Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre

Editor’s Rating
Rating

The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. In America, it is New York’s longest-running show, with the original off-Broadway run lasting for 42 years until January 2002, and the current revival continues since opening in 2006.

In the UK, however, it’s a very different story indeed. The original 1961 West End production ran for just 44 performances, and a 2010 revival closed after three weeks. Smaller scale revivals with short fixed runs have fared better, demonstrating perhaps that this is not a West End show, but one which suits the size of a fringe venue. And in the Jermyn Street theatre, which has the intimacy of fringe just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, it nestles pleasantly and inoffensively for a week.

The plot, which is very loosely based on one of Rostand’s, has echoes of a medieval morality tale – indeed, the lovers at the heart of the story are initially separated by a wall that directly echoes the Pyramus and Thisbe production performed by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, it transpires, the wall is a fake – the supposedly warring fathers of the romantic leads are in cahoots, assuming correctly that their being at loggerheads will cause their children to rebel and fall in love with each other.

As the young lovers Luisa and Matt, Emma Harrold and James Irving bring the characters’ naiveté to life. Both have strong voices, full of character, with Harrold in particular possessing a sweet soprano trill that she ought to be able to put into good use once she graduates from the Royal Academy of Music’s musical theatre course.

Brian McCann and Tim Walton give their one-dimensional parent characters their all, but all the principals are dwarfed by the narrator and troublemaker, El Gallo. Gavin James’ character is hired by the parents to pretened to abduct Luisa so that Matt will come to her rescue, and as such he is really the only character that progresses the story along to any degree. Comedy character moments from Seamus Newham as a faded Shakesperean actor and, especially, James Weal as his acrobatic, mostly silent assistant certainly enliven the show’s duller moments, of which there threaten to be rather more than there should. And Greg Page’s permanently exasperated stage manager, while completely superfluous to the plot, bears enough of a resemblance to Michael Billington to wonder if the critic has started taking a hands-on role in a show he panned a few years ago.

Musically, the show is sweet and has plenty of opportunity for the cast to show off their vocal talents. However, because the musical’s stand out songs, Soon It’s Gonna Rain and the more well-known Try to Remember dominate the first act, and the principal story peters out by the interval, it’s a bit more of a stretch for the audience to enjoy the show throughout.

So, for the life of me, I fail to see just why off-Broadway has taken this show to their hearts so much. But I’m glad I’ve seen it, and delighted that I’ve seen some fine performers show what they’re capable of.

Rose Bridge Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks continues at Jermyn Street Theatre until July 27. For more details, visit rosebridgetheatre.com

Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre3Scott Matthewman2013-07-25 13:59:57The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you…

It’s tough to be an actor, or anything else

Over the last couple of weeks, the acting world has lost several people – Paul Bhattacharjee, Briony McRoberts, Richard Gent, Cory Monteith – in ways that have thrown into focus the various mental health pressures that people in the entertainment industry share with others in other walks of life, as well as where the issues differ.

Mental health issues are rarely caused by one solitary outside influence. Everybody’s own personal health can have a myriad of contributory causes and pressures. That means that treatment and preventive measures vary, too. That’s partly why seeking help when one needs it is so imperative – another being that, if you are experiencing depression yourself, you’re rarely the best judge of your own illness.

The acting world in particular has pressures that many other professions don’t. Actors tend to have to move form short term job to short term job, often taking roles which pay poorly – if at all – in the hope that the exposure and/or experience will pay off with greater, better paid roles in the future. And far more than anybody in an office job – or even a backstage career within the entertainment industry – you are judged, judged and judged again.

Not being an actor myself, I’m limited to seeing my actor friends’ lows – and, it has to be emphasised, the highs as well. It’s far from all misery. But even on the best projects, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful ones, there are always avenues for individuals to encounter mental health problems.

In the first of a number of articles published recently on this topic, Matt Hemley wrote for The Stage, quoting Eddie Redmayne:

Although it looks great – and is great – there are also shoddy moments when you feel really rotten, and when it’s going well, you’re not allowed to complain.

While producer Richard Jordan, also for The Stage, emphasises that it’s not just actors:

It’s important we recognise that in our industry depression is not exclusively an illness affecting just actors but people across all sectors of the business. Those affected can also be great masters at hiding it, with a frequent fear that, by admitting being a sufferer, you might be viewed as unreliable and unemployable in this small and gossip-fuelled industry.

And today, over in The Guardian, Michael Simkins asks if the industry itself is too cruel:

The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.

Regardless of the potential pressures, actors put themselves through the wringer time and time again. The end result is usually great enjoyment for audiences of theatre, TV, radio, film – but we need to ensure that it’s not at the expense of anyone’s health and wellbeing.

Actress Katie Brennan has written a nice piece in direct response to Simkins’, which if I had to sum up in half a sentence, explores some of the positives to be found amongst the negatives:

 In no other profession would potential employees be treated this way, and perhaps the worst thing, is that we have learnt to accept it, that that’s just the way it goes in this industry, which makes me a little bit sad. We’re people at the end of the day, not just timestepping robots. I just like it when people are nice to each other…

…when [the industry] is glorious, it is wonderful glory UNBOUNDED. Seriously. There’s absolutely nothing like it. All those clichés about showbiz, the lights, the greasepaint, the applause, the comradery of castmates, the feeling of just standing on that stage and belting the shit out a brilliant, yielding money note- they’re all true on paper, but they FEEL even better.

