West Side Story

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Initially conceived by Jerome Robbins in 1949, WEST SIDE STORY finally arrived on Broadway in 1957. A resounding hit, it was made into a movie in 1961 and has remained an iconic and groundbreaking musical ever since. New versions are in production for Broadway and cinema, but the first big production to makes changes to the choreography and score is this Sarah Frankcom version.

Based on star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, this tale of thwarted love amidst gangland violence and knife crime is as horribly relevant in modern British cities as it was in 1950s Manhattan. It speaks so vividly of young people adapting to their burgeoning independence in a world where they may struggle for acceptance. This tale of gangs is evergreen in that it perfectly depicts the human quest for social identity. We all seek a sense of belonging and to affirm this we adhere to an in group which might be family, social class, a gang or a football team. To increase self esteem we discriminate against the out group, the more prejudice and seperateness then the greater enhancement of self image. The beauty and the tragedy of this has resonated throughout the ages and in every culture. In my teenage years it was Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland where boys were knee capped and girls tarred and feathered if they dared to fall in love with someone outside their religion.

The set design by Anna Fleischle is all clean stark lines of white steel and glass, like possible staging for A Clockwork Orange. Although beautiful in a minimalist manner it initially seemed too cold for this tale of passion. There is no context or sense of location which is disconcerting yet highly effective as a potent reminder that this story is ongoing – here in the theatre and outside in every town and city.

This set also works brilliantly with the new choreography by Aletta Collins. She has kept the beauty of the original but adapted it for the round stage and added a fresh athletic element that sees the performers really use the multi levels of the set with cat like grace and agility so there is almost an element of Parkour in the choreography.

Jason Carr has ensured that the music really is the star of this production with an orchestra concealed outside the theatre itself delivering a glorious version of Bernstein’s score. Every note seems flawless and crystal clear as though the orchestra was actually centre stage.

The cast exude the confidence and youthful exuberance of teenagers with a lust for life and a casual disregard for the brutal reality of death until tragedy actually strikes. There are some great vocal performances. Gabriela García as Maria has a pure soaring operatic vocal while Andy Coxon as Tony has a rich warm voice which grows in confidence throughout the show. Gang leader Riff Michael Duke is a powerful dancer but it is his lover Anita, Jocasta Almgill who steals the show. A brilliant singer and dancer, it is also her stage presence which ensures she exudes both passion and compassion.

The central protagonists Coxon and García have do have great chemistry as the lovers torn between two worlds. The love scenes are full of tenderness and the reckless passion of teenage hormones. The rumble scenes and resulting deaths are impactful and exude horror and regret at the wasted young lives. The overall feel of this production is that it is a beautiful and lovingly crafted yet I left feeling curiously flat. Perhaps as Maria says It’s not Us, its everything around us, the knowledge that our young people appear destined to keep repeating the same mistakes in an unyielding world.

Royal Exchange Theatre 6 April – 25 May 2019

Images by Richard Davenport: The other Richard

THE PRODUCERS

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks

Directed by Raz Shaw

A Riot of colour sequins and spangly frocks. A cluster of corny jokes that the audience know by heart. A bonkers evil anti-hero. A dame in drag. A warm-hearted gentleman thief. A beautiful young ingénue. An innocent abroad in an unknown world. Catchy songs and madcap dance routines. Lights, sequins, laughter….It’s Christmas and this must be Pantomime?

Thankfully this is bad taste theatre at its very best and aimed at entertaining the grown ups. Raz Shaw brings the Mel Brooks classic The Producers to the stage of The Royal Exchange Theatre. Joyful and irreverent, this is a production that both delights and appalls in equal measure. Filled with bad taste jokes and bawdy humour which could/should repel, it manages to triumph with a heart of gold as glittering as the show girls costumes and as gleaming as the coiffeur of Roger de Bris.

The Producers dating from the 1960s, pokes fun at the Nazis, and although the jokes might be old, the message remains current – we need humour and parody to diminish the power of extremism. It might be a foppish Hitler being mocked on stage but replace the black moustache with an orange wig and the central message remains the same.

