When? Thursday 8th November 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Neil Morrissey, Samantha Barks, Iain Fletcher, Sebastian Croft, Daniel Huttlestone, Stephen Moore, Jack Edwards, Claire Machin, CJ Johnson, David Langham, Emma Dukes, Stevie Hutchinson, Victoria Hay, Sophie Caton, Alison Connell, Sarah Cortez, Beth Davies, Hadrian Delacey, Lee Dillon-Stuart, Nicholas Duncan, Paul Farrell, Kade Ferraiolo, Mary Fox, James Gant, Matt Harrop, Lincoln Hudson, Kara Lane, Joe Maxwell, Mikaela Newton, Ryan O’Gorman, Claire Parrish, Annie Wensak
2012 has been a truly defining year for the Leeds Grand Theatre. Under the ambitious leadership of General Manager Ian Sime and his team, the venue has steadily grown in stature and is now rightly recognised in the industry as one of the largest and most prestigious receiving venues in the country. Following a record-breaking sell-out run of The Phantom of the Opera – which followed equally noteworthy visits of AAA touring shows Dirty Dancing, Sister Act and South Pacific - Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver! revival, which is playing the Grand for five weeks, is arguably the pick of the bunch in the theatre’s breathtaking 2012 calendar.
Oliver! is many people’s favourite musical for a reason; the songs are catchy, numerous and memorable – the show running order reads like a list of musical theatre standards: ‘Food, Glorious Food’, ‘Oliver!’, ‘Where is Love?’, ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘I’d Do Anything’ and ‘Be Back Soon’ are some of the well-known songs which feature in the first act alone. Oliver! is ageless, Lionel Bart’s book is poignant and entertaining in equal measure, the characters are instantly recognisable and wonderfully intriguing – the material is simply a godsend for the right production. And this is certainly the right production!
This 2011/13 tour, adapted from the 2009 London revival, is a joy from first to last – and I left the theatre beaming. The production numbers, in particular, are an absolute joy to behold with the teams – nay hoards – of talented children performing to an exceptional standard. A synopsis for such a well-known show is unnecessary; the only real variations from the original 1960 production – or the iconic 1968 movie – come in the form of minor directorial tweaks and the aesthetics of the staging, rather than in the plot or any aspect of character development. Laurence Connor takes the directorial helm and does a sterling job in balancing the importance of the plot with accessibility – of course, it helps when the book provides a showstopping production number every ten minutes, should the attention begin to wander! As it is though, the acted scenes are equally entertaining thanks to the weird and wacky cast of faintly menacing characters which fill the Oliver! universe.
Young Sebastian Croft, playing Oliver, sang with clarity and power throughout. Opposite him Daniel Huttlestone, set to feature as Gavroche in the 2013 Les Misérables movie, makes a very cheery and cheeky Artful Dodger. The highly experienced and hard-working adult cast are a match for the youngsters; David Langham gave an amusing turn as the mildly sinister Child-Catcher-esque undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and Stephen Moore shone as the kindly Mr. Brownlow. Samantha Barks, a runner-up in the BBC I’d Do Anything search for a Nancy, possesses a superb voice and belts with the best of them. ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ and the subsequent reprise proved arguably the stand-out number of the evening. Iain Fletcher is perhaps bordering on the panto as the villainous, psychotic Bill Sikes – indeed, he was roundly booed at the curtain call – but comes into his own in his final, dramatic moments leaving his performance feeling stronger than expected.
In my previous visit to Oliver! in the West End, I had seen stage legend Russ Abbott don the famous Fagin rags to great success and, initially, I had doubts about lead Neil Morrissey’s musical theatre credentials. However, after a nervy start, I am delighted to say Morrissey was terrific as a very bona fide Fagin. Thankfully shunning early slapstick for a much ‘smaller’ – and certainly more sincere – second act performance, by ‘Reviewing the Situation’, Morrissey had the audience rapt – the eruption of appreciation at the end of the number was one of the loudest and longest I have heard at the Grand.
Oliver! is also a particularly beautiful production and the sets and super-slick staging are a marvel. Very reminiscent of past Cameron Mackintosh productions such as his outstanding 2001 My Fair Lady or 2005′s Mary Poppins, the evening simply glides by as sets are flown in from all angles with such smoothness and symmetry as to leave you open-mouthed at the technical wizardry on show. Totie Driver/Adrian Vaux’s set designs are beautiful, the vast backdrops of London are living, breathing environs. The orchestrations (William David Brohn) are of the highest order, as one would expect from a tour of this quality. From the cheery bounce of ‘Oom Pah Pah’ to the swelling orchestral arrangement of ‘As Long As He Needs Me’, Oliver! boasts a particularly strong, classy band of fifteen, under the strong leadership of musical director Toby Higgins.
