Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, London Palladium, 30th December 2022

Jack and the BeanstalkI never lose track of the thrill and the indeed the privilege of attending a performance at the London Palladium. Going through those glass doors instantly gives you a feeling of invigoration, of importance, and of being part of decades upon decades of sheer entertainment. As I was growing up, the Palladium always meant the pantomime, but also the home of revue – from To See Such Fun with Tommy Cooper and Clive Dunn, to the Tommy Steele Show, to The Comedians, to Larry Grayson in Grayson’s Scandals, to the Sacha Distel Show (appearing with the then love of my life, Lynsey de Paul) And then the big musicals – Barnum, Singin’ in the Rain, La Cage aux Folles, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the revival of A Chorus Line, and now full circle to the annual return of the Palladium panto. Good or bad, you can never be indifferent to what’s going on at the Palladium – and long may it remain so.

Julian ClaryLast year there was a plucky attempt to bring back panto to the post-Covid Palladium, with Pantoland, but it’s great to have a proper full-scale panto back here again, even if it is yet another production of Jack and the Beanstalk, although, for obvious reasons, this version is very different from the others around the country. The usual suspects of Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot and Nigel Havers return (and it wouldn’t be the same without them), this year with Dawn French on her second Palladium panto, the exquisite voice and presence of Alexandra Burke, and upcoming musical theatre star Rob Madge. It’s always bizarre (but traditional) that the roles of Jack and Jill (Louis Gaunt and Natalie McQueen) almost appear as afterthoughts; that’s just the way it is, except that there wouldn’t be a story without them!

Dawn FrenchTechnical highlight of this year’s show is without doubt the beanstalk – and I’m not being pejorative about the rest of the show! This is the most auditorium-invading, skyscraper-forming, neckache-inducing slice of vegetation in a theatre since Audrey II had too much to eat in Little Shop of Horrors. And having Jack climb up it is a terrific idea. We were seated pretty near the beanstalk and it’s a shame that the illusion kind of ends with a view that few people would have had, namely Jack dangling around at the very top of the auditorium, waiting for that final pull that would yank him through the roof and into safety. But it’s still a great effect.

Gary WilmotNaturally, Mr Clary appeared in a sequence of outlandish garments, and if there hadn’t been a double-entendre for a few minutes, he’d give us one. His badinage with all the cast – and indeed the audience – is a thing of beauty and a joy forever and is pretty much worth the (expensive) ticket price on its own. Mr Wilmot – of course – did another of his list songs, this year about diseases and ailments, and is always a great laugh. Among the new elements this Rob Madge and Louis Gauntyear, my favourite was probably Rob Madge as Pat the Cow, a West-End Musical-obsessed bovine, who had me in hysterics with their version of that Les Miserables classic, I Creamed a Cream.

There’s no questioning the production values of a show like this – literally, no expense is spared and it’s a pure onslaught of pizzazz from start to finish. As always, enormous fun, and don’t bother bringing the children.

Production photos by Paul Coltas

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Sex Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 30th December 2022

Sex PartyWasn’t it the great Jona Lewie who said – and I think it was – You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties? Sadly, that’s where Terry Johnson has chosen to set his latest offering, The Sex Party – not in the living room where everyone’s getting down and dirty, but in the kitchen, where everyone’s either embarrassed, or bitching and moaning, or being offensive or just getting steadily chateau’d. To be honest you’d get a lot more entertainment from Jona Lewie’s 7-incher than you would by sitting through two hours twenty minutes of this dismal and, frankly, unpleasant play.

Hetty and GillyBut first, gentle reader, let me cast your mind back to April of last year. Maria Friedman had just finished her short spell at the Menier performing Legacy, which we unfortunately missed. But we were waiting for the announcement of the next show at this much-loved theatre. And we waited… and we waited. Surely the Menier hasn’t… closed?… we thought? No movement on the website – nothing in the social media. Don’t say this is the end….? And then a sign of life – the Menier would be reopening in November, with the latest play by Terry Johnson. I jumped at the chance – as I am sure many others did. We’ve all missed the Menier and were sad at the thought that it might never reopen; basically we would have booked to see anything. And Terry Johnson too – he’s a reliable old theatrical character, with hits like Dead Funny and Insignificance to his name. What could possibly go wrong?

Great setTo be fair, not quite everything. Tim Shortall has constructed a fantastic set depicting a well-to-do Islington kitchen. Every detail is realised immaculately. The matching kettle and toaster; the yuppie cookbooks including that Leon one that all posh people have; the well-stocked patio garden. Boy, you could live in that kitchen. There are some good performances too. Jason Merrells is a safe pair of hands as Alex, whose home it is and who is holding the party, along with the excellent Molly Osborne as Hetty, who is the bubbliest and most welcoming of hostesses without going over the top. The first scenes find them greeting their first guests, the verging-on-spoilt Gilly (Lisa Dwan) and her husband, the verging-on-tedious Jake (John Hopkins), both excellent in conveying their characters’ annoying habits and difficult relationship.

Alex and GillyStrangely, if Terry Johnson had left it there, with two embarrassed and embarrassing guests being manipulated by two ostensibly charming hosts, it might have developed into something reasonable. A dash of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mixed with a splodge of Relatively Speaking to make a modern-day Comedy of Manners that dismantles 2022 Britain (and let’s face it, it needs some dismantling) through the eye of a swingers’ party. But no – Johnson gives us five more characters to contend with, four of which position themselves variously on the thoroughly irritating spectrum; and the fifth, a catalyst with which to throw a big spanner in the works.

Jeff and LucyThat last character is Lucy – played with immaculate reserve and control by Pooya Mohseni – a discreet and refined woman who happens to be trans but doesn’t expect to make a big thing of it. Terry Johnson, however, wants a very big thing to be made of it. At this point, he throws all these disparate elements up into the air and lets them land higgledy-piggledy on the stage to let everyone fight it out in the manner of a live Twitter spat. The rest of the play is an experiment in seeing how far you can take the mickey out of transphobia, and questions how long is it funny to do so before it starts getting uncomfortable.

