Monday, 8 December 2014

"Jesus Christ Superstar", Glasgow King's Theatre, 21/11/14

Frankly I cannot write about this production without it coming across as a bit of a rant and I'll say now that the reason for my frustration with the production is that it clearly had promise (especially in its cast) but was, ultimately, let down by direction that lacked cohesion.

Let's start with some positives:
I must give kudos to the director, Steve Mann, who seemed to be attempting something 'new' even if everything he applied wasn't. The simplest of his staging ideas were the best; the cross-over of 'Poor Jerusalem' into 'Pilate's Dream' - where 'Jesus'  (Lawrence Sharkey) remains onstage once his song is over to become an image from the dream of 'Pilate' (Johnny Collins) - was nice, as was the final sequence of 'John 19:41' where 'Jesus' is removed from the cross, dressed in a simple cloth and lifted above the heads of the 'Apostles' who carry him slowly offstage. Simple but effective.
The choreography by Lynne Bustard was enjoyable if prosaic for the most part although the number 'Superstar' was a more exciting sequence with some fine motifs.
Musical Direction by Alan Fraser was assured and the guitar playing quite brilliant. The quieter moments, such as 'Pilate's Dream', were amongst the strongest sequences and 'The Temple' was a rousing aural experience with the tempo of the number the fastest I'd experienced onstage creating an exciting musical experience.
But the best thing about the production was the cast, most of whom were blessed (no pun intended) with lovely voices and sufficient stage presence to root the show and raise it above the mundane.

Now for the negatives, and here I must go into some detail to justify my views:
Verisimilitude was lacking throughout because of the disconnected direction which failed to connect on an emotional level.
The show was advertised on social media as being 'avant-garde' and utilising physical theatre. They did so in as much and to the same effect as the Arena tour of a few years back i.e. underwhelmingly: I can't say I saw anything in the production to warrant its claims and the physical theatre seemed to comprise of little more than numerous choreographed ensemble-undulating sequences. Some circus-skills such as a silk performer and stilt walking were also employed, the latter appeared in the Arena tour. To be honest their use didn't really add anything to the dramatic purpose of the scene other than to appeal visually.
If nothing else the director is guilty of being too derivative: There were scenes based on the Gale Edwards UK touring production (which was filmed before heading to Broadway) and also on the Arena tour. Examples include the 'Overture' which was all but a copy (save for redundant dialogue) of Edwards' production as was 'Could We Start Again, Please' while 'The Temple' seemed to be lifted from the Arena tour.
During the 'Overture' background information (such as why the Priests disapproved of Jesus) was projected which I felt unnecessary given that all that is required to understand the plot is within the lyrics. If the director really had to provide this information then it should be kept to programme notes as the projection became a distraction from the frenetic action onstage. It also didn't help that some elements of the set obscured the projection screen. The projection also clearly set the production in the early A.D. period which was confused by other elements throughout (graffiti, costuming etc.) and the director would have done better to suggest a period rather than specifically define it which would have made the anachronistic elements to sit more comfortably within the production (as some other productions have done).
Directors should also be aware when to use stillness and when not to. People were often almost manic while at other times the ensemble was reduced to choreographed slow-motion action.
There were some scene changes and entrances and exits that were a bit clumsily handled thus stilting the flow of events and these could easily have been rectified. The same could be said of some prop/scenic elements such as the cloth hung from the flies for the aerial acrobat and the rope that 'Judas' (Garry Taylor) hangs himself with which intruded beyond their allotted use and became rather distracting. 'Judas' Death' and the earlier 'Damned for all Time' sequences also had an ensemble of figures who were reminiscent of the 'Tormentors' of the Tom O'Horgan production: Figures in black who waft around 'Judas', although in this case they carried boughs with shredded black material hanging off. The programme mentioned the presence of ravens as a symbol of death and I can only assume that this material is what is alluded to. But again these figures weren't really utilised to the best effect. The only purpose I can make for them was as a foreshadowing of the tree from which 'Judas' will hang himself. I may be totally incorrect. (The director attempts to explain some choices in his programme notes but the need to explain such things suggests a possibility of unsuccessful communication of these ideas across the footlights.)
Given the director makes heavy-handed attempts to show the frustration and anger of 'Jesus' (amongst other things) the director once again misses Tim Rice's point about his divinity - that is it isn't shown or admitted ('Jesus' never claims to be the Son of God in the show and deflects the suggestion) - by opening Act II with  'Jesus' walking on water (a cloth waved by cast members!) directly before the 'Last Supper' begins. Another cringe-worthy moment was in the Da Vinci Last Supper Tableau enacted by the company which got quite the laugh from the audience (the Da Vinci setting was even projected in the background) - unfortunate given the nature of the scene that follows.

