Friday 16 November 2018

Les Misérables

Curve, Leicester

14th November, 2018

Who am I?

Les Misérables is arguably the kingpin in producer Cameron Mackintosh’s career. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s and Alain Boublil’s musical, based on Victor Hugo’s novel (1862), has had a long history: Paris in 1980; Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning movie in 2012; and Trevor Nunn’s and John Caird’s RSC production which opened in 1985 and is still running at the Queen’s Theatre in the West End. Now, Laurence Connor and James Powell’s new production (seen on Broadway a few years ago) gives Les Mis a fresh look which will assure its longevity.

Matt Kinley’s design is perhaps the most startling change from the London version: the famous turntable is gone but a stunning series of projections keep the action fluid and add a cinematic layer. Kinley has designed these (expertly realised by 59 Productions) based on Victor Hugo’s original paintings, paying tribute to the original material, and adding authenticity and character. The move underground into the sewers of Paris is particular effective. Kinley’s design also gives Connor and Powell the opportunity and resources to reimagine some of the musical’s most iconic moments to create those of their own. Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt’s musical staging, Kinley’s set, Paule Constable’s lighting and John Cameron’s original orchestrations come together to make multiple spectacular moments. For instance, Javert’s death is uber-theatrical; the barricade scenes are excellently choreographed (and appear to be as much of the mechanical marvel as the original); and the use of candles scattered around the stage in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is an effective touch.

But some of the most effective moments are those where Connor and Powell excellent let individual characters’ stories to shine through all the impressive set pieces. They’ve also assembled a first rate cast. Killian Donnelly brings all his experience to Jean Valjean, allowing us to follow and invest in every stage of his story: from convict, to run-away, to mayor, to elderly man. It’s a story of retribution, rehabilitation, love and cruelty. Opposite him, Nic Greenshields’ Javert lets us feel for his piety and commitment to duty. Will Richardson is notable as Enjolras, leading a young revolution with hair flicking and trill-singing naivety and gallantry, leading up to his memorable final moments. This subplot is sometimes easy to forget, but he and his fellow fighters show the bravery, hope and perhaps foolishness of their cause. Martin Ball and Sophie-Louse Dann provide great comic relief as the Thénardiers. Tegan Bannister’s Eponine is another stand-out performer. She shows her love and the character’s ‘street smart’, singing a powerful ‘On My Own’. The ensemble are all committed to their roles and this show but I should give mention to former Curve company member Mary-Jean Caldwell; having seen her shine in community productions such as Oliver! and Sweeney Todd it's lovely to see her successful move into professional theatre.

The score is a masterpiece, living up to the epic proportions set by Hugo, with rousing ballads made up of sweeping strings, and pummelling percussion to keep the stakes high and story moving. And like all great musicals, perhaps even more so, it tackles immense themes of the human condition and explores these through fully-realised characters.This is a superlative production which I’m sure will be seen in London itself one day. Popular theatre at its best.

Les Misérables plays at Curve, Leicester until 24th November before touring the UK and Ireland.
Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.Credit: Matt Crockett.

Thursday 15 November 2018

Rock Of Ages

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

14th November, 2018, matinee

“I just wanna Rock!”

Having come to Rock of Ages with no prior reference other than the 2012 film version (mostly memorable for featuring a surprisingly entertaining performance from Tom Cruise) I was… let’s say unprepared for the stage show. It’s an altogether louder, more unsavoury affair.

Lightyears away from the sun-dappled romance of La La Land, the LA of Rock of Ages’ mid-to-late 1980’s is a grimy cesspit of drugs, booze and other sticky substances that don’t bear contemplating. All that dare enter the backstreet bars in search of fame and fortune are doomed to failure. The show opens to the slamming riffs of David Lee Roth’s ‘Just Like Paradise’. Quite.

Emceeing our journey into the world of pleather, hair-crimping and screaming guitar solos is ex-drummer turned sound guy, Lonny (Lucas Rush). Lonny’s role is to simultaneously take the piss out of musical theatre and 80’s hair-rock, as his frequent pirouetting, jazz hands and jokes about White Snake and ‘serious theatre’ demonstrate. Rush builds up a rapport with the audience and plays Lonny with enough tongue-in-cheek humour to just about get away with the more questionable aspects of the narrative.

Drew (Luke Walsh) is a cleaner at the Bourbon Room bar but dreams of rocking the world as his superstar musician alter-ego, Wolfgang von Colt. There he meets Sherrie (Danielle Hope), a wannabe actress and the girl of his dreams. After a series of misunderstandings and one-night-stands the two are separated; Drew is signed to a record label and Sherrie is forced to work as a stripper in the Venus Gentleman’s Club. Add into the mix rock frontman and serial perv, Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday), a couple of camp Germen business men, and a ‘right on’ activist named Regina (rhymes with vagina) and you’ve got a musical that leaps from oddity to oddity.

