Briefs – The Second Coming, London Wonderground

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This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Drag and male burlesque make for unashamedly trashy bedfellows. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Briefs’ return visit to London Wonderground, mixing sequins, striptease and circus skills to enjoyable effect.

Held together by self-described “bearded Aussie drag queen” Shivannah (the show’s creative producer Fez Faanana), who combines effortless MC duties with a fun line in magic tricks, the show opens to the sound of audience whoops and cheers that are so raucous they could only come from the troupe’s established fans. By the end of the first big showpiece, a traditional ensemble fandance striptease, it’s fair to say that fanbase is already growing.

The first big solo number comes from some stunning aerial hoop work by Tom Worrell, his contortions and choreography having the air of effortless impossibility of a truly great cirque show. Similarly, Mark Winmill (aka “Captain Kidd”) closes the show with a trapeze and birdbath act that is muscular, graceful and fierce, while also drenching the first couple of rows.

Between these two impressive solos, the pieces are more patchy in nature. Drag act Dallas Dellaforce’s lip synching feels like it comes from a different, less accomplished show, while the anarchic simian comedy of Adam Krandle (or, as he is billed, “Evil Hate Monkey”) will not appeal to all.

But the breakout star, and absolute highlight, of the show is Australian Louis Biggs. Whether stripping out of a school uniform while playing with a Rubik’s cube and a yoyo, performing an impressive juggling act with bowler hats, or even just letting a raffle-winning audience member drink tequila from his torso, Biggs’ personality and charm elevates the whole show.

While it may be of variable quality and occasionally even more trashy that it seeks to be, the Briefs troupe nevertheless delivers a fast-paced, amusing and entertaining show that demands smiles and laughter from its audience, and is suitably – and justifiably – rewarded.

http://vimeo.com/68692361

Briefs – The Second Coming, London Wonderground4Scott Matthewman2014-09-06 18:56:42Drag and male burlesque make for unashamedly trashy bedfellows. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in Briefs’ return visit to London Wonderground, mixing sequins, striptease and circus skills to enjoyable effect.

If It Only Even Runs a Minute – London Edition, Landor Theatre

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Regular readers will know that I was a big fan of Above the Stag Theatre’s 2009 summer cabaret, Blink!, which celebrated the joys to be found in songs from shows that did not last particularly long, and to different degrees their 2010 and 2011 shows, Blink! Twice and Blink Again!. There probably won’t be a 2012 version, as Above the Stag’s home of The Stag pub was recently closed as part of the redevelopment of the area around London Victoria station.

A series of concerts on the same theme has been running at New York’s Joe’s Café for a while now. And while each iteration of Blink! was a show that would repeat each night, If It Only Even Runs a Minute promises to be different each time, as befits a series of occasional concerts. The beauty of that format is that it can be as flexible as possible, and allow many guest stars to make a one-night commitment to perform songs from shows that they were in.

Last night saw the first in a hopeful series of UK equivalents at the Landor Theatre. And while it was a bit of a shambolic mess at times, it was at the very least a loveable mess, with some cracking performances.

Continue reading If It Only Even Runs a Minute – London Edition, Landor Theatre

If It Only Even Runs a Minute – London Edition, Landor Theatre4Scott Matthewman2012-04-24 19:53:22Regular readers will know that I was a big fan of Above the Stag Theatre’s 2009 summer cabaret, Blink!, which celebrated the joys to be found in songs…

Blink Again!, Above the Stag

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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.

Continue reading Blink Again!, Above the Stag

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…

Back to Trafalgar Studios: Daniel Boys & guests

It’s rare that I revisit a show. In terms of West End theatre, Avenue Q and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert are the only recent shows I’ve seen more than once, and then the repeat showings tended to be funded by competition prizes, comps or harshly discounted tickets. 

After last week’s visit to Ordinary Days and Daniel Boys’s highly agreeable cabaret, which was the result of the generosity of one of my followers on Twitter, I decided to book under my own steam for Daniel’s final cabaret on Friday, spurred on by the knowledge that, unlike his previous solo effort, he would be joined by fellow BBC show graduates Helena Blackman and Lee Mead. In the intervening years, I’ve come to know all three professionally and personally, and at the risk of sounding presumptuous I’ve come to consider each of them a friend.

I had thought about rebooking for Ordinary Days too, but had decided against it. However, having a lovely dinner (at Scottish restaurant Albannach in Trafalgar Square – lovely food, but the service was a bit slow for a pre-theatre treat) with two friends who were going caused me to reconsider, only to find out the show was booked solid. Great for the show and its producers – any show that’s selling well makes my heart sing – but I surprised myself at how disappointed I was that I wouldn’t be seeing it again.

