Magical production of Wicked composer’s first musical
It’ll be 50 years old next year but somehow I’ve never managed to see Pippin. I’m glad my first introduction to Stephen Schwartz’s earliest musical (with a book by Roger O. Hirson) was this production at the Charing Cross Theatre, first seen at the Garden Theatre in 2020. It may not be a behemoth like Shwartz’s Wicked, Godspell and The Prince of Egypt but director Steven Dexter has put together a joyous version of this uplifting, magical show.
Apparently, with eight actors, it’s much slimmed down from previous versions, yet, for me, this made it tight and intimate. All the more so because it’s being played in this lovely little basement theatre on a traverse stage. With the front rows at stage floor level.
Consequently, this story of a young medieval Prince who rejects the establishment and tries to find fulfillment in life is very easy to relate to when he’s right next to you. That he is a Prince is not really the point. Despite obvious comparisons with another Prince, who recently rejected his destiny to become an ordinary wealthy and privileged man, Pippin really is an Everyman. This is evidenced from the very beginning when members of the cast are supposedly chosen at random to play the parts, including Pippin. In other words, it could be anyone, and at various times during the proceedings, comparisons are made to previous Pippins.
The musical takes the form of a troupe of players telling the story of Pippin’s search so he can be said to reject one destiny only to be trapped by another. The question becomes will he finally reject the story planned for him?
Ryan Anderson is superb in the title role, sincere, naive, caring, angry and, annoyingly, never satisfied as he looks for this so-called fulfillment. And he tries many things- war, power, art, working the land. Through it all, he interacts with some wonderful characters: his grandmother played with great humour by Genevieve Nicole; the woman he appears to love, Catherine, played as confident and brittle by Natalie McQueen; and the Lead Player, a Mephistopheles-like character who directs the action, and leads Pippin to a much flagged up finale, which may not be what our hero was expecting.
Playing this role is Ian Carlyle who is the outstanding actor in this production with a strong personality, plaintive voice and brilliant dancing. In fact, the best moment in the show was the number Right Track which he and Ryan Anderson perform together in perfect unison.
Oh yes, the dancing. This is what makes this production such a winner. Nick Winston’s choreography is always entertaining and the cast dance with skill and enthusiasm.
The costumes and set by David Shields reflect the hippy time in which it was written and its hippy message that our lives are not pre-destined, and that looking for vainglory rather than finding fulfillment in the ordinary is the devil’s work. Oh, and the songs are heavenly.
Polly Creed’s clever play about an animal rights protest lifts you up then knocks you down
Polly Creed‘s audio play Humane lifts you up with a story about a local community’s animal rights protest before knocking you down with revelations about racism with the group.
Humane, written by Polly Creedand directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, is ostensibly a story based on the true events surrounding a ten month protest that took place back in the 1990s against the export of live animals through the small port of Brightlingsea. Mainly through the experiences of two made-up characters, we learn how a community can be brought together by a specific issue.
However, as the six-episode series progresses, we also come to realise that this is more than an inspiring story of a successful campaign in the face of powerful establishment figures and police brutality. We see that friendships formed through a common cause may prove brittle, and that a community may be united against animal cruelty but not against racism. It has been said that politics makes strange bedfellows and, following the death of one of the protestors, revelations lead to two of them falling out of bed.
A number of theatre companies have turned to the audio play as a means of continuing to create drama while theatres remained closed. What they don’t always realise is that an audio play isn’t simply a stage play with your eyes shut. It takes special skills to carry it off. Humane is a True Name production and, to the best of my knowledge, the co-founders of the company Polly Creed and Imy Wyatt Corner, have not previously ventured into audio plays, yet they do on the whole succeed.
Most fundamentally, an audio play relies on you the listener to fill in all the missing sensory information. Taking flight from what you’re told, you imagine what the characters and situations look like and sound like and smell like and feel like. Without the visual element of theatre or screen, any shortcoming in the dialogue or voices sabotages the imagination’s work. Which is why Humane is both excellent and flawed.
There are many excellent moments of drama and character development. Middle-class teacher Alice played by Marcia Lecky starts the campaign and, when she experiences problems with her teenage son, we see her gradual awakening to wider issues within the local community. She befriends Linda (Francesca Isherwood), another mother but this time of a constantly crying baby, trapped in a house with her mother-in-law while her soldier husband is in Bosnia. Linda finds the support of Alice a lifesaver and we see her grow in confidence as a result, in a triumph of both writing and acting.
