I love a good musical and, while Strictly Ballroom at the West Yorkshire Playhouse might not reach the heights of a Sondheim or a Rodgers & Hammerstein for character and depth of feeling, there is an enjoyable love story and some excellent dancing. The good news is, it can be seen in London in 2018.
Anyone who liked Dirty Dancing or Footloose should love this. If you don’t know Baz Luhrmann‘s film, it’s the story of a pair of ballroom dancers determined to express themselves their way, even if that means breaking the rules. Freedom versus the establishment is always a good story. Along the way they inevitably fall in love and equally inevitably face bumps in the road to finally getting together.
If that sounds like a formulaic show, I don’t mean it to. It’s lively, inventive, often funny and sometimes moving. In any case, we don’t need the most original story for a musical to work. What’s most important is the terrific choreography by Drew McOnie (his work includes last year’s brilliant On The Town at the Open Air Theatre). The dancing and the singing are impressive throughout.
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is playing at the Piccadilly Theatre from 29 March 2018. Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen will perform the lead roles with Will Young playing the newly created role of band leader Wally Strand. Drew McOnie again directs and choreographs.
Here’s my YouTube review of the original West Yorkshire Playhouse production-
Before Network even begins, the Lyttleton Theatre stage is full of things going on. There are diners to the right, a TV control room to the left, a big screen in the middle, a shiny reflective centre stage. For someone like me who loves a show that could only be done in a theatre, it’s a case of ‘you had me at hello’.
Jan Versweyveld’s set may be just a bit too fascinating for the good of Ivo van Hove’s production. Fortunately he has one great asset keeping Network focussed: Bryan Cranston. As the TV news anchor suffering a breakdown, he commands the stage even when he is one tiny component in a mass of activity. His authoritative voice, his physical presence and his warmth, as for example when he interacts with the audience, add up to a tour-de-force.
By contrast, the sub-plot about a relationship between two other characters, which are well acted by Michelle Dockery and Douglas Henshall, tends to get lost in the sea of screens, reflections and general sense of pandemonium.
Like the film it is based on, Network is set in the 1970s when TV news was newer and more dominant than today, so its warnings about the dire effects of treating news as entertainment (echoed by Quizwhich opens soon in London) seem overly familiar to nearly all of us who have grown up with a TV in the corner and come to regard it not as a window on the world but more a gogglebox.
The play moves on to ‘expose’ global capitalism before putting in a plea for the humanity of the life we actually live. Lee Hall’s play, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s film script, is preaching to the converted- we are after all an audience of physically present people watching real humans on stage) and I emphasise ‘preaching’. Nevertheless it’s an unforgettable production and a towering performance from Bryan Cranston.
National Theatre designers abhor a vacuum. Faced with the big space of the Olivier and Lyttleton auditoria, they feel the need to fill them with sets that dominate and slow down the plays.
Not so Amadeus. The stage is filled, but with people, mainly an orchestra. So Mozart‘s sublime works literally take centre stage, not to mention Simon Slater‘s wonderful additional music with its jangling jarring sounds conveying the states of mind of the two protagonists.
Chloe Langford keeps the sets simple and nothing distracts- appropriately a simple piano dominates every scene.
Brilliant acting by Lucian Msamati & Adam Gillen
The two central roles of Salieri and Mozart are acted brilliantly. Lucian Msamati is the wily member of the establishment. You can feel his anguish at understanding the greatness of Mozart’s music while being denied the talent to match it. You understand why he wants to bring his rival down.
It’s a difficult trick to pull off but Adam Gillen communicates the great composer’s annoying child-like innocence while still exuding the power of his genius.
There is so much in Peter Shaffer‘s play that a revival is more than merited: the frustration of recognising great art but being unable to create it oneself; the ease with which a cynical dissembler can destroy a naive open person; that Man tests God’s achievement rather than the other way round; that immortality can be obtained through evil or through association with the immortal; and much much more. All of which is brought out vividly in this bold production directed by Michael Longhurst.
I predict you’ll like Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle but whether you do or not depends on so many factors. An evening at the theatre is unpredictable, like the relationship that’s the subject of Simon Stephens’ new play.
