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Category Archives: Music

Matilda The Musical, Cambridge Theatre

<Pokes keyboard>

Is this thing on…?

<Blows dust off screen>

…ah, there you are. Good. Yes, it’s been a little while since any reviews appeared here, but that’s because it’s been a little while since I’ve been to the theatre. What can I say? Send me tickets to things and I’ll write about them.

In the meantime I can promise to write a review at least once a year, because once a year I take my god-daughter to a show as part of her Christmas present, and this year that show was Matilda, which happily has just opened in the West End. We actually went en famille, because we decided that even the younger brother might enjoy it, which he duly did. I think it would be hard to find a demographic to whom it wouldn’t appeal, because – like all of Roald Dahl’s children’s books – the story is dark and funny and exciting, but Tim Minchin’s songs are so big-hearted and good-natured that you can’t help but smile all the way through them.

Whether for reasons of privacy or nerves or something else, the website doesn’t show pictures of the children, so I’m not entirely sure which Matilda we saw, but she was very good – not at all stage schooly, which is quite often a problem with children in musicals – and with a sense of physical comedy that I’ve rarely seen in an adult, let alone in an eleven-year-old (probably). Carrying a show this bombastic and exuberant is a big task, but she pulled it off with relish and was lovely to watch throughout.

The other star of the show is Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull. In the book, and in the 1996 Danny Devito film (which is excellent, and if you haven’t seen it you should rent it now), Miss Trunchbull is properly, unrelentingly, terrifying. For the musical version, someone has realised that characters in musicals can either sing or be scary (would Oliver Reed have made such an intimidating Bill Sykes if he’d bellowed out “My Name” in the film?), and sensibly opted for the former. Carvel’s physical performance is unique and mesmerising and extraordinary, but it’s not frightening. Which is fine: apart from anything else, there are quite a lot of children in the audience, and the tickets are very expensive, so you don’t want them hiding under their seats for half of the show.

Paul Kaye and Josie Walker are also excellent as Matilda’s parents in what is a true ensemble piece, some of the highlights coming in the big musical numbers which don’t have a great deal to do with the plot, but which jolly the thing along and provide the sorts of thrills you need when you take children to the theatre. My only slight problem was that in places the lyrics weren’t quite audible, because they were fast and clever and lots of people were singing at once. It’s a problem that I also sometimes have with Sondheim, and if you’re going to be compared to a songwriter, it might as well be him, so it’s not a real gripe. Tim Minchin is above all a happy comedian (there aren’t many, although I got into a fight on the internet when I said that recently), and that shines through in his songs, which are sweet and funny and heartwarming.

It’s not often that a new musical comes along that seems to be everything a musical should be – Wicked is the closest thing we’ve had recently, but I’ve never been quite able to fall in love with Wicked. I fell in love with Matilda the minute it started, and if you sent me a ticket I’d go and see it again tomorrow.

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Posted by on January 19, 2012 in Comedy, Music, Theatre

 

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Wicked, Apollo Victoria

Wicked might just be the perfect musical. The songs, the story and the staging are all pretty much unimproveable, and every member of the present cast, without exception, is as good a singer as they are an actor as they are a dancer. I enjoyed it even more this time than when I first saw it a couple of years ago, and I came away and told everyone I knew how good it was.

And yet, I can’t quite bring myself to fall in love with it. It’s almost as though – and I know how silly this sounds – it was designed to be clinically perfect, rather than fun. It is fun – lots of fun – but it’s almost so good that nothing about it seems quite human. It’s on too grand a scale to be engaged with.

None of which should put you off seeing it. I was particularly blown away by the actress currently playing Elphaba, the lead character, and completely astounded several days later to discover that she is Rachel Tucker, whom I hated with an unnecessary and undeserved venom when she looked likely to win the part of Nancy in I’d Do Anything.  I disliked her, in fact, for the same sort of reasons I can’t love Wicked: an icy-cold professionalism that seemed to get in the way of the real person. But in this she’s just sensational, with a voice and a physical presence that deserves to be seen over and over again. She also suits being green.