There is one particularly clever use of audio when we discover something about a character’s appearance of which we were previously unaware and whereby the degree of our surprise says something about our own unconscious prejudices.
There are some flat notes. The facts about the campaign are presented in unbelievably detailed news reports. Particularly difficult to swallow are the occasions when the characters themselves churn out statistics as if they’re competing in a memory test.
A challenge in producing an audio play is ensuring that voices can be understood without the visual clues you get with a screen or stage performance. This means the actors are required to articulate even more than usual. In Humane, this is not a problem when we listen to Alice because she is an educated middle-class woman, whom you would expect to pronounce each word clearly. Linda on the other hand is a working-class woman with an Estuary accent to match. Francesca Isherwood is successful in speaking her lines clearly but at the expense of sounding natural. The result is ever so slightly stilted.
Despite these reservations, I found this episodic story a good listen that is not only a tribute to a campaign largely generated by local older people and mothers with children but also an interesting exploration of racism.
Humane is produced by True Name and is available as a podcast
I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical
I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.
South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.
Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.
But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.
I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.
And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.
The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance. (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)
Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.
The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.
The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.
And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.
A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.
South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.
Daniel Mays and David Thewlis impress in Pinter play but the streaming didn’t
When I heard that Daniel Mays and David Thewlis were to play the two bickering hitmen in Harold Pinter’s classic short play The Dumb Waiter, without hesitation I booked to see it. It didn’t hurt that Jeremy Herrin was directing.
Sadly for me, I decided to watch a live streamed performance via Zoom. So straightaway I lost that claustrophobic sense of these two men couped up in small basement room which I’m sure was conveyed in the studio setup at The Old Vic. Worse though was the quality of the transmission. There’s always a danger with a live feed through a medium like Zoom but on this occasion I found the action constantly jerked or even froze.
So I can’t offer a fair verdict on the production. From what I saw, Daniel Mays as the questioning Gus and David Thewlis as the rules obsessed Ben were perfect for the roles: Mays like a nervous rabbit, Thewliss a snarling fox. It confirmed to me what a great play this is- the way the two hit men are programmed to obey orders, even orders for food coming down the dumb waiter from what is, or appears to be, a nonexistent restaurant above.
There’s a constant sense of menace as they contemplate their previous and forthcoming work, killing anonymous victims, commissioned by a mysterious Mr Wilson, who could symbolise an authoritarian government or even God. And the humour in the arguments between these two contrasting characters is a delight. There’s a lovely row over their use of language – is it light the kettle or put the kettle on? Then there are the lurid extracts from the tabloid newspaper that Ben reads out, suggesting a frightening world out there.
And the grey stained set by Hyemi Shin looked good too, as far as I could tell, suggesting a prison cell or a torture chamber, as much as a basement in a closed down restaurant.
But, as I say, too poor a transmission to make a proper judgement, so for once I haven’t given this production a star rating, just a warning to avoid Zoom when you choose to watch a live stream.
The Dumb Waiter was performed at The Old Vic from 7 to 10 July 2021
In The Heights is the most feel-good, uplifting movie I have seen in a long time.
It’s not a film of the stage show, it is a proper film in its own right, directed by Jon M Chu, who made Crazy Rich Asians. It’s packed with the most magnificent ensemble dancing build around stirring rap and Latin music and heartwarming stories about love and community. I know you may be tempted to wait to see it on your TV but I’m telling you, no matter how big your TV is, it will not do justice to the huge dance sequences nor that Latin beat.
It’s not quite sung-through but one song follows another so quickly that’s there are only short scenes of dialogue and then you’re on to another spectacular dance sequence. There’s dancing in the street, Fame style, there’s dancing in a club, Saturday Night Fever style, dancing on bleachers, Grease style, and dancing in a swimming pool- Busby Berkeley style. You can see where the $55 million dollar budget went.
And there are romantic songs, the loveliest of which is between Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace, when they dance in a fantasy moment up the side of a building –La La Land style.
In The Heights started as a stage musical back in 2005, eventually opening on Broadway in 2008. It was Lin Manuel Miranda’s first hit, ten years before Hamilton.
