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30 January 2013


Privates on Parade
Noel Coward Theatre, London
Wednesday 30th January 2013
Peter Nichols' "play with songs" is based upon his own time in the Combined Services Entertainment.  His fictional all-singing, all-dancing, entertainments branch of the forces however is called SADUSEA, based in Singapore and Malaysia in the post-war conscription years.  With various members of the unit living relatively openly as gay men - still illegal in the late 1940s - and spending their days choreographing and rehearsing numbers for their shows, the spirit of this play is certainly frivolous and jolly.  Not unlike the musical Cabaret however, the dark undertones of the piece are never far from the surface, and the juxtaposition of these against the musical numbers make for a compelling story.

Simon Russell Beale is fabulous as the cross-dressing Captain, who runs the unit and the show.  Flamboyant and effervescent, he prances about the stage dressed variously as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and, in particularly hilarious costume, as Carmen Miranda.  A comfortable singer, Beale does the musical numbers artistic justice and delivers them with pizazz, but also touches with moments of real pathos. 

Although wonderful, Beale is not alone in the success of his performance, surrounded by a top-notch company on all sides.  Particularly good was Mark Lewis Jones as Sergeant Major Reg Drummond, as stereotypically angry as a Sergeant Major should be he delivered some hilarious lines, but maintained a shady and uncomfortable deeper level to the character.  Also, John Marquez as the simple, loyal Corporal Len Bonny and Harry Hepple as Lance Corporal Charles Bishop, both just as excellent in the song and dance numbers as all of the cast, but also managing to create a believably honest and heartbreaking relationship.  Hilarious and ideally pitched, the whole cast moulded and highlighted their individual characters whilst generously ensuring that each worked equally as part of the overall ensemble.  

An impressive opening to the year-long extended season from director Michael Grandage.  With £10 day seats available every day, this is an accessible and hugely entertaining production with only a few weeks left to run - catch it while you can!

22 January 2013


Goodnight Mr Tom
West End Run
Phoenix Theatre, London
Tuesday 22nd January 2013
This heartwarming children's story, by Michelle Magorian, made its way into the hearts of the nation in both it's novel form and via the much-loved 1998 television adaptation starring John Thaw.  The endearing tale follows the fate of an unfortunate young evacuee, William Beech, and his relationship with the grumpy old recluse he is sent to live with, Tom Oakley.  Tom and William are a tonic for each other, and via a series of tragic events depicting the horrors of war at the home front, their relationship prevails.
This stage adaptation stars Oliver Ford Davies in the title role, who embodies the nuances of the secretive, complex character ideally.  His seemingly cold initial welcome melts away to reveal the tender, loving father figure that William so desperately needs.  His dog Sam is puppeteered with a scene-stealing reality- 'War Horse style' with a visible out-of-character puppeteer, designed by Toby Olié. 
The children, William and his fellow-evacuee the effervescent Zach, are competent young actors, especially Zach who stole everyone's hearts with his generous, happy-go-lucky nature - there was many a sniffle in his final scene.  I didn't understand the decision to have the other children played by adults - the mixture of both actual children and adult actors playing children, all in the same scene, made for a strange look and feel.  That said, the supporting cast were strong, many of them doubling into multiple characters.
The set was compact and relatively sparse, but ingeniously designed to differentiate the many locations with fast, smooth changes in between.  I was particularly impressed by the harrowing scenes in London, with such a stark contrast to the bright, quiet countryside of Tom's home.   
A beautiful story, told here with all of the grace and heart required to do justice to the much-loved characters.  About to tour the country, this production is a real treat.

