Tag Archives: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Music à la King

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th June, 2018

 

This biographical musical, telling of the rise to prominence of songwriter Carole King, feels different from other shows of its type.  Yes, it’s a rags-to-riches tale but the young King seems to have had a smooth ride to the top, from 1950s Brooklyn to 1970s Los Angeles.  Pressure from her mother to give up ‘sawng-wriding’ and become a teacher is easily overcome.  Resistance within the industry is deftly swept aside.  She sells her first hit, meets a handsome chap, forms a writing partnership with him, becomes his wife, mother to his daughters… It’s almost the interval when the first cloud appears, and dramatic tension at last enters the piece.  The second act is rife with marital stress, but King comes through, using the break-up of her marriage to lyricist Gerry Goffin as the basis for material for her phenomenal album, Tapestry.

As King, Bronté Barbé‏ is magnificent, delivering the self-deprecating Jewish humour along with the goods when it comes to singing à la King, that distinctive reedy voice combining vulnerability with power.  At this performance, Grant McConvey steps up as the charming but troubled Gerry Goffin and there is some excellent character work from Carol Royle as Carole’s mum.  Amy Ellen Richardson is also fabulous as Cynthia Weil, Carole’s best friend and songwriting rival, while Matthew Gonsalves’s Barry Mann is humorously hypochondriac and wildly talented.

The hits keep coming – it’s a real nostalgia fest of songs that were old when I was a nipper, but somehow they have entered my consciousness.  Up On The Roof, Some Kind of Wonderful, Will You Love Me Tomorrow… These are performed by members of the ensemble as ‘The Drifters’ and ‘The Shirelles’, recreating the authentic sound of those iconic acts, complete with doo-wop choreography, but it’s Little Eva (Esme Laudat) and The Locomotion that really raises the roof.  The remarkable breadth of King’s influence on popular music emerges, all the more astonishing for the era when ‘women didn’t write music’.

Beautiful is a fantastic piece of entertainment, slick and classy, heart-warming – and funny, due to a wryly witty book by Douglas McGrath.  You don’t have to be a Carole King aficionado to enjoy it, but by the end, you will be.

Beautiful.

BEAUTIFUL.-Bronte-Barbe-Carole-King.-Photo-by-Craig-Sugden-2

Bronté Barbé as Carole King (Photo: Craig Sugden)

 

 

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Heart to Heart

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 30th May, 2018

 

In the 1950s, Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York, contacts a bookshop at the eponymous address, in search of an out of print book.  So begins a correspondence that lasts a couple of decades.  The ever-demanding customer and the stuffy but efficient bookseller establish a friendship over the years, and there is always the promise that one day they might meet in person.

Cambridge Arts Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse bring us this new adaptation by James Roose-Evans, in which all the dialogue is taken from the letters.  The passage of time is signalled by the other members of the bookshop staff, coming and going and playing incidental music and traditional songs – This is a nice touch, rather than having Rebecca Applin’s original and wistful compositions on tape.  By keeping the bookshop staff busy, director Richard Beecham goes a long way to prevent this wordy show from becoming too static in presentation.

Hollywood and Broadway deity, Stefanie Powers doffs her usual glamour for the comfortable slacks and woolly pullies of the pernickety writer.  Hanff’s humour is delivered with a wry twinkle and Powers brings warmth even to the most demanding of her book orders.  She looks and sounds great, even in this dishevelled state.  Of course, these days, Hanff would trawl the internet for her books and that would be the end of it, but we can appreciate, in our ‘enlightened’ times of social media, the friendships one can strike up with people across the world that you may never meet.  Powers commands the portion of the stage that represents Hanff’s apartment – Norman Coates’s detailed, cluttered set evokes the frozen-in-time aspects of all good bookshops.

Clive Francis also excels as bookseller Frank Doel, gradually thawing and loosening up.  Even the act of listening to Powers narrate Hanff’s latest missive is imbued with emotion.  Of course, being British, Doel is never going to be effusive, but the chipping away at his reserve is sweetly handled, and there is a real sense of affection between the two.  Other members of staff chip in with their own letters to Hanff – details of social history are alluded to and the play delivers a strong impression of the way people come and go through life as well as the changing face of life in post-war Britain.

Charming and amusing, this gentle piece turns poignant as it reaches the end, with a final scene that is irresistibly moving.  It’s about closeness across distance, and it’s also about anticipation and disappointment, and friendship and loss, and I loved every minute.