The choices the director makes for his cast was also rather worrying: From the outset it appeared that all the 'Apostles' were bad tempered, very much against the intention of Tim Rice and thus making little contrast with 'Judas', at least in the opening. This wild attitude also made the sudden calmness of 'Everything's Alright' and the 'Apostles'' actions within rather odd.
'Jesus' is also quite a violent figure - he manhandles people and throttles 'Judas' in the 'Last Supper' and threatens vendors with a knife in 'The Temple'. By all means I can understand that 'Jesus' can be seen as a revolutionary but one has to balance such extremes within the material that is written.
'Judas' was presented pretty much as seen in the Edwards' production although the actor here subdued the more miserable aspects of the role which was appropriate whilst 'Mary' (Vicky Robertson) was presented as one of the 'Apostles' and a strong figure amongst them. Thus it made her attempt at slashing her wrists during 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' all the more problematic, indeed worrying, not to mention unsightly. In fact I felt this was utterly irresponsible and quite unbelievable - why should someone who is presented as a reformed prostitute decide her life is not worth living simply because she loves someone for the first time? Yes, the emotion troubles her and unsettles her but even contemplating suicide is far beyond any truth within the role after all she states within her big number how she'd handle the situation ('I'd turn my head, I'd back away ... '). Applying a shot of violence here and there for nothing but shock value is not good direction.
Given there was so much violence of some degree or another throughout the show it made the appropriate violence in Act II ('The Trial') less effective than if there was more contrast beforehand. 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' also ended with 'Jesus' giving a full on kiss to 'Mary' - thus making 'Mary's' motives and lyrics in her big number a bit questionable. Given that 'Judas' plants a similar kiss on 'Jesus' in the betrayal I had to wonder whether this 'Jesus of Nazareth' was a bit easy.
'Caiaphas' (Dougie Muir) and 'Annas' (Stephen Jannetts) were probably the most successful portrayals with 'Caiaphas' blessed with a strong, deep, bass voice although the director choose to obscure his lines in 'Hosanna' by having the crowd shouting over him (a 'school-boy' error).
'Pilate' was played a little too weakly for my liking, a bit too free-and-easy if you will, although there were glimpses in Act II of the darker, heavier edges that the role requires.
'Herod' (David Robertson) was the least appropriate I felt and emerged as a Liberace-style figure with a distracting lisp which partially obscured some lyrics. During the dance section of his number, however, 'Herod' was revealed to be an S & M creature that looked like a 'Rocky Horror Show' reject. Both impressions brought laughter but I don't think for the correct reason. 'Herod' was overly camp (some lyrics became unintelligible because of this when the actor started screeching his lines) and probably played into everything that Andrew Lloyd Webber especially hates about such portrayals of the character. Of course 'Herod' should be seen as a debauched, spoilt figure but this was an overly heavy-handed and ham-fisted way of portraying that. Frankly Tom O'Horgan's original staging of the number on Broadway in 1971 must have been more subtle. And choreographically we were treated to another Charleston-inspired dance which was uninspired although the cast appeared to be enjoying themselves.

Given that no-one in the cast seemed to be giving less than 100% (even 'Herod' albeit not in an appropriate manner) it puzzled me as to why I was left emotionally untouched and disbelieving. I can only blame the director whose work had actors often doing pointless or clichéd things (e.g. 'Jesus' striking a cruciform image several times throughout the show). To be honest, as nice as the voices were, there was not a huge amount of the edge or rawness that a rock score requires. 'Judas' was certainly more the exception than the rule with his more appropriate image and vocal.
Aside from 'Herod' I got the impression (true or not) that the actors were generally restricted within the confines imposed by the director adding to the lack of truth in virtually all performances, sadly none more so than in the portrayal of 'Jesus' which is a shame since these actors are clearly better than the direction they were given here.

The Musical Direction started well but as soon as we got to the first number proper, 'Heaven On Their Minds', the problems emerged. The opening section (with the infamous riff) was slowed inexplicably down giving the opening to the show anything but an exciting start especially given the frantic energy of the 'Overture' immediately prior. As the start of the show proper it seemed to take forever to get the show stared and it felt to me that it was only when 'What's The Buzz' began that the show really started. A big error given that 'Jesus Christ Superstar' is ostensibly told through 'Judas'' viewpoint.
The tempo of 'I Don't Know How To Love Him' was also played with, having the ending of the intro and of each verse suffering a rallentando thus killing any momentum in the music. The reprise of 'Everything's Alright' immediately prior was also interminably slow, much like the 2000 film.
The first verse of 'Superstar' was also slowed killing the energy and momentum of the show, disastrous given that this I basically the peak of the show, although the common tempo returns for the chorus and continues throughout the remainder of the number.

Given that the guitar work was quite wonderful throughout, the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber had already drastically reduced the original orchestration, it's a shame that for most of the time the more subtle instruments went almost unheard - the woodwind and synths especially. The band also had a trumpet player who seemed to, most of the time at least, take a while to find the actual note he or she was supposed to be playing. Not a good thing especially during the brass heavy parts (the opening of 'Superstar' was particularly painful).

The costumes by Graham Burn were, deliberately, both 'Biblical' and 'modern' but not in a successful way as was the case with John Napier's costumes for the 1996 London revival where they assimilated into each other. Some, such as 'Simon's' (Kris Morrison) and those of the 'Soul Girls', immediately brought Edwards' production to mind.
I also had to ponder as to why they put 'Jesus' into an unflattering wig which did nothing for the actor or the role except occasionally obscure his face.

Jonnie Clough's lighting was serviceable without really enhancing the rather dull set and could have done with being more defined and concentrated at times which would have made the set more exciting.

Anyway, I know this was an amateur production but I know the capabilities of such companies especially one who claim to work to the standards of professionals. Thus I shall treat them as such. After all, I've seen professional productions which have been worse than most amateur shows.
This is, of course, only my opinion but, given the overheard conversations upon exiting the theatre, it is not a lonely one.

Thus I ultimately must say that there was much promise within many aspects of the production but it was ultimately let down by some rather clumsy directorial choices.

Friday, 5 December 2014

"Top Hat", Glasgow King's Theatre, 2/12/14

Written for Backstage Pass.

