The National Youth Ballet (NYB) celebrated the end of its 2015 season with a Gala programme at Sadler’s Wells and the home of dance provided the ideal setting for some of Britain’s most promising young talent.
Kilworth House Theatre, Leicestershire
Music and Lyrics: Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Book: Heather Hach
Director and Choreographer: Mitch Sebastian
Omigod – as autumn approaches and the nights are drawing in, Legally Blonde is creating a fabulously pink infusion of summer fun in the gorgeous grounds of Kilworth House Hotel’s theatre.
From a distance the show’s story couldn’t be cheesier. Elle expects boyfriend Warner to propose to her but instead the cad dumps her, prior to his leaving town to study law at Harvard – and find a fiancée of greater intellect and social standing. Not to be put down, Elle pursues her man, studying hard and also joining Harvard Law School. What follows is a story as delicious as it is improbable, as through a combination of hard work and sassy female intuition Elle heroically wins the day.
To say any more would spoil – for actually Legally Blonde is all about brilliantly executed song and dance, the breaking and mending of hearts and the lampooning of men whose attitudes to female equality belong in the Stone Age.
Fresh up from being nominated in London’s Off West Awards for Best Female Performer of the Year, Jennifer Harding is Elle. Barely off stage throughout, the strikingly blonde Canadian drives the show with stunning vocals and breathtaking presence. We sense her indignation, resilience, passion and yes at times, a deliciously ditzy blondeness that fuels the narrative. All of Harding’s singing is a treat, with her take on the title song and its Remix, proving spectacular.
Supporting Elle are a raft of featured characters. Greg Miller Burns is good-guy Emmet, who convinces in his transformation from geek to chic. The accomplished Jodie Jacobs is a delight as Paulette – scene stealing deservedly in her big number Ireland and bringing the house down during the Find My Way/Finale number.
Jenny Gayner puts in an eye-wateringly energetic turn as fitness guru Brooke Wyndham, a woman whose circumstances provide the opportunity for Elle to triumph. Gayner’s Delta Nu Nu Nu duet with Harding proves to be another of the show’s ridiculously memorable moments.
Mitch Sebastian directs and choreographs imaginatively – and for such a charmingly quirky venue, Philip Whitcomb’s set along with Chris Whybrow’s well-crafted sound design ensure all the action is both seen and heard as the sun sets behind the trees, with John Morton’s 11 piece band making fine work of the sugary score.
Fun musicals don’t get better than this!
Runs until 20th September
Jason Robert Brown’s Parade is a beautifully constructed Tony-winner of a show that shuttered early. Broadway’s loss was to prove London’s gain, as Rob Ashford (who was the original show’s dance captain) went on to stage a sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007, before Thom Southerland was to match his feat at the Southwark Playhouse some 4 years later.
It is 1959, Arthur is dead and as his family gather for the wake, there are drunken giggles to be had and secrets to be spilled. They don’t write ‘em like this any more and more’s the bloody pity, for in his debut full length play Michael Kirk together with Gemma Page has captured a slice of British social history, hinting at the incisiveness that once hallmarked the BBC’s Play For Today and which latterly Mike Leigh can occasionally capture on screen.
Haymarket Theatre, London
Written by James Phillips
Directed by John Caird
Making its West End transfer from the St James Theatre, James Phillips’ McQueen, a semi-biopic exploration into the psyche of fashion icon Alexander McQueen, hangs in composite parts. Just like the brown paper sizing charts we see when McQueen brings the waifish and mysterious Dahlia to his old tailors on Saville Row, Phillips has constructed a series slightly uneven vignettes, and strung them up together without stitching them into a cohesive whole. It makes for an undulating evening, that at some points is fascinating, and at others is achingly slow. However, even if seen only in glimpses, the window into McQueen’s tortured mind is worth every peep.
