Archive for November, 2011

Early this year my boyfriend and I were discussing theatre, as I am wont to do. As a film critic he is perfectly at home in the world of cinema, but prior to meeting me the world of theatre was something he was largely unfamiliar with. I didn’t exactly take it upon myself to teach him, that would be horribly condescending, but I did want to share with him what had been, until I met him of course (ahem), my one true love.

We went to various plays, saw various dramas, both classical and modern, but eventually talk turned to musicals. It’s not surprising really- these are most peoples only exposure to theatre, with the big blockbuster musicals spending thousands on advertising, running for years and years and building a pretty hefty fan base along the way. When he was younger, James had seen a particularly dreadful musical that shall remain nameless, and was put off ever since. However, being a nice sort of fella, he humoured me and agreed to come along to a musical.

We started with Les Miserables. This was my favourite musical for many years and I maintain that it has the most beautifully written score on the West End. We saw the show when Alfie Boe was in the role of Jean Valjean, and I can’t think of a better way to introduce a theatrical newbie to musicals. Les Mis has lost none of the passion that made it such a smash-hit, and the story of the convict on the run, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, remains compelling and rich, though the staging and sets have become quite dated.

The score is rousing and certainly never dull, tripping easily from ballad to an energetic call to arms. Because the score is so familiar, the cast do have a job making it their own, and some manage more successfully than others. Alexia Khadime as Eponine attempted a soulful rendition of On My Own which fell flat, the warbles and trills jarring against the classical style the rest of the cast were adopting, but she still gave an emotional performance, and no one could argue that by god the girl can sing. Stand out performances included Hadley Fraser, who brought me to tears as Javert, and Fantine, who in my opinion has never been played better than by Caroline Sheen, but I don’t think anyone in the audience would argue that the show belonged to Alfie Boe.

Boe is just a force of nature, belting out the tunes with seemingly no effort at all. He was just incredible. Not only was his powerful tenor voice perfectly suited to the role, but he managed to pack each moment he was on stage with such emotion that it was difficult to focus on anything other than him. He also holds back from unleashing his voice completely in order to blend into the cast better, which shows great restraint and made a big difference to the show as a whole.

There is a reason Les Mis has lasted the test of time, and it’s certainly worth another visit. My only regret is that certain elements are a bit dated, certain set pieces and sequences jarring slightly on someone who is used to pared down staging. Javert’s death is an excellent example of this, the rolling off the stage looking ugly and messy when his stance beforehand, arms raised to the heavens at the bridge rises behind him, could have been a perfect farewell to my favourite character. The barricades look a little old – but until I think of a suitable alternative I won’t slate it completely.

From an old favourite, to a new contender! Our trip to the New Theatre, Oxford was the first time I have seen Sister Act on stage, but have heard nothing but good things so thought it was worth a punt.

The show follows the same story as the hit film – Reno lounge singer, Delores Van Carter witnesses her boyfriend killing a man in the midst of a shady deal, so flees and it placed in the witness protection programme, hiding in a convent. There, she manages to transform a group of seemingly tone deaf nuns into a soulful gospel choir that brings new life to the church.

For fans of the original film, it is worth noting that none of the songs feature in this stage version. However for me, that is not a problem, in fact, it works in the shows favour. Alan Menken’s score is great fun, perfectly evoking the spirit of 1970’s disco and soul classics, where this is now set.

I really enjoyed this version of Sister Act. Cynthia Evro as Dolores was outstanding, belting out each song with power and emotion, and the cast seemed to work incredibly well together, lighting up the stage with energy and fun. I just couldn’t help thinking that touring this show must be one of the most fun tours around at the moment.

However, I seem to have missed a trick. This show was good, very good in fact, but anyone that had already seen this on the West End emerged decidedly glum. Apparently this is a pale comparison of the West End version, being incredibly restricted by the smaller stage. I didn’t notice this at the time, but thinking about it, certain elements did seem a bit cramped. There were also comments that Evro wasn’t as good as the West End’s Dolores, but once again, I didn’t have that comparison so loved it.

There’s always a risk of this kind of criticism when a show this big goes on tour, but I think for the most part these criticisms can be ignored. Of course the West End show is on a larger scale, but that doesn’t detract from what has been achieved here. There was a really warm reaction from the audience on the night I was there, and as we were leaving young and old alike were laughing and still dancing as they walked down the street – what more could you ask for?

So there you go – I don’t do musical reviews particularly often, but there’s a double bill for you. Two vastly different shows, showing my non-theatrical boyfriend the range of musicals on offer. See James? They aren’t all like Martin Guerre…I’ve said too much.

