21 March 2020

The Musical Theatre Challenge.

Hello all, I firstly want to wish you all well during these difficult and challenging times. Without the theatre, it's a strange time for us all, but I hope you and those around you are keeping safe and well. Theatre is basically everything to me, I blog about theatre, I work at a theatre, I live and breathe theatre, so for all the theatres to be (rightly) closed it's an odd time. Hopefully, over the coming weeks, I'll share some content that keeps you amused and entertained. I start here with a musical theatre challenge. This is something you can all do and I'd love to see read your answers to the following questions. To make it more interesting try and not use the same musical twice!

A Song From The First Musical You Saw
My earliest theatre trips when I was a child was going to the Pantomimes at Leicester's De Montfort Hall - although I have no real memory of them - but the first musical I saw though was also at De Montfort Hall, it was a touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice is a classic and one that families still enjoy to this day. My favourite song from Joseph would be "Go, Go, Go Joseph". The toe-tapping ensemble number that closes the first act.

A Song From Your Last Musical You Saw
It's been a couple of weeks (at the time of writing) since my last musical, that was a 6th a final visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company and their production of The Boy in the Dress. The musical was an adaptation of the book by David Walliams. Mark Ravenhill did a fabulous job with his adaptation bringing all the humour and joy of the book to the stage. The music for the production came from the formidable duo of Guy Chambers and Robbie Williams. Hopefully, the production has a future life. The score was full of catchy tunes and my favourite changed quite a few times but I'm sticking with Disco Symphony. The song just burst to life and with the use of giant glitter balls, it brought a real dazzle and shine to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. You can see the trailer below.

A Song From Your Favourite Musical
Those who know me will know how much I still talk about Amelie. The 2019 UK Touring production which transferred over the winter in London's The Other Palace was musical theatre perfection. Featuring a cast of actor-musicians this Parisian paradise was everything. Adapted from the 2001 French-language movie with songs by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messe and a book by Craig Lucas. The show has a short-lived run on Broadway but the UK production was much better received and is nominated for three Oliviers. The change of musical styles with the numbers really worked effectively and the hugely talented company pulled it off with such skill. Audrey Brisson just IS Amelie, she brought her to life so beautifully. I could easily pick every number from this show but my favourite number is "When The Booth Goes Bright" sung by Nino and the ensemble. Here you can enjoy a selection of songs from the production by the original London company.

A Song From An Underrated Musical
Where do I start with this? There are quite a few musicals that I'd personally call underrated. Made in Dagenham, The Lord of the Rings, From Here To Eternity and Betty Blue Eyes to name some but the one I'm going to chose here is The Wind in the Willows. The musical which ran for a UK tour in 2016 and a summer season in 2017 at the London Palladium had a book by Julian Fellows and music by Stiles and Drewe. A fantastic cast too helmed this production, Rufus Hound as Mr Toad, Simon Lipkin as Rat, Craig Mather as Mole and Neil McDermott as Chief Weasel. During it's run at the London Palladium the show was filmed and you can currently watch the production for free via https://www.willowsmusical.com/ where you can also choose to make a donation to Action For Others. My favourite song from this show is the act two opening number sung by Chief Weasel and all his companions "We're Taking Over The Hall".

A Song That Makes You Emotional
Many songs from the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen fit the bill here. The musical has proved a hit with audiences both on Broadway and in the West End. The score written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul features some of the most powerful and moving lyrics that you'll find in any musical. "You Will Be Found" is a powerful anthem that reminds you that "you are not alone". The song I've chosen though is "Words Fail". I'd heard most of the soundtrack prior the seeing the show but this was one of the songs I hadn't heard and it packed a punch performed by London's alternative Evan, Marcus Harman. I won't give any spoiler but it's painful and powerful.

