Sh!t-faced Shakespeare ~ Leicester Square Theate ~ 26.05.2017

They’re back! And so am I!

After last year’s outings to see this fantastically fun company pay their own very special tribute to the Bard were so enjoyable, I booked myself in for a visit as soon as I was able for this season’s offering.

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2017 sees Magnificent Bastard Productions return with Much Ado About Nothing – it feels like a bit of a step up from Midsummer Night’s Dream in terms of condensing the speeches and plot, but the cast are more than up to the task.

The obstacle to tonight’s performance was an incredibly giggly Stacey Norris as Beatrice. What we lost in the biting wit of one of Shakespeare’s strongest female roles, we gained in laughs aplenty as an increasingly handsy Norris stomped about stage, drink in hand, bringing a more EastEnder approach to West End theatre with the odd slap around the face and exclamations of “Oh my God!”

The beauty of the concept of this show is not in the drunk actor themselves, although they do provide comedic moments of their own, undoubtedy, but the real joy is watching the rest of the cast having to work around and improvise dialogue, staging and choreography. Special mention here has to go to Saul Marron, a returning cast member, who expertly threw in rhyming couplets to keep at least the spirit of Shakespeare’s writing alive, if not the precise content.

Of the cast I have previously seen perform, Beth-Louise Priestly was a very sporting and patient Hero, as her beloved cousin repeatedly tried to undress her during her speeches. Completing this fabulously funny line up was Victoria Fitz-Gerald, Jack Bence and James Murfitt – the latter of whom received a fair bit of attention when our drunk heroine professed she was “trying him out” for her cousin, Hero.

I’m delighted to see that Louise Lee and John Mitton are part of the rotating cast, as I was lucky enough to see both during the run of shows I saw last year. As every show is different, I’m very much looking forward to dropping in on the team a few times over the summer.

The company are performing Much Ado About Nothing at the Leicester Square until 16th September – see here for details of which days they are performing. Additionally there will be a couple of appearances on 18th June and 12th July at the Underbelly Festival of Romeo and Juliet, in preparation for an Edinburgh run from 2nd-28th August as part of the Festival Fringe. See here for the London ticket info, and here for details of the Edinburgh Festival.

 

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Cyrano ~ New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-u-Lyme & Watford Palace Theatre ~ 25.02.2017 & 11.03.2017

Two visits to this beauty of a show – and I’ll be back home in Manchester the week the production visits the Lowry, so I would imagine I will drop in on this again.

Clearly I enjoyed the show, to see it twice, so I won’t hold out for suspense here and I’ll be upfront about it – if this show is coming to a town near you, go and see it. For me, it is the best all-round I’ve seen in a long while. I’ve been fortunate to see plenty of very good shows but this one has a great combination of everything I love.

Set in the 1640s for the most part, the poetic verse gives a Shakespearean feel to a play which was written two and a half centuries later, the baroque-style musical interludes throughout keep pace and add to the atmosphere, the humour of the central character accounting for several laughs in his witty ripostes. Not to mention some swashbuckling swordfighting scenes and physical comedy sequences which have the audience captivated.

The role of Cyrano is portrayed exquisitely by Christian Edwards – no stranger to anyone who  has read this blog over the past couple of years. I have enjoyed seeing him in a number of roles and he has never disappointed. This one, perhaps, has been his most profound performance. Cyrano Hercule Savinien de Bergerac as a character is the right combination of wit, humour and tragedy – and the play follows that lead superbly, with what is essentially a tragedy intertwined with a sweet romantic narrative and punctuated with genuinely uproariously funny moments.

My disclaimer at this point is to mention that romantic storylines usually bore me to tears – but consider this production a rom-com (of sorts) where the com actually features!

Edwards is ably supported by an incredibly versatile and talented cast, with many of the group playing instruments at various points. More a play with music, rather than musical theatre, the songs are used sparingly but to great effect in showcasing the verbal dexterity of the noble Cyrano – indeed we are treated to a pacy number shortly after first meeting him in the Theatre, where he outwits and out-fences a stooge for the cunning Count de Guiche whilst delivering a series of verses in rhyming couplets. Stylish.

