Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Once the Musical, Phoenix Theatre, 10/02/14 (evening)

Once's advertising campaign is headed by the word 'unmissable' and after my first visit, I'd certainly be inclined to agree. It's a show that you have to see to decide whether it's for you - it's certainly not your conventional musical - but if you appreciate good story-telling, raw musical talent and live music played right in front of your eyes with incredible harmonies, then you'll probably come away from it with a smile as large as mine.

At the Phoenix Theatre, the theatre-going experience is enhanced at the interval and before the show, as audience members are permitted on-stage to experience the thrill of standing on a West End stage and the Dublin pub setting. It was a fantastic perk of the show and really brings you closer to the heart and soul of the performance, allowing you to actually have a drink exactly where the cast sing and dance just minutes later. The basic set itself is unchanging throughout, only ever modified by furniture shifted around by the cast themselves and the lighting, which allows imagination and scope for different locations away from the pub. But ultimately, the bar is what all the action always comes back to and it's great that one can witness this up close and personal.

As for the show itself? It was so compelling and so beautiful, I don't really know where to start. The ensemble are all ridiculously talented to the extent they all play multiple acoustic instruments and most also know more than one track in the script. It means that the wholesome sound created is simply gorgeous. Particular standouts were Gareth O'Connor as Eamon who had a lovely voice and often took lead guitar (one of my personal highlights of the night was his 'Chandler's Wife', played as part of the pre-show section), Jez Unwin as the Bank Manager who was completely hilarious - his Abandoned in Bandon was just wonderful for all the wrong reasons - and Ryan Fletcher as Svec who was a manic dancer and drummer. I was also particularly impressed by Aidan Kelly who struck just the right balance between comedy, sincerity and volume(!) in his role as the jealous and overstated Billy. But without doubt the best two things about Once are its leads. Both are dream parts for any guy or girl... (see what I did there?)

I'll start with David Hunter, who led the show at this performance in the absence of Declan Bennett. Hunter was engaging from the moment he first opened his mouth, with a lovely vocal tone that shone above all others, almost as if the score had been written just for him. Moreover, his delivery was impeccable with great light and shade; softer moments alongside some really powerful ones - he really knew how to let go with the bigger notes which were spine-tinglingly powerful. The subtle, deadpan comedy written for Guy was impeccably delivered too and his scenes opposite Cvitesic always provided moments of real emotion, happy or sad. I would have liked maybe a little more physicality from his character - I felt he didn't always hold himself particularly well - but that is hardly a slight on a clearly blossoming and well-regarded actor. It was a joy to watch David perform and he will have the chance to make the role his own for a while once current incumbent Arthur Darvill finishes his stint in the show in May.

Now onto his Olivier award-winning partner-in-crime, Zrinka Cvitesic. Let's just say I'm not surprised she won Best Actress in a Musical - I couldn't fault her performance, that came as close to vocal perfection as you'll see. She displayed such raw emotion that ripped into the audience's hearts at every turn and her If You Want Me was hauntingly gorgeous. Again, her line delivery was astonishingly sharp and she produced consistent ripples of laughter throughout an audience that she held in the palm of her hand, particularly effective when Girl is introduced as the straight-talking and blunt foreigner of whom we know nothing at the top of the show. I believe she is only in the role for another three weeks at the time of writing, finishing May 10th, but if you read this and are thinking of going to the show any time soon - make sure you try and catch it before then to witness something very special indeed.

The blend of Hunter and Cvitesic's voices for both versions of Falling Slowly was just divine and I could listen to the pair sing that song for a very long time. The rest of the score is fantastic and very similar to the film; other favourites of mine were Hunter's commanding Say It To Me Now and opening number Leave, along with the beautiful When Your Mind's Made Up that builds wonderfully to feature most of the ensemble. The sound they made is just fantastic and left me wanting a whole lot more.

On reflection, it was a shame I never caught original actor Declan Bennett as Guy, for there were such excellent reviews about him as well - as there are about Arthur Darvill currently - but I am just glad I got to witness this very special show performed in a such a caring and delicate fashion. It was a fantastic night out that provided an emotional roller-coaster ride led by two very special talents and a cracking, slick ensemble performance. Currently booking until June 2015, there is a strong chance I may have gone back Twice (sorry!) by then, and I strongly encourage anyone to give this show a go even if you're skeptical about it, for I've seen it repeatedly labelled rather derogatorily as just a 'play with music'. But if that's true, it's possibly the best play with music I'll ever see.

At this performance, the cast was:
David Hunter (Guy), Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl), Allison Harding (Baruska), Ryan Fletcher (Svec), Aidan Kelly (Billy), Gareth O'Connor (Eamon), Michael O'Connor (Da), Phoebe Fildes (Ex-Girlfriend), Jos Slovick (Andrej), Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Reza), Jez Unwin (Bank Manager), Alex Turney (Emcee), Ceyda Ali (Ivanka)

Also in the cast were Declan Bennett, Valda Aviks, Emily Beacock, Rosanna Beacock, Jamie Cameron, Honey Joyce, Karina Kleve, Tim Parker, Christina Tedders, Gabriel Vick and Robbie White.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Matilda the Musical, Cambridge Theatre, 05/09/13 (evening)

Having won Best New Musical at the Olivier Awards and the WhatsOnStage Awards in the past 18 months, I knew that in booking to see Matilda, I was in for an absolute treat. And I was of course, spot on.

