The Girls, Phoenix Theatre, London — joyous, cathartic

From left, Claire Machin, Sophie-Louise Dann, Joanna Riding, Claire Moore and Debbie Chazen in ‘The Girls’ © Matt Crockett/Dewynters

The crucial to this winning musical makeover of Calendar Girls (right here rather awkwardly stripped of the “Calendar”) comes early on in the poignant enjoy song “Scarborough”. Although John bustles about in the garden, his wife Annie is suddenly struck by what his cancer diagnosis may possibly imply: their everyday life of shared domestic tasks (folding the duvet cover shoving open the stubborn back door) changed irrevocably by his absence. It is a matter-of-reality and really moving evocation of grief. And all through, songwriter Gary Barlow and playwright Tim Firth draw us into characters’ reflections via song, adding depth and doubt. Their thoughtful use of music expands a story which is all about what we reveal and what we conceal and about celebrating the bodies in which we live and die.

Firth (who also wrote the earlier film and play based on the correct story) tends to make a further case for revisiting the material by shifting the concentrate. Right here the renowned disrobing — in which the ladies of a Yorkshire Women’s Institute pose nude, with a few strategically placed buns, for a charity calendar — comes close to the finish. The emphasis is on the journey and on the personal misgivings overcome in the quest to face down the grim reaper — and to purchase a a lot more comfy hospital sofa in John’s memory. The mix of discomfort, comedy and practicality runs by way of the piece, neatly caught in the friction amongst wry lyrics and delicate melodies in many songs.

Is it cheesy? Yes, in locations (a sceptic may well also notice the absence of rain in the opening hymn to the beauties of Yorkshire), and some of the 1-liners land with all the subtlety of an overbaked rock cake. Meanwhile the characters file rather also neatly into types, there isn’t time to deal with their troubles correctly and the conflict introduced by the not-very-rebellious teenagers is pretty tame. But the girls are richly brought to life by the fine ensemble in Firth’s production, which deftly balances humour and heartache. Especially striking are Claire Machin as the choir-mistress with a devilish side and Claire Moore as Chris, Annie’s daft, loving buddy, who comes up with the calendar concept.

At the show’s heart is Joanna Riding’s quietly moving performance as Annie, who picks up on the themes in “Scarborough” with a later, heartbreaking number about the practicalities of bereavement. It’s flawed, for positive, but this joyous, cathartic musical looks set to see out a lot of calendars.

To April 22,

Section: Arts

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera Home, London

Renée Fleming in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ at the Royal Opera Residence, London © Alastair Muir

An aura of nostalgia hangs over Der Rosenkavalier. No other opera is so preoccupied with time passing, as it looks back to a as soon as golden era, musing over the finish of a connection and how life slips from one’s grasp. Whatever could have made Richard Strauss and his librettist Hofmannsthal so obsessed?

Robert Carsen, director of the Royal Opera’s new production, proffers a clear answer. Der Rosenkavalier was written in 1910 and he updates the action to that turning point of history, as a world order faced oblivion. His final image of a generation of young men going to their doom certainly requires away the saccharine at the final curtain.

It is, though, a glamorously handsome production — appropriately so, when it might also mark a notable farewell on stage. Renée Fleming has mentioned that this might be her final look at the Royal Opera. If it is, then she goes out, if not really on a high (her soprano no longer carries as effectively as it did), then nevertheless sounding and searching stunning.

The complete of the initial act is a delight. In her grand palace, with its interconnecting doors receding into the distance, Fleming plays a Marschallin nevertheless in thrall to her teenage lover. The interplay between her and Alice Coote’s Octavian, sounding a touch hard-edged of voice, is like watching two fine actors in a sentimental comedy. Fleming, particularly, finds feeling in every line.

A chill, though, falls more than the second act. Carsen is producing a valid point that the nouveau-riche Faninal has produced his money as an arms dealer, but do we actually want to see the presentation of the rose, 1 of opera’s romantic higher points, set against a backdrop of artillery? Or the heavy-handed symbolism of a battalion of young folks, doubles of Sophie and Octavian, waltzing about on the eve of war?

The enormous cast boasts strength in depth. Sophie Bevan sings confidently, but with out fairly the silvery fragility needed for Sophie. Matthew Rose’s Baron Ochs is significantly less lovable than this old rogue can be, but he scores highly for playing the part straight and singing it so effectively. Jochen Schmeckenbecher tends to make Faninal a self-confident wheeler-dealer. Alasdair Elliott raises a smile as a cross-dressing Innkeeper in the finale, played out in a crowded bordello, as in Carsen’s earlier Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival. What ever doubts 1 may possibly have, this new production is a virtuoso piece of stage direction.

