Tuesday, 14 November 2017

"The Wipers Times", Glasgow, Theatre Royal, 7/11/17

Written for Backstage Pass:


In the midst of the centenary of the Great War it is surprising to find that there are few current theatrical efforts on the subject underway; the National Theatre's War Horse gallops apace, of course, and now The Wipers Times is also on hand to address the imbalance in its UK tour.

Adapted by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman from their television film, the play tells the story of the creation of the journal named "The Wipers Times" (from the Tommies' inability to correctly pronounce "Ypres"), a precursor to modern satirical magazines that forwent the route of detailing sombre events and endeavoured to raise the spirits of troops in the front lines with jokes, limericks and the like, often parodying the mainstream media of the time.

Translating the story from its historical routes via television and onto the stage, Hislop and Newman have skillfully crafted a funny, witty and truly moving play that utilises material from the original newspaper that they turn into theatrical pieces that pepper the true-life story of the newspapers' creators, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson. Simultaneously, Hislop and Newman raise these two men and their soldier-appreciated product from the bottom drawer of history.
Forming a backdrop to the frivolity, the Great War's progression poignantly comes to the fore at various points throughout the play and the tragedy of war becomes all the more striking when contrasted with the humour that soldiers themselves created as relief. For the most part, the jokes feel fresh and modern rather than a hundred years old and they further reinforce connections between the past and present (none more so than in the jokes that revolve around the Daily Mail).
Hislop and Newman's script captures the bravery, camaraderie and humour in the face of adversity that evidently saturated the soldiers' lives and director Caroline Leslie's production manages to balance the sober with the ridiculous, with a hint of the amateur nature of the newspaper's production in the skits realised in mock music-hall style. This is furthered by the creative unit set of Dora Schweitzer and the atmospheric lighting of James Smith. The sound design of Steve Mayo also breeds an appropriately disturbing soundscape and the musical settings by Nick Green, incorporating actual poetic content from the journal, furthers authenticity.
The cast are nothing short of superb and they are equally hilarious and tragic as apt and they form an authentic company ably led by James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson, respectively. They deftly portray the underlying fear masked with humour adroitly and their performances become all the more tremendous for it.

A powerfully moving yet heartily humorous play, The Wipers Times is strong stuff and serves also as an informative document of a forgotten piece of Great War history. Employing contemporaneous material composed by serving soldiers adds a depth to the humanity of such people not often seen in material written after the fact and this extra dimension creates a fresh take on a grim period of history.
Buy a ticket - history is rarely as concurrently moving and entertaining!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

"Hairspray", Glasgow King's Theatre, 2/10/17

A massive success when it premiered on Broadway 15 years ago, Hairspray is based on the cult John Waters film and revolves around the rotund Tracy Turnblad who refuses to let her size stand in the way of her dreams and inspires those she meets to stand for what is right. Along the way she falls in love and becomes a driving force for good in a story that deals with race, integration, acceptance and dance.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book is respectful of the original film and is filled with humour and warmth whilst the music and lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman perfectly encapsulates the bouncy, soulful sounds of the 1960's with a few anthemic numbers to boot.

The cast, led by Rebecca Mendoza as Tracy, Matt Rixon as Edna and Norman Price as Wilbur are pretty much faultless with stirring vocals, precise comedic timing and sterling performances throughout with standout moments from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle including her rousing rendition of I Know Where I've Been.

As Seaweed, Layton Williams exhibits true star power in his lithe gymnastic performance which plays perfectly opposite his love interest Penny played by the charming Annalise Liard-Bailey. Jon Tsouras also stand out in his role as Corny Collins presenting some brilliant faces in his asides. The remainder of the cast are no less appropriate to their characters and purvey rounded performances.

The direction by Paul Kerryson is unfussy but it is the choreography of Drew McOnie which really brings events alive. Given that Hairspray is a vibrant and uplifting show set in the 60's it is unfortunate that the production is so ugly. The design by Takis is dull and uninspired and is rather unsympathetic with the nature of the musical. It is a clumsy design of unattractive angles which inhibit staging and sight lines and comes complete with dodgy projection and, sadly, the lighting of Philip Gladwell can do little to redeem it. Takis' costumes rarely do any better and, frankly, the production deserves better.

Given the promise contained within the material and the talents of its cast this production rises above mediocrity but could have been so much better again if it were not for such a dire design concept. Perhaps the next tour will look to rectify this.

"The Addams Family", Glasgow King's Theatre, 10/10/17

Based on the macabre single-panel cartoons of Charles Addams the revised version of the musical tours the UK in its premiere professional production. With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice we join the Addams clan just as turmoil is about to hit the (un)happy household when eldest child Wednesday announces that she is - bizarrely - in love with a typically all-American boy and plans to marry. Cue a meeting of the parents and revelation of secrets to disturb one and all and anarchic chaos ensues.

The book is appropriately simplistic and relative to the nature of the original Charles Addams cartoons whilst Lippa's songs have suitable variety and wittiness and include some really heartfelt numbers.
The set by Diego Pitarch is economic yet elegantly shambolic and is used well throughout whilst his costumes are quirky and reverent to the original cartoons. Ben Cracknell's lighting design perfectly compliments both and adds dimension to the rotting visuals.
Matthew White's direction is affirmed and creates many interesting visual pictures though there are times when some of the jokes fall a little flat and he could tighten some places within the first act. The second act, however, moves at an extraordinary pace and is near perfection. Add to this the vibrant choreography of Alistair David and the parts make up a sumptuous whole, even if the King's stage felt a little cramped at times.