Based on the Roald Dahl classic and children's favourite, it follows the journey of young Matilda as she 'grows up' and encounters all sorts of situations before dealing with them in a manner you would expect of a girl three times her age. Her powers and scope for maturity are just as mind-boggling as the rest of the production. It is a sincerely touching, well thought out and incredibly well-executed piece of musical theatre with something for absolutely everyone. The second Act in particular - indeed perhaps the second half of the second Act, is perhaps the most innovative and awe-inspiring half an hour I've ever seen. Tim Minchin's appropriately deft and emotional lyrics top it all off whilst the book remains largely true to the story we all know and love.

I was fortunate enough to witness Lollie McKenzie's debut performance as Matilda, having joined the cast just two days beforehand. And for a first night, and to be so young and with little experience, she coped very, very well indeed. I only noticed one small slip-up early on in the first Act when she came in at the wrong time. But her voice was flawless, her portrayal sweet and innocent as should be, she was in all the right places at all the right times. Lollie's take on Matilda's show-stopper, 'Naughty', was as good as I've heard anyone else do from all the various promotions of the show and for this she should be highly commended. She interacted well with her on-stage parents as well, which shows her great talent due to the lack of performance time with them beforehand. It all just clicked and felt natural. Rightly, she got the standing ovation and the biggest cheers of the night. Lollie is in Matilda for at least six months to the best of my understanding - and seeing as she can only get better from hereon in (if that's possible), audiences will be in for a treat.

Now, if Matilda wasn't the star of the show, Alex Gaumond as Miss Trunchbull certainly was. The previous incumbents of the role, David Leonard and Bertie Carvel, both won rave reviews - indeed, Bertie won just about every award going here and on the opposite side of the Atlantic for his portrayal - and in line with this, Alex will receive another excellent appraisal from this blog! It is not a surprise considering he was everywhere! Through the audience, in the wings, marching up and down, trampolining, forward-rolling and a stunning voice to boot. He was genuinely menacing and extremely well fleshed out - knowing exactly what he was doing with the character's every move: there was no doubting him, which is again testament to his abilities as this was only his third show in the role. At the same time, he tapped very well into the comedy of the show and his timing was impeccable. All in all, an oustanding show from Alex... 'Maggots!'

Haley Flaherty has played Miss Honey since the first cast change of the show and she turns in an excellent supporting role to the main two characters. Her part in 'When I Grow Up' is particularly well sung and touching because the song takes on a whole new meaning when she appears. Physically, she does very well in reacting against the much superior Trunchbull and takes on a whole new persona when dealing with the children: shown perfectly in her biggest number, 'Pathetic'. Haley is experienced in the role and it shows, and it was a pleasure to listen to her on stage.

The featured ensemble members, James Clyde, Kay Murphy and Lisa Davina Phillip all turn in stellar performances too as the supporting cast. Clyde and Murphy have great chemistry, wonderful costumes and excellent comic timing, whilst Phillip as the librarian Mrs Phelps is the voice of reason and support to Matilda's greatest passion and for that we connect thankfully with her light heart and infectious laugh. Special mentions to Tommy Sherlock who had a fantastic voice as the Doctor and also Antony Lawrence and Lara Denning as the mysterious Escapologist and Acrobat... how they feed into the story is extremely clever and very innovative.

Along the same lines, the rest of the ensemble should be applauded for such an energetic, lively and well choreographed performance that they made look effortless. In particular, the creative team and dancers should be applauded for their genius use of A-Z lettering blocks to form the gates of Crunchem Hall - outstanding teamwork and ingenuity from all concerned. It was just one moment of many that made you sit back and go 'wow'. This extends right through, though, to the eight or nine extra children who all play classmates of Matilda, Bruce and Lavender - it was incredible seeing their pure and youthful talent (all of which had no trouble keeping up with the pacy and difficult dancing) on a stage and in a theatre that is currently so welcoming to the younger generations. Needless to say there were many wide-eyed children sat around in disbelief during the final number and in the bows: what a great way to inspire future actors and actresses.

The set too is one of the best you'll see. Just walking into the auditorium is spectacular enough. It is bright and colourful and completely in keeping with the action of the show. The desks and gates (mentioned above, next to everything else that we see on stage too) are inspired and multi-purposeful in ways it is difficult to comprehend.

A final word for Paul Kieve and his use of illusion which, much like in his most recent West End success, was outstanding in every way. Lights, lasers, falling cups, pigtails, quick changes - whatever it was, it worked: wasn't over the top or distracting. Never enough time to dwell on one thing, just straight on to the next. Just clever, and that's how we like it.

Any drawbacks at all? There were very few. Perhaps the one slow moment, when it was possible to be distracted, is halfway through the second Act, when it is just Matilda and Miss Honey in the latter's house. A lot of exposition happens here as the climax of the show builds from this point onwards but, in an audience with many children around, it was clear many were restless and tired of the scene. But as mentioned, the rest of the show, from the gym scene and 'Smell of Rebellion', more than makes up for this very small blot in the copybook.

The rest of it all is a triumph. Well done to all involved, old or young. Worthy of every single accolade it has received, Matilda the Musical will be here for a long time to come I am sure.

At this performance, the cast was:
Lollie McKenzie (Matilda), Alex Gaumond (Miss Trunchbull), Haley Flaherty (Miss Honey), Lisa Davina Phillip (Mrs Phelps), Kay Murphy (Mrs Wormwood), James Clyde (Mr Wormwood), Lara Denning (The Acrobat), Antony Lawrence (The Escapologist), Joshua Lay (Rudolpho), Antonio Magro (Children's Entertainer/Sergei), Tommy Sherlock (Doctor), Joshua Wyatt (Michael Wormwood), Mike Denman (Henchman), Juliet Gough (Henchwoman), Madeleine Harland (Cook), David Rudin (Henchman), Garrett Tennant (Bruce) and Ella Tweed (Lavender).