Post-#MeToo, Rock of Ages seems borderline offensive in its objectification of women and presents a world in which sexual assault and exploitation is a just a joke and results in no ramifications. Knowing that Strictly Come Dancing’s Kevin Clifton is due to take over the role of Jaxx next year one does wonder how his squeaky-clean image will be affected by blasé jokes about statutory rape… (yes, I know it’s only ‘acting’, but it seems an odd role with which to make his stage debut). Chris D’Arienzo’s book also features ‘jokes’ about Nazis, the LGBT community, bestiality, mental illness and more. It’s fair to say the lack of irony means most of them don’t exactly have the audience rolling in their seats. The best gags are the cleaner ones, believe it or not. Rush’s general mickey-taking is amusing, and there are some good gags at the expense of the film and the casting of Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy as Dennis.

The second act certainly shows more heart with its celebration of friendship (‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’) – although the feelings that Lonny and Dennis admit they have for each other are decidedly non-explicit, a weird contrast to the endless tit and cock gags that precede it – and expressions of regret (‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’ is a musical highlight). The finale featuring karaoke classic, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is a rousing high to end on, although I still begrudge being told to ‘get up and join in’.

Danielle Hope is as watchable as ever in a role that is quite a departure from her Dorothy days. She makes the audience care about Sherrie, a role which is otherwise underwritten, playing her with a characteristic warmth and honesty. As Drew, Walsh is an undeniably excellent singer, reaching high notes most can only dream of, and his relative innocence is a nice contrast to the other male characters’ sleaziness.

My bewilderment is perhaps influenced by seeing Rock of Ages at a midweek matinee; with a half-full auditorium of less-than-enthused retired couples it must have been a chore for the cast to raise a party atmosphere. Yet, for what should be an uplifting piece of escapism, the show is ponderously pessimistic. My prescription: less grime, more glitter and female empowerment.

Rock of Ages is touring the UK, currently booking up until July 2019. For more information please visit:

The cast of Rock of Ages.
Credit: Richard Davenport.

The Mountaintop

Curve, Leicester

13th November, 2018

The baton passes on

Katori Hall’s 2009 play premiered at the Theatre503 (with few more than 60 seats) in 2009 starring David Harewood. It went on to transfer to the West End, have a Broadway production starring Samuel L. Jackson, and beat Red, ENRON and Jerusalem to win the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Roy Alexander Weise’s new production is now touring the UK after playing at the Young Vic last year. The night before Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on the balcony outside of his Memphis motel room, Hall’s play takes us inside Room 306 where he was staying. After a few flirtatious exchanges with the maid who brings him coffee, King is made to confront his work, ideals, past and future in a taut 100 minutes which pushes the boundaries of the two-hander.

Weise’s production is meticulously realised. For instance, we see King methodically check the mouthpiece of the phone, the lampshade and the bedside table for bugs. George Dennis’ sound design evocatively creates the sounds of the cheap motel room to ensure the action is concentrated and rigorous. And in a moment of brilliant direction, as King says he’ll keep marching until the day he dies, he steps forward into the plume of smoke that maid, Camae (Rochelle Rose), exhales. It’s a beautifully subtle moment which highlights the pertinence of the line as well as presages an enigmatic aura around Camae’s presence. In Gblolagan Obisesan’s full portrayal of King, we see the man and not just a historical figure. We see him tire with the weight of his toils on his shoulders; we can see the fire that drives his life; we see his faults and his anger; and we see his peerless oratory powers.

Hall’s text is a creeping force of nature. At once mundane and extraordinary, a characteristic exemplified in both King and Camae. The opening moments of the play see King take a piss, order coffee and a pack of his favourite Pall Malls, and call his daughter to say ‘goodnight’. King repeatedly says ‘I am a man’; and that he is – father, preacher, sinner – but he is also a beacon of light, emblematic of great love and great suffering for generations to come. Thus, Hall’s creation of Camae is a perfect match for a figure as monolithic as King. Camae is an earthy woman with a taste for whisky, cigarettes and sex, yet when she unleashes a torrential hymn-like sermon worthy of the great man himself we sense that not everything is as it seems. Camae, like King, also has a greater purpose. As it becomes clear that Camae has been summoned to the motel room to deliver more than just coffee, we see Hall’s play turn from an intimate reimagining of a conversation in a motel room to something more ethereal.

