Tag Archives: Salisbury Playhouse

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)

 

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Dancing up a Storm

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 5th July, 2016

 

Sometimes, human beings get it right and create a piece of perfection that stands in contrast to the countless ways we have screwed up on this planet.  Such a piece is the flawless 1952 film, Singin’ in the Rain.  You only have to watch it to have your faith in our species renewed.

I’ve seen stage adaptations before and while the quality of the performers has been unquestionable, I always come away with a ‘Why bother?’ look on my face.

Not so the case with this new production, on which the New Vic has collaborated with Bolton’s Octagon Theatre and the Salisbury Playhouse.  This is feel-good theatre to the max.  There is the added bonus of the New Vic’s in-the-round setting; we are in the rain along with the cast – some of us more than others (bright yellow ponchos are provided!).  There is an intimacy here the proscenium arch cannot deliver.  Ciaran Bagnall’s stylised set is basically a circle, above which art deco screens play the movies the characters make.  Around the circle, cast members play instruments, providing the score and the accompaniment to whomever is singing at the time.  They’re a versatile bunch and under Richard Reeday’s musical direction, form a tight ensemble with an authentic Roaring Twenties sound.

Matthew Croke absolutely dazzles as movie idol Don Lockwood – the Gene Kelly role.  He has the dreamboat good looks, the rich crooning voice and, of course, the moves.  I could watch him all night.  When the iconic title song comes at the end of the first act, it’s perfect.  Croke glides and splashes around and the front few rows get a soaking – it’s equally elegant, beautiful and uproariously funny.  What we lose in scenic devices, we gain in good old slapstick!

Christian Edwards makes Cosmo, the wacky friend (the Donald O’Connor role) his own, with an energised performance that keeps on the right side of charming.  Eleanor Brown is a striking Kathy (the Debbie Reynolds role), with clarity and purity in her vocals, and a sober contrast to Sarah Vezmar’s deliciously monstrous Lina Lamont, the egotistic villain of the piece with a voice like fingernails down a Brooklyn blackboard.  Vezmar almost steals the show but for the stellar quality of handsome hoofer Croke, whose performance is truly phenomenal.

There is not a weak link in the whole shebang.  Philip Starnier amuses as movie producer R. F. Simpson; Helen Power sparkles as professional gossip Dora Bailey; cast members come and go in a range of roles, adding to the fun, the atmosphere and, above all, the music.  The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, some of which predate even the film by decades, sound fresh – Reeday’s arrangements bring out the romance as well as the fun.  Within a tight performance space, Sian Williams’s choreography emulates Gene Kelly’s, managing to be scaled down without being cramped.  The auditorium fills with talent and its genuinely thrilling to be present, to be so close to such an accomplished company.  Stardust sprinkles on us all, even more than the water.

Director Elizabeth Newman gives us another look at the charm of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay, wisely keeping her cast from aping the stars of the film.  The show both meets and exceeds expectations, due to its focus on theatricality rather than the fool’s errand of trying to reproduce cinematic perfection.

As refreshing as a summer shower, this production brings undiluted joy.  My only regret is that it wasn’t raining when I left the theatre; I really wanted to splash about in puddles for myself.  In these dark and uncertain times, we must seize our pleasures where we may, however simple, and life-affirming shows like this have never been more welcome.

 

singin in the rain

Raining supreme: Matthew Croke splashes out