The Last 5 Years, Duchess

Jason Robert Brown’s high concept musical charting the five-year course of a relationship with alternating viewpoints, one moving forward in time and one backwards, is rarely as clever as it likes to think it is.

As Paul Spicer’s writer Jamie meets, marries, betrays and then leaves his actress wife Cathy (Julie Atherton), her character travels from the opposite end of the timeline, the two only directly interacting as their paths cross halfway through.
Witty staging and great performances prevent the to and fro between the twoactors from becoming just a series of disjointed songs. Ultimately, though, they can’t fix the biggest problem with the musical – that the more interesting scenario of the breakup has to alternate with the description of a relationship on the way up. The best songs and performances are set in the post-marriage, pre-breakup sections of each timeline. As a result, it always feels like a great musical interrupted with frustrating amounts of backstory.

Given the harder job in having to convey a character whose story is being told backwards, Atherton manages to excel, providing heartbreak, tenderness and an ability to make the act of wringing humour out of every line seem effortless. In contrast, while Spicer’s character has a more conventional arc, it is a real struggle to feel sympathy for him, a problem that is not wholly the fault of the writing.

For all its faults, though, there is much to affect the hardest of audience hearts. One can only wonder how more effective these two actors could be when not hamstrung by a structure that does its best to work against their abilities.

_Reviewed for [The Stage](

**Duchess, London**, May 6-10
**Author:** Jason Robert Brown
**Director:** Amelia Sears
**Producer:** Jamie Hendry Productions and Neil Eckersley & Paul Spicer for Speckulation Entertainment
**Cast includes:** Julie Atherton, Paul Spicer
**Running time:** 1hr 30mins

Jet Set Go!, Jermyn Street

The love lives of a transatlantic cabin crew are played out in a variety of enjoyable numbers in this bawdy musical comedy, which unfortunately relies too much on anecdote to allow a real story to take flight.

Zipping along at a fair pace, each of the characters starts out as a broad caricature – the oversexed gay trolley dolly, the sexy Latina with a passion for the pilot, the anxious newbie. Rarely, though, are we treated to anything deeper. The feeling that we have seen all these characters before detracts from the quality of the songs, which are generally all of a high standard, encompassing a range of musical styles with an assured maturity from the writing team of Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary.

The cast’s most recognisable face, Mark Evans, suffers from having the most underwritten role. Performing well in his two key numbers, he ends up lost in the ensemble pieces, which are dominated by the more flamboyant characters. Of these, Amy Coombes’ Hayley steals every scene as the girl from the Welsh valleys with a long, if unsuccessful, sexual history.

It is only in the latter half of the musical that some hint at what might have been begins to emerge. But presenting characters with emotional challenges this late on means that issues are either resolved within a couple of verses or merely hinted at and left hanging by the time the plane makes its final descent.

Mike Lees’ production design uses an effective, if minimal, set and the show’s imaginative use of low-budget props allows for some great comedy performances, particularly in scenes set in the plane’s flight deck. The staging helps contribute to a fun, if imperfect, evening of comedy that showcases some promising young composition talent.

_Reviewed for [The Stage](

**Jermyn Street, London**, April 2-18
**Music:** Pippa Cleary
**Lyrics:** Pippa Cleary and Jake Brunger
**Book:** Jake Brunger
**Management:** Take Note Theatre
**Cast:** Mark Evans, John McManus, Laura Scott, Danielle Corlass, Emily Sidonie, Amy Coombes, Philip Riley, Tim Driesen
**Director & choreographer:** Luke Sheppard

Menken serenade

Tonight, I was lucky enough to be invited to the press launch of **Sister Act: the Musical**, which starts previews in May at the London Palladium after The Sound of Music leaves the West End to tour the UK.

A lot of the usual PR guff — how wonderful an opportunity it is, how great all the cast are, blah blah blah — was, of course, present. Somewhat unusually, we got a preview of some of the new music: unlike the film, most, if not all, of the score is original material rather than the movie’s use of classic soul and disco tracks.

For the females in the ensemble cast, this was an opportunity to use the uplifting choral numbers to raise the spirits of the jaded hacks present; for Patina Miller, who will be playing the role of Doloris so famously taken on by Whoopi Goldberg in the original film, it was a chance to shine. All exceeded any expectations, no matter how high they were set.

