When? Tuesday 5th February 2013
Who? Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway et al – full list here.
In my life, I’ve made no secret of my love – some could even argue obsession – with Les Misérables. If I had to, I’m sure I could recite the entire libretto (and, even more worryingly, many of the stage directions and technical cues) by heart. I’m certainly not alone in being a young(ish!) person whose affinity with theatre of all flavours began with “The Glums”. As a child, I found musicals somewhat unappealing; all that dancing around, bursting into song – it’s just not cricket. Or, in my case, football. Sure, The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and even Mary Poppins are fun, carefree ways to spend a rainy afternoon for many, including my older self, but to me they aren’t the musical theatre that I fell in love with. Les Misérables doesn’t trifle with flying cars, magic handbags or
singing nuns in convents (Ed. have you seen the movie?). Les Miz is a dark, dramatic and hugely emotional three hour journey into a world of war, death and famine, with a cast of characters it is impossible to view as anything other than tragic heroes. Les Misérables transcends the ‘musical’ bit of musical theatre; I view it as a majestically scored, entirely sung through play. The original, finest and unquestioned masterpiece of the last three decades of British theatre.
This is why I can’t keep away. I have seen the West End production in excess of thirty times – on occasion simply to see a friend or highly rated cast give their take(s) on a character already performed by hundreds of other actors around the world. Every cast change I am there, every new production. I am incredibly blinkered and defensive about a show – sorry, a franchise – a multi-million pound brand to which I owe and am owed no affinity – simply because it stirs such strong emotions. But last year, the love affair ended, or so I thought:
In August 2012 I made a simply horrendous visit to the West End production, a little over a month into the run of the new (present, as of February 2013) cast and was left feeling angry and bemused. Practically the only show in town charging full price, understandably given that the Friday night I attended was a sell-out, was looking tired and frankly in the worst shape I’d seen it since the dark, dying days at the Palace. The cast were too young; only a few experienced heads dotted inbetween the drama school leavers and talent show runner ups. The direction was loose and erratic, the wide-eyed Duracell Bunny youngsters, full of beans and trying very hard atop the barricade simply looked lost. Unforgivably, some key lines were even lost due to the incidental over-acting of the keen-to-impress young turns, randomly crying out ‘in character’ with such gems as “Yeah, kill him!” (after capturing the undercover Javert), and, best of all, a truly Braveheartesque “FREEEEEDOOOOOMMMMMMM” during the ‘Final Battle’ from one over-zealous student). Ken Caswell wouldn’t have stood for such hijinx. The cast themselves were just okay (not helped by the fact that star turn Sierra Boggess was off sick, despite spending most of the same day tweeting about yoga classes, yoghurt and Yogi Bear – ed. careful of libel).
I felt disheartened. The cuts were one thing, the thin, stretched orchestra were another. These are sacrifices one has taken on the chin over the years since Les Mis Lite opened at the Queens Theatre way back in 2003. But it felt like the candle had gone out, the love affair had ended. Les Misérables was no longer the vast, beautiful, soaring masterpiece I remembered. It had become a watered-down love story about a group of attractive, similar looking twenty-somethings fresh from Arts Ed and Mountview, with triple-threat abilities and great physiques who couldn’t look anything less like a group of malnourished, down-on-their-luck revolutionaries. From memory, the only cast member who looked older than thirty was Jean Valjean, Argentine Geró Rauch, who unfortunately had an accent so thick it deemed his performance unintelligible to most.
And then, in December, I was sent a demo copy of the Les Misérables movie musical soundtrack, and I declined to review it, such was my negative reaction.
How wrong I was.
Coming tomorrow… Part 2: The Movie Review
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 18th September 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Dave Willetts, Marti Webb, Bruce Montague, Jessica Punch, James O’Connell, Carol Ball, Graham Hoadley, Graeme Henderson, Stephen Weller, Rebecca Marks, Lucy Ashenden, George Bray, Tabitha Camburn, Felicity Chilver, Daniel Clift, Abigail Climer, Katy Day, Anouska Eaton, Jamie Harris, Jenny Jones, Josh Kiernan, Stevie-Jean McGuire, Holly Mitchell, Marios Nicolaides, Ben Palmer, Debbie Paul, Claire Rickard, Hollie Sorelle, Sebastian Sykes, Billie-Kay
“Think of the two most glorious words in the English language; musical comedy!“, enthused ‘King of Broadway’ Julian Marsh before the Act II showstopper ‘Lullaby of Broadway’; in the case of UK Productions 2012 tour of 42nd Street, it is hard to disagree. 42nd Street is the ‘Broadway musical’ at its purest; huge production numbers see swathes of tap-dancing, top-hatted chorus boys vying for attention with a similarly handsome chorus line of young ladies, each offering notable talent in addition to the Broadway T&T combination, which was the backbone of musical theatre for the majority of the 20th century. Indeed the 1980 musical, set in 1930′s New York City during the Great Depression and re-worked from a 1933 novel, is an unashamed homage to the era – and a show which is still very much loved today.
The story is a classic scenario; Broadway diva Dorothy Brock (Marti Webb) breaks her ankle shortly before opening night of a new Broadway show, ‘Pretty Lady’, leaving the production without a star – and leaving the entire company, including legendary director Julian Marsh, out of desperately needed bread money in Depression-stricken New York City. Step forward bubbly Peggy Sawyer, (Jessica Punch) an unknown from Allentown, Pennsylvania who is making her professional debut in the chorus line. Can she step into the spotlight and become a star?
The musical is a blast from start to finish; a combination of warm humour, the light-hearted and fluffy narrative, and some wonderful song and dance numbers makes 42nd Street one of the best of its kind. Indeed, large chunks of the show are lifted and used for comic effect in other productions such as Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone and most notably The Producers, which watches as a love-letter to the likes of 42nd Street, which is evidence of the genre’s enduring appeal. The book is also surprisingly relevant and engaging for such a marshmallowy show; Act II’s ‘Sunny Side to Every Situation’ was particularly moving, the simple direction allowed the poignancy of the moment to shine through beautifully, as the redundant chorus girls fearfully contemplate their respective futures. The production numbers are an absolute joy to watch; the dancing is largely impeccable – particularly from the female ensemble – and the footwork outstanding as you would expect from a show which features a triple-threat dance-centric cast of over twenty dedicated hoofers, plus principal roles, tap dancing in unison. The show has camp in spades; early on, the fourth wall is very quickly and knowingly broken as Maggie suggests with a knowing smile that the chorus girls tap dance their way to the local restaurant, before putting musicians to sword: “We put them in a pit for a reason, you know”.
The sizable budget for the production has been very well spent on filling the stage with performers, both plentiful in number and quality. Gareth Williams’ cracking little orchestra of nine are a pleasure to listen to throughout and an unexpected luxury. To put things into perspective: the UK touring production of 42nd Street boasts a larger band than the West End production of Les Miserables. The costumes (Roger Kirk) are fitting and terrifically striking throughout, the wig work is similarly impressive for such a large undertaking. Douglas W Schmidt’s designs are surprisingly grand; the second act train station scene is given its own impressive set, as is the theatre dressing room; by the time the finale comes we are treated to the full company tap dancing in shimmering gold, on the iconic lit staircase. It is hard not to be impressed by the efforts of the producer and design team who spared no expense. Even the downstage backdrop projections and lighting work (David Howe) were impressive throughout and the projections used sparingly alongside actual, physical sets. Director/Co-author and 42nd Street regular Mark Bramble does a fantastic job of ensuring the action flows along nicely.