This is a genuinely top notch Broadway affair with a superb cast who whole heartedly embrace this production with verve and skill. Julius D’Silva is excellent as Max Bialystock, adding his own flair to a role made so iconic by Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane. He is every inch the shabby King of Old Broadway with his wild eyes and strands of over-black hair pasted across a sweaty, shiny pate. The cynical theatrical ham who can woo old ladies for cash and command a stage with sheer class and dignity while singing in a prison cell toilet in Sing Sing.

Stuart Neal as Leo Bloom is utterly believable as the baby-faced accountant with big dreams. His nasal twang and youthful inexperience perhaps takes more from the Matthew Broderick performance than the Gene Wilder. His big number with the showgirls is pure old school Broadway glamour. Swedish Ulla is played with Monroesque allure by a wigglicious Emily-Mae. Charles Brunton is outrageously camp as director Roger de Bris channelling a Rita Hayworth any drag queen would be proud off. Hammed Animashaun steps out of the chorus and shines in the office scene then goes on to do a star turn as Carmen Ghia.

Designer Ben Stones creates a perfect Broadway experience and captures a moment in history with flair and drama. Lighting designer Jack Knowles may have taken down the National Grid with his use of yellow bulbs; but to great effect. From the bulb illuminated orchestra to the outrageous spangly Swastika signs and Hitler descending from the ceiling the visual impact is high octane throughout. The costumes are utterly fabulous with an array of spectacle that would not look amiss on a McQueen or Westwood catwalk.

The Producers is a gobsmacking riot of glitz, glamour and chutzpah. If someone at The Royal Exchange raised funds for this production betting on it being a first night flop and aiming on a flight to Rio, then right now they must be eating the account books and bedding in for Christmas in Strangeways!!

Royal Exchange Theatre 30 Nov – 26 Jan

All images by Johan Perrson

Mamma Mia

The Palace Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and some songs by Stig Anderson

Book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Mamma Mia is of course the phenomenally successful musical built around the ABBA back catalogue of hit songs. Approaching it’s 20th year of success and now having spawned two hit movies, it would seem set to fill the Aegean sea with froth, sass and sequins for at least another 20 years.

Girl meets Boy and falls in love, decides on a fairy tale wedding, and the only dilemma is which “Father” to call her own amongst three unwitting contenders. The Bride’s Mum is outed as having had a real summer of love during The Seventies and deals with the fallout with aplomb, ably aided by her two best friends and erstwhile backing singers. Everyone gets a happy ending and we all celebrate by dancing in the aisles singing along to Waterloo with a flurry of sequins and exploding confetti cannons.

Lucy May Barker hits all the right notes as the sweet ingenue Sophie. Shona White is reassuringly capable and confident as Donna and delivers on every song moving effortlessly through every emotion from Slipping through my Fingers and The Winner takes it all to the stomping Waterloo. The best friends/Aunties Rosie and Tanya both add a real comedic edge to this production. Nicky Swift is all warmth and impish charm while Helen Anker does a wonderfully acerbic, woman of the world oozing sex appeal. The men are rather less memorable and though all do a good job supporting the women this will always be a show about the girls.

Visually the staging is quite low key using clever lighting to take us through day and into night on a Greek island with glorious weather. The simple staging is effective as it is the colour and spectacle of the ensemble routines that are the visual highlights of this production. The big numbers are great and witty elements such as the choreography of the flipper dance is delightful in Lay all your love on me.

Mamma Mia is lightweight fun at the theatre but cleverly frames a great back catalogue of greatest hits. This is clearly a hard working, highly committed cast and the absolute highlight of the night is the rousing delivery they give after the last curtain call. Riotous fun and decidedly feel good entertainment.