A personal highlight, though, was the onstage appearance of Alan Menken, who is scoring this new musical. After sitting down at a conveniently placed piano he proceeded to walk us musically through his career, starting with a medley from **The Little Shop of Horrors** and progressing through his numerous works for the Disney Corporation. It was noticeable, perhaps, that movie scores such as **The Little Mermaid**, **Beauty and the Beast** and **Aladdin** deserved medleys of their own, while less successful fare such as **Pocahontas** got just a single memorable song. But that did not matter: to hear Menken perform his own material (much of it written with the late and much-missed Howard Ashman) was a dream come true. Should Radio 2 devote a Friday Night is Music Night to Menken’s work, as they have so recently to Don Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Strouse and so many other musical theatre greats, I’ll be there on the front row, cheering on the performers and doing my best not to drown them out in my enthusiasm.

I ran into Menken at the bar shortly afterwards. I was a gibbering wreck.

One should never meet one’s heroes.

Sweeney Todd, Union Theatre

Editor’s Rating

The railway arch cavern of the Union, which so many productions have to work against, provides additional atmosphere to Sondheim’s love letter to the decrepit brutality of old London. Combined with a strong ensemble performance, it creates a winning version of the musical.

Emma Francis plays Mrs Lovett with the requisite amount of good humour necessary to bring the audience onside to her cannibalistic plan. Impressive in comedic timing and singing voice, she dominates Sweeney himself (Christopher Howell), who only seems to come alive when singing. Of the other leads, Leon Kay’s Anthony is strong, while Katie Stokes struggles to make anything of the already thin role of Johanna. Stealing as many scenes as possible is Nigel Pilkington, whose unctuously camp Beadle Bamford lifts the whole production.

With the small venue placing the audience so close to the action, the atmosphere is heightened by the ensemble, who excel both vocally and through Sally Brooks’ choreography. While the set design does not allow for a particularly effective barber’s chair/oven combination, Sophie Mosberger’s use of the space available allows for a satisfying climax, with an emergency exit providing a double use for exits of a different kind.

Reviewed for The Stage

Sweeney Todd, Union Theatre4Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:06:27The railway arch cavern of the Union, which so many productions have to work against, provides additional atmosphere to Sondheim’s love letter to th…

We Will Rock You, Dominion Theatre

Editor’s Rating

There remains something slightly macabre about a musical protesting about the homogenisation of music, while itself performing the same act on the Queen back catalogue. However, in general, the current cast of We Will Rock You work hard enough, and well enough, to encourage one to overlook the dichotomy.

Ben Elton’s book remains unsure as to whether it wants to be any more sophisticated than a children’s sitcom. Most times it is breathtakingly simplistic, yet it is always aware that it is merely fulfilling the act of bridging the gaps between the classic songs that the audience have come to see, hear and sing along to.

Sabrina Aloueche’s Scaramouche provides the lynchpin to the whole show, with fine comic timing and a line in deprecating humour that encourages the audience to laugh along with, rather than at, the whole ridiculous scenario. She is far stronger than her male lead, Ricardo Afonso’s Galileo. While he captivates during his solo songs, his spoken dialogue is delivered in a breathless manner that borders on inarticulacy.

Rachel Tucker, joining the cast as Meat after appearing in BBC1’s I’d Do Anything, has found the perfect stage for her large voice. Her rendition of No-one But You (Only the Good Die Young) is one of the highlights of a first act that works on many levels.

Sadly, the post-interval production lags severely in places, due in part to the over-reliance on Afonso, Scaramouche and Garry Lake’s Pop. The anticipated climax of the title song and the inevitable encore of Bohemian Rhapsody, come as blessed relief.

Reviewed for The Stage

We Will Rock You, Dominion Theatre3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:14:29There remains something slightly macabre about a musical protesting about the homogenisation of music, while itself performing the same act on the Que…

Monty Python’s Spamalot, Palace Theatre

Editor’s Rating

The revolving portcullis at Castle Camelot has struck again, with comic actor Sanjeev Bhaskar becoming the final King Arthur of the show’s London run.

It is clear from the outset that neither singing nor dancing are Bhaskar’s strengths, but he adequately compensates with a sense of comic timing and a taste for the absurd that are just what the role requires. While he is physically towered over by his cohort of knights and Andrew Spillet’s faithful squire Patsy, Bhaskar succeeds in ensuring that his Arthur still dominates regally.

