A new stagey favourite: The Lion King

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Though I like to think of myself as an avid theatre fan, I admit I seem to have a bit of a reputation for being horrendously “late to the party” when it comes to certain shows, especially established long runners. I didn’t see Les Miserables until 2011, and I spent the evening of my birthday in 2013 seeing Jersey Boys for the first time. It’s a pattern that I didn’t mean to fall into, but it makes me smile nowadays because, often, the shows I take the longest to see are the ones that end up meaning the most to me. This is definitely true of The Lion King, which I saw in London for the first time on February 6th, 2016. It got so under my skin that to date in a relatively short time, I’ve racked up six visits, and am always on the lookout for my next opportunity to visit the Pride Lands. The Lyceum, host to the show since it first opened in October 1999 is one of a handful I can count in the West End where I am allowed to sit in the stalls in my wheelchair, so that’s part of why I go so often, but the bigger and more significant reason is the simple fact I love the show and am forever grateful for the talented folks it has brought into my life.

Based on the 1994 Disney film of the same name, the musical tells the story of a young lion cub named Simba, who after a tragic and sinister turn of events at the paws of his villainous uncle Scar, is forced into exile. The time comes however, when Simba must return to take his rightful place as King and continue the circle of life. You’re probably going to laugh at me now when I say that the film was never my favourite Disney growing up, but it has some truly stunning music and lyrics courtesy of Elton John and Tim Rice, and the Shakespeare enthusiast in me loves the Hamlet influences. The musical, in my opinion takes all the things that make the film amazing, but managed to bring in some new songs and moments unique to itself, so you go in mostly knowing what you’ll be seeing, but there’s still scope to be surprised! Personally some of my favourites moments in the musical are actually things we don’t see in the film.

One of the things I adore most about the whole experience of the show is the sheer joy I get from being a repeat visitor in an auditorium filled with folks who are likely seeing it for the first time. Being a part of the thunderous applause at the end of Circle of Life at the top of the show is worth the ticket price alone in my opinion but there’s also something special about the humour, and the fact the young kids, and indeed us big kids in the audience are often found laughing at the same jokes, and there are  little cultural references thrown in that keep things fresh, like Zazu bursting into a chorus of Let it Go, Timon doing Riverdance, and my personal favourite, the Ikea gag. Visually, I love how colourful and inventive the show is, and there isn’t a scene that goes by where I don’t smile at some point, huge thanks to Director Julie Taymor’s Costume and Puppet Design. The show uses a combination of actors in costume with some extra clever technical wizardry and puppets, my favourites being the headpieces that Scar and Mufasa wear that allow the actors controlling them to mimic the movement of lions, and I am forever in awe of Richard Frame, who currently plays Timon; his puppetry looks like the hardest to master as it must put a real strain on his arms, neck and back!

George & Shaun

Scar & Mufasa (Image from http://www.london-theatreland.co.uk/theatres/lyceum-theatre/lion-king-customer-reviews.php)

 

The production design  as a whole is why I appreciate my seat in the stalls so much: my first time was sitting at the very back in Row Z, and while you get a feel for the spectacle, you do miss out on a lot of the finer details. Every visit since I have been lucky enough to park myself in Row P, much closer to the action!

During my time as a fan of the show, thus far I have seen three Simbas, two Nalas, two Rafiki’s, and the odd single change to the Hyena trio. What strikes me each and every time is that, regardless of who is onstage, principal or alternate, you really get the feeling the cast are enjoying what they do. Whether you have a single actor, multiple characters or the entire ensemble around, the sound they create is magic and even after repeat viewings I find myself getting goosebumps or tearing up at particular songs. And it’s not just the adults: I have seen multiple different pairings of Young Simbas and Nalas, and I love how each brings their own nuances to the characters, it completely changes the dynamic and feel of their scenes for me and makes it feel fresh, even though the script is always the same. When it was announced that current Simba (Nicholas Afoa) would be joining the show, I fell head over heels for him immediately after hearing him perform at West End Live, and that was only via Youtube. The first time I saw him live, I was utterly smitten by him by the end of his introduction near the end of Act One where he sings a grand total of 3 lines, so I knew we were onto a winner. Since that first time, I feel like his portrayal of Simba has gone from strength to strength: he brings a warmth and vulnerability to Simba that I find really endearing, but manages to marry this with the little hint of swagger and likeable charm that I think the character needs to make his journey convincing. I love that every so often you also catch a little hint of his native New Zealand accent when Simba is talking, and he holds the record for the only Simba that has managed to move me to tears (in the best possible way) with his rendition of Endless Night.

