Mates blogger: Jonathan Baz


Jonathan Baz is one of over 45 theatre bloggers who are part of the MyTheatreMates collective. This page features Jonathan's posts on MyTheatreMates. Take a look at our full list of theatre bloggers and our aggregated feed of all our Mates' posts. We’re always looking for new theatre bloggers. Could that be you? Learn about how to join us.
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.
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The latest from Jonathan on MyTheatreMates

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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. 

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Cynthia Erivo – Hear My Soul – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Kings Place, London

****

There are few Leading Ladies that have accomplished so much, so young, as Cynthia Erivo. Having starred in a sell out run of The Color Purple and provided the vocal excellence to the most inappropriately named show of 2014, I Can’t Sing! (she really Can Sing!) and led a recent national tour of Sister Act, it was only going to be a matter of time before she headlined her own gig. The lofty yet surprisingly intimate Kings Place, tucked behind the back of Kings Cross was packed to hear this most youthful of divas perform Hear My Soul, a collection of songs that she had either written or been inspired by.
There was an attention to detail surrounding the concert that is the hallmark of Erivo’s approach to her craft, from her carefully worded programme notes, to the five piece band she’d assembled under Tom Deering’s skilled direction. Apart from her encore (of which, more later) Erivo avoided the songs from her big career shows to date, opening the show with Signal, one of several of her own compositions that were to feature amongst her set list. Smoothly segueing into a charming cover of All of Me, the honey-voiced chanteuse sang the John Legend hit with her boyfriend Dean John Wilson in a duet that was as touchingly delivered as it was perfectly pitched.
Labrinth’s Jealous saw Erivo purr like the engine of a Rolls. Her rarely heard (and incredible) lower range giving the song the velvety texture it deserved. Another self-written number, Fly Before You Fall which also serves as the title track to the movie Beyond The Lights, proved to be the most beautifully crafted of her compositions and gave the most poignant depth to the evening’s first half, though the highspot of the pre-interval set was unquestionably the spine tingling fidelity that Erivo beautifully laid upon Dreamgirls’ One Night Only.
Having opened the evening in a gorgeously tailored trouser outfit, Erivo returned for act two in a subtle yet sensationally fitted red gown. Commencing the second with Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody gave the evening’s only blip, with Erivo surprisingly rooted to her microphone stand, as her line-up briefly resembled a wedding-reception covers band. The song demands movement (the secret’s in the title) and a big Whitney dance number needed big dance and Erivo needed (and to be fair deserved) some better direction from her producer.
No matter, for next up and staying with Whitney’s family, was a sensational take on Aretha Franklin’s Ain’t No Way. The crowd went wild for the diminutive songstress and as Erivo moved up through the gears, her home straight was a succession of classic songs smashed right out of the park. Arlen and Harburg’s Over The Rainbow, a song that can easily be mauled in clumsy hands, was given the most perfectly fragile confection of excellence, whilst Somewhere from West Side Story offered Erivo a rare moment of self-indulgence, telling her audience that this was to be the first time she had ever sung the song live and then, only because she loved it and would quite possibly never be cast to perform it.
Somewhere was, of course, flawless before Erivo returned to Dreamgirls for a knockout And I Am Telling You. Overcome by the power of the song and the audience reaction that she was inspiring, the singer had to pause before delivering the song’s monumental final bars. Erivo suggests the power and majesty of a youthful Diana Ross. It really is quite simple – Dreamgirls has to come to the West End and when it does, Cynthia Erivo’s Effie needs to top the bill.
The cheering, standing ovation led into an encore that could only have been a sensational delivery of I’m Here from The Color Purple, a show that barely two years ago had imprinted Erivo’s name onto the capital’s theatre-going psyche (and if there was any justice, so should have deserved its own cast recording too!)
As she re-lived that most passionate and beautiful of songs, spines tingled again. Igniting musical theatre Cynthia Erivo is one of her generation’s greats and truly is the brightest of rising stars.

