Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre

Editor’s Rating
Rating

The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on. In America, it is New York’s longest-running show, with the original off-Broadway run lasting for 42 years until January 2002, and the current revival continues since opening in 2006.

In the UK, however, it’s a very different story indeed. The original 1961 West End production ran for just 44 performances, and a 2010 revival closed after three weeks. Smaller scale revivals with short fixed runs have fared better, demonstrating perhaps that this is not a West End show, but one which suits the size of a fringe venue. And in the Jermyn Street theatre, which has the intimacy of fringe just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, it nestles pleasantly and inoffensively for a week.

The plot, which is very loosely based on one of Rostand’s, has echoes of a medieval morality tale – indeed, the lovers at the heart of the story are initially separated by a wall that directly echoes the Pyramus and Thisbe production performed by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, it transpires, the wall is a fake – the supposedly warring fathers of the romantic leads are in cahoots, assuming correctly that their being at loggerheads will cause their children to rebel and fall in love with each other.

As the young lovers Luisa and Matt, Emma Harrold and James Irving bring the characters’ naiveté to life. Both have strong voices, full of character, with Harrold in particular possessing a sweet soprano trill that she ought to be able to put into good use once she graduates from the Royal Academy of Music’s musical theatre course.

Brian McCann and Tim Walton give their one-dimensional parent characters their all, but all the principals are dwarfed by the narrator and troublemaker, El Gallo. Gavin James’ character is hired by the parents to pretened to abduct Luisa so that Matt will come to her rescue, and as such he is really the only character that progresses the story along to any degree. Comedy character moments from Seamus Newham as a faded Shakesperean actor and, especially, James Weal as his acrobatic, mostly silent assistant certainly enliven the show’s duller moments, of which there threaten to be rather more than there should. And Greg Page’s permanently exasperated stage manager, while completely superfluous to the plot, bears enough of a resemblance to Michael Billington to wonder if the critic has started taking a hands-on role in a show he panned a few years ago.

Musically, the show is sweet and has plenty of opportunity for the cast to show off their vocal talents. However, because the musical’s stand out songs, Soon It’s Gonna Rain and the more well-known Try to Remember dominate the first act, and the principal story peters out by the interval, it’s a bit more of a stretch for the audience to enjoy the show throughout.

So, for the life of me, I fail to see just why off-Broadway has taken this show to their hearts so much. But I’m glad I’ve seen it, and delighted that I’ve seen some fine performers show what they’re capable of.

Rose Bridge Theatre’s production of The Fantasticks continues at Jermyn Street Theatre until July 27. For more details, visit rosebridgetheatre.com

Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre3Scott Matthewman2013-07-25 13:59:57The Fantasticks’ reputation precedes it in musical theatre world. But that reputation varies wildly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you…

Review: Four Farces, Wilton’s Music Hall

Editor’s Rating
Rating

We tend to have a rather stilted view of Victorian theatre – high tragedy at the top end, bawdy music hall at the other, with maybe a smattering of Gilbert and Sullivan in between. So this presentation of four short one-act farces is welcome. Often performed as a prelude to more serious fare, an evening of comic vignettes highlights the delights – and the occasional drawbacks – of the form.

John Maddison Morton’s Box and Cox, in which a day worker and night worker discover that their crafty landlady has rented them the same apartment, figuring their work patterns would never meet, has a great setup. Asta Parry’s Mrs Bouncer is a slight role – little more than a Victorian Mrs Overall – but Parry fills in the blanks well. In contrast, the principals (Richard Latham and John O’Connor) don’t quite connect, with the unfortunate result that the main conceit – one which in its day was popular enough to inspire political cartoons – ends up giving the impression that the whole evening could be an adventure in misguided revivalism.

Thankfully, the second play, Wanted, A Young Lady, starts to pick up. While one gets the impression that Latham’s simple manservant, Simon, is somewhat older than the original script may have intended, O’Connor begins to come alive as the ne’er-do-well man who poses first as his more tolerable brother, then his own grandmother, in pursuit of a young woman. Again, it is Parry who outshines the two men.

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Review: Four Farces, Wilton’s Music Hall3Scott Matthewman2013-06-22 15:03:59We tend to have a rather stilted view of Victorian theatre – high tragedy at the top end, bawdy music hall at the other, with maybe a smattering of …

Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind, Hen and Chickens

Mitch Féral’s play Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind started life as the winning 15-minute entry in last year’s Offcut Festival. Now expanded into a full length piece – running at 1 hr 20 min, without an interval – it combines high-minded philosophical ideas about quantum physics and the nature of existence with the practical, heartbreaking reality of caring for a spouse with early onset dementia.

