Category Archives: WEST END REVIEWS

REVIEW: Gypsy – Savoy Theatre, London

What more can be said about Gypsy?, save for the fact that it is all it is hyped up to be: a great big, ballsy, barnstorming, bravura performance by the brilliant Imelda Staunton in the musical many regard as the greatest ever written and astonishing that it has been over 40 years since its one and only appearance on the London stage.

Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre  Imelda Staunton as Rose,  ©Alastair Muir 15.04.15

Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre
Imelda Staunton as Rose,
©Alastair Muir 15.04.15

National treasure Staunton is in equal measure terrifying and electrifying as the showbiz mom to end all showbiz moms. She veers from comical pluckiness to frightening forcefulness throughout, but there are moments too of genuine tenderness in her relationship with the long suffering Herbie, her much put-upon beau.

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The book by Arthur Laurents and the music and lyrics from Jule Styne & Stephen Sondheim perfectly encapsulates the Vaudeville era, the desperation to ‘make it’, grab a buck wherever you can, travelling the vast expanse of the US from the dustbowl to the down at heel playhouses, scrabbling for a slot to show your wares and pay for your next meal.

Gypsy at The Savoy Theatre Imelda Staunton as Rose, Lara Pulver as Louise ©Alastair Muir 15.04.15

Gypsy at The Savoy Theatre
Imelda Staunton as Rose, Lara Pulver as Louise
©Alastair Muir 15.04.15

Though it is very much Staunton’s show, she is more than ably supported by Lara Pulver as Louise the daughter who eventually morphs from overlooked tomboy to the world’s most famous strip tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, Gemma Sutton as favoured daughter June – still pretending to be nine years old when she’s clearly on the cusp of womanhood and Peter Davison as the affable and loyal Herbie. Credit must also go to the child actors of Rose’s ragbag vaudeville troupe  who provide much of the first act laughs.

This is a work of infinite quality topped off with one of the finest musical theatre performances you are ever likely to see. Truly unmissable.

Runs until 28 November 2015

REVIEW: Bend It Like Beckham – Phoenix Theatre, London

Gurinder Chadha’s adaptation of her own 2002 movie Bend It Like Beckham misses the goalposts more than it hits the back of the net.

Jess Bhamra (Natalie Dew) is an 18 year old football fanatic from Southall, the daughter of strict Punjabi Sikh parents and forbidden from playing the beautiful game. Her skills come to the attention of Jules (Lauren Samuels), who persuades her to try out for semi-pro team the Hounslow Harriers. Cue deception, love, heartbreak and acceptance all dished up to a Bhangra beat.

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Running at nearly three hours, there is too much padding and not enough drive in this musical re-working of Gurinder Chadha and husband Paul Mayeda Berges’ movie. It gets off to a woefully slow start and its lacklustre score and hugely stereotypical characterisations do nothing to elevate it above being a reasonably pleasant way to kill three hours.

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Howard Goodall’s Indian-infused score is repetitive and lacks the requisite number of big tunes a new musical needs, save the soaring and anthemic ‘Glorious’, there is little that sticks in the memory other than the hugely annoying ‘Girl Perfect’ which lodges in the brain for all the wrong reasons and, like many of the other songs, is repeated incessantly throughout. Charles Hart’s lyrics do little to help, being simplistic rather than sophisticated. One song that does linger in the memory though, is the haunting ‘Heer’, a 500 year old traditional Indian love song.

Lauren Samuels (Jules) and Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical. Photo credit  Ellie Kurttz_0

Natalie Dew is a suitably wide-eyed and innocent heroine and is ably supported by Lauren Samuels as fellow tomboy Jules and the rest of the cast are amiable enough, and of fine voice (especially Preeya Kalidas as Barbie doll sister Pinky and Tony Jayawardena as Mr. Bhamra) however, at times too much mugging goes on: the blame for this though can be laid squarely at the fact that the characters are two-dimensional and much too thinly written. Twilight and Harry Potter actor Jamie Campbell Bower as coach Joe, though competent, barely registers after the event.

Miriam Buether’s two tier, semi-circular, rotating set is rather simplistic and on the cheap looking side, but it is eye-poppingly bright and cheerful. The costumes by Katrina Lindsay didn’t need much work being either football kit, traditional sari or early 2000’s lycra and bling.

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The whole endeavour is pleasant enough but nothing more, it is bright, brash, not exactly brain taxing and runs far too long into extra time, and I wonder how much life it will have ultimately.

REVIEW: The Elephant Man – Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play charting the life of Joseph Merrick, lacks narrative drive and its stereotypical portrayal of Victorian society is dated, but the whole endeavour is resoundingly saved by two compelling central performances from Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola. 