Don’t let the title of put you off. It isn’t about quantum mechanics or science generally, it’s a charming love story, albeit an unlikely one.
The title does hint that it’s not a stereotypical romantic comedy designed to tug at our heartstrings. It’s more of a study of how two apparently incompatible people- a wild forty-something woman and a buttoned-up old man- start by thinking they want one thing to achieve contentment but end up finding something else is what they needed.
Anne-Marie Duff & Kenneth Cranham are masterful
The characters are complex and contradictory. The woman even contradicts herself in the same sentence. She is over the top with confidence when she feels in control, falls apart when she doesn’t. The man is outwardly calm but he cries without warning.
As in a good mystery story (or the science of quantum mechanics), you sense that much lies between the lines of the script. It is crammed with clues and hints about their characters and why they might be attracted. As the man says of great music, it exists in ‘the spaces between the notes’.
This calls for masterful, nuanced acting and that’s what we get from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. Listening to them is like hearing a violin and cello recital.
Nodding to Heisenberg’s theories about atomic particles, the play shows that we can only ever think we know people and we can’t predict how they will behave. There’s a lot to savour in noticing how your first impression of the characters- her unbearably loud, him boringly quiet- changes as you get to know them and see them react to each other. Add to which, there is pathos in the losses that have shaped their lives, plus a lot of humour, particularly about getting old.
Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production
Bunny Christie’s fabulous minimalist white set reinforces the sense in Marianne Elliott’s brilliant production that we are observing a scientific experiment. It has no scenery or props to distract us. With each scene, the colour of Paule Constable’s lighting changes and the proscenium arch aperture alters from square to letterbox to oblong to almost crushing the woman at one point. This all affects our perception of what’s happening.
The play and the way it is presented inevitably make one think about the art of theatre. Heisenberg, in a different theory, talks about scientific experiments and the way atomic particles behave differently when observed. As an audience, we are observers. You may react differently to the person sitting next to you. Your enjoyment will be affected by that night’s audience (as will the performance). Like atomic particles, these two people’s fictional lives are changed unpredictably by each other but also by the audience’s observation of them in a play.
Simon Stephens has wrapped an unexpected love story around a fascinating look at the way theatre itself is an unpredictable experience.
When you watch one of my reviews on YouTube, is how I look the main thing you remember? Does my actual review only account for 7% of the impression I make on you?
According to Quiz, that’s what MPs were told when parliament was first televised. Television, it argues, blurs appearance and reality because it’s a visual medium and an entertainment medium. The assertion that in today’s world image is more important than facts runs through James Graham’s latest play which has opened in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and may well follow This House, Ink and Labour of Love into the West End.
In Quiz, we learn about the history of popular ITV quizzes and their connection to the commercial nature of the channel thence to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire via pub quizzes throwing in along the way the televising of parliament and the way the dangers of news becoming entertainment.
These many facts sprinkled throughout the evening distract from what is at heart an amusing, interesting story about the trial of Charles and Diana Ingram and one other for defrauding the makers of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire of a million pounds.
The trial wasn’t televised but Quiz is a warning about what might happen if courts cases were on TV. Television is a visual medium that values appearance above facts and entertainment over reality. And, appearances are deceptive.
The quiz show gives the appearance of being fair but may not be. Major Ingram appears to have cheated but maybe he didn’t.
Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are splendid
Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street as the Ingrams did a splendid job of keeping us guessing as to what was appearance and what was true. Were they more clever than they appeared to be or more stupid?
Keir Charles provided excellent impressions of an unctuous Chris Tarrant and numerous other game show hosts.
Just as politics and the news (and by extension, because of social media, many people’s whole lives) are said to have become entertainment, the trial is turned into a show. It is presented as a two act theatrical entertainment with act one delivering the case for the prosecution and act two the defence. Laying it on thicker, Daniel Evans‘ production is also set in a TV quiz show studio. Nearly everything on stage is filmed and shown on monitors. We were even givenMillionaire style voting buttons on which we can say whether we think the defendants are guilty or not guilty.
