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!

Review – Oliver! Sheffield Crucible, 4th January 2014

Oliver!“Oliver!” is another of those shows that’s been with me since I was a kid, although mainly in the film version, until 10th November 1977 when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle insisted I accompanied her to Cameron Mackintosh’s pre-West End production at the New Theatre Oxford starring Roy Hudd as Fagin. I remember him being pretty good in a funny, avuncular way. Looking over that old cast list, not many names stand out as being active today, although we did enjoy the performance of Marilyn Cutts, who played the Sowerberrys’ daughter Charlotte, in High Society last year. Tom EddenThe late Michael Attwell was Bill Sikes, Mr Sowerberry was played by Graham Hamilton (Equity president 2008-2010); and I also remember Robert Bridges and Joan Turner being a formidable Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, alas neither of them are with us anymore. Many years later in 2009, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see the Rowan Atkinson version at Drury Lane, primarily because we had all fallen in love with The Nation’s Nancy, Jodie Prenger. For Daniel Evans’ new production at the Crucible Theatre we were joined by Lady Duncansby and her butler William, who beat us all in terms of history with this show, having seen the original 1960 production in London, when he was but a mere trainee footman.

Hayley GallivanThis show comes as a worthy successor to the previous fin d’année spectaculars we’ve seen at the Crucible, last year’s My Fair Lady and 2011’s Company. One of the most enjoyable aspects of My Fair Lady was Alistair David’s superb group choreography and once again his skill at filling the Crucible stage with a huge ensemble of cavorting street traders and urchins is used to magnificent effect. The big feel-good numbers work incredibly well, especially “Consider Yourself”, led by a fantastically confident Dodger (Jack Armstrong in our performance) and “Oom-Pah-Pah”, which allows the character of Nancy to shine like the happy carefree girl she ought to be. Ben RichardsOliver! is of course, one of the country’s (maybe the world’s?) favourite shows and every production seems to run and run; it’s as though we the public can’t get enough of it. But, like Chicago, I do have some reservations about the show as a whole. For me, the first act is almost entirely scene-setting and episodic, the pace and structure slightly ploddy. You go from the workhouse, to the undertakers, to Fagin’s den, but I never get a sense of genuine plot development. That’s not a criticism of this production – I blame Lionel Bart. The second act, however, feels completely different. The story really takes over and each scene or song seems to grow organically out of the scene before.

Jack Skilbeck-DunnWhat makes this production stand out from the previous two I have seen, is the way it presents the genuine hardship and violence of the Oliver Twist story, and refrains from straying into loveable caricature. Sometimes I think Fagin can be portrayed like that – a villain, yes, but more sinned against than sinning, and with a heart of gold. Ron Moody, Roy Hudd, Rowan Atkinson are all thoroughly loveable performers. Tom Edden’s Fagin is very different from that, a very realistic creation; a manipulative, wheedling, sinister creature whose interest is pure self. You sense any affection he shows for the boys is just for profit, and his heart is made of stone. Jack ArmstrongMr Edden’s amazing ability for physical comedy, as shown supreme in One Man Two Guvnors, is still evident in this production but turned down a little to create a Fagin devoid of caricature. The highlight of Mr Edden’s performance is his performance of Reviewing the Situation; a showstopper combining comedy and egoism in equal measure.

David Phipps-DavisBut the most hard-hitting realistic presentation comes in the form of Hayley Gallivan’s Nancy, the tragedy victim supreme, singing a song of love and loyalty about Bill Sikes whilst still wiping the blood away from her mouth where he has socked her one. There’s nothing sentimental or sympathetic about this relationship; and when he finally murders her (sorry if that spoils it for you) it’s simply the inevitable outcome of domestic violence – not so much a horrific shock, more a blessed relief.Liza Sadovy and Chris Vincent Miss Gallivan gives a stunning performance (two in fact) of As Long As He Needs Me which absolutely raises the roof, and which contrasts beautifully with her enjoyably light-hearted Oom-Pah-Pah. Ben Richards’ Bill Sikes is a terrifyingly dark demon; quietly vicious, intimidatingly overbearing, totally pathological. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mr Richards on stage before, and I understand this is something of an unusual role for him. Well, he’s very convincing!

