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I Know I Mustn’t Fall Into The Pit – Backstage With Anthony Gabriele and the Cats’ Orchestra

In Features by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

At nearly every musical, after the cast have taken their final bow and as the audience start filing out onto the street, the band will typically play a minute or so of exit music, almost the opposite of an overture, before they too sign off for the night. I try to make a point of staying in the auditorium until that number is over, by which time often more than half the crowd will have left, so as to applaud the band (and at that moment in time, only the band) for the usually top-notch contribution that they will have made to the evening’s entertainment. 
So I was delighted when on having mentioned to my friend Anthony Gabriele, currently the musical director (MD) of Cats at the London Palladium, of my curiosity to see inside the orchestra pit during a big West End show, that he graciously invited me to sit in for a performance. Meeting me at the stage door, he showed me down to the pit and as we made our way through the clowder of feline-costumed actors having their radio mikes checked, I felt suitably humiliated surrounded by such talented and athletic performers each of whom could probably summon up more fitness in their little finger than I could muster at all!
A good musical production is a akin to a 3-legged stool. The cast, the creative team and the orchestra make it a success and if you take away any one of those legs, the show flounders. Traditionally a show’s pit is located sunken and to the front of the stage, where the audience’s typical view is of the conductor’s head and whirling baton just visible, allowing him eye contact with both stage and band. The staging of Cats is such that there is no room for such a luxurious, standard location and instead the musicians are located completely out of sight beneath the stage in a virtual musical dungeon. TV monitors allow Gabriele to see the action up top, whilst the usual screens fixed to the front of the dress circle (carefully located out of audience sightlines) allow the performers to clock the conductor.
Like a train formed of an engine and its carriages, (and for that read the orchestra and the cast – and I daren’t say as to who is the engine!) it is the MD who not only drives the train but more importantly, couples those units into one. He or she must be strong enough to hold the train together, yet flexible enough to allow bumps along the track to be absorbed into a smooth journey that neither de-rail nor delay the train and which 99 times out of a hundred, will not even be noticed by the paying passengers enjoying the journey.
Anthony Gabriele, Kerry Ellis and Jonathan Baz
Stopping off en-route to the pit to say a quick hello to the lovely Kerry Ellis, starring as the show’s Grizabella, I was then sat close to Gabriele (but out of the way), in front of his 8 musicians and issued headphones (cans) to listen to the voices that would be coming from afar. 

Out of sight, the dress code is a casual mix of jeans, trainers and t-shirts, but this is an appearance that couldn’t be more deceptive. As the overture starts it is clear that these men can play tunes, known the world over, to a world class standard. My phone was safely set to flight mode and with baton raised, maestro Gabriele got the show underway.
Andrew Lloyd Webber began composing Cats in the 1970’s and there is a strong synthesised/ keyboards bias to his compositions. Gabriele’s band comprise 3 keyboard players, 2 people on reeds, a drummer, a guitarist and a bass player.

The Cats pit has some clever touches. An array of speakers feed the keyboards’ electronic output (already being channelled directly to the show’s sound desk) into the room, to blend with the acoustic sounds of the traditional instruments. Microphones suspended from the ceiling pick up this ambient melding of the sounds, providing a further layer of texture to the finished product that the sound team put out to the audience. It has proved to be a gorgeous enhancement of the melodies.
Paul Slater, Tom Clare and Ben Kennedy (note the arrayed speakers)
It takes a MD of considerable talent to connect with performers located elsewhere in the building but the youthful Gabriele is amongst the very best of the bunch. The man knows the show intimately along with many more besides. Indeed, it was a surprise during the interval to find him helping Joseph Poulton (Mistoffelees in the show), with the tongue-twisting Zulu lyrics from The Lion King’s Circle Of Life opener, before the actor transfers there when Cats closes at the end of April. Gabriele has MD’d that show too.
A musical that is either sung or danced through completely, there is barely a moment in Cats that is music-free, and whilst the headphones proved a useful assistance in following the action on stage, there were times when I just took them off and listened in amazement to the talent manifest around me.
What struck me on the night observing the 8 musicians was the passion and commitment writ on their faces as they delivered the classic score, along with an immense sense of welcoming camaraderie shown to the two deputising musicians (“deps”) who were in on the night, covering for absent regulars.

