When? Tuesday 17th December 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Billy Pearce, Chico, Jeffrey Harmer, Adam Stafford, Jenny Gayner, Masashi Fujimoto, The Acromaniacs (Adam Brindle, Jason Beeston, Paul Davis, Chris Rait), Katie Amos, Jack Gow, Jordan Hinchcliffe, Kerry Pearce, Samuel Stanley, Lucy Tindle, Rhodri Watkins, Laura Watson, The Children of the Sara Packham School of Dance
Now into his fifteenth pantomime season at the Bradford Alhambra, local comedian Billy Pearce is showing no signs of stage weariness as he yells, dances, sings and japes around the stage like a man half his age. Where Pearce finds his energy from is unclear, but what is certain is the instant rapport and considerable fan support the comic can rely on each and every year from Alhambra audiences. Naturally, many of the same “tried and tested” jokes from previous years resurface, but they are still funny; Pearce is still full of boundless energy and his sheer enthusiasm overcomes any of the obvious shortcomings with the material. “Yes, I’m Aladdin – this year” Pearce offers with a nudge and a wink.
It is easy to see why audiences keep coming back for more. Last year’s effort, Cinderella, set the bar extremely high and I’m thrilled to say the quality of Qdos Entertainment’s stab at Aladdin hits the same mark. Hugh Durrant’s sets are grandiose and fill the space nicely, giving that ‘no expense spared’ feeling expected for such a large-scale and lucrative panto run.
Pearce is supported by The X-Factor entrant Chico who certainly looks the part, earning a lot of approval from the ladies in the audience! One feels his Act II rendition of “It’s Chico Time” is solely present as a payoff – of sorts – to those Chico fans in attendance.* It is also fair to say that Chico is not a performer who is troubled with thoughts of acting. Not that anybody minded; Jeffrey Harmer’s comically evil Abanazar does enough acting for the both of them(!), and is glorious in his impression of a large ham. Criminal overacting is one of the true joys of pantomime! Jenny Gayner as Jasmine was every bit the Disney Princess™ and had the young children (and some of the men, I suspect) enchanted throughout. The rest of the company perform well and the production numbers proved particularly strong segments of the evening.
There are some truly terrific visual effects. The Act I finale sees some wonderfully executed stage magic, as Billy Pearce flips and flies over the orchestra pit on a magic carpet; even performing somersaults! If the same trick were being performed on a West End stage in a new musical, the hype would be enormous and The Twins FX deserve a great deal of credit for the execution of the illusion. The second Act sees each audience member in the front half of the stalls handed (or, rather, thrown) rubber bananas by production staff (mine hit me on the side of the head), and we were instructed to hurl said imitation fruit at a giant – and I mean giant – on-stage gorilla. Naturally, give a young, excitable pantomime audience rubber missiles – which they are encouraged to throw at the stage – and a few are bound to not-so-accidentally hit the conductor/actors/other audience members! The audience took this segment in great spirit and the sight of small rubber bananas still being thrown at the actors during the curtain call was a guilty amusement. Genuine ad-libs are what panto is all about – but I’ve written about my loathing of staged corpsing in the past, sadly and inevitably it is present on several occasions. It is a pet hate of mine, a disappointment to families who make repeat viewings, but above all else it is completely and totally unnecessary. The material is, largely, funny enough to stand on its own without the actors pretending to make mistakes.
So another hit for the Alhambra and certainly it’s largely thanks to a certain Billy Pearce’s enthusiasm, charm and sheer force of stage presence. He has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand from the get-go and deserved his standing ovation. No doubt he can expect a few more if he decides to do it all again for 2014’s Peter Pan at the Alhambra, on sale Spring 2014.
- Harry Zing
Whilst meant in no way as a sleight to Chico’s abilities as a performer, or indeed his fan-base, the question remains as to exactly how many seats some ‘name’ performers sell as a raison d’être for booking to see a show. Often, after being to the theatre, I am asked “Oh, who was in it?” rather than “Was the show good?”; I appreciate that people do like to see familiar faces in exchange for their hard-earned. Ex soap stars, fallen pop stars, even sportsmen and women are often considered safe “bums on seats” casting choices. If there was a choice between two musicals; one has posters splashed all over with a 70’s pop star with that catchy song you half-know, the other is a vastly superior show with a bunch of drama school leavers – which do you choose?
I reason that from a producer’s perspective, a name – any name – is better to splash across posters and billboards than a superior yet completely unknown working stage actor; if it sells ten more tickets per show because “Former Boy Band Member A” is in it – and they are working for the same money, then why not?
In Chico’s case, his performance is fine and he does a decent job. I appreciate some people perhaps enjoyed seeing him perform in slightly ironic sense; like going to see a David Hasselhoff movie. Something to put on Facebook for some “Likes”. But where is the line drawn in terms of quality?
What producers must understand is audiences expert a certain level – even from Pantomime. Fortunately, Chico is above that level – but I shudder to think elsewhere who producers are casting in the mistaken belief that anybody gives a damn. If a show is £30 a ticket, I want it to be a good show and well performed – I won’t pay £30 to say I’ve seen a former member of Steps. In fact, the presence of some “stars” is enough to make me not want to see a show.
