Category Archives: WEST END REVIEWS

REVIEW: Richard III – Trafalgar Studios, London

Jamie Lloyd’s trimmed version of Richard III is a bold, bloody re-interpretation of the Bard’s classic tale.

Transplanting the action to the 1970’s and Britain’s own “winter of discontent” isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem and is more than a clever joke: with its climate of strikes, political plotting and military coups it adds an air of relatability to the narrative.

Soutra Gilmour’s maze-like set, comprising two long opposing desks and all the paraphernalia of a busy government office: fax machines, clunky telephones and typewriters, does much to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere of the production and limits both the playing area and movement of the polyester-clad actors. The surprising and menacing tricks in both the staging and the sound design from Ben and Max Ringham are particularly effective additions to the production too.

Martin Freeman as Richard III

Martin Freeman ably heads up an accomplished cast. His dapper, controlled and contained Richard is utterly watchable: enemies are dispatched with cold efficiency, lines are delivered with machine-gun speed and a sharp-edged wit, however, if any criticism is to be made of his performance then it must be said that it lacks a little of the menace and magnetism that the role requires. Richard is a seducer of both those he needs in order to fulfil his ambitions and of the audience and Freeman is just a tad too reserved to achieve that.

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Freeman is more than ably supported by the rest of the excellent cast, in particular Jo Stone-Fewings as the Duke of Buckingham and the always watchable Gina McKee who delivers a nicely pitched performance as Queen Elizabeth.

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In this staging the violence is particularly violent: one enemy is drowned in a fish tank, another dispatched, strangled by a telephone cord and the blood spills freely around both the stage and the audience. For all the gore there is much humour in the production and credit must go to Jamie Lloyd and indeed, Martin Freeman for managing to make the famous, “A horse! A horse!” speech fit in this setting.

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Lloyd’s edited version trims the playing time to a neat two and a half hours and loses little in doing so. This is a worthy adaptation that will doubtless attract a new audience to Shakespeare’s work and that is never a bad thing

Until September 27th.

Image: Marc Brennan

REVIEW: Let the Right One In – Apollo Theatre, London

Writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany’s beautifully sensitive version of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 Swedish horror novel Let the Right One In, turns this vampire tale, (though the ‘V’ word is never mentioned) into something more akin to a fairy tale; albeit a very bloody fairy tale.

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Mercilessly bullied schoolboy Oskar, (Martin Quinn in his professional debut) finds love and understanding with his mysterious new neighbour Eli (Rebecca Benson), but Eli has a secret, whilst she may look like a teenage girl she has been a teenager for a very, very, long time. As the tentative and tender relationship builds between the pair, the town is gripped by fear; there’s a serial killer on the loose. The locals hurry through the snow-covered birch forest, stealing nervous glances behind them at every little sound. The killer on the loose is Hakan, who happens to be Eli’s protector, a man who prowls the woods at night to feed his young charge, stringing his prey up by the ankles in order to drain them dry.

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Thorne’s adaptation has taken the darkest elements of the original novel and added in sensitive direction from John Tiffany, original design by Christine Jones and a chillingly atmospheric sound design and score from Gareth Fry and Olafur Arnald. This is a genuinely thrilling chiller; there is a moment where the entire audience jump out of their collective skins and the climactic swimming pool scene is an absolute nerve-shredder.

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This is the first West End transfer for the National Theatre of Scotland (after a successful premiere in Dundee and sell-out run at the Royal Court) and an unusual and unique piece of work for the West End, but the West End is all the better for it. The subject matter has doubtlessly attracted many of this predominantly young audience, thankfully, Twilight it isn’t. Instead this is a tender, moving, atmospheric and at times terrifying, love story of two outcasts beautifully staged and acted.

Try to catch it before its limited run ends on the 30th of August.

REVIEW: Skylight – Wyndhams Theatre, London

David Hare’s 1995, award-winning play is a perfectly choreographed emotional dance sublimely performed by two of the country’s most gifted actors.