There is a lot of time to admire all its detail as the conductor, Andris Nelsons, lavishes enjoy and languorous speeds on Strauss’s luscious score. Several moons ago, Carlos Kleiber dazzled with no the need for such indulgence. But is this the moment for seeking back? Far better to catch Fleming as the Marschallin a single much more time and Carsen’s bravura production whilst it is nonetheless fresh.

To January 24,

Section: Arts

Dreamgirls, Savoy Theatre, London — ‘Dazzling’

From left, Ibinabo Jack, Amber Riley and Liisi LaFontaine in ‘Dreamgirls’ © Brinkhoff

1st, let’s talk about the voice. Amber Riley, the lead in this long overdue West End debut for Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s 1981 musical about a black female singing group trying to make it in the Sixties, is possessed of a rich, glorious voice. Even though the Savoy Theatre is properly under street level, when she lets rip you’d swear she could raise the roof. It is a real joy to hear her, but she also finds wells of pathos and subtlety. Her character, Effie, is a single of a long line of wonderful black singers who turned pain into song, and when at the finish of the very first act she is rejected by each her band and her man, Riley channels that deep soul tradition into her heartfelt solo “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”.

The irony is that Effie’s voice, the USP of her group the Dreamettes (not a million miles from The Supremes), is not sufficient. Their manager persuades them to ditch her as lead singer in favour of the prettier, a lot more marketable Deena in order to break via in the fickle, racially prejudiced music company of the 1960s. And, commercially, he’s correct: they make the big time. Dreamgirls’ damning portrayal of this planet shows the awful dilemmas for black artists, and the whole drive of the show is each to expose and amend this by making Effie, her story, her pain and her voice the star of the show.

While it raises severe concerns, even so, it’s not a show that digs deeply and characterisation is pretty thin. It’s through the music that Dreamgirls does the talking, and director Casey Nicholaw seizes on that and delivers it with knockout power. The show is exhausting just to watch: it whirls by in a blur of spangles, sequins, snakes and sharks in this world just to stop and breathe would have you mown down by the showbiz juggernaut.

It’s a dazzling, witty and canny staging: Tim Hatley’s bling-tastic set, Nicholaw’s slightly tongue-in-cheek dance routines and Gregg Barnes’s fabulous costumes all draw consideration away from the show’s shortcomings. And it is just immense entertaining. Adam J. Bernard is a delight as the hip-swivelling Jimmy “Thunder” Early Tyrone Huntley is touching as the songwriter out of his depth and there is wonderful help from Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack as Effie’s co-singers and soul sisters. The evening even though, rightly, belongs to Riley.

Booking to October 2017,

Section: Arts

Hedda Gabler, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London — ‘Precise’

With each other at final: Henrik Ibsen and Joni Mitchell. Ivo van Hove’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for the National Theatre contains several excerpts of Mitchell’s “Blue” (as well as Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” and Nina Simone’s of “Wild Is the Wind”) to emphasise the concentrate on relationships rather than person personalities. This is not a production about Hedda’s character, her impulses and flaws, but about her interaction with absolutely everyone else.

Ruth Wilson’s Hedda is not the familiar fiery, uncontrollable figure of arrogance on the contrary, she spends a lot of the time buttoned up. 1 can see the bitterness and discontent, but also a sense of circumscription and confinement which is practically a organic procedure. Patrick Marber’s precise, deliberate version has her describe her marriage to the uninteresting Tesman as a result: “I required to settle [down] I settled for him.” Kyle Soller’s Tesman, too, is far from the usual tweedy nerd he’s basically fundamentally insufficient for Hedda. And as for Judge Brack — generally portrayed as a middle-aged sexual opportunist who takes an chance also many — right here Rafe Spall is an precise modern of the Tesmans, and is moreover sinister and repeatedly physically abusive. In van Hove’s vision, it is not Hedda’s more than-involvement with her old flame Eilert Lovborg (the underrated Chukwudi Iwuji) that propels her downfall, but Brack’s uncaring predations.

Jan Versweyfeld’s set is his characteristic blend of minimalism and detail: a stark loft-style apartment with practically no furniture, save an upright piano to link with the Mitchell song’s arrangement and occasional discrete notes heard at other occasions. But it does include several buckets of flowers for the newly returned Tesman, flowers which Hedda later flings around the stage and even staples to the walls. There are no doors characters enter and exit by way of the fourth wall. Crucially, this indicates that at the close of the play Hedda cannot viably retreat offstage for her final breakdown and suicide, and so it happens onstage virtually in a blind spot between the other characters’ gazes.

