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31 July 2013


The Color Purple
Menier Chocolate Factory
Southwark, London
Wednesday 31st July 2013

The buzz surrounding the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of this Broadway piece, in it's European premiere, has put the little Southwark venue on the map this Summer.  One of the hottest tickets in town, the run has sold out with overwhelmingly positive feedback from audiences, despite the occasionally lukewarm critical attention. 

And it is not difficult to see why. Anyone familiar with the heartbreaking tale of young Celie from the original novel or subsequent film version would be expecting a moving evening, but the sheer power of the performances in this exquisitely directed version surpass even the highest of expectations.  The stripped back, elementary style of the characterisations in this adaptation may seem overly sentimental to some, but the strength of the cast draws the audience in and encourages an open heart and free flowing tears.

The intimacy of the venue engages the audience immediately in the glorious gospel style opening and lends itself throughout to the raw intensity of the story and the familiarity built with the endearing lead character.  The set is bare but for a series of wooden chairs hung from the wall, used throughout the action as needed, leaving plenty of space for the energetic performances.  
In many ways this is an ensemble piece, with the group numbers filling the room with a rousing and dynamic sound, but the individual characterisations are also given compelling interpretations.  Celie's tyrant of a husband is played by Christopher Colquhoun with truly villainous intensity, Nicola Hughes is a classy powerhouse in her portrayal of the love of Celie's life, Shug Avery, and Abiona Omonua is a reliable constant as her sister Nettie.  It is, however, the career defining performance of the petite superstar that is Cynthia Erivo - as the tortured yet resolutely optimistic Celie - that gives this production its spine-tingling weight.  Her voice is breathtaking and she understands and embodies her character with innocence, honesty and utter charm.

I cried along with the vast majority of the rest of the audience and certainly jumped to my feet with them at the end too.  I whole heartedly recommend the Menier as an irresistible venue, and this production will certainly be one of my highlights of the summer.  

27 July 2013


The Sound of Music
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Regent's Park, London
Saturday 27th July 2013
It is difficult to believe that there is anyone in the world who hasn't seen The Sound of Music in all of its Julie Andrews twirling, Saltzburg glamorising, high-on-a-hill yodelling, film version glory.  No matter how familiar however, there is more than just the additional couple of songs that make the stage musical version feel like a fresh, exciting and almost new experience.  Put that stage version on the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre stage on a bright summer's afternoon, fill the cast with talented and energetic performers and speckle the audience with some awestruck children at their first live show, and once again we experience a couple of hours of magic in the middle of one of London's busiest parks. 

The set is necessarily sparse and cleverly multi-functional; the central double doorway changing from curtained french doors, to an oak panelled hallway, to the abbey's iron gates.  Along with a few items of furniture, these small changes transform the set and easily send our imaginations to the various locations with entirely seamless transitions.  The moat is also a charming addition, allowing the children to make a fun-filled entrance on their return from play with the splashes a welcome side effect for those in the front row under the scorching heat. 

Maria is played with utter charm, compelling energy and a beautiful voice by a glorious Charlotte Wakefield.  Her characterisation is ideal, portraying the youthful innocence, headstrong will and conflicted love all with equal passion.  Her stubborn, strong and gorgeous Captain Von Trapp is given an excellent interpretation by Michael Xavier.  Younger than a traditional casting he carried the role of experienced naval Captain with strength and ease.  The classic "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" is sung with breathtaking power by Helen Hobson as Mother Abbess, bringing a tear to the eye, and the two songs not from the film are performed in an entertaining partnership by the two Viennese visitors, Caroline Keiff as Elsa Schraeder and Michael Matus as "Uncle" Max. 

As ever with this show it is the casting of the Von Trapp children that will make or break the production, and at this performance Regent's Park have offered up a show-stealing group.  Among the faultless septet of siblings particular note must go to Isabelle Allen - one of the most recognisable little faces of last year having starred as young Cosette in the Les Misérables film - who gave an honest and utterly charming portrayal of the opinionated Brigitta. 

Despite the forecasted storms we managed to remain almost entirely dry - if actually a little sun scorched - and were once again reminded that the unique experience of such high quality productions in the middle of one of London's busiest parks is deserving of being on every summer visitor's to-do list.  Magnificent. 