Rebecca LockThere are a couple of excellent partnerships – David Phipps-Davis and Rebecca Lock make a wonderfully squabbling Bumble and Corney, and their disintegrating relationship in Act Two is extremely funny to watch. They are both in very fine voice and sing “Oliver” with suitable vindictiveness. We loved the selfish and insensitive way Miss Lock sat on the recently deceased Old Sally; just one sit-down speaks volumes about the character. Equally fun are Chris Vincent and Liza Sadovy (brilliant in Alice in Wonderland a couple of years ago) as the ghoulish Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, Mr Vincent in particular conveying a really creepy demeanour, with a pallid face that looks like it’s never been within a mile of a vein. Their lovey-dovey routine provides a briliant comic juxtaposition with their ghostly otherworldliness. Georgie AshfordAndrew Bryant is an amusingly phlegmatic scouser Noah Claypole, and Bob Harms (superb in the Menier’s Pippin) is a cynically dour Dr Grimwig. The ensemble, who are bright and energetic and revel in inhabiting their various characters, include A Chorus Line’s Georgie Ashford and Barnum’s James O’Connell, both of whom are surely destined for Much Greater Things.

James O'ConnellBut Oliver! wouldn’t be Oliver! without a pure, vulnerable Oliver, and we certainly had one of these in the form of Jack Skilbeck-Dunn. Not knowing that asking for more was asking for trouble, and too honest to pick a pocket perfectly, he is the embodiment of innocence and sings like a dream. The whole staging of “Who Will Buy”, with his clear, optimistic voice and the wonderful accompaniment of the street traders, was sheer theatrical magic. The other workhouse and gang children are all incredibly gifted and blend seamlessly with the adult cast members, which must be an amazing feat of both rehearsal and performance. I don’t know if we saw the Red Team or the Blue Team, but the tall chap who played Charlie was full of attitude, and the two smallest boys in Fagin’s gang, dancing arm in arm, had us all in hysterics – hats off to you lads!

This is a really enjoyable production, with some great performances, lively choreography, a super band and a timeless story, all blended together with Daniel Evans’ master touch. Another triumph at the Crucible!

PS. Not sure what happened to Bullseye, but Daisy, Lola and Patches (as credited in the programme) must all have been washing their hair that night.

PPS. What do you do when you cast boys in a musical, they suddenly turn into men before your very eyes and their voices break? I think they got round it very nicely in this performance.

PPPS. Apparently it’s only Oliver! (the musical) if you put an exclamation mark after it. Otherwise it’s just a first name. Who knew?

Review – Company, Sheffield Crucible, 28th December 2011

CompanyCompany is a Stephen Sondheim musical from 1970, jam packed full of his best tunes, most of which I first heard when as a youngster I finally got to see Side by Side by Sondheim (I had a ticket when I was 16 but my mother grounded me and wouldn’t let me go to London by myself because of the risk of terrorist bombs at the time – boy was I furious.) So I’m delighted to have finally seen it, and to contextualise such wonders as “Getting Married Today” and “Barcelona”.

Daniel Evans This is a fantastic production of a fascinating and rewarding show. The premise is that 35 year old Bobby (or Robert, Bob, Robbo, depending which friend you are) is still unmarried and thinks he might just possibly be ready for it, despite his observations of those good and crazy people his friends, who took the problem of life and applied to it the one-size-fits-all solution of marriage, to a greater or lesser degree of success in each case.

