There is no doubt about it, Chichester’s Festival Theatre has proved to be a hotbed of late for musicals worthy of West End transfer. I had seen neither Singin’ In The Rain or Sweeney Todd down south, and decided to sample them both within the space of a week in London. Each appeal in very different ways and I have high hopes for Kiss Me Kate at the same location this summer.
Jonathan Kent’s production oddly updates proceedings to the 1930’s though nineteenth century London provides the original setting. Todd returns following an unjustly administered exile, having changed his name from Benjamin Barker, to discover that in his absence daughter Johanna has suffered at the hands of the same lecherous judge who sentenced him to transportation some fifteen years prior. Revenge becomes the ultimate goal, a rented room above a Fleet Street pie shop the venue, and thrifty landlady Lovett the accomplice. An industry soon develops as the doomed are sliced, minced and baked in an effort to satisfy the eternal appetite of the pie shop’s growing clientele.
Imelda Staunton is the runaway star of this show as ruthless yet empathetic Mrs Lovett, giving a truly unmissable performance and placing her as a very strong contender for awards. A real on-stage fireball of energy at fifty six years of age, the production simply breathes on the dynamic and potent oxygen she fires into it. Humorous first act closing number ‘A Little Priest’ is zestfully delivered by Staunton in a superbly timed comic duet with Michael Ball who looks barely recognisable in the title role. He plays satanic Todd with grit and determination and proves menacingly adept at cut-throating, though a tad less imposingly daunting than perhaps he could have been. I suppose I did not expect to find myself liking the sinister character, that’s somewhat disturbing! Lucy May Barker and Luke Brady as would-be elopers Johanna and Anthony add romance and charm to the otherwise macabre narrative.
I sometimes struggle with Sondheim but this score is entirely up my street. With murder as the major theme, it’s black and melodramatic but he adds sufficient spring and bounce to raise the gloom so that the overall feel is uplifting. Musical director Nicholas Skilbeck has delivered an ensemble that rings with euphonic resonance.
Sweeney Todd is a very caliginous affair; the lighting and set designers illustrate this aspect with immense creativity, encorporating a huge iron structure comprising several levels and a revolving box housing gourmet pie maker Mrs Lovett and the upstairs barber shop. Every corner of the playing area is utilised by an impressively large ensemble who lurk in cimmerian shadows, giving the impression that they are everywhere at once by Mark Henderson’s cleverly-rolling spotlights, sensitively illuminating various nooks at will. This is a production where the darkness radiates through as much as the light so those who like to see facial expressions may wish to sit forward. The stage is both high and very tall, inevitably causing sight problems for those viewing from the front stalls, together with the rear of any level. I’m told that day seats are usually in the front row, perhaps best avoided if that indeed proves to be the case.
This recipe, mixing horror and humour as key ingredients, has resulted in musical theatre of a very appetising flavour and everyone should grab a slice. I doubt you will leave with a bitter taste.
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By Gareth Richardson @BargainTheatre
Booking until 22nd Sep 2012
Adelphi Theatre, London, WC2.
With his case coming to the Court of Appeal in a few weeks’ time, this play about the conviction of Sam Hallam was always going to be provocative but I underestimated quite how emotive it would be. Sam was convicted of the murder of East Londoner Essayas Kassahun in October 2004 during an attack in Finsbury by a group of Hoxton youths. Despite there being no forensic evidence and no credible eyewitness accounts, Sam was given a life sentence.
This play follows the timeline from the moment of the attack until the present time where Sam (Robin Crouch) is still in prison waiting for his case to be heard at the Court of Appeal . We are led through the story by the actual words of Sam, his friends, family and the police and judges involved, sympathetically pieced together by playwriter Tess Berry-Hart. What probably made this production more emotional was that members of Sam’s family and people involved in the ‘Justice for Sam Hallam’campaign, including his lawyer, Paul May (Keith Hill) were in the audience at this small and intimate venue. Watching their reactions as the story unfolded was at times as uncomfortable to watch as the heartbreaking scenes of Sam protesting his innocence to his best friend and mum. The acting was first class from the small cast who portrayed numerous characters in this violent, yet sad and moving story. They ably jumped from one individual to another to credibly portray the key people, capturing the feelings and emotions of those involved.
Director David Mercatali’s use of this intimate venue is excellent. The scenery is minimal but every available space is utilised with the cast moving amongst the audience to envelope us in the story. The clever staging allowed transportation from the loud and threatening streets of Finsbury, to Sam’s house , the numerous police interview rooms to the austerity of the courtroom and finally to Sam’s prison cell completely propless. It is to the credit of the superb acting that it was totally believable.
