Operation Greenfield, Soho Theatre

Editor’s Rating

When so many people extol the virtues of a theatre company with the ferocity, frequency and enthusiasm with which people have told me about Little Bulb Theatre, there is always the worry that expectations are being set impossibly high.

With Operation Greenfield, which opened last night at the Soho Theatre after a run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe which garnered them a Stage Award nomination for Best Ensemble, I shouldn’t have worried.

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Operation Greenfield, Soho Theatre5Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:43:10When so many people extol the virtues of a theatre company with the ferocity, frequency and enthusiasm with which people have told me about Little Bu…

Portrait of a Princess

A full review of last night’s Michael Bruce concert and his album, Unwritten Songs, will be forthcoming shortly (edit: my review of Unwritten Songs is now online). In the meantime, enjoy this fun video starring Julie Atherton and a host of familiar West End faces, as Julie sings her track from the album, Portrait of a Princess:

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

“The word is lachrymose.”
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
“Putting on a fun musical made a pleasant change from the theater’s usual lachrymose fare.”

Spelling Bees have never quite taken off in the UK, although there were a few brief attempts following the commercial success of the documentary Spellbound. So this charming little musical, with music and lyrics by Willian Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, probably fares a little differently in the UK than in the composers’ native America, where the competitions to see which schoolchild can spell the most difficult words are a part of national culture.

The setup is simple: this local spelling bee is being supervised by former spelling champion Rona Lisa (Katherine Kingsley) and school vice principal Panch (Steve Pemberton), and six local children are competing. Actually, there are ten participants at the start of the play, the other four being members of the audience who have been brought on stage.

The audience members at times form the hub of the comedy of the piece, with Pemberton and Kingsley lobbing good-natured insults their way, be it about their clothing or, in one man’s case, his ability to look like he could come third in a David Blunkett lookalike contest.
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Sign of the Times, Duchess Theatre

Frank has been Head of Installation at display signage company Forshaw’s for thirty five years, installing illuminated lettering on the side of other companies’ buildings while he dreams of becoming a world famous writer of espionage novels. The day he takes a teenager on work experience up to install the company’s name on its own building, though, both men’s lives are destined to change for ever.

Tim Firth (Calendar Girls, Neville’s Island, All Quiet on the Preston Front) has clocked up a reputation for being able to deliver a nice line in Northern humour that carries an undercurrent of sadness and regret. It’s a genre that’s dominated by Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, of course, but Firth deserves his place up there, especially on the basis of his latest West End play, Sign of the Times, currently previewing at the Duchess Theatre.

Matthew Kelly’s Frank is a creature of habit, yearning for the freedom of the successful creative novelist, yet painfully aware that his ability does not quite match his ambition. A man who yearns for immortality – though “not for ever,” as he explains to young apprentice Alan, in one of the play’s many fine one liners.

As Alan, Gerard Kearns starts off sullen and uncommunicative, but we soon realise that far from being a gormless, hoodie-wearing teenager, he is taking in the life lessons Frank is keen on expounding, and either adopting them or adapting them as befits the fearless nature of your average sixteen-year-old.

A rueful and rather thought-provoking conclusion to the first act is supplemented post-interval by a reversal of situations. Set three years later, Alan finds himself in the role of teacher, albeit one barely trained enough to do the job. Both Kearns and Kelly play the shifting relationship between the two men with a light touch, allowing Frank’s humiliation at finding himself back at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder to play well against Alan’s continuing need to see him as a mentor.

Both actors spark off each other as the comedy in Firth’s script bounces from the verbal to the physical. There is a real warmth to the interplay between them that helps accentuate the play’s message – that creativity needs an outlet, and if we can dare to follow our dreams rather than allowing ourselves to fall into a corporate rut, we too can achieve immortality. Not for ever, but for long enough.

Sign of the Times opens at the Duchess Theatre on March 11 and runs until May 28.

Leslie Jordan: My Trip Down The Pink Carpet, Apollo Theatre

If the name Leslie Jordan isn’t familiar to you, the sight (and sound) of the American character actor may well be. Standing tall at 4’11” and with a characteristic Tennessee drawl, Jordan has played supporting roles on many TV series opposite actors including George Clooney and Mark Harmon, coming to greatest prominence with his Emmy award-winning role as closeted Republican Beverley Leslie in the sitcom Will and Grace.

