Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre

Superb Cast Make Follies A Night To Treasure

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Follies at the National Theatre reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Follies at the National Theatre. Photo Johan Persson

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.

Imelda Staunton & Janie Dee in Follies reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Imelda Staunton & Janie Dee in Follies. Photo Johan Persson

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.

Click on this link to watch my YouTube review at One Minute Theatre Reviews or watch it below

Stephen Sondheim’s Follies runs until 3 January 2018 at the National Theatre.

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.

An American in Paris at Dominion London

Gershwin’s Musical Is A Balletic Treat

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An American in Paris by George Gershwin at Dominion Theatre London reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of one Minute Theatre Reviews
An American in Paris at Dominion Theatre London

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.

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Common with Anne-Marie Duff at National Theatre

DC Moore’s Common- I liked this ‘dud’

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Common at National Theatre with Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo
Common at National Theatre with Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo. Photo:Johan Persson

How much notice do you take of theatre critics? These days there are not only the heavy guns of the professionals but also the hundreds of bows and arrows of amateur reviewers. So, it is possible to get a good consensus of what a theatre show is like and whether it is well or badly done, especially if there is a consensus.

Given the price of West End tickets, it’s probably sensible to do some research but in the end you must use your own judgement on whether the critic’s reasons for loving or hating a show stack up and whether they match your reasons for making a decision.

Theatres try to get you to book in advance so you’re committed before you ee the reviews. Star names, a ‘limited’ run, a special offer are all part of the incentive. For me, Common at the National Theatre is a case in point. I bought tickets in advance as soon as it was announced. I thought a new play by DC Moore was likely to be good, I wanted to see Anne-Marie Duff, an actor I admire, and the director Jeremy Herrin was responsible for the brilliant People, Places And Things and This House.

You can imagine how disappointed I was to see so many one star reviews, the worst of which said, ‘It has been cut from 3 hours to 2 hours 20 minutes, which is exactly 2 hours 20 minutes too long.’ The critics said the language was obscure and the story incoherent.

My experience over many years of theatre going is that I don’t always agree with the critics. They see a lot of theatre and get jaded. They have their prejudices. I never forget that the critics didn’t like one of my favourite musicals Les Miserables when it opened.

Common was a hit for me

It was a few weeks after the press night by the time I saw Common so the director may possibly have done some work on it. All I can say is, this didn’t seem like the ‘dud’ that I’d read about. I found the language easy to understand. It’s undoubtedly strange the way words and phrases are mashed up but I found it poetic and evocative.

I have some sympathy with the suggestion that the plot was hard to follow. Ostensibly it was about the enclosing of common land at the beginning of the 19th century to allow it to be owned and exploited by the few rather than the many. It also touched on the use of immigrant labour from the North and Ireland to carry this out on behalf of the landowners. The huge scale of the Olivier auditorium suggested that there were ‘big issues’ of capitalism and communism being explored.

Excellent acting by Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo

At its centre is an intimate story of a woman from a poor agricultural community struggling to make a success of herself in the sinful big city so that she could return to her first love. This did make the narrative confusing at times because all the contradictory things she did, whether in support of or undermining the enclosure of land, was to the end of winning the woman she loved.

Even so, it was not ‘incoherent’ and there were some outstanding theatrical moments of affection, manipulation and explicit violence. I found it a good evening of theatre helped by excellent acting by Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo.

So, my bow and arrow gives Common three stars and the thought that if it’s ever revived in the Dorfmann or another more suitable small scale venue, it could be earn more.

A version of this review appeared on the Seven Experience website

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Yerma starring Billie Piper at Young Vic – Review

Billie Piper’s Performance Of A Lifetime

★★★★★

Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis of One Minute Theatre Reviews
Yerma starring Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Photo: Johan Persson

I was worried that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting. Fortunately there was no chance of that in the Young Vic production of Yerma, thanks to a riveting script by Simon Stone and a visceral performance by Billie Piper.