 

Nick Simba From The Front Row

Nicholas shines as Simba (Image from:https://fromthefrontrow.co.uk/2016/06/27/big-interview-nicholas-afoa/)

Nicholas is joined by Ava Brennan as Nala. The show gives Nala her own solo number: Shadowlands, a part I always look forward to hearing as not only does Ava sings it incredibly well, but it’s one of the ways in which Nala is given more character development than the film affords her; and as such I find her an infinitely more interesting character on stage than I do in the film. Ava’s portrayal is strong and sassy, but she also shares some great moments of humour and romance with Nick, and their chemistry is a joy to watch. Sticking with the theme of “girl power” for a minute, I think one of the other changes I like most from the film is the fact that Rafiki is female. Brown Lindiwe Mkhize, who plays her always puts a smile on my face with the humour she brings to the role and I love watching her feed off the audience’s energy and enthusiasm, not forgetting the fact I am astounded constantly by how such a powerful voice comes out of her frame!

Howard Gossington as Zazu is always a pleasure to watch, and he never fails to make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I hear his jokes. The same goes for Richard Frame as Timon and Keith Bookman as Pumbaa; they play off one another so well and their energy and enthusiasm is totally infectious! Shaun Escoffery is ever magnificent as Mufasa, his wonderful, soaring soulful rendition of They Live in You never fails to give me chills. Like with Nala’s character, the musical also gives Mufasa a little more scope for character development, there’s a lovely scene he shares with Zazu where the two talk about parenting and how Simba reminds Zazu of Mufasa when he was that age. I also love Shaun’s scenes with each of the Young Simbas I’ve seen, they are incredibly endearing and Shaun’s smile lights up the room. The scene where Mufasa appears to the older Simba is also one of my favourites; you just hear Shaun’s voice but he has great charisma, onstage and off.

Those that know me well will know I am a total sucker for a great villain; I just find them more exciting and interesting. As such, Scar is my favourite here; he’s clever and cunning, but also has something suave and charming about him that I find completely enchanting; a quality bought out in spades by George Asprey. Each time I see the show, I have been consistently bowled over by George’s presence, (I’m always drawn to watch him even if he isn’t where my attention should be in certain scenes) intensity and gift for subtle humour, I literally sit there in “I know I shouldn’t like you right now, but you’re so good at being evil I really do” mode for the entireity of the show. I can always be found cheering at Curtain call for George, usually when everyone else is giving him the good natured “boo”. I guess for a villain the latter is a sign you’ve done your job well and it always gives me a chuckle, but I can’t bring myself to do it!

Speaking of George, I am always incredibly grateful for his time, warmth, humour and patience  with me at Stage Door. My last outing he came out especially to see me between his Jiu Jitsu training just because he was aware I was in watching; something I felt incredibly guilty about but can’t thank him enough for. He asked me how many times that made it now:

“Six? You know it better than I do!”

I wouldn’t go that far, not yet. But I’m pretty sure I love it just as much as he does 😉

 

 

 

 

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“Team Scar” -George & I post my sixth trip – 18th Feb 2017

 

 

Death Takes a Holiday, Charing Cross Theatre – January 21st, 2017

In my experience, there seems to be a general perception that Off West End theatre can’t match up to its West End counterpart. For my part I’m trying to see more Off West End productions, but it can be difficult to fit their  shorter runs into my  theatregoing schedule what with travel expenses from home and still being an unemployed twenty -something, along with the fact my wheelchair excludes me from accessing some of the city’s older buildings. I’m taking strides to change this though, and my favourite venue that allows me to do so is Charing Cross Theatre.  My first musical there was Ragtime which I was lucky enough by chance to see twice. I adored the production so much that I quickly arranged to see another musical in their season: Maury Yeston’s Death Takes a Holiday. Originally premiering off Broadway in 2011, this production marks the musical’s European debut. The musical, with a book by Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone is adapted from the 1924 Italian play La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella, which was in turn made into a 1934 film starring Fredric March, and later remade into the 1998 film Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt. The latter is one of my favourite films of all time, so I was intrigued to see where the story really began, and above all being only vaguely familiar with Maury Yeston’s scores, how it was set to music.

It’s an evening in Venice just after World War One, and the family of Duke Vittorio Lamberti are returning to their villa after celebrating the engagement of their daughter Grazia to Corado Montelli.  When a mysterious figure blocks the road, Grazia is thrown from the car but is miraculously unharmed. In that instant, she knows that her life has changed dramatically. Death, entranced by Grazia’s beauty and spirit, and disillusioned with his purpose, takes human form in a Russian prince, Nikolai Sirki and endeavours discover why humans fear death so and understand human emotion. He visits the Duke, and blackmails him into letting him stay at the villa for the weekend. Thus begins a journey about life, what it means to be human and the question of whether love can transcend death.

The first thing that struck me about the production was how beautifully designed it is by Morgan Large. It features a set of large walled arches that are moved to signify a change in location, and I felt these immediately give a sense of grandeur to the intimate stage space, complimented stunningly by Johnathan Lipman’s sumptuous costumes. Matt Daw’s lighting is wonderfully atmospheric generally, even if the haze gets a little overwhelming at times; and the production  overall is a lovely balance between a brave and ambitious vision of an unusual love story, with a kind of calm yearning signified by Yeston’s luscious sweeping melodies. What I found most exciting about the score is the ease by which he brings together light and dark, often simultaneously within one song, that touched me deeply and something about his work feels very raw and truthful.