Simon Nicholas is the (unnamed) man who is living his life in disjointed fragments. His mind jumps from moment to moment, living life in permanent flashback, while his wife (Debra Baker) struggles to keep up.

Both the script and the performances convey the messy conflict of emotions that such a debilitating disease can inflict. Seeing the couple relive some of their more romantic moments is joyful, but as the wife grows increasingly tired at her husband’s incessant demands on her time, the joy turns to despair.

In a lucid moment, the husband expresses his wish, fuelled by his passion for quantum physics and astronomy, to be a time traveller, which only serves to highlight the cruel injustice his brain disease inflicts – fulfilling his wish in the cruellest way.

The devastating effect of dementia on the carer is made clear as the play progresses. “For better or worse?” his wife muses. “This isn’t worse. It’s worse than worse.” But thanks to Baker and Nicholas’s gut-wrenching deliveries of Féral’s clever, touching, funny and tragic script, this play is better than better.

Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind runs until April 2

Tron: Legacy

In the beginning was the Creator. And when he had created the world, he created a man in his image that he might look after the world. But through the created man’s actions the world descended into disorder. So the creator sent his son, to fight against the fallen angel and restore the world to its original ideals.

Well, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s clear that Tron: Legacy is drawing on some Biblical influences even though its main character seems more interested in other religions (notably the Californian Surfer Dude dialect of Buddhism).

And while the visuals of the film – which take the original film’s darkness-and-neon stylings and use the latest CGI to make the virtual world seem far more solid than it ever did in the 1982 original – are superb, the plot is far more crudely sketched. The basic structure is pretty much the same as the original film – human gets pulled into a virtual world, is made to play video games until he escapes, brings down the bad guy and makes his way to the portal so that he can return to the real world. 

In the original film, the bad guy was the Master Control Program and his right-hand program Sark, both played by David Warner (who also played the ‘real world’ bad guy, Dillinger). Here, the conceit is that the bad guy is Clu, a program created by Jeff Bridges’ Flynn to oversee the computer world of the Grid. Brought into being just after the events of the 1982 film, Clu looks as Bridges did back then. The computer-generated face (achieved by scanning Bridges as he is now using motion capture, then rendering CGI onto the face of a body double) doesn’t quite work, though. Much like the original film, the idea is far better than current computers can execute. Clu is effective in moments of extreme emotion, from laughter to rage. Where it fails is where Bridges, and all good film actors, excel: the expression of emotion through doing nothing, only a vague flicker crossing the face in ways that a computer algorithm can’t compute.

To be fair, that artificiality can be explained away by the fact that Clu is a computer program. Unfortunately, though, it’s also used to ‘de-age’ Bridges in a number of flashback sequences that just draw further attention to its drawbacks. The opening scene – set several years after the first film, with Flynn relating the story to his young son – is completely derailed by an obvious CG effect planted slap bang within a very human moment.

Let’s be fair – the original film wasn’t exactly known for its great insight, but for effects that pushed the boundaries of what was possible. Tron: Legacy does that too, but to a much lesser extent – and is less enjoyable as a result.

Disney Epic Mickey, Nintendo Wii

Back when I was growing up, the weekly Mickey Mouse comics by IPC Magazines were a constant companion. While my sister was reading Bunty and Judy, I was getting lost in a world where Scrooge McDuck was either swimming through his piles of gold coins, or protecting them from being stolen by the incompetent Beagle Boys; where Huey, Dewey and Louie were forever trying to get extra Junior Woodchuck badges; and where I would see comic strip adaptations of the summer Disney releases from Pete’s Dragon to Candleshoe before the films themselves had even hit these shores.

The bulk of each issue consisted of a number of short strips, reprinted from various US and European sources, which included some characters who were born from Mickey Mouse’s back catalgoue of shorts from 1929’s Plane Crazy onwards. As a result, the likes of Clara Cluck, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow were characters that I knew well. They may not have been as close to my heart as the likes of Mickey, Pluto, Donald and Goofy, but they were never far away.