The traverse stage not only puts the audiences on two sides of the stage but designer Lizzie Clachan encases the acting area in glass. This means you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching performers, as if in a goldfish bowl or on a catwalk fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

Simon Stone’s brilliant production

Before the play began, for a few moments it was difficult to tell whether you were seeing a reflection of yourself or different but very similar people in very similar seats. I fully expected the glass to fly out but it stayed in place. As a result, I felt I was looking at fish or lizards or some other animal trapped in a tank. This was enhanced by there being no exits for most of the performance (actors entered and exited between scenes under cover of darkness). Not to mention moments when Billie Piper fell against the glass and more.

Director and writer Simon Stone has updated the classic Lorca story cleverly. The central character is still a woman who wants a child but the emphasis has changed from her being pressured by Catholic society to her inability to fulfil her desire driving her to destruction. Billie Piper’s portrayal of a gradual descent from an intelligent, fun woman to someone driven mad by her inability to conceive left me shaking.

This is theatre at its best: a brilliant production serving the acting performance of a lifetime.

A version of this review has appeared on my website seven experience.co.uk

See my video review below or at One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube

Touch by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre

Amy Morgan and Edward Bluemel in Touch, written and directed by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre
Amy Morgan and Edward Bluemel in Touch, written and directed by Vicky Jones at Soho Theatre. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

Funny Bone Not Touched by Touch

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Touch is said to be a sex comedy from the creators of Fleabag. There’s not much sex, it’s not that funny and it’s no Fleabag.

People often find turning thirty difficult. Touch written and directed by Vicky Jones is about Dee, a woman who’s reached that dangerous age and has found her provincial life so restricted that she has moved to the anonymity of London and embarked on a voyage of sexual libertion.

For a play ostensibly about sex, there is very little actual sex: no nudity, hardly any simulated sex and not even descriptions. Take spanking. Our protagonist wants to try it but we never see the act and later when she says she enjoyed it, we get no detail of what she felt.  Clearly not a play for the prurient then.

The much publicised association with Fleabag (“From the creators of the international cult hit Fleabag”) made me long for the kind of detail that made that TV show so real. Who can forget the opening of the first episode when her willingness to take part in a ‘taboo’ act and then her concern about the implications made it one of the funniest and at the same time filthiest three minutes in TV sitcom history?

Writer Vicky Jones is an excellent director

Much of the dialogue with Dee’s lovers is instead about relationships and an analysis of her motives, leading me to think this play is using sex and potentially ‘shocking’ references to sexual practices to smuggle in a story about a woman seeking liberation, a liberation that is ultimately gained not by using people for sex but by being loved.

Vicky Jones also directs and here she is on more solid ground. The messy bedsit with its broken toilet reflects the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of her life and there’s considerable humour in the cast constantly reacting to and navigating around it. The timing and physical comedy are excellent.

The problem is, the script isn’t funny enough. Amusing, yes, but sex and relationships are such fertile ground for comedy. Despite some laugh-out-loud moments, I was surprised to find there were long periods when I didn’t even smile.

Fine acting from Amy Morgan

I think Vicky Jones should have taken more time to develop her main character who for me remained too one dimensional. Perhaps the link with Fleabag, which started as a play, made me think I was was being used as an audience for a pilot for TV sitcom. I did feel that Touch would have worked much better if each encounter were a half hour episode in which we could really get to know and understand our hero.

That said, Amy Morgan is a fine comic actor and all the others gave good support. Edward Bluemel in particular excelled as an overconfident teenager and James Clyde was very droll as the older roué.

It’s good to see a play about a youngish woman who is defining herself rather than allowing herself to be defined by others, I just wish Touch had touched me more.

A version of this review has appeared on Paul’s marketing website Seven Experience and on the Daily Echo website

On The Town – Open Air Theatre – review

It’s a helluva show

★★★★★

On The Town

On The Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is a helluva show. From the moment the three sailors appear in the previously languid dock scene, it’s a joyous, colourful celebration of life. It could be called Seize The Day.

With the songs and sub plots of the original stage play restored, this is a much more explicit eulogy than the film version to enjoying the moment . Even the opening line of the opening song is more explicit- ‘helluva town’ instead of the bowdlerised ‘wonderful town’.