When? Monday 23rd September 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Will Young, Emily Bull, Lyn Paul, Matt Rawle, Linal Haft, Valerie Cutko, Nicholas Tizzard, Carly Blackburn, Luke Fetherston, Simon Jaymes, Alessia Lugoboni, Callum Macdonald, Alastair Postlethwaite, Oliver Roll, Alexzandra Sarmiento, Shahla Tarrant, Cydney Uffindell-Phillips
When former talent show winner Will Young won the inaugural Pop Idol series, defeating Bradford’s very own Gareth Gates in the final, the future looked bright. In fact, Young has proved arguably one of the few true successes of the talent show format; ten years on the same record label and millions of record sales can attest to that. He even earned raves for his turn as
Joel Grey the Emcee in his Olivier Nominated run in the West End revival of Cabaret earlier this year. Now, being characteristically cynical ever since the Jennifer Ellison Chicago debacle (the “critics” who gave her performance as Roxie five stars are presumably now all in prison), I wasn’t sure what to expect from yet another pop star-turned-musical-theatre-darling with alleged diva tendencies.
As a long-time devotee to Bob Fosse’s iconic 1972 movie, I never thought I’d come close to seeing the material done justice on stage. A feeling compounded by an underwhelming visit to Cabaret in its 2008-2009 touring guise (then starring a very poor Wayne Sleep and still developing Samantha Barks). On the surface, little has changed. This 2012-2013 outing is still a Kenwright production and director Rufus Norris is still at the helm, along with choreographer Javier de Frutos, and many of the sets and staging ideas are recycled.
But, I’m delighted to say, this production turned out to be one of my musical theatre highlights of recent years; I didn’t want it to end! At times scary, funny, dramatic, political and above all else emotionally engaging, this is how Cabaret should be done. Norris’ Berlin is a living, breathing world of cynicism and anger, with tensions bubbling beneath the surface threatening to explode in violence. Javier de Frutos’ choreography does not even attempt to channel Fosse’s heightened, edgy jazz stylings so closely associated with the film, instead opting for a more traditional musical theatre style (although we stop short of tap, unfortunately), and the result is delightful. Beautifully lit (Mark Howett) and with a terrific orchestra (Tom de Keyser/James McCullagh) to boot, Cabaret is one of the most “complete” touring productions I have seen in a while – a show of the highest quality across the board.
Presiding over the action is the campy Emcee (Will Young) of the Kit Kat Klub, a Berlin cabaret night spot frequented by sailors and prostitutes. Fans of full frontal nudity will be delighted to hear that we see a minimum of one ding-a-ling per performance (thank you, Luke!). The Emcee acts as a metaphoric (later, literal) puppeteer and social commentator for the politics of the day*, and steals the show whenever he is on stage. Will Young gives an outstanding, emphatic turn as clownish Emcee and is a joy to watch. He dominates the stage throughout, both in stature (Young is surprisingly commanding and physically imposing on stage, unlike Wayne Sleep who minced about on tip-toes with all the menace of a balletic dormouse) and vocal prowess. It’s a cliché (I specialise) but if ever there was a musical theatre part Will Young was born to play, this is it. Young enjoys all the best scenes of the evening; from the ménage à trois (ménage à dix?) romp of “Two Ladies”, to the breathtaking act one finale “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, which sees Young high aloft his minions; literally pulling the strings as he manipulates his lederhosen-clad public.
For me, there is only one person in my mind when I think Sally Bowles, of course I’m referring to the great Liza Minnelli, who famously won the Oscar for her portrayal and cried a little along the way. Understudy Emily Bull makes the most of her time in the spotlight with a solid performance covering for the indisposed Siobhan Dillon. Whilst she lacked a strong enough vocal belt to smash home her big numbers, her acting was up to scratch, making a largely unsympathetic character at least tolerable.
The supporting cast are wonderful; West End regular Matt Rawle (Evita, Zorro) gives a typically charming performance as would-be American novelist Clifford Bradshaw. Lyn Paul, fabulous – despite not being a Nolan – in Blood Brothers is slow to get going as Fräulein Schneider, with her undercooked accent being particularly noticeable. However, she grew into the part as the evening wore on. Linal Haft plays Herr Schultz to perfection; his naive innocence about the changing world around him is heartbreaking. Nicholas Tizzard too is superb as the seemingly affable Ernst Ludwig; Valerie Cutko earns laughs as Fräulein Kost, with her army of sailors. The hard-working ensemble company do a very solid job filling the Kit Kat Klub with all manner of weird and wacky gadabouts.
I really can’t rave about this production of Cabaret enough; Kander & Ebb’s iconic score, Will Young’s outstanding performance and top drawer production values combine to make Cabaret my UK touring pick of 2013.
- Harry Zing
*This was the norm (arguably purpose, apart from getting drunk and whoring) of the real life cabarets in Berlin; a place for satire and parody of the big bad institution. Think Private Eye, with less Ian Hislop and more corsets. There is a fantastic documentary about with Alan Cumming titled “The Real Cabaret” which is available on YouTube at the time of writing, which talks more about this.
When? Monday 16th September 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Oliver Thornton, Ben Forster, Dani Harmer, Philip Franks, Henry Davis, Ceris Hine, Kristian Lavercombe, Richard Meek, Jayde Westaby, Maria Coyne, Christos Dante, David Gale, Rachel Grundy, Andrew Ahern, Sam Murphy
I am not ashamed to say that I am a huge fan of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show. When enjoyed as a “night out” show even now in 2013 – some 40 years since the offbeat musical’s low-key premiere – Rocky is still an extremely cheery theatre visit. A show I can’t help but revisit at every opportunity. The same old jokes, oddly familiar performances and awkwardly samey heckles await – but there is something quite reassuring about that, which I can’t quite put my finger on – much like listening to your favourite Uncle tell the same story for the tenth time about the occasion he met Gary Lineker in a kebab shop. Clearly audiences feel the same way, as they keep flocking back in risque costumes; glow-sticks at the ready for each new incarnation.