You can see Cynthia Erivo performing, live with Scott Alan, at London’s St James Studio from 4th – 6th May 2015

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Psycho Live – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Dominion Theatre, London
*****
Screenplay by Joseph StefanoBased on the novel Psycho by Robert BlochDirected by Alfred Hitchcock
Orchestral score by Bernard HerrmannPerformed live by Cinematic SinfoniaConducted by Anthony Gabriele

Janet Leigh takes a shower in Psycho
It’s been a long long time since the opening bars of a movie’s score have made the hairs on the back of my neck prick up. But sat in the Dominion Theatre, as Psycho’s split-text title lines slid across the screen, to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s strings-only orchestration played by the Cinematic Sinfonia orchestra was to truly experience the magic of the movies.
The likes of Netflix and Apple have gone a long way to neuter the majesty of cinema. Imagery that  was once beautifully photographed for the vast expanse of cinemascope is now routinely streamed to our eponymous tiny telephones and tablets and one can fear for a generation currently growing up, who may well consider a trip to a local cinema’s full sized silver screen to be an unnecessary and expensive chore. So whilst this (partly premium-priced) event may well have been one for the fans, it was worth every penny.
Another feature of the evening was in actually seeing and hearing  the film’s music played live, giving rise to a strange sense of witnessing the re-creation of what used to be a fundamental component of any movie’s construction. When any original score was recorded, it would have demanded a conductor facing the screen as he conducts his studio orchestra in time with the action – just the scenario that the Dominion audience were privileged to witness for themselves.
It was of course also a treat to re-visit a movie classic and one can forget how quite how groundbreaking Psycho’s 1960 release was to prove, shaking up many of the movie-industry’s accepted protocols. Intermingling sex with violence and deviancy – even the opening scene of Janet Leigh, bra-clad and in bed with her unmarried lover pushed the envelope of its time. And the dialogue is just so deliciously dated too. When Leigh’s Marion Crane tells Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates, who has just explained to her the gruesome yet mundane details of his interest in taxidermy, that “a man should have a hobby”, a comment so simple and genteel and so firmly fixed in a time gone by.
Shot in black and white by Hitchcock’s TV series camera crew rather than a feature film unit, the production budget was a squeeze. In fact, so tight were the movie’s finances that Herrmann, who resolutely refused to cut his own fee, was forced to trim his orchestra to strings only. Has necessity ever been proved to have been the mother (no pun intended) of such ultimately rich invention? Some years back The Observer published its list of the 50 film scores. Psycho was ranked #2 and the paper wrote:
Hitchcock, who had originally planned to play the shower sequence without accompaniment, later admitted that ’33 per cent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music’, and doubled the composer’s salary as a reward. Herrmann studiously matched the black and white visuals of Hitch’s masterpiece by draining the ‘colour’ from his orchestrations, stripping away all but the stringed instruments to create a monochrome wall of aural unease.
And remarkably for a film that was to achieve iconic status, amongst that season’s major gongs Psycho was to only pick up a Golden Globe for Leigh, winning nothing at the Oscars. But as the years have proven and as modern-day horror director Eli Roth recently commented, “..time is the only critic that matters”.
Hitchcock’s assessment of the music’s contribution was sage. So much of the story’s drama, and in particular its opening chapters, homing in on Marion’s anxiety after she has stolen the cash from her boss, play out with an absolutely excruciating intensity. The performance and the photography are first class, but it is Herrmann’s relentlessly jarring strings with their harsh minor-key harmonics, that seal the woman’s anguish into our watching psyches. And for a feature film that was to give the world the slasher-movie, Herrmann’s jagged chords as Crane is stabbed to death in the most famous shower scene ever, only heighten that moment’s timeless terror.
Conductor Gabriele knows both movie and score intimately, with this having been the fourth occasion that time he has brandished his baton in time with Bates’ bread knife. Gabriele is one of London’s finest stage-conductors, adept at seamlessly linking an orchestra to the ebb and flow of a live production. But there is no scope for fluid flexibility in conductiong in time to a movie. The imagery and dialog are fixed in time and it is Gabriele’s responsibility to ensure that his musicians maintain pinpoint co-ordination with the screen. It is a massive task and it is a mark of Gabriele’s consummate skill that he makes it look so effortless – and a credit too to the Cinematic Sinfonica orchestra for delivering such an immaculately rehearsed sound. 
Gabriele has a passion for film and music, telling me post-Psycho of plans (and dreams) to conduct future movie scores by the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer, as well as other Herrmann offerings. Personally, I long for Ennio Morricone’s work for The Mission and Once Upon A Time In America to be given the Gabriele treatment. Maybe one day…
Until then, the sheer musical excellence of Psycho Live, wedded to Hitchcock’s masterclass in film-making will stay with me for a long time. And in a further thoughtful touch, possibly barely noticed by many in the audience, how considerate of the Dominion to screen the movie in the run up to Mother’s Day!