Although there is a central character called Usnavi, a young man who owns the local store and is played with a delightfully shy manner by Anthony Ramos, this is the story of a Latinx neighbourhood in Washington Heights in north Manhattan. Almost equal weight is given to other members of the community, like the woman he fancies Vanessa, a vivacious performance by Melissa Barrera, his friend Benny played by the cool and handsome Corey Hawkins.
I don’t know why I’m saying he’s handsome because frankly, these are all highly attractive people. Like Nina who is the pride of the community because she has a place at Stanford University. It’s a strong performance by Leslie Grace but she’s not only the cleverest person around, she’s also the most beautiful. Her father Kevin, the taxi business owner, is Mr Cool himself Jimmy Smits, for goodness sake, and Olga Merediz is the twinkling kind-faced matriarch of the community.
So what you don’t get are any horrible characters or any of the abrasiveness in relationships that can light up a movie with their sparks. It’s not that kind of movie. Having said that, the main characters have about as much depth as a paddling pool.
Arguably Quiara Alegría Hudes who wrote the book of the musical and wrote writes the movie screenplay. could have expanded on the characters because real people on stage carry you along much more easily than the close-up of people on film.
But it doesn’t really matter because the central character here is the community, one that answers discrimination by working hard and making a success of oneself. Yes, it’s a romantic ideal but it is an uplifting journey in which Usnavi, who longs to live in his homeland of the Dominican Republic, comes to realise the strengths of this little piece of Latin America in New York.
The action- and that’s not really the right word- builds up to an electricity blackout that occurs at the height of a very hot summer. And this is also the low point for the characters in the film- Nina having rejected financial help, a key character revealed as undocumented and therefore with limited prospects and the ever-present threat of repatriation, and Usnavi and Vanessa’s relationship in peril. And that’s about as much tension as this happy film generates. The blackout changes everything as the people, at first resigned, rediscover their community and the ways they can support each other.
Although there is romance, this is very much a family film with hardly a suggestion of sex. However, the three women (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz and Dascha Polanco) who run a nail bar forced out by gentrification, are not only funny, they strut their stuff in no uncertain way. They’re almost from a Carry On film and this is just one way in which this film feels like a throwback to an earlier time. Nostalgia is sewn into its fabric.
If you want cheering up, this is just the tonic you need. I had a smile on my face throughout.
And by the way, don’t leave before the end of the credits because Lin Manuel Miranda’s character, the Piragua seller, makes a return appearance.
The Three Musketeers adapted by Sydney Stevenson and starring Robert Lindsay was promoted as an audio play but, if purchase a ticket, you’ll find it comes as a video with animated illustrations and glimpses of actors using Zoom. So there are three pillars to this comedy and unfortunately not one of them is strong enough to hold it up.
The show’s intention is to satirise both Zoom productions and amateur adaptations of classic books. But comedy is hard. The late comic Frankie Howerd once told me in an interview that comedy is more difficult to achieve than tragedy. I’m afraid this play proves his point.
There’s a lot that could be funny about Ms Stevenson’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas‘ story directed by Joseph O’Malley but it doesn’t quite come off. To work, it would need to be saying something new or at least saying something familiar but with a new twist. Instead, it’s all too familiar ground.
The main theme running through this adaptation is that it’s amateurish. So there are anachronisms such as a modern ferry port or an objective to end plastic pollution or a reference to the Eiffel Tower. Cobwebs are dusted off some old jokes. Does anyone find a reference to royal balls funny any more, outside of panto? And you may have heard before a character repeating what the narrator has just said. ‘On the road our travel weary hero stops at an inn.’ ‘I am travel weary and I am stopping at an inn.’ All of this can be very funny- take anything by the National Theatre Of Brent, or the Play That Goes Wrong series or plays like The 39 Steps or indeed Ernie Wise’s plays what I wrote. My point is, it’s been done before, and this adds nothing.
A further layer takes the form of a satire of the Zoom productions that we have both enjoyed and endured during lockdown. So, we have a child interrupting proceedings by calling for a biscuit, someone unwittingly letting people see that he’s in his underpants, someone forgetting to mute… amusing and well done but we’ve seen it before. The trouble is zoom satire has already reached its pinnacle with the conversations between David Tennant and Michael Sheen.
