Interview: Caro Dixey

Caro DixeyOften, critics and audience members don’t always see eye to eye. Shows that have been infamously panned by critics, like We Will Rock You, have gone on to enjoy huge profits and lengthy runs. Likewise, sometimes critical acclaim just can’t stop a show from closing early, such as was with I Can’t Sing: The X-Factor Musical.

As a reviewer myself, I was initially unconvinced about the Old Red Lion’s Old Red Line night, which sees a paying audience give direct and instant feedback on a playwright’s new work. What do mere patrons know about the finer points of playwriting? But maybe I’m missing the point somewhere, and there’s an untapped worth somewhere in this exercise.

In order to find out, and hopefully disprove my preconceptions, I spoke to playwright Caro Dixey, who recently had her new play The Five Stages of Waiting put through the Old Red Line’s process. A few months ago, I found her sat in the Greenwich pub where we arranged to meet, tablet PC in her hands and papers strewn across the table: all flanked by a large glass of chilled white wine. She seems particularly excited. Not only because she had just confirmed the venue for the premier of the work, but also because this the first time she’s been interviewed, much to my surprise.

Dixey, an incredibly fresh writer on the London fringe circuit, has already begun to make waves with the short pieces she’s written for The Pensive Federation, among other things. These were performed alongside other established fringe playwrights such as Sarah Pitard and Serena Haywood. With The Five Stages of Waiting being one of her first full length pieces to be fully produced, this is a big advance for her. So was the process beneficial?

Been There, Done That 

Dixey is in a unique position as a playwright: she previously trained as a dramaturge. Because of this, she holds constructive feedback from any outside party in high regard.

“I need a dramaturge, and I can’t do that myself with my own writing,” she tells me. “You can get lost in your own world of witty comments and clever dialogue. But that doesn’t matter if it doesn’t connect with an audience. I’m very about opening it up [and] asking other people’s opinion. If it’s a thing that no-one can look at, then I don’t know why you’re writing.”

Indeed, putting the play forward for Old Red Line wasn’t the first time The Five Stages of Waiting had been given a critical platform. She first submitted the first ten minutes of the play to Vertical Line Theatre, a production company championing new writing through smaller audience feedback initiatives. Artistic Director, Henry Regan, took a shine to the piece during this initial exposition, and then took larger segments of the play through some of Vertical Line’s other initiatives, cumulating in the full draft being scrutinised at Old Red Line: a direct project of Regan’s.

Although now familiar with some exposure to the brutal world of audience opinion, Dixey’s previous training also prepared her from the perils of merciless patrons.

“It is a really interesting situation to be put in,” she admits. “I knew it was going to be difficult [and] I prepared myself for the worst. As a dramaturge, I was given a lot of training and advice about how to approach playwrights: how to discuss their work and how to be sensitive. It was quite interesting to see how people do exactly what I was told not to do.”

Original promo for  The Old Red Line.

Cause and Effect

Of course, my prime interest in speaking to Dixey was to get her point of view of how well it all went. She illuminates to me just how inglorious some of the audience members where. Broad, sweeping, and damning statements were made by some, chastising some of main facets of the work. Thought Dixey admits that she could have easily enabled these to dent her confidence, instead, she managed to find an unlikely positivity in it all.

“People were writing. People wrote on both sides of the [feedback] sheet. Even when it was quite critical, it meant that someone’s actually taken the time to write two sides of comments. I had their attention for an hour and ten minutes, and they hadn’t run straight back to the bar. They’ve been bothered to write feedback. Even if they hated it, at least they were engaged enough to give me feedback.”

But was there any more positive and constructive feedback, and if so, has it affected the play?

“Definitely,” Dixey declares, with unwavering gumption. “I was at a bit of a turning point with a couple of the characters, and needed to make a decision. When people start saying that they don’t understand what [the character is] doing there, or they don’t understand their line of thought, it reaffirmed ideas.”

In fact, she tells me that she has even kept some of these pieces of paper pinned to where she does her writing, to spur her on in and give her encouragement. “I’m working on a rewrite, and it’s going to be a new draft. But I’m very excited about that draft.”