The sailors have 24 hours in New York and they want to make the most of it. There are three strong female characters who want to make the most of them. Lizzy Connolly as cab driver Hildy has her eyes on Chip (superbly played by understudy Jacob Maynard). When she takes him back to her place and sings I Can Cook Too, we don’t have any doubt what else she can do. And I don’t mean that she sings well and has excellent comedic skills.

Although World War Two is not played on in the heavy handed way of that other revived Gene Kelly vehicle An American In Paris at the Dominion, it is there in the background. The sailors have faced death and survived. The women are doing ‘men’s jobs’. Everyone is living for today.

Miriam Teak-Lee is a wonderful find as Claire, the anthropologist and fiancée of The Judge, who gets, in the words of her song, Carried Away when she meets other men, including Ozzie (Samuel Edwards). Making her professional debut, she sings and dances like the best of them.

Siena Kelly as Ivy, Miss Turnstiles, is another graduate of Arts Educational Schools making her professional debut. She has a great personality, making it clear why Gabey (Danny Mac) would fall for her. Danny Mac himself, yet another of the Arts Educational Schools alumni, acquits himself well. All three male leads present their characters as ‘nice guys’, straightforward, sensitive and sentimental, adding to the joy of this show.

The production never flags. Director and choreographer Drew McOnie has honoured Jerome Robbins’ original concept with some exuberant, dynamic dance sequences, including the most moving moment in the show, a secretive liaision between two men danced to Lonely Town, reflecting those more prejudiced times.

Peter McKintosh is to be congratulated for his industrial style set contrasting with his colourful costumes. The music by Leonard Bernstein has aged well. The lyrics by Comden and Green are fresh and amusing.

This was one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve spent at a theatre. I can’t imagine a better summer treat.

On The Town performed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 1 July 2017.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton – review

Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill tear one another apart in front of our eyes

★★★★★

Conleth Hill & Imelda-Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

You might think it odd that my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by seeing a play about a marriage breakdown. If you knew us, you’d know that one of the reasons our relationship has lasted over 20 years is that we both love theatre. We have shared many wonderful experiences that provide the cement of our marriage and theatre is right at the top of them.

When you’ve been married for a long time, you understand one another so well. You reach the point where either you love each other’s ‘perfect imperfections’ or they drive you mad. In Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, it’s the latter. Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill act like they really have been married for two decades. They tear one another apart in front of our eyes.

Even then, the brilliance of this play is that you can recognise their repartee as being similar to that of any established marriage. They know each other. They anticipate what the other is going to say, they get both frightened and excited when the other goes off-script. Okay, their marriage is falling apart but it is totally real as a married couple’s relationship.

I’m happy to say the relationship between my wife and myself is of the former kind but watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf was like seeing a Portrait Of Dorian Grey version of our marriage.

This play is a classic, well worth reviving and with a cast commensurate to it.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London until 27 May 2017.

This House at Chichester – review

James Graham’s play shows politicians as human beings

★★★★

Steffan Rhodri & Nathaniel Parker in This House

James Graham‘s play shows politicians as human beings. It’s set in the 1970s when Labour was running minority governments and ends at the moment the Tories returned to power. But it’s not about Wilson, Callaghan or Thatcher. The play is set in the Whips’ Offices, the people who organise their party members’ voting.

These were dramatic times as Labour struggled to maintain its majority and govern. I would never have thought day-to-day politics could be quite so tense, especially when ‘pairing’ is suspended. This is the agreement whereby members absent through government business or illness have their missing vote cancelled by someone from the opposition not voting. To go behind the scenes and see that our democracy can only work by co-operation and compromise is an eye-opener, especially as our politics seems to be becoming more emotional, populist and confrontational.

Many people- some of the Brexit voters and Trump supporters, for example- seem to be rebelling against the perceived cosiness of the establishment. This House shows that there is a purpose to this comity. We only have to look across the Atlantic to see how the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats have brought government to a halt after decades of working together.