The play’s final moments are extraordinary. Rose leads us through the years following King’s death up to the present day, circling the motel room which comes alive with Nina Dunn’s video design. Hall’s text gains a poetry and musicality as we see historic achievements and struggles in equality: from Harvey Milk to ‘If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit’, the Stonewall riots, the AIDS epidemic and 9/11, to Condoleezza Rice and the election of Barack Obama. Rose’s performance gains a great physicality here, and Rahja Shakiry’s set cleverly seems to be dwarfed against the play’s flight from 1968. In 2009, seeing the newly-inaugurated Obama must have given the end of the play a huge sense of hope. Now, in 2018, Dunn’s video pans out from a still of Obama, to Hillary Clinton, to Trump. ‘The baton’, indeed, ‘passes on’, and to quote another great American play, ‘the great work continues’.

The Moutaintop plays Curve, Leicester until 17th November before continuing its tour at Bristol Old Vic (21st – 24th Nov) and Birmingham Rep (27th Nov-1st Dec).
Gbolahan Obisesan and Rochelle Rose in The Mountaintop. Credit: Helen Murray

Monday 12 November 2018

A Very Very Very Dark Matter

Bridge Theatre

10th November, 2018, matinee

And he exited to thunderous applause

Hans Christian Andersen, the celebrated Danish writer of children’s fairy tales, is a fraud. In his attic, caged in a 3ft by 3ft box, is a Congolese pygmy woman whose foot he’s cut off. Marjory (the name he’s given her) is the greatest writer, perhaps bar one, alive. She’s created 1002 stories most of which she knows by heart. Her latest, The Little Black Mermaid, has once again been bastardised by Hans only for him to pass it off as his own. At least, this is according to the world of Martin McDonagh’s new play, which stars Jim Broadbent and Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles.

Broadbent is excellent at conveying the prosaic, gleeful strangeness of the utterly detestable Andersen. There are unsavoury jokes about the English, the Irish, the Spanish, the Chinese, Belgians, Italians, Africa, black people, women, dwarves, people with mental health problems, gypsies, etc. But the biggest joke of all is on the successful white man: thick, untalented and selfish, his ignorance and general prickish attitude on show for us to laugh at in all its glory. For the most part, his idiotic audacity is funny (including a good joke about German theatre directors), especially in his scenes with Charles Dickens. Hilariously played by Phil Daniels, Dickens, along with his family, is put upon by Andersen for ‘five facking weeks!’. Whilst Dickens’ novels are all too long for Andersen to bother to read, Dickens is perhaps worse: another con, a rubbish father and an adulterous husband.

Amongst this amusing conceit is some sort of plot which attempts to satirise imperialism: two Belgian Siamese twin ghosts (?!) have come back in time (?!) to seek revenge on Marjory for killing them in the future, a plan which is foiled by a Chinese haunted accordion (?!) which really contains a machine gun(?!). Makes no sense to me either, but oh well, ‘Fucking Belgians!’

Unusually for McDonagh, the play is underwritten and the plotting is in need of tightening (this time travelling subplot of the Belgian imperialists is especially lazily handled). What’s more is that, in an already swift 90 minutes, a lot of it feels extraneous. It could have been a focused, five-handed chamber piece rather than giving very good actors such as Paul Bradley and Elizabeth Berrington the thankless and ultimately superfluous roles that they have. Also frustrating is that the humour is occasionally incongruous. For example one of the play’s funniest scenes sees Dickens’ astonished bemusement at Hans’ questioning of whether he has a Marjory of his own. However, we later discover that he in fact does, and therefore must have known to what Hans was referring. The joke that Hans looked like an utter madman in the previous scene is therefore illogical.

Elsewhere, Ackles makes a blistering UK stage debut. Her performance is so assured, not only matching but often exceeding that of her captors. Anna Fleischle’s attic design (along with Chris Fisher’s illusions) is shadowy and characterful, capturing a magic and odd Christmas spirit in the play.

I stand by what I wrote about The Lieutenant of Inishmore earlier this year:

‘In an age where representation is often (rightly) at the forefront of a playwright’s work and where difficult subjects should be treated as such, it is refreshing to see a play where the writer has gone completely where they want to go’.

Once again, McDonagh achieves, even tests the boundaries, of this ethic but this latest play is in much need of some dramaturgy. As it is, A Very Very Very Dark Matter lacks the coherence and pleasing culmination of his other works. Despite the ‘upbeat ending’, this play displays none of McDonagh’s trademark pitch-black farce. The audacious situations portrayed in Leiutenant and Hangmen are superbly timed, and escalate to buoyant climaxes (audible gasps from the audience as they stay one step ahead of the characters; the roar of laughter in those final few seconds of Lieutenant) whereas here the chopping and changing of settings, incomprehensible time scales and underpowered finale are a damp squib in comparison.

In Nicholas Hytner’s Balancing Acts, he writes of a story that McDonagh told him about Shakespeare keeping a pygmy woman in a box. Shakespeare gives her a stab every time he wants a new play written, but the best plays she keeps to herself, writing them in blood on the inside of the box:

‘…the box with the world’s best play goes up in flames, so nobody ever gets to read it. Maybe Shakespeare’s relationship with the pygmy in the box is Martin’s relationship with his own imagination. Somewhere, smeared in blood on the inside, is the best play ever written’ (page 65).