That’s not to take anything away from the rest of the cast, who are uniformly brilliant. It’s hard to know where to look at times because everyone is so shimmeringly watchable that you don’t want to wrench your gaze away from any of them. And the whole piece is so dazzlingly over the top that in the end you have to stop worrying about where to look and just let it wash over you in a wave of wonder.

The songs are good, and the lyrics are excellent. You can’t get much neater, for example, than this:

And helping you with your ascent al-
-lows me to feel so parental
For I am a sentimental man

I’m not sure it translates to the written page, so you might just have to trust me, but it’s full of lovely little wordy flourishes like that.

The story is equally smart, with some clever nods to The Wizard of Oz which will make you want to go and watch the film again even though it’s long and boring and Judy Garland is the only good thing about it. I had forgotten how it’s wrapped up, but the ending in particular is touching and lovely.

So there’s literally nothing wrong with Wicked. Nothing at all. And if you want to take your mum, or your god-daughter or fiancée, on an outing to a London show, I don’t think you could do better. Just, well, it didn’t make me cry, and honestly, everything makes me cry. It sent shivers down my spine and made my fingertips tingle, but it didn’t make me cry, and I can’t quite tell you why.

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2011 in Music, Theatre

 

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Love Never Dies (again)

After a short hiatus in my theatregoing due to a parsimonious end to the year (I quit my job in October, so I have been avoiding spending money until the new one starts next week), I have somehow arranged it so that this Christmas I am seeing two shows which I have seen before. The upcoming godparental gift is a trip to Wicked, which the godchild and I saw last year and which she liked so much she wanted to go again rather than see anything else, and last night I went back to see Love Never Dies with my mother and sister, whose Christmas present it was.

Most of what I said last time around still stands, although some small but significant changes have been made which – mostly – resolve the problems I thought it had before. It’s almost impossible to explain this in any more detail without giving away the story, which I don’t want to do, so I’m going to have to be mysterious and tell you that although the central problem with the plot still stands, some smallish alterations have been made which make a lot more sense of the rest of it, either by giving a better logic to certain characters’ actions or simply by making them resemble more closely the characters we first met in Phantom. You don’t want the phantom to be all good, after all.

What I can say with confidence is that it’s a better show now than it was in March, although one change has been made which makes no sense at all, which is a prologue featuring the phantom himself and the show’s best song, Til I Hear You Sing, both of which are treats that I think we should have to wait a bit longer for.

Ramin Karimloo is still excellent as the phantom, and Sierra Boggess has blossomed as Christine and now gives us the spine-tingling vocal performance I felt she didn’t quite manage last time around. The duets between the two of them are, as they should be, the high points of the piece, although there is spirited competition from the other main characters, especially Raoul and Gustave, who together form the other sides of what is now a love quadrangle. The relationships between the four central characters have been subtly adjusted with small changes to the lyrics and plot, and it makes the show much more cohesive than it felt before. The ending is still all wrong, but it’s less all wrong than it used to be.

In summary: yes.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2010 in Music, Theatre

 

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Cabaret das Musical, Tipi am Kanzleramt, Berlin

This is a bit special: the venue is a giant tent in the middle of a park, a few hundred yards from the Reichstag. You get there a couple of hours before the show starts, because it’s a fully functioning restaurant, though not quite dinner theatre, because all the eating happens before the performance (they bring you the cheese course during the interval; the waitresses are dressed as flappers). By the time it kicks off you are well into your second beer and the atmosphere is more or less exactly as you imagine it would be in the “verruchte Kit Kat Klub”.

The emcee appears, wandering from table to table and flirting with the audience, before clambering onto the (not especially large) stage and launching into Wilkommen. So far so conventional, you think. But then, from out of nowhere, a train looms out of the smoke and steams across the stage. It’s very effective – it takes a second to realise that of course it isn’t a full-sized train, it’s all done with forced perspective, but you are jolted immediately into another place. And then Clifford Bradshaw steps off the train, and the story begins.