The cast is headed up by two British musical theatre veterans and household names in the industry in Marti Webb and Dave Willetts. Webb is decent enough as Dorothy Brock and she sings reasonably well. Her character is written to be outshone by her younger, more generously talented ensemble member colleague; and she duly is. Dave Willetts, previously outstanding in The Phantom of the Opera and more recently Craig Revel Horwood’s 2008 Sunset Boulevard, has something of a spark on stage which is hard to quantify. He can create a tension in the air that very few performers can muster and again achieves this as a gruff Julian Marsh. ‘Lullaby of Broadway’, the stand-out number of the performance, is his crowning triumph in the role, which he sings and acts with gravitas and dignity throughout. The quality throughout the ensemble is very high, Jessica Punch does very well as Peggy, with a wide-eyed excitability and charm which is impossible not to find endearing; James O’Connell shamelessly hams it up as Billy Lawlor to great comic effect; O’Connell, like Punch, is also an excellent dancer and had the technical skills to back up the comic elements of his role. Carol Ball starts very strongly as Maggie, helping carry ‘Go Into Your Dance’ with gusto. The dance ensemble all looked the part and had the ability to match, credit must be given to choreographer Graeme Henderson for his fabulous work and dance captain Hollie Sorelle for ensuring the dancing was as tight and focused as it was on the night. Slightly less focused, however, were the accents which were a curious mixture; for every Brooklyn there was an erroneous Texan or ropey General American. Not distracting, but not brilliant.
If you missed this tour in its original 2007 outing, you have a second chance; 42nd Street is a slice of classic Broadway on your doorstep and this production from Martin Dodd on behalf of UK Productions is thoroughly enjoyable for young and old alike.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 7th August 2012
Where? Southwark Playhouse (Vault)
Who? Norman Bowman, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Jessica Martin, Stuart Matthew Price, Steven Serlin, Richard J Hunt, Jody Ellen Robinson, Anthony Wise, Peter Kenworthy, Jessica Buckby, Ryan Gover, Paul Hutton, Natalie Kent, Jonathan Norman, Nikki Schofield
Dismiss the fringe at your peril; missing Thom Southerland’s majestic Mack & Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse will be any discerning theatregoer’s biggest regret of 2012. Our capital’s fringe venues continue to set the benchmark for innovative, inspired new productions and revivals and – based on recent experiences – frankly embarrass the West End in terms of standard, artistic merit and, crucially, value. Thanks to the Playhouse’s positive and progressive ticket pricing policy, it is possible to see this truly outstanding revival for as little as £10 if booked sufficiently in advance – and I doubt there is any show running anywhere in the world which can match that kind of quality/value ratio. Even paying the ‘top price’ of £22.50 each for last minute tickets (the venue rewards advance booking with the cheapest rates, the polar opposite to the West End norm of last minute discounting) the Playhouse and similar venues such as The Union Theatre and Upstairs at The Gatehouse invariably offer a much friendlier and less cynical experience.
Mack & Mabel is, rightly or wrongly, known as Jerry Herman’s über-flop, the original 1974 production failed to win any Tony awards and struggled through a difficult eight-week run at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre. Subsequent revivals have been plentiful, to varying degrees of critical and commercial success, and the release in the 1990′s of the amateur staging rights have ensured that the show is still well-known today. Based on a true story, Mack & Mabel is part early bio-musical and part classic Herman book-musical campfest; it is 1911 and Mack Sennett is the imperious movie studio kingpin, who takes bushy-tailed Mabel Normand under his wing, turning her into a star of the early two-reelers.
The intimate surroundings of the Vault studio of the Playhouse are the perfect setting for the production; Jason Denvir adorns the murky, cavernous stage area in the classic movie studio paraphernalia of the day; with the audience seated just inches away from the action, it is nigh-on impossible not to feel part of the process. A leak in the ceiling drips steadily onto the crude concrete floor; a Super 8mm film projector clinks and whirrs into action and the Vault is thrown into implausibly dramatic lighting (Howard Hudson) from the authentic-looking floor lamps; within moments I was rapt.
Mack & Mabel is said to be Herman’s own proudest achievement – and it does indeed boast a terrific and memorable score. I knew every song – which surprised me as I’ve not seen the show before, neither can I recall sitting and listening to a recording. Herman’s work is often dismissed by modern audiences as having perhaps not stood the test of time particularly well, but in the context of a production as fine as this one, the songs slot in beautifully to the narrative framework and never feel tacked on or inappropriate. Some of the weaker numbers are given a new lease of life, delivered in a perhaps rather more tongue-in-cheek manner by director Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud than may have been the case in 1974. The camp rendition of ‘Hundreds of Girls’ sees the classic Bathing Beauties perform an interesting take on the ‘quick change’ routine, shortly followed by a line of tap-dancing boys in matching striped beachwear – Herman at it’s campest without including men in drag.
It is testament to the draw of the fringe (and, frequently, the subsequent West End transfers which follow) that it can attract an ensemble cast of the calibre seen here. Norman Bowman makes a terrifically invested Mack Sennett and absolutely gives his all; the opening number ‘Movies Were Movies’, sung with a mix of anger and pride, set the tone for what would be a starring turn to remember. Whilst ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ may have just been a touch too low for his singing voice, he acts with commitment throughout and his singing, when in his comfort zone, was excellent. Laura Pitt-Pulford cements her place as one of British musical theatre’s top young talents following on from her promising turn as Betty in the Watermill/West End’s Sunset Boulevard. Pitt-Pulford too invests heavily in her acting performance to great success, but it is her powerful and memorable vocal performances of showstopping numbers ‘Wherever He Ain’t’ (performed atop a lighting crane) and the second act’s ‘Time Heals Everything’ which leave a lasting impression. Undoubtedly, both leads provide Olivier Award-worthy performances and are stars in their own right. The quality and work-rate across the ensemble is remarkable; fellow Sunset alumnus Jessica Martin is wonderful as a vulnerable, interesting Lottie – a character I found particularly fascinating and would liked to have known more about. One of the big names of the future Stuart Matthew Price is a formidably talented musician and a wonderful tenor, but feels curiously underused as supporting character Frank Capra. He acts well with a straight bat but only gets one opportunity to sing briefly, at the beginning of the second act, which is disappointing considering the beauty of his singing voice. The entire ensemble perform magnificently with undiluted passion and energy; Steven Serlin offers fine support as the bankrolling Mr. Kessell and Richard J Hunt makes an uncanny Fatty Arbuckle. The second act ‘Keystone Cops’ segment is absolutely hilarious and the company do a sterling job of replicating the humour of the chase scene fabulously; the action is so up close and personal that one performer was within millimetres of colliding with yours truly in the front row of the unreserved seating!
Mack & Mabel, however, is far from perfect as a piece. In 1974, the critics simply could not see past the ‘likeability issue’ and undoubtedly this factor was key in expediting the closure of the show. Heavily re-written productions have popped up left, right and centre in the last thirty-eight years, all trying to address the issues with Michael Stewart’s original book – and Francine Pascal’s new revisions certainly help soften some of the edges. But the issue remains in Mack & Mabel that there is simply nobody to root for, with Sennett, for example, still coming off as rather insular and self-important, rather than the flawed, troubled anti-hero which is surely intended. At times it can still seem a touch confused; everybody, arguably with the exception of the doting Frank Capra, is grey in their motives; is this ambiguity intentional? I’m not sure it matters, the audience aren’t sure whether to want Mabel to succeed or not. As a bio-musical, a partly fictionalised re-telling of history that is fine – in a book musical, the lines can’t afford to be quite so blurred.
Once again, the fringe shows the West End how it is done and the Southwark Playhouse has earned a new fan. As long as the fringe produces productions as tight, fresh and exciting as Thom Southerland’s 2012 Mack & Mabel, the West End will continue to depend on tourism – not theatre lovers – to put bums on seats.
- Harry Zing
Interview: Actor/Director Cameron Jack on leaving the South Pacific, The Dark Knight Rises and a blossoming movie career..
Fresh from Bartlett Sher’s incredible production of South Pacific – which came to an end this week after a very successful UK touring spell – I caught up with cast member, Scottish actor/director Cameron Jack to discuss the show, his directorial work and the little matter of a featured appearance in The Dark Knight Rises…
You’ve recently been playing and covering Luther Billis in the fantastic UK tour of South Pacific, with the tour coming to an end, can you tell us about your experiences on the show?
When I got the South Pacific offer I actually had two other offers on the table, I could’ve gone out to Germany to do Rocky Horror for seven months, or I could’ve done All the Fun of the Fair – I was desperate to work with director Nikolai Foster, I still am! When the South Pacific offer came in, I did my research and saw it had won so many awards; obviously you want to be associated with a show that you know is quality.