19 July 2013


Miss Saigon - School Edition
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 19th July 2013

With a West End revival on the horizon, 14 years after the closing of a 4000 show run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Miss Saigon makes it's Essex debut with the slightly truncated School Edition in this ambitious production by the enterprising Tomorrow's Talent.  Based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly and written by Schönberg and Boublil, who brought us the phenomenon that is Les Misérables, the story follows a tragic romance set during the Vietnam war between an American GI and a local beauty.  

The set pieces for this impressive scale show made excellent use of the Civic stage, creatively framing some wonderful images.  Red flags and Ho Chi Minh banners, girls in cages, the crowds at the embassy gates and, of course, the impressively realised helicopter.  Having members of the company assist with performing the set changes should achieve a fluid continuation of the piece, the execution of which is especially important in a sung-through musical.  There were a few examples in this performance where this was not quite the case and sets were still being put together as a number began, lighting unsure when to come up, late mic cues missing the start of a lyric, leaving the overall result somewhat untidy.  To their commendation the performers were largely unfazed by this and the excellent musical accompaniment, (MD Mark Sellar, conducted by Patrick Tucker) helped to carry the pace and fluency so as never to disrupt the storytelling.

Excellent use was made of the huge ensemble in the company numbers, most notably the opening "The Heat is On in Saigon", the militaristic "The Morning of the Dragon" which also included some spectacular acrobatics, and the beautiful "Bui-Doi" at the top of Act 2.  Director and school Principal Gavin Wilkinson knows how to get the absolute best from his talented students, and the hand of his guidance and experience can be felt in every scene.

Such is the extent of the talent available, the enormous musical and emotional undertaking that his the lead role of Vietnamese bar girl Kim was split between two young actresses, each performing twice in this run of four shows.  This Friday night performance saw Laura Messin undertake the challenge, and utterly excel in doing so.  Her beautiful voice soared across the packed house with an emotional depth that belied her years, ranging from meek immaturity through unswerving love and optimism to selfless desperation.  A spectacular performance that deserved the swell of appreciation from the audience who were on their feet for her by the curtain.  Her GI lover Chris was played with strength and maturity by a composed Bart Lambert, completely convincing in his emotional conflict.  The silky smooth and stunningly powerful voice of Ollie Fox was brought to the role of John, a sincere characterisation played with sober integrity.  Ellen, another dual casting, was given an earnest portrayal by Emma Bennett in this performance who shone in her intense hotel meeting with Kim, Jessica Moore brought a raw intensity to Gigi, and James Murphy was a strong and assured Thuy.  A final dual casting opportunity for the wonderful role of The Engineer, which in this performance was given an almost show stealing interpretation by a magnificent Joshua Butcher.  Captivatingly entertaining, his impudent, brassy study of the Vietnamese pimp was a welcome addition to the intense drama of the piece, managing to provide both a light relief in his characterisation while also portraying the selfish, conniving, egotistical traits of this abhorrent character.

Tomorrow's Talent have achieved a wonder.  To even attempt this epic show is an enormous undertaking, but to pull it off with such impressive, moving results is an accomplishment that cannot be understated.  Praise across the board for all the hard work that every member of the company, both on and off stage, have put in to this production and best wishes to all of the departing seniors as they take up well deserved places at an array of universities and drama schools.

10 July 2013


The Cripple of Inishmaan
Noel Coward Theatre
Wednesday 10th July 2013

On the tiny islands around the Irish coast, in a miniature village where everyone knows your name and your business, it is a tough enough place to live for any young man of ambition.  However, if the young man in question also suffers from a physical birth defect and is referred to by all as "Cripple Billy", the difficulties swell to desperate proportions.  The temptation of a Hollywood film company filming just across the water is one too exciting to ignore. Couple this premise with a witty script and a cast of larger-than-life Irish locals, the result is a play fit for the glorious Michael Grandage Company to revive this summer.

The atmosphere of rural Ireland is brought to life with help from the slick revolving set, the shop stocked high with tins of peas, Babbybobby's boat stowed in the dock, Mammy's bedroom dank and gloomy.  It is the characters that inhabit this close-knit community however that truly bring it into being.  Marvellous characterisations are displayed across the board with very strong, flawless accents to add another layer of authenticity to the location.
Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna, as Aunts Kate and Eileen respectively, are wonderfully eccentric as the sister shopkeepers.  As Billy's guardians they fuss over him with clear affection, but it is the hilarious, though not insensitive, dealing with one sister's mental decline while the other hoards confectionery where the characters really come into their own.  Accomplished and hugely entertaining performances.  Strong support too from Pádraic Delaney as the quietly strong presence that is Babbybobby, Pat Shortt as nosey protector of the gossip Johnnypateenmike, and June Watson as the ever pickled Mammy. 
The published star however absolutely does his bit to meet the considerable expectations of his hoards of fans.  Daniel Radcliffe plays the heartbreaking role of Billy with fresh innocence, inspiring determination and lithe physicality, maintaining the character's severe disability without a flinch.  He is undoubtedly the star of the show and steals the audience's hearts immediately, willing him on towards stardom, love and health throughout the highs and lows of his tragic life.  With comedy surrounding much of the rest of the play, the fateful central plot of Billy's story is made all the more painful for the charm of his character.

