Wednesday, 28 October 2015

"Sunset Boulevard", King's Theatre, Glasgow, 24/10/15

One of the last of Andrew Lloyd Webber's mega-musicals, "Sunset Boulevard" is based on the classic Billy Wilder film that presents the story of Joe Gillis, struggling screenwriter, who happens upon the mansion of Norma Desmond, 'famed star of yesteryear', who has spent the last twenty years of her life reliving her past glories on celluloid whilst cobbling together a screenplay that will mark her 'return' to the fans who, she believes, have never left her. Gillis soon becomes entrenched in Norma's crazed life and she quickly falls in love with him, whilst her ever-present manservant, Max, looks on passively. The tragedy soon reveals itself, however, as reality starts worming its way into Norma's world and her fragile existence starts to unravel.
Lloyd Webber's score is, appropriately, his most cinematic and contains some well-known numbers including 'With One Look' and 'The Perfect Year'.

The nature of the story presents inherent difficulties in staging the celluloid story and is a challenge for any company. Amateur group Glasgow Light Operatic Club should be praised alone for attempting such a demanding production.
In lesser hands the staging could have been an outright disaster but Alasdair Hawthorn is a more than competent director. It's true that not every sequence comes over successfully and that the exposition becomes a little turgid but, for the most part, the plot and staging is fluid and concise and the demanding transitions are handled appropriately.
The musical direction by David R Dunlop is a bit wanting in some areas; there are some numbers which are performed at a slower rate than appropriate whilst others feel a bit rushed. It is also unfortunate that a score orchestrated with strings replaces them with synthesisers thus rendering the score inappropriately synth and brass-heavy. This also has the effect of dulling some of the musical impact and phrases. That said, the musicians present did a great job with some of David Cullen and Lloyd Webber's most moving work.
Choreographer Antony Carter did a fine job in creating enjoyable dance sequences that never seemed to intrude upon the dramatic action
A lot of amateur companies are also guilty of somewhat neglecting lighting but this cannot be said for this production; here it was a considered aspect and an integral part of the whole, delineating space and mood effectively.

The cast rose to the challenge of "Sunset Boulevard" amiably and were led by Ross Nicol as 'Joe Gillis' and Aileen Johnston as 'Norma Desmond' and both held themselves well. Whilst there may have been a few too many moments of 'armography' for my liking, both Nicol and Johnston have a commanding presence with strong vocals to match and Johnston especially has moments where she surpasses herself, none more so than her triumphant return to Paramount Studios with the number, 'As If We Never Said Goodbye'.
Johnathan Procter's 'Max' stood as a pillar of strength epitomising the power of stillness whilst his vocals appropriately echoed the emotional that lay within. His was a most charming and moving performance. Kirsten MacDonald also has moments as 'Betty Schaefer' where she shines and she has a lovely tone to her voice, if only she let it out more confidently as she was a little reserved at times yet clearly has the pipes for the part; a fact in evidence come her duet with Nicol, 'Too Much In Love To Care', where she soars beautifully.
Also worthy of mention are Greg Reid's naive 'Artie Green' and the 'Manfred' of Iain G Condie who provides a wonderfully delivered number replete with comedy and underlying disdain. Director Hawthorn also makes a brief, uncredited, cameo in the appropriate role of 'Cecil B DeMille' adding a sense of reality to proceedings.

Kudos must be given to a company in taking a risk with such a demanding production but, for the most part, a company that succeeds. It is always important that theatre - at whatever level, amateur or professional - takes risks, embraces danger and offers something new to its audience and GLOC have certainly done that.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

"And Then There Were None", Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 19/10/15

Written for Backstage Pass:

Arguably considered Agatha Christie's masterpiece, And Then There Were None remains amongst the most well known of all crime fiction and is Christie's best-selling title. First staged in 1943, and adapted by Christie herself this production has been set in 1939 and has been slightly adapted from Christie's original script by the production company to surprising, positive effect.

The plot revolves around a group of strangers lured as guests to an isolated island where a mysterious voice announces judgement upon them for their apparent past "crimes". What follows is an excellent showcase for the plotting talents of the Queen of Crime as murder follows murder and paranoia blooms among the remaining guests. Of course, trying to work out whodunit is all part of the fun of an Agatha Christie plot and the play offers much for the avid audience member/armchair detective.

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company has been creating fine productions of Christie's plays for the past decade and this is no exception. With assured, confident direction by Joe Harmston, who plays up the humour in Christie's writing, the play is never lax in engaging with its audience. It is true that there are moments when the laughs may be unintentional but the style is, at times, almost tongue in cheek and this is rather welcome in this spirited production where such amusement offers contrast to the sudden shocks that Harmston delivers. He handles the pace of the production easily and uses the space very well, investing the production with deft touches not inherent in Christie's script.

The set design by Simon Scullion is attractive, evocative and well suits the Art Deco period and are a perfect backdrop to the elegant costumes designed by Roberto Surace. The  lighting by Douglas Kuhrt is atmospheric, redolent and subtle as is the sound by Matthew Bugg. The only excess in these departments is the heavy-handed use of Latin chanting at the climax of the play.

"And Then There Were None" is blessed with a strong cast led by the dominant performance of Paul Nicholas whose strength and stillness capture the character of "Sir Lawrence Wargrave" whilst his voice drips authority. Mark Wynter is equally as charismatic as "Doctor Armstrong" and is utterly striking as the flawed professional. Eric Carte, as "General Mackenzie", is another performer whose characterisation is perfectly balanced and whose delivery elevates Christie's text to near-poetry quality at times. Indeed, all the cast deliver the dialogue with ease and imbue the text with a quality that raises it above the sometimes dated language that typifies Christie's writing. Deborah Grant as "Emily Brent" is a prime example; surpassing the potential limitations in the period text effortlessly whilst Kezia Burrows overcomes the language in a more physical manner as "Vera Claythorne". Mark Curry, Colin Buchanan, Ben Nealon, Judith Rae and Jan Knightley all serve the play in an excellent manner whilst Tom McCarron, as "Anthony Marston", succeeds in overcoming the most stilted, archaic vocabulary present in the script, turning it into the most natural expression within the environment created onstage.

The build up of pressure and tension does threaten to enter over-the-top territory before the dénouement and it is here the play could be refined as could the slightly overdrawn ending, but the production is never boring, flat or uneventful and is a considered, consistent, thoroughly enjoying, often thrilling production that will appeal to more than just die-hard Agatha Christie fans.
There is a reason that And Then There Were None is one of the most famous stories in crime fiction and this sumptuous production showcases it well. Discover it for yourself ...