Him, Tom (Bill Nighy) a rich, successful restaurateur, her, Kyra (Carey Mulligan) his former employee now a teacher in a difficult East End school. Two people with a shared history, lovers for six years until his wife discovers their affair they meet in her grim, arctic cold,  council flat a year on from his wife’s death. Still wracked with guilt and grief and seeking closure and comfort, so begins a subtle dance of opposing ideals and emotional attachment as the flames of their relationship flare up and burn out only to be re-ignited and extinguished again.

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Each is a powerful stage presence in different ways: him, stalking panther-like and proprietorially around her grim council flat. Twitchy, edgy, flying off at tangents, veering wildly from one remembrance to another, one argument to the next. Her, still, contained and controlled.

This is a timely revival, Hare’s work, written in the 90’s is as resonant today as it was then. In these times of inequality Kyra’s speech against “right-wing fuckers” in support of social workers is met with rousing applause.

Special mention must go to Bob Crowley’s set design which is instrumental in setting the atmosphere. The grotty flat set against the backdrop of a high-rise council block, where windows illuminate and dim to shows signs of life and Paul Arditti’s sound design of crying babies, birdsong and car engines firing up are evocative.

This is a work of exquisite quality – a real gem.

Image: John Haynes

REVIEW: Birdland – Royal Court, London

It’s universally acknowledged that absolute power has the ability to corrupt absolutely but in Simon Stephens’ new play Birdland, it’s absolute fame, seemingly limitless cash and a life lived so disconnected from reality that turns rock star Paul (Andrew Scott) into an amoral monster.

Paul is a man on the edge. It’s the last few days of a nigh-on two year world tour and a return to “normal” life in London looms large. In the space of a few short years, the band has gone from playing to a handful of people in crummy clubs to international stadia, the money is rolling in (or rather the huge record company advance is), every whim is indulged and people fawn wherever they go.

225634_2_previewBut what do you do when you have everything you’ve ever wanted? What do you do when you have lost all sense of who you are and home is an ever-fading memory? Well you alienate everyone around you (sleep with your best friends fiancée), make preposterous demands of hotel room service (ask for a single, locally sourced peach in a Russian hotel at midnight), humiliate your fans, take as many drugs as you humanly can, toy with journalists and on a visit to a deceased girl’s parents ask for a bigger and better brandy than the one they have given you.

225635_2_previewThe story is a well-worn one: the destabilising effect of fame, and it draws much from playwright Simon Stephens own experiences in post-punk band The Country Teasers as well as classic rock documentaries. It also wears the influence of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal on its sleeve. There are plenty of examples of the foibles of rock stars throughout but for all the gasps of astonishment at Paul’s worst excesses there’s an overwhelming feeling that it breaks no new ground and could have been grittier and more dangerous.

If we are being completely honest about this whole endeavour then we must acknowledge that the major selling point of the play is not writer Stephens but ‘frontman’ Andrew Scott. Indeed, such is his pulling power that the initial run was extended almost immediately after tickets sold out. Riding on a wave of success from his universally acclaimed role as Moriarty in Sherlock which was topped by a BAFTA win, there are flashes of the mercurial Moriarty in this portrayal of Paul; the same deadness behind the eyes, the same irresistible magnetism. He remains at all times throughout, mesmeric.

Birdland-Royal-Court-London-photoRichardHubertSmith-7845-620x330For all Paul’s monumental arrogance, and at times abhorrent and cringe-inducing behaviour, there are flashes too of sensitivity and vulnerability, deftly handled by Scott, particularly  in an affecting scene scene where Paul visits his father who has borrowed money from some internet ‘payday’ lenders to fix his boiler.

Scott is excellently supported by his fellow cast members: Alex Price, Daniel Cerquiera, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Yolanda Kettle and Charlotte Randall most juggling multiple roles and all delivering knock-out performances in the process.

Presented as a series of short sharp scenes, Carrie Cracknell’s sure-handed direction results in a seamless production and it’s complemented well by Ian MacNeil’s minimal design of a flat golden arch and an oily black moat which laps the edges of the set and slowly engulfs it as the play progresses.

