Category Archives: Thing What I Saw

Musical Review: A Christmas Carol (Middle Temple Hall, London)

Humbug! David Burt (centre) leads the cast. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Humbug! David Burt (centre) leads the cast. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Powerful and tender moments with some great performances, elevating Dickens’ text in this enchanting adaptation.

Overview

Charles Dickens’ tale synonymous with Christmas is given a musical make-over. Ebenezer Scrooge, an old miser, is visited on Christmas Eve by four ghost to be given one last chance to change his tight-fisted ways or face eternal doom. Antic Disposition return to Middle Tempe Hall, where Dickens himself studied, with their acclaimed adaptation.

Book & Adaptation

There’s not much that can be said here that people don’t already know about the famous novella. It’s certainly hailed as one of Dickens’ most beloved and most subtly political of works, and has been a cornerstone of Christmas since it was published. In itself, it’s neatly paced with something new, surprising, and interesting at every turn resulting in a deep and incredibly human story that has endured for well over a century. Antic Disposition, or any other adaptation for that matter, need not make any alterations with regards to the narrative and text, and indeed none have been made here; any improvement or addition to the text is completely unnecessary. Dickens’ work is so excellent and succinct to the point that even the dialogue closely follows the original text itself in Antic Disposition’s version.

Whilst this adaptation postures itself as a musical, it’s more a play with music. Christopher Peake, Ben Horslen, and John Risebero’s songs merely colour the action rather than replace it, and no musical numbers are ever felt forced. They never get in the way or convolute the essence and pace of the story and are well placed and rationed. Where they work best, they spark moments of wonder, elevating this already familiar morality tale to find an almost fresh and new take on it.

Christmas spirit. David Anthony (back) and David Burt (front). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Christmas spirit. David Anthony (back) and David Burt (front). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Music & Lyrics

It’s difficult to call the musical numbers in the show “original”. What Peake, Horslen, and Risebero have done is re-appropriate well known Christmas carols and given them lyrics that compliment either the narrative action or the emotion of a scene. It’s a clever device that keeps a familiarity among the audience of Christmas that feels incredibly comfortable. Whilst the lyrics themselves aren’t high poetry, with more than a few predictable rhymes, they create an atmosphere and capture an essence of the book, whilst making them quite accessible for any younger audiences that might be present.

Stephen Peake’s music approached the show with almost a cinematographic mindset, with plenty of underscoring as well as songs to create a constant swell of atmosphere. Within this is an ambitious score with some incredibly rich arrangements, especially with regards to Peake’s choral writing. However, Peake’s fervour has led to some missteps. Particularly the reliance of grander orchestral sound created on synthesisers is something that the show could do without. Not only does this sound far from convincing, it jars against the more natural sound of the violin and cello he’s employed live, drowning them out and bullying them to the side. Furthermore, the sheer volume of the synth sound often eclipses the sound of the cast. The venue, a vast enough space as it is, is already acoustically challenging, giving actors a big enough run for their money in attempting to project unamplified into it without orchestral-electro being pumped into it.

However, these synth arrangements certainly demonstrate Peake’s wider ability for intricate orchestration. But without a larger ensemble, the choice of synth sounds is one that isn’t right for the venue and the production. This is best demonstrated in the fact that the parts of the score that work best is when it’s just piano, violin, cello, and chorus. Peake’s sumptuous arrangements don’t lose any lustre in this scaled-back setting, and is all the better for it being clearer and more natural.

But overall, it’s the score, when in it’s at it’s clearest, that provides some of the most beguiling and tender moments of the show. The rendition of “Silent Night” as The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge just how far reaching his mirth is, is a really beautiful and delicate sequence. Likewise, the scoring of the closeness and love of the Cratchit family really touches upon something heartfelt and heartbreaking.

Direction & Production

The decision behind putting this production on in such a grandiose space is a very easy one: it’s where Dickens himself studied for going into the legal profession, and also it’s appearance evokes the Gothic and lavish nature of the work itself. However, it does pose some challenges. The aspect of the production that overcomes these challenges the most is Tom Boucher’s lighting design. It’s well thought out and executed in lieu of the production being able to put in any significant set aside from a few props, effortlessly conjuring up everything from the warmth of the Cratchit household, to falling snow, or the supernatural and eerie glow of Jacob Marley.

