Review: Preludes, Southwark Playhouse

An extraordinary piece of boundary-pushing musical theatre, Preludes is a special delight at the Southwark Playhouse

“Dangling on the melting edge of sleep”

You’d think there would come a point where it barely seems worth mentioning that musical theatre is a genre which contains multitudes, yet the stereotypical image of jazz hands prevails, people so easily writing off ever seeing any musical. I’m not saying that Dave Malloy’s Preludes would be the first choice to try and convince them otherwise, but it would certain shatter their preconceptions.

Malloy’s study of a crucial period in the life of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov is startlingly imaginative. Using the hypnotherapy sessions Rach endured in real life, Malloy delves into the realm of all their possibilities, to explore the demons that plague him, the complexity of his creative process, the society that trammels him, endlessly slipping between past and present, fantasy and reality. Continue reading “Review: Preludes, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin, Jermyn Street Theatre

Who knew that fascists could rhyme? WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood tackle inter-war Europe in The Dog Beneath The Skin at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London.

“Places sometimes look different when one comes back to them”

Proud Haddock’s production of Mrs Orwell was quite the success last year, earning a deserved transfer from the Old Red Lion to the Southwark Playhouse. And they continue their ethos of celebrating “unearthed stories from classical playwrights” with this revival of WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s 1935 play The Dog Beneath The Skin which rounds off the Jermyn Street Theatre’s Scandal season.

Mixing an almost fairytale-like quest with a stark warning to guard for the rise of fascism, it’s a fascinatingly drawn play. And Jimmy Walters’ production leans heavily into its curiosity with voiceover segments, drag cabarets and multiple songs (by Jeremy Warmsley) accompanying the lyrical twist of the rhyming couplets threaded throughout the script. With cleverly expressive movement work from Ste Clough, all this strangeness has a compelling quality to it. Continue reading “Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin, Jermyn Street Theatre”

Album Review: Big the Musical (2016 Original UK Cast Recording)

“When we must cross over
Who knows what we’ll find”

A 90s musical of an 80s film – nostalgia has a lot to answer for but it was to Maltby Jr and Shires’ 1996 adaptation of the Tom Hanks-starring film that producers turned for their big Christmas musical at Bord Gais Energy Theatre in Dublin. Morgan Young’s production also had a short run at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and with the creation of this UK cast recording, you wonder whether further plans were in the pipeline for the show.

I’m not holding my breath though, as it doesn’t really sound like that much of a winner. Shire’s score is painfully dated, Maltby’s lyrics provide little spark and as a whole, Big the Musical just sounds a bit twee, a bit inconsequential. There’s little sense at all of the songs driving the narrative, they’re more an inoffensive, intermittent distraction, taking way too long to inch over to even just to ‘pleasant’ on the scale. Continue reading “Album Review: Big the Musical (2016 Original UK Cast Recording)”

Review: Benighted, Old Red Lion

“Gin is excellent”

It is perhaps appropriate that for Stewart Pringle’s final show at the helm of the Old Red Lion, he’s gone with his beloved horror genre. And following in the success of their Arthur Miller discovery No Villain, this Angel pub theatre is impressively punching above its weight again with a world (stage) premiere of a JB Priestley piece – Benighted. First published as a novel in 1927 and adapted for cinema as The Old Dark House – apparently as the first ever haunted house drama – Duncan Gates’ version offers a stirring alternative to most other festive fare.

You notice the difference as soon as you walk into the theatre – Gregor Donnelly’s angular, expressionistic design giving a sense of the weirdness of the creepy mansion in which a number of people are forced to seek refuge during an apocalyptic stormy night in the Welsh countryside (I’m calling it Storm Myfanwy). And though they get respite from the weather, the atmosphere remains troubled as the eeriness of their surroundings – and their hosts – provokes a great unburdening of the soul as chilling fears run up their spine and secrets come a-tumbling out. Continue reading “Review: Benighted, Old Red Lion”

Review: Groundhog Day, Old Vic

“I have not a bad word to say, 
about small towns. Per se.”

Expectations were high, how could they not be. Following on from the extraordinary success of Matilda, Tim Minchin’s next foray into musical theatre was to an adaptation of the 90s movie Groundhog Day, playing a two month run at the Old Vic ahead of a presumed Broadway transfer (a move that has had a little doubt cast on it by the withdrawal of major producer Scott Rudin). Now full disclosure, I saw it in its first week thanks to the PWC £10 tickets and the show went for a full month of previews before officially opening, so feel free to take my opinion with a pinch of salt.

For I did not enjoy Groundhog Day, at all. Worse than that, I was bored by it – at least hating something rouses some form of passion, but as Danny Rubin’s book cycled round and round and Minchin’s not unpleasant but in no way striking score dissipated into the ether, I wondered if Rudin might not have had the right idea. There’s a stellar performance from US import Andy Karl as the central Phil, carved out of that leading man material that is particularly American, but for me there was just too little magic emanating from Matthew Warchus’ direction to elevate the material.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 17th September

Review: Annie Get Your Gun, Churchill Bromley

“Even with a turkey that you know will fold
You may be stranded out in the cold”

Blessed with one of the almighty scores of Broadway history, you’d think that productions of Annie Get Your Gun would be the simplest of gimmes but given that it is very much a piece of writing of its time, it’s not quite as easy as that (as I discovered recently in seeing Carousel for the first time). The gender politics therein are dubious at best and the treatment of Native Americans also speaks of severely outdated attitudes, so directors are faced with something of a conundrum. The Young Vic just went bizarre with it back in 2009 and now a major UK touring production by Ian Talbot opts for the ‘play within a play’ route, the framing device often used in The Taming of the Shrew to address similarly thorny issues. 