In a cast where everyone is clearly having a blast, Nina Soderquist stands out in her role as the Lady in the Lake. Any role delivering so many pastiches of musical theatre cliches only works if it is delivered by someone who reveres the genre, and Soderquist patently fits the bill.

Plotwise, Spamalot’s rampage through the greatest scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (plus a few bits from other Python sources) works best when it doesn’t try to deviate too strongly from the original source material. Indeed, the weakest part of the whole show comes with the bizarre second act song about how West End shows won’t work without Jews. It’s an aphorism that may have more relevance to the show’s Broadway roots, but here it just manages to feel slightly offensive without having enough humour to justify itself.

When the jokes come as thick and fast as Eric Idle’s script, though, even the occasional misfire can be forgiven.

Reviewed for The Stage

Monty Python’s Spamalot, Palace Theatre4Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:18:02The revolving portcullis at Castle Camelot has struck again, with comic actor Sanjeev Bhaskar becoming the final King Arthur of the show’s London ru…

Never Forget, Savoy Theatre

Editor’s Rating

To describe a musical based around the songs of pop group Take That as too cheesy would be missing the point somewhat, akin to describing Sweeney Todd as overly gruesome or Joseph as too multicoloured. This is a show that revels in the tackiness and excess of early nineties pop, completely aware that it will be delighting its target audience as it does so.

What comes as a surprise is the quality of the script. Written by theatre and TV script writer Danny Brocklehurst with director Ed Curtis and Guy Jones, for the most part the story of five lads who group together to form a Take That tribute band is played for laughs. Jokes come thick and fast in the first act, with moments of slapstick and absurdity played at just the right level to prevent the whole enterprise from descending into a panto-style knockabout.

Unfortunately, the more dramatic thread – the pressures on lead singer Ash, played by Dean Chisnall, to leave the band and take up with record company scout Annie (Joanne Farrell), to the wrath of fiancee Chloe – is handled less well, achieving levels of sub-Hollyoaks melodrama that Brocklehurst avoids in his own TV work. It doesn’t help that Chisnall is the least charismatic of the five group members. Every time he is on stage alone, one yearns for his four bandmates to return to bring some life back into proceedings. Farrell is hopelessly out of her depth as an underwritten femme fatale. Audience members were content to welcome every onstage appearance with panto-level boos and hisses, but it’s an appreciation that neither the character nor the performance deserves.

Vocally, the star of the show is Sophia Ragavelas as Chloe, the classic wronged woman. Her gut-wrenching performance of Love Ain’t Here Anymore is the standout moment of the show, with a delivery so powerful it stunned the raucous audience of Take That fans into complete silence for possibly the only time in the entire show.

There are also some superb performances from the large company of dancers. While the accompaniment to many staged Take That numbers is as reminiscent of eighties TV light entertainment spectaculars as it is the excess of the original group’s own stage shows, a number of sequences, tightly choreographed by Karen Bruce, show their abilities off to full effect. Most notable is a sequence set in a Manchester salsa bar, which clearly references similar sequences in better musicals, including the Mambo from West Side Story. It’s an audacious move and one which the production just about manages to pull off.

Ultimately, the audience for this show is always going to be dominated by fans of Take That’s original music catalogue, but there’s enough substance in here for others to enjoy too. This is a musical that knows exactly what it is, makes no apologies, and goes out with a great big smile on its face. It may be camp nonsense, but it’s self-aware – there’s full knowledge that the rain machine at the end of the first act will get the biggest applause of the evening, and everyone is perfectly happy to play along.

Reviewed for The Stage

Never Forget, Savoy Theatre3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:28:27To describe a musical based around the songs of pop group Take That as too cheesy would be missing the point somewhat, akin to describing Sweeney Todd…

I Love You Because, Landor Theatre

Editor’s Rating

Witty tales of New York romance are a staple of both musical theatre and TV sitcom, and I Love You Because stands up favourably in comparison with the best of them.

Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman’s musical examines the love lives of geeky Austin (Daniel Boys) and devil may care brother Jeff (Richard Frame), one trying to win back a girlfriend by feigning disinterest and the other trying to have a good time without getting emotionally involved.

Apart from the opening number, where his vocals are overwhelmed by the stronger voices of his five cast mates, Boys delivers an impressive performance, rising in confidence and stature throughout, both as character and performer. Jodie Jacobs and Debbie Kurup excel in their roles of potential love interests, ably backed up by Mark Goldthorp and Lucy Williamson. But even among such an impressive ensemble, it’s Frame’s exuberance and comic timing that shines.

