Review – She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, 29th January 2017

She Loves MeI’m probably as guilty as anyone else in thinking that Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof and probably not much else. Wrong! Together they wrote nine other shows, including She Loves Me, an adaptation of the 1937 play Illatszertár, by Hungarian dramatist Miklos Laszlo, with whose works I am sure we are all highly familiar. Surprisingly perhaps, the play was also the original basis for three films, including the (relatively) recent You’ve Got Mail. She Loves Me was moderately successful artistically, but didn’t make any money, with a run of 302 performances on Broadway and 189 in the West End. A film, that was to star Julie Andrews, failed to materialise. Nevertheless, a revival in London in 1994 ran for a year and won many awards, and a revival on Broadway in 2016 was very successful – so now we see it back in London at the Menier.

slm5The scene is mainly set in Mr Maraczek’s perfume shop in Budapest, where diligent and respectful sales clerks bend over backwards to satisfy the demanding hoity-toity ladies of the Hungarian capital. Miss Ritter and Mr Kodaly have an on-off relationship which seems to be more off than on as they argue and then spoon despite Maraczek’s disapproval. The second-in-command, Mr Nowack, has been writing love letters to a “dear friend” whom he has never met and he’s getting very agitated about the prospect of finally meeting her. One day a new face appears at the shop – Miss Balash – who impresses Maraczek enough to give her a job. However, she and Nowack start off on the wrong foot and before long they can’t stand the sight of each other. Yes, you’ve guessed it; she’s the recipient of his love letters and neither of them realise it. What happens when the two pen pals finally decide to meet for dinner? Well, you’ll just have to see the show to find out.

slm4It’s a really beautiful, charming, funny and exquisitely musical musical. Paul Farnsworth’s set, which utilises four small revolving stages to transform a Budapest street into an upper class haven of retail delights, is stunning – although I did find the acting space provided for first two scenes of the second act – the hospital and Amalia’s bedroom – a little cramped. Catherine Jayes’ band plays Jerry Bock’s entertaining and beautiful melodies with loads of fun and character, and Sheldon Harnick’s witty and thoughtful lyrics are in very safe hands with a fine cast and sensitive direction by Matthew White. There are a lot of musical numbers in the show, and I appreciated how well each song either progressed the plot or gave us valuable character insights. It’s not a stop-start musical, but rather the book and the songs join seamlessly to create a satisfyingly well-structured piece.

slm3Scarlett Strallen leads the cast in the role of Amalia Balash, with a fine portrayal of both the enthusiastic shop girl head over heels in love and the feisty, obstinate colleague from hell. She sings immaculately – well you knew that already from her appearances in A Chorus Line and Candide. She really nails the humour of the role too – her tear-stained slumping around the bedroom was hilarious, and of course she expresses Harnick’s superb observations with telling accuracy. She’s perfectly matched by Menier favourite Mark Umbers, whom we loved in Sweet Charity and Merrily We Roll Along, with his essential earnestness and hilarious portrayal of Nowack deviously wriggling out of a difficult situation. He sings with great tone and warmth and has a great stage presence.

slm2There are plenty of other show-stealing performances on offer – Katherine Kingsley is officially fabulous as Ilona Ritter, characterising her as a working-class girl whose head is turned – eventually – by the lure of books; the downtrodden voice she gives Miss Ritter is simply brilliant. Dominic Tighe confidently expresses Kodaly’s superiority and smugness, and I’m always impressed by how nifty he is on his feet for a big chap. Alastair Brookshaw’s Sipos is an entertainingly humble everyday guy, with a little more of the wheeler-dealer about him than you might expect; Callum Howells’ delivery boy Arpad is bright as a button and keen as mustard, and Les Dennis plays Maraczek with avuncular generosity until he has cause to doubt the world around him. But for scene-stealing, you only have to look to Norman Pace’s hilarious head waiter at the Café Imperiale, managing his bumbling staff and his unsuspecting customers alike with ruthless authority.