The Palace Theatre until July 14th.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE : A play with music

EVERYMAN

Written by Anthony Burgess

Directed by Nick Bagnall

A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to watch a rehearsal of A Clockwork Orange taking place in The International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. It was quite fascinating to watch this young repertory company test out ideas and work on songs and choreography with director Nick Bagnall and choreographer Etta Murfitt. It was abundantly clear that this was a project spilling over with fresh juice and with no sign of any element being coldly mechanized. Thankfully this production has reached perfect fruition with its wonderfully, pithy songs and dialogue from Burgess, and excellent full bodied performances from the cast.

The staging looks startlingly simple with its neon lighting and milk white cube structure. Some of the cast are already on stage all clad in white. It is sleek, clean and pure in its sterility. As the music floods in and Alex starts to conduct there is so much beauty on stage it scarcely matters that he is conducting with a flick-knife rather than a baton. In the blink of an eye the floor can open up with options for grand entrances and dramatic or comic exits. Molly Lacey Davies and Jocelyn Meall have designed a set that is deceptively simple but is a treasure trove creating a myriad of moods and settings. The aversion therapy scenes are visually quite stunning. They are visceral and shocking and evoke something akin to Christ on the cross with Alex wearing the dystopian equivalent of a crown of thors as he looks down on the horrors mankind is capable off.

The Everyman Company take on a multitude of characters and breathe life and authenticity into them. There is a bloodied rape victim tied with vivid blue clothesline cord, Deltoid evoking a saturnine Alastair Sims, the writer F.Alexander is bludgeoned and his beloved wife is viciously assaulted. Amongst the brutality there are also moments of vaudevillian humour with little gems of Elvis type lookalikes, puppet wielding government ministers, and allusions to Jimmy Saville wearing a I’m a Pedo medallion and clutching a fat cigar. Alex and his Droogs are relentless in their thirst for life and all of its juice. Nothing in life, bar the music of Beethoven appears to be sacred.

Burgess created an intriguing and provocative hero who is thuggish yet also cultured and intelligent. George Caple brings a freshness and energy to Alex making his character always likable regardless of his monstrous crimes. The scenes during his treatment with the Ludovico Technique are deeply moving and hard to watch. Watching him in those scenes was chilling and reminded me of speaking to prisoners from Park Lane Hospital who went through similar classical conditioning procedures and covert sensitisation for crimes of sexual violence in the 1980s.

Richard Bremmer is always charismatic on stage whether he is threatening as Deltoid, delivering a wonderful ruddy, drunken priest or strolling across stage in a tiny satin robe with a curly pigs tail. Liam Tobin embodies the earnest writer F Alexander, and sings beautifully as he poignantly mourns his wife. Zelina Rebeiro is always engaging and especially so as she transforms into a sulty temptress to haunt a traumatized Alex. Phil Rayner from Young Everyman Playhouse(YEP) has really grown in confidence and created some great comic moments.

Nick Bagnall has honoured this play with music ensuring that the vision Burgess had in 1986 is finally realised on stage. The songs are a gleeful celebration of music hall tradition. The musicality of the lyrics make the Russian/Cockney slang of the Nadsat seem instantly more accessible and reminiscent of the joy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The use of musician and percussionist Peter Mitchell is inspired and really adds to the look of the piece as well as the sound, in that he evokes all the youth and energy of another Droog.

A Clockwork Orange asks us to look at the power of choice. Is it better be bad of one’s own free will than be good through scientific brainwashing? In a world where we are all at risk of brainwashing through the daily assault of the internet it is vital to be challenged and reminded of how we exercise our own free will. This piece is brutally violent and yet also angelic at times. The cast move around the audience as they come and go, and address us directly at times, even inviting us to applaud the outcome of Alex’s aversion treatment. As we applaud we are of course colluding with the destruction of choice; it is a relief when Alex finally reverts to his old ways and finds his own way to redemption.

Burgess said “I do not like this book as much as others I have written. I have kept it, till recently, in an unopened jar- marmalade, a preserve on a shelf, rather than an orange on a dish.” I hope that he would approve of the vibrant juicy nature of this production.