Also in the cast are Joseph Davenport, Katy Lee, Gary Murphy, Hollie Taylor, Amy Thornton, Fabian Aloise, Elise Blake, Cristina Fray, Georgia Pemberton, Lara Wollington, Daniel Dowling, George King, Ben Middleton, Robbie Warke, Emily Robins, Evie Sneath, Marcus Billany, James Gardner, Gabriel Werb, Ellie Botterill, Madeleine Haynes, Ruby McNamara, Frreddie Haggerty, Ashton Henry-Reid, Sonny Kirby, Rhianna Dorris, Tallulah Treadaway, Thierry Zimmerman, Claudia Rose-Carler, Sophie Naglik, Talia Palamathanan, Kai Brosnan, Kalifa Burton and Jamie Kaye.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, 17/07/13 (matinee)

The Book of Mormon is officially the must-see musical of 2013. It turned out to be one of the best theatrical productions I have ever seen, and probably will ever see. The whole spectacle was astounding. Written entirely (book and score) by South Park creators Parker, Stone and Lopez, it is time that their genius was recognised in its entirety.

Following the story of two Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, we are taken not only on a journey to Uganda, but also on one that lives long in the memory. Be it the profanities, the jokes, the name-calling, the clever staging, the stunningly circular narrative or the ingenious musical numbers and score, there is something for everyone to talk about. The performances (detailed below) are simply sublime without exception, and even on a ridiculously hot and sweaty Wednesday matinee, the house was full and the cast were clearly giving it their all. All immediately good signs, next to how difficult and how expensive it is to get yourself a ticket. But you must try nonetheless!

To open the West End production, the Mormon producers sent over their two leads from the US National Tour, Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner. Sadly, Gertner was indisposed for this performance, I believe due to illness, but I am glad to report (that on the evidence of what I saw) this was a simple but very clever move from the powers that be.

As Elder Price, Creel is just a perfect fit for the role. His portrayal oozed experience and the 12 months he had already spent performing the show allowed his performance to be so polished and well finessed that you feel he could perform in his sleep and not give too dissimilar a show. It was that good. He has the perfect look and voice for Price (even though he's in his thirties!) and he rendered the score beautifully. Only on occasion did he struggle with power and volume on the very highest notes in the upper register, or 'believes' at the end of Act One and in 'I Believe' in Act Two, but I heard he had been sick in the days beforehand and it was perhaps understandable. But it did not detract at all from a well-nuanced and potentially Olivier-winning performance. Overall, a stunning job, so well done to Gavin.

Gertner's place was taken by stand-by Elder Cunningham David O'Reilly. I believe it was only his third performance and to use the old cliche, you would never ever have known. He was so confident and assured right from the word go; he knew exactly what he was doing with the character: slightly insecure and appropriately vulnerable, so that you really felt for him. The on-stage relationships he had were fantastic, particularly with Nabulungi and crucially Price. His voice was more than good enough with only one slip that I noticed, whilst his comic timing was impeccable, particularly when working with Creel. They really bounced off each other very well despite the lack of stage time together, I would presume. He also had the most wonderful range of names for Nabulungi (so good I can't remember many of them other than the fairly bog-standard ones, Jon Bon Jovi, Neutrogena and Nutella!)

The stability the two leads bring to the show is evident. They are so good that the rest of the cast are under no pressure and are just free to enjoy themselves without too much worry. This was evident in the two supporting actor roles.

Firstly, Alexia Khadime as Nabulungi. If the role could have been type-cast or handpicked from any West End leading lady of the past five years, it simply had to be Alexia for this part. She fits so well and is just so right for this role. She is naive and innocent, beautiful and also completely hilarious all in one. Her performance touched real chords, from the scenes with her father right until her part in 'Baptize Me' - which was one of my highlights of the show, because of the way she made all the double entendres so genuine and took them all so clearly at face value. It was brilliant to watch! Sal Tlay Ka Siti was gorgeous, and I wanted to hear more of her solo vocals, but she had to merely put up with being the shining light of the ensemble instead. I don't have a single complaint, and she is surely deserving of a Supporting Actress award.

It's difficult to follow all that but Stephen Ashfield as Elder McKinley does a darn fine job nonetheless. More near-perfect acting, vocals and timing, whilst being appropriately camp but knowing not to cross the line going too far over the top and becoming panto-esque. His dancing is also surprisingly very good, and 'Turn It Off' is again another personal highlight despite the bizarre and perceivably controversial lyrics. Definitely one of the catchiest numbers in the whole show, and Stephen's take on this number helps to sum up, and indeed is the epitome of, his entire performance: effortlessly good. His line delivery too is spot on and he definitely has some of the funniest one-liners as the Uganda mission lead Elder.

Other standout parts of the night? Two By Two, Hasa Diga Eebowai, any appearance by the General, and the x-ray part towards the end of Act Two. I'll say no more about any of those, but a lot of comedy gold and clever tying in of the story for sure! And this is all before I've mentioned Hello, Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, Man Up and Making Things Up Again...

Basically, the whole show is a delight. Yes, there are controversial moments, yes there is a lot of swearing, and yes the subject matter is dangerously close to crossing the line (and probably does on some occasions). But the overall essence of the show is a feel-good one. Good comes of all the madness and you find yourself sucked in to it all, without giving anything too much of a second thought, and then before you know it - it's all over. Far, far too quickly!