In no particular order and amidst a sea of excellence, memorable moments were the relaxed banter amidst the keyboard players, the gorgeous double-bass work during Growltiger’s Last Stand with a deliciously jazzy syncopation throughout the number. There was a “funk-rock” sound to Mr. Misstofelees that included moments of percussive wonder from the drummer, (I was amazed to see and hear played, up close and for the first time, the enchanting glissando of a mark tree) whilst the brash big-band sound of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer was a delight and of course the overall orchestral splendour of the Jellicle Ball helped explain why, for so long, this show had been the longest running hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Cans were slipped back on to hear Kerry Ellis smash the line “Touch me..” from Memory, proving that even through a headset and on a black and white monitor, her performance is still nothing short of sensational – though as the song played out I took the cans off to luxuriate in these 8 musicians generating what has become one of the most broadcast and beloved songs in the canon in recent years.
Gabriele brings the show to a close – in the background Howard McGill, Dan Czwartos and Darren Lord
The musicians who welcomed me on the night were:
Keyboard 1: Paul Slater Keyboard 2: Darren Lord (depping for Assistant Musical Director: Tim Davies) Keyboard 3/Deputy Conductor: Ben KennedyElectric Guitar/Acoustic Guitar: Nick Rees Electric Bass/Double Bass: Nathan Finn Drums/Percussion: Tom Clare Woodwind 1 – Flute/Piccolo/Clarinet/Tenor Saxophone: Howard McGill (depping for Gavin Tate-Lovery)Woodwind 2 – Clarinet/Soprano Saxophone/Baritone Saxophone: Dan Czwartos
Gentlemen, thank you all. It was a night I shall never forget.

Orchestral Management: Stephen Hill for Musicians UK Ltd.

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Spend Spend Spend – Review

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Union Theatre, London

Music by Steve BrownLyrics and book by Steve Brown and Justin GreeneBased on the book by Viv Nicholson and Stephen Smith

Julie Armstrong
The true story of Viv Nicholson’s 1961 win on the football pools and her life immediately thereafter   has proved a seam of rich material over the years. Her exuberant pledge to “spend, spend, spend!” went on to be the title of her 1975 autobiography, which in turn was transformed into a BAFTA winning BBC Play For Today (remember those?) by Jack Rosenthal, though it was not to be until 1998 that her saga received the full-blown musical treatment from Steve Brown and Justin Greene.

Nicholson’s win, equivalent to £2 million in today’s money, was a lifechanger and set her on a path to extravagance, numerous husbands, addictions and ultimately bankruptcy. Rarely has a modern day fable proved so literally fabulous, with Nicholson’s tale having much to say about how whether happiness and fulfilment can actually be bought for cash. And whilst the Union’s production would benefit from a bigger spend itself, once again Sasha Regan uses the venue’s bare walls and pillars to her advantage. Under Christian Durham’s direction not only does the space serve the more intimate and tender moments well, but equally allows the brash, ballsy and gloriously British tone of the piece to thrive.
Elle-Rose Hughes simple yet effective set consists of a painted wall adorned with newspaper cuttings. Such staged austerity demands much from the cast and the company of Spend Spend Spend deliver energy from the outset. Ensemble numbers such as the brilliantly period-defining  ‘John Collier’, along with  ‘One In A Million’ and the act one closer’s title number are sizzlingly sung by the 15 strong troupe, balancing a raucous verve with musical precision under the skilled musical direction of Inga Davis-Rutter. 
The leading role of Nicholson is shared by Katy Dean and Julie Armstrong as Viv young and old respectively, who prove the powerhouse of the piece. An infectious pair, particularly as they duet with in ‘Whose gonna love me’. Armstrong’s Viv is full of heart as her character re-lives the memory of the money-made roller coaster, even when watching scenes play out from the side lines. Armstrong maintains a nostalgic glint in her eye that gives her performance an immense warmth throughout. That said, it is Dean who is the driving force of both plot and pace, particularly in the number ‘Sexual Happening’. With such a reflective story there could always be a risk of a slide into monotony but Dean allays these fears, delivering feisty from the off.
Notwithstanding a rich musicality, the occasional flaw (such as some lyrics being repeated too frequently) can pull the pace back. Nonetheless the show remains a defiantly British musical that offers a great night of entertainment and theatre and at £20 a pop there’s certainly no need for the audience to Spend Spend Spend.

