Friday, 23 February 2018

"Top Hat", Glasgow King's Theatre, 21/2/18

In the world of musicals it can honestly be said that many a show is kept alive by the efforts of the amateur company who often perform musicals rarely produced by professional producers and who further the audience and potential fandom of these shows in doing so. It will probably be the case with "Top Hat" which enjoyed a successful, if curtailed, West End run (winning the Olivier Award for Best New Musical) and a following UK tour but which has since all but dropped off the map.

Based on the classic 1935 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers comedy movie with songs by Irving Berlin the plot follows dancer Jerry Travers who falls in love with Dale Tremont after his tap dancing disturbs her sleep in the hotel room below his. Tremont incorrectly assumes Travers is the stage producer Horace Hardwick who has brought Travers over to London to open a new show. Hardwick's wife is Tremont's friend and so Dale is disgusted when the man she assumes to be married proposes to her. Screwball comedy ensues.
Of course, the plot is rather weak, as to be expected, but is still none-the-less charming especially when delivered with such aplomb as Paisley Musical and Operatic Society bring to it. It is the Irving Berlin songs that really make the show and with such classics as "Cheek To Cheek", "Puttin' On The Ritz" and "Let's Face The Music And Dance" it's hard to go wrong. 

Berlin's music is handled beautifully by musical director Sean Stirling who treats the score with assurance. There is an element of the ol' Hollywood Glamour that is brought out which succinctly suits the production. 
"Top Hat" is famous as a dance production and PMOS had a difficult challenge before them but their efforts pay off with the elegant choreography of Marion Baird delivered well and confidently by the cast; so much so that I believe the company could have handled even more complex material. 
Alasdair Hawthorn directs another assured production, bringing out the humour and the effervescence of the material with ease. The lighting could be more focused and varied but, in reality, this is a small niggle and, sure, there are moments that require tightening - especially in the transitions - but I've no doubt they'll be rectified as the run continues. There are, indeed, some clever location reveals in the first act which I only wish had continued into the second and it is such small details as these that I enjoy and that Hawthorn often delivers. 

The production has double-cast its leads and, on this occasion, I saw Greg Robertson and Claire Logue as "Jerry" and "Dale" respectively who both lead the company amiably and with confidence. Robertson has a natural charm and easy voice whilst Logue is a sweet and funny performer and they play well opposite each other. They are supported by a company who make the most of the humour and the staging. Alastair McCall as "Horace Hardwick", Iain G. Condie as his manservant "Bates" and Ross Nicol as the flamboyant "Alberto Beddini" all have plenty of opportunity to shine and do so with hilarity. Lindsey Ross also shines as "Madge Hardwick", prowling the stage with a commanding presence and brilliant comedic traits. The ensemble are also ebullient and there are a number who stand out in the odd scene including Robin Cameron's "Florist" and Jenny Carty's "Receptionist". The utilisation of the ensemble is another strength in Hawthorn's direction and there is plenty of business within the company to occupy the audience member.

"Top Hat" is a few hours of joyous, buoyant entertainment filled with cracking musical numbers and numerous laughs delivered by a vibrant, vivacious company who continue to push themselves and each other for the sake of their audiences' enjoyment.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

"Rita, Sue & Bob Too", Glasgow Citizen's Theatre, 13/2/17

Written for Backstage Pass:

Schoolgirl baby-sitters Rita and Sue long to leave their dull world and so take their charges' father, Bob, up on an offer which develops into a three-way affair. Never mind that Bob is married to Michelle; to the girls he represents excitement, adventure and a brighter future away from their unhappy home lives. But, of course, life is never so simple.

Andrea Dunbar's play, written whilst still a teenager, re-emerges in a timely revival within a world all-too-similar to the one in which Dunbar birthed it; social divisions and mobility, redundant aspirations and the sexual politics between men and women are as pertinent now as they were in the Thatcher era when "Rita, Sue and Bob Too" first premiered.

This co-production between Out Of Joint, Octagon Theatre Bolton and The Royal Court Theatre is an elaboration of Dunbar's world that is reflected in her non-judgmental, frank yet witty writing. That it is not too far removed from current issues is a boon and the play also essays the positives of resilience, reconciliation and the fragile bonds of friendship in unconventional circumstances. In reality fairy-tale happy endings are absurdly rare and Dunbar is unafraid to ponder this fact in her story.
Director Kate Wasserberg's lithe, uncluttered staging allows a forthright presentation, furthered by Tim Shortall's design, where the humour and pathos of the text (newly edited by John Hollingworth) is brought to vivid life in splendid performances from a cast led by Taj AtwalGemma Dobson and James Atherton as the titular characters. Samantha RobinsonSally Bankes and David Walker make up the remainder of a company who each venture delicately balanced interpretations whilst avoiding sentiment and pity. Without exception the cast excel and all are eminently watchable. 

