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GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS

Playhouse Theatre, London, Saturday 13th January, 2018

 

David Mamet’s classic play gets an invigorating new lease of life in this snappy revival at the Playhouse.  It’s a top-drawer production that allows the quality of the writing to shine.  Mamet’s naturalistic dialogue, with its interruptions and stichomythia, is peppered with the argot of the characters’ occupation: they are real-estate salesmen, and the script relies on our intelligence and ability to put two and two together to garner what the terms mean.

Stanley Townsend almost steals the show as down-on-his-luck Shelly Levine, getting a new injection of enthusiasm when he makes a big sale.  Townsend’s reliving of the scene in which his clients sign the contract is a scream.  Townsend is a superlative performer and utterly, utterly credible.  In fact, credibility is the watchword of Sam Yates’s production; his direction paces the scenes perfectly, with outbursts, crescendos and moments of stillness.

Kris Marshall is suitably wound-up as office manager John Williamson and there are big laughs from Robert Glenister’s outbursts of profanity as the volatile Dave Moss.  Don Warrington is superb as the inarticulate, unassertive George, while Daniel Ryan elicits our sympathy as a customer trying to revoke a deal.

But the show belongs to Hollywood star Christian Slater in the powerhouse role of hard-selling Ricky Roma.  Slater’s fast-talking but at ease, inhabiting the role exquisitely; Roma is the big fish in this particular pond.  Both the humour and intensity of his performance are accentuated by his trademark circumflex eyebrows and smart-alec smirk.  Expertly supported by a flawless ensemble, Slater’s charismatic presence is magnetic.  Mamet allows us to see the character for what he is, exposing the tricks of the trade, or else Slater would have signing our lives away to all sorts of things.

Chiara Stephenson’s detailed set (a Chinese restaurant, then the guys’ office) grounds the action in its reality.  The play gives us a window into a high-pressure world and, by extension, shows us the dark underbelly of capitalistic pursuits, which tend to lead to corruption and crime.  Also, the play reveals how men are, what they talk about, how they express themselves.  Yes, the play is dated, a period piece, with its references to typewriters and so on, but the racism, the sexism and the way men feel they have to lock horns with each other and compete, are still very much with us.

The brief running time keeps things punchy, condensing the brilliance of the script and the brilliance of the performances into a perfect, highly entertaining piece that still has a lot to say and that remains very funny indeed.  Definitely not past its sell-by.

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Top dog: Christian Slater as Ricky Ross (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

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Hair Bare Bunch

HAIR

The Vaults, London, Thursday 11th January, 2018

 

I am lucky to catch this 50th anniversary production just before it reaches the end of its run and I can only kick myself for not going sooner and allowing time for return visits.  Ground-breaking back in 1967, in terms of sound and format, the show comes across as fresh as a daisy you might wear in your hair.  Members of the ‘Tribe’ make observations of society: civil rights, pollution, war, while the ongoing plot involves handsome Mancunian-wannabe Claude (Robert Metson in fine voice) wondering whether to burn his call-up papers and stay with his hippy friends, chiefly Berger – the excellent, nay perfect, Andy Coxon.  Berger, king of the tribe, is a charismatic figure, sexy, funny – Every time I see Coxon perform I fall in love with him all over again, and that’s before he gets his bum out.

Shekinah McFarlane’s Dionne gets things off to a searing start with her powerful vocals in ‘The Age of Aquarius’; she also plays a mean saxophone later on.  Liam Ross-Mills’s Woof gets carried away with a Mick Jagger poster; Patrick George’s Margaret Mead has fun recruiting an audience member to be her ‘Hubert’ – in fact, everyone gets their moment to stand out: Laura Johnson’s Sheila, Jammy Kasongo’s Hud, Jessie May as barefoot and pregnant Jeanie… The strength of the solo singing is matched by the beauty of the ensemble’s harmonies.  Galt McDermot’s rock-informed score is rich with variety and contrast, while the lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado (and William Shakespeare) range from witty to hard-hitting.  The show is one big highlight.

