Pentatonix ~ Albert Hall, Manchester ~28.05.2016

As this was a surprise to me, courtesy of my sister and an upcoming birthday, I did no prep prior to this gig and had nothing to write notes on, so in terms of reviewing this won’t be the strongest.

I’ve long admired the work of Pentatonix since discovering their videos on YouTube. I’d never seen the US Reality Show which propelled them to fame, but their recreations of classic hits in their inimitable style has been something I’ve enjoyed watching for a few years.

Prior to the main event, we were entertained by husband-and-wife team Us The Duo – also known as multi-instrumentalists Michael and Carissa Alvarado. These two were amiable enough, playing a selection of instruments and singing well, but I wasn’t especially grabbed by the music itself. Nice enough to have in the background, but didn’t leave any lasting imprint in my mind.

Then it was time for good old PTX to take to the stage at the Albert Hall – which is a converted Wesleyan chapel and a phenomenal venue for a music gig. Beautiful structure and wonderful acoustics.

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For those who don’t know, Pentatonix are a five-piece a cappella band – a beatboxer, a bass and three additional singers who provide fantastic harmonies. They came to my attention through a series of intriguing cover versions they released on YouTube, most notably one entitled Evolution of Music, whereby they catalogued musical history from 11th Century Gregorian Chanting to the present day chart hits (admittedly they skate through the first few centuries pretty quickly!)

Whilst appreciating their talent, I haven’t much followed their own musical output so the evening was split pretty evenly for me in terms of entirely new music and some firm favourites, but the rest of the crowd appeared to be fully immersed in each number, singing along with the harmonies of the three main vocalists. Personally, the main draw for me is the combination of bass and beats – vocalist Avi Kaplan’s range is incredible, such a rich sound he produces. And Kevin Olusola’s beatboxing skills keep breathing life into the songs throughout the night.

Their Michael Jackson and Daft Punk medleys stormed the night, as one expected they would. Covering the entire career of an artist like MJ in a five minute segment is pretty impressive, but the stylistic delivery of his various musical changes throughout his life is equally wonderful. The Daft Punk medley is cleverly done, attributing vocal performances to electronic music is no mean feat, and they achieve a rich sound and give songs like Technologic a whole new feel.

For me, the highlight of the night was a pretty low key but special solo moment, where most of the band left the stage for a short break, leaving the group’s beatboxer Kevin Olusola to take centre stage with his cello for a rendition of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. A single spotlight, a cello, and a beatboxer might not sound the most electrifying event but the atmosphere was incredible. Whilst initially providing an intimate contrast to preceding events, the piece built up to a thunderous applause at the finish. I could gladly listen to that over and again.

Pentatonix are currently continuing their tour around Europe throughout May and June, and will tour the USA from September.

 

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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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Animal Farm ~ Courtyard Theatre ~ 08.03.2016

It’s been a long time since I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but the principles have remained with me over the years. Orwell’s talent for relating complex ideas in such a simple manner really shines in this book more than any of his other works, and in the Tree Folk Theatre’s production, I found the perfect staging for the story.

The production is kept fairly minimal in terms of set and costuming, with the scenery just giving a hint of the animals and their environment. It feels very classical in terms of staging – the bulk of the work in portraying the animals comes from the actor’s themselves, whose physicality throughout the show was simply rather splendid and wholly believable. Simple mask-like props are then added to great effect to complete the ‘transformation’ onstage of each and every creature. For the key moments, larger puppetry set-pieces helped convey the drama, with three or four people joining to represent the whole animal – as witnessed by Boxer’s fall.

By producing the piece as an acted-out narration, the show kept the feel of the storytelling ever present. It is perhaps the most effective way to deliver Orwell’s work when there is so much commentary in the book which serves as opposition to the dialogue within. The cast expertly switch between their animal roles and crucial points of narration with such ease, making it always clear as to their current characterisation. The narration being split among the cast kept the story flowing smoothly too.

The pacing of the show throughout is pitched just right by director William Vercelli. The first act comprising the rebellion and the setting up of Animal Farm has a gentle side to it, a little more humour, contrasting to the tense thrilling sequence of events in the second half.

The entire cast deserve commendation for their work in producing such a captivating piece of theatre, and for an ensemble so young, I’m sure they will all go on to achieve so much more. Special mention ought to go to Tom Manning – whose portrayal of Napoleon was just the right level of menacing for the part – and his sidekick Squealer, played to great effect by Mitch Howell. His characterisation was superb and kept the pace of the production continuing forward, especially in the second Act when he really came into his own. Additionally, Bethany Blake and Jerome Millington-Johnson as the two carthorses Clover and Boxer- with Boxer’s fierce loyalty and dedication, and Clover’s caring nature – provide the heart of the piece.

Animal Farm is running until 13th March at the Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton. Do catch this show if you can. See here for tickets.

 

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Andrew Maxwell: Yo Contraire! ~ Prince of Wales, Brixton ~ 03.03.2016

Andrew Maxwell has long been one of my favourite comedians to listen out for on Radio 4. So it came as a shock to me to realise that I hadn’t yet seen him perform live.

So, when this gig came up involving him trying out things for a new Radio 4 project called Andrew Maxwell’s Late Agenda, I snapped up the opportunity to head to Brixton to see him do his thing.

He’s a wonderful blend of political comedy with storytelling and observational routines. He can tell a story of his own life then switch to a rant about Putin with the blink of an eye. But more than his prepared material, he’s just genuinely a likeable and cheeky guy.

The night at Brixton brought its own unique atmosphere, with some audience members having over-indulged at the bar and took audience participation to a higher degree than was needed. Andrew dealt with any and all interruptions with grace, a smile on his face, and a killer line or two to keep things on track.

The show should be out on Radio 4 within a few weeks – all manner of topics were covered, from ISIS to Donald Trump – so do look out for it on iPlayer. If Brixton’s try-out night was anything to go by, it’ll be a show worth listening to.

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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