Sunday, 30 September 2012

'The Phantom Of The Opera', Edinburgh Playhouse, 29/9/12

As 'The Phantom Of The Opera' John Owen-Jones not only commands the Opera Garnier but the Playhouse as well. His astounding performance being the cherry on top of a beautiful cake of a production.
Is it a perfect production? Sadly not, but it is close to being so:

The musical direction was excellent aside from 'All I Ask Of You' which was conducted at too fast a tempo for my liking. The conductor, Anthony Gabriele, was a joy to watch and truly brought out wonderful sounds from the reduced orchestra which did, at times, sound a bit thin, especially in the more operatic moments and the obvious addition/substitution of synthesisers was at times obvious, although, surprisingly, 'The Music Of The Night' was the most sublime I've ever heard it played live. Mick Potter's sound design complimented the orchestra and was used cleverly to enhance them in regards to volume and quality.

Maria Bjornsons' costumes were as glorious as ever although some of the newer, additions are conspicuous. Paul Brown's wonderful set was truly outstanding with use of a multi-purpose central design essaying further details of the backstage areas of the Opera House. To my mind much of the design echoed locations as featured in the original novel; the 'Maquerade' here takes place, not on the Grand Staircase as per the original production, but rather in a circular, mirrored room, akin to the Rotunda featured in the novel for the same scene. True, this lessened the entrance of 'The Phantom' (especially since his reveal and 'The Phantom Theme' came at different times) and the cast did, at times, look a bit sparse, but it still works well. Likewise the backstage areas are more obvious and detailed than in Bjornson's original designs, which preferred to hint at them, and some of the detailing here, plus the goings-on in the background helped create the sense of a functioning Opera House. The Lair of 'The Phantom' also looks more real and human (as per the novel) and we even see a rail of his dress shirts. In fact his lair looks quite a pitiful place which only adds to the sense of isolation the character must feel day-to-day whilst subconsciously feeding the same feeling to the audience. When confronted by the crowd in this place at the end of the show it is perhaps more embarrassing for this enigmatic figure.This is the kind of detail and variation from the original (stunning) Bjornson design I wish they had applied to the 2004 Motion Picture where expansion was essential.
Some set changes were a bit cumbersome, however, which meant that some scene changes and musical cues didn't quite gel. Likewise to facilitate some of the changes portions of the book were changed with often pointless additional lines of dialogue to fill the time required.
On the plus side a nice touch to certain scene changes was their implementation by men dressed as backstage crew of the period. Such small details please me. Paule Constable's Lighting complimented the design well, creating variations of light and shade adding to the depth of the production.

Laurence Connor's direction had some wonderful touches, such as the use of projected shadows (by Nina Dunn), but at other times a little puzzling: I understand it was the intention to make 'The Phantom' more man than mystery and to that end we actually see him at times amongst other people but, at the same time, he still has to hold much mystery and power and Connor negated some of this especially in the Perros scene where his confrontation with 'Raoul' is an almost muted affair: In this scene, 'Raoul' is also made quite ineffectual, given the fact that they are only a matter of meters away from each other. Since 'Raoul', only in the scene before, had stated that 'The Phantom' must be killed, he makes no effort whatsoever to take advantage of a moment to do so. Of course, were he to do so the story would be over but it's the director's responsibility to stage the scene in an appropriate manner. Here we had a glaring error of judgement.
The staging of 'All I Ask Of You' also irritated me. Here are a young couple declaring their love for each other, but instead of letting the song and the emotions work their magic, Connor has 'Raoul' and 'Christine' constantly dodging each other and wandering about the stage, almost as if Connor has no confidence in the simplest of stagings.
He does stage other scenes, however, quite wonderfully: 'The Music Of The Night' is a successful and subtle variation of Hal Prince's staging (it is very difficult to get away totally from aspects of Prince's staging as much of it is entwined with the music and lyrics), 'Don Juan Triumphant' and 'The Point Of No Return' (especially 'The Phantom's' impersonation of 'Piangi') is passionate and well directed, as is the final Lair scene and other little touches of Connor's are elegant and effective: It is his use of Brown's set that perhaps showcases the most original aspects of his direction.