The decision to hold the show at the entrance to the hall is a well made one, even though it makes it impossible for any audience member to make a late entrance/exit once the show has started. But it utilises the beautiful balcony and doorway providing an impressive backdrop for the show. Risebero’s additional awning sneaks itself in looking as if it’s been part of the hall all along and provides a nice demarcation of space at the back of the performance area which Horslen and Risebero, directing, use well when needed for tricks such as separating the outside of Scrooge’s offices from the inside. Yet, whilst the directors do well to try and ensure that everyone in the thrust space gets a good view of the action, some of the younger members of the cast can’t quite project as well meaning that, wherever you’re sat, you will miss some of the dialogue/lyrics, which is a bit of a nuisance.

The entire production is one that generally fits snuggly into the incredibly imposing and impressive hall. However, sometimes the show does feel a little swamped by its enormity. Sometimes, when characters traverse purposefully around its perimeter or when the cast get audibly lost in the chasm, you’re reminded of the space’s size rather than being compelled by the action going on in the small area of it. It’s certainly a show that would work wonders in a smaller space, but by transporting it away from Middle Temple Hall you would lose the otherwise spellbinding and unique setting that the show otherwise thrives off. For it’s faults, it’s a trade off that is the best punt given the sheer experience of seeing such a slick show in this tucked away London treasure.

Chain reaction. Chris Courtenay as The Ghost of Jacob Marley. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Chain reaction. Chris Courtenay as The Ghost of Jacob Marley. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Cast

Award-winning David Burt is the main pull here, and he really delivers upon his reputation. He plays Scrooge not just as bitter and withdrawn, but a miser with an snivelling ill sense of humour. It’s a mean and animated interpretation of the character, and one that really hooks you. Burt is possible the nastiest Scrooge I’ve seen. Yet, he manages to find time to play personal pathos during his character’s transformation, bringing a genuine sense of profound affect by the scenes the three ghosts play before him. At the end, he’s energetic and unbelievably babbling as the transformed man, bringing an inescapable and hilarious energy and cheer that so easily rubs off on the entire audience.

Other notable performances include David Anthony is a superb Ghost of Christmas Present: larger than life, bounding, and full of mirth. But most beguiling is the quick turn to being terse and condemning of Scrooge at points, bringing a surprising severe and complex side to the jolly giant of the piece.

Elsewhere, the rest of the cast are bubbly and revel in the piece, be they resurrecting a band of ghouls or becoming a scuttle of London townsfolk. But most impressive is that, together, they produce a colourful and luxurious choral sound that really compliments Peake’s excellence in musical writing.

Verdict

A ambitious vision and a wonderful cast makes this a Christmas treat more tasty and filling than any mince pie. Peake’s score, when it works its best, really lifts Dickens’ famous tale. By doing so within such a gob-smackingly impressive building, Antic Disposition add an exclusive extra Christmas enchantment that you won’t find anywhere else.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Middle Temple Hall, London, EC4Y 9AT, until 30 December 214. Tickets are £30 – £40 (concessions available). To book, visit www.anticdisposition.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Lionboy (Tricycle Theatre, London)

Roaring to go. The cast of 'Lionboy'. Photograph:  Courtesy of Sarah Ainslie.

Roaring to go. The cast of ‘Lionboy’. Photograph: Courtesy of Sarah Ainslie.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A show of sound, fury, and splendour. A big top of imagination and ingenuity bringing Zizou Corder’s modern fairytale to vivid life.

