Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndham’s Theatre

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Of all the companions that David Tennant’s Doctor had during his spell in the TARDIS, it was Donna Noble that suited him the best. Pitting Catherine Tate against Tennant’s fast-talking wide boy was a match of competing, but equal, egos. When a double act works as well as Tennant’s and Tate’s did, it’s easy to reach for the Hepburn-Tracy comparison – but it feels appropriate with this pair of actors, who fizzle and spark off each other so well that it’s hard to believe that The Runaway Bride was the first time they had worked together.

So it’s good to see that now Tennant has long since turned over his TARDIS key to the new guy, the pair have found an opportunity to work together again, in Josie Rourke’s exuberant version of Shakespeare’s screwball comedy. Casting Tennant as Benedick and Tate as Beatrice feels a safe decision – not in the sense of not casting dangerously, but in that one knows that the pair will be able to portray the ups and downs of the prototypical odd couple extremely effectively.

That said, I honestly hadn’t expected Much Ado About Nothing to be so funny. Many renditions of Shakespeare’s comedies induce little more than polite laughter, but this production regularly induces real bellyaches.

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Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndham’s Theatre4Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:43:00Of all the companions that David Tennant’s Doctor had during his spell in the TARDIS, it was Donna Noble that suited him the best. Pitting Catherine T…

Thriller Live 1,000th performance, Lyric Theatre

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Okay, by my reckoning I’m about four blog posts behind in terms of theatre and/or drama CDs, so I’d better crack on…

Thanks to Kevin Wilson PR, I was invited to the celebratory 1,000th performance of Thriller Live at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. I’ve never been before, and now having seen it, it solidifies my reasons why: it’s not a theatre show, but a series of tribute acts. Not my thing at all.

And yet, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.

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Thriller Live 1,000th performance, Lyric Theatre3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:43:05Okay, by my reckoning I’m about four blog posts behind in terms of theatre and/or drama CDs, so I’d better crack on…

Thanks to Kevin Wilson PR, I…

Revisited: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello Theatre

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Back in March, I talked about an early preview of Betty Blue Eyes – whether or not it’s the UK’s most eagerly awaited musical in 2011, it was certainly mine (Shrek? Pah).

As I said at the time:

While still in its first week of previews, Betty Blue Eyes feels much closer to a finished show than, say, The Wizard of Oz did at the same stage. In that show, it felt like the audience was watching a rehearsal – here, we were watching something whole and complete, which maybe needs a little bit of tweaking here and there but won’t particularly change between now and press night. That doesn’t mean it has no flaws, but those it does have in my view prevent a four-star review becoming a five-star one.

Last night, I went back to see how the show had bedded in. And, if I did actualy give out star ratings, I’d say Betty Blue Eyes was still a solid four.

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Revisited: Betty Blue Eyes, Novello Theatre4Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 12:43:19Back in March, I talked about an early preview of Betty Blue Eyes – whether or not it’s the UK’s most eagerly awaited musical in 2011, it was certai…

Betty Blue Eyes, Novello Theatre

A musical set in a Britain of austerity, nearly bankrupted after an expensive war waged on multiple fronts, with the public’s only glimmer of hope built upon a forthcoming royal wedding? Betty Blue Eyes has surely found the perfect time in which to open (it is currently in previews, with press night on April 13).

In reality, the musical has been in gestation for quite some time now. When I interviewed George Stiles and Anthony Drewe for The Stage Podcast several months ago, their music for this adaptation of Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function was already eagerly awaited, and the number Magic Fingers had been showcased in the one-off concert A Spoonful of Stiles & Drewe in July 2008.

The fates have conspired to make the show’s concepts seem particularly appropriate now, with its message of how the proletariat should be wary of the upper classes bending the law to their own ends. Mind you, I’m sure that even if Britain were in an age of enduring prosperity, we would be able to find a parable in the tale of the little man struggling to find his place amongst the oppressors without losing his soul in the process…

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

“The word is lachrymose.”
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
“Putting on a fun musical made a pleasant change from the theater’s usual lachrymose fare.”

Spelling Bees have never quite taken off in the UK, although there were a few brief attempts following the commercial success of the documentary Spellbound. So this charming little musical, with music and lyrics by Willian Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, probably fares a little differently in the UK than in the composers’ native America, where the competitions to see which schoolchild can spell the most difficult words are a part of national culture.

The setup is simple: this local spelling bee is being supervised by former spelling champion Rona Lisa (Katherine Kingsley) and school vice principal Panch (Steve Pemberton), and six local children are competing. Actually, there are ten participants at the start of the play, the other four being members of the audience who have been brought on stage.

