Friday, 30 June 2017

Review The Wind In The Willows

The Wind In The Willows
A musical based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame
Book by Julian Fellowes
Music by George Stiles
Lyrics by Anthony Drewe

Country Diary Of An Edwardian Banker

During the halcyon days of TLT's childhood, the sun shone forever above the ancient horse chestnut tree and dappled with its rays the parish school windows where the thrushes on the sill with throbbing breasts warbled their little hearts out.

Then the kindly schoolmaster took down from the wooden shelf The Wind In The Willows and read in rich and vivid tones a fresh instalment of life on the river bank to a rapt young audience.

The boys were dressed in caps and shorts and the girls in their gingham pinafores, all in a classroom comradeship with little Theresa and Jeremy clutching each other's small hands for comfort when the story took a darker turn.

Ok, ok that was almost complete fantasy ;)

However TLT's teacher did read a chapter a day at her state primary school. For hard as it is to imagine in our time of invasive weaselly mobile phones and computers, we  lapped up nourishing literary meals with Mole, Ratty and Badger while Toad, we thought, had a kinship with our own cheeky "naughtiest boy in the class".

Now a jolly musical version of Kenneth Grahame's classic, with music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe and book by Julian Fellowes, has brought the fight to preserve the status quo between the river bank and the Wild Woods on to the London Palladium stage.

Green fronds descend as the river bank comes to life on Peter McKintosh's ingenious tree ring set filled with concentric wooden circles for the rural landscape in contrast to the expressionist Toad Hall decorated with Louis XVI decadence and attended to by long-eared white rabbit flunkeys.

Craig Mather and Simon Lipkin make an engaging bespectacled West Country mole and streetwise water rat respectively - although somehow we realise their personas know their way around a mobile phone.

Julian Fellowes' book is pretty good and more or less faithful to the source material.

Yet there's a brisk modern slickness to director Rachel Kavanagh's staging which doesn't reflect the deeper resonance of the novel and its recognition of seasonal change and sense of troubling undercurrents.

Grahame himself had previously worked as Secretary to the Bank Of England where he was the victim of a bizarre assassination attempt. Not long after he took early retirement and wrote his most famous book which became a success after President Theodore Roosevelt was given a copy and lobbied for its publication.     

Maybe it was deemed too soon, hot on the heels of the Stiles/Drewe/Fellowes additions to Half A Sixpence (although the river bank musical was written first) to style the show as purely Edwardian. So there's also a 1950s and 1960s vibe sometimes reminiscent of the Ealing Studio comedies.

We have pencil-skirted air hostess swallows, even if the soprano trills of One Swallow Does Not A Summer Make are pleasingly from an earlier era.  The garish chief weasel (an excellent Neil McDermott) is a mid twentieth century spiv, surely Soho-based with his continental taste for pizza?

This takes somewhat away from the strange mix found in Grahame's tale and the drawings of the novel's most celebrated illustrator Ernest H Shepherd and into the realms of Disney.

While we wish there was a little more adventurousness and lateral thinking as to how to invoke and evoke the atmosphere of the novel with its thread of the supernatural, unease and potential savagery  in the costuming and staging, if we didn't know the book, we would accept the musical on its own terms.

Gary Wilmot is the stern Badger, with the tartan tie of a Laird but the authoritative English accent of a retired military man  of course has a fine set of lungs introducing a thematic, if somewhat all-purpose song, A Friend Is Still A Friend.

There are times when we wondered if we were on the threshhold of Jerome K Jerome's Three Men In A Boat and Beatrix Potter tales but, sadly, never quite the weirdness of Grahame's Edwardian literary soulmate in mysticism, Saki.

But wait a moment, why are the headlights of TLT's automotive companion all a-gleam? Any adaptation of The Wind In The Willows must stand or fall by that prolix, blustering, egotistical but loveable road hog (to mix our animal metaphors) Mr Toad of Toad Hall.

Rufus Hound revs up and swings into action and gives good value as the menace on four wheels. It's all pretty efficient and the children seemed to love it (we asked a few in a post-show totally unscientific straw poll).

For us Kenneth Grahame's novel still colonizes our imagination.We did wonder if its conjuring up of a pastoral benevolently feudal river bank where mole and vole know their place with their homely unmortgaged holes might be enough for some to cheer on the weasels and the stoats in their attempted coup.

Nevertheless we were suckers for the prickly but endearing family of Baden Powell scouting hedghogs threatened by the motor car with a nod to Gilbert & Sullivan in The Hedgehog's Nightmare  and the delightful field mice with cute traditional wassailing chorals.

A friend is still a friend and a colourful and gently entertaining show is still an amber/green light show! 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Review Lorna Dallas: Home Again

Lorna Dallas: Home Again
Live At Zédel
Director Barry Kleinbort
Musical Director Jason Carr

Passion and Purity

Lorna Dallas is a rare talent  as an amazing operatically trained American singer who has turned her impeccable technical and emotionally true talent to musicals and jazz.

Elsewhere in the West End another classically trained American soprano is showing her versatility and wowing punters, making London a special place this June. For in the heart of Piccadilly there is also a unique chance to see and hear Dallas who paved the way many decades ago in London.

The art-deco Zédel cabaret room proves an elegant backdrop for Lorna Dallas, an equally elegant lady in turquoise silk, a confirmed Anglophile, returning to London after a long absence - too long.

While she does a duet with her English accompanist and arranger, Tony award nominee Jason Carr, with Stephen Sondheim's You're Gonna Love Me Tomorrow from Follies, much of the solo programme has clever song pairings ranging from the classic American songbook to some undeservedly lesser known songs (at least for TLT and her own engine-humming automotive accompanist! :) ).

Carefully structured, it's a set that, like all the best cabaret acts, has a subtle narrative. Lorna Dallas, who made her name here as Magnolia in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat to Dame Cleo Laine's Julie in the 1970s, lets us know her powerful but tender soprano is back in business in London.

Teaming up Sunset Boulevard's beautiful ballad As If We Never Said Goodbye  - from Brits Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Don Black of course - with Sondheim's jaunty Back In Business gives punters a first taste of her vocal and emotional range from the outset.

The Gershwins, Kander and Ebb, Kern and Fields, Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jerry Herman and Amanda McBroom all figure in Dallas's love letter to London.

However it's also surely a tribute to her British music agent husband, the late Garry Brown, with her brilliantly understated moving rendition of director Barry Kleinbort's poignant One More Spring from his musical 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti.

Other songs include the theme from the film The Picasso Summer by Michel Legrand and Alan Bergman, Summer Me, Winter Me, and the ingenious and lovely Chain of Love from musical The Glass Harp by Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie, paired with I Think I'm In Love  from Ralph Chicorel's Anna Karenina.

But Dallas can also pack the musical equivalent of a software Easter Egg in the midst of a song, demonstrating the versatility of an Ivor Novello/Christopher Hassall golden oldie, so suited to her soaring soprano, when she briefly breaks into scat singing.

A glorious set of 22 songs encompasses too the only PG Wodehouse, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein Showboat collaboration, Bill, about which she tells a wonderful anecdote where in a magic moment unusually from stage left during a performance she managed to spy on Cleo Laine's rendition.

In the first half of the show, her soaring soprano sometimes seems almost to outdo the microphone but this is just a hint of the power which she reins back under perfect control in songs like the 1932 Irving Berlin standard How Deep Is The Ocean.

Dallas brings her warm, precise tone and strength of feeling to  mellifluous romantic melodies like Rogers and Hammerstein's Younger Than Springtime, the exquisite A Timeless Thing - by Tom Snow, Amanda McBroom and Garry Brown with a special personal significance - and Let's Not Waste A Moment from Jerry Herman's Milk And Honey in which she was cast  in summer stock back in 1970.