19 January 2013


Beyond the Barricade
UK Tour
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Saturday 19th January 2013
Beyond the Barricade returns to Chelmsford this week - a very popular show, welcomed by an audience of keen musical theatre fans all braving the snowy roads of Essex to sell-out the Civic once again.
The unique selling point for this concert-style show over the many others of it's kind available each year, is that all of the vocal performers have played a principal role in the (currently very topical) show, Les Misérables.  With the film version currently gracing the country's cinemas, Les Mis is at the very peak of it's popularity, and the excerpts sung for the finale of this slick, professional show - greeted by an excited shuffle as they were announced - did not disappoint. 
It was a varied evening however, opening with numbers from Phantom of the Opera and visiting favourites from other Lloyd-Webber shows; Jesus Christ Superstar and Sunset Boulevard.  The choices were all pretty modern, with sections too from The Lion KingJersey Boys and Blood Brothers.  A nostalgic look back at Carousel for a beautifully sung rendition of 'If I Loved You' and of course 'You'll Never Walk Alone', as well as a look forward to anticipate a new production of Miss Saigon later this year.
All of the music is played live, with Andy Reiss donning many hats as singer, keyboard player and MD, leading a band of only three others to create an impressive depth of sound for all of the accompaniment.  It is the vocals however that most impress, with all of the solos sung with strength and impact - I could happily listen to Rebecca Vere all night - and the group numbers generating an impressive blend and momentum, especially during the One Day More encore.
A reliably professional, entertaining and energetic show, now in it's 14th year - a great opportunity for musical theatre fans to hear some of their favourite music performed just as it should be - live.

14 January 2013


Mamma Mia!
West End Production
Novello Theatre, London
Monday 14th January 2013

In their new home at the Novello Theatre, the original jukebox musical continues to run in the West End after 14 years, and it is easy to see what keeps drawing in the audiences.  Energetic performances of much loved songs, integrated through a well thought-out story and funny script - not to mention the smash hit Hollywood film of 2008.

The current cast are engaging, enthusiastic and consummate, not least through the distractions of the unwell audience member in Row A of the Stalls.  All of the scenes are bright and imaginatively staged, with brilliant dance routines and  witty direction.  I love the simplicity and yet diversity of the set, which is designed to allow for the many different scenes to take on seperate locations with the smallest of adjustments.  

On first viewing, which for me was over 10 years ago, one of the joys of the show was to gradually see how the lyrics of the familiar songs are interwoven into the story - each number was met with giggles as the audience understood the direction of the scene and sensed which ABBA hit was on it's way next.  A second viewing and, more so I fear, a familiarity with the movie version, remove that nuance of enjoyment.  That isn't to say the show is unenjoyable on second viewing - not so at all - but it is certainly not quite the same as that first time.

As my theatre buddy at this performance noted - ABBA songs are deceptively difficult to sing, and were written very specifically for two female voices - so the arrangement and execution achieved in the musical version should certainly be applauded.  A fun-filled evening out with something for everyone to enjoy, featuring some very funny performances and excellent singing talents.

07 January 2013


Viva Forever
West End Premiere
Picadilly Theatre, London
Monday 7th January 2013
Jukebox musicals are all the fashion, with much of the West End taken up with shows that do not feature any new music at all, and they generally succeed because audiences love them.  The ABBA original - Mamma Mia! - is an international phenomenon, star-studded hit movie, and in London is still thrilling audiences almost 14 years on. 
The Spice Girls were my era.  When "Wannabe" was released in the Summer of 1996 I was 10.  These days musicals are my thing, and so the idea of a musical based on the songs that tracked my childhood was particularly exciting, and I joined in the frenzy of anticipation that swelled in the months and weeks leading up to the opening of Viva Forever
I read the critics reviews. 
"Oh dear, there is very little to recommend this show" ~ The Guardian;
"scrappy, lazy, cliched and inconclusive" ~ The Times;
"truly mediocre attempt" ~ The Stage;
"a show that’s so bad, it ought, if there were any justice, to be accorded a minus-star rating. This show is not just bad, it is definitively, monumentally and historically bad" ~ The Telegraph
But the critics didn't like We Will Rock You - which I have seen 5 times and is still rocking, 10 years on. 
This show is aimed at me - I was the Spice Girls original target audience and, as a female in my late-20s am slap bang in the middle of this show's target too.  I had no expectations of cerebral, thought-provoking, award-winning drama - I just wanted to enjoy some cheesy pop in the context of a funny story.
I could not have been more disappointed.
We open on a scene which frantically tries to introduce the lead characters - girl group 'Eternity' which includes Viva, our absurdly named protagonist, Viva's mother, her grotesque best friend, her love interest - as well as introducing the premise of the X-Factor style show, Starseekers, which is the basis
for the story.  15 minutes of talking before we are given anything resembling a song.  It takes very little imagination to fix this opening and get the audience pepped up from the outset - if this group of "Wannabes" have achieved a place on a TV talent show, how about showing us their audition song...? 