Overview

In a future were mobile phones are powered by the sun and cars are banned, corporations are more powerful than countries. When Charlie Ashanti’s parents, who were working on a cure for asthma, get kidnapped by The Corporacy, he enters into a world of corruption, danger, and misapplied science. Oh, and Charlie can also speak to cats…

Writing & Adaptation

Zizou Corder, the alias of mother and daughter writing team Louisa Young and Isabel Adomakoh Young, has created an incredibly modern and current children’s book. Lionboy is choc-full modern issues from bad science, to identity and belonging, to environmentalism, and even a complex lesson in avarice and wealth. An older audience might think that such issues might be a bit too mature for younger audiences. But this is proved wrong given the age of one half of Corder, and, looking at the reactions to some of the more youthful patrons in the theatre, it goes to show that children are far more savvy than we give them credit for. Simultaneously, it gives enough meat for older audiences to get stuck into too. As well as a wealth of colourful imagination and vision, this books’ depth and a complexity is miracle-fodder for acclaimed theatre company, Complicite, in adapting this prize-winning trilogy into a blistering piece of theatre.

Complicite throw everything they’ve got at the show – puppetry, physical theatre, circus skills, and shadow-work – to create a smorgasbord of visuals and energies that inject an overwhelming assault on the senses. This adds a vital variety to the show that will dazzle elders and keep younger ones engaged.

However, this is perhaps the show’s only drawback. Each trope carries it’s own identity and flow, and having so many of these causes the pacing to fly around a little unwieldy at times, also making slower more intimate moments of the show a little sluggish by comparison. Ultimately, whilst Complicite may have found many things which connect with the audience in many ways, there’s not a consistent overall sense of atmosphere and direction.

However, in saying that, the central essence of the show is storytelling. For all the tricks and spectacles they bring out, nothing is allowed to distract from a very pure and glorious focus on this. Everything that makes the show beguiling is the story’s words and how they’re delivered to the audience. All the stagecraft that is used on top of this just grabs your attention and decorates this most crucial element of the show. The simple weaving a world from words is still there, breaking the fourth wall often and regaling the audience directly with enchanting silver tongues. Even without the kaleidoscope of stagecraft, you’d still be hooked by the tale’s delivery.

[youtube http://youtu.be/pAiaXrqYOxU]

Direction & Production

There are far too many things going on in the production to try and cover everything. But in it’s very basic form, imagination is what drives the entire show. The steeply raked circus stage and giant flyable screen form a focal point for everything that goes on around it. But otherwise the show creates scenes from very little, such as chrome walls and hidden passages from steel ladders, eels from rubber tubing, and even a pursuit through the bustling streets of London using only boxes and bits of rope.

One thing that is incredibly remarkable and works wonders is the sound design. A collection of deafening soundscapes and soundtracks are blasted into the audience, submerging people aurally as well as visually. In addition, there is a bevy of live percussion that augments the thunderous noise that Complicite produce. It’s literally tremendous, making building and persons shake with its sheer sound and effect.

Couple this with face paced and exotic visuals, peppered with blinding and dazzling lighting, and you’ve got a production that can only be described as “otherworldly”. Directors Clive Mendus and James Yeatman constantly stir the senses, seldom letting the audience have any reprieve until at least the interval: leaving you dumb and astonished for most of the show. If you’re you’ve not found yourself in a stupor for even a small part, then you need to get your humours checked.

Cast

Complicite has an exceptional cast on board for this revival with all actors being expert storytellers of the finest pedigree. Martins Imhangbe particularly, as Charlie the Lionboy gives an exquisite physical performance, switching between him and the felines he converses with, embodying cat and human with astonishing believability and lightning change.

It’s so difficult to pick out any other favourite moments from the rest of the cast without making this review into an essay. Needless to say, each bring their own talent and personality to all the multiple roles they play. They all each have wonderful turns in interacting with interacting with the audience too. As a company they’re a sheer delight to watch.

Verdict

Bombastic and beautiful, Complicite is the cat with the cream of London theatre in the return of their celebrated adaptation of this modern and current children’s epic. A family spectacular like no other, there’s no excuse for “lion” about and not seeing this show!

[youtube http://youtu.be/_jFNajmYEUg]

Lionboy plays at Tricycle Theatre, London, NW6 7JR, until 10 January 2015. Tickets are £16 – £23.50 (concessions and family rates available). To book, visit www.tricycle.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Eric and Little Ern (St James Theatre, London)

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right) as Morecambe and Wise. Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A blissful eulogy to two of Britain’s greatest comedians. Touching, never too sentimental, and roaringly funny.