A Song That Makes You Laugh
If you're looking for shows that make you laugh look no further than Monty Python's Spamalot. Lovingly ripped off (as the advertisements say) from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail by Eric Idle. The show keeps many of the films great moments and hilariously brings them to life on stage. Idle who alongside John Du Prez wrote the music created some truly hilarious routines. The use Python classic, from their movie The Life of Brian, "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life" fitted in brilliantly. I had the great pleasure of seeing Tim Curry at King Arthur in the original London production and I've chosen a number from the show that has subsequently been re-written. The original number "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" was changed to the "Star Song", both of hilarious but this video from Broadway below still makes me laugh.

A Song From Your Least Favourite Musical
I rarely dislike musicals but I have a firm least favourite musical and that is Cats. I saw the production when I was growing up and didn't enjoy it. The whole thing seemed bizarre especially in the stage musical where the cast come through the audience. I've had no interest in revisiting the show or the recent movie adaptation ever since. If I had to pick the most likeable song from the score I'd go for "Jellicle Cats".

A Song From A Musical That You'd Love To be Revived
The 2017 London production of Half A Sixpence. I'd bring that back in a heartbeat. Charlie Stemp was extraordinary in the lead role of Arthur Kipps. He moved with such grace and skill and sung superbly too. Devon-Elise Johnson and Emma Williams provided strong love interests in Ann Pornick and Helen Walshingham. A strong company on the whole too. Much like The Wind in the Willows, the show featured a book by Julian Fellows and music by Stiles and Drewe and numbers by David Heneker from the original musical. It's a show that filled me with such joy. I was so excited that Kilworth House Theatre was due to have a new production directed and choreographed by Andrew Wright (whose outstanding choreography lit up the stage in the London production) this summer but due to the virus that's been postponed but hopefully, that'll have another chance to be seen. I've chosen the uplifting "Pick Out A Simple Tune" as it represents everything about the show brilliantly.

A Song From Your Favourite Musical Film
This is so difficult to nail down. There are so many musical films that I adore, Oklahoma, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Greatest Showman and The Producers to name a few. I'll go with La La Land as that movie really connected with me as did the music by Justin Hurwitz. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are fantastic and carry the film with superb performances. I know the film is a bit of like marmite with people I know but for me, it's a breathtaking cinematic experience - although granted I'm still unsure how I feel about the ending. Again the lyrics for the music were provided by Pasek and Paul (Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman) and I've picked the duet version of "City of Stars" sung by Stone and Gosling.

I hope you enjoyed reading and listening to my choices. I'd love to see what you'd pick. Let me know in the comments or on any of my social media.

12 March 2020

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel Review

Icons of comedy, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, are magnificently paid homage to in Told By An Idiot's show The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.

The basis of the tale is of Chaplin and Laurel who shared a boat from the UK to New York in 1910 as part of Fred Karno's music hall troupe. This may be the central plot but the production is mostly told in short stories through various moments in the two stars lives. We're randomly thrown around with no logical order or sense.

Amalia Vitale as Charlie Chaplin. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

This is clearly a field Told By An Idiot specialise in. Writer and Director, Paul Hunter, explains in the programme that the company are "fascinated by the deconstruction of an iconic figure and the idea of creating a 'true fantasy' has always appealed". Their mission to create this fantasy and shine an unusual light on these showbiz legends works brilliantly.

It's told mostly in mime, aided by a few projected captions, but also with the addition of a couple of songs performed by the cast. Zoe Rahman's piano and drum score is an effective undercurrent to the action. Sara Alexander (who also plays Chaplin's mother) is a tremendous pianist and whilst she's slightly offstage she never missed a beat.

Ioana Curelea's multi-layered set is a wonderful creation. Taking us from the ship, to the theatre or even to the Savoy Hotel. Curelea's design really enables all the mad-cap slapstick comedy to flourish. Physical comedy consultant Jos Houben's work with the company allows them to create hilarious moments of comedy.

Jerone Marsh-Reid, Amalia Vitale and Nick Haverson. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

An outstanding Amalia Vitale excellently portrays Chaplin, she nails some of his iconic mannerisms perfectly including his walk. You can't take your eye off her the whole time as you don't want to miss anything she does. She is constantly creating little moments of magic even with the slightest of movement.