Jordan’s tales of Hollywood struggle – being called upon to try and “butch up” and developing crushes on his leading men – could fill the whole of the show’s 1 hour 40 minutes, but would soon begin to pall. But there is a deeper story being told here: the attempt of one man to break free of his internalised homophobia, to overcome his alcohol and drug dependencies, to be able to stand tall and be comfortable in his own skin.

Jordan’s monologue is delivered in a cannily crafted, deceptively haphazard series of recollections and digressions. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ronnie Corbett’s monologues from The Two Ronnies, which appeared to be rambling, improvised whimsy but were in fact highly scripted and structured.

Jordan’s one man show grew out of a book tour to promote his memoir and toured small cabaret-style venues across America before crossing the Atlantic. I was concerned that opening the show out onto a West End stage might have robbed it of some of the intimacy it needs, but such thinking did not account for Jordan’s ability to hold an entire audience’s attention.

If there’s a downside, the inclusion of many gay pop “anthems”, while fun, on occasion did trample on some of Jordan’s anecdotal punchlines. But at the end of the evening, the entire audience was justifiably on its feet, applauding a man who may be short of stature, but who delivers a huge life lesson from which we can all learn.

When We Are Married, Garrick Theatre

First published in 1938 and set 30 years previously, J B Priestley’s comedy of manners is as delightful as ever.

Three Yorkshire couples, who fancy themselves as being at the higher end of society, are each celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, having been married in a joint ceremony 25 years earlier. After a quarter century, each seems happy in the place in which they have settled, be it in their respective marriages or among the town’s social strata. But when their chapel’s new organ master brings some news that means the weddings were never official, and so for 25 years they have not been married at all, each is forced to reappraise their position.

Like all good comedies, the story is a hair’s breadth away from drama. One could easily imagine Priestley’s script being played with a wry, bittersweet, Alan Bennett-style pathos. Here, though, under Christopher Luscombe’s direction, the production goes for out and out comedy, with a cast that is able to wring out every laugh with every line, every look, every finely judged bit of comedy business.

Of the three couples whose marital lives face upheaval, Sam Kelly stands out as Herbert Soppitt, a man who for two and a half decades has been hen-pecked by the imperious Clara (Maureen Lipman) but who finally finds his voice, while Susie Blake is magnificent as the woman who is most prepared to stand by her “husband” until she finds that he may not have been so upright in the meantime.

While all six of the main characters impress so much, the ensemble around them excels also. In any comedy that revolves around class (or the lack of it) the servants often get the best lines and that is especially true here: in the hands of Lynda Baron as eavesdropping charlady Mrs Northrop and particularly Jodie McNee as motormouthed maid Ruby Birtle, Priestley’s dialogue sparks along superbly.

Roy Hudd’s intoxicated photographer and Rosemary Ashe’s blowsy Blackpool barmaid are excellent cats to put among the Yorkshire pigeons, and designer Simon Higlett has created a sumptuous Victorian drawing room set for the farce to unfold in. But the major star of the night is McNee, who steals every scene and deservedly so.

La Bête, Comedy Theatre

Written in 1991, Peter Filichia’s comedy is a satire on, and tribute to, theatre in the age of Molière.

A troupe of actors, led by the purist Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), is desperate to retain the royal patronage of Joanna Lumley’s Princess. So when she insists that they admit the vulgar populist Valere (Mark Rylance) into their midst, the company is torn between principle and security.

The undoubted highlight of the production is Rylance’s performance. From the minute he staggers onstage, the worse for the wear after over indulging at a royal banquet, it becomes Rylance’s show. Valere’s opening monologue lasts for a good 25 minutes. It starts off funny, quickly becomes hilarious — but then becomes infuriating. At which point it starts to become all the funnier, because every point at which we think he is drawing to an end, he starts up again. Throughout, Hyde Pierce’s role is reduced to dumb reaction: but it’s the role that ten years on Frasier has shown he was more than capable of.

It’s not just the duration of the monologue that creats such mirth, though. The content — poking fun at actors, at critics, at pretension in general — takes profusive aim and generally hits every target.

In truth, once that monologue does draw to a close, the quality of the play dips substantially, becoming a poor imitation rather than the pastiche it wants to be. It never quite regains the heights of that monologue, and by the time the closing curtain comes there’s much more a feeling of relief than there should be.

The Pirates of Penzance, Wilton’s Music Hall

After a successful run last summer at Southwark’s Union Theatre, Sasha Regan’s boisterous, all-male cast relocate to the East End for a riotous evening.