A special note should go out to the ensemble, led by Giles Terera as Mafala Hatimbi and in this instance, Matt Krzan who was on for Haydn Oakley in the Mission President track. Hilarity all-round. Fantastic timing, tight dancing, a very tight pit (massive well done to Nick Finlow, Ron Crocker et al) makes for, as I mentioned, one of the most enjoyable theatre experiences ever.

If there is one thing anybody should go and see this year, it is Mormon. Even if you don't like it, you won't be able to stop talking about it. And that is exactly what Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez will have wanted.

At this performance, the cast was:
Gavin Creel (Elder Price), David O'Reilly (Elder Cunningham), Alexia Khadime (Nabulungi), Stephen Ashfield (Elder McKinley/Moroni), Giles Terera (Mafala Hatimbi), Matt Krzan (Price's Dad/Joseph Smith/Mission President), Chris Jarman (General), Benjamin Brook, Ashley Day, Candace Furbert, Patrick George, Nadine Higgin, Tyrone Huntley, Evan James, Michael Kent, Oliver Lindert, Daniel Mackinlay, Terel Nugent, Olivia Phillip, Lucy St Louis, Kayi Ushe, Tosh Wanogho-Maud and Sharon Wattis.

Also in the cast are Jared Gertner, Haydn Oakley, Mark Anderson, Daniel Buckley, Daniel Clift, Thomas Goodridge, Aisha Jawando, Luke Newton, Yemie Sonuga and Liam Wrate.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The Bodyguard, Adelphi Theatre, 10/07/13 (evening)

You can't go wrong with Whitney Houston. The songs are just too good - every single one makes you feel such a wide array of emotions that you cannot help but smile, cry or simply dance along. It meant that The Bodyguard had long been on my 'to see' list and I finally got the chance to see it. Needless to say, in accordance with my opening sentence, I was not disappointed.

The musical is based upon the film starring Whitney herself as Rachel Marron and Kevin Costner as the bodyguard, Frank Farmer, hired to protect her. Throw in a jealous sister next to an eerie and creepy stalker and you have a compelling watch. Throw in Houston's back-catalogue of powerhouse classics and it is truly a compelling watch, especially for someone who has not seen the film in its entirety.

I had been looking forward to seeing Heather Headley in the lead role after hearing amazing things about her performance, and also after seeing her promotional material concerning The Bodyguard, such as her studio snippets, The Royal Variety Performance and West End Live. Unfortunately, Heather had been battling laryngitis and had not been in the show for two weeks before this particular performance. Sadly, her run in the show has been bereft with attendance issues which is a shame, if only because it has deprived more people of being unable to hear her sing live. I will do my best to catch her somewhere, somehow in the future.

I am not one to complain about seeing an alternate or understudy, however. Along these lines, I had also heard fantastic things about Heather's alternate. Step forward Ms Gloria Onitiri who gave an incredibly powerful and yet often chilling performance as Rachel Marron. Her voice was a joy to behold and it was comfortably one of the most powerful female vocals I have ever heard on the West End. I had goosebumps throughout 'I Have Nothing' at the end of act 1 and 'I Will Always Love You' at the climax of the show, which she rendered beautifully. Her acting was, on the whole, convincing and I truly felt her confusion and anger in act 1 as well as her sorrow and fear during act 2.

My one small complaint, and this is probably entirely out of her control, was that I could not hear her vocals properly during the opening number 'Queen of the Night', nor . The start of The Bodyguard is extremely loud and I do not think the sound mix was quite right. Nevertheless, it did not detract from the overall performance which was in a word, stunning. Congratulations to Gloria. It should be noted that she takes over the role for four weeks from 12th August-7th September before the main cast change - catch her if you can!

Lloyd Owen is the bodyguard himself, Frank Farmer. He gave a performance full of charm, charisma and sophistication and proved he was perfectly cast in the role. His version of I Will Always Love You was surprisingly(!) good and he was an excellent foil for his leading lady. Particularly touching were his scenes with Fletcher, Rachel Marron's son; there were even a couple of tear-inducing moments in act 2 that could touch the most stone-hearted. Think 'Fletch' and the ID badge! More than anything, he was a very convincing 'Action Man' and hero of the hour. It is a compliment to him that he would not be out of place in any security service either!

Rachel's sister Nicki is played by Debbie Kurup.  I thought she started the show in far better vocal form than Gloria and quite simply, she too has a stunning voice that put a fantastic new slant on some of Whitney's slower numbers, such as Saving All My Love, Run To You and Jesus Loves Me. I really felt her tragedy throughout the story and until her unfortunate death - indeed I sided with her rather than Rachel, as the forgotten girl with a heart of gold and a voice sadly overshadowed by her sister. I left amazed by her showing but also regretful that I had not had the chance to listen to more of her voice. Nonetheless, she completes the trio of lead roles with aplomb and I will keep an eye out for her name in the future.

The role of Rachel's son, Fletcher, is rotated between four boys who all complete two performances per week. The chemistry between all three principals and our Fletcher, played by Joshua-James Thomas, was so memorable and so touching that it was a credit to him with such young shoulders. He could sing too, and got his moment to shine in the finale: well done to him.

