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.

Gates of Gold

Reviewed for [The Stage](

Trafalgar Studios 2, London
Author: Frank McGuinness
Director: Gavin McAlinden
Producer: Charm Offensive
Cast: William Gaunt, Paul Freeman, Michelle Fairley, Josie Kidd, Ben Lambert
Running time: 1hr 25mins (no interval)

It is somehow appropriate that in presenting a fictionalised version of Irish theatrical couple Hilton Edwards and Michael MacLiammoir, Frank McGuinness presents us with a troupe of characters who are often unable to distinguish fact from fiction in their own lives.

William Gaunt, as frail actor Gabriel in his last days, dominates the stage. Through his bickering with uptight partner Conrad (Paul Freeman), we glimpse a relationship that has survived through love but not without bitterness and resentment. Michelle Fairley refuses to let Gabriel’s nurse, Alma, to be drawn as either saint or angel of mercy. Her confrontation with Gabriel’s nephew Ryan (an occasionally over-stiff Ben Lambert) leaves us no wiser as to whether she intends to hasten her charge’s departure.

Indeed, throughout the play it is hard for both characters and audience to establish what is fact and what is reality. This mostly works, although Gaunt’s soliloquy about what it was like to be blackmailed for being openly gay loses its impact under such a structure. The faults, though, are outweighed by the conclusion, with a dying Gabriel in his partner’s arms, calling out for one final fantasy. Conrad’s resulting speech – “Two men met. They had a marriage. It lasted” – has nothing untrue about it and brings to an end a remarkable evening of theatre.

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.

Review: Beautiful Thing, Sound Theatre

Jonathan Harvey’s urban gay fairytale remains his best and funniest theatrical work to date and is further enhanced by this confident production.

As the 15-year-old neighbours whose friendship turns into full-blown love, the doe-eyed intelligence of Jonathan Bailey’s Jamie works perfectly alongside Gavin Brocker’s sport-obsessed Ste. Both actors provide a depth to the relationship far deeper than the dialogue would otherwise suggest.

They are eclipsed though by the female leads. Michelle Terry plays the Mama Cass-obsessed neighbour Leah as unlikable as she can, ensuring that the second act switch of character, where she becomes the ultimate in loyal friends, works flawlessly. Sparks fly between her and Jamie’s mother Sandra, the ultimate heart of the piece, whom Carli Norris plays with pitch-perfect ferocity and tenderness throughout.

In support, Steven Meo does well to lift hippy artist Tony out of the caricature he is painted on the page, forming a well-rounded and sympathetic outsider whose chilled out approach to problem solving saves the day when all about him are reduced to verbal and physical battery.

This production is likely to be the Sound Theatre’s last, before the bulldozers move in this autumn to replace it with a soulless hotel complex. In addition to the starlit finale on stage, Beautiful Thing creates the ultimate in happy endings for its venue as well.

This review first appeared in the August 3, 2006 issue of **The Stage**

July 19-September 9
Author: Jonathan Harvey
Director: Tony Frow
Producer: NML Productions
Cast: Jonathan Bailey, Gavin Brocker, Steven Meo, Carli Norris, Michelle Terry
Running time: 1hr 40mins

Black and White Sextet

Reviewed for [The Stage](

Rosemary Branch, London
January 31-February 26
Author: William Shakespeare, adapted by Robert Pennant-Jones, who also directs
Producer: Rosemary Branch
Cast: Ben Onwukwe, Richard Earthy, Fliss Walton, Matt Reeves, Jason Eddy, Cleo Sylvestre
Running time: 2hrs

There is no reason why director Robert Pennant-Jones’ audacious filleting of ‘Othello;, reducing Shakespeare’s classic to two hours and a cast of six should work – but it does.

By choosing to relegate some plotlines to exposition delivered by pre-recorded video newscasts in 21st-Century English, or hinted at through snatches of mobile phone conversation, Black and White Sextet instead encourages us to focus on the emotional core of the play.

Iago dominates the first half even more than usual in this adaptation. Richard Earthy’s exaggerated portrayal may be better suited to a larger auditorium – his chilling half-whispers as he draws Othello in would be more welcome throughout.

Fliss Watson’s wide-eyed, intelligent Desdemona, whose love blinds her to her husband’s rage until the very last second, is the captivating core to this moving and intelligent production.

Once Iago’s claws are into him, Ben Onwukwe’s Othello quickly dominates the stage and with impressive support from Matt Reeves, Jason Eddy and Cleo Sylvestre one is left wondering why one should ever return to the longer version.

The seventh star of the show is Aaron Marsden’s imaginative folding set design. Rarely has a such a small space been utilised so effectively.