At Everyman 14 April to 12 July

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Miss Saigon

PALACE THEATRE

A Cameron Mackintosh production of Boubil and Schõnberg’s Miss Saigon

Directed by Laurence Connor

This smash hit production of Miss Saigon opened in London in 2014 and has been on a UK tour since July 2017. Landing in Manchester with as much drama and pizzazz as the much lauded helicopter in Act 2, this show delivers on every level. Performed all over the World since 1989, Miss Saigon is a world class production that updates the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly. It tells the story of a doomed love affair between an honourable American G.I and a young peasant girl turned prostitute during the Vietnam War.

This is a lush, Technicolour experience with a lavish set, inspired lighting, sound and projections and a huge cast who sing and dance with real passion and commitment. The energy on stage never wavers and through multiple seamless set changes the story unfolds without a single glitch.

The big musical numbers are real crowd pleasers. The Movie in My Mind highlights the dreams, aspirations and coping strategies of the girls who survive by selling their bodies to the American soldiers. I Still Believe depicts the agony of two women loving the same man as Kim (Sooha Kim) and Ellen (Zoë Doano) sing with heartfelt poignancy and raw passion. The plight of the mixed-race children ostracised after the war is told in Bui Do sung as film footage displays the plight of abandoned, fatherless children. The most hi- octane numbers are undoubtedly The American Dream with the powerhouse performance of The Engineer (Red Concepción) with a white Cadillac driving on stage.

Kim’s Nightmare is the most powerful number. The roar of the helicopters moving over the audience before appearing to land on stage to evacuate the troops is genuinely tense and exciting. This scene at the Embassy gates is powerful and the switch that allows us to experience both sides of the gates is inspired. The Vietnam War may have ended over 40 years ago but this is a timely reminder of the dispossessed and vulnerable as the Syrian refugee crisis unfolds.

The performances are strong with Ashley Gilmour epitomising the all American hero and Na-Young Jeon as a sassy, sexpot Gigi. Sooha Kim brings great emotional range to her performance as Kim. She moves fluidly from reticent, shy country girl to pragmatic prostitute and eager young bride to determined survivor and fiercely protective mother. The undoubted star is The Engineer who gleefully steals every scene. Red Concepción is an exuberant, unapologetic master of sleaze and manipulation.

I’m not a fan of musicals and approached Miss Saigon with a degree of scepticism but it is a genuine feast for the eyes and ears. It is a real spectacle to behold and the hype is well deserved. The standing ovation at the end was clearly not the first and will definitely not be the last for the powerhouse experience that is Miss Saigon.

Images by Johan Persson.

Booking for Palace Theatre until May 12th.

Tickets for Nationwide UK tour.

Brief Encounter

THE LOWRY

Adapted and directed by Emma Rice

A Kneehigh production

Ten years on from its first hugely successful staging and Emma Rice and Kneehigh have revived Brief Encounter. This musical adaptation blends the 1936 Noel Coward play Still Life and the iconic 1945 film Brief Encounter. If the originals depict ordinariness and repressed passion played “with a deliberate colourlessness”, then Rice wilfully and mischieviously paints a canvas around the lovers that is warm, vivid and earthily sensual.

The production draws you in from the start with a band (clad in old fashioned cinema ushers costumes) playing in the foyer, to striking up in the aisles and chatting randomly to audience members. Suddenly a couple in the front row burst into argument and the elegant woman flees her seat, only to rush unto the stage and through the projected screen where she becomes part of the black and white film. This is a celebratory affair and Rice has a very large bag of tricks and surprises at her disposal.

There is some great use of Noel Coward songs such as Go slow, Johnny with Jos Slovick on mandolin during the boat scene and Beverly Rudd giving her winsome version of Mad About The Boy. The music numbers feel very natural with the songs never seeming as if shoehorned into the production as in many musicals. Various background scenes tend to unfold during the songs on stage, or they are performed in front of the plush red velvet curtain almost like Vaudeville numbers.