 With one more performance, Lorna Dallas is a definite treat on American Independence Day next Tuesday, July 4 when, for we Brits,  her talent alone gives us something to celebrate and it's a sparkling green light. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Review Mr Gillie

Mr Gillie
By James Bridie

Old School

A  Procurator - the Scottish equivalent of the Coroner - and a judge provide a supernatural "A Matter Of Life And Death" type framework for the story of quixotic schoolmaster Mr Gillie in James Bridie's intriguing exploration of education,  theatre and community. 

Mr Gillie (Andy Secombe) is a teacher at the local secondary school in Cruit, a Scottish coal mining village, a post in the gift of the  village's parochial education committee, led by the bureaucratic Reverend Gibb (David Bannerman).

Gillie has always been an independent spirit, a chess-playing would-be novelist who married a feisty wife Kate (Emma D'Inverno) below his station. Despite losing one pupil to the Communist Party and another to prison, he is keen to cultivate the brightest pupils and lead them away from a life down the mines to the London literary world where he never succeeded.  

He has great hopes for dapper Tom Donnelly envisaging him as a Scottish poet making his mark in London and Gillie encourages him to elope with Nelly (Caitlin Fielding).

Nelly is the apparently homely but musically gifted daughter of the mercurial family doctor, Dr Watson (Malcolm Rennie). 

He is old guard, hardly welcoming the NHS, and a bellligerant toper sponging off Gillie's stock of whisky. However in the end he proves surprisingly adaptable to profiting from a new regime.

We learn of Mr Gillie's sorry fate in the play's prologue but this is no sentimental and comic  kailyard drama portraying a humble event in village life but a full-blown, if satiric, state-of-the-nation play including the state of theatre. Or rather a full-blown state-of-the-nations play - in this case, Scotland and Britain.  

First produced in 1950 in Glasgow, then transferring to London's West End, the original Mr Gillie starred long-time Bridie collaborators, Alastair Sim in the title role and his own protégé George Cole (later famed for Flash Harry in St Trinians and Arthur Daley in Minder) as Tom, his prize pupil. 

This meandering comedy drama becomes a pugnacious elegy to the passing of a literary and social era of  Victorian patronage with the institution of the Welfare State throughout the United Kingdom and a perceived post-war homogeneity, gangland and American take-over of culture with Hollywood values.  

TLT and her own highly educated jalopy couldn't decide whether the play was a tribute to or a swipe at Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams' style plays such as The Corn Is Green (later made into a Hollywood film)  and Accolade, the latter revived in an acclaimed production by the Finborough in 2011.  

Secombe's Gillie precisely catches the arrogance yet vulnerability and wilful blindness of the schoolmaster, himself. He's a product of what he views as a benevolent feudal system of poets and novelists. His surname also means a servant at a master's hunting or fishing party.

As his long-suffering wife, who fulfils the clues early on in the play of a more realistic grasp of society and her place as a woman in it, D'Inverno gives a subtle, engaging performance. Bannerman as the civil servant type and Rennie (previously in Dr Angelus)  as a traditional stock comic character quicky enamoured of new ways equally convince.

The younger generation is ably played by Cazenave Pin (last seen in After October) as Tom, transitioning smoothly into a new city and lifestyle and Caitlin Fielding embodies with equal vigour the ambitious Nelly, an aggressive seductress who could have stepped out of later Angry Young Men novels.   

Jenny Eastop directs with a sensitive eye and ear for the nuances and rhythms of Bridie's own quixotic style and those of the other writers, such as Graham Greene, whom Bridie has such sardonic enjoyment  in guying.  Anna Yates' traverse stage design evokes the dilapidated, humble schoolmaster's dwelling, with the scattered tomes of Scots' writer Thomas Carlyle amonst others.

This is a 1950s' zeitgeist yet self-deprecating play. Bridie was a founder of the Edinburgh Festival and the Citizens Theatre, as well as the proponent of a Scottish bourgeois theatrical movement which included middle class amateur dramatic companies. 

However another competing movement was more rooted in working-class socialist and cooperative, as well as both communist and apolitical, drama groups, especially in the large industrial heartlands. It seems to us political and professional tensions, which also ended Bridie's association with the Scottish National Players, run  through this play.

The Judge (Drew Paterson, an actor who has emerged from community theatre), guided by the  Procurator (Ross Dunsmore) is as much a representative of the commnity here, given a position of authority yet ready to be swayed  rather than a neutral arbitrator.

This is probably as good a production as this defiant play can get, even if probably, for modern tastes, it  feels overlong. Yet Mr Gillie also points the way towards Edinburgh novelist Muriel Spark's more famous Miss Jean Brodie.   

It's also a play which manages to give a definition of community with a resonance in our Facebook age,  Bridie's works seem to us well-worth reviving. Of the radical conservative school, including plenty of wry satire in his plays, he comes to no easy conclusions and it's a amber/green light. 

Review Hir

Reviewer Peter Barker relishes a vivid satire charting the transformation of a dysfunctional Californian family.  

by Taylor Mac

New World Disorder

Hir is a provocative and darkly funny look at nation, family and masculinity in contemporary America. It's also one of the highlights of my theatre year so far, thanks to a witty script, taut direction and four outstanding performances.

Isaac Connor is an American marine who was previously tasked while stationed overseas with gathering body parts of military casualties for repatriation.  Now he himself is repatriated, discharged dishonourably and back home.

He had left an identikit Californian working-class family home in an identikit working-class suburb, albeit on reclaimed landfill.

His father Arnold struggled to make a living as a plumber. Sister Maxine was a tomboy on the cusp of adolescence. Isaac's mother Paige, a battered wife, was also beaten down by the sheer bloody awfulness of it all.

Isaac left home to fight a war and he appears to have come home to another one, as gender roles are reimagined and past wrongs revenged.

His mother Paige has thrown off her shackles and ruthlessly rules the household, while father Arnold, cut down by illness and bizarrely costumed by his carers, now sleeps in a box, fed illicit female hormones mixed with his prescription stroke medication.

The soldier's sister has become his brother Max with the Hir of the title being the preferred pronoun, a mixture of his and her, for the transgender sibling.

However, playwright Taylor Mac, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, has created a surreal comedy for serious purposes. He uses this gender change and violent family chaos for a pungent state-of-the-nation analysis after decades of no-wage growth and, yes, the death of the American Dream.

Indeed I felt it has a parallel in Requiem For A Dream, the movie from Hubert Selby Jr's novel chronicling the personal and national drug-fuelled undercurrents in US life. 

Arthur Darvill plays out the trauma as bewildered war veteran Isaac, with his disorientation powerfully culminating in a fit of visceral violent rage.

Ashley McGuire’s mother is a grotesque but uttering some of the funniest lines. Yet she also has a justified anger while providing a tough foil and strop for Isaac’s rising emotions.

As Isaac's made-obsolete father, Andy Williams has a powerful, near-mute brooding presence suffering fresh daily humiliations at the hands of his newly liberated spouse.

Griffyn Gilligan's teenager is the distilled symbol of change in Hir, able to use hormones purchased on line to transform hir-self but writer Mac manages to take all the changes within the family to unexpected places.

Designer Ben Stone's traverse set forces the audience to face each other  across the battleground of a prefab home in disarray that, like the family, has been beaten up and is falling apart.

Nadia Fall directs this kitchen-sink satire with gleeful discipline, keeping up the laughs and, especially in the second half, its anarchy, tension and adrenalin-fuelled pace.

In the end, it seems as if Isaac may be America's sacrifice just as another biblical Isaac is Abraham's intended offering. Unlike his namesake, Isaac Connor may never be able to surface from the chaos around him, yet the fate of his mother and sibling at the play's finish hangs tantalisingly up in the air.

For all its mining of serious issues, Hir remains an absurdist social comedy - if an unsettling one. It finally transforms itself into a green light meditation on a grotesque topsy turvydom reflecting individual, family and national upheavals.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Review Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill (Preview)

Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill
A Musical Play
by Lanie Robertson

Keeping On Track

It was another day - or rather midnight - at the office for the guest spot jazz singer in a small nightclub in South Philadelphia. Except the singer was Philly-born jazz legend Billie Holiday and, in March 1959, she only had a few months to live.