Bringing life to a story about Death is a strong cast all round, led by Chris Peluso as Death and Zoe Doano as Grazia. I bought my ticket prior to casting being announced, which if this production has taught me anything, I should be brave enough to do more often. My first experience of seeing Chris Peluso perform came with recent London revival of Miss Saigon, an experience which for me was totally marred by the staging and my view from the wheelchair spaces in the Prince Edward. I’d so been looking forward to hearing Chris singing Why God Why, but the staging meant he was sitting out of my sight for the entire duration of doing so, and trying to lean over for the majority of the action between Kim and Chris resulted in me ending the night with a very sore neck and back, and feeling disappointed at being unable to connect with the story emotionally due to the fact our view was such as it was. This in mind, I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing Chris performing again, and he charmed me utterly as Death. He brought an intensity to the role that was so entrancing that I often found my eye drawn to him whilst he was simply watching other characters, and wondering what Death was thinking in those moments. He contrasted this with moments of wonderfully endearing, almost childlike enthusiasm in the way Death first encounter’s his new found freedom in Alive! His smile during the latter was infectious and I found myself wrapped up utterly in the simple joy he finds in everyday things. Not to mention his singing, which was glorious throughout and Chris made the most of every single moment of the handful of times Death actually sings. His Act II solo number, I Thought That I Could Live was a highlight and gave me wonderful chills down my spine and brought tears to my eyes.

Chris is joined by Zoe Doano, who is nothing short of pure radiance as Grazia. This production marks the third I have seen Zoe in, and I was simply delighted to hear her beautiful soaring soprano once more, a perfect fit for a score like this. She is spirited and feisty, and I loved watching Zoe play this as it was a change from the kind of characters I have seen her play in the past. Her chemistry with Chris is one of the strongest I have had the joy of watching between a leading couple recently, I loved watching them interact because I believed everything from the moment they first set eyes on each other and their voices complimented each other beautifully.

Other special mentions must go to James Gant as Fidele, the family butler whose razor sharp comic timing was a joy to watch, I think at times I found the humour in the piece a little cheesy and obvious, but James made me embrace it and forget my misgivings. Since I saw the show, James has taken over as  Prince Sirki/Death and I will forever regret not being able to arrange another visit to see his portrayal. He has a wonderful rich voice that I’ve no doubt also compliments Zoe’s, but knowing James as I do for more comedic roles, I would have thoroughly enjoyed the chance to see him play something more serious and romantic!

Anthony Cable and Gay Soper share some lovely tender moments as Baron Dario Albione and Countess Evangelina, and Mark Inscoe a face I shall watch out for in future after seeing him as Duke Vittorio. On a more personal note, I was chuffed to see my friend Trudi Camilleri up on stage again as Cora having witnessed her impromptu triumph of a debut as Mother in Ragtime here and I look forward to seeing where her whirlwind of a journey continues to lead.

It’s the cast that really hold an unusual story like this together, and coupled with the ten piece band led superbly by musical director Dean Austin, the whole effect was truly spellbinding and I’m so grateful I got to see it.

 

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Credit: Scott Rylander & Annabel Vere

 

School of Rock – New London Theatre, 15th January 2017

 

My love of musical theatre has led me to encounter some shows that are incredibly special to me that began life on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star, Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County, and more recently, a reimagining of my favourite Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame with new music from Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, which retains the Disney score and infuses it with more of Victor Hugo’s original novel. I genuinely love London’s theatre scene, but regularly find myself a teensy bit jealous of my American friends who have access to certain performers I’ve come to admire and will most likely never get to see because travelling in my circumstances is a logistical nightmare, and on a simpler level I just don’t have the funds. Some of them might likely tell you they feel the same jealousy with certain performers we have based here; I guess it’s an amusing vicious circle that we share! I’ve noticed  in my admittedly few years of regular theatregoing that shows tend to have a very strong likelihood of going over to Broadway, but the reverse is a rarity (at least I think so!) which I think is a shame as we miss out on some amazing pieces and potential for audiences to see something totally different. Also, many  West End performers are being snapped up for work on and off Broadway (including two of my favourites, and a third who I haven’t had the joy of seeing onstage beyond a handful of songs at a concert whilst he was amid having made his Broadway debut back in 2015). I wish more performers were afforded the same opportunity to come over to London.

 

My personal gripes are by the by however, because every so often a show does come along fresh from the Great White Way. One of my favourite films is 2003’s School of Rock and it was a bittersweet moment when in 2015 it was announced it had been adapted into a Broadway musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Glenn Slater and a Book by Julian Fellowes. Once more the familiar green eyed monster reared its ugly head. I contented myself with the Original Broadway Cast Recording and any Youtube clips of performances the cast did on American TV that I could find, living vicariously through my American friends, and the Brits who were lucky enough to travel over and see it. After the Broadway opening, Lord Webber announced that the West End production would open in 2016, originally rumoured to be playing at the Palladium, eventually confirmed instead for the New London, home previously to Show Boat and War Horse. This news devastated me, thanks to what I then referred to as the ‘paragraph of doom’ on the website that handles the theatre’s access bookings:

Wheelchair access is via a goods lift to the first level and then a quick transfer to a second lift.