Continue reading Back to Trafalgar Studios: Daniel Boys & guests

Helena Blackman, Delfont Room/The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein

Last night, Chad and I went to see Helena Blackman perform a short cabaret at the Delfont Room in the Prince of Wales theatre. The event was to promote and celebrate the launch of her new solo album, The Sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and so the evening was dominated by some R&H classics – as well as one or two of their lesser known numbers, and a few songs from elsewhere. I particularly liked the inclusion of a number from Saturday Night, the Sondheim musical Helena performed in at the Jermyn Street theatre (and which later transferred to the Arts), as it was in interviewing her about that show that I first met Helena. We have since met often, and last year we were both judges on The Stage’s Musical Voice competition to find a new singing talent.

Most cabaret performances are lucky if they get a guitarist or drummer alongside their piano accompaniment. Helena definitely scored here, with an impressive ten-piece band, led by musical director George Dyer. They were definitely needed, for the orchestrations on the album are one of its key selling points — Helena’s voice being, of course, one of the others.

The new arrangements and orchestrations are, for the main part, as beautiful and lyrical as the source material demands. One or two, though, go that little bit further into the realm of greatness. I love the offbeat start to I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair, which grows into a vampish, brassy number. Love Look Away, from the (generally unloved) Flower Drum Song, becomes a smooth ballad that may be one of the least known songs on the album, but becomes one of the standout numbers. I Enjoy Being a Girl, originally from the same musical, is its polar opposite, a light and frothy number that is pitched just right here.

Of the two duets on the album, I much preferred People Will Say We’re In Love (performed with Daniel Boys) to The King and I’s I Have Dreamed (sung with Jonathan Ansell on the album and, due to Jonathan’s absence due to illness, with Daniel at last night’s concert).

The album has been eighteen months in the making, from conception to today’s release. That’s some wait in the scheme of things, but after having listened to the album several times now, it was well worth it.

The widget below includes short extracts from each track, but they really don’t do the songs justice. The album currently costs just £6.99 from Amazon.co.uk’s MP3 downloads site, so I really recommend you try it for yourself.

Jonathan Eiø: New Beginnings

A couple of weeks ago, just a few days after seeing Lucy May Barker at the Landor Theatre, I went back to the same venue to see another cabaret in the A Spotlight On… series, this time hosted by Jonathan Eiø.

Since first reviewing a cabaret Jonathan performed with Lucy Thatcher at the now defunct Theatre Museum, I’ve also reviewed him in Rickmansworth’s panto, seen him in the role of Jack in Into the Woods, also at the Landor – and more importantly, come to know him as a friend. I genuinely loved his first album, The Space In Between, largely because it avoided the usual trap many musical theatre performers fall into of cramming their first release with well known standards. Instead, we got some finely crafted, well produced pop songs that showcased genuine songwriting ability as well as a fine voice.

Jonathan has just released the follow up album, New Beginnings. And while the first half of his cabaret evening was in the mould of many a show, with performances of his favourite songs by other writers, the second half acted as a showcase for the new CD.

In both, while Jonathan’s name was the one in big type on the posters, he was frequently happy to take a back seat while his guests, who have all contributed performances to the new album, took the spotlight.

At the time, I’m afraid I took Jon to task a little for that: this was his turn in the spotlight, and he gave it up a little too easily, I told him.

I was wrong.

Not least because his generosity of spirit is one of the reasons I’m happy to be a friend of his, and it’s a quality that others deserve to see – but also because what never left the spotlight was his songwriting ability. For as good as Jonathan is as a vocalist, it’s his developing talents as a songwriter that New Beginnings really highlights.

From the light and breezy, Mika-like Need Some Time to the haunting richness of Kimmy Bryceland’s vocals on Sandbox, there’s an astonishing range of styles present on the album. An acoustic version of a track from Jonathan’s first album, Around, is performed with such deftness by Jack Shalloo that it shows that, however good a singer-songwriter is at the skill each side of the hyphen, sometimes ceding control of one element to another person can elevate the material immeasurably.

That’s not to say Jonathan isn’t a great vocalist, for he is. But New Beginnings shows that his authorship skills (along with those of his fiancée Louise, who cowrote some of the lyrics on the album) are developing immensely.

  • New Beginnings is available for £10 from Jonathan’s website, jonathaneiomusic.com
  • Update: The album is now available via CDBaby.com
  • Update 2: It’s now also available on iTunes.

A Spotlight On… Lucy May Barker, Landor Theatre

Last night I went along to one of my favourite fringe venues, the Landor theatre in Clapham, for the start of their new West End Cabaret season, A Spotlight On…. Future performers in the season include the West End’s two Tracy Turnblads, Leanne Jones and Chloe Hart, and veteran performer Rosemary Ashe.

Last night, though, saw the turn of Lucy May Barker, who was part of the young West End cast of Spring Awakening and who has since performed in two National Theatre productions, Earthquakes in London and Really Old Like Forty Five.

The atmosphere was quite unlike most cabarets I have been to before. In part, this was due to a large portion of the audience being formed from Barker’s family and friends (and, as she quipped, “people who follow me on Twitter”). With so many other musical theatre performers in the audience, the effect was of a party atmosphere with one girl in control of the mic.

