Thursday, 25 August 2016

"Rehearsal For Murder", 22/8/16, Theatre Royal Glasgow

Review written for Backstage Pass:

Playwright Alex Dennison (Alex Ferns) is mourning the loss of his leading lady - and fiance - Monica Welles (Susie Amy), who apparently committed suicide following her West End stage debut. A year later the cast and crew re-assemble at the same theatre to read his new play - a mystery echoing the events of a year before. The cast soon realise that the scenes eerily resemble encounters they may or may not have had with Monica and it becomes apparent that Alex believes that one of the persons present is, in fact, guilty of her murder.
Originally a television film written by Richard Levinson and William Link, creators of "Columbo" and "Murder, She Wrote", this adaptation by David Rogers is the first presentation of the Classic Thriller Theatre Company which replaces the successful Agatha Christie Theatre Company.

The adaptation is well constructed with some witty lines but there are some clunky elements - none more so than the clich├ęd Welsh assistant (Georgia Neville) who becomes quite a distraction because of the unsteady accent - and the play is a bit of a slow starter but soon picks up. There are a few over-the-top moments in the second act but Roy Marsden's direction is generally simple and clean and his use of theatrical devices, including his handling of the intrusion of the past into the present, is entirely appropriate as is the set and costume design by Julie Godfrey.  Dan Samson's sound design is a little wanting and the occasional use of dull, obvious, movie-of-the-week music is uninspired. The lighting by Doug Kuhrt is atmospheric and used efficiently even if it does leave the occasional actor in semi-darkness.
For the most part each cast member has a decent part to play, although some are more successful than others with some of the weaker elements, including a variety in the quality of vocal projection, highlighted against the stronger. Alex Ferns is strong and dominant as the playwright out for truth and he has hardy support from the charismatic Mark Wynter and the firm Ben Nealon amongst others as the actors in his play. Susie Amy as the deceased movie star has an appropriate aloofness and beauty whilst Anita Harris brings a class and glamour entirely suited to producer Bella Lamb.

A solid, sturdy whodunit with a clever structure and intriguing twists this production keeps the audience guessing and is a worthy follow up to the Agatha Christie fare and a secure beginning for the Classic Thriller Theatre Company.

Monday, 15 August 2016

"The Rocky Horror Show" Glasgow King's Theatre, 8/8/16

Written for Backstage Pass:

The original cult rock 'n' roll musical returns to Glasgow! Although, perhaps, the term 'cult' is used erroneously these days as "The Rocky Horror Show" (or "Richard O'Brien's Rocky Horror Show" as it is advertised these days) has long been part of the theatrical mainstream since it's premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in the early 1970s. 
This current production is, in effect, a revival of the 40th anniversary tour once again directed by Christopher Luscombe and it is an exuberant and vivacious party for all present.  

A B-movie sci-fi/horror homage, the plot follows clean-cut "Brad" and "Janet" as they encounter the hedonistic alien "Dr. Frank-N-Furter" and his cohorts from the galaxy of "Transylvania" and - depending on your point of view - their descent into darkness and/or their liberation from society's constrictions.
This is actually the second incarnation of "Rocky Horror" that Luscombe has directed: his first version appeared in 2006 and was a more theatrically pleasing and inventive production, utilising dimensional staging and even shadow-puppetry,  than this current version which, first seen in 2013, returns to a broader, more concert-like feel and presentation, prevalent throughout the late 1990s, complete with the use of hand mics and cut-out sets which blur the musical's roots as a musical play (albeit a unique one). 

Luscombe's direction remains witty and vibrant as does the choreography by Nathan M Wright which, of course, features the "Time-Warp". Beyond the occasional cardboard cut-out-like set the production design is top notch and colourful; the iconic costumes, as ever by Sue Blane, still pop out like works of art (albeit very sleek ones); the lighting (by Nick Richings) is dynamic and the band (visible above the stage) is equally as strong.  
And that is the biggest flaw in this otherwise fine production - it's too polished and flashy; too knowing. Indeed, the original productions had an edge and feel to them redolent of being thrown together; a rawness that invigorated the show and its audience and which seemed more appropriate to Richard O'Brien's B-movie dialogue and simple, catchy songs with their clever, witty lyrics. Whilst there is no lack of energy here the production certainly lacks something of what made those original productions so original and fresh and it is, perhaps, inevitable that this should become so in a musical that has been as popular as this one for the best part of half a decade. But that is not to detract from the sheer joy and fun that this production produces, be it from cast or audience.

The cast are led by Liam Tamne as "Frank-N-Furter" in a performance that dares to vary from the more usual paint-by-numbers Tim Curry knock-off and which is, for the most part, an exciting success;  Tamne is certainly the naughtiest "Frank" to grace the stage in many a year. Diana Vickers holds her own as "Janet" whilstRichard Meek creates a more rounded "Brad" than one would think possible; he is engaging to watch and his beautiful voice is one of the best in the production. "Rocky Horror" veteran Kristian Lavercombe is ever reliable as "Riff Raff" with his dynamic vocal ability setting the bar for his fellow "Transylvanians", his energy never dropping for a moment. The same can be said of Kay Murphy as "Magenta" and Sophie Linder-Lee as "Columbia" who both make the most of their limited material. Dominic Anderson's "Rocky" is certainly a feast for the eyes and his comedic talents are clearly displayed here. Paul Cattermole is a more hesitant "Dr. Scott" than most but his "Eddie" is a more full-on affair and Norman Pace fares excellently as the "Narrator" where he is quick and funny, handling his audience expertly.