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, missing his mother 

To find out about more Cinematic Sinfonia screenings, follow them on Twitter @cinesinfonia

Jerry’s Girls – Review

In Cabaret by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

St James Studio, London****Created by Jerry Herman and Larry AlfordDirected by Kate GolledgeSarah-Louise Young, Anna-Jane Casey and Ria JonesAfter the relative failure of Mack & Mabel on Broadway, Jerry Herman took a break from composition and embr…

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Hyena – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

****
Written and directed by Gerard JohnsonCertificate 18
Balkan  butchery. A scene from Hyena
Hyena, a gripping tale of modern London rife with Balkan butchery and bent law prowls onto our cinema screens this week.
It marks writer/director Gerard Johnson’s second feature, that again draws upon a powerful central performance from Peter Ferdinando. Five years ago the actor played a suburban psychopath in Tony, a portrait of a London serial killer – this time round he’s Michael, a flawed cop trying to police parts of a city that are falling increasingly under the control of rival Albanian and Turkish gangs.
Making for grim viewing. Johnson’s Met is as riven with feuds as the criminals they are trying to police. No sooner has Michael learned of a new people-trafficking route across Europe, than he has to swiftly take cover as he finds himself witnessing the brutal dismemberment of his informant. It all takes a turn for the worse as he learns that the Met’s own internal anti-corruption squad are on to him too and as the plot unfolds, Michael realises that he is being framed for a murder he didn’t commit.
Michael’s policing principles are old-school. Taking bribes off villains is OK if it helps to keep the peace, but the trafficking of women into prostitution is an outright No. Elisa Lasowski as Mariana, the Eastern European girl who finds herself bought and sold between the gangs and who literally has salt rubbed into her wounds as a punishment, earns our sympathy. Likewise, Stephen Graham as David, Michael’s traitorous buddy with a score to settle, is another classy turn. Elsewhere, when they’re not chopping up cops and robbers with swords and cleavers, Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi as the ruthless Kabashi brothers, out to make London their patch, give a well thought out nod to the forces currently at play in the capital’s gangland. 

Johnson’s snapshots of violence and corruption may well be accurate, for Hyena’s credits suggest some extensive research. The plot that strings these ghastly glimpses together however is occasionally too far fetched. Of course this is the movies, but when we see Michael apparently gifted Liam Neeson-like powers to single handedly rescue Ariana from her captors or to execute a bent copper in a deserted field at midnight, the story’s hard won credibility takes a knock. Likewise, Johnson’s shot of of a fat old punter, naked and with a half-mast hard on, about to have his vile way with the drugged Ariana, put me right off my popcorn. Gratuitous nudity or what? We know the woman is being horrifically exploited – there has to be a subtler way of depicting her humiliating agony.

It is a classy touch that see’s Hyena’s score prove as gritty as the narrative. Post-punk band The The provide a pulsing backdrop to the action that not only serves well in supporting the movie’s troubling violence, but also emphatically underlines Johnson’s artistic thrust. It is unlikely that any other 2015 indie Brit-flick release will be as well scored as this.  
Cleverly if economically filmed from a hand-held perspective throughout, the movie has much to entertain and shock from start to finish. With a proven knack for troubling us with his filmmaking, Johnson’s Hyena takes a long loud laugh at a lawless London.

