Review – Murder on the Orient Express, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 4th June 2022

Murder on the Orient ExpressI was in two minds about seeing the new play adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. On the one hand, I’ve read the book several times, seen the movie (Albert Finney, not Kenneth Branagh), and remember clearly both the crime and the (admittedly exciting) denouement and solution. So this wasn’t going to give me any of those suspenseful thrills that come from seeing a brand new murder mystery. On the other hand, I was sure that Chichester would put on a brilliant production, that Henry Goodman would be a superb Poirot, and we were going to be in town anyway to see The Unfriend so it seemed churlish not to!

Poirot at the denouementYou all know the story, I’m sure. Poirot needs to return home from Istanbul and his friend M. Bouc, who manages the Wagons-Lit Orient Express insists he takes a first class compartment as his guest. What a very good friend M. Bouc is! The first class compartment is unusually busy though; and his travelling companions include the Wagons Lit conductor Michel, plus a Hungarian countess, a Russian princess, an English governess and her military beau, a Swedish missionary, an extravagant American woman and the businessman Samuel Ratchett and his secretary. Ratchett – a loudmouth bully with more money than taste – wants to hire Poirot’s services and is willing to pay big bucks. But Poirot is not interested in this brute and will not take the job.

Poirot and BoucThe train encounters a snowdrift and pauses near Belgrade with no expectation of moving for hours, perhaps days. And at (maybe, maybe not) 1.15am the next morning, Ratchett is murdered by multiple stab wounds. Bouc beseeches Poirot to solve the case before the Yugoslavian police catch up with them – the reputation of the train company is at stake. But Poirot’s first interest would always be justice. When he identifies the guilty party – not if, but when, this is Poirot we’re talking about – he will insist they are handed over to the police, non? But sometimes justice isn’t quite as easy to define as Poirot makes out…

BedroomsRobert Jones’ design for the show is simply terrific. From the opulence of the Istanbul hotel, to the train station, and the individual compartments and dining tables, the whole thing looks stunning. There’s a wonderful optical illusion of the train moving through tunnels that works incredibly well. The costumes are superb, with some evening dresses to die for, and Christopher Shutt’s sound design is full of evocative effects and sometimes blood-curdling shocks. Whether intentional or not I don’t know, but Adrian Sutton’s music frequently put me in mind of Richard Rodney Bennett’s soundtrack to the 1974 film.

Countess AndrenyiAs a Christie fan, and knowing the book intimately, I was very impressed by Ken Ludwig’s adaptation. He has taken out some of the more minor on-board characters/suspects, given the role of the doctor to the Countess Andrenyi so that she is both assistant and suspect, and enhanced the moral question that Poirot must face at the end of his investigations. He has also removed some of the clues, such as the scarlet kimono, and Mrs Hubbard’s sponge bag, and added a terrific surprise just before the interval curtain which is completely different from Christie’s original but works extremely well – I’ll say no more.

PoirotThe big challenge of the play is to make the denouement exciting even though most of the audience will already know whodunit. This it achieves perfectly; the denouement takes up at least the last half hour of the show if not more, and as Poirot goes through his suspects and his reasonings, you can hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The circular stage of the Festival Theatre revolves very slowly, with each of the suspects sitting on chairs, their backs to the audience, spaced out equally, so that you can witness each of them squirming in turn facing interrogation. It also irons out any blocking issues!

PoirotAt the heart of the story, and the production, stands the dapper and slightly diminutive figure of Henry Goodman as Poirot. None of the caricature or pantomime dandy that some characterisations have invested in him, this Poirot is gently arrogant, takes pride in his appearance, has a swishy moustache and all the other attributes that you associate with him – but they’re all extremely believable. He Frenchifies up his accent quite a bit – so that you get 60 seconds in a minoote, or a suspect leaves a fangerprint on a clue. But he’s riveting throughout; and you can completely believe that those little grey cells are working dix-neuf á la douzaine within that intricate brain of his.

MichelPatrick Robinson gives excellent support as the hearty and positive Monsieur Bouc, doing his best to look on the bright side and desperately hoping that Poirot can get him out of trouble. One of my favourite actors, Marc Antolin, gives a superb performance as Michel the conductor, delicately extricating himself from Mrs Hubbard’s clutches and handling the princess with the kiddest of gloves. Sara Stewart is brilliant as the aforementioned ostentatious Mrs Hubbard, appallingly flirtatious and ruthless, sparring magnificently with Joanna McCallum’s haughty and dismissive Princess Dragomiroff. Philip Cairns and Taz Munyaneza weave great intrigue together as Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham, and Timothy Watson is terrific as the mean, snarling Ratchett. But the whole cast work together as an ensemble extremely well, and keep the suspense and entertainment going right up to the final minute.

Dragomiroff and OhlssonThe show has now finished its run at the Chichester Festival Theatre but will be playing at the Theatre Royal Bath from 9th to 25th June. If you’re a Christie fan, you’ll love it – and if, somehow, you don’t yet know whodunit, attendance is compulsory!! Enormously entertaining and totally gripping.

 

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Unfriend, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 4th June 2022

The UnfriendWe’ve all been there. You get chatting to someone on holiday, and you get on fine. Maybe go for a drink with them or a meal. You think, what a nice person. Then someone says, we must keep in touch once we get home. And then sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. More often you don’t. This salutary tale will make sure you never consider this reckless activity in the future!

Frances BarberWhilst on a cruise holiday, Elsa from Denver, Colorado, gets talking to Peter and Debbie from suburban England. She clings to them like a limpet, and they’re too polite to discourage her. Elsa demands that they visit her in Denver when they’re next there (which would be never, obvs.) However, she corners Debbie to surrender her email address, which she triumphantly and ominously waves in the air after Debbie’s left. Would Elsa come all the way to spend a week or more in England? You betcha.

Amanda Abbington and Reece ShearsmithWhat could have been a gently amusing comedy of manners highlighting the behavioural differences between the brash, dominating American and the overpolite reserve of the English, has been transformed into a riotous comedy by a plot masterstroke. On a whim, Debbie checks Google, only to discover that Elsa is a mass-murderer. What on earth can they do now?! Peter and Debbie do everything they can to deter her, but Elsa’s more than up to the task. Are they and their family at risk of being wiped out? If not, who else will Elsa eliminate? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Elsa with the kidsSteven Moffat’s The Unfriend is two hours of unalloyed comedy bliss. There’s the successful, busy couple who self-medicate on wine to get through the day; two obnoxious, petulant teenagers who hate their parents almost as much as they hate each other; a dull-as-ditchwater neighbour who’s so boring that whenever he speaks you stop listening; and a well-meaning local bobby who treats their house as though it’s his own. Into this mix comes the bold as brass, unpredictable Elsa Jean Krakowski who – on top of everything else – has amazing insight and the ability to convince anyone of anything. A potentially lethal insight into what people are really like, in fact.