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in "Done". Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Neil, J. Byden (left) and Laura Kim (right) enjoying a first/last dance in Caro Dixey’s “Done”, as part of The Pensive Federation’s “Rewritten” festival. Photograph: Courtesy of The Pensive Federation.

Repeat Performance 

As the process seemed to have gone quite well this time, I ask if she thinks that this is something she’d do again.

“Yes,” says Dixey, although I detect a little hesitation in her voice. On enquiring further, I find out that the scintilla of reluctance I sense wasn’t so much about the process, but more about the readiness of her next piece to be put through it.

“With The Five Stages of Waiting, I’ve been working on it for the last seven and a half years. So I know this play, I know what I want from it, and I know that I feel very secure within it. I’ve got a new play that I’ve just finished about six months ago. That has never been produced. It’s a first draft, and I certainly wouldn’t put that up for this.”

She continues to explain that having this lack of confidence and certainty in direction would mean that such broad comments would likely change the very essence of the play, rather than just ironing out the kinks. Engaging an audience is more about letting her improve certain points of the play, rather than having them write one for her.

To Dixey, she feels that those who are at the early stages of a playwriting career can really benefit from this process, providing they’re confident with the play they’re putting forward. It gives writers a different type of criticism to what theatre professionals can give, creating a window into the minds of those you’re writing for.

“[When] you’re still learning your craft, sometimes feedback from a director or a script consultant or a dramaturge can be quite daunting. When it’s Joe Bloggs saying,  ‘I really like that bit, but I don’t understand that;’ that’s the sort of feedback you might get from an audience; instead of the structure, the character development, and the technical ideas.”

Most surprisingly, Dixey’s experience on the more technical side of theatre production means she’s discovered that the audience are more of an informed benchmark than us critics give credit for.

“If your writing is good, then the audience feedback will reflect the views of the company or the artistic director, nine times out of ten.”

Epilogue

I left my time with Dixey far more positive than I thought I would be. Her enthusiasm for the tangible benefits she claims to have received from engaging an audience at a creative level have intrigued me. It’s actually diminished the contempt that I can sometimes hold an audience in; both unwittingly and out of the arrogance that comes with the territory of reviewing.

None the less, my initial cynicism has led way to anticipation for seeing for myself the positives of audience insight and participation in the writing process. I have already witnessed Dixey’s writing first hand and found it be a staggeringly impactful and powerful. So this can only improve it, right?

The Five Stages of Waiting will be performed as part of the Camden Fringe 2014, on 4 – 9 August 2014, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9 NP. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk.

For more information about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.

For more information about Caro Dixey, visit www.carodixey.com.


Theatre Review: East of Berlin (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Jordan McCurrach (left) and  Jo Herbert (right). Photograph: Ori Jones Photography.

Jordan McCurrach (left) and Jo Herbert (right). Photograph: Ori Jones Photography.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Complex, uncomfortable, and daring, this is theatre at its most intense.

Overview

Anything that touches on the horrors of the Holocaust is always in danger of being too purile, shallow, or offsneive. Yet award-winning Canadian playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, has crafted a complex, daring, and unprecedented piece using an imaginative and intelligent slant on the aftermath of  the concentration camps atrocities. There aren’t any shallow shocks or crude politics here, just an unexpected and unnerving look at redemption and the human condition.

Rudi has grown up in Paraguay in a post-war German settlement, never knowing his father’s role in the Nazi effort. When his friend lets slip that his dad was an SS doctor experimenting on people at the camps, Rudi’s world is turned upside down causing him to flee from his family back to Berlin. But will the divided city provide the escape from his father’s past that he’s looking for? And just how fine are the lines between love, guilt, spite, and salvation?

Writing

Moscovitch’s is a formidable writer, having scooped up  many writing awards. Indeed, East of Berlin has toured and been performed internationally on the basis of Moscovitch’s talent. Despite the prickly subject, she approaches the narrative with a huge amount of intelligence and emotional depth. All characters here feel real, but most importantly, realistically flawed. Even as awkwardly ghastly as the play’s subject is, it feels organic and convincing, and not just some bad taste novelty. Moscovitch also knows just when, and how much, dark humour to employ, which not only lightens some of the heavier moments, but is used to explore character and issues with an inviting depth and grace.