Introduced by her business manager and pianist Jimmy Powers, Audra McDonald as Billie takes to the small stage surrounded by drinking customers sitting at the small round tables scattered around the room.

And then below the glitterball shade dangling from the ceiling, the Lady starts to talk - and sing.

This is a portrayal of Billie at the end of her life, indominatable but failing, fighting against vicious discrimination but beaten down by outside and personal demons.

The songs break through the sometimes lucid, sometimes incoherent and rambling in-between patter from which emerges the story of a life. 

Classically trained McDonald suppresses the naturally luscious richness of her voice and with technical precision nails Holiday's heartbreaking distinctive phrasing. 

At this point Holiday was a released jailbird, taking the fall for a feckless husband whom she nevertheless loves and pities. However, as an ex-con, she was now without the prized cabaret card that would allow her to sing in Harlem nightclubs.

On stage with her, Shelton Becton as Powers interjects when absolutely necessary, cajoling to make sure she gets to the end of her set, singing the songs the punters expect from her. 

But it also brings a realisation that breaking into the well-honed rountine of songs also keeps Holiday on track when the often justifiable fury and despair over a ruined life spills over.

For the glamorous off-the-shoulder gleaming white cabaret gown and long white gloves, we later learn, also hide the tell-tale tracks of heroin addiction needle injections. 

Lanie Robertson's play has been around since 1986 dong the rounds of American regional theatre and it may seem ironic that six-time Tony award winner McDonald now sprinkles Broadway stardust on the tawdry last few months of Holiday's life.

But the beauty and precision of the impersonation also wins us over. In addition to this uncanny performance, the life and sorry death of, among others, Amy Winehouse in the media spotlight serve to remind us these ravages aren't mere history and past cliché. 

Robertson's script is well-structured, allowing for Holiday's anger and resignation to emerge, although, perhaps by necessity in the 90 minute show,  it feels at times a tad expositional. 

But it's the evocation of Holiday's voice we come  to hear and which gives the breath-catching moments. There's unbearable poignancy too in a bruised life conveyed though bitter and wicked humour.

Holiday's evident decline as she stumbles over spoken words transmutes into heartrending, stirringly defiant renditions accompanied by Frankie Tontoh on drums and Neville Malcolm on bass, as well as Becton on piano.

There's God Bless The Child addressed to her mother, "The Duchess",  T'Aint Nobody's Business If I Do addressed to us all, Don't Explain addressed to an errant husband and Strange Fruit againt lynching in the American south.  

While not mentioned in the show, it's instructive that Emerson's Bar appeared in The Negro Motorist Green Book. This guide, published for 30 years from 1936 during the Jim Crow era in the southern states of America and de facto segregation in the north, listed services and establishments relatively friendly to African Americans.  When Holiday toasts the bar owner in the show, it has an added meaning.

This is a solid play directed by Lonny Price lifted by an exceptionally moving and technically breathtaking performance by McDonald and it's a green light.   

Monday, 26 June 2017

Review Blondel

Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Tim Williams and Tim Rice
Music by Stephen Oliver
Additional Music By Matthew Pritchard

A Wandering Minstrel

The year 1983 marked the election of new MP Jeremy Corbyn for Islington North, alongside fellow parliamentary newcomers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. As if that wasn't enough, lyricist Tim Rice had his first musical theatre venture without his long-time composing partner Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Blondel (Connor Arnold) is a broad-shouldered medieval hunk with a cartoonish blonde quiff but yes, a bit of a dim Blondel, compared to his activist girlfriend (Jessie May). She's a  scrubber (yes, that's the level of the jokes) in the royal kitchen.

There's a touch of Princess Diana frenzy as the plebs jostle for the best view of their self-absorbed monarch Richard (Neil Moors) as he comes and then goes on yet another expedition.

Jostling for power is Richard's younger brother John (James Thackeray), no match for his brother in the manliness stakes, who hires an assassin (Michael Burgen) to do his bro in.

There's a Jack of The Beanstalk feel as Blondel, an unemployed medieval performinng arts graduate. leaves his Mum (Katie Meller) and sets out to gain the favour of the King.

In 1983 the European Union project was going on apace, so the European references could now go either way. We found it hard to isolate any recent updates, but it did feel dated. We caught the reference to Norman Tebbit's On Your Bike speech  and the introduction of the pound coin

And of course Blondel is firmly British - there's not even a mention of a medieval Eurovision ;) - seeking to be Master Of The King's Music.

Now a singing British monarchist wandering around the continent would maybe excite different kinds of comments. But back in 1983, the show did enough to warrant a West End transfer although only for a shortish run.

The story of Blondel, the troubadour who loyally searched around the castles of Europe for Richard the Lionheart who was abducted on his return from the Crusades, might once have been considered as a vehicle for a Danny Kaye movie. It's that sort of story which would have been fine for the talents of Kaye's wife, songwriter Sylvia Fine.

But by 1983, the era of the rock musical was upon us - helped not inconsiderably by Tim Rice - but Blondel, although at times mildly amusing, never manages to hit the heights with a plethora of nondescript songs, music by the late Stephen Oliver with additions by Matthew Pritchard,  superimposed on the Blondel legend and derivative college humour. 

The cast and crew of Blondel do their best but, to be honest, this feels less like an integrated fully-fledged musical and more of a 1980s' topical undergraduate review on the hollowed out globe of the medieval world designed by Ryan Dawson Laight.

That's not to say the cast isn't game and pushes it as far as they can.

The monks' barbershop quartet of David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville still make for precise and charming narrators. Neil Moors is a hearty, unintentionally callous Richard. The band, bass guitar, cello, violin and percussion, under the musical direction of Simon Holt, is exceptional. 

Director Sasha Regan and choreographer Chris Whittaker do their utmost to inject invention and raise the stakes.

It's not the fault of the hard-working cast that this remains a dated piece, wandering all over the place and soon becoming wearisome. Too rooted in the 1980s, it's a lower range amber light for a corny Brit-centric Euro mishmash musical. 

Review Food

A tale of sibling love and rivalry set in a Tasmanian chippy is a sizzling success for reviewer Peter Barker.

by Steve Rodgers

Deep Fried Emotions

Funny, dark and provocative Food by Australian Steve Rodgers fixes on women, sisterhood, growing up and sex with a firmly adult gaze. A gaze which also, of course, includes food. 

A three-hander, originally performed in Sydney in 2012, this is a skilfully-crafted one-act piece, a rite-of-passage play for two sisters in their twenties, a drama that's bleak yet finally filled with hope. 

Former wild child Nancy (Lily Newbury-Freeman)  has returned to the country town of her childhood. She and her stay-at-home sister Elma (Emma Playfair) cannot escape each other.

Still, Nancy spearheads a plan to transform their fish and chip takeaway on a Tasmanian outback highway into a sit-down eatery.

Into this world of food preparation, business expansion and sibling rivalry, yet also sisterly bonds, walks a charismatic Turkish backpacker, Hakan (Scott Karim).

Elma is quick to demonstrate to him  the fate of “bullshitters with wandering hands” utilizing a knife, named after a family matriarch.  However after he becomes hired hand, the sexual temperature within the kitchen soars.    

There are well-defined, detailed performances from Australian actors Newbury-Freeman as Nancy and Playfair as Elma. They manage to draw the audience viscerally into every tussle, even when raised voices and accents are at their loudest and broadest.

We warm equally to Karim's deliberately irritating but engaging performance - the testosterone-driven outsider both to the simmering sibling rivalry and to the Australian island.   

Structured over 90 minutes in the present and as a series of teenage childhood flashbacks, director Cressida Brown's traverse staging allows for intimacy and even for the performers to interact effortlessly with the audience.

While director Brown’s production is tight and quick moving, it still could have cut 10 minutes and lost nothing. Nevertheless, it remains constantly compelling.

Richard Williamson's highly effective lighting, Jon McLeod's sound and movement director Ita O'Brien's additions all evoke the sense of location and emotional intensity.