With a score that makes no concession to all the female characters being played by men, some truly impressive falsettos are on display.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Alan Richardson’s Mabel, who delivers an astonishing performance with a range and precision that many a woman in the same role would die for.

With so much vocal excellence throughout, Fred Broom’s Major General disappoints in his signature solo, lacking the precision or diction that the number demands. He has no deficiency in comic delivery, however, and both he and Samuel J Holmes as Ruth manage to bring an emotional depth that other productions sometimes lack. Indeed, while Holmes’ portrayal of the lovelorn nurse is the closest this production comes to pantomime, he also provides a heartbreaking conclusion to the end of act one.

Reprising his role as Frederic, Russell Whitehead makes for a heroic leading man, heading up a company that works their hardest to wring the maximum amount of comedy from Gilbert and Sullivan’s work.
The comedy extends to Lizzie Gee’s choreography, which brings in much fast-paced, unspoken wit to match the libretto.

_Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/27876/the-pirates-of-penzance)_

Wilton’s Music Hall, London, April 8-May 16
Authors: WS Gilbert and AS Sullivan
Director: Sasha Regan
Producer: Regan De Wynter, in association with Wilton’s Music Hall
Cast includes: Russell Whitehead, Alan Richardson, Ricky Rojas, Fred Broom, Samuel J Holmes, Michael Burgen
Choreography: Lizzie Gee
Musical direction: Chris Mundy
Running time: 2hr 20mins

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Richmond Theatre

Under Richmond’s magnificent, Matcham-designed proscenium nestles another, more gaudy one. This has the air of a Victorian children’s toy theatre, with its simplified, painted-on swags and crudely-drawn ornamentations.

The effect is amplified once the small theatre’s curtain rises, revealing sets constructed from painted flats and characters ripped straight from the Big Boys’ Book of Wildean Archetypes. There’s the imperious dowager who is the fulcrum of society; the absent-minded vicar for whom devotion to God is not top of his list of priorities; the foppish aristocrat who can’t help but get himself into trouble; and his fiancée, whose only role seems to be the prize the aristo will receive for relinquishing his foppish ways. If the actors had lengths of wood attached to their feet, running off into the wings to be controlled by the hands of giant children, it would be no surprise.
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Did You Hear About the Morgans?

I wasn’t sure whether I would like [Did You Hear About the Morgans?](http://www.didyouhearaboutthemorgans.com/), the latest romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant opposite the American actress _du jour_ (in this case, Sarah Jessica Parker). Ultimately, though, it won me over with some winning performances and a script that, for the most part, avoids the syrup that weighs down most Hollywood romcoms.

The plot itself — separated New York couple Paul and Meryl Morgan are placed into hiding after witnessing a murder — is something of a cut-and-shut amalgam of _Sister Act_ and, well, pretty much every NYC-based comedy. Both high-flying executives, the only way they can organise dinner to try and talk out their differences is through their personal assistants (Jesse Liebman and _The West Wing_/_Mad Men_’s Elisabeth Moss, stealing every scene she’s in).

Whisked away to temporary witness relocation in the depths of Wyoming (which the snobbish Morgans seem to regard with the same stereotypical disdain as English scriptwriters heap upon Norfolk), they are put up by gun-toting redneck couple Marshal Clay Weeler (Sam Elliott) and his wife, Deputy Emma Wheeler (Mary Steenburgen).

Naturally enough, they’re fishes out of water and have trouble adjusting to the country way of life, although in short order they realise that the friendly community spirit has a redemptive quality. Things pretty much proceed at the pace you’d expect from a movie of this sort, and indeed there are very few surprises, if any, in the way the plot develops.

What does surprise, though, is the script. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny all the way through, but has a nice pace to it, with occasional bursts of one-liners or slapstick sequences that help offset the more serious discussions about the Morgans’ self-destructing marriage.

As a result, it feels a lot warmer and truer than most romcoms, almost like a mid-West version of _Cold Feet_. The final reconciliation is one exception, as the dialogue turns gloopily soppy without the witty undercutting that runs through the rest of the script.

Without giving too much away, there’s a “six months later” coda that works quite well — it at least stays true to the central characters’ personalities, rather than having two metropolitan types deciding they need to go completely native to be be fulfilled. But it’s rather a gentler end than I was expecting: I wanted the last line of the film to be a real humdinger, and it wasn’t.

Much like this review.