Working with (director) Bartlett Sher was an amazing experience, it didn’t get any better than that. The guy is a theatrical genius, he’s brilliant – one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with, and also with Christopher Gattelli who’s just won the Tony Award for Newsies on Broadway, they made the whole job worthwhile. I’ve always liked working with Americans coming over to the UK. Bart had done his research on the show inside out; his direction was all about the trip of the piece as a serious story; unfortunately for me, that meant I had to cut back on the comedy which, playing Stewpot, I found quite difficult, because I like to do new stuff every night! But I thought it was beautifully staged and incredibly well cast, Sam (Womack) was brilliant and Alex (Ferns) was great too. Alex made a fantastic job of the comedy playing Billis – he unfortunately got a back injury in Birmingham which meant I got a couple of weeks on – it’s a really high energy, up-tempo role and as an understudy you can never ever tell just how hard it’s going to be when you’re playing it – but you learn soon enough! I think it was a real classic R&H show and touring audiences absolutely loved it.
You have a very illustrious CV, you’ve originated roles in We Will Rock You and The Drowsy Chaperone as well as appearing in Les Miserables at the Palace Theatre. Away from musicals, you have acted in and directed numerous plays, appeared in a variety of television shows and now you can be seen on the big screen; how much importance would you put in a varied CV?
What you’re looking for an as actor are good credits and good directors; where I think some actors can fall down, particularly in musicals, is staying in the same show too long or staying in the same genre too long. What I’ve always tried to do is mix it up a bit; I always tell younger actors that if you want an interesting career, try and mix genres up. I was fortunate that my first job out of college was at Regents Park, so that my first two roles were Shakespeare and the next one was a musical, then I got a telly role, then I got a Christmas show then another telly, then a straight play… what happens is casting directors can’t say “well, that’s a musical theatre actor”, they have to look at you and take you a little more seriously, because you’ve covered different genres.
You have considerable directorial experience on the fringe..
I’m directing Lord of the Flies at Catford Broadway Theatre in September; which I think is my fifteenth play. I have directed bigger budget productions, but what I most enjoy are plays on the fringe – you can just step off the stage and pass what you’ve learned throughout your career onto younger actors.
Which aspect of performing do you enjoy most?
If I had to pick one single thing, it would be acting for camera. That’s what I’ve always absolutely loved. When I did my first telly role in 1995, I kind of realised that was where my heart lay. But as an actor, unless you’re very lucky or you evolve in a certain way, you have to move around to keep working. I’ve had a lovely and varied stage career, but perhaps now at 40 it doesn’t fill me with as much excitement as my other ventures.
I want to congratulate you on being the first movie star we’ve ever interviewed at Chewing the Scenery! How did your role in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, come about?
I felt like I needed a new challenge, that I was repeating myself month after month – year after year – I was directing a lot, I was doing a lot of musicals.. My agent, Claire Saunders – who is fantastic, said to me, “What sort of thing would you like to do?” and I said “Get me into a film. It’s been a while!”. It’s no secret that when you audition for Chris Nolan, you don’t know what you’re auditioning for when you go in. The Dark Knight Rises had the working title of Magnus Rex - and when you’re auditioning for him, the whole thing is top secret! So I went along to Spotlight in Central London to meet a lovely casting director named Toby Whale, who I’d never met before. They’d sent me a scene where I had to mug somebody and basically I had to do this scene two or three times, while they moved around with a camera. I must’ve been in for maybe five minutes before I left; you know when you leave whether you’re right for something or not and I felt I’d done well. I’ve got nine tattoos, I’m 5’6”, I’m Glaswegian and I’m stocky. In film you tend to work in the area you look like, and since I left Mountview (Theatre School) at 24, every so often I’ve played these darker roles. Thugs, drug dealers, wife beaters, junkies, whatever, so it’s not an area I’m unfamiliar with!
How did the process compare to casting calls for the stage or television?
This is what I find bizarre, you’re working at the very top level in the world of entertainment, yet they make decisions so quickly! For example, when I did We Will Rock You, I had six call backs – I had five call backs for South Pacific.. and it gets more and more difficult the closer you get to the job. When I got The Dark Knight Rises, Chris Nolan saw the tapes and made the decision within a few days. I auditioned on the Tuesday, I was given the job the following Tuesday and I was on set the Tuesday after that. It’s mind-blowing!
It must have been a very special experience…
It was an amazing experience just to be in the film and see yourself up there. To be honest, when I was in the cinema watching these Hollywood blockbusters I always hoped that I would one day get the opportunity. It wasn’t everything I hoped it would be – it was like 250 times more! It was an incredible experience and we were unbelievably well treated. I worked with Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy and they were absolutely fantastic. The highlight for me was working with Gary Oldman – he’s an absolute hero of mine. I remember seeing him in an Alan Clarke movie called The Firm in the eighties thinking ‘This guy is just incredible’ – he lit the screen up, and has done in every single thing that he has done since. To stand next to someone like that, to be able to act with them, to pick up tips, was amazing – he is a genius. We had the cast and crew screening in Leicester Square; it was so well put together, beautifully shot, tied up and written. I absolutely loved the film, it was just a fantastic experience.
Are you a fan of the Batman franchise?
I had seen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – obviously Heath Ledger’s performance was probably the most memorable part of that movie. I am generally a fan of good directors – and good movies, I loved Inception, I loved Insomnia, I loved Memento... (all Christopher Nolan movies). I’m a massive, massive fan of Chris; people forget he produces, which is not to be underestimated, and he also co-writes the movies with his brother.
I was only on set for a week, but I learnt so much. What I noticed about The Dark Knight Rises was how high the stakes are – how important it is that you get it right. There’s not a lot of mucking around or laughing and joking as there are on some other types of job, it’s a very high stakes set and that’s exactly how it should be, because there’s a lot riding on it.
You have a featured role in a record-breaking Christopher Nolan Batman movie; your stock in the casting room must be high right now…
I’ve just had an audition for a new Ridley Scott movie, which I’m keeping my fingers crossed for! It’s playing a hitman – the usual! (laughs), it’s called The Counselor and it has an unbelievable cast. It proves to me that I’ve done the right thing already. I’m waiting to hear about Kick-Ass 2 and I was also cast by Tom Hooper in the Les Miserables feature film which was due to film in February/March while I was doing South Pacific, so unfortunately that didn’t work out.
Most actors I know tend to go the small independent route first…
I’d really love to! There’s a couple of those that haven’t come off, because I’d been working in theatre or the dates didn’t fit. I’d love to do some independent film – it doesn’t always pay well – often, it doesn’t pay at all! But fortunately my agent has helped me cross into different areas and they would be perfectly happy for me to do an independent film or a television role, as long as it felt like it was the right move.
Classic cliché question time – which roles would you love to play on the stage?
I suppose I might be a little different to some actors you might come across in that I don’t really covet any of the musical theatre roles – although I did when I was younger. I can give you a favourite role I played on stage; I was fortunate enough to play Begbie in the stage version of Trainspotting in 1996 opposite Gerard Butler. That was the pinnacle on the stage for me, very early – only a year out of college, but I loved it because I could identify with that type of writing, being Scottish and working class – and also being a huge fan. I loved the book, I loved the play, I loved the movie – to play Begbie was brilliant. There are rumours they might be doing a prequel to Trainspotting called Porno on stage; if they ever brought Begbie back to the stage, I would love to play him again. I’d also love to do another Shakespeare, maybe The Scottish Play – I’m not gonna say it – but I’d like to play that part. I also like discovering new shows – We Will Rock You. was my favourite experience of doing a musical; everything you do as a cast, and bring to the performance, people are still doing ten years later. It is a very weird experience! I wouldn’t find as much thrill now in taking over in a musical, because the template is already set and I might feel restricted by that. I wouldn’t rule out a new musical, but because of my height and build, unless it’s a comedy part or an understudy role, I don’t fit into the classic leading man thing, that’s not where I’m put, which in the end means you can play the more interesting parts!
Cameron Jack is currently appearing in The Dark Knight Rises in cinemas worldwide and Lord of the Flies opens in September at the Broadway Theatre, Catford. Follow him on Twitter @rentathug
Hello and welcome to ‘What went wrong?’, a new series of retrospective ‘postmortems’ examining some of theatre’s most infamous flops. Join me as a take a look back at some of the biggest turkeys to ever grace the British stage and ask “What went wrong?”.