The production boasts an excellent cast led by the dynamic Cameron Blakely as Gomez and the resolute Samantha Womack as Morticia. Blakely is a bundle of energy on the stage and cements his prowess with ease whilst Womack is suitably stone-faced and economic until the role demands otherwise when she reveals just enough of the underlying passion within the character. Carrie Hope Fletcher's Wednesday is ostensibly the catalyst for the evening's proceedings and she handles the role with aplomb and gives Wednesday a depth and variety to match her outstanding vocals. The other members of the family shine equally in the smaller roles with Valda Aviks' Grandma a visual and dangerous treat to behold and Grant McIntyre making Pugsley a rather tender character mourning the potential loss of his sister to another boy. Oliver Ormson plays that particular boy, Lucas Beineke, with verve and gloss and Charlotte Page and Dale Rapley as his parents also add a dynamic that enhances the drama. The ensemble who play the various (un)dead clan members who flit in and out are varied and add much to the production with their dedicated and assorted characters. One of the long-running jokes within the production is the mute butler Lurch, played stoically by Dickon Gough who has a number of surprises in store. Special mention must also be made of understudy Scott Paige who played Uncle Fester at this performance. His performance was exemplary with superb comedic timing and charm and it's hard to say how Les Dennis, who usually plays the role, could be any better.

Though not perfect, The Addams Family is a wacky and thoroughly enjoyable musical treat with a life-affirming heartbeat at its core. With strong performances and a suitably grubby visual style this is another case of a top-rate production doing the rounds once again proving that one need not journey to London's West End to enjoy a cracking production.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

"Sunset Boulevard", 3/10/17, Edinburgh Playhouse

Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton's musical, based on the Billy Wilder film, portrays the story of hard-up screenwriter Joe Gillis and his fateful encounter with former silent movie goddess Norma Desmond. Desmond ostensibly employs Gillis to rewrite her comeback return whist he elects to make the most of the situation while alternately engaging in another partnership.
The original movie contained elements of film noir and melodrama and these are retained for the musical's book and are promoted in Nikolai Foster's stunning production.

The production boasts an orchestra of 16 which is quite an exception these days (but would be seen as small some years past) and is all the better for it; Lloyd Webber's score is inherently cinematic and as such relies on string and brass orchestration for emotional and physical prowess which pulsates throughout the piece. The sound design further enhances the power of the live musicians.

This production is blessed with a beautiful design which is both evocative and striking and perfectly encapsulates Foster's concept of a theatrical film production; with the set moving fluidly, cinematically at one time; then physically, theatrically the next, the mix is a sublime blend. Added to that are exceptional projections brilliantly used to add further depth as well as some contrasting lighting which furthers the experience. In tandem they create some exciting sequences including the care chase which was at once both cinematic and theatrical. Foster is a director who really knows how to work a set and his use of space and dimension is second to none and I am always excited by his production, even the ones that don't quite hit the mark.

The ensemble cast lend great vocal power to the musical and portray many varying roles, including the stagehands who lurk about the sound-stage set, silently observing an occasional moment before engaging in the next scene-change. There are occasions when an older actor would be more appropriate (as in the studio figures Norma recalls from previous days) but this is a small niggle.
Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer, a wannabe screenwriter, lends an amiable yet determined air and a sweet voice that manages to harden as the plot reaches its resolution. Adam Pearce is a strong and centred Max with a voice that is both powerful and tender. His precise movements are appropriately attuned and something that leading man Danny Mac should learn from; Mac is too energised as cynical Joe Gillis with lots of arm gestures and bouncing throughout the production. There is an economy of stillness that he should learn which would make his performance all the more powerful. As it is he is adequate in the role even if his vocals are unremarkable for the most part.
Ria Jones however has an awesome presence and exceptional vocals in the role of Norma Desmond, the part she originated in the musical's early workshop. When she sings As If We Never Said Goodbye she really means it. Jones captures the melodramatic elements of Desmond with aplomb and the only negative is that she really doesn't play the various descents in to melancholy with enough darkness until the final scene. That said, she stalks the set and hovers over all her scenes like some decrepit vulture eagerly anticipating the next opportunity - be it in Joe Gillis or her reunion with Cecil B. DeMille. Hers is a mesmeric performance and she demands attention every time she opens her mouth to sing.

The production is nearly perfect aside from a few small issues; I was surprised to see that the scene for much of the Act I finale - Artie's apartment - was replaced with Schwab's Drugstore requiring some slightly clunky dialogue changes and though the use of projection was, in the main, inspired there were occasions where it was overused and none more so than in the sequence where Betty journeys to Norma's mansion where we are treated to projection that was reminiscent of The Matrix's falling letters. Here the chosen images were out of place with the remainder of the production. At other occasional moments the amount of projection threatened to become distracting from the onstage action. There is also a need for the final scene to be played at a more suitable pace as it felt too rushed and it should be where we see Norma completely deconstruct, and the audience should have the time to appreciate the awful tragedy of it all. Elsewhere in Act I pace could be picked up here and there, though in reality this may be an argument for some trimming of the musical's book/score (There is at least one small part that I feel could be cut without any damage to the piece's structure at all).

Sunset Boulevard remains one of the best of Andrew Lloyd Webber's canon and this production is as near perfect as such a production can be and extols how, with the right director and design team, a touring production can match - even excel - much of what London's west End can offer. Exquisite design and conception matched with (for the most part) exceptional talent has created one of the best productions to emerge for many a year.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Letter (On Externalising) 26/9/17

The Residence

I ask, and am asked, why self-harm? First, though evidently an appropriate term, "self-harm" is also not; I cannot speak for others but, in my own interests, it is a release, an escape: 
To put it succinctly - feeling such pain, frustration and anger as I do, there comes a time when one feels constricted, suffocated and trapped and I reach such depths of mood where things have compressed so tightly that some effective relief is needed and the ideas I have on such relief are not the best to have. For others, as well as myself. Thus the safest release I can enact incurs some mild danger of its own and I attempt to externalise this internal suffering. Is it totally effective? Of course not, but it does - albeit briefly - abate that tension and oppression. The residual pain is also something of a device that serves to render the act effective.

