Thursday, 28 July 2016

Theatre Review: Groundhog Day

The last time composer Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus collaborated a beautiful thing was created: Matilda.

Combining that level of genius with the much loved classic film Groundhog Day is a tantalising prospect which has generated a metric fuck tonne of hype.

But also a fair amount of wobble (technical term). The early previews of the new production, currently playing at the Old Vic, have been beset with problems to the result that many have been cancelled. I understand there have been issues with the financial backing for the proposed Broadway transfer. And Tim Minchin has been doing the rounds of the media giving the usually quite telling ‘I’m not sure what people will think of it’ interviews. Not encouraging signs. Had something gone horribly wrong in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania?

No, is the short answer. This production is a joy.

Image source.

Telling the story of weatherman Phil Connors who’s forced to repeat the same day over and over again (does anyone not know this?), Groundhog Day doesn’t seem to me to be an obvious story for a musical. Or not a good musical anyway. It seems to lend itself to a lazy shows where a version of the same song just repeats in different styles. Thankfully, this production is anything but lazy. It is incredibly ambitious.

For a start, the show looks absolutely incredible. The staging is astonishingly busy and complex incorporating frequent by-hand set changes, trapdoors (I assume), elements of puppetry and shadow puppetry, a revolve consisting of at least four concentric mini-revolves and a lot of people on stage at almost every moment. It’s not surprising to see why they’ve had so many problems in getting it going during early previews. That said, now that it is going it is phenomenally impressive and the staging itself is undoubtedly one of the stars of the show in its own right. I would love to sit through a dry run of this show just to see how everything works, which is not something you can say of many shows.

The music is fantastic, which goes without saying since Tim Minchin wrote it. It’s grand, it’s funny, it’s touching when it needs to be and the lyrics are inventive and brilliant. My favourite number, the name of which I sadly don’t know, was the one where the procession of quack doctors and priests trying to ‘cure’ Phil Connors of whatever they perceive his illness to be but ultimately admitting that they have no idea what they’re doing and their interventions are pointless. It’s funnier than I’ve managed to make it sound. Also the song about how depressing small town USA is is a beautiful hymn to cynicism which I for one am wholly on board with. And though there is obviously repetition it’s done in such a way that it is largely non-annoying. Plus the music stands up to repeated listens anyway.

Though the, reasonably small, ensemble is fantastic and hard working this is in many ways a one man show. It certainly relies on its leading man extremely heavily which, added to the fact that the iconic Bill Murray of course played the lead in the film, makes for what must be one of the more high pressure jobs in theatreland. Broadway import Andy Karl is the man on whose shoulders this all falls and, thankfully, he is more than up to the job. His is an absolute belter of a performance; genuinely outstanding. Dripping with charisma, he is a joyously enjoyable dickhead who transforms into a touchingly enjoyable Nice Man as the show progresses with a plausibility and emotional range that the show utterly depends on. He makes you invest in the story and root for Connors even when he’s awful. He also has a great voice, which helps in a musical. Meaty supporting characters are few, but Carlyss Peer is a great foil for Karl as his idealistic love interest and another stellar voice.

I loved this show. It’s a huge, ambitious, silly, dirty, funny, joyful riot of a thing that deserves to be a smash hit here and on Broadway and make a huge star of its leading man. Snap up one of the final remaining tickets quickly.

Groundhog Day plays at the Old Vic until September 17th.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Theatre Review: Show Boat

They say the best theatre teaches us things about ourselves that we didn’t know.

Well I learned something about myself whilst watching Show Boat and that is that I cannot hear the song Ol’ Man River sung live without bursting into tears. And not like gentle, ladylike tears; like full on wracking sobs.

There will be no beating about the bush in this review: the Sheffield Crucible’s West End transfer production of Show Boat is genuinely exceptional and you - yes you - need to see it. I’m being unusually direct (meandering jokes and unrelated asides will resume next post) because, for whatever reason, this show doesn’t seem to have found an audience. And that’s an absolute travesty. It genuinely makes me quite angry.

Image source.

