Theatre shows of the year 2015

Counting up, I have been to 100 theatre performances in 2015 (so far – there are still a couple of days left!). Many of those were under my own steam, but I’m also a frequent reviewer for both Musical Theatre Review and The Reviews Hub (formerly The Public Reviews). Those professional reviews come with star ratings; ones I went to for myself, or as a guest without a commitment to review, do not.

Below is a chronological list of those theatre, cabaret and comedy shows that gained a four star rating or above from me (up to a maximum of 5 stars; TRH allows us to allocate half stars, whereas MTR does not). I’m also including shows I also went to that would have merited such a rating had I been reviewing them professionally.

Continue reading Theatre shows of the year 2015

Review: Secret Theatre, The Rag Yard, London E1

Note: Because of this play’s supposed “secret” nature, I should warn that this review talks about specifics of the play, including its title and characters. I also explain why, but if you want to see a spoiler-free review you should go elsewhere.

The Lyric Hammersmith has been running a series of “secret theatre” projects recently – encouraging people to book tickets without knowing what they’ll be seeing, and as a result come to a piece with little to no preconceptions built up in their heads.

This Secret Theatre project is not like that. It was, I was told by the PR, more modelling itself on Secret Cinema. This series shows movies in suitably appropriate surroundings, but also with a deeply immersive experience that is just as entertaining, if not more so, than the film itself. So The Shawshank Redemption is presented in an old prison, Bugsy Malone in a speakeasy, Blade Runner in a grimy, industrial near-future where oriental noodle bars rub shoulders with security agents scanning all visitors for signs of replicant behaviour.

So we were expecting a similarly immersive experience for this piece, and notifications of dress codes and secret identities fed into this.

What we got instead was a straightforward play. A truly immersive piece needs to do more than say, “Oh, this piece about the aftermath of a botched heist is set in a warehouse, so let’s stage it in a warehouse”. Especially when that warehouse already hosts events, drama classes and art exhibitions, and the play itself is staged so conventionally.

So the failed promise of an immersive experience was a huge let-down. And that was a shame, because the play itself – an adaptation of a justly popular film – has the potential to be a great stage piece. As presented here, it’s still some way from that – but I think the false promise of an immersive experience will cloud the audience’s judgement of what this show has the potential to be.

And it’s all the more bizarre that the “secret theatre” concept also robs this production of its biggest appeal. I’m not going to beat about the bush any longer: if you go to this play knowing what it is, if you read about this play knowing what it is, it’ll be better for everybody.

Because I, for one, would bite someone’s hand off if they offered me the opportunity to see a stage adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s first feature film, Reservoir Dogs.

Continue reading Review: Secret Theatre, The Rag Yard, London E1

Talking about Peter Capaldi

So I’m a guest on this week’s As Yet Untitled London Theatre podcast, talking about new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi’s acting CV and how the approach he’s taken to his previous roles in theatre, film and TV may – may – give us clues about how he may approach his fortchoming role of the Doctor.

Some of the stuff I talk about is based on the interviews The Stage has done with Capaldi over the years, extracts from which I featured the other day.

Payback – the Musical

Above are some production shots from Payback – the Musical, which is currently playing at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Press night was last Friday, and my review is available on the Musical Theatre Review website.

Review: Saturday Drama – The Letter of Last Resort

Originally staged at the Tricycle Theatre, David Greig’s play The Letter of Last Resort examines the inherent absurdity at the heart of the principle of nuclear deterrence. Possessing nuclear weapons, the argument goes, prevents other nuclear powers from ever firing theirs. A successful deterrent will never be used – but that will only happen if people believe you are willing to use it.

Continue reading Review: Saturday Drama – The Letter of Last Resort

Review: Momentous Musicals – Live Cast Recording

Momentous Musicals


New From: 0 Out of Stock

Some of the big name musical theatre stars who release albums of showtunes tend to release studio albums – your Balls, your Barrowmans, your Paiges. They generally sound wonderful, but with the luxury of being able to re-record you’d expect them to. And yet, one of the great thrills of hearing a great musical theatre performance is being able to appreciate them sung live, to thrill at that almost imperceptible change of tone as a performer’s chest swells in response to a receptive audience. And, yes, the occasional moment where they come in a fraction too early or late, or their voice breaks a little. It’s the slight little things, the lack of clinicality, that gives a live performance the edge over a purely studio-bound recording for me.