Van Hove may overdo the Brack-is-to-blame point of view, but his stripped-down method, with a baseline of near-screen naturalism until certain intensity is required, performs beautifully at reinvigorating Ibsen.

To March 21,

Section: Arts

Peter Pan, National Theatre, London — overview

From left, Paul Hilton, Madeleine Worrall and Marc Antolin in ‘Peter Pan’ © Steve Tanner

With its pirates, fairies, fights and flights, it is small wonder that Peter Pan remains a staple of the festive season. But at its heart is also a deep poignancy: there is wistfulness in the truth it considers that all youngsters should grow up and grow old — and a reminder that the alternative is far sadder. A recent staging at London’s Open Air Theatre brought that sadness to the fore by setting the story against the 1st planet war.

Sally Cookson’s rich, nuanced production doesn’t go that far, but it brings out that bittersweet tone and is streaked with nostalgia. In Neverland the lost boys live in a pre-digital globe, exactly where tin cans are pressed into service as telephones, a bicycle pump becomes a walkie-talkie and a skateboard turns into a boat.

And, as the production bowls through the story, the performances deftly bring out the psychological layers in the story. Paul Hilton’s Peter is a gangly, wild, man-boy in a tight green suit that fitted him when — both fascinating and slightly sad. Madeleine Worrall’s Wendy is a wonderful blend of common sense and girlish excitement — in her we see the lady inside the girl, just as in her father (Felix Hayes) we see the boy inside the man. The staging is complete of such ironies: reminding us, for instance, that when kids play, they usually play at getting adults (soldiers, pirates, nurses), and that adults are usually far more childish than their juniors. Meanwhile the doubling of Anna Francolini as both the loving Mrs Darling and a sinister female Hook adds to the questions about conformity, maturity and ageing.

It is also masses of fun. Cookson reaffirms the connection amongst play and a play: the large Olivier stage right here is turned into a giant adventure playground, a celebration of the ingenuity of invention and the joy of storytelling. There can be few who don’t shiver at the method of the crocodile, composed as he is of bits of corrugated iron and a saw for a tail. There can be few too who do not really feel a pang of envy as Peter and Wendy soar and swoop over the stage. And when, finally, the audience is necessary, it is so keen to play along that the clapping to revive Saikat Ahamed’s grumpy little Tinkerbell begins extended prior to Peter has even asked for support.

To February four,

Section: Arts

Red Hot Chili Peppers, O2 Arena, London — ‘Intense’

Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the O2 Arena © Steve Gillett/Livepix

Even in the throes of their various drug problems, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ core duo of Anthony Kiedis and Michael “Flea” Balzary managed to radiate a really Californian athleticism. Now clean and approaching their mid-fifties, the pair appear preposterously buff, like ageing Hollywood action heroes cranking out sequels in a hit franchise.

The final time I saw them play, in a small venue debuting their mediocre 2011 album I’m with You, they seemed to be going through the motions. But the 1st of 3 shows at the O2 Arena brought a transformation. The energy on display was unsurprising: like a Tom Cruise film, any Chili Peppers performance requires a lot of operating around. The distinction was the staging’s verve and imagination.

It opened with bassist Flea on stage with guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and drummer Chad Smith. The trio struck up a wild jam, joined midway via by singer Kiedis. Then the lithe guitar intro to “Can’t Stop” cut by way of the noise and an immense grid of glowing lights descended over the stage and audience. Composed of 800 free of charge-hanging lights, it proceeded to rise up and down, undulate and kind various colours and patterns in time to the music, a coup de théâtre made by the arena-spectacle organization Tait.

Four new tracks have been played from their newest release The Getaway, a decent album filleted for its greatest moments. Outbreaks of jamming recurred between songs, a tribute to the option culture from which the band emerged in the 1980s. Then a familiar anthem would begin up, the likes of “Under the Bridge” or “Californication”, testament to their transformation into massive beasts of US arena rock.

It was an intense, skilful overall performance. Flea’s bass-playing was a blur of fingers and slapping thumb, a muscular rhythmic counterpart to Kiedis’s crisp vocals. Smith was a powerhouse drummer, hurling sticks into the audience in between beats. Klinghoffer played guitar as even though in an electric storm, the heroics of an axe wizard fighting for mastery more than the elemental forces at his fingertips.