To avoid showing that it was actually mostly recorded not on Zoom but in a studio, visuals are provided in the form of a charming but low budget cartoon that has minimal animation, and no people. Sadly this only served to remind me that there was once a cartoon series Dogtanian and the 3 Muskehounds that told a simplified version of the Alexandre Dumas story in a most amusing and interesting way.
It’s all a bit of a shame because the idea has merit and the cast is very good. It’s led by Ms Stevenson’s father, the excellent Robert Lindsay, whose rich voice is a pleasure to listen to. His talent is such that even a familiar trope- the increasing exasperation of a classical actor with a production that he sees as below him- becomes very funny in his hands. I’ll also pick out Antony Eden who does well as a harassed, out-of-his-depth author and as a hapless D’Artagnan.
So, while The Three Musketeers would like to be one of those shows that are so awful, they’re funny, it doesn’t quite hit the target. About three quarters of the way through, Robert Lindsay interrupts to say, ‘This is the worst adaptation I have ever read. It’s like some silly amateur jaunty comedy. I’m ashamed to be involved. I’m better than this.’ Well, many a true word spoken in jest.
Stratford production lets Shakespeare speak for himself
The COVID-cancelled Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Winter’s Tale has returned as a play for TV, as part of BBC4’s Lights Up season of ‘lost’ plays.
It is set in, or at least starts in, the 1950s. We find ourselves in the court of the King of Sicily, Leontes. Within minutes the loving relationship between ruler and his queen Hermione is in tatters as Leontes succumbs to jealousy and the belief that his lifelong best friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is having an affair with Hermione.
On the page, it seems hard to accept how easily this happens but William Shakespeare is the king of dramatists and the spoken word carries you along. The words in this play may not quite match those in the greatest Shakespeare plays, say Hamlet, but, tumbling out of mouths on stage, they provide image after image of the human condition and with a speed and style always matching the characters. The result, despite the implausibility of the plot at many points, is deep, believable characters caught up in a gripping drama.
Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale not as a book or a movie but as a play. So, thank goodness, the director Erica Whyman has confidence that Shakespeare knows what he’s doing. It is filmed as a stage play. Bridget Caldwell’s film direction is kept simple and that’s to its credit. There are close-ups of course but otherwise we’re left to see the actors on the large Swan Theatre stage, which itself is sparsely decorated by set designer Tom Piper. Any music, which is provided by the eclectic Isobel Waller-Bridge, is occasional and enhances rather than intrudes.
Although The Winter’s Tale is technically a comedy, the first half is pretty much a tragedy. Leontes presumes his new baby is by Polixenes and condemns it to death. He puts his wife on trial with disastrous consequences. In fact, the deaths and apparent deaths bring home to Leontes how wrong he has been. And don’t forget this is the play with the most famous stage direction in theatrical history- ‘exit pursued by a bear’. I can tell you that bear isn’t after a cuddle.
Some excellent actors to convey the script. Joseph Kloska plays Leontes as quite ordinary, somewhat pathetic. Even when he’s at his worst, he seems more mentally unstable than tyrannical which, I think, helps offset the tragic nature of this comedy. Kemi-Bo Jacobs as Hermione conveys her lines with regal authority and dignified passion. Ben Caplan playing Leontes’ right hand man Camillo makes every careful syllable suggest the conflict between loyalty and conscience. Amanda Hadingue as Hermione’s broken-hearted companion Paulina touches us with her uncontrolled anger.
So the first half, which is about 90 minutes and takes us to the end of act 3, is very dark.
And having set up the tragedy, Shakespeare changes the tone. It’s 16 years later, a time gap which itself is unusual for Shakespeare. To some extent, this is a play about the healing power of time. Leontes has been grieving and repenting all this time.
We begin the second half, now in the mid 1960s, with some rock’n’roll. It becomes much more like the Shakespearean comedies we are familiar with. There are people disguising their origins, there’s forbidden love, there’s a mischief-making rascal Autolycus played with a cheeky chappy style by Anne Odeke. All’s well that ends well, except for the ones that died.
There’s a romantic, pastoral theme to the second half, including young lovers, shepherds and a sheep shearing festival. This makes the sixties setting very appropriate, it being a time when pop culture embraced romanticism and nature. In fact, the concept of contrasting the austere fifties with the free sixties is an inspired way of representing the two halves of The Winter’s Tale. The beautiful costumes by Madeleine Girling are elegant in the first half, more flamboyant in the second.