Elements of the show have also been removed and tinkered to further redress the gender balance but in all honesty it feels like a step too far – applying both of these patches detracts from their intentions. If it is a bit of meta-theatre, then surely it can just be played as is, as we know not to take it seriously; or if we’re reinventing the story for 21st century eyes, then just rewrite it wholesale. Instead we’re left with something which never really achieves either aspect on a dramatic level, something exacerbated by the limitations of a touring set design. Fortunately, the production sounds like a dream with a superb orchestra though and has some cracking performances in it from a cast who deliver the utterly timeless score by Irving Berlin with all the panache it deserves. Continue reading “Review: Annie Get Your Gun, Churchill Bromley”

Review: Seussical the Musical, Arts Theatre

“Oh, the thinks you can think!
Any thinker who thinks
Can come up with a few!”


Much of the charm of many festive shows comes from their innate familiarity – childhood pantomimes, the ever-present Dickens, the ageless music of The Nutcracker – but in an increasingly global cultural world, other shows are attempting to crack the family market at this potentially lucrative time of year for theatres. Seussical the Musical is one such show, returning to the Arts Theatre after a run last Christmas and though the world of Dr Seuss may not have quite the same purchase here as it does in the US, its appeal is undeniable.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical premiered on Broadway in 2000 but it is the ‘Theatre for Young Audiences’ version that Sell A Door Theatre Company have brought to the UK, a tale suitable for all ages woven together from a number of Dr Seuss’ stories. So the famous Cat in the Hat is there, introducing us to the weirdly wonderful way in which language is used in this world, and we soon get sucked into the adventures of Horton Hears A Who, as a kindly elephant tries to save a tiny world that exists on a speck of dust. 

A 12-strong ensemble are highly enthusiastic in Kirk Jameson’s production, surrounded by Richard Evans’ attractive technicolour set and inventive costumery, and their hard work largely pays off in the end. The initially convoluted story slowly develops into something lovely as everyone gets to learn a lesson about something, and Ste Clough’s Horton is a beautifully sensitive central presence as he sets about his various endeavours. Kirsty Marie Ayers is also excellent as Gertrude McFuzz, who has her own journey to take in order to help Horton as she so wishes to do.


But the choice to use backing tracks in lieu of live music inhibits the show, robbing the atmosphere of one of the key components of great musicals. Additionally, the sound is occasionally very muddy and so lyrical clarity is often not what it should be, some cast members prioritising vocal gymnastics over telling the story of their characters, and so risking losing the attention of the audience, whether old or young. But with Elliot Fitzpatrick’s twinkling Cat in the Hat guiding us through to a stomping finale of Green Eggs and Ham, Seussical just about redeems itself.


Running time 70 minutes (without interval)

Booking until 5th January

Originally written for The Public Reviews

Review: Shrek The Musical, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

“An Ogre always hides, an Ogre’s fate is known, an Ogre always stays in the dark and all alone”

I hadn’t originally intended to go to Shrek The Musical, certainly not this early in the run, never having seen the films and having a somewhat mixed reaction to the lead casting. The Nigels, Lindsay and Harman, intrigued me but Amanda Holden (I’ve never seen Britain’s Got Talent either) and Richard Blackwood did not appeal. But when an offer appeared on the show’s Facebook page, for £40 tickets at the front of the Upper Circle at a ridiculously cheap price of £15, I snapped up a pair as a birthday treat.

A big-budget production of the show had a relatively short run of just over a year on Broadway but a much-revised version went out on tour across North America last year and it is a copy of this scaled-down production that is now previewing in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, directed by Rob Ashford and Jason Moore. It has a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (also writer of the harrowing Rabbit Hole – talk about diversity!) and music by Jeanine Tesori, and according to my lovely companion for the evening, it cleaves very closely indeed to the first film in the franchise, right down to the same jokes being repeated. This is a review of an early preview, indeed there’s about a month of preview performances, so do bear that in mind as I have.  Continue reading “Review: Shrek The Musical, Theatre Royal Drury Lane”

Shows I am looking forward to in 2011

My intention is, honestly, to see less theatre this year and try and regain some semblance of a normal life again on the odd evening. But the curse of advance booking and grabbing cheap(er) tickets whilst you can has meant that there’s already an awful lot of theatre booked for 2011. Some have been booked without a huge deal of enthusiasm, but others have a dangerous amount of anticipation attached to them…and so I present to you, the shows I am most excited about seeing this year (so far).

 
Antonioni Project – Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

The Roman Tragedies was hands down one of the most exhilarating and refreshing theatrical experiences of 2009 and possibly my life, I’m even headed to Amsterdam in May to see a surtitled production of their Angels in America. So when I heard that the same Dutch theatre company were returning to the Barbican in February, tickets were booked instantly and I am feverishly over-excited for this now! Continue reading “Shows I am looking forward to in 2011”