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25/10/11

To me, Mike Bartlett is one of the most interesting playwrights working today. Okay, so he misses the mark frequently, and his style is one that many find irritating – but he’s creating new and innovative work in a period when people are increasingly relying on ‘safe’ old staples.

I was first introduced to his work with Earthquakes in London. It was hectic, anarchic, chilling at times, and descended into a completely ridiculous ending that had many leaving grumbling about a ‘flash in the pan’. I liked Earthquakes. Don’t get me wrong, it was flawed, but it showed promise from a young playwright trying to shine a light on modern Britain. It seems I wasn’t the only one, as Bartlett has now graduated to the Olivier theatre, and now holds the dubious honour of being the youngest playwright in ten years to have managed this.

13 takes on a similar structure to Earthquakes, following different characters as they attempt to grapple with living in modern Britain. This is a society on the brink of a big change – though what that change is lies in the hands of the characters Bartlett portrays. The first half is almost nightmarish in quality, opening with all the characters sharing a single and terrifying dream. Militant protesters, academics, politicians and greasy solicitors are all drawn to a mysterious man named John, who speaks simple sense – offering the chance to reject materialism and greed.  The second half is a dramatic shift as the prime minister addresses John and his followers, and their opposition to an American invasion of Iran.

To be quite honest, the storyline to this is incidental. Bartlett uses the play instead to address modern concerns. This London is incredibly realistic, and far too close for comfort. Public disorder and riots, social media sites, occupying protesters – all are addressed here as Bartlett tries to stress the importance of belief, not necessarily in a God but in something, anything. He argues that this is the reason we dream of a society on the brink of collapse, because we no longer stand united behind one common goal.

This is what Bartlett does best: mixing epic theatre with political insight. There is a whiff of Tony Kushner in his ability to boil down larger issues into his characters personal relationships, and his examination of modern society is unparalleled. I don’t think I was the only one who was decidedly unnerved by his examination of the uncertainly we all face, and the comparison between young people hungering for change and the entrenched elder statesmen of politics clinging to the status quo. There was something incredibly chilling about Bartlett’s world view and the fact that, when faced with such monumental change in the world, none of us really know where all this is going.

The opening to the play is nothing short of spectacular. Laurie Anderson’s ‘Someone Elses Dream’ whispers in your ear as a gigantic cube emerges from the darkness like a monolith. (I had never heard the song before, and assumed it had been written for this play. It is a terrifying and beautiful piece of music, and I’d urge you to seek it out.) The short scenes that follow quickly introduce all the key players and sets the ambitious and hectic pace that continues throughout the first half.

The set is really beautiful in it’s seeming simplicity, using the revolve perfectly and gently moving from one scene to another in a way that seemed totally natural. The cube is used in a variety of different settings, becoming a lawyers office, and opening up to reveal a dark steel structure inside. Additional set pieces are also used in an efficient and clever way – most notably the breakfast bar, which at times has three different scenes taking place on it simultaneously.

There were also some brilliant performances on offer from a company that’s difficult to fault. The standouts were Trystan Gravelle as the prophetic John, whose gentle performances made his speeches totally believable and compelling, and Adam James as the bitter and angry lawyer. Danny Webb also gives a sterling supporting performance as a Richard Dawkins type character, providing an atheist voice to counter a preaching of John. But this performance belongs to Geraldine James, who stole it for me as the compassionate Tory Prime Minister that lost her way.

This show has a lot going for it, and at the end of the first half, if I gave star ratings it would be a solid five, I even ran down to the NT bookshop to buy the play as I was so impressed with what I had seen, but unfortunately, I did not feel the same way by the end of the show. While the first half burst from the stage with energy and passion, the second half descended into a thirty-minute conversation around a table between only three people.

 It was a very good conversation. The writing was dynamic, the exchanges interesting and relevant as John, the Prime Minister and the Atheist grappled with an imminent war – but it bore absolutely no relation to the play I was watching in the first half. To me it seemed as though Bartlett had grown bored of the epic and decided to just write a domestic drama instead – highlighting all his key points in one handy conversation.

Sometimes I wish I could take Bartlett by the shoulders and shake him vigorously. He did this in Love Love Love, and he did it in Earthquakes. He creates a bit of theatrical magic, and then ruins it thirty minutes before the end. It is the football equivalent of scoring an own goal in extra time. There is something enigmatic and incredibly interesting about this play. It brings up the confusion and conflict we all experience in our lives, while shining a light on bigger political issues. I should have come out raving about this show, instead I left disappointed and frustrated, desperately wishing that Bartlett would learn how to finish what he started.