So, it’s a bittersweet ending, a story of redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation, which doesn’t deny the ill that has gone before. It is clear that some things that have been lost will never be regained.
There are some nice touches in the production. To emphasise that Leontes is conducting a show trial of Hermione, we see it partly as being televised with early black-and-white TV cameras. And later on, a feast is shown being filmed on Super 8 or something kind of early home movie.
Those are really the only thing approaching a gimmick. Otherwise, it’s a joy to watch a production that allows actors to speak Shakespeare’s words at length and without distraction.
The Winter’s Tale was broadcast on BBC4 on 25 April and is available to watch on BBC iPlayer
Josh O’Connor & Jessie Buckley shine in fast-moving Shakespeare film
The National Theatre‘s Romeo & Juliet is another of the hybrids of theatre and film that have emerged during lockdown. In this case, William Shakespeare‘s play, directed by Simon Godwin, is a film but filmed in the Lyttleton Theatre and as if it’s a spontaneous development from the rehearsal room.
As film, it is beautiful. The backgrounds are nearly always plain , often grey or black. In fact the colours generally are blue or grey, with faces brightly lit from the side, appropriately like 17th century portraits. Credit for the design goes to Soutra Gilmour.
The two lovers are wild and rash, as they should be. Jessie Buckley is intense with passion, Josh O’Connor overwhelmed with emotion. They have great faces which is great for the close-ups. Their scenes together- the balcony, the wedding, the consummation (the film features a lengthy lovemaking only alluded to in the original play) are all believably romantic.
Thank goodness because this is a Romeo & Juliet that strips away all it can from the surrounding story of adults who should protect the youngsters but instead are misguided, self-centred and irresponsible. We also lose Shakespeare’s intention to emphasise the ultimate reconciliation of two warring factions as they acknowledge their part in the death of their young heirs.
Some of the most glorious poetry is filleted. There’s no ‘light from yonder window’ breaking in Emily Burns’ adaptation. Rather than rely on the verse that remains, there is a great deal of music, as if the makers didn’t trust Shakespeare’s words to convey feeling. Having said that, the music, which includes Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is superb.
The editing of text and film means this Romeo & Juliet goes at a terrific pace which is good because, in this play, you need to be carried along by the speed with which the youngsters fall deeply in love, get married and (spoiler alert) commit suicide.
Of the older actors, I particularly liked Tamsin Greig, playing the part that was Lord Capulet in the original. She’s cold, calm, as softly spoken as a snake, verging on a pantomime villain.
Deborah Findlay as the Nurse and Lucian Msamati as Friar Laurence both convey the way the adults miscalculate the situation because of their own desire to meddle. The great Adrian Lester has so little to do as the Prince, because of the cuts, that a cynic might say he’s only there to provide a star name.
Romeo & Juliet can be seen on Sky Arts catch-up and on PBS on 23 April
Pam Ferris & Toby Jones perfect in audio play about a mother with dementia
I’ve listened to audio plays all my life, mainly on BBC radio, so, believe me, it means a lot when I say I have never heard a better audio play than Mark Ravenhill’s Angela. It works perfectly as audio because it’s about his mother who had dementia and it takes place almost entirely inside her head.
Why, in the throes of dementia, does she forget she has a son, why does she think her husband is trying to kill her, why does she become violent? In the course of the play, we hear what led her there: her memories of her unpleasant childhood, her ambitions to be an actor, her miscarriages and the profound effect of losing her first baby, a girl.
There is much about how her love of theatre and encouragement of her son Mark is at odds with her working class background and the cause of conflict with her husband and her sister. Central is a moment from Mark’s childhood, when we see how she copes and doesn’t cope with her son. Together they see the ballet film The Tales Of Beatrix Potter. Mark becomes obsessed with dancing the role of Jemima Puddleduck. Angela identifies with Jemima, someone who is threatened by the world and has her children killed or taken away.
It’s sad, painful even, but not depressing. It’s beautifully written and sensitively performed. We gain insights into dementia- the disorientation, the imagined world, the confusion of past and present- but what is fundamentally important is that Angela remains a person, a human being with thoughts and memories and feelings.
And there’s the gentleness with which her son- and her husband- interact with her is heartwarming.