Not that anybdy would want to wrest it away from her, because boy, can she sing. The twenty songs she chose for her repertoire (some, she admitted, chosen for her by musical director George Dyer to make up the numbers, and others “pinched” from friends who she had seen performing them) demonstrate a keen ear for a good song. I’m not sure I can entirely forgive her for being a bit dismissive of Just Not Now from I Love You Because, but that’s more because it’s one of my favourite numbers from one of my favourite musicals. Barker doesn’t quite manage to match the performance Jodie Jacobs gave of the same number in the Landor’s production several years ago, but not many could – and, shorn of the context within the musical that lends an extra layer of poignancy to the lyrics, Barker made a good job of handling the emotion of the song within a cabaret setting.

Many performers who build up a cabaret repertoire also work hard on the patter between songs. No such planning was in evidence here, just a casual chat with friends in the audience, reminiscences of mutually shared anecdotes and some talk about the songs themselves. And while at times I did yearn for a bit more discipline and structure – moving from Suddenly Seymour (sung in duet with Jeremy Legat) to Part of Your World could have elicited even a small acknowledgement that they were both written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, for example – there was something very appealing about Barker’s carefree approach that made for a supremely relaxing evening.

The Landor’s small space is well suited to this sort of intimate cabaret, and the addition of three circular tables between the performer and the straight rows of seating help make the oblong room a little more human, softening the awkward little dogleg of seats at one end in the process. As a supplement to the venue’s reputation for good quality musical theatre, I really do hope their cabarets do well.

Kate Dimbleby: I’m a Woman, New End Theatre

This is one of a series of very short reviews to catch up with what I’ve seen in the past few weeks since I last blogged.

Kate Dimbleby’s show Fever!, about the life, loves and songs of Peggy Lee, was the first show I ever professionally reviewed. So I was enthused about the chance to see her latest show, which is all about the women who have influenced Dimbleby through her life.

I was not disappointed: the warmth and life that I saw 7 years ago was still there, and the song choices had a satisfying mix from the intensely personal to the light and humorous, from Bessie Smith to Kirsty MacColl.

There were a few sound problems which meant that Dimbleby’s magnificent voice wasn’t always heard to best advantage, and the smaller than average audience (always a problem on Friday nights in this small hampstead venue) had a palpable effect on the onstage atmosphere. But other than that, I’m really glad I went.

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.

7 Days, 7 Nights, Bridewell Theatre

A show conceived, devised, cast and performed within the space of seven days? It sounds like something out of Challenge Anneka or many other TV programmes that work to a ridiculous, self-imposed deadline. Like those shows, this cabaret of musical theatre songs impresses given the amount of time available, but could have been so much better with a decent amount of preparation.

Starting with a false opening of Rachel Loughton performing the title song from Thoroughly Modern Millie before being interrupted and corrected may have seemed like a good idea on paper. In reality, though, it’s a joke without a punchline. Considering the number of fluffed lines and other missed cues that peppered the evening, it also set the tone in a way that the production team must surely be rueing.

When the songs go without a hitch, however, there are some tremendous performances to be enjoyed. Of particular appeal is Harry Morrison, who demonstrates how a powerful voice married with an appreciation of great comic timing can win an audience over. His rendition of Kander and Ebb’s ‘Sara Lee’ proves the highlight of an otherwise lacklustre first act, although his own contribution to the company’s rendition of Big Spender runs a close second.

In contrast, while James Wilkinson, the other male member of the cast, demonstrates a fine ability to understand and convey the emotion of the lyrics he’s performing, unfortunately he often struggles to make himself heard above the piano accompaniment. Much of the time one feels that he’s pushing himself a little too much with songs that his voice cannot cope with. Menken and Schwarz’s Co Close, from the Disney musical Enchanted, for example, is a real test of a male singer’s upper range, and Wilkinson is in not insubstantial company for not being able to manage it.

Indeed, it is when the musical selection dips into ballad territory that the weaknesses start to emerge. Loughran in particular struggles to deliver much character into her performances during the slower numbers, only revealing a sense of comic timing near the end of the second act that it would have been much better to see throughout. Terrie-May McNulty is more consistent across the varied song styles on offer, with her rendition of Show Boat’s ‘Just My Bill’ proving a particular highlight.

There is little sense of a theme in the songs selected here. Although a couple of occasions provided some interesting segues — from ‘Sara Lee’ to ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’ from She Loves Me, for example, of following ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’ with another number (mis)quoting the Bard — much of the time it felt like the repertoire was thrown together very quickly. Which, of course, it was.

With a little more planning, some more appropriate song choices for the cast and plenty more rehearsal, this group of performers would work far better together. As it is, the evening was enjoyable if not outstanding. The seven-day experiment may not have worked here, but it would be churlish to ignore the hard work all have clearly put in.


Bridewell Theatre, London, March 28, 2010
Directors: Lydia Milman Schmidt, Dawn Kalani Cowle
Producers: Mack and Mac Productions
Cast: Harry Morrison, James Wilkinson, Rachel Loughran, Terrie-May McNulty
Musical Director: Aaron Clingham
Running time: 1hr 40min