Mark Letheren did a fantastic job as The Stalker. He was as menacing as he was creepy and his obsession was scarily convicing. His relationships with both Nicki and Fletcher were brilliantly kaniving and his reveal in act 2 had the audience gasping in disbelief. Most of the clever staging and use of screens revolved around this character and the creative and production teams should be proud of the innovative ways in which the character is used. A great feature of the show was having the actors run out into the stalls and dress circle at the climax when The Stalker finally reveals himself to all in public; adding to the overall power and spectacle that is Mark's character.

Bill Devaney was played by understudy Robert Jezek, who quickly becomes one of Frank's biggest supporters in the quest to protect Rachel. It was easy to understand his compassion and care for the singer and in a fairly limited role, he did well.

Nicolas Colicos certainly looks the part as Tony, the beefy but flawed and unaware head of Rachel Marron's security team. He has a couple of great lines and his interaction, or rivalry, with the bodyguard helps make a couple of the more comical scenes.

Mark McKerracher (Herb Farmer), Sean Champan (Sy Spector), Rory (understudy Richard Murphy) and Oliver Le Sueur (Ray Court) all provide excellent back-up to the principal team as various members of Rachel's staff and backstage production teams. Richard Murphy in particular proved he is a fantastic dancer as Rachel's choreographer and Oliver Le Sueur stands out as another of the security team.

The rest of the ensemble roles, about eight or so, are largely restricted to the bigger dance numbers. I did not feel their work was always tight enough and a couple of members seemed rather lackadaisical and half-hearted at times. Yes they have eight shows per week to do but they have enough rest time in each show - plus this was only the third of the week - for this not to be an excuse. It was the only slightly disappointing area in an otherwise fantastic spectacle. The finale number, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, redeemed them slightly. As one of the most iconic 80s tracks, the band and lead cast did it complete justice. It was a fantastic way to end the show and the vast majority of the theatre were all on their feet to show their appreciation. It left a great after-taste after the slightly bitter and sad ending to the show.

The Bodyguard certainly does Whitney Houston proud, even though it was in development long before her death and never intended as a tribute. However, things change with the times and one of the best singers of our lifetime has her own jukebox tribute to ensure fans will enjoy her music long after she has gone. It was a pleasure to bear witness to the show and it is one that surely has good legs left in it yet.

At this performance, the cast was:
Gloria Onitiri (Rachel Marron), Lloyd Owen (Frank Farmer), Debbie Kurup (Nicki Marron), Mark Letheren (The Stalker), Nicolas Colicos (Tony), Sean Chapman (Sy Spector), Robert Jezek (Bill Devaney), Mark McKerracher (Herb Farmer), Oliver Le Sueur (Ray Court), Richard Murphy (Rory), Joshua-James Thomas (Fletcher), Jordan Darrell, Shanay Holmes, Holly James, Gil Kolirin, Melissa Keyes, Nicholas Maude, Ashley-Jordon Packer, Dharmesh Patel, Lucinda Shaw, Paul Smethurst and James Wooldridge.

Also in the cast are Heather Headley, Ray Shell, David Page, Gareth Andrews, Nigel Barber, Yasmin Harrison, Janet Kumah and Charlotte Watts.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Viva Forever!, Piccadilly Theatre, 18/04/13 (evening)

With book by Jennifer Saunders and the music of the Spice Girls, next to production led by Judy Kramer, I'm not really too sure where to start with Viva Forever. It took a bashing from the critics and even after a series of re-writes and long hours devising new parts of the show, I can sadly see why. Nonetheless, I'll begin with some positives, of which there were a few.

For her West End debut, Hannah John Kamen does an incredible job in the lead role of Viva. She has a deceptively powerful voice and beautiful tone that on occasion gave me goosebumps. Her chemistry with Sally Ann Triplett as her mother was believable enough and it is again a credit to her that she was the character I was able to emotionally engage with most. I should also mention that her duet of the title song, Viva Forever, with Ben Cura as Angel, was probably the most stunning part of this entire show. It proved that less is more: simply two great voices and a guitar and the whole audience were gripped. Credit to Musical Supervisor Martin Koch for that inspired arrangement.

There were other parts of it that I enjoyed; mainly the large production numbers of the bigger hits (aside from the ridiculous blow up things in Spice Up Your Life). The choreography was largely very tight too, it seemed, and the cast were clearly working very hard. The pit sounded phenomenal throughout, so hats off to the MD and his team; the sound quality was brilliant and so loud as well; I seem to remember thinking the same coming away from Ghost, the Piccadilly Theatre's previous incumbent.

Other notable performances on the night included Kirstie Skivington, on as Diamond, who was very well suited to her part, being quirky, likeable and also a strong singer. I would have liked to have heard some more of her voice but of course this is not her fault. In addition, Hatty Preston's Minty was great, with impeccable comic timing, but the hash-tag thing began to grate on me towards the end. But as some of the 'comic' efforts in this production go, her moments were always the best. The previously mentioned Sally Ann Triplett and Simon Adkins as Leon did solid jobs too; if anything I thought they were a bit under-used but I can of course see why the focus is largely switched back towards the four girls.

Now for the book. It's just dreadful. Coarse joke after coarse joke after another (etc). Some got laughs, some certainly didn't. I thought Act 1 held up fairly well but about 15 minutes into Act 2 the whole thing just falls apart. It was the first time I've ever felt uncomfortable in a West End theatre. Seated high up in the (near full) Upper Circle, there just reached a point where everyone was looking at each other as if to say, 'what on earth are we witnessing here?'. Cue heads in hands and much muttering and laughing throughout the sparsely thin dialogue that made up the rest of the show. 2 Become 1 and what I will call simply, 'the bed scene', is a cringe-fest. Sally Ann and Simon Slater as Mitch are troopers for having to get through that every night. This is followed by a speaker-blasting 10 minute mega-mix after the quite abrupt end, which is all very well - but it is surely an effort to try and get people to dance away the previous 2 hours' troubles!