There and Back Again – A Hobbyist’s Tale
The Lord of the Rings Musical, hereafter known as LotRM had a troubled life on the stage. For those who have been living in Gollum’s cave all these years, LotRM is an adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic 1954 The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a collective work considered to be one of the finest fantasy tales ever written by critics – and millions of loyal fans alike. Millionaire producer Saul Zaentz owned the film and stage production rights and, after much legal wrangling with Tolkien’s estate, the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was finally produced in the early 2000′s – going on to smash box office records and, in a clean sweep, winning all eleven of the Academy Awards for which it was nominated for the final movie, The Return of the King. Buoyed by this incredible success, Zaentz set to work with co-producer and partner Kevin Wallace to create a stage adaptation, envisioned here by Wallace, and by Director/Co-Adaptor Matthew Warchus;
“We haven’t set out to create a musical of The Lord of the Rings, a play of The Lord of the Rings or a spectacle of The Lord of the Rings. It is a hybrid production, because this is not any of those things singularly — it is all of those things” – Kevin Wallace
“(On Lord of the Rings) … a Shakespeare play and a Cirque du Soleil show sort of woven together” – Matthew Warchus
At a staggering cost of £19m, and with help from a generous donation from the Canada Council for the Arts, The Lord of the Rings Musical opened at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto in February 2006, with a view to transferring to a suitable West End theatre within twelve months. A Broadway sister production was tipped to run concurrently with the original, dependent on the success of the Toronto trial run and subsequent West End transfer. Despite playing to over 400,000 guests and being widely praised for the visual spectacle on show, LotRM took something of a walloping from the visiting press, with the Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian condemning the show as “Bored of the Rings” in one particularly damning review. It was considered by many that the hype surrounding the production, which boasted sixty-five performers and a record-breaking production cost, was simply too much to overcome – a cost that was scarcely recouped when the production closed ahead of schedule in September of that year.
Unperturbed, Wallace and Zaentz pushed ahead with the planned West End transfer and previews began at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – the only West End theatre large enough to house the show – in May 2007. Despite being shorter at a shade over three hours long (a common criticism had been the Toronto production’s three and a half hour running time) and after a major reworking of the book, the show still only garnered mixed reviews from the underwhelmed media. The show eventually stumbled to a close in July 2008, after 492 performances including previews, and once again on an enormous financial deficit, with the running costs alone allegedly wiping out co-producer Wallace’s own personal savings.
Join me as I turn back the clock and examine exactly “What Went Wrong?”
Everything to Excess, Moderation is for Monks
A fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary was produced in 2007 by the National Geographic Channel, following the production from day one of rehearsals through to opening night; not only does the documentary (which is available on YouTube) offer an interesting insight into how such an enormous production is put together, it is also car crash television as we see the critical failings of the production being formed in front of our very eyes.
Whilst ‘smaller’ than the costly Toronto experiment, with a cast of only fifty, the excess and ambition of the producers and creative team hadn’t slackened. From watching the documentary, the production team’s belief in the project is unquestionable, the producers and creatives clearly wanted to create a theatrical legacy at any cost, in the belief that their production would be so epic it couldn’t help but become a box office smash for decades to follow. Such ambition is admirable, but it doesn’t show itself often for a reason; in their ambition, the producers and creative team lost financial and creative control – in short, the staging became the show.
Incredible stories began emanating from within the production; one rumour stuck in my mind in particular. It concerns a fabric curtain used in the first act to resemble Arwen summoning what I can only describe as water horses to defeat pursuing Nazgul on horseback – an iconic scene from The Fellowship of the Ring. Allegedly, Howell and members of the production team were unhappy with the finished look of the effect due to the curtain being the wrong shade of white. While rehearsals were ongoing, the producer authorised the curtain be redesigned and produced from scratch in a higher quality material than required, in a slightly different shade. Due to the deadlines and short notice involved, it was said this change alone cost upwards of £15,000. The irony is, Paul Pyant’s lighting design essentially made the colour of the curtain irrelevant; as the curtain was bathed in blue light. True or not, it was this type of lavish spending which caused the budget to spiral and for many to question exactly who these changes were for.
Break a Leg! …. “I broke my leg!”
Nothing, and I mean nothing will kill a show dead like the national press taking a personal loathing to it. Normally, moral indignation (The Full Monty, Victor/Victoria on Broadway spring to mind) is enough to put off a good percentage of potential advance bookings, but nothing rankles the press and public as much as a health and safety issue. Enter young ensemble member Adam Salter, who fell to the floor of the huge pie-like lower revolve screaming and clutching his leg, during an evening preview performance on 30th May 2007. The media gleefully cried foul and, despite Salter returning to the production soon after with no lasting injury, the PR damage had been done. LotRM had become a dead show walking.
Gandalf, Sets and Mordor
Clearly, a small fortune has been afforded to Rob Howell’s incredible sets; much like Cirque or many of the incredible Las Vegas resident shows, the experience begins the moment you enter the theatre. The once drab Theatre Royal, Drury Lane foyer has been given a lick of paint – and a large semi-permanent gift shop has been erected selling the LotRM logo on just about everything imaginable. The auditorium is simply mind-blowing; it is nigh-on impossible to tell where the proscenium – or even the seating – starts and Howell’s all-encompassing design begins. Halflings frolick in the stalls – actually on the seats – and downstage in front of the curtain; catching dragonflies in a net, having a bit of a dance – you know, Hobbity things. Embarrassing I imagine for the actors, but harmless amusement as the audience file into the auditorium – even the most cynical grump would fail to raise a smile. The sheer wonder at Howell’s work could only be seen to be believed:
Didn’t you say this show was a flop?
Absolutely, financially and critically. Visually, the show is possibly one of the finest ever staged; if the show stopped occasionally tableau vivant, you would sit in awe of the artistry created (albeit at enormous expense); the ‘good moments’ are epic and worth the ticket price alone. The set is a marvel of design and the use of it ingenious.
Whilst Howell’s sets and, to a lesser extent, costume work truly bring Middle Earth to life, Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna’s book was coma inducing. As a fan of The Lord of the Rings novels and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, I was one of the ones who should’ve been easy to please. You see, I like The Lord of the Rings, but I am not precious about it; I just wanted a simple, interesting adaptation leaving out whatever is necessary in order to get the story told.
With the audience on a hobbit-induced high, the show begins in earnest and, frankly, it is all downhill from hereon.
Book to Basics
Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna are responsible for the book, with the former also directing. Movie writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, all experienced screenwriters, just about managed to squeeze Tolkien’s work into three movies, with a lot of cut and pasting and with a fair amount deemed unnecessary being ditched entirely. Warchus, whilst an acclaimed director by this point, had only limited writing experience and his partner Shaun McKenna had never tackled anything on this scale.
Stripping away the beautiful sets, lavish staging, seventeen lifts and three revolves, LotRM was at its base level a confused, plodding, dull selection of scenes from the books – with the occasional moment of brilliance, just as a reminder of how good the show could have been. The challenge of adapting all three books (over nine hours worth of film) into one three hour long stage show (incorporating songs and circus style staging) was simply too great – and the result was plain for all to see.
It is not as if the material is weak, far from it; Warchus and McKenna simply include far too much of it. Some cuts were made throughout the show’s initial run, but so much of what remained felt unnecessary; literally everybody makes the cut, which goes some way to explaining the enormous cast size. What did the Ent, Treebeard, for example, add to the story? In their desperation to please the fans of the books and movies, the writers failed to give the piece its own voice – its own story – instead the show watched like a second-rate homage to the films, as they wheel out character after character for a cameo. I am in no doubt that had I been seeing LotRM cold, that is, with no prior knowledge of the synopsis, I would have had absolutely no idea what was going on. Furthermore, I’m convinced that a good percentage of the audience each night would be in that very position, essentially alienating them from the evening they have just paid £60.00 for, because they hadn’t done their homework and watched the movies first.