A Very Very Very Dark Matter isn’t that, and it also raises questions as to how Hytner programmes shows at the Bridge. For now, back in the box!

A Very Very Very Dark Matter plays at the Bridge Theatre until 6th January, 2019.
Johnetta Eula'Mae Ackles and Jim Broadbent. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Friday 9 November 2018

The Madness of George III

Nottingham Playhouse

8th November, 2018, matinee


This island reduced to itself alone,

a great state mouldered into rottenness and decay

I last saw Alan Bennett’s 1991 play not long after I started university, before I started to blog. It was part of a pre-West End tour (starring the always watchable David Haig), a regional run designed to iron out the creases and allow actors to settle into their roles before the ‘proper’ run. One might say theatre outside of the metropolis, just as someone describes Lincolnshire-hailed Dr Willis, is ‘drab, provincial and unconnected’. But that is not the case in Adam Penford’s superb production of Bennett’s timeless – certainly timely – play. It stars Mark Gatiss, Adrian Scarborough and Debra Gillet (the latter two last seen together in the National’s Exit the King over the summer), and will be the first production outside of London to be broadcast as part of NT Live since its inauguration in 2009.

Whereas Christopher Luscombe’s production was played out on an enormous scroll, Robert Jones’ design launches us directly into a rambling palace: a series of grand rooms with chandeliers and high ceilings, all veiled by a magnificent purple front cloth. Although having recently lost America and fearing the loss of the remaining colonies, King George is his eccentric, knowledgeable self, qualifying phrases with his characteristic ‘What what’. As his memory and verbosity disintegrates, a series of doctors wheedle their way around the court, each more incompetent and blindly assured than the last. Meanwhile Prime Minister Pitt, with sparring Whigs and a double-dealing chancellor encroaching on his territory, struggles to keep afloat a government that relies on the patronage of the monarch. With the King disengaged, the country is up for grabs and the political bickering and grasping egotism of the land’s rulers posits a keen counterpoint to the very human struggle at the centre of the play.

‘Caring’, to quote Bennett’s Lady in the Van, ‘is about shit’. As with Allelujah! at the Bridge this summer, Bennett affords the King a huge amount of human depth, most memorably through an interest in the scatological, as well as lucidity and profundity, sometimes when he’s in the depths of his illness. There are some fascinating insights regarding the importance of the self and the importance of seeming; and the trappings of power set against the trappings of madness. This is especially apparent in the scene which ends the first act. Strapped into a chair, not unlike a throne, with his court surrounding him, Gatiss writhes and screams that he is the king. This is returned by Scarborough’s Dr Willis correcting him: ‘No sir, you are the patient’. It is an exceptionally exciting scene to watch which plays with depictions of power, from the clothes he wears to the positioning of Gatiss on the stage.

This offers a great part for an actor, one which Gatiss relishes. His vocal and physical tics are memorable, while never reducing mental illness to a series of quirks. Gatiss gives a remarkably touching performance, and I often found my eyes smarting and my chest aching in empathy. The torrent of words and the King’s obvious frustration with his own uncontrollable behaviour is wholly believable (and relatable, speaking of my own experiences with mental illness) and exhausting to watch. Yet another mark of genius lies in Bennett’s capacity to produce fully rounded characters, the King is not a figure of ridicule, some of his political leanings and personal views may be unpalatable, yet the universality of his distress is an immense leveller; gone is the historical patriarch and all related preconceptions, before us, George is simply a man suffering from the insufferable.

Wilf Scolding also gives a bold performance as the Prince of Wales, squealing at the delight of becoming Prince Regent. The foppish ignorance of the two princes is a delicious contrast to the sycophantic snivelling of the trio of doctors, Gatiss’ decrepit majesty, and Scarborough’s harsh prosaicness.

Previously an associate at the National under Nicholas Hytner (the director of the original production), Penford brings a lot of authority to this production and, in a play that is somewhat short on great female roles, should be praised for his gender neutral casting. Above all, he lets the play’s resonances speak for themselves: the unstable leader, the queasy progeny between King and country, and the ignorance and trepidation with which mental health is addressed (something which thankfully is getting better, but still has a long way to go). Bennett’s play is sensitive yet satirical, regal yet humane, uproarious one moment and tear-jerking the next. Penford’s production is a lush and pertinent celebration of Bennett at his best.

The Madness of George III plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 24th November.

It will be broadcast as part of NT Live on 20th November.

Mark Gatiss, Debra Gillet and the company of The Madness of George III.  Credit: Manuel Harlan