According to the programme notes, Sondheim says the whole show takes place in the “now” and consists of various aspects of how Bobby sees his life and his friends. There isn’t a time movement; there is no “journey” as such. Whilst I wouldn’t dare tell Mr Sondheim what his show is about, Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt there was a definite time movement in the show.Claire Price In fact, Mrs C thought the final scene, when the friends are looming with their birthday cake but Bobby is nowhere to be seen, actually takes place the next year, on his next birthday. This comes after the epiphany of “Being Alive” where he actively yearns for life to treat him rough so that he can feel the emotional scars of life. His distancing himself from his friends shows that he doesn’t need them to advise him any more; this is a definite “moving on”. However, it did occur to me after the show – in 1970, Sondheim was still not a fully mature composer and musical-writer. If it had been written ten years later, “Being Alive” would have ended the first act, and the second would have showed Bobby’s married life coming a-cropper. As it stands, it’s almost too clean and easy a way to end to the show. But I’m not complaining.

Damian HumbleyIt’s an officially fabulous set – simple but perfect. The great size of the Crucible stage is just right to represent the expansiveness of Bobby’s New York loft apartment, with a sunken square area in the middle that also represents any other flat, or room, or bar; with bright light panels on the floor around the outside which flash the atmosphere of night spots and other locations; and there is also a balcony type walkway above the stage that doubles as Bobby’s entrance corridor and as other friends’ living spaces. It works really well.

Samantha Seager And at the heart of it all is Bobby, Daniel Evans, who was excellent when we saw him in the Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration show in Northampton last year. Sheffield is remarkably lucky to retain his services as Artistic Director of the Crucible and to have him perform so regularly. He gives one of those performances where you can’t stop watching him. Steven CreeEven when his friends are taking centre stage and acting out their married difficulties you feel you have to keep watching for his reactions to what’s going on. His vocal clarity is superb and he injects great passion and meaning into Sondheim’s admittedly already luxurious lyrics. Even when his character is being a bit of a bastard (i.e. in “Barcelona”) he still carries you with him. Wonderful stuff.

Anna-Jane CaseyAll the roles are extremely well performed and cast. Claire Price and Damian Humbley make a spiky Sarah and Harry whose relationship discrepancies get alleviated by resorting to martial arts; Samantha Seager and Steven Cree’s Susan and Peter are a David Birrellwell-confused couple who are happier together when divorced; Anna-Jane Casey and David Birrell are a very believable Jenny and David, married a bit longer perhaps and stuck in their ways, she trying drugs for the first time and disappointing him because he feels her enjoyment of it is faked for his benefit; Samantha Spiro’s Samantha Spiroriveting performance as the manic Amy whose “not getting married today” is matched beautifully by Jeremy Finch’s well-meaning Paul, who visibly crumbles when she says she doesn’t love him; the magnificent Francesca Annis’ worldly-wise performance as Joanne, supported but never controlled by Ian Gelder’s Jeremy Finchnicely underplayed Larry; and Lucy Montgomery, Kelly Price and Rosalie Craig as Bobby’s three girlfriends, any one of whom the cheeky devil could be bonking at any minute.

To add to our viewing pleasure, we were lucky enough to be in the centre of Row A, which means that so much of the acting is going on at your eye level, very close and with no obstacles. Francesca AnnisI love that feeling of being so physically involved in the play that the actors spit on you. One particularly memorable moment was when Robert’s friends all start ganging up on him, getting closer and closer with their pesky birthday cake, their Ian Gelderintimidating eyes starting to narrow as they get more and more intent on corrupting him with their marriedness. They were looking right at me – I could feel his pain. It’s no wonder the poor chap fled from them.

Lucy MontgomeryThere are some great musical highlights – the way Joanne sings “The Little Things You Do Together” in segments as it reflects the activity on stage; Marta’s broad sweep of urban survival in “Another Hundred People”; Amy’s hilarious but tragic Kelly Price“Getting Married Today”; Joanne’s savage “Ladies who Lunch”; and Bobby’s brilliant interpretation of “Being Alive”, as well as the show-stopping presentation of “Side by Side by Side”. Rosalie CraigBut it’s not just a series of highlights; the whole thing meshes together wonderfully as a whole, and you come away from the show feeling satisfied that you’ve experienced top quality solid entertainment. A super production, that deserves a life hereafter.