If placing much of the action inside a cubic frame that blocked one’s view was meant to have a Brecht-style alienating effect, the production succeeded too well. I simply saw it as a gimmicky production that added to the bewilderment I was already feeling from being bombarded with so many facts (or fictions) about television.
As a result, it is hard to get involved in the characters as real people or the story or the interesting issue of television blurring image and reality.
James Graham has had a series of winners with Our House, Ink and Labour of Love. Daniel Evans has put on a victorious first season at Chichester. Neither of them have hit the jackpot with Quiz, but that’s entertainment.
Quiz is a warning against televising one of the last parts of public life that is still not filmed, arguing that the media will turn justice into entertainment. Whether it makes a convincing case, I am unsure.
The trial of the ‘coughing Major’ inevitably excited the media in the way that most don’t because it involved a hugely popular TV programme and massive amount of money. Making it carry the burden of showing that television turns everything into entertainment is asking too much of it.
Courts are already a form of theatre in which judges and advocates play to their audience. Juries have a tendency to decide verdicts on appearances rather than evidence whether cameras are present or not.
I don’t believe television has made as much difference to politics as James Graham thinks. It seems to me politicians were aware of the importance of image long before the televising of parliament: Harold Wilson put a pipe in his mouth for public appearances; President Roosevelt made sure he wasn’t seen in his wheelchair. In fact, leaders have been image conscious for centuries as evidenced by the work of Holbein, Van Dyck and others.
The news media have been inventing stories for most of their existence. Hollywood decided early on to encourage media interest in the lives of their actors, thus making their often fictional offscreen lives an extension of the onscreen entertainment.
Don’t be put off by ‘Labour’, James Graham’s comedy Labour Of Love is about ‘Love’. Among other things, it is a love letter to the Labour Party but you don’t need to be a Labour supporter to appreciate this scintillating comedy.
It’s about an MP played by Martin Freeman and his agent played by Tamsin Greig. They represent two sides of Labour- the moderniser and the traditionalist, the centre left and the hard left, the Blairite and the Corbynista. They may disagree but they both love the cause. Like Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, they argue but they know they need each other.
There’s a chemistry between Tasmin Greig and Martin Freeman that, thanks not only to their comic acting skill but also James Graham’s script, evokes almost continuous laughter.
In fact, for me, their scenes together are as funny as their equivalent in Shakespeare’s comedy about love. They use the same insulting repartee that only true friends can get away with. I loved them.
Sarah Lancashire was originally cast as the agent and I don’t doubt she would have been brilliant but I cannot imagine anybody performing this part better than the wonderful Tamsin Greig. Her comic timing and expressions are perfect.
James Graham’s script is witty, clever & moving
The lead characters are no mere ciphers- you feel their human joy and pain at the fate of their party. When they’re alone together, this play sizzles. There is a noticeable drop in the temperature whenever other more stereotypical characters appear but those scenes still have plenty of humour and hold the interest.
The play, directed by Jeremy Herrin, takes us on a trip through the last 25 years of the Labour Party- its triumphs and its disappointments- as well as showing that the familiar pattern of internal conflict was set from its foundation. The location is always the same- the local party office. We start with the most recent election and in a series of scenes go back to the MP’s first election. In the second act we go forward revisiting the same scenes but learning more about what happened.
Lee Newby’s set, by the way, is also inventive, appearing to be the same with subtle changes for each historical period but in fact alternating two identical sets to give the crew time to change the props.
The concept of perceiving something differently by seeing it backwards is important to the theme and outcome of the play. James Graham has created a script that is not only witty but clever, moving and, dare I say it, educational.
A couple may or may not be having affairs. The fast-paced 90 minutes without interval is a constant cat-and-mouse game between them and with us the audience. Truths are stated that may be lies and lies that may be true. As an audience, every time we think we know where we are, the ground disappears from under us and we fall upon the next truth or deception.
Just to rub in that we really didn’t know what was going on, there is a clever moment when you think the play is finished and you get an extra scene in which you find out you really had no idea.
Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath are the epitome of French chic
Florian Zeller, as you may know from The Father, The Mother and The Truth, writes clever dialogue, full of tricks, and Christopher Hampton supplies a superb translation from the original French. To work, comedy needs pace and timing. Lindsay Posner’s production is fortunate in having a cast that couldn’t be bettered.
Samantha Bond’s facial expressions are to be treasured. Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath are the epitome of French chic. But it’s the facial reactions, the double takes, even the way he says ‘hmmm?’ that make Alexander Hanson the star of the show. You can see his character’s brain working.
This was an exhilarating evening, with many laughs and offering quite a bit of food for thought. It falls down through the lack of depth of its characters. And, although there is a more serious edge than in many comedies, the world of middle class marital deception is overfamiliar, the more so if you saw this play’s companion piece The Truth.
Since deception, of one’s self and others, is the foundation stone of comedy, The Lie should probably be even funnier than it is. Having said that, Florian Zeller slightly below par still provides an enjoyable evening.
Here’s my review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews
P.S. I love Menier Theatre but felt let down by the venue on this occasion. For the first time, I sat in the area of seating near to the air conditioning on the high numbers side. I asked for it to be turned off but it stayed on throughout the show. Consequently my neck and ear were subjected to an uncomfortably cold draught the whole time.
I’ve seen countless Lears over the years. Until now, the one I best remember is Ian Holm performing in the tiny Cottesloe (now Dorfmann) Theatre at the National. Therefore it may not be coincidence that Ian McKellen‘s Lear in the equally small Minerva Theatre at Chichester now ranks as the best I’ve seen.
The play describes the break up of a kingdom and the melodramatic villainy of various adult children and therefore may seem to require a grand scale. But the central story of a foolish father who prizes flattery above honesty is best told on an intimate stage.
Jonathan Munby‘s pared down production still manages to make a contemporary political point about powerful people destroying a country on a whim or for their own ends (and Lear cutting up the map of the UK is amusing). However the main fascination is that the great Ian McKellen is able to use his wonderful voice at an almost conversational level, bringing out all the subtlety and depth of Shakespeare’s language and revealing the humanity of the character.
Never have I experienced Lear’s swinging moods from anger to defensiveness, his sudden insights into the horror of what he has done, his fear of losing his mind, his awareness of approaching death and his ultimate anguish, as I did in this production.
The King becomes the Fool but as he does so, his vulnerability as a human being is heartbreaking. The scene that encapsulates this best comes when he meets the blinded Gloucester. His jokes collapse in a moment into almost whispered melancholy and as quickly into stream-of-consciousness musings (“When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools.”)
A Powerful Performance by Sinead Cusack
Ian McKellen understands that good theatre is more than having a star in the lead. For a production to work, it must be the joint effort of a company starting with the playwright and going through the director, the creatives and all the cast. The latter is especially good in the production.
Sinead Cusack knocks another brick out of the wall that says casting must be ruled by gender by giving a powerful performance as Kent. The parallel story of father/child betrayal is played out strongly by Danny Webb as Gloucester, Damien Molony as Edmund and Jonathan Bailey as Edgar. A word too for Lear’s daughters- Tamara Lawrance as Cordelia is a star in the making, Dervla Kiran and Kirsty Bushell as Goneral and Regan filled the enclosed space with a suffocating evil.
That Ian McKellen sees himself as part of a company is just one mark of his greatness. His ability to vocalise the deep meaning of words is another. He has said that this will be the last time he plays a major Shakespearean role. If so, I feel privileged to have been there for it. As the final line of the play says, I “shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
The Chichester Festival Theatre production of King Lear with Ian McKellen transferred to the Duke Of York’s Theatre in London from 11 July to 3 November 2018 and has now closed.
Here’s my review on my YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-
Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is a difficult musical. To carry it off, you need an extraordinarily good cast. Fortunately the National Theatre production has one.