They get around the language thing easily: Clifford announces at the start “I’m American, but I speak some German,” which he proceeds to do for the rest of the play. Sally Bowles simply refuses to speak anything but German to him, and in the couple of songs she sings in English, her accent is so bizarre that we realise her claim to be from England is as fabricated as the rest of her persona. This leads to a lovely moment when she claims to have “shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea” – the longing with which she says “Chelsea” makes it sound like a far-off, fantastical paradise. This is a girl who’s never been far from the Nollendorfplatz, never mind all the way to London.

Sophie Berner makes an an affecting Sally Bowles, all smokey-voiced and every bit a force of nature as she should be, gutsily determined not to let her imperfect command of English or slightly wobbly top notes stand in the way of her singing career. The evening belongs, though, to Maren Kroymann as Fraulein Schneider. The archetypal innocent bystander, she brings wit and warmth to the part of landlady whose tiny dreams are crushed by the ‘politics’ she barely understands.

I’ve seen Cabaret a few times now, and it’s easy to get jaded about it – especially in the post Springtime-for-Hitler world – but there’s something about seeing this show in Berlin, with actual German actors speaking the Berlin dialect, surrounded by Germans eating sausage and drinking beer. You quite quickly forget you’re in a theatre rather than in a biergarten with a rowdy crowd. Of course, when the Nazis turn up, you could hear a pin drop.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so immersed in a show. This production never puts a foot wrong, expertly managing the tonal shifts between the glitzy, ramshackle Kit Kat Klub, and the pathos of what’s actually happening to these people. And the train that was such a coup de théâtre in the opening scene? It comes back at the end, barrelling directly towards the audience. Only this time, you see, it’s on the way to Auschwitz.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2010 in Music, Theatre

 

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Aspects of Love, Menier Chocolate Factory

I was a teenage fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber so I remember when Aspects of Love (now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory) opened at the end of the 1980s. I remember ‘Love Changes Everything’ being a big hit. I remember my mum telling me it was about the Bloomsbury Group. I remember wondering who the Bloomsbury Group were.

Turns out it’s not about the Bloomsbury Group, although my mum wasn’t so far off. The 1950s novella on which it is based is by David Garnett a minor/prominent (depending on whether you believe my husband or Wikipedia) member of the group and the hallmarks of the Bloomsburyites – bohemianism and bed hopping – are present and correct.

It tells of a complex web of relationships across generational (and national) divides. Act One takes place in the late 1940s and establishes a love triangle between Englishman George Dillingham (a middle aged artist, who lives comfortably, if unconventionally, in France), his callow 20-year-old nephew Alex and the beautiful, neurotic Rose Vibert, a struggling French actress. Playing a more minor role, but sort of making the love triangle a square, is Giulietta, an Italian sculptress (we know she’s a sculptress because she wears a headscarf at all times), George’s on-off mistress who also, it’s hinted, enjoys the occasional bit of lesbian love with Rose.

Act Two zips forward to the 1960s and matters get even more complicated (and creepier) with a burgeoning romance between Alex and teenager Jenny. Complicated, because she’s the (underage) daughter of George and Rose, and creepy because she’s Alex’s (underage) cousin.

That makes it sound rather good, doesn’t it, and I can see that with a different treatment it might have been. Unfortunately, it’s not at all well executed. None of the relationships are remotely believable and the characters are in the most part hugely selfish, unlikeable and needy, which might not be so bad if they weren’t also colossally boring. And its scope is very limited; there’s no sub-plot or anything else going on to draw attention away from these rather dreary characters and their sexual intrigues. It also struck me as rather sloppy, dramatically. There are all sorts of holes in the story, ideas introduced and not followed through — at one point George learns that his investments have failed and there ‘will be no more champagne’ and then it’s never mentioned again.