The cast is not the only thing stripped bare.  The staging is kept minimal, keeping the performers to the fore.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle makes simple but sophisticated use of parachute silk and the occasional prop, keeping us in the Tribe’s trippy world.  An extended tripping sequence is chock-full of striking imagery.  Obviously, the lighting (by Ben M Rogers) helps tremendously with creating atmosphere and a sense of place, but I want to make special mention of the sound design by Calum Robinson and Max Perryment:  aurally, the show is magnificent. Solo voices, ensemble singing, the band and sound effects are all blended to the utmost clarity.  It is a real feast for the ears.

The band, under the musical direction of Gareth Bretherton, is kept behind a fence in an upstage area, but the sound fills the Vaults.  The choreography from William Walton avoids 1960s clichés and exudes an invigorating energy.  The music, the performers, the message, are all irresistible.  The show’s social conscience has resonances with today’s messed-up world just as much as in the 60s.  But beyond all that, it’s an exuberant celebration of life.

Let the sunshine in!  Peace, love and understanding, man.  Etc.

HAir

What a whopper: Andy Coxon’s Berger leads a love-in


Yanks and Francs

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

Dominion Theatre, London, Wednesday 8th November, 2017

 

At long last, I get to see the hit show people have been raving about.  The contrarian in me expects to hate what everyone else enjoys but no, it really is at least as good as I’ve heard.

A new show, based on the 1951 Oscar-winning film, this is much more than a jukebox musical of Gershwin hits.  Set in post-war, post-Occupation Paris, it’s the story of Jerry, former soldier, now starving artist.  A chance encounter teams him up with another American, Adam, a composer whose music is just like Gershwin’s!  Third Musketeer in this group is Henri, a native Parisian who is hiding a dark secret from his stuffy parents (SPOILER: he’s a – gasp – a song-and-dance man!).  Jerry and Adam get work with a ballet company, where Jerry finally meets the fugacious Lise, a young ballerina with a fantastic haircut and even better dance moves.  Each of the three lads forms an attachment to Lise and drama ensues.  Jerry becomes a sort of part-time gigolo for wealthy benefactor Milo (relax, it’s a woman) which doesn’t exactly keep him in Lise’s good books.  This being a Hollywood version of reality, everything comes good at the end, via a series of eye-popping musical numbers.

As ever with musical theatre when they’re doing a show-within-a-show, I wonder why they bother.  They only need to go out onto the street and everyone will readily join in, subjugating their own lives and free will to participate in whatever moment the main characters need to express through song and dance.  In this Hollywood world, everyone is trained and proficient in the performing arts!

In Ashley Day as Jerry we have the perfect leading man, gliding, leaping, twirling and kicking his way through the story.  Day is an excellent singer too and can also meet the acting requirements of the role, the effortless comedy, the emotional points; Day’s Jerry is cheeky, cocky, charming and funny, served with just the right amount of cheese.  But before this review turns into a love letter to Ashley Day, I must remember there are other people in the show.

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Ashley Day defying gravity (oops, wrong musical) Photo: Alastair Muir

David Seadon-Young’s Adam is our contact with this rarefied world, narrating prologue and epilogue.  Seadon-Young is a warm and appealing presence but we know all along he’s not going to get the girl.  We know how these things work.  Haydn Oakley amuses as Henri, bumbling his way through a routine that can’t live up to the Hollywood production number in his head (we get to see both!).  Leanne Cope is a tiny mega-star as Lise, the gamin role, darting around one minute, and then gliding through the air as though it were water, the next.  Lise is a figure of mystery – why is she so resistant to Jerry’s relentless advances? – torn between duty and her true feelings, and Cope brings depth to the part so Lise is more than the object of men’s affections, desire or what-have-you.  Also strong is Zoe Rainey as brassy rich lady, Milo Davenport, with a belting voice as clear as a bell.  There is enjoyable support from Julie Legrand as Henri’s mother, and Julian Forsyth as his dad.

