Review: Ghost Stories, Arts Theatre, London

Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s spooky play returns to London

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Written for The Public Reviews

“Please keep the secrets of Ghost Stories,” implores a tannoy announcement at the end of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s show. What is no secret is the production’s undoubted success, from its first days at the Liverpool Playhouse, to a record-breaking 13-month run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and international performances since. Now the show returns to the West End, at the rather more boutique Arts Theatre.

And certainly the smaller auditorium, creaking seats and all, lends itself to the air of apprehension and suspense. Dyson and Nyman’s play comprises a series of short, seemingly unrelated stories, which form part of a presentation by a slightly nervy professor who seeks to suggest that “percipients” – people who believe they have had supernatural experiences – are, in fact, more likely to have other, more mundane, reasons for their encounters with ghosts. As Professor Goodman, Paul Kemp is a genial and engaging host, combining wit and warmth with elements of the sinister that set the tone for the evening.

The stories themselves are, save for discussions with Goodman at the start of each, solo performances – one person, on a mostly darkened stage, with the dread that he may not be alone as he thought… While the structure of each story is, in hindsight, pretty similar, there is enough variety of character and performance to stop the simple formula from interfering with the audience’s enjoyment.

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As one might expect, the stage lighting – or lack of it – adds substantially to Ghost Stories’ sense of atmosphere. Many a scene is played in near darkness, illuminated only by a single torchbeam. Combined with some impressive audio – and, at one point, olfactory – cues, the principle that “less is more” certainly plays out here, allowing the audience’s imagination to fill the dark onstage void.

As the play progresses, clues begin to surface that these stories may not be as disparate as first suggested. Naturally, to say more would be to give away too many secrets, but the show saves its most chilling, most gruesome visual trickery for last. It’s also the portion of the play that is the creepiest, while being the least engineered for the quick shock reaction – and becomes all the more effective for that.

The lack of an interval means that Ghost Stories’ pace never lets up. And at under an hour and a half, nor does it overstay its welcome – instead, delivering a steady, heady mix of spooks, chills and macabre comedy, with plenty of chance to recover one’s composure before bedtime.

Just, you know, remember to check under the bed when you get home. You never know what may be lurking there…

Photo shows David Cardy in the 2011 production of Ghost Stories. Photographer: Helen Maybanks

Review: Ghost Stories, Arts Theatre, London3.5Scott Matthewman2014-03-17 23:58:55Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s spooky play returns to London

Thriller: Live – 2,000th performance

Last night, Steve and I went to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue to see Thriller: Live, which was celebrating the show’s 2000th West End performance.

It was not my first visit – as with my others, we were guests of the show’s PR company – but it was Steve’s. It’s always interesting to revisit a show with someone seeing it for the first time; all the more so with one that traverses Jackson’s career from the early 1970s onwards when your friend is 16 years younger than you, and for whom anything before Bad is a historical document rather than the soundtrack to one’s childhood.

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Review: The Fantasticks, Jermyn Street Theatre

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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…

Rodgers & Hammerstein in London

Back in 2011, I wrote and produced a special podcast episode for The Stage, celebrating Rodgers and Hammerstein on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music‘s debut in the West End. We no longer publicise or distribute our podcasts, so I’ve gained permission to include it here. Of the 90 or so podcasts I created for The Stage, this is by far my favourite.

Presented by Helena Blackman, who had just released an album of R&H songs (excerpts from which are dotted throughout the programme), the feature also includes contributions from The Stage/Sunday Express theatre critic Mark Shenton, readings from The Stage archives by Adam Lilley, an exploration of the legacy Oscar Hammerstein left to Southwark Cathedral – and an exclusive (if short) clip of Stephen Sondheim himself talking about the influence of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II. More background on my original blog post about the podcast.

Presenter: Helena Blackman
Archive Readings: Adam Lilley
Archive Research: Catherine Gerbrands
Writer and Producer: Scott Matthewman
Excerpts from The Sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein by kind permission of Speckulation Entertainment

The podcast is copyright © 2011 The Stage Media Company Limited. All rights reserved. Uploaded and made available on this site with permission.

Review: Momentous Musicals – Live Cast Recording

Momentous Musicals


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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.

Live and unplugged: Scott Alan & Pentatonix

I hope you’ll enjoy this beautiful a cappella track as much as I do:

I really, really like Scott Alan’s music. I believe I may have mentioned this once or twice. There’s something about his complete lack of reserve that makes his songs pack the sort of emotional punch that many British musical theatre composers struggle with.

That same intensity means a whole evening of his songs in concert form can be overpowering. It takes a deft hand to programme his songs in such a way that the introspective, even mournful, qualities of his most searing numbers are counterbalanced by the joy – and occasional frippery – that he also does well.

To see (or rather, hear) how it’s done, you can really look no further than Scott Alan Live, a double CD of Alan’s songs, recorded at New York’s Birdland club.

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Yes Prime Minister, Trafalgar Studios

Yes Prime Minister returns to the West End, weakened by plot changes after its UK tour

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Back in September 2010, I reviewed Yes Prime Minister at the Gielgud Theatre, where I wrote:

The result is a farce that works well throughout. The political satire may aim for obvious targets – European projects derailed by national self-interests, the BBC’s uneasy relationship with government, general confusion on all sides about climate change – but it pretty much nails them every time…

…At times, the pace does flag a bit, particularly in the second act. But the bigger problem, post-interval, is one of casting structure. Sir Humphrey is absent for most of Act Two, which unbalances the dynamic and forces Bernard to assume more of the cunning and guile of his mentor than his character should possess.

All that remains true, now that the production has returned to the West End after a UK tour. In its new home of Trafalgar Studios, sitting appropriately at the top of Whitehall, Yes Prime Minister remains a fun farce, albeit one where the fast pace is verbal rather than physical.

Unfortunately, there are cast and script changes that mean that the returning version is weaker than it was before it went walkabout.

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Yes Prime Minister, Trafalgar Studios3Scott Matthewman2012-07-11 11:13:22Yes Prime Minister returns to the West End, weakened by plot changes after its UK tour

Legally Blonde – The Musical, Aylesbury Waterside

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When Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre opened in October 2010, its marketing tagline talked of “Bringing the West End to Waterside”. As it launches its second spring season, that promise is certainly being fulfilled: in May, it will play host to the Lincoln Center’s revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific that recently played at the Barbican, whose stars (including Samantha Womack, Dan Koek and Alex Fearns) will all be joining the production in Aylesbury. The season will also see Hull Truck’s production of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and the National Theatre’s Travelling Light, starring Anthony Sher.

And it is in evidence this week, too, as the touring production of Legally Blonde – The Musical comes to town while its big West End sorority sister is still running (for now) at the Savoy Theatre. Last week, of course, the Olivier award-winning West End show posted closing notices. That must be frustrating for Aylesbury in a couple of ways: first, the show they’ve been promoting has been in the theatrical headlines because it’s not been doing well enough to stay open. Also, because there’s nothing like a closing notice to indicate the possibility of cut-price tickets for the London show. With Chiltern Railways’ annoying-but-better-than-most train service into the capital, the touring version of Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s musical faces stiff competition from its West End counterpart.

The good news is that, one or two patchy spots apart, it withstands the comparison well.

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Legally Blonde – The Musical, Aylesbury Waterside3Scott Matthewman2012-02-01 10:18:09When Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre opened in October 2010, its marketing tagline talked of “Bringing the West End to Waterside”. As it launches …