Review: Imagine This, Union Theatre

“There’s singing, there’s dancing, and all the Jews die in the end”

The West End production of Imagine This lasted for barely a month in 2008, so it usually one of the first shows named when it comes to lists of notorious flops. Which might explain, at least partly, why it has taken nearly a decade for anyone to go near the show again, that honour going to first-time director Harry Blumenau who is now mounting the musical at the Union Theatre, in a well-cast production seeking to reassess that reputation.

For me, as a first-timer to the show, it didn’t feel hard to see why it didn’t succeed. Glenn Berenbeim’s grimly stoic book is set in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 where a group of actors are trying to lift spirits by staging a play. And not just any play, it’s the story of the siege of Masada, a historical act of Jewish resistance and thereby flicking the v-sign to the Nazis. But Berenbeim attempts to gild the lily by throwing a would-be epic romance which ultimately cheapens the narrative fatally. Continue reading “Review: Imagine This, Union Theatre”

Review: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, West Yorkshire Playhouse

“Scrumptious as the breeze across the day”

Who knew that Leeds would be a musical theatre hotspot this December but between The Girls and this Music & Lyrics and West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it’s been the place to be for big, warm-hearted musical fun. This is the first new version of Chitty Chitty… since its original 2002 West End production and its many regional tours but in James Brining’s clever and wondrous adaptation, it’s thoroughly revitalised and as lovely as any cherry peach parfait.

Ian Fleming’s novel was adapted by Jeremy Sams, via Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes’ own reshaping of the story for the cinema, and with a glorious score from the Sherman Brothers (as if they could do any other kind) beefed up with new songs by them as well, it captures much of the Disney noir feel of the film whilst bringing its own depths too. I’d forgotten how much sadness there was in the tale and that’s something Brining never lets us forget, even whilst delighting us with flying cars and fun. Continue reading “Review: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, West Yorkshire Playhouse”

Review: Chess, Union Theatre

“But nobody’s rules are the same”

With music from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus  of ABBA and conceived by Tim Rice who also contributed the lyrics, the 1980s musical Chess had grand ambitions which have never really come to fruition as it remains a show that has been revised as often as it has been revived. This new production at the powerhouse of intimate musical theatre that is the Union is a version which has been sanctioned by Rice himself as the definitive version of this story of a love triangle in the world of international chess competitions set against the backdrop of the Cold War. But the potency of an intimate venue has to be carefully captured in order to make it truly work and this is where Chess comes a little unstuck.

Ryan Dawson Laight’s design has recast the Union into a shallow thrust, the size of the theatre meaning that most of the seats end up on the sides. Not an issue at all in and of itself but Laight has a large platform take up most of the space at the rear of the stage and so much of the action is forced forward and this, combined with co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris having the performers play predominantly straight ahead, results in a production that too rarely engages with the vast majority of its audience. For the handful of eight or so people facing the stage head-on, it must be marvellous but if the theatre were full, more people would actually see Florence’s back than her face during the bruisingly raw final scene – that two directors can misuse such an intimate space this way is certainly problematic.  Continue reading “Review: Chess, Union Theatre”