     "Musical Comedy" sounds like a rather out-dated phrase these days but is an apt term for the rapturous, effervescent production that is "Top Hat" which won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 2013. It is hard to dislike such an upbeat production, although those with a dislike for tap-dancing may wince here and there, and there is much to enjoy in this elating musical.
     The plot revolves around American performer "Jerry Travers" (Alan Burkitt) who journeys to London to star in a new show produced by "Horace Hardwick" (Clive Hayward). Once in London his tap-dancing above the hotel room of "Dale Tremont" (Charlotte Gooch) wakes her and she promptly rushes upstairs to complain, whereupon he falls in love with her. A case of mistaken identity follows and "Jerry" must follow "Dale" to Venice in order to win her heart. The plot may be quite thin but it is blessed with sharp and humorous dialogue and elicited many a laugh from the audience. The adaptation by Matthew White and Howard Jacques from the original RKO film is spritely, full of wit and consistently entertaining.
     As director, Matthew White has constructed a staging that is never lazy or uninteresting to the eye and together with choreographer Bill Deamer he creates some truly wonderful moments onstage including an excellently executed form of 'shadowing' which is used to great effect. It is no wonder that Deamer won the Olivier Award for his choreography as it is simply beautiful to watch and executed precisely. Each number is performed by the strong ensemble who work together uniformly, creating extravagant musical numbers not too often seen these days. The ensemble are even used as part of the transitions between scenes thus creating a smooth fluidity to the show.
The entire production exudes class and elegance; the set design of Hildegard Bechtler encompasses beautiful art deco scenery and natural imagery and creates a cinematic quality to proceedings allowing smooth scenic transitions and swift changes with sleekly moving architectural screens; The costumes of Jon Morrell compliment the scenery effortlessly and are beautiful in themselves and Peter Mumford's lighting is stylish and adds another depth to the onstage imagery imbuing the stage with evocative colours.
     The musical score is, of course, by Irving Berlin and boasts some of his most famous numbers including "Puttin' on the Ritz", "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and "Cheek to Cheek" and is expertly directed by Jae Alexander. The orchestrations by Chris Walker accurately replicate the sound of the 1930s jazz score and is another element that adds to the authenticity of the whole. My only quibble with the orchestra is that in some of the more string-heavy sequences I thought I detected a synth which intruded upon the faithful sound of the orchestra.  Gareth Owen's sound design is encompassing and appropriately allows the tapping to become another instrument of the soundscape.
     Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch are excellent in their roles and are a joy to watch. Their vocals also echo the sound produced by singers of the 1930s, a touch that lends credence to their performances which are consistently exciting and alive. Clive Hayward as "Horace Hardwick" and Rebecca Thornhill as his wife, "Madge", are also perfectly suited to their parts with Thornhill getting some wonderful lines which she plays for all they're worth! Amongst the funniest performances of the evening were those of John Conroy as trusted valet, "Bates" (who becomes a 'master' of disguise throughout the evening and who offers many familial quotes to live by along the way), and Sebastien Torkia as Italian designer, "Alberto Beddini", who almost steals the scenes he's in of act 2.
     There are a number of moments that the show can claim as highlights but, perhaps, the most quintessential is the musical number "Cheek to Cheek" (more commonly known as "Heaven") which is an utterly entrancing and beautiful sequence. A total joy to experience, "Top Hat" is a perfect example of a jubilant night out at the theatre and one could do far worse than see this happiness-inducing production.

Friday, 14 November 2014

"Blood Brothers", King's Theatre Glasgow, 13/11/14

This is not so much a review as an opinion on the current touring production of "Blood Brothers" as produced by Bill Kenwright. What follows is an unedited stream of consciousness, so please forgive any ramblings/repetitions etc.:

I'll say this; the show still packs a punch, as evidenced by the reaction of the near-full audience. Sadly, however, the show has also become a mere shadow of itself, as evidenced by the near-full audience whose reactions were those more typically found at a performance of a pantomime.
It's a mark of the state of the production that the weakest link amongst the cast are the two 'name' leads - Marti Pellow, whose name is emblazoned above the title on posters, stars as "The Narrator" and Maureen Nolan whose name, surprisingly, is nowhere on the poster (at least not in Glasgow) as "Mrs Johnstone".
Pellow's vocals are nothing to write home about and both the quality of his voice and his diction often make words unclear - rather detrimental considering his role - but his physical attitude is also wrong. He stalks about the stage with as much threat and grace as if ploughing through mud.
Nolan is better but her voice is unsure in the higher range causing her to be off-pitch at times whilst her acting needs more depth. considering both have performed these roles for some time now it's inexcusable.
The remainder of the cast however are much stronger, none more so than Sean Jones as "Mickey" who is the most enthralling of all onstage. He's also another regular cast member but his performance was just as strong when first I saw him a few years back. Unlike some of the other cast members his is the most un-caricatured performance.
And I think this is where the major problem of the show lies: The staging and direction have become rather tired and unforgiving. Whilst the material is still strong enough to retain power and the ability to wring emotion from an audience, the direction is failing to serve it. Staging is rather pedestrian at times and, perhaps because of the name casting od recent years, the drama comes across as a bit flabby. Given the Kenwright production is over 25 years old and I've no doubt that the show has been tweaked in various ways over the years (not necessarily for the good), including musically (orchestrations have been reduced over the years), it really is doing a disservice to Willy Russell's work and this needn't be the case - other West End long runners such as "The Phantom of the Opera" continue to work because the direction remains tights and exciting and the company and crew continue to respect the audience. It seems that everything about this production of "Blood Brothers" is self-aware and it is guilty of playing to the audience far too much, as if those behind what happens onstage barely think it worth working for a reaction - they merely expect to receive it (which, for the most part, they do).

"Blood Brothers" is not a bad musical. It can be quite good, in fact. But I think director Bob Tomson and producer (and co-director) Bill Kenwright should take a fresh look at the production.
I've nothing against long-running cast members providing they can deliver the goods (especially since given the price people pay these days for a ticket) as Sean Jones clearly exhibits but the continuing reliance (which is not needed) on 'star' names has clearly taken its toll.
Perhaps it's time to start completely from scratch - a new (leading) cast, a new set, new orchestrations (the synthesised drums are really pointless) and, perhaps, even a new director - someone who is able to direct the text with the grittiness it requires, rather than relying on uninspiring blocking.
In other words, it is time for Blood Brothers to enter the new millennium otherwise it is threatening to become an unintentional parody of what it once was.

Addendum: Another issue I have is that the orchestra, besides the musical director, went utterly un-credited in the programme something which, given it's a musical, is rather insulting to the musicians.
Sort it out, Kenwright!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

"Black Coffee", Theatre Royal Glasgow, 3/11/14

Review for Backstage Pass:

     Agatha Christie's first foray into playwriting was a reaction to her dislike at previous adaptations by others of her work. Rather than adapt one of her existing novels she instead created a totally new piece for the theatre. Unimpressed by previous portrayals of her creation "Poirot" she elected to place him into her play and show all how it should be done. The result was "Black Coffee" which premiered in 1930 and has been seen on occasion in repertory in the intervening years.
This new production has been running a little while now and continues its steady march around the UK with Jason Durr of "Heartbeat" fame replacing Robert Powell in the role of "Poirot".
     Plot-wise, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are invited to the house of Sir Claude Amory in relation to the theft of a formula he has created. It is fortunate he did so as he is murdered only moments before the two arrive and Poirot is soon putting his "little grey cells" to use. It's quite the usual Christie fare complete with her typical light-hearted digs at foreigners and servants but her first effort at writing for the stage employ the gifts of structure and plotting that she was famed for to good effect.