But to call this tour “new” is slightly misleading. Billed as the 40th Anniversary Party Production on posters and press releases (but curiously not mentioned as such in the programme), director Christopher Luscombe takes the helm once again, following on from his previous, similar 2006 touring production. Happily, compared to last time around, things just click together better – thanks I believe in no small part to the good work from the principal cast, headed by Oliver Thornton.
Thornton (Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) is a pleasant surprise in the role of Dr. Frank ‘N Furter, having a ball from his first entrance to final, quasi-emotional exit. Thornton is an actor who, it is fair to say, I’ve perhaps not seen the best of before Rocky; but he really impresses here, adding lovely touches and even nuance to what is, in earnest, a cartoonish role, often performed identically from tour to tour. Thornton even compares favourably in my eyes to his predecessor, the critically acclaimed David Bedella, who often leaned too heavily on the performance of original Frank N’ Furter, Tim Curry. Visually though, Thornton’s skinny frame perhaps lacks the imposing menace of Curry’s far more masculine – and ultimately sinister – interpretation – plus a key sight-gag is lost: there’s just something inherently funny about a big butch guy in a red spangly corset! Thornton, if anything, is too good looking a transsexual.
The rest of the cast are very able; Ben Forster makes a very funny Brad and his singing is well above average for the part. Dani Harmer holds it together as Janet and even has a stab at a Southern Belle accent. Philip Franks is charming throughout with his “off-the-cuff” retorts and banter with the crowd, earning some genuinely show-stopping laughs. I would tell you what he said about Cabaret, visiting the Alhambra next week – but I promised not to. Elsewhere, Kristian Lavercombe is outstanding as Riff-Raff, a tricky part to do without giving a Richard O’Brien impersonation, and possesses a very strong voice. Richard Meek – Brad on my last visit – has now graduated to Eddie/Dr. Scott and also does a sterling job. Henry Davis is appropriately muscle-bound and had the women (and many men sat around me) swooning. Finally, Jayde Westaby makes a good Usherette/Magenta, particularly in the early scenes.
Despite being a rainy Monday night audience at what is essentially a party show, the audience had an absolute blast, getting into the spirit more and more as the evening wore on. An unforced, spontaneous standing ovation from the stalls was warmly welcomed by the cast. I was also thrilled to see so many people in costume and joining in the participation!
All of this, despite Christopher Luscombe’s fervent desire for the show to be treated as a someway serious book musical.
It isn’t; the limits of the score coupled with the intentional hamminess of the dialog and characterisation does not a great book musical make. Rocky Horror is a fun show. One to have a healthy drink at, get dressed up for, and sing along to. If anything, the general cheapness of the production should play into an even more pantomimey interpretation of the show – not a sit-down-serious-face musical as I feel this and the previous tour wished to be considered. Rocky Horror has nothing to say apart from “be yourself” – and audience lewdness should be actively encouraged.*
In fact, this tour of Rocky Horror left me in a particular quandary. My critical eye loathed the teeny-tiny wheeled on set pieces (Hugh Durrant), which could all seemingly fit in the boot of one Mini Convertible for transport between theatres. But the same eye appreciated the one true set of the evening – Frank’s laboratory, a gorgeous wraparound affair, with the band positioned on an upper level, cleverly decorated in the style of a 35mm movie reel, firmly setting the idea of the show being a 1950’s sci-fi B movie. A concept which, coincidentally, allowed the production to be one of the most ‘budgetary aware’ musical productions I have witnessed on the professional stage.
And yet I absolutely loved every second. From “Science Fiction, Double Feature”, to “Eddie’s Teddy” – the strongest number of the evening through to “I’m Going Home” – and every song in between. A night at Rocky is like no other.
– Harry Zing
*To a point, I should add. Theatres are naturally very protective and careful when receiving Rocky. Long gone are the days of naked flames in “Over at the Frankenstein Place”, rice being thrown at the wedding scene (a nightmare to clean up), and so forth.
When? Tuesday 23rd July 2013
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Maureen Beattie, Neil Pearson, David Bark-Jones, Thomasin Rand, Danielle Flett, Chris Larkin, Sasha Waddell, Simon Bubb, Geoffrey Freshwater
From The Drowsy Chaperone to the aptly named Bedroom Farce, which visited the Leeds Grand Theatre in July 2010, time and time again audiences are dished up an evening of overstated hijinx and mayhem. Whilst the former was more musical-driven and the latter somewhat more po-faced, I’ve certainly never left a theatre disappointed by a farce.
And this wonderful Old Vic touring production of Michael Frayn’s 1982 play Noises Off is the finest example of its genre I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. A group of past-it and never-going-to-reach it luvvies are hamming up a stage – that of the “Grand Theatre Weston-Super-Mare” to be precise – the increasingly desperate director twitching helplessly from the stalls, on the verge of exploding, as his turns forget their lines, their cues, their props and, seemingly, their minds. Gone midnight and with only the cast from hell at his disposal for the final dress rehearsal, things don’t look good. And then there’s the bloody sardines.
I’ve always found something charmingly quaint about ‘classic British comedy'; you can give me a pair of trousers dropping straight to the ankles on cue over a pithy Sir. Noël Coward zinger any day. There is just something timeless about the humour; farce certainly doesn’t concern itself with politics or pushing an agenda. It is just a broad sweeping commentary of social status and the comedy magic that can happen when stereotypes collide on the boards. For this reason, many find farce to be somewhat low-brow – slapstick for the masses (we’ll stick to Present Laughter, thank you very much!) an argument that, when levelled against the likes of Frayn and his work in creating Noises Off, simply doesn’t wash. Noises Off, packed full of theatrical parlance, cynically snaps at the traditions of the genre as much as it panders to it. The play is chock-full of nods and winks and it is often these slightly hysterical touches which earn the big laughs, over the actual play-within-a-play itself.