Even as a fan of the material, it was hard to care; despite a couple of viewings, it was nigh-on impossible not to tune out during the lengthy ‘acting’ (and I use that term loosely, see below) scenes, partly thanks to woeful performances from many of the poorly chosen cast and the severe lack of dynamism in the book. A stunning visual effect or musical number wins the audience back momentarily, only to plunge into some more verbatim Tolkien ‘scripture’ that often leads nowhere worthwhile.
Old Men Shouting At Each Other
…is in many ways my enduring memory of LotRM - let me explain. In his stated ambition, director Warchus was determined to add some gravitas to the piece – to make the show “a Shakespeare play and a Cirque du Soleil show sort of woven together” . Following in the footsteps of Jackson’s film trilogy and the success of Sir. Ian McKellen in the role of Gandalf, he too turned to ‘serious actors’ to fill what he considered ‘Shakespearean’ roles. Enter RSC regulars Malcolm Storry, Andrew Jarvis and Brian Protheroe who played Gandalf, Elrond and Saruman respectively. Pointing and shouting was an actor’s strongest card in days gone by treading the boards, and it didn’t get much more pointy or shouty than these three. Hammy delivery, hammy make-up, hammy everything, the casting could not have been worse if Joe Pasquale had been the one mumbling his way through the iconic “You shall not pass” stand-off with the Balrog of Mothgog.
Some scenes seemed to last an eternity as the experienced thesps fought their own ‘battle of the ages’; in Storry’s case, he would speed-read every line as if he would rather be anywhere but Middle Earth, muttered his way through thick blocks of dialogue as if they were hindrances and that they didn’t matter a jot to the progression of the story. Incidentally largely they were, and they didn’t – but that is by the by, Storry’s underacting was as notable as the overacting of his colleagues; Andrew Jarvis rolls everrrrryy, singlllllle, rrrrrr and llllllll to ridiculous unintentional comic effect; as he greets Gandalf as Rivendell in the first act, he bellows “Welllllllllcome to the HOUSE of ELLLLLLLLLLRRRRRRRRROND”, as if he were delivering Cassius’s speech, in ‘hero position’, legs akimbo, to Brutus in a 1932 RSC production of Julius Caesar.
The casting was odd full stop; Jerome Pradon played Aragorn to the best of his ability, but is known as a singer more than an actor. Pradon, adopting a very strange gravelly timbre and odd stilted phrasing, is only required to sing once in the show, warbling in a simple love duet with the competent Rosalie Craig who played Arwen. James Loye gives his Frodo a distracting West Country drawl – and while we are on accents, bona-fide Scot Steven Miller manages to give a cod-Braveheart inspired speech at the Council of Elrond that Billy Connolly would’ve been proud of.
Some of the cast can walk away with their head held high; Peter Howe was charming and likeable as Samwise Gamgee, Michael Therriault/understudy Darren Carnall were terrifically theatrical as Gollum and there were some real gems in the ensemble too. Alexandra Bonnet was phenomenal in her track as Elránien and particularly as understudy for the role of Arwen – unfortunately, Bonnet appears to have left the acting scene post-LotRM. Laura Michelle Kelly and latterly Abbie Osmon were heavenly as Galadriel and James Byng made for a more three-dimensional Frodo, when he was eventually cast as replacement Frodo shortly before the show’s closure.
Of course, the buck ultimately stops with Warchus. The cast didn’t hire themselves, true, but the problems with LotRM were more deep-rooted than a few rotten performances from Warchus’s company. I don’t know if he too was effected by the beauty and scale of the show, but somewhere along the creative process Warchus lost grasp of what makes The Lord of the Rings the phenomenon it remains today. It is not the host of quirky, cool, violent, evil or just plain weird characters Tolkien created – it is the simple underlying narrative – one tiny hobbit saving the world. Peter Jackson in his film trilogy was very careful to keep the action rooted in Frodo and Sam’s journey; but in the musical, one beautiful second act moment aside, their story comes second to just about everything else the production shows at us.
I think the audience fundamentally failed to connect in the ways the creative team envisaged; one gorgeous and poignant moment comes in the first act, Gimli (Sévan Stephan) the dwarf arrives at his home, the Mines of Moria, to discover his entire kin have been slaughtered. He sings, almost verbatim from Tolkien, a beautiful lament for his kind; as he and Gandalf quietly mourn the ‘realm that once was there’. Warchus inexplicably finishes this wonderful moment of imagery and beauty by having Gimli wander off upstage, giving the audience neither the chance to clap or the actor to pause for dramatic effect and help build a connection with the audience. Yet, some fairly nice scenes such as ‘Star of Eärendil’ finish with a crescendo, almost begging the audience to show their appreciation of an otherwise pretty, but certainly average musical number.
Interestingly, no changes were made by either producer or director to the overall ‘vision’ of the piece after the Toronto failure. Essentially, with a few changes and a bit of surface work, the same production opened in the West End as had failed just months earlier in Canada. In 2011, we saw Julie Taymor very unceremoniously ousted from her perch as Director/Co-Creator of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark when it became clear that perhaps her vision wasn’t going to work. In reality, LotRM needed a ground-up re-write; but when you’re already £25m in, that isn’t exactly an attractive prospect. The producers, seemingly, never lost faith in Warchus and his team.
At this performance, a stack of little white sheets will be falling out of your programme…
The chances of seeing the entire company of LotRM together in one performance were slim to nil. It is unclear exactly why so many actors missed so many performances of LotRM; many have speculated that the technical aspects of the show induced a large number of strains and injuries, as actors clambered over moving revolves and up and down ladders backstage. Or it could be simply a numbers game, more cast = more absence, either way, LotRM gained a reputation during its run for being the home of the understudy. At one performance I attended, there were no fewer than eight changes to the principal cast billed.Four of these were due to the absence (scheduled or otherwise) of lead actors, the other four were due to swings/ensemble members filling the parts vacated by those promoted to cover the leads.
Pros and Cons
The show was split into three acts; with the first and second separated by an interval. The first two acts were essentially The Fellowship of the Ring and a few key scenes from The Two Towers, with the final portion covering aspects of The Return of the King. Some moments of LotRM were pure magic – mind-blowing visual effects, some wonderful musical numbers and a couple of outstanding performances belied the negativity surrounding the production.
The sheer beauty of the production; the scenes flow together seamlessly, the staging in many ways a wonder of modern theatre. The use of every single theatrical trick; magic, participation, puppetry, projections, aerial work – the list goes on – ensured that whilst the plot may feel slow or stale, there is always plenty to look at, especially in the big ‘production scenes’. In the third act interval, for which the audience stayed seated, Orcs prowl through the stalls and dress circle, scaring audience members half to death – including me when one jumped out of nowhere, behind my seat!
The special effects; the show was littered with them. Paul Kieve makes Bilbo Baggins vanish into thin air, centre stage, as he dons the ring for the first time, at his Eleventy-First birthday party – a truly breathtaking moment. The hobbit house is sparse but beautiful with a fire blazing upstage, lit by a fireball from the staff of Gandalf, a small but effective moment. The first sight of a Black Rider; a performer on stilts essentially riding an over-sized hobby horse, is a stark and brilliant one; the ensuing chase scene wonderfully executed. The first act finale is one of the most dramatic I have ever witnessed; the iconic “You shall not pass” standoff between Gandalf and the Balrog is simply unforgettable. The enormous Balrog puppet is a design triumph. The second act begins with Gollum – the actual actor, not a stunt double – climbing head first down the stunt curtain upstage; from the upper reaches of the theatre, this effect looked particularly stunning. The subsequent Lothlórien sequence is beautiful, themed in reds and golds; such effects and beauty are present throughout. Giant spider Shelob’s appearance is genuinely frightening and extremely memorable.