The audience members at times form the hub of the comedy of the piece, with Pemberton and Kingsley lobbing good-natured insults their way, be it about their clothing or, in one man’s case, his ability to look like he could come third in a David Blunkett lookalike contest.
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The Lion King, Lyceum Theatre

Of all the animated musical films produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation since The Little Mermaid signalled the rebirth of the genre, the Lion King musical stands as one of the greatest (and I say that as one of Ashman and Menken’s biggest fans). The involving story of a scheming uncle who kills his brother, the king, before usurping the throne that rightfully belongs to his young nephew has often been compared to Hamlet – and while I think that’s an oversimplification that does neither work any favours, The Lion King is certainly more Shakespearean than it is the Andersen/Perrault fairytale that is the Disney studio’s more usual stamping ground.

One thing that’s noticeable, though, is how Western the original film is. With songs by Elton John and Tim Rice and a score by Hans Zimmer, aurally its feet are square in the Euro-American tradition of the musical. Save for the opening strains of The Circle of Life, many of the songs show no sense of place, no indication that the story is taking place on the African plains. Even Hakuna Matata, which takes its title from a Swahili phrase, is arranged as a Dixieland foot-stomper, bringing to mind The Jungle Book’s Bare Necessities.

The success of the film and its accompanying soundtrack CD saw a more interesting “sequel” CD, Rhythm of the Pride Lands, which saw the film’s existing songs and score rearranged, mixed with new and traditional African melodies to produce a wonderful fusion of styles.

It’s a shame that Rhythm of the Pride Lands is so hard to find these days, as it provides a clear bridge between the animated film and the stage musical, which I got to see for the first time last night, a good ten years after it first opened in the West End.

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Sign of the Times, Duchess Theatre

Frank has been Head of Installation at display signage company Forshaw’s for thirty five years, installing illuminated lettering on the side of other companies’ buildings while he dreams of becoming a world famous writer of espionage novels. The day he takes a teenager on work experience up to install the company’s name on its own building, though, both men’s lives are destined to change for ever.

Tim Firth (Calendar Girls, Neville’s Island, All Quiet on the Preston Front) has clocked up a reputation for being able to deliver a nice line in Northern humour that carries an undercurrent of sadness and regret. It’s a genre that’s dominated by Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood, of course, but Firth deserves his place up there, especially on the basis of his latest West End play, Sign of the Times, currently previewing at the Duchess Theatre.

Matthew Kelly’s Frank is a creature of habit, yearning for the freedom of the successful creative novelist, yet painfully aware that his ability does not quite match his ambition. A man who yearns for immortality – though “not for ever,” as he explains to young apprentice Alan, in one of the play’s many fine one liners.

As Alan, Gerard Kearns starts off sullen and uncommunicative, but we soon realise that far from being a gormless, hoodie-wearing teenager, he is taking in the life lessons Frank is keen on expounding, and either adopting them or adapting them as befits the fearless nature of your average sixteen-year-old.

A rueful and rather thought-provoking conclusion to the first act is supplemented post-interval by a reversal of situations. Set three years later, Alan finds himself in the role of teacher, albeit one barely trained enough to do the job. Both Kearns and Kelly play the shifting relationship between the two men with a light touch, allowing Frank’s humiliation at finding himself back at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder to play well against Alan’s continuing need to see him as a mentor.

Both actors spark off each other as the comedy in Firth’s script bounces from the verbal to the physical. There is a real warmth to the interplay between them that helps accentuate the play’s message – that creativity needs an outlet, and if we can dare to follow our dreams rather than allowing ourselves to fall into a corporate rut, we too can achieve immortality. Not for ever, but for long enough.

Sign of the Times opens at the Duchess Theatre on March 11 and runs until May 28.

This is not a review of The Wizard of Oz

Last night, Adam and I went to see The Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium, with tickets provided by Superbreak, who provide theatre & hotel deals for many West End musicals.

The show itself was only on its third preview, with press night not until March 1. It’s clearly an unfinished work: all the technical aspects of scene changes, onstage automation and flying sequences seemed to be being executed at a gingerly slow pace.

I did enjoy the cast performances, especially Hannah Waddingham as the Wicked Witch of the West. Danielle Hope’s voice, which I adored throughout the run of Over the Rainbow, the BBC1 talent show that recruited her, was everything I hoped it would be. And Paul Keating’s physicality as the Scarecrow nicely echoed that of Ray Bolger’s in the 1937 film.

But it’s the link to the film that concerns me, as I left the theatre not knowing whether the design team want to be inspired by the film, to slavishly copy it or actually produce a grand spectacle worthy of the Palladium stage. At the moment, different scenes take wildly different approaches.