A good mix all round, with Francesca Mills delivering some fine physical comic routines, Jessica Dyas with an understated but brilliantly funny turn in a number of ensemble roles, and Adam Barlow and Robert Wade combined beautifully to sing a nostalgic song, which was wonderful.

Notable mention also goes to Michael Hugo as the drunk poet Ligniere, who provides an entertaining narrative voice throughout. His interactions with the audience were a delight as much as his raucous drinking song which served as the show opener.

The show – adapted by Deb McAndrew and directed by her husband Conrad Nelson – is produced by Northern Broadsides – see their website for details of the remainder of the tour.

 

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F*cking Men ~ The Vaults Theatre ~ 29.11.2016

You might be forgiven for thinking at first glance that this re-imagining of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 play La Ronde as a series of scenes portraying 21st Century gay relationships is playing on and reinforcing some of the harmful stereotypes which still persist around homosexuality. That’s certainly some of the noise I had heard prior to seeing the show, but entirely unfounded when you watch the piece as a whole.

If you take any scene out of context, yes, you might get that impression. But the show exists as a series of short scenes between various couples, each scene connected to the previous one, in a way that becomes obvious fairly early on.

So what you see in this fast-paced show is ten singular scenes which are fairly straightforward and two-dimensional, but when the the scene regenerates into the next skit, the overlapping character becomes instantly more developed as we see the dynamics change. Every scene drops a reveal which recasts the previous scene in a different light. Not necessarily tipping it on its head, but giving enough to understand more about the motives of the characters in the previous scene.

Of course, the title and the nudity onstage will always give people a reason to cry out “controversial” – let’s remember that the original was considered scandalous upon publication, so no harm in following traditions there. But in reality the concept has been really well adapted and made relevant for a modern audience.

The cast of three –  Richard De Lisle, Harper James and Haydn Whiteside – effortlessly switch between roles throughout the show. It’s no mean feat to try and convey a depth of character in two scenes, but they handle that superbly across the scene changes.

It’s not a ground-breaking show – I think mainly because the central themes aren’t a shocking as 100 years ago – but it is a show which, across the series of skits, showcases a broad range of experiences, and delivers some witty barbs along the way. It’s an enjoyable and well put-together 90 min experience, and I look forward to seeing the next projects for this team.

 

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Angel Comedy – Raw ~ The Camden Head, Angel ~ 13.11.2016

Blink, and you’re in danger of missing this little beauty of a venue up in Angel. The Camden Head (the one in Angel, not in Camden) sits just off the main road, down a little alley, which gives it a nice ‘hidden gem’ feel without being too much trouble to find, if your being honest.

I’ve heard great things about Angel Comedy – that the venue was a nice atmosphere and the selection of acts fairly decent. I’m not really one for being desperate to see only ‘big names’, but I do like my stand up nights to have a good mixed bill – regardless of how good a comedian is, you don’t want 5 or 6 acts in the same vein. Or I don’t, at least. Variety is important to me.

So, this particular night being advertised as a new act/new material night, I knew we were in for a mixed bag in every sense. I knew there’d be a range of experience and development – by that I mean the experience of the comedian themselves and also the development of the material. This is maybe where I’ll get really boring because I absolutely love comedy and love the craft of it. And personally, I think the best way to appreciate comedy is to see it live – actually in the room. You absolutely can enjoy what you see on television or on a DVD, but accept that is very much a polished and edited version of what the comedy experience is in the most part. As long as you’re aware of that, you won’t suffer too much shock should you ever wander into a pub on a comedy night and decide to stick around.

It was a pretty full bill, 10 or possibly even 12 acts on, all introduced onstage by Barry Ferns – who was an amiable and very capable compere, keeping the audience warm between comics and keeping the energy levels high for what was a packed evening. It was clear from performance to performance that there were differing levels of experience in the room, but all comedians had the workings of some funny ideas. Some landed better than others – some routines just needed a bit of trimming, perhaps going on a beat too long and reducing the effect of the joke.