To his credit Stephens’ resists the urge to take the story full circle and provide a tidy ending for the audience. It’s not so much a cautionary tale about the excesses of fame, rather a mirror for those who attain it and what happens when we lose grasp of who we really are in the process.

Photo: Richard H Smith

 

 

 

REVIEW: I Can’t Sing – The London Palladium

The X Factor has become the touchstone for all that is abhorrent about Britain today: the unhealthy obsession with celebrity and the overwhelming lack of desire of young people to become anything other than ‘famous’. With its tear-jerking back stories, meant to tug at our heart-strings, but which are increasingly making us turn off in droves, the mockable and deluded ‘losers’, the plucky ‘triers’ eternally looking for their big break, it was with raised eyebrows and cries of derision that the news that Harry Hill was writing an ‘X Factor musical’ was met.

But surely Hill wouldn’t harness himself to a project that might ruin a reputation built up over 20 years, would he? And how far could it really go with Simon Cowell on board as one of its producers? Ever the optimist, it was with an open mind that this reviewer headed to the Palladium to see I Can’t Sing!

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 08.52.38The crux of the matter is; Is it entertaining? Simply, the answer is a resounding yes. Did I laugh? Yes – a lot. Are there any good tunes? Yes – a fair few. That said, there are as many moments of bemusement as amusement throughout. There’s a hearty dose of the eccentricity and surrealism that characterises Hill’s work, but as amusing as this all is to a native audience one can’t help but wonder how the foreign tourists, upon whom much of the West End’s economic health depends, will fare with it’s UK-centric plot and cultural references. Indeed, on the evening I attended there was a joke worked in about MP Maria Miller’s resignation which had happened that morning.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 08.52.49The plot is as flimsy as tissue paper (basically that of a modest young hopeful with a tear-jerking back story and the eccentrics that surround the circus that is the TV talent show circuit) and the material sometimes seems as if it’s spread a little thin over the two and a half hour running time, but it rocks along at break-neck speed and there are enough cheesy jokes, mayhem, high octane energy, good tunes and eye-popping visuals to keep the interest levels high throughout.

Its greatest strength however is its cast, made up of the great and good of the UK musical theatre world:

Nigel Harman is suitably oily as a Messiah-like Simon whose self-adoration knows no bounds. He particularly shines in a Las Vegas tap-dance spectacular.

sing004Cynthia Erivo is our ‘heroine’ Chenice, an orphan who lives in a caravan with one plug socket under a flyover with her grandfather in an iron lung who daily has to make the choice between toast or oxygen! Erivo has a knockout voice which she gets to showcase well, particularly in the title song.

Simon Lipkin is Barlow, Chenice’s talking (to the audience) dog (yes, you read that correctly).

Relative unknown Alan Morrisey shines as Max the plumber, Chenice’s love interest and fellow contestant, he has an excellent voice and a natural charm that communicates well to the audience.

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Simon Bailey is a knockout as Liam O’Deary and has the real X Factor host’s mannerisms down pat. The only gripe being that we don’t get to hear Mr. Bailey’s rather fine singing voice enough.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 08.54.37Charlie Baker delivers a show-stealing turn as hunchback(!?!) Trevor Modo. There’s also a Subo-like checkout operator from Wales and spawn of Jedward Irish duo Altarboyz thrown into the mix.

imageThe other judges are ably played by Ashley Knight as a doddery Louis and Victoria Elliot as Jordy, a Tyneside celebrity singer whose speech is peppered with familiar ‘pets’ and ‘loves’ and whose contestants are “like little brothers and sisters to me”, sound a bit familiar?

sing002Steve Brown‘s songs cover almost every genre of popular music and there are some standouts, in particular Trevor Modo’s hysterical rap number and the lyrics are often a hoot. The accompanying band are on fine form too, if at times, at ear-splitting volume.

I Cant sing palladiumLes Mis it ain’t but entertaining it certainly is. It’s crude, at times surreal, often nonsense, always ear-drum burstingly loud and completely and utterly bonkers throughout but there’s much to enjoy here. Leave your preconceptions at the door and go along for the super silly, surreal ride. You might just enjoy it.