Jerone Marsh-Reid gives a great turn as Laurel (and numerous other roles). His gangly figure is a great contract to Vitale's petite Chaplin. The pair bounce off each other tremendously well. Laurel does take more a background seat in the tale as we feature more on Chaplin.

The lead performances are often in danger of being completely upstaged by a superb Nick Haverson. He portrays a myriad of roles, ranging from Fred Karno to Chaplin's Dad and even to Oliver Hardy. He is an actor with such a great eye for comedy. He emotes with his facial expressions with such a high skill. He is a pure joy to watch and his energy keeps the other cast members on their toes.

Whilst certain moments that are included are a bit baffling, for example, I'm not sure why we go back to Chaplin's birth or even the death of Oliver Hardy, those aside this is a joyous 90 minutes. It's clearly created with such an affection for the two central stars. A Strange Tale it may be but a richly uplifting one too.

Rating - ★★★★ - a brilliantly madcap slapstick celebration of two showbiz legends.

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel continues at Northampton's Royal and Derngate until Saturday 21st March 2020. Visit royalandderngate.co.uk for booking details.

Sara Alexander, Amalia Vitale, Jerone Marsh-Reid and Nick Haverson. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

11 March 2020

The Mousetrap UK Tour Review

Agatha Christie's play, The Mousetrap, continues into its 68th year in London and once again is touring the UK and Ireland. The World's Longest Running play continues to entice and intrigue audiences.

Your typical murder mystery, we're greeted with a varied collection of colourful characters who end up stranded by a snowstorm at the guest house they've all come to stay at and after a murder occurs it's up to them to discover who committed the crime. It's difficult to talk about the plot without dropping spoilers so I'll avoid telling you too much about what occurs. One of the main reason the play continues to this day is the reliance on the audience not to spoil the ending.

The Touring Company of The Mousetrap. Photo - Landscape Group

Having seen the production in London last year it was fascinating to sit back and notice all the clues I missed the first time (although I did guess the identity of the murderer by the interval on that first watch). Watching it for a second time makes the whole experience different as you know how and who has done the crimes and this allows you to sit and pick up all the clues along the way.

The play does heavily rely on consequences and some of those are a bit silly and some are quite stereotypical but they work as the plot twists and turns right until the end. The cleverness of Christie's writing is that she manages to keep making swerves and diversions.

The setting of "the present" (the 1950s) does make the production feel dated and in places quite stale. It's cleverly set in one room which connects to various other rooms, through doors, stairs and a window. The original designs of Roger Furse haven't been tweaked much over the years. The lighting and sound do add a bit of atmosphere and suspense.

Here assembled is a strong company of actors. Susan Penhaligon is wickedly uppity as Mrs Boyle (think of Hyacinth Bucket but even more annoying). She creates the character brilliantly that you can see why everyone struggles to get on with her. Steven Elliott effectively creates the mysterious Mr Paravicini. He's at his finest as he teases with the Three Blind Mice nursery rhyme which hinges some of the plot together. Martin Allanson as Detective Sergeant Trotter is brilliant as tries to connect everything together as he investigates and looks to tie down the murderer before anyone else becomes a victim.

Edith Kirkwood and Adam Lilley create the central characters of Mr and Mrs Ralston, the owners of Monkswell Manor, with great skill. Edith is outstanding throughout. George Naylor's cartoon-like energy makes you warm to his likeable Christopher Wren. Stephen Bowen understudying as Major Metcalf and Laura Costello as Miss Casewell loom a bit more in the background but both also play important roles.
Martin Allanson (Sgt Trotter) and Edith Kirkwood
(Mollie Ralston). Photo - Landscape Group

The play at a two hour running time (plus a 20-minute interval) does feel a little long and stale in places and I struggle to see why the play has managed to last for so long as it doesn't feel like anything particularly remarkable but I guess it's down to Agatha Christie's fine writing and her skill for murder mysteries. It's more than worthy of a visit especially with a cast like this.

Rating - ★★★ 1/2 - enjoyable but slightly dated murder mystery, driven by a talented cast.

