Posts Tagged ‘West End’

Top Hat, Aldwych Theatre, London’s West End, May 2012

11 May, 2012

If you like a frothy musical with lots of dancing, and numbers like Cheek to Cheek by Irving Berlin, this is for you.

Tom Chambers and ensemble, all images Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

It’s the early 1930s and an American dancer named Jerry Travers has come to London to star in a show produced by wealthy Horace Hardwick. A tap dance routine he performs in his hotel room awakens the lovely Dale Tremont. She treats him with disdain, but he falls for her and spares no effort to bring her round. All would be well, but a case of mistaken identity carries the affair off to Venice.

Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen

There are funny lines aplenty, often inspired by the ridiculous Horace Hardwick, ”A man is incomplete before he’s married. After that he’s finished”. This may not seem very witty when written down, but delivered in a Bob Hope kind of way by a string-bean version of Henry Higgins, it’s funny. Martin Ball gave a fine performance as Hardwick, and talking of string-beans, Stephen Boswell was wonderful as his man, Bates. Vivien Parry carried off the role of Hardwick’s wife with great panache, delivering some superb lines, but the main plaudits must go to Summer Strallen as Dale Tremont: super stage presence and wonderful dancing — she was great.

Tom Chambers starred as Jerry Travers, giving him great charm, and his playful pas-de-deux with the hat stand in Act I was a delight. Super ensemble dancing by the company to choreography by Bill Deamer, and the sets by Hildegard Bechtler were glorious. Lovely costumes by Jon Morrell and good lighting by Peter Mumford. The story line is a bit thin, but Matthew White has directed a hugely appealing show that never flags for a minute, and left the audience with a sense of euphoria.

Booking available until 26 January 2013 — for details click here.

South Downs/ The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre, London’s West End, May 2012

8 May, 2012

Terence Rattigan’s excellent short play The Browning Version is set in a boys’ boarding school, and for the first half of the evening a new play by David Hare, commissioned the Rattigan estate, has a similar setting.

The Browning Version is about one of the masters, and Hare’s counterpoint focusses on one of the boys. In both plays an act of kindness is the fulcrum lifting the main protagonist out of the tramlines of his sad, yet very scholarly, existence.

Alex Lawther as the clever boy, all images Johan Persson

In Hare’s South Downs a pedantic English master, beautifully played by Andrew Woodall, extols the genius of Alexander Pope, saying “only within a cage do we find freedom”. Indeed a firm foundation and attention to detail provides a basis for true creativity, something that began going awry in the 70s after Hare left school. We still suffer the consequences, and although intellectual rigour is now making a comeback, it has a long way to go.

Tea and cake for Blakemore

Yet here in class is a very clever boy, Blakemore, brilliantly played by young Alex Lawther, who challenges the master in order to protect a boy he wants as his friend. Blakemore is disturbed, but finds it impossible to talk to his housemaster, Rev Eric Dewley, a man of the Church of England who believes in consubstantiation rather than trans-substantiation, but isn’t really sure about that. It’s a clever play, with Dewley very well portrayed by Nicholas Farrell, himself the focus of Rattigan’s play in the second half of the evening. Something needs to happen to Blakemore, and Anna Chancellor as the actress mother of one of the prefects gives him tea and sympathy, faulting him for being unable to dissemble. This is something Rattigan himself was extremely good at when he was at school at Harrow, yet in the end Blakemore manages a transformation, and we move on to Rattigan’s play.

The term Browning Version refers to a translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon by Robert Browning, and the dry-as-dust Classics master, Crocker-Harris is a brilliant scholar who is teaching the boys to read it, in the original of course. This is pretty tough stuff. Yet it’s not the boys who are suffering, but Crocker-Harris himself, superbly portrayed by Nicholas Farrell. He is recovering from a heart attack caused by the chronic stress of an apparently charming but deceptive wife who hates him, a headmaster who is happy to see the back of him, and his own despair at casting scholarly pearls before swine.

Nicholas Farrell as Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version

He’s on track to leave the school — without even a pension — and go to work at a crammer. Could anything be more absurd? Here is a man who should be teaching classical texts at university level, yet to the lower fifth he’s simply the Crock, a beast to beware of. Oh, he understands his position all right. A ‘hen-pecked husband’ to an ‘unsatisfied wife’, the butt of contempt or fear by others. But what can he do about it?

