Last night Paul and I went to see Streets at the Hackney Empire. After a previous run at the much smaller, more intimate Cockpit Theatre (which Paul saw, but I didn’t), yesterday saw just two performances in the Empire’s larger, proscenium arch space.
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.
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.
Last night I went to see Broadway legend Patti LuPone being interviewed by Seth Rudetsky at the Leicester Square Theatre. My review for The Stage is now online.
Shows run until Sunday – see the theatre website for more details. I’m also going to be at Seth Rudetsky’s Deconstructing Broadway at the same venue on Saturday – if it’s anything like his warm-up routine last night, it’ll be an absolute hoot.
Another review for Musical Theatre Review, this time for Ruby in the Dust’s The Great Gatsby at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios.
A fringe musical of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby could never compete on scale or budget with Baz Luhrmann’s $100 million-plus Hollywood adaptation. But nor should it attempt to – and Ruby in the Dust’s production wisely shuns trying. Instead, the limitations inherent within Fringe theatre become its greatest strength, focusing on the crumbling foundations on which the façades of hedonistic 1920s opulence are constructed.
Published yesterday at The Stage, my review of the first fringe production of puppet musical Avenue Q. Lovers of the original production will be pleased to note that not too much has changed. If you go, take care to notice the conviction with which Katie Bradley plays Nicky/Trekkie Monster’s other arm. With both characters, puppet, principal puppeteer Josh Wilmott and Bradley work in unison. It’s an otherwise under-appreciated role, but a vital one.
Update: I have a longer review now published at Musical Theatre Review.
The more you end up going to the theatre, the less chance an individual play has of getting under your skin, of invading your memory for days afterwards. I hadn’t expected Gutted to be that play. Rikki Beadle-Blair’s latest slice of working class London life is outrageously rude, crude and funny – but also intense and thought-provoking.
My first review for Lisa Martland’s new publication, Musical Theatre Review. It’s an extended version of the 200-word version I wrote for The Stage.
It’s an interesting experience, writing essentially the same content to two very different word lengths…
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.