Runs until 18th April 2015

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The Jew Of Malta – Review

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Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon


Written by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Justin Audibert

Jasper Britton
Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta play takes a tale of cunning and avarice, love and hypocrisy and strips it down to the basest of humanities at its core. Barabas  the Jew is a man for whom it is possible to feel both compassion and disgust.  He hadn’t chosen his calling, having first been a physician, then an engineer and finally a usurer.  Yet it is in that money-lending role that he is singled out by Ferneze, Malta’s Christian governor, to fill the island’s war chest or face conversion to Christianity. And as the Muslim Turks threaten Malta, so do we find Marlowe sketching out a contemporary, if troubling resonance, as the three Abrahamic faiths challenge each other
Justin Audibert’s intelligent production sees Jasper Britton give a warmth and joie de vivre to Barabas that one might not have expected from a man destined to ultimately wreak hideous revenge. Britton’s wiles and connivances serve only to endear him to the audience, whom he plays beautifully, with a string of raised eyebrows and intimately glanced asides. An unexpected counterpoint to the Jew is Ithamore, his Moorish slave. Lanre Malaolu bounces and clowns across the stage as we witness the slave perversely worming his way deeper into the affections of his master.
The threatening Turkish armada is led by Calymath, ably played by Marcus Griffith in true swashbuckling form. As the intrigues of the plot, riddled with treachery and deceit lead to an inevitably tragic conclusion, we witness the duplicity of inter-faith conflict alongside an even more painful intra-familial despair as Barabas and daughter Abigail, (sensitively and spiritedly played by Catrin Stewart) both come to despise the other, with fatal consequences.
Steven Pacey’s Ferneze displays a recognisable statesman-like duplicity, as he schemes both with and against Barabas to defend his nation, whilst we catch but a glimpse of Marlowe endorsing his own personal inclinations when Simon Hedger’s Merchant says ‘I count religion but a childish toy’.
In a production that thrills, Jonathan Girling’s music enhances proceedings. His introduction however of a 19th century klezmer sound, whose history derives from the European Ashkenazi Jewish community whereas Malta’s Jews hailed from a distinctly Mediterranean Sephardi heritage, does seem a little incongruous.
But elsewhere the detail invested in The Jew Of Malta is meticulous, manifest in the clarity, diction and playing of the company for whom neither a syllable nor glance is wasted. Bringing their world class style to this Elizabethan classic, with Lily Arnold’s plainest of sets proving a foil to magnificent costumes, The RSC again deliver magnificent theatre.

In repertory until 29th August 2015

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Hugh Maynard – Something Inside So Strong – Concert Review

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London Hippodrome
***** Hugh Maynard – inset Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong
Every now and then a gig comes along that not only marks a performer’s talent, but also evidences their status in the industry and even more rarely, a remarkable generosity of spirit. So it is with Hugh Maynard, currently playing John in the West End’s revived Miss Saigon, who on the night he launched his debut solo album Something Inside So Strong not only sang sensationally but also chose to share his stage with a talented corps of Miss Saigon colleagues. It all made for a memorable night at the Hippodrome.
In front of his 5-piece band (MD Liam Holms) and on his own Maynard sparkled, covering Seal’s Kiss From A Rose in a distinctly fresh interpretation that still retained a hint of the writer’s hallmark edgy tenderness. When A Man Loves A Woman offered a further glimpse of the controlled power of Maynard’s belt, whilst in a disarmingly brave choice for a fella, his take on Brenda Russell’s Get Here (a smash hit for Oleta Adams) showed the full range of his tenor magnificence.
Maynard’s big number in the Boublil and Schoenberg epic is Bui Doi, an impassioned plea on behalf of Vietnam’s “dust of life” kids, the mixed-race progeny fathered by long absent GIs. A neat twist saw a 7-strong ensemble of Miss Saigon’s finest give a stunning, cheeky twist on the number, referring to the “spice of life” and sung a-capella no less, conducted by Maynard and gloriously led by the show’s Carolyn Maitland.
Making the short trip from the Prince Edward Theatre to guest for Maynard, his featured colleagues Rachelle Ann Go and Kwang-Ho Hong both sung solos from Les Miserables. Each famous in SE Asia, both guests offered proof, if any was needed, of Cameron Mackintosh’s ability to source talent from across the globe. Hong’s Bring Him Home along with Go’s I Dreamed A Dream set spines-tingling. Their song  choices may have been well worn favourites yet each electrified the Hippodrome crowd before going on to duet with their host. 
One night was not enough and Hugh Maynard needs to return to the cabaret stage soon. Until then he remains a living reminder of the excellence to be found in London’s musical theatre today.