Played without an interval (and running less than 90 minutes) "Rita, Sue and Bob Too" is a stark yet amusing enterprise presenting a life scarcely seen - and oft ignored - that speaks eloquently - even in its crudeness - to a contemporary society with all-too-familiar issues. Happy endings are relative and Dunbar reminds us of that.

Friday, 2 February 2018

People Watching - A Web Series

Upon a friend's recommendation I viewed the online series "People Watching"; a series of animated shorts based around subjects we in the western world may ponder over at one time or another.
Each episode lasts between approximately 5 - 11 minutes which enables the series to be watched as and when required without the need to invest a huge chunk of one's time unless you so choose - as I did. With episode titles such as "The One Self Help Group We'd Actually Join" and "Why Non Religious Confessionals Should Be A Thing" there is a subject to attract most adults.

The series is written, directed and illustrated by Winston Rowntree whose insight is acute, witty and occasionally moving. The writing is sharp and well constructed with a colourful, energised animation style even while purposefully basic with a boldness that extends to the occasional background joke. 
An adroit voice cast performs Rowntree's diatribes and wit and create individual persons in tandem with the unique visual character designs.

"People Watching" is an entertaining and thought-provoking series which could be used as an opening to some serious discussions amongst folk.
Be aware that the series does have some adult language when taking into account who may wish to view it.

Series One consists of 10 episodes and you can Watch Here. Hopefully a second series will emerge.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

"Strangers On A Train", Glasgow Theatre Royal, 22/1/18

Written for Backstage Pass:

Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, this stage adaptation by Craig Warner of Strangers On A Train embarks on a UK tour in a production that is regrettably lacking. Highsmith's thriller (famously adapted into a film directed by Hitchcock) depicts two strangers, Guy Haines and Charles Bruno, who randomly meet on a train where Charles proposes the idea that each murder an obstructive figure in the other's life. What follows details obsession, guilt and desperation as both come to terms with the events undertaken.  Whilst the concept holds much potential it is primarily in the execution, rather than the writing, that the production falls flat.

Director Anthony Banks' approach is melodramatic, his staging often static and the tone he creates is rather arbitrary and irregular which, ultimately, negates the positives - including the homosexual undertones - of Warner's writing which itself could do with some tightening. Banks also needs to address the pacing issues which dog the production and render it sluggish and tension-less; with greater variety in staging and a brighter pace, the play could certainly be of more interest to watch. 
Banks' staging is aided somewhat by a set by David Woodhead which - in principle at least, if not implementation - creates interesting theatrical environments within which the characters can live, though transitions still remain which could be contracted, even as the set morphs from one scene to the next. The design is further enhanced by Howard Hudson's lighting and the projections of Duncan McLean.

The actors render the roles melodramatically, though rarely at the same level, and this unevenness is jarring. Most successful are John Middleton (formerly of "Emmerdale") as private detective 'Arthur Gerard' and the 'Elsie Bruno' of  Helen Anderson with each more attuned in traversing the fine high-wire that is melodrama. Jack Ashton as 'Guy Haines' ultimately fares well but, fundamentally, the cast are hampered by the overly heightened tone of the production and many occasionally cross the line, unfortunately, into farce. Were the production directed in a more authentic, realistic mood then the results could have been far superior but, as it is, the cast attempt to make the best of their direction to varying degrees of success.

Strangers On A Train is something of a missed opportunity with a promising - if wordy - script impeded by a misjudged conception uneven in tone and pace and is a story worthy of better.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

"The Wipers Times", Glasgow, Theatre Royal, 7/11/17

Written for Backstage Pass:

In the midst of the centenary of the Great War it is surprising to find that there are few current theatrical efforts on the subject underway; the National Theatre's War Horse gallops apace, of course, and now The Wipers Times is also on hand to address the imbalance in its UK tour.

Adapted by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman from their television film, the play tells the story of the creation of the journal named "The Wipers Times" (from the Tommies' inability to correctly pronounce "Ypres"), a precursor to modern satirical magazines that forwent the route of detailing sombre events and endeavoured to raise the spirits of troops in the front lines with jokes, limericks and the like, often parodying the mainstream media of the time.