Hannah Wolfe cleverly keeps the design simple and fluid on an adaptable, multi-layered set with ladder and the heavy duty kitchen and catering props on wheels.

Food, both darkly raw and bright, has all the ingredients of a satisfying and thought-provoking drama.

It's a green light for a piece using food and sex to convey complex family ties alongside social and emotional challenges.

Review Rotterdam

by Jon Brittain

Crossing The Boundaries

Alice loves Fiona - known as Fi, pronounced "fee" - but she hesitates about telling her parents. Fi loves Alice but she would also love to be another person.

The dislocated expat crowd around them in Holland's major port includes Alice's ex-boyfriend, Josh, who is something in IT.

And of course, Holland being Holland, this is a translingual play, as well as transgender drama, with the Dutch speaking fluent Dutch offstage (naturally) and fluent English onstage (according to the British characters, unnaturally naturally).

This includes blonde lesbian Lelani, the ultra-cool Dutch shipping firm colleague who draws close as Alice on the rebound bounces around like a helium-filled party balloon.

We may never learn the Dutch for "shipping contract". However this comedy drama has a stellar, pitch perfect characterization from Alice McCarthy as Alice, a demure and businesslike perfectionist even when she turns wild.

Anna Martine Freedman matches her as the firmly proactive and initially certain Fiona, although, we learn, she badly misjudges her options and the reactions of those around her.

Ed Eales-White as techie Josh, straining at the leash to leave, and Ellie Morris as Alice's zany shipping firm Dutch co-worker, Lelani are equally strong in the supporting roles.    

With writer Jon Brittain's spry, well-focussed first act plot, there's both acid drop wit and laugh-out-loud moments. There's also a cheekily pert and colourful design by Ellan Parry and precise, inventive direction by Donnacadh O'Briain showing visual and oral dexterity.

The second act feels less organic and more stretched out to reach the desired ending. A character announcing, "It's a metaphor" tipped what had been a quivering in-between story, in more ways than one, over a clunkily explicit edge.

However this prescient play. first produced in 2015 at Theatre503, has a knowing simplicity and also caught a zeitgeist. It cleverly stirs in a now recognisable bitter Brexit-like uncertainty into a psychedelic syrup of sexual and economic issues and it's a green light.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Review Bat Out Of Hell

Bat Out Of Hell
Book, Music and Lyrics by Jim Steinman
Headbanging Hell Of A Show

Once upon a time there was a boy from New York who dreamed of writing a rock opera. 

He found a spiritual soulmate in a well-nourished singer with a seasoned-ground-beef-dish moniker. Yet these bright-eyed youths had their concept album continually rejected by the wicked executives from monolith record companies.  

But it was yah-boo-sucks to them when the album of those lost contractless boys became one of the bestselling albums in commercial music history. 

OK, Bat Out Of Hell was in reality released by a major label Cleveland International in 1977 which, almost 30 years later, went on to sue Sony Records for manufacturing copies without its logo. But why let the unromantic facts get in the way of a romantic story?

And hey, we now have Bat Out Of Hell  - a full-blown production at one of English opera's leading venues, the London Coliseum with those songs blasting out - and we mean, blasting out - echoing around its hallowed cupola! 

While Meat Loaf is deservedly celebrated as the vocal name on the Bat Out Of Hell album and its follow ups, the composer and lyricist was New Yorker Jim Steinman, who like Meatloaf, had his start in musical theatre before turning to rock. 

The evil (and of course middle-aged) Falco (Rob Fowler) and his vampish spouse Sloane (Sharon Sexton) rule over the Manhattan of the future aka the land of Obsidia. 

They over-protect sole offspring, daughter Raven  - shades of another concept album in that name - (Christina Bennington) locking her up in a luxurious skyscraper which, unfortunately for them, any old (or rather eternally young) Romeo can scale. 

Down below in the netherland (no, that isn't a spelling mistake!) is Strat (Andrew Polec) and his gang of illegals including Zahara (Danielle Steers), Strat's undercover spy in Falco Towers. 

Due to some enchantment or other, they are all frozen for ever at age 18 and duck and dive, evading Obsidian's security guards and traffic cops - TLT's automotive sidekick certainly perked up at their fate.

Directed by Jay Scheid, the fantastically talented cast on the fantastically conceived set, complete with stunning videos by Finn Ross, sweep the audience along with a raft of Steinman songs, some well-known, some lesser-known and a couple of new creations under the direction of Musical Supervisor Michael Reed.

With design by Jon Bausor reminiscent of many an album cover from when we spotty teens played those round vinyl discs found therein, it certainly lives up to the adjective spectacular and it's loud - headbanging loud and then some. 

Teamed up with this is the retro-parody or just plain clunky choreography, depending on your point of view, by Emma Portner plus Patrick Woodroffe's rather more fluent lighting and Gareth Owen's sound design.   

So whaddya we think of it? Bat Out Of Hell feels like An Experience - one which would work exceptionally well touring as a stadium show in the United States.

The old favourites are all there including the eponymous Bat Out Of Hell, loosely integrated into a bonkers' plot. So there's every opportunity to print out the lyrics and sing along - unless you're of operatic volume, you won't be heard in any case. If loud isn't your bag and you're still curious, you might want to sit up in The Gods.    

Projecting ourselves into a utopian musical theatre future, a cut-down version at a fringe venue might be interesting (but we doubt that would happen before - the movie ...??)!  

We enjoyed it as one-off but we wouldn't want to go again and again. However that's a matter of taste rather than the musical production values. It's an amber/green light from TLT and her (heavy metal) petrolhead sidekick.  

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Review Terror

by Ferdinand Von Schirach

A Question of Intent

In Peter Weiss's searing stage docu-drama The Investigation using extracts from the real-life Frankfurt Trials after World War II, there is a small but telling moment when we hear that there was a form of justice within Nazi concentration camps.

Military guards were disciplined for stealing from the piles of belongings gathered from those incarcerated and murdered in the camp. This was seen as a major infraction, whereas what was happening in the camp was seen as routine and legal.

And it doesn't seem as if any of the guards in their defence protested "You're killing and robbing  thousands, millions and you're accusing me of stealing?"

This could be seen as satire - if it hadn't really happened. 

We didn't know the background of Ferdinand von Schirach, the writer of Terror,  the "You decide" courtroom drama directed by Sean Holmes and translated by David Tushingham, before we read about him after the event.

Terror strikes us as a couched - rather too couched - satiric analysis of legal misdirection and diversion where the supposed moral conundrum can easily be dismantled in one sentence and the binary vote at the end is a palpable nonsense.

A rapid response military fighter pilot Lars Koch (Ashley Zanghaza) deployed when a civilian airplane is highjacked by a terrorist makes the decision to shoot the plane down against orders and against German constitutional law.

The motivation?  The plane carrying just over 160 passengers was heading for the Allianz stadium in Munich where there were 70,000 people. Is he guilty of murder?

All the audience aka voters are promoted flatteringly by judge (Tanya Moodie) to the status of "lay judges" and the very narrow remit laid before them.

If you decide to go to Terror, by the end you might be ruminating on a seemingly knotty moral conundrum.

Alternatively you might agree even a seemingly democratic electronic voting process can become the gateway to a coup if the judge, pilot, lawyers and even the court usher, who also stands by, are so inclined.

You might, on the other hand, accept the authority of the court and view the statements made by the judge, the lawyers and the questioning of two witnesses as transparent.

Or you might question why there are only two witnesses, the military air traffic controller  Lieutenant Colonel Christian Lauterbach (John Lightbody) and a passenger's wife named as "joint plaintiff" Franziska Meiser (Shanaya Rafaat) with everything else second hand through the judges and lawyers.

We'll make no bones about it. Having heard the evidence from two witnesses, the questioning and speeches of the prosecution (Forbes Masson) and defence (Emma Fielding) lawyers and something from the pilot, TLT refused to vote.

She might not be the only one because the number of abstainers was not counted - in fact we don't even know whether the final result was truly the way the audience voted.