In closer details, Moscovitch’s, writing really comes to the fore in her handle of language. Throughout, there are a lot of unfinished sentences and fragmented paragraphs. It feels a little awkward at first, but you soon realise that the metre is all about embodying the small self-censures and internal lies we, and the characters alike, subconsciously make. Suddenly, you start to see the high-intelligence behind the play.

All this, when crescendoing towards the play’s climax, cumulates in an absolutely overwhelming finale of shock and awe: a soul-shaking finish that is seldom pulled off so successfully in theatre.

Production

The production is also top notch with all parts of the team working incredibly well together. Holly Pigott’s set of cluttered archive shelves evoke a strange calm and clinical bleak backdrop for Rudi’s plight. There are also several little surprises hidden in the shelving’s mobility and hidden crannies. Ingeniously, these all slowly move and unravel parallel the gradual deterioration and destruction of Rudi’s life, giving the show a brilliant aesthetic intelligence alongside the writing.

Blythe Stewart’s direction ensures that the text and the action buzzes unceasingly around it. Even monologues have a real sense of drive and drama despite there visually being little to concern yourself with. She makes sure that it’s the characters and their thoughts that drives the pace, as this is where the theatre of the piece truly lies.

Particular note-worthy is Jasmine Robinson’s video design. Projecting directly onto the set’s shelving units, images and moving animations become distorted and broken by the unevenness of the files, boxes, and paraphernalia. These either quietly change the mood of a setting, or serve as surreal illustrations as to what’s going on. Robinson’s videos mimic Moscovitch’s use of fractured language; nothing is whole and everything has fissures which attempt to distort the truth, either aurally or visually.

In short, there’s a sheer amount of thought and subtlety that runs throughout the production. This is not a play that needs resources, pomp, or razzle-dazzle to work, but merely brilliant and ingenious minds that acutely understand the text. Stewart and her team lavish the show with just this, and more.

John McCurrach (left) and  Tom Lincoln (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ori Jones Photography/

John McCurrach (left) and Tom Lincoln (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ori Jones Photography/

Cast

The trio of actors are all excellent. In particular, they manage to always seem to be withholding something that they’re not letting on to their counterparts or the audience, creating a pervasive sense of guilty/traumatic enigma. Even Jo Herbert, as Sara, as bubbly and outgoing as she is, conceals a troubled past and interfering prejudices that makes her almost as couched and distant as Rudi at times. These cumulate in emotionally tactile and visceral performances from these three excellent actors.

Jordan McCurrach as Rudi, however, is particularly masterful, especially in his asides to the audience. He handles the dark humour handed to him by Moscowich with a blunt grace and dexterity perfectly suited to his character. McCurrach both endears and repels us from Rudi in equal measure, without ever making him caricature or overtly neurotic. He gives a quiet yet barnstorming performance of controlled power, revelling in the unsettling comi-tragic awkwardness of the narrative and Rudi himself.

Verdict

Immensely thought-provoking and incredibly intense, Moscovitch’s outstanding writing is supported by a supreme production and extraordinary cast. Uncomfortable and subtly shocking, it’s an extreme yet elating piece of theatre.

East of Berlin plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 12 July 2014. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk. 


Musical Review: Thriller Live! (Lyric Theatre, London)

Cleopatra Higgins in Thriller Live! Photograph: Irina Chira.

Cleopatra Higgins in Thriller Live! Photograph: Irina Chira.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell:

Cheap and tacky looks are made up for by some great performances from the leads, particular Cleopatra Higgins.

It’s been five years since Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, died suddenly. I remember the evening it happened: some drunk on Pentonville Road accosted me, loudly lamenting his death. I politely responded, “well, that’s very sad,” and left him to his own devices, shrugging it off as mere intoxicated delusion. So, imagine my surprise when I logged onto my computer to find out that the inebriated man was actually telling the truth.

None the less, this musical revue of his life and successes from the Jackson Five onwards, has been going for nine years and counting, even if it has turned from celebration to obituary. Now, there’s a definite breath of fresh air in welcoming Cleopatra Higgins, from 1990s pop group Cleopatra (comin’ at ya), onto the West End stage fresh off her involvement with the national tour of the show.

