Above the Stag’s 3rd birthday party

For the third of my party collections to be featured in this week’s issue of The Stage (see also the Sheffied Crucible 40th birthday party and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas press night), I went to Above the Stag’s 3rd birthday party.

This theatre, established in a room above the Stag gay pub in Victoria, has established a reputation of hosting mostly gay, often musical productions that are usually highly enjoyable. Monday’s event saw a collection of monologues, short scenes and musical numbers from recent shows. Even those productions which didn’t work too well in full length could contribute something pithy, moving and/or funny to the mix, resulting in a highly enjoyable evening.

Soho Cinders in Concert, Queen’s Theatre

Editor’s Rating

Most new musicals take a while to see the light of day, maybe peeping over the parapet with workshops, or even a concept CD, long before they hit the stage. Few, however, gestate quite as long as Soho Cinders, a musical from George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (Honk!, Just So, the expanded stage version of Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Betty Blue Eyes) which, as Mark Shenton notes today, has been in development for most of this century already.

And it’s a very 21st century piece – a modern day Cinderella story, with rent boy Robbie using the wages from his escort services to fund his law studies, in order to prove that his wicked stepsisters have illegally taken over his late mother’s coffee shop. The ball becomes a fund-raising bash for a good-looking mayoral candidate whom Robbie has been seeing on the side, although he’s there to escort the wealthy businessman who’s bankrolling the mayoral bid. And when he’s exposed as a rent boy and runs off, it’s not a shoe he leaves behind, but a mobile phone…

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Soho Cinders in Concert, Queen’s Theatre5Scott Matthewman2011-10-10 10:14:16Most new musicals take a while to see the light of day, maybe peeping over the parapet with workshops, or even a concept CD, long before they hit the …

When Harry met Barry, Above the Stag

Editor’s Rating

The name of Above the Stag’s latest musical is designed, of course, to remind one of Rob Reiner’s famed romantic comedy film, When Harry Met Sally (while hopefully not evoking too much of the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s stage adaptation).

Like the film it’s trying to evoke, this is a romantic comedy – but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. For a start, the title is misleading: the meeting between the two titular characters is in fact a reunion, the two men once having been schoolfriends who fooled around with each other.

Barry (Craig Rhys Barlow) is now a successful TV chef who forms a relationship with over-the-top scene queen Spencer (an adorably likeable performance from Aiden Crawford), while Harry (Wesley Dow) gets involved with bookshop girl Alice (lightly delivered by Holly Julier, the best performance of the evening).

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When Harry met Barry, Above the Stag3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:31:46The name of Above the Stag’s latest musical is designed, of course, to remind one of Rob Reiner’s famed romantic comedy film, When Harry Met Sally (wh…

Blink Again!, Above the Stag

Editor’s Rating

On the publicity material for the third in Above the Stag’s now-annual revue of songs from shows that flopped, The Stage is quoted as describing it as “a high quality evening”.

That quote came from my review of 2009’s first show. However, the section of that review that the quote comes from was not quite so equivocal:

The weakest elements come when the actors must drop out of character and narrate the history of the dud shows direct. While there is an element of humour to be had from their frequent fluffs, more work clearly needs to be done to improve what is already a high quality evening.

Annoyingly, I could use exactly the same paragraph in the review of 2011’s show. Which would be appropriate in many ways, since Blink Again! itself recycles much from the previous two years.

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Blink Again!, Above the Stag2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:42:00On the publicity material for the third in Above the Stag’s now-annual revue of songs from shows that flopped, The Stage is quoted as describing it as…

Cleveland Street – the Musical, Above the Stag

I tend to want to be as generous as I can to any new musical that actually reaches the stage – so many, too many, never reach that stage. Once the house lights come down and the production has started, though, the quality of the book and the songs are what matters.

Here, Glenn Chandler, author of plays Boys of the Empire and Scouts in Bondage as well as the creator of ITV crime drama Taggart, has taken the real-life tale of a Victorian male brothel and the scandal of its high society clients and, with music by Matt Deveraux, has concocted a tale that’s redolent with period touches but has a tendency to subsume an interesting story under layers of exposition.

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My Beautiful Laundrette, Above the Stag Theatre

When adapting films for the stage, it helps to start with the right source material. Haneif Kureishi’s story of My Beautiful Laundrette, directed in 1985 by Stephen Frears in a version that made stars of Daniel Day-Lewis and the fledgling FilmFour, is the sort of intimate character piece that could very well have been adapted from a play in the first place.

