Review: Once, Phoenix Theatre

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In general, the vogue for adapting films into stage musicals tends to be looked down upon in musical theatre circles. Ghost, Top Hat, Legally Blonde, Singin’ in the Rain, The Bodyguard, Footloose, Dirty Dancing… the list seems to get ever longer.

The quality of such adaptations varies wildly – and generally, the closer the stage version attempts to remain to the original, the less creative and enjoyable the result for the audience.

Once is the latest movie to make the transition to the stage. One advantage it has is that the film itself is comparatively little-known, despite the song Falling Slowly winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But mostly, its staging ignores that origin, and instead treats itself as a standalone piece of art. The result is a sublime evening of warm humour, great songs and heartbreakingly beautiful romance.

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Review: Once, Phoenix Theatre5Scott Matthewman2013-05-23 14:03:58In general, the vogue for adapting films into stage musicals tends to be looked down upon in musical theatre circles. Ghost, Top Hat, Legally Blonde, …

Review: Avenue Q, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

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.

Review: Kerry Ellis in Concert, London Palladium

Sunday saw Kerry Ellis take to the stage at the London Palladium for a one-off concert – which I reviewed for Musical Theatre Review. Despite the 500-word count, I still had to leave out reference to her guests Rory Taylor and Alex Gaumond, and the support act Woman (or “Woman – the band”, as they insist on calling themselves).

Review: Gutted, Theatre Royal Stratford East

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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.

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Review: Gutted, Theatre Royal Stratford East5Scott Matthewman2013-05-10 14:52:56The 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 afterwar…

Review: Geek! A New Musical, Tristan Bates Theatre

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…

Review: Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory

Merrily We Roll Along, playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, is a story told in reverse – and so is this review

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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

The 39 Steps, Aylesbury Waterside

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The 39 Steps has always been a tricky novel to dramatise. As three films and a recent TV adaptation have proved, to make it a truly suspenseful spy thriller it necessary to treat John Buchan’s as a skeleton, on which to hang the meat crafted by others’ hands.

Probably the best loved of all versions of The 39 Steps is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, starring Robert Donat. And it’s this one which forms the basis for Patrick Barlow’s stage comedy, first staged in 2005 before a new production directed by Maria Aitken transferred from the Tricycle Theatre to Piccadilly’s Criterion Theatre in September 2006, where it is still currently running.

The touring production of The 39 Steps, currently in residence until Saturday at the Waterside, is true to the Olivier and Tony Award-winning original. It has to be – Barlow’s script is deceptively precise in its comedy. It may look resolutely low-budget in the props department – trains are constructed from luggage trunks, the Forth Bridge from a couple of stepladders – but that is a deliberate part of its carefully constructed charm.

Richard Ede’s Hannay, a suavely chauvinistic 1930s bachelor-about-town, is accompanied by a cast of just three others, with Tony Bell, Gary Mackay and Charlotte Peters taking on a range of roles each. Bell and Mackay in particular must contend with frequent fast changes, playing two or three characters in the same scene with only hat, coat and voice to indicate which is which. This does lead to some frenetic slapstick moments – all of which look off-the-cuff, but (having seen the show twice in the West End) are more carefully choreographed than many a dance show.

In common with Hitchcock’s film, Barlow’s play works best when the spy story is pushed to the background and character fare can come to the fore. Indeed, the audience seemed unsure what to expect until several minutes in, as two secret agents have to bring on stage their own lamppost under which to skulk – and must run off, and back on, frequently as Hannay repeatedly returns to the window to look out on them. It’s only at this point that the intrinsic silliness is embraced by all, setting up many other visual comedy elements.

At times, the attempts to shoehorn in references to titles of other Hitchcock films are a little too laboured. Peters, a recent graduate, doesn’t yet have quite the stage presence to pull off the twin roles of femme fatale and demure love interest that the script demands of her – but this doesn’t detract too much from what is a fun evening of crafted silliness that glories in the twin absurdities of theatre and spy capers.

The 39 Steps is at Aylesbury Waterside until February 23 (see atgtickets.com/aylesbury for more details). The tour than continues until July 2013 – for dates and venues, see the official website.

The 39 Steps, Aylesbury Waterside3Scott Matthewman2013-02-19 08:50:13The 39 Steps has always been a tricky novel to dramatise. As three films and a recent TV adaptation have proved, to make it a truly suspenseful spy th…

Review: Maurice’s Jubilee, Aylesbury Waterside (and touring)

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Maurice and Helena have been married for 66 years. They have their own in-jokes, one providing the setup, the other the punchline – a familiar routine that irritates them both as much as it shows their love and devotion.

Except there’s another woman. 59 years ago, jeweller Maurice was charged with looking over the crown jewels on the night before the Coronation. A chance meeting with the princess who would the following day become queen caused him to fall in love, with a depth that overshadowed his family relationships ever since.

In 2012, Maurice is looking forward to the evening of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee – also his 90th birthday – in the belief that the Queen will fulfil a promise made on a whim that night six decades earlier. But the cancer which is riddling his body may have other ideas.

In Nichola McAuliffe’s warm, poignant and often hilarious script, Maurice is a gentle optimist whose main (and somewhat huge) failing is to not see how his obsession with the Queen has damaged both his marriage and his relationship with his son. In Julian Glover’s hands, Maurice’s faults become endearing, even though they are outshone by the heartbreak visible in Sheila Reid’s eyes.

This is Glover’s play. His performance as the geriatric coming to terms with having just weeks to live is exemplary – and then, at the end of Act One, his extended monologue takes us back to the day he fell in love with Her Majesty. And we are there with them both, utterly convinced that he is 31 again, and Princess Elizabeth is slow dancing with him in Buckingham Palace. It’s a captivating combination of writing and delivery – and one that demonstrates that, no matter the size of the Waterside auditorium, it can contain the most intimate of moments.

McAuliffe’s Katy, the palliative care nurse who moves in to the couple’s Penge bungalow, is somewhat less of the striking, confident figure we are more used to seeing this actress portray. Instead of a shrew, we get a mouse: a lifetime of being made to believe she is inferior produces a woman who lives down to those expectations, but never lets that stop her caring for others. It’s a good performance, but by the end of the first act we are left wondering just why she won The Stage’s Best Actress award for this role at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Post-interval, though, you begin to see why, after Kay comes up with an idea that could make Maurice’s dream of tea with the Queen come true. (Not having made it up to Edinburgh last year, I have no idea how Glover – nominated for Best Actor in the same awards – did not win; there must have been some impressive competition.)

The final conversation between McAuliffe and Glover is full of the humour, warmth and pathos that characterises the entire play. The final few seconds of the play, in contrast, feel a little too quickly paced, the dialogue a little too obvious. By the end of the play, we want our goodbye to these three characters to have a little more care.

Or maybe it’s just that, thanks to Glover’s performance of McAuliffe’s script, and to our memories of those in our own families who we have lost, we are not always ready to say goodbye.

Maurice’s Jubilee is at the Aylesbury Waterside until February 2, then touring to Bath, Woking, Richmond, Brighton, Birmingham, Malvern, Bromley, Cambridge, Windsor and Oxford. For more details, www.mauricesjubilee.com or @MauricesJubilee on Twitter.

Review: Maurice’s Jubilee, Aylesbury Waterside (and touring)4Scott Matthewman2013-01-31 13:12:56Maurice and Helena have been married for 66 years. They have their own in-jokes, one providing the setup, the other the punchline – a familiar routi…