A classy production that deserves a larger audience.

stefanie powers pic by Richard Hubert Smith

The Powers that be. Stefanie Powers as Helene Hanff (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

 


Some You Gershwin…

CRAZY FOR YOU

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th May, 2018

 

The songs of George and Ira Gershwin provide the music in this musical comedy – and there are some timeless classics here: Someone To Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away From Me to name but two.   There are also a few lesser known ditties and, hearing them tonight, you can see why.  But the super-talented company do their best with these bland numbers – the cast play instruments live on stage, without sheet music, and play flawlessly.  It seems in musical theatre, being a triple threat is no longer sufficient.  As well as singing, dancing and acting, you now have to be a musical virtuoso!

The plot is sheer musical comedy froth.  Chap is sent West to foreclose on a theatre but decides to save the building by putting on a show because, wouldn’t you know it, he happens to fall for the daughter of the theatre owner and, because nothing is straightforward, has to adopt disguise and subterfuge in order to secure the girl’s affections…  You can tell where it’s going but Ken Ludwig’s lively script with some zinging one-liners keeps the laughs coming.

Claire Sweeney is every curvaceous inch the glamorous vamp, Irene, strutting around, shooting her smart mouth off.  It’s a shame we have to wait until well into the second act before she gets a big production number.  Kate Milner-Evans matches Irene barb for barb as domineering matriarch Lottie Child, but it is Charlotte Wakefield’s Polly who takes the crown.  Her singing voice is sweet, even when she’s belting, and her solos are standout moments: But Not For Me is shiver-inducingly good.

Ned Rudkins-Stowe is quietly dashing as nominal baddie of the piece, saloon-owner Lank, and Neil Ditt amuses as Ziegfeld-like impresario Bela Zangler.

Heading the bill is Strictly alumnus Tom Chambers, who is hardly ever off, and hardly seems to stop dancing.  His tap skills are impressive, especially when he’s leaping around the set, from balcony to piano, or scaling the proscenium arch without use of a safety net.  It’s a star turn, to be sure, but unfortunately I fail to warm to his characterisation.  Bobby Child is a child by name and also by nature.  He’s a full-on ‘funny guy’ show-off who becomes annoying very quickly, and Chambers plays him to the hilt.  What he gains in over-the-top goofiness, he loses in truth and charm.  I think he should be less Jerry Lewis and more Bob Hope.

This is light-hearted stuff that needs a light touch.  Escapist fluff that, due to the impressive display of talent from the entire cast, does its job, taking us out of ourselves for a couple of hours and allowing us to visit a fantasy world where problems aren’t all that serious and can be overcome with a positive attitude and a spirit of cooperation.  There is a fundamental goodness in people, the show reminds us, even if real people don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Crazy For You UK TourPhoto Credit : The Other Richard

Happy hoofers: Tom Chambers and Charlotte Wakefield


Nailed It

TURN OF THE SCREW

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th April , 2018

 

Henry  James’s classic ghost story is often cited as an inspiration for Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black – and  in this masterful new stage adaptation by Tim Luscombe, you can see why.  A stranger arrives at a lonely mansion, there is mystery about dark deeds of the past, and apparitions stalk the scene…  Where the James differs from the Hill is the emphasis is on the psychological aspects.  It’s a slow-burner and we’re never sure if the ghosts are ‘real’ or figments of the imagination of the young Governess (Carli Norris).  Freud would probably say the apparitions are manifestations of the young woman’s repressed sexuality – she did take a fancy to her dashing employer (Michael Hanratty) before he dashed off, and indeed the action that suggests the show’s title, a young girl twisting a mast into a toy ship, triggers one of the Governess’s episodes… Also, having the same actor portray all the male roles supports the idea of her fixation on her employer, the uncle of her two charges.

A scene from Turn of the Screw by Henry James (adapted by Tim Luscombe) at the Mercury Theatre Colchester. Directed by Daniel Buckroyd. Designed by Sara Parks. Lit by Matt Leventhall.

Michael Hanratty (Photo: Robert Workman)

Carli Norris is splendid as the composed, older Governess, come to attend an interview.  As her story unfolds and she becomes her younger self,  she is driven to distraction by events.  Her interviewer is spirited and commanding, and in the flashbacks becomes young girl Flora, energetic to the point of exhausting, in a highly effective performance by Annabel Smith.  There is some steady character work from Maggie McCarthy as the lowly Mrs Grose, lending bags of atmosphere to the piece, and in the male roles Michael Hanratty demonstrates his versatility and magnetic presence – especially as young boy Miles who has been expelled from school for unmentionable reasons.