Michael SimkinsIt is without doubt one of the funniest plays of the 21st century and sits perfectly among the best of Ayckbourn, Frayn or Nichols as a work that not only gives you a belly-laugh a minute, but also reveals the ridiculousness of English middle-class angst and the hoops that people will jump through in order not to offend, even to their own detriment. It also shows the unexpectedly positive power that a visitor can have by shaking up the comfortable rut into which a family can otherwise stagnate.

Junkin, Peter and DebbieThe structure and plotting is of the first order, and the dialogue is crisp and hilarious. There are so many ecstatically brilliant moments that turn on the inspired use of just one word. Go to see this show and you’ll be laughing at the use of “vaccinated” and “particles” for days. Mark Gatiss’ direction is razor-sharp; every one of the characters’ gestures and movements has meaning and is never wasted. Next time you want someone to sit down because you’re going to give them a good talking-to, you’ll find that you’re giving them a grand, slow arm gesture in the direction of the chair. It’s a gesture that takes on a life of its own in this show.

ElsaAll the performances are staggeringly good. Frances Barber is wonderful as Elsa, always maintaining a slight air of mystery, her eyes and voice occasionally revealing the dangerous threat that lurks just a little beneath the surface. Delightfully dominating but never a grotesque caricature, it’s a fantastic comic performance. Amanda Abbington is great as Debbie, mouthing anxious messages to her husband, collapsing on the sofa without spilling a drop of wine, trying to keep order in the house when the odds are so against her.

Gabriel HowellThere’s a fantastic double act from Gabriel Howell as son Alex and Maddie Holliday as daughter Rosie, whining and grumping their way around the stage as the Kids from Hell, until Elsa’s influence turns them into hilariously unbelievable sweetness and light. Michael Simkins is brilliant as the tedious nameless neighbour who is too easy to ignore, moaning about a property boundary issue. And there’s a fantastically funny performance by Marcus Onilude as PC Junkin who accidentally becomes the target of one of the funniest misunderstandings I’ve ever seen in a comedy.

Reece ShearsmithWhich brings me to Reece Shearsmith as Peter, in an outstanding comedy performance with remarkable timing and gloriously understated physical comedy. The sequence where he’s outside the toilet door makes your toes curl with embarrassment and your stomach cringe with agony but it’s the funniest scene I’ve seen in years. I wish I could give you more details but I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises!

the CastThe run at the Minerva Theatre is virtually sold out now, but there’s no way this production isn’t going straight into the West End; and with its many nuances, so many brilliant lines, deft deliveries and glorious gestures, it demands to be seen again. Up there with Noises Off and One Man Two Guvnors for longevity potential. As you might be able to guess – we loved it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Doubt: A Parable, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 29th January 2022

DoubtIn these strange times of uncertainty, with contrasting opinions on the seriousness of the pandemic and how it should be handled, and our political leaders constantly being exposed as liars and scoundrels, it’s not inappropriate that we should turn to a parable for help. My OED defines a parable as “a saying in which something is expressed in terms of something else […] a narrative of imagined events used to illustrate or convey a moral or spiritual lesson”.

Father FlynnWhat better time for the Chichester Festival Theatre to give us – all too briefly – John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ninety minutes of uncertainty and suspicion crammed into one act; the original cast apparently described the second act as the audience deciding who was right and who was wrong on their journey home. And so it still is; we sat in the pub for hours afterwards debating the whys and wherefores of it all.

Sister AloysiusThe play is set in a Catholic school and church in New York in 1964. Head nun and principal Sister Aloysius is a stickler for the old style of education – the children are all terrified of her and that’s exactly how she wants it. She takes naïve young teacher Sister James to task for being too enthusiastic and forward thinking in her teaching style; but also takes advantage of her honesty by asking her what she feels about the charismatic Father Flynn, who teaches the boys sport and who has taken a shine to one particular boy, Donald Muller. Sister Aloysius is convinced there is something unnatural about his interest in Donald, and seeks to expose it. Father Flynn is appalled at the suggestion; but then he would be, wouldn’t he.

Father FlynnLike feathers wafted from a torn pillow, gossip spreads uncontrollably; and once they’re out there, you can’t gather those missing feathers and stuff them back in the pillow. Is Sister Aloysius right? Is he a danger to the children? Or is Father Flynn right, and is his care purely pastoral? And what does Donald’s mother make of it all? I was going to say you’ll have to watch the play to find out, but there are no easy answers to these questions, and you’ll have to spend your own second act working it all out to your best conclusion. At the end of the ninety minutes, you simply don’t know what to believe. Sister Aloysius has the last word and the last gesture, as you would expect. Does she have doubt?

Mrs MullerIt’s a beautifully crafted and written play, with a sparse elegance, relatively simple plot line (but watch out for the twists) and riveting characters. Joanna Scotcher’s comfortless design reveals a world of Spartan harshness, where the patchy and scratchy gardens are precisely like those where the seed falls on stony soil; there’s another parable for you. The nuns’ plain black habits make a telling contrast with the colour of the Father’s vestments and his white sports kit, and Mrs Muller’s formal but smart outfit. Looming over everything at the back of the stage is a cross in reverse; light streams through a cross shape that has been cut out of a black background, suggesting that perhaps an absence of organised religion sheds more light on the world than its presence.

Flynn and AloysiusCentral to the whole production is a thrillingly controlled performance by Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius; her clipped, well-chosen words cutting through any pretence of kindness or supportiveness. Listening to others’ opinions, her facial muscles quiver with anticipation at her next well-planned and killing rejoinder. Ruthless and driven, she didn’t get where she is today without enormous self-assertiveness. But are her actions justified in protecting the children? Maybe.

Three clergyShe’s matched by an excellent performance by Sam Spruell as Flynn, his relaxed eloquence and caring, measured tones making a complete contrast with Sister Aloysius, until his fury is lit by her accusations. Is his personal, hands-on style a reassuring presence in Donald’s life? Maybe. Jessica Rhodes is also excellent as Sister James, desperately hoping that the unpleasant situation would just go away so that life can be happy again. Is her innocent, generous attitude protecting the children? Maybe. And Rebecca Sproggs gives a brilliant performance as Mrs Muller, weighing the balance of good versus bad, seeing the situation from a broader perspective from outside this cloistered existence, with a sense of practicality and realism. Is she looking after her child’s best interests? Probably.