The story centres around Omar, a young man who is struggling to free himself from the yoke of caring for his alcoholic, infirm father, and so who joins his uncle’s business. As a test, his uncle gives him a rundown, loss-making laundrette to run, and with the help of his old school friend Johnny and the cash generated by stealing, and selling, some drugs from an unpleasant work colleague, the enterprise becomes a success.

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Blink Twice, Above the Stag

In 2009, Above the Stag filled the usual torpidity of the summer fringe with Blink!, a collection of songs from musicals that flopped.

Unlike the shows it used as source material, it was a hit. It was not without faults, though: the spoken links that provided context weren’t executed well enough to adequately stand alongside the sung material. Also, there was something of an over-reliance on numbers from shows that, while possibly counting as flops on paper on their original run, have gone on to not insubstantial success (e.g., Chicago).

This year’s sequel has the confidence not to play it safe in such a manner, although it does include one number from a show that is currently running in the West End — the title song from Love Never Dies, albeit in its original form as Our Kind of Love from the Lloyd Webber/Elton mess of The Beautiful Game.

In a brave move for a show which is attempting to repeat its predecessor’s success, there is a continuing theme of demonstrating how composers repeatedly mine the same ideas. Jerry Herman, showcased last year for his drag comedy La Cage aux Folles, provides similar numbers from his revue flop, Jerry’s Girls. Adam Lilley’s scene stealing entrance in the second act’s opening numbers provides one of many comedy highlights, and ironically also gives him a vocal which is much better suited to his voice than many other songs which sit uncomfortably at the upper end of his range.

Ironic use of over-earnest choreography is used frequently to comically undermine songs which don’t deserve to be taken seriously, or to provide additional comedy to numbers which are nowhere near as funny as the writers clearly wanted them to be. The trio of Anna Gilthorpe, Ashleigh Jones and Emma Lumsden performing Glitterboots from Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens manages to transform an intrinsically silly number into something that lampoons the over-earnest choreography that has scuppered many a West End show.

Perhaps the strongest vocals belong to Reed Sinclair, whose renditions of Dear World (another Herman flop) and, in duet, First Lady of the Night from Bad Girls add to an impressive roster of numbers from all concerned.

There are so many bad musicals with odd little gems of songs in that the Blink format has every chance of becoming a regular franchise. If any future incarnations improve as much as Blink Twice has over 2009’s original, they will be truly amazing.

Maurice, Above the Stag

The last thing gay theatre needs, one might suppose, is another story about a young man struggling with his attraction to men before settling into life fully reconciled with his homosexuality. But EM Forster’s 1914 novel, shocking even when first published in 1971, still has something to say about the importance of loyalty to oneself over any conventions of class, family, religion or society.

Adam Lilley (Maurice) and Rob Stott (Durham) in Maurice at Above the Stag theatre
Roger Parsley and Andy Graham’s new stage adaptation is perhaps a little too faithful, choosing to play out Maurice Hall’s sexual awakening through a series of staccato scenes. This leads to the first act lacking any real momentum, a dangerous quality in a production that is just under three hours in length.

Thankfully, director Tim McArthur and an able cast work their hardest to bring life into the script, finding new wit and nuance to appeal to a 2010 audience, while remaining faithful to a novel written nearly a century ago.

As moustachioed hypnotist Mr Lasker Jones, Jonathan Hansler threatens at times to turn the production into one of melodramatic pastiche, but it adds a levity that helps propel the second act forward. He is helped in this endeavour by Persia Lawson as Ada, able to wring comedy from awkward silence.

But it is the central role of Maurice which must carry the production, and Adam Lilley succeeds admirably. The progression of a socially and sexually unaware 14 year old arriving, via a confused adolescence, at contented homosexual adulthood is played with delicacy and care.

_Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/27429/maurice)_

Above the Stag, London, March 2-28
Author: EM Forster, adapted by Roger Parsley and Andy Graham
Director: Tim McArthur
Producer: Peter Bull for Above the Stag
Cast includes: Adam Lilley, Rob Stott, Leanne Masterson, Jonathan Hansler, Persia Lawson, Stevie Raine
Running time: 2hrs 50mins

Busted Jesus Comix

Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/26128/busted-jesus-comix)

Above the Stag, London
November 3-28
Author: David Johnston
Director: Prav Menon-Johansson
Producer: Above the Stag
Cast: Henry Blake, Erin Hunter, Caitlin Birley, Peter Halpin, James Morrison-Corley, Michael James-Cox, Rege Page
Running time: 1hr

Based on the real life trial and conviction of an underground comic book writer, David Johnston’s pitch-black comedy acts as an indictment of censorship, while never quite focusing clearly enough to land any killer blows.

Henry Blake as Marco in Busted Jesus Comix Structured as a series of flashbacks, Marco, played by Henry Blake, relives the events which led to his conviction on obscenity charges and the authorities’ attempts to out him on the straight and narrow that have more to do with justice being seen to be done than offering him the help he really needs.

Some of the more sinister elements of Marco’s treatment, including compulsory enrolment in a Christian ‘ex-gay’ mission aiming to cure him of his homosexuality, are played with broader comedic strokes than one might expect. Caitlin Birley’s psychiatrist is similarly played out as a larger than life, grandstanding figure, more interested in her theories than actually listening to her client. It’s not an unsuccessful approach by any means, but provides a variation of mood and tempo that doesn’t always work in the production’s favour.

Levity is abandoned for the finale, in which the otherwise buttoned-down Marco finally opens up about events hinted at throughout. The impression one is left with is of a satisfying, thought-provoking play.

Quick theatre round-up

I know I haven’t been blogging here much lately: these things tend to come in fits and spurts, so I may do some more posts for a bit. That said, it’s coming up to my annual attempt to participate in NaNoWriMo so I may go quiet on the blogging front again.

Anyway, over the last few weeks I’ve had quite a few theatre trips, either for work as a reviewer or — gasp! — for fun. I’m so far behind that I can’t possibly review everything I’ve seen, but here’s a quick round-up:

September 26: Into the Woods, Landor

My first encounter with this Sondheim classic, and it wasn’t a disappointment. One of the most imaginative uses of the Landor’s restricted space, turning the stage into a giant bookshelf from which the classic fairytale characters sprang to life. A joy — Robert McWhir and the Landor team are never better when dealing with Sondheim.

September 30: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical, Palace

My second time seeing this musical (with tickets won via a competition held by the show’s Twitter account). The set pieces are just bonkers (in a good way), the costumes as inventive as ever, and in many ways it’s the perfect way to take a film with lots of music and turn it into a stage musical.

A couple of niggles: Jason Donovan seemed, in a couple of numbers, to be slightly disinterested, almost as if he were channeling a slightly more interested version of Terence Stamp (who scowled through virtually every dance number in the film). The same malaise seemed to be affecting two of the three backing dancers, which made Zoe Birkett’s enthusiasm all the more bizarre.

There were a disconcerting number of hearty laughs from the audience at some of the demonstrations of homophobic abuse, which was worrying in a show which embraces difference. And the boy who was on when we saw it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the lad who played the role on our first visit, who was breathtakingly good (I wish I knew what either of their names were).

October 11: Scott Alan, Leicester Square Theatre

As a birthday treat to myself, I took Paul and myself to see New York-based composer Scott Alan in an all-too-rare visit to the UK. Scott played a number of his songs, accompanied by a number of West End luminaries, including Patina Miller (Sister Act), Ramin Karimloo (Phantom of the Opera), Oliver Thompsett (Wicked) and Alison Jiear (Jerry Springer: The Opera).

I love Scott’s music, so I was rapt from start to finish — even through the first number, when the sound blew midway, forcing Patina and Scott to skip to a hastily-improvised acoustic performance. However, Scott did tend to concentrate on the more intensely emotional numbers in his repertoire. While they are what he’s most known for and certainly part of the reason I adore his two albums Dreaming Wide Awake and Keys, the inclusion of one or two of his lighter numbers, such as Seventeen or What Was His Name?, would have provided a greater variation of pace, which I know Paul (a Scott Alan virgin) found a bit wearing by the end.

October 12: The Unimportant History of Britain, Above the Stag

I didn’t have this down in iCal and wasn’t reviewing it, so forgot about this when I first wrote up this post. Which maybe gives you a clue as to how memorable this sketch show, which purports to portray the history of Britain from the stone age to the present day, is.

Most sketch comedy is hit and miss — sadly, this was more miss, miss, miss, could be a hit with a bit more work, miss, miss.

