as relationships mature and an increasing numbers of local men embark on dangerous work ‘down t’pit’, all this cut through by the disruption and devastation of World War I.
Bright-eyed young couple John and Emily Tallentire are the main two agonising over their life decisions. John is ably played by Joe Maxwell, his singing as open and pure as his character, who manages to make an irritatingly nice and moral bloke just edgy enough to be interesting. Catherine Mort is an interesting choice as Emily; while vocally she didn’t sparkle as much as the rest of the small but brilliant female cast, she brings a melancholy touch to the show and her acting is impressive, with real tears closing the first act. The Dissatisfied Wife is perhaps the hardest role to make appealing, and she did a good job with it.
The real magic is in the supporting cast, especially Les Mis graduate Martin Neely, delivering an Enjolras-type leader in Seth Tallentire. His rousing song about unionism oddly bridged the gap between labouring peacetime and chaotic wartime, but as I wanted to hear more from him, it sort of worked. Neely is one of the only cast members to remain completely poised and in control through speedy scene changes, energetic choreography and emotional turbulence, and draws the audience to him for this reason. It is the combination, though, of seasoned performers and drama school graduates that makes this cast so compelling. The amount of nerves and calm, tension and effortlessness exactly creates the differences in maturity and temperament you’d find in such a community, and the rawness of the younger performers really adds something – you wouldn’t want this show too polished.
The male chorus is the main reason to see The Hired Man. Every time another labourer or soldier had a solo, we were treated to a sensational voice. The vocal and acting strength in every performer is exceptional, and as a reviewer who has become bored of listening to weedy, pop-lite boys singing American musical theatre, this celebration of the male voice was such a treat. Beards, sweat and testosterone-filled tenors; I thought I’d died and gone to musical heaven.
Special mention must go to the beautifully-voiced Ian Daniels as the third point of Emily and John’s love triangle, as well as Abigail Matthews as their sweet little songbird May Tallentire – the perfect amount of innocence and freshness, while avoiding a period-drama cliché. Your eyes are continually drawn to the steely acting of Jamie Birkett and the sweet hopefulness of Kimberly Powell in the group numbers, no mean feat when you’re battling with thirteen strapping men. Sean-Paul Jenkinson also charmed as the wheeling-and-dealing Isaac.
The staging is slick, with Andrew Keates’ direction providing us with both witty dialogue and beautifully interpreted songs. The way Howard Goodall’s score weaves in repeated themes and connects the musical narrative is breathtaking, as are many of the vocal performances here. The group songs are infinitely more stirring than the solo numbers, however. Niall Bailey’s musical direction is perfection, and I’ve rarely seen actors so spot on with their musical cues, which often seem to come from nowhere. All round a tight team, with Cressida Carré’s choreography adding a touch of country-dancing joy and stomping-rhythm grittiness.
There are holes and swift fast-forwards in the narrative which prevent you from basking properly in the characters’ story, but overall The Hired Man is an important narrative, and far more worthy of funding and venue than so many vapid musicals I’ve seen in recent years. Melvyn Bragg feared while writing it that it was “a cavalcade of working class history so unfashionable it’s almost out of sight,” but what could matter more than real people’s lives, loves and tragedies? It isn’t a perpetual giggle, but neither is life sometimes; there is a reason why shows about nothing more glamorous than the human condition, like Les Misérables, have endured. There is something gritty, earthy and defiantly British about this piece that might just be the antidote to the Dirty Dancings of the theatre world. I definitely want to see more from the Landor and Andrew Keates after experiencing this show.
Runs until 27th August
June 29, 2011
It’s been a long time since I saw a show I was genuinely, hyperventilatingly excited about, but Ghost was just that. The website I write for, The Public Reviews, gave its recent Manchester run five stars, and I’m a huge fan of both the 1990 movie and female lead Caissie Levy. The original score was written by former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, with Glen Ballard (who wrote and produced Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill), so is naturally of quite a pop-rock persuasion.
Firstly, I’d say seating choices will alter your experience of Ghost. I was lucky enough to be a friend’s freebie plus one, so we were right on the edge of the stalls, quite close to the stage. Many of the brilliant supernatural illusions were ever so slightly more visible from this viewpoint. I’d really like to go again and sit higher or more centrally, but it was still spine-tingling.
In case you haven’t seen the movie (DO IT), the story begins with sickeningly content couple Molly (Caissie Levy) and Sam (Richard Fleeshman), an artist and a banker, who have just bought their first apartment and moved in. Sam is tragically killed not long after, and Molly is left with only the comfort of Sam’s best friend Carl (Andrew Langtree) – but there is more to his death than she knows. Sam’s spirit is left to put things right with only the help of quirky and fraudulent psychic Oda Mae Brown (Sharon D Clarke.)