The play is a journey, taking us through the crushing spectre of depression, right through to the euphoric discovery of inspiration. The stage is often constructed as a dream scape, with lucid video designs by Timothy Bird latching on to the melting fragmentations of McQueen’s mind, demonstrating how his fragile thoughts project not only those around him, but the very walls of his surroundings. Stephen Wight’s Lee McQueen starts the show before the audience have even taken their seats, pacing relentlessly, muttering and clutching a belt with foreboding animosity. There is an edgy restlessness to the proceedings before the lights even go down, and it creates a sense of dramatic anticipation that unfortunately is never again matched during the night. Scenes leap through unspecified gaps in time, and the dreamy hallucinogenic atmosphere undercuts any kind of narrative tension as the stakes drop from beneath the characters feet. John Caird’s direction shows a keen eye for the visual, and has a forceful specificity, but lacks nuance in the pacing. Some scenes linger far beyond their welcome, whilst other sections come to a dissatisfying halt just as they were building some intrigue. The humour of the opening exchanges between McQueen and his unexpected intruder, Dahlia (Carly Bawden), is a delight, but is never again revisited. There is a light tone to their banter, a dance of verbal one one-upmanship, intrigue laced with fear, fascination mixed with trepidation. It’s an enticing tone to begin the show, but it falls by the wayside as the play progresses and becomes bogged down with the darker harbinger of suicide.
Wight is tasked with the exploration of these macabre themes and does fantastic work. His is a central performance of tremendous skill, investing Lee McQueen with the right amount of sensitivity, whilst also hinting at an untapped well of visceral anger towards a world that will always expect more. There’s a real empathetic power to his speeches on the constant pressure to deliver whatever is ‘next’, as Wight constructs an unflinchingly relatable portrait of a man waving to the expectant crowd with a fake smile and a shaking hand. Bawden also shows some impressive chops with her take on the murky girl from the tree. There is a spirited intensity and confidence to her scenes, but she also shows a knowing physicality that belies inescapable vulnerability.
What elevates the piece though, is the stunning choreography by Christopher Marney, expertly conducted by an ensemble of ghoulishly beautiful dancers. These balletic interludes both transition and invade scenes and are breathtaking whenever they feature. Dressed both as mannequins and runway models, the dancers are both nightmarish in their grotesque inhumanity and angelic in their perfection. Their movements can be stilted at one moment, and lyrical in the next, effectively echoing both the frustration and beauty of human thought and inspiration.
The meandering pace and lack of narrative focus threaten to undo McQueen at certain points, however, it succeeds with excellent performances and a sumptuous design in keeping with the artistic genius at its centre. When Caird is freed from the lightweight plot and able to examine visually the psychosis of creativity, and the abject terror of failure; the piece soars on great golden wings.
Runs until 7th November
Guest reviewer: Will Clarkson
Churchill Theatre, Bromley
Based on the book by Joe DiPietroDirected by Karen Bruce
Love Me Tender’s Ensemble
Based on the music of Elvis Presley, Love Me Tender is a juke-box musical that tells several love stories at the same time and all set in “a small town no-one’s ever heard of in the middle of nowhere.” We’re introduced to its inhabitants who are resigned to a life of enforced conservatism and where frivolities such as music, dancing and “public necking” are all forbidden – until the arrival of Ben Lewis’ Chad, an Elvis-esque roustabout to shake things up.
At times the story verges on the ridiculous, particularly in the second half when the plot races desperately towards a conclusion that reconciles eight characters’ love stories. Yet it’s not entirely formulaic. There is an element of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night thrown into the mix, as Natalie (Laura Tebbutt) masquerades as Ed which in turn delivers a surprising and pleasing splash of female empowerment as she exercises a choice that utilises the confidence and freedom she found as Ed.
The cast led by Mica Paris and Shaun Williamson is incredibly strong across the board, with several standout singers including Tebbutt and Mark Anderson ensuring that the production is not overly reliant on the big hitters. Though when Paris takes the stage for her solo, the effect is one of awe; her voice is truly incredible.
The musical arrangements are well done and rock and roll is neatly packaged up for the theatre. The choreography (Karen Bruce and Elliot Nixon) captures the retro vibe while injecting it with a dose of the contemporary.
Morgan Large’s set design is complex and ambitious, but the risks more than pay off. There are also several memorable and comic human set fixtures, such as two ranch-style doors held by two actors, which swing open and shut to mark the entrances and exits of several characters.
Although the main focus of the story is love’s ability to conquer all, the cheesiness is often offset by lots of clever wit and dry humour, delivered with perfect comic timing.
At Bromley this week, before heading out on tour – Love Me Tender makes for a fabulous night in the theatre!
Guest reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar
Heavily stylized, Joe Chien’s latest Far East zombie romp sees a collapsing Taipei slowly succumb to the zombie virus.