The title of the play comes from the one prosecution witness, who finally admits in court that she named Sam as the murderer during her first police interview as she needed ‘someone to blame’ for the senseless death of her friend. The play has a very short run so I would recommend booking your tickets as soon as possible. Don’t expect an evening of anything but thought provoking theatre concerning a possible miscarriage of justice where one boy’s protestation and a mother’s lament echo in your conscious long after the play’s end.
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By Victoria Milton-Danes @vikvok
6th March - 31st March 2012
The King’s Head Theatre, London, N1.
Post show discussions:
13th March - Miscarriage of Justice
20th March - Why Verbatim Theatre?
Singer/songwriter and LGBT activist Ezra Axelrod is a twenty-five year old American gay jew whose home is London and takes a rocking residency at the Leicester Square Theatre to showcase and launch his album Songs From An American Hotel. The show of twelve songs cover aspects of his life in hometown Le Grande, Oregon and tales from his extensive travels in South America and Europe. Largely focussing on coming out, lust, love and adventure, Ezra supplements the songs with short anecdotes, some explicit, others quite touching.
The show is set in Ezra’s bland $35 per night motel room. His band bang on the door, Axelrod appears sporting only a towel to answer their knocking. Bass plus guitar, a drummer, a very capable female violinist and two supporting vocalists enter. Ezra, now dressed in briefs and looking very buff, gives a brief introduction, steps into a pair of tight fitting jeans and so the songs begin. They start with ‘Prayer From A Dressing Room’ and move through the album via gorgeous ballad ‘Father’ with elegant harmonies, from Tim Oxbrow and Dwayne Washington, and stunning violin accompaniment from Willemijn Steenbakkers. We hear of his porn-loving grandma in ‘Pornstars and Broken Hearts’ and his lust for a schoolteacher in ‘Around Here’, before the tender lyrics of an emotionally charged ‘10 Million Lights’. Tom Parsons demonstrates his exceptional skill on bass throughout and occasionally as vocalist. For me though, the haunting duet ‘Strangers’ proved to be a highlight of the evening.
Essentially a concert in an intimate setting, there is some narrative, often humorous, containing occasional choice language and explicit sexual references. The notion that the audience become part of the intimacy of Ezra’s show taking place in an American motel room is attractive in theory and having singers sat on a bed in the centre of the space serves this idea well, but the confines of a rather poky basement lounge of the LST makes for 65 people sat in very cramped conditions, some with restricted view - beware!
Ezra Axelrod is a proficient entertainer and musician, he has assembled a talented group of performers and his show works well as a song-cycle to promote the new album. However, the expected rock and theatre elements to the show are barely there and the anecdotes, while interesting, are largely unremarkable and thus serve only as fillers between songs. However, there is no doubt that this boy can sing, so go if that attracts you. Get to the venue early if you can and grab one of the stools by the bar, along the back wall or a chair at the very front otherwise you will find it a very uncomfortable interval-less eighty minutes.
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By Chris Simms
Runs until 3rd March 2012
Leicester Square Theatre Lounge WC2H
Revived in London for the first time in fifty years as part of the Finborough’s rediscovery series, Outward Bound was first produced at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead in 1923 and enjoyed subsequent West End success. Perhaps Sutton Vane’s most prominent play concerning the tale of seven passengers who meet in the smokers’ bar of a ship as it sails from an English port to an undisclosed destination. Alex Marker’s set is mighty impressive and surely a contender for award nomination. The intimate theatre space has been neatly transformed into an art deco saloon, complete with four brass portholes and twenties-style, walnut veneered, hexagonal bar tables. Some of the on-stage seating is used by the audience, adding to the ‘friends at sea’ atmosphere. David Brett plays the role of Scrubby the steward perfectly with a “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir”, tenderly patronising approach; nothing is too much trouble yet all the while you are aware that he knows something that the others don’t.
Carmen Rodriguez gives a wonderfully nasal and snobbish air to Mrs Cliveden-Banks, a cut above the rest with an equally acerbic wit who takes an instant dislike to fellow passenger Reverend William Duke (Paul Westwood), declaring him ‘unlucky at sea’. Little does she know that to navigate this voyage requires far more than good fortune. In total contrast, chair lady Mrs Midget, ably played by Ursula Mohan is far more introvert, down to earth and carries a secret. Cliveden-Banks would have her in steerage, but this mysterious vessel only has one class so they are stuck with each other. Rotund MP and boring old duffer Mr Lingley (Derek Howard), astute drunk Tom Prior (Nicholas Karmi) together with couple Henry (Tom Davey) and Ann (Natalie Walker) make up the other ship mates on this ill-fated trip.