The music; one of the most common criticisms of LotRM was the music. Many, including much of the mainstream press, wanted more of it, and I have to agree. Whilst the producer and director were at pains to state LotrM is definitely not a ‘musical’, dispelling images of a dancing Gandalf and a chorus line of hairy footed hobbits, it seems that is what many audience members would’ve preferred;
In reality, the score is entirely suitable for the style of the piece and the pounding electro-orchestral sound works beautifully throughout. There are some out-and-out musical theatre numbers, but they are scarce; “The Cat and the Moon”, an all-singing, all-dancing folk-inspired song takes place at the aptly named Prancing Pony inn, and sees the hobbit companions dancing around what appeared to be wooden benches commonly seen in primary school halls. Despite being the cheesiest number of the evening (it comes about after the innkeeper states “How about a song? We haven’t had a song in these parts for years!”) it brought the house down each night. A R Rahman, Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale’s score is varied, interesting and beautiful in equal measure. The beautiful low-key second act reflective number “Now and For Always” sees Frodo and Sam reflecting on their journey, the land they left behind and, ultimately, their love for one another. The only issue I had with the score is that there is – on the soundtrack recording at least – only 44 minutes of content, including scoring for instrumental pieces and transitional scenes. This amounts to over 2 hours 15 minutes of painfully tedious, unscored dialogue. Despite using three composers from different backgrounds, LotRM simply needed a lot more material to be used in the show.
The book; the aforementioned failings with the book and overall direction of the piece are insurmountable and ultimately left the show doomed to fail. In attempting to include as much as possible, the attention is drawn to what is missing; Théoden/Denethor have been combined into one joint character, the Steward of Men; who serves little purpose, frankly. Éowyn is missing entirely, as is any mention of Rohan. But Helms Deep has been cut from the narrative entirely, thankfully. The scenes drag on forever and truly very few – if any – of the characters feel like living, breathing people.
The cast; some of the cast badly let down LotRM; maybe their hearts weren’t in it, or maybe they simply weren’t good enough for the job but either way, the result was disappointing – LotRM drew plenty of inappropriate laughter at the performances I attended – and not just from me!
The special effects; whilst the ones I mentioned above were mind-blowing, some were equally, memorably laughable. The video used to depict battle during the ‘Siege of the City of Kings’ sequence was embarrassing; the stunt actors faces were clearly visible throughout and, in one case, the actor in the video was a different ethnic group to the actor on stage, causing some confusion to those paying attention. The entire final sequence was underwhelming, Mount Doom was disappointing, essentially a trap door with dressing around it which Gollum appears to jump into of his own free will, followed immediately by a double falling from the ceiling to a backdrop of flames – supported by a very large and obvious looking support harness. We saw an unwelcome return of the classic ‘sword under the arm’ trick in the death of Boromir, something I never thought I’d see on stage again. Special criticism is reserved for ‘Sting’, the Orc-detecting blade, which shines blue when the enemy is nearby. The cheap plastic looking blade had four blue LED lights inside it, which were turned on by a switch on the handle by the actor. It looked cheap and nasty and begs the question; why spend a fortune on a fancy drape, when a sword which gets more direct audience attention looks like it was bought from the pound shop? I’ve seen replica lightsabres in Pound Stretcher look more impressive turned off.
With the show long since closed, the occasional rumour has surfaced from the internet or from the producers themselves, discussing a possible arena tour of America, Europe (with Germany mentioned specifically) and/or the Far East. Considering the show is rumoured to have closed at a £20m+ overall loss, including losses from the Toronto production, I think any future in the production looks unlikely.
Despite fan pressure and numerous online petitions, the producers have also been unwilling to discuss the possibility of releasing the production on DVD. The production was filmed on at least two occasions by full professional crews, but no release appears forthcoming, perhaps due to the huge financial losses incurred in the stage shows, it has been nigh-on impossible to secure a distributor.
LotrM proved a spectacular experiment which, sadly, got what it deserved. Not due to a lack of ambition or love, but a lack of overall direction and a book far too weak for the source material and scope of the project. It could be said LotRM‘s legacy lives on through another stage behemoth Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, which plays to sold out performances each night as of July 2012.
Warchus and his team have gone on to create Ghost: The Musical and the incredible Matilda in recent years.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 3rd July 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Faye Brookes, Iwan Lewis, Les Dennis, Ray Quinn, Tracey Penn, Hannah Grover, Sinead Long, Sophie Isaacs, Micha Richardson, Lewis Griffiths, Katie-Marie Hicks, Zak Nemorin, Jon Reynolds, Lori Barker, Gemma Baird, Graham Lappin, Mark Anderson, Rhona McGregor, Chris Milford, Nia Jermin, Antony Hewitt, Niamh Bracken, Michael Steedon, Barnaby Thompson, Amy Ross, Hannah Woolley, Andy Rees, Tara Young
Legally Blonde: The Musical is the campiest, fluffiest musical you could ever wish to see. The show has earned a cultish status since its 2007 Broadway debut, with no small help from the popular 2001 movie which inspired it, indeed many even arrived in costumes; long blonde wigs and bright pink sparklies were the order of the evening – and not just from the women! With the West End and Broadway sister productions now sadly gone, this 2011/2012 national touring production certainly hits the mark with laughs aplenty, some catchy tunes – and as much kitsch as anyone could possibly want.
The story sees Elle Woods (Faye Brookes) embark on a gloriously implausible journey of self-discovery, as she decides to enrol at Harvard Law School in order to impress her would-be boyfriend Warner Huntington (Ray Quinn); supported by her doting friend Emmett (Iwan Lewis), Elle discovers there is more to life than boys and designer handbags. Briefly. Heather Hach’s book is so delightfully passive so as not to interfere with the crux of the matter in Legally Blonde: The Musical, which is just good old fashioned Broadway style showbiz. In actuality, Legally Blonde: The Musical is a classic musical along the lines of 42nd Street – cleverly and attractively packaged for a younger theatregoer.
Despite being somewhat smaller in scale than the West End and Broadway predecessors, Legally Blonde: The Musical is a fantastically well-produced show in every sense. The production values remain exceptionally high, the bright, shimmering costumes (Gregg Barnes) are wonderful, as is the ever-reliable Richard Mawbey’s wig work, proving Legally Blonde doesn’t always translate to Literally Blonde. Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell gives the piece as much double entendré as the masses can accept and never crosses the bad taste barrier. His choreography work is exemplary as ever and, naturally in line with both the theme of the piece and this particular choreographer’s oeuvre, is absolutely screaming; hilarious, yet just as focused and appropriate as is necessary. The production numbers are the most memorable moments of the show without any question; the subtext laden second act opener “Whipped into Shape”, for example, sees the young company savouring some potentially tricky unison dancing with skipping ropes. Later on, we witness a hilarious ‘outing’ of a ‘gay European’ – under cross examination in court! With the kitchen sink all but thrown, I should mention the dogs – yes, dogs – which make several appearances throughout the evening to much adoration from the audience.
The cast fizz more than they pop; young Faye Brookes heads up the cast in just her second professional show. Brookes can sing and dance with the best of them, but at times struggles to find the humour in potentially hilarious scenes. Brookes is however quite likeable and believable in the role, thanks to her age and committment to her acting. As Professor Callaghan, Les Dennis – outstanding in 2009′s Eurobeat – has a similar opportunity to camp things up nicely. Whilst not in the least bit scary or as formidable as the book would have us believe, he is at least visibly enjoying himself and proved a surprisingly good singer, particularly in his first act ‘bad guy’ song “Blood in the Water”. Rhona McGregor performs admirably covering for Niki Evans as salon owner Paulette; McGregor has some impressive chops and rinsed every second of her act one number “Ireland”, an expositionary ditty which pays off in the Finale. The Greek Chorus of ‘Delta Nu’ ensemble ladies are nothing if not vocal throughout, whereas Lewis Griffiths gives something more of a visual performance as the comically virile UPS Man. Undoubtedly the standout performance comes from Iwan Lewis as the stolid Emmett Forrest, a performer I saw most recently in the Donmar Warehouse’s trite 2010 production of Passion. His characterisation and commitment to the moment belies his young age; if Lewis can truly bring life to a character as plain-Jane as Emmett, I would be fascinated to see him in bigger and better acting challenges in the future.
Legally Blonde: The Musical offers a fabulous few hours of pure escapism; musical theatre in its purest, campiest form – and I love it.