I do not undertake such actions lightly and resist as I may. Others may say that such actions serve as a reminder, for those who live in the depressive void, that one is alive, that they can feel. Yes, I'd have to agree with that but, for me, the liberation of the inner anguish that I endure is my primary thought. Frankly, feeling is something I can be all too capable of and I often try not to feel.

There is nothing perfect in this world. And I hope it's the last.


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

"IT", 9/9/17, Odeon Glasgow

Based on the Stephen King novel which sees a group of young teenagers (known as The Losers' Club) fight against the otherworldly child-killing evil in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown that looms over their small town of Derry, Maine, and their later return as adults, this new adaptation elects to concentrate on the children and their encounters in the summer of 1989 when the creature they come to know as It awakes from its cyclical slumber to once again feed.
The film has reset events into the years 1988/89 whilst the original novel follows King's own childhood years of the late 50s. The reason for this change is obvious, and the proposed follow up film (which will primarily follow The Losers' Club as adults) will be set in the present, as the novel was when it was published in the 1980s.
No doubt there are those who will compare it with the 1990 television mini-series that starred Tim Curry, but that is really unfair if only because of the inherent limitations a television series must face. Rather, I look upon the film as a new, original, take on a great novel and here treat it as such.

Beware of potential spoilers ahead.

There have been some serious alterations from the novel beyond the time period and whilst most are appropriate and purposeful, there are a few which jar with me; given how much of the novel is spent on the childhood experiences of a summer, the film doesn't spend enough time on these, instead choosing to hint at them and omitting sequences which aid in the set up of the future adults whilst establishing the forming and bonding of the group (the iconic building of the dam, for one) though there are some equivalent reinterpretations present. Even small things such as nicknames ("Haystack" and "Trashmouth") are all but omitted, though the film is littered with easter eggs to other events or details from the novel. 
The biggest alteration is the ultimate form and nature of It which, apparently, the film's director never liked (even the term "deadlights" goes unmentioned). Given the Lovecraftian essence of the creature and the form of the ultimate final confrontation in the novel, I am interested how they intend to approach the finale of the story and how they can better the 1990 mini-series' approach - besides in special effects. Of course, readers of the novel will know the confrontation (the Ritual of Chüd) would be exceedingly difficult to present on film, but I ache for an imaginative reinterpretation of them on celluloid. 
Other inventions that don't quite sit right include Beverly becoming the lure for the boys' descent into the sewers, leading to their confrontation with Pennywise. The teenage Beverly Marsh is a strong character, here and in the novel, and this event diminishes her somewhat. The sense of "damsel in distress" is unfortunate and also lessons the role of Henry Bowers who is the novel's original reason for the entry into the sewers. He and his gang could certainly have featured more than they do.
We do learn that the film's full title is "IT Chapter 1" and I do wonder, however, how many of the changes/inventions that I quibble about will come to some sort of fruition of service in the second chapter. I have been reading articles about proposals for the proposed second feature which are positive but these are inevitably subject to change and until the film is made and released I have to - ultimately - reserve judgement as to what the final outcome will be. 

The film, nonetheless, is a superior King adaptation and is a strong movie in other regards. What it is most successful at is capturing the sense of childhood, innocence and its loss which is one of the most powerful aspects of the novel. The camaraderie between the members of The Losers' Club is palpable and it makes one nostalgic for one's own similar experiences. Director Andy Muschietti succinctly builds characters into multi-dimensional creations with surprisingly very little, no doubt aided by a supremely talented young cast.
The casting of the club members is inspired with Jaeden Lieberher leading the way as an endearing Bill Denbrough. Sophia Lillis' Beverly Marsh is an attractive, deep girl on the cusp of womanhood and her approach to the role is beautifully judged. This could be said of all members of the young cast, who manifest the varying aspects of the children with diversity, honesty and commitment, from Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier to Wyatt Oleff as Stan Uris and all the teens between. Despite limited screen time, and through careful script/editing choices by his director, Nicholas Hamilton as Henry Bowers is able to effortlessly give us a complex school bully, though his fellow gang members are less dimensional. The limited adult cast lend on air of danger when one realises that they are but pawns in It's game and it's a positive that the film revolves utterly around the children and so the adults, appropriately, require far less rounding as characters.
Of course, the most iconic character is Pennywise itself and Bill Skarsgård creates a disturbingly alluring, creepy and original take on one of Stephen King's most infamous characters. The sense of age and corruption he exudes in the role is inherent and his physicality is as inhuman as it is perturbing. 

The film is really quite lean and efficient and could afford a little more padding to afford more character development and history, be it for The Losers' Club members or Henry Bowers and his gang but the pacing is generally well judged
The visual palette is dynamic and the production design is beautiful, even in its terror and the re-imagining if It's lair is creative and disturbing, even though it is quite different to what King wrote. Of course, we may yet see even more of It's habitat so there may be surprises yet to come. It is a credit that the use of CGI is actually limited and that the environments were physically created as this lends an air of reality to events, even on their unnaturalness and makes the CGI appropriately more otherworldly when it does crop up.
Another strength is the superb musical score of Benjamin Wallfisch which radiates terror, suspense and - at the opposite end - brief moments of tenderness and warmth and its presence is integral to the success of the movie as a whole.

Despite the loss of some infamous scenes from the novel, "IT " is its own creation and honours the spirit of King's book, even with the deviations and inventions it makes. It is blessed with a stunningly gifted cast and with creatives who, together, create a real, tangible world that contrasts wildly with the terrifying force that intrudes. The film is not "Hollywood glossy" and has no excessive gore but relies on more traditional techniques to build and execute terror. The script is well-crafted and the direction is lithe and un-fussy, aided by sharp editing and that pervasive musical score. "IT" is a return to the greater form of horror movie, whilst never neglecting the essential human characters at its core.