Anna Chancellor as the wife

“Rules are rules” he responds when the disturbingly disappointing news comes down from the trustees about his pension. The pompous fraud of a headmaster, played with carefree abandon by Andrew Woodall, almost seems to relish giving him the bad news, coupled with a request that he diminish himself by allowing someone else to speak last at the end of year celebrations. His dry speech with a hyper-scholarly joke or two is all prepared, and he accedes to the headmaster’s proposal.

Yet suddenly an act of kindness by one of the boys turns everything on its head. This is vintage Rattigan, and I was longing to know what his new speech might be — we never do, of course.

But we do know that precision and attention to detail by a clever scholar can work wonders, as long as he can divest himself of the psychological baggage weighing him down. What might Crocker-Harris have achieved with a less spiteful wife? And how much better might this performance have been if Anna Chancellor as the wife had delivered the main line in the play facing the audience rather than stage rear? In this fascinating and moving portrayal of the dry scholar by Nicholas Farrell we find hope that the precision of Greek translation can once again give huge pleasure and revitalise his life.

These two plays together yield a wonderful evening of theatre. Performances continue until July 21 — for details click here.

Master Class, Vaudeville Theatre, London’s West End, February 2012

8 February, 2012

Excerpts from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, Puccini’s Tosca, and Verdi’s Macbeth by young singers trying out their talents in front of Maria Callas. Sometimes she stops them even before they’ve uttered their first note, and it’s glorious fun, with Tyne Daly giving a stunning portrayal of the diva. She’s imperious, impatient, and intensely musical. “Just listen. Everything is in the music”.

Tyne Daly as Maria Callas, all images Johan Persson

Indeed it is, and Callas was one of the great musical actresses of the twentieth century. At the start of Act II she is holding the score of Bellini’s Norma, but when her third student appears and suggests she could sing the heroine’s opening aria Casta Diva, Callas tells her to forget it. Quite right too. Casta Diva is very hard, and too easy to mess up, even for top-flight singers whom she rather rudely compares to performing seals. She mentions names such as Scotto and Sutherland, referred to by the press as her ‘rivals’, but “How can you have rivals when no-one can do what you do?” When the third singer returns to stage, after throwing up in her dressing room, Callas tells her she could sing Mimi (in Bohème) or Michaela (in Carmen), but not the big dramatic roles such as Norma or Lady Macbeth because she’s too young. This elicits the response that Callas herself sang Medea when she was young. “I was never young — I couldn’t afford it”, and she goes on to mention the word Mut in German, meaning something like courage felt from the heart.

Callas had a heart, and this finely crafted play by Terrence McNally shows how it was seriously wounded towards the end of her career by that Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who dumped her and married Jackie Kennedy. Maria Callas was a forthright, determined and ultimately tragic figure, but the presentation never flags and is hugely witty in parts, helped by excellent direction from Stephen Wadsworth. I laughed out loud at several points, sometimes without a word being spoken.

Tyne Daly with Naomi O'Connell

But this play is also about the music and singing, with Dianne Pilkington in Act I delivering excerpts from Amina’s arias in Sonnambula while Callas stops her at almost every breath. Then as Cavaradossi in Tosca, Garrett Sorenson shows he hasn’t a clue what church the hero is in, or even what’s really going on, but after a brief conflict with Callas he launches into that early Act I aria Recondita armonia, and she is transfixed. When performing in Tosca herself she was always waiting to make her first entrance singing Mario! Mario! off-stage, and had no time to admire the beauty of the tenor’s voice. Finally, young Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell gave a dramatic performance as Lady Macbeth.

This has transferred from its Broadway success, where Tyne Daly and Garrett Sorenson played the same roles, as did Jeremy Cohen as the engagingly laconic pianist. If you like opera, it’s a must-see, and if you don’t it is still a fascinating portrayal of a great performer, showing intense dedication to her art. But most of all it’s great fun with never a dull moment.

Performances continue until April 28 — for details click here.

Flare Path, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London’s West End, March 2011

11 March, 2011

“Don’t worry, skipper will get us home again . . . and you have to pretend you’re not afraid”, so speaks the tail gunner, a role that Terence Rattigan himself played for real in World War II. This play is based on his own experience, and gives a fine understanding of the tensions that the bomber crews were up against. It’s a representation of how ordinary folk could rise to heights of selflessness while retaining their sense of humour until . . . well, until they die or perhaps just snap. Its guiding theme is understatement, well counterbalanced by the arrival of an ex-pat from America, a famous actor named Peter Kyle.