slm1Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in complete agreement that this is a beautiful and classy production that absolutely brings the best out of the cast and the music. But we also agreed that the show itself is extraordinarily lightweight. It’s pure, insignificant light entertainment with absolutely no substance whatsoever. Given the fact that its subjects include adultery, a suicide attempt and broken relationships, there’s not an ounce of gravitas or a provocative moment in the whole two-and-a-half hours. It’s truly a soufflé in an art form where you have the potential to be a Chateaubriand. Depending on your point of view, this may be the perfect escapism from a world of Trump and Brexit. For me, however, it makes the show borderline irrelevant. There’s no doubting the talent that brings all this together, but on the whole I’d prefer to take home memories of something a little more substantial. One year later Harnick and Bock would give the world Fiddler on the Roof, with all its important observations and superb character creativity. Perhaps this show just came one year too early.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Review – Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre, 29th December 2014

Sunny AfternoonIf you’re like me, you can’t think of the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon without instantly singing to yourself, “the taxman’s taken all my dough and left me in my stately home”; although I always thought it was the even more savage, “the taxman’s taken all my dole and left me in my stately hole”. Those old songs really are steeped in emotion. If you grew up with the Kinks, you’ll probably find that each of their songs brings back a particular memory, a moment, or a sensation. Dead End Street always reminds me of the first time I heard it, as a little kid, being astounded at the pounding introduction and even more so at the whispering “yeah!” fade out. Days always takes me back to sharing a study with my best friend when we were at university, desperately trying to cobble together essays on English literature against the clock.

The KinksI’ve always thought the Kinks have been vastly underrated in the annals of modern culture, with Ray Davies’ songs being easily comparable to Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richard. In many respects they bridged the gap between the Beatles and the Stones. On one side, John Lennon wrote about “me” – “there are places I remember all my life…”, “is there anybody going to listen to my story….”- and Paul McCartney delicately crafted characters and places like Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane; on the other the Stones created the full rock guitar experience with songs like Satisfaction and Paint It Black whilst still incorporating thoughtful meaningful lyrics. Somewhere between the two Ray Davies and the Kinks could give you the introspective vision of Terry and Julie meeting at the Waterloo Sunset or the observation of the tiny caterpillar in Autumn Almanac, but still offering the full on rock attack of All Day and All of the Night, the gritty realism of Dead End Street, the wistful reminiscence of Days or the feel-good humour of Lola.

Resign or notSo a musical featuring the works of the Kinks is a nice idea. Would it be like Mamma Mia, where the songs of Abba get mish-mashed to create an original story, or would it actually tell the story of the group themselves? The Kinks’ songs are so full of story-telling technique that I am sure they would work well in the Mamma Mia model. But Sunny Afternoon (the musical) tells the journey of Ray, Dave and their mates and how they came to get a record contract, how they got their name, how Ray started to write songs of exquisite quality, how Dave was a loose cannon, how Mick kept on feeling like he wasn’t wanted, how they weren’t accepted in America, how they dealt with female fans, and, by ending with a rock concert finale, how their songs are still great today.

Ray and RasaJoe Penhall’s book is adapted from Ray Davies’ own original story of the Kinks, so we can assume that pretty much everything you see on stage is factually true. The songs adapt very well to reflecting the group’s birth, rise and fall; it all develops organically, and nothing feels forced or unnatural. Of course, I was just a nipper when the Kinks were at their height but I always felt I had an extra link to them as my cousin was friends with Ray Davies – not that I ever met him. So there was plenty for me to discover about the group. I wasn’t aware of the all the legal wrangles that beset the group, nor of how they came a-cropper in the States due to the Union rules, and in fact were banned from performing there. I’d also forgotten what a wild lad Dave Davies was. Some of the best parts of the show are where you see the creative process in action – how did they get those brilliant guitar riffs on the early singles? How did the Davies family home inspire Dead End Street? The music creates its own drama, and it feels very exciting.