In cinemas from 6th March 2015

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Loserville – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Union Theatre, London
****
Book, music & lyrics by Elliot Davis and James BourneDirected by Michael Burgen

After perhaps a too short run in London’s West End nearly three years ago, Loserville the British musical written by Elliot Davis and James Bourne and inspired by the Son of Dork album ‘Welcome to Loserville’, bursts back on to the fringe scene in a fresh and exciting production at the Union Theatre. Transporting us back to 1971 and the geekishly wonderful life of Michael Dork, the story isn’t massively unfamiliar in its boy meets girl setup. But what Loserville (a Best Musical nominee at the 2013 Oliviers) adds is a wonderful array of period charm, possessing all the right kinds of awkwardness that quickly turn this show into an exciting musical.
Instantly greeted by our geeks in the opening number Living In The Future Now, the Union’s strong young cast impresses. Leads Michael Dork (Luke Newton) , Holly Manson (Holly-Ann Hull) and Lucas Lloyd (Jordan Fox) give flawless vocal performances throughout, whilst Lewis Bradley’s ‘arch’ nemesis Eddie Arch proves a hit, giving just enough sinister swagger to make the villain of the piece ultimately too hard to hate. Bradley is equally matched by Sarah Covey in her sophisticated approach as Leia Dawkins.
With a strong ensemble, Matt Krzan’s vibrant choreography wonderfully fills the Union’s space, suggesting a brilliant mix of techno drive and high school chic that works extremely well. Bryan Hodgson leads a fine 3 piece band, though there is a slight overpowering in the general mix that occasionally obscures some the ensemble’s fantastic harmonic work. Nothing that cant be fixed, mind.
Helming the show, Michael Burgen is by no means a stranger to the Union. Having previously appeared in the theatre’s acclaimed all male ‘Pirates of Penzance’, he jumps ship quite literally to make an impressive directorial debut. Burgen’s fun, fresh and arguably more home grown approach to the piece, gives it both warmth and heart that the show may have lacked on the bigger stage. Ultimately, its setup of chalk boards, UV paint and VCR props brings out the playful, geekish child in us all and definitely works to the Union’s advantage. 
Loserville isn’t just for geeks. It has a vulnerability that also packs an impressive musical theatre punch. If you love the songs or even simply just missed the show first time around, then catch it now. Together with Davis, (Mc)Busted’s Bourne has written numbers that speak to the teenager in us all. It’s a fun show driven by a great ensemble.

Runs until 21st March 2015

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Ruddigore – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

King’s Head Theatre, London 

****

Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Directed by John Savournin

John Savournin
Charles Court Opera are one of the leading small companies, known for their innovative approach and described as “the masters of Gilbert & Sullivan in small places”. For their 10th Anniversary, the company have chosen the lesser known tenth of fourteen comic operas by Gilbert & Sullivan. In 1887 Ruddigore initially struggled following the huge success of The Mikado, but after a few re-writes and a re-spelt title (from the original Ruddygore) it was to triumph.
Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse, has an unbelievable plot. A centuries old witch’s curse on the Baronetcy of Ruddigore condemns the eldest sons to commit a crime everyday on pain of death. Heirs understandably try to find ways around this, or abscond, with perilous and confusing results all round, driving fiancées to madness and bridesmaids to despair. 
It all makes for a fabulous frolic, executed at the King’s Head Theatre with fine singing, acting and an unrelenting energy. Gilbert’s loquacious lyrics are performed at a breakneck pace, yet the skill of John Savournin’s direction and indeed his performance as Sir Despard Murgatroyd is such that every word is savoured and heard and whats more, that it all seems so ridiculously plausible.
The Bridesmaids’ constant and very funny refrain ‘Hail the Bridegroom, Hail the Bride’ is a memorable air, made all the more remarkable by Susanna Buckle and Andrea Tweedale effectively emulating a chorus of 22 voices, whilst Cassandra McCowan makes more sense of Mad Margaret than is often to be found in Ruddigore productions.
The compact company of just eight sound tremendous, with both acts’ finales sung with a gorgeous musicality and a remarkable attention to detail. David Eaton as Musical Director, accompanies with great dexterity and detail throughout as Philip Aiden’s choreography keeps the cast on their toes admirably and literally, given the speed at which they move and sing. James Perkins’ seaside pier design atmospherically enhanced by Nicholas Holdridge’s lighting becomes hysterically effective when we are introduced to the ghostly ancestors.
It is profoundly re-assuring to see that in 2014 the spirit of Gilbert & Sullivan is more than alive and well in London’s off-West End. With sparkling melodies, glorious singing and rich characterisation, The King’s Head’s Ruddigore makes for a delightful evening of meticulously crafted madness.

