Tag Archives: Lesley Joseph

An Absolute Scream

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Garrick Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

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Mel Brooks’s seminal comedy film comes to the West End in this musical adaptation that stitches together the best of the movie with some cracking new material.  Brooks has an ear for a good tune and the score, which he wrote along with the lyrics, is chockful of catchy melodies and sophisticated, witty rhymes.  Brooks’s sense of the inappropriate is also undiminished: a chorus of women sing proudly about their tits, a blind man inflicts pain… Aficionados of the film will not be disappointed and newcomers to the material are in for a wild and wacky treat.

Hadley Fraser stars as Frederick Frankenstein (Fronkensteen) combining good looks with manic intensity, like a matinee idol on crack.  The man is hilarious and has a clear musical-theatre tenor that means he can belt above the chorus.  Like the machinery in his grandfather’s laboratory, we can see the cogs working in Frederick’s mind.  Fraser is expertly matched by Ross Noble as the hunchback Igor.  Noble’s rolling eyes, stooped posture and incessant gurning evoke something of the great Marty Feldman who originated the role, while permitting us to see Noble is a superb comic performer in his own right.  And who knew he could sing so well?

Summer Strallen is effortlessly sublime as Inga, stretching her accent as well as her legs, while Dianne Pilkington is an absolute scream as Frederick’s fiancée Elizabeth.  Everyone is at the top of their game.  There is strong support from Patrick Clancy doubling as Inspector Kemp and the blind hermit; Shuler Hensley’s Monster is the gift that keeps on giving in a towering performance; but the revelation of the piece is Lesley Joseph’s Frau Blucher, surely the role she was born to play.

Blucher

She has her knockers but I think Lesley Joseph is great

Highlights?  The show is one big highlight from start to finish.  Putting on the Ritz turns into an all-out production number with the chorus hoofing in Frankenstein boots, brilliantly lit by Ben Cracknell, bringing Hollywood glamour to his palette of old movie spotlights and colour washes.  Beowulf Boritt’s set uses traditional painted backcloths that heighten the theatricality of the piece while hearkening back to the old movie sets.  The atmosphere is perfect.  Director/choreographer Susan Stroman doesn’t miss a trick to bring out every laugh, every campy turn of phrase or reaction, giving us what is quite possibly the funniest musical ever.

The breast jokes betray the show’s 1970s origins but Brooks is right to keep them in – the master of comedy, he knows how to give us a frisson.  There would be something wrong if we approved of everything and this is how Brooks tests us, pushing at our comfort levels, showing us where our boundaries are and, above all, making us laugh out loud and long.

A great big monster hit.

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Hay there! Hadley Fraser and Ross Noble

 

 

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Robinson Squashed

ROBINSON CRUSOE & THE CARIBBEAN PIRATES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 18th December, 2012

 

If you were on the quiz show Pointless and asked to list traditional pantomimes, I’d wager that Robinson Crusoe would not spring immediately to mind, but here it is.  It was in fact refined and panto-ised by the king of pantomime scripts, the late great John Morley many, many moons ago, bringing in elements of Dick Whittington (the shipwreck) and Aladdin (the baddie needs something from the hero in order to reach some hidden treasure).  This latest mutation emphasises the pirates Morley introduced, no doubt to cash in on a recent popular film franchise.  It deffo ain’t Defoe.

None of this matters with this production.  The story is incidental, amounting to nothing more than some loosely linked scenes.  If you try to follow what’s going on, you lose the plot very quickly.  This production is all about its big star, Brian Conley, an irrepressible force of showbiz who appropriates pantomime as a showcase for his talents.  He appears as the eponymous Crusoe, acknowledging from the start in a hilarious video sequence the similarities to the Buttons he gave us in this venue last year.  His crooning is interrupted by a tumble off-stage into the pit – This is this year’s fad, evidently.  Conley is a very watchable, amusing entertainer and no expense has been spared, it seems, to support his shtick.  Corny jokes are amplified by specially-made props, and there are some theatrical effects (Conley is shrunk in a magician’s cabinet, and carried in a cage by a gorilla) that are delightful.

He is matched in stage presence by Lesley Joseph in the good fairy role, the Enchantress of the Sea.  When they appear together, it is clear they are enjoying themselves immensely.  Joseph brings the right amount of camp diva to proceedings.