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Cooper has stated that at age 12, it was John Hurt’s 1980 performance in David Lynch’s film version of The Elephant Man that made him decide to become an actor, he also performed the role for his master’s thesis at New York’s Actors Studio. Having previously appeared at both the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012 and on Broadway in 2014, Cooper, director Scott Ellis and his team complete their “amazing journey” by bringing the play home to London.

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Pomerance’s play takes Merrick from the squalor and inhuman treatment as a side-show freak, his “saving” by Dr. Frederick Treves, to celebrity and patronage by the scions of Victorian society.

Cooper uses only gesture and mannerism in an impressive physical display, to portray Merrick, and it is a hugely sensitive, brilliantly subtle and deeply affecting performance delivered with an impeccable English accent. It is a performance of such quality that it immediately dispels any worries that this is a mere vanity project for the double Oscar nominee.

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The action is played out with minimal props on a sparse wooden boarded stage, the scenes changing with a swish of the onstage muslin curtains, it is a small scale play and it benefits from this intimate chamber staging.

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Whilst the acting abilities of Cooper and Nivola (Treves) are in no doubt, the play itself is problematic: the pace is laboured throughout despite the scenes being played out in short sharp bursts, and the narrative lacks drive, it ambles along perfectly pleasantly but it lacks light and shade and the treatment of the subject matter is either superficial or heavy handed. That said, I defy anyone not to be moved at by the close of Act One and the declaration by Merrick “sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams”.

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A beautifully judged, and perfectly delivered performance from Cooper let down by a dated play.

Runs until 8th August 2015

 

REVIEW: Beautiful – Aldwych Theatre, London

A little lacking in plot, it is the star-making turn of Katie Brayben which elevates Beautiful above your common or garden jukebox musical.

"'Beautiful-The Carole King Musical' Play performed at the Aldwych Theatre, London, UK"

Tracking the life and career of Carol King, from prodigiously talented child, through her teenage marriage to fellow Brooklyn resident and musical genius Gerry Goffin, (the songs come easy but King’s personal life fails to mirror her chart success) to her subsequent solo career and the record-breaking (25 million copies sold) 1971 album Tapestry.

While the book fails to really sparkle, the music and the acting deliver entertainment in spades.

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Throw into the mix the friendly rivalry between Goffin and King and fellow hit factory pairing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and the hits just keep on coming.

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There’s Neil Sedaka, the shiny-suited Drifters, The Shirelles resplendent in bubblegum pink satin, the Righteous Brothers and Little Eva to name only a few. And the songs, oh, what songs: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Up on the Roof, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, We Gotta Get Out of This Place, On Broadway, The Locomotion, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Natural Woman and You’ve Got a Friend are just a few, and hearing these classic hits delivered with such care and enthusiasm, is a tonic for even the hardest of hearts.

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beautiful londonBeautiful fails to scratch any deeper than the surface but it is an undeniably entertaining night at the theatre with an outstanding cast and score: Brayben, Alan Morrissey as Gerry Goffin and Ian McIntosh & Lorna Want as Mann & Weill are exceptionally talented (as are the supporting cast). An utter joy for the ears, it should be praised for throwing King, this hugely talented woman, centre stage and firmly in the spotlight where she and her world-beating music deserve to be.

 

REVIEW: The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, London

It’s easy to be blinded by James McAvoy’s mercurial performance in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, and indeed it’s one of the finest central performances I’ve witnessed on a West End stage, but this is a play that is not without its (considerable) faults.

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Whilst there are parallels still there to be drawn, this 1968 satire has dated badly (cobweb covered members of the House of Lords, Marxist speechifying, quite frankly unfunny slapstick). Its absurdity and surreal tone sits somewhat uncomfortably with an audience more used to their drama being served up more naturalistically. However, if seeing James McAvoy in his underpants riding across the stage on a unicycle with the words “God Is Love” penned on his chest, his tutu wearing father accidently killing himself in a game of auto-erotic asphyxiation or the ensemble spontaneously bursting into a music hall ditty – then this is the play for you.

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McAvoy is the 14th Earl of Gurney, newly returned to inherit the family estate but quite clearly one step beyond the usual aristocratic eccentricities, he enters clad in a monk’s cloak, claiming to be Jesus, leaping on and off a gigantic wooden cross, his family then do their utmost to disinherit him.

Whilst there are moments of genuine comedy and chuckles of recognition at the upper classes getting away with what they’ve perpetually gotten away with, there are things that sit most uncomfortably; the treatment of mental illness, the glib, stereotypical, throwaway and downright cruel representation of something that statistics state affects 1 in 4 people in the UK, just isn’t palatable today.

What saves the whole endeavour is McAvoy. His energy is mesmerising, burning like an incandescent flame from start to end, and I’m sure like many more who witnessed this performance, I personally can’t wait to see him on a West End stage again soon – just not in a Peter Barnes’ play.

