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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Singin’ In The Rain ~ Salisbury Playhouse ~ 14.05.2016

“Lina. She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. A triple threat” drawls Christian Edwards’ Cosmo Brown in this revival of the Gene Kelly classic.

The entire cast, however, pose the more traditional theatrical ‘triple threat’ in that they excel in all areas. I’d even go as far as to call it a ‘quadruple threat’ as they act, sing and dance whilst playing their musical instruments. It’s an incredible feat and – with a small but perfectly-formed cast of 12 – such an innovative way to bring the full sound of the score to the stage whilst not losing anything in the staging of the big numbers.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve been a lifelong fan of Singin’ In The Rain. I first saw the film last year when the Prince Charles cinema had one of their retro nights and I was dragged along by a couple of fanatics. I didn’t dislike the film – large parts were very enjoyable. But I’ve not been in a rush to rewatch by any means. However, I was intrigued by the stage show, and couldn’t wait to see how some of the more famous moments were re-enacted on stage – namely the ‘Make ’em Laugh’ sequence (Cosmo Brown was my favourite character in the film) and, obviously, wondering how they would stage the title song.

From the moment the orchestra struck up the opening notes, I knew I was in for a treat. Having live music onstage rather than sat in the pit makes such a difference to the acoustics – and this, combined with elegant staging, immediately transported us back to late 1920s Hollywood, the silent film world and birth of the talkies, where the show is set.

It’s a pacey show, with the entire ensemble constantly rotating between musician, daner or acting duties – first sitting at the back of the stage with their instruments, then being actively involved in scene dialogue, or even combining playing of instruments and singing/dancing around the stage. With this regard, it makes it difficult to pick anyone out for extra applause as it’s clearly a highly talented and hardworking unit. However there are some fabulously noteworthy aspects of the show that do deserve recognition.

Matthew Croke and Eleanor Brown as Don Lockwood and Kathy Seldon combine to produce a highly likeable couple. It was very easy to warm to Croke’s performance of Lockwood, very charming and with smooth vocals to add to the mix. Brown’s portrayal of Miss Seldon was equally masterful, with enough attitude at the beginning, before showing a softer and more fun side. Her vocal performance was my favourite of the evening and I look forward to seeing her again in the future.

Croke also had chance to show a fine comic streak when he combined with Christian Edwards, whose energy in the role of Vaudevillian star Cosmo Brown keeps the show moving along at pace. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Edwards perform in a few roles now and his flair for the comedic is second to none. I don’t know how much he works at that or whether it just comes naturally, but it’s impressive either way. I’ve seen plenty of comic moments delivered by actors who don’t quite have the timing, so it’s a gift when such a great role as Cosmo Brown is performed by someone who gets it. I won’t spoil the moments for potential viewers by listing my favourite comic moments, but let’s just start by me advising you to pay attention to “Make ’em Laugh” as so much goes on there and it’s an absolute riot. The scenes with Don and Cosmo are generally wonderful – especially the montage at the start showcasing their career as a double act and the “Moses Supposes” piece, highlighting a strong partnership in tune with one another.

Special mention too to Sarah Vezmar as Lina Lamont. It can’t be easy to be cast to portray an unlikeable character as Lina undoubtedly is, especially when also asked to perform a musical number in the style of someone who cannot sing. But despite the nasal New York accent, she delivered a fabulously deadpan comic turn.

The tech team have done a fantastic job with the show too, the combination of projected film and live stage action works so well, especially when dealing with the world of silent film. And the design of the “rain area” was perfectly orchestrated – enough room for Matthew Croke to move around in, and plenty of water for him to splash around!

There are no weak moments in this tightly-knit production, and again applause to the entire ensemble for constantly being onstage in various guises. This is not a show where people get a lot of downtime in between scenes, but they all looked like they were having the time of their lives, dancing and singing in the rain.

From someone who was never overly mad on the film, consider me a convert to the story. I’d really like to see this show again during the run, it’s just realistically a question of whether I’ll be back in Manchester at any time during the Bolton dates. Here’s hoping!

Singin’ In The Rain is running at the Salisbury Playhouse until Saturday 28th May, before heading North to the Octagon Theatre in Bolton from Friday 3rd to Saturday 25th June, before finishing the run in Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre from Thursday 30th June to Saturday 16th July.