Of the comics I had never seen perform before, I particularly enjoyed the opening act, Alastair Beckett-King – nice stage presence and funny stories. His skit on historical figures whilst holding up their portraits was a display of creative history retelling not seen since Andy Zaltzman’s last Bugle podcast.

Additionally I have to give a mention to Lost Voice Guy, the act who I primarily attended to see – he continues to deliver a cracking set when I’ve seen him. For those who are unaware, LVG is also known as Lee Ridley, a stand up comedian without a voice. Living with cerebral palsy, he communicates with an iPad text-to-speech program. I know he not-so-secretly revels in the mixed reactions in the audience when he steps onstage. But once the opening lines are delivered, the crowd are on board. Whilst you might think the computerised voice would hold him back, Lee uses it to great comic effect, with deliberate mispronunciations and even adjusting the voice on occasion to deliver the punchline.

I’d certainly recommend the venue – they have a tradition of supporting up and coming acts as well as attracting big names from the live circuit and TV who are running new material through – do take a look at their website for lineups at the Camden Head and at their sister venue, the Bill Murray pub, just a bit further down the road.

 

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Murder Ballad ~ Arts Theatre ~ 08.11.2016

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“Listen and I’ll tell a tale
A tale where good does not prevail
A King, a Queen, a Club, a Knave
One is destined for the grave…”

Those words delivered by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in the narrator role perfectly set the scene for what is to come as we delve into the murky lives of Michael, Sara and Tom. In-keeping with classic ‘Whodunit’ traditions, the audience are aware that onstage their is a killer and a murder will take place, the extra tension builds as nobody is aware who the victim (or victims) will be.

Murder Ballad is set in modern New York City, driven along by a pop-rock soundtrack that brings out the best in the cast’s vocals. As a show with only 4 characters, the fact that two of them are Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo shows the level of talent we are working with here. In fact it was the casting which drew me to this show and the two aforementioned performers were a joy to watch. As Sara and Tom they complete two thirds of the love triangle which reveals itself to be the catalyst for murder. They are joined by Norman Bowman, who puts in a great performance as family man and academic Michael – in stark contrast to Karimloo’s darker, dangerously possessive Tom.

The quartet is completed by someone previously unknown to me, but someone I am keen to see again – Victoria Hamilton-Barritt. Her role as the narrator moves the show along at moments where the intensity drops, and her vocal performance throughout was exquisite. It is her enigmatic presence throughout, standing in the shadows, chain-smoking through the scenes, which evokes classic noir in this modern setting.

It’s a one-act, 90 minute piece, which feels about right. It’s not a plot full of twists and turns – it saves the big reveal for the ending, but it is a fun show and well-performed by the cast and the onstage band. A particular highlight is the reprise of ‘You Belong To Me’ featuring all four performers – the harmonies when they all sing together are a joy to witness live. None of the recordings and promotional clips do that justice.

The show runs until December 3rd at the Arts Theatre, and it’s a bigger crime that it didn’t get a longer run. I’ve seen it twice during its short stay and it was an absolute pleasure both times. It deserves to be seen by more people, so I hope we see it return in the future.

 

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Sh!t-faced Shakespeare ~ Leicester Square Theatre ~ 10.05.2016 and 17.05.2016

 

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A cast of five recreate the key plot points from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 60 minutes – what could possibly go wrong? Oh, did I mention, one of the cast members is drunk? Yeah – that’s what could possibly go wrong.

After hearing great things about this show for years, I finally got the chance to see it live – and it was worth the wait! So much so, as soon as the show finished I booked myself in for a second visit.

With the character list reduced to the two couples – Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander – and Puck, we had time aplenty to see what damage drunk Hermia (and latterly – drunk Lysander) could do to proceedings. It seems plenty!

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Whilst I know the overall plotline, I’m not overly familiar with the in-depth dialogue of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as it turns out, this isn’t a problem! The show’s plot is clearly signposted by Puck, and by keeping to the core characters, it keeps the storyline here very simple and easy to follow, unlike the slurred speech of our dear Hermia, who, at times, seemed to forget she was even onstage.