 

REVIEW: Memphis – Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Six months on and Memphis still has the audience rocking in the aisles. This story of the birth of rock and roll may appear on the outside to look like just another jukebox musical but in reality, with its uplifting book by Joe DiPietro and original score from Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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It’s 1955 and poor white boy, local music fan turned DJ, Huey Calhoun is on an one man mission to bring “race music” to the masses in the segregated Deep South. Frequenting the black music clubs on Beale Street, Huey discovers singer Felicia and starts her on the road to success, but along the way Huey falls for Felicia and the pair’s relationship has to fight hard to survive in this racial hotbed.

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A fictionalised account of a time in the US when barriers were beginning to be broken but with an establishment that still bolstered the barricades it manages to make its point without ramming it down your throat. There’s a helluva lot of sentimentality here but the message still gets through and to its credit, it manages to eschew the schmaltzy happy ever after ending whilst still managing to send you back onto the street on an emotional high.

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The music is an on-period delight: there’s blues, rock ‘n’ roll, pop and some heart-breaking ballads too.

There is an exuberant energy throughout and the cast look as if they are having the time of their lives, which then transmits throughout the auditorium (on the night I attended the audience were particularly enthused – so much so the cast felt the need to Tweet their appreciation after the curtain fell). They are also, undoubtedly, the strongest voiced ensemble on the West End stage at the moment – so much so that it feels like a wave of electricity hitting you as each number is performed. Brisk doesn’t describe the direction by Christopher Ashley, break-neck would be nearer the truth: the time goes by so quickly and the action moves at such a pace that you land back on the street exhausted and sightly stunned.

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It is the principle pairing of Beverley Knight and Killian Donnelly that makes this an absolute winner. Knight’s voice is truly outstanding and the power she manages to muster from her tiny frame is stunning, but it is Donnelly who really steals the show and the audience’s hearts. His charm and charisma as well as his comic timing and knock-out voice are a winning combination.

Like every other show it’s not without its faults but they’re few and far between and the sheer sense of joy it leaves you with is worth the price of a ticket any day.

REVIEW: Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre, London

Since 1981 Gerard Alessandrini’s hysterically funny revue, Forbidden Broadway has been delighting audiences with its pin-sharp parodies of the great and the good of the musical theatre world.

Forbidden Broadway by Gerard Alessandrini. Anna Jane Casey, Damian Humbley, Ben Lewis and Christina Bianco. Credit Alastair Muir.

Known for its biting satire, (it spares no-one, not even the most beloved of performers or shows) it is, for the most part, done with genuine affection. This latest (specifically tailored for the West End) edition has transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre for a limited season after a successful run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and it’s a laugh-out-loud winner from start to finish.

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The cast sing, dance and act their way through a mind-blowing series of scenes at break-neck speed: The Lion King: “A story so bizarrey, it’s Hamlet on safari” and its cast resplendent in stuffed toy head-dresses crying agonisingly: “Can you feel the sprain tonight?”; a somewhat reduced helicopter scene from Miss Saigon and a “The heat is on in Saigon; is there a tune going on?”; The Sondheim parody “Into the Words”; a sweeping dismissal of Once: “once is enough”; Jersey Boys: “Walk like a man, sing like a girl”; Les Mis, where a bored cast member chats on their iPhone behind the barricade and ends with an “I’ll call you after I die,” Jean Valjean gives it welly in the too high bits and the infamous revolve is mercilessly evoked as the cast belt out a threatening “ten more years, ten years more”; the list goes on an on.

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The reason the whole endeavour works so well is the quality of the cast, only those as, if not more, talented than those they parody could possibly get away with this: Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley, Christina Bianco and Ben Lewis are all stars in their own right and each shines.

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One word of caution though, the show is aimed squarely at musical theatre aficionados and a broad knowledge of both the West End and Broadway past and present is required to get the best out of it, so if you don’t know your Sondheim from your Miss Saigon then don’t bother. But if you do – don’t miss it.

Runs until 22nd November

REVIEW: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – Savoy Theatre, London

Having watched the publicity that surrounded the West End debut of musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (based of course on the 1988 movie of the same name), the big-name cast, the lavish sets, the TV spots, you would be forgiven for thinking that the show was fresh out of the box, but it’s actually been doing the rounds since 2004.

19260_fullIt is an unusual choice for adaptation, while the film is remembered reasonably affectionately it was never an out and out smash and has been reduced to a vague memory 26 years on.

In a nutshell it’s the tale of two seasoned con men and their attempt to hoodwink a millionaire heiress in the spectacular South of France.

19264_fullWhilst an amiable enough evening at the theatre it offers nothing new and manages to distinguish itself only by being one of the most old-fashioned (and not in a good way) and sexist pieces of theatre currently on stage. It’s like a bad 70’s sitcom but this time with expensive sets and a top-rate cast.