 

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The War Of The Worlds ~ Dominion Theatre ~ 21.03.2016

I’ll admit, I’m a recent convert to Jeff Wayne’s masterpiece, having missed this growing up, and then later upon seeing the Hollywood film, not really being inspired to track back and read HG Wells’ classic or listen to the album. However, a chance mention on the Vitriola Music podcast at Christmas – where Robin Ince led a choir of bemused audience members in a rendition of ‘Spirit of Man‘ – piqued my interest enough to lead me to listen to the album, and head along to the live show.

< Note: Do have a listen to the Vitriola Music podcast. Robin co-hosts with fellow angry man Michael Legge, as they discuss up-and-coming bands, classic records, and share random stories between themselves. >

So after having heard the album and being inspired to head out to the live show, I still had no real idea what to expect. I understood there was to be a live band – a rather stunning mix of string orchestra and rock band, but as to what degree the show was a sung-through concert or full theatre production I had no clue.

It turned out to be a glorious mixture of both. An absolute delightful audio-visual experience. Background projections took us to the many geographical locations with ease, and filmed sequences projected behind and amongst the onstage action helped magnify large battle scenes. The films, live action, puppetry and special effect set pieces combined to great effect to amplify the dramatic moments,and the energy emanating from the live band placed central stage really drove the show from start to finish.

Be warned that the show’s special effects such as strobe lighting may have adverse affects on some people, so do check with the theatre beforehand. But if you are fine with that, then the lighting and pyrotechnics add such a thrill to proceedings.

It was a superb ensemble cast – Michael Praed and a filmed Liam Neeson shared the role of the protagonist, the Journalist. The story shifted between his older self recalling his diaries (Neeson) and the live action portrayal of the Martian invasion (Praed). Madalena Alberto as Praed’s wife had little stage time, but shone during those moments nonetheless.

David Essex as the voice of humanity was superb in his role, and notable mention to Jimmy Nail and Heidi Range as the Pastor and his wife Beth. Nail’s descent into madness at the invasion and his wife’s pleas to return reason to him was particularly captivating.

However, it has to be said, the man who won it for me on the night was Si Shorten. Stepping in for an absent Daniel Beddingfield, Si took the role of Artilleryman and absolutely wowed the audience with his vocals, particularly during ‘Brave New World’. I’ve never had the opportunity to see Si taking on some of the larger roles he has understudied for – including Jean Valjean and the Phantom – but I’d seen him perform various ensemble roles at Les Misérables and he has such an incredibly powerful voice, he deserves more recognition for his work. It looks like he has stepped up on a number of occasions for this limited run, so the chances of seeing him perform are high. Of course, do check with the cast listings on the day.

Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is playing at the Dominion Theatre throughout March and April.

 

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Beyond The Fence ~ Arts Theatre ~ 27.02.2016

The “first ever computer-generated musical” boasts the promotional blurb on the Beyond The Fence site and in the programme. Intriguing, indeed. Have we reached a point in the technical renaissance whereby artificial intelligence can create works of art which can out-perform creations by their human counterparts? Well, on the evidence of this show alone, then not quite yet – or at least, not entirely.

It’s a fantastic idea – to create the ‘perfect’ musical using data from various successes over the years. But the risk is always when you reduce decades of successful theatre down to zeros and ones you might just be missing the point of what makes each artistic piece so special. That you might end up boiling things down to the common denominator facts, and produce a bland, middle-of-the-road, nondescript piece. Of course the reality is that the show was computer-initiated rather than wholly generated by computer. This gave me hope that the human intervention would create a masterpiece by springboarding off a base concept created by the computer – which is closer to the reality of how the show was created.

Let’s start with a basic overview of the piece – set in the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common in 1982, Beyond The Fence incorporates the story of the women’s protest at the US Army base, a child who has been voluntarily mute since witnessing her father beat her mother, an army officer who witnesses the protests and considers his part in the proceedings and the possibility of romance blossoming between the army officer and the leader of the protest group. It’s an interesting set up, if perhaps a little formulaic. But in all honesty, shooting a piece of musical theatre down for being a bit formulaic is a bit redundant. They are not generally complex pieces plot-wise, and this is as good a place to start as any.

I suppose you might conclude that the computer-initiation is a success, as to me, any problems with this show lie entirely in the hands of the human part of the equation. However, pointing out the flaws in this production is rather harsh because actually I think this show isn’t a bad one – it just needs some work. It felt very much like a work in progress and with only a two week run at the Arts Theatre, more like a workshopped piece. All of the bits that didn’t quite hit the mark for me could be easily tweaked.