Sex PartyAnswer: not long. It falls to Broadway and Hollywood star Timothy Hutton, in his London stage debut (so bizarre that he should have chosen this play for this significant step in his career), as the American businessman Jeff, in what often feels to be a very stilted performance, to bombard Lucy with offensive, intrusive and crass questioning about her right to call herself a woman; goaded on by the almost equally offensive beliefs and asides of his Russian wife Magdalena, whom I think is meant to be a humorous character but comes across way off the mark.

Alex and CamillaCan you write a play examining transphobia? Of course you can. But this isn’t it. It doesn’t contain sufficiently robust conversations or plot development; in fact there were a couple of lengthy and excruciatingly dull sequences – one where Magdalena likens herself to a butterfly, another where there is a pointless conversation about whether people like dogs. The play lacks the required delicacy and integrity to manage its own sensitive subject matter, and whatever humour there is misses its spot so that the audience is reduced to squirming in their seats. There’s even a short scene at the end of the play that explains what has happened to some of the characters some months later, as if we cared. It was very noticeable how the energy of the audience members had been hugely sapped as we all slunk out at the end,Sex Party with no one quite daring to say WTF did we just see? – but definitely thinking it.

A wasted opportunity? Yes. A tasteless evening of deliberate provocation without anything to back it up? Also yes. Hurrah for the return of the Menier Chocolate Factory, but let this play die a quiet death and never be spoken of again. Two stars is generous, but it’s a proficient production.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Two Disappointing for Anything More

 

Review – Get Up Stand Up, Lyric Theatre, London, 29th December 2022

Get Up Stand UpWe walked past the Lyric Theatre on the evening of Wednesday 28th December to see the “House Full” sign up, which I thought was a good sign (in more than one way) that there was still interest in this show; and indeed, when we turned up for the matinee on Thursday 29th December there was barely a seat available; which made me ask myself why the heck are they closing this show whilst it’s still doing such great business? I guess that’s a question for Mr. Producer; don’t ask me.

David AlburyAudiences have been Getting Up and Standing Up (although only when told to!) since October 2021 and I’m really glad to have had the chance to see this show before it closes on Saturday 8th January. According to the Nimax Theatre website, there are just two (yes, that’s 2) seats left unsold between now and the end of the run. So they’re obviously doing something right.

Bob and RitaIn fact, they’re doing almost everything right. This is a gloriously entertaining show and performed with tremendous style and warmth. Staged with intimacy, the show instantly strikes a terrific connection between the performers and the audience, with David Albury as Bob Marley introducing us all to the entire cast with whom we will spend the next two and a half hours. We watch the rise (talent) and fall (ill health) of Bob Marley, his life and loves (11 children apparently, from many mothers, so Jah certainly provided), his influence on both the music and political scenes; and a reacquaintance (if like me, it’s been quite a while since Marley has been on your turntable) with his amazing music. It’s been a full five days since we saw the show, and his tunes haven’t stopped going through our heads ever since. In fact, almost the first thing we did when we came home was to find our old copy of his Greatest Hits album Legend and listen to the whole thing without stopping.

Bob and CindyI say they’re doing almost everything right. That’s because Lee Hall’s book misses nearly every opportunity to draw the meaning out of Marley’s insightful lyrics and relate them to his life. Significant events like uniting political leaders Seaga and Manley on stage with him are quickly dipped into and then left behind. I wanted to come away from the show feeling that I knew much more about Marley the man – but I don’t believe I did. We also had another issue with the show – which was our difficulty in tuning into the Jamaican accents. Concentrate hard as we did, we still missed out on a lot of the conversations.

David AlburyBut this matters so little when you get swept up with the warmth and musicality of the show. David Albury, who has been the lead Marley performer since October, is absolutely superb as the main man. His physicality of performance, the timbre of his voice, his expression, and his sheer love of what he’s doing, overwhelm you and you’re completely transfixed by him. He’s just magnificent; and the unalloyed joy of his performance of Jamming (supported by the whole cast) that closes the first half is something that will stay with me for a very long time.

Cleopatra ReyHowever, it’s Cleopatra Rey, as Rita, who totally takes your breath away with her extraordinary vocal range and feel for the music. Her solo rendition of No Woman No Cry is one of the best individual performances of a song I have ever heard in a theatre. And her vocals on One Love are to die for. The other memorably spine-tingling moment comes from Shanay Holmes, when, as Cindy Breakspeare, she sings Waiting in Vain to Marley as he refuses to leave Rita for her. In our performance, it was young Kristiano Ricardo who took the role of Little Bob, and I loved his singing and commitment to the role – a star of the future, no doubt. But the whole ensemble are tremendous and hugely likeable; they ensure that we have a great time, and we left the theatre basking in the warm glow of pure success. I would happily see it again. They’re talking about a UK tour later this year – I’d definitely recommend it.

Production photos by Craig Sugden

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – 2:22 A Ghost Story, Criterion Theatre, London, 28th December 2022

Criterion TheatreA few train strikes weren’t going to stop Mrs Chrisparkle and me from undertaking our annual post-Christmas trip to London to catch up on a few shows and blitz the sales; although it did mean having to take an extra night in a hotel the night before we had intended to travel. But you don’t want to hear about our transport difficulties. You want to hear about how much we enjoyed our shows! (At least, I hope you do.)

2:22Our first show was 2:22 A Ghost Story, currently at the Criterion but shortly to be moving to the Lyric. This is (I think) its fourth reincarnation since it first opened at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2021. It’s a show that appears for a while then goes away, then comes back, then goes away again, then comes back… you get the drift… almost like a ghost re-emerging from the shadows (see what I did there?)  Each time it comes back it has a new cast which I am sure keeps the whole thing fresh and lively.