Even though it is early days, it is hard to imagine a new cast succeeding the unbeatable combination of Fleeshman and Levy. His tall, Superman physique and her petite boho quality are perfectly matched, as are his soulful voice with her rock-tinged belt. In life, their chemistry sizzles; in death, their connection persists. Even without the careful and spectacular staging and excellent direction by Matthew Warchus, much of the magic of Ghost lies in this pairing.
Levy makes me realise what I look for in a leading lady – utter control, confidence and security in her voice and character. She makes her often wistful and lonely numbers unpredictable and haunting, but you always feel comfortable with her taking the stage. She makes a difficult character, one preoccupied with mourning, fascinating to watch. Fleeshman has the hard job of holding many of the scenes together while ‘invisible’ to 99% of the other characters. His scenes with Oda Mae in particular are a real highlight, and he shows off musical ability (strumming a guitar onstage), comedic talent and a silky vocal tone that is both distinctive and well-suited to the character.
This is an updated Molly and Sam; don’t expect a pixie-cropped Demi or a copper-Adonis Swayze, because this is a whole new Ghost. This works fine in my opinion, as it freshens the characters and you are drawn into a whole new love story, though much of Bruce Joel Rubin’s excellent screenplay remains as the dialogue.
Sharon D Clarke sets the stage on fire with her hilarious, warm, sparkling interpretation of Oda Mae, the unique character originated by Whoopi Goldberg. She avoids pitfall number one by steering clear of doing a Whoopi impression, and her added gospel and disco numbers showcase this woman’s astonishing voice and stage presence. Again, God help the actor who has to step into her shoes.
Andrew Langtree smarms and sweats as the couple’s friend Carl, managing to be both sinister and a man way out of his depth. His ‘New Yoyk’ accent was a little studied and made him more of a caricature than he needed to be, but overall he handled his scenes brilliantly – even as a fan of the movie, I felt like I didn’t know where we stood with him.
Overall this main cast of four are practically perfection – their voices, their chemistry, the slickness of their direction. In the scenes where Sam is talking ‘through’ Oda Mae, no one misses a beat. However, there is also an unaccountably large and awkward ensemble, who appear at intervals for largely pointless group numbers.
I don’t wish to criticise them as performers; I’m acutely aware of how hard a West End ensemble works and how grateful they often are to be part of a new show. I just feel they are badly used; something just didn’t work for me. At times, Caissie Levy is centre stage singing something heartfelt, and there are suit-clad businessmen and women dancing oddly in the background.
Much of their purpose, from what I can glean, is to diplay the fast-paced world of Wall Street and add to the street and subway scenes, but not a line of their songs was memorable, and Ashley Wallen‘s choreography felt clunky and ill-fitting with the simplicity and soul of the main plot.
One use was as a backing choir for Oda Mae in her uptempo number in Act Two, which was obviously needed, but other than that I’m afraid I would have sacked the lot of them and started from scratch as a smaller, more focused musical. I think there is enough of a spectacle with the supernatural effects, and enough lightness and humour in the Oda Mae storyline to get even the most X Factor-fed audience member through it unscathed. Some might disagree.
The only moment where their presence truly offended me, was after Sam’s incredibly acted and cleverly-conceived death. We are left grieving with Molly for approximately eight seconds before a tap-dancing ghost (with a host of bizarre, historically-costumed spirits) comes to sing to Sam all about death. The only word I have for this is ‘Why?’ The song wasn’t even good.
In terms of the main characters though, there was just the right balance of music and dialogue, you cared just enough about the couple and saw just enough of Oda Mae’s antics – the central plot of this show is beautifully balanced.
Rob Howell‘s design (with projection design by Jon Driscoll) is for the most part excellent. Most of the scenery turns into a video screen, which is best used in the subway scenes and with views of New York from Sam and Carl’s office. However, it is overused, seemingly to justify having it. This could be scaled down, as the moody, blue-tinged sadness of Molly’s apartment scenes are some of the simplest and best. Again, the structure and different panels of the screens were more clearly visible from the stalls, which may have made it less effective.
To go with this visual display, the sound was also very loud in the stalls (although a friend in the Circle tells me she found it almost inaudible from there at first) so the team are obviously still ironing out the creases in these previews. There is a moving section of the stage which is used to great effect, and the flexible, projected scenery mean we can move from red-brick Brooklyn to seedy Harlem in seconds, great for those who dislike clunky scene changes.