Personally I felt some aspects of the activism was a little heavy-handed, and although this was likely to be an attempt at reflecting the era, it’s difficult to warm to some of the characters initially, with their not-entirely-explained anti-male stance. Even from my own pro-equality and politically active stance, it comes across as aggressive and rather unwarranted because the only character whose background would justify such a strong attitude isn’t really the most vehemently anti-male in the camp. Softening the edge of some of these characters at the start, or giving more background to where they are coming from, would really help this. In the second act, it becomes a little easier to understand them, it’s just that initial introduction that takes you aback.

There are some great comic moments offered up on a plate that the team just do not do enough with. Having a group of people living closely together gives great opportunity to explore the general humour of people and those moments were there and very quickly skirted over. The only occasion where they really seized the opportunity was during the roller skating song, where the character Helen receives her birthday gift of skates and immediately sets off to relive her carefree youth. It’s through Helen’s humour, actually – and a strong portrayal by Laura Jane Matthewson – that the group become more accessible for me. She, along with a fantastic performance by Llio Milward as Ceridwen, provide a real heart to the piece.

Whilst the music may have been computer-originated, some intervention needed to be made to make the music a bit more memorable – I couldn’t hum a single tune upon leaving, and the lyrics were a little simplistic too. That’s not to say that the songs were bad as such – or that they weren’t beautifully sung, because they were – it’s just they were lacking that extra something that makes you walk home reliving the pivotal moments.

The fantastically talented and able cast gave great showing of their respective characters, although one or two were not quite as strong vocally as you would want during key numbers. The focus of the story being an all-female peace camp also gave a rare opportunity in musical theatre to have the main characters as an all-female ensemble, and there were some beautifully worked harmonies in the show. Genuinely stunning harmonies.

Special mention has to go to Hollie Owen as the voluntarily mute George. Without a single line to speak until the dying minutes of the play, her portrayal of a child traumatised into silence by witnessing her mother being beaten by her father feels crushingly realistic, and the silent friendship she develops with the army officer is touching.

So, does this experiment signal the end of traditional writing and herald a new age of technology? Not quite – not just yet. Beyond The Fence doesn’t work for me yet as a finished piece, but with a tiny bit of tinkering, would blossom. The experiment is in no way a failure, and is something that can be built upon.

Theatre will always need that human touch – you cannot replace that with computers, but innovation is key to keeping theatre alive, and any opportunity to find that first spark to create from should be seized. For me, Beyond The Fence didn’t hit all the markers as strongly as one might want, but like any new piece of theatre, give it a bit of breathing space and a little more attention and watch this grow.

 

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Holy Mackerel! ~ Key Theatre, Peterborough ~ 30.01.2016

As an antidote to Pantomime, the acclaimed Eastern Angles (from East Anglia, surprisingly enough) have teamed up with the Shanty Theatre Company (from Lyme Regis) to produce a musical farce based on the 1892 Newlyn Fishing Riots. As you do.

Now, you might be thinking that tensions over Victorian Fishing Laws can’t possibly produce a rich vein of comedy, but more fool you. Harry Long’s overly complex plot (it is a farce, after all – of course the plot is unnecessarily complicated!) focuses on the build up to the riots caused by the arrival of East Anglian fishermen to the peaceful and strictly religious town of Newlyn – and the problems caused when the newcomers failed to observe the Sabbath, as was tradition in their new hometown.

In a bid to try and appease both his boss (the strict overlord of the fishing boats, Brassy Balls), and the love of his life (the religious Kerra, who pleads with him to not fish on a Sunday) – the hero of the hour, the hapless Norman, builds his plans to keep his job and win his girl. If this happens to drag an entire community to the brink of war, cost a Harbourmaster his job, cast out some godly folk from the priest’s favour and accidentally be heralded as the chosen one and worshipped as a demi-God in the process, then that’s not entirely his fault.

The five-strong cast switch expertly between roles as they portray both the Cornwalian and East Anglian folk, with accents to match both sets of characters.

Holy Mackerel, in the style of many a pantomime, is a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously and regularly breaks the fourth wall to great comic effect. The lead villain, Brassy Balls – perfectly pitched by Christian Edwards, is an absolute riot. We could probably talk about building a spin-off around that character. Perhaps just unleash him on the unsuspecting public in a Trigger Happy TV style and film improvised segments.

