Saturday 30 December 2017

30/12/17: Cinderella, Greenwich Theatre

The annual Greenwich treat. I was dismayed to discover that this year the pantomime would not star Andrew Pollard, who has been the actor/director/dame of the show for at least a decade. On the plus side, he did write it and even appears in a “virtual” filmed cameo as Halley’s Comet. 

The songs are always a highlight, despite "Uncle" Steve's three-piece band in the orchestra pit drowning out the vocals at times. We were treated to the Friends theme (“I’ll Be There for You”), “It’s Raining Men” by the Weather Girls, “ABC” by the Jackson 5, “Somebody to Love” by Queen, “Somewhere Out There” by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, “A Night to Remember” by Shalamar and “Roar” by Katy Perry. The singalong involved “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets – chosen to tie in with the overarching subject of “comets”.

Stealing the show were the two ugly sisters. Kylie was played by the usual villain actor Anthony Spargo. He was as hilarious and commanding as ever, exuding OTT evil charisma. Mylie – smudged lipstick all over her face – was played by Lizzy Dive, with perfect comic timing.

There’s usually one scene of high surrealism, but this time there were two – one set in a bathtub (with nods to Titanic and Jaws) and one set on an airbed filled with dangerously explosive gas…

As usual, there were local jokes (most of the show was set in Greenwich Observatory), topical references (Brexit was an inevitable mention) and off-piste moments in which the cast try to make each other laugh by deviating from the script. It was so entertaining that I almost didn’t miss Andrew Pollard.

Thursday 28 December 2017

28/12/17: Dear Brutus, Southwark Playhouse

This little-known 1917 play by Peter Pan writer J. M. Barrie is magical and mind-blowing. A group of people, seemingly with nothing in common, find themselves invited to a house on Midsummer Night by a mysterious old man known as “Lob” – in fact, a Shakespearean trickster figure. They are persuaded to venture into the woods, where they each encounter a form of enchantment that provides them with a second chance in life. The implications of this “What if?” parallel reality vary for each person and the consequences are amusing, emotional and profound.

There’s a lengthy and deeply moving scene in which the painter Will Dearth speaks with his daughter Margaret (masterfully played by Miles Richardson and Venice van Someren respectively). Because of the magical spell that’s upon them, Will is no longer a desperate, defeated alcoholic and is instead full of kindness and creativity, life and love. Margaret is the delightful daughter he always wanted. It’s heartbreaking when you realise that all this must fade as he returns to the house and his enchantment wears off. And when he awakens, as if from a dream, what will be the fate of the idealised child he so adores but who never really existed?

Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle, Dear Brutus makes great use of the small space in the Playhouse’s Little Theatre with a simple but effective set. The music and sound mix are especially well-judged, with ambient tones that perfectly convey other-wordly states. I was transported to the enchanted wood and left with plenty to think about.

Compellingly brought to life by the Troupe production company, Dear Brutus remains a potent piece of work 100 years on. I feel lucky to have seen it.

Wednesday 30 August 2017

30/08/17: 9 to 5: The Musical, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Nine to Five was a 1980 film starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Dolly wrote the theme song and then contributed additional lyrics for a theatrical version of the story, which became a Broadway musical in 2009 and now comes to Highgate. This was the debut performance – a preview night – but aside from a few sound glitches there were no signs of any first-night problems. The plot is straightforward: three female office workers seek revenge on their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" of a boss.

Produced by Joseph Hodges, who also produced Breaking Up Is Hard to Do (which I enjoyed at the same theatre in April of this year), the show is funny and sharp. The simple but ingenious staging makes the most of "office furniture". Three desks (on wheels) are constantly moved around, rotated and realigned to suit whatever structure the set requires – from a dancing platform to a mortuary slab.

The three female leads – Amanda Coutts (Judy), Louise Olley (Doralee) and Pippa Winslow (Violet) – are entirely convincing and have powerful voices. They needed them, too, as the band was so loud that it often threatened to drown out the singing. Also superb was Samantha Giffard playing the bafflingly lovestruck Roz.

The songs by Dolly Parton really make the show, from the classic title track to the perfectly judged "Backwoods Barbie". Turning things on their head there's also a clever composition called "5 to 9", about the emotions felt between work hours.

All this, and a positive message about gender equality and realising your potential. Sadly, in 2017 (with the BBC pay gap scandal still fresh in people’s minds) the theme of sexism in the workplace is every bit as relevant as it was in 1980. It's a credit to this show that it tackles this "issue" with such humour and intelligence.

Saturday 8 July 2017

08/07/17: Wendy & Peter Pan, Dame Alice Owen's School, Hertfordshire

It’s only six months since I last saw Peter Pan, or rather Peter Pan: A New Adventure – writer/director/dame Andrew Pollard’s hilarious pantomime staged at Greenwich Theatre last Christmas, starring himself as Long “Joan” Silver and Anthony Spargo as Captain Hook.

This school production of Ella Hickson’s Wendy & Peter Pan by year sevens, eights and nines (11–14-year-olds) was fairly different, as you might imagine, although surprisingly it was just as full of irreverent humour. Presumably in the interests of letting everyone have a go, there were four Peters and 10 Wendys. The young actors multi-tasked, with girls often playing boys (but no boys playing girls). Especially charismatic were Luka Shaw as one of the Hooks and – an absolute natural – Amber Gerathy as the streetwise, full-of-attitude fairy Tink.