A beautiful play brought back from it's conception at the National into the capable hands of the Grandage company with worthy success. 

05 July 2013


Olivier Theatre, London
Friday 5th July 2013

Shakespeare's Othello is an intense study of the psychology of envy and ambition.  General Othello is flanked by his ensign Iago, recently promoted Lieutenant Cassio and new wife Desdemona.  Iago feels he deserves Cassio's promotion and the development of the plot - through horror, madness and inevitable bloodshed - essentially stems from this original snub.  

This utterly spellbinding production brings the action into a modern setting; an oak lined Government boardroom in Venice making way for concrete jungles and camouflaged soldiers on the Maltese front, strip lighting and metal cabinets giving an institutional feel to the offices and mess room.

Othello, the Moor of Venice, is played with captivating presence and strength by Adrian Lester.  His style is earnest and he gives a heart wrenching performance of the character's emotional decline as the lies designed by Iago begin to take root and turn him against his loving wife.  Desdemona herself is played by Olivia Vinall with grace and a breezy trusting innocence.  Her sudden and shockingly dramatic descent is arguably one of Shakespeare's most tragic - a brutal murder of a total innocent at the hands of the one she loves most - and this excellent performance is completely devastating.  Jonathan Bailey plays the doomed lieutenant Cassio with an easy likability, a comedic lightheartedness from a hapless Rodrigo by Tom Robertson and quiet composure from an elegant Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia, which makes her final burst of passion all the more powerful.  

Despite the title of this play, the greater line count, plot puppeteering and in this production complete mastery of performance all belong to Iago.  Rory Kinnear is fast becoming one of my favourite actors and this performance is a complete tour de force.  The ability to characterise a vile, hateful murderer with such grave intensity whilst holding the audience in the palm of his hand and somehow convincing us to empathise, laugh and even root for him, is a skill set that makes this production the breathtaking piece of theatre that it most certainly is.  Reminiscent of Mark Rylance's wondrous Richard III last year, and worthy of the comparison, Kinnear is a complete privilege to watch.

02 July 2013


Globe Theatre, London
Tuesday 2nd July 2013

This third Globe production of one of Shakespeare's most performed scripts takes direction from it's first Lady Macbeth, Eve Best, who marks her directorial debut with this unusual take on the dark Scottish play. 

Olly Fox's rousing composition underscores the opening and remains one of the best elements of the overall production.  With drumming to get the heart pounding and a final fiddle solo that chills to the bone, the music in this piece inspires just the right tone of foreboding.

The direction overall looks hard for, and makes the most of, the moments for comic exploration in the piece.  The prolonged hysterics from Macbeth and Banquo at their first meeting with the Weird Sisters worked well; at this point the characters are without the relative burden of ambition for foreseen rewards.  However to still be exploiting laughs from the dinner table scene at the arrival of Banquo's ghost somewhat spoils the gravitas of that moment, and the poignancy of Macbeth's emotional and mental decline to that point.  Joseph Millson's Macbeth felt somewhat stilted by this unusual interpretation, his characterisation wide-eyed and frantic, seeming to lose control and letting his fate unravel by chance rather than through a focus of ambition.  His Lady Macbeth, the dynamo that is Samantha Spiro - so good at the Globe last year in The Taming of the Shrew - seemed ironically tame in comparison.  Servantile to her husband's frenzied plans, this could almost be an extension of her final compliant Katherine, reluctant and weak willed. 

There was some strong support in the thoroughly able cast, with Billy Boyd's heavily accented Banquo, Stuart Bowman's controlled Macduff and Philip Cumbus' studied Malcolm among the stand outs.  A lovely cameo too from Bette Bourne, making the most of the Porter and captivating the audience immediately. 

A production that could barely differ more from the gore-fest that was Lucy Bailey's exciting and shocking production of the same play at the Globe in 2010.  A relatively gentle telling that did little to elicit any excitement from me.