Katie Hall as 'Christine' has to be one of the best in the role, looking every inch the young girl with a beautiful voice and assured acting talent.
Simon Bailey also looks and acts the part, handsome and charming and together they come across as the closest approximations to the characters of the original Leroux novel I've yet seen. It's just a shame their big duet, 'All I Ask Of You', was directed in such a clumsy way. But it's also a pleasure to see that Connor's direction of 'Raoul' is not so obviously directed as to be an indication of the travesty the character becomes in 'Love Never Dies'. 'Raoul' in the 25th anniversary concert, as staged by Connor, was nothing more than a selfish, angry, spoilt aristocrat who I found it preposterous to believe 'Christine' would give any attention whatsoever to.
'Carlotta' and 'Piangi' (Angela M Caesar and Vincent Pirillo) were not so successful with the former's voice being inconsistent in strength whilst they, together with the 'Managers' of Andy Hockley and Simon Green, were directed in such a way that some of the comedy inherent in their parts was flattened so that they became dull and tiresome at points.
Though the remainder of the ensemble looked a little sparse at times every member performed excellently.
'The Phantom' himself was performed by John Owen-Jones who imbued the character with beauty, mystery, power, presence, viciousness and pity in such a well crafted and acted performance that to hear him sing with such a sublime voice, which was at times as soft as a feather and at others as hard as stone, one could utterly believe how he could project terror and fascination, not to mention wonderment and enthralment, into others. Owen-Jones' was a perfect, well rounded performance that can only have been equalled by Michael Crawford's initial creation. He certainly surpassed in every way the performance that was given by Ramin Karimloo in the 25th anniversary concert which makes me wonder why he wasn't chosen for that concert in the first place (he was playing the role in London at the time and makes an appearance in the finale along with several other 'Phantoms').
In any case John Owen-Jones is even able to overcome any flawed direction (e.g. Perros) and constantly delivered above and beyond the call of duty.

The tour now continues on with a new 'Phantom', Earl Carpenter, and, if some of the more negative aspects of my review were dealt with (e.g. timing of musical cues/entrances, simplifying staging etc.) I would say that the production was as near powerful as the original as is possible. As it stands I would still say it is a superb production with an outstanding design, good direction (overall), overall top-notch cast, a wonderful orchestra and is more than well worth a visit. 
Even if the chandelier fails to actually crash (we do still get a bit of destruction, though).
It certainly stands amongst the best things I've seen tour, and wouldn't look out of place in the West End with a few minor tweaks.

Update 23/10/12:
When I saw the show the only programme available was the souvenir brochure which had an additional cast list (no pics or bios) slipped in. I have since learned that a separate programme was available, as per usual, complete with biographies and such but that the theatre (who produces these) sold out by the final two shows featuring John Owen-Jones. This is the second time I've been to an Ambassador Theatre where they have produced insufficient programmes to cover a run and think that this is an unacceptable thing to happen. It is a disservice to those onstage that people are unable to appreciate who they are and what they've done previously, not to mention those whose hard graft backstage is not featured at all in the simple credit page slipped in with the brochure (and in some cases I was aware that this page wasn't always slipped in by theatre staff!).

Friday, 28 September 2012

'A Little Of What You Fancy' by H. E. Bates

The final book in the Larkin chronicles is suitably the most melancholy of them all.

Pop's indulgent life-style finally gets the better of him when he is taken ill quite seriously, leaving him to ponder on all the things he is denied whilst in recovery. Naturally friends and family do all they can to lift his spirits but to little avail. It is only when a new nurse arrives to care for him and the threat of a major road being built through his beloved junkyard does he begin to recover.
Whether Bates was aware he was writing his last novel to feature the Larkins or not I do not know, but I think he may very well have been conscious of the fact: The book is a lament at the passing of the old and the inevitability of progress at the expense  of some of the simpler things in life. It is this aspect which I found to be the most moving part of the novel, especially since what Pop Larking fears has actually come to pass. Of course, progress must be made, even Bates and the Larkins accept that to some degree, but the real question is, 'at what cost?'

Perhaps the most philosophical and sad of the Larkin novels, it nevertheless ends with optimism and hope. Another fine read, indeed.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

'Jesus Christ Superstar', Glasgow SECC, 25/9/12

One of my all-time favourite shows. In an arena, echoing its original incarnation onstage in the United States. Well, not quite. Where those arena tours were produced simply (orchestra/band, singers and mic stands - no fussy staging and no attempt at set or costume) and on the back of the huge success of the album here we have a case of either overblown or underwhelming.