     Simon Scullion's art deco set is appropriately sleek and contains some fine details such as the geometric rug and artwork while the costumes by Nikki Bird and the lighting by Douglas Kuhrt are appropriate and unobtrusive. The incidental music by Matthew Bugg is essentially pointless but inoffensive whilst his composition for the opening and closing of the acts is reminiscent of the main theme to the "Poirot" television show, complete with saxophone. No coincidence, methinks.
Joe Harmston's direction is assured and generally keeps events moving with only the second act threatening to drag slightly. Act three, however, quickly steps up the pace and brings the events of the play to a satisfying, if somewhat obvious, close.
     The cast are strong and one feels that they are having quite a bit of fun with it all with the humour being brought out of the text as much as possible. Of course, the play is of its time and no real effort has been made to fight against that fact and thus some of the acting can come across as heightened and a trifle melodramatic, if not hammy, but I don't really think this is a negative given the nature of this production. There are some rather dodgy accents which drop here and there but, again, this is part of the charm of the play.
     As "Poirot", Jason Durr was something of a surprise; although his accent is too French for a Belgian and marred a little of his diction, and his physicality needs a little work (his walk is too stiff at times) he is humorous and charming when appropriate and clearly plays the part with sincerity and, despite appearing too young for the role, he is a commanding presence whose interpretation comes across as a darker "Poirot" than one expects. His portrayal, rather than emulating David Suchet, echoes the performance of Albert Finney at times but is very much his own and, with a little more work, shows promise to be a great portrayal of Agatha Christie's most famous character.

     All in all this is an entertaining, glossy and sturdy production complete with enjoyable performances that serves as a wonderful introduction to the world of Agatha Christie on stage, replete with all the hallmarks that Dame Christie excelled at.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

"Dangerous Corner", Theatre Royal Glasgow, 27/10/14

A review written for Backstage Pass

     As far as playwrights go, J B Priestley certainly must rank amongst the more famous and popular following productions of "An Inspector Calls" in the last few decades and this new touring production of "Dangerous Corner" is a solid presentation of what was his first attempt at writing for the stage.
Its plot revolves around a group of well-to-do people at a social gathering whose lives start to unravel when uncomfortable truths begin to emerge following the painful revelations of lies and deceit concerning the theft of money and the resulting suicide of someone close to all those present this particular night.
     Upon entering the auditorium songs of the period are heard and the audience are confronted with an elegant set whose angles belie its outward appearance: Something perilous lurks under the outer façade of respectability. Gary McCann is responsible for the design and his costumes are also gloriously realised whilst the effective lighting is by Tim Mitchell.
Direction by Michael Attenborough is suitably moody and heady though static at times and the pace could be improved upon in places whilst the sometimes heightened performance style is a little inconsistent.
     The cast are generally strong with each actor confident in his or her role and this includes Rosie Armstrong and Susanna Herbert who, on this occasion, covered the roles of "Olwen Peel" and "Miss Mockridge" respectively.
As "Robert Caplan" Colin Buchanan is a little clunky at times although this may be down more to direction than the actor's choices.
Finty Williams as "Freda Caplan" is spirited, lively and hugely entertaining whilst Michael Praed as "Charles Stanton" is the most natural with Priestley's text and the most physically at ease and is thus perfectly suited to his character who has some of the most funny lines which Praed delivers effortlessly and dryly.
     Altogether this is a sound production which, following a slow start, soon gears up toward a most intriguing climax.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

"The Mousetrap", Theatre Royal Glasgow, 15/9/14

A review written for Backstage Pass

The 60th anniversary tour of the World's longest running play continues on as the London production approaches its 62nd anniversary in a production that is both nostalgic, classy, humorous and intriguing.

Whilst there are those who lament the continued success of "The Mousetrap" (yes, seriously) it remains one of the prime examples of the talents of Agatha Christie who, whilst never considering herself a great writer, never failed to create a puzzle that would capture the imagination of her readers and audiences.

Of course the play's plot and dialogue is of a certain period but that is part of its charm and the cast handle it very naturally whilst inhabiting a physical production with ease and energy. True, the play is the epitome of the country house whodunit, but ask yourself; so what? What is wrong with that? 

The attraction of the play is the conundrum that Christie presents in a world inhabited by ebullient characters that the audience clearly enjoy watching. It is no crime (pun intended) to be entertained by something that never pretends to be anything but frivolous fun.

The plot of the play revolves around several seemingly unconnected characters who end up in the same snow-bound guest house. Once ensconced within the walls of Monkswell Manor it is not long before Police Sergeant Trotter arrives to warn them all of the suspected presence of a murderer within their midst. At the close of act one that murderer strikes and the game is underway...

So successful is Christie in her plotting that the final reveal still elicits gasps from the audience. She is, no doubt, aided by the crisp direction of Ian Watt-Smith and his excellent cast, amongst whom there is no weak link. It is difficult to single out any one performer in such a strong ensemble and so I shan't. I shall instead say that Helen Clapp, Michael Fenner, Christopher Gilling, Luke Jenkins, Anne Kavanagh, Charlotte Latham, Henry Luxemburg and Stephen Yeo work very well together and inhabit their characters in a very natural way, utilising Christie's sometimes heightened language in a most appropriate manner, rendering what could be performed in a clichéd, hammy way into something that belongs far more in the realm of realism. Indeed it is only Christie's epilogue that breaks that illusion, but this is a minor quibble.