Audience participation is taken to a new level.  Conley wheels on a TV camera and turns it on the crowd.  Suddenly punters’ faces are projected large on a screen.  He singles out a man to insult.  It made me squirm in a relieved-it’s-not-me way and reminded me of a show I saw earlier this year that consisted of little more than this kind of abuse.  Later a woman is brought on stage to join in with a dance number – you guessed it, Gangnam Style, this year’s Japanese knotweed of a song.   It’s good-natured cheekiness rather than any aim to offend – that is how Conley operates.  I didn’t like a couple of throwaway lines that are out of place in a show like this. More palatable is the moment when Conley interacts with children, for the sing-along number, confirming him as an all-round popular entertainer, quick-witted and energetic.

Gavin Woods impresses as the villain of the piece, battling to stay in character as Blackheart the pirate in the face of Conley’s comic capers.  It seems that most of the plot development falls to him; his gloating monologues keep us in touch with what the hell is going on.  Kathryn Rooney as love interest Polly earns her money just by getting half-eaten apple spat on her face every performance.

As ever, the Hippodrome delivers spectacle and wonder on the grandest scale in the country.  There is a scary sea monster and, inexplicably, a flying car.  The set pieces and production numbers dazzle with an extravagance you don’t see in other pantomimes and Conley is correct to acknowledge the hard work of the Hippodrome crew in setting up and running a show of this magnitude.

It struck me that no matter the spectacle, it is the snot and fart jokes and the traditional pantomime routines and patter that work the best.  The prime example of this is Andrew Ryan as the dame, Mrs Crusoe.  Here we have a seasoned and skilled performer who works every line and every bit of business, the perfect complement to Conley’s anarchy.

I think anarchy is the key word.  The show is organised chaos.  Without a familiar plot to keep us anchored in events (compared to that most tightly-plotted of pantos, Cinderella, for example) we don’t know what might happen next but it certainly is great fun finding out in this theme park ride of a show.

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Flock Off

BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Friday 23rd March, 2012

The theatre was packed to the rafters for this new touring production based on the popular TV series of yesteryear. And that is precisely the purpose of the exercise. Shows of this nature appeal to people’s sense of nostalgia and create a money spinner for all involved. Theatres need to make money. Of course they do. But it was with some trepidation and no small amount of theatrical snobbery that I took my seat in the stalls for this performance.

I have been burned before, you see. There was a tour of dinnerladies doing the rounds – it may still be out there – based on Victoria Wood’s superior sitcom. But that show was three episodes cobbled together with a cast trying to impersonate the TV stars. It was like a tribute act and left a lot to be desired theatrically speaking. Pointless, in fact. You’d be better off in the comfort of your own home with UK Gold.

This show has the advantage in that the original cast members are all in it: the familiar trio of Sharon, Tracey and Dorien are all played by the actresses who were such a big hit with the viewers. I was never a fan but I was aware of the series and its basic premise. It was also a pleasing relief to find that this is a new script, a new story and not just the parroting of something you can see on satellite telly.

It is still, inescapably, a sit-com. It is like attending a recording of an (extended) episode except there are no cameras. The plot throws up ‘funny’ situations: Dorien finds herself on a murder charge and has to suffer the ignominy of wearing a tag; Tracey combats her agoraphobia by wearing a Lidl carrier bag over her head when she wants to leave the house; Sharon pretends to be someone called Esmeralda Dubrovnik in order to fiddle the dole… Whatever happens, it is met with the same wise-cracking, the same complaining tone. They snipe at each other, they argue, and somehow things get resolved. And that’s fine, for a half-hour show. For an hour and a half, you want a little more. Where is the surprise? Where is the depth? It’s all icing and no cake.

The three stars perform it well. Lesley Joseph as the monstrous Dorien is the most extreme. Pauline Quirke, who has proved her acting chops in other genres, seems to be enjoying herself but, in my view, is under-stretched. Linda Robson’s Tracey is a one-note character, supposedly the emotional keystone of the piece, but this show is all about skating across the surface. All pastry and no filling.

The script (by original writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran but also credited to Gary Lawson and John Phelps – I can’t believe it took four people to come up with this!) has some very funny lines: the catty putdowns for example and there are plenty of hit-and-miss topical references. It is almost written in shorthand; the audience already knows the characters and the set-up so there is little need for exposition or room for development. The characters will end up exactly the same as they started because that’s the nature of sit-com.

A nostalgia trip and a chance to see well-liked performers in the flesh, this kind of show is not going to push the boundaries of theatrical endeavour. Neither is it likely to attract newcomers to the theatre. It’s a commercial rather than an artistic venture. The most satisfying productions manage to include elements of both.