At this moment in time composer Andrew Lloyd Webber is stating this is how 'Superstar' was always conceived and yet throughout the show's history both Lloyd Webber and Lyricist Tim Rice have openly stated that the album and arena tours only happened because no-one wanted to produce a stage musical of their work. It was only after the recording success of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' that it finally hit its intended location - the musical theatre stage, albeit in varying degrees of success. The original Broadway production, directed by Tom O'Horgan ran for two years although his psychedelic vision was rather jarring and, some would say, ahead of its time. Lloyd Webber especially loathed the production. Various international productions followed until in 1972 'Superstar' opened in London directed by Jim Sharman who brought aspects of his previous Australian concert and theatrical stagings into the mix to produce a show that would run eight years. Simplicity ruled over excess and even the two cast recordings, Broadway and London echo this (Lloyd Webber and Rice had no involvement of the former whilst they produced the latter, and it is audible).

On the original 1970 album and on those early cast recordings you can hear the full wonder of Lloyd Webber's orchestration (although Hershey Kay adapted them for Broadway). Over the years those orchestrations have been down-graded from a near 30 piece orchestra/rock band to a 10 piece band - and that's one of the crimes of this new arena production. So much so that there is little variety in the sound produced by the band, especially since virtually everything is played at one single volume; loud and with seemingly little regard for tempo variation. In fact the whole musical direction lacks variety lacking any real light or shade.

As for the concept and direction of Laurence Connor I can only say that it is at times odd, cliched in some aspects and the concept is jarring with many of the lyrics that are sung. The choices he makes from one scene to the next do not always unify, thereby creating something of a jumbled way of story telling, rather than following a conceptual through-line that adequately works.
I also cannot understand why a random line or two of dialogue was added which added nothing to the story (were these authorised by Tim Rice?). There were also things going on which didn't need to be, detracting from the music and lyrics and primary story telling (when there was a momentary coherent moment of it) such as during 'Peter's Denial' where we have 'Peter' and 'Mary' and the three denial witnesses supplemented by at least three ensemble members performing acrobatics and skateboarding in the background. To what purpose? Beats me.
Which reminds me; when I heard that they would be using parkour in the production I was intrigued. I was greatly disappointed to find that it only really consisted of the same repeated somersaults and cartwheels amongst otherwise run-of-the-mill choreography. Perhaps there is really little that could be done on a set , by Mark Fisher, that consisted primarily of one giant staircase (reminiscent of the finale of 'Carrie' in 1988). The remainder of the modern day, protest/political concept seemed to me to have been an extreme development of some of the concept that Gale Edwards touched upon in her revised 1998 UK tour (and subsequently filmed for the 2000 video release and produced on Broadway) - indeed the stairway reminded me of elements of the design for that earlier production. The costume design was incredibly boring and tired - far too cliched and dated ('Rent' cast-offs galore) with every other cast member having dreadlocks - do they all share the same hairdresser? The whole visual concept was just far too obvious and 'been-there-done-that'. The use of screens, whilst at times helpful to those seated further back, was perhaps over-used in a vain attempt to help clarify the plot - that should have been done otherwise. For me the best moment was 'Judas' Death' which worked very well.
Having 'Herod' as a talk show host served no real purpose other than, perhaps, highlighting the idea that in the case of 'Jesus' the people have the power (in this case via text), although Chris Moyles was evidently more concerned about soaking up the adulation more than being a part of a company attempting to tell a story. It was during his number that a hideous choice was made where Moyles rushed off-stage to be replaced by an obvious double who performed back flips before Moyles rushed back on to continue. Again utterly pointless.
The idea of having the 'Priests' as bankers(?) was an odd one as surely they should have been played as MPs? I actually laughed when 'Caiaphas' sung the line 'Our expenses are good' because, unexpectedly, MPs are the first thing that shot into my mind. It's always good to try and think outside the box but these concepts just didn't work for the piece - they were heavily shoe-horned in and in an incomplete state; 'follow the twelve' is displayed prominently throughout and yet I kept asking myself, which twelve? We are never shown the twelve Apostles themselves - we eventually work out which ones are 'Peter and 'Simon' simply because they have solo parts - but the remainder (Judas aside, obviously) were just part of a mass of men and women who were always together, even at the 'Last Supper'.
'Pilate' (Alex Hanson) as Judge was probably the most appropriate choice made in this 'update' of the show although even some of his choices (dictated by the story) are at odds with today's modern world - what Western civilisation would openly and publicly flog a prisoner before condemning him to death? Hanson's portrayal was a highlight of the show. His was a more is less take which upstaged many of the larger-than-life aspects of the production.
Story-wise there was little development in any character's journey; Jesus abruptly goes from being quite jubilant up to 'Simon Zealotes' to suddenly being downbeat for pretty much the rest of the show - there is no graduation. 'Judas' is presented as starting out as he means to go along - angry and pissed off - with no change along the way. 'Mary' serves very little purpose, save to look somewhat knowing. We are just presented with music and words and visuals which didn't necessarily compliment each other rather than a story complete with faceted characters with varying agendas.
It is clear that when modernising a story that is as old as this one there is a limit to how far a director can go, and in this case Laurence Connor went too far.
The lighting by Patrick Woodroffe is suitably rock concert orientated and I think that is symptomatic of this production: It is trying to be both a rock concert and a theatrical presentation. I believe it is possible to do both to varying success (hell, 'Notre Dame De Paris succeeded far superior than this) but there are too many missteps here to say that it gelled as a whole. It simply didn't; here was the odd occasion that worked as a theatrical, almost dramatic presentation, and there were many more that were rock spectacle; the guitar soloist during the introduction for 'Damned For All Time' for one. Again, utterly pointless in the storytelling.