All images courtesy: http://www.icantsingthemusical.com/media/

REVIEW: Blithe Spirit – Gielgud Theatre, London

Noël Coward’s irresistible play Blithe Spirit returns to the West End accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets and Dame Angela Lansbury in her first London stage appearance in nearly 40 years. But in some ways Lansbury’s presence is a distraction that overshadows the supremely gifted actors on whom much of the action hangs.

Written in five days in 1941 whilst on holiday in Portmeirion after his London flat was bombed, Coward said on its completion: “I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success”.

Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre Blithe Spirit at GielgudMarried to second wife, the straight-laced, reliable Ruth (Janie Dee), and seeking some background for a new novel about a homicidal medium, author Charles Condimine (Charles Edwards) decides to hold a séance with local spiritualist Madame Arcati (Lansbury). But when the dotty medium summons the spirit of Charles’ first wife, the effervescent (and unfaithful) Elvira, marital discord ensues as Charles begins to question the quiet life he’s come to embrace.

10529_show_landscape_large_01While accusations of misogyny have been levelled at the play in modern times, it ploughs a familiar furrow for Coward, a subject explored in different ways in his works Private Lives, Hay Fever and Design for Living, that of his belief in the impossibility of monogamy. It must be said though that Coward does allows his female characters to be as naughty as his males. Sparkling with Coward’s wonderful, witty dialogue the whole production is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. It has its flaws, it takes a little while to warm up and there’s a little lull in the second act, but any flaws are easily forgiven.

For most, it is Lansbury that is the draw and it’s undoubtedly a belter of a role for any actress to get her teeth into, and happily she doesn’t disappoint. Delightfully dotty, she totters around the stage with an energy that belies her years, conjuring mayhem with every step. To her credit Lansbury doesn’t play it solely for laughs, Madame Arcati truly believes she has a gift and the withering looks she aims at sceptical local doctor’s wife Mrs. Bradman thoroughly chill. It must be said though that there are little moments when she’s grasping for her line but she covers it well, and for an 88 year old it is a remarkable performance.

1.168979The stand-out star though, is Charles Edwards without doubt one of the UK’s finest actors. He careers from suave imperturbability to abject panic when Elvira threatens his cosy existence with consummate ease and his comic timing is masterful. Edwards is ably supported by a flirty Jemima Rooper as Elvira and the ever-watchable Janie Dee as Ruth. There’s also an amusing turn from Patsy Ferran as dippy maid Edith here in her professional debut.

This is a classy affair throughout and well worth catching if you can and oh, so much more than just a vehicle for Britain’s latest theatrical Dame.

REVIEW: Strangers on a Train – Gielgud Theatre, London

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel (followed in 1951 by the radically adapted Alfred Hitchcock film version) Craig Warner (writer) and Robert Allan Ackerman (director) have returned to Highsmith’s original source material for this stage version of Strangers on a Train at the Gielgud Theatre in London.

Strangers-on-trainAfter a chance meeting on a train, up and coming young architect Guy Haines (Laurence Fox) and flamboyant playboy Charles Bruno (Jack Huston) make an unlikely bargain which will change both of their lives forever.

Haines, saddled with a promiscuous wife from a disastrous teenage marriage and pursuing a new love, in the form of a high society heiress, meets Charles Bruno, Bruno, directionless and in want of his expected inheritance from his much-hated father, hits upon the perfect solution to their woes. Each will rid the other of their ‘problem’.

Charles carries out his side of the ‘bargain’ but Guy begins to lose his resolve, resulting in a terrifying level of psychological pressure from the increasingly unstable Charles, culminating in a suspenseful and shocking denouement.

10341_show_landscape_large_06Tim Goodchild’s ingenious revolving set is a star in itself, rendered entirely in black and white and shades of grey, complemented by projections and an atmospheric Hitchcock-like soundtrack, it is stunning, moving swiftly between a mind-boggling amount of changes.