I am not going to slag off the actors because I appreciate they all do the best job the can with the material given. But the characters of Suzi, Johnny, Simone, Karen, Lance and to a certain extent, Mitch, I just found so bland and irritating. They added nothing to the story really, and Simone in particular has far too much stage time, however talented Sally Dexter might be. The stereotypes in Johnny and Karen were boring. Lance’s cheeky golf swing a la Dermot O’Leary was the closest he got to emulating a real prime time TV host. Then there’s Suzi who was not so bad in the first half hour; but then her gags took a turn for the worst and most of the groans and cringes were sadly directed at the unfortunate Lucy Montgomery. Incidentally, I also saw far too much of her red thong. Given any chance and it was in full view of even us Upper Circle peasants.

One more thing that has just sprung to mind having nearly finished writing this, is the set: and namely how interesting it was. It is simplistic but very clever; transforming between meeting room, dressing room, house-boat, television studio, swimming pool and bedroom effortlessly. The revolve concept is perfect and scene changes were swift and largely unobtrusive. So it's not all bad news.

The over-arching talent show/sob story concept itself is not a bad one at all but it could have been executed so much better. But it is safe to say, with such a talented cast, I left the theatre disappointed for them: that despite what I am sure is a mammoth effort each night, the end product is largely forgettable.

At this performance, the cast was:
Hannah John Kamen (Viva), Dominique Provost-Chalkley (Holly), Kirstie Skivington (Diamond), Siobhan Atwal (Luce), Sally Ann Triplett (Lauren), Lucy Montgomery (Suzi), Simon Slater (Mitch), Bill Ward (Johnny), Simon Adkins (Leon), Hatty Preston (Minty), Ben Cura (Angel), Sally Dexter (Simone), Tamara Wall (Karen), Anthony Topman (Lance), Charlotte Gorton (Consuela), Myles Brown, Sophie Carmen-Jones, Darren Carnall, Luke Jackson, Rebecca McKinnis, Carla Nella, Zak Nemorin, Roxanne Palmer, Oliver Roll, David Rudin, Helen Ternent, Lucy Thatcher and Charlotte Walcott.

Also in the cast are Lucy Phelps, Curtis Angus, Lia Given and Tom Kanavan.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Phantom Of The Opera, Her Majesty's Theatre, 18/04/13 (matinee)

In the spur of the moment, I ended up at Her Majesty's Theatre on this particular day ready and willing to be blown away by what I was to witness. Luckily, I was not disappointed: becoming addicted from the moment that the Overture started, and from then on, I knew that I was going to be in for a treat. Having never seen Phantom before - yet known the majority of the songs - I was desperate to finally be able to piece everything together. What I witnessed was a brilliant ensemble performance, clear stand-out principal actors and the most breath-taking musical score that is surely only rivalled by Les Miserables in terms of depth, complexity and variation. The sign of a good show is when, upon walking out, you feel certain in the knowledge you will be heading back. Here, I got that feeling even as the cast were taking their bows.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musical masterpiece has been on the West End for nearly 27 unrelenting years and it is clear to see why. It seems to be regarded as perhaps his greatest ever success and, whilst I have not seen every one of his productions so far, it will surely be hard to ever top Phantom. The staging, costumes and music are all timeless in the ability to completely wow first-time viewers such as myself. There is very little not to love.

Having heard big, talented names such as John Owen-Jones and Ramin Karimloo sing songs from the show before, Marcus Lovett had a lot to live up to for me. Boy did he deliver. Granted, he sings the songs slightly differently to John and Ramin who are darker, clearer tenors. But by all means, he is no less effective. His vocals are dominant and commanding. The passion, the drive and the physical presence Marcus carries with him on stage is infectious too, and you cannot help but feel sorry for him as Christine and Raoul sail off stage together at the end of Act 2. It was his powerful body language and posture that marked his performance out as particularly striking; along the same lines, I was thereby not surprised to see him popping up all over the place; stage left, right, at the top of the proscenium arch and hiding behind pieces of set. He was ubiquitous, aided by some very clever sound mixing and lighting. It sounds silly to say given the title of the piece but it really is the Phantom's show and Lovett revels in the role (perhaps not a surprise, given he is reaching the end of this contract which is not his first run in the show, either). Try and catch him before the end of August.

Sofia Escobar was simply divine as Christine. As near a note-perfect performance as you'll see, that was refreshingly believable and captivating. Her vocals gave me shivers on multiple occasions and she seemed comfortably within the extensive range required of a Christine. The acid test of any Christine is probably the last minute or so of the title song and I've never heard anyone sing it better. Sofia's parts of All I Ask Of You were heart-wrenchingly beautiful; she conveyed the torn emotions of her character perfectly and yet remained so loving towards both men at the same time: in relationships that were actually credible. I could not take my eyes off her on stage. I don't really know what else to say other than to offer congratulations on a stunning performance. It was refreshing to find out she was worked her way up having first understudied the role when she first joined the cast back in 2007, too.