Booze-loving Prior is the first to realise their fate and that excepting their barman, there is no captain or crew. Nicholas Karmi plays him convincingly, his announcement to the others being a highlight of the play. After an unnecessary second interval, the group, chaired by Lingley, call an extraordinary meeting, one by one they all reach the same unhappy conclusion. Mrs Cliveden-Banks is appropriately dressed in black mourning as the ship sails into very strange waters. Enter Martin Wimbush, very distinguished as the Reverend Frank Thomson, to determine their fate. If you haven’t guessed the plot already, I’ll not spoil if for you.
Yes, this is a play which is showing its age a little and is a relatively slow mover compared with most of today’s output but a talented cast has managed to keep this revival pleasing. There are some very comedic moments, most of which still work very well. The enigmatic couple of ‘halfways’ add very little to the story until the end, but when secrets are opened and all is revealed, their presence makes perfect sense.
A steady, entertaining and retro work that’s certainly deserving of an outing; overall however, it’s unlikely that this old sea dog will cause too much of a storm.
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By Gareth Richardson @BargainTheatre
Runs until 25th February 2012
Finborough Theatre, London, SW10.
One piece of practical advice before I begin. Book tickets now!
This is immensely worth seeing and enjoyable on so many counts. One only needs the vaguest notion of Maria Callas and opera to engage, it is a top of its class masterclass. In fact it’s ‘class’ in every sense of the word. The fourth wall is broken immediately as the audience become part of the lesson too. Cagney and Lacey’s Tyne Daly is simply enthralling as the world famous opera singer in the twilight of her career who wastes no time instructing not only her students but also the spectators, “Don’t applaud, we’re here to work” she barks. The tone is set as Callas’ naturally acerbic wit fascinates and terrorises simultaneously. “I don’t believe in mics, if you can’t hear me it’s your fault!” The story concerns three professional singers who seek guidance by attending her sessions. Each is dealt with in turn, “Listen and feel,” she tells Sophie de Palma (Dianne Pilkington), “concentrate on diction, vowels and consonants”, as the pair form a tender duet without singing.
Passing reference to other stars of the period, including Joan Sutherland, Callas injects caustic humour, “How can you have rivals when no one else can do what you do?” Her career was a tough one, lasting barely twenty years and ending in her early forties. Where do you go when your voice declines and your heart is broken by Aristotle Onassis? She died young at 53 but during 1970 and 1971 taught a series of remarkable, open classes at the Julliard School, Paris. Terrence McNally’s play gives a revelatory portrait of the Diva by focussing on this period. Tyne Daly’s performance is unmissable, touching, funny and spellbinding, she owns the Vaudeville stage just as Callas owned La Scala say, or Covent Garden. “Bite into those words and spit them out” she commands the beautifully vocal Naomi O’Connell as timid Sharon Graham, galvanising her with fear and passion for their art, convincing her that performance is a struggle she has to win. Instruction and inspiration go hand in hand and there is no room for sentiment or doubt.
Don’t expect Daly to sing, she can’t and doesn’t much. This aspect is left to Callas’ pupils. Garrett Sorenson, as tenor Anthony Candolino, is particularly strong and treats the audience to a wonderfully fluid aria from Tosca. Soprano Naomi O’Connell pleases greatly too, but remarkably the musical aspect is ancillary in this play. This is much more. It’s about making an impactive entrance, maintaining full stage presence and exerting full control over the theatre environment. That’s what Callas teaches everyone in the auditorium, not just those who have come for the lesson. Attention is demanded by, and given to her, in equal amount. Jeremy Cohen as pianist Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Weinstock and Gerard Carey as the unnamed stagehand feel her commanding influence too; like iron-filings to a magnet, there can be no resistance.
The heartache, bitterness and tears Callas suffered are forged by Daly into a focussed energy, engulfing all around. Such is the power of her performance; channelled and converging through the audience.
Personally, I’ve not seen a female lead as thrilling on a West End stage since Tracie Bennett’s Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow.
Don’t hesitate, book now!
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REVIEWED: 25th January 2012
By Gareth Richardson @BargainTheatre
Runs until 28th April 2012
Vaudeville Theatre, London, WC2.