Monday, 11 September 2017

"Blood Brothers", 8/9/17, Glasgow King's Theatre

Bill Kenwright's perennial production of Willy Russel's Blood Brothers returns to Glasgow with Lyn Paul returning to the central role of Mrs Johnstone.

The show is a moral parable that remains surprisingly moving, despite the somewhat odd structure of the show; being made up of occasion poetry, abstract and Brechtian staging together with gritty realism, all to tell the tale of two twins separated at birth after Mrs Johnstone and the woman she works for, Mrs Lyons, strike an unusual bargain. Russel asks whether it is nature or nurture that influences the path a person can take and, whist he offers no real answers, the diverging paths of the twins makes for intriguing viewing.
Russel's compositions are easy on the ear and though there may not be a huge amount of varieties in melody, his lyrics are witty and moving in turns and he has written two of the most emotionally striking songs in "Easy Terms" and the devastating finale, "Tell Me It's Not True". In the hands (or vocal chords) of such a great singer as Lyn Paul these numbers reach new heights.

The cast feature some old favourites including Sean Jones as Mickey and Mark Hutchinson as Eddie (who I first saw in the role more than 20 years ago in London's West End) and both continue to breathe fresh life in the roles whilst the newer additions are mostly as successful, though Sarah Jane Buckley's Mrs Lyons verges more on the melodramatic than appropriate as opposed to  the Narrator of Dean Chisnell which was suitably subtle with a firm, strong voice. Danielle Corlass' Linda is also another acutely measured performance that shines.
Lyn Paul's Mrs Johnstone is an understated, yet precisely attuned acting and physical performance tightly balanced with her stirring and assured vocals. The emotional resonance in her performance is replete and her song delivery can be equally joyous and heart-breaking.

Sadly, the production is starting to show its age and could do with updating starting with the orchestrations which have occasionally been updated since the 1988 West End opening (which was itself updated from the original - non-Kenwright produced - 1982 production's orchestrations). Typically Kenwright neglects to credit the orchestrator but, regardless, the arrangements have become terribly dated and new orchestrations are in order. Also the various pieces of underscore that have also been added throughout the London run need to be examined as the number and effect is excessive in places.
The design by Andy Walmsley, itself slightly updated from the London version, is perfectly serviceable as is the lighting by Nick Richings but it is unfortunate that the performance was marred by a poor sound balance which left the cast barely audible at times whilst the volume of the band became excessive so I do hope this is rectified sooner rather than later.
The direction by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright remains effective - if safe - and I was left wondering how successful a completely new production would be if Kenwright were brave enough to pursue that avenue. But I doubt he will.

Altogether Blood Brothers remains a stirring, emotional and enjoyable production despite the various negative aspects of its aged production. Ultimately it is Russel's material and the cast that elevate the production.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Letter (On Dreams) 10/9/17

The Residence

I have of late been suffering from what I can only call psychosomatic dreams - dreams that leave residual physical symptoms upon waking. 
The details of these dreams are only clear in that fragile state that exists between sleep and awake and once a step is taken into the latter realm the dream is shattered irreparably and I am lucky if I recall the simplest detail.
The clearest detail I do have is from a dream which has yet to reoccur - in it I am at some point pierced in the testicle with a fine, long needle - for what reason I am unsure, though a sense of female retribution hangs over the event - and I awoke with a throbbing ache in the relevant region.
Other symptoms I have awakened with indicate that I had undergone physical exertions in some of my dreams, complete with racing heart.
At other times I have been left feeling emotionally worn out and compromised as though I had undergone some terribly trying trial. 
What these dreams can mean I do not know. But how I welcome their cessation.


Thursday, 7 September 2017

"Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell The Musical", London Coliseum, 22/8/17 (Closing Night)

A monumental, dominating, exuberant production, Jim Steinman's life work realises the promise within his rock and roll fantasies in the temple of imagination that is the theatrical stage and now the end has come and Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell The Musical (to give it its full title) has played its final performance at the London Coliseum. The fact the pre-show sequence was greeted with a standing ovation speaks volumes about how much this production has come to mean to so many different people; Bat Out Of Hell has become more than a musical, more than an experience - for some, it is a way of life.

Jim Steinman has apparently always had a fascination with Peter Pan - something I can relate to - believing it to be naturally equatable with rock music and its ethos. This, tied with his love of grand opera, gave birth to his early attempts to create a musical based on J. M. Barrie's fairy-tale and nearly half a century later these principles still form the fulcrum of Steinman's megalithic musical, the ultimate realisation of all his previous efforts.
Sometime in the future a cataclysmic event has separated the island of Manhattan from the mainland of America, isolating its inhabitants. In the same event a group of teenagers are mysteriously genetically frozen so that they never age a day again. This group form The Lost who are led by eternal rebel Strat, whilst the remaining inhabitants eventually come under the rule of Falco who, in the year 2100, is busy redeveloping the island which has come to be known as Obsidian. The Lost are opposed to much of his plans and the two opposing sides frequently clash.
Each side has their own issues with Falco having to deal with his unhappy, alcohol fueled wife, Sloane, who aches for the passion and freedom of her youth (something Falco also envies of The Lost) and the impending 18th birthday of his rebellious daughter, Raven, who is enamoured with The Lost and their secret lives.
The Lost battle to retain their way of life whilst attempting to deal with their internal relationships; tribe members partner up with each other, some evidently moving from one to the other, whilst adult emotions attempt to make their mark with Jagwire persistently pursuing the exotic Zahara despite her protestations of un-interest in a serious relationship with him.
Strat's best friend, Tink, suffers constant emotional turmoil given the fact he was 'frozen' on the brink of pubescent maturity and he harbours a secret love for his hero and leader which soon turns to jealousy when Strat falls in love with Raven, prompting severe reactions from her father and, sadly, from Tink. It is Strat and Raven's relationship that forms the core of the musical, whilst the other relationships also have to be dealt with.