A neat interpolation of Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” into “Give It Away” showed the manage that underlay the high-voltage showmanship. Flea’s acrobatic handstand stroll back to his spot for the encore summed up an evening of upended expectations. Gravity, like time, is just yet another obstacle to overcome for California’s immortals.

Section: Arts

Opportunity the Rapper, Brixton Academy, London — assessment

Hip-hop has reached peak ego. Kanye West’s onstage meltdowns during his US tour last week mark the tipping point, boos ringing out as he declared his assistance for Donald Trump amid rambling speeches, with one show curtailed right after 3 songs.

On the evening he cancelled a concert in Los Angeles, a prelude to the cancellation of the entire tour, a younger act from West’s property city of Chicago pointed a way forward. Opportunity the Rapper, 23, may possibly revere Kanye as a mentor (the pair have spoken of making an album with each other) but he does not share the older man’s rampant narcissism. The thousands chanting along to every word of his verses in a sold-out Brixton Academy underlined the shift in emphasis.

Opportunity, real name Chancellor Bennett, was backed by drummer Greg Landfair Jr, trumpeter Nico Segal and keyboardist Peter Cottontale the 4 contact themselves the Social Experiment. In contrast to the concentrate on the individual star at most rap gigs, right here the efficiency had an organic, collaborative good quality.

Cottontale’s organ licks and Segal’s trumpet solos supplied a mellow, jazzy backdrop for lyrics that went from addressing Chicago’s gun violence (“Angels”) to jokey nonsense rhymes (“Brain Cells”). Landfair Jr’s drumming and laptop-generated beats triggered by Cottontale came to the fore in livelier tracks such as “All Night” or “Juke Jam”, beefed up tonight from sultry R&ampB to party tune.

Despite a gruff edge to his voice, Chance’s rapping flowed easily, varying in volume with the swells and ebbs of his bandmates’ perform. An anti-Trump speech — his father is a Chicago Democrat who once worked for Barack Obama — ended with him claiming music as essential sustenance in black US culture. The sentiment was produced literal by the gospel influences in his own songs, a strain of religiosity neatly worked into the secular rap setting.

“Sunday Candy” was a warm, soulful tribute to household churchgoing. “Finish Line/Drown” had the sampled backing voices of a gospel choir, while the final quantity, “Blessings”, located him entering testifying mode with arms raised, chanting about being transported to the promised land. Post-peak-ego rap is about summoning a greater force, not becoming it.

Section: Arts

Paul Simon, Royal Albert Hall, London — evaluation

There were properly over 30 kinds of musical instrument on stage, from such humble staples as the tambourine to much more uncommon contraptions, at least to western ears, such as the single-stringed gopichand that Paul Simon was offered in India. Its twanging sound led him to dub it “the twanger”. “I have a way with words,” he told the Royal Albert Hall drily. His a variety of drummers resisted the urge to punctuate the remark with a “ba-dum ching”.

The show was the second of Simon’s two dates at the venue in support of his new album Stranger to Stranger, which finds the singer-songwriter, 75, in formidable form. Typically at gigs when a rock veteran unveils their most current material, punters locate an urgent excuse to go to the bar. Here it was a minor disappointment that only three new tracks have been played.

“The Werewolf” featured the gopichand and an infectious handclap beat in a tale of gothic US anxiousness, sung with reassuring wit by Simon, a genuine demonstration of his way with words. “Wristband” featured elastic bass-playing and deft vocals. “Stranger to Stranger” was a hazy shimmer of music with tenderly sung lyrics about the work necessary to preserve going: “It’s just tough operating/The exact same piece of clay/Day after day/Year following year.”

Simon’s present as a songwriter is the capability to make the challenging sound straightforward. The demonstration of this ability, aided by a crack band of nine, produced up for the modest distribution of new songs.

There was a profusion of notes and rhythms, a world of music arranged into supple melodies. Musicians moved between the scores of instruments, wielding gourds and cowbells, swapping piano or electric guitar for sax or trumpet. For the samba-influenced “The Clear Child” there were five drummers.

The trail led from Louisiana zydeco (“That Was Your Mother”) to the Amazon (“Spirit Voices”) and southern Africa (“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”). Simon &amp Garfunkel classics such as “The Boxer” sounded significantly less winsome, invigorated by the variety of musicianship. Simon rationed the high notes but otherwise his voice seemed to have hardly aged, a gentle lilt, nonetheless a token of optimism.

He devoted the 1960s satire of “Mrs Robinson” to the US election, which took spot the evening of the show, but otherwise forbore from political comment. His music inhabits a diverse space, a harmonious republic of sonorities. “Words and melodies, effortless harmony, old-time treatments,” he sang in “Stranger to Stranger”. For two and a half hours, in the hands of an old master, that remedy worked its magic.