There must be a reason why the play has been so successful and you could do worse than to find it out for yourself.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

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Sunday, 20 July 2014

'Under Milk Wood', Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 19/7/14

Cut down to little over an hour this flawed production is indicative of how important the 'Welshness' of the play is.
The director Gareth Nicholls has eschewed any attempt to recreate the Welsh accent and its rhythms which are so vital to any production of Under Milk Wood and has his cast create an almost paint-by-numbers performance. The abridgement by Lyda Radley is also slightly patchy which fails to aid the cast.
Whilst there are a small number of other accents used most of the cast speak in Scottish dialect, and not one Welsh twang is heard. This is increasingly unfortunate as Dylan Thomas himself pointed out the importance of the words to his premiere American cast in the 50s and this production seems to have missed this important fact. It is, after all, a 'play for voices': Rather the director has live music throughout which has the unfortunate effect of often drowning out the actors and whilst Michael John McCarthy's original score is nice it does intrude upon the play. In fact it's almost as if the director had little trust in Thomas' writing. Nicholls' ignoring of the rhythmic value of the Welsh accent was also detrimental to what was heard - it lost much humour and pathos in the performance although, credit to Thomas' writing, some humour was still present if it was the of the more obvious type. The Scots dialect has quite a different quality to the sing-song of Southern Welsh and this quality was sorely missing. As with the writing of Shakespeare the rhythm os the writing is important and to ignore it is to a productions cost.
Another bug-bear of mine was in the pronunciation of the Welsh words: Indeed, upon hearing 'Llareggub' pronounced 'Laregub' (emphasis on the 'e') constantly I was getting more and more irritated. There really is no excuse not to be able to pronounce these words as the famous Richard Burton recordings are readily available as a reference. Rather it spoke of a lazy attitude towards authenticity on the part of the director.
Charlotte Lane's design, which consisted of the interior of the Sailor's Arms - and nothing else, was pleasant but had the unfortunate effect of placing every event in the play within the confines of the pub. That and the fact that every character was plied with drink throughout gave a rather bad impression that this was a town full of alcoholics and given that hundreds of empty glass bottles were used as border to the set this was confirmed. The concept of setting the entire thing within the physical confines of the local was a little confusing given that most of the play happens in other locations around Llareggub.
On a more positive note there were some nice performances including those given by Grant McDonald, Matt Littleson and Jacqueline Thain and the live band were really quite good.
All in all this was rather a bit of a missed opportunity. It would also have been appreciated if the production was advertised as an abridged version but this was not so in any of the advertising.

Friday, 11 July 2014

'Private Peaceful', Glasgow Theatre Royal, 25/6/14

Another review I wrote for Backstage Pass:

At its simplest theatre is storytelling, the purpose of which is to pass on knowledge, information and to ensure that things are not forgotten. And some things should never be forgotten, some stories deserve to be retold.

Michael Morpurgo's novels have ensured that history remains alive to the younger generations and his stories have been adapted into various forms of media further ensuring their survival and assimilation into the minds of future generations.

This stage adaptation of Morpurgo's 'Private Peaceful' is the stirring tale of one young soldier of the Great War who recounts his life story shortly before facing the firing squad. As he relives the joys and sorrows of his all-too brief existence we bear witness to the magic of theatre at its best - simple, uncluttered and engaging. No flashy special effects or monumental set pieces required here, instead the power of imagination is employed along with the skills of a single actor in the role of 'Private Tommo Peaceful'. 

Director/adapter Simon Reade ensures that we see this lone soldier as a real person and not merely a symbol of the 306 soldiers executed in the First World War. His direction is clean, direct, elegant, subtle and vital and he ensures the emotionally affecting mortality of 'Private Peaceful' is laid out before us as we jump from his present to his past with time referenced throughout with each act beginning with the ticking of a watch as the final hours of his life ebb away. 

The simple set design is enhanced by simple lighting whilst minimal sound effects aid the production effectively. But the play ultimately relies on the single performer onstage and here Paul Chequer proves himself an exceptional actor able to navigate between a wide range of emotions whilst switching deftly into other characters as required, his physical prowess matching his emotional resonance easily. His is a deeply moving, funny, tragic and engaging portrayal which brings an honesty and simplicity essential to our belief in his character(s) whilst Chequer's stage presence is sincere and confident. His gifts are such that his performance, especially from when we see 'Peaceful' on the battlefield, is truly a mesmerising, arresting, chilling and emotionally rending experience.

Whilst this production seems to be aimed primarily at school children, given its performance times, it still speaks, in volumes, to all ages and is worthy of the attention of any theatre-goer. As it is this is the final week of its tour and I urge one and all to make the effort to see this wonderful, effective piece of story-telling.

Lest we forget.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

'Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story', King's Theatre, Glasgow, 16/6/14

Written for Backstage Pass:

In an all-too brief career Buddy Holly gave the world some truly memorable tunes and "Buddy  - The Buddy Holly Story" is a tribute to that music if nothing else and features a cast who all sing and play musical instruments live.
Charting Buddy Holly's rise to fame, together with the other members of 'The Crickets', in the world of the new fangled sound of Rock'n'Roll in the 1950s, the script by Alan Janes is not a greatly detailed affair but it does also make mention of his marriage, solo endeavours and his fame with a no-nonsense approach that is filled throughout with humour. As a thorough biography it leaves a lot to be desired but its strength lies in the ability to give just enough contextual information within a scene to make the musical numbers that follow all the more satisfying. The presence of a script also allows this production to be more than a simple tribute show; empowering performances with an emotional resonance that each musical number builds upon. Even if it's not a deep psychological study of the trials and tribulations of a gifted musical artist, it is an honest, straightforward story told with sincerity.

Whilst the set design is somewhat shabby it serves its purpose allowing a seemingly huge amount of space to be available whilst creating various locales featured in Holly's life. Lighting is serviceable but much better use is made of it during the musical numbers.

Matt Salisbury's direction is found wanting in places amongst the dialogue scenes but his presentations of the musical numbers are pretty much on the money and these are where the show really comes alive. That's not to say that the dialogue scenes are redundant - quite the opposite; being witness to the backstage, personal aspects of Buddy's life makes the audience all the more invested in each musical number that is performed by him and his cohorts and takes those performances to a higher level. 

There are non-Holly numbers performed in the production and these are also strong with Lydia Fraser threatening to steal the scenes in which she appears as an 'Apollo Performer' whilst Adam Flynn and Scott Haining (as 'Jerry Allison' and 'Joe B Mauldin', respectively) are excellent support for the main man with Jason Blackwater and Will Pearce memorable in the roles of 'The Big Bopper' and 'Ritchie Valens'. But as 'Buddy Holly' Roger Rowley embodies the attitude, charisma and talent of a true star and his vocals are quite divine (he alternates the role with Glen Joseph) and his stage presence is mesmerising - even a guitar fault in his first number (that's live theatre for you!) couldn't phase him.