Direction & Choreography

Director and choreographer Gary Lloyd, makes great use of not only the main stage area, but also the set’s various levels, filling it with movement and spectacle. Whilst overall it looks great and the dance troupe perform with gusto and panache that gives a real sense of octane and energy. The problem is that many moments just feel a little too copied from Jackson’s various videos and movie. But that’s always going to be the problem with this type of show: celebration treads a fine line between it and imitation. It’s difficult to be wowed when you’ve seen it all before, but then you can’t exactly not reproduce some of these iconic bits of choreography.

Production

I personally have a very grim view of video screens in any production. Unfortunately, the prolific use of them in Thrillier Live! just serves to reinforce my bias. The ones here make the entire production look cheap and tacky. The graphics are lazy and uninspired, and also look awful due to the lack of definition due to their scale. The animations for the show’s titular number looked more like something off of the Nintendo’s Just Dance videogame, rather than something which is supposed to be of West End grade and show-stopping.

What makes these heinous pieces of technology even more unwanted is the fact that most other aspects of the production render them unnecessary. Costumes provided by Shooting Flowers are dazzling and colourful, illuminating the stage more effectively than these digital disgraces. Lloyd’s choreography also adds more motion and flair than the tacky moving images. The cast, too, bring a sense of presence and showmanship that steal the limelight away from the screens. All this show needs is the good lighting designed already provided by Nigel Catmur. The screens only serve to detriment and distract and really need to have something thrown at them: preferably in the style of Macintosh’s 1984 advert.

Cast

Higgins is billed as the main draw and she certainly does not disappoint. She brings a heady injection of the power and glamour with her fantastic voice and bubbling charisma: all that made her a success on BBC’s talent show The Voice. What is most endearing is that she wholly makes every song she’s involved in her own, embodying the true spirit of celebration that the show is really about. She is astonishing and a joy to watch, holding the entire audience for entire songs at a time without ever tiring or faltering.

Thriller Live!'s previous ensemble. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Thriller Live!’s previous ensemble. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

The other leads also do well to follow suit. Ricardo Afonso provides the show with a few gob-smacking belters that are pretty unbelievable to behold. Indeed, each lead brings their own personality and charismatic quality to their parts.

The only time that the leads don’t quite work their magic and their talent into the show is when they’re trying to be Jackson. It’s impossible to replicate MJ’s character and mojo, so why try? This is most apparent in our young Jackson, played on this particular evening by Kyle Johnson.  Johnson’s performance came across as a little stale, especially sized up against readily available footage of Jackson as his young virtuoso self. Whilst Johnson’s efforts should certainly be applauded, you can’t help but feel disappointed knowing that he’s come up short of expectations. The same can be said about David Jordan who, whilst executing Jackson’s signature dance moves with precise perfection, they just feel hollow by comparison to the legend himself.

Verdict

The problem with this show is that it’s stuck somewhere between homage and emulation, not to mention marred by some terrible production choices. But it’s the moments of homage that work best and worth seeing the show for. Whilst the emulations just feel like mere reproduction, missing the undeniable sheen of the original.

But whether you’re a big MJ fan or not, what certainly shines through are the spectacular, memorable, and personal tributes to Jackson from its leads. Thriller Live! is by no means a show you should rush to buy a ticket for, but if you find yourself there, then there’s still plenty to look forward to by way of some great moments, and overall it’s still an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Thriller Live! is currently playing at the Lyric Theatre, London, W1D 7ES. Tickets are £27.50 -£65. To book, visit www.nimaxtheatres.com/lyric-theatre/thriller_live


Musical Review: Fashion Victim – The Musical! (The Cinema Museum, London)

Rosie Glossop (centre) as Mimi Steele. Photograph: Alex Carr.

Rosie Glossop (centre) as Mimi Steel. Photograph: Alex Carr.

Rating: ****

In a nutshell

It might stumble a little on the catwalk, but its wit, sense of fun, and fierce compere makes this an incredibly entertaining evening.

Overview

Fashion: dazzling, daring, and fickle. As it’s an industry so full of divas and drama it’s no surprise that it makes for a good subject for a musical. It’s no further surprise that, capitalising on this, Fashion Victim – The Musical! is full of as much pizzazz and punch as Naomi Campbell’s mobile.