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Bad Jews – Review

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Arts Theatre, London
Written by Joshua HarmonDirected by Michael Longhurst 

Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen
Acclaimed at Bath last year and sold out at London’s St James Theatre in January, Bad Jews now makes the short hop across town to the Arts Theatre to meet an almost insatiable demand to see the show. Indeed the clamour for tickets has been so strong that it led comedienne Ruby Wax to tweet recently of Bad Jews’ “mostly Jewish audience. If you insult them, they will come”.
The play is provocatively titled because as Harmon admits in the programme, eleven years ago and before a plot had even evolved, he thought it would be “a good title for a play”. Hmm. A dodgy premise for any creative work. Substance needs to come before the packaging and ultimately Bad Jews makes for mediocre drama.
Three Jewish cousins (plus Melody the Christian girlfriend of one cousin) are gathered in New York for the funeral of grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Amidst familiar and familial spats of jealousy, rivalry and momentary affection, the plot’s action focusses upon a Jewish necklace (a Chai) that Poppy had kept concealed during his time in the camps.

Religiously committed granddaughter Daphna believes the Chai should rightfully be hers whilst assimilated cousin Liam (who via some family chicanery, already possesses the necklace) is on the cusp of proposing to Melody and plans to give her the Chai in place of a traditional engagement ring. Daphna’s nauseated fury at Liam’s plan is understandable. However where Harmon abuses our disbelief, whose suspension is already hanging by a thread, is in asking us to accept the conceit that WASP Melody would even prefer the battered Chai over a diamond solitaire.  It makes for an in-credible pivotal plot-line.
To be fair, Harmon does thread some strands of relevance into his work. His exposition of the vain and arrogant self-belief of Daphna’s piety is spot-on and he offers a further morsel of intellectual meat to chew on as he references the impact of assimilation and “marrying out” upon Judaism’s cultural heritage. Noble arguments and credit too for his attempt to address the impact of the Holocaust upon third generation survivors. But ultimately it’s all packaged up in a bundle of writing that far too often makes for a tedious naivety. Where Arthur Miller once brought a scalpel-like precision to such complex studies of humanity, Harmon wields mallet and chisel and it shows.
Speaking to The Guardian recently Harmon tells of how just before the play opened in Bath, that he had cut a line from the text that referred to the safety in being Jewish today, recognising that the sentiment didn’t accurately reflect the current experience of European Jews. Whilst the edit was necessary, actually the chopped words should never have been written in the first place. For most of the last millennium continental Europe has been a deadly place for Jews – and that’s both before and after Hitler – and Harmon’s failure to acknowledge that continuum, even as he wrote Bad Jews, evidences a worrying ignorance.
And that side-splitting comedy? The programme notes reference Mel Brooks’ The Producers in which Brooks brilliantly lampooned Hitler in his 1968 farce and subsequent musical.  However, that The Producers worked at all was because Brooks craftily mocked an evil regime. Here, by contrast, Bad Jews’ audience rather than laughing at the Nazis, are invited to guffaw at a surviving family’s struggles to cope with the Holocaust’s devastating legacy. There’s a whiff of freak-show here and it leaves a nasty taste.
Further credit to some of the performers. Ilan Goodman’s Liam is a focussed channelled force, who notwithstanding the ridiculously Fawlty-esque extremes imposed upon his character, makes us believe in his comfortably assimilated Jewish identity, as well as his love for Melody. Playing his love interest, Gina Bramhill is a strawberry blonde genteel gentile. It’s a novel twist that sees the non-Jew sketched out as a caricatured stereotype, but again and to her credit, Bramhill makes fabulous work of some occasionally ghastly dialogue. That Jenna Augen’s Daphna, almost a year into the play’s run, speaks too often in a squeaky gabble is mind boggling.
Completing the quartet, Joe Coen’s Jonah is the Beavis-type silent one, who too little too late offers an endgame revelation that deserves more analysis from Harmon than the (yet another) sensational moment it is given.
In his song Shikse Goddess, taken from The Last Five Years, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, nails the complex and awkward nuances of assimilation with witty yet profound analysis in four minutes. Harmon takes more than an hour and a half to clumsily cover much of the same ground. Somewhere in Bad Jews there could be a good play struggling to emerge. This ain’t it.

