The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th October, 2021
The Classic Thriller Company is back on the road with this new version of the creaky old play by John Willard from 1922, with an adapted script by Kneehigh’s Carl Grose. Grose moves the action forward to post-WW2, post-independence of India. The language has been juiced up to include words like ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’—while I suppose people used such vocabulary back in the day in the real world, it seems at odds in the cosy period piece milieu of the stage thriller.
The premise is delicious. A lonely mansion on a moor on a stormy night, a group of people gathering for the reading of a will, an escaped lunatic on the prowl…
Leading the troupe is international star Britt Ekland, playing against type as dowdy housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant. Ekland is marvellous, at times creepy, at others funny—much like the play as a whole, in fact. She is joined by a strong cast, including Marti Webb as a strait-laced matronly type who loosens up when she gives up being teetotal; Gary Webster as the brash jack-the-lad boxer Harry; Ben Nealon as Charlie, an overbearing actor sporting the highest-waisted trousers this side of Simon Cowell; Eric Carte credibly authoritative as Crosby the lawyer; Tracy Shaw as Annabelle, the heroine, combining strength and vulnerability; and Priyasasha Kumari as an appealing Indian princess. They’re a pretty tight ensemble, breathing life into what could be little more than stock characters, and I’m particularly impressed by Antony Costa as the bumbling Paul Jones. Costa warms to his role; in fact, the play takes a while to bed in, but once all the elements are in place, suspense and humour vie for dominance in this effective, old-school thriller.
Roy Marsden’s direction teases us with suspense, gives us a couple of good jump scares, contrasting the play’s lighter moments with its darker aspects and tensions. Themes emerge of the past affecting the present: the old man’s will from twenty years ago is the catalyst for the action; a trauma in Annabelle’s childhood threatens to unsettle her; the desire to restore what was plundered from a previously colonised country; and most strongly, the PTSD suffered by those who fought in the War. Only the escaped lunatic, it seems, has no back story to explain his excessive behaviour!
The substantial set (designed by takis) adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and I especially like the framed pictures of single eyes that cover the walls of Annabelle’s bedroom. Chris Davey’s lighting design adds to the tension, while Dan Sansom’s sound design can be a little intrusive, it does provide a couple of startling moments. And they need to go easy on the dry ice at curtain up!
On the whole, this is a gripping, old-fashioned evening at the theatre, proving that a play originally produced almost a century ago still has the power to thrill and entertain, and it makes a refreshing change from the back-to-back musicals on offer at the moment!
This touring production could not be timelier. With anti-gay sentiments (aka idiocy) on the rise globally, the show reminds us that people are people and love is love.
In St Tropez, a nightclub has gained notoriety for its drag queens, foremost among whom is the delectable Zaza, or Albin when he’s at home, partner to the club’s owner, Georges. When Georges’s son, Jean-Michele announces his engagement to the daughter of bigot-in-chief Dindon, an old-school politician, Albin finds himself edged out of the picture – and he’s not the kind to go sit in the corner…
It’s a conventional musical about alternative lifestyles, with its heart on its sleeve and its message loud, proud and clear.
John Partridge is in his element as Albin/Zaza, capturing the character’s brittleness as well as the camp mannerisms, and boy, can he hold a note! It takes a while for Albin’s warmth to come out but when it does, it is beautifully understated in the show’s most touching moments. Partridge’s Albin is a Northerner, coming across not so much as French Riviera as Canal Street, Manchester. Adrian Zmed is more grounded as the charming Georges, while Dougie Carter sings like a dream as Jean-Michele – clearly a young man with a glittering future ahead. Samson Ajewole is a scream as Jacob the flamboyant housemaid, showing us that families come in all sorts of configurations. Alexandra Robinson is sweet as fiancée Anne, just as Paul F Monaghan is blustering as bigot-to-be-pilloried Dindon. At his side, Su Douglas is Madame Renaud, with a couple of surprises of her own.
The extra-special treat of the night is Marti Webb as restaurant owner Jacqueline. She’s still got it, that clear, strong voice, that poise, that presence. Marvellous.
Harvey Fierstein’s book is funny and moving. Jerry Herman’s score contains some iconic numbers (I Am What I Am, The Best of Times, Look Over There…) and the lyrics are witty and poignant.
A troupe of chorines fills out the musical numbers with more feathers than an ostrich sanctuary and more sequins than ten years of Strictly Come Dancing. La Cage may offer colourful escapism but in truth it tells us that there are more ways of living in the real world than conservatives and prigs would have us believe. This could well be one of the most important musicals ever written, especially since there are people and movements around who think we gays are somehow less than human.
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 30th October, 2012
Seventy years ago the film appeared as an antidote to the Great Depression. The Cinderella story of the chorus girl who becomes an overnight star is a cliché, to be sure, but the plot is not the point of this new touring production. As in the 1930s, we are invited to escape from our hardships and the economic decline, and spend a couple of hours looking at things through optimistic eyes. Every situation has a sunny side, or so they tell us.
This opulent, extravagant cartoon of a show is a real tonic. Director Mark Bramble handles the heightened world of musical comedy with exactly the right tone. We are never allowed to overlook the artifice of such a world but also the bubble of this world is never punctured: backdrops are painted flat – even the curtain is painted to look like a curtain! In this world, girls tap-dance their way along the street and it’s perfectly natural.
The songs are standards, all tuneful and with witty lyrics: We’re In The Money, Keep Young and Beautiful, Lullaby of Broadway…; the dialogue sparkles and the cast play their roles with larger-than-life gusto – Bruce Montague as rich Texan backer Abner Dillon is a case in point, drawling out his words, just the right side of parody. Dave Willetts is the irascible Broadway producer barking orders and terrorising everyone – but then, with Lullaby of Broadway, we get to hear that smooth singing voice that gives rise to shivers along the spine. James O’Connell’s Billy Lawlor croons “I’m young and healthy” – no argument from me! Graham Hoadly and Carol Ball are an energetic double act – the comic turns of the show-within-the-show – in fact, the entire company infuses the show with such verve, their enthusiasm is irresistible.
Jessica Punch is astounding as wannabe chorine from the sticks whose rise to Broadway fame is somehow inevitable. Fast-talking and even faster-tapping, her Peggy Sawyer is an oddball character, and a force of nature. But for me the highlights are whenever Marti Webb comes on. As past-her-sell-by diva Dorothy Brock, Webb is clearly enjoying herself. She pitches the characterisation just right and when she sings, that clear, steady voice reaches inside you and grabs at your emotions. I Only Have Eyes For You is worth the ticket price alone, but there is also humour within the character, just the right side of send-up.
The choreography – you might quail at the thought of two hours of tap-dancing – never falls short of impressive. Graeme Henderson keeps each number fresh and different, whether its small-scale, sitting at a restaurant table or full-blown, full company covered in sequins on an illuminated staircase. It’s a large company – which is always good to see in a touring production – and rightly so, to give the full Busby Berkeley effect. A mirror suspended over the stage reveals the kaleidoscopic patterns made by the dancers on the floor. They dance on giant coins, they dance as giant flowers – it’s all high camp and a delight from start to finish.
Go and meet those dancing feet. The tireless cast will recharge you as the dank nights of winter draw in.