The smoke and mirrors of the afterlife provide some of the best bits of the show; Paul Kieve‘s illusions are carefully and lovingly conceived, and none of the death scenes were cheesy or overplayed. The score is not memorable, sadly – it does however suit and showcase the lovely vocals of Levy and Fleeshman, and the restrained ratio of songs to dialogue improves it. Stewart produced Stevie Nicks’ latest album, and the country-rock quality of his songs really suits the actors’ vocal tones.
One of the most pleasant surprises was that the producers got the rights to Unchained Melody. I’m not a fan of the song, but it was appropriately and charmingly used, rather than in a crowd-pleasing, 80s-nostalgia way. Like the casting, it refreshes a visually iconic story so familiar to so many of us. The romance and the resolution of this stunning show are truly raw and moving, and it will hopefully introduce a whole new generation to the magical, original story of Ghost.
Warning: this trailer shows you quite a lot of the show!
*The performance I saw was a preview, and some aspects of the production may change before the show opens on 19th July.
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
[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
March 2, 2011
Reviewed for The Public Reviews
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this revival tour of Chess. Widely known for the breakaway pop duet I Know Him So Well and being co-written by the boys from ABBA, I knew from a brilliant amateur production I’d seen in my teens that there was a lot more to this rock-opera than board games.
Set amidst the icy tensions of the Cold War, the show focuses on the 1979 world chess championship, where the USA’s egomaniac champion Freddie Trumper must defend his title against the USSR’s Anatoly Sergievsky. This evolves into a passionate love triangle over Freddie’s assistant and lover, Florence Vassy, as the two men are pitted against each other by their nations and the media, reflecting the politics of the time.
This production, promoted heavily as the brainchild of Strictly’s Craig Revel-Horwood, is clearly on crystal meth and styled by Lady Gaga, a whirlwind of pop-culture elements that really shouldn’t work – but it does. The show-stealing ensemble are dressed as flamboyant, Westwood-esque chess pieces, with black-bobbed, black lipped pawns in military dress. Christopher Woods’ incredible designs animate the politics of the chessboard, each piece vivid and charismatic in its own right.
One of the main triumphs of this staging is that 25 of the 30-strong cast play instruments on stage (orchestrated by Tony-winner Sarah Travis), deftly built around their witty and macabre choreography and flawless vocals. The three principals, although sometimes obscured by the intensity of the chorus, are equally fantastic in their rockstar vocals and stage presence. James Fox is the standout performer, with just the right amount of American smarm and rage, and owns the stage in One Night in Bangkok and even the somewhat whiny Pity the Child. His range seems endless and his vocals are constantly at full-throttle.
More light and shade is provided by Shona White in the Elaine Paige-originated role of Florence; a fairly one-dimensional character with undoubtedly the best songs in the show. White’s powerful voice and feisty yet fragile character earned her the biggest applause of the night. Daniel Koek as the introspective, forceful Anatoly provides a very different but complimentary sound with his rich tenor, although in some of his more wordy songs the meaning was lost to amped-up sound and too much ensemble backing.
Slick support is provided by David Erik as the devilish, trumpet-playing Arbiter, clad in a full-length leather coat, and Steve Varnom as the seedy Molokov. Poppy Tierney is graceful and steely as Anatoly’s wronged wife Svetlana, but the material doesn’t offer much of an insight into her character. The choreography, under scrutiny due to its star creator, is frenetic and varied, dipping into classical as well as hardcore gay-club territory. Though the dance numbers were undeniably entertaining, I would still say the vocals were the best part, making me long for a touring cast soundtrack.
Chess had a meagre three-year West End run in the 80s, and quickly flopped on Broadway. Not only does it demand of its audience a basic understanding of Cold War politics, but Tim Rice’s sublime lyrics are fast-paced and intellectual – this is a musical which requires concentration. Contrastingly, its standout numbers (bar the rousing Anthem at the end of Act I) are recognisably-ABBA pop ballads, with some haunting music-box waltzes and rock numbers to combat the cheese factor. It is a challenging show, but a thoroughly enjoyable one if you are open to the humour and genius within. Entertaining touches such as ‘broadcasts’ by the characters into cameras hidden in the onstage instruments and projected on to the minimalist scenery, really add flavour.
This dark story of media hype, global superpowers and on a smaller scale, one woman’s emotional survival, is still compelling and thought-provoking stuff more than two decades after its creation. Highly recommended for Rice fans, although ABBA’s may be in for a shock.