CastA bit like The Mousetrap, at the end of the show they ask the audience not to tell anyone the secret of the play, and I am nothing if not obedient. But I wouldn’t be giving the game away by telling you a little of what it’s about. New mother Jenny is decorating the ramshackle old house that she has bought with partner Sam, with one eye on her painting skills and one ear on the baby alarm. For reasons best known to her, she is still working away at gone 2am – I would have though most new mothers would be knackered long before then, but we’ll let that pass. By the time she decides to pack up and go to bed, it’s 2:22 in the morning. Cue the first heart-attack-inducing moment in the play for the audience! Jenny becomes more and more convinced that her new house is haunted but cynical Sam thinks it’s a load of old baloney. But when they have a dinner party for Sam’s old friend Lauren and her new boyfriend Ben, things start to get a little out of hand. Ben turns out to be quite the Ghost Whisperer, much to Sam’s dismay. Are there really ghosts in the house? They decide to stay up till 2:22 to see what happens….

Jenny and SamI’d heard good things about this play but I wasn’t expecting quite such a superb piece of writing. Danny Robins’ text is sharp, clever, witty, and totally honest with the audience; and he gets some nice digs in at yuppie North London home renovators too! If you want to stay ahead of the game, the clues are there to help you work it out before the final curtain. However, the play weaves such a wonderful web of atmosphere and spookiness that you just revel in the moment and don’t give a thought to what possible solution there might be to it all – making the final revelation even more of a surprise.

Sam and JennyThe whole production is excellent too, with an intriguing set by Anna Fleischle, unsettling lighting from Lucy Carter and a frankly terrifying sound design by Ian Dickinson. The terrific cast of four work together superbly well, with a variety of accents that give a heart-warming sense of inclusivity. There’s a great West End debut from Laura Whitmore as Jenny, a delightfully understated performance from Matt Willis as Ben, Felix Scott is a superbly exasperated Sam and Tamsin Carroll provides a lot of the humour as Lauren.

CastTerrific fun all the way through; and when you realise exactly what it is that has happened (right at the very end of the play) there’s a huge sense of satisfaction that everything makes sense, and all loose ends are tied up. There’s no reason why a crowd-pleaser of a play shouldn’t also be a marvellous work of art; and 2:22 A Ghost Story proves it. The new season opens at the Lyric Theatre on 21st January, and I highly recommend it!

Production photos by Helen Murray

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – John Gabriel Borkman, Bridge Theatre, London, 2nd November 2022

John Gabriel BorkmanI’ve always been a sucker for a bit of Ibsen. Ever since we read Ghosts at school, I’ve always admired the grim grit of miserable 19th century Norwegian life that only Ibsen really seems to get. John Gabriel Borkman is one of his later plays, and was new to me, so I was curious to see if he’d cheered up at all in later life. Not a bit of it – I’m pleased to say. You don’t watch Ibsen for the lolz.

JGBNicholas Hytner brings us a brand new JGB, with a fresh translation by Charlotte Barslund then moulded into a new version by Lucinda Coxon. Comparing it with the original, there isn’t really a lot that’s changed. The role of Mrs Borkman’s maid has been dropped, which gives it a more contemporary feel; she has been replaced by Gunhild’s use of a mobile phone, poor thing, which I presume is the main reason why this new version is presented in the here and now, rather than 1896. Otherwise, I can’t see how presenting the play in a modern setting gives any other insights – more on some staging details later.

Gunhild and ErhartThere’s no doubt that it’s a fascinating story with two central, timeless, themes. First – the humiliation of the fallen hero. The John Gabriel Borkman of the title was once a “great” man; a banker, respected, wealthy, influential – but a fraud, who swindled people left right and centre, including his own friends. Unsurprisingly, he was sent to prison for five years, to return home to the hostile and unforgiving arms of his wife, Gunhild. As a result, he has spent the last three years pacing around the upstairs room of their house, doing hardly anything, seeing hardly anyone. An unmitigated failure.

EllaThis deadlock is broken by the arrival of Gunhild’s sister, Ella, who owns the property as all Borkman’s assets were seized. Gunhild and Ella haven’t seen each other in eight years; Gunhild’s animosity towards her sister is palpable. It emerges that young Erhart Borkman has been seeing an older woman in the town, Fanny Wilton; this introduces the second timeless theme – the desire of the older generation to control the lives of the younger generation. Gunhild is an overprotective mother and Ella a besotted aunt; and when JGB decides he also wants to take Erhart away and start a new life together, there’s only one possible outcome for all this delusion.

CastAnna Fleischle has designed a very classy set. Cool greys and blues straight out of the Dulux colour chart suggest an atmospheric Oslo winter but also create poverty out of what was once obviously opulence. Very nicely done indeed. James Farncombe’s inventive lighting enhances the set design and brings additional drama to the theatrical highlights. In the loft sits a grand piano, on which young Frida Foldal plays Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, the only remnant of artistry left in the building.

FridaBut there are a couple of odd staging choices. The sound effect representing JGB pacing upstairs at the beginning of the play doesn’t sound like footsteps at all – they are more like a muffled drum beat.  The programme tells us the setting is “outside Oslo”, so why does Gunhild drink Barr’s cola? Nothing against Barr’s cola, of course, but one would have thought that the factories of Forfar are a long way from Oslo. Does she swap to Irn-Bru at the weekends? And we’re clearly in the 21st century, with mobile phones, a flat-screen tv and so on –  so why is Ella dressed as an 1890s drudge?

ErhartThere’s also an accidentally amusing moment when Fanny announces that Frida is joining Erhart and herself on the journey to Rome, saying “Frida’s waiting in the car”; when she’s clearly still upstairs putting away her sheet music. Perhaps the production is peppered with these deliberately disconcerting aspects as a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt; or maybe, as I suspect, I can’t help but think that a few things weren’t properly thought through. Another of my pet hates – Ibsen has left us a beautifully structured four act play but there’s still no interval – 1 hour 45 minutes all the way through. When you get to my age you really do value a break in between!