The magic largely happens in the second act, with the stage reversed for opening night, we see how unstable the entire operation really is – despite appearances to the elderly matinee Weston-Super-Mare audience on the other side of the set. The sets themselves (Peter McKintosh) are entirely appropriate, as are the costumes. In the tropical conditions the actors must’ve been tolerating under lights, as they charged around the stage, Thomasin Rand must have been considerably the coolest, spending almost the entire duration of the play in just her purple underwear (but perhaps a shawl might be needed for that winter date in Glasgow).
The cast make the production special. Maureen Beattie is the figurehead as Dotty Otley and does a wonderful job in her role as a typecast aging actress with loftier goals than a week in Weston. The whole cast are excellent with no exceptions; David Bark-Jones as charming male lead Garry is terrifically utilised throughout and his stunt work outstanding. His stair-tumble was a marvel and his other prat-falls equally impressive in their own right. Geoffrey Freshwater plays booze soaked Selsdon with enough compassion to make the character more sympathetic than selfish. Chris Larkin provides the camp as Frederick ticking off the stereotype checklist nicely and earning many laughs along the way (by the way, where was the comedy foreigner?). Sasha Waddell, Thomasin Rand, Simon Bubb and Danielle Flett add strong support and clearly working very hard throughout. As the sardonic and increasingly volatile director Lloyd Dallas, Neil Pearson gives a masterclass in ‘trying to keep it together, whilst going slowly insane’. Simply a joy to watch.
It might seem odd to take time to credit effort, surely a given when seeing a professional production, but Noises Off and farce generally depends on high energy and freshness – the material simply doesn’t work unless the whole cast leave nothing in the dressing room every single night. I can assuredly say they didn’t. Thanks to fantastic direction from Lindsay Posner, Noises Off flies by and even with the evening stretched slightly long at 2hrs 20 minutes (with one interval), the pace never slackened.
A triumph for the Old Vic and British comedy generally.
- Harry Zing
The fantastic programme for this play includes an additional booklet inserted inside it, a traditional playbill for the fictional “Nothing On”, completely with fictitious biographies, adverts and a hilarious dissection of ‘bedroom farce’ titled “A Glimpse of the Noumenal”. Producers, take note; with a little love and care you too can make a theatre programme worth keeping.
When? Tuesday 2nd July 2013
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Jason Donovan, Richard Grieve, Graham Weaver, Giles Watling, Katie Birtill, Emma Kingston, Ellie Leah, Laura Mansell, Frances Mayli McCann, Alan Hunter, James Cohen, Wayne Fitzsimmons, Leon Kay, Dann Kharsa, Liam Marcellino, Ian Oswald, Ashley Rumble, Regan Shepherd, Aaron Sweeney-Harris, Bleu Woodward, Rhys Gannon, Samuel Varley
2013 has been one of those years so far. Imagine, if you will: your best suit gets shredded, tearing from the backside outwards, as you fall into a sunken drain in a cemetery – moments after witnessing a burial. Then, you manage somehow to slice your typing finger (yes, typing finger) wide open on a broken glass, lurking in the darkest depths of the murky washing up bowl; a sharp and cruel reminder of my neglect of duty. And, more accurately, not to drop used glasses in the sink when the dishwasher is full. Three finger operations and a new suit later, a near three-month hiatus from theatre(!) had brought this critic to breaking point. And to cap it all, the weather has been rubbish.
Step forward Priscilla Queen of the Desert; my bright pink, four-wheeled saviour in sequins. I could literally feel the curmudgeonry melting off me as the evening wore on, until the time of the final encore, where I could briefly be seen up and dancing along with the rest of the packed out Leeds Grand audience. Priscilla is a show which can certainly lift the gloom for a few hours.
Based on the cultish 1994 Australian movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Stephan Elliott’s jukebox musical sees two drag queens, Tick (Jason Donovan), Adam (Graham Weaver) and a transsexual, Bernadette (Richard Grieve) bicker, bitch and mince their way across Australia, en route to a lucrative gig. Set to an array of gay anthems including “It’s Raining Men”, “Go West” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, the fabulous trinity are all essentially after one thing; acceptance in a society which won’t (can’t?) offer it. As they travel by bus (Christened “Priscilla”) from Sydney to Alice Springs, they encounter homophobia and prejudice – but also hope and even love in the most unlikely places. The trio are ably supported throughout by three floating Divas with powerhouse voices, their garb echoing the kind of camp frivolity normally reserved for an Eastern European 90’s Eurovision entry. Like any good road-trip story, there are numerous memorable cameos; a truly horrific (in a good way) boob-swinging Shirley given by Ellie Leah stands out in the memory.
The performances from the cast are superb. Jason Donovan takes top billing as Tick/Mitzi and certainly finds the soul of the character, particularly excelling with his acting choices. His singing is also wonderful. Donovan is a performer I have somehow ended up seeing in seven different theatrical circumstances* and, whilst not all hits, he is certainly one performer who gives his absolute best in each incarnation. He looks a performer who is genuinely enjoying his work. Graham Weaver’s Adam/Felicia is a hard character to warm to, but his triple-threat skills were up to the mark; I consider this an issue with the character rather than the performer, but I found it hard to sympathise with the character’s woes. Stealing the show, though, is an emotionally charged performance from Richard Grieve as Bernadette. His was the one performance I could really invest in and so much credit must be given for humanising such a tricky part. His interaction with Giles Watling’s butch mechanic Bob is truly wonderful and the highlight of my evening.