10341_show_landscape_large_07Huston is superb as Bruno, charming and chilling in equal measure, he appears entirely at home on stage. His increasingly claustrophobic and unhinged portrayal is fascinating with its minutely detailed mannerisms and the uncomfortable, almost incestuous relationship with his fading southern belle mother (Imogen Stubbs, giving her best Tennessee Williams) is grippingly played. Fox is marginally less convincing but his geeky, uptight Guy comes into his own in the second act as he increasingly loses control of his life.

204296_2_previewThe undercurrent of homosexuality, only hinted at in the novel is played up to good effect here. Suspenseful throughout with some nerve-shredding moments, there’s much black humour in this noir production. Fast-paced and visually striking and with a genuinely unexpected and shocking final scene, this filmic production is a welcome addition to the West End. There’s a need for more classy and mature thrillers onstage, as evidenced by the packed house here – producers take note.

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REVIEW: Merrily We Roll Along – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

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 This Sondheim classic marks triple Olivier Award-winner Maria Friedman’s directorial debut and this production from the acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory, follows on the heels of its other successful West End transfers: Sunday in the Park with George; La Cage aux Folles and Sweet Charity:

“This emotionally charged show, charts the disintegration of a once unbreakable friendship, winding back in time, exploring how the choices made in life can change everything and everyone.”

1 This show has garnered more 5 star reviews than any other show in West End history and with a cast and source material of such impeccable quality it’s no surprise. Punctuated with Sondheim’s clever and unusually catchy songs this is a winner from start to finish.

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Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley and the supporting players ooze quality. This is the perfect example of a perfectly cast show. On a simplistic set, beautifully lit by David Hersey they play out this touching and resonant story to perfection.

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There is little more to say except see this if you can, a show of rare class and quality.

REVIEW: Book of Mormon – Prince of Wales Theatre, London

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Never in the history of the West End has a show arrived on a bigger wave of hype or anticipation than The Book of Mormon. Since early 2012, a whole year before opening night, the publicity juggernaut cranked into action with double page newspaper ads and general media saturation. So does Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s musical live up to its publicity? In a word – yes!

No, it’s not ground-breaking, earth-shatteringly original or genre busting as has been widely touted and none of the score is particularly memorable, but it is a great night’s entertainment. That said, if your offended by blasphemy  songs about female circumcision, dialogue about rape or general foul language, then this really isn’t the show for you – but what do you expect from the creators of South Park?

The cast are it’s greatest asset – there isn’t a weak performance throughout, but standout among them are: Gavin Creel as Elder Price, Gared Gertner as Elder Cunningham and Stephen Ashfield as Elder McKinley, you can’t fail to be won over by their sheer charm, energy and skill.

It is genuinely laugh out loud funny –  prepare to gasp and guffaw at the same time at some of the more near the knuckle parts. 

Is it worth booking months in advance? Is it worth queuing for the daily ticket lottery? – Absolutely – if you want to leave the theatre with your jaws sore from laughing then this is the show for you.

 

REVIEW: The Bodyguard – Adelphi Theatre, London

What can I say about a blockbusting juggernaut of a show like this? Based on the 1992 Warner Brothers film and packing in a career worth of Whitney Houston tunes, it tells the story of former Secret Service agent, Frank Farmer hired to protect musical superstar Rachel Marron from an unknown stalker. 

The movie storyline has been beefed up by Alexander Dinelaris, focussing on Rachel and Frank’s budding relationship and padding out the supporting role of sister Nicki. 

The production values are high: the set is spectacularly designed with many clever visual tricks and moves seamlessly from scene to scene.

The cast are of the utmost quality: headed up by Lloyd Owen (Frank Farmer) and Gloria Onitiri (Rachel Marron), both turn in highly competent performances, Onitiri’s voice is particularly stunning. The central pair are ably supported by Debbie Kurup as Nicki and a cast of sure-footed, familiar TV faces, most impressive among them Mark Letheren as the Stalker.

Production values and quality cast aside, there’s something missing here: there’s a great big hole where its heart should be and instead of that celebratory feeling when you leave a great musical, it leaves no lasting impression. Big, bold, brash, ear-splittingly loud and utterly undemanding but it falls far short as classic musical theatre.

 

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