Director Daniel Buckroyd builds the intrigue, punctuating the storytelling with moments geared up to jolt or cause a shiver.  Sara Perks’s set keeps things simple: covered furniture becomes landscape, for example, so the one location – the Governess’s room (or her mind, depending on how you look at it) – serves for all.  Matt Leventhall’s lighting makes excellent use of side-lighting, giving the characters a dramatic, almost statuesque, appearance, and John Chambers’s compositions and sound design underscore the action to an unsettling degree.

This is a classy, stylish and captivating production, made in conjunction between Dermot McLaughlin Productions, Mercury Theatre Colchester and Wolverhampton’s Grand – it’s especially gratifying to see the latter extending its reach into producing new work.  Bravo, the Grand!

Carli Norris (Photo: Robert Workman)

 


Bloodless

SWEENEY TODD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 13th March, 2018

 

Stephen Sondheim’s grisly melodrama is not an easy sing, with its discords and broken rhythms as well as its searing, melodic phrases.  And yet Walsall Operatic Society pull off the intricacies of the score with apparent ease.  The singing here is very strong, from both the chorus and the main characters.  Musical director Ian Room has certainly put the work in to create such a sound.

Where this lavish and enthusiastic production comes up disappointing is during the dialogue scenes.  Here things fall flat with actors merely going through the motions.  They hit their marks, get their words out but fail to convince.  This is a general criticism and of course, one size does not fit all.

As the titular ‘demon’ barber, Richard Poynton has his moments of melodramatic grandeur and posturing but Steph Coleman’s Mrs Lovett acts rings around him.  Coleman is a delight, bringing life to her characterisation.  Simon Docherty’s Judge Turpin lacks presence and Nick Hardy’s Beadle struggles with the Sondheim.  Meg Hardy’s Johanna sings in a sweet soprano and makes for a spirited damsel in distress, while Christopher Room’s heroic Anthony has the best voice of the lot for this type of show – he just needs to bring the same verve and intensity to his spoken lines.  Young Neo Hughes gets off to a grand start as Tobias, bilking a crowd, but it seems when he takes off his wig, Samson-like, he loses his strength.  Katy Ball is a suitably disturbed Beggar Woman; she just looks a bit too clean, that’s all!

Also, it’s a particularly bloodless show – in terms of emotional engagement and in terms of the red stuff.  There’s not a drop to be had.  Like Mrs Lovett’s pies, these people are all crust and no filling.  There is also precious little of London in the delivery.  Fleet Street might as well be in Brownhills.  Director Tim Jones shies away from the horror, which is as important an ingredient in this story as any other.  Sweeney Todd without the gore is only half-baked.

todd

On his Todd: Richard Poynton

 


Who’s The Daddy?

MAMMA MIA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 7th February, 2018

 

The mother (the Mamma) of all jukebox musicals arrives in Wolverhampton as part of its bid for world domination.  Regular readers will know my views on jukebox musicals but where this one has an advantage is the back catalogue it raids for its score is one of the richest seams of pop music ever written.  Songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are one of the greatest partnerships of all time and their work is part of the fabric of popular culture.

It’s a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it’s great to hear the songs again; on the other, the songs are so familiar it is difficult to appreciate the context into which they have been thrust.  And so, some songs are shown in a new light (The Name of the Game) while others are rendered meaningless.  Some songs are simply too ‘big’ – most are stories in themselves and feel diminished, shoehorned into the storyline.

Ah, the storyline.  It reminds me of Shirley Conran’s blockbuster, Lace, (Which one of you four bitches is my mother?) but here a young girl seeks a father from three candidates.  She invites them to her wedding in the hope of recognising her dad right away.  It’s this little mystery that motivates the return of the three men, now middle-aged, and their reunion with their former flame, the girl’s mother Donna, who used to sing in some kind of glam rock vocal group.  Spoiler: the identity of the dad isn’t revealed, in a wishy-washy copout.  Now, if one of the guys had been a complete and utter shit, then we would have had some tension.  There would have been some stakes in the unfolding drama.

But everyone’s nice.  Everyone’s an extrovert.  Everyone’s funny.  Everyone is basically the same character.  And it all takes place on a Greek island, flooded with sunshine, and so the Scandinavian introspection and melancholy of the lyrics is mostly swamped.

Lucy May Barker is an appealing Sophie, Donna’s bastard daughter, while Helen Hobson’s Donna (who looks better when she gets out of her Rod, Jane & Freddie dungarees) has the big sings.  She can’t quite pull off the full Agnetha, opting to sing-speak some lines.  As her old chums and backing singers, Rebecca Seale is a lot of fun as Rosie and the elegant, leggy Emma Clifford makes a striking impression as Tanya – a kind of Patsy Stone figure, without the nihilism.