Two SistersA stunning production from Lia Williams and four superb performances make this a truly riveting drama. Sadly it was only scheduled for a very brief run at the Festival Theatre, where it closes on February 5th. Do yourself a favour and see it.

 

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Private Lives, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th November 2021

Private LivesA wise man once said, and I know he did because I was there when he said it, “every time Handel’s Water Music is performed, someone hears it for the first time – think how lucky that person is.” Judging from the average age of the theatregoers at Wednesday night’s performance of Private Lives at Chichester, I would hazard a guess that none of them was seeing it for the first time. As far as we could work out, there were no younger people at all. Is Noel Coward now confined to being entertainment for the middle class and elderly?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question as I tell you about this inaugural production of the Nigel Havers Theatre Company that started touring a few weeks ago in Bath and will continue its rigorous schedule through to April next year, with a December break for Nigel to do his regular stint at the Palladium panto.

Hodge and HaversI’m sure you know the set-up (unless you are one of my much prized younger readers!) Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Sybil (Natalie Walter) are on their honeymoon in Deauville, as are Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge). In fact, they’re in adjacent rooms in the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda are on their second marriages; and, here’s the rub, they were formerly married to each other. Imagine the horror when they bump into each other on their adjoining balconies. It doesn’t take them long to dump their new spouses and flee to Amanda’s posh flat in Paris. Will they live happily ever after this time, or will their old cantankerousness get in the way? And will Victor and Sybil stand for it? If you weren’t there for that first night that opened the brand new Phoenix Theatre in 1930, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda, and some unknown chap called Laurence Olivier as Victor, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to catch this production and find out!

With its timeless story and glittering script, this is a deceptively difficult play to get absolutely right and a dangerously easy one to get quite wrong. It’s very easy for the star turns who inevitably play Elyot and Amanda to hog the limelight – Coward naturally made them the stars of the show and underwrote the parts of their new love interests to keep all the attention to Gertie and himself. So the play can feel quite unbalanced. In this production, it’s quite hard to imagine how Elyot and Sybil might have originally fallen for each other – I didn’t feel like they were natural bedfellows, so to speak; but you can easily see how Victor and Amanda did, which gives the story a little more depth.

Havers and HodgeThe show is 100% played for laughs, which is fair enough; but it does mean that you occasionally have to catch your breath when the arguments turn into plain and simple physical domestic abuse. Face-slapping, a 78rpm being smashed over a head, and a considerable punch to the chops all elicit slapstick laughs but it’s a startling shock to see how things were very different in 1930. From a technical point of view, by the way, the stage combat between Havers and Hodge is outstandingly realistic – fantastic work!

Simon Higlett’s design for Act One is functional but perhaps those balconies are not quite as glamorous as one might expect for such hoity-toity guests at a top class resort. The design of the Paris flat though is exquisite, a veritable flambé of velvety reds and art deco delight, and elegant furnishings without overdoing the decadent. In a nice touch, the accompanying music is all composed by Coward pre-1930, to give it an extra hint of veracity. You’d say Coward was being big-headed, but there’s no indication in the original text that the music played was his, so it’s generations-later, second-hand big-headedness!

P Hodge N HaversI think most people will have booked to see this to see for themselves how the two leads work, tussle and entertain together – and they do an absolutely splendid job. Nigel Havers cuts his usual refined figure and is a perfect voice for Coward’s witty, roué, spiteful charm. He is superb in those moments where the elegant façade shatters and the rather grubbier character comes to light – such as in his cowardly lack of resistance to Victor’s understandable aggression or when he gets his leg trapped after a spot of sofa-athletics with Amanda. Patricia Hodge is, of course, a natural for Amanda; she makes the character’s words come alive with effortless ease, and brings the house down with her complaint against Elyot’s love-making that it’s too soon after dinner. The pair share an immaculate stage presence and they work together like a dream.

Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was ageist of me to wonder how credible it is for two such theatre veterans to be playing roles that Coward would have imagined to be around thirty years old. I was only thinking out loud. But there is some relevance to the point in as much as Coward would have envisaged Victor being older than Amanda – that’s definitely not the case in this production. But it’s pretty easy to forget the age differences and take it all at face value.

Victor and SybilMs Walter and Mr Bruce-Lockhart give excellent support as the wronged other halves, Ms Walter in particular squeaking in frantic fury at the way she has been treated, only then to turn her ire on Mr B-L in the final reel. Aicha Kossoko plays Louise the maid with a sumptuous French accent. The very full midweek Chichester audience threw itself into enjoying the performance, with several long laugh moments and applause breaks for whenever Ms Hodge decided to sing. That rather old-fashioned, respectful matinee-style appreciation for a star performer or singing moment almost underlined how very dignified and classic the whole experience felt.

If the future for Coward is to attract older patrons to enjoy a nostalgia trip rather than encouraging younger theatregoers to discover his wonders, at least that’s good box office news for now, as this production is selling like hot cakes wherever it goes. Long term though, I’m wondering if his appeal will last. Things change, then change again; but Coward doesn’t, he’s constant as the northern star, being too recent to survive drastic updating but probably too historical to attract the young. Time will tell! In the meantime, this is a delightful production, riddled with expertise, delivered by several safe pairs of hands, and fully worthy of your theatre-going funds.

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – The Long Song, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 23rd October 2021

The Long SongI’m not familiar with the works of Andrea Levy, but, judging from the riveting story told on the stage of the Chichester Festival Theatre last Saturday night, that’s definitely my loss. Fortunately Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with seven of our nearest and dearest, were there for the final night of this short run but which, if there is any justice in the world, is not the end of the line for this production.

Cornet and GodfreyThe Long Song was Levy’s final novel, published in 2010; winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and a Booker Prize finalist. Suhayla El-Bushra’s adaptation takes us to 19th century Jamaica, to Amity sugar plantation and the birth of little July to her mama Kitty. We see how July was taken as a slave/maid to Caroline Mortimer, how she had her own baby, and how she saw her way through war, rebellion, the transition to freedom, and finally to old age – and somehow come out of it relatively unscathed. The play is seen through the eyes of Old July, as the refined young Thomas Kinsman encourages her to tell her story, suspecting she may be his mother – not that Old July would give away information so vital that easily – at least, not without several servings of cake.