Mr Davies SnrFor this production, they’ve given the insides of the Harold Pinter (I still think of it as the Comedy) something of an internal rip-out. The front couple of rows and the back few rows have been converted to cabaret tables. Additionally, the middle seats have been removed from the first seven or so rows and been replaced by a catwalk, so that the action can come further into the audience, giving a greater sensation of everything happening around you. Mrs Chrisparkle and I opted for one of the front cabaret tables – a table for two just to the right side of the stage. You certainly feel as though you’re in the heart of the action, but this location is not for the fainthearted. Steps just to the right of us led up to the stage, and as cast members bounded up and down them I frequently felt the need to grab hold of my merlot Kinks in Concertso that it didn’t topple over with the vibration. Your ears are also perilously close to a whopping great speaker – when the first few notes were played at the start of the show, Mrs C virtually leapt into the air with aural anguish and spent the next minute or so creating earplugs out of tissues. There’s a lot of looking up to do – otherwise your eyes look directly at the performers’ feet – and unless you twist your back round at about 135 degrees, you can’t see what’s happening on the catwalk. However, despite all those quibbles, I really enjoyed our perspective on the show! You become something more than just audience when you’re that close, you’re really participating too; and the impact of the music is outstanding.

Kinks in AmericaThe set is simple but intricate – the walls are lined from top to bottom with speakers. All around, everywhere you look, woofers and tweeters abound. The emphasis is all on the music – and, as you would expect with all those speakers, it’s loud. The show is directed by Edward Hall, best known for his work with the all-male Shakespeare company Propeller – we saw their Henry V a few years ago and I was very impressed with the company’s sense of ensemble. You very much sense it in this show too, so it must be one of Mr Hall’s strong points. The choreography is by Adam Cooper, and you can’t get much more impressive a name-check than that.

John DagleishThe performances are great – both musically and in the story-telling. John Dagleish plays Ray Davies and does indeed have something of the look of the young Ray about him. Quirky, funny, gritty – rather like his songs in fact. Ned Derrington and Adam Sopp play the lesser known band members Pete and Mick with great 60s aplomb and attitude, but probably the best performance of the night is by George Maguire as Dave Davies – a real, unpredictable, wild child, oozing mischief, and with an overriding desire to have a good time. From our vantage point, I could see that Mr Maguire George Maguirewas Absolutely Loving It. The final scene converts into a full on concert party, with the guys reprising all the best boppy Kinks numbers and Mr Maguire encourages us all to get on our feet and bop along. When I stood up, he looked at me with a big grin as if to say “you too, old geezer? Good on ya!” It made me feel quite welcome. However, perhaps the vocal highlight of the show comes a few minutes earlier when the four guys perform an acapella rendition of Days, which only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t find emotional.

Davies BrothersThere’s another excellent double act in the show – Dominic Tighe as Robert Wace and Tam Williams as Grenville Collins, two rather posh characters who end up representing the Kinks as Management in a rather hit-and-miss manner. Messrs Tighe and Williams really play up the toffee-nosed aspects of their characters without ever drifting into caricature, and they provide a lot of fun. We’d seen Mr Tighe a couple of times before, in the touring production of Barefoot in the Park and in the excellent Charley’s Aunt at the Menier, but he’d kept his musical ability quiet in those shows, so I was surprised to discover he’s really a very good singer! And we both loved Lillie Flynn as Rasa, Ray’s wife, giving great vocal support to the band numbers but also singing solo with great emotion – her performance of I Go To Sleep was a knockout. But everyone gives strong, enjoyable performances and there isn’t a weak spot anywhere; and you have to give a mention to the terrific band, directed by Elliott Ware, and the high octane guitar playing by Pete Friesen.

Dave getting randyThere are a couple of sins of omission; although the story is primarily seen from Ray’s point of view it would have been great to have at least one of Dave’s songs there as well – preferably Death of a Clown. I also missed Autumn Almanac, which is hippy quirkiness at its best, the cynical Plastic Man and the surreal Victoria. Still, you can’t have everything. It’s a feel-good show that brings the Kinks firmly back to the limelight where they belong. Irresistibly enjoyable, a perfect party show with great music and musical performances but also telling a strong story with a good sense of its time. I spent the following four days unable to get Kinks’ songs out of my head! If you’re a fan of the group, you’ll love this show – and if you’re undecided, I bet you’ll be fan by the time you go home.