The “Priscilla” bus design itself (Brian Thomson) doesn’t exactly make one gasp in awe, but certainly does the job, much like the rest of the production design. A helpful ticker a la Enron shows the friends’ progress to Alice Springs, using a legend to indicate their current location. Tim Chappel/Lizzy Gardiner’s costumes are fabulous and absolutely screaming for attention. This is where the money went – every cast member looks like a million dollars.
Priscilla is out there and it is proud**. Whilst some of the content might be considered a little “adult”, there is nothing I would say is truly offensive to anybody with a decent sense of humour – contrary to previous comments by some critics. Older children and teenagers will see and hear a lot worse innuendo on television before the watershed. I certainly had a blast and, having missed this show in its West End tenure, would happily revisit in future. It certainly brightened my spirits!
– Harry Zing
*Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweeney Todd, The Sound of Music, The Rocky Horror Show, The War of the Worlds (cinecast), a solo concert performance and now Priscilla Queen of the Desert respectively.
**Priscilla is as brash and camp as they come, as the book shoehorns in one gay anthem after another, sandwiched between some witty (and occasionally mildly rude) banter. The show is undoubtedly self-aware – and to reference a reference, “it is what it is”. It is also true to say that the show is very reminiscent of a more risqué La Cage Aux Folles, with the themes of dignity, self and social acceptance and tolerance finely balanced with humour – mostly found in stereotype. The stereotypes can verge on the distracting; affecting effete mannerisms in real life may be a form of mask for some gay men, but on stage it can appear hokey – however accurately portrayed. In this sense, the show certainly doesn’t champion individualism of sexual preference – instead it glorifies established norms in the real life LGBT community (such as the forced “camp” and constant sexual innuendo) which has been used as a staple of comedy for decades – and an image the gay community seems unable (or unwilling) to shed. A slightly dodgy Asian bride character, Cynthia (played ably by Frances Mayli McCann) left me a little unsure, but the audience loved her.
When? Wednesday 24th April 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Clare Rickard, Melissa James, Lily Fraser, Alice Redmond, Alicia Beck, Dawn Williams, Nicholas Pound, Ben Palmer, Oliver Savile, Joseph Poulton, Paul F Monaghan, Barnaby Thompson, Ross Finnie, Jessica Buckby, Lizzi Franklin, Joal Morris, Richard Astbury, Cameron Bal, James Darch, Will Lucas
I am always reminded of that (in)famous Andrew Lloyd Webber/Michael Parkinson interview. You know the one – where Parky asks the then-future Lord if his new production, Cats, an ensemble dance piece based on ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by T.S. Eliot, would see actors dress up and prance around the stage pretending to be, well, cats – “like in a pantomime”? Well, naturally a young Andrew guffawed at such a frivolous thought, assuring Parky – and the British public – that the show would bear witness to no such thing. “Oh, no, of course not” were his exact words.
Thankfully he lied, and the result of said prancing is a rampant, charming and downright fun evening of dance theatre, which I don’t believe has been bettered since the show’s 1981 premiere. Away from the original thrust staging of the much-admired residency at the New London Theatre, this is undoubtedly the best Cats to be seen with a traditional proscenium staging, and therefore, outside of the West End. In straightforward talk, I found this to be the best production of the show yet to tour.
The dancing from the talented twenty-strong company, in particular, is outstanding. The technical aspects of the dancing are impeccable – but the characterisation is equally as vivid; each cat is clearly identifiable throughout, with consistent traits affected for every character track, varying interactions with other cats, and so forth. The ensemble cast looked fresh as a daisy collectively and deserving of the highest praise. The “Jellicle Ball” segment in the finale of Act I was particularly memorable for the quality of the ensemble’s dancing, but I found each number charming in its own way. This, despite understudies filling two major roles – Dawn Williams stepping in adequately as the cheeky Rumpleteaser, and Alice Redmond as the arguable lead – in that she gets to sing the best and most famous number – Grizabella. I must admit to feeling a somewhat childish pang of disappointment when informed that headliner Joanna Ampil (excellent as Kim in Miss Saigon, Fantine in Les Misérables) was indisposed, but I was more than appeased by Alice Redmond’s tragic Grizabella. Rather than the Elaine Paige-originated ‘tragic forgotten movie-star’ inspired schtick, that I certainly suspect is directed to Ampil, Redmond’s relatively young age forced her to do something a little different, and what a success her choices turned out to be. Redmond’s Grizabella is the star that never was; the thirty-something just at the cusp of realizing her glory days simply aren’t ever going to materialise. Backed by a strong and dynamic voice, which comfortably holds its own in the alto verse, before bursting free into a spectacular crescendo as she powers “Memory” home, Redmond snatches her chance to shine with both hands. Well, paws.
The action takes place on an approximation of John Napier’s traditional set designs, being that of an over-sized garbage dump, which spills out over the orchestra pit, covering it completely and prompting the enthusiastic pre-show reminder that the music is performed by a LIVE! on-stage orchestra, hidden behind the scenery. The nine-piece band themselves are terrific throughout.