I'll say here that the cast were all pretty good, the ensemble were strong singers and even Mel C as 'Mary' was better than expected, though her voice isn't particularly to my liking (nor her horrible costume and dread locked hair) and she isn't up there with Yvonne Elliman, Dana Gillespie or Anne-Marie David. Like most of the cast, Melanie Chisholm's acting was too large and flat to truly register any emotion (I do blame the director for these choices) and, Ben Forster as 'Jesus' suffered the same fate at times, though he came to life during 'Gethsemane'. Whilst He can certainly sing the role he is no Steve Balsamo who redefined the role in the 1996 London revival - and that is part of the issue with this role: Ian Gillan originated the role on the album and Jeff Fenholt copied his vocal performance almost note for note on tour and on Broadway. Ted Neeley who played the role on the silver screen put his own twist to the vocals and his was the performance to copy. Then Balsamo came along and totally reinvented the vocal part and ever since people have tried to copy him note for note - Glenn  Carter certainly attempted to do so on Broadway and on the 2000 film, but his voice was thin and weak in comparison. Forster has much more power than Carter but the fact that his vocal choices were made by someone else robs him of the chance to truly own the role. Tim Minchin as 'Judas' is certainly the most successful of the leads. His is not so flat a performance, being able to express visually and vocally more than others do, which makes me wonder why he is able to do it and others aren't. Of course, the role is the most complex in the show and his voice, albeit different to what one would expect for the role, is quite suited. I only wish the cast were given more chance to actually act and create three-dimensional aspects to the characters they play in a production worthy of them rather than the flat, almost paint-by-numbers parts they have here in a production which is not.

If I imagine this as a rock concert with some (random) visuals it would be fine but since they were obviously trying to perform dramatically then it missed as much as it hit and considering Lloyd Webber kept mentioning in publicity the original 1971 American arena tours I wish he had just done that - ORCHESTRA (Oh! how I missed the orchestra!) and rock band, singers (no fancy costumes or staging) and mic stands. Da-Dah! Let the score speak for itself. Failing that, a fully fledged theatrical tour. And why not a revival of the 1996 London production which, since the design by John Napier was in the style of an Amphitheatre, could surely have been adapted for an arena stage?

Last words: The best thing to come from this production is that it has made me revisit the original album and the early cast recordings, if only to hear decent orchestrations and singers who, through vocals alone, without need for an in-your-face visual can tell the greatest story ever told.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

'The Mousetrap', Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 19/9/12

60 years on Agatha Christie's theatrical legend finally does the rounds in a tour of the UK with a cast featuring Thomas Howes (Downton Abbey), Karl Howman (Brush Strokes) and Bruno Langley (Coronation Street).

It is always interesting to see how well such writing holds up in modern theatre and, in this case, it holds up pretty well. No doubt this is aided, in part, by the fact that the director and the cast are aware that some lines are certainly seen as rather twee and so played slightly tongue-in-cheek. This all adds to the fun of the performance in which near-stereotypical characters are fleshed out by a willing cast who are more than happy to play along with some of the more melodramatic aspects of the play.
Agatha Christie's plot is as intriguing as one expects from the crime queen and together with the cast and director has created a dramatic, sometimes funny and, especially important, thrilling - especially at the climax. Kudos to the actors and the director who balance the pace of the piece well building it subtly so that, without being aware of it, tension is built and is held perfectly.
And the cast do not attempt to fight the antiquated dialogue but instead are able to swim along with it. None more so than Howes who is mesmerising as 'Sgt Trotter' and who not only feels utterly natural and believable in the role but makes his dialogue sound of today. Langley physically looks a little young for the role of 'Giles Ralston' but is nevertheless effective in the role, as are the remainder of the cast. Jan Waters, having previously played the role in the West End, plays 'Mrs Boyle' to a tee and Howman clearly has fun playing the foreigner 'Mr Paravicini'. Likewise Steven France as the rather effeminate 'Christopher Wren'.

