Review – The Sound of Music, Curve Theatre Leicester, 17th January 2015

The Sound of Music 2015Everybody loves The Sound of Music, don’t they? It was a natural choice for us to take our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see a show completely suitable for children. As indeed did the majority of the citizens of Leicester, judging from the number of children who were in Saturday’s matinee audience. All eager for a stage presentation of that sweet, wholesome musical film that generations have grown up with. Of course, the original stage version preceded the film by six years, but we don’t often think about that.

Do Re MiYou can smell that crisp, unpolluted Austrian countryside air. The delectable, yet innocent, Julie Andrews teaching children to sing Do-re-Mi. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. High on a hill stood a lonely goatherd. Larks that are learning to pray. It’s the full package. Yes, of course there are Nazis, but you never really get the sense that they’re anything but plastic baddies creating a bit of an exciting chase towards the end of the film.

The Sound of Music 2007That used to be my opinion. Then on 9th April 2007 we saw the Palladium production starring Connie How do you solve a problem like Maria Fisher – except that it was one of the performances where Maria was played by Sophie Bould who normally played Liesl – and extremely good she was too. But the most memorable thing about that production was how, about three-quarters of the way through, the Palladium transformed itself into a Nazi rally, with huge swastika banners hurling down from the ceiling throughout the auditorium; and that simple device just took my breath away. It was really scary.

Maria and LieslSo there is definitely a blend of the sweet and the sour in this show. Mrs Chrisparkle and I once dressed up for a performance of Sing-along-a-Sound-of-Music at the Wycombe Swan. That experience certainly emphasised the sweet side of the story. Mrs C became a less than demure nun and I was a redoubtable, fully-kitted-out German Officer. The best dressed competition was tough for the ladies as the place was awash with nuns of all shapes and sizes. However, us German Officer lads were fewer and farther in between. Only half a dozen or so of us actually got on the stage to be voted on, and I think I was the only one who assumed any sort of character. I based my performance on Bernard Hepton in Colditz, only a bit more vicious. I got loads of boos and hisses. and won a rather lousy CD of cover versions of Sound of Music songs for my pains.

Seven childrenThe new production of The Sound of Music at the Leicester Curve – which ended its season on the 17th January – repeated the dream team of the previous year’s Chicago, being directed by Paul Kerryson (his swansong before standing down as Curve Artistic Director) and choreographed by up-and-coming dance genius Drew McOnie. It was a beautiful production, and I’m glad we managed to see it on its final day. Al Parkinson’s sets were stunning, on a grand scale. The severe looking bars that dropped down to represent the hallowed gated cloisters of the Abbey, with coloured lighting coming from imaginary stained glass windows; and the huge painting that appeared to suggest the Reverend Mother’s office gave it a real sense of substance and occasion. The surprisingly natural looking green mountain where Maria first appears, with its big strong trees descending into place made you want to go for a hike; the grandeur of the inside of Captain von Trapp’s villa made you feel like you were worth a million dollars. The Nazi element was also effectively portrayed, with the subtle regular introduction of swastikas on armbands as the show proceeds, and when the von Trapp children are performing at the Kaltzberg Festival there was no escaping our row (E of the stalls) as we had two Nazi “heavies” at either end, observing us closely and making sure we weren’t going to assist in any escape attempt. As if.

16 going on 17Recently a number of otherwise really good musicals have been spoiled by the sound amplification. In some – Calamity Jane, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – it was really hard to hear the words at all because of the over-amplification. Well, all praise to the people twiddling the technical knobs at the Curve because the sound quality in this show was just perfect. The star roles were sung with impeccable exquisiteness anyway; but the overall clarity and purity of the sound throughout the performance was amazing.