Although Act One started off a little fragile it built throughout to end triumphantly at the 'Apollo Theatre, Harlem' whilst Act Two was a supernova of energy - albeit with a slight dip as we get to the 'Surf Ballroom' - and that energy is soon ramped up even further culminating in an effective and striking finale at Holly's final concert at 'Clear Lake' at which point the audience was in raptures.

It is comforting to know that great live entertainment is still out there and that great music can still reach an audience in the technologically-driven music market of today. Such entertainment deserves its audience.

But then the music never really dies, does it?

Thursday, 1 May 2014

"Let It Be", King's Theatre Glasgow, 28/4/14

Another review written for Backstage Pass :

I don't own a single album by The Beatles. As a music lover this may seem something of a sin but I do enjoy their music and Let It Be is a powerful and exciting reminder of the magic and wonder that The Beatles created.

Actually it should be noted here that there is no actual reference to the title "The Beatles" or even the band members' names in the show. Instead we see Let It Be emblazoned throughout on marquees, newspapers, television programmes and announcements and this is clearly the name of the "band" featured in this show. But despite these omissions other references, including visuals and album titles, are clearly in relation to the actual "Beatles".

The premise of the production is that the audience are witnessing several performances from across the career of the band with the evening beginning in "The Cavern" and progressing through an appearance on the "Royal Variety Show" to the latter years of the band's career. Throughout the evening the music progresses as the band evolves creating, for myself, a latter half that is the most musically exciting and varied. 

And there is a lot of music. Indeed there is very little dialogue save the odd moment where a band member may introduce a number or interact with the audience. This is no Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You with songs interpolating a plot; rather this is a rock concert of top quality bursting with song after song. The only reprieve for the musicians is when television sets above the stage occasionally show us images of the time period whilst the cast are heard reading quotes from The Beatles themselves.

The use of costume, lighting, sound, set, video and projection elevate the production from a mere tribute act into something that is as great as an actual rock concert. Credit to the producers, creatives and performers of Let It Be that they are able to capture the spirit of The Beatles and are able to create the atmosphere of a small venue one moment and a huge stadium the next.

Band members Ben Cullingworth, James Fox, Michael Gagliano and Paul Mannion supported by Steve Geere on keyboards are talented performers in every sense and it is jarring to think that they are not actually performing as themselves but as characters taking on the mantle, attitude and even the accents of the original "Fab Four" whilst performing a huge arrange of songs in the Beatles' original style. Their energy seems limitless and transfers in abundance to the audience who eagerly take it all in.

It is a complete production, if not quite a true theatrical one, and had the audience on their feet several times throughout the show but, ultimately, it is about the music and the company do it more than justice, exhibiting how incredible live performance can actually be. One cannot fail to be entertained by such a production in which all involved seem to be having such a great time.

Oh, and I may have to pick up a Beatle album or two.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

"Under Milk Wood", Swansea Grand Theatre, 20/3/2014

For the centenary of Dylan Thomas' birth and the 60th anniversary of his "play for voices' Clwyd Theatr Cymru are touring "Under Milk Wood", although as someone who resides in Glasgow I had to make my way back to the old home town to catch it as the production is not visiting Scotland.
The production is directed by Terry Hands and is a revival of his production of 2000. Given the play was written for the radio the production is lively, extremely funny, visually exciting, full of life and is a beautifully evocative use of Thomas' words.

Hands' direction is more than assured and is quite sublime. Hands has made a play for the ears a true play for the stage although the language is never sacrificed for the visual splendour of the vibrant physical action which utilised such theatrical devices as mime amongst all the physical interaction between the actors who also supplied all the sound effects. The pace of the piece was well handled and varied with the staging controlled and manipulated by an expert director who was able to handle such changes quite subtly. Hands' has brought out the humour, passion, melancholy and sexuality that lies within Thomas' vivacious text, which follows the lives of the inhabitants of Llareggub over the course of a single day, and created a visual production that works in tandem with the words to create a satisfying theatrical unity.

The design by Martyn Bainbridge was elegant yet simple and atmospheric with Hands' own lighting complimenting the overall effect and becoming a subtle character in itself allowing the shifting of time and mood to be conveyed effortlessly, together with Bainbridge's moving sun. The costumes are simple period affairs with most of the cast barefooted, evoking the sense of sleepwalking through a dream.

What helps makes this a true theatrical experience is the production's reliance on the actors, most of whom perform numerous characters, which is totally appropriate. Whilst some characterisation may be seen as heightened (but then so is the play) and some acting choices somewhat "obvious" they are nevertheless appropriate and suited to the piece. But the choices are also varied between each actor and the differing characters most of them perform. Indeed each character is rich and full of life. There was, appropriately, an excellent variety of voices on display - be it between the actors or the varying characters that they play. Likewise the use of actors of varying ages portraying people of all ages (from children to the elderly) was engaging and exciting and fresh. This fact also enabled the stage to never feel or look too cluttered unless it were a deliberate directorial choice. The playing of different characters also allowed the actors numerous opportunity to stretch and use their talents and ranges. Above all there was a wonderful sense of enjoyment from the actors who became another audience when they themselves were not in a particular scene, laughing and listening to those who were performing.
Owen Teale as First Voice has a rich vocal tone that is evocative of Richard Burton but at once quite individual whilst Christian Patterson's Second Voice is a lovely contrast and each weave in and out of the action with aplomb.
It seems unfair to single out any performer in such an ensemble piece but Sara Harris-Davies, Steven Meo and Caryl Morgan certainly get full use out of some of the funniest material.

Given the nature of "Under Milk Wood" it can be a very delicate piece to stage. My first encounter with Thomas' best know work was when my Secondary school put on a production. Given my young age I can barely recall any of it except that it was funny, a little saucy and the tiered set was blue. In my university days I saw a production by the Wales Theatre Company, directed by Michael Bogdanov, which was a rather laboured affair and stilted and sober a production for my liking. The Clwyd Theatr Cymru production is everything I could have wished for, however, making brilliant use of the vocal prowess of Thomas' whilst understanding that, as a piece of theatre, it also has to be visual. The production is also full of clarity, allowing each moment onstage to be understood and appreciated.