Overview

We find Ern in a private room in hospital. Out of the blue, he sees a vision of his old comic partner, Eric. They go over all memories and catch up after 15 years since death did they part. Then, Eric makes Ernie an offer he can’t refuse: to do one last show together.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Familiar bedfellow. Ian Ashpitel (left) and Jonty Stephens (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Writing

The process that actors and creators of this piece has been a long time in the making, but good things come to those who wait. What Ian Ashpitel and Jonty Stephens have managed to do in their devised piece is capture an essence of Morecambe and Wise that really does the duo justice. The capture of this essence means that everything about the show incorporates a sense of flexibility and spontaneity which is crucial to who they’re paying tribute to: it’s something you simply can’t portray Morecambe and Wise without. Even in the more obviously structured first act, there’s still a fresh sense of fun and unpredictability that runs through it, driving the comedy at every point.

It’s difficult to think that there are many out there who are unaware or have never seen at least one of their shows or sketches. Even I, almost two generations younger than when they were in their prime, can’t fail to recognise them. But even so, Ashpitel and Stephens put just enough background, seamlessly woven into the shenanigans, to paint a deeper picture of their lives, careers, and relationship, including some much loved material from their shows by Eddie Braben, Dick Hills, and Sid Green. It’s done in such a way that it never feels like a history play, and instead colour their personas making the show more accessible for those who may not know the duo as well as throw in a few titbits of trivia for an older audience.

In the second act, Ashpitel and Stephens have created a 30ish minute front of curtain show, drawing on some of their most memorable routines. There’s really not much to say about it other than it’s a blistering performance that the real Morecambe and Wise would have been proud of themselves. Again, here there’s plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity, meaning it doesn’t feel like a mere emulation but a fluid and living piece of comedy. There are a few references to personalities of their age that will may go over the head of much younger fans, but these are few, and, for the catering-sized pack of laughs they deliver elsewhere, are certainly forgiven if not forgotten.

What’s great though is that, as touching as it is in places, especially in exploring the rich relationship Morecambe and Wise had between them, Ashpitel and Stephens never linger upon sentimentality. Morecambe and Wise are best know for the joy and laughter they brought to the world, and this is how both Ashpitel and Stephens go about creating this blissful eulogy. If you’re moved to tears, it’s not because they’ve purposefully pulled on the heartstrings with maudlin manipulation, but it’s because they’ve touched a deep and personal remembrance through a shared happiness: true justice to these behemoths of entertainment.

Direction & Production

Even though the main focus really is Ashpitel and Stephen, there’s still a solid production behind it. Simon Scullion’s set for Act I believably looks like a private hospital room, and even the curtain for Act II is wonderfully recreated and instantly recognisable. But  detail aside, what Scullion, Director Owen Lewis, and the rest of the production team from musical director to lighting do, is give Ashpitel and Stephens the space and materials they need to perform unhindered, from props to music cues. There’s really not much other to be said about direction and production here because it all works so well that you hardly notice them. It’s Ashpitel and Stephens that are the main focus, and the production steadfastly supports them and never takes attention away from them. This is exactly what a production of this kind should be doing.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Jonty Stephens (left) and Ian Ashpitel (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Geraint Lewis.

Cast

Ashpitel and Stephens are uncanny as Eric and Ernie. Not only are they are near physical doppelgängers to the genuine articles, but they’ve got their physical and vocal mannerisms and ticks down to a ‘t’. But even so, what is most astonishing about these two is that they are far from a stale emulation or tribute act. Whilst both embrace the recognisable personas and mannerisms of who they’re playing, what Ashpitel and Stephens do is find a wonderful rapport between themselves upon with they capitalise. The result is that there’s as beautiful sense of brotherhood between them as there was between Morecambe and Wise.

Furthermore, they are as expert as comic performers as the real Eric and Ernie were. In the second act, in particular, they feed off the audience’s reactions and each others bluffs to create a side-aching routine. Even in recreating established tropes, such as Eric’s famous paper-bag trick, the skits are delivered in such a way that it still made the entire audience bellow with glee: finding a way to make an old joke be delivered as if it were never seen before.