The period setting and music is evocative and well designed and it is clear that 'The Mousetrap' still holds a fascination with theatrical audiences as many performances are sold out. If you can it's well worth grabbing a ticket.

Sunday, 16 September 2012


I'm just writing to apologise that my most recent posts do not contain any images. For some reason Blogger is not allowing my to put any into my posts.
When, of if, this issue gets resolved I'll edit the posts to rectify this.


'Whistle Down The Wind', Runway Theatre Company, Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, 15/9/12

I adore 'Whistle Down The Wind'. I think the story is enchanting and the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman is sweepingly epic, lush and thrilling. The modern fable of a story is enchanting and it is up there amongst my favourite of shows.
So I, naturally, grab any opportunity to see the show. I missed the original London production (and the earlier Washington tryout natch) but I did catch the brief Bill Kenwright West End revival and subsequent tour. Kenwright made many changes from the original London production, primarily to make the stage version more in keeping with the film's family appeal (the '98 London production was darker in tone). Some of the changes I liked but some, especially in relating to the cutting of songs, I didn't.
It was a pleasant surprise to see then that the songs cut from the Kenwright show were re-instated for the Scottish amateur premiere. These were the songs which were, perhaps, some of the darkest in the show, including the rather gruesome tale of Annie and Charlie Christmas (but kids enjoy a bit of that stuff, right? I know I did). This variety of light and shade is what was missing somewhat from the Kenwright version and could only be a positive addition to the show.

Runway Theatre's production was a well executed one with but a few quibbles. The cast were overall more than competent though, naturally, there will be those who stand above the rest. Amongst the ensemble Neil Patrick Harris look-alike Dominic Spencer as the 'Snake Precher' and Bob McDevitt's 'Sheriff' stood out. The former's vocals being amongst the most memorable of the evening.
Lead Ellie MacKenzie's 'Swallow' had a sweet voice whilst 'The Man' of J Campbell Kerr had a beautiful baritone but struggled with some of the higher notes (the role is for a tenor). There were some minor diction issues and some performances could have done with some more light and shade. But these are, perhaps, all things that the director, Robert Fyfe, should have addressed. Along with some of his pacing. It felt, at times, that the show playing to one constant rhythm as if there was a metronome clicking away off-stage. There were moments that should have been played slower, and others that should have been faster. Otherwise his direction was perfectly fine, aside from his not staging the Overture at all, which I found somewhat puzzling since it follows the actual start of the show and seemed to bring the show to an abrupt stop just as it it was getting started. But, like I said, small quibbles.
The musical direction of David R Dunlop was quite exuberant, although some numbers could have done with a faster pace, especially in the more dramatic moments.

The show really belonged to the children, however, who were quite excellent throughout; from sustaining accents (which one or two adults did not) through to their singing. They truly lit up the stage and brought a life-force whenever they were onstage. Kate McVey as 'Brat' and Ethan Kerr as 'Poor Baby' more than ably led the whole lot of them.

I will mention, finally, the set which was provided by Scenery Projects which folds out in various guises to produce the variety of locations as needed for the story. This unfolding aspect actually lent an air of 'storybook fairytale' to the evening's proceedings, further creating another layer to this modern fable.

This production, despite my small quibbles with it, reinforced my love for this show more than ever. Perhaps the utter innocence of the children performing in it (who, as far as I am aware, are not stage school brats) was the perfect manifestation of what the show and the original book represents.
Well done to all.

Friday, 14 September 2012

'Sister Act', King's Theatre, Glasgow, 12/9/12

Because I enjoyed it so much last time I decided to revisit this show when it showed up in Glasgow and to put it simply; I stand by everything I said in my first review of the show.
The production was the same, the cast was the same (with the exception of the actress playing 'Mary Robert' - this time I saw Julie Atherton whilst previously I saw her understudy Lucie-Mae Sumner - both were equally as brilliant in the role although, obviously, they each portrayed the role slightly differently) and as good as they all are I really do think that Cynthia Erivo is an outstanding talent.
On this second viewing I was able to appreciate more how witty the script really is and how wonderful a lot of the songs are. Indeed many are truly rousing!
In fact I'd go as far as to say that I enjoyed the show even more this time - it really is just so much fun that one cannot help but get swept up in rapturous enjoyment!

My only issue is that the follow spot operators needed more work and the sound balance needed some tweaking; the orchestra, especially the brass, was at times quite overpowering and drowned out the vocals.

But, anyway, go see it!