Review – Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th October 2012

Charley's Aunt 1977Charley’s Aunt – from Brazil – where the nuts come from; the phrase is the stuff of legend. I saw sure I had seen a production of this in my youth at the Young Vic but my memories of it were hazy. I did a bit of online research and it revealed nothing. But the irritation of not being able to bring it to mind started to get too much…So there was nothing to be done for it, I would have to search my theatre programme collection. And there it was – a production at the Young Vic that I attended on January 3rd 1977 when I was still sweet 16. It was directed by Denise Coffey and had a great cast – Lord Fancourt Babberley was played by Nicky Henson; Jack and Charley were Ian Gelder and Simon Chandler; Amy Spettigue was Natasha Pyne (from Father Dear Father) and Ela Delahay was a young Miss Janine Duvitski. I remember thinking at the time that, for such an old play, it was still very funny.

Charley's Aunt 2012That would have been its 85th anniversary production – if you care to look at it in those terms. The current production at the Menier celebrates its 120th anniversary, and it is still as fresh as the proverbial daisy, or indeed Sir Francis Chesney’s wandering carnation. You get an instant high as you enter the auditorium from looking at the beautiful, versatile and (by Menier standards) extremely large set designed by Paul Farnsworth. We loved the gargoyle effects and the dreaming spires, the way the outside courtyard transformed into Spettigue’s house, and how by removing or reversing panels you can create what was outside, inside, and vice versa. And from our vantage point of Row A, you feel so close and involved in the action. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like imaginary seventh and eighth people attending the Act One lunch as the dining table was almost within arm’s reach of us.

Mathew HorneI did however want to dash across the stage to where Jack was writing his opening scene letter and replace the book he was leaning on with something genuinely from the period. They’re using a 1970s red leatherette Readers Digest book godammit! Why not use an old anonymous brown leather bound tome, you could get one off Ebay for £3.50. Tsk!

Jane AsherAnyway I think that’s my only criticism of the play dealt with. Apart from that, it’s a dream. The packed audience laughed all the way through – sometimes hysterically; sometimes having to fight the urge to exclaim back at the cast at the onstage larks. There’s a moment when Lord Fancourt Babberley is hiding behind the piano, and when he is discovered, there is an almighty thud suggesting he’d walloped his head against the back of the piano. Not only was I laughing my own head off, I ended up cradling it in sympathetic agony too. There were pained groans from all over the audience. I must say that the moments of comic business littered throughout the show are all done marvellously.

Charlie Clemmow“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive”, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to warn, and this play could almost be the dictionary definition of that old saying. Jack and Charley want to progress their chances with their sweethearts Kitty and Amy, but propriety requires a chaperone. Fortunately Charley’s rich aunt Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez is expected from Brazil (where the nuts come from) so the girls agree to risk the naughtiness of proximity to the boys provided she is there to stand guard. Unfortunately though, her arrival is delayed; so Jack and Charley convince their fellow undergraduate toff Fancourt Babberley to disguise himself as the aunt so that their separate loves may be professed to the girls before the latter go to Scotland, for apparently what was going to be a helluva long time. Naturally things get out of hand; the aunt’s finances attract amorous advances; the real aunt turns up; farce ensues.

Dominic Tighe It was first produced in 1892, the same year as Lady Windermere’s Fan, and almost exactly in the middle of Georges Feydeau’s career as farceur magnifique d’Europe, which is definitely reflected in its content. However, it also has quite a Shakespearean structure to it. Cross-dressing, old fools making an idiot of themselves over love, a humorous servant and with four engagements to be married before the curtain comes down. No wonder people were falling over themselves to procure tickets for it back in 1892. This production is, appropriately, absolutely faithful to Brandon Thomas’ original text and I really liked the fact that they have gone for two intervals. I know it’s not trendy to do so, and that frequently directors look for a cliffhanger moment in the middle of act two just to chop it in half for simplicity’s sake; but three-acters were written for a reason, and it gives audience and cast alike a chance to pace themselves.

Benjamin AskewWhen it was first announced that this production would star Mathew Horne and Jane Asher my immediate thought was that it was perfect casting; and so it is. Mathew Horne is brilliant at taking those “put-upon” roles – whether it be Gavin, or Nan Taylor’s grandson – where the source of the comedy is elsewhere but requires the visible suffering of an innocent everyman figure. Nan Taylor reminds me of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle so I’ve always identified with Mr Horne in those scenes. Mind you, Lord Fancourt Babberley isn’t that innocent; he does try to nick the four bottles of champagne after all. Cue a perfect example of Mr Horne’s acting eyes; when after some undergraduate horseplay he lands chest down on the bag containing the bottles and you hear that agonising clink of glass on glass, with one glimpse of his anxious expression, the audience groaned and shared his alarm. He has an extraordinary ability to convey that “I don’t believe what just happened/I just heard/they just did” emotion with a fractional eye movement.