TLT will also nip in here and say that a fact laid out by the prosecution and confirmed by the military witness demolished all subsequent arguments, although it was not included in the topsy turvy process when the judge summed up after the verdict.

We don't want to give too much more away but we'd put it like this. If TLT were a journalist covering this trial - which many will find rather dry and abstract - there is a startling news angle and headline  buried in a witness's testimony and then never referred to again. A spoiler hint about the course of action which could have been taken is on this link, if you want to click on it.

Now we'll reveal what we didn't realise until after the show. Ferdinand Von Schirach, the playwright, is the grandson of the head of the National Socialist Youth movement, Baldur von Schirach,  who also took part in the transportation Jewish citizens to concentration camps.

So the playwright, who is also a lawyer, has had plenty of years to consider how a murderous regime and a head of state can be voted in democratically under a seemingly "legal" veneer.

He seems also to have considered how people aren't that precise about analysing the facts against superficially logical arguments, even when it involves sacrifing hundreds of fellow citizens  - if these citizens are not their nearest and dearest or vital to their well-being.

Giving this away may seem like a partial spoiler, only ... there was nothing to flag this play up as a satire and not a courtroom drama and, if they could still be bothered, many left still trying to weigh up ponderously-put moral arguments.

In other words, this was for us about words and so-called moral arguments beguiling an audience away from an indisputable fact, judging (no pun intended) by the cross section around us.

We're willing to be corrected if it's not satire and it's just that nobody's noticed previously there is a prolonged section which contradicts the whole premise.

But, although we're vain, we're really not that vain, and a postscript to the published text, with the playwright expressing his admiration for Jewish German satirist Kurt Tucholsky, does seem to give a clue.

It's perfectly good acting and direction with a suitably awe-inspiring court designed by Anna Fleischle, even if the script becomes somewhat ponderous. In other circumstances, we might give it an amber light.

However  with the play marked not as a satire but as an interactive drama, "a worldwide phenomenon that's stirred debate across the globe", it feels fundamentally dishonest. For that alone we feel it should be a red light review.

It's a highly unusual situation for a TLT review - but we've laid out our prosecution and the defence. You decide. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Review These Trees Are Made Of Blood

These Trees Are Made Of Blood
Book by Paul Jenkins
Music and Lyrics by Darren Clark

That Was The Kidnapping And Murder That Was

The legacy of the Cold War years in South America is still very much with us with issues unresolved.

In 2015, director Amy Draper with writer Paul Jenkins and songwriter Darren Clark set about putting on stage "a political musical cabaret" about the Mothers Of The Plaza de Mayo who still stalwartly protest against the terrible abuses of the Argentinian regime at that time.

We didn't see The Trees Are Made Of Blood two years ago, but now the team behind the show, led by the same director, has revived it on a two-tier cabaret stage, designed by Georgina Lowe and Alex Berry, at Dalston's Arcola Theatre.

The headscarved women in the Plaza are the mothers of "The Disappeared",  many of them student activists, abducted by the military, raped, tortured and murdered in numbers estimated, according to Wikipedia, at anything from 7,000 to 30,000 between the 1970s and 1980s during Argentina's "Dirty War".

TLT has to be honest that she found the portrayal of these terrifying times channelling a nipple-tassel drag act, magic, stand up and turns seemingly trying to emulate the Cold War era British show That Was The Week That Was less than compelling.

Yet like many a musical, it's the book rather then  the music, lyrics, musicanship and singing, arranged by the composer for the band of Rosalind Ford, Neil Kelso, Eilon Morris, Anne-Marie Piazza and Josh Sneesby, which is the weak link.

The British creators  of These Trees Are Made Of Blood (a good title but rather at odds with the cabaret concept) are undoubtedly passionate about the subject. Even so, the cabaret veers  towards the generic. It feels  as if it is borrowing its cabaret structure rather than finding its own shape and voice.

In giving little or no hints about previous Argentinian history and culture, this piece, despite all the subsequent disturbing delving into the torture chambers, feels  uncontextualised and even sometimes skewed. So, for example, a British aspect to the story late on probably unintentionally gives Britain an almost heroic status. 

The combination of satirical cabaret and the more straightforwardly affecting tale of mother (Ellen O'Grady) and daughter (Charlotte Worthing) also sits rather awkwardly together.

Yet in the latter tale, when the General with great coat and epaulets who hosts the Coup Coup Cabaret and perpetrates countless crimes, is reduced to an aged civilian in a cardigan and slacks, the narrative has the potential to become piercingly insightful.

However reduced to the thinnest outline, with too neat an ending, this part of the play was almost  drowned out by the preceding sometimes over-egged cabaret set pieces.

There are still  more thoughtful, ambiguous lines within the cabaret. For example a mother-in-law joke indicating the deep structures of anti communism and a lawyers' network geared towards cover ups - but it feels too much like a throwaway line rather than hooking into the story,

OK, not all the audience have lived through the age of the  books, newspaper articles and documentaries which emerged some years ago covering the subject. These Trees Are Made Of Blood is certainly a solid introduction to this shameful history.

Nevertheless it could be a lot shorter and more pointed with the songs part of a tighter structure.

The problems, which have also now emerged concerning the children of kidnapping and rape, the grandchildren of the Mothers, are not even touched upon. It therefore feels merely expedient to take what should be a heartfelt slogan "Never Again" to end suddenly a meandering book and we give it an amber light.    

Monday, 19 June 2017

Review The Misanthrope

The/Le Misanthrope
by Molière

Back To You In The Studio, Alceste

The bilingual theatre company Exchange promises much in an interesting, if deeply flawed, version of  Molière's classic 17th century tragicomedy The Misanthrope. 

The milieu is updated from the French court to a contemporary TV and radio current affairs channel. Alceste is the misanthropic news anchor whose increasingly, in the eyes of others, bizarre behaviour  makes him bite the very hand that feeds him.

In a age when citizens globally are increasingly turning from mainstream news to a mishmash of opinion, soundbites, memes but also some genuinely investigative alternative sources, it's a pretty good concept for Molière's satire.

However, once the initial idea is in place, this under-rehearsed production doesn't fully think through the situation or push towards all the logical conclusions. It's not helped by an over-fussy set which tries to emulate a cinematic look but ends up impeding the action.

After a hesitant start and rather muffled diction also afflicting some other roles, the Alceste of David Furlong (who also directs) does develop as a very strong lead and gains in clarity and eventually pathos.

His dark-eyed, expressive looks both fit the 21st century role and give a glimpse of the 17th century courtier. This is in keeping with a successful verse translation, plus some additions for the new media age, which wisely doesn't attempt to change the fundamental 17th century text.  

Alceste is a TV anchor who turns against the hypocrisy of the life around him, railing at a world of artificiality, sycophancy and fraud. 

His uncompromising position when he refuses to give a flattering response to a wealthy would-be rapper and love rival  (Palmyre Ligué) leads to a law suit.  Meanwhile another of his targets, fellow TV celebrity Célimène (Anoushka Ravanshad) to whom he is also attracted, threatens his very sense of self.

It would be all too easy to call this version a mixture of the movie Network with the TV comedy series  Drop The Dead Donkey, but Molière's satire has a double edged potency and complexity which makes this a very crude summary. 

Yet, with some uneven performances aside, this production seems diverted by Donald Trump and fake news - video news clips and musical interludes roll on too long - and it misses a simpler and more focussed premise - a hard news reporter frustrated by his promotion to the role of celebrity presenter. 

There are consistently strong performances from Simeon Oakes as more measured colleague Philinte and Fanny Dulin as female co-presenter Eliante. 

However other roles lack timing with self-conscious Amadeus-like brays of laughter and awkward poses and pauses.

There are also performances in French on alternate nights, but the English version was decidedly under powered on press night, even if there were some powerful moments.  

Frustratingly, as with the concept, all the cast gave signs of being capable of better. However, this is a play which relies on a dynamic and intricate domino effect leaving the audience with no easy answers. 

