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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Kinky Boots ~ Adelphi Theatre ~ 28.09.15

Having seen the show twice during previews, I knew what I was in for when I rocked up to the Adelphi for the third time.

On the surface, perhaps the show doesn’t appear to have all that much of interest to offer me, I certainly think there are shows with better storylines and there are shows with better soundtracks, but Kinky Boots is far greater than the sum of its parts with a fantastic ensemble cast, and a great pair of leads in Matt Henry and Killian Donnelly as Lola and Charlie.

It’s a little lightweight, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and ends with a highly positive (if perhaps a little cheesy) message of hope, empowerment and tolerance. It’s musical theatre, though, I think ‘a little bit cheesy’ is de rigueur – certainly with modern pieces.

Here’s the key element – the script is funny. The sassy character of Lola (Matt Henry) has some killer lines, in-keeping with the stereotypical view of drag queens perhaps, but additionally Amy Lennox is a great comic turn as Lauren – the girl-next-door who comes to see her hapless boss (Charlie) in a new light.

With his third lead role in as many years, Killian Donnelly has firmly established himself on the West End stage now, and it’s an accolade well-deserved. I don’t necessarily think this character is the most interesting one he’s played, however – and considering he left a fantastic part in Memphis for this role, it may seem a little more on the light side – but he sings it well and takes every opportunity to play up the comedy in his role as the double act straight man, a great contrast to what I have seen of him before where he has always been a cheeky instigator, rather than reactor.

An interesting element to the show, which gives it much more than the basic level “drag queen set in an industrial town and see how those worlds collide” overview, is the addition of Lola’s alter-ego Simon. Matt plays both sides to his character with such opposed styles yet the connection between the two remains believable. Lola’s brash, outlandish style against Simon’s crippling shyness and self-doubt, yet in numbers like “Hold Me In Your Heart”, you can see elements of both. Harvey Firstein’s work ought to be commended mainly for introducing this nuanced character to the scene. Perhaps most audiences will box Lola off as a gay man dressed as a woman, but actually that is never established and Fierstein himself has denied that Simon/Lola is gay. It’s interesting that people have fixated on that when the whole point of the musical is that it doesn’t matter, just be who you are. We still have some way to go, but Kinky Boots is doing its bit!

So, Kinky Boots, eh? Yes, it’s clunky at times whilst delivering its messages of positivity. Yes, some of the songs are unbearably cheesy – but Cyndi Lauper has dropped a few absolute gems in there too, which are ridiculously catchy and fun. Aside from the Lola-centric “Land of Lola” and “Sex Is In The Heel”, two brilliant numbers are “What a Woman Wants” – a modern tango argument between Lola and the women and factory bully Don – and “In This Corner”, a musical accompaniment to a fight between Lola/Simon and Don, which features some stunning vocals by Marcus Collins, with one of the costuming highlights – do look out for that. And Yes, I do feel the characters of Charlie and Nicole are a little on the flat side. But – this musical has the Angels in it. It’s a winner for me!

 

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Les Mis v Phantom Weekend

30th July – 2nd August ~ Queen’s Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Bromley FC

A weekend spent in the company of the West End’s finest French musicals – Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera. This formed the basis of an action-packed weekend I planned to celebrate my Mother’s birthday, much of which was a surprise to her. I had offered to take her to a musical, and whilst she had spent so long deliberating between these two productions, I went and bought tickets to both without telling her. She eventually chose Les Mis, so the Phantom tickets went unmentioned until I was guiding her into the theatre. I should also mention at this point that we were scheduled to attend the annual charity football match ‘Les Mis vs Phantom’ on the Sunday – completing the trilogy.

Readers of any previous blogs of mine will know how I hold Les Mis in such high regard. So many casts over the years have made this such an enjoyable show for me and I have returned to the Queen’s Theatre several times. Phantom, however, I have only seen once – so was looking forward to revisiting this.

There’s not much new I can say about Les Mis at this stage – it’s been going 30 years (the anniversary is in October) and the production is as slick as ever. This visit gave me the chance to see the new cast in action, following quite a significant cast change in June. It’s always fun to see new people in the roles, regardless of how much you enjoyed previous cast members performances. Everyone brings something new to the role, interprets the character in a different way.

Rob Houchen and Carrie Hope Fletcher continue to deliver strong performances in the roles of Marius and Eponine. Confession: I am really not overly keen on the Marius/Cosette storyline – either in the book or the musical, but Rob is absolutely fantastic and makes the character interesting. Bradley Jaden has moved into the role of Enjolras and what a fabulous piece of casting that was – great vocal performance.