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 18th June 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Matthew Kelly, Claire Sweeney
It would be simple enough to critique Willy Russell’s Educating Rita as a distinctly 1980′s re-telling of Pygmalion; but that perhaps may be a disservice to a piece which continues to perform consistently on its own merits – in the box office, at the very least – proving that if a play is warm, funny and the public can relate on some level, they will keep coming back. The play has been approved as a featured text on the GCSE national syllabus for almost a decade and, much like Blood Brothers – another GCSE text – Educating Rita, like Pygmalion, has more to give than a simple fictional tale. The story is centred around circumstance, specifically (and, almost universally in Russell’s eighties heyday) about the struggles of the working class in his native Liverpool. But it is nigh-on impossible to examine Educating Rita without sounding like a Year 10 student’s coursework; the ‘subtext’, using the term loosely, is not so much obvious as intrusive at times and doesn’t merit further comment. Only the most generous theatregoer could consider Russell’s sociopolitical work as serious comment; at best Educating Rita is an amusingly written anecdotal reference to his working class roots and own journey of self-development – at worst it is a dated, mildly patronising exaggeration of what he perceived to be the quintessential working class Liverpudlian. Either way, what Educating Rita does deliver is an amusing and entertaining few hours of well-acted fluff.
The joint production between the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Bath incorporates one static but detailed set (Tim Shortall) which fills the central space of the Alhambra’s vast stage; time passing is represented effectively enough by a projected tree outside of the large bay window of Frank’s bar-cum-office. It was a little strange as the lights dropped to watch Kelly scrambling centre stage to change cardigans each time the lights dropped, but in a two-hander needs must! The evening is coated in a thick blanket of whimsy through which no gravitas dare escape; and I say this very much as a compliment. Director Tamara Harvey understands the strengths of the piece – the humour, the accessibility – and thankfully plays to these rather than attempting to make the play any more serious than absolutely required. The acting throughout is of a good standard; Claire Sweeney stands out of the pair as Rita, although it is very hard not to compare her performance with that of Julie Walters in the 1983 movie adaptation, with Walters’ characterisation somehow a mite fleshier. Sweeney possesses excellent comic timing and, particularly in the first act, gets this side of her performance down to a tee. Matthew Kelly gives a fair turn as Frank and wins plenty of laughs; however, a few of these were a touch inappropriate and at the expense of pathos; no more so than in the final scene where I can’t help but feel Russell intended for the actor to play it straight, in a final dramatic realisation that they have reached the end of their respective journeys.
I can’t help but feel that in keeping the action firmly locked to its original setting, director Harvey has missed an opportunity with this new production to bring the piece into the modern day. Unlike Blood Brothers, which is very specifically written for the political and socio-economic climate of the day, the message in Educating Rita is timeless and could resonate more harmoniously with a younger generation if brought into the present. In short, nothing has really changed or likely ever will in what Russell is trying to say in Educating Rita, so there is no reason to intentionally keep the context out of date and lessen the relevance for the audience.
Educating Rita remains one of Russell’s better works and this production is well-acted and worth a visit. It plays at the Bradford Alhambra until 23rd of June 2012
- Harry Zing
When? Thursday 31th May 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Emily Holt, Paul-Michael Jones, Charlotte Gooch, Thomas Aldridge, Colin Charles, Lynden Edwards, Joe Evans, Tony Stansfield, Shona Lindsay, Jack McKenzie, Emelia Williams, Aimie Atkinson, Gareth Bailey, Jacquie Biggs, Lizzi Franklin, Nicky Griffiths, Tim Hodges, Sarah Kitson, Helen Kurup, Fela Lufadeju, Liam Marcellino, Jonathan Ollivier, Adam Philpott, Kate-Emma Portlock, Russell Smith, Justin Thomas
It looks to be a year to remember at the Leeds Grand Theatre this year – and the summer season kicked off in style with the arrival of Dirty Dancing, Eleanor Bergman’s 2004 adaptation of the iconic movie, for which she also wrote the screenplay. The adaptation is entirely faithful to the movie, much to the delight of the primarily female audience, who watched in awe as Baby and Johnny brought the screen to the stage. That’s not to say Dirty Dancing is exclusively for fans of the film; there is much to savour here in the outstanding dancing, featuring wonderful choreography from Kate Champion, with Paul-Michael Jones particularly excelling in this field as Johnny. Jones has the unenviable task of emulating the late Patrick Swayze, whose performance is so synonymous with the film; I am delighted to say that Jones is an absolute success. Charlotte Gooch gives a top quality turn as Penny; she is entirely convincing with her acting but, more importantly perhaps in the context of the show, is an outstanding dancer and shines throughout. Emily Holt is Jennifer Grey incarnate in both appearance and mannerisms and is convincing enough in her portrayal of Francis “Baby” Houseman. I am truly impressed by the sensible and intelligent casting; the dancing from the company is superb and extremely tight throughout the performance, this is due to a high number of out-and-out trained dancers in the cast, who for the most part are not expected to sing. Naturally, a number of excellent vocalists are on hand to ensure the quality of the singing matches the excellence of the dancing. In avoiding the well-trodden triple-threat path, the production gains immensely in technical quality. Aimie Atkinson possesses a powerful, soulful voice and her singing is outstanding throughout.
The stage play visually mimics the film to great success, the simplistic sets (Stephen Brimson Lewis) feature clever use of blinds and shutters and, delightfully, incorporates a revolve which is used to great effect throughout. Video projections (Jon Driscoll) are used – thankfully sparingly and in an unobtrusive manner – much of the time as a simple visual backdrop to the static upstage set pieces. Some decent effects are incorporated in the second act to portray some of the most iconic scenes from the movie, including the water scene, and there are plenty of nods and homages to the film throughout, including some watermelons being carried across stage, to the audience’s delight. Jennifer Irwin’s costume designs help with establishing the period and feel suitably 60′s, with the movie as a helpful inspiration. Tim Mitchell’s lighting is very complimentary to both sets and actors and his best work comes when creating visual magic in combination with the projections.
Dirty Dancing tells a simple tale, it is right to say it is rather two-dimensional and glossy, which may turn off some of the more hardened theatregoers. However, this is also the case in the movie – and the stage show certainly stands up in its own right to critical scrutiny. This is thanks to the very high production values, superb dancing from the talented cast and the inclusion of all the iconic moments which made Dirty Dancing the phenomenon it remains today. The jubilant standing ovation in some quarters before the lights had even dropped are testament to how much the audience invested in the evening. It is worth noting that this is the final date for some of this superb cast, who I cannot rate highly enough.
- Harry Zing
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to catch up with current star of Blood Brothers Abigail Jaye, who discusses life in the show, starring in Evita and her plans for the future. I previously reviewed Jaye in Evita and she features on Martin Dickinson’s début album here.
So you’ve just been cast as Mrs. Lyons in the West End production of Blood Brothers, how are you enjoying it so far?
I’ve always loved the show – I took my Mum to see it quite a few years ago for her birthday and we’ve always really loved it. It’s so different from doing something like Evita on tour, being away from your family and doing a lot of press and photo shoots – as lovely as it is, you grow tired of it quite quickly! It’s lovely to be in the West End – to be able to live at home and enjoy my flat, see my boyfriend (performer Owen Woodgate) and be close to my family. The show has always been in the back of my mind as one I’ve wanted to do; perhaps I was a little bit young for the role before, but I’m a bit older now!
How easy is it to slot into a long-running production like Blood Brothers and still make the part your own?
The existing cast have helped so much. They’re all such lovely people and they’ve been really understanding – because they’ve been in the same position themselves. You only have a very short rehearsal period and you have to slot in with people who’ve known each other for years, but they’ve been really understanding and helpful. The show has a great formula that works so you’re directed very specifically, which makes life a lot easier.
On Twitter, you recently described your costumes in the role as ‘sexy’..
Yeah.. No!! (laughs) Not the sexiest costumes I’ve ever had! Most of my costumes are brown or dark blue and quite dowdy. Actually, I’m pretty much the only character that gets to wear any fashion of the period; I get to backcomb my hair and give it a nice mini beehive, quite late 60′s early 70′s style. I feel quite lucky because a lot of other people have to dress down – or dress like children! The costume department have been wonderful, I’ve swapped a couple of costumes around and they’ve really tailored them to what suits me and what’s comfortable for me. I’ve left the glamour of Evita behind to be a dowdy housewife!