The lasting impression was of an under-developed idea which left the actors adrift from each other, without a precise compass for their particular role, rather than sparking a chain reaction which Alceste finally ruptures. It's a lower range amber light.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Review Hamlet

Peter Barker finds wit and passion in a production where the gulf between the generations looms large.

by William Shakespeare 

Catching The Conscience Of A Nation

The transfer of the Almeida Theatre’s Hamlet into the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre is an unadulterated success, with Andrew Scott leading an accomplished cast in a memorable production.

Scott achieved global fame for his Moriarty to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but where Moriarty is an evil genius, Scott’s Hamlet is an angry and very human young man.

It's a cliché, but it's still worth repeating, Hamlet is so multi-faceted it’s always possible to draw insights from it into the human condition and also for it to be a thermometer reading of contemporary times.

And so it is with this production. Scott’s temperature is hot -- he is at fever pitch, but the prince’s antic disposition reflects the passionate anger of a young person betrayed, confused, numbed and then outraged by the actions of his parents’ generation.

He knows the marriage of his mother Gertrude (Juliet Stevenson) to her brother-in-law Claudius (Angus Wright) is wrong. The transfer of this production comes after a series of terrible, wrong real-life events.

The  numb shock, the realisation, the profound anger suddenly takes on new resonance as the famous lines and the play-within-a-play within Hamlet speak afresh.

The ghost of Hamlet's father brings clarity to and hones Hamlet's intentions and, many would say, reflects a generation gap between older and younger citizens where global warming, career insecurity, lifelong debt and the breaking of social contracts is descending on us in wave after wave.

Scott’s  Irish accented Hamlet chops at his words which jump out at the audience with the driest of humour and, above all, a burning, angry, raw intelligence. His rhythms and intonations are pure 21st century.

Obviously with the worldwide fan base and celebrity, many of the audience around me were under 35 and possibly not there solely to see a Shakespeare play. Yet this is visceral production that may have taken many of them unawares and given them arguments to follow and grasp in a gripping plot during febrile times.  

Director Robert Icke’s production, with set and costume by Hildegard Bechtler, is also pure 21st century.

There are video screens, dodgy Internet connections (Claudius cannot even get his computer to start, he has to be helped by IT), and live video streaming.

Even the supernatural is inextricably associated with CCTV broadcast and a bank of video screens manned by castle security guards with events reported as if they were breaking news.

Stevenson’s Gertrude also goes through her own revelation and re-evaluation of what is going on, the turning point coming when she is watching the play-within-a-play as she is needled into, "The lady doth protest too much" and her own realization.

Peter Wight’s Polonius, the well-upholstered old-guard courtier has the manner of a local freemasonry lodge stalwart, eminently believable in his verbal pomposity as an out-of-touch palace politician.

Icke’s production overall has wit: when Hamlet appears he has a worn leather suitcase, his baggage is dragged around  as if he is always prepared to be a traveller to "the undiscovered country",

And, aside from the monologues, ths intimate production breaks the fourth wall, with Claudius and Hamlet invoking the audience and the royal family literally taking front row seats. .

It’s nearly 35 years since I saw my first Hamlet followed by several since then. Scott’s Hamlet is the wittiest, most intelligent, and most humane of them all and it is a performance that will long stay with me. A green light for a production which achieves greatness.  .

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Review Remnants

by Erratica
Created And Directed by Patrick Eakin Young
Based On The Memoir The Stone Fields By Courtney Angela Brkic
Composed by Christian Mason and Shelley Parker

Beneath The Surface

When terrible events occur, it can feel to those involved that the world is divided up into those who have gone through such trauma and those who have not, with no bridge to cross over from one to another.

Remnants combines real-life verbal testimony, dance, original electronic music and Balkan folk song to give a very particular history of a family in Croatia and Bosnia Herzogovina.

It is based on the family history and experiences of a first generation American, Courtney Angela Brkic, whose father and relatives endured the Second World War in Sarajevo and then saw both within the country and from the vantage point of the USA, the collapse into civil war in the 1990s and its aftermath.

The remnants of the title are both the clothes of the massacred and the individual and communal memories of lives - and deaths - stretching back to the Second World War and all are excavated during the course of the performance.

Created and directed by Canadian Patrick Eakin Young, a cast of five evoke the double layered tale of the 1940s and the 1990s.

Fabiola Santana is Brkic's representative on stage with close cropped hair and angular choreographed movements (choreography by Jamila Johnson-Small) which also convey the dislocation of the land of her childhood visits.

The recorded words of Brkic bear witness to her own literal part in the excavation as a forensic archeologist after the late 20th century civil war which ripped the country apart set against her grandmother's and father's lives in the Balkans and America.

Starting from Brkic's relationship with her father, the piece moves fluently between the young woman's work as part of the forensic team trying to identify the human remains and clothing of the Srebrenica massacre victims.

Brkic's words and projections of family photographs also lead us back to the village in Herzogovina of her father, uncle and grandmother. The four sisters, played by Emma Bonnici, Victoria Couper, Eugenia Georgieva and Olesya Zorovetska are introduced using music, percussion and haunting voices in song.

With musical direction by Jamie Mann, a soundscape by Alex Groves and electronic music  by Christian Mason and Shelley Parker, the cohesions and factures of the family are then traced after the narrator's widowed grandmother moves to Sarajevo with her two young sons. In the city she strikes up a relationship with the son of a Jewish shopkeeper before the catastrophe of the second World World War and a fate which reflects back on the civil war of the 1990s. 

The story is outlined with sensitivity with an abstract black and white set lit by Burke Brown and  designed by Ana-Ines Jabares-Pita, with minimal props but enough to conjure up the ways in which women were left without any certainty about the fate of their husbands, sons and other male relatives.

While the production is smooth and abstract, it's a raw, horrific story and sometimes one longs for a little more context even if the tale of an individual family draws us in.

There are a series of events and an exhibition accompanying this piece and the affecting performance does feel like a threshhold stimulating a curiosity to find out more and it is careful not to try and bridge the divide with sentimentality.

It's a compact and clear meditation taking us beneath what might otherwise seem like cliché and we give it an amber/green light.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Review Bring On The Bollywood

Catherine Kelly's career has included freelance journalism, as well as art director and magazine editor roles. She currently runs training workshops and has worked extensively in India.

Bring On The Bollywood
by Samir Bhamra
Music by Devesh Sodha and Niraj Chag

From India With Love

A feel-good extravaganza, Bring On The Bollywood, currently on tour,  has plenty of talent on board within its romantic East versus West star-crossed lovers musical comedy format.

There's a love story with many of the elements and twists and turns expected of a Bollywood movie plus a neat twist examing contemporary British Indian attitudes towards India.

Inspired by Oliver Goldsmith's eighteenth century play She Stoops To Conquer, the stock figures of Goldsmith's comedy and the Bollywood genre meld together well. It proves a strong framework setting up the modern against  the traditional, reality versus idealism, all within a romantic comedy that pays heart-warming homage to Bollywood.

Nisha Aaliya's Dr Katrina Pawar is our London-based heroine who returns to her parents' home in India for the wedding of her younger brother, Lucky played by Anthony Sahota. There's a series of tangles resulting in Katrina's parents' home being mistaken for a hotel but true love wins the day when the "samosa" love triangle is resolved.

Dance, unsurprisingly in a show modelled on Bollywood, takes centre stage choreographed by Subhash Viman,  Dr Leena Patel and Sonia Sabri  in a dazzling and dizzying array of ensemble set pieces. Many of the songs are also recognisable from Bollywood movies.  

Nevertheless it's long at nearly three hours and would benefit from hefty cutting and pacier direction by the show's creator and director Samir Bhamra.

This might also have increased the chemistry  between the two good-looking leads,  Aaliya as Katrina and  Robby Khela, who displays fine vocals, as her British born Indian love interest Ronny.

In a supporting role, Yanick Ghanty as Bollywood actor Amit has plenty of earthy comic swagger and is nicely matched with Rekha, an innocent Indian ward of the Pawar family, gracefully played by Sophie Kandola. Errant playboy son Lucky is a star turn by Sahota whose easy mastery of physical comedy quickly won the affection of the audience.