A massive ensemble populates this Paris, keeping the stage busy and giving weight to the big numbers.  They are a joy to behold, dancing in synch, in a range of colourful costumes.  Designer Bob Crowley is not shy of using stereotypes (berets and striped jumpers, for example) as shorthand, and his ever-moving set combines practical pieces with projections to give us impressions of a war-damaged city as seen through Jerry’s sketchbook.

Stephen Ridley conducts a fantastic orchestra, filling the auditorium with Gershwin’s energising, life-giving jazz, yet another element of perfection in this fabulous, glorious show.  Director Christopher Wheeldon also choreographs with vibrancy and plenty of period touches, while Craig Lucas’s book, which contains a couple of ‘shits’ and ‘Christs’ keep us in touch with the darker reality underpinning this balletic world.

The show works superbly well as a piece of escapism; it’s great to get away from the world of Tory sleaze, mass shootings and all the rest of it – but I think it’s doing the show a disservice to count it purely as escapism.  There is, to me, a clear message coming through.  This Paris is broken, seeking to rebuild itself and for that, the people need to keep their spirits up.  When the Brexit insanity and this rotten government have finally finished bringing this country down, we are going to need to keep our spirits up too.  This production reminds us to make time for singing and dancing in our lives.  We need joy to help us through hardship.

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Ashley Day getting to grips with his co-star, Leanne Cope (Photo: Alastair Muir)

 


Schlock Treatment

THE TOXIC AVENGER – The Musical

Arts Theatre, London, Saturday 28th October, 2017

 

“Based on a film everyone watched when they were stoned” is just one of the knowing lines in this fabulously funny show by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, getting a bang up-to-date revival at London’s Arts Theatre.  Topical references are spot on, along with countless references to other musicals.  The cast of only five go all out to populate the story with larger-than-life, comic book characters in this story of violent vengeance and eco-politics.

Mark Anderson is sweet as nerd Melvin who, after being dumped in toxic waste becomes Toxie – he’s even sweet when he’s ripping off the limbs and heads of his foes.  Love interest comes in the shape of blind librarian Sarah – Emma Salvo in a scene-stealing turn; outrageously funny and a powerful singer, Salvo is an undiluted delight.  Natalie Hope doubles as Melvin’s Ma and as the evil Mayor – the demands of the score require her to sing a duet with herself in a show-stopping number that closes the first act.  It is breath-taking.

Playing all the other roles are Che Francis and Oscar Conlon-Murray is a dazzling display of versatility.  I particularly like Francis’s pouting Shinequa and Conlon-Murray’s overacting Folk Singer.

The humour is dark, the message green, and the music is rocking.  For the most part, the score is strong.  It is ironic that Toxie’s ballad, Thank God She’s Blind, sounds a lot like I Can See Clearly Now!  Led by Alex Beetschen on the keyboard, a tight quintet blast out the tunes while the voices of the cast soar.  A highlight for me is Toxie’s plaintive You Tore My Heart Out.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography adds to the energy and the fun.  Benji Sperring’s direction keeps the action moving so we almost forget the cast is so small.  In fact, the show makes virtues of its perceived shortcomings, with many frame-breaking laughs to be had.

It will win no prizes for subtlety but this small-scale show seems much bigger than the sum of its parts.  Corporate corruption must be tackled, along with dumping of nuclear waste and pollution of the environment – This might seem obvious but sadly we have no Toxie in real life to rampage through Westminster and bring those still at fault today to bloody account.

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Blind date: Emma Salvo and Mark Anderson

 


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.

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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

 

 


For

AGAINST

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 16th September, 2017

 

Luke is a billionaire whose companies are at the forefront of technological development: IT, space travel, you name it.  When he receives a ‘message from God’ he decides to change his ways and become more pro-active in changing the world for the better.  There are shades of Bill Gates’s philanthropy here, along with touches of Elon Musk and, not forgetting cult of Steve Jobs, as Luke visits sites of school shootings among other places, talking to people and trying to help them connect in ways that don’t necessarily involve a screen.