An even bigger problem though is the music and libretto. Lloyd Webber’s light and trite songs just do not serve the dark and difficult story well. Love Changes Everything, sings Alex at the start of the show. Well, okay. But he gets no song about how he feels when he discovers the love of his life is now living as his uncle’s mistress, for example. And Rose, around whom the whole story pivots, gets no songs to herself at all really. ‘I feel like I’ve known him all my life,’ she sings early in the first act, apparently teetering on the brink of a grand affair with young Alex. She then dumps him a couple of days later after she meets George. There’s nothing wrong with a capricious and complicated heroine, but give her a song to suit and don’t put platitudes in her mouth. I don’t think Lloyd Webber and his collaborators (Don Black and Charles Hart) have got the chops to do it.

It’s largely sung-through – a mistake, I think – which means huge swathes of dialogue, much of which is excruciatingly banal, are sung rather than spoken. My favourite low point was George singing: ‘Where’s my copy of Brave New World?’

It struck me as Lloyd Webber’s attempt to do a Sondheim musical, with grown-up relationships and emotions, and a kind of structural elegance (lots of moments in the first act are echoed in the second) but comparisons are not flattering. There are lots of glancing similarities with A Little Night Music, but that show manages to be both much lighter and much darker, to be busier and more complex but at the same time cleaner and more streamlined.

It does raise some interesting questions about some ‘aspects of love’, particularly male proprietorialness. This is nicely expressed in George and Alex’s fun, almost comic, song ‘She’d Be Far Better Off With You’ where, with bluff English modesty, they each try to pass the (offstage) Rose over to the other. And George’s Act Two song to his adolescent daughter (‘The First Man You Remember’) treads a fine line between sentimental fatherliness and something altogether more Fritzl-like. But I sense that in neither case is Lloyd Webber very interested in, or even alive to, these darker notes in the way that say Sondheim would be.

A big problem is that the women get no songs. They sing with the men and to the men, but they get no songs of their own, except Giulietta who is the story’s one grounded character and doesn’t really need one.

I’ve been talking about the problems of the show rather than this production, and the cast actually do a really good job with it. Trevor Nunn directs (he did the original) and the casting is strong and everyone from the principals to the chorus works hard. The one weak-ish link is possibly the actress playing the older Jenny who seems a bit like she is in a different production to everyone else, although her gaucheness and fragile voice suits the part.

I liked the simple set, with locations evoked by projections of old photos and postcards, and the costumes are lovely, but none of the cast and crew’s efforts can really compensate for such poor material. It marks a disappointing end to the Menier’s excellent run of musical revivals. I hope they find their form again soon.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2010 in Music, Theatre

 

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Sweet Charity, Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Sweet Charity features three imperishable Broadway standards: Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now and The Rhythm of Life.  A half dozen other songs are quite as good as these, and the music throughout is varied, tuneful and witty.  It has a darting script by Neil Simon.  Its original choreographer was Bob Fosse, who also made his film debut as director of the screen version.  This is quite a pedigree.  So why isn’t Sweet Charity better regarded?

Perhaps there’s a certain protectiveness of the source material, Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, or perhaps it’s that shorn of the darker setting and plot of Fellini’s film the ending comes as a damp squib – rather than as one woman’s narrow triumph over a wicked world.  Or maybe it’s that title.  Sweet Charity’s heroine is called Charity, and she’s really sweet!  This isn’t quite John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (whose heroine, Justice, writes poetry), but there’s something about a punning eponymous title that smacks of both “Will this do?” and a presumptuous “Yes it bloody will.”

The current run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket is a transfer of Matthew White’s Menier production of last year.  The Theatre Royal isn’t exactly the West End’s most atmospheric or friendly venue, and it also lacks an orchestra pit.  This means that the (excellent) band is crammed to the back of the stage.  Tim Shorthall’s set makes a minor virtue of this by having the band corralled together in an authentic 60s Columbia-style recording booth, but the problem with this is that it greatly reduces the depth of the stage.  When the big song and dance numbers kick off, the result is a lot of people jigging about in the same few square feet.  And when the solo numbers start, the result is if anything even more cramped: when Charity runs towards the audience to sing about her good fortune (there’s a lot of this) she’s only really running towards the audience because there’s nowhere else to go.  And the run only lasts about three steps.