Please note the width of the second lift door is 70 cm (27.5″) wide (depth 83cm – 36.2″) and will not accommodate many sizes of wheelchair especially most electric wheelchairs or scooters. Most people with wider wheelchairs will need to temporarily transfer to a small house wheelchair to access the auditorium. We strongly advise you to check the measurements of the wheelchair before booking, especially if you are unable to transfer to the house wheelchair.”

 

Luckily, my ever-pragmatic dad, who knew how upset I was by this, reckoned we could get my chair in, so I took a punt and booked a pair of tickets for   early November. We were on our way into London and it was an hour or so before showtime, when I get a call on my mobile. I didn’t recognise the number, so I let it go to voicemail. Turns out it was the theatre manager, who, immensely apologetic, informed me that the lift was broken and the engineer wasn’t able to get the part today, and so I couldn’t attend the show. I kid you not, it took all my resolve to stop myself  bursting into tears on the phone to her. She very kindly proceeded to phone round the other Really Useful Theatres to try and get us in somewhere for the matinee, a long shot given the time. Unsuccessful, my tickets were refunded and my next trip was on the house. I spent almost three weeks trying to rearrange the trip, and it included a whole bunch of calls I made, ones I missed, staff being away from the office, and so on. Then, on 23rd November, I got a call from Craig, who that day, was my hero and managed to book me in again to see the show in the new year.

 

Happily, I didn’t get any more phonecalls and January 15th saw us make it to the New London Box Office without further incident. Dad and I decided to “scope out” where we would be with the lift situation; whether he’d have to lift me into the house wheelchair or not. I wasn’t overly thrilled by this thought, as my own wheelchair has a seat specially designed for my posture and enables me to sit comfortably and I don’t have to worry about needing to be sat up as much, because Dad wasn’t watching the show with me to help on that score either if I should have to transfer. So, we asked if we could see if my chair would manage before the show began, before I headed off to meet my friend for a pre-show lunch. I can’t praise the staff enough, they understood our concerns and couldn’t do enough for us. To our relief and my joy even though the size of the lift, the position of my feet needing slight adjustment and my chair being manoeuvred so the door could shut in such a way that leaves my poor father pinned in a rather uncomfortable position against the lift wall… the house wheelchair wasn’t needed.

 

You know that old chestnut that you should never get your hopes up about something you’ve been waiting ages for because the anticipation means it’ll not be as good as you hope?  In the case of this show, at least in my mind anyway, it’s emphatically, joyously untrue. I don’t think I stopped smiling from start to finish; not least because the minute I entered and was told where I’d be sitting, my view felt like I was in an arena!

If you don’t know the film, it follows down and out aspiring Rockstar Dewey Finn who in need of some cash, poses as a substitute teacher at prestigious prep school Horace Green and sets out to turn his class of straight A students into a mind-blowing rock band. My favourite work of Lord Webber’s is Jesus Christ Superstar, so I am overjoyed to see him make a return to his “rock roots” here. The score features some truly infectious and face melting melodies, my favourites being Stick It To The Man and You’re In The Band. That said, there are also moments of real warmth and tenderness in If Only You Would Listen which I felt added another dynamic that the film didn’t I think touch on as well as it could have: namely the children’s frustration at their parents, and a reprise where they thank Dewey for the difference he has made to their lives. Principal Mullins also gets a starring solo with Where Did The Rock Go, a song that I fell in love with from first listen as it fleshes out her character more than the film does. I think it’s fair to say the number of reprises in the score sometimes gets a little  repetitive, but the way I looked at it was it was Lord Webber and Glenn Slater trying to drive home their creative point in making this more than an adaptation of the film, and emphasising the joy one can find in the power of music and staying true to yourself. It was also fun to see the Lord  do things in his scores like slide in a cheeky reference to Cats and let loose with writing a Battle  a la Guitar Hero for Dewey & Ned.

 

At the performance I was eventually lucky enough to attend, I found out a few days before I had the privilege of seeing Gary Trainor, the Alternate Dewey. I know Gary from his time over at Beautiful, where he played record producer Donnie Kirshner, and when casting was announced for School of Rock I was thrilled and longed to see Gary in the role, as it it’s completely different to  the role I  already knew and loved him for! Needless to say, he didn’t disappoint in the slightest; capturing the essence of Jack Black (who played Dewey in the film), but firmly putting his own stamp on the character. His energy and enthusiasm is boundless and he had me properly belly laughing to the point of near distracting hiccups on multiple occasions.  In the musical, Dewey also shares some lovely emotional moments with the kids and Principal Mullins that warmed my heart and  lovely watching  Gary and Florence play these, one in particular between Dewey & Tomika and another between Mason and Ms Mullins had me choked up! Since seeing Gary, I’ve been telling all my friends who have already seen David Fynn, the principal Dewey, that they must go back and see Gary; especially if they saw him in Beautiful because he’ll blow their minds!