After the success of the earlier Edinburgh Fringe version, writer Toby Rose has made alterations and accessorised Fashion Victim – The Musical! for a London debut, having interestingly resorted to crowdsourcing for the funds to build a custom catwalk and hire a suitable venue for the venture. Ending up in the little known but none the less stunning space of London’s The Cinema Museum, is the result more Prada than Primark?

Writing

Rose is no stranger to outrageous camp wit, especially being the founder of the Palm Dog Award: a prize for the best canine performance in film. Consequently, Rose’s writing is full of unabashed satire and vicious pokes that are aimed not only at the fashion industry but pop culture as a whole, meaning there are plenty of punch lines and gags to keep you chortling. Those less fashionably inclined might miss a few of the references, but nothing is really so obscure that it would go over too many people’s heads.

Therefore, it’s as shame the thrust of the story is as shallow as the industry it’s sending up. A thinly veiled and pedestrian cautionary tale, it doesn’t really offer anything deep or original. In fact, because of this Rose doesn’t quite manage to keep up the octane of the show as it sashays towards an all too predictable conclusion. But thankfully, its overall humour, production values, and cast makes up in bounds for what the plot lacks.

Songs

Cayelan Mendoza pens a score that has variety and energy, managing to capture the anarchic chic of the show. Admittedly, whilst there isn’t really anything you’ll come away humming, none of the songs feel third rate or uninspired. Indeed, if you pay close enough attention to the lyrics, there’s a definite intelligence and sharpness: the only thing that really fleshes out otherwise ordinary characters and story.

Production

Rose has managed to pull out all the stops in getting a top-notch creative team on board for Fashion Victim – The Musical!. Director Robert McWhir (also Artistic Director of the celebrated Landor Theatre) works incredibly well with TV choreographer Ryan Jenkins to fill the catwalk with colourful action and scintillating dance. But it’s great to see McWhir spend as much attention to bits that happen as asides and off the stage, giving the whole show a real sense of spontaneous cabaret which bolsters its sense of unbridled fun.

Richard Lambert’s lighting design also adds some unexpected nuance, particularly through his use of spotlight, paying a quiet homage to the venue, even if, on the surface of things, they seem a little juxtaposed.

James Wilkinson as Cedric Chevallier. Photograph: Alex Carr.

James Wilkinson as Cedric Chevallier. Photograph: Alex Carr.

Cast

As the vivacious and devious Mimi Steel, Rosie Glossop finds time within the production to wow the audience with the sheer power of her brilliant voice. Yet, it’s a shame that these are but small moments that allow her talent to shine as the writing of her character doesn’t make full use of her abilities. However, alongside our hero James Wilkinson as French male-model superstar Cedric Chevallier, they both bounce a keen sense of joyous pantomime against each other to great comic effect.

On Wilkinson’s part, again the superficiality of his character doesn’t allow a proper glimpse into any talent he may have. It’s also a little disappointing that he finds it difficult to project his singing voice in the lower range of his register, even though mic-ed up, meaning that his one big solo number is lost among the music. But when he’s singing higher in his range in some fab little duets with Glossop, and/or when he gets his shirt off (see picture), he is certainly forgiven.

Yet it’s really Carl Mullaney that really steals the show. As host, narrator, and compere for the evening, Mullaney is the real star at the helm, piloting the show at full steam ahead. Feeding off the audience’s energy and reactions as well as interjecting with a litter of marvellously knowing quips, it’s worth going to see Fashion Victim – The Musical! just for his company and entertainment alone.

Verdict

It’s hardly high theatre, but it’s wholly entertaining. It’s camp catwalk kitsch at its best, and if it’s a carefree and laugh-a-minute evening you’re after then you should be killing for a ticket for Fashion Victim – The Musical! 

Fashion Victim – The Musical! plays at The Cinema Museum, London, SE11 4TH, until 5 July 2014. Tickets are £10-£20. To book visit www.fashionvictimthemusical.com


Theatre Review: Avenue Q (Greenwich Theatre, London)

Felt Friends. The cast of Avenue Q> Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Felt Friends. The cast of Avenue Q. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

Avenue Q is probably one of the most outrageous of modern musicals, earning itself pride and praise alongside other risqué and brilliant ventures such as The Book of Mormon and Jerry Springer: The Opera. Five years after a spectacular run in the West End following on from its New York and Tony “Triple Crown” (Best Book, Best Musical, and Best Score), it returns to UK shores in this touring production by Sell A Door, landing in Greenwich for a brief period as its first stop.