James Purefoy and Sienna Miller

The women portrayed their roles superbly. Sienna Miller was wonderfully natural as the actress and wife of Flight Lieutenant (Teddy) Graham, and Sheridan Smith was superbly robust as the Countess (Doris), wife of a Polish airman. With Emma Handy as the wife of the Flight Sergeant, visiting him for one night, and Sarah Crowden as the hotel keeper, both gloriously down-to-earth and charmless, the women managed the understatement as if they were to the manner born. The men were a bit more variable. Harry Hadden-Paton as Teddy seemed just a bit over the top, with his bonhomie appearing slightly unnatural, and although James Purefoy came over as gutlessly charming in portraying the actor Peter Kyle, his later despair at losing Teddy’s wife seemed a bit forced. The Polish airman, played by Mark Dexter, lacked a Polish accent, and appeared a bit stupid, contradicting Teddy’s continued assertions that he was “good value”. On the other hand, Joe Armstrong as the Flight Sergeant was as down-to-earth as his wife, and Clive Wood as the Squadron leader was outstanding. He exhibited a glorious tendency to effeteness, and was so natural you felt he’d just stepped in from the past.

Sheridan Smith as Doris, all photos by Johan Persson

The use of occasional music from the 1940s was just right, and the set and costume designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis gave a great feeling of authenticity. This was enhanced enormously by the film sequences of bombers taking off, with very realistic sound effects. At the end of the play things came together as if by accident, which speaks well of this production by Trevor Nunn, but the first half seemed to go rather too slowly, getting nowhere very fast.

Final dénouement with Joe Armstrong, Clive Wood, Mark Dexter and Harry Hadden-Paton

In this centenary year of Rattigan’s birth his plays are popping up all over the place, and are all well worth seeing. Performances of Flare Path continue until June 4 — for more details click here.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Novello Theatre, December 2009

5 December, 2009

This 1955 Tennessee Williams play deals with the emotional lies and silences within a Mississippi land-owning family. The action takes place on a single day — Big Daddy’s birthday — and we first meet Maggie, who has married into this well-to-do family, along with her husband Brick. She is the cat on a hot tin roof, desperate for some loving from her husband, an ex-football player, now a sports commentator hobbling around on a crutch after recently injuring his ankle. Maggie is almost the only person speaking in Act I, as Brick stays silent, occasionally lashing out with his crutch or falling over. The physical crutch is a recent temporary addition to his life, but alcohol is the real crutch that helps him face the day, and in the second act, Big Daddy enters and berates him for it, just as his wife did. But Brick still remains almost silent, until something snaps and he explains why he’s so angry, and angry in particular with his wife, who slept with his best friend Skipper. When Skipper died, Brick took to alcohol, and we finally understand why he drinks and avoids his wife, though we never really know how much sexual repression there was in the relationship with Skipper. The dialogue between Big Daddy and Brick is a high point of this drama, and it was brilliantly performed by James Earl Jones and Adrian Lester.

In the meantime there are other issues, such as Big Daddy’s impending death from cancer, which is being hidden from him, and the manoeuvring by Brick’s brother and the brother’s wife to take over the estate. After Big Mama rejects their legal documents, and Big Daddy finds out the truth, we seem to be left with a train-wreck. But this is where Maggie finally shows a stroke of genius, finding a way to delight Big Daddy, as well as getting off her hot tin roof and into her husband’s affections.

The production by Debbie Allen, with an elegant set by Ray Klausen, fine costumes by Jane Greenwood, and clear lighting by William Grant, works beautifully. But what really makes this a great performance are the actors. James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashand as Big Daddy and Big Mama are superb. They both came with this production from Broadway, and both were born in the South, Mississippi in his case, where the action takes place, and Texas in hers. They were deeply believable, as if they had this drama in their bones. Jones’s deep bass voice was only one aspect of his wonderful performance — his stage presence was riveting, and he only needed to sit and move his head, for us to know exactly what was going on in his mind. Seneca Lathan as Maggie is another American cast member, and she was glorious, though one might prefer more smouldering and less electricity. Adrian Lester as Brick was very powerful in his anger and histrionics with the crutch, and he did extremely well with the Southern accent, particularly since he was performing next to actors from that region. The same could not be said of the man who gave a rather weak portrayal of his brother the lawyer, and sounded like an Englishman trying on a Southern drawl. But that quibble aside, the performance by this all black cast was terrific, and as an American friend of mine said, “This may be the best performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof you’ll ever see”.