Raoul is currently played by Simon Thomas who is a fantastic foil to the Phantom. He too is appropriately commanding of the stage and he possesses a quiet air of superiority over the other characters. He seems completely in control of the role and he is an extremely competent vocalist. Again, All I Ask Of You was one of the highlights of the show thanks to the emotional quality of his and Sofia's performances; such that, however much we as the audience sympathise with the Phantom's emotional plight, it is not too unsatisfactory an ending to have him ride away with Christine. He was a joy to watch and brought across the stubborn, protective side of Raoul's character very well.

Nicola Rutherford played Carlotta at this performance. She too had a stunning voice that is used to great effect and sadly well hidden when in her ensemble track. She was clearly loving being on stage and in the limelight, and she did not disappoint; even if her character is over-shadowed by the talent of Christine. Her Think of Me and various verses of Notes were nicely rendered and the only thing I could pick up on was perhaps her expression, both facial and vocal, could be more varied - admittedly, the former could be restricted by the heavy make-up, though.

Barry James and Tim Laurenti were on a Messrs. Firmin and Andre. What can I say? They both sang very well and provided excellent comic relief at points when it was most needed. You wouldn't have known Tim was a cover which is testament to his ability; their chemistry and comedy was not at all forced and it would be easy to imagine them as genuine friends or colleagues. Barry too gave a wonderful performance and, despite having been in the show five years, the portrayal was fresh enough such that it may as well have been his opening night. Both were a testament to the show with their limitless energy and enthusiasm.

Cheryl McAvoy's Madame Giry was appropriately menacing at points and I ended up feeling quite sorry for Meg at times. However, she softens nicely as the musical goes on and you get a slightly better sense of the mother-daughter bond. This was aptly demonstrated through her stiffer tone and body language upon entrance and her more relaxed frame in Act 2, particularly once she had revealed what she knew regarding the Phantom. A nicely nuanced performance.

Jeremy Secomb's make-up as Ubaldo Piangi was fantastic and he stood out mainly for this reason whenever he was on stage! Add to that a strong vocal whenever he had the chance and a consistently excellent - sometimes quite menacing - expression, it made him an excellent partner in crime (if you can call it that) for Carlotta.

Meg Giry was played by Anna Forbes and she did a stunning job with what little she had to do. She bonded really well with Christine and the flashes of her voice that we were treated to were fantastic. Her final scene with the Phantom's mask was really nicely done - both in terms of her acting and the Phatom's clever disappearance - and was a fitting way by which to end the show.

The ensemble, all listed below, really are fantastic. The main showcase for them is Masquerade, which itself is a fantastically fluid and varied piece of music. The group dancing and singing was a true joy to behold and it is not an exaggeration to say they were probably one of the best ensembles that I have seen in any form of theatre. Every single performer was on point, there were no line fluffs or late entries and the reverberating sound was as memorable as it was consistent. They should be commended on their effort; from Marcus right through to the ballet chorus, and even on the first in a two-show day, there was no hint of holding back in terms of energy level and performance. A special shout-out also for the special effects: the lighting, chandelier movement and co-ordination, use of the auditorium (orchestra pit included!) and staging was all genius and not at all outdated. The show feels fresh and long may it continue to seem so, as in all likelihood, I will be back before too long.

At this performance, the cast was: 
Marcus Lovett (The Phantom), Sofia Escobar (Christine Daae), Simon Thomas (Raoul), Nicola Rutherford (Carlotta Guidicelli), Barry James (Monsieur Firmin), Tim Laurenti (Monsieur Andre), Cheryl McAvoy (Madame Giry), Jeremy Secomb (Ubaldo Piangi), Anna Forbes (Meg Giry), Philip Griffiths (Monsieur Reyer/Auctioneer), Richard Munday (Monsieur Lefevre), Michael Kerry (Joseph Buquet), Emma Barr (Confidante (Il Muto)), Duncan Smith ((Il Muto)/Firechief), Marc Vastenavondt (Passarino/Jeweller (Il Muto)), Ben Morris (Hairdresser (Il Muto)), Ellen Jackson (Wardrobe Mistress), Simon Rackley (Slave Master (Hannibal)), Matthew Powell (Porter/Lion Man), Janet Fischer (Wild Woman (Hannibal)), Antony Hansen (Solider (Hannibal)), Ashleigh Fleming (Princess (Hannibal)), Louisa Lydell (Madame Firmin), Tim Morgan (Policeman in the Pit), Meshell Dillon (Page (Don Juan Triumphant) with Nicole Cato, Layla Harrison, Carrie Taylor Johnson, Charise Renouf, Anna Shircliff, Danielle Stephens as The Ballet Chorus of the Opera Populaire.

Also in the cast are Anna O'Byrne, Lara Martins, Gareth Snook, Simon Shorten, Peter Dukes, Emma Barr, Lyndsey Gardiner and Claire Tilling.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Billy Elliot the Musical, Victoria Palace Theatre, 24/01/13 (evening)

I had been desperate to see this long-running production at the Victoria Palace for some time after its great performances on television, for the Oliviers and at various West End Lives. I had never seen the film or the show before but those who have seen either have always raved about them. Likewise, I walked out the theatre completely fascinated and totally hooked on some of the music. No wonder it was nominated for nine Olivier awards and won Best New Musical. This particular showing was extremely eventful too, as I will go on and explain.

The story centres around a young, sadly motherless, Billy who discovers he has an unprecedented talent for dance, largely against the wishes of his family. As the show goes on, the story of his personal struggles and fulfillment are balanced against a counter-story of work and community strife caused by the actual miners' strike in County Durham, I think from 1985. It is a truly touching story that is full of wonderful comedic touches, dramatic dialogue and musical triumphs.