A more cynical audience member might suggest this was simply acting, but if it was, it was acting of the highest order, as the other cast members struggled to restrain their giggles at times, and the erractic delivery of Shakespearean speech came across genuinely as someone who knew the text but was struggling to recall large segments due to the fogginess of an alcohol-riddled brain. It’s more likely the combination of being given free reign to improvise around the play, breaking the fourth wall, and the addition of alcohol to help loosen things up – but all the time it’s clear that these talented performers know the script inside out and are capable of still delivering key plot moments, and for the sober ones able to bend with such flexibility around the new portrayals of their drunken counterparts.

I enjoyed the performances by all the players across the two nights, but special mention has to go to our two drunks on their respective ‘drunk’ nights – Beth-Louise Priestly as Hermia and Saul Marron as Lysander. Despite the core cast being rotated, these two played the same roles on both occasions that I saw them perform, so it was fascinating to see the difference in their scenes – and to see the once-slightly-smug Saul having the tables turned when Beth-Louise was no longer the drunk one. All in good humour, of course, and it simply reiterates the point that this company are a tight-knit bunch with strong improvisation skills.

John Mitton was the third performer to play the same part both nights – as Demetrius. I think I’d really enjoy seeing him play the part drunk too, as he had a great energy about him. Interestingly he also played the part differently when dealing with his two drunken colleagues. Undoubtedly this would be related to the types of scenes they shared – as Demetrius’ scenes with Hermia were of a distinctly flirtacious nature, and his encounters with Lysander more aggressive, but still John’s interactions with both as they strayed from the scripted dialogue was different, a more soft and gentle guiding of Hermia, and a more playful encouraging of banana-throwing with Lysander (at one point the duel is reduced to one man with a sword and another with an inflatable crocodile, so this gives you an idea as to the barriers to serious Shakespearean acting he faced).

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea – often improvised performances can be divisive among audiences – but for those who enjoy seeing formats being played around with, and exploring different ways of portraying theatre in a fun way, this show is a great one to have a look at. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but the folks behind it are seriously good.

Sh!t-faced Shakespeare presenting Midsummer Night’s Dream is running at the Leicester Square Theatre until mid-June, before the team head over to the Udderbelly for a few dates in June and July performing The Merchant of Venice.

Edit 05.06.2016 – there is an extended run of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Leicester Square Theatre, now running on selected dates up until 27th August – this will run in rep with their Udderbelly dates.

 

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Ad Libitum ~ St Mary-le-Bow ~ 02.06.2016

In the spirit of transparency, I ought to mention that I was invited to attend this concert by a lovely colleague of mine who sings in the Ad Libitum choir, so the chances are that I was going to enjoy myself, being able to support him.

This is the second Ad Libitum recital I have been to now, in all honesty I rarely know the music (being more familiar with classical orchestral works than vocal arrangements) but I always leave having learned something new, and enjoyed myself thoroughly.

Let’s start with the venue itself – a curious blend of history and modernity following a post-war rebuild – the latest in a long line of corrective restructuring including being completely destroyed and rebuit following the Great Fire of London. Fantastic acoustics in the church which famously is the measuring point from which people ascertain whether they are a true cockney.

The choir is an auditioned amateur choir and typically perform 3 or 4 times a year, with a mixture of secular and sacred music, ranging from early Renaissance to modern composers – all ably conducted by Julian Collings and accompanied by Colin Spinks on what is a truly impressive church organ on display at the back of the hall.

On this occasion, the organ and choir were joined by harpist Daniel De-Fry and James Bower on percussion, as they took as through a set which included West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Missa Brevis by Zoltán Kodály.

For me, however, the highlight of the evening was a choral representation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – I have often enjoyed listening to the orchestral piece, but had never before heard the choral Agnus Dei version. What an immense joy! I’ve discovered that the piece is so soothing in either form and it’s one I look forward to listening to again and again.

Every visit to see this choir has brought me something new to take away – do keep a look out for future dates, it’s guaranteed to give you two hours of soul nourishment and add to your musical education.

Details of upcoming concerts can be found on the Ad Libitum website.

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