Of the new additions to the cast, Adam Bayjou was covering for the absent Peter Lockyer as Valjean, and he is one for the permanent role in the future, I am certain. Very steady and assured performance in a very demanding role. Jo Parsons deserves notable mention for his role as Grantaire (who remains my favourite character – he has some of the best ranting speeches in the book. And always has wine. Winner!). Christian Edwards is very much missed, he was superb as the cynic last year, introducing many little comic touches to scenes and being the very human response to the tragedies unfolding. Jo has already started introducing his own flourishes and I look forward to seeing him in the role again to see what else he will bring.

The following day saw us attend the matinee performance of Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. It’s been a few years since I saw this show and remember enjoying it but being so high up and far away from the action, feeling that I was missing out. This time, although we were sat in the upper circle, we were front row and had a brilliant view – especially when it came to the chandelier scene (I won’t elaborate for fear of spoilers, but it is a fairly famous moment, I’m probably safe!)

Quite simply, I forgot how stunning this production is. Even after taking into account all the elaborate costumes for all the opera scenes within the show, the actual tech is superb. The ‘Phantom of the Opera‘ scene with the candles and the boat remains one of my favourites, but all the trickery with the mirror and the disappearances throughout are just so well executed, it’s very easy to suspend disbelief and embrace the legend of the Phantom.

Unfortunately Gerónimo Rauch was not well enough to perform as the Phantom, which was a shame as I had hoped to see him – he had a fantastic run as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables prior to this role, and he’s a phenomenal talent. However, must acknowledge the flawless performance of the understudy Phantom, Kieran Brown – strong vocal performance and gave the Phantom just the right combination of man and monster, tragic victim and menace. The Phantom is such an interesting character, you can never quite commit to either hating him or pitying him as there is such a complexity behind his situation.

Opposite Kieran was alternate Christine, Emmi Christensson, who was delightful as the daydreaming damsel. I was fortunate enough to see her perform a duet with Harriet Jones, who alternates the role of Christine with Emmi, at Scott Alan’s concert in May. Both ladies were in fine voice and Emmi again delivered a pitch-perfect score. Joining Kieran and Emmi to complete the lead trio was understudy Raoul, Oliver Savile. It’s sort of a running joke among my close friends that there have been a number of times where I’ve attended a show or concert with an extra incentive to see a specific person and that person has not been available and Oliver Savile has popped up to save the day! It’s never any hardship, he’s a fine performer indeed, and it’s always a pleasure to hear him sing. But it does mean I have yet to see Liam Tamne perform live. But there is time for that. And Oliver did a fantastic job with Raoul – who is a character I don’t usually warm to, but very much enjoyed on the day.

So, with our scouting mission for both Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera over, we made our way to Bromley FC to the football match the following day full of up-to-date squad info and full of certainty of who we would be supporting. By which I mean I had enjoyed both performances equally, and I knew Phantom had a really strong team the year before – but my heart, as always, lay with Les Misérables.

When Les Mis went 1-0 up I did feel it might be their day and their chance to win the trophy back from Phantom. At 6-1 down, deep into the second half, I felt it was time to perhaps acknowledge that I might have been mistaken. The late consolation goal kept the crowd happy, many of whom had been happily singing along to cheer their teams. For the Phantom team, captain Ryan Goscinski and Man Of The Match winner Tricky Shelmerdine were outstanding, and also special mention to Ryan O’Gorman for the Les Mis team – a recent transfer from Phantom FC but didn’t shy away from those tackles.

It’s a delightfully odd thing, a charity football match. Especially one involving musical theatre. As a football-goer myself, the crowd is always different at a charity match – understandably so. But at Les Mis v Phantom it’s a whole other level of enjoyment. Genuinely such a fun day – from the vast array of live performances pre-match, to the highly entertaining live commentary from Carl Mullaney, Tim Morgan, and usually Adam Linstead, however he couldn’t attend this year due to his Blackpool run of Cats alongside Jane MacDonald. He was sorely missed, but Carl and Tim ensured that no player went unmocked, no gag remained untold, Carl has even now learned to stop calling half-time “the interval” (although I’ll admit to constantly doing the opposite…)

Lots of appreciation for the pre-match entertainment, provided by Kerry Ellis, Rachelle Ann Go, Killian Donnelly, Carrie Hope Fletcher, John Owen Jones and Rob Houchen in lieu of the still-unwell Gerónimo Rauch. Half-time entertainment was brought to you by Take-4, including Les Mis alumni Dayle Hodge and Ethan Bradshaw, who performed a medley of Frankie Valli songs. See, you don’t get showtunes at Old Trafford, the Etihad or Anfield, eh? More’s the pity…

Bromley FC were, as always, fantastic hosts for the event, and thanks to their support and the efforts of everybody involved with Les Mis v Phantom, a fanastic sum of £18,000 was raised for the MAD Trust and MacMillan Appeal.

 

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