Imelda Staunton is now the preeminent West End musical star, certainly for the more mature roles. Her performance as Sally consolidates her reputation by offering a perfect, beautifully acted and sung portrayal of sadness and illusion. That would be joy enough but just as perfect is Janie Dee. In the role of the cynical but brittle Phyllis, her voice, her acting and her dancing reminded me that she belongs in the highest ranks of musical performers.
Dee gets the most laughs with her songs Could I Leave You? and The Story Of Lucy And Jessie. When she finally crumbles, her performance is every bit as poignant as Staunton’s, who expresses her damaged character through the songs Don’t Look At Me, Too Many Mornings and Losing My Mind.
The musical is set in 1971 in a condemned theatre where former showgirls from Weismann’s Follies, a series of Ziegfeld-style musical reviews from the inter-War years, are gathering for a reunion. Attention centres on two of the women and their husbands. We discover that both couples have relationship problems which date back to their Follies days. This is cleverly told by showing us the ‘ghosts’ of their younger selves.
Other women reveal their illusions about their lives and relive their glory moments, again accompanied by their younger selves. More top class performances include those of Josephine Barstow, Dawn Hope and Tracie Bennett.
Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton are magnificent
Why do I say Follies is a ‘difficult’ musical? There is very little in the way of plot. The exploration of the main characters’ unhappy present relationships and past regrets is told for a substantial part of it as a series of book or character songs.
Sondheim’s music is complex and deep with emotion but, knowing that I was watching a production that runs for two hours and ten minutes without an interval, there was a moment when I wondered whether it was ever going to move along.
Just when it seemed Follies was getting nowhere, we were treated to impressive song-and-dance numbers like Who’s That Woman and a series of pastiches of pre-war Broadway musical songs, excellently choreographed by Bill Deamer. They provided some much needed fun and spectacle.
Follies comes to a climax with Loveland, a collection of Broadway parodies in which each of the main characters sings about their ‘folly’, whether of youth or maturity.
The production, directed by Dominic Cooke, does the musical proud with its 37 strong cast and 21 piece orchestra. The large Olivier stage is used well by designer Vicki Mortimer to create the crumbling theatre complete with a flickering neon sign and, when it provides the setting for the more glitzy Broadway numbers, it gives an apt visual representation of the contrast between past and present. The space is great for the song-and-dance numbers but too big for the book songs but that is the paradox of this brilliant, broken musical.
A Kendall commented on my YouTube review: “The criticisms of James Goldman’s book as having little ‘plot’ are shown to be irrelevant when you have this good a production, because what it becomes is, in effect, a meditation on ageing, the death of dreams, the sense of regret, guilt and much more. That is why it draws people in so very deeply to it. And in that sense, it is to musical theatre what some of Wagner’s mature works are to opera.”
It’s a good point. Maybe we can too hung up on stories in musicals and should sometimes just enjoy the mood of the work.
Bob Crowley’s set design and Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography are a treat for the eye in An American in Paris but the story fails to engage the heart.
The sets are the real star of this ballet, now playing at The Dominion in London. Animations projected on to a backdrop recreate the process of drawing Parisian scenes in pen and ink which then become glorious colour. They are a paean to the city of light that inspired so many artists.
One of those artists is Jerry, the lovestruck GI familiar from the original Hollywood film. In many ways, this stage show improves on the movie. There are extra Gershwin songs and a more interesting story which emphasises the euphoria of Parisians liberated after the war and adds some love rivalry.
Yes, ’SWonderful to see pure ballet in a West End musical, but beautiful pliés and pirouettes don’t excite like the thrusting I-Got-Rhythm energy of more modern dance forms. By comparison, this year’s tap-based On The Town at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was a constant excitement.
The leads Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope have perfectly adequate voices but their singing fails to attain the emotional heights of their superb dancing. Wheeldon is more impressive as a choreographer than as a director: the ballet soars but the storytelling is pedestrian.
What the show lacks is a Gene Kelly. I know it’s unfair to expect anyone to possess Kelly’s charming persona or muscular dancing skills but regrettably no other aspect of this excellent ballet is quite enough to make you forget that, for all his classical aspirations, George Gershwin was a product of the jazz age.
An American in Paris is performing at the Dominion Theatre London until early 2018.