Ben Whishaw, always magnetic, imbues Luke with a quiet but compelling presence, complete with nerdish tics.  He is a messianic figure without the bombast and declamations.  And he is fallible.  His encounters are a learning process for him at least as much as those he meets.  Strong yet vulnerable, outgoing but reserved and isolated, Whishaw is utterly compelling.

Played out in a stylish but sparse setting of polished floorboards, Christopher Shinn’s new play proves thought-provoking and engaging; director Ian Rickson keeps his cast naturalistic on a mostly empty stage, with only scene captions and the odd piece of furniture to say where we are.  The performances are top notch across the board and Shinn’s ideas are for the most part clearly presented for us to consider.  Technological development is in bed with capitalism; things only change because of money, and those changes are not always beneficial: we visit an internet retail giant called ‘Equator’ and it doesn’t take three guesses to work out which notorious company is being satirised here.  One aggrieved truck driver (an intense Gavin Spokes) provides the tense denouement of what is otherwise an interesting outlay of ideas, bringing a dramatic and devastating conclusion.

Among the excellent ensemble supporting Whishaw is Amanda Hale, doubling as Sheila, Luke’s PA, and Kate, his middle-school crush.  Philippe Spall is likeable drug-dealer (!) Chris, while Naomi Wirthner brings dignity in her role as the mother of a school shooter.  Kevin Harvey’s sex-worker-cum-professor is sarkily humorous: poor Luke can’t do right for doing wrong as his every move and statement are pounced on by political correctness.  The play gives us some idea of how Christ himself might be received in this day and age.

Funny, provocative, and intelligent, Against is very much a play for today.  Shinn has captured something of the zeitgeist and the Almeida serves it up in a classy and engaging production that respects the intelligence of the audience.

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He’s not the Messiah; he’s a very pretty boy. Ben Whishaw as Luke (Photo: Johan Persson)

 

 


Figures of Speech

SPEECH & DEBATE

Trafalgar Studios, London, Saturday 11th March, 2017

 

Stephen Karam’s snappy script is brought to life in this new production by a trio of energised performers.  Set in an American high school, it covers the experiences of three loners who come together to form a debate club when it emerges that they each have a reason to bring about the downfall of the drama teacher…

Solomon is a neurotic mass, an uptight reporter for the school newspaper.  He wants to write an expose to bring the hypocrisy of the mayor (and the drama teacher) into the spotlight.  Dinata is a lonely girl, a wannabe actor who uses theatrics to get by, podcasting and blogging away, always with her eye out for the chance to perform.  Howie is the new kid at school – it is his online chat with the drama teacher that opens the show and gets the ball rolling.

Douglas Booth is in excellent form as Howie, portraying the boy’s fragility rather than his campness.  His barbed lines are exquisitely timed, and there is an appealing vulnerability to his presence.  Patsy Ferran has never been better as Dinata, the driving force behind the debate club, the funniest of the three.  Wise-cracking and sardonic, she is not as hep and cool as she pretends.  Her songs are sweetly funny – and the musical numbers are definite highlights, allowing Ferran to shine.  Booth also proves himself as a physical comedian, while Tony Revolori’s understated moves have their own hilariousness.  Revolori is superb as the tightly wound, crusading Solomon, who has to come to terms with his own contradictions.

The trio is strongly supported by Charlotte Lucas who appears in grown-up roles as a teacher and a reporter, but for the most part it is the dynamics between the three loners that holds our attention.  Director Tom Attenborough keeps the action sharp and the dialogue going off like firecrackers.  Economic use of projections show us the online chats that, along with references to Mike Pence, make the script bang up-to-date.  The play is not finally about the issues up for debate; it’s the time-honoured theme of teenage awkwardness, of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin.  And it’s an absolute delight.  A well-observed, snappily presented comedy that reminds us how modern technology can serve to keep us isolated or get us into trouble.

P.S.  If Douglas Booth feels like sending me pics, I would not mind one bit.

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Was Honest Abe gay? One of the topics up for debate! Douglas Booth as Howie (Photo: Simon Annand)