Directed by the Crucible’s outgoing (and, excitingly, Chichester Festival’s incoming) Artistic Director Daniel Evans, Show Boat is just a huge, glitzy, old Broadway joy of a show. For the uninitiated, it tells the story of the cast of characters who live and work aboard and around a traditional Mississippi floating theatre boat - a Show Boat, if you will. What must have made the show revolutionary in its day is that it deals with both the white and the black characters within that story equally and honestly. It is a show that, for all its old school charm and hokey marketing (and herein one suspects lies the problem in it finding an audience), is depressingly relevant in its portrayal of race relations and black rights. For this reason alone it deserves to be seen.

And then there’s the music. Ol’ Man River is of course the big number (I’m tearing up just writing the title, this is ridiculous), and reprised several times, but there is so much glorious music in this show that it makes my head spin. Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man is another highlight, as are Bill and Life Upon the Wicked Stage. But this show shares with Gypsy a feeling of a Broadway Greatest Hits album. If you know your musicals a bit you’ll recognise so many of the songs, even if you didn’t know they came from this show. They are beautifully arranged, sung and played in this production too. Musically, I this is the best show I’ve seen this year and in the top three of shows I’ve seen ever.

The staging of this production is also outstanding. The set revolves around a life size (ish) three story recreation of the back of the titular boat which retracts when the action moves onto land, as it does in act two, and is otherwise fairly simply dressed. It’s so effective and the lighting in particular is just flat out beautiful. As anyone who’s seen a Crucible musical production before will have come to expect, the choreography (courtesy of Alistair David) is amazing, especially in the big group numbers. The costumes are perfect.

Finally, this superlative production has a superlative cast. Show Boat is sort of an ensemble piece and there is strength in depth on view all over the place here. Gina Beck, owner of one of the best voices in the West End, and Broadway import Chris Peluso are on superb form as the doomed lovers at the centre of the story, even if Peluso’s character must be one of the least likeable ever written for a musical. Danny Collins, more often seen in Matthew Bourne ballets, shows off considerable comedic chops as well as the fantastic moves you’d expect in one of the less serious lead roles. Sandra Marvin is an outstanding Queenie. And, on the night I saw it, superstar understudy Tosh Wanogho-Maud was a stunning Joe, squeezing every inch of feeling out of Ol’ Man River.

So, yeah, I loved this show. I loved everything about it. And you need to see it before it closes early (ridiculous) at the end of August. There are excellent ticket deals around. Use them.

Show Boat plays at the New London Theatre (nicer on the inside than it looks!) until 27th August.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Theatre Review: No Villain

What do early Arthur Miller play No Villain and Conservative party conference have in common?

I’ll tell you. They are two of the only situations in life into which I feel like I could be dropped with no explanation and still instantly know where I was.

Tory conference is, as a sociological experiment, an amazing place. So many suits, so much champagne and so many hyphenated surnames. It’s the most frighteningly homogenous place I’ve ever been (for work, I hasten to add) but there is a sort of reassurance in the fact that it’s basically the same as it has always been and will always be.

(Stick with me here I am going somewhere with this.)

Image source.

No Villain, currently playing in the dinky Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios, gave me a similar feeling of reassuring familiarity. A recently discovered piece, No Villain is the first play Miller ever wrote and is, fairly obviously, semi-autobiographical. It is also a prototype for almost every play he wrote subsequently, especially Death of a Salesman. Had I been dropped into that theatre with no explanation, I would certainly known I was watching Miller. I may well have thought that it was Death of a Salesman. Thankfully, here the similarities with Tory conference begin and end.

Because unlike Tory conference, I actually really enjoyed No Villain. Admittedly, if you’ve seen Death of a Salesman you do get a slight sense of deja vu, both from the writing and the characterisation. If you don’t like Death of a Salesman I can see that this would be an issue for you, but I fucking love that beautiful bleak thing so for me it wasn’t at all. And the work is no less powerful for being something slightly less than original. There’s the same sense of middle aged anguish at hard work amounting to failure and of youthful idealism and yearning for change in Villain as in Salesman and in both cases the inevitable collision between the two is heartbreaking and dramatic. I’ve always felt that the emotional heart of Miller’s writing comes from the fact it’s rooted in ordinary, plausible human experience. No Villain is, for my money, the most ordinary and plausible of his stories and for that is all the more powerful. Some of the more lengthy crow-barring in of Marxist theory could quite happily be cut - whoever heard of a new writer delivering a perfect play anyway? - but strip that away and the story at the heart of this piece is incredibly strong.