In presenting three variations of a love story, Steinman enriches his plot and forms a unique triumvirate which can be seen as different facets of love at different stages of life. We also see an outside force acting upon this triumvirate in the form of Tink, who epitomises the darker aspects of unfulfilled love; love gone bad, as it were.
Through all the action and emotional eddies that occur, ultimately it is the rock and roll sensibilities, based on primary emotions, that must win out and, naturally, love and hope are the strongest of these.

Jim Steinman's book is relatively simple and frequently punctuated with his famed word-play and abstract speeches and it is quite a change from the earlier incarnations of Neverland and The Dream Engine in being far more accessible for an audience than the earlier versions of the musical. His retelling of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan is infused with his sexual and rebellious rock and roll sensibility whilst the integration of Steinman's songs are completely organic, generally serving to promote the plot and/or reflect internal feelings whilst often exploding externally.
It is, perhaps, rather misleading to call Bat Out Of Hell a "jukebox" musical - as some have done - since the majority of songs have been created from some incarnation or another of Steinman's Neverland project and therefore suitably reflect the appropriate requirements of a particular scene or moment. Even the 'flashback' scene works utterly in harmony with the nature of the piece. Rather, Bat Out Of Hell is the ultimate development of a musical that has had a number of permutations over the decades. As the saying goes, musicals aren't written - they are rewritten.

Steinman has never thought small and the creative team assembled rise to meet his OTT standards to create a theatrical language and environment that suitably match his otherworldly vision, from the monolithic set which encapsulates the environments of the island city of Obsidian, further enhanced with video projection and some incredibly dynamic lighting that fuses the best elements used in theatre and stadium shows through to the energised and spirited unconventional choreography (which often tells its own story) and the fluid, sometimes abstract, direction which is perfectly paced whilst eloquently presenting the relevant information. The costumes, redesigned following the Manchester run, are also integral to the world and now create a unified vision whereas, in Manchester, a number of pieces stood out glaringly - and not always for the right reason. Altogether a unified visual ideal is promoted that is succinctly attuned to Steinman's material.
The orchestra (or band) are also quite exceptional, breathing new life into Steinman's songs with their dynamic playing of the incredible arrangements and orchestrations that pay homage to the original recordings whilst also serving as fresh, theatrical interpretations. Led by the more than capable Robert Emery they are an equal part in the success of the production and the little nod to the orchestra's presence in the first act is quite brilliant.

The production has undergone some further changes just before closing; changes in dialogue, dialogue cuts and a line or two moved streamline the musical further without damaging the plot at all, though the "mirror" speech omission - cut down a while back - still makes the sole remaining line rather awkward, coming out of nowhere as it does and without any context. Reinstating the speech, or some version of it, would only benefit the scene.
The biggest change is the cutting of the gorgeous "It Just Won't Quit", one of the more mellow songs that added an emotional resonance to proceedings as they stood. Whilst the reworked scene works just as well, and the emotional connection between Strat and Raven easily reaffirmed elsewhere, the song is missed as a gentler number amidst the more frantic ones that dominate the musical score and also as an opportunity to give Raven more musical material. Missed most is the brief moment of Tink singing the final line of the song which further suggested Tink's inner turmoil which ultimately leads to his final choices.

The magnificent cast excelled themselves even further than previously and it's clear that the closing night was an emotional one for all and the company evidently made the most of their final performance with sheer joy on some faces and tears in their eyes as and when appropriate. Danielle Steers' and Dom Hartley-Harris' relationship as Zahara and Jagwire has never been stronger and their connection has never been so heart-warming, no doubt reflecting the fact that Dom is not travelling on to Toronto with the company. Steer's face said it all during their moments together, especially during "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad" where it was a case of smiling through the tears. Steers really is something else and is an especially unique find amongst the gifted cast. The emotional and vocal powerhouses extend throughout the company with Rob Fowler's Falco and Sharon Sexton's Sloane continuing to be a dynamic duo whose bitterness and despair spills across the stage as they journey through the disappointments of growing up. Something that Aran MacRae's Tink laments being unable to do. MacRae is the catalyst for several plot points and his is a precisely attuned performance and it's a shame there is not more made out of the character. Christina Bennington surpassed herself as Raven, aching to be free and revelling when the  opportunity arises, while Andrew Polec's dynamo performance as Strat reached new heights, as did his vocal prowess which has never been more assured. His embodiment of Steinman's rock-n-roll ethos is sublime perfection.
Steinman and his creative team could not have wished for a more perfect ensemble and it is one of the greater joys of this production to see a youthful company make fresh claims on Steinman's epic songs and interpret them with new eyes and voices; voices that, unlike many current musicals, are all distinct and unique yet, when blended together, beautifully harmonious.

Looks like The Lost have indeed been found ...

I have, of course, previously written about Bat Out Of Hell and those writings can be found herehere and here.

Finally; it is a shame that, presumably for health-reasons, Jim Steinman could not witness his creation in the flesh and bask in the triumph so deserved. I hope he gets the chance to attend the Toronto production but I, selfishly, am overjoyed to know that the production will be returning to London in 2018 and urge all to buy a ticket when it does!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

"Bat Out Of Hell", London Coliseum, 18/7/17

After a successful run of 'previews' in Manchester (reviewed here and here), Bat Out Of Hell has hit London's West End for a limited run at the home of the English National Opera, the London Coliseum. Somewhat appropriate given the monumental nature of Jim Steinman's epic masterwork.