Runs to 30th May 2015

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Saturday Night Fever – Review

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Richmond Theatre, London
Music and lyrics by The Bee GeesBook adapted by Robert Stigwood and Bill OakesDirected by Ryan McBryde
The Company
When ‘Saturday Night Fever’ hit the screen in the UK in 1978 it had the country eating out of the palm of its hand. John Travolta’s Tony Manero, powered by the Bee Gee’s inimitable disco pulse had girls wanting him and guys wanting to be him. Robert Stigwood’s dance fuelled vision dripped with the illusory seduction of the 2001 Odyssey nightclub’s neon that offered a weekly escape from urban mundanity to Manero and his buddies. On the Richmond Theatre’s stage however, Ryan McBryde’s version of the show is perhaps a touch too dark and raw for a story that craves light and glamour.

In his programme notes McBryde describes Saturday Night Fever as “gritty, complex and uncompromising”. With a plot that includes heartbreak, financial struggle and suicide all set to such a popular and uplifting score, its inevitable that a credible staging will prove challenging. That said, McBryde has assembled a strong company of actor-musician performers. The economy of the actor-muso format serves the show well, offering a strong sense of energy and vibrancy in the more up tempo numbers, while equally giving the darker songs a real raw and honest edge, notably in Tragedy sung by Alex Lodge as Bobby C.  
Saturday Night Fever demands a fine leading man and Danny Bayne’s Manero provides the show’s driving energy. Bayne’s performance as the arrogant yet sensitive Manero, complete with flawless dancing is worth the ticket price alone and he handles his solo numbers with flair. Elsewhere, Bethany Linsdell as the love struck Annette whose early rendition of If I Can’t Have You offers just a glimpse of the singer’s talent as she makes fine work of the Yvonne Elliman classic. 
Throughout, Andrew Wright’s well engineered choreography excites, suggesting both the glitzy pizzazz and the emotional turmoil of growing up in New York city in the last century.
Above all the show makes for an entertaining night out. Many of us remember the movie (it was my first ever sneaked-into “x certificate”) when the Bee Gees’ sound defined an era. The middle aged will love the nostalgia – whilst a younger audience can absorb the sounds of a generation, performed magnificently by their peers.

Runs until 28th March 2015, then plays in Cardiff

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Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe – Review