BorkmanThere’s no doubt that you witness an acting masterclass. Simon Russell Beale is superb as the disgraced Borkman. A complex, riveting performance, you can see the charisma in the character, his ability to fool both himself and others, his loss of focus and his absolute selfishness. Sir Simon uses every note of his terrific voice to try to galvanise others, to convince himself, and to show his total sense of failure. He’s brilliant. Clare Higgins is also superb as the strident Gunhild; a loud, complaining, stifling characterisation that works perfectly. Lia Williams is terrific as the quieter, more reasoning Ella, resolute against her ill-health and hoping against hope that Erhart might take pity on her – but also completely accepting and understanding the reality of his situation.

VilhelmThere’s excellent support from the rest of the cast, including the always entertaining Michael Simkins as JGB’s friend Vilhelm Foldal, putting up with being treated like dirt by everyone who knows him, but always with a little optimism held back for the future. Ony Uhiara’s Fanny Wilton is a woman who knows what she wants and is out to get it; I liked how her voice and costume set her apart from the traditional respectability of the other characters.

Enjoyable, and very well acted, but with some odd production decisions. Great to see that Ibsen isn’t going away any time soon!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Blues for an Alabama Sky, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 26th October 2022

Blues for an Alabama SkyThe second stage (literally) of our three-part Blitz on the National Theatre was to see Wednesday’s matinee of Blues for an Alabama Sky at the Lyttelton Theatre – Lynette Linton’s acclaimed production of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play. Set in Harlem in 1930, Angel is a club singer who shares an apartment with her friend Guy, a clothes designer whose dream is to create extravagant outfits for his heroine, Josephine Baker, in Paris. Fired from her job and dumped by her gangster boyfriend, Guy carries her home drunk with the assistance of a handsome passing stranger. Supported by Guy, and their friends Delia (from the adjacent apartment) and Sam, a local doctor, Angel sets about picking up the pieces of her life. But then the passing stranger passes by again, this time deliberately, to see if Angel has recovered, and he doesn’t seem likely to take no for an answer…

CastPlays are peculiar things. A bunch of words on paper, they come to life when transferred to a stage – especially if the creative team behind the production gets it right. This is one such occasion; a superb production that – dare I say it – elevates the words on the page to a level way further than you might expect. Lynette Linton’s direction, Frankie Bradshaw’s set and especially costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s music, and so on, all contribute to presenting us with the most elegant of productions. It shrieks class, although it’s far too elegant to shriek.

Angel and LelandThere’s also something about the production – and I can’t quite put my finger on why – that lures the audience into complete involvement with it. So when a character makes a really telling statement, or a very dramatic event occurs, there are audible gasps, even cries, from the audience. To create that link between us and what happens on stage is a rare gift.

DeliaHowever, and it’s quite a big however, I must confess that I didn’t really like the play itself that much. It feels long – I’m sure it could have shaved at least twenty minutes off without losing any of its content. It was, occasionally, a little bit boring. There are a couple of major plot events that are telegraphed a mile off. I don’t believe it’s in Delia’s character to do what she does at the end of the play (no spoilers). And the suggestion in the final scene that Angel is about to embark on some kind of Groundhog Day re-enactment of what has gone before means that nothing has changed, which is  a miserable conclusion, no matter how stylishly it’s conveyed. The direction also triggered one of my pet hates, when imaginary walls that divide rooms or buildings are unnecessarily breached by an actor walking through them. No!! What are you doing!! You’ve just picked that chair up and moved it through a brick wall!

Sam and AngelHaving said that, the play is genuinely fascinating with the development of a character who is absolutely committed to the cause of a woman’s accessibility to both contraception and abortion rights, particularly as it is progressed through promoting it through the church. It also nicely examines the bigotry of the Christian right through the character of Leland, slow to recognise homosexuality in his surroundings simply because he cannot believe it exists in any environment where he might find himself.

AngelThe performances are fantastic throughout and fully justify your decision to buy a ticket! Samira Wiley, in her UK stage debut, is incredible as Angel. She is the kind of performer you simply cannot take your eyes off. No movement, no gesture is wasted; she inhabits the role so fully that you are completely convinced she is Angel. Her singing voice is superb, her emotions get you in the guts, and she’s a dab hand at the comic timing and business too. A remarkable performance. Giles Terera impresses as Guy, with an entertaining range of camp mannerisms and vocal tics that delightfully bring out the humour of the character, but also complement his kindness and his realistic ability to the cut the crap and get to the truth. Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo is brilliant as Delia, combining her earnestness with her innocence; she brings the whole audience with her on her gentle journey of love with the supportive Sam, another excellent performance from Sule Rimi. And Osy Ikhile is great as the handsome stranger Leland, the epitome of dignity and romance until the brutality of life stretches his patience too far.

Delia and GuyThe superb atmosphere that the production creates never lets up throughout the whole play, even if the play itself does occasionally leave something to be desired. But there’s a delicate mix of comedy and tragedy, fascinating character development, and an incredible connection with the audience which means the good definitely outweighs the not so good.

Production photos by Marc Brenner4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Boy with Two Hearts, Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, London, 25th October 2022

The Boy with Two HeartsIn our eternal quest for the best in theatre, Mrs Chrisparkle and I sneaked a couple of treat nights away in London to see all three shows currently playing at the National Theatre. We started off with the show for which I had the least expectations – but which turned out to be a seat of your pants emotional thrill-ride from start to finish – Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of Hamed Amiri’s 2020 book The Boy with Two Hearts. A co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre, it was first seen on stage in October 2021, and now, a year later, it is playing at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre to spread its message of love to brand new audiences.