Developed over several decades by Steinman from his musical The Dream Engine through the musical Neverland and beyond, the plot is essentially a rock and roll reworking of the Peter Pan story utilising many of Steinman's songs many of which were written with the Neverland project in mind. Indeed, Steinman composed so much material over the years that a number of songs don't feature in the musical at all given that several songs may cover the same scene or content and that there is limited time to squeeze them all in. One of the most obvious losses, and an odd one given the song's obvious subject matter, is that "Lost Boys And Golden Girls" fails to make an appearance. I can certainly think of a place for the number within the show as is, though there are still a massive number of songs peppered throughout the musical and every song from the first "Bat Out Of Hell" album makes an appearance in one form or another. 
One of the clever aspects of the production is that there are numerous nods to Steinman and the earlier incarnations of the show; from the various lyrics sprawled across the walls to posters and signs to the very shirt that Strat (the Peter Pan of the story) wears - a picture of Jim Steinman himself from The Dream Engine in the role of Baal, the earliest incarnation of Strat.

It is the year 2100 and the island city of Obsidian (once known as Manhattan) is ruled by the tyrant Falco who is opposed by a group of mutants destined to never age beyond 18 called "The Lost". This group resides under the city, in The Deep End, and are led by Strat who has caught the eye of Falco's daughter, Raven. Repercussions follow when Strat elects to kidnap Raven from her isolation; repercussions from both Falco and from Strat's best friend, Tink, whose jealousy is multi-faceted given his own mutation came before puberty took hold. Falco also faces unrest from his unhappy wife, Sloane, as they both ache for the youth which is perpetual for "The Lost".

Steinman's book is relatively simple but there are interesting twists on various aspects of the Peter Pan story whilst the songs blend into the plot seamlessly (or intentionally not), which is no surprise given most were written for one incarnation of Neverland or another. The songs serve to reinforce emotional points and also to drive the plot onward. True, there are a few plot point which could be expanded upon but, given the nature of Steinman's overblown (in the best possible sense) creation, this is not essential; Steinman is retelling a fairy-tale through the medium of rock and roll and it works because of the faerie-tale nature of rock and roll itself. Furthering the powerful nature of the musical score is some beautiful and evocative underscoring which is haunting in itself.
The design of Jon Bausor is also perfectly attuned to Steinman's imagination, from the monumental set which includes dynamic filmic elements to Patrick Woodroffe's lighting design which perfectly walks the line between stadium and theatrical lighting. The projected film elements of Finn Ross also seamlessly tie in with the design and add to expansive nature of the show. The costumes have undergone great changes since the Manchester run (thankfully) and they now feel much more appropriate to the world of Obsidian.
It is easy to say that Bat Out Of Hell has easily become one of those productions where everything works in harmony to benefit the production, and this includes the intelligent direction of Jay Scheib whose experience in directing opera serves him exceedingly well here where he crafts arresting images and events within the excitingly outrageous environment. Even the choreography of Emma Portner, which has received some harsh criticism, feels at home within the onstage world; it may be unconventional for musical theatre (but then there is a lot here that is unconventional) but it is cleverly used to convey the various unwritten stories of the (supporting) characters qualifying the often minimal dialogue and further adding to the depth and complexity of Steinman's universe.

The cast are uniformly excellent and perform with a gusto rarely seen, but with a theatrical sense that conveys the dramatic necessities of the various roles. Even the diction of the cast is crisp, with not a word mumbled or dropped. Each role is named and every cast member is distinctive, though there are primarily three couples whose adventures we follow: Jagwire (Dom Hartley-Harris) adores Zahara (Danielle Steers) but his love is unrequited, despite all the action the two evidently get up to. Both performers bring innate qualities to the parts with Jagwire both a strong and gentle persona whilst Steers' vocals are some of the most distinctive heard for many a year and her sass and inherent sexuality is marked well with every single step she takes. Falco (Rob Fowler) and Sloane (Sharon Sexton) each exhibit the tired energy of middle-aged parents lamenting the loss of the youth that their daughter possesses. Their chemistry and vocal compatibility is sizzling and, with an economy of words, they clearly delineate the decline of the older rocker in the face of ageing. Their 'resurrection' is all the more satisfying because of the powerhouse performances given.

The supporting ensemble, including Ledoux (Giovanni Spano) and Blake (Patrick Sullivan) lend varied emotional power to proceedings along with a variety of vocal tones not often seen in musicals, let alone rock ones. There are standout performances within the (dancing) ensemble also with Anthony Selwyn, Benjamin Purkiss (who also alternates the role of Strat at particular performances) and Olly Dobson among those whose individuality shines through. The character of Tink, as played by Aran MacRae, is the most obvious hold-over from the original J M Barrie tale and is translated here into a jealous and petulant teen whose childlike innocence is contrasted with his desire to be as 'adult' as the remainder of "The Lost". Raven (Christina Bennington) and Strat (Andrew Polec) are the focus of the show and the pair are delicately matched. With stirring vocals, vibrant physical presences and displaying the energising force of youth to the Nth degree, both possess the roles completely with Polec's contortions the embodiment of Steinman's rock sensibilities. It is understandable that script elements were excised when the cast (coupled with the direction and choreography) so readily portray the various dimensions of their characters with - seemingly - relatively little. And it is a credit to the creative team that the cast chosen is one imbued with a youthful spirit that matches their external projections, with vocal qualities that play against the typical 'musical theatre' - or even 'rock' - voices one usually expects on a stage (to the effect that the vocals are often indistinguishable from one performer to the next in a typical production) which further enhances the variations of life within the world of Obsidian. Here the characters are truly alive.