Charity is played with some gusto by Tamzin Outhwaite.  Not the world’s strongest singer, she is exposed a little by the sheer number of songs that require her to stand on her own in the middle of the stage and emote.  She makes up for this in the big choreographed numbers, however, and she fairly flings herself at every scene.  She kind of needs to, too, because Sweet Charity’s plot is, at best, flimsy, and by the end seems a puzzle of half-completed intentions.

This has something to do with the musical’s attitude to the film it’s supposed to be adapting.  In Nights of Cabiria, the heroine is a prostitute rather than a night-club dancer as Charity is here.  Both film and musical start with the heroine being pushed into a river and robbed of her purse, but where the film ends with a violent intensification of that first scene, the musical ends with a polite and near nonsensical lovers’ tiff.  Charity dusts herself off after this escapade and continues on her perky way, but we’ve already seen worse happen to her, so the ending barely registers as an ending.

Still, Sweet Charity was well worth reviving and is well worth seeing for the songs and the choreography alone.  In its life as a pop standard, Big Spender has mostly been belted out like a command; but here it’s played as the bored, professional come-on of the bored, professional courtesan.  Stephen Mears’s choreography throughout is a subtle modernisation of Fosse’s original dances, and it adds an almost subversive depth to what is otherwise a collection of airbubble scenes connected by sheer will.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2010 in Comedy, Dance, Music, Theatre

 

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Hair, Gielgud Theatre

I probably wouldn’t have seen Hair so soon had it not been for the enthusiasm of a friend, who was (and remains) stranded in the US thanks to the giant invisible cloud of doom, and couldn’t come anyway. It’s not that I had anything against it; more that I couldn’t think of anything about it which particularly appealed to me. Also, I don’t trust hippies.

But it takes very little to persuade me to go and see anything (though I draw the line at the new musical featuring the songs of David Essex, starring David Essex), and I’m glad I did go, because it was just great. I had half-expected an onslaught of self-righteousness, but the tone is gentle: this is an affectionate sketch of New York hippie culture in the 1960s, not a vehement defence of it. The characters’ motives are questioned and their integrity cast in doubt, and we see their fear and fragility as much as their passion and commitment.

What really blows you away, though,  is the sheer energy of the thing. The band are onstage throughout, the music is more or less continuous and the cast spend almost as much time among the audience as onstage; clapping, singing, handing out flowers and flyers (“Come to a be-in! Burn your draft card! Bring your own pot”) and forcing the occasional audience member to get up and dance with them. A mid-row seat in the dress circle won’t protect you, either: this cast is perfectly happy to clamber over seats and heads to get to you. To begin with, it’s slightly disconcerting if, like me, you are determinedly non-participatory (I can’t even bring myself to clap along when I’m with my ten-year-old god-daughter and she’s looking up at me hopefully), but in the end I couldn’t help but be won over by the immense force of the goodwill that the actors generate. I clapped along. A bit.

My English awkwardness also predisposes me to anxiety about onstage nudity, of which there is some, but it is so elegantly done that it was actually quite beautiful, and I never felt that I didn’t know where to look, which is my usual reaction to the unexpected appearance of a penis.

There are some excellent singers in this cast, which has been imported wholesale from last year’s Broadway production. I’m glad it has a US cast; I think you need Americans to attain and maintain this level of enthusiasm for two and a half hours. Apparently the replacement Broadway cast aren’t as good, so if you’re going to see it but can’t choose between London and New York, London’s your best bet just now.

I won’t tell you what happens right at the end, after a roof-raising Let The Sunshine In – which, brilliantly, is actually called The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In) – because it’s more fun if you’re not expecting it, so I’ll just say that of those who expressed a preference, everyone in our party agreed that all musicals should end in exactly the same way.

This is a big fat belter of a night out which will charm you and disarm you and make you want to go home and dance in the kitchen. Book your ticket today: I think you’ll love it.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2010 in Music, Theatre

 

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