The most effective piece of ‘theatre’ at the moment comes in Act 2, as action moves away from the journey to the Emerald City and into the Wicked Witch’s castle. The production design here is, for the main part, lovely – just the right mix of gothic, with a couple of nods to Wicked without going overboard. Waddingham’s Act 2 outfit shows what this show has the potential to be — a great-looking visual spectacle which takes the elements of the film, builds upon them and presents them in a form that works for a theatre audience. It’s a shame her ‘look’ isn’t consistent throughout — in Act 1, she’s costumed in a manner far more consistent with the film.

To convert what is actually a fantasy film with occasional songs into a fully-fledged musical requires extra numbers. I was really looking forward to Andrew Lloyd Webber reuniting with former collaborator Tim Rice, but (Waddingham’s Witch’s Song apart) the new material seems to accentuate the wrong emotional moments. The show needs a big musical number to open, and one to close — and (as yet) has neither.

A lot can change in a month, so don’t take these comments as a review of a finished product. I’ll be curious to see what sort of work gets put into the show between now and press night — and, if the reworked Love Never Dies is anything to go by, beyond that. After Act 1, I was optimistic enough to believe that the problems the show has were surmountable. By the end of Act 2, I’d reversed my view — but after sleeping on it for a night, I’m prepared to give the production team the benefit of the doubt. For now.

Shoes, Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre

You can probably tell the target audience for this music and dance show, a transfer from Sadler’s Wells’ Islington base, by the fact that front of house staff were handing out complimentary copies of Grazia magazine to any audience member that wanted one.

This is not a show for traditional lovers of dance. It is, however, accessible to people who can’t tell their Manolo Blahniks from their Jimmy Choos. That said, an interest in footwear will help sell some of the very weak jokes that Richard Thomas’s score extends into full three-minute songs.

A sequence of musical numbers each inspired by shoes, this is a hit-and-miss montage that will probably improve over the course of the run — we saw the first night of the Peacock transfer, which has an almost completely new cast and was also suffering from at least one of the principals being off sick.

There were some technical faults — most notably a UV routine which lacked any UV lighting, reducing the whole routine to a blacked out pointlessness — but the real problem is with the scrappiness of the whole thing. Some dances go one for far too long, comic interludes with a soloist coming on in comedy footwear tend to fall flat, and the street dance segments lack either precision or enthusiasm.

There are bright spots, though: several dance numbers lift the whole production. In particular, the second act segments looking at how Cinderella and Prince Charming fared after the glass slipper fit, and how a new bride becomes convinced her grandmother’s shoes are responsible for a family curse, lift the post-interval show tremendously. The sight of a troupe of dancers tap-dancing in platform shoes and of a very cute swimwear section also contribute to the more pleasurable aspects.

I’m sure Shoes will improve steadily as the run progresses (performances continue until April 3) but, for all the fun bits, it’s not a show I’d be willing to return to see.

The video below includes performances from the original Sadler’s Wells cast:

Leslie Jordan: My Trip Down The Pink Carpet, Apollo Theatre

If the name Leslie Jordan isn’t familiar to you, the sight (and sound) of the American character actor may well be. Standing tall at 4’11” and with a characteristic Tennessee drawl, Jordan has played supporting roles on many TV series opposite actors including George Clooney and Mark Harmon, coming to greatest prominence with his Emmy award-winning role as closeted Republican Beverley Leslie in the sitcom Will and Grace.

Jordan’s tales of Hollywood struggle – being called upon to try and “butch up” and developing crushes on his leading men – could fill the whole of the show’s 1 hour 40 minutes, but would soon begin to pall. But there is a deeper story being told here: the attempt of one man to break free of his internalised homophobia, to overcome his alcohol and drug dependencies, to be able to stand tall and be comfortable in his own skin.

Jordan’s monologue is delivered in a cannily crafted, deceptively haphazard series of recollections and digressions. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ronnie Corbett’s monologues from The Two Ronnies, which appeared to be rambling, improvised whimsy but were in fact highly scripted and structured.

Jordan’s one man show grew out of a book tour to promote his memoir and toured small cabaret-style venues across America before crossing the Atlantic. I was concerned that opening the show out onto a West End stage might have robbed it of some of the intimacy it needs, but such thinking did not account for Jordan’s ability to hold an entire audience’s attention.

If there’s a downside, the inclusion of many gay pop “anthems”, while fun, on occasion did trample on some of Jordan’s anecdotal punchlines. But at the end of the evening, the entire audience was justifiably on its feet, applauding a man who may be short of stature, but who delivers a huge life lesson from which we can all learn.