Book and Songs

Book writer Jeff Whitty has his sights set to kill, with the nostalgia of innocence surrounding our memories of Sesame Street and other such shows right in his line of vision. Essentially, the musical asks, “what happens when puppets grow up?” The answer is they drink, they swear, and they fuck, with as much aplomb as us of non-felt origin do. Yet Whitty’s genius is that despite the very adult situations these fuzzy friends find themselves in, there’s still a definite air of children’s TV’s charm. It’s a devastating wit that drives the show, with the juxtaposition of explicit scenes and offence against a puppy-eyed Jackanory demeanour causing laughs and surprises that constantly come thick and fast.

Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx supply an anthology of songs that complement Whitty’s vision to a T. Whether it’s a jolly ditty about how, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, to explaining the joys of, “Schadenfreude” and how, “The Internet is for Porn”, all are smart, slick, and tuneful. But most importantly, they’re incredibly catchy and so easy to pick up. If you still have enough wind left in you from all the laughter you’ll be singing them out loud for days to come (but perhaps not in the office).

Production

Being a touring production, those who managed to catch the show during its West End residency, will notice that the set is much smaller and not as polished. But this doesn’t really matter as it’s Cressida Carré’s direction of the talented cast that shines through, making the set just a means to an end. Carré ensures that there’s plenty of energy throughout the show, letting the brilliant book, lyrics, and songs do the talking through an excellent cast. It’s noticeably pared down by way of staging, but the creative team make sure that not one ounce of the show itself suffers.

Cast

At the beginning, the fact that the cast controlling puppets are clearly visible is a bit of a distraction. As the puppets themselves are only formed from the waist up, it’s a little difficult to suspend your disbelief at first. But then something magical happens. You stop noticing the actors altogether.

Tom Steedon, playing Princetown and Rod, breathes excellent life into his to characters. Even if you just can’t see the puppets without seeing him at the same time, his larger than life facial expressions and the charismatic sass in his physicality make him a joy to watch. However, his leading partner, Lucie-Mae Sumner, playing Kate and Lucy the Slut, manages to do something quite magical. At points she and puppet meld as one, with both her and felt counterpart behaving in unity, complementing each other. Add that to her impeccable comic timing, and a wonderfully smooth and clear voice, she steals the show.

The rest of the cast, both puppeteers and non-puppet wielding ones also match Sumner’s and Steedon’s energy, pace, and comedy, working brilliantly as an ensemble. All revel in the humour and unabashed joy of the musical itself, and it shows.

Verdict

Up yours...literally! Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Up yours…literally! Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

It’s great to see that despite it being a touring version, it seems that nothing has been lost from the standard of the original West End production. Having personally seen it before, I’d actually wager that it’s a little better, especially as some of the scenes seem to be played even more gloriously over the top than before.

Whether you caught it the first time around, or have still to pop your puppet cherry, it’s a hoot. First timers can expect to have their funny bones broken, let alone tickled, and for those returning to the show will delight in just how high the standard of this production is. They’ll also be reminded of just how tight and well written the rest of the show is outside of the songs and moments people tend to remember the most.

The only criticism is that it doesn’t feel as fresh anymore. With the original off-Broadway production pipping Team America to the post by a single year, sending up childhood staples in a humorous and X-rated haze has become more common place over the past decade. Therefore, this not as shocking as it was when the show was in its prime.

But overall, Avenue Q is as vulgar, foul mouthed, and outlandish as it ever was. You’d be a muppet to miss it!

Avenue Q runs at the Greenwich Theatre, London, until 11 May 2014. Tickets are £17-£25 (concessions available). To book, visit www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk. For more information about the show, and other touring dates, visit http://avenuequk.com.


Theatre Review: Best of Friends (Landor Theatre, London)

Aidan O'Neill as Mike Chariot. Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Aidan O’Neill as Mike Chariot. Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Rating: ***

Best of Friends was almost the new musical that never happened. Originally billed to go on at Arts Theatre last year as The Golden Voice, with a cast of 20+ and none other than Darren Day in the lead, the production crumbled due to fraud. However, where there’s a will there’s a way, and a year later it’s now up and running at the Landor Theatre, albeit as a much smaller show.