Leah Whitaker Brandon Thomas is very clear in his stage instructions that “Fanny Babbs” should be in no way effeminate as Donna Lucia; and Mathew Horne catches that ridiculous set-up perfectly. He has to veer towards the pug-ugly and behave like a bloke so that the attractions of Spettigue are even more absurd; and a lot of the comedy comes from the juxtaposition of Donna Lucia’s presumed gentility and FB’s chummy Etonian boisterousness. That all works really well in this production. His genuine distress at being put in this embarrassing position is real and funny; and when he dissolves into a puddle of love at the prospect of Miss Delahay, I actually found it quite moving. It’s a great performance, full of physical comedy, technically spot-on and not a word garbled or hard to hear, so hurrah for that.

Ellie Beaven Of course it’s great to see Jane Asher on stage, giving a wonderfully balanced performance based on the refined but warm character of the real Donna Lucia and her comic teasing of the fake Donna Lucia. She has super stage presence, which lends itself perfectly to the dignity of her character, but also with a very light human and comic touch. Her little utterance of excitement after she has re-established contact with Chesney Senior is a moment of delight. She also made a very good double act with Charlie Clemmow, as Ela, both of them giggling in a co-conspiratorial way at the depths to which the young men are digging holes for themselves. I liked Miss Clemmow’s performance a great deal, as she brought life and depth to the character of Ela, rather than her just being the “third girl”, which it easily can be.

Steven Pacey All the actors are splendid though, and the show’s got a great ensemble feel. Dominic Tighe (excellent in Barefoot in the Park earlier this year at Oxford) as Jack is thrusting and imperious as a bossy toffee-nosed undergrad, who goes all matey with his dad when there’s money in the offing; and he too has a very strong stage presence and a crystal clear voice. 1892 is a long time ago; if I’d addressed my scout like that in 1978 I’d have been rusticated. Benjamin Askew’s Charley is a delightful duffer with something of a toned-down version of Harry Enfield’s Tim-Nice-But-Dim to him; he also makes a very good puppy dog when in Amy Spettigue’s presence. As their wannabe girlfriends, both Leah Whitaker and Ellie Beaven are perfectly matched to their chaps; Miss Whitaker credibly providing the bolder approach to proposals, and giving a perfect visual response to being told she’s a brick.

Norman PaceSteven Pacey makes a strong impact as Sir Francis, full of vitality and spark, absolutely the old Indian Colonel and really relishing his lines. “That’s not the way an old soldier makes love” brought the house down. Norman Pace’s Spettigue is a great creation; bombastic at first – Mathew Horne’s giving him short shrift for his rudeness is hilarious – and then later a picture of ridiculous besottedness as he admires and adores every move the fake aunt makes. Fancourt Babberley describes him as looking like a boiled owl and somehow that’s precisely how Mr Pace manages to make himself look. Brilliant stuff. Finally Charles Kay – whose performances I have enjoyed dozens of times over the years – is excellent as Brassett the scout, doing his best to answer the call of His Master’s Voice when necessary but pompously facing down effrontery when required.

Charles Kay It’s a wonderful production, one of the best things we’ve seen at the Menier, and we laughed about it on the train home, which is always a good sign. It surely deserves a transfer after its spell at the Menier. Take the opportunity to catch a great cast do justice to a classic comedy!

Review – Barefoot in the Park, Oxford Playhouse, 23rd April 2012

Barefoot in the ParkMany years ago Mrs Chrisparkle declared “Barefoot in the Park” to be one of her all-time favourite films, so it was a no-brainer that we should see this new touring production of Neil Simon’s original play, directed by, as well as starring, Maureen Lipman. It was a huge success on Broadway back in the 1960s, but a 2006 revival flopped.