Joining Christian Edwards is writer Harry Long, who himself plays our unlikely saviour Norman with just the perfect amount of innocence and determination. Daniel Copeland puts in a great turn in both his Vicar character (of course! Farce, remember!) and that of the Harbourmaster – whereby he is involved in a wonderful farcical mixup with Louise Callaghan’s Mags, who is in disguise herself as the Harbourmaster and Brassy Balls. Mabel Clements completes the lineup with perhaps the widest range in characterisation, going from the tender, God-fearing gentlewoman Kerra to psycho Alice – a member of the Newlyn Tourist Board kept on a tight leash (literally) for the safety of the public – in a blink of an eye.

Sadly, I saw this show on the final day of its run – it’s one I’d gladly see again it was that much fun. But in the meantime I would highly recommend you take a look at other work by both Shanty Theatre Company and Eastern Angles, and also keep an eye out for more appearances of the five very talented cast members involved.

 

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Phantom of the Opera ~ Her Majesty’s Theatre ~ 15.01.2016

A second visit to Her Majesty’s Theatre in six months for me – I wouldn’t normally schedule two visits so close to each other, but considering John Owen-Jones was returning to star in the title role for such a short time, it was a case of now or never.

Whether or not he will return to the role again is uncertain – after discovering he has fewer than 40 performances to go to hit the 2000 mark, he seemed keen to consider coming back at some point to hit that milestone.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the elaborate costuming and technical aspects of the show are phenomenal. And this time, sitting in the second row, I saw it all up close. The effects are not lost, only heightened by close proximity.

John Owen Jones was, of course, fabulous as the masked murderer. It was a pleasure to see him perform – he comes across as one of the most likeable people in theatre and it’s been a long-term aim of mine to see him perform in a role and not just in concert. His vocal delivery was absolutely spot on throughout, perfectly capturing the Phantom at his softest and most vulnerable, through to giving him a big voice during the epic dramatic numbers.

Once again I saw Emmi Christensen as Christine, and yet again she did not disappoint. Phenomenally talented and sings the role so beautifully. Nadim Naaman was simply brilliant as Raoul – it’s a character I often struggle to warm to, but it was very easy to root for his portrayal of the Vicomte de Chagny. Having witnessed Naaman’s skills on the football field, it was great to finally be able to see his talents on stage.

A personal extra highlight for me was seeing Rhidian Marc in the ensemble. He’s got such a lovely singing voice, I look forward to him progressing and picking up principal roles in the near future.

Phantom in the West End celebrates its 30th Anniversary this year, and I highly recommend you take time to visit this spectacular production if you have a chance.

 

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Jest End ~ Waterloo East Theatre ~ 01.12.2016

Jest End – a collection of musical and visual parodies from the West End’s biggest, brightest and best shows, composed and written by Garry Lake – took to Waterloo East Theatre for a limited run and put forward a strong case for my favourite piece of the year.

Wickedly funny and entirely unprejudiced with its targets – no show is safe. From Les Misérables to Phantom, Matilda to Billy Elliot, Wicked to Miss Saigon – all the big shows get the Garry Lake treatment, and the cast are not afraid to mock their own appearances in shows either.

A fabulous quartet cast of Scott Garnham, Jodie Jacobs, Lizzy Connolly and Simon Bailey powered through two hours of costume changes, spoofing the shows, packing in the inside jokes and ultimately delivering quality vocals on the parody songs.

A nice mix of individual and ensemble performances, seamlessly linked together, it’s easy to forget it is just the four of them covering all the roles. Particular highlights were Scott Garnham’s portrayal of Killian Donnelly (in a Memphis/Kinky Boots mashup) and Lizzy Connolly’s pitch-perfect performance as a ‘Part Time Christine’ – a tribute to the casting arrangements over at Phantom of the Opera.

Jodie Jacobs had me in stitches throughout with her characters such as Billy Elliot and, in her words, “the only Jew in a Christmas show” for the Elf finale, but her skit as Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, with Simon Bailey as an increasingly creepy David Babani – director of the Menier Chocolate Factory – in a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody, was just perfectly delivered.

I’d not seen this show before, but it seems to come back for a limited run every couple of years or so. Clearly new bits are added all the time, as it was all topical and relevant to today’s West End selection. In terms of prior in-depth knowledge of shows is concerned, it definitely helps some of the in-jokes land, but as long as you have a general overview of the main shows, you’ll enjoy this tongue-in-cheek view of Theatreland.

 

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