Jim (Nick Fogarty) and Mike (Aidan O’Neill) have started a band at their local youth club. But, lusting for fame and fortune, Mike abandons his musical partner to appear on TV talent show, “The Face & The Voice”. But success isn’t quite what Mike expects. 20 years on, he returns from obscurity to set up a music school, which indirectly reunites him with Jim. But Jim’s life has seen him plunge into London’s criminal underground. Is this a chance for Mike’s redemption or Jim’s revenge? And about the big secret his estranged ex-lover Natalie (Rosie Glossop) has kept from him?

Production

If you didn’t know that this was supposed to be a bigger off-West End show, you certainly wouldn’t have thought it as it doesn’t look at all out of place on the fringe. The set does well to turn the cosy space at the Landor into the grimy backstage of some forsaken gig-venue, with scruffy graffiti scribbled across the black back wall. A clutter of what seem like ordinary flight boxes are actually custom bits of flexible and mobile set pieces which enable director Robert McWhir to prevent the show from being static and visually bland, despite concessions being made by way of the set. Richard Lambert’s lighting design also adds surprising injections of colour and timbre despite the stage’s decidedly monochrome look.

There are some moments of the show that you can imagine working well as the all singing and dancing production it had originally planned to be. But McWhir, throughout, ensures that nothing actually feels reduced, missing, or removed.

However, Maximilien Spielbichler’s video designs, displayed on several computer screens scattered around the stage, seem to distract rather than add. This is especially true when a couple of the animations don’t loop as smoothly as they should, making them look cheaper than they probably are. In other places, the animated graphics have little impact on a scene; the number of screens not quite being able to make up for their lack of scale like those you see on real life TV talent shows. Because of this, these ultimately feel unnecessary and out of place, except for one well-placed reel of fake news broadcasts, which could probably been done just as well as fake radio broadcasts.

Nick Fogarty (left) and Aidan O'Neill (right). Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Nick Fogarty (left) and Aidan O’Neill (right). Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Music and Book

Fogarty has certainly penned some rather notable numbers in this musical. There are several songs that pack a punch, such as “Stay”, which Sarah Goggin uses as a vehicle to apex her already strong performance. However, there are other songs where you feel Fogarty doesn’t quite have as much heart in them compared to the others, and they end up feeling transient as the scenes they’re in.

Also, as first and foremost a musician, Fogarty certainly isn’t much of a book writer. The character dialogue is consistently clumsy and unconvincing, and the narrative suffers not only from uneven pacing, but a depth that’s as shallow and empty as the industry it’s trying to send up. However, the rivalry between Jim and Mike, and 19 year-old hangover of his relationship with Natalie, has enough intrigue and drama to stop it from being forgettable, even if it’s a story many may have seen before.

Cast

The decision to have Fogarty have a finger in yet another pie by playing the villain of the piece, is an ill-judged one. Whilst this may well be as a result of the cuts the show has had to make, it’s difficult to feel intimidated by someone who comes across more Dyck Van Dyke than Grant Mitchell. This robs the danger and urgency his character’s spite places our hero in, which could have really lifted the writing otherwise.

Thankfully the rest of the cast hold the show together well. But with the writing and dialogue not being top-notch, the cast struggle to shine through, though they clearly try hard to give volume to a flat text. Despite O’Neill’s competent and lovable performance as the lead, it’s the supporting ladies that steal the show. Glossop finds moments to showcase the power of her spectacular voice, whilst Goggin gives perhaps the most sweet and sincere performance of the entire cast.

Verdict

Even though not ground-breaking, as a whole, Best of Friends is solid enough to hold your attention and keep you more than entertained, due to enough head-bobbing and rock-steady songs and several star turns. It’s great to see that the tenacity of Fogarty and the creative team prevail despite all that has happened, paying off with this decent fringe musical. Yes, it could be, and might have been, much better. But that by no means means that this reduction should be dismissed because of this. Buckle in, and rock out.

Best of Friends plays at the Landor Theatre, London, SW9 9PH, until 10th May 2014. Tickets are £19. To book visit www.landortheatre.co.uk.