At the same time, it's often the more experienced veteran actors who carry the show.

Avita Jay's lovelorn Kanga gives maximum value both in the acting and singing stakes. Sakuntala Ramanee as the powerhouse matriarch matchmaker Lalita determined to marry off her children and Rohit Gokani as her bumptious husband Colonel Sunder Pawar also push the production up a much needed gear - ‘We don’t like each other but we love each other’.

There's spirited work from the dance ensemble of Emiko Jane Ishii, Jo Bispham, Mithun Gill, Raheem Mir, Kesha Raithatha.

However, having recorded backing tracks rather than live music did sap some of the energy out of the show and made me wonder whether it needed more volume to get audience toes tapping.

Apart from one clever transition when the Indian villa became a mountain top, the set, designed by Richard Evans, seemed rather inflexible in signalling mood and location changes, although Pete Bragg's lighting design made up a lot of the deficit.

Bring On The Bollywood has a great concept, story premise and  a witty script with depth and insight even if more experience in the 24-strong cast would give it the zing it deserves. However, the audience around me thoroughly enjoyed it and it's a sparkling upper range amber light.

Review DenMarked

A Theatrical Autobiography
Written and Performed by Conrad Murray

In The Loop 

The music business lures in a lot of young talent which sometimes shys away from theatre. It's therefore refreshing to see that Writers Avenue at The Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton and Battersea Arts Centre have given space to a 60 minute one-man show from musician and actor Conrad Murray.

Conrad is a stocky figure in a red baseball cap who charts his life in a monologue combining guitar, song vocals, beatboxing, rapping (oh do we really have to put a link to explain rapping? 😉) and live looping.

The publicity image veers towards an American guy-from-the-hood feel and there is an inspirational American-like side to Denmarked. But it's also an intimate, simple but engrossing tale of a Mitcham lad.

While there is material which the publicity also flags up as 15+, Murray gives an appealing performance, directed by Ria Parry, diving in and bringing us on a journey with him.

He presents his story as  a series of short, vivid verbal and musical chapters starting with his hesitant steps- most of us can identify with this - as he enters the building where he's about to have a job interview.

DenMarked also introduces Murray's life against the background of the Shakespeare text introduced to him several years ago by a teacher. This gives a framework of quotes, some of which, it has to be said, work better than others.

The Shakespearean interludes can feel a bit clunky - but they also work in other ways. Of course rapping and the wordsmithery of Shakespeare work together.

But Murray discovers Hamlet's words take on a new meaning when superimposed on his own life and whip up his own enthusiasm. The title's new look at Hamlet's homeland, is an obvious example.

Murray is the child of what many would term bureaucratically a "dysfunctional" family - a violent father, a mother, beaten up by her husband, who seeks solace elsewhere, although she does hold down a responsible job and he also has a rock of a brother.

Murray maps his struggles, his dreams (in all senses of the word), his rebellion against "inevitability", a life of crime on the estate.

He also marks the coming to terms with more matters. Amongst other things, his Indian heritage through his father and even his Mum's Dad's refusal to go against his egalitarian principles and buy his council house instead of thinking of his family's individual interest. It's mentioned in passing rather than laid on thick and all the better for it.

By the end, the hard-won bright spots overcome the many darker phases of his life and the winning of a  holiday park singing contest and acclaim of his classmates does, with many and various detours include a few bus rides, lead to something good.

This is quite a low key unostentatious show, carefully thought out with touches of self deprecating humour and lighting by Mitch Hargreaves. DenMarked is not perfect and there were times we longed for more information but at other times we could also understand his caution.

You want to know how the job interview turned out? You'll have to catch the show but hurry because the short run finishes on Saturday. It's an upper range amber light and we look forward to Murray bringing further layers as he continues to builds up his undoubted skills in theatrical performance. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Review Anatomy Of A Suicide

Anatomy Of A Suicide
by Alice Birch

Paper Dolls

Some years ago TLT reviewed a sad but tremendously worthwhile book where the author, the late Siân Busby, traced the circumstances leading to a young woman's conviction for infanticide and its impact through generations stitching them together in a remorseless thread.

The writer. who had an equally difficult childbirth experience, was more than sympathetic to the woman convicted of a charge - killing her own baby - simultaneously classified as a crime and a mental illness and a defence to the charge of murder.  The woman was Siân Busby's great grandmother.

The book came to mind watching Alice Birch's new play about three women who, it is gradually revealed, share a family link and a predisposition towards taking their own lives. However, unlike Busby's book which discussed among other matters the legal characterisation of women, there is little of the social and economic context.

So anyone coming to Anatomy Of A Suicide expecting the title to be ironic may rapidly find themselves wrong footed by the two-hour play which, rather disturbingly to our mind, seems to want to persuade us suicide is an inheritable trait.

In Birch's bleak determinist universe for at least two generations from the 1970s through the 1990s until the more disruptive 21st century future, the outcome is inevitable.

Yet they also appear to be self-inflicted, all of which for us comes perilously close to first world problems.

It's true that, and this is not to trivialise, within the same generations of men, clothes hardly undergo radical change. While the women are like paper dolls, every now and then stripped down to their underwear and re-dressed by others, as in those days before computers when we girlies lovingly snipped on the dotted line and clothed such dolls with a variety of  pre-printed paper skirts, blouses and dresses.

Yet the problems outside their psychological state seem practically non existent - 1970s' Carol (Hattie Morahan) has no worries about her financial independence or her daughter Anna (Katie O'Flynn) other later financial anomalies preventing parity with husbands, which surely has implications even for the experiment in communal living in which she dabbles with her partner.  

The three lives do run side by side as in a split cinema screen or church triptych, with sentences and dilemmas counterpointing each other like an undulating musical ensemble piece. There is a light touch theme of property and jobs in relation to the women and by the final scenes it is partly through these that a cycle seems to be broken.

There is also no doubting the intricate skill shown by writer Alice Birch and director Katie Mitchell in interlacing the three shifts of times stitching together the three women, model-like Carol, Goth Anna and more clinical Bonnie (Adelle Leonce).

Anna played by O'Flynn (last seen, somewhat intriguingly, as Laura in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie) was distinctive for us, both for her performance and because her actions mark a more seismic change in the family.

But we can't pretend that this story, played out on Alex Eales's concrete gray set, held us for the full two hours without an interval where everyone outside the trio seemed so well-meaning, if misguided. Maybe there was a subtle political and historical thread (we're not sure), but, frankly, we're grasping at straws here.

All this  appeared to us to be buying into, rather than dispelling, a secular pseudo-scientific medicalised view of woman's biological destiny, even with the final gentle rupture.

Maybe also the title led us almost to expect an analysis through women's bodies and minds of a changing anatomy of Britain. However, if so, our pre-conceived notions, like the paper dress with tabs fitting perfectly the doll, were matched by the pre-conceived notions in the play and it's an amber light.

Review Danny And The Deep Blue Sea

Peter Barker applauds the acting and direction in an American one-act play which uses dance and music to enhance the action

 Danny and the Deep Blue Sea
by John Patrick Shanley

Barroom Encounter

The latest play at the tiny upstairs Old Red Lion Theatre stage is an intense but hopeful two-hander set around the relationship of two lonely and damaged people in a grimy and noisy New York.

The two castaways thrown up by the ocean of life, Danny (Gareth O’Connor) and Roberta (Megan Lloyd-Jones), meet while seeking solace in a seedy bar in the Bronx district of the city.

John Patrick Shanley wrote this short, 75-minute play in 1984 but it still feels contemporary. The play’s arc, two people meeting in darkness, pain and anger and travelling towards light, happiness and hope, may be conventional, even sketchy, but it still works.
Danny is scarred, bruised and bloodied after a brawl when he came off the victor but fears repercussions. Roberta’s scars are not so visible, but she has a childhood secret for which, although the innocent party, she blames herself.