A common criticism of Cats is that there is no real plot. Whilst this is true, the character consistency I alluded to earlier actually fills a lot of the gaps, allowing one to really get to know these quirky characters and take interest in their stories. For example, Joseph Poulton is so bubbly and his dancing so smooth, that by the time he is paraded in his own number ‘Mr Mistoffelees’, the character feels already firmly established in the universe. Nicholas Pound, as Old Deuteronomy gives a lovely turn and acts somewhat as the anchor of the production. It is this work by Trevor Nunn – coupled of course, with Gillian Lynne’s quite remarkable choreography, which make the whole show work narratively. Some of the scenes are simply the poems themselves, quoted verbatim to music, which should be awkward but somehow ends up almost hypnotic.
The music is certainly light on showstoppers, “Memory” aside, but is easily one of Lloyd Webber’s finest complete scores. Much like Joseph, Lloyd Webber dabbles in various genres and, much in keeping with the structure of the show, this works wonderfully well in giving each poem – or ‘scene’ – its own unique charm. Switch off for a number? No problem, here’s something completely different. I didn’t switch off though; I was rapt throughout.
With a strong triple-threat cast, this UK and European tour of Cats is a must see before it closes on Saturday May 4th.
- Harry Zing
When? Thursday 11th April 2013
Who? Liam Neeson, Marti Pellow, Jason Donovan, Ricky Wilson, Kerry Ellis, Will Stapleton, Anna-Marie Wayne, Michael Falzon, Lily Osbourne
In a World First (note: may not be a world first), I decided to review a production exclusively via Twitter. Yes, Twitter – very 2013! This obviously is an artistic choice and nothing to do with the fact that WordPress decided to crash and lose all but the FIRST SENTENCE of my lengthy, in-depth comparative review. The review itself, naturally, was full to the brim with witty wordplay, astute theatrical observations
and musing on how much Will Stapleton looks like Tim Minchin. I mean, seriously, they could be brothers. Also, did anybody else notice that the principal guitarist looked suspiciously like the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files?
The re-written short version: Jeff Wayne’s dad-dancing is more entertaining than all the cheesy, 1990’s early PC-CD ROM game inspired blurry low-resolution CG graphics in the whole show – combined. ‘The New Generation’ is just a pointless re-hash of the superior 2006 tour – which boasted a stronger cast and didn’t have Marti Pellow in it.
And the rest: I wrote a whole lecture comparing the cast too – it was magnificent. Full of fond anecdotes about many evenings spent playing bridge last October with Marti (note: may not be true), while he made singing one song last three hours. The song was “Forever Autumn”. Get it? I wrote how Jason Donovan is an absolute revelation as Parson Nathaniel and steals the show, ably supported by Kerry Ellis as Beth who sings beautifully. The pair rescued the second act from the doldrums of the first, before the Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson gave a surprisingly well-acted turn as The Artilleryman with “Brave New World”. He managed to keep his imitation of David Essex’s mockney accent to a minimum, too. Kudos!
The whole time I kept thinking to myself, “hmmm, I’ve seen this before”. Because I have. Last week on DVD. They released this exact tour – with a few pyrotechnics less and without tissue paper being dropped on the audience – on DVD in 2006. An arena tour I found one of the most enjoyable I have ever seen, when I saw it at the Sheffield Arena seven years ago. So it seems ‘The New Generation” isn’t new at all. It’s old. They should’ve called it “The Old Generation”. Or “The Same Generation”. What is technically new is Liam Neeson’s performance as the Narrator. Except it isn’t. His tonal quality and mannerisms borrow heavily from the iconic Richard Burton, whose performance is synonymous with the material, making his casting rather pointless, truth be told. The 3D holographic effect is rather cool and wisely used sparingly to keep the audience goggle-eyed every time he magically popped up in the middle of the stage. Some minor changes and improvements were made to the sets, the huge 35 foot tall Tripod fighting machine now moves a bit more and is positioned differently. The “Brave New World” set is bigger and better. Also new were some hammy dialogue scenes, designed to add some back-story to characters I don’t care about. One of the characters is played by Jeff Wayne’s daughter. I’m only saying(!). There are some new martian antagonists ripped right out of a low-budget 1980’s science fiction movie, whose scenes in the introduction feel jaw achingly (from all the yawning) long. They should’ve called it “The B-Movie Generation”.
In short, only the hardcore War of the Worlds elite or obsessive fans of the individual performers could ever need to buy the DVD (out November 25th, get it in your diaries, all you Marti Pellow fans) of this performance. The score is near-as-damn-it the same as the remastered 1978 original concept recording, which had frankly the definitive cast. Not new enough for you? Buy the 2006 DVD and CD soundtrack of the tour and try not to let the horrible computer graphics burn your eyes. The key demographic for the 2013 DVD/Blu-Ray release would appear to be Obsessive-Compulsive War of the Worlds/Jason Donovan fans with too much money, who couldn’t get front-row tickets for the tour.
Obviously, the actual review was a lot more detailed and serious. I really felt that it was the one to win all those theatre writing awards I’ve been hankering after. I guess we’ll never know.
The War of the Worlds: The New/Old/Same Generation – Alive on Stage! was filmed at The o2 in December 2012. Available on DVD/Blu-Ray on November 25th 2013.