As far as the public at large goes, though, I suspect that many of the peripheral characters have long since been forgotten. And that’s part of the premise of the new Nintendo Wii game, Disney Epic Mickey (Wii).
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Streetdance 3D: two dimensions more than the script

There is a point at which Carly, the plucky heroine of new British dance movie, Streetdance 3D, is taken to a classical ballet (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet) by her dance school mentor. Sceptical at first, she finds herself drawn in. As they leave the theatre, she marvels at how they managed to portray an entire tragic love story without words.

Lucky them. The rest of us have to endure what passes for a Streetdance script. Dance movies are not particularly known for ever exercising the best screenplay judges at movie awards, but Streetdance drags the genre down to new lows. It’s been concocted by someone who saw Step Up 2: The Streets, went on an all-weekend bender and then verbally vomited up his hazy memory of the least worst parts.

Normally when I review things that other people may not have seen, I either warn them of spoilers or try to avoid them altogether. There’s no point doing either here, as the template for dance movies is so rigidly adhered to that you know what’s going to happen even before you walk into the cinema.

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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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The Distance We Have Come… The Music of Scott Alan

There are few modern composers of the musical theatre style better at crafting a heartfelt torch song than New York’s Scott Alan. He is returning to London on March 13 for a single night of performance at the Delfont Room in the Prince of Wales Theatre, but before then a group of young performers brought some of his songs to life in a patchy concert, The Distance We Have Come… The Music of Scott Alan at the New Players theatre yesterday.

There are few modern composers of the musical theatre style better at crafting a heartfelt torch song than New York’s Scott Alan. He is returning to London on March 13 for a single night of performance at the Delfont Room in the Prince of Wales Theatre, but before then a group of young performers brought some of his songs to life in a patchy concert, The Distance We Have Come… The Music of Scott Alan at the New Players theatre yesterday.

One of the major reasons why Alan’s songs have gained such traction among musical theatre performers is that so many fit into a certain template: starting slow, gentle and contemplative, they’ll proceed in the same vain while slowly building towards a final chorus that allows the singer to demonstrate a great belt. And this presents two problems that this concert couldn’t quite escape. Firstly, ordering songs in the programme to provide maximum interest for the audience is essential – and second, all the planning in the world will go to pot if the singer blows the number’s big moment.

Unfortunately, the first act of the concert fell foul of both of these problems at points. It is a mark of some of the performers’ relative inexperience that several had a tendency to overdo that crucial crescendo into the upper register, which can so easily derail the tunefulness of an otherwise pleasant performance. After a couple of such moments, it was a relief to have the more experienced Gina Beck (currently onstage in the West End as Christine in Phantom of the Opera) sing Always in a vocal style that was much simpler, and all the more effective for that.

In terms of pacing, it’s hard going from something that builds up into a life-affirming celebration, such as Beth Morrissey’s rendition of If I Own Today (featuring a great choral arrangement, courtesy of musical director Greg Arrowsmith) only to fall back into the gentle, tentative first bars of Blessing. It constantly felt as if a momentum was gathering pace, only for it to be quashed straight away — very frustrating as an audience member.

That sense of stop-and-start was accentuated by an almost laughably poor use of narration. Onstage host Sonia Strong was brought on between every number and had clearly been given a script which was little more than somebody taking a pair of scissors to the sleeve notes of Scott Alan’s two CDs. How much better it would have been to use her more sparingly, running two or three performances together, to allow the audience to concentrate on the music. Fewer scripted moments from the host would also provide an opportunity for the content of Strong’s script to receive some much-needed attention.

Narration issues notwithstanding, the pacing was vastly improved in the second act, starting with Alan’s sweetly comedic His Name performed by a perky Amelia Adams Pearce and building through Beth Morrissey’s Say Goodbye and an absolutely faultless rendition of Behind These Walls by Nicola Henderson.

I’m aware I’ve only mentioned some of the female performers until now. It’s odd – looking at the programme, the man who stood out the most was the singer with the least experience in musical theatre, the singularly-named Raff. While clearly nervous on stage, his vocal range and ability stood out. David Ribi was sweet as he charmingly conveyed the jilted boyfriend in Now, but needs to work on his onstage presence. Most disappointing of all was Adam Strong (who is also the show producer), if only because his vocal performances as the Prince in Leicester Square Theatre’s recent adult panto Sinderfella were highly accomplished, and he wasn’t able to deliver in the same way here.

