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: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

Merrily We Roll Along, playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a story told in reverse – and so is this review

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And so, I decided to write this review backwards, starting at the end of the night and finishing at the beginning. How hard could it be?

Are people just going wild for this because it’s Sondheim? Because it’s a Menier production? Can the West End transfer possibly be a success for a show that, if scenes were run in chronological order, would be seen as a rather workaday piece?

But the main problem with Merrily We Roll Along is that its time reversal doesn’t add anything to the story. It’s all very well asking “how did we get here?” – but if we end the night knowing just as much as when we started, you can’t help but feel disappointed.

What you end up taking away from Merrily is Jenna Russell’s performance as Mary, the woman whose unrequited love turns her into a hilariously drunken lush by the start of the play. It’s one of the standout performances, along with that of Josefina Gabrielle as the social climber and Broadway chanteuse who is revealed to have humbler origins.

Sondheim stalwart Maria Friedman, here moving to the director’s chair, brings an assured hand to proceedings. Every comedic punchline is hit, every wink to Broadway and Hollywood cliché is all knowing.

The second act is also where Clare Foster really comes into her own, as Shepard’s supportive first wife in the days before the lure of fame led him astray from his dreams and her life. Her introduction at the end of the first act as an embittered divorcée is a tough one to pull off, but she manages it – and as we follow her journey back to happier times, she lights up the stage.

“You need a hummable melody,” Shepard is told in the second act – to knowing laughs in the audience. Mainly from us.

During the interval, my friend and I discussed how the show isn’t one of Sondheim’s best, no matter how beautiful the score. What annoys us, we agree, is no matter how much you love the music, there’s no standout melody to any of them.

(Maybe I need a haircut.)

As the show’s consistent moral compass, Damian Humbley – who I first met at a party while he was in The Woman in White, and have since seen onstage in a number of guises, including Max in the short-lived but very good Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical – is transformed here: not the handsome leading man that he projects offstage and (usually) on, but a likeable supporting nerd whose bouffant hair disguises his otherwise rugged charms.

Mark Umbers looks, sings and dances the part as Franklin Shepard, the composer whose path we first see ending up a long way from where it was originally planned. I’ve always found Umbers a little too clinical and clean-cut for my tastes: I always get a feeling that I’ve watched a technically accomplished performance, but not one that I could connect to emotionally. Nothing changes here: Shepard is likeable enough, but it’s the worlds that revolve around him that capture the real attention.

Played in the correct order, the musical would be a fun, but straightforward treatise on how composers should eschew commercial work in favour of having faith in the artistic merits of their own work. So it feels like the temporal structure is in place not to add anything, but instead to disguise an emptiness.

To a certain extent, my fears played out.

I’d never seen Merrily We Roll Along on stage before, although I’ve been to so many Stephen Sondheim revues that most of the songs sound familiar. What could a reverse narrative bring to a musical about three friends?

Reverse-order narrative is a tough technique to get right, but I’ve always felt that it needs to have a payoff. If a comedian starts with the punchline, you need him to take you somewhere else in the follow-up, just as magicians Penn and Teller can start a routine explaining how a trick works, only to fool you into watching a completely different illusion. Writer Jonathan Harvey’s new project, Tomorrow I’ll Be Happy, written for young people and being performed via the NT Connections scheme, uses a similar technique to look at the after-effects of a homophobic hate crime. As the play progresses, we are drawn closer and closer to cataclysm. That’s how it should be done.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hS3Cfavpk_g

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory3Scott Matthewman2013-03-06 15:29:17Merrily We Roll Along, playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a story told in reverse – and so is this review

The top 5 gay musicals… that aren’t

As someone who used to work in online LGBT news media, and who now works in theatrical media, Pink Paper’s “Top 5 gay West End musicals” article piqued my interest for multiple reasons when it turned up on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it’s so riddled with errors that it’s almost laughable.

The West End has never had so much competition attracting tourists as the capital has become the place to be this summer.

Rather than give up, the industry has pulled out all the stops to entice eager theatre fans, and it seems they have followed the advice of theatre producer Max Bialystock, following the manta: “whatever you do on the stage, keep it snappy, keep it happy, keep it gay!”.

Unfortunately, while that quote does indeed come from The Producers, where Max Bialystock and business Leo Bloom attempt to create an über-camp pro-Nazi musical with the hope of fleecing their investors, the line quoted comes from the director they hire, Roger De Bris, and not Bialystock.

And if West End producers really were following the “manta” [sic], surely all five musicals would be gay, or gay-themed? Instead, only one of the five could be said to be gay-themed – and it’s neither a musical nor in the West End.

Continue reading “The top 5 gay musicals… that aren’t”

Total Eclipse, Menier Chocolate Factory

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Coming hard on the heels of the Garrick’s Treats, the Menier continues London’s obsession with Christopher Hampton revivals, but on the basis of this production, it is hard to see the appeal.

Total Eclipse catalogues the tempestuous relationship between two of France’s greatest poets, as Paul Verlaine sacrifices his marriage in favour of the precocious teenager, Arthur Rimbaud. Daniel Evans, fresh from his Olivier-winning role in the Menier’s Sunday in the Park with George, initially plays Verlaine as an over-eager Labrador of a man, fascinated by what he sees as the genius before him. The impact that has on his wife (Georgia Moffett) and mother-in-law – the sublime Susan Kyd, in the performance of the evening – works well, at least until Verlaine’s violent temper bursts out. Evans struggles with the extreme change in the character, seeming far more comfortable with implying that side to his nature through dialogue.

Jamie Doyle delivers most of Rimbaud’s lines with the same petulant bark throughout, depriving some of his best dialogue of its wit and acidity, while failing to save the worst from falling into melodrama. There is little spark between the two leads, save for one all-too-brief scene in the second act – surely a disappointment in a play where passion needs to drive the characters’ relationship.

Director Paul Miller stages the play on a thin, raised, wooden catwalk, with the audience either side. By increasing the distance between the characters in each scene, it often helps to accentuate emotional distance, but at the same time forces the actors to over-deliver lines, losing some of the subtleties that this production needs to regain its bite.

Total Eclipse, Menier Chocolate Factory2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:56:06Coming hard on the heels of the Garrick’s Treats, the Menier continues London’s obsession with Christopher Hampton revivals, but on the basis of t…