Runs to 14th March 2015
Guest reviewer Catherine Françoise

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Oklahoma! – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
****
Music by Richard RodgersBook and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein IIDirected by Rachel Kavanaugh
Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield
There is a traditional charm that pervades the Royal & Derngate’s Oklahoma! This show, the first collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, is at once dark and glorious but above all, crammed with some of the biggest numbers from the Golden Age of Broadway. And here, on Francis O’Connor’s set that has been cleverly designed to be taken on the road, it is beautifully staged.
Set around the turn of the last century, the Oklahoma!’s book glosses over much of the Indian Territory’s troubled history (the actual State of Oklahoma was not created until 1905). Whilst the legacy of the recently ended American Civil War is roundly ignored, the tale does hint at the vastness of the land that was there to be grabbed, as well as the agricultural rivalries between the cattle rancher and the farmer and all alongside the emerging technologies that were seeing automobiles appear and skyscrapers come out of the ground. Famously though, the story bravely weaves its human interest themes as light and frivolous romance seamlessly segues into the dark and damaged side of our fellow man. 
Charlotte Wakefield is a delight as Laurey, the orphaned niece of her aged Aunt Eller with whom she lives on the farm that they own and tend. Wakefield has previous form with Rachel Kavanaugh, having garnered an Olivier nomination in the director’s The Sound Of Music two years ago.

The actress epitomises tough yet cute, with a carapace that ultimately holds a vulnerable soft-centre. Initially wary of suitor Curly’s advances, Laurey is in fact desparate for the love he offers. Throughout, Wakefield’s singing is divine, with her handling of the harmonies in People Will Say We’re in Love proving a gorgeous take on the classic tune. Alongside Wakefield, Ashley Day’s Curly is handsome and well sung , but he needs to dig deeper to earn our sympathy. All too often Day glosses over the nuance of his lyrics, losing much of the cleverly crafted Hammerstein verse. But these are early days for the production, though and there is no-one better than Kavanaugh to coax that little bit more from her leading man.
Elsewhere there is doom and delight from the supporting cast. Belinda Lang is fabulous as Aunt Eller. With no apparent kin aside from Laurey, Eller is the loving matriarch not just to her niece but to her wider community too and Lang nails the fiercely protective loyalty that the old woman shows towards her ward.

Nic Greenshields’ Jud Fry offers a chilling take on the tragic desparate loneliness of a man shunned by the world. As Laurey’s hired hand on the farm, he craves her beauty and there is a true terror and menace in his manner. But in Greenshields’ singing of Lonely Room there is also a profound exposition of a deeply damaged man.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie is just so incredibly believable as the girl who sings I Cain’t Say No. Barker shamelessly steals her scenes, but with a performance that deliciously good who cares? Other comic treats come from Gary Wilmot’s exquisitely timed work as peddlar Ali Hakim, whilst James O’Connell’s Will Parker truly gives his all in All Er Nothin and his Kansas City makes for good fun too.
Edging south down the M1 following his recent stints at Leicester, Drew McOnie choreographs in his first ever partnership with Kavanaugh. The flamboyant hallmarks of musical theatre’s wunderkind of dance have been reined in for this is tale, but it still remains a treat to see his interpretation of some of Broadway’s biggest classic routines. McOnie’s work impresses with his movement perfectly capturing the humour of It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage in a whirl of chaps, petticoats and bloomers, whilst the ballet sequence that closes act one is truly a dream. Credit too to Stephen Ridley’s 10 piece band. They’ve been well drilled and as the first notes of that gorgeous Overture sound out, they set the tone for an evening of musical excellence. 
Shortly to tour the UK, Rachel Kavanaugh’s Oklahoma! is a classic musical, wonderfully performed. Go and see for yourselves, you won’t be disappointed. 