Taking the appropriate excesses of rock and stadium productions together with the nuances and theatricality of the most audacious elements of the stage, Bat Out Of Hell executes Jim Steinman's long-standing vision with a passion and verve not often seen. The cast meet every challenge and raise the bar for musical and vocal performances. The production values are a new high and exudes a force barely contained within the confines of a theatre auditorium. With flawless musical direction the songs are performed to the highest quality by a band (rock orchestra?) that sound as if they are having as much fun as the cast appear to be having onstage. That this musical has come to fruition is something of a miracle in itself in that much of it is more cinematic in scope than theatrical - and it would indeed make a fantastic movie musical given the right director, but it is a credit to theatre that it can and always will pull it out of the bag when required. And, though the production is massive in scope and execution, I have no doubt that a gifted director could make Steinman's material work in a smaller, less technical production (and let's face it - the size of this production means it will never tour in the conventional manner).
Bat Out Of Hell is a monumental, monolithic musical with a scale larger than anything recently conceived of for the musical stage. It is a thrilling joyride of fun, emotion, theatricality and damned great rock and roll! It is a sin that it is only running for a limited time in London before it crosses the Atlantic to hit Toronto. There are rumours that the producers are looking into bringing it back to London next year but either way I suggest you grab a ticket and have your mind blown by the most epic of productions you'll see in quite a while.
If you don't go over the top you can't see what's on the other side, as a great songwriter once said.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

La Cage Aux Folles, Glasgow King's Theatre, 25/7/17

A review written for Backstage Pass:


Some theatrical experiences should be on social prescription, to be experienced by those who should heed a message or those who require a dose of joy in their lives. La Cage Aux Folles is such an experience and it is one of the most outstanding pieces Bill Kenwright has produced for many a year; done with such panache and flair. But it is also a welcome reminder in a period of political upheaval that the message of tolerance and acceptance should not be discarded. Nor the ultimate legend to "live and love as hard as you know how". Perhaps it is fate, given this is the first ever UK tour of a classic musical which originally premiered in the 1980's:
By night Albin is 'Zaza' the star of the St Tropez drag club, La Cage aux Folles, run by his partner, Georges, whose son from a one-night fling, Jean-Michel, returns home to announce his forthcoming marriage to Anne, whose father, right-wing politician Dindon, advocates against non-heterosexual 'lifestyles' and for a return to so-called traditional values. More upsetting is that Jean-Michel requests his father and biological mother act as a couple and that Albin be absent for the meeting of the two families, despite Albin having raised him as his own alongside Georges. The repercussions of this announcement form the central crux of a musical which radiantly promotes positive ideas of family and love.

Harvey Fierstein's book remains as relevant, as funny and as moving as ever and Jerry Herman's score remains one of his best, replete with numbers ranging from the most showy of show-stoppers to the most tender of ballads;  the glorious songs include the call to seize the moment of "The Best Of Times", the romantic "Song On The Sand" and the soul-stirring "Look Over There". And of course La Cage contains one of the most anthemic numbers ever composed for the stage in "I Am What I Am".
The direction is fluid, tight and focused, retaining an air of innovation, and the comedy and chaos is controlled whilst simultaneously appearing to be free of restraint. The choreography is also perfectly attuned to scenes both within the club and outside of it and show the Cagelles in their full force.
The design is a glorious visual treat, from the glamorous costumes to the chic settings that smoothly transition from one scene to the next, and it is yet another stand-out aspect of this truly outstanding production.

John Partridge is electrifying as Albin/Zaza, a role he inhabits completely, and he is outrageous, hilarious and emotionally heart-breaking in turns. His full, rich voice is put to great use throughout the show as is his enterprising physicality.
Not to be outshone, Adrian Zmed is a suave, calm and collected Georges who eloquently keeps the madness about him in check. His relationship with Partidge's Albin is at once honest, believable, tender and affectionate and Zmed is a welcome addition to the British stage.
Stage stalwart Marti Webb lends her thrilling vocals and charm to the small but vital role of Jacqueline whilst the Cagelles are thrillingly dynamic and varied, always entertaining in whatever scene they appear simultaneously exuding a palpable energy beyond the footlights.

Entertaining, thought-provoking and gloriously staged, La Cage Aux Folles is one of the most impressive productions to have toured the UK in recent years and remains one of the most relevant and timeless of musicals. Grab a ticket and enjoy!

Friday, 16 June 2017

"The Crucible", Theatre Royal Glasgow, 13/6/17

Written for Backstage Pass:


Over the last few years Selladoor Productions has gone from strength to strength with their dynamic and varied productions. Their latest production is a new tour of Arthur Miller's classic allegory The Crucible, produced in association with the Queen's Theatre, Hornchuch and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg and directed by Douglas Rintoul.
Arguably Miller's most famous play, The Crucible dramatises the infamous Salem witch trials of the 17th century focusing around the Proctor family and how their village is turned upside down as paranoia and suspicion rip through the town following a children's game that leads to allegations of witchcraft. Miller famously wrote the play as a response to the 1950's United States government's persecution of supposed Communists by the House of Respresentatives' Committee on Un-American Activities. The play also rings relevant given the current political climate that pervades several countries, including our own.

This production is somewhat Brechtian in its direction and design with stage directions projected on its bare, stripped back set and anachronistic costumes (which hint at both 1690's and the 1950's fashions) though there are also abstract and near-expressionist elements throughout, especially in the unusual lighting. The sound design is also intriguing and moody, though it is excessive at times.
Director Rintoul guides the cast ably, though there are slack moments and the pace of the production could be tightened, along with the lengthy scene changes, which would resolve some uneven moments and also serve to cut the running time.