Maria and the CaptainMaria was played by Laura Pitt-Pulford, who was a magnificent Irene in the Curve’s Hello Dolly a couple of years ago. It was a faultless performance; the singing, the humour, the warmth, the anguish, were all perfect. Seeing her Maria was like meeting an old friend – there’s a lot you remember from when you last met but since then they’ve got a few new tricks up their sleeve too. By the time she’d finished singing the opening “Sound of Music” theme I had goosebumps everywhere. I loved her relationship with the children – especially Emma Harrold’s Liesl (so much better in this show than in the awful Happy Days) – and her growing relationship with the Captain was very delicately portrayed. Her Ländler dance with him, after which one of the children, Brigitta, tells her that she’s obviously in love her dad, was one of those deep down, genuinely lovely moments.

RolfIn the performance we saw, the Captain was played by Mark Inscoe (who normally plays Max, and who we last saw as a villainous Claudius in Hamlet the Musical). His was a very different Captain from any other I’d seen, in that he didn’t come across as particularly tyrannical at first. He didn’t raise his voice in belligerence or strictness; he just liked households to run like a well-oiled machine. In fact he was like one of those very quiet level-headed bosses who you know will handle a crisis well – firmly but fairly. In many respects it’s a much more believable presentation, but it does also mean that his leaving the dark side and becoming nice again isn’t quite so dramatic. This Captain definitely reserves his tough side for dealing with the Nazi sympathisers rather than disobedient children. I very much enjoyed his performance though, including how he doesn’t have much time for his reprehensible pal Max (played on this occasion by Matt Harrop, who warmed into the role during the course of the show) and having a lot of flirtatiousness with the glamorous Frau Schräder, (she’s just a Frau here, she’s a Baroness in the film), played with style and vivacity by Emma Clifford (although Mrs C wasn’t convinced by her accent).

Climb Every MountainThe other outstanding performance was by Susannah van den Berg as the Mother Abbess. Previously we’d seen her in a relatively minor role in Fiddler on the Roof where she was clearly hiding her light under a bushel. Her Mother Abbess is a fantastic creation – balanced, witty and not afraid to be cruel to be kind. When she sang Climb Every Mountain before the interval, those goosebumps came back in droves. A total musical treat. There was also excellent support from Hannah Grace, Rebecca Ridout and Kate Manley as the Sisters with opposing views of how you solve a problem like Maria; an intelligent performance by Jack Wilcox as Rolf who seems kindly enough to Liesl in the superbly staged Sixteen Going on Seventeen, but proves himself a turncoat at the end; and an excellently nasty portrayal of Nazi enthusiast Herr Zeller by Patrick Moy.

EdelweissAnd then, of course, there are the children. A captain with seven children…. what’s so fearsome about that? I always enjoy that line. The programme lists a choice of two or three names against each child character but with no photos so I’m afraid I don’t know which particular actors we saw in our performance. Suffice to say they were all excellent. I do think they were probably considerably older than the children they were playing – especially the character of seven-year-old Marta who seemed very mature – but they never put a foot or a vocal chord wrong throughout. You’re not meant to have favourites with kids, but little Gretl was outstandingly cute, and Kurt was impishly decent in his dancing with Maria. Their So Long Farewell was definitely a highlight of the show.

Frau SchräderAll in all, a superb production that looked and sounded absolutely great throughout. A very fitting send-off for Paul Kerryson, and a tribute to the wonderful theatre that he has steered artistically over the past few years. We all loved the show, and have been singing the songs with irritating regularity ever since!

Review – Hamlet the Musical, Royal, Northampton, 19th May 2011

Hamlet the MusicalElsinore, 1600. The battlements of the castle. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears. And sings!

You know a show’s a winner when you sit through it in joy, walk home afterwards in joy, go to bed in joy, get up in joy and laugh about it all through breakfast. I had a preconceived idea of what “Hamlet! The Musical” would be like, having seen an introduction to it at the season launch and having read a couple of reviews. But actually the show exceeds expectations on all levels. It’s not merely a Shakespearian spoof. The songs are delightfully catchy and tuneful; the lyrics are extremely witty and cleverly thought out; and the cast work their socks off with huge zest to fill the Royal auditorium with laughter and affection.