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Image:

http://uk.schoolofrockthemusical.com/

 

I was also thrilled to see Florence Andrews had joined the cast, having seen and thoroughly adored Once three times during its West End run. She has a wonderful voice, hitting notes I could only dream of and I found myself more convinced by her character arc here than I am with the film, thanks to Florence’s grace and moments of razor sharp delivery.

 

 

Other special mentions for the adult cast go to Jonathan Bourne who has a three pronged attack as Jeff/Gabe/Billy’s Dad and thus made me smile and be frustrated on Billy’s behalf in equal measure, popping up in all three so seamlessly I almost forgot they were being handled by him by himself, Alfie Parker who was on for Mr Williams and absolutely hilarious, Michelle Francis who was on for Patti, Ned’s girlfriend, and Oliver Jackson, perfect as Dewey’s nerdy and downtrodden pal Ned. Those names aside, I loved the adults across the board; they throw themselves at this show with as much heart and energy as the kids.

 

Speaking of the kids, my god are they talented! My band for the afternoon was made up of Jake Slack (Zack), Sophia Pettit (Katie), Noah Key (Freddy), Oscar Francisco (Lawrence),  Adithi Sujith (Tomika), Leah Levman (Marcy) and Jaydah Bell- Ricketts (Shonelle). I was either in awe of their prowess at their respective instruments, or particularly in Adithi’s case, how such a powerful voice can possibly come out of her petite frame! Class was completed by Eva Trodd (Summer), Logan Walmsley (Billy), Lucas Chow (Mason), Bradley Bissett (James), Grace Schneider (Sophie) and Zac Dowlatshahi (Matthew). All of them were a joy to watch,  and in my opinion the Battle/Finale are worth the ticket price alone; I haven’t been in an audience so swept up and receptive to rockin’ out in a long time!

 

Elsewhere, Anna Louizos scenic and costume design add oomph and personality  to what I think is a really hard stage to dress, and Natasha Katz (Lighting) and Mick Potter (Sound) really get to let loose and have fun, a trait also abundant in Laurence Connor’s directing.

 

You can say I’ve been incredibly late in “handing in my homework” writing this so long after the event. All the same, I wanted to say a massive thankyou to the cast and creative team because it meant a lot for me to finally get there. I look forward to whenever I’m next in class 😉

 

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Made it! Waiting for class to begin

 

 

Saint Joan – Donmar Warehouse, 14th January 2017

 

 

Nestled away in London’s Covent Garden you can find the Donmar Warehouse, one of my favourite theatrical venues in the city. The venue seats 251 and thus leads to an intense and wonderfully intimate experience as an audience member, but the thing I love most is the variety they have in their programme, having to date seen a musical, my favourite work of Shakespeare and a mixture of classic and more contemporary plays there. Also, the casting department seems to provide me no end of joy and amusement as they seem to possess an uncanny knack of casting those performers I love to watch; therefore, I am often more inclined to buy a ticket. Some I know don’t like this approach and say you should go for the show as a whole not a performer, but I firmly believe you can have the best of both worlds: in my experience supporting and admiring the performers I do leads me to see things I may not necessarily always choose to see, which in turn has broadened my horizons and tastes as a theatregoer; something I’ll always be grateful for and am endeavouring to continue doing. As well as onstage, I have had some really amusing and utterly, brilliantly surreal experiences offstage so it’s a venue that I will always hold close to my heart, and I could be found here kicking off my theatrical adventures of 2017 with Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

 

Set in 15th Century France, Shaw’s piece dramatizes what is known of Joan of Arc’s life through substantial records of her trial, first premiering in 1923, three years after her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. I knew only a little about Joan’s life before coming to the play, and hadn’t read it beforehand, as I do sometimes. As such, I knew I was going to be challenged seeing something based on historical events, but eager at the prospect. I learned later that in his preface to the play, Shaw wrote: “There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent… It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us.”

Looking back on my experience at the play now, I can see the point he was trying to make in that everybody involved acted in good faith according to what they believed, and as such the dynamic and crux of the drama comes from the choices people make and how people relate to one other. Knowing the setting of the piece and how the productions here like to play with the blend of traditional and more contemporary elements, I was genuinely intrigued by the direction the production would take here, indeed the very first thing we are confronted with is a tableau of Joan, decked out in chain mail, sometimes with sword in hand, kneeling on a spotlight platform mouthing prayers to her “voices” or prostrate before a crucifix. At the back of the stage whilst this is happening, we have a screen blazing with the question: “Must a Christ perish in every age to save those that have no imagination?”, with a projection of rose petals falling on one side, and a waterfall on the other. The combination of Howard Harrison’s Lighting and Duncan Mclean’s Video design from the outset seems to set the tone for on which the rest of Robert Jones’s striking design hangs, placing the classic, some might say expected elements, into a stark contemporary resonance.