While the crowd-pleasing The Distance You Have Come leant a triumphal air to conclude proceedings, it’s not really one that the show deserved. With a firm hand on the directorial tiller, some of the more glaring difficulties with the staging could have allowed the basic errors — be it song choice and order, hosting script, or the frankly appalling lighting and sound issues that dogged the whole evening — to be eradicated and given a better platform for new and emerging musical theatre talent.

As it was, at times it felt like the mood was better summed up not by the true closing number, but by the song which concluded act one: the pleading desparation of the wannabe pleading for their one big break, in I’m a Star. Some of the performers last night will be stars in future, I’m sure. But to do so, most will have to improve on their performances here.

PS: The tickets for last night’s concert were kindly provided by the show producers, Damson Productions. If you have any shows you want me to review on this blog, please contact me.

Scouts in Bondage

Every sketch show has scenarios which, while amusing in moderate amounts, outstay their welcome. Imagine such a sketch stretched out to the best part of two hours and you have Scouts in Bondage.

Glenn Chandler’s comedy, a sequel to last year’s Boys of the Empire, sees a troop of 1930s Boy Scouts crash land in Afghanistan while on their way to a jamboree. They end up caught in a plot between British intelligence and the local warring factions in one of several satirical swipes at 21st century attitudes to Britain’s involvement in the region.

Narration is provided by Mark Farrelly as the editor of Scout Magazine, whose increasingly anarchic performance is the highlight of the evening. The scouts, though, work on a more one-note level which, although it pastiches the Boys’ Own stylings of the era, quickly begins to grate and actively works against any attempt to portray anything deeper.

On several occasions, the production seems unable to find the line between lampooning the casual racism of the age and just joining in. And while there are good laughs to be had throughout, the overall impression is of a production that got too carried away with the title’s double entendre to tighten up the script as much as needed.

King’s Head, Islington
November 12-January 10, 2010
Author: Glenn Chandler
Director: Terence Barton
Producer: Boys of the Empire Productions
Cast: Brage Bang, Christopher Birks, Mark Farrelly, Christopher Finn, Alastair Mavor, Timothy Welling
Running time: 1hr 50mins

* Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/26254/scouts-in-bondage)

What’s Wrong With Angry?

When does a drama that’s written about contemporary issues stop being about now, and start to be nostalgic? And once it’s nostalgic, how long until we become so detached that it becomes a historical piece that can talk to us about how we live today?

The answers to both questions are, of course, somewhat fluid, but they do give some indication of the two stools between which _What’s Wrong With Angry?_, the 1993 play which is currently being revived at the King’s Head in Islington, falls.

Patrick Wilde’s script revolves around two very different sixteen-year-old boys who both attend the same single-sex Catholic school. Steven Carter is fey, bullied and out to his best friend, Linda; John Westhead is the cocksure, laddish head boy who dates girls, but sneaks off for encounters with men and doesn’t really know where either head or heart is at.

So far, so familiar, if not even hackneyed. Although if you’re thinking the setup is remarkably similar to feature film _Get Real_, there’s a reason — the movie was based upon the play. And to be honest, if you’re going to spend an evening in the company of a script by Patrick Wilde, I’d choose the film over the theatre version.

Part of the problem is that there is too strong a desire to preserve the theatrical piece in aspic. When a director revives a production that he both wrote and directed on its original run, as in this case, it seems that fidelity to that production takes precedence over speaking to a present-day audience.

There are good points within the production: notably, the central performances from Oliver Jack and Christopher Birks and one or two of the supporting actors. However, Charlie Deans has been badly let down by being miscast as Linda. Steven’s best friend is described throughout as being fat, but Deans is bordering on petite. As if to compensate, Deans plays the role much larger than the tiny King’s Head can accommodate, often neutralising the realistic portrayals that Jack and Birks provide.

In addition, Nic Gilder as gay schoolteacher Simon, who cannot help Steven for fear of falling foul of Section 28, is the weakest element of the whole play. Not once does he connect with the script he’s given. We end up not with a portrayal of a man in torment, but a recitation of lines with no heart and no emotion.

After _Fucking Men_ and _Naked Boys Singing_, it appears that the King’s Head is trying to stake a claim as a venue for gay theatre. I haven’t seen either of those productions, but can only hope they are better than _What’s Wrong With Angry?_. And if it wants to enhance its reputation, its next gay production will be vital.