It is interesting to note that this play has made me re-evaluate my cultural identity; as a proud Welshman residing in Scotland, I've never really thought about what it is to be Welsh. Many of my country folk have been dwarfed by English attitudes which have gone on to be seen as 'British' - the whole stiff-upper-lip, solid attitude which has become little more than a stereotype. "Under Milk Wood", in its heightened way, shows what the Welsh really are; creative, passionate and full of life. And it's nice to be reminded of the Welsh-within, especially given that the play's director is English. Indeed, I recall in my youth the attitudes we held which were then tempered by the 'British' ideals. In these days were cultural identity is more freely expressed it's been a joy to rediscover the truth of oneself. And it's a shame the production won't be visiting London anytime soon ...

Thursday, 13 March 2014

"The Play That Goes Wrong", Glasgow King's Theatre, 10/3/14

A review written for Backstage Pass:

     Amateur theatre has been a staple for many years and has spawned many a fine professional actor. It is, for many, an introduction to the vast world that exists beyond the proscenium arch and is both admired and frowned upon by some who work in the theatrical industry. Why the latter? Because it can so easily reduce art into something far less ... savoury, with cliché being the prime ingredient of many a poor production. "Amateur" can be a word to instil dread into many an audience member given that there do exist am-dram companies whose stage productions reek of "cheap" and "shoddy" workmanship - both in the onstage and offstage departments. Indeed, YouTube is full of footage of amateur theatre's mishaps.
     It is all of the above that "The Play That Goes Wrong" attempts to confront and what writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields (who all feature in the cast) have cleverly done is to take the subject of the classic whodunit and spoofed it to the nth degree. But beyond that they have created a fictional company, "Cornley Polytechnic", who are presenting the whodunit "The Murder At Haversham Manor" replete with all the heightened clichés one could imagine of a terrible am-dram company: the wannabe starlet, the nervous first-timer, the seasoned performer are all present. Even the "stage technicians" are incompetent and as the title of the evening's proceedings suggests the play does not go off without a hitch, indeed even before the play starts proper we see the "backstage crew" attempting to prepare for the performance, somewhat unsuccessfully.
     In many ways "The Play That Goes Wrong" is a wonderful homage to all who have ever taken part in amateur dramatics. Even whilst lampooning the all too recognisable characters present within such companies (and they do exist!) they are being honoured by being portrayed and played in so earnest a manner. Given that the "play" is falling apart around them the "actors" and "crew" of the play within a play valiantly struggle on, proving the truth behind the axiom, "the show must go on"!
The script is sharp, witty and hilarious whilst the design creates the perfect environment for this third-rate amateur company. The direction of Mark Bell is crisp and taut whilst the excellent ensemble (onstage and off) perform perfectly. Indeed, it is unfair to single any one performer out given that this really is an ensemble piece. There are one or two jokes that were stretched almost beyond their limit but these are not enough to dampen the energy and spirits that are present throughout. And it doesn't really matter that the "plot" of "The Murder At Haversham Manor" is somewhat obscured by the antics occurring, indeed this lends to the air of chaos that abounds and there were plenty of moments where the audience erupted into spontaneous applause and hardly a moment where laughter was not forthcoming. And laughter is what this play is really about.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

"Happy Days", Glasgow King's Theatre, 24/2/14

Another review written for Backstage Pass:

     I'll admit that I never really watched the television show "Happy Days" so this musical version was almost something wholly new to me. Indeed, I think that the stage show should work on its own merits, without the need for comparison with its source material. One television show I did watch was Channel Four's "The Sound of Musicals" where producer Amy Anzel became something of a minor celebrity as viewers watched her valiant efforts to produce this musical version of "Happy Days". We saw how tenacious and determined she was to get the show mounted and her passion for the project was such that she showed up onstage in person to introduce the Scottish premiere.  But was all her hard work worth it? Well, for the most part, yes:
"Happy Days" is not a perfect show. The plot centres around the efforts to save local diner "Arnold's" from demolition. Throw in a love story and we're off and away. Creator of the television series, Garry Marshall, has written a script that is perky and fun and which certainly appears to have captured the spirit of the television show. 
An energetic opening number called "Welcome To Wisconsin" sets the tone but Act I loses momentum and is somewhat slack in its middle where it feels that it is left to Williams' songs and the cast to pick up the energy. It picks up towards the end of the act but one is left feeling that the script needs work in places. Act II, however, is a total gear change and full throttle is finally achieved from the get-go: It becomes supremely energetic, lively and much funnier. The pace is vastly improved and it speeds along perfectly.
Throughout the script there are clear references to the original television show and also ironic references to the 1950s and 60s. This is a script written by a writer whose tongue is often firmly within his cheek. The "Fonzie"/"Pinky" love story is a little unsatisfying, however, and is somewhat glossed over.
Paul Williams' music and lyrics are near perfect for the production, fitting the various scenes effortlessly whilst capturing the feel, style and energy of the 1950s, no doubt aided in part by John McDaniel's musical arrangements and the musical direction of Greg Arrowsmith who leads an excellent band. "Pink's In Town", "The Famous Bronze", "What I Dreamed Last Night" and "Dancing On The Moon" are particular standouts. The integration of the TV show's famous title song is also well handled and never feels unnatural when it appears.
     Andrew Wright's choreography is a little underwhelming in places, lacking energy especially in the Act I lull, but picks up in the second act where everything seems to come together. His direction is also a little too safe at times for my liking and there are some staging issues which need to be addressed to make them more visible to some of the audience. Some of his transitions between scenes should be looked at and he needs to deal with the sagging within Act I. It's to his credit, however, that Act II is far superior and brings the show up to a whole new level, bringing the audience with it. It's a zippier and cleaner affair than Act I.
     The design by Tom Rogers is also a little hit and miss: Whilst his costumes are spot on his set, which is based on a unit set of "Arnold's Diner" that has folding walls to become other sets (such as the "Cunningham's House"), can sometimes become clunky during transitions. The design also seems to limit some of the action that takes place on it - no more is that present than when we visit the "Cunningham's Back Yard" and the exterior of "Fonzie's" residence; the action takes place extreme Stage Left which must surely inhibit some audience sight lines. Other times, however, Rogers' set exudes the perfect sense of nostalgic reverence and "picture perfect" images - especially when it folds in on itself to become "Franklin Park". There are also some issues with the set that need to be addressed as it often threatened to outshine the cast in its performance with doors that kept opening of themselves, whilst the efforts by cast and stage crew to close them elicited some of the strongest laughs of the evening.
Philip Gladwell's lighting compliments the set for the most part but could be even more exciting in places. There were also some issues with the sound at the beginning of the evening where some lyrics were somewhat inaudible but this was rectified as Act I progressed.
     The true stars, aside from Williams' songs, are the cast. Anzel and her creative team have assembled an energetic and joyous ensemble that anchor the production with Ben Freeman leading the way. He seems quite at home as "The Fonz" bringing an easy presence and strong vocal to the role whilst Heidi Range as "Pinky Tuscadero" brings a cool sassiness to the role, not to mention a sultry voice that is a welcome contrast to the other female voices in the cast. James Paterson as "Mr Cunningham" and Cheryl Baker as "Mrs Cunningham" are perfectly cast and "Bucks Fizz" fans will not be disappointed in the latter's performance! Emma Harrold as "Joanie Cunningham" and Scott Waugh as her brother, and quasi-narrator, "Richie Cunningham" are also strong. But it is Andrew Waldron as "Ralph Malph" who threatens to steal the show with what is, probably, the funniest performance of the cast. The remaining members of the company are all well chosen and every single person onstage appears to be having a good time - even whilst fighting the misbehaving set.
    Amy Anzel has stated that she hopes to take this production into London's West End and her dogged nature makes you want it to happen for her, she appears so likeable. But there are certainly issues to be addressed within the current production, issues that an unforgiving West End audience will not tolerate. That said, I have no doubt that miss Anzel and her team will continue to work at the production and, who knows, she may defy the odds and succeed in her goal. After all, as she opines in her opening speech, there are far too few new musicals opening these days, and this is, ultimately, an enjoyable one.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