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Our First sight

ones’s design makes a centrepiece of revolve and a long glass table, like the kind you would find in a boardroom:  news commentary, stocks, shares, facts and figures are the order of the day, and what this does is immediately place Joan as the sole female in a space dominated by men. Interestingly, she is the only one in traditional medieval dress throughout the play, which perhaps serves makes her power and influence over them more pronounced. While I found it a little jarring at times to see Joan conversing with the Dauphin over video chat, or a fleeting snippet of Evan Davis on Newsnight, overall I really enjoyed the contemporary touches, as it challenged me to think about how the play is still relevant today, as it’s essentially about individuals challenging the establishment, and deals with questions of religion and the way it can both give hope to and be troubling or difficult to understand to others depending on how you look at it; there’s a particularly interesting scene in which the Bishop of Beauvais (Elliot Levey) and the Earl of Warwick sit (Jo Stone – Fewings) sit and discuss the unnerving prospect of a world in which everyone inherits the “monstrous self-conceit of being directly inspired from heaven. It will be a world of blood, of fury, of devastation…” which hits close to the nerve in light of recent conflicts, and the failing of Robert De Baudricourt’s hens to lay and the uncertainty it creates for the economy could be read as reminiscent of that same uncertainty our own economy faces over Brexit.

 

 

 

 

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The fact I could pick up on the contemporary allusions amid the setting pleased me greatly as it gave me another way “in” to proceedings, but also meant I was hanging on every word where I may have found myself a bit lost.  Director Josie Rourke has trimmed the piece down to 2 and three quarter hours, but I found it to be well paced and my attention was always engaged and emotionally invested.

The central power in  the play for me, comes back to what I touched upon earlier: Joan being the woman in a man’s world. As the titular figure, Gemma Arterton is quietly radiant, for me her portrayal gave Joan strength in the quality of her conviction: I found it harder to see how she could lead an army, but really easy to see how she beguiles and mystifies the men about her.Her Joan has an easy grace and elegance, but underneath that a steely tenacity that is always there just below the surface, and she taps into it at precisely the right moments with just the right intensity; the trial scene is heartbreaking and gave me goosebumps. There is impressive support all round from the gents who make up the rest of the cast, to name a few: Fisayo Akinade is wonderfully amusing as the Dauphin, Rory Keenan a chilling presence as John Lemaître, The Inquisitor,  and Richard Cant is once again on tremendously moving form as John de Stogumber.

The play ends with Joan asking: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to accept thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”  which not only did I find both tragic and beautifully haunting, but above all it made me think. The latter trait being the recipe for my favourite kind of theatre.

Photo Credits: Jack Sain

Lazarus – Kings Cross Theatre, 31st December 2016

To kick off my theatrical blogs for the new year, I’d like to just take you guys back a little to the matinee of New Year’s Eve. I could be found at King’s Cross Theatre seeing Lazarus, the new musical by David Bowie and Enda Walsh. I am, regrettably not as well versed in David Bowie’s work as I would like to be (but the little I do know I enjoy), so came to this more on the level as a theatregoer who wanted to challenge myself with a new show instead of falling back on my familiar favourites again instead of a devoted fan of his music. Conversations I was having with friends who had seen the show before me were interesting; I was constantly hearing that it was unlike anything they’d ever seen before, not a ‘musical’ in the traditional sense of the word, and my favourite: “don’t try and make sense of it the first time round.”  As such, I was by turns intrigued and, if I’m honest, a little bit apprehensive. Yet what transpired during that one hour 50 minutes was extraordinary: it IS unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and is definitely not what I’d call a musical in the familiar, traditional sense. I certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on, but the best part about that was: I’m not sure I was meant to, and in that sense Lazarus at least in my eyes became more than a musical and instead becomes a piece of glorious, undefinable, beautifully haunting art.

Inspired by the 1963 novel The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis, which in turn served as the basis the film of the same name that Bowie starred in, Lazarus introduces us once more to Thomas Jerome Newton, a humanoid alien who after a failed first attempt to return home (see the novel and the 1976 cult classic film) is still stuck on Earth. Bitter, broken and surviving only on copious amounts of television, gin and (when he can be bothered to walk around his apartment and find them) Twinkies, we follow Newton for few days, where “the arrival of another lost soul – might set him finally free”.

Jan Versweyveld’s scenic and lighting design is one of the things I loved most about this piece. Newton’s apartment is sparsely furnished: a bed, fridge and a lone record player from which Ricky Nelson’s version of Hello, Mary Lou opens the show (Irony abounds as Mary Lou is the name of Newton’s ex-lover) but at the back of the stage, there is a video screen; which serves for some of the most creative and striking visuals I believe I’ll ever see on stage, with video design by Tal Yarden. Figures emerge from the screen and backdrops are even projected onto the back wall of Newton’s apartment, where from behind a set of windows, we see the band playing. There are points where characters press themselves up against these, as if trying to escape, I remember being particularly touched by the moment where Newton does this, whilst singing Lazarus: “this way or no way, you know I’ll be free, just like that bluebird… now, ain’t that just like me?” because it, for me, sets up the dynamic of the show; the interplay between Newton’s gin addled sense of reality and fiction, and how the line between the two has and will continue to become increasingly blurred. The clever blend of all these elements, the more natural verses the fantastical things that Newton sees (or does he?) put me in mind of a science fiction cum fantasy movie and I loved it, despite the confusion that is consistently simmering away about the action that unfolds.

