Never Forget, Savoy Theatre

Editor’s Rating
Rating

To describe a musical based around the songs of pop group Take That as too cheesy would be missing the point somewhat, akin to describing Sweeney Todd as overly gruesome or Joseph as too multicoloured. This is a show that revels in the tackiness and excess of early nineties pop, completely aware that it will be delighting its target audience as it does so.

What comes as a surprise is the quality of the script. Written by theatre and TV script writer Danny Brocklehurst with director Ed Curtis and Guy Jones, for the most part the story of five lads who group together to form a Take That tribute band is played for laughs. Jokes come thick and fast in the first act, with moments of slapstick and absurdity played at just the right level to prevent the whole enterprise from descending into a panto-style knockabout.

Unfortunately, the more dramatic thread – the pressures on lead singer Ash, played by Dean Chisnall, to leave the band and take up with record company scout Annie (Joanne Farrell), to the wrath of fiancee Chloe – is handled less well, achieving levels of sub-Hollyoaks melodrama that Brocklehurst avoids in his own TV work. It doesn’t help that Chisnall is the least charismatic of the five group members. Every time he is on stage alone, one yearns for his four bandmates to return to bring some life back into proceedings. Farrell is hopelessly out of her depth as an underwritten femme fatale. Audience members were content to welcome every onstage appearance with panto-level boos and hisses, but it’s an appreciation that neither the character nor the performance deserves.

Vocally, the star of the show is Sophia Ragavelas as Chloe, the classic wronged woman. Her gut-wrenching performance of Love Ain’t Here Anymore is the standout moment of the show, with a delivery so powerful it stunned the raucous audience of Take That fans into complete silence for possibly the only time in the entire show.

There are also some superb performances from the large company of dancers. While the accompaniment to many staged Take That numbers is as reminiscent of eighties TV light entertainment spectaculars as it is the excess of the original group’s own stage shows, a number of sequences, tightly choreographed by Karen Bruce, show their abilities off to full effect. Most notable is a sequence set in a Manchester salsa bar, which clearly references similar sequences in better musicals, including the Mambo from West Side Story. It’s an audacious move and one which the production just about manages to pull off.

Ultimately, the audience for this show is always going to be dominated by fans of Take That’s original music catalogue, but there’s enough substance in here for others to enjoy too. This is a musical that knows exactly what it is, makes no apologies, and goes out with a great big smile on its face. It may be camp nonsense, but it’s self-aware – there’s full knowledge that the rain machine at the end of the first act will get the biggest applause of the evening, and everyone is perfectly happy to play along.

Reviewed for The Stage

Never Forget, Savoy Theatre3Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:28:27To describe a musical based around the songs of pop group Take That as too cheesy would be missing the point somewhat, akin to describing Sweeney Todd…

All About My Mother, Old Vic Theatre

Editor’s Rating
Rating

The Old Vic’s adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s most accessible film to date strives to be as faithful as possible to its source, as a result delivering an impression of a film full of theatrical touches rather than enjoyable theatre in its own right.

Lesley Manville gives a fearless performance as Manuela, the grieving mother who returns to her old stamping ground of Barcelona after the death of her 17-year-old son. As she looks for the boy’s father, she reunites with her transvestite prostitute friend, gains a surrogate sister in the form of a pregnant nun, and gets a job as PA to the actress whose autograph her son was trying to get when he was struck by a car and killed.

And it’s when Manville meets actress Huma Rojo (Diana Rigg), accepting the offer of a job on condition that she never talks about her past, that the play really starts to feel alive. Unfortunately, this is so far in to an otherwise lumpen first act that it proves difficult to resuscitate the production. One of the most powerful scenes between Manville and Rigg occurs when Manuela finally reveals the tragedy of her son’s death, and Rojo remembers her part in it. But the emotional punch is pulled severely, because the scene has played out in front of the audience already.

Samuel Adamson’s adaptation seems to prefer addition, though, rather than excision. In some places this works, expanding Mark Gatiss’ role as transvestite Agrado (a performance which, despite the Welsh accent, is still remarkably close to some of his cross-dressing League of Gentlemen characters) to entertaining front of curtain during scene changes. Mostly, though, particularly with the addition of Manuela’s dead son Esteban (Colin Morgan) as an itinerant ghost, it detracts from the emotional intimacy which made the source material so appealing, and is already under threat on a cavernous stage.

As an ardent Almodovar fan for many years, I have been anxiously waiting for a good translation of his work on to the stage. I still am.

Reviewed for The Stage

All About My Mother, Old Vic Theatre2Scott Matthewman2011-07-27 13:50:29The Old Vic’s adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s most accessible film to date strives to be as faithful as possible to its source, as a result delive…

Porgy and Bess

Reviewed for [The Stage](http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/14825/porgy-and-bess)

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.

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 [Gay.com UK](http://uk.gay.com)_

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 Gay.com UK