O’Connor’s Danny conveys the brutishness and the uncommunicative nature of a man trapped within his aggression. Lloyd-Jones brings the right sassiness and hurt to the role matching Danny’s physical violence with a strength which still has a vulnerable spot, her neediness.

One of the strongest parts of the production are the two episodes of superb choreographed music and dance by the pair  (choreography by Kate Lines set to music by Ross O’Connor) which also manages to move the plot and action along. It’s a joy to see some dance in a production like this.

This reminded me of the Sea Interludes in Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes communicating gracefully internal storms and passion. Indeed Danny is much like Grimes, lacking eloquence and on the outside of society, needing to be understood, even if the play's ending is much more upbeat than the opera.

Nevertheless, the play feels rather slight, lacking the length and breadth of a more substantial play and the drama, however well-acted, suffers a little for its brevity.

Shanley is probably best-known as screenwriter for Hollywood movie Moonstruck, but also won a Pulitzer for his play Doubt, A Parable, soon to have a London revival.

Director Courtney Larkin keeps this revival's action fast moving, playing to its strength, the robustness of language. The minimal set is suitably seedy as a bar with cheap tables and worn seats, and later a messy bedroom.

The ending, it has to be said, stretches the bounds of credibility. However it would be mean-spirited to ignore the strengths of this production -- both the performances and the choreography --  outweighing the limitations of Shanley’s story, and raising this production to an amber/green light.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Review The Enchanted

The Enchanted
Based on the novel by Rene Denfeld
Adapted by Joanna Treves and Connie Treves
Devised by Pharmacy Theatre

Living Death

Death Row has been in the news lately for glib reasons - part of a post election inquest and political rhetoric. However the reality of the death row exists all over the United States where jail inmates are left in limbo, sometimes for years, until the appeals process against their death sentences is exhausted.

This devised performance from Pharmacy Theatre, in an adaptation by Joanna Treves and director Connie Treves,  draws on an acclaimed novel by Oregon author Rene Denfeld, The Enchanted.

The core of the tale is  is the arrival of The Lady (Jade Ogugua), an investigator who works alongside the prisoners' legal defence teams to probe further at the eleventh hour into  the background of those facing the electric chair.

There's nothing to beat a good story and there is a good story here - as the plaudits novel writer Denfeld has received can testify. The investigator trying to save two  lives, that of Arden (Corey Montague-Sholay) and a fellow prisoner York (Hunter Bishop), as time runs out is the stuff of top notch police procedurals and Hollywood blockbusters.

Sholay grounds the whole with a stonking central performance, contorting his stocky muscular body and giving ahis  clear tender delivery of monologues. These are interspersed with the entry of The Lady into the prison and her work as she probes the backstories of the prisoners hoping to find the basis of a successful appeal.

But this is real life and, without having read the novel, we have mixed feelings about such non-naturalistic representations transformed into an exquisite fable and what at times almost becomes a dance piece.

 The collective waves of movement which involve all the cast interrupt the flow of the story and turn this staging into a self-conscious actorly piece. The introduction of small puppets feels out of proportion to the large space and the slope of the audience seats, taking the audience out of the moment.

This felt self-indulgent and lessened the impact of the individual pieces even if Sholay's performance manages to integrate the personal story of a man whose stunted mind finds some kind of freedom in Death Row and the physicality much more successfully.

All of which is a shame because there are some compelling moments. The investigator goes outside the prison interviewing relatives and telling us of their lives. Here the devised piece begins to spark theatrically. This happens sometimes at its most naturalistic and, dare we say it, filmic scenes..

There's the investigator's interview of an inmate's aunt (Georgina Morton) as The Lady starts to piece together the disturbing backgrounds of men condemned as monsters. There's also a curious interlude of a priest (Jack Staddon) and a prostitute which feels like scenes from a particular type of 1970s crime genre movie but still has some nicely honed performances..

Despite the strong performances and without having read the novel, TLT does wonder about the wisdom of turning the material into a lyrical  devised piece which sometimes tips over into the mawkish.

We recalled the direct simplicity of Oscar Wilde's poem The Ballad Of Reading Gaol with which The Enchanted shares some of the imagery and which deals much more simply with a similar issue.

Perhaps The Enchanted would work better with projections of real prison buildings and other more solid images of the outside world. As it is the poetic verbalizing sometimes swamps the piece and feels in conflict with the nitty gritty of the investigation. .

The stage, in a design by Jacob Lucy, is bare apart from the a white block suspended from the ceiling with branches splaying out. A long thin white block on the floor of the space is pushed back and forth by the cast revealing silver cans round its edge

On the whole, this feels like an overlong 90 minute piece studded with little gems from a talented cast but there is an imbalance between the lyricism and the more naturalistic sections when the story feels lost. It's an amber light for an interesting adaptation which, nevertheless, sometimes feels a little too constrained by the source material. 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Review Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Charlie Parker's Yardbird
Composer Daniel Schnyder
Libretto Bridgette A Wimberley

Sax Appeal

It's a rare treat for TLT and her sidekick with finely tuned engine to be able to review opera - and even rarer a new work.

So we were excited (very uncool for a reviewer to say, but true) to enter the gilded auditorium of the Hackney Empire to see and hear Charlie Parker's Yardbird, a chamber piece with a cast of seven.

Bebop pioneer saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker developed a fast-paced, challenging form of jazz in the 1940s and 1950s before his early death at the age of 34. But in Yardbird we encounter a man left in a surreal limbo trapped between life and death.

Lawrence Brownlee, celebrated for his bel canto tenor Rossini roles, is Parker determined to put on paper a lasting symphonic legacy. Yet his efforts are tangled with the lives of the five living women brought into his orbit whose lives are also irrevocably changed by his life and death.

Yardbird is structured as a series of flashbacks from this afterlife. The clear movements move fluently from the repercussions of Parker's death in the hotel room of wealthy jazz patroness and friend Nico von Koenigswarter (mezzo soprano Julie Miller) and different stages of his life including his musical partnership with jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (baritone Will Liverman).

Designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a versatile abstract nightclub set, flanked on either side by small delicate birds in cages, with giant letters lowered down in between, spelling out the name of one of his most famous works. The towering letters are filled with the magnified features of jazz musicians.

This suits the piece where the characters in the different time periods of Parker's life step forward individually. From Nico back to his Kansas City mother, Addie (soprano Angela Brown), his wives Rebecca (mezzo soprano Chrystal E Williams), Doris (soprano Elena Perroni) and his final common-law partner Chan (lyric soprano Rachel Sterrenberg). And of course bandleader Dizzy Gillespie.  

This is a polished, beautifully sung production, originally mounted by director Ron Daniels in Philadelphia in 2015 and here directed by Amanda Consol. Clark Rundell conducts a 15-piece orchestra which includes Mick Foster's alto sax.

Yet for all the power of the vocal and instrumental  performances, it's dramatically a strangely thin rendering of Parker's short life. Bridget A Wimberley's libretto feels somewhat on the nose, even if there are moments of inspiration such as the verbal image of black notes caged on a stave.

However the opera veers between the specifics of an extraordinary musical talent ravaged by heroin  and a more generalised indictment of the American black experience and segregation. In the end, this  does not totally satisfy in either area.

Apparently, there are quotes from Parker's music in Schnyder's score, but we only learnt of these in the after-show panel discussion and we feel prior knowledge was needed to pick them up. Potentially the most potent love song in Yardbird is Parker serenading the sleek curves of his beloved saxophone.

However the lack of Parker's own quicksilver playing is keenly felt and Yardbird therefore becomes a rather more generic, if slick and poised, telling of a black musician's story.

While TLT and her sidekick have enjoyed a range of 18th and 19th century operas in the past, we are punters expecting to be entertained rather than experts in the genre. We are glad to have experienced this 90 minute opera and think it well-worth catching for its synthesis of jazz and the classical.

This was a refreshing operatic interlude in TLT's reviewing repertoire and would also make a good introduction to opera appealing to a diverse audience and tastes. It's an upper range amber/green light.