Verdict

A remembrance most remarkable: marvellously funny and heartfelt. As the closest to the real thing as we can ever get since their passing, it’s a must for long-term fans, and a pure comic rush for those less familiar.

Eric and Little Ern runs at the St. James Theatre, London, SW1E 5JA, until 11 January 2015. Tickets are £10 – £45. To book, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: Fear In A Handful of Dust (COG ARTSpace, London)

Jack Morris as Simon. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Jack Morris as Simon. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A powerful and indescribable monolith to the human spirit. Surprising and brutal.

Overview

Simon, an Englishman raised in India, is stuck by himself in a Great War trench in 1916, awaiting his rescue. Then, out of the blue comes Irish private Buck: sloppy, talkative, and exacerbating. Although their personalities and background could not be any more different, each form a strong bond and preserve each other through the horrors of World War I’s front line.

Writing

Sevan K. Greene, discovered through Henry Regan’s support of new writing with Vertical Line Theatre, has written a piece of great visceral and intense energy, but perhaps not quite in the way that you’d expect from a Great War play. As much as it explores some of the more harrowing aspects of the war – lice, rats, and mustard gas – it’s main focus is actually on camaraderie and how the two characters develop a strong bond of brotherhood in the most extreme of scenarios. Greene plays off the characters’ polemic personalities quite well, but always uses the clashes to reveal something deeper and an unexpected. His characters always surprise you: the cocksure and capricious Buck is perhaps not as heroic as he seems, and the uptight and fretful Simon is far more down to earth than his airs and graces would suggest. They are characters born of a deep and empathetic imagination, with a complexity that is incredibly impressive.

But it’s the compassion that these two people develop for each other is what’s heartbreaking, especially as Buck’s state of health deteriorates as the show goes on. It’s an exploration of the human spirit, once pride and prejudices are put aside, that makes this a truly devastating play.

There are just a few small flaws. For starters, Buck barges in boisterous and overbearing trying too hard to quickly break Simon’s rigid exterior at first, which is just a bit short of being easily believable: it’s sort of the point, but it just sits a bit oddly. Also, the pace can jump about a bit too much, from nuanced and deep character exploration to high action drama at the drop of a hat. Whilst this undoubtedly this mirrors just how quickly the situation on the front line can change, it makes it a little difficult to adjust to as an audience when it happens.

Otherwise, it’s a piece of great emotional intelligence and complex character writing, prising something beautifully beyond ordinary from a subject that we already have seen a lot done with this year.

Direction & Production

Traverse productions are a rare occurrence in London, but Director Jonny Collis has transformed the performance area of the COG ARTSpace into a traverse space and has worked wonders by doing so. It makes you feel like you’re trapped in a trench: claustrophobic with two high walls at either side of you. It also helps give a significant spacial depth that Collis expertly spins moments of high drama, with characters cowering far from the enemy line, or putting a physical distance to their personality chasm. It’s a set-up that works incredibly well in this intimate space and one that is particular inspired and well executed, putting the audience at the very core of the text.

Lighting and sound design, by Dan Cornwell, are also superlative. As well as doing well to light up requisite parts of the elongated set in different ways, creating an interesting pallet of hues rather than just a wash, he also plays with lighting from ground level as well from the rigging, creating some striking moments of shadow and colour. His sound design, comprising of high quality sound effects and atmospheric music, are piped through a sound system of equal standard: distant cannons and immediate gunfire and crisp and palpable, drawing in the audience rather than distracting them like the unconvincing effects you can too often find on the fringe.

Put this together with Anne Stoffels and Ed Hollands detailed period costumes and props, and Isa Shaw-Abulafia’s purposefully ramshackle set of corrugated iron and mud, it’s a production that creates a reality the really does Greene’s writing justice, assisting the audience in involving themselves in this stark and terrifying world.

Jack Morris (left) and Henry Regan (right) as Simon and Buck. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Jack Morris (left) and Henry Regan (right) as Simon and Buck. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

Regan as Buck, and Jack Morris as Simon, are two superb actors. Both are utterly convincing and manage to really get to the depths of Greene’s characters, resulting in them being impressively compelling in their roles. Morris really exudes a handsome and formal authority in everything that he does, but also enables a deep underlying compassion to come through un-muddled and uncomplicated. Regan, particularity, commands a hauntingly ethereal performance in the throngs of a delusional fever, really galvanising one of the most powerful moments of the play.