When Harry Met Sally, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Can Alyson Hannigan fake an orgasm? That’s the unvocalised question that many visitors to When Harry Met Sally, now playing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, will have in the back of their minds before the curtain rises on the stage adaptation of the Rob Reiner comedy. The answer is that she can — but the trouble is that she fakes Meg Ryan’s.

Like its 1989 film parent, Marcy Kahan’s stage adaptation takes place over a number of years. Nora Ephron’s Oscar®-nominated screenplay remains moderately untouched, save for a few location changes. Whereas Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal form their first impressions of each other on a road trip from Chicago to New York, Alyson Hannigan’s Sally meets Luke Perry’s Harry when he decorates her new Manhattan apartment; their second meeting takes place not on a plane, but in a gym. Ultz’ imaginative stage design, echoing the letterbox proportions of its cinematic progenitor, works more often than it does not. The incidental music, arranged by Ben and Jamie Cullum, is disappointing, with far too much reliance on It Had To Be You.

The two leads need to be as strong as possible, a task not made any easier by the iconic influence of Crystal and Ryan in their roles. Luke Perry rises to the occasion admirably, choosing not to emulate Crystal but provide his own reading of the same script. Hannigan, in her first stage role, ends up looking uncomfortable and stilted in comparison. With a voice lacking in projection (not helped by the acoustics of the Royal, which seems to favour tones deeper than Hannigan’s upper-register nasal delivery), she ends up shouting to compensate. Coupled with her character’s ever-chirpy persona, this makes for an often painful first act, thankfully relieved by the wonderful performances of the supporting cast, particularly Sharon Small and Jake Broder as Marie and Jack, the title characters’ best friends who end up falling for one another.

Indeed, the play suffers from an uneven structure, with the most interesting character developments on all fronts not appearing until well into Act Two. Once she has a range of emotions to play, Hannigan kicks up a gear, showing what she’s really capable of. Even then, though, her performance is rather too similar to Meg Ryan’s, especially when called upon to cry at news of her ex’s impending marriage.

As one would expect from its source material, When Harry Met Sally manages to be an immensely funny play. When it comes to dramatic tensions, though, the uneven pace means that the dilemma and resolution occur far too close together — so the real meat of the play is over almost before it’s begun.

* _Originally reviewed for [ UK](

Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shaftesbury Theatre

As a new West End musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie has already quite a reputation to keep to. Descended from a multi-Oscar winning movie and a winner of 6 Tony Awards on Broadway, Amanda Holden plays Millie, a young girl who comes from Kansas to New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

Not content with working her way up the career ladder, she resolves to be utterly modern in her approach – and marry a millionaire, even if she doesn’t love him. Of course, as is the way with these things, nothing quite goes to plan, but everything sorts itself before the final curtain.

As with all musicals of this type, the plot is paper-thin, serving only to act as a line upon which the big musical numbers are hung. And it’s these numbers which are the show’s biggest joys, and it biggest failings. For the Broadway show, Dick Scanlan and Jeanine Tesori created several new songs, supplementing them with others appropriated from various sources. Among the latter collection are the film’s unforgettable theme song, written by James van Heusen and the incomparable Sammy Cahn, a balletic speakeasy sequence with a jazzy riff on Tchaikovsky, and a lovably demented version of the Al Jolson classic “Mammy” in surtitled Cantonese.

There’s also a wonderful scene as Millie tries out for the job as a stenographer, as Graydon (played with the right degree of pompous charm by Craig Urbani) dictates at faster and faster speeds. If it doesn’t quite sound like it fits in with the rest of the score, it’s little wonder – it’s adapted from a Gilbert & Sullivan piece, with all the tongue-twisting literary wordplay one would expect.

Against such a collection of great numbers, the original songs suffer greatly. They’re not bad, just not as great. Cameo appearances in a party scene by George and Ira Gershwin, brought in for one of the weakest jokes in the script, merely serve to highlight the deficiencies of Scanlan and Tesori’s work. This doesn’t stop a fine cast giving them their all – with Sheila Ferguson as the sultry Muzzy van Hossmere and Maureen Lipman (playing the landlady-cum-slave trader Mrs Meers with the most bizarre Chinese accent since Peter Ustinov’s Charlie Chan) particularly deserving of praise.

It’s Holden’s performance that glues the show together. When allowed to express its full range, her voice is simply breathtaking. Combined with the killer combination of virtue and vixen, as well as an adept display of comic timing, one can hardly fault her casting. The only downside is that, in some of the more complex dance routines, she did look as though she was concentrating on getting her moves spot-on to the detriment of her character.