Rob McWhir’s direction ensures that some of the songs’ knowing Vaudevillian excesses are counterpointed by acutely observed small moments throughout. And, while the show may not end on its strongest musical number, the message that the show conveys – one should love someone, or something, because of their faults rather than in spite of them – applies equally well to this little gem of a musical.

Reviewed for The Stage

I Love You Because, Landor Theatre4Scott Matthewman2012-07-11 16:47:17Witty tales of New York romance are a staple of both musical theatre and TV sitcom, and I Love You Because stands up favourably in comparison with the…

Love, Laugh and Live

Reviewed for [The Stage](

Theatre Museum, London
November 26, 28
Cast: Jonathan Eiø, Lucy Thatcher
Running time: 2hrs

This evening of songs on three themes started weakly with a thesaurus reading which, as with all the scripted attempts at humour throughout, never quite worked. Thankfully, the warmth and vivacity of the two stars and their songs compensated handsomely.

When selecting music to showcase particular actors’ vocal abilities, it is always going to be difficult to maintain the balance between demonstrating musical ability and keeping a consistent sense of musical style. Thankfully, Jonathan Eiø and Lucy Thatcher succeeded.

Eiø’s boyish charisma, highlighted by an opening number from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that accentuated his physical similarity to the film’s Charlie Bucket, carried him through some good renditions of a variety of classics. In particular, his solos of Arthur’s Theme and New York State of Mind demonstrated that he has an enviable ability to captivate the audience.

On any other evening, he would have deserved much praise. Here, though, he was overshadowed by Lucy Thatcher, who consistently outperformed him all evening. Bringing a sense of characterisation to every song that Eiø seemed unable to match, it is Thatcher’s performance that will remain in the memory.

The second act started disappointingly, with original compositions (including one of Eiø’s own) that, while musically and vocally impressive, felt lacking in the lyrics. However, Thatcher’s incredibly romantic rendition of Ben Folds’ The Luckiest could not but melt hearts. By the final medley of duets, the rapport betwen Eiø and Thatcher resulted in some genuine comedy between the pair in sharp contrast to their ponderous early efforts.

Porgy and Bess

Reviewed for [The Stage](

Savoy Theatre, London
Author: DuBose Heyward
Composers: George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Director: Trevor Nunn
Producers: Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group, Tulbart Productions
Cast includes: Clarke Peters, Nicola Hughes, Cornell John, Dawn Hope, OT Fagbenle, Melanie Marshall, Lorraine Velez, Edward Baruwa, Des Coleman, Sam Douglas
Running time: 3hrs

Converting George Gershwin’s only full opera into a piece of musical theatre was never going to be easy and while Trevor Nunn’s adaptation struggles at times, it couldn’t fail to be a visual and aural spectacle.

Removing the operatic recitatives and replacing them with spoken dialogue, sourced either from DuBose Heyward’s original novel Porgy or his later play adaptation, certainly allows the big show-stopping numbers space to stand out – but it also robs some of the opera’s lesser songs of their musical context.

In converting the original three-act piece into a standard two-act musical, the decision of where to place the single interval must inevitably draw compromise. Musically, it make sense to position it as here, with the residents of Catfish Row leaving for Kittiwah Island. That allows for a barnstorming commencement of Act II, with the ensemble clearly relishing the non-stop frivolity of I Ain’t Got No Shame, before O-T Fagbenle as a suitably demonic Sporting Life lets rip with It Ain’t Necessarily So. However, it does mean that there is none of the crucial pre-interval dramatic tension. A more effective break would surely have been at the end of the island scene, with Bess under the influence of her former lover.

Bess herself, as played by Nicola Hughes, struggles to justify her frequent changes of character – while this is also a fault of the original operatic structure, Nunn’s abbreviated form makes her transformation seem all the more unlikely.

Clarke Peters’ crippled Porgy, meanwhile, stands out as he should. An incredibly physical performance which never fails to convince, Peters gives us a character who, unswerving in his faith in Bess from the outset, proves to be truer of heart than all the God-fearing ladies who initially turn their back on her.

The supporting cast all excel, most notably Dawn Hope’s Serena, who as the mourning widow renders My Man’s Gone Now as a sobbing, grief-stricken lament. Jason Pennycooke’s choreography and John Gunter’s stunning set designs add much to the evening’s enjoyment and help ensure that the three-hour running time rarely drags.