The only thing I could possible pick at is that Regan’s accent is perhaps a bit too thick. Dialect Coach, Michael O’Toole, has done perhaps a bit too well a job, as, if someone is not used to the accent, they can easily lose some of Regan’s lines.

Verdict

Incredibly slick and deeply moving Fear In A Handful Of Dust is a Great War play with surprising heart and intelligence. A heartbreaking and heroic piece of writing with an incredibly impressive production behind it.

Fear In A Handful of Dust plays at the COG ARTSpace, London, N1 3JS, until 9 January 2015. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit www.cogartspace.com.


Musical Review: Nicobobinus (LOST Theatre, London)

Official artwork for 'Nicobobinus'.

Official artwork for ‘Nicobobinus’.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An utterly spellbinding adaptation of Terry Jones’ much loved children’s book. Has children and adults alike awestruck and enrapt.

Overview

Nicobobinus is a boy who can do anything! But one day, when a Golden Woman turns his arm into pure gold, him and his best friend Rosie must travel to the Land of Dragons in search of the only known cure: dragon’s blood. But their journey is fraught with peril, including murderous monks, surgeon pirates, and moving mountains.

Aye, you! Eilidh Debonnaire (front) as the Golden Woman, and Max Runham (rear) as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Aye, you! Eilidh Debonnaire (front) as the Golden Woman, and Max Runham (rear) as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Writing

Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni has written a children’s book with wild imagination and whimsy. Characters are flamboyant and improbable who both amuse and wonderfully boggle. John Ward’s adaptation absolutely embraces and matches Jones’ creative mind, but also adds a theatrical imagination that wholly and inescapably charms.

Ward’s adaptation is one definitely aimed at a younger audience. It’s face paced, silly, and larger than life enough to keep the smaller ones involved at every moment of the way: laughing, gasping, and even quivering at dragons and dangers. It’s an epic weave of a tome with tremendous highs and perilous climaxes. Taking on Jones’ novel, Ward seems to tap into a humour that children thrive and love – just the right amount of silly and unpredictable: a posturing precisely honed at the level for small-folk. But simultaneously, there’s plenty for the adults too, including things like Monty Python and even Les Miserables reference jokes intelligently and unexpectedly placed. But most fantastically, there’s a universal comedy and tone that both parties involved lap up with relish.

The only thing that could possibly be lingered upon is that new-age morality that Jones injects, and that Ward perhaps stays on this a little too long at points. But even in doing so, it doesn’t take away from anything that Jones and Ward have conjured, or even dampens the pace and wonderment that the production adds to it. It’s just a noticeable thing rather than anything critical.

But overall, the fact that a two hour long show can keep children’s attention hook, line, and sinker without them fidgeting or chattering, is a mammoth achievement.

Life's a drag(on). Lloyd Gorman (left), Jofre Alsina (centre) and Eilidh Debonnaire. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Life’s a drag(on). Lloyd Gorman (left), Jofre Alsina (centre) and Eilidh Debonnaire. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Music & Lyrics

Eilidh Debonnaire’s score is beautiful, catchy, and energetic. It’s simple enough to grab the attention of the younger audience and to keep it, but complex and varied enough not to sound infantile in the slightest. Her scoring for an eclectic gaggle of instruments, from double basses and various saxophones to accordions, adds a rich and quirky sound which is just as interesting as the songs are sweeping and bouncy. But it’s not just in the songs that Debonnaire excels. There’s also some wonderful underscoring that replicates the imagination, rhythm, and the energy of the rest of the production.

Lyrics are straightforward and easy to understand for children, but still have a basic poetry that makes them skip and aurally intrigue. There’s really nothing bad I can say about the score: it’s pitch perfect for our pint-sized patrons, and also delights the parents.

Row, Rosie, row, Samantha Sutherland as Rosie. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Row, Rosie, row, Samantha Sutherland as Rosie. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Direction & Production

DumbWise