Catherine Johnson’s book keeps things frothy.  We are amused by the antics of these people rather than touched by their plight (such as it is).  Other than as a spectacle, and a chance to sing and clap along, the whole thing is emotionally uninvolving.  Only Slipping Through My Fingers tugs at the heartstrings.

Perhaps I’m missing the point.  It is more fun than I’m perhaps suggesting, and I especially enjoy the staging of the earlier numbers, where choreographer Anthony Van Laast adds a touch of humour (their heads appearing in doorways, for example).  Curiously, the chorus disappear to be replaced by disembodied back-up vocals.

If you want undemanding, feel-good fun, and a chance to revisit some fantastic songs, this is for you.  After all, “Without a song or a dance, what are we?”

mamma mia

Helen Hobson and Lucy May Barker (Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)


Taking a Hedda

HEDDA GABLER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

 

The National Theatre’s celebrated production is doing the rounds, and it’s a real treat to have such prestigious work on one’s doorstep.  It’s a new version of the Henrik Ibsen masterpiece translating the action into a contemporary setting or, I should say, a kind of timeless setting: the play still has people writing letters to convey important plot points, even though there’s an electronic visitor cam and door buzzer…

Jan Versweyveid’s set is an empty box, ostensibly the yet-to-be-decorated apartment of the newlywed Tesmans.  Sparsely furnished, often its only light source is the huge side window.  It makes for a stark landscape, suitable for any urbane Nordic noir drama… Hedda’s piano feels out of place – just as she does – and her late father’s brace of pistols, already in their own little display cabinet, lend foreboding.  Hedda shoots both them and her mouth off to express her boredom and frustrations.  We realise that the apartment is not so much Hedda’s space as her headspace, and the action takes a more symbolic turn.  By the final act when the other characters are actively boarding up the only window to the world she has, we are beyond the realms of the literal.  Director Ivo van Hove makes bold choices, most of which I approve of, in his presentation of a classic text in a new light.  Ibsen’s (via a Patrick Marber reworking) naturalistic chitchat is underscored by a slowly pulsating, throbbing sound that is disconcerting and ominous, coming to a sudden halt at the moments of high drama – it’s its absence we notice, as Hedda is starkly confronted with turns of events.

Lizzy Watts heads a strong ensemble in the title role.  Her Hedda is headstrong, coldly sarcastic and manipulative.  Having surrendered her own power, her own identity by becoming Mrs Tesman, she seeks to have power over someone else.  We enjoy her barbed outbursts and see her cruelty for what it is.  What I don’t really get is the source of her dissatisfaction: Abhin Galeya’s Tesman is an affable chap, enthusiastic and lively – yes, Tesman’s area of expertise (medieval trug makers) is esoteric and, frankly, dull as ditch water, but that doesn’t make him a basket case.  If, through Hedda’s eyes, we were shown a Tesman more annoying, more gauche, more bookish, we might appreciate more her frustration at having settled for this nerd.  Similarly, Richard Pyros’s Lovborg, doesn’t have, for me, the irresistibly sleazy charisma, the sense of brooding, romantic danger, that gets the ladies’ heads turning.   Annabel Bates is an appealing Mrs Elvsted – even though she’s already left her unsuitable husband (a course of action Hedda doesn’t even consider) – she’s very much the victim role, an innocent caught in Hedda’s web.  Adam Best swaggers and strides as Judge Brack, the male authority role and the villain of the piece.  Seen through the prism of Hedda’s mind, the physical liberties he takes with her become symbolic – he wouldn’t get away with such excesses in their literal sense, one would hope.  Best is enjoyably hateful, tightening his hold on Hedda – no woman can escape the patriarchy, after all…  Christine Kavanagh makes an impression as Tesman’s stylish, interfering Aunt, and Madlena Nedeva’s Berte the maid is a constant presence – a bit like a museum attendant on her seat at the intercom, but also as a kind of familiar to Hedda, silently conjuring props and messages, often unbidden.

It’s a thought-provoking staging that illuminates the Ibsen in such a way we appreciate the richness of the original.  For me, the sense of being trapped doesn’t quite come off at the end.  Perhaps I would have had the walls closing in, almost imperceptibly; Hedda’s vast empty box of an apartment is simply too vast.

A bold production that engages our intelligence rather than packing an emotional punch, it’s certainly worth seeing and, get this: if you’re one of those young people (26 or even younger) you can see the show on tour for merely a fiver!  Definitely worth it.  All you have to do is quote IBSEN5 when you book.

HEDDA GABLERUK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

Keeping a cool Hedda: Lizzy Watts (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)