Translating the story from its historical routes via television and onto the stage, Hislop and Newman have skillfully crafted a funny, witty and truly moving play that utilises material from the original newspaper that they turn into theatrical pieces that pepper the true-life story of the newspapers' creators, Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson. Simultaneously, Hislop and Newman raise these two men and their soldier-appreciated product from the bottom drawer of history.
Forming a backdrop to the frivolity, the Great War's progression poignantly comes to the fore at various points throughout the play and the tragedy of war becomes all the more striking when contrasted with the humour that soldiers themselves created as relief. For the most part, the jokes feel fresh and modern rather than a hundred years old and they further reinforce connections between the past and present (none more so than in the jokes that revolve around the Daily Mail).
Hislop and Newman's script captures the bravery, camaraderie and humour in the face of adversity that evidently saturated the soldiers' lives and director Caroline Leslie's production manages to balance the sober with the ridiculous, with a hint of the amateur nature of the newspaper's production in the skits realised in mock music-hall style. This is furthered by the creative unit set of Dora Schweitzer and the atmospheric lighting of James Smith. The sound design of Steve Mayo also breeds an appropriately disturbing soundscape and the musical settings by Nick Green, incorporating actual poetic content from the journal, furthers authenticity.
The cast are nothing short of superb and they are equally hilarious and tragic as apt and they form an authentic company ably led by James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson, respectively. They deftly portray the underlying fear masked with humour adroitly and their performances become all the more tremendous for it.

A powerfully moving yet heartily humorous play, The Wipers Times is strong stuff and serves also as an informative document of a forgotten piece of Great War history. Employing contemporaneous material composed by serving soldiers adds a depth to the humanity of such people not often seen in material written after the fact and this extra dimension creates a fresh take on a grim period of history.
Buy a ticket - history is rarely as concurrently moving and entertaining!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

"Hairspray", Glasgow King's Theatre, 2/10/17

A massive success when it premiered on Broadway 15 years ago, Hairspray is based on the cult John Waters film and revolves around the rotund Tracy Turnblad who refuses to let her size stand in the way of her dreams and inspires those she meets to stand for what is right. Along the way she falls in love and becomes a driving force for good in a story that deals with race, integration, acceptance and dance.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book is respectful of the original film and is filled with humour and warmth whilst the music and lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman perfectly encapsulates the bouncy, soulful sounds of the 1960's with a few anthemic numbers to boot.

The cast, led by Rebecca Mendoza as Tracy, Matt Rixon as Edna and Norman Price as Wilbur are pretty much faultless with stirring vocals, precise comedic timing and sterling performances throughout with standout moments from Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle including her rousing rendition of I Know Where I've Been.

As Seaweed, Layton Williams exhibits true star power in his lithe gymnastic performance which plays perfectly opposite his love interest Penny played by the charming Annalise Liard-Bailey. Jon Tsouras also stand out in his role as Corny Collins presenting some brilliant faces in his asides. The remainder of the cast are no less appropriate to their characters and purvey rounded performances.

The direction by Paul Kerryson is unfussy but it is the choreography of Drew McOnie which really brings events alive. Given that Hairspray is a vibrant and uplifting show set in the 60's it is unfortunate that the production is so ugly. The design by Takis is dull and uninspired and is rather unsympathetic with the nature of the musical. It is a clumsy design of unattractive angles which inhibit staging and sight lines and comes complete with dodgy projection and, sadly, the lighting of Philip Gladwell can do little to redeem it. Takis' costumes rarely do any better and, frankly, the production deserves better.

Given the promise contained within the material and the talents of its cast this production rises above mediocrity but could have been so much better again if it were not for such a dire design concept. Perhaps the next tour will look to rectify this.

"The Addams Family", Glasgow King's Theatre, 10/10/17

Based on the macabre single-panel cartoons of Charles Addams the revised version of the musical tours the UK in its premiere professional production. With music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice we join the Addams clan just as turmoil is about to hit the (un)happy household when eldest child Wednesday announces that she is - bizarrely - in love with a typically all-American boy and plans to marry. Cue a meeting of the parents and revelation of secrets to disturb one and all and anarchic chaos ensues.

The book is appropriately simplistic and relative to the nature of the original Charles Addams cartoons whilst Lippa's songs have suitable variety and wittiness and include some really heartfelt numbers.
The set by Diego Pitarch is economic yet elegantly shambolic and is used well throughout whilst his costumes are quirky and reverent to the original cartoons. Ben Cracknell's lighting design perfectly compliments both and adds dimension to the rotting visuals.
Matthew White's direction is affirmed and creates many interesting visual pictures though there are times when some of the jokes fall a little flat and he could tighten some places within the first act. The second act, however, moves at an extraordinary pace and is near perfection. Add to this the vibrant choreography of Alistair David and the parts make up a sumptuous whole, even if the King's stage felt a little cramped at times.