The dialogue and the acting in Angela are pitch perfect. I can’t speak to the art of getting it right but I’ve heard many times when it’s been wrong, the dialogue stilted, the acting stagey. But here when the older Angela says, for example, ‘I bled the girl away. I was made all wrong’, it sounds natural and is spoken with understated passion by Pam Ferris.
The other cast members also get the balance of clarity and believability just right. Toby Jones as her gentle husband, Matti Houghton as the younger Angela gradually beaten down by life, Jackson Laing as the young Mark bright, loving but oblivious to his mother’s anguish even as she supports him, Joseph Millson as the adult Mark, caring, and understanding how her past shaped her and himself. ‘We’ve all got muddled, imagined things, got angry with each other,’ he says.
‘Natural’ is rarely achieved naturally, so Polly Thomas, a hugely experienced director of radio plays, deserves her share of the credit for making this one work.
The sound too is just right. The minimalist piano music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is dreamlike and ever so slightly disorientating, as befits a story that shows the effects of dementia.
There’s much more to Mark Ravenhill’s cleverly constructed play: Angela’s mother, a parent who undermines her child; her relationship with her sister who has two boys and is insensitive as to how that might make the (at that time) childless Angela feel; the attachment of blame; the devastating hole left by a miscarriage and the way it is unexpectedly filled by her love of acting when two people with dementia meet.
The play begins and ends with a middle aged man taking a ballet class. No prizes for guessing who this is.
I appreciate this play may mean more to those of us who have experienced at first hand the effects of dementia on a loved one but I can assure you that, even if you haven’t, you will be moved by this play and be thinking about it for a long time afterwards.
Angela is part of a new season of audio plays from Sound Stage, co-produced by Pitlochry festival theatre and the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum in collaborartion with naked Productions. Still to come are new plays by John Byrne, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Roy Williams and more.
The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation recently criticised the lack of opportunity given to black and minority ethnic performers in drama schools. If we don’t have more diversity in our theatres, we miss our opportunity to see the best possible shows on stage. So, let’s celebrate the people of colour who have made a major contribution to the stage musical.
10. Eubie Blake & Noble Sissel
These days blind casting, whereby, unless the part is written for a specific skin colour, you choose the best person for the role regardless of colour, has made a huge difference to the number of people of colour on stage. But racial discrimination was rife in the past. A hundred years ago, black performers were restricted to a few slots on the Broadway stage- no more than one act per show.
Frustrated by the situation, the songwriting team of Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel, got together with some other black artists and wrote their own musical comedy Shuffle Along. They managed to hire a theatre right on the edge of the theatre district. The artists feared a reaction from white audiences against a portrayal of black people in romantic situations, but this was the beginning of the jazz age and audiences lapped up the genuine article.
Shuffle Along was a huge success running for 504 performances with many spinoffs. It launched or at least helped the careers of, among others, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker. The biggest hit from the show was I’m Just Wild About Harry.
9. Adelaide Hall
Born in 1901, Adelaide Hall was a major star in the Harlem scene of the 1920s. In 1938, faced with a lot of prejudice in the States, she moved to the UK. A year later, just after the Second World War broke out, she took part in the BBC’s first live show to be broadcast worldwide. She became a British resident and it was here that she added musicals to her resumé. In 1951 she appeared in Kiss Me Kate and then two more West End musicals before returning to Broadway to appear in the Lena Horne vehicle Jamaica and in the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Live concerts and recordings remained her big passion and in 2003 at the age of 102 she entered the Guinness Book Of Records as the world’s most enduring recording artist.
8. Sharon D Clarke
Sharon D Clarke is one of the UK’s leading ladies. She began her West End career as General Cartwright in 1996 in Guys And Dolls. Over the years she’s been Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Mama Morton in Chicago, Oda Mae Brown in Ghost and the star of the National Theatre production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Probably most will remember her as Rafiki in The Lion King, a musical that did much to give opportunities to black performers. Her leading role in the Chichester production of Caroline, Or Change won her an Olivier Award, one of three she’s won. In 2017 she was awarded an MBE for services to drama.
7. Gary Wilmot
Gary Wilmot is another of the UK’s greatest musical stars. His musicals career began with the lead role in Me And My Girl in the West End. One of his earliest roles was as Joe in Carmen Jones, the musical in which Oscar Hammerstein wrote new lyrics for a black cast to Bizet’s music. In all he’s taken part in over two dozen musicals and played Fagin in Oliver!, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Billy Flynn in Chicago. His brilliance at comedy roles may have held him back from the more serious parts his voice and acting ability make him more than capable of.