2014: The Eight (And Last) Generation of Console Gaming?


Not Your Usual Twitter Break-Up

Hello all!  I’m still on my semi-sabbatical at the moment. However, as things aren’t going particularly well, my circumstance of late have further highlighted my need to have separate personal and professional Twitter accounts: something I’ve been putting off due to arrogance and denial for a while.

So, biting the bullet, the following changes will be made to my Twitter presence.

  • @grumpyyounggay will be changing to @grumpygaycritic. This will be my professional account where I’ll Tweet all my articles and a handful of candid opinions and quips. This also needs a name change, turning 29 this month hardly qualifies me as “young” anymore! I know that means that a lot of the personal Tweets that I’ve made will still be attached to that, but I’d hate to lose the wealth of industry contacts that have made.
  • @thewaybad will be my personal account. This will be locked and made private. By all means ask for an invitation. I’m not strict about who follows me, but I do need to ensure I have some control over who sees my rants and ramblings.

So follow me, unfollow me, or refollow me! Hopefully normal service will resume soon :)


Theatre Review: The Curse of Elizabeth Faulkner (Charing Cross Theatre, London)

A fistful of fun. Neil Henry (left) and Josh Haberfield (right). Photograph: courtesy of the production.

A fistful of fun. Neil Henry (left) and Josh Haberfield (right). Photograph: courtesy of the production.

Rating: ***

It’s getting very close to Halloween, and the Charing Cross Theatre is offering not one, but two ghostly goings on. If you happen to make it to Afraid of the Dark, then why not stay for the theatre’s later show, The Curse of Elizabeth Faulkner for some more light-hearted creeps as a show that sits somewhere halfway between The 39 Steps and The Woman in Black.

Following on from its success in Edinburgh, the late-night show makes it to London for a run through October right into the dank of November. Crossing farce with Grand Guignol, it’s a spritely little piece.

There are more than a few hilarious moments and Tim Downie’s writing balances creativity against the usual standard farce fare. Even though all the usual suspects are there, from battering down of the fourth wall to long running on-cue sound effect jokes, there are plenty of new and unexpected gags which really make the show. Downie also does a great job at knowingly penning this “budget” show, making nods to Martin Thomas’ bare essentials set, whilst director Anthony Coleridge makes good use of what isn’t there by filling the stage with action and imagination, despite there being only two boxes and four actors to play around with.

But like a lot of farce, it’s very difficult to either not descend into being too silly and/or let the comic pace drop too suddenly. Downie’s writing lets both of these happen in places, causing the show to drag a little. Also, a handful of the jokes are either a little too obscure or referential, meaning at points you know you’re supposed to be laughing but not quite sure why. But with the amount of original and strong material elsewhere means these never fatally mar the production.

The cast are also strong, including magician and According to Bex star Neil Henry, although he, Josh Haberfield, and Anil Desai wander into being a touch too over the top at times. But it’s fresh-out-of-acting school, Harriette Sym, who delivers her role with prefect comic tone and timing.

It does seem a little harsh to give this production only three stars, because it’s certainly above average. But when compared with some of the other long running comedy shows in London like One Man, Two Guvnors and The 39 Steps (from which it lovingly shares a few gags) it doesn’t quite measure up, although it’s not far off. But none the less, on a budget and for a late-night tickling of your funny bone, as far as comedy horror theatre goes this show is ghoulish, giggly, and goosey good fun.

The Curse of Elizabeth Faulkner runs at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL, until 23 November 2013. Tickets are £17.00. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.


Having a Kit-Kat :(

I just wanted to post something quickly to say that, unfortunately, I’m having to take a break from theatre reviewing.

Currently my employment situation (i.e. lack of) is causing me a lot of stress, and I’m simply not in a good place to ensure that I honour reviewing commitments I might make, or actually be in a good frame of mind to write a fair review.

Part of this is that I’m currently undertaking an internship over at GameSkinny to help develop my writing (albeit in the video games sector), which is a huge commitment on top of all the job applications I’m also having to do.

None the less, I’m hoping to get back to theatre reviewing on here as soon as my situation improves and my state of mind is a bit more collected. Thanks to all the PRs, theatre companies, and readers that have given me tremendous support so far.

will be back. :)


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