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Crazy Coqs, London
*****Joe Stilgoe and Claire Martin
The syncopated excellence of Claire Martin and Joe Stilgoe has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Martin, one of our finest jazz divas, defines insouciance as she controls her perfect timbre, her voice swooping like a seabird from the most glorious moment of an occasional mezzo trills, down to a luxuriously resonant contralto. Her pitch is perfect and her timing pinpoint – there is truly nothing more a cabaret singer could offer.
And then there’s Stilgoe. With a reverential impertinence that reminds one of Peter Shaffer’s young Amadeus, eschewing sheet music and much like a Transformer straight out of the recent movie franchise, he becomes one with his piano. Stilgoe really is that good. The pair’s set list, loosely themed around Springtime takes in the Great Songbooks from both sides of the pond and a segue that seamlessly joins Gershwin’s S’Wonderful, to Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and which in less confident hands would appear cheesy, here just seems so natural. Not just a pianist, the young musician’s guitar playing is divine too and he also delivers a neat mimic of a muted trumpet. But it was only when sat at his piano that Stilgoe junior whistled at me, that I truly realised how proud of son Joe, dad Richard should truly be.
For an evening packed with gems, the rest is detail. The pair (whose harmonies were always perfectly aligned) gave a cracking treatment to Sinatra’s That’s Life and also enchanted in Legrand’s Watch What Happens. Martin soloed sublimely with April In Paris, whilst her treatment of the Garland classic Get Happy! referenced the Hollywood star in style, yet bore a fresh interpretation that was nothing short of sensational. 
No matter their patter occasionally drifted. On this night the singing was all that counted and rarely are two performers so marvellously melded. They’re only here for a week, don’t miss ‘em!

In residence until 28th March

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Harvey – Review

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Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
Written by Mary ChaseDirected by Lindsay Posner

Maureen Lipman and James Dreyfus
There are few shows in town more charming than Lindsay Posner’s re-working of this 1940’s all-American fable. Widowed Veta Simmons lodges with her daughter in the home of her wealthy brother Elwood P Dowd. Yet much is amiss, for as Simmons strives to keep up a genteel facade of normality, Dowd’s closest confidante is Harvey, an invisible giant rabbit and much of the play hinges upon the anguish that his behaviour causes to his loved ones. 
This parable of the savant, who in today’s jargon would be classified as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and yet who sees his world with a clarity denied his fellows, has already been explored in Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Yet Chase’s Pulitzer Prize-winner preceded those modern classics by some decades and as her Harvey lifts the curtain on a petty-minded small town, so we see Dowd’s noble and chivalrous pursuit of all that is good in life, shine out as a beacon amongst his morally flawed peers, all signed up to the rat-race.
James Dreyfus is Dowd bringing a comic pathos to a beautifully created character. We laugh at the witty excellence of his performance though with a compassionate chuckle rather than the poking of cruel fun at a Bedlam lunatic. Dreyfus convinces us of his belief in Harvey and at the same time plays the straightest of bats as his (and the company’s) pinpoint timing sees the plot’s farcical elements unfold delightfully.
Opposite Dreyfus is Maureen Lipman’s Veta. Amongst the best actors of her generation, Lipman commands our sympathy as she strives to find a suitor for Myrtle Mae her grown daughter, whilst supporting her brother’s mental frailty. We feel her frustration at the difficulties she has to manage, yet at the finale we almost weep at the loving compassion she shows her sibling. Powerful stuff indeed, although glossing over the physical abuse Veta inadvertently suffers in the local sanitarium, as comedy rather than the ghastly brutality that it truly represents, is perhaps the script’s only flaw. It was to be another thirty years before Jack Nicholson’s Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was to define how the cruelty of mental institutions should truly be portrayed.
Dreyfus and Lipman lead a marvellous troupe. Ingrid Oliver’s Myrtle Mae nails the awkward self-centredness of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, whilst Sally Scott’s psychiatric Nurse Kelly is a clever portrayal of cutely cognisant compassion. David Bamber is psychiatrist Dr Chumley, a medic who undergoes a Damascene conversion of his own with Bamber giving the complex role the comic mania it deserves. The play’s endgame sees Linal Haft, in a tiny role, play a cab driver whose revelatory monologue moves both hearts and minds. (And those eagle-eyed and over 40 may recall Haft’s Melvyn, the much put-upon son to Lipman’s Beattie in the BT 1980s ad campaign.) 
Peter McKintosh’s set displays an ingenious elegance as interlocking revolves shift the action between home and clinic, whilst meticulous design in both costume and wigs set the time and tone perfectly.
Old fashioned for sure and with American accents that occasionally grate, the show is a curiosity of a production, but nonetheless bravo to the Birmingham Rep and its co-producers for having taken it on the road. When late into the second act, as Dowd reveals that during his lifetime he has known what it is to be “smart” as well as what it is to be profoundly pleasant, it is with a moving wisdom that he reports (and we feel chastened), that “being pleasant” is nicer. An allegory with the feel-good warmth of an adult fairy tale, Harvey makes for excellent theatre performed by a fabulous cast.