Michael C. Hall is a powerhouse as Newton. As someone who was completely in the dark about his stage work  and having only seen snippets of Dexter, I was floored by his vocals and at times thought he sounded so like Bowie it was deliciously uncanny and sent shivers down my spine. Not to mention the fact that he rarely leaves the stage, and often spends time just watching his fellow cast members: even when he probably wasn’t meant to be the main focus of my attention, I found myself watching him, wondering what Newton was thinking; Hall brings a hypnotic quality to Newton’s tormented nature that charmed me.

 

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Newton & Girl (Credit: Johan Persson)

 

 

 

Newton is visited by an eerie, otherworldly Girl that claims she is there to help him. She knows everything about him, but nothing about herself. It soon becomes apparent that she, like Newton, is trapped between worlds, and the two share some wonderfully tender and equally amusing moments. The Girl comes to symbolise hope to Newton, ‘building’ him a new rocket, helping him move on from Mary Lou: “when you’re stuck between two worlds – it’s only right that you try something incredible…” but for me the power in their relationship comes from the fact that it deals with the idea of loss, acceptance and the freedom acceptance can offer.  In my eyes, it also plays around with the idea of identity, and whether we can or indeed should let ourselves be defined by a single thing, or are we just all fluid, a bit like the nature of the piece itself. Nowhere did I think this more prominent as in Heroes, where Newton and the girl have embraced their freedom and playfully slide around in her ‘blood’ which is white, like milk, (perhaps symbolic of rebirth), Newton having at the same time concluded “we’re nothing, and nothing can help us”. Incidentally, I think this arrangement of my favourite Bowie song (musical supervision and orchestrations by Henry Hey) was my favourite of all, it’s haunting, poignant and at the same time I felt hopeful while listening.

Sophia Anne Caruso is an ethereal delight as the Girl, and struck me as possessing a charisma and stage presence far beyond her young years. Her singing is eerie yet pitch perfect, blending wonderfully with Hall’s and also being a force of nature on its own; the ease with which she tackles Life on Mars and This is Not America is spellbinding.

 

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Another lost soul – The Girl (Credit: Johan Persson)

 

Newton’s assistant Elly was the character I had the most  fun trying to decipher. Seemingly part of the real world, she nonetheless blends into Newton’s ‘reality’ with alarming ease. Dissatisfied with her life and lack of fulfilment, she in one particularly memorable scene, she strips down and eventually morphs into the guise of Mary Lou. She seemingly feels overwhelmed by this but is reluctant to let it go because it gives her life meaning, and I felt I could relate to this struggle; Amy Lennox brings a likeable and grounded quality to a role that at one point brings us a surreal and utterly bonkers scene that features both her and the Girl dressed as Mary Lou talking to Newton while a video of Mary Lou dancing also plays behind! At times, it perhaps  got a bit too obscure and I wondered what the hell was happening, but I let this go and just decided to run with it and stop thinking so hard.

 

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Elly and Valentine (Credit: Johann Persson)

 

Add to this mix Michael Esper who gives a deliciously creepy turn as Valentine, a serial killer disillusioned with life and the state of the world, and you will sometimes find yourself thrown into a theatrical world that is impossible to work out, but if you embrace this fact with an open mind, it’s truly rewarding and gives you near endless scope for interpretation. That, in itself is for me the power and joy of good art – it’s subjective and my ideas about it will probably be different to everyone elses, and I don’t know if I’m even on the right track with how I looked at this show. Nevertheless, what a ride it proved to be, I feel blessed to have had such a powerful, moving theatrical experience.

Ragtime – Charing Cross Theatre, 15th October, 2016

Those who know me and my theatregoing habits will know that I’m a sucker for revivals of musicals and will always find space in my stagey diary for them. You’ll also know if you are an occasional or regular avid reader of my theatrical musings, that I’m trying to make a conscious effort to see more shows that are new to me. So, what better way to combine both with a trip to the Charing Cross Theatre for Ragtime, part of Thom Southerland’s new season as artistic director there.

Based on E.L Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, the musical weaves together the stories of three different groups living in America in at the turn of the 20th century, where the world is spinning and a new distant music can be heard on the horizon. We have the White upper class suburban family, here known simply as Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather and The Little Boy (or Edgar), the African American community represented by Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr, and Eastern European Immigrants, represented by Tateh and his daughter, who travel to America in search of a better life from Latvia.  Their stories not only overlap at times, but we also meet some prominent historical figures from the time, such as Booker T Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini.

Personally, I lean towards musicals that challenge me to think deeply about life and deal with powerful issues, and Ragtime has that quality in spades: politics, racism, the meaning of family, poverty, injustice, and acceptance are all explored and confronted, and it struck me deeply how the piece still feels chillingly relevant today. Couple that with an utterly delicious score by Stephen Flaherty (and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), and I think it’s fair to say that Tom and his company and creative team are onto a sure-fire winner.