The familyA true story, Hussein, Hamed and Hessam Amiri, together with their parents Mohammed and Fariba, lived as best they could in Herat, Afghanistan, under the Taliban rule. A normal family, but as if it wasn’t bad enough living under the Taliban, they have another significant problem – oldest son Hussein is born with a rare heart condition that can only be treated by specialist surgeons in either the UK or America. After Fariba makes a speech demanding freedom for Afghan women, she becomes the target of death threats from the Taliban and the family has no choice but to escape to save their lives.

SecurityWhat follows is two-and-a-quarter hours of anxiety-fuelled, nail biting excitement as we desperately hope the family can make their way through Europe, at the mercy of traffickers and thieves, but also sometimes assisted by genuinely kind people. Spoiler alert – but it’s not that much of a surprise really – they do make it to the UK. But what is the hope for Hussein and his heart, and can the NHS work its wonders and give him a life?

Under the shirtsThis beautiful adaptation takes this both horrific and delightful story and tells it with such lucidity and animation that it is a joy to watch from start to finish. In many ways, it’s a production like none other I’ve ever seen. For example, inventive use of projected surtitles throughout the play not only makes you aware of the continuous changing from English into Farsi and other languages, it also breathes life into your imagination to see aeroplanes taking off, or a road of busy traffic – you have to see it to appreciate it, but I’ve never seen titling used so eloquently.

Elaha SoroorSinger Elaha Soroor joins the actors on stage to provide a moody, atmospheric soundtrack of Iranian/Afghan music; this, combined with Hayley Grindle’s versatile set, Amy Mae’s evocative lighting and Amit Sharma’s creative and sensitive direction, makes for a true visual and aural feast. The writing is clear, pacey, and with a perfect balance between the humour of warm family life and the atrocity of the real world just outside; and I really liked the way the play ended up in the here and now with the brothers writing their book about their experiences.

CastThe five actors who play the various members of the family, but also the many strangers and familiar faces they meet on their way, work as a stunning ensemble. They move seamlessly from their main character to another by a simple change of a hat or the donning of a jacket. They also drive the story forward by occasionally breaking into what I can only describe as drama-school music and movement sequences. I mention it, because whenever I have seen it done before it always looks artificial and – I don’t know, is there a polite word for wanky? But here it really works and gives the dramatic tension an extra dimension.

Dana HaqjooEach of the five actors brings immense warmth and understanding to their role. Houda Echouafni is brilliant as Fariba, constantly caring for her family, always alert to danger, always the first with both a comforting word or a disciplinary ticking-off. Dana Haqjoo, also, is superb as the father Mohammed; a natural authority, an indulgent smile, a brave planner of escapes, the ultimate in resourcefulness. Ahmad Sakhi plays Hussein; as the oldest boy he too has an authority over his brothers and conveys Hussein’s essential seriousness, an inevitability of balancing childhood fun with a life-threatening health condition. Farshid Rokey as Hamed and Shamail Ali as Hessam have the joint challenge of portraying children (Hamed is ten and Hessam is seven when the play starts) who have adulthood thrust upon them too early in life. They are all 100% convincing in their roles.

thrillingAt the beginning of the interval Mrs C turned to me and said if Hussein doesn’t make it to the end, I’m going to have a bloody good cry. No spoilers again, but there’s no question this is a thoroughly emotional experience; fast paced, with the fear of disaster around every corner, and an exploration of the love within a family and by strangers outside the family. And it’s supported by a hugely creative and vigorous production with fantastic performances throughout. If you think refugee is a dirty word, this just might make you think again. It’s what theatre is all about.

Production photos by Jorge Lizalde

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Peacock Theatre, London, 10th and 15th September 2022

TrocksThere was a time, somewhere in the lonely misery of Lockdown 1.0, when we wondered if we would ever see the Trocks again. Everything else was cancelled due to Covid – how would it ever be safe to venture out again? But here we are, just four short (or maybe long) years since their last visit, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo have returned to our shores for a two week stint at the Peacock Theatre, with two different programmes, followed by a UK tour.

TrocksHow sad it was, then, that their return should coincide with the death of Her Majesty the Queen, which knocked the stuffing out of us as a nation. We saw Programme A on the matinee of 10th September, when we were all still coming to terms with her death. The usual hilarious announcement that begins each Trocks show that there will be changes to the advertised programme, largely due to the mission of mercy by esteemed dancer Natasha Notgoodenuff, to rescue a production at Le Grand Theatre de Ballet de Croydon (or somewhere equally unlikely) was missing, and was instead replaced by a two minutes silence plus standing for the national anthem.

TrocksWhilst this was completely in keeping with the mourning period, and was scrupulously observed by everyone, it was not the perfect way to start a programme of comic dance. Normally, we would be instantly laughing as an unfit von Rothbart started scampering around the stage at the beginning of the Trocks’ incomparable take on Swan Lake Act II. We’ve seen this wonderful piece of nonsense at least a dozen times and it never failed to make us laugh till we ached – until this time. It’s still wonderful and always will be; but the sadness of the day wasn’t in keeping with the pratfalls on display, and it took a long time for us all to loosen up. It did, however, allow us to witness a brand new Trock star in the diminutive but oh so powerful form of Takaomi Yoshino, who, as Varvara Laptopova, performed the most extraordinary jetés and fouettés, gaining amazing height and completely made you forget you were watching a comedy performance.