Old JulyFrankie Bradshaw’s simple but highly effective set comprised of a backdrop of sugar cane, suggesting the fields outside the plantation house, through which workers can emerge after a hard shift, or fleeing victims can escape; and a large trap on stage that opened and closed to reveal a much-used dining table. Michael Henry’s incidental music for the show is just that – not over-emphasised, but appears in occasional short bursts that always leave you wanting more.

Caroline MortimerMuch of the play revolves around the household of Caroline Mortimer, with her well-to-do and pompous guests who look down on her almost as much as they look down on their slaves, and with Caroline’s own domestic servants, who include an unpredictable cook, a crotchety head servant, and young July trying her best to survive without making too much fuss about anything.

Ghastly GuestsScattered throughout the script are a few telling moments that say so much about the relationships between master and slave – better than words can ever express. For example, Caroline makes July her own by ignoring her real name and calling her Marguerite; that’s a simple way to dominate and eradicate a slave’s own identity. When two of the slaves are playing music to entertain Caroline’s ghastly guests, they meander tunelessly and talentlessly through some violin piece that just sounds appalling. But once they’re “below stairs” as it were, they pick up the tempo and rattle out some great music for each other’s pleasure. When “freeman” (much good it does him) Nimrod is being used as a scapegoat for murder (to cover up the suicide of Caroline’s brother) and flees for his life, all Caroline can think is not to kill him yet as he hadn’t finished doing her garden. When Caroline requires old Godfrey to endanger his life to fulfil her wishes, he won’t do it without payment – and he makes that abundantly clear to her. It’s these several minor details that highlight the dreadful reality of slavery and frequent instances of humour are used to reveal the humanity.

Robert GoodwinAnd there’s also the salutary tale of the new overseer, Robert Goodwin. Genuinely excited and inspired by the introduction of freedom for the slaves, he’s full of zeal for change and for treating the ex-slaves with respect. As his time in Jamaica continues, he falls in love with July – and it’s truly touching to see. But then he marries Caroline – because that way, he says, he can be with July more easily. But his zeal doesn’t last as he gets bogged down in what he sees as the workers’ unreasonable demands, and in the end he turns against them, and his own child’s mother, with full emotional cruelty.

July and NimrodCharlotte Gwinner has assembled a cast that acts together as a brilliant ensemble, but each of whom also gives a star performance. Llewella Gideon is simply superb as Old July; initially crusty, untrusting and grumpy, unwilling to dance to the tune of her upstart host; but as her memories unfurl, so does her true personality. Offering witty asides and knowing looks as her story is revealed before us, she has an amazing stage presence, a wonderful feel for comic timing, and also the gravitas to confront the harshness of her past. It’s an amazing performance.

JulyTara Tijani – on her professional debut – is also fantastic as young July, encapsulating all the worries of the enslaved with a nervous need to please, trying not to catch the eye of anyone who might harm her. But as July grows with confidence in company with Goodwin, so too does she blossom and inhabit that strange, uncertain world of a slave/servant with privileges and recognition. Olivia Poulet is brilliant as Caroline, totally wrapped up in her own needs and concerns, paying lip service to a modern, wannabe-enlightened manner of dealing with slaves, but still thinking only of herself. As her world starts to fall apart, she gives a great performance of someone clinging both to the wreckage and to the past. Leonard Buckley also gives a magnificent performance as the initially idealistic Goodwin, trying to force his own terms and conditions on the suspicious ex-slaves, falling head over heels for July but then failing to have the personal integrity to follow through on his promises.

Miss ClaraElsewhere in the cast, I really enjoyed the performance of Syrus Lowe as the delightfully-spoken and privileged Kinsman, carefully trying to work out how to pin old July down into telling the truth without pressing her too hard lest she withdraw co-operation. He’s also great as Freeman Nimrod, with his cocky turn of speech and arrogant conduct with the other slaves. Cecilia Appiah is excellent as the vain Miss Clara, playing up to her claim of prettiness whilst bullying the other slaves; Trevor Laird is a great Godfrey, the cantankerous old retainer who refuses to be pushed, and Rebecca Omogbehin breaks your heart as July’s mama Kitty. But the entire cast do a tremendous job and the story-telling skills are second to none.

Miss ClaraThere was a fairly unanimous standing ovation at the end of the performance which I was more than happy to join. Gobsmackingly brilliant from start to finish, this stunning show brings the day-to-day horrors of slavery into sharp focus and plays strongly on our emotions. I know that some members of our party (not me of course, ahem) had something of a tear in their eye at the end of the show. I’d love this production to be picked up and given another lease of life somewhere else soon – it so deserves it. Absolutely magnificent.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Home, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 23rd October 2021

HomeA double Chichester theatre day for a party of nine of us, which began with the compulsory lunch in the Minerva Brasserie accompanied by two bottles of Wiston sparkling English wine which is just yummy. I think if I lived in Chichester I’d rarely move from that restaurant.

Harry and JackDavid Storey’s Home (really? I didn’t know he’d been away – sorry, I made that joke countless times on Saturday; it wasn’t funny then and it isn’t funny now) originally opened at the Royal Court in 1970 with the enviable casting of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson as Harry and Jack, Dandy Nichols and Mona Washbourne as Marjorie and Kathleen, and a young Warren Clarke as Alfred. It transferred to the West End, and to Broadway; it won both the Tony Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Gielgud wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t understand the play at all.

Marjorie, Harry, Kathleen, JackI was going to outline a plot summary, but the play is so slight that there isn’t much to say. Two men chat idly at a table in the garden of a big house; later, they are joined by two women and the chat continues. Much more central to the story is to work out exactly where the characters are – at Home, presumably, although what kind of home? – and to work out why they are there. Is it a mental institution? A correctional institution? Voluntary attendance or mandatory? Kathleen constantly complains that she is not allowed laces or a belt – is that for her own protection or the protection of others? Jack is always referring to a wide range of friends and family who have done this or done that – are they genuine or in his head? There are many questions to be asked about these four people, and – rather à la Beckett – answers are few and far between.

Kathleen, HarryThere’s no doubt that the play is delicately and intricately written; the opening conversation between Jack and Harry is a delightful interweaving of non-sequiturs and half-uttered thoughts, showing that though communication can seem simple, in reality, it’s anything but. A lot is said, but hardly anything is understood. Sophie Thomas’ marvellous set is a piece of precision faded-gardening, with its clumps of bleached flowers, dry dying patches of dusty lawn, hidden used drink cans, and so on. It’s a superb reflection of what could be a beautiful expanse of grounds, but it’s been left to wither – a perfect comment on the content of the play, in fact. Alex Musgrave’s complex lighting suggests the dappled effect of moving clouds obscuring and revealing the land, which you sense has a symbolic significance, but you’re not quite certain what.