Review – Racing Demon, Crucible, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonI think it’s about eight years since we last visited Sheffield. The approach to the theatre complex now is so smart and elegant, full of welcoming restaurants, with beautifully lit municipal buildings with lovely fountains, and a real walk-through Winter Garden, that I barely recognised the place.

The Crucible too has had a refit since our last visit and it must be now one of the most welcoming and comfortable theatres in the country. Really impressed. All this, and ridiculously cheap tickets too. We had seats three rows from the front but slightly on the side (didn’t matter at all not being at the front because the show was so sensibly blocked, unlike….) and they were only £13 each.

Racing DemonSo we went to Sheffield to get a bit of the David Hare season action. He is a writer I have always admired, and even when his plays are a bit on the dark side, he is still thought-provoking and substantial. Racing Demon is his 1990 play about the ups and downs of a parish team of four vicars, with a wider questioning of the rights and wrongs of the Christian Church. At that time Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see a lot of theatre so this play was brand new to us. And what a play it is. Believable characters, extremely funny, serious issues, heartbreaking moments. It really deserves its reputation as one of the best plays of recent years.

Malcolm SinclairIt’s largely a bare stage with occasional furniture brought on to suggest locations, but the dominating scenery is the Mackintosh-inspired back wall which lights up to create different shapes suggesting a church or a cross, and which conceals doors to the back. It’s very impressive. The play opens with the Rev Lionel Espy apparently praying but really, deep down, arguing with God. It’s a brilliant opening speech and completely sets the scene for the whole play. Malcolm Sinclair’s performance perfectly conveys a man desperately trying to do his best in a job he has been in too long. He wants to succour his flock, but he doesn’t believe the Church is supporting him in the right way – and in truth he is more interested in politicising his sermons and pastoral work with a practical anti-poverty stance, rather than by taking the sacrament seriously. Sometimes he resists the powers that work against him; sometimes he crumbles. It’s a fantastic performance, wholly credible.

Jamie Parker It’s his young curate, Tony Ferris, played by Jamie Parker, possessed of too much of the fire and zeal of the evangelist to be satisfied with Espy’s relaxed form of vicaring, who starts the rift that will ultimately be Espy’s downfall. We saw Jamie Parker in another Hare play last year, My Zinc Bed, and he gave a very convincing performance of the misery of alcoholism. Here his enthusiasm for Christ rides roughshod over all his relationships and his progress towards what you expect will soon become slight insanity is chillingly told. There is a particular scene where he discusses his past relationship with his ex-girl friend, and his emotional disconnection with the real world actually makes the audience gasp. Fantastically well done.

Matthew Cottle The whole cast are wonderful actually – it’s all completely convincing. I loved the contrast between the ways the four vicars are shown in their quiet moments with God. It’s the writing that does it, but Matthew Cottle’s simplistically happy Rev “Streaky” Bacon wonderfully offsets the darker side of religious doubts offered elsewhere in the play. Jonathan Coy Jonathan Coy as the Bishop of Southwark was genuinely scary in his anger – although his main argument is with the ordination of women bishops – it was 1990 when this play came out, and how many women bishops do we have today? Ian Gelder Excellent support from Ian Gelder (who I remember seeing as Private Steven Flowers in Privates on Parade way back in 1978) as the Rev Harry Henderson, outed as gay by a tabloid paper – today that would be redundant but in this play has a greater effect, which is the only sign of its slight “dating”; although even then it becomes a revealing barometer of the times. Paul RattrayMore excellent support from Paul Rattray as his friend, and Jane Wymark of Midsomer Murders fame as Espy’s long suffering wife. She prepares coffees on a tray for Espy and his guest and leaves with a concerned look and the serious question “Are you all right with the pouring?” Jane WymarkWith that line she superbly encapsulates so much of their relationship together.

This definitely deserves a transfer. Important subjects are tackled intelligently and acted beautifully. Daniel Evans’ direction allows the story to develop at a decent pace, with clarity and emotion. It’s a winner through and through.