Runs until 2nd May 2015

The Father – Review

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Trafalgar Studios, London


Written by August Strindberg
In a new version by Laurie Slade
Directed by Abbey Wright

Alex Ferns

Few go to a Strindberg play looking for an harmonious depiction of the sexes and this co-production between Emily Dobbs’ Jagged Fence and Making Productions, while sharp in its execution, won’t do much to radicalise expectations. 

Written in 1887 by the deeply embittered Swedish playwright, on the brink of marital separation and in a fashion that has triggered many autobiographical interpretations, The Father pitches husband and wife into a dark custody battle that predates paternity tests and equal rights. Laurie Slade’s modern adaptation – requested by his friend, theatre director Joe Harmston for a 2012 production – is driven more by collaborative forces than real-life drama, but it retains the original’s antagonistic bite.

Director Abbey Wright takes the reins for this intimate production with great success. While the Captain’s last-minute attempt to break the fourth wall doesn’t sit well with the play’s largely naturalistic style, Wright’s depiction of conflict – whether that be between husband and wife, mother and daughter, or father and child – is as stylish as it is evocative. As the warring characters face each other in mirror image, Wright clouds the dialogue’s clear oppositions with vivid visual similarities.

Thomas Coombes is a treat as Nöjd, the playful trooper who, if rumour is to believed, has impregnated a member of the Captain’s staff. While Nöjd is unable to deny a certain degree of intimacy, it is beyond his power to prove whether or not the baby is his. Coombes excels at lacing Nöjd’s crude, pastoral expression – “no guarantee that a night in the hay means a bun in the oven” – with a cheeky, modern charm, furnishing Slade’s notion that this is “a modern play, which happens to be set in the C.19th”.

What seems like idle gossip transforms into psychologically taut obsession as the play pulls towards its inevitable conclusion. Just as Nöjd doubts his lover’s fidelity, Alex Ferns’s dazzling Captain ploughs his own memories, as he questions whether young Bertha, who calls him ‘Papa’, is actually his issue or was in fact conceived by wife Laura (excellent on-stage work from Dobbs) during a lovers’ tryst. Ferns is vibrantly volatile and while other characters are equally paired in their disputes, he retains a chilling control over the tempo of the piece. 

While the relationship between the Captain and his wife provides the thrust of this narrative, and the Captain and his Doctor (Barnaby Sax) are splendidly matched as rivals, it is the tender and trusting affinity between Captain and Nurse (June Watson) that brings the strongest emotional clout: “rest your breast on my chin”, the Captain commands his attendant, as a redundant Laura looks on jealously. This gentle, strikingly maternal relationship is complemented by James Turner’s set and Gary Bowman lighting, all stripped-back, monochrome as a Gothic aesthetic gradually melts into warmer reds.

Husband and wife may be “black and white…different species” but there’s a faith in relationships and the power of one gender to sooth and complement another. While this production doesn’t fall far from Strindberg’s tree, it’s a well-designed and interrogative take on an unfashionable play.