I don’t have any pat answers: as I’ve indicated above, I think everybody has different triggers and anxieties, and their ways of dealing with their own mental health issues will be different. The key is finding the right support – nurturing friendships that last long after the curtain comes down, finding the people who will lift you up when you need it, and who you will walk over hot coals to help should the need ever arise.

And, of course, nor are the sort of pressures actors face unique to their industry. Short term, low paid, itinerant jobs are hardly the exclusive domain of the performer. Mental health issues, whether influenced by those pressures or others, need to be recognised better across all industries – but we can all of us start changing within the realms we work in.

Of course, no amount of talking about mental health will ever replace what the families, friends and our industry has lost in the people whose deaths have been reported over the last few weeks. But I’m beginning to see the start of conversations that will without doubt help others, and hopefully prevent similar headlines in future.

For information and advice, mental health charity MIND is a good place to start.

Rodgers & Hammerstein in London

Back in 2011, I wrote and produced a special podcast episode for The Stage, celebrating Rodgers and Hammerstein on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music‘s debut in the West End. We no longer publicise or distribute our podcasts, so I’ve gained permission to include it here. Of the 90 or so podcasts I created for The Stage, this is by far my favourite.

Presented by Helena Blackman, who had just released an album of R&H songs (excerpts from which are dotted throughout the programme), the feature also includes contributions from The Stage/Sunday Express theatre critic Mark Shenton, readings from The Stage archives by Adam Lilley, an exploration of the legacy Oscar Hammerstein left to Southwark Cathedral – and an exclusive (if short) clip of Stephen Sondheim himself talking about the influence of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. More background on my original blog post about the podcast.

Presenter: Helena Blackman
Archive Readings: Adam Lilley
Archive Research: Catherine Gerbrands
Writer and Producer: Scott Matthewman
Excerpts from The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein by kind permission of Speckulation Entertainment

The podcast is copyright © 2011 The Stage Media Company Limited. All rights reserved. Uploaded and made available on this site with permission.

Wolfblood leaps the channel divide

Back in October, I was extolling the virtues of Debbie Moon’s werewolf drama serial for CBBC, Wolfblood, among other drama series on the children’s channel:

Young Maddy is a 14-year-old girl from a reclusive family ‘pack’ of wolfbloods (the series rejects the term ‘werewolf’). Her parents lock themselves away every full moon rather than risk roaming in the woods – partly to ensure the safety of the locals, but mostly to ensure that their family secret is not discovered.

Part of the reason for writing that post was to give publicity to an under-rated section of Britain’s TV drama output. It’s been wonderful to see news of Wolfblood’s ongoing success as countries around the world have acquired the series, and to know that a second series is imminent.

Part of the reason why shows on CBBC need as much publicity as they do is that, now that they are no longer shown on BBC1 or BBC2 in the afternoons, there’s less chance of grown-ups discovering their joys. When it was first announced that the strands would be phased out, I wrote in The Stage’s now-defunct TV blog, TV Today

These days, while CBBC content remains on air until 7pm, there’s little room to encourage the channel’s viewers to partake in shows on BBC1, 2, 3 or 4. Once the decision to not watch CBBC is made, their attention could wander anywhere else. With so much money being ploughed into good quality shows, particularly by outgoing CBBC commissioner Damian Kavanagh, it’s criminal that there’s seemingly little thought in how the Corporation can encourage the CBBC viewer of today to become the more general BBC viewer of tomorrow.

Maybe there’s a compromise that can be reached. On Freeview, CBBC shares digital spectrum space with BBC3 (hence why the former closes down at 7pm just as the latter starts up). As part of the BBC’s cost saving measures, why not free up an hour either side of the 7pm switchover to form a 6pm-8pm zone, repeating the best family friendly content that straddles that difficult gap between childhood and adulthood — the gap that the now-defunct BBC Switch brand was originally supposed to address? At least that way, CBBC’s regular viewers would recognise that their viewing habits needn’t drift away from the BBC as they get older, and parents would get a better chance to appreciate some of the love and care that the Corporation devotes to its programming for younger viewers.

Given that the 7pm BBC3 slot is so frequently given over to reruns of Doctor Who — itself a family-friendly show which, despite always being commissioned by the “adult” drama department, has never forgotten that children are at its audience core — such a solution would not be a million miles away from where we are now.

I’m happy to say that, while the concept of a formal ‘changeover zone’ isn’t quite in place, the principle is at least being put into play. From tonight,Wolfblood begins reruns at 7pm on BBC3.

Part of me feels validated for having an idea which somebody at the BBC clearly also had. But mostly, I’m just really chuffed for Debbie and the rest of the Wolfblood cast and crew, whose hard work is about to get seen and appreciated by a whole new set of fans.