6. Ethel Waters
After she starred in Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer, there was a time in the 1930s when Ethel Waters was the highest paid performer on Broadway- that’s not highest paid black performer, that’s highest paid performer of all. She began to branch out into large and small screens and was the first African American to have their own TV Show. Her biggest hit on Broadway came in 1940 with Cabin In The Sky.
5. George C Wolfe
Director George C Wolfe has directed twenty Broadway shows from Jelly’s Last Jam featuring the music of Jelly Roll Morton in 1992 to Caroline, Or Change to the revival of Shuffle Along. Perhaps his most famous Broadway show is Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk which he conceived and directed in 1996. It tells the story of the black experience in America from slavery to hip hop primarily through the medium of tap, choregraphed by the great Savion Glover. Wolfe has received 23 Tony Nominations and won five. He also directs movies, most recently directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which is up for an Oscar.
4. Paul Robeson
In the early days of Broadway, it was almost impossible for black people to get exposure on what was appropriately nicknamed ‘The Great White Way’. But some white creators of shows were determined that people of colour should have their proper place in stage musicals. George Gershwin, for example, wrote Porgy And Bess in 1935, with the bets of intentions despite subsequent criticism, and Oscar Hammerstein introduced people of colour and questions about racism into a number of his musicals.
Back in 1927, Hammerstein co-wrote Show Boat with Jerome Kern which was a groundbreaker, not only because it told a serious story but because it was the first musical to feature a mixed black and white cast on stage together. The part of Joe, a stevedore, was expanded as a showcase for my Paul Robeson. Unfortunately, he was unavailable to take part in the Broadway premiere but when the show opened in London he took his rightful place in the cast. The show became the Theatre Royal’s most profitable production of the 20th century.
At a time when black actors were mainly playing servants, Robeson brought a much needed dignity to black acting, taking on major roles in cinema and on stage, including a legendary Othello.
3. Lea Salonga
The Filipina soprano Lea Salonga was the original Kim in Miss Saigon for which she won an Olivier Award. She reprised the role on Broadway and became the first Asian woman to win a Tony. It launched her career on Broadway where she also played the roles of Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables. She has continued to play leading roles on Broadway and in the Far East including Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
Notably, she had a starring role in 2015 in the musical Allegiance which explored the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2.
2. Audra MacDonald
Audra Macdonald is the first and only performer ever to win six Tony Awards.
Trained as an operatic soprano, her Broadway successes include her performance in the revival of Carousel back in 1994, Ragtime in 1998, 110 in the Shade in 2007, Porgy And Bess in 2012. Perhaps her greatest role was as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar And Grill in 2014.
We started in 1921 with a musical that brought the first all black cast to Broadway. A hundred years later, the biggest show on Broadway and the West End is another groundbreaking musical featuring a cast almost exclusively of people of colour. Thanks to its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton has set a new standard for colour blind casting by employing mainly non-white actors to play people who were historically white. This casting provides a real and metaphorical illustration of the contribution of people from immigrant backgrounds can make to their adopted country, both in the USA but also here in great Britain. The number one is not one individual but all the casts that have made Hamilton a showcase for the talent of people of colour.
Two To Watch For
Here are two young people of colour destined to be major musical stars.
Miriam-Teak Lee had just left drama school when she blew everyone away with her performance in the Open Air Theatre production of On The Town. Then she got a part in the ensemble of original London production of Hamilton, followed by the lead role in the jukebox musical & Juliet, again giving a jaw-dropping performance for which she rightly for which she won an Olivier Award.
American Eva Noblezada has already played Kim in the 2014 London and subsequent Broadway revivals of Miss Saigon. She follows in the footsteps of Lea Salonga 25 years ago when she originated that role and has also followed her in playing Eponine in Les Miserables. Recently she played Eurydice in Hadestown to much acclaim. Hopefully we won’t lose her to the screen but her starring role in Yellow Rose was unforgettable.
You can see performances by many of the artists featured by visiting the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews and clicking on Playlists where you’ll find Top 10 People Of Colour in Stage Musicals.
The Box Office Radio podcast My Top Ten People of Colour in Stage Musicals presented by Paul Seven Lewis is available on mixcloud.com