TrocksWithout a pre-show announcement, we didn’t know if there were any changes of cast or what the surprise Pas de Deux would be. Actually, it turned out to be a Pas de Trois, from Swan Lake Act I, with two majestically tall ballerinas accompanied by a teeny tiny male dancer doing his best to support them – and in the end, they gave up and hoisted him overhead in a hilarious about-turn from the usual gender roles. We then moved on to Nightcrawlers, a surprisingly stylish and slick parody of Jerome Robbins’ In The Night, with couples mixing and matching, unexpected rapid cross-stage exits and entrances, and a lot of fun to boot. It was Robert Carter’s magnificent creation Olga Supphozova who executed the Dying Swan in the age old tradition, and we finally enjoyed the ludicrously charming Walpurgisnacht, the stage littered with delightfully silly fauns, a powerful coupling between Minnie Van Driver and Jacques D’Aniels, and a scene-stealing Pan by Boris Dumbkopf (that brilliant Takaomi Yoshino again).

TrocksWe returned for Programme B on the evening of 15th September. It’s amazing what a few days can do for public spirit. No pre-show silence, but a return to the announcement of changes – and the fact that Natasha Notgoodenuff’s errand of mercy had taken her to Les Grands Ballets Imperiales de Slough. It’s funny how rattling off a few faux Russian names and the news that the ballerinas are all in a very very good mood this evening can really help the show start off on the right foot. We kicked off (indeed, it all kicked off) with Les Sylphides, an excellent example of the Trocks doing their trademark perfect combination of comedy riffs with superb classical ballet. Olga Supphozova took every opportunity to milk the show for comedy value, but there were some terrific solos too. Dmitri Legupski didn’t sober up the whole time.

TrocksAgain we enjoyed a Pas de Trois, this time from Paquita, with some genuinely brilliant dancing from Helen Highwaters (who I think should be now be made a Dame), Elvira Khababgallina (I think) and William Vanilla. The Trocks at their very best. Then came the slightly more subdued Vivaldi Suite, followed by La Supphozova dealing with the terminal fowl again, and finally Majisimas, a delightful mix of mock-flamenco and Spanish bravura with the usual comedy/classic combo.

TrocksI’m going to be controversial here. (Gasp!) I’ve checked back, and this is the 15th (and 16th) times that we’ve seen the Trocks since we discovered them in 1998. Their unique selling point has always been that combination of comedy and classical ballet perfection. However, for the first time, there were a few moments when the dancing, primarily from those dancers in a more corps de ballet role, wasn’t quite a perfect as usual. No names, no pack drill. But some of those leaps didn’t land properly and some of the usual elegance was missing. TrocksDon’t get me wrong – they’re still brilliant, and we will still see them again for a 17th time (and more!) It’s just that when you expect perfection and it’s not entirely there, it comes as a bit of a surprise.

Do catch them on their UK tour though – Canterbury, Brighton, Norwich, Nottingham, Buxton, Hull, Bradford, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Truro and Belfast, between 19th September and 29th October. Keep on Trockin’!

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Oklahoma!, Young Vic, London, 28th May 2022

OklahomaWhen I saw that the Young Vic were showing the new, shaken-up Broadway version of Oklahoma! I knew it was something I had to see. Oklahoma! is one of my favourite musicals but you can never overlook the dark, violent prejudice and savagery that lurks just a little under the surface. The Chichester production from 2019 brought out all the joy of the show whilst exposing a lot of its iffy underbelly. Daniel Fish’s new production goes deeper, and a lot of what it reveals is truly horrific. But it’s also jam-packed with the humour that has always been a mainstay of this musical.

Laurey at the Box SocialYou know the show is going to be disturbing even before it starts. The transformed Young Vic auditorium is ablaze with bright light; the band sit at one end of the stage area, whilst trestle tables laden with cans of beer (that get consumed) and crockpots of chilli (that don’t) line along either side of the acting area and – for the first act – along the middle. The actors sit with their backs to us until it’s their time to join in the show. Unusually for a musical the programme doesn’t list the musical numbers, so unless you know the show intimately you don’t know what’s coming next or whereabouts in the sequence of scenes you are. You might assume from this that the music takes second place in the show’s priorities – but that’s not the case. The music is vital to the show, and frequently adds to the sense of irony and discord that permeates Daniel Fish’s vision for the production. Tom Brady’s band takes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sumptuous score and give it a modern twist; less Broadway 1943, more country guitar-heavy, but still with stunning singing from the cast who harmonise together exquisitely, with passion and power.

Curly and the bandThe iconic opening, where Curly sings Oh What a Beautiful Morning off stage whilst Aunt Eller churns butter, now has Curly onstage accompanying himself on his own guitar whilst Aunt Eller silently looks away with the rest of the cast. In fact, gone are the Curly and Laurey of yore, the adorable young couple who win your heart, and whom you want to see living happy ever after at the end. Arthur Darvill’s Curly is vain and arrogant; his swagger barely conceals his scorn for his surroundings, and you get the sense he’s more isolated, not really part of the community; you wouldn’t believe anyone who says he’s their friend. However, this characterisation is juxtaposed with his surprisingly delicate and eloquent singing voice. Anoushka Lucas’ Laurey, on the other hand, is temperamental and sullen; she bats Curly’s approaches away as though he were just another “typical man” for whom she has neither time nor interest – until things start to get physical, at any rate. If and when this Curly and Laurey get together you feel that the sparks will fly in their relationship and not always in a good way.

Ali and JudWhere the show is much more traditional is in the representation of the four comedy characters, Ado Annie, Will Parker, Ali Hakim and Gertie Cummings, each one played sublimely. Rebekah Hinds gets Gertie’s irritating cackle perfectly, and suggests a superb smugness whenever she gets her way over anything (or anyone). Stavros Demetraki is hilarious as Hakim, desperately trying to put more money Will’s way so that he can be freed from his commitment to Ado Annie. James Davis, who played Will in this production on Broadway, brilliantly portrays just how utterly stupid the character is, constantly infuriating himself with his own mistakes.