But more than that, in This House we meet the real people behind the parliamentary constituencies. Plays and other forms of storytelling need characters and This House is packed with flawed human beings with feelings. They are sometimes bullies, sometimes desperate, and most movingly they show compassion. We see that in many cases these are people who care passionately about their beliefs but still respect their opponents and act honourably. Outstanding are Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker as the opposing Chief Whips

Politicians often try to show their human side in PR exercises- a pint down the pub or an appearance on Have I Got News For You– but a play like This House shows them as flawed human beings, just like you and me.

This House started at the National Theatre and more recently performed at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva where I saw it.

Unfaithful at Found111 – review

Powerful acting from Niamh Cusack and Sean Campion

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Sean Campion & Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111, reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Sean Campion & Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s a long time since I’ve seen a play on a traverse stage. Unfaithful at Found111 reminded me just how powerful it can be compared to the usual proscenium arch. As you know, a traverse stage runs the full width of the auditorium with the audience on two sides. Unfaithful at the temporary Found111 space was in a small room with barely 60 people facing the same number across the stage.

You might think that looking through the action at members of the audience in the opposite seats would be distracting and I guess it could be if the action were not riveting. Fortunately there was no chance of that. Instead you are much more aware that you are part of an audience watching a performance. In this respect, the arrangement is the same as the catwalk in a fashion show. You feel you are examining what is being presented before you.

This feeling that you were examining the characters was what made Unfaithful so powerful. This story about an older couple who, bored with their years of marriage and pushed by mid life crises, have liaisions with younger people who themselves are struggling to separate sex and love.

Ruta Gedmintas and Matthew Lewis complete a strong cast

Intimacy is the other characteristic of the traverse stage. With the audience divided in half, we’re all close to the action. Every twitch, every blink is visible. There’s no possibility of an actor taking a rest. Any lack of concentration will be noticed. The kind of actor that says acting is about learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture doesn’t stand a chance in this arena. The good actor who inhabits the part physically and mentally can form the strongest of bonds with the audience, as did the four actors in Unfaithful- Niamh CusackSean CampionRuta Gedmintas and my cousin Matthew Lewis.

Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful at Found111. Reviewed by One Minute Theatre Reviews
Niamh Cusack in Unfaithful. Photo: Marc Brenner

There is a moment when the husband of Niamh Cusack’s character makes a surprising revelation. We’re as shocked as she is. We know she can’t let her husband realise the full effect on her of what he’s said but we can see the slight widening of the eyes and ripple that goes through her body as she stiffens. On another occasion, Sean Campion rubs his nose. It’s a small gesture easily missed in a large auditorium but it matters because of what was said earlier about him.

Under the magnifying glass of a traverse stage the script and direction also have to be spot on. So full marks to Unfaithful’s Owen McCafferty for a script without a wasted word and Adam Penford‘s direction that ensured every moment was filled wherever you looked.

And a special word for Emily Hobbs for finding and adapting this temporary theatrical space and putting on a tremendous season.

Matthew Lewis and Ruta Gedmintas in Unfaithful
Matthew Lewis & Ruta Gedmintas in rehearsal

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl – Review

Performance of a lifetime from Sheridan Smith

★★★★★

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre.
Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. Photo: Johan Persson

For many actors, there’s a role they’ll always be remembered for, no matter what else they do. Sean Connery as James Bond, Mark Rylance as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien.

I suspect, when the day comes to present Sheridan Smith with her lifetime Olivier Award, her role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl will be seen as the moment she achieved greatness.

The production, originally staged at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then the Savoy Theatre,  would be worth seeing simply because Funny Girl is an excellent musical but what makes it exceptional is Smith’s performance.  I saw her before on stage in Legally Blonde, on film in Tower Block and in various TV appearances including Cilla and Gavin And Stacey, so I knew she was good but I never appreciated just how funny she is and just how deeply she can occupy a role.

She makes her character seem real, a genuinely complicated human being. But there’s more to it than that. I don’t doubt that the real Fanny Brice was uniquely great but Sheridan Smith’s acting makes you believe you are seeing one of the finest stage performers of all time.

You can see a live recording of Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl on digitaltheatre.com