Plays until February 28th 2015, then tours

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Desperate Divas Cabaret – Review

In by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

*****
Tiffany Graves, Tom Wakeley and Anita Louise Combe
Tiffany Graves and Anita Louise Combes are West End leading ladies who amongst other things, have both played Chicago’s Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly even if never in the production at the same time as the other. It was Tom Wakeley however, a former Musical Director of the Kander & Ebb hit, that spotted the potential of pairing the two as a double act. It has taken a couple of years to bring Wakeley’s idea to fruition, but their cabaret Desperate Divas, a collection of show tunes loosely themed around the trials of modern dating, is now finally receiving its premier at the St James Studio.
Graves and Combes are vocal sensations and this show is all the more remarkable for having been put together whilst both actresses are currently rehearsing major openings. Graves is shortly to commence touring as Ulla in The Producers, whilst Combes in preparation for the transfer of last year’s sensational Gypsy, from Chichester to the West End’s Savoy. It was a neat touch that saw the gig open with a mash up of When You Got it Flaunt It together with Let Me Entertain You from each show respectively. The tweaked lyrics may have been a little bit cheesy but the songs provided a classy moment that set the tone for the rest of the night.
The divas’ patter was mostly classy, even if occasionally clunky. But this was their first gig – and when schedules allow these talented women to re-group and perform again, (which they must) their spiel will only get better.
The songs however were flawless, combining familiar numbers (in a set list that was inevitably heavy on offerings from Chicago) together with showtunes some of which have yet to be performed in the UK. One of Combes’ desperate deliveries was Where In The World Is My Prince from William Finn’s Little Miss Sunshine, which included the sparklingly memorable rhyme that she’d been “trained by Nikinsky and coached by Lewinsky”. Other treats of the first half included Graves’ (now clad in a wedding dress – bravo to the backstage dressers for executing such speedy costume changes) Always A Bridesmaid from I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, whilst the pair closed act one with Side Show’s plaintive Who Will Love Me As I Am, delivered with stunning harmonies and a thrilling anthemic power.
Graves had played a stunning Sukie Rougemont in the 2013 prodcution of The Witches of Eastwick at Newbury’s Watermill (reviewed here). So to see Words,Words,Words, a bogglingly complex number rarely heard on the cabaret circuit, listed amongst the second half gems, whetted appetites. Graves duly smashed the song, to showstopping whoops from the packed crowd.
Tom Wakeley excelled on piano throughout – ably accompanied by Paul Moylan on double bass.
The pair closed with Chicago’s Class and Nowadays – done to perfection by two singers who could not know their material more intimately nor with greater understanding. That they also threw in a very slick Hot Honey Rag dance routine, tailored brilliantly to the Studio’s confines, was but an added bonus. These women are at the top of their game with voices that are perfectly tuned. Cabaret singing doesn’t get better than this!

Photo credit – Jonathan Hilder of Piers Photography

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Scottsboro – My Journey to Alabama

In Features by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

The sign above the platform at Scottsboro Railroad Station
This weekend sees Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys come to the sold-out end of its acclaimed West End run, a troubling yet brilliant show that first stunned London back in December 2013 at the Young Vic. I knew nothing of this chapter of American history before seeing Susan Stroman’s production, but I was to leave the Young Vic stunned by the musical’s technical and stylish genius and deeply moved by its tragic tale.