Section: Arts

Dead Funny, Vaudeville Theatre, London — evaluation

From left, Steve Pemberton, Emily Berrington and Rufus Jones in ‘Dead Funny’ © Alastair Muir

I have identified for some years that Terry Johnson is a talented director, particularly of dark and clever comedies. Even so, I had never ever just before realised very how precise and gifted he is. In his revival of Dead Funny he can, and frequently does, turn the course of events or the mood of a scene correct around, pivoting on the merest inflection or the most fleeting pause.

It assists, of course, that he knows the play in such detail. Right after all, he wrote it, in 1994, and set it a couple of years earlier in the handful of days when comedians Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd both died. Fan group the Dead Funny Society hold a memorial party for Hill, only to find that the derisory turnout of 5 consists of two couples whose marriages are tested to the extremely point of destruction and a middle-aged man whose coming-out declaration in the midst of almost everything else seems utterly insignificant. The play enjoyed huge good results at the time but has been neglected as regards revivals. In Johnson’s own production, although, it stands revealed as each bit as enjoyable-however-discomfiting as the most mordant mid-period Alan Ayckbourn operate.

He also has a doozy of a cast. Katherine Parkinson is one of Britain’s finest purveyors of deadpan sarcasm. As the comedy dissident Ellie, she drips corrosive, frustrated dissatisfaction from every pore, and the one formal joke she tells is in such negative taste yet so completely delivered that we blush for shame even as we hoot. Rufus Jones as her husband, who requires Norman Wisdom more seriously than his marriage, is nearly as accomplished as Parkinson, despite the fact that his long suit is a sort of banal bombast. Ralf Little’s speciality is being amiably half a step behind, and Emily Berrington merely demands to take herself a small too seriously as the evening disintegrates around her, culminating in an practically totally unforced food fight total with classic custard-pie routines. Steve Pemberton is something but a fifth wheel, starting in major-crucial camp then steadily delving deeper as the tension mounts.

Johnson orchestrates matters into an evening of exquisitely agonising, embarrassing beauty. Thank heaven such a playwright and such a director found every single other, conveniently in the very same physique.

To February four,

Section: Arts

PJ Harvey, Brixton Academy, London — overview

The first of PJ Harvey’s two nights at Brixton Academy opened with the Dorset singer-songwriter and her nine-powerful band emerging from backstage gloom in a file wearing funereally dark garments. Two drummers led the way with a military tattoo as the musicians arranged themselves in an oval shape, a gothic encampment. The 1st notes they struck up were a grave blast of noise, fuelled by three horn players like Harvey on saxophone.

When she started singing, her voice rose higher above the ominous musical reverberations, telling the story of an old woman living in a deserted Balkan village. The song was “Chain of Keys” from her most current album The Hope Six Demolition Project, whose tracks had been inspired by Harvey’s visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and the US. “Imagine what her eyes have observed,” she sang of the elderly villager she saw throughout the Kosovo trip. “We ask but she won’t let us in.”

Harvey is playing an unusual hand in The Hope Six Demolition Project. Created as a functionality art piece in which she and her musicians could be watched recording its songs in the studio, it addresses war, poverty and pollution, a world out of kilter. But Harvey is a reluctant agitpopper. Shouts from the audience at the Academy met with implacable silence, only broken at the end when she introduced her band. Like the lady in “Chain of Keys”, Harvey prefers to keep her public at a distance, even when she desires to engage them in wider problems.

Her all-male backing band played their role as retainers with formidable discipline: a saxophonist’s superbly wild solo at the end of “The Ministry of Social Affairs” was a rare moment of peacockery. Otherwise the theatricality was left to Harvey, front of stage in an artfully revealing black outfit, unencumbered by her usual guitar. The sound mix was completely judged, from the immense bass saxophone wailing like the dawning of an awful thought in “The Ministry of Defence” to the numbed subtleties of the ambient lament “Dollar, Dollar”, which ended with a wonderfully mournful tenor sax solo.

Harvey’s vocals have been dramatic, varying notes and tones expertly. At occasions she got carried away with performing, or becoming seen to be performing: the way she palmed her cheeks like Munch’s “The Scream” throughout “Dollar, Dollar” was pure ham. But largely her movements were expressive, as when her imploring gesture at the finish of “Rid of Me” was cast into darkness by an extinguished spotlight. She is a class act.

Section: Arts