One drawback with live albums is that the sound quality is often lower as a result, but that’s far from the case with Momentous Musicals. This CD was originally recorded at an evening showcasing the best in musical theatre songs at the New Wimbledon Theatre in 2012 (further dates in July 2013 are planned) – and while Gareth Gates is the only musical theatre performer’s face on the cover of the CD, this is an ensemble of West End performers doing what they do best: along with Gates, the CD features performances from Rachael Wooding, Daniel Boys, Jonathan Ansell and Emma Williams.

Starting with Dreamgirls’ One Night Only – surely the most well-known musical theatre song never to have received a West End outing – the disc rattles through standards old and new, from musicals as diverse as West Side Story and Company to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Legally Blonde.

The balance between uptempo numbers and the big power ballads is just about right, and the orchestrations by musical director George Dyer bring out the best of both the original compositions and the performers on the night. Emma Williams’ Mein Herr is a particular delight, while Company’s Being Alive – possibly my favourite Sondheim number ever – feels safe in the hands and vocal cords of Daniel Boys. Rachael Wooding stands out, though, putting her heart and soul into every one of the several songs she is tasked with performing.

As a record of an evening in the company of great singers – or even as consolation for not being able to be there in person – it’s hard to beat. As incentive to book tickets for the next tour, it’s pretty good too.

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

Editor’s Rating
Rating

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

Resolutions for 2013

I’ve had these in my head for a bit. But when New Year resolutions are silent and hidden, it’s easy to break them without having to hold yourself to account.

1. Blog more and take more pictures

Apart from my Doctor Who post about the Christmas Day special, I haven’t really blogged for ages. I should do something about that.

I’m not one for sharing my innermost thoughts, though. That style of blogging just doesn’t appeal to me. However, I do enjoy photography but haven’t done much recently – so hopefully I’ll be able to do some form of photoblogging when I can.

2. See more dance and classical music events

I tend to gravitate towards musical theatre and straight plays when I go out to the theatre – it’s where I feel most confident and informed as an audience member. Dance is one area where I’ve often felt at my most adrift. At times I’ve felt hopelessly out of place (a dance piece at the Barbican remains one of the few events I’ve left at the interval with disgust at its ineptitude) – but it’s also been the source of some of the most thrilling performances I’ve seen.

Similarly, I do enjoy going to the occasional classical music concert, but I can’t remember the last time I went to one. So I’m hoping to rectify that absence in 2013.

3. Support my local theatres

I have been writing several blog posts about trips to my local large regional venue, the Aylesbury Waterside – but I’m going to try and do more, and that’ll involve going to more of their shows and one-off nights.

It’s important to remember that Aylesbury also has a smaller theatre, the Limelight, as part of the Queen’s Park Arts Centre – and I’m going to keep an eye on what’s going on there, too.

4. Be more active

Having a job, and hobbies, which require long periods of sitting down mean that it’s more essential to find ways of being active when not working. I prefer long walks to running, and my long daily commute gets in the way of joining a gym. Neither of these are valid excuses for not doing more exercise, but instead will frame the ways in which I get out more.

5. Finish at least one creative writing project

I have a couple of short story ideas germinating, one of which could potentially expand into a much longer piece. And after being on the Blogger’s Choice panel for the Off Cut Festival over the last two years, I’m intrigued by the festival’s 15-minute stage format. I’d be interested to see if I can transfer my belief about what can work in that timeframe, and what is best avoided, into a practical piece.

So those are my resolutions. What are yours?

Review: Bunnies, New Diorama Theatre, London

Editor’s Rating
Rating

A play about a farmer who feels he must resort to culling whole species in order to save his livelihood could, on the face of it, be no more topical. With much discussion over whether or not to cull the badger population in an effort to stem the spread of bovine tuberculosis, and a proposed (and possibly overdue) ban on the importation of ash trees to try and prevent the spread of a disease to our own native stocks, there are issues worthy of discussion and debate aplenty here.

Kieran Lynn’s Bunnies, currently playing at the New Diorama theatre, is not that sort of play. Instead, it is a curious attempt at political satire that seems to revel in the crudity of its allegory, just as it revels in acts of violence and bad taxidermy. It is set on a farm, and there are animals involved – but Animal Farm this is not.

Continue reading Review: Bunnies, New Diorama Theatre, London

Review: Bunnies, New Diorama Theatre, London2Scott Matthewman2012-10-29 08:48:30A play about a farmer who feels he must resort to culling whole species in order to save his livelihood could, on the face of it, be no more topical. …