My journey to Scottsboro was actually to begin in the autumn of 2014. The show was about to transfer to the West End’s Garrick Theatre and I had been invited to interview flown-over Broadway star James T. Lane, together with whirlwind New York impresario Catherine Schreiber who (along with Paula Marie Black and the Young Vic) was producing. As our conversation ended and the microphone was switched off, a chance remark led me to mention to Catherine that I had an impending business trip to visit clients across the USA. As I outlined my intinerary, Schreiber commented that one of the towns on my route was barely an hour’s drive from Scottsboro and how I must visit the museum that marks the Scottsboro Boys’ story. She made the necessary introductions and very soon I was in touch with the museum’s founder and director, Shelia Washington.  
So it was that one overcast October morning last year I found myself deep in America’s Deep South, driving along Alabama’s stretch of the Lee Highway and heading for Scottsboro. My car’s GPS (sat-nav) suggested that I detour from the fast route and follow the last ten miles into town along an old country lane that hugged the tracks of the Southern Railroad line. The show’s New York cast recording (a London recording is to be released soon) was playing in the car and as trees, track and churches sped by, the emotional power of heading towards that humble Southern town, now stained with one of the last century’s most terrible miscarriages of justice, became quite overpowering. I could not have guessed that I was shortly to experience one of the most humbling and inspirational days of my life. 
Writing in The Guardian two years ago, Ed Pilkington succinctly describes the events that led to the arrest of the Scottsboro Boys.
Paradoxically, the Scottsboro Nine had nothing to do with Scottsboro. On the night of 25 March 1931 the boys – the youngest 12, the oldest 19 – were hoboing on a freight train heading west to Memphis, Tennessee, when some of them got into a fight with a group of white youths. The white boys jumped off the train as it passed through the Scottsboro area and complained to the local sheriff that they had been attacked and with that one dubious claim Southern justice cranked into motion. The view from Scottsboro platform. The Boys’ train came from this direction
By the time the train reached the next stop a posse of armed local white men had formed and the group went from carriage to carriage, arresting all the blacks they could find. As they were searching the train, they also came across two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates.The view from Scottsboro platform. The Boys’ train headed towards this direction
It’s hard from the distance of 80 years to appreciate fully what it meant for white women to be found even in the vicinity of black men in 1931. Any physical contact, however remote, was taboo.That taboo probably explains why one of the women, Price, invented the story that she and Bates had been gang raped – it was a ruse to avoid any risk of being jailed overnight herself. For the black young men accused of raping the two white woman, the risk was of a different magnitude. In the 1930s Deep South it meant only one thing: death. As the Arkansas poet John Gould Fletcher put it, if a white woman swears that a black man even tried to rape her, “we see to it that the Negro is executed”.When the nine terrified boys were taken to the nearest town, Scottsboro and put in the local jail, there was only one question that needed settling: would they be executed judicially or at the end of a rope slung from the nearest tree. There were 13 lynchings in the US in 1931 and the nine came very close to dramatically inflating that figure – the sheriff had to call in the National Guard to hold back a large and angry mob.
Although Scottsboro is the seat of surrounding Jackson County, its town square is surprisingly quiet. There is a tiny shopping plaza that includes a US Marines recruiting centre, whilst around the corner is the proudly emblazoned Scottsboro Gun & Pawn store. By American standards it’s a very small city, lacking even a town centre McDonalds. On realising that I had ventured out without a notepad, the writer’s essential tool, I looked around the square to purchase a replacement. There was neither a stationers nor a supermarket to hand but I did spot a homely looking gifts and trinkets store. Wandering in, the charming owner and a true Alabama Lady for sure, helped me out by selling me a blank notepad from her stock of admin supplies. I was profoundly grateful and we struck up a brief conversation for a visiting Englishman turns out to be a rare event in Scottsboro. It was when this delightful shopkeeper asked me why I was in town and I explained that I was there to meet Shelia Washington at the museum, that the hitherto famously warm Southern hospitality turned icy.
Lee Highway, Jackson County ….. there’s a pattern emerging in these names. Those men were the Confederate heroes of the American Civil War, who took the South’s battles to the North and ultimately lost. And while time and (some) legislation has moved on, many troubling old attitudes still straddle the Mason Dixon Line. Where most local authorities provide some funding to museums or places of culture within their jurisdiction, Washington was to tell me that the Scottsboro city fathers offer her museum no cash whatsoever. Not one dollar. Her revelation chilled me, for whilst the Jim Crow days may be gone, Scottsboro still remains a town struggling with its identity.