Ado AnnieAlthough she has a lot of stage credits to her name, I’ve never seen Marisha Wallace before, but I was blown away by just how fantastic she is as Ado Annie. Filling the theatre with the most powerful and beautiful of voices, she has immense stage presence and injects everything the character does with just the right amount of comedy, as well as perfect interplay with the audience. Her performance of I Cain’t Say No is the true highlight moment of the show. All the way through, I couldn’t wait for her next appearance because she lights up the stage with such genuine pleasure. Simply marvellous!

AndrewI hardly recognised Greg Hicks as Andrew Carnes; if you’ve seen this role played as a lovable old rogue before, think again. Mr Hicks makes him a truly hard man. No sense of humour or kindness; a man who thinks with his gun first then might reflect afterwards (or might not). He’ll aim his barrels at anyone who dallies with his daughter; I thought he was going to blast a few heads off early on and finish the show before the interval. Liza Sadovy’s Aunt Eller is another characterisation that feels more remote and detached from the community, until, at least, she’s in charge of the auction of lunch baskets. There’s excellent support from Raphael Bushay as Mike and Ashley Samuels as Cord Elam; their hesitations at supporting the decision of Judge Andrew towards the end spoke volumes. But the whole cast does a great ensemble job, with terrific singing and dancing – a lot of full-bodied hard-floor thumping to get a resoundingly noisy beat effect.

JudOne of many fascinating directorial decisions in the show – some of which work, and some don’t – is the characterisation of Jud Fry. It’s in the characters’ dealings with Jud that this show gets particularly uncomfortable. Jud is usually portrayed as a loner. Papering his bedroom walls with soft porn to make him seem like a worthless wretch, picking on his learning difficulties, or sometimes on his ethnicity, he’s often seen as the antithesis of Curly, who’s All-American Hero in comparison to Pore Jud. However, Patrick Vaill (who also played the role on Broadway) presents us with a very different Jud. He’s passive, quiet, unemotional; determined but unthreatening, and probably no more of an outsider than Curly is. Rather than being the monster or ogre that he’s normally portrayed, this Jud is just another guy. And that makes Curly’s persecution of him strangely more uncomfortable – other than the fact that Curly’s a bully and wants nothing and no one to stand in his way.

ProjectionSo here’s the first directorial decision that I really didn’t understand. The two scenes where Curly intimidates and interrogates Jud are played in total blackout. All you can follow is by what you hear the two men say to each other. No visual cues, no facial expressions, no physical movement. Apart from the fact that it puts the audience in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position as well, it acts as a barrier to communication; and you can feel the built-up energy of the show quickly sap away as the scene progresses. The fact that you can’t see Curly and Jud’s interactions means that you can’t really understand what goes on between them. And whilst we have seen Curly in action several times during the show, Jud’s presence has only been very minimal, apart from in these two scenes – where you can’t see him! After a while, a camera projects Jud’s image onto the back wall during the song Pore Jud is Daid, but it’s distorted and artificial, and by that time I was so exasperated at being literally kept in the dark that I resented this piece of direction. I felt it was disrespectful to the audience. <rant>Rather like the moment when Ali Hakim unnecessarily and totally out of character sprays beer (actually water but we weren’t sure) over some members of the audience, including Mrs Chrisparkle. She was genuinely concerned it might have ruined her new leather jacket. It would have done if it was beer. The poor man next to her was soaked. Come on, Young Vic, treat us like adults! This isn’t a panto! </rant>.

Aunt EllerOdd decision number 2 coming up: it’s always difficult to incorporate the dream ballet sequence in the show. Nowadays it doesn’t fit in with our expectations and comes across as a purely historical interlude that the show would be better off cutting out. However, if you keep it in, it has to be relevant. It’s Laurey’s dream, so it should be performed by Laurey. If it has a meaning, it’s to process her anxieties regarding her forthcoming marriage to Curly. So I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy the dream dance sequence in this production at all. Nothing against Marie-Astrid Mence who throws herself brilliantly into John Heginbotham’s frankly ugly and irrelevant choreography and moves in time with the ghastly distorted musical accompaniment that’s brash, discordant and way too loud. And my word, did it go on….!

Box SocialThere is a third directorial decision that works well – but, good grief, is it horrible! I’m not going to give the game away too much because the shock of the staging is vital to the show’s effect. I knew that Curly was going to shoot Jud near the end – he always does, it’s part of the plot. What I wasn’t expecting was the physical aftermath, both in the actual appearance of the characters and in their change of demeanour. When Curly leads the cast for what is normally the final, triumphant rendition of the title song, so shocked is he at what has happened that he is literally like a zombie. His mouth is singing the words, his hands are strumming the guitar, but the soul inside has gone awol. Laurey joins in with demented fury, eyes on stalks, stamping and shouting like Lady Macbeth on an acid trip.

Laurey and Curly in greenBut this is the message that the show wants to send. The action takes place at the time when Oklahoma was all set to be the next state of the union. You’re doing fine, Oklahoma, goes the uplifting, unforgettable melody, as the state triumphantly sails into the next century. This show points out that the rot has already set in. There’s nothing fine about this Oklahoman society, riddled with injustice and corruption, hatred and contempt. What is normally a sweet ending is rendered bitterly sour. And the production is hugely successful at revealing this ugly truth.

Jud and CurlyBut if you’re a fan of the traditional show like me, even though you appreciate its dark undercurrent and murky prejudices, watching this production left me feeling physically nauseous. My stomach was frappéd like I’d been involved in the Oklahoma Chain Saw Massacre. By far the majority of the audience stood to give it a rapturous ovation, and I completely understand why; but I was rooted to the spot, giving a slowish handclap in disbelief at what I had seen. I’m writing this five days after seeing the show and I can still feel that sense of horror and destruction that this production has created in me. I can only say that you must see this show for yourself to truly appreciate what it reveals. It’s on until 25th June, but this is too much of a landmark production for it to stop there. I only wonder if there will ever be space for a traditional Oklahoma! again.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Corn is Green, National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, London, 27th May 2022

The Corn is GreenEmlyn Williams wrote the first play I ever saw at the theatre – I was six, on my own, in the front row for the local amateur dramatics group’ production of A Murder Has Been Arranged at the Wendover Memorial Hall. I was entranced, and a lifelong love of theatre was born. Imagine a six-year-old being out on their own to see a play nowadays – you’d call in Social Services at once! Things were different in the old days. Thirty years or so later I became friends with a chap who had acted with Emlyn Williams when he was a callow youth, and Williams was a big star. He was very proud of his albeit slight association with Williams, and, remembering that he had written the first play I ever saw, I also felt a strange sort of connection.