And you’re also covering Mrs. Johnstone, a part which requires a strong Liverpudlian accent. How are rehearsals going for the part and what kind of coaching have you had for the accent?
I’ve always been a bit of a mimic. If somebody talks to me in an accent, I have a terrible habit of talking back to them in their own accent, which is handy when you need to do accents! You don’t get to do an accent very often in musicals; it’s either English or ‘General American’ most of the time so Mrs. Johnstone’s great. I’ve only just settled into Mrs. Lyons and I’m already on to my fourth or fifth rehearsal for Mrs. Johnstone, it’s such a great part and contrast to Mrs. Lyons. As far as the Liverpool accent’s concerned, it’s great because we’ve got some real Liverpudlians in the show. If you ever need any help, they’re on hand to give you tips and help you with certain words that you’re finding difficult. It’s another challenge – I like a challenge!
You starred in the UK/European tour of Evita; with the show being one of the most desirable roles in musical theatre. Did you have any particularly fond memories that stand out for you and similarly were their any darker, harder, or more difficult times?
I have many, many fond memories and I think that everyone just felt so lucky to be a part of an international tour. There are very few shows that tour internationally and it was great to do it. I love Evita as a piece – I think it’s an amazing musical and it was great to bring it to people and meet people that have never seen it before. I met so many lovely people that I still stay in contact with now – and think that I will always be friends with – and we met some great fans and got great feedback. I did Evita for 18 months and in one way it was great that the show was closing – because I think you could stay on a show like that forever, if asked. I might have stayed on longer, so it was great that the decision was taken out of my hands. And obviously I loved the show because I met my boyfriend on it! We’ve been together quite a while now, I’ve found my soulmate.
The darker points were definitely being away from your family and you do realise that even more when you get a job in town, having coffee with people you haven’t seen properly for years, and not having to Skype or text, being able to have a proper conversation with friends. Also, Evita is quite a depressing show and it can get you down sometimes, there were odd days when I think a couple of us longed to do a happy, silly, fluffy musical just for a week to brighten our souls a bit – you do get very engrossed in Evita and her life.
Being abroad means staying in foreign digs..
It was really odd that some venues you expected it to be a certain way and it wasn’t – it was always the complete opposite. We stayed in some unbelievably amazing hotels – and a few horrible ones. I think it was just pot luck trying to get as near to the theatre as possible combined with what was available at the time to accommodate so many people at once.
You feature on Martin Dickinson’s debut album ‘Encore’; do you have any ambitions to record your own album?
I do! Definitely! It’s always a money thing; I think once I’m settled in life and maybe once I’ve got my own house, I’ll save up and try and do something. I’d love to do an album of my own in the next few years, just to get to sing the songs that I love.
What type of songs would you like to record?
I think it’s difficult – if you want an album to sell, I think you probably have to do mainstream songs that people recognise, because unless people know you then why would they want to buy the album? But I’d love to collaborate with a new writer and actually sing some new songs which haven’t been done before. Having someone write songs for you to sing would be lovely I think – a dream.
Throughout your career you have worked solidly, playing some of the leading female roles in musical theatre such as Evita, the Narrator (Joseph) and now Mrs Lyons/Johnstone. To what and/or whom do you attribute your success?
Definitely to my parents, of course – as cheesy as it sounds! My Mum (Jacquelyn Fugelle) is an opera singer and it’s because of them that I’ve been saturated with music all my life. They are the most supportive and wonderful parents that you would ever meet and I can do no wrong in their eyes, which is lovely. They were there at my first night in Blood Brothers, my boyfriend brought them as a surprise – my Dad’s quite old so I didn’t know whether he’d make it to the show, but he did! I think having that constant support behind you really helps you to be more confident and know that no matter what failings you have, there is always a couple of people there to support you.
I’m also a huge Stevie Wonder fan, Barbara Streisand, Linda Eder.. I think listening to people like that constantly makes you want to do it and lets you know it’s possible.
Finally, what part(s) past or present in theatre do you think you’d really enjoy playing?
For some reason, I’ve always wanted the male roles in certain musicals. I was a huge fan of Rent when I was getting into musical theatre, but I always wanted to play Mark or Roger.. I never wanted to play the girls – I think it was the same for every show I saw growing up!
That was what was so lovely about playing Evita, I actually got to play the lead part. I don’t think there’s a lot around at the moment. I’ve always wanted to do a classic musical like Carousel, something with really old classic music or maybe a Gilbert and Sullivan, that’d be quite nice. It’s always exciting to wait and see what new things come up in town, finding out what they’re bringing out next. I’m hoping for ‘Enchanted: The Musical’, that’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to do a bit of Disney I think!
And what’s next..?
I’m in Blood Brothers for six months – at the moment, that’s until October and we’ll see what happens after that. The 25th anniversary is coming soon, we’re all very excited to hear what happens, we’re hoping for maybe another cast recording or a big concert with past and present casts. That should be really exciting!
Abigail Jaye is appearing in Blood Brothers until October 2012; follow her on Twitter @abijaye
When? Friday 25th May 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Abel Rojo, Alberto Gonzalez, Lisvet Barcia, Aymara Vila, Carlos Blanco, Jenny Nocedo, Liesbeth Saad, Jennifer Tejeda, Mario S. Elias, Marta I Ortega, Norge Cedeno, Thais Saurez, Yaday Ponce, Yelda Leyva, Yosmell Calderon, Yoerlis Brunet, Alejandro J Ransoli, Raul Reinoso, Claudia Iglesias, Gabriela Burdsall, George Cespedes, Heidy Batista, Denis Martinez
Right on cue in the middle of a (rare) early British heatwave, ‘Danza Cuba’ began its short stay at the Bradford Alhambra last night. On the back of a successful 2010 UK tour, this new production features three new and very different independent pieces. The dark, boxing-themed ‘Sombrisa’ (D Dir. Itzik Galili) opens the show with the full company clad in mock boxing attire down to black gloves; the black backdrop miles away from the audience’s expectation of a summer festival of dance. The serious and dramatic piece is adequately performed, a relentless drum solo works the dancers to their physical limits, yet perhaps lacks the theatrical drive required to truly engage the audience. The second piece, ‘Carmen?!’ (D Dir. Kenneth Kvarnstrom) is a comic speed re-telling by the male ensemble, set to Bizet’s iconic score. There were laughs aplenty from the warming audience and the male company appeared far more comfortable with this piece collectively, given the opportunity to play a role rather than rely on solely technical ability. The final routine, ‘Mambo 3XXI’ (D Dir. George Cespedes) promised from the title alone to be more in line with the audience’s expectations of the show and didn’t disappoint. ‘Mambo 3XXI’ features a wider variety of dance than the other pieces and is heavily influenced by Latin-American themes. A loose narrative threads the segments together nicely and the show is brought to an impressive conclusion with some of the tightest and most impressive dancing of the evening.
Unlike some similar touring productions, ‘Danza Cuba’ features no live music or singing, favouring pre-recorded drum solos, bands and singers. Whilst this helped to maintain a focus on the dancing, based on my previous experience of exceptional dance productions to visit the Bradford Alhambra (such as Burn the Floor and, especially, Havana Rakatan) I feel live music would have benefitted this production hugely.
The production is sparse to say the least; the sunny, Cuban imagery from the colourful promotional material is simply absent. However, with simple lighting, basic costumes and a high work rate from the company, the show seems full enough. The proficient Cuban troupe are known as their nation’s flagship contemporary dance company and many may go expecting a classic taste of Havana. ‘Danza Cuba’ are, in actuality, a dance troupe who happen to hail from Cuba, and who specialise in Modern, Caribbean and Classical dance (albeit only with a comic twist) rather than traditional Cuban dances, at least in the three routines premiered in this particular outing.
This production is ideal for newcomers to dance, being both accessible and digestible in terms of length. In fact, the production includes two twenty minute intervals and a total running time of just under two hours. The evening zipped along nicely and each individual piece had its own quality and unique style. The tour has played and is still yet to play many of the other great regional theatres, with Sadlers Wells notably yet to come.
- Harry Zing