The Mousetrap continues at Leicester's Haymarket Theatre until Saturday 14th March. Visit www.haytheatre.com for tickets. The tour continues thereafter, visit mousetrapontour.com for more

5 March 2020

Phantom of the Opera UK Tour Review

Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Group produce a new UK tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash-hit musical, The Phantom of the Opera. The new tour opens at Curve in Leicester.

The show's design is reimagined for the touring production allowing for tweaks and slightly different staging to the London production. Matt Kinley has created a faithful adaptation of the original design of the late Maria Bjornson. The show is a lavish spectacle right for the get-go. Throughout there are numerous scene changes with grandiose lavish sets and costumes, from the rising of the curtains during the Overture, The Phantom of the Opera sequence as we enter the Phantom's lair or Masquerade. No expense is spared, and it's a real feast for the eyes and the mind. Even the interval safety curtain is gorgeous!

Holly-Anne Hull (Christine) and Killian Donnelly (Phantom). Photo  by Johan Persson

One of the stars of the design continues to be the Paris Opera House chandelier. From the thrilling reveal and pyrotechnic re-lighting as the orchestra plays the Overture to the dramatic fall just above the heads of the front rows at the end of the first act as the Phantom follows through on a disaster beyond imagination. Both moments are unforgettable.

Seth Sklar-Heyn direction is a fitting tribute to the late original director, Hal Prince, and his creative team is first-rate. Andrew Bridge's lighting enhances the atmosphere beautifully as done strong sound design by Mick Potter. Chrissie Cartwright has adapted the late great Gillian Lynne's choreography splendidly, especially the ballet girls who dance with such wonderful skill.

The Music of the Night by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe is one of the major reasons this show continues to be loved by audiences. A mixture of between opera and musical theatre, the score is beautiful. Matthew J Loughran's musical direction allows the orchestra to flourish and they sound fantastic. Stay for the entire Playoff as it's well worth hearing these skilled musicians at work.

Donning the iconic mask is Killian Donnelly. One of the finest male theatrical performers around, Killian once again proves he's a master for the craft. He powerfully looms over the show like a dark shadow. He's a believable tortured monster but also adds in the right amount of emotion, especially in the final sequences. His vocal range matches the score perfectly. Huge credit too for Bob Saunders from Applied Arts who creating the masks and effective prosthetics.

Holly-Anne Hull is strong as Christine Daae, she brings great fragility and heart and a stunning vocal range. "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" is a showstopping number that allows Holly-Anne's full vocal range to excel. The role of Raoul can be a thankless task but Rhys Whitfield is a strong as they come. He makes the audience really emphasise with the character, who after all is at risk of losing the love of his life to this mysterious Phantom. Together Holly-Anne and Rhys match each other and make a wonderful believable couple.

Masquerade. Photo by Johan Persson

Saori Oda's Carlotta is an outstanding soprano, her powerful vocals and diva attitude make her a joy to watch. Greg Castiglioni's Piangi gets a bit lost but ultimately he carries the character off well, especially as a bit of a bumbling idiot. Much of the lightness to the piece is provided by the two theatre managers, Monsieur Firman and Monsieur Andre, here both Matt Harrop and Adam Linstead are fantastic. They bounce off each other really well. Francesca Ellis greatly encompasses Madame Giry creating a strict matron like figure with an air of mystery about her and the relationship between the Phantom.

It requires a large company to effectively stage a show like Phantom and the assembled company here is as strong as any you'll see. The number, Masquerade, is proof of when a company come together what power they have. It's a breathtaking moment in a show full of memorable sequences.

On this evidence, it's not hard to see the enduring longevity of Phantom. This production is magical, you won't have a more spectacular night like this at the theatre anywhere else. Outstanding.

Rating: ★★★★★ - a dazzling theatrical spectacle. Long may the Phantom continue to reign.

The Phantom of the Opera continues at Curve until Saturday 21st March, visit https://www.curveonline.co.uk/ to book. It then extensively tours the UK and Ireland visit https://uktour.thephantomoftheopera.com/ for more details.
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