Nicola WalkerSince then, I have seen a production of Williams’ most famous play, Night Must Fall, but never The Corn is Green; and it was never on my radar as a play I should catch up with, until I saw that the National Theatre were mounting a production with Nicola Walker in the lead role. Being a huge admirer of Ms Walker’s TV career, I jumped at the chance. That was sometime in early 2020, and – well, you know the rest. Now that the worst of the pandemic is passed  (fingers crossed at least) I was thrilled to secure myself some tickets for its delayed performance. They say that good things are worth waiting for; this certainly proves that rule.

Nicola Walker and Iwan DaviesThe premise of the play is pretty simple. Miss Moffat arrives at a remote Welsh village with the intention of setting up a school, so that all the local lads have an alternative to a life down the coal pits. She wants them to be able to appreciate books, to extend their minds; to give them a fuller, more rounded understanding of what life has to offer. Despite opposition, she succeeds; and her first promising pupil is young Morgan Evans, whom she encourages, and develops to such an extent that she arranges for him to sit for a scholarship to Oxford. But can a boy who’s been bred to work down the mines leave behind the dismal future that he has always been expected to follow and break out into a middle-class world of learning and self-expression?

Iwan DaviesIt’s a semi-autobiographical play, and in the original production Williams played Evans; the character of Miss Moffat was based on his own teacher, Miss Cooke. And in a fascinating new twist to the play, director Dominic Cooke (no relation I presume!) has made Williams a key player on the stage. Not only does this production provide us with a performance of The Corn is Green, it also shows Williams going through the creative process, sometimes steering the production, sometimes discovering that it steers him. It’s a masterstroke of an idea and works incredibly well.

Williams at a partyThe play begins, for example, not with the house that Miss Moffat has inherited and will make into the school, but with a society ball, maybe in London, maybe in Oxford, where smart young things dance to the latest craze until the young Emlyn Williams bursts out of the proceedings, a sweaty, anxious mess, and decides to sit down at a typewriter and put his initial thoughts onto paper. As the play develops, Williams takes on the dual role of writer/director, deciding, for example, whether a character would speak in English or Welsh, whether they would enter the stage now or later, or whether the plot would twist this way or that. At one point Williams stops the show and makes the characters retrace their steps and do it differently – it reminded me of Laura Wade’s excellent The Watsons, where a character takes charge and shakes the rest of the cast into performing a different play. This extra dimension to the production allows Dominic Cooke to bring in a chorus of miners, all grubby faces and golden voices, that serve as a constant reminder of the world outside the schoolroom, never allowing Evans to forget his roots. There is also all the fun of the radio studio, with squeaking door sound effects, and actors never actually leaving the stage, just turning their back on the action. There’s a lot of façade going on, but it works a treat.

Teacher Nicola WalkerThe presence of Williams also serves as a bridge between the Welsh backwaters and the smart young society things, capturing both the grit and the glamour. The humour of the story is beautifully observed, with a harsh lack of sentimentality between the characters, a dismissive reaction to parental obligations, and a delightful obsequiousness towards The Squire, the local authority figure with whom everyone wants to ingratiate themselves – and he certainly expects it. As an outsider, Miss Moffat wants none of that; but the scene where she deliberately fawns to him and flatters him, setting herself up as a mere woman who needs the strength and guidance of a capable man, is comedy gold.

Miners ChoirI had high expectations of Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat and they were achieved in abundance. She has the most remarkably expressive face; no need for speech, but within a space of ten seconds she can show a sequence of emotions that follow naturally on from each other, going from, say, surprise to disappointment, then knowing she shouldn’t have been surprised, to seeing the funny side and then the tragic side. Basically, she can do anything! Her Miss Moffat is wonderfully no-nonsense and ruthlessly determined. At one stage she is so fixated on Evans’ Oxford career, she reminded me of that terrifying moment in Gypsy where Imelda Staunton broke into Everything’s Coming Up Roses not for the achievement of her prodigy but for her own overweening success. But Miss Moffat is also supremely altruistic – the sacrifice she is prepared to make at the end of the play is something quite extraordinary.

Saffron CoomberGareth David-Lloyd is excellent as the ever-present Emlyn Williams, a class apart from everyone else, attempting to take charge of his characters and plot, even when his characters have other ideas. I loved Alice Orr-Ewing as the shallow Miss Ronberry, fluttering for the attention of the Squire, repelled by the baser actions of the boys. Iwan Davies is also excellent as Evans, at first cheeky and one-of-the-lads, later a serious student who wants to do well; but he wants it to be on his own terms. Saffron Coomber is superb as Bessie Watty, desperate for a glamorous life away from the humdrum of rural Wales, and there’s great support from Richard Lynch as the lugubrious, saved, Jones. Jo McInnes as the hard-working and totally unmotherly Mrs Watty, and the marvellous pomposity of Rufus Wright’s Squire.

A kissI wasn’t sure about the final image of the scene; I understand that Williams was bisexual and had a number of liaisons with men during his marriage and after his wife died, but I still didn’t really see the relevance of his ending the show with a romantic dance with Evans. A small quibble though. This is a very clever and revealing production that breathes new life into a well-known, traditional play; and Nicola Walker is absolutely fabulous. It continues at the Lyttelton just until 11th June, so you’d better get your skates on.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!