So is it risky to resurrect it again? As the curtain goes up to the strains of Jack Jones’ Wives and Lovers, you expect some 1960s New York glamour, trendiness and sophistication. But of course, the reality is newlywed Corrie and Paul’s tiny basic apartment has no heating and a broken skylight. In New York’s 2006 people felt reasonably affluent and secure in their jobs, and maybe this setting didn’t connect much with those theatregoers. In Britain’s 2012, however, times are hard, and I think we can all understand the plight of the young couple starting out in life with a grotty flat and not a lot of money, but full of hope in their hearts.

So, whilst the play is rather dated in some aspects – in this world of children owning smartphones, Corrie’s delight in having her first telephone delivered and installed is charming but seems anachronistic today – the basic themes of the play are still relevant, and I think it’s a good choice of play to revive. Plenty of young couples still start out with nothing but enthusiasm; there are always going to be potentially tricky mothers/mothers-in-law; and that fine line of blending your leisure time and home life with the demands of your work remains blurry. And of course, as long as people are people, and are therefore flawed, they are always going to be a source of disappointment to their partners at some point, which is when you have to work out your compromises in order to get a happy balanced life together. This is the stark reality that faces Corrie and Paul once the initial excitement of the wedding and the moving in together has died down.

Tim Goodchild’s set very evocatively recreates that top-floor Brownstone apartment – bare and basic, with a very dismal and dirty glass roof; the door to the bedroom that you can hardly open because the bed is in the way; the clothes rail inconveniently far from the bedroom (no space for a wardrobe); the useless tiny kitchen that would be impossible to cook in; all looking tired and drab, but nevertheless suggesting that exciting prospect that with a bit of time and effort you could make it look really swish.

Faye CastelowRight at the centre of the story is Corrie, played by Faye Castelow. Young, idealistic, and keen to experience everything she can, her delight in her new surroundings is a joy – she’s playing at being an adult for the first time and loving every minute. You don’t want life to knock the innocent exuberance out of her, as it inevitably will. It’s a very good performance, quirky and funny, whilst remaining totally within the bounds of reality. She is matched by Dominic Tighe’s Paul, his feet firmly on the ground, aghast at the number of steps you have to climb to get to the flat Dominic Tighe(one presumes Corrie agreed the deal on a girlish whim), deeply in love with her but also very aware of his responsibilities and obligations with work and the more serious aspects of life. It’s an equally good performance. Their second act argument scene is conducted with a splendid mixture of pace, silliness, outrage and genuine disappointment. For me it was the highlight of the play. Through their argument they learn the art of compromise and it’s a heart-warming moment when you realise Paul did actually go barefoot in the park.

Maureen Lipman Maureen Lipman is Corrie’s mother, Mrs Banks, and it’s a beautifully understated comic performance. She conveys all the regular motherly concerns without ever becoming a real nag. The role gives her ample opportunities to show off her brilliant comic timing; and you also get very telling insights into her personal loneliness, which will be more acute now that Corrie is living away from home. On top of all that you can just glimpse that slight twinkle in her eye suggesting there might be a more companionable life ahead for her with Victor, played by Oliver Cotton, Oliver Cottonwho gives a funny but again totally believable performance of the weird neighbour with outrageous tastes and extravagant gestures. Ms Lipman’s direction of the play is what makes this production really tick. It emphasises the laughs within the text – some of the lines are still very, very funny – but without ever going over the top. It could have been tempting to make Mrs Banks a hideous dragon and Victor a grotesque foreigner and poke cruel fun at their backgrounds and attitudes. Instead the production allows all its characters to have their personal motivations and genuine emotions recognised and respected. It makes for a much more believable and rewarding scenario.

David PartridgeThere’s also some entertaining support from David Partridge’s Telephone Repair Man and Hayward Morse’s Delivery Man – how nice (if surprising in this kind of role) to see him on the stage again (original Brad in Rocky Horror, Nick in What the Butler Saw, Tony award nominee in Butley on Broadway, and son of the late Barry Morse). Hayward Morse The full house at Oxford gave a warm reception to this surprisingly thoughtful production of a charming play, with lots of funny lines and a feelgood factor. It’s still touring, and with Richmond and Cambridge still to come, I’d recommend it for an entertaining night out.