Ten Things About Who: Aliens of London

It’s been a few weeks since we departed the Cardiff rift. Apologies – pressures of work, and all that. But we continue a revisit of 2005’s Doctor Who series with the TARDIS’ return to the Powell Estate.

A quick reminder that my collection of Ten Things About Who posts for the 2012/13 series is now available for Kindle devices and Kindle e-reader apps for the bargain price of £1.99 – that’s 14p per episode discussion Thanks to everyone who’s bought it so far – if you have, please do leave a review or, at the very least, a star rating. And if you haven’t bought it yet, you can do so at mtthw.mn/whoebook.

1. A quick recap…

OK, so I said that The End of the World starts with what is, for Doctor Who, a rarely-used device: a “previously…”-style recap, that has “rarely been needed since”.

And then, two episodes later, that device gets used again. Still, I’m right – it tends not to be used much after this. To be honest, its usefulness in a series where the setting can change so drastically from episode to episode is debatable. But notice, even here, that it’s a recap of events solely from Rose. There’s no glimpse of Platform One or Victorian Cardiff at all.

Conceptually, it fits – this episode is a thematic sequel to the first episode, and deals directly witht he consequences of Rose’s impetuous run into the TARDIS at the end of that episode. For me, the recap here feels alien, if you’ll pardon the expression.

While what we now call “classic” Doctor Who used the old B-movie serial of replaying the previous week’s hangover to remind viewers of where they’ve got to, this “remember this from three weeks ago?” style of reminder has never sat well with Doctor Who. And it really isn’t used much after this. I promise.

Continue reading Ten Things About Who: Aliens of London

Reviewed: The Color Purple, Menier Chocolate Factory

For Musical Theatre Review, my review of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of The Color Purple:

Alice Walker’s classic novel, adapted first into an acclaimed film and then a musical, makes its London debut in the latter form with an assured production that showcases some of our finest musical theatre talent – while also producing an incredibly moving and emotional tale of abuse and survival, and of rejection of the idea that subjugation of anyone can be tolerated.

Read the full review.

Review: Counter-Measures Series 2

This time last year, I reviewed a new audio drama series by Big Finish, Counter-Measures, a spin-off from 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks.

The second series was released earlier this month. It’s solidly built upon what worked in the first box set: stories that are based upon the paranoias prevalent at the time, be they scientific or political, rather than relying on extraterrestrial agents. The Intelligence Counter-Measures Group are best when dealing with foes who, if not the archetypal “mad scientists”, are amoral at best – people for whom the end may justify the means, even if those means cost the lives of innocents.

Continue reading Review: Counter-Measures Series 2

A trio of musical theatre reviews: Barbershopera, Nunsense A-Men, and Bullets and Daffodils

I’ve been remiss about linking out to my reviews elsewhere recently. Here are three that I’ve written recently for Musical Theatre Review.

Bullets and Daffodils

Tristan Bates Theatre, July 1-6

The poetry of Wilfred Owen, born as it was from anger at the cruelty of war, is full of powerful imagery and intense emotion. Sadly, neither are on display in Dean Johnson’s tribute to Owen…

Nunsense A-men!

Landor Theatre, until July 28

The show gives the best moments, the best numbers and the best lines to the Broadway-obsessed Sister Mary Robert, and Alastair Knights takes full advantage. Stealing ensemble scenes with gay abandon, it is his solo numbers – and his wimple-based impressions – which will remain in the memory.

Barbershopera! – The Three Musketeers

St James’s Theatre Studio, July 13 – touring until October 26

Alexandre Dumas’ novel has formed the basis of several musical interpretations before… None has dared attempt to stage it as a cross-dressing, four-person a cappella production, though – and after this riotous evening, one can only feel the other productions are missing a trick.

 

Review: Anatomy of a Murder, Audit House, London

Courtroom dramas can be tricky things to accomplish on stage. In order to keep the audience’s interest, the case concerned must be serious enough, the defendant’s guilt or innocence must be hard to determine – and yet, if we do not feel sympathy for them despite their possible guilt, how are we as an audience ever going to engage with their plight?

Anatomy of a Murder, Elihu Winer’s play based on Robert Traver’s 1958 novel, piques the interest by starting from the premise that there is no doubt that the defendant, army Lieutenant Frederic Manion (George McFadyen) killed Barney Quill, the proprietor of the local inn.But Quill, we are told, had raped Manion’s wife that night. Immediately, our loyalties and a sense of natural justice start muddying the waters – and further murkiness is added as Manion and his fresh-faced lawyer Paul Biegler (Benedict Hastings) work out that Manion’s only defence against a charge of murder will be a plea of insanity.

Continue reading Review: Anatomy of a Murder, Audit House, London

A stretch in time – Doctor Who’s most atmospheric theme tune yet

Over on YouTube, user telegenicx creates atmospheric soundscapes by drastically slowing down existing music. Here, he takes Delia Derbyshire’s original 1963 arrangement of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme and turns it into a haunting score, full of tremulous undertones.

Derbyshire created some beautiful pieces in a similar vein to this slowed down version of her most popular work. Telegenicx’s version puts me in mind of The Delian Mode and Blue Veils and Golden Sands, both of which ended up being reused in the 1970 story Inferno, which ended Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor.