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

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

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

The Front Page, Broadhurst Theatre, New York

Do you long for the glory days of hot-metal typesetting and clattering typewriters, when journalists have been “crummy hobos complete of dandruff” who wore hats indoors whilst barking “exclusives” into candlestick telephones? Do you miss the elemental frisson of a good hanging (preferably by 5 o’clock, in time for the early edition)?

Then Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s screwball comedy The Front Web page is the show for you. Initially performed in 1928, the play requires location entirely in the press area of a Chicago courthouse among a group of newspapermen awaiting the execution of a cop-killing revolutionary.

Issues start slowly as the hacks and numerous hangers-on struggle to invest significantly life into their dated wisecracks. Patience can be a journalistic virtue, but director Jack O’Brien might nevertheless have shaved ten or 15 minutes off the first act. The pace quickens with the introduction of star reporter Hildy Johnson, played by John Slattery with the exact same arch panache he brought to the part of Roger Sterling in television’s Mad Males.

Hildy says he’s via with the news racket and on his way to New York to take up a effectively-paid job in — wait for it — advertising. But then his editor Walter Burns (Nathan Lane) shows up and, properly, who could say no to Nathan Lane? His arrival transforms what had been a humdrum affair into a farcical tour de force. Like a theatrical centaur, Lane charges about with brawny comic power, hauling the rest of the cast up to a larger plane of funniness.

John Goodman, initially lacklustre as the sheriff, evolves into a magnificently hulking embodiment of all-American stupidity although Holland Taylor similarly requires time to unearth the sublime zaniness in Hildy’s putative mother-in-law.

Lane also succeeds in generating us stop thinking about Cary Grant, who played the identical portion in the 1940 film adaptation His Girl Friday. Pairing Grant with Rosalind Russell as Hildy added an further dimension to the story, and The Front Web page could certainly do with an added woman’s touch at times. But Lane and Slattery still operate up a captivating bromance of their personal.

To January 29,

Section: Arts

The Boys in the Band, Park Theatre, London — assessment

It is shocking that this was shocking just a few decades ago basically simply because of its topic matter. In 1968, the year ahead of Stonewall, Mart Crowley filled a stage with openly gay characters — a ground-producing moment. Adam Penford’s revival is, then, in element, a reminder of an age when that act alone was radical. But what emerges now, with the shock worth removed, is the drama’s enduring insight into the deep psychological damage done by homophobia. It is worth reflecting that there are nevertheless no openly homosexual footballers in the English Premier League.

In the safety of his New York apartment, Michael is hosting a birthday celebration for Harold: a likelihood for a group of gay pals to get collectively. But this safe cocoon is threatened by the unexpected arrival of his old college buddy, who is both straight and strait-laced. Michael’s determined efforts to disguise the nature of the guests to the dinner-jacketed gate-crasher produce a lot of slapstick comedy. But beneath all this, there is a dark lagoon of painful emotions. Ultimately they break via: first in a physical attack and then, as the night wears on, in a cruel parlour game.

Mark Gatiss and Jack Derges © Darren Bell

Harold (played by Mark Gatiss with waspish brilliance and professional timing) may possibly be the supposed centre of interest but the genuine concentrate of the play is Michael, whose brittle one particular-liners and sharp put-downs mask a corrosive self-loathing that at some point pours out. Ian Hallard doesn’t hold back on the sheer nastiness of his character’s game-playing, but he also gradually reveals the damage that drives it: the internalisation of a lifetime of guilt, fear and secrecy.

What hasn’t lasted so effectively is the play’s structure. The scene-setting opening is extended and somewhat clunky and there are some terribly unconvincing telephone calls and awkward plot twists. Meanwhile the understandable selection to have a kaleidoscopic range of gay characters in order to represent the various struggles within the neighborhood now appears a bit contrived.

Penford’s staging doesn’t overcome these issues, but it does consist of some superb laugh-out-loud moments (a joyous dance routine, for instance) and brings a actual shiver to the violence, both physical and psychological. And it brings out the emotional truths in the drama. The final celebration game, in which Michael forces every single man to telephone the person he loves and tell them so, is painful, poignant and beautifully delivered: not least by Greg Lockett, James Holmes and Ben Mansfield.

To October 30,

Section: Arts

The Alchemist, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon — assessment

Mark Lockyer in ‘The Alchemist’. Photo: Helen Maybanks©Helen Maybanks

Mark Lockyer in ‘The Alchemist’. Photo: Helen Maybanks

In the Royal Shakespeare Business gift shop in Stratford-upon-Avon you can purchase a Shakespearean Insult Generator kit, but old Bill was as nothing compared with his near-modern Ben Jonson. He is all too seldom staged these days, due to the fact his language refuses to be tamed. It can be dense, classical, or inventively vulgar . . .  sometimes all at once, as when one particular of the conspirators right here remarks of his companion operating on a single of their con victims, “She have to milk his epididymis.” It is virtually incomprehensible (the epididymis is element of the male genital plumbing), but sounds flamboyantly filthy and so gets the job carried out with verve.

The master of a London townhouse has fled to steer clear of the plague his butler has invited in a fraudulent alchemist and a whore, and together they gull a succession of victims ranging from a foolish but ambitious tradesman in search of a type of Jacobean feng shui reading to an epicurean nobleman (named, in fact, Sir Epicure Mammon) and a cult of religious dissenters who alike seek the limitless wealth of the Philosopher’s Stone.


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It’s fundamentally an excuse for a series of swift-modify comic turns, interwoven at ever-rising pace as with the greatest classic farces, till — also farcically — everything unravels at after.

The oddest issue about Polly Findlay’s revival is that it is not ostentatiously frenzied. Ken Nwosu as Face the butler, Mark Lockyer as Subtle the grouchy alchemist and Siobhán McSweeney as Dol Typical perform with the comparative calm and surely the assurance of practised swindlers. (Corin Buckeridge’s score suggestions us the wink with an overture of assorted movie themes including that of The Sting.) They can even improvise arguments that are virtually as vicious as their true ones.

Nevertheless, without having appearing to, the pace and intensity steadily build, stoked by the likes of Ian Redford’s hymns to excess as Mammon and Tom McCall, who manages to be at once languid and turbulent as a young man who desires to discover how to be fashionably quarrelsome.

And you can’t say the RSC are not acquiring their money’s worth out of that life-size plaster crocodile hanging from the ceiling: this isn’t its initial appearance this season . . .  it’ll be getting a programme biog subsequent.

To October 1,

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Section: Arts

The Suicide, National Theatre, London — ‘Some very funny moments’

THE SUICIDE by El-Bushra, , Writer - Suhayla El-Bushra after Erdman, Director - Nadia Fall, Designer - Ben Stones, Lighting Designer - Paule Constable, Video Designer - Andrzej Goulding, Music - Danilo 'DJ' Walde, The National Theatre, London, UK, 2016©Johan Persson

It’s refreshingly various, that’s for certain. The National Theatre requires Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 comedy and refashions it as contemporary satire, in which a single poor sap’s woes become the focal point of a disconsolate, austerity-reduce, hashtag-fixated Britain. It can be entertaining and wise: Suhayla El-Bushra’s script has pith, venom and some very funny moments and Nadia Fall’s staging brings a surreal, jagged, hip-hop style to it, breaking up the action with freeze frames, drum solos and large selfie projections. But it’s also pretty hit-and-miss – it drifts perilously in locations, the style feels uncertain and the cast often struggle to hold the comedy airborne.

Sam Desai (played extremely engagingly by Javone Prince) is in a miserable state: his advantages have been sanctioned, his marriage is turning stale, he lives in a cramped flat with his overworked wife and oversexed mother-in-law. In a moment of despair, he threatens to end it all. That would be the end of it – had some tiny busybody not filmed his howl of pain on a smartphone and flashed it around the globe. Soon Sam has grow to be a lead to célèbre: a host of individuals come smarming by means of his door to persuade him that carrying out himself in would certainly be the ideal thing – for them.

Exactly where the original takes on Stalin’s Russia, El-Bushra brings us a host of modern scourges. There’s the exhausted social worker who wants to use Sam’s demise to protest against cuts to mental wellness solutions, and the would-be councillor who spies a chance to cut them additional. There’s a preening urban poet, a vacuous hipster café owner, a cheating girlfriend and, loudest of all, Patrick: a trustafarian film-maker (Paul Kaye, outrageously vain and funny) who desires to make Sam the symbol of all that is wrong with society. Quickly Sam is getting the time of his life – so lengthy as he promises to finish it at noon.

Behind all the comedy there are of course serious political points: about suicide among young males, about welfare cuts, about a society where even despair can turn into a USP (it’s no accident that the action takes place in the battered Clement Attlee creating and one scene shows Margaret Thatcher busy monetising heaven). There are too a lot of targets and broad caricatures, nonetheless, and the production labours to preserve it all afloat and to sustain the tone. It’s at its greatest on the twitchy solipsism of social media. “I’d strike quickly,” Patrick’s earnest girlfriend (Lizzie Winkler) advises Sam. “Before men and women get bored.”

To June 25,

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Section: Arts

Small Eyolf, Almeida Theatre, London— ‘Harrowing but disjointed’

Jolyon Coy and Lydia Leonard in ‘Little Eyolf'. Photo: Hugo Glendinning©Hugo Glendinning

Jolyon Coy and Lydia Leonard in ‘Little Eyolf’. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Richard Eyre has an outstanding track record with Ibsen: his earlier two revivals at this address have been an award-winning Hedda Gabler and 2013’s searing Ghosts . With Tiny Eyolf he tends to make it, if you like, a trio of miserable marriages and desperate housewives. But exactly where Ghosts cohered superbly, Small Eyolf proves a trickier prospect. Once again Eyre, in his own adaptation, distils the original to concentrate on the — shockingly honest — emotional journey of the story and its potent mix of naturalism and symbolism. But the result this time is far more hit and miss and despite a brilliant lead in Lydia Leonard’s Rita, it eventually feels rather disjointed and unconvincing.

Where Tim Hatley’s set for Ghosts was a claustrophobic interior, right here it is a bleached wooden veranda overlooking a spectacular fjord landscape, which modifications mood with the shifting clouds and with the equally craggy and pitiless emotional terrain of the play. That neat wooden deck soon becomes both refuge and prison for the central couple Rita and Alfred, trapped in a sexless marriage and plagued with guilt more than their diabled son.

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Sex lurks like a rat beneath the floorboards. Jolyon Coy’s stiff, bookish Alfred is plagued by feelings he daren’t even contemplate for his sister (Eve Ponsonby, deftly charting her character’s journey from devotion to dismay) any desire he had for his wife Rita has burned out, transformed into physical revulsion by the reality that their boy’s injury occurred when they were creating adore. Previously he has buried himself in writing a book, but when he announces that he is henceforth going to devote himself to small Eyolf, Rita’s misery, jealousy and aggravation boil over. In a vicious outburst, she even laments the very existence of Eyolf — only to bitterly regret this when, shortly afterwards, the child drowns.

Leonard is very some thing in this scene: ugly, cruel, pitiful, and suddenly pathetic when she strips off in the hope of seducing her appalled husband. And, following the child’s death, she and Coy rake painfully through the guilt and grief that both join and divide them. There’s a frankness to these exchanges that even now is excruciating, harrowingly delivered by Leonard and Coy.

But for all this, their anguish remains curiously unmoving. Eyre’s stark, spare staging embraces the rawness of the psychological drama. But it can’t overcome the fact that the plot shifts driving that drama typically feel engineered or heavy-handed or make the shift towards redemption at the end fairly ring accurate.

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Section: Arts