Full castDaniel Cerqueira and John Mackay make a good partnership as Harry and Jack, both respectable and respectful of each other, with a mature, distant, middle-class friendship that probably isn’t based on anything other than their both being in the same place at the same time. They embody the stiff-upper-lip of the day, having survived the war and its unspoken horrors, and they do their best to rely on that British reserve to get through the day-to-day existence they’re now forced to endure. It’s no surprise that as the play nears its end that they’re both prone to tears.

AlfredThe partnership of Hayley Carmichael as Kathleen and Doña Croll as Marjorie is based on the more traditional friendship of two working-class women who understand each other well, with Ms Carmichael excellent as the gormless, giggling Kathleen who finds it hard not to show men her legs and Ms Croll strong as the hard-nosed Marjorie. All four actors work off each other extremely well – it must be demanding for them all to follow Storey’s frequently half-formed sentences and half-realised ideas and try to make sense of it all. Leon Annor gives good support as the chair-lifting, furniture-stealing Alfred, whose only dramatic purpose seems to be to disrupt the potential cosiness of the other four characters.

Jack and HarryIt’s a very good production, but, on reflection, time hasn’t been kind to this play, and you just feel you want more from the scenario than merely piecing together the clues that Storey gives you as to what’s going on. Maybe we’re simply more impatient today than fifty years ago. Maybe it demands (and no reflection on the cast) theatrical knights of the realm to give it an inner gravitas. At the end, you feel you’ve been teased with some dramatic titbits, but nothing has truly been revealed.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

3-starsThree-sy does it!

 

Review – South Pacific, Chichester Festival Theatre, 25th August 2021

South PacificA mere 18 months after we originally booked it, after the first Covid cancellation, then a further enforced rearranged date because theatre social distancing didn’t keep up with Johnson’s unfurling summer road map, seven of us eventually descended on our favourite stately Sussex city to see Daniel Evans’ new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical.

Joanna Ampil and Seabees“South Pacific? Isn’t that a cheesy old show that has no relevance to today?” I hear you ask. You’d be so wrong. My only previous exposure to the show was seeing a plucky amdram performance 25 or so years ago and a couple of well known scenes from the film; plus, of course, Morecambe and Wise’s iconic addition to the Nothing like a Dame archive. As one of our group remarked during the interval, when you see There is Nothin’ Like a Dame in the full context of the show, you realise it isn’t a cheeky and oblique comment on how nice it would be to have a bit of feminine company around you to cheer the place up. It’s actually an observation that these guys are sex-starved and desperate for a damn good rogering.

Joanna AmpilAnd that’s at the heart of why this show feels so relevant today. What, on the surface, seems rather coy and polite, conceals an undercurrent of harsh reality. When the female ensigns sing that they’re gonna wash that man right out of their hair, what they’re actually proposing is breaking up relationships and depriving children of a mother on a whim. When Bloody Mary sings of the beautiful mysterious island Bali Ha’i to Cable it isn’t just a travel advert for sun, sand and palm trees, it’s an entrapment to get him to meet her daughter Liat in the hope that they will hit it off. And when she then encourages him to talk Happy Talk to her, she’s beseeching him to agree to an arrangement between them that will rescue Liat out of their war torn Polynesian island and provide her safety in the good ol’ US of A. When he reveals that he cannot marry her because of his conservative upbringing and that a dark-skinned woman would never be accepted by his Princeton-funding family, the confirmation that Mary and Liat are second class citizens leaves both them and the audience disgusted and furious.

Gina Beck - wash that man right outa my hairBut this isn’t the main focus of the racism in this show. Our heroine, Nellie, with whom we laugh, whose spark and spirit we love and admire, whose singing enthrals us, and whom we trust will have a great loving relationship with Emile and settle down happy ever after, stuns us with her use of the C word just before the interval. No, not that C word, but one even more powerful. Discovering that Emile has two children from his Polynesian first wife, she realises that he must have had sex with a “Coloured” woman; and you can feel her shudder with disgusted horror. The realisation that she is racist drops like a bombshell before we all go out for our interval Merlots.

Dramatic openingThe show makes us re-evaluate what we assume about it right from the start, when Liat’s innocent dancing is dramatically overtaken by the American invading forces, descending from their helicopters, and running around the island, literally stamping their authority on idyllic foreign soil. No wonder Oscar Hammerstein came under the stern scrutiny of the state, who questioned his allegiance and loyalty to the United States. There is a stunning and eloquent song, You’ve got to be Carefully Taught, which explains with great simplicity how racism isn’t a natural thing but something you learn from your youth. This questioning of traditional American values was seen as Communist sympathising in some quarters, and pressure was brought on Rodgers and Hammerstein to withdraw the song from the show, but they refused. It was central to what they wanted the show to say; without this song they would have withdrawn the show. It stayed in.

Thanksgiving FolliesDaniel Evans’ masterful production uses the great space of the Festival Theatre to its best advantage, emphasising both the grand scale of some of the bigger numbers and the lonely solitariness of its more introspective moments. Peter McKintosh’s versatile and constantly evolving (and revolving!) set immaculately recreates scenes such as the makeshift stage where the Ensign girls present their Thanksgiving Follies, or their simply constructed shower huts. Ann Yee’s choreography is exciting and fun in those big numbers, and Cat Beveridge’s sky high band whacks out those sumptuous tunes with a beautiful richness. Everything about the production feels like you’re truly privileged to be witnessing it.

Julian OvendenPreviously sharing the role of Nellie with Gina Beck is Alex Young, now playing her full-time. Ms Young is among my favourite performers, who never fails to bring wit and emotion to all her fantastic roles. Here she makes light work of I’m in love with a wonderful guy, Wash that man right outa my hair, Honey Bun and those delicious duets with Emile and Cable. She’s an effortless star with a great stage presence; it’s because she’s so good on stage that she still takes the audience with her on the rest of her journey after the end of Act One bombshell. She is matched by a brilliant performance from Julian Ovenden as Emile, who performs Some Enchanted Evening as though it were a brand new song that we’ve never heard before, and completely steals the show with the goosebump-creating This Nearly Was Mine, which encapsulates the heartache and havoc that idiotic racism causes. I think it’s also fair to say that he made all the ladies in our party go completely weak at the knees.

South Pacific companyRob Houchen is superb as the clean-cut, heroic Cable, giving us a stunning performance of Younger Than Springtime, and delivering the essential message of You’ve got to be Carefully Taught with devastating clarity. Joanna Ampil is a delightfully caustic streetwise Bloody Mary, nevertheless creating a beautiful vision of Bali Ha’i with her exquisite voice; and her performance of Happy Talk is one of those musical theatre revelation moments when a song that you think you know like the back of your hand is turned inside out with completely new meaning and nuance. It’s as far away from Captain Sensible as you can get.

Luther chargedIt’s essential for a production of South Pacific to cast exactly the right person for the comic-tragic role of Luther, and Keir Charles gets him down to a T. He manages to convince us that Luther is both a scamp and a villain; a conman with maybe a heart of gold – it’s hard to tell, because it’s never been tried. Mr Charles brings something of a lump to our throats with Luther’s unrequited love for Nellie; but he’s the cat with nine lives, you always know he’s going to thrive and survive somehow. All this, and fronting the Seabees’ big numbers and Honey Bun-ing it with Nellie en travestie. A fantastic performance.

SeabeesDavid Birrell and Adrian Grove bring warmth and a touch of humour to what could otherwise be the hard military presence of Brackett and Harbison; Sera Maehara is a beautiful and elegant Liat; Danny Collins (another of my favourite performers) and Carl Au give great support as Professor and Stewpot; and, on the performance we saw, Emile’s children Jerome and Ngana were enchantingly performed by Alexander Quinlan and Lana Lakha in fine voice and exuding confidence. All the very talented and extended ensemble put their hearts and souls into amazing vocal and dance performances.

Wash that Man!This is one of those rare productions where every aspect was pitch perfect. To be honest, I’d never considered South Pacific to be one of musical theatre’s greatest hits, but this production removes the veil from our eyes (and ears!) to give us a challenging, heart-warming, and massively entertaining show, and the most thrilling return to a big musical show for the Chichester Theatre. It’s only on now until 5th September, but if you can’t get to Chichester, there are still two streaming performances available on 31st August and 3rd September. In any event, I can’t imagine this will be the last we will see of this immense production – West End Transfer Please!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Not Quite a Review; or Half a Macbeth is better than None – Chichester Festival Theatre, 28th September 2019

71563150_757734678019221_7876332965544853504_nOne of the big attractions of this year’s Chichester Festival has been the prospect of John Simm as Macbeth. One of my favourite actors, he was brilliant in Sheffield’s Betrayal a few years ago and packed a whacker of a punch in one of the recent Pinter at the Pinter season productions. With Dervla Kirwan as his Lady M and Christopher Ravenscroft as Duncan, what could possibly go wrong? So it was with excited feet that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum, dodged the raindrops down to the Festival Theatre last Saturday night. We had already enjoyed the new production of Hedda Tesman in the afternoon, and were looking forward to a bit of Out Damned Spot and Infirm of Purpose over the course of the evening.

Duncan on that glass floorAmong the most notable aspects of this production is its glass stage. Set a little bit on high, it consists of several panels joined together which allows for an extravagant lighting plot to create multitudinous effects; and also you can see the rough earth beneath, perfect for opening up grave space with all those deaths. However, sadly, I can’t really review this production for you, gentle reader, because we only saw the first half. Macbeth’s hired murderers were just about to do Banquo in when one of them placed his foot at what must have been a million-to-one wrong angle and KERSHATTERCRASH! the glass panel beneath him cracked into a million tiny shards. At first we all thought it was a magical effect. Maybe each time Macbeth hath murdered sleep, a fairy dies on a glass panel. But no. Once Banquo had sunk into the ground and the Weird Sisters (I blame them) gave us a moody tableau, the lights went up for the interval and a host of backstage and front of house staff huddled around the offending glass panel looking severely worried.

Absolutely ShatteredUndeterred, we went out for our interval Tempranillo, where a slightly perplexed audience was mingling, half in hope and half in disappointment. We wondered how quickly they could get Autoglass to come out and repair…. probably not until Great Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane, which is Monday at the earliest. After a longer than usual interval we resumed our seats and awaited developments. The offending panel had by now become a star feature of many a theatregoer’s selfie; the usual warning against taking photos had gone right out of the window.

Lady MEventually someone, I believe the theatre’s deputy executive officer, who was obviously otherwise watching Strictly at home but was on emergency callout,  came on to the stage and apologised but the show just couldn’t go on – it simply wouldn’t have been safe for the cast and she wasn’t prepared to take that risk. We all applauded – it was clearly the right decision. Audience members would be welcome to transfer their tickets to another performance, or, (as in our case) receive a full refund – sadly Chichester is just too far for us to pop down midweek.

MurderersJudging from the first half, it wasn’t shaping up to be the best Macbeth I’ve seen, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Mr Simm was a trifle light on the evil side but I think that was building up. Ms Kirwan was a little over-pretty in her characterisation and, generally throughout, there was a lot of declamation, a little like the respectful delivery you’d expect at a worthy middle-class school production. Christopher Ravenscroft is, however, a very dignified and beneficent Duncan, although I was surprised how huggy everyone was with him. Not so much Yes My Liege on bended knee, more like Come here me old mucker.

Macbeth and Lady MOn the good side, the staging for Duncan’s last-night dinner, behind the screen whilst the Macbeths were plotting his murder, was incredibly effective. However, the screen was, I fear, overused, and when some of Lady Macbeth’s words appeared written on it as she was speaking, I couldn’t contain myself from bursting out “Oh What???” in barely contained fury at the gimmickry of it. The best performances – as at half-time – were definitely from Stuart Laing’s loyal Banquo and Michael Balogun’s precise and upright Macduff. However, as I haven’t seen the rest of the play, please ignore all my comments as to the show itself!

Weird SistersA great shame. I trust the manufacturer of glass panels is insured against coughing up what I would imagine would be at least a £40,000 claim for refunded tickets. Once again, the Scottish Play turns out to conceal a nightmare up its sleeve. Nevertheless, there’s always a silver lining; now that the Minerva Grill has stopped doing their late-night sharing food platters (BOO!!!!) we had longer to linger over our late-night curry at the Marsala City – highly recommended!