Runs until 5th March in Bristol.
Tour continues to Woking, Torquay, Dublin, High Wycombe and Glasgow – dates here.
February 25, 2011
by guest reviewer Tom Bovington
The Last Five Years is one of those cult shows that hardcore musical fans have all heard of, but which has never been performed in the West End – as composer Jason Robert Brown said last year in his London debut, “I’ve had my West End debut before any of my shows have!” However, the show is often performed in fringe theatres and university societies, due to its small cast and limited technical requirements and despite its challenging score.
The story is a typical boy-meets-girl and covers their five-year relationship through first date, marriage and unfortunately, divorce. However, the female protagonist Cathy starts the show at the end of their relationship and moves backwards, whereas her successful writer husband Jamie travels the show in chronological order. This sounds like a clever conceit, but is difficult to pull off without confusion as to which year each half of the couple is actually in, although this is aided by a photo-frame device.
The show is essentially a song-cycle, as the characters sing in succession of each other about the trials and tribulations of relationships, displaying heartfelt pain and immense joy throughout. The score visits several styles, including a distinct Jewish feel for some of Jamie’s songs, and gives the actors plenty to play with emotionally, as well as some beautiful soaring melodies. Brown easily masters both comedy and pathos throughout, particularly in Cathy’s songs, which capture heartbroken pain and awkward hilarity.
The Tabard production makes good use of its intimate space and a lovely design, which includes a stage split by a messy collection of writing paper, music scores, love letters and symmetric bedrooms with distorted mirrors that reflect the characters back at themselves. Above each side of the stage are five screens, which initially display five photos of the couple on one side, and slowly disappear and reappear on the opposite side, representing the five years of marriage.
Lauren Samuels of Over the Rainbow fame plays Cathy, the struggling actress whose clingy devotion to her husband eventually drives him away. Lauren was always my favourite Dorothy (although I know West End Geek doesn’t share my views here!) and I’m actually glad she didn’t win – although the Wizard of Oz is currently playing one of the biggest houses in London, Lauren definitely has the better role here. She easily crafts a character who we feel such sympathy for – yes, she is desperate to be loved, but aren’t we all? – she is charming, geeky and dutiful and plays them all with a touch of sadness, as though she knows the inevitable is to come.
What I love about Lauren’s voice is the endless range – she can belt beautifully but also pull back into her stunning head voice, and she isn’t afraid to sacrifice perfect singing for believable acting – I often find the song ‘I’m Still Hurting’ a tad whiney and self-pitying, but she really drew us into the story and showed us her pain as her voice cracked with tears. Particular props to her hilarious performance of ‘I Can Do Better Than That’, when a mid-song entrance by Michael Batten in a very tight pair of boxers threatened to distract half the audience, but instead we remained captivated and laughing.
Batten, who was the understudy for Jamie, displayed ease on stage and a strong chemistry with Samuels during their brief wedding scene together. Unfortunately, his performance was completely overshadowed by his cast mate, and in a two-hander like this, it can be very obvious. He had evidence of a nice voice and put in a valiant effort, but several times I felt very sorry for him and his vocal folds.
His lower range was lovely but the high parts to Jamie’s score (of which there is a lot) was very strained and worsened throughout the show. I worry as to what was wrong with Christopher Pym if this was the better option. Batten also joins the long line of (assumed) gay actors playing straight Jamie unconvincingly – I’m sure there are some straight actors who can play this role, but theatreland seems unable to find them. This perception wasn’t altered by the costume decision of tight t-shirts (to highlight his biceps?) and JLS boots.
Seeing The Last Five Years after listening to the recording for so many years, was very interesting for me, and I’m not sure it was a positive thing. The songs work incredibly well on the CD and also in a cabaret setting. However, the show seems to sit somewhere between a song cycle and a musical but doesn’t benefit from being either.
Unlike Brown’s other song cycle, Songs for a New World, the songs are all connected by a strong plot – however, if you don’t already know that plot or read the programme in depth, you won’t know what is going on, due to the lack of dialogue. For instance, one of my party didn’t realise Cathy was an actress until ‘Climbing Uphill’ and wasn’t quite sure why she was in Ohio with a snake and a stripper.
The limited text of the show could be worked upon to build a stronger narrative. The songs work extremely well in cabaret; the audience is being told a story and the songs can be pushed to extremes of humour and emotion. However, in the show the songs are being sung to a character who isn’t there. There is no connection and the actor is more restrained in their performance, which limits the audience reaction.