Currently, five boys rotate the role of Billy in the West End and I was lucky to be a party to the performance of young Redmand Rance, who is only 12 years old. But you'd never have known. His talent truly knew no bounds! His accent was consistent, voice immaculate (not at all screechy as I've heard can occasionally be the case among the children in this show) and dancing overwhelmingly breath-taking. He had the audience encapsulated and his interpretation and feeling throughout the Angry Dance, Born to Boogie, Electricity and Swan Lake scenes - moments clearly put in to really show off a Billy's ability - was plain to see even from the Upper Circle. He was the rightful recipient of a raucous ovation at the curtain call too.

Gillian Bevan played Mrs Wilkinson and it's safe to say that I enjoyed her performance. In particular, her interaction with the other children in her dance troupe was realistic, as were the moments of banter with the brilliant Simon Ray Harvey as Mr Braithwaite. She is clearly a very talented dancer too and in moments where she was required to sing and dance at the same time, it did not overly affect her at all. I just felt that on occasion her dancing was a little sloppy and lacked placement in comparison to some of the tight ensemble behind her - but in fairness, with eight shows a week in an energetic role, perhaps that will happen inevitably. That is not to do a wonderfully talented lady any disservice and it was good to see her on stage having caught her in Holby City a while back too.

Deka Walmsley's Dad was probably my favourite character on the whole. He captured the right amount of anger - at first - and in the end, sympathy with and towards Billy's cause and He Could Be A Star was one of the most touching numbers, largely down to him. His scenes at Billy's audition in front of the curtain in Act 2 were pure genius and it took a while for me to take in how clever those few scenes actually are. On the whole, a great job from Deka and as is often the case when you witness a role played how you yourself would approach it - I can't imagine anyone else being Dad now.

Sadly Killian Donnelly (who I'd seen in Les Miserables) had lost his voice the previous day so I saw Matthew Dale as Tony. Again, a very credible performance - he was quite shouty throughout and maybe his interpretation could be a little more subtle in places but having said that: I feel Tony is quite a misunderstood character who is unrelentingly driven for his cause and Matthew certainly managed to portray this element of the character well.

Likewise, Ann Emery was sadly absent as Grandma but Gillian Elisa did a brilliant job in her absence. I loved her interactions with Billy and Dad in particular and Grandma's Song is a wonderfully sweet and  universally principled number we can all relate to. She sang extremely well and was believable to the last. Of course it is no fault of any actor but I felt maybe Grandma could have been used more in the second Act and it is a shame that she only has one or two scenes after the interval; as what I saw in Act One, I liked very much.

Sean Kearns as George was a well fleshed-out character and I enjoyed every moment that he was on stage for. Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher is a fantastic number and I love Sean's part in it above most of the others. The staging for that number, much like the house and Billy's room sets, is very clever and I was left marvelling how they achieved what they did.

Simon Ray Harvey as Mr Braithwaite comes a very close second to Dad as my favourite character. He is literally hilarious and a surprisingly talented dancer (if you see him and how well-built he is, you'll know what I mean). He balances comedy with character function perfectly and he provides great light relief in places where it is definitely needed. Loved the tutu as well and he did not look out of place next to Mrs Wilkinson! Well done Simon and I have a great respect for your performance.

Now a few shout-outs for the other outstanding ensemble roles: Kay Milbourne as the unfortunately named Dead Mum did all she could with an understandingly limited role in parts and her moments with Billy were tear-jerking to say the least. Barnaby Meredith is an outstanding dancer, like none I've seen before and it was a joy to watch his Older Billy and Billy himself on stage together. Jack Bromage-Eccles was on as Michael and he worked so well with Redmand that it was like they'd been performing together all their lives as very close friends. Expressing Yourself was certainly a memorable number and has to be seen to be believed. Macy Stasiak was a good Debbie too and fitted well with the other two boys. As previously mentioned, the ensemble were very very slick and the numbers When The Stars Look Down and Solidarity are evidence enough for this. They're both ridiculously catchy too and I had them in my head for days afterwards. The whole cast, then, should be congratulated on a wonderful overall show.

As an aside, this was no ordinary show! Between Once We Were Kings and The Letter, we had a power cut and consequent show-stop timed perfectly with an underground lift scene which at first we thought may have been part of the show. But no - the stage manager was quick to come on stage with a small(!) torch and inform us of the problem and a little under 15 minutes later, the show restarted where it had left off once power had returned and lights been double-checked. Very unfortunate but it is a testament to the show itself that the spectacle was not ruined consequently. It was a truly memorable night and a show I will definitely try and see again.

At this performance, the cast was:
Redmand Rance (Billy), Deka Walmsley (Dad), Matthew Dale (Tony), Gillian Elisa (Grandma), Sean Kearns (George), Simon Ray Harvey (Mr Braithwaite), Kay Milbourne (Dead Mum), Barnaby Meredith (Older Billy), Jack Bromage Eccles (Michael), Macy Stasiak (Debbie), Rory Toms (Small Boy) and Cyrus Ambrose (Tall Boy), Craig Armstrong, Paul Basleigh, Dawn Buckland, James Butcher, Spencer Cartwright, Lucinda Collins, Helen French, Sergio Giacomelli, Nic Greenshields, Ruri James, Ian Gareth Jones, Connor McAllister, David Muscat, Steve Paget, Steph Parry, Mike Scott, Spencer Stafford and many Ballet Girls!

Also in the cast are Joe Massey, Thomas Moore, Danya Dixon and Millie Thornton.