"The Rocky Horror Show" remains a thoroughly engaging experience and it remains one of the most striking examples of the relationship between the performer and their audience, being one of the more successful shows in bringing a non-traditional theatre-goer into the auditorium. The messages "Rocky Horror" portrays are still as important as ever and it's evident that "Rocky" will endure and in whatever re-incarnation it chooses. 

Saturday, 6 August 2016

"Funny Girl", Savoy Theatre, London, 28/7/16

Second time around.

I'll admit, given my first experience with Sheridan Smith in the role, I was kind of hoping her understudy, Natasha J Barnes, would be on (she now shares the role with Smith who, for some reason, is unable to perform eight shows a week) especially given the raves she received when she filled in for a few months when Smith took leave (in fact the reviews were better for Barnes than Smith). As it happened, Smith was on. I had my fingers crossed she would, at least, get through the first act but otherwise left expectations at the door. As it turned out she completed the entire show. Just.

This production transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory and was reworked in certain regards when it reached the West End stage - the design was enlarged and dance sequences were expanded. With a revised book by Harvey Fierstein (original by Isobel Lennart), Music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill the musical contains some iconic numbers including 'People' and 'Don't Rain On My Parade' and originally starred Barbra Streisand who has been intrinsically linked with the show ever since. It is, perhaps, because of this fact that a revival has yet to appear on Broadway and has only now materialised in the West End of London. Smith's profile and following was clearly enough to give the producers confidence in transferring to the West End (a confidence that must have been shaken following recent events) and, if nothing else, this production does indicate that "Funny Girl" need not rely on Streisand to sell it. It does, however, require a comedic actress with strong vocal gifts to lead the production. More on that later.

The production itself is relatively simple - not surprising given where it started - and doesn't have a massive chorus or orchestra. The simple production design by Michael Pavelka has some lovely elements including mirrors which are used evocatively. My only real qualm is with the backdrop which shows the auditorium of what appears to be a grand opera house, rather than a Broadway theatre fitting for the Zeigfield Follies back in the day. Travelators are used to effect throughout but this is the extent of the most technical aspects of the show (which makes the previous cancellation due to 'technical difficulties' harder to believe). Mark Henderson's unobtrusive lighting fits easily into the simplicity of the production as do the costumes of Matthew Wright.
Lynne Page's choreography is likewise relatively simple yet effective and the direction by Michael Mayer serves the show well, especially his use of Pavelka's mirrors which reflect the idea that the story is actually told in flashback.
The orchestra, which actually contains a string section, may be a touch thin on the ground but the sound they produce is quite impressive and the musical direction is confident, although 'Who Are You Now' (which in this production becomes an entirely pointless duet between 'Fanny' and 'Nick') and 'The Music That Makes Me Dance' are performed at such a tempo as to make their emotional content weak and ineffective.

The company are really excellent and contain numerous stand-out performances, from Marilyn Cutts, Valda Aviks and Gay Soper as 'Mrs. Brice' and her friends to Bruce Montague as 'Florenz Zeigfeld' who is both commanding and tender. But Joel Montague as 'Eddie Ryan' is a revelation. He dances and sings strongly, creating a character of real dimension and one the audience can empathise with. Darius Campbell as 'Nick Arnstein' cuts a striking and dashing figure and his vocals are as strong as he is still. It is this stillness which creates a dramatic contrast to the hyper-active 'Fanny Brice' of Sheridan Smith. Indeed, Smith's 'Fanny' is quite chaotic and one is not always convinced this is part of the performance. There are several occasions throughout the show where it seems Smith is veering on the edge and this sense of uncertainty and danger is one that can make an audience uneasy. Based on what I witnessed of her performance previously, this time around she is certainly more assured and confident, her diction clearer and her voice stronger (and more in tune), but she still relies too heavily on one or two vocal tricks and facial expressions, which actually become predictable throughout the show, to really make her performance entirely believable. She is indeed funny at times, even affecting, but there are too many points in the production where she is seemingly almost out of control. Her voice is not strong enough to handle the demanding score and in the bigger numbers it was very clear when Smith was gearing up to hit a note and I wonder why some of the numbers' keys were not lowered (this would certainly have aided Smith greatly). Whilst she managed to hit virtually all the notes, the sound that came out often sounded shrill, strained and thin and I found myself thinking of many a mediocre karaoke singer singing those same songs in bars around the world. The fact that Smith visibly broke character to celebrate her getting through 'People' is also not a great indicator. With all that said, Smith can be a moving actress and she does often find little moments to really show her talent. It's just a shame this is inconsistent.

But the show works, even if the revised book is not as successful as one would hope (the second act appears to need more work whilst the first wouldn't be harmed by a little trimming), and this production shows that the ghost of Streisand need not deter producers and directors from staging the show more often. It does show that a strong lead is required, however, and that lead need not be a famous name.
The show has announced a UK tour which is to commence in the new year and I only hope that the producers take these facts into consideration when casting 'Fanny'. Given the reviews she received, they could do worse than cast Natasha J Barnes in the role. At least then I'd get to see her in the part.