October 14: The Woman in Black, Fortune Theatre

Ade and I won tickets to Susan Black’s thriller in the Show and Stay theatre pub quiz (a live version of their weekday quiz – follow @WestEndUpdates to join in Monday-Friday at 2.10pm). Ade had seen the production before with a different cast, so some of the “surprises” were not new to him — I don’t think it’s really a show you can see more than once. We were also quite far back in the stalls, such that we were bathed in permanent emergency lighting, which doesn’t really help the atmospherics.

And for me, any sense of suspense was completely eradicated by the behaviour of the large number of teenage girls in the audience. If they weren’t talking to each other in loud stage whispers, they were screaming at anything that might possibly be considered slightly creepy. It was happening so often that anything that could have genuinely be a frightening moment was drowned out. When you get an audience ready to scream at the dimming of the house lights at the start of Act 2 there really isn’t anything you can do.

Still, to the audience’s credit, no mobile phones went off during the show. Well, one did — but it belonged to a very embarrassed member of the front of house staff. Oops.

October 18: Crazy for You, London Palladium

A one-off charity performance, organised by Showtime Challenge. Although roles had been cast in advance and cast had received scripts and scores, rehearsals only started 48 hours before curtain up (while everyone was expected to be off-book by then, they had been forbidden from rehearsing with one another). Sunday’s show was a miracle by any standards.

In many ways, Crazy For You is a perfect show for the format, its “let put on a show right here” themes allowing for a few rough edges here and there. Not that it really needed them: there were a couple of moments where things headed towards the am-dram end of the scale, but mostly it was an incredibly impressive show by any standards. And the sight of 130 actors tap-dancing in unison on the Palladium stage is a sight that remains with you long after the final curtain call.

October 20: Silence! The Musical, Barons Court Theatre

My first exposure to this musical version of The Silence of the Lambs was in Above the Stag’s Blink!, which featured a couple of numbers. The show suffers from not quite deciding if it’s going to be a complete send-up of the film or to be a faithful retelling in song and dance. Other faults included burying the most able cast members in the chorus while giving the lead roles to people who struggled to live up to the iconic portrayals by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins on screen.

There were also some quite bizarre blocking decisions, including a whole solo number delivered with the singer’s back to the audience. A discussion with a couple of the production team suggested that at least one of the badly blocked moments was unintentional, but overall the impression one was left with was of wasted opportunity.

The Above the Stag theatre is mounting its own production in the New Year, with the assistance of some of the original New York team, so hopefully we’ll see a production which doesn’t succumb to the same pitfalls.

October 21: Sister Act, London Palladium

Back to the Palladium for Alan Menken’s new work. I think I’ll in all likelihood do a full review of this, as there’s a lot I want to say about it. For now — the first act drags a lot, never really taking flight until Raise Your Voice (the number in which Patina Miller’s Deloris Van Cartier takes charge of the nuns’ choir). The second act is joyous throughout, although the cartoon villainy of the gangster, Shank, and his henchmen, limits the range of the show.

October 22: Zombie Prom, Landor

The one piece of my recent theatre marathon to require a professional review for The Stage. I won’t repeat that here.

October 25: Proud to Say I Love You, Above the Stag

A revue of gay love songs from the shows, performed by my good friend Josh as part of a company of four. By turns side-splitting and heart-breaking, it was an hour of unalloyed pleasure. This was the last of a series of one-off performances: I hope that a longer residence might emerge in 2010, as it’s a cabaret show that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

October 26: Scenes From My Love Life: A Year of Above the Stag, Above the Stag

A compilation of highlights from Above the Stag’s first year as a producing theatre. Excerpts from some of the musicals and plays that have occupied this new, adventurous space helped accentuate how adventurous the programming has been. We were also treated to a preview of Busted Jesus Comix, which opens next week, and Silence! — which, as I said above, also featured in Blink! before it returns in the New Year.

Which brings us more or less up-to-date, full review of Sister Act notwithstanding. Coming in the next few weeks: a gala concert showcasing the songwriting talents of Michael Bruce, Busted Jesus Comix at Above the Stag, Scouts in Bondage at the King’s Head, my umpteenth visit to Avenue Q, and no doubt much more.

Oh, and I was a guest on Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show earlier this week. Really should write that up as a blog post, too… (Update: I have)