"Eat, Pray, Laugh! Barry Humphries' Farewell Tour", Glasgow King's Theatre, 11/2/14

I've written a review for so thought I'd drop a link to it here on my blog:

     With a showbiz career spanning more than half a century which includes being in the original company of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" and featuring in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", Barry Humphries returns to Glasgow' King's Theatre for the first time since 1987 with his "Eat, Pray, Laugh" Farewell Tour which concentrates on the creations of Humphries himself, appropriately a celebration of the talent that Humphries clearly still possesses.
Initially we are faced with Brian Thomson's charmingly simple, backyard set featuring a tool shed and an outdoor 'dunny' (toilet to us Brits) appearing harmless enough, together with an onstage piano, adorned in an elegant grass covering, matching its clipped hedge surroundings.
The comedy begins in earnest when Les Patterson arrives with his backing troupe, the "Condiments", and recounts snippets of his life for us replete with asides, innuendos and a terrific interaction with the audience (complete with spittle - beware if you're sitting in the front row of the stalls!). Les is, of course, infamously crude, somewhat vulgar and certainly not PC. He is a cleverly created caricature of a sexist, racist, self-serving politician. And the audience love it, even his singular use of the 'dunny'. We are also treated to some song and dance throughout as Les reveals the next stage of his career beyond politics; "Les Get Cookin'" in which we are 'treated' to Les' culinary skills.
It is Les who here provides the first opportunity - and there are several throughout the evening -  for audience interaction, a tricky theatrical tool, but here used to excellent effect with Humphries proving his ability to improvise and deal with the unexpected. Humphries even uses this audience participation as part of a segue into his next, less familiar, character, Gerard.
Introducing a less familiar character is always interesting and permits a fresh element to the evening's proceedings and allows Humphries to play some more with the audience and their expectations. Indeed, towards the end of the first act the tone changes dramatically as we are faced with an unexpectedly poignant character, Sandy Stone, who, sitting alone in spotlight, talks about issues that come to many later in life and even beyond it. This, of course, only serves to make the humour which ultimately arrives all the more important and uplifting although the contrasting changes of tone and pace come as a surprise to some.
The second act opens with an eastern influenced flavour in design and is devoted to that Grande Dame of Showbiz, Dame Edna Everage herself, who, naturally, received a rapturous applause following a humorous look back on the scandals of her life in the style of a schlocky Showbiz  promo entitled "Dame Edna Revealed". This set up enabled Dame Edna to enter into her frank conversation about the reasons for her retirement with an audience who are more than eager to listen.
Humphries is clearly most at home in the guise of the World's most famous housewife and Dame Edna really does shine, be it in her quick asides, her barbs, clever one-liners, sharp tongue (which is mostly directed at particular audience members and their appearance or social standing), or her witty 'honesty'. We are privy to personal insights into the life of Dame Edna and of her family, not to mention her medical history. Indeed, Dame Edna's favourite subject is the primary topic and that subject is, of course, herself, as Dame Edna is eager to remind us.
However, Dame Edna is all heart and she endeavours to bring romance to a lucky pair from the audience in a final piece of onstage audience participation that shows what a master Humphries is at his art, before culminating in a song and dance fit for the Dame.
It is in this second act that everyone, onstage and off, is having the most fun and appears most at ease.

Simon Phillips' direction of the witty, outrageous and downright funny material is crisp and sharp, even if the sudden shift in act one comes somewhat abruptly. The ensemble cast are clearly having fun whilst Nick Len, who provides the musical accompaniment at piano throughout, almost never leaves the stage.
But, of course, the evening naturally belongs to Humphries himself who naturally shines in whatever role he is embodying. It is a testament to his prowess as an actor and performer that he is so deftly able to transform, and convince, from one character to the next. Humphries is also a generous performer in that it never seems a selfish show, despite the characters involved, but rather a production that revels in, and is appreciative of, the existence of its audience.
Whilst the humour may sometimes be on the cusp, Humphries' delivery is so knowing and given with such verve and appeal that it is never seen as an attack, even upon the poor souls who are its subject. It is all part of the fun and Humphries is somehow able to create an atmosphere of such joviality that the audience are always ultimately treated with respect. Indeed it is clear that this show is a thank you, a love letter even, to all who have ever seen, encountered or endured any of Humphries' creations.  A fact reiterated when the man himself makes a final curtain speech as Barry Humphries; perhaps the most honest and touching element of the evening.
It is a fond farewell indeed.