Runs until 11th April 2015

Guest reviewer: Amelia Forsbrook

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The Producers – Review

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Churchill Theatre, Bromley


Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks
Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Jason Manford and Cory English
The headline cast of The Producers is almost a who’s who of today’s popular entertainment scene. Jason Manford, Louie Spence and Phill Jupitus all take principal roles alongside the lesser known (but nonetheless industry greats) Cory English, David Bedella and the stunning Tiffany Graves. They lead a company that delivers flawless performances as they dust off Mel Brooks deliciously dated musical.
The 12 Tony-winning musical wowed Broadway in 2001, but of course the original yarn was spun by Brooks in his 1968 Oscar winning movie – and it is to that film that this touring revival pays homage. The onstage newspaper headlines scream of BJ and Vietnam as shyster Broadway producer Max Bialystock, so richly defined by Zero Mostel in the 60s, slicked-back hair and red smoking jacket, is neatly caricatured by Cory English. Back in the day Gene Wilder defined the nebbish (google it) that is frustrated accountant Leo Bloom. In 2015 Jason Manford (a surprisingly big fella in the flesh) makes the most of his lumbering features to define Bloom’s wondrously hopeless inadequacies. Manford’s anxiety-ridden Bloom seriously exceeds expectations.
The story could be neither more tasteless nor more famous. As humble clerk Bloom realises that were a show to prove a guaranteed flop then amoral producers could sell its rights many times over and embezzle the investors’ cash. Bialystock pounces on this stroke of (criminal) genius and takes Bloom into partnership. Sourcing possibly the worst script in town, Springtime For Hitler written by a crazed former Nazi and hiring Roger De Bris, a disastrous director to helm it, failure is a certainty. Until of course De Bris delivers a Fuhrer who’s camper than Christmas and the Broadway crowds go wild…
Cory English has previous as Bialystock, having played the producer on Drury Lane and he masters the ways of the wily granny-shagger with aplomb, his 11 o’clock number Betrayed being a particular treat. Mel Brook’s Borsht Belt comedy roots (google that too) are manifest in Bialystock’s corny patter, as his unique style merges Sid James’ Carry On smut with a wry sense of self-deprecation that’s as New York Jewish as pastrami on rye.

The biggest butt (pun intended) of Brook’s gags is of course Hitler and the Nazis – and what better way to humiliate a truly evil force than to laugh at it (With a momentary pause to sadly wish “if only” that could be the case in today’s troubled world). Along the way however and in alphabetical order, blacks, gays, Irish, Jews and Swedes are all mercilessly mocked in a show that makes for one big guilty pleasure.
David Bedella’s De Bris is a high priest of high camp. Preening and pouting, he is poured into his dress – and gives Hitler just the right touch of manic megalomania too.  Louie Spence as his posturing assistant Carmen Ghia has a modest role but milks it magnificently with a movement that is as technically brilliant as it his hilarious.  And whoever thought of Phill Jupitus to play the Nazi Franz Liebkind deserves the Iron Cross. The comedian’s (rarely seen) fat, pasty, lederhosen-clad legs add visual genius to the deluded German. Be in no doubt, Jupitus cannot sing and his almost solo number, Haben Sie gehört das deutsche Band will stay with me for a long time.
Meanwhile, leading lady Tiffany Graves’ blonde bombshell Ulla simply steals her every scene. Graves’ accent is wonderfully caricatured, her singing sensational whilst her dance and cartwheeling/backflipping movement is jaw-dropping. Sporting fabulous tresses (kudos to wig mistress Sally Tynan) Graves is every inch the (not so dumb) Swedish Blonde.
Magnificence elsewhere from Lee Proud’s choreography, with the big numbers of Along Came Bialy (complete with denture wielding tap-dancing geriatrics) and Springtime For Hitler evidencing a company well drilled in dance routines that blend professional precision with immaculate comic timing. And look out for the unexpected nod to the Vulgarian (aka Germanic) Doll On A Music Box routine from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as the Springtime number kicks off. 

Bravo too to Andrew Hilton’s nine-piece band who give Brooks’ compositions the bold and brassy treatment they deserve.
The Producers’ producers have clearly piled their cash (or their investors’ ?) into the cast and it shows as Matthew White directs a magnificent 5* flawless troupe. But the un-inspiring scenery wobbles, the tank-gun helmets of the dancing Nazi showgirls look like they are Blue Peter inspired cardboard creations and unforgivably, Hitler’s moustache fell off in his big number Heil Myself! Bedella to his credit gamely played on – but where were the professional production values? The show’s future audiences deserve a little better.
As entertainment, this touring production of The Producers provides a sensational night out at the theatre. Top notch actors, delivering top notch routines. It makes for one of those rare nights when cheeks will ache from grinning. If you love comedy and musicals it’s unmissable. Brilliant, irreverent, hilarious and all performed by one of the best companies on the road today.

Plays until 14th March, then on tour.