The twist to this movie is a gladiatorial fight for survival, as the un-infected city rulers wager each other as to how healthy mortals will survive mortal combat against the undead. That’s basically it, but to Chien’s credit, whilst the yarn may be only the latest variation in a long line of zombie flicks, his fight choreography is imaginative. Filmed in a jaundiced light, the black spurting sticky stuff and entrail-munching monsters hold our attention alongside inventive leading performances from leads Andy On and Jessica C. The battles are crazy with much CGI deployed, though the scene where one old guy tries to save the world armed only with a chainsaw, was a treat.
Shamelessly exploitative, Zombie Fight Club’s pace is so frenetic its hard at times to grasp or even care about the plot lines – but it is sure to tick all the boxes for genre fans. Amidst mayhem that’s not easy to follow, Zombie Fight Club is one for the collection and strictly for the genre fans.
Now available on DVD
Directed by Paul Hyett
Helming his second full length feature, Paul Hyett’s Howl is a movie whose title along with the poster’s full moon, give a clear hint at the story’s lycanthropic pitch and proves to be one of the year’s best horror pictures so far.
Some of the best werewolf movies have been made in Britain and in one of the most imaginative takes on the genre since John Landis’ groundbreaking An American Werewolf In London, Hyett’s yarn (penned by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler) kicks off in the comfortingly familiar surroundings of Waterloo Station.
Train based terror has long fuelled the romance of ghost and horror tales and in a summer that has rail strikes gripping the nation, it’s refreshing to watch Alpha Trains’ (a fictional company whose livery is only loosely based on South West Trains) evening express pull out of the London terminus, with its dozen or so souls on board heading towards far more than their usual Waterloo sunset.
There is an ever-so British budgetary constraint to the movie that suggests an air of Hammer Horror. The cast are far from household names, (though in a neat touch, Rosie Day and Sean Pertwee, both carryovers from Hyett’s The Seasoning House make short-lived cameos) the purpose built railway carriage set wouldn’t withstand the scrutiny of even a mildly obsessive train-geek and some of the matte work is cringeworthy. But no matter, for as a deer on the line brings driver Pertwee’s train to a shuddering and unscheduled halt, it is only a matter of time before (nearly) all of the onboard souls succumb in turn to beautifully brutal slaughter.
In a sometimes creaking story, the director’s skill lies as much in the suspense he’s woven into the film as it does in the gruesomeness of his imagery. Having cut his teeth (sorry) designing special make up and effects for creature features such as The Descent movies, Hyett has a keen eye for what shocks. To be fair there’s nothing here that quite matches Rick Baker’s award winning genius in American Werewolf, but Hyett knows his craft.
Also impressive is that amidst a script of occasional corniness, (The Seasoning House had a far superior text) Hyett coaxes performances from his cast that convince throughout. Ed Speleers leads as a bumbling train guard searching for the hero inside himself, whilst Elliot Cowan is Adrian, a handsomely chiselled bounder and a womanising cad who in a neat post-modern touch reveals that he won’t employ women at his City finance house because of their annoying tendency to fall pregnant. Back in the day it used to be that just being a bastard marked a character out to deserve a spectacular death – turns out in 2015 he has to be a sexist bastard too.
For the cinephiles playing werewolf bingo, Howl trots out most of the tropes, (but not all mind, there are no silver bullets in this picture) with the occasional twist. We’ve been brought up to know that those bitten by the beast have to become werewolves themselves. Hyett however offers up a nod to the zombie genre by having his victims spew that particularly dark red blood, only ever found in those transitioning to the world of the un-dead. There is also a lovely touch as Ania Marson, Jenny an elderly female victim, finds herself vomiting out her dentures, only to then develop a far more useful set of incisors, infinitely superior to anything available on the NHS.
As Ellen the train’s trolley stewardess, Holly Weston gives an assured performance that suggests a hint of sexual frisson and rivalry amongst the characters, whilst Calvin Dean’s Paul provides occasional moments of drunken slob comedy (and classy suspense) before his number’s up.
Whilst Hyett’s best may yet await us, Howl remains a ripping yarn, cleverly realised and yet again, only enhanced by Paul E. Francis’ intelligent score. Not just worth the ticket and popcorn, it’s a great date-movie too.
Those words in the title above were the parting shot from the sales assistant as I exited through Dismaland’s gift shop, having dutifully paused to pick up catalogue and t-shirt. Whilst her valedictory message was (I hope) insincere (though I fear those who know me well may say the cap fits perfectly), it summed up the spirit of the faux-misery that Banksy’s Bemusement Park strives to achieve.