Hopefully that can be put down to first week nerves, for once noticed, it’s almost impossible to appreciate the breathtaking precision of the relaxed, happy dancers because all you can notice is a rictus grin on the leading actress. An unimaginative set (save for the hotel elevator driven by the power of tap-dance) serves as a backdrop to some glorious costumes and some finer acting. As the characters are propelled to their happily predictable endings (apart from one, ever-so-slightly-gay, coupling), you won’t feel overly moved, but you will feel happy – and wanting to insert the term “Bo do-de oh” into everyday conversation just to see if anyone notices.

• Originally published by UK

Shakespeare’s R & J, Arts Theatre

Romeo and Juliet, as played by an all-male group of four actors who are playing schoolboys putting on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Written for UK, September 2003

There are, it’s sometimes said, only seven plots in existence. If that’s true, one of them – love across the divide – is epitomised by Romeo and Juliet. It’s the classic tale not only of enemies being lovers, but of children being thrust into the violent, bloody, tragic world of adulthood before their time.

Writer/director Joe Calarco’s new adaptation, transferring from New York for a limited run at the Arts Theatre, accentuates the theme of premature adulthood by relocating the drama to an American boarding school with more than a little echo of Dead Poets Society.

Four schoolboys rebel from days full of confession, conjugation and social etiquette by reading some proscribed Shakespeare after lights out. Starting by finding innuendo in many of the lines (admittedly not a difficult thing with the Bard), things take a more serious turn with the first fight scene, and even more so with the first appearance of Juliet. Not for this all-male production a simpering thirteen-year-old: while the initial appearances of the nurse and mother start off as camp pastiches, when the ‘heroine’ arrives there’s a sign that these four students are beginning to take their roles more seriously.

What follows has all the promise of an intense studio performance: with minimal props (a couple of chairs, a book and a bolt of red silk) and the bare minimum of cast, there are some extremely powerful scenes – but it’s Shakespeare rather than Calarco we have to thank for those. While the framing device of having a quartet of schoolboys perform the play throws some extra frisson into the developing passion of the star cross’d lovers (are they acting? Or are the two pupils developing feelings for each other?) there are all too many times where the framing device intrudes.

While all four actors (Matthew Sincell, Jason Michael Spelbring, Jeremy Beck and Jason Dubin) never break from character, their characters themselves do. By necessity, when ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ face opprobrium from their fellow students after their romance is discovered, the same actors have to shift from being disgusted with them to being their best friends in a trice.

The play-within-a-play setting, the theme of loves discovered at night, of identities assumed and discarded, don’t sit well with the intrinsic tragedy of possibly the most tragic of all plays. They’d be far more suitable for A Midsummer Night’s Dream – indeed, throughout Shakespeare’s R+J there are allusions to the latter, including a well-realised reworking of Puck’s ‘if we shadows have offended’ epilogue. Strip the artifice away, though, and you would have the makings of a truly great play – a contemporary-dress, all-male, minimal-cast telling of the fearful passage of a death-mark’d love.

Now that would be a play worth seeing.

• Originally published by UK (link no longer available)

The Laramie Project: Death of an American icon

Review of the stage play about the death of Matthew Shepard, performed at the Cochrane Theatre in March 2003. Written for UK.

Every so often, society makes a hero or heroine of a victim of particularly heinous crimes – Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor… Matthew Shepard. The gay Wyoming 21-year-old college student who was brutally assaulted, then left tied to a fence until he was found eighteen hours later, became known around the world even as he lay in hospital in a coma, awaiting certain death.

Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project visited Shepard’s hometown of Laramie and interviewed many of its residents – be they people who knew either Matthew or his murderers, or other townsfolk who got caught up in the events that followed his death. Those interviews form the basis of his play, The Laramie Project, which has started its first London run.

And it’s the play’s commitment to preserving the nature of the source material that marks one of the major faults with the piece. Instead of an unfolding drama, the story is presented in the main as a series of monologues, as the small troupe of student actors imitate Laramie residents with variable degrees of success. Some scenes become incredibly engaging, drawing the audience in to the story with eloquence and grace – only for the next character in the line to break the spell. There are some scenes of real power: when the ER doctor who treated both Matthew and one of his attackers on the same night muses on the painful irony of that situation, one felt the seed of a truly brilliant dramatic work just waiting to take root. Sadly there are far too many other scenes that fall short.

This is not, for the main part, the fault of the actors. As a group of American college students, even the worst actor is of a high standard. Indeed, one performance, that of Fred Sykes, is mesmerising in its intensity throughout. For all the Hollywood stars visiting the West End stage, you would be hard pressed to see a finer display of American acting ability.