There’s an exhilarating soundtrack, too, with the ensemble "shadows", pirates, Lost Boys and Lost Girls dancing to BeyoncĂ©, Duran Duran, Jesse J, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Meghan Trainor and songs from Yann Tiersen’s Amelie. What would J. M. Barrie have made of that? The opening segment, set to Emily Browning’s cover version of The Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" was powerful indeed. They even found space for a snippet of "Careless Whisper" by George Michael, based around a saxophone joke. The show was full of laugh-out-loud moments like that.

The story is too well-known to bother detailing here, but from the fairly straightforward plot the actors managed to draw out themes of youth and ageing, innocence and experience, family, gender inequality and bereavement – weighty matters treated with enough humour to stop it all from becoming po-faced.

A ticking-clock sound effect between scenes allowed for changes in the stage set-up and also added an ominous quality. Simple-but-clever back projections allowed for the illusion of flying, and also made it clear when we were in the Darling family home, in the Neverland forest or on the deck of the Jolly Roger.

At the end. the entire cast came back to bow to the delighted crowd and say some emotional thank-yous to the tech crew, teachers and so on. There was a moving moment when the PA sound broke down and Ariande Grande’s "One Last Time" cut out. The kids spontaneously just started singing it themselves. You could feel how much they had loved performing and how much goodwill they had generated. 

Saturday 17 June 2017

17/06/17: Miss Kiddy and the Cads, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

On the way up the hill to the Gatehouse pub, we saw Ray Davies and a lady friend walk past us: a good omen for the night ahead. 

This show was on for just one evening in Highgate, so I was pleased to catch it. The premise was that the band are a 1945 group of American small-time crooks and lowlifes. They perform entirely in character with the singer, Miss Kiddy, linking the songs with wisecracks and brief observations regarding her life and her band. The twist is that the Cads play radically reinvented 1940s jazz-swing versions of pop songs including "Billie Jean" (Michael Jackson), "Call Me Maybe" (Carly Rae Jepsen), "Can't Get You Out of My Head" (Kylie Minogue), "Honky Tonk Women" (Rolling Stones), "Let’s Dance" (David Bowie), "Song 2" (Blur), 'Wannabe" (Spice Girls) and "Wonderwall" (Oasis). Improbable, but it works.

It's impressive that Miss Kiddy sings all-out for nearly two hours, not even pausing once to sip a drink on this swelteringly hot June night. The Cads are joined on stage by "Little Missy", a tap dancer whose feet kept to and enhanced the rhythms. (I have a pet cat called Missy, so they won me over immediately with that name.) 

I liked the way they played with the retro angle – sometimes they were consistent with it; other times they didn't bother. So Prince's "1999" was reworked to have them "party like it's 1945", while "Teenage Dirtbag" by Wheatus ended up as "Vintage Dirtbag" (with Iron Maiden replaced by Frank Sinatra). But when they played “The Power of Love" (Huey Lewis and The News), they left in the "don't need no credit card" line and retained the lyric about "listening to Marvin all night long" in "True" (Spandau Ballet), even though Marvin Gaye would have only been six years old at that time. Clearly none of it was to be taken too seriously, especially as Miss Kiddy took the opportunity to advertise their Facebook and Instagram pages long before social media could be invented.

The group's website describes "Show stopping vocals, stunning authentic costumes, spectacular tap dancing routines, and a story of suspense". All of this was spot-on except for the "story of suspense". The only narrative element came from Miss Kiddy's between-song chatter. The lack of a plot wasn't a problem at all – the music, costumes and tap dancing offer more than enough to sustain interest – but it was a bit misleading. This is a musical revue rather than a musical. That point aside, the show is hugely entertaining. Whoever arranged the songs deserves a great deal of credit: these imaginative new (but old) versions are playful, sophisticated and witty. They are performed with some real force behind them. It would all have fallen flat if the band didn't play so well, but they are note-perfect and tightly drilled – with a singer who never flags. The venue was packed and the crowd loved it.

Sunday 4 June 2017

04/06/16: Notes from Underground, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

In this dazzling production by Traffic of the Stage, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novella is updated from St. Petersburg in 1864 to London in 2017, in a way that makes perfect sense. John Cooper’s play, directed by Harry Meacher, tackles big themes including commerce, social status, identity and what it means to be a member of a society that dismisses you as a “loser” or a “weirdo”. The company put on a draining and exhilarating performance that, ultimately, is desperately sad. 

Giorgio Galassi is absolutely wonderful as the existentialist narrator/protagonist (named simply "man" in the programme credits), a semi-reclusive intellectual who struggles to communicate with his peers and work colleagues. His simmering rage and frustration is articulated so convincingly that you simultaneously relate to his suffering while feeling a growing sense of revulsion at his self-absorption and verbal violence (warning: there is some very “strong” language in the show).

Anna Danshina is utterly convincing as the earnest, well-meaning and misunderstood Russian call girl Liza, who identifies with the man’s pain while battling to find a way through it. Her companion Ylenia is pitched spot-on by Olga Starpovich, especially as the night’s booze takes hold and she begins to stagger around in her high heels. Wealthy toffs Roger (Matthew Duckett) and Simon (Callum John Hill) are all too believable as the ghastly posh guys who order women like others order pizza. Finally, there’s Robert Artlett, who is versatile and believable as various waiters and barman. In fact, all but two members of the highly skilled cast effortlessly double up on smaller roles.

In today’s Sunday afternoon performance, the six actors on stage played to an audience of only 11. That’s a huge shame because this is a terrific show – one of the most emotionally involving I’ve ever seen – that's deeply intense and yet surprisingly funny. It deserves to be experienced by more people.