Review – Hedda Tesman, Minerva Theatre Chichester, 28th September 2019

71483760_244922176426745_4329428812208013312_nHenrik Ibsen is one of those playwrighting gifts that never goes away. He’s currently enjoying a revival which, by my workings-out, has been going on for at least sixty years. The challenge to make him relevant to today, whatever that means, is there if you want to take up the reins, although plenty of excellent Ibsen revivals play them straight, plucked out of the 19th century in all their dark and dismal glory, and they work as well as they ever did. On the other hand, there’s a trend to produce updated versions of our dour Norwegian hero. Only last week Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the excellent revival of Peter Gynt by David Hare at the National, which set him in modern-day Scotland, in a very effective time and place transformation. A couple of years ago the National Theatre toured with a “modern” version of Hedda Gabler adapted by Patrick Marber, which made the purists wince and was, on reflection, probably too clever-clever by half.

HeddaAnd now Cordelia Lynn has also adapted Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s possibly most performed play, featuring his disturbed protagonist fighting for breath in a life where she feels stifled. Where the title of Ibsen’s original stressed her inability to escape from the manipulative hold on her exerted by her late father the General, Ms Lynn’s apparently more conventional title, regarding her as Hedda married to Tesman, emphasises the stress on her from her marriage.

 Hedda Julie and TesmanMany of the changes that have been made to the original work extremely well. This Hedda is a much older woman, one whom you sense is more regretful of the past rather than fearful of the future – more of this later. Thea is no longer her friend but her daughter, which reveals a relationship where Hedda has never truly supported her child. Thea’s infatuation with Elijah brings him more closely into the family circle; perhaps, as a result, the sideline attentions of Judge Brack feel less intimidating or significant in this telling of the story than I have seen in previous versions. Bertha the maid is now a cleaner, employed by an agency; a professional woman on her own right who one feels can dictate her own terms much more positively than a mere servant, which adds just a little extra zest to the household. It’s a very successful repositioning of the play into modern times and does, indeed, retain the relevance of today.

TesmanHowever, as with freedom of speech, with freedom to update comes responsibility. By making these changes, the audience has to suspend its disbelief because modern technology renders quite a number of Ibsen’s structural markers outdated. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, that when Tesman spent his night on the tiles with Brack and Elijah, and they weren’t going to make it back home, that Tesman wouldn’t have texted either Hedda or Thea to explain. No need for his daughter to wait up all night unnecessarily. Similarly, when Hedda cruelly (there’s no other real justification for this act) destroys Elijah’s original document through fire, it’s ridiculous to expect that he hadn’t already downloaded it onto his laptop; after all, when Thea proposes that she and her father should try to recreate Elijah’s work, the laptop is their first port of call. For me, those two problems make it very hard to accept that the story could happen, in the way it is presented, today.

Thea and ElijahWhilst we’re on the subject of inconsistencies, a couple of things really annoyed me – I think I am definitely turning into a grumpy old man. Thea and Tesman are working hard in the back-room area of the stage with the laptop, trying to re-write Elijah’s words. Tesman enters the living area saying they can’t work out back there because it’s too uncomfortable, with all the boxes around. You look up at the area to see where they have been working; and there are no boxes. Sorry, what? Similarly, at the beginning of the play Bertha starts to vacuum clean the floor. At the end of the play, she takes a mop and bucket to the same floor. Really? Mop and bucket on the carpet?

BrackAs a linguistic aside, this production might be the final hammer blow that makes the C word virtually acceptable – or pointless, your choice. Hedda uses it twice in the same speech and it has the extraordinary effect of drastically reducing both its meaning and its impact. I don’t think that was the intention; I think the intention was to shock, and to show how vicious Hedda is towards her own daughter. But, strangely, Hedda’s sentiments would have had much greater impact without using that word.

Hedda Get Your GunThat said, Haydn Gwynne is superb as Hedda; a tired, defeated, misunderstood figure, suffocated by the good intentions of her husband, and jealous of the freedoms and achievements of the younger generation. Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a Hedda whom I thought was less likely to take her own life. There’s no sense of mental instability; although she may be unhappy with life, she really looks like she has it under control, and, if anything, you’d simply expect her to self-medicate on gin. So when that final, lethal, moment comes, it’s quite a shock, as I had completely forgotten that’s what was going to happen!

JulieI particularly enjoyed Natalie Simpson’s performance as Thea, with her scarcely concealed mixture of contempt and dislike for her mother (learned behaviour, I’m sure) but her wide-eyed appreciation for every step Elijah takes. There’s excellent support from Anthony Calf and Jacqueline Clarke as Tesman and Aunt Julie, and (maybe) slightly underpowered performances from Jonathan Hyde as Brack – who seems to lack relevance in this production – and Irfan Shamji as Elijah. Rebecca Oldfield’s Bertha is a bright spark who cheers up the stage whenever she comes on, bringing her positive, get on with it mood into the oppressive household.

BerthaWe saw the last matinee of its run at Chichester – and I was surprised at how undersubscribed it was. As a co-production with Headlong and The Lowry, the production now moves on to a run at The Lowry from 3 – 19 October. Book now – the inventive changes that have brought it into the 21st century make it definitely worth seeing.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Oklahoma! Festival Theatre, Chichester, 27th July 2019

OklahomaThere’s a bright golden haze on the medder, sang Curly, all by himself, at the very beginning of Oklahoma! on its first night at the St James Theatre on Broadway in 1943, and its audience was gripped. It was the first time a big musical had opened with a lone voice rather than a group number; the first time Rodgers and Hammerstein had collaborated; and the first time that a “dream ballet” sequence showed us the secret fears of a lead character. You can only imagine the excitement of that first night crowd. In Britain, at that time immersed in the Second World War, we had to wait until 1947 to see it for ourselves, but I am sure it was worth the wait.

Hyoie O'GradyIt was also the first time that the book of a musical and its songs were fully integrated so that the music progressed our understandings of the characters. That was a development that had started with Show Boat; maybe recession and/or war kick start the creative spirit and encourage writers and composers to devise a work to bring us out of the gloom and into a happier place. Certainly those early audiences for Oklahoma! would have had their troubles, on both sides of the pond. You can envisage the theatregoers at the St James, the rows filled with uniformed servicemen either on leave or preparing for war, clinging on to a vestige of normality before being transported to who knows where for who knows what. There’s a revealing and rather heart-warming story mentioned in the programme, where the writer John Hersey told Richard Rodgers that “on a gritty battlefield in Sicily, a GI had awakened one morning and poured some cold water in his helmet to shave. Suddenly he began singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning” […] There was a fair amount of irony in his singing and his pals laughed”. To be honest, if I had been that GI, I would have done the same.