- Harry Zing
With the news that the very public falling-out between sacked Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark director Julie Taymor and the show’s producers has finally been settled, I can’t help but feel there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye. Whilst we will we never know the details of the agreement between the two parties, it would appear to a layman that with an “agreement” being reached, Taymor’s initial lawsuit had at least some foundation. Spidey was an odd case full stop, of course. The lengthy list of big name producers involved, the strange attitude towards the critical press, the alleged ‘plan x'; it conjures images of clandestine meetings in candlelit back rooms at midnight – dozens of shifty-looking suits plotting Taymor’s demise. A fanciful, unrealistic image but one which the producers themselves have done nothing to dispel – perhaps because there was no clear figurehead. Taymor has proved surprisingly protective of a production which is not only her worst, but one of the biggest financial and PR disasters in Broadway history. I nearly managed not to mention money. Taymor isn’t concerned with money, either, according to her legal position.
So where exactly does this leave a) the individual artist Julie Taymor and b) the perception of theatre producers in general? Well, both could do with a serious charm offensive. If Spiderman was Taymor’s vision; whose fault is it that it’s absolutely dreadful? Who exactly are the ‘producers’, which one had the biggest share or executive involvement? Who was there at every rehearsal saying “this is really poor, I’m worried”? How much does the average suited-and-booted theatre producer know about creating quality theatre?
The question here, surely, is the role of the modern theatre producer as an influence on a production. Much like a ceremonial director or non-executive chairman of a large company is used to gain credibility, how much are ‘big name’ theatre producers just a name on a poster? And how much work are the individuals doing to cash those fat paychecks? In Spiderman’s case, was it enough to throw $75m at a show, hire the (then) biggest name in musical theatre and hope for the best? Evidently not. Spiderman got what it deserved and it certainly lacked leadership from the top – missing that person who stopped for a moment and said ‘wait a minute, this is rubbish’. With Spiderman conceivably going to close on a loss when it eventually grinds to a close, hopefully some lessons will have been learned.
Cameron Mackintosh, arguably the most successful producer in modern theatre history, jumps at the chance to tell the story of his rise to success. How he began sweeping the stage of Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and worked his way up the ladder thanks to an intense love of theatre, hard work and dedication. Is it any coincidence he has overseen some of the best musical theatre productions ever staged? Of course, the likes of Cameron Mackintosh. Bill Kenwright Ltd – even Andrew Lloyd Webber – are the names. La creme de la creme, overseeing productions worth millions of pounds and with CV’s to back it up. Okay, forget Lloyd Webber. He wrote some cracking tunes in the 1980’s, though. I’ve had the pleasure – and misfortune – of meeting numerous theatre producers of both AAA and ZZZ list productions. They have ranged from the bumbling, “isn’t it all marvellous, jolly good show” Etonian types, who I suspect know nothing about theatre whatsoever but have a bit of money and time to spare, a respected name in business and consider theatre producing a terrific gas – and wonderful opportunity to get drunk at press night parties. And there’s the Max Bialystock “please give my show a good review, I’m desperate” types who, believe it or not, are the more likeable, passionate variety. Normally with their own money invested, which they saved from working in the real world. #dear
Some theatre producers never cease to amaze me. It is like the old jokes about Fox television executives in the States: they consider every viewer to have the intelligence of a gnat. Some producers expect us to be starstruck by the latest Hollyoaks/EastEnders/X-Factor reject and favour a desperate stunt cast special to actually investing time in their own production. I know of producers in long-running shows who have literally not been to see their own product in years. Are some ‘theatre producers’ really doing any producing at all – or are they focused on chopping that extra £10k per week off the running cost. Do we really need a band of seven, when we could have four? Is theatre production solely risk management in 2013?
So, there are the hard-working theatre career progression types, the ‘fabulous show, darling’ brigade and the ‘I just want to make rent’ triers. And then there are some nasty pieces of work… I know of one unnamed producer who owes a well-respected and experienced West End performer over £5000. Despite sending countless e-mails, requesting payment of the monies due, the performer received no reply. After several weeks of silence, the performer resorted to visiting the local theatre playing host to the producer’s current show, in the hopes of speaking about the matter. Said producer then went on to publicly allege on Twitter that the performer was acting aggressively – making a potentially libelous accusation, that the performer is rightly prepared to dispute in court. What a way to treat a seasoned professional – and one who is still out of pocket. I suppose there will always be cowboys in all trades.
Maybe some lessons haven’t been learned after all.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 9th April 2013
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Crispin Redman, Michael Matus, Tony Boncza, Indra Ové, Simon Holmes, Jonathan Kemp, Elliot Chapman, Paul Fuller, Sarah Lambie
I am (naturally) too young to remember the hit BBC television show Yes Minister which, along with its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, were considered must-see comedy television in the 1980’s. Lauded by critics and adored by viewers for the best part of a decade, the satirical – often biting – political comedy’s legacy lives to this day. The new 2013 television reboot, running presently on digital channel Gold, follows hot on the heels of this stage production, which is fresh from a critically and commercially successful West End run.
British Prime Minister and European something-or-other Jim Hacker (Tony Boncza) is a troubled man. The economy is collapsing around him, half of his own coalition government want his head and – worse luck – he hasn’t got a clue what to do about any of it. He depends on his Cabinet Secretary, the cunning and devious Sir. Humphrey Appleby (Crispin Redman), for answers. Answers which are always tinged with a healthy dose of self-interest and unquestionably laced in brutal cynicism. Aided by his slightly awkward and bumbling Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley (Michael Matus) and his shrill but loyal Special Policy Advisor Claire Sutton (Indra Ové) the PM must step up and deliver for his public by any means necessary. Even if that means chartering the Royal Helicopter to courier some very unlikely passengers!