A fantastic, upbeat end to a year to remember at the Leeds Grand with Oliver! providing a West End experience in the heart of Yorkshire.
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 11th April 2011
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Marti Pellow, Sabrina Carter, Sarah Earnshaw, David Delve, Mark McGee, Amira Matthews, Michael Taibi, Martin Dickinson, Matt Stevens, Jacob Chapman, Jon De Ville, James Gant, Daniel Robinson, Carolyn Maitland, Alexandra Grierson, Grace Gardner, Rob Copeland, Kerri Watt
Jekyll and Hyde, Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden’s adaption of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella has never really found its way on the stage. Despite running for four years on Broadway, the show received unanimously lukewarm critical reviews and actually managed to close on a sizeable loss. For some strange reason, amateur groups and professional producers continue to have faith in this piece; the only other previous British production was the notorious 2004 tour which starred Paul Nicholas as the duel lead, but there have been dozens of further outings worldwide and four full cast recordings.
As the show opens, we are immediately confronted by one of the show’s ugliest flaws; the lyrics of Leslie Bricusse. The all-too-often recurring opening number ‘Facade’ opens with the lyric; “If you live around here,You need cash in the bank, ‘Cause the houses ’round here, Are all flashy and swank, An’ the front bit, Is what’s called a façade!”. Bad rhyming triplets are also the order of the day; by the end I was pulling out my hair, without a care, completely unaware. His book too is strictly amateur stuff; lengthening Stevenson’s rather short (less than 100 pages) allegorical story was simply too big a task and the result is a stuttering narrative, abruptly halted every few minutes for a generic power ballad or reprise of one of the forgettable main themes.
Heading up the 18-strong cast is Marti Pellow, known to most as the lead singer of Wet Wet Wet. Not having seen Pellow perform live, I went with an open mind; and was horribly disappointed. Pellow has a decent enough voice and sang well during ‘stand-alone’ numbers, but his failure to emote any sort of feeling through his voice was apparent from the start; his singing delivery was at times bizarre with Pellow perhaps struggling to sing and act at the same time. And when I say ‘act’, I use that term loosely. Pellow’s unwillingness to engage with his character essentially made his performance sterile; he was particularly dire as Jekyll where his dialogue delivery was appalling. The transformation scene – usually one of the strongest moments in the show – was butchered, his transformation from Jekyll to Hyde amounted to slightly dishevelling his wig in a mirror (LIVE on stage!). To call him wooden would probably understate how stiff Pellow is as a performer, he didn’t underact or overact – he simply didn’t act. Perhaps metallic would be a better description.
Elsewhere, the cast fared better – generally. As the two love interests Emma and Lucy, Sabrina Carter and Sarah Earnshaw excelled vocally, which is fortunate as between them they share an eye-watering nine power ballads. By Lucy’s stock anthem ‘A New Life’ the evening had more a feel of a Celine Dion concert than a dark musical about murders and prostitutes. The most irritating thing about the score is that most of it has nothing to do with the story; the ladies simply take it in turns to sing mediocre ballads to the audience – which is a shame as the novella has a lot of potential to be explored in a more intelligent way. Knowing this musical rather well, I was particularly looking forward to the epic ‘Confrontation’ scene, as Jekyll faces his alter ego. This song is the showcase number for any actor playing this role; the norm is for the actor to play both parts simultaneously, showing off his acting and vocal abilities – even David Hasselhoff managed to do this as written in his 2001 DVD outing*. However, in this production the choice was made for Pellow to duet with a recording of his own voice and an actor/video projection portraying Hyde. Whilst not terrible to watch, I found this a real cop-out and sums up my disappointment in Pellow’s performance.
This directorial decision is not the only strange one by director Martin Connor. The cast generally deliver dialogue in a cartoonish and unrealistic manner; when I shut my eyes (which I did frequently) it sounded like acting for radio. Coupled with a lack of physical expression this gave us very little to look at and a few too many unintentional laughs**. That is not to take anything away from Mark Bailey’s impressively believable Victorian sets, which were easily the highlight of the evening. It is worth also singling out Tom de Keyser’s chipper little band for praise, but given the number of slow ballads they have to play I do not doubt each night in the pit is a long one. On the plus side, the decision for Hyde to use jazz hands to show how evil he is made me chuckle – again, I’m not sure I was meant to.
- Harry Zing
*Here is the Hoff singing the ‘Confrontation’ from Jekyll and Hyde;
*And here is the incredible Anthony Warlow;
**Sadly, many around us failed to see the funny side and failed to return at the interval.