Some slightly wandering accents aside, this production is helped in its power by a fantastic, small, ensemble cast. There’s really nowhere to hide in Studio 2 - a stage the size of a small kitchen with three rows of seats around three sides - and the cast work with that really well. George Turvey as Ben, the non-intellectual son who nonetheless is won over by the appeal of his intellectual brother’s Communism, is a particular highlight turning in a performance of real emotional conflict. Nesba Crenshaw is also great, and exceptionally watchable, as his highly strung mother. I found David Bromley’s Abe (Villain’s proto-Willy Loman) a little bit more hit and miss, but when he did hit he was excellent and had the perfect air of impotent rage and confusion that this character requires.

Necessarily for such a small space, on the face of it there’s not much to the design of this show but what there is is done very well. I found the simple, quick changes between the play’s two sets - the family home and the family factory - very impressive given the confines in which they had to work. It’s low key amazing what they manage to achieve with a table, a couple of chairs and some curtain rails of ‘fur’ coats.

I really enjoyed No Villain and would recommend it to anyone, especially given the ticket price range and the fact it’s only 80 minutes long. However, if you hate Death of a Salesman there’s nothing for you here (and also you’re dead inside).

No Villain plays at Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios until 23rd July. Be quick.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Theatre Review: Into the Woods

It is very rare these days that I go and see something at the theatre that I genuinely haven’t seen before.

That’s not to say that I don’t see some innovative and original stuff, but something altogether different from anything I’ve ever seen before? Very, very rare.

Enter stage left(field), the Fiasco Theatre Company. An American (where else?), actor led company, Fiasco have rocked up to the Menier Chocolate Factory with a transfer of their extraordinary - in every sense - production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

Image source.

And I have just never seen anything like it.

To say this production is stripped back would be something of an understatement. There is no scenery, no orchestra, minimal props and costumes. The eleven-strong cast play multiple parts, provide all the music and sound effects and create the scenery. Most strikingly of all, Sondheim’s rich score is distilled down to its bones, played on a single piano with support from the various instruments the cast play. It sounds so beautiful, completely fresh and utterly magical.

The way that the company work within these confines is remarkable. The use of a handful of props to create so many different characters and story threads is brilliant. The way that ‘special effects’ are created using basically nothing is incredible (the shadow show that creates the death of the giant is particularly beautiful). Each of the multiple parts that each actor plays is wonderfully brought to life with the change of perhaps one item of costume, a change of accent and a smile.

After a while you start to wonder what the fuck other musical productions are doing with all of their sets, costumes and fancy ornamentation. And still not resulting in anything half this wonderful. This production is all about the music and that is such a revelation.

The other thing this production about is pure, sheer joy. You can tell that every single member of Fiasco’s company loves this show and loves performing. The wonder of putting on a show like this in a venue as teeny tiny as the Menier is that the audience is close enough to really be able to appreciate that. Though quite honestly I think you could put this company in Wembley Stadium and their joy would still shine through. And I would argue that at the moment we could all use some more joy. There’s hardly a surfeit of it around.

That said, this version of Into the Woods isn’t the Disney version. It is dark, it is sad and it is tragic. The way the more sombre moods are portrayed through the music is heartbreakingly beautiful.

I would normally now list the performances that I particularly enjoyed but this is a genuine ensemble piece and I particularly enjoyed every single person’s contribution. All eleven cast members are incredible. I refuse to believe that there is a more hardworking or more talented cast anywhere in theatreland. There just can’t be. They act, they sing, they dance, they move props around, they play instruments, they direct the production (well two of them do); I’m surprised they didn’t sell the programmes and ice creams as well. And they enjoy it so fucking much, which really is rather more revolutionary than it should be.