It would do little to improve the evening however, as Jennifer Saunders' book is so weak and poorly thought out it makes Mamma Mia's narrative arc feel like Shakespeare.  Eternity are contestants who, after one number ("Stop" - one of the few songs that was adequately integrated and well delivered), are immediately split up as judge Simone decides she only wants to take Viva through to the remainder of the competition.  And so immediately any further chances for girl-band singing disappear until the inevitable reconciliation at the end, and there is very little opportunity for the rest of the girls in the band to do anything at all for the rest of the show.

The sub-plot - that Viva is adopted and the TV show want to exploit this as a sentimental backstory - cries out to be tied into the rest of the plot via the discovery that Simone is the natural mother.  This is built up with Simone's screeched "I Turn To You" - a Mel C solo hit - clumsily directed towards Viva.  However the denouement of this entirely irrelevant storyline fizzles out entirely as the end result is simply that the mother could not be found by Simone's PA Minty - who is unashamedly similar to Ab Fab's Bubbles. 
This PA character, with her repeated use of vocalised "hashtags", text-speak and references to social networking are such cliche attempts at humour they become grossly uncomfortable.  Coupled with other characters; the gay stylist who skipped about calling the young girls fat, the spray-tanned Essex girl who joyously offered to display her new vajazzle to the cameras; there was, in fact, more to offend than to enjoy.
The songs of the Spice Girls were never going to be strong enough to stand up to much re-arrangement, nor was it likely there was ever going to be much emotional depth generated from their lyrics.  But the attempts at both were cringe worthy rather than charming. 
I will stop now.  I didn't like it.  I recommend you don't go, but if you are intrigued enough to buy a ticket, don't say I didn't warn you...

05 January 2013


National Theatre Production
Lyttleton Theatre, London
Saturday 5th January 2013
With Bennett's recollections gracing the Lyttleton for Sunday specials of Hymn and Cocktail Sticks, his new play People shares the space during the week.  Full of witty insights, provocative ideas and hilarious performances, this is an entertaining new offering.
Expertly played by Frances de la Tour, Dorothy is the eccentric old heiress of a dilapidated stately home in the unfashionable South Yorkshire and, with her younger sister (Selina Cadell) twisting her arm, is exploring options as to how best to off load the estate thus avoiding inevitable death duties.  A charming auctioneer, played by Miles Jupp, woos with his sales pitch and brings a tempting proposition of selling off all the antique furniture and contents, while the archdeacon sister believes the National Trust offer a better package for maintaining the house and avoiding family bankruptcy, despite Dorothy's dislike at the thought of all the people that would be traipsing through. 
As options are mulled, an old flame of Dorothy's arrives and reveals his new career as Producer of pornographic films - and so, in an especially entertaining few scenes, the house becomes a location for the fabulously titled "Reach for the Thigh" - Dorothy's final fling with her home before giving in to the onslaught of people via the National Trust.
There are moments throughout of poignancy, and plenty of depth to Dorothy's character, but it is in the many strokes of comedic excellence that this play most succeeds.  A very funny, often outrageous piece of new theatre.


The Magistrate
National Theatre Production
Olivier Theatre, London
Saturday 5th January 2013

After the international, Tony winning, success of One Man Two Guv'nors, the National has a recent track record of creating fantastic farce.  The Magistrate does not reach the same levels of hilarity however, remaining little more than amusing throughout. 

The implausible plot sees second husband and local Magistrate Posket being deceived my his new wife Agatha as to her real age.  She attempts to increase her attractiveness by declaring herself 31 rather than 36, but then realises she can only make her 19 year old son Cis believably legitimate, with the mathematics of her married years, by declaring him just 14.  With the audience's disbelief willingly suspended, much of the comedy comes from the son's own acceptance of his mother's lie and his subsequent confusion over the maturity of his various tastes.

With John Lithgow absent, it was left to his understudy to perform the unfortunate, bumbling lawman of the title, and although he was amiable and entertaining it was Joshua McGuire as his young stepson who maintained the pace and displayed much of the humour. 

The major success of this production came from the design, with an elaborate and imaginative set, on true National Theatre scale, a well-integrated chorus and large bright costumes.  Every scene was unusually and engagingly staged - a visual delight.