It is the content of the play that ultimately lets it down. One cannot help but feel there is an element of unintentional hypocrisy on display. At one point, a student recalls how at a candlelit vigil for Matthew, someone stood up and exhorted the crowd to show the world that Laramie’s “not that kind of town” – but it is, she notes. It’s a moving speech, one that makes us start to think about the nature of public mourning, and the seeming need to be seen to grieve (as evinced in this country with Soham, or Princess Diana). And yet, when later we hear how a small candlelit procession at the end of a homecoming parade grew to 500 people and eventually outnumbered the parade proper, we are asked to accept that at face value without asking, “why?”

The lack of focus that runs through the play means that we get portrayals of the actors who took the initial interviews that at times actually detract from the power of the scenes they’re supposed to be witnessing. At one point, as the local pastor recounts how he wishes that Shepard was able to reflect on the deviant nature of his lifestyle while he was tied, bleeding, to the fence, the power and horror we should rightly feel is completely undermined by the two interviewers’ need to hug each other afterwards. It’s an unnecessary counterpoint of the sort that dogs the whole production.

That said, occasional flashes of brilliance show just how strong this cast, and this production, has the potential to be. The image of Shepard, with the only part of his body not covered in blood the tracks on his cheeks where his tears had washed him clean, is one that will remain with you far after you’ve forgotten the rest of the play – as will Dennis Shepard’s statement to the court; again, Fred Sykes owns the auditorium as he asks the judge not to pass a death sentence, not out of mercy, but because a life sentence in full knowledge of what the killer has done will wreak far more vengeance.

If the rest of the play were of the calibre of those moments, this would be a classic. As it is, this is a piece that causes us to think more than the playwright probably intended, and in different ways. While good drama should always let us find our answers, this is one drama that requires we start asking our own questions, because those on stage don’t let us off from that task.

Diary of a PWA

We have become somewhat inured of late to the phenomenon of newspaper columnists detailing the minutiae of life under the shadow of a terminal illness. The Observer’s Ruth Picardie and The Times’ John Diamond both arguably became more famous as cancer sufferers than they ever had been as the accomplished journalists they already were.

There was a period when a fatally ill columnist was the latest accessory for the newspaper about town, even deserving a satirical sideswipe from Brass Eye creator Chris Morris in his Time To Go column for the Observer.

It’s hard, then, to remember how much Oscar Moore’s columns for the Guardian, PWA (Person with Aids) affected their readers. Moore had been HIV positive for ten years until, on New Year’s Eve 1993, he came down with a severe attack of shingles that was to result in the first of many admissions into hospital. The ups and downs of his condition, his medications and his state of mind were chronicled from 1994 to 1996 with a characteristically frank style that often included a large quantity of dry wit.

Adapted and directed by Malcolm Sutherland, PWA takes Moore’s words and places them in the mouth of actor Pip Torrens, leaving him with just a minimalist set and a couple of slide projectors to accompany his monologue. It’s all that’s needed: anything more, and the impact of his words would be drowned out.

Initially, the slide projectors illuminate the breaks between columns with brief, clinical descriptions of some of the terms used: septicaemia, CMV, EBV, 3TC, Retrovir. As Moore, who as a film critic valued his sight, finds that a virulent strain of herpes called cytomegalovirus is slowly destroying his retina, we also see a blown up image of the viral cell; when in words Moore describes it as ‘the Pac-man of herpes’, chomping away at his vision, the sight of the spherical virus adds an extra layer of poignancy to the rich metaphor.

Any play that you know will end in the main (in this case, only) character’s death always runs the risk of falling into melodrama. Here, there is no chance of that, with Torrens’ superb performance the perfect counterpart to Moore’s writing. The actor holds the audience with him every step of the way, whether it’s as the Oscar who finds wit in minor inconveniences or the bemusement of children, the Oscar who has to deal with excruciating pain and deep depressions, or the Oscar who can no longer hide his anger about the prejudice faced by gay people with Aids. ‘We’re guilty until proven dead,’ he rails at one point, noting how the media always refers to HIV+ haemophiliacs as ‘innocent’.

As the stage version of Oscar nears the end, he turns to the topic of the columns he’s been writing. It’s a weapon, he explains, a means of fighting the virus. After all, while HIV can mutate enough to render medical therapies useless, it hasn’t yet learned how to type. Moore was being modest: not only did his words help him fight his own battle, but they also contributed to the battle against ignorance and homophobia. This superb stage production deserves to continue Oscar Moore’s legacy for some time to come.

* _**Diary of a PWA** was at the Drill Hall, London. This review was written for UK (link no longer available)_