The cast are led by a strong, stable Eoin Slattery as John Proctor, supported by former "Coronation Street" actor Charlie Condou as a sterling Reverend Hale whose principled stillness is palpable. There are other fine performances from David Delve as Giles Corey and Lucy Keirl, as Abigail Williams, amongst others. Victoria Yeates ("Call the Midwife") plays Elizabeth Proctor, one of those falsely accused of witchcraft and, whilst she is often strong, she is amongst a few in the company whose vocal projection needs a bit more work.

A slightly uneven, though visually interesting staging, this production of The Crucible has some strong elements throughout and serves as a stark reminder of how mania can easily sweep throughout a population and how history is apt to repeat itself.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

"Funny Girl", 31/5/17, King's Theatre Glasgow

Written for Backstage Pass:


The iconic musical Funny Girl makes its way around the UK for the first time in a classy, stylish production telling the real life story of Follie-girl Fanny Brice - whose comedic and vocal talents enabled her to rise to fame despite her unconventional appearance - and her unsettled relationship with professional gambler Nick Arnstein. Hitting the heights of success and enduring the ruin of her marriage the life of Fanny Brice has all the hallmarks of triumphant tragedy and this production hits all the right spots effortlessly.

Harvey Fierstein has reworked Isobel Lennart's book, though his efforts have done little to correct the flaws inherent in the libretto, with most characters still little more than two-dimensional figures who orbit around the central role of Fanny, but such flaws are barely noticeable when the lead actress is as strong as Natasha J Barnes certainly is. 
The iconic musical score, containing the famous 'People' and 'Don't Rain On My Parade', has been slightly altered from the original Broadway production in an attempt to improve the balance between Nick and Fanny although these alterations are not always successful. Jule Styne's music, however, remains powerfully stirring as do Bob Merrill's lyrics more than 50 years later.
Michael Mayer's direction is simple, clean and luminous and the choreography by Lynne Page is equally uncluttered and purposeful. The design is spare and elegant though a rather ugly border, complete with neon trim, has been pointlessly added but this is fortunately all but hidden in the King's theatre.  The musical direction is first rate and the orchestra performs the score vigorously.

Funny Girl fails or succeeds depending on the quality of its cast and this cast rises amiably to all challenges with a dynamic ensemble that produce a sustained energy and fluidity throughout the show. There are some brilliant and funny performances from Mrs Brice (Rachel Izen) and her cohorts including Mrs Strakosh (Myra Sands) and the Eddie of Joshua Lay is equally entertaining. Darius Campbell reprises his role as Nick Arnstein and elevates the part into something more memorable than is written. His strong voice, his physical presence and stillness combine to make the most out of an inadequately written part whilst adding sterling support as an arresting leading man to the primary role of Fanny Brice, shared on tour between Sheridan Smith and Natasha J Barnes (who famously rose from understudy to share the role with Smith in London). Barnes assumes the role for the Glasgow run and for those who may be disappointed not to see Smith; worry not for Barnes is beyond superb and surpasses all expectations: her acting is tender, rich, dynamic, varied and ultimately heartbreaking. Her honest, raw performance connects with the audience and follows through into her singing where her vocal abilities are displayed to astounding success. Her voice is malleable, full-bodied and assured and she remains in complete control from start to finish. Barnes has an innate charm which radiates beyond the footlights and she really is the greatest star on that stage and was visibly moved by the deserved standing ovation she received. 

Funny Girl is a beautiful, entertaining and moving production, nourished with an outstanding musical score and cast. It's also lucky enough to have a stellar lead actress with astonishing acting and vocal talents in the unforgettable Natasha J Barnes who radiates that factor known as 'star quality'. If a star was indeed born in London then that star is now burning brightly on tour in this stunning production.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

'Shirley Valentine', Glasgow King's Theatre, 2/5/17

Review written for Backstage Pass:


30 years after its premiere at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, Willy Russell's one-woman play "Shirley Valentine" hits the road in a superb anniversary tour starring the the engaging Jodie Prenger as the eponymous heroine.
Shirley Bradshaw (née Valentine) spends her days talking to the kitchen wall, bored with her life spent serving her husband and the few associates she has. When a friend offers her the chance of a two week holiday in Greece she decides to grasp the opportunity and start living the life she has long been aching for.

The production is a bright and appealing one with a design concept divided across the two acts; the realistic smart, clean kitchen with its bold yellow walls of Act One contrasting with the brighter, more abstract realisation - as if seen through Shirley's eyes - of Greece in Act Two. Such contrast is reflected in the direction of Glen Walford, who returns to the play after directing the premiere production three decades previous. There are a few moments which could be tighter and the odd bit of business that feels superfluous but otherwise Walford's direction is solid and engaging, consummately matched with Willy Russell's writing which is blessed with much word-play in turn humorous, witty, poignant and philosophical with Shirley dealing with the isolation of a life much wasted, musing on the trials and tribulations of human nature and life in general.

Jodie Prenger makes a wonderful 'Shirley Valentine' and her innate warmth and likability aids in her sympathetic, self deprecating portrayal of a woman coming to terms with the negative quality of her life before embarking on a journey of self discovery, ultimately commencing a life of worth and value, of joy and hope. Prenger's only minor flaw is that occasionally her Liverpudlian dialect becomes a little unsure, but this never detracts from a funny and emotional performance that bursts with pathos and life and is worthy of much praise: Prenger is a truly appealing performer and continues to grow and develop as such, pushing herself with each new role she undertakes, furthering her talents which continue to triumph in each new production.

"Shirley Valentine" speaks volumes to the middle-aged audience member, who may empathise with much that Shirley speaks of, and acts as a caution that life is for living and it is never too late to start doing so. There is always some semblance of joy to be had in life but often one has to reach out and take it. Willy Russell's play is a positive reminder to do so and this splendid production communicates the message admirably.