The production boasts an excellent cast led by the dynamic Cameron Blakely as Gomez and the resolute Samantha Womack as Morticia. Blakely is a bundle of energy on the stage and cements his prowess with ease whilst Womack is suitably stone-faced and economic until the role demands otherwise when she reveals just enough of the underlying passion within the character. Carrie Hope Fletcher's Wednesday is ostensibly the catalyst for the evening's proceedings and she handles the role with aplomb and gives Wednesday a depth and variety to match her outstanding vocals. The other members of the family shine equally in the smaller roles with Valda Aviks' Grandma a visual and dangerous treat to behold and Grant McIntyre making Pugsley a rather tender character mourning the potential loss of his sister to another boy. Oliver Ormson plays that particular boy, Lucas Beineke, with verve and gloss and Charlotte Page and Dale Rapley as his parents also add a dynamic that enhances the drama. The ensemble who play the various (un)dead clan members who flit in and out are varied and add much to the production with their dedicated and assorted characters. One of the long-running jokes within the production is the mute butler Lurch, played stoically by Dickon Gough who has a number of surprises in store. Special mention must also be made of understudy Scott Paige who played Uncle Fester at this performance. His performance was exemplary with superb comedic timing and charm and it's hard to say how Les Dennis, who usually plays the role, could be any better.

Though not perfect, The Addams Family is a wacky and thoroughly enjoyable musical treat with a life-affirming heartbeat at its core. With strong performances and a suitably grubby visual style this is another case of a top-rate production doing the rounds once again proving that one need not journey to London's West End to enjoy a cracking production.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

"Sunset Boulevard", 3/10/17, Edinburgh Playhouse

Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton's musical, based on the Billy Wilder film, portrays the story of hard-up screenwriter Joe Gillis and his fateful encounter with former silent movie goddess Norma Desmond. Desmond ostensibly employs Gillis to rewrite her comeback return whist he elects to make the most of the situation while alternately engaging in another partnership.
The original movie contained elements of film noir and melodrama and these are retained for the musical's book and are promoted in Nikolai Foster's stunning production.

The production boasts an orchestra of 16 which is quite an exception these days (but would be seen as small some years past) and is all the better for it; Lloyd Webber's score is inherently cinematic and as such relies on string and brass orchestration for emotional and physical prowess which pulsates throughout the piece. The sound design further enhances the power of the live musicians.

This production is blessed with a beautiful design which is both evocative and striking and perfectly encapsulates Foster's concept of a theatrical film production; with the set moving fluidly, cinematically at one time; then physically, theatrically the next, the mix is a sublime blend. Added to that are exceptional projections brilliantly used to add further depth as well as some contrasting lighting which furthers the experience. In tandem they create some exciting sequences including the care chase which was at once both cinematic and theatrical. Foster is a director who really knows how to work a set and his use of space and dimension is second to none and I am always excited by his production, even the ones that don't quite hit the mark.

The ensemble cast lend great vocal power to the musical and portray many varying roles, including the stagehands who lurk about the sound-stage set, silently observing an occasional moment before engaging in the next scene-change. There are occasions when an older actor would be more appropriate (as in the studio figures Norma recalls from previous days) but this is a small niggle.
Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer, a wannabe screenwriter, lends an amiable yet determined air and a sweet voice that manages to harden as the plot reaches its resolution. Adam Pearce is a strong and centred Max with a voice that is both powerful and tender. His precise movements are appropriately attuned and something that leading man Danny Mac should learn from; Mac is too energised as cynical Joe Gillis with lots of arm gestures and bouncing throughout the production. There is an economy of stillness that he should learn which would make his performance all the more powerful. As it is he is adequate in the role even if his vocals are unremarkable for the most part.
Ria Jones however has an awesome presence and exceptional vocals in the role of Norma Desmond, the part she originated in the musical's early workshop. When she sings As If We Never Said Goodbye she really means it. Jones captures the melodramatic elements of Desmond with aplomb and the only negative is that she really doesn't play the various descents in to melancholy with enough darkness until the final scene. That said, she stalks the set and hovers over all her scenes like some decrepit vulture eagerly anticipating the next opportunity - be it in Joe Gillis or her reunion with Cecil B. DeMille. Hers is a mesmeric performance and she demands attention every time she opens her mouth to sing.

The production is nearly perfect aside from a few small issues; I was surprised to see that the scene for much of the Act I finale - Artie's apartment - was replaced with Schwab's Drugstore requiring some slightly clunky dialogue changes and though the use of projection was, in the main, inspired there were occasions where it was overused and none more so than in the sequence where Betty journeys to Norma's mansion where we are treated to projection that was reminiscent of The Matrix's falling letters. Here the chosen images were out of place with the remainder of the production. At other occasional moments the amount of projection threatened to become distracting from the onstage action. There is also a need for the final scene to be played at a more suitable pace as it felt too rushed and it should be where we see Norma completely deconstruct, and the audience should have the time to appreciate the awful tragedy of it all. Elsewhere in Act I pace could be picked up here and there, though in reality this may be an argument for some trimming of the musical's book/score (There is at least one small part that I feel could be cut without any damage to the piece's structure at all).

Sunset Boulevard remains one of the best of Andrew Lloyd Webber's canon and this production is as near perfect as such a production can be and extols how, with the right director and design team, a touring production can match - even excel - much of what London's west End can offer. Exquisite design and conception matched with (for the most part) exceptional talent has created one of the best productions to emerge for many a year.