The Scottsboro Boys MuseumThe museum is sat next to the eponymous railroad line and as I parked my car, what seemed like a never-ending freight train was rolling by. Travelling slow, it blew its beautiful mournful two-tone horn, an iconic sound that so defines an American train. Aside from the fact that trains fascinate me, I was transfixed. I stood, watched and listened before knocking on the museum door.
Created in a now de-consecrated church and where the former chapel is still filled with pews, it was in this tiny hall in April 2013 that Alabama’s Governor Bentley signed the State’s Senate Bill and House Resolution that formally pardoned and exonerated the Scottsboro Boys. If Schreiber is a powerhouse of theatre-producing, then Washington is a beacon to those who campaign for racial equality. She drove the campaign that led to the Scottsboro Boys’ exoneration and amongst the good people of the South, she is a hero. 
Aside from an unexpected flurry of media interest, where two local newspapers and a TV news station had turned out to cover my visit, (for media link see below) I was touched that not only had Washington opened the museum specially for me (it usually opens twice a month), but that most of its Board of Trustees had turned out to meet with me too. I met with Caroline Lynch, the daughter of the now long deceased Dr Marvin Lynch and one of the two doctors who examined the women on the night of the alleged rapes, finding no evidence of sexual assault. The doctor truthfully reported his findings at the time, but they were ignored by the Scottsboro prosecutors as an inconvenient truth. It was not until some years later, that the medic felt safe enough to re-assert his clinical evidence.

Caroline Lynch
It is important to remember that amidst the evil turmoil that surrounded the Scottsboro Boys’ wrongful arrest, there were acts of principled bravery from a number of white people. Most heroic perhaps was Scottsboro’s Sheriff Matt Wann who supervised the shepherding of the boys, away from the baying mob, to the comparative safety of the town’s jail on the night of the arrests. I met with Scottsboro citizen Clyde Broadway, who told of his uncle being tasked by Sheriff Wann to “go buy a skein of rope” to help corral the boys and keep them huddled together away from the crowds. One year later, Wann was to be shot dead on duty.

Clyde Broadway
But what of Shelia Washington and what drives this remarkable woman? Pilkington writes: Young Shelia Washington had never heard a single word of the story of the “Scottsboro Boys”, as they were then called, despite having been born and brought up in the small town where such visceral history had been made. When her father found her reading the memoir he snatched the volume from her hands and ordered her never to open it again. “He said he didn’t want me to know the harmful things that were contained inside,” she says.Shelia Washington
It is Washington’s understated strength and conviction that is so profoundly humbling. She told me of her brother who had been brutally murdered in jail whilst serving his sentence. His killers had never been formally identified, let alone brought to justice and Washington is convinced that the murder was racially motivated. She believes she knows the identity of his killers too, but resignedly accepts that there is little she can do to achieve justice for her dead brother. It has been the harnessing of her rage at the injustice meted out to her brother that sparked her to champion the cause of the Scottsboro Boys. Even as I write this, Washington’s next mission is to locate and to mark the burial places of each of the nine men. Her commitment is unshakeable.
Against a backdrop of endemic racism, The Scottsboro Boys’ trials were to prove a focal point for the nation at that time, though as 87 year-old composer John Kander was to tell me recently:I remembered that when I was just learning to read I would see on the newspaper, pretty much daily in those early reading days, something about The Scottsboro Boys. I didn’t know what that was or who they were, but they were always mentioned, they were always called that title. As I began to be able to read and understand more, it seemed to me that they were always spoken of as a group. Then they disappeared altogether.Whilst the story might have disappeared from the national headlines, it had already cemented a foundation for the emergent American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks, one of the key civil rights figures in the 1950s was a steadfast campaigner for the Scottsboro Boys and she in turn was to inspire the support of Martin Luther King. 
Recent events in the USA and elsewhere in the world tell us that the essential cause of the Scottsboro Boys is a fight that still goes on, with America in particular still having deep issues to address. Speaking in the Scottsboro Boys Museum on the day of Governor Bentley’s pardon, Alabama’s Representative Laura Hall said: 

Hopefully, our great State of Alabama can be Alabama the Beautiful, where justice is dispensed equally and fairly without regard to race, sex, social class or religious belief.
Hall’s is a noble hope, sincerely to be commended, but there is much to be done to realise it. It is to the credit of Scottsboro’s Shelia Washington however, that such momentous progress has already been achieved.

Media Links:

Click here to view the TV interview that was filmed during my visit to Scottsboro

Click here to visit the website of The Scottsboro Boys Museum


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