It’s greatest redeeming feature is Robert Lindsay in the central role. Despite the rumours of his difficulty to work with, he really does milk this for all its worth. Without him it would be unwatchable.

Pleasant to look at but not a lot more.

REVIEW: The Crucible – The Old Vic, London

The Old Vic’s current revival of The Crucible is the most intensely gripping, thoroughly enthralling, powerful, visceral theatrical production I can remember experiencing.

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From the moment you enter the sack cloth draped walls of the auditorium, into the crucible created by this ‘in the round’ staging, the smell of burning embers biting at your nostrils, you are grabbed by the throat and held there on the edge of your seat for over three and a half hours; three and a half hours that fly by in the blink of an eye.

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Arthur Miller’s 1953 fictionalised account of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials is both a powerful indictment of the McCarthyism of the era when it was written and the all-too real and present danger of religious extremism in society. In an era defined by religious fervour, the small settlement of Salem is whipped into a frenzy of collective hysteria, paranoia and persecution by a servant girl seeking revenge and a society swayed by superstition.

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The staging is simplistic, focussing attention firmly on the action. Richard Armitage proves to be perfectly cast as the guilt-ridden but fundamentally decent John Proctor. He is a commanding physical presence, magnetic, radiating quiet power throughout, he remains at all times utterly electrifying. He is more than ably supported by his fellow cast members, in particular Anna Madeley as wife Elizabeth, the woman who has driven him to seek comfort elsewhere; Jack Ellis as witch-hunter Danforth and Adrian Schiller as Reverend Hale who fights against the tragic miscarriage of justice.

rsz_07277_the_old_vic_the_crucible_richard_armitage_john_proctor_and_anna_madeley_elizabeth_proctor_photo_credit_johan_persson[1]The ominous feeling of dread builds throughout, tightening its grip moment by moment, until it reaches the devastating climax. As the lights dim at the conclusion you are left emotionally wrung out. This timeless classic is as relevant today as it has always been and this production is completely, utterly and truly unmissable.

 

 

REVIEW: Shakespeare in Love – Noel Coward Theatre, London

Based upon the much-loved 1998 movie, Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love follows Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay relatively faithfully.

It’s 1593 and our penniless hero Will (Tom Bateman), suffering from writer’s block, has sold his latest (as yet unwritten) work Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter to both Philip Henslow (Paul Chahidi) and Richard Burbage (David Ganly). Desperately seeking his muse of fire or muse of anything at all if it gets the play written, into his world and his heart comes Viola de Lesseps (Lucy Briggs-Owen) a young woman entranced by the theatre but prevented from performing by the fact that she’s a woman. Dressed as Thomas Kent she wins the part of Romeo and the heart of Will. But a life together can never be as the aristocratic Viola is promised to the pompous Lord Wessex (Alistair Petrie).

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With both Disney and Sonia Friedman as producers it is no surprise that this is a lavish affair. Sumptuous costumes, twinkling candlelight, a stunning three storey recreation of an Elizabethan playhouse and a scene-stealing dog all add to the magical atmosphere. Where it all falls down is the absence of any real life in the proceedings, it all falls a bit flat and feels rather muted and subdued. It’s sufficiently entertaining but it lacks the vital spark of the Oscar-winning film. The casting of the leads doesn’t help either. Bateman’s Will succeeds better than Briggs-Owen’s Viola; he has an easy charm as well as being easy on the eye. Briggs-Owen seems to have been trained in the fish-faced, trout-pout and boggling eyes school of acting of which Keira Knightley was a proponent in her early career but which she happily has grown out of. The constant open-mouthed, wide-eyed delivery is annoying to the point of distraction and was much debated in the interval. Whilst both perfectly pleasant, neither has that extra something that’s required to elevate this, neither is sufficiently loveable or interesting enough for us to really root for them. Indeed the stand-out star is David Oakes as Kit Marlowe, whose deft touch enlivens proceedings in his all too short appearances

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There is a massive ensemble cast of actor/musicians who have no doubt been employed to provide life and colour to the production but the stage is at times a cluttered muddle of too much going on for no apparent reason. The actor/musicians however do come into their own in the musical sequences which are beautiful and both evocative and atmospheric.

showbiz-shakespeare-in-love-lucy-briggs-owen-tom-batemanRunning at 2 hrs 40 mins at the preview showing I attended, the piece is inexplicably almost half an hour longer than the film from which it is adapted and it needs drastic trimming. Just when you think the piece is coming to an end it goes on…and on…and on to the point where you are willing the curtain to fall.

showbiz-shakespeare-in-love-original-london-company-lucy-briggs-owenBeautiful to look at and sufficiently entertaining – it is an enjoyable trip to the theatre but the frustrating thing is it could have been oh so much more – it’s all just a bit too nice and safe and inoffensive.

 

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