Amara OkerekeSo there’s a number of reasons why Oklahoma! (you have to include the !, otherwise it’s just a state) isn’t going away yet. A handsome young suitor courts a pretty young girl, but she’s made promises to another guy, so the two men are rivals; that’s a story as old as the hills. Surrounding them are the good influences of a kindly aunt, a pragmatic judge/lawmaker, a best friend who cain’t say no and the well-meaning but rather hopeless young chap who’s in love with her. In the background, we’re in early 1900’s Native American country, with its diverse ethnic spread, racial tensions, and itinerant immigrants; social division is everywhere – even the Farmer and the Cowman aren’t necessarily friends – and instead of churning butter, Aunt Eller is first seen cleaning her gun, setting the tone for the whole show. Will has just come back from Kansas City, where he saw astounding modern advancements, the like of which couldn’t be imagined in underdeveloped Oklahoma. Nevertheless, those hopeful aspirations are palpable; keep moving forwards and maybe soon they’ll also be part of that great United States of America. Work hard and be lucky; slack and you lack. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma.

Josie Lawrence and CompanyApart from the still relevant and contemporary nature of the story, it has a fantastic score without a duff note or a weak lyric, and some colourful, sparky, memorable characters creating a fine balance of comedy and pathos. Jeremy Sams’ new production takes all the show’s ingredients and creates a high impact treat, both visually and musically, which never shies away from the darker side of what’s going on, and there are a couple of moments where you shrink back in your seat in horror….

CompanyRobert Jones’ set and Mark Henderson’s lighting intertwine throughout the evening to make that golden haze, that Curly sings about in the first moments, a reality; enhanced by Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes. Light brown jackets and waistcoats, together with golden bales of wheat and tan saddles, all add to that colour scheme, whilst the backdrop and ceiling are bathed in blue to create a strong sunshiny feel. By contrast, Jud’s black dungarees and Ali Karim’s lurid green jacket and red trousers demonstrate that they’re outsiders.

Isaac Gryn and CompanyWhen I first saw Oklahoma! on stage, at the Palace Theatre back in 1980, I remember being thoroughly bored by the dream ballet sequence, regarding it as an antiquated construct that had no place in contemporary theatre. What an arrogant little brat I must have been. The (relatively) recent national tour production had the benefit of being choreographed by Drew McOnie, whose star has continued to rise, and transformed what could otherwise be a dull interlude into a fantastic set piece, incorporating other routines from the rest of the show. And in this new production, choreographer Matt Cole has also risen to the challenge of the dream ballet, working with the lighting and costume design to create a vivid fantasy nightmare for Laurey, that contrasts the romance of being pushed by Curly on a garden swing, and the white dresses of a perfect wedding day, with the black and red of Parisian strumpets doing scandalous Fosse-type routines reflecting Jud’s predilection for postcard porn. At the end there’s a fight where Jud floors Curly and kicks him into a pit surrounded by flames. No one falls asleep during this dream ballet, I assure you.

Emmanuel KojoThe fantastic fire-ography continues in the second half, when the usually happy, primary-coloured rousing title song turns from a celebration of everything that’s good about life into a torch-wielding, white supremacist lynch mob, about to go hunting for Jud. With those few, terrifying, staring seconds at the end of the song, they create a sinister, violent air; and, sure enough, Curly kills Jud (sorry for the spoiler), maybe accidentally, maybe not. Judge Andrew dispenses justice quickly and pragmatically in favour of Curly, and you take a step back from the scene and realise that this is a complete stitch-up against Jud. There’s a guilty red stain on the medder…

Scott Karim and Isaac GrynIt’s vital for a successful production of Oklahoma! that the two young lovers are performed by likeable actors; and Hyoie O’Grady as Curly and Amara Okereke as Laurey are not merely likeable, they’re totally adorable. As far as I can see both have had only limited experience on stage to now (although both are graduates of the Les Miserables cast change challenge) but they are superb. Mr O’Grady boasts a fine line in slightly vulnerable brashness; he’s the kind of guy all the men in the audience want to be, and all the women in the audience (and some of the men) wish their men were. Ms Okereke gives a beautiful and intelligent performance as the confused Laurey, reflecting the simplicity of the character’s life till now, her rightly judged self-esteem and her fears for the future. Both are natural exponents of the art of musical theatre, Ms Okereke in particular filling the vast Festival Theatre with her spectacularly emotional and rich voice. Two young actors who are definitely on the One To Watch list!

Josie LawrenceJosie Lawrence, whom we last saw in the brilliant Edmond de Bergerac in Northampton earlier this year, brings all her warmth and comic timing to the role of Aunt Eller; her on-stage chemistry with Curly and, particularly, Laurey, works beautifully as she acts as a kind of Pandarus between the two. She also has a delightful glint in her eye as she takes her place in the thick of all the dancing cowboys; it’s no surprise that she turns up in Laurey’s dream ballet as the brothel Madame. There’s another excellent partnership between Isaac Gryn as Will and Bronté Barbé as Ado Annie; he, fresh-faced and willing, if a trifle thick and she, wide-eyed, openly semi-promiscuous and easily influenced. Miss Barbé has a growing reputation as one of our new stars of musical theatre, and Mr Gryn is another new find who is already sensational at fronting a big dance number.

Isaac Gryn and Bronte BarbeThere’s a tour de force from the terrific Emmanuel Kojo as Jud, portraying him not as the grotesque pantomime ogre that he is sometimes played, but as a realistic, believable man – a loner, a victim of circumstance, but with plans and ambitions that are as valid as anyone else’s. His chilling scene with Hyoie O’Grady for Pore Jud is Daid, where Curly tries to sing Jud into taking his own life with the rope, plays to Mr Kojo’s strengths as he remains assertively immune to Curly’s suggestions, purely concentrating on his own wants from life. There are also great comedy turns from Emily Langham as the cackling Gertie Cummings and Scott Karim as the exotic wide boy Ali Hakim, expensively extricating himself from an unwanted marriage in a beautifully funny auction scene. And there’s a fantastically talented supporting ensemble in great voice, who bring Matt Cole’s stunning choreography to life.

Hyoie O'Grady and Josie LawrenceThere are those who maintain that musical theatre is an inferior form of the art and that it can achieve nothing more than moderate light entertainment. To those people, I say Phooey! Oklahoma! is proof that you can reflect and convey the full range of emotions of human existence and still come out singing People will say we’re in love. That takes some skill indeed. This is a fantastic production that went down a storm in the theatre; if it doesn’t transfer, I’ll eat my cowhide.

Production photos by Johan Persson