Shakespeare plays of course do lend themselves to being “musicalised” in different ways. You can take the basic play and put music to it, like Trevor Nunn’s Comedy of Errors in the 1970s; you can attach a musical to the side of it, like Kiss Me Kate; you can use it to inspire a completely new work, like West Side Story; or you can keep the characters and a few words from the original script and tell basically the same plot tongue firmly in cheek like Hamlet the Musical. And it works really well.

Among the songs, it has a big number, “To Be or Not To Be” that strongly reminds me of Sweden’s 1999 Eurovision winner “Take me to your heaven”. The two could nicely interchange! I liked the use of the Danish song sheet and pluckily attempted it in the original tongue. There’s another song which is all about what the bloody bloody hell do we bloody do now, which had me in hysterics. A song that relies heavily on inadequate swear words contrasts so entertainingly with the work of the English language’s greatest wordsmith. To pick just two songs to remember is to do an injustice to the rest of it though; every song works in its own way.

Jack ShallooUsually a moody misfit, Hamlet here is presented as part Everyman and part dingbat; his incongruous “ordinary bloke” appearance is so not what you would expect of the eponymous Prince that it really maximises his comic potential. He’s endearingly hopeless, really – needing a decent question, he can only get as far as “to be or…” I thought Jack Shalloo’s performance was a real knockout. It’s the combination of his apparent ordinariness, his slightly “fish out of water” characterisation, and his unexpected ability to sing and dance way beyond what you would expect from looking at him! One cheeky glance and he takes you into his confidence so that his plight is your plight. But then rather than build up a tragic Shakespearian crescendo, instead he’ll play the fool or play up to the girls just like anyone of us would. I loved the portrayal of his England tour – suddenly becoming a popstar, chatting up the talent in the audience and getting the lady cellist to ring him. He’s like a chip off the old block as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father has that certain Vegas quality too!

Jess RobinsonOphelia is sweetness and light but becomes the girlfriend from hell that Hamlet needs to ditch in order to avenge his father’s murder. The staging of her descent into madness is one of sheer hilarity. Jess Robinson is great in this role but also in the several other roles she takes, perhaps best as the irrepressibly cheery Rosencrantz, a wholesomely squeaky college dude who would irritate the pants off you on Wittenberg Campus. Gabriel VickThe other half of this ingeniously presented duo is Gabriel Vick’s Guildenstern, equally nauseating for all the right reasons. He is terrific as Laertes, the kind of guy who comes back from foreign lands having acquired the accent – and much more. I don’t recall Laertes going to Spain, but this one obviously did. He may be all protective of his sister and trying to macho up against Hamlet but deep down you get the feeling he just likes dressing up. I think this is the third time we’ve seen Gabriel Vick – we also caught him in Avenue Q a while back and he was marvellous as the son in the Menier’s Little Night Music (later, Henrik, much later…)

Virge Gilchrist Virge Gilchrist’s Gertrude is a fantastic incarnation of weary lustiness, regretting the fact that her son has “issues”, but being won over by hunky Claudius’ gold codpiece, and her breaking the news of Polonius’ death to Laertes is a stroke of genius! Mark InscoeMark Inscoe’s Claudius is villainy personified and gets nicely uncomfortable watching the play within the play, brilliantly presented as snatches from opera. As Gertrude says, he clearly prefers Ayckbourn. He has a marvellously mealy-mouthed song about his capacity for doing good from which he wrings every nuance. David BurtDavid Burt revels in numerous other roles, including Polonius, nicely hidden behind the arras (not), a gravedigger with a cheeky tombstone bearing an ALW epitaph, and a Fortinbras who suffers from Premature Interjection. It all ends with everyone dead of course, killed with authentic Danish weaponry, and you just love the way they milk the death spasms.

It’s pure escapist entertainment from start to finish. Take an extra tenner with you as you’ll definitely want to buy the CD. It’s on next week in Richmond, and hopefully somewhere else after that. ‘Tis no tragedy, it’s a wonderful two hours that will suit lovers and detractors of Shakespeare alike!