I can’t praise or proselytise about this production enough. There aren’t the words for it. Go and see it yourself and I guarantee you’ll fall as much in love as I have.

Into the Woods plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 17th September.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Theatre Review: Richard III

There are very few things in this world that will convince me that trekking to Islington on a Monday night is a worthwhile endeavour.

Frankly, I resent the Almeida Theatre for living there. But occasionally something in their programming lures me over. And, Monday night in Islington or otherwise, if you can say no to Ralph Fiennes in the title role in Richard III then you’re a stronger and/or more stupid person than I am.

Image source. Also how cool is this image?

Directed by Rupert Goold, owner of the best head of hair in theatre, and played largely in modern dress bar some pleasingly shiny armour this is a brutal and resonant production. It’s framed by short scenes depicting the discovery of Richard’s bones in Leicester a few years ago but, frankly, in this post-Brexit clusterfuck of a Britain that we now live in this is a play that would feel relevant even without this flourish. I liked it though, the contrast between the historical figure of Richard III and Shakespeare’s version is an interesting thought to plant in an audience’s mind whilst watching this play.

To state the blindingly obvious, Ralph Fiennes was the major draw for me of this production (as, one suspects, he was for everyone else in the audience) and, to state the even more blindingly obvious, he is a perfect Richard III. I’ve never seen Fiennes do Shakespeare in real life before and my goodness is it a treat. Get it on your bucket lists kids. He has the ~perfect~ voice for it, something which the tiny, echoey Almeida and some amazing sound design shows off to incredible effect. When he really lets fly in Richard’s angrier moment the echo goes on for what feels like hours and it’s magical. His characterisation of Richard as a rampant misogynist is an interesting take, and another aspect of the play which feels sadly relevant today, that largely pays off and certainly gives him scope to play with some of the language in a way that makes it feel fresh. But for me his Richard is strongest in the ‘lighter’ moments (obviously a relative concept) and the number of laughs he gets is probably the most striking thing about this performance for me. It almost feels like a Ralph Fiennes greatest hits medley: Voldemort meets M. Gustave. Hilarious with a very sharp edge. I dug it.

There is serious strength and depth is Fiennes’ supporting cast. Aislin McGuckin was my personal highlight as an outstanding Queen Elizabeth. Her anguish and piercing screams when she finds out that Richard has murdered her children is a proper, hair-on-end, Moment and her verbal sparring with Richard is like a particularly satisfying tennis match. Susan Engel is a touch of pure, venomous class as Cecily, Duchess of York too. For the boys, Finbar Lynch is a great, properly evil Buckingham (who I think might be my favourite character in R III) and Shakespeare’s Globe legend James Garnon crosses the river to turn in a fantastically smug, fun and tragic Hastings. There’s honestly not a weak link in this cast though, even if I was slightly underwhelmed by Vanessa Redgrave (I’m fully expecting the theatre gods to strike me down for admitting that).

The other star of this production is its design. I’ve already mentioned Adam Cork’s sound design, but his incidental music is also exceptional in a joyfully non-distracting way. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is a brutalist joy, making the most of the Almeida’s exposed brickwork and dark corners and somehow making the fact that Richard’s modern day grave is left exposed for the entire show work too. The way that the skulls of Richard’s victims stack up along the back wall of the stage is also a fun touch, if your sense of fun is as bleak as mine. I increasingly love the Almedia as a space and this production makes really fantastic use of it.

Rupert Goold’s direction also deserves considerable praise. This is a long production but it really doesn’t feel like it; the action is perfectly paced. There are a couple of unnecessary directorly flourishes that don’t pay off - the crowbarring in of a Richard/Elizabeth rape scene being the prime example - but by and large this is a straight-bat, brutal production that is an absolute credit to all involved.

Highly recommended, probably sold out (though there is a day seat lottery), but thankfully getting a cinema broadcast on 21st July.

Richard III plays at the Almeida until 6th August.