The blend of live theatre and film is exhilarating as it is done so well. Scenes of crashing waves on screen allude to repressed passion on stage. Trains arrive and depart in spectacular ways particularly in the scene when Laura contemplates suicide. From railway station buffet menus to champagne bubbles to pressure gauges to mishaps on boating lakes, every tiny nuance is there. The use of lighting is key to mood throughout the piece from the sombre but comforting light of the standard lamp in the living room to the glorious boat house scene. This is a triumph which feels like an old black and white film has been lovingly and pain stakingly hand painted in rich Technicolor. It is no surprise that the design team involved have won so many awards for their previous work on this production.

Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen embody the doomed lovers Alex and Laura with all the restraint and earnestness of the original film. The scene where they hover onto real sensuality at the boat house is the most poignant. Other moments seem too contrived and work less well such as when they literally swing from the chandeliers.

The rest of the cast are the real life blood of this production as they get to be fully fleshed out and larger than life characters. The other lovers are of course not hindered by pleasant spouses in the background and are free to express their love. Lucy Thackeray as would-be posh Myrtle Bagot and Dean Nolan as the lusty Albert are well matched as the older lovers and great to watch. Nolan also gives a lovely depth and sweetness in his other role as Laura’s husband. Beverley Rudd is a riot as the earthy and sweetly saucy young Beryl falling in love with Stanley, her devoted young suitor Jos Slovick. These characters all bring a hefty dose of bawdy humour and slapstick which is mainly infectious and joyful. There are times where the sharp contrast against the scenes with Laura and Alec can seem jarring and risk marring the emotional impact of the final scenes.

A real theatrical delight, although it sometimes feels like every item in the kitchen cupboard has been added to this 70 year old recipe, the result is a winner. Leaving the theatre you want to laugh and skip and…….remember every minute. Always.

At The Lowry until Saturday w4th Feb.

At The Old Vic 2nd March- 2nd September 2018

Images by Simon Turtle

DUCKIE 

CONTACT

Writer/ Performer – Le Chocolat Gateau

Produced/Developed – In Company Collective

There are moments when I wish I could rewind time with my children and go back to when they were very young. Today was such a day, watching the gorgeous DUCKIE I wished my teenage darlings were ten years younger and there in the audience with me. This show is a wonderfully deft merging of cabaret, children’s theatre, fairy tale reimagining and a big dollop of old Hollywood magic.

Cabaret performer and Opera singer Le Gateau Chocolat takes the much loved tale of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Anderson and goes to the circus to seek out soulmates for this lonely misfit, the runt of the litter. To the delight of the child in all of us, the mischievious performer portrays a duck who cannot quack but belches instead. His lonely duckie can’t quack or dance, he is too small to be a muscleman and too big, too yellow, too tall…… DUCKIE would seem to be a duck who is seriously down on his luck.

The voiceover which speaks to DUCKIE and at times the audience is soothing and reassuring- a bit like having Judy Dench voicing your bedtime story. The rest is simply the gorgeous baritone voice of Le Gateau Chocolat which is like having your senses bathed in warm chocolate fondant. The songs often tweaked to fit the story range from Disney classics through to The Pussycat Dolls Don’t cha and La Cage Aux Folles I am what I am to Cyndi Laupers Girls just want to have fun. 

Visually the set is deceptively simple but with dressing up clothes tucked away and bright umbrellas popping out it holds gems of surprise.  The lighting design is magical and reminds me of the country village circus tours of my childhood. Throughout his costume changes there is always the fluid physicality, warmly, gleaming eyes and glittery lips. This is a performer who is totally at ease with his audience, both young and simply young at heart. It would be hard not to be drawn into DUCKIE’S world and empathise with his plight. 

When the insults come increasingly thick and fast and the voicing of them sounds more and more like children the true dark background to the story shines through. DUCKIE is rendered small, wounded  and vulnerable as he looks out in confusion at a world that will not let him belong. His salvation through a beautifully rendered little mouse is touching and ensures a fairytale happy ending. We shun or ridicule what is “ugly” not because it’s ugly but simply because it is different. DUCKIE delivers a message of acceptance and tolerance that resonates with adults and sews a seed in young children that hopefully blossoms in every new generation. 

CONTACT 24-25 OCTOBER