I’m consistently amazed of late by the magic that can be created by  small casts in intimate spaces, and here we have no exception: a cast of 24, many of whom are actor- musicians pack the teeny Charing Cross stage (and indeed at one point, the aisles!) with an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious, a sound that is almighty and nothing short of a delight; I started getting chills down my spine from the Prologue and they would return periodically throughout the evening; a testament to the fact I felt instantly connected to this music and its ability to shape and drive the narrative. Credit, too, to Musical Director maestro Jordan Li- Smith for his assured leadership: a cast of polished, infinitely engaging actor musos is always a treat for the ears as well as the eyes, but to achieve this having memorised all the music, and playing a piano that spends a good part of the show spinning? Massively impressive. Tom Rodgers and Toots Butcher’s set is a two-storey multitasking marvel: the piano morphs into a Ford Model T, and we go from country house to deck of a ship with a spin of a balustrade. The cast climb and perch wherever they need to be, pianos turn into soap boxes and so on; and this often gives some of the show’s emotional moments a new depth. Choreography by Ewan Jones is slick and smart, again a masterclass in how to utilise the intimate space with the size of cast you have.

 

I think this production boasts one of the strongest ensembles it has been my privilege to watch. They are led by Anita Louise Combe as Mother whose performance radiates warmth, grace and sensitivity; her vocal soars, and her rendition of Back to Before was one of my personal highlights of the entire evening! Where Mother represents everything that is progressive, tolerant, courageous and infinitely compassionate we have her antithesis in Father, who often comes across as cold and emotionless. I spent the entire show in a bit of a quandary; I felt Father wasn’t always a particularly likeable character, but I think he’s just set in his ways and struggles to articulate his feelings, and is actually one of the characters I found myself empathising with most. This production is the third opportunity I have had to see Earl Carpenter perform (the others being Phantom of The Opera & Les Misérables on Broadway) and he continues to astound me, he’s one of those performer’s I think is a master of making the subtlest and smallest of nuances say so much, and I got a simple sense of pure joy just hearing him sing again.

The Family (Credit: Annabel Vere & Scott Rylander)

The Family (Credit: Annabel Vere & Scott Rylander)

Gary Tushaw was, in my mind a marvel as Tateh. I had not seen him perform prior to this, and I hope it won’t be my only opportunity; his energy and passion is relentless, and Tateh’s journey throughout the show fills me with such joy, his dogged determination and love for his daughter is enchanting. He has a duet with Mother, Our Children that is particularly exquisite; Tushaw’s and Combe’s voices a  delighful, rich blend that warmed my heart.

 Gary Tushaw, a marvel as Tateh (Credit: Annabel Vere & Scott Rylander)

Gary Tushaw, a marvel as Tateh (Credit: Annabel Vere & Scott Rylander)

 

Ako Mitchell and Jennifer Saayeng shine as Coalhouse and Sarah; their chemistry sizzles and together and apart, they have some of the show’s most powerful, affecting moments. Coalhouse turns vigilante after Sarah is killed, and to watch Ako go through that emotional transition as an actor as Coalhouse’s spirit is broken and he is angry at the world is truly something, it felt so raw and honest and my heart broke.

Coalhouse and Sarah (Credit: Annabel Vere & Scott Rylander)

 

Ragtime is one of those scores and shows that took me through every conceivable emotion, and touched a nerve in the way it reminded of how far we’ve left to go as a society. That said, it boasts a tremendous spirit and optimism that I was charmed by, and all the cast are phenomenal; I’d urge everybody to get a ticket if you can so you can see this Tony award winner brought thrillingly back to life!

Ragtime is running at Charing Cross Theatre until December 10th. For details and to book: http://charingcrosstheatre.co.uk/theatre/ragtime 

Jesus Christ Superstar – An idea

Calling all ‪#‎OATsuperstar‬ fans. I set this up so we can show the  Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre team how much we love this show, and how worthy we think it is of a cast recording, for those of us who have seen it, and for those who haven’t had the opportunity, so this incredible piece, including maestro Tom Deering’s amazing refreshed arrangements of Lord Webber’s classic score and performances of Declan, Tyrone, David, Anoushka, Joel, Peter and the rest of the cast can live on. All signatures and shares greatly appreciated!
 Some brilliant comments from supporters of the petition already, and would love to keep the momentum up:
‘Would be a travesty not to’
 
‘The show was superb and the voices sublime. Can’t imagine ever hearing it done better and would LOVE to be able to listen to those fabulous voices over & over again. Sung with such feeling.’
‘This was truly one of the most magical and spellbinding shows I have ever seen! Taking the score back to its rockier roots with the most stunning cast was sheer perfection and it so deserves to be heard by so many more!!’
I am incredibly excited by the rumours of a West End transfer, but feel the Regent’s Park cast are too incredible to let pass by, while my efforts may not be fruitful, I feel I wanted to try on behalf of this production and team. You can also read my original thoughts on the production here: https://confessionsofa20somethingliteratureandmusicjunkie.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/jesus-christ-superstar-regents-park-open-air-theatre-july-30th-2016/