All the action takes place on one very striking set (Simon Higlett), that of the PM’s office at Chequers. Beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, the set design marks just one of the wonderfully realised pieces of symbolism in the production. A stuffy, old-fashioned room. Filled with stuffy, old-fashioned men sipping fine whiskey, who have been forcibly pushed into the 2013 political world against their will. A huge flat-screen LCD television sticks out like a sore thumb in the opulent surroundings. The men poke awkwardly at their Blackberry phones as if prodding a dead rat and mention Twitter as if it were a futuristic technology they, as old Etonians and born millionaires, could never possibly need to bother themselves with. In the real world Sir. Humphrey, the sly old dog that he is, could well have hired Youth PCC Paris Brown personally; as a diversion, to hide a multitude of other sins…
Co-writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have crafted a beautifully balanced evening of contemporary satire – and I absolutely adored this production. The laughs are numerous, hearty and most importantly varied. There is some incredibly sharp wordplay, particularly from Sir. Humphrey, mild slapstick, sleaze, parody, satire and serious political comment. A vehicle for some wonderful characters? Yes, undoubtedly – but a worthy vehicle fitting for the fine bottoms gracing the upholstery. The story was engrossing and opened up some wonderful opportunities for classic situation comedy. The clearly non-religious PM signing off a desperate prayer to God as if he were writing to his bank manager springs immediately to mind.
The dreaded white-slip-of-doom greeted us with news of Tony Boncza covering the indisposed Michael Fenton Stevens as Jim Hacker. But what a performance he gave. Beyond confident – nuanced, even – Boncza played the part of the well-meaning but rather hopeless PM to perfection. He shared wonderful chemistry with his co-star and, unfortunately for him, show-stealing counterpart Crispin Redman as Sir. Humphrey. Whilst I have nothing to compare the performances to, I honestly can’t imagine a better pairing than these two. Redman is a tour-de-force as the sly but eminently likeable would-be fascist. I never thought I’d type that sentence! Redman is beyond good; he really owns the role. I was frequently reminded of Kevin Spacey’s performance as Richard III, due to the almost Shakespearean quality the actor gives the part, with dry wit oozing out of every pore. Yes, the writing is outstanding on both counts, but without the world class actor delivering the lines expertly, even the best writing can fall to mush. The support from the ensemble cast was also very strong, but against Redman’s Humphrey, it is hard to be seen.
I honestly can’t recall a comedy play offering so many laughs – nor one which captivated me so thoroughly for two solid hours. The new touring cast are outstanding and I cannot recommend this production highly enough. See it while it’s hot!
- Harry Zing
When? Thursday 4th April 2013
Where? St. George’s Hall, Bradford, Stalls
Who? Brad Henshaw, Chris Chandler, Alexus Ruth, Janessa Qua, Jenny Fitzpatrick, William Hazell
There is something timeless and – dare I say – extremely cool about The Blues Brothers. John Landis’ iconic 1980 movie, spearheaded by memorable performances from John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, is as firmly embedded in popular culture as any movie I can think of. Whilst the movie memorably boasted slapstick comedy, epic police car chases (and parody thereof), it is the fantastic score which sees the film rightly claimed as an important staple in the movie-musical canon.
The huge scale of the movie, with it’s lengthy action scenes and incredible stunts, has prevented the staging of a full-blown musical theatre adaptation. Instead, this production is one of many ‘tribute concert’ style productions over the years which gives a ‘best of the Blues Brothers‘ vibe. All Jake and Elwood’s best scenes from the movie are present and correct, encompassing the entire song catalog of the movie – and some. On the night, often simply quoting the movie verbatim gained better results with the slow-to-warm audience than the original in-character attempts at modern satirical humour. By Jake’s third reference of ‘horse burgers’ the joke had lost its snap somewhat.
Fully staged on a striking single-tiered set, a lot of concession is given to the theatrics of the production. The lighting and sound cues are tight to a fault and the way the production breathlessly zips along leaves little room for improvisation. I’d like to have felt I was in a smoky old bar watching the boys do their thing; instead I felt an impatient director was tapping his watch behind me and sighing every time the cast took a breather or the lighting stayed fixed. The extremely talented band of eight, on stage throughout, are forced to take choreographed swigs from beer bottles filled with water.
But there is no denying that, purely as a concert judged on the band, cast and incredible music, The Blues Brothers: Approved is a riot. It’s hard not to go wrong with the likes of “Soul Man”, “Think”, “Gimme Some Lovin'”, “Shake Your Tail Feather”, “Freedom” and the list goes on and on, to choose from. The cast are very able; Brad Henshaw (Jake) and Chris Chandler (Elwood) are certainly on the same page and share some lovely moments, working with great chemistry. The latter steals the show with the evening’s strongest number – with an impromptu and largely out-of-character rendition of ‘Under the Boardwalk’ rightly earning a huge ovation. It is ironic, then, that this moment of unashamed, melancholic musical theatre should win out in an otherwise far more raucous affair. The Bluettes backing trio: Alexus Ruth, Janessa Qua and Jenny Fitzpatrick, are all terrific throughout and don’t disappoint when given their chance to take centre-stage over the course of the evening. William Hazell has a touch of the blue-coats about him, but was visibly trying very hard in his supporting roles.
Undoubtedly fans (including myself) will come away happy enough – an evening of typical Blues Brothers fayre with everything you would expect from a production such as this. It is just a shame that, in my view, the production falls somewhere in the middle of a concert and a musical. A little more focus either way and this production would have a niche that I haven’t yet seen in any of the (three) previous Blues Brothers tributes I have seen. The involvement of Dan Ackroyd and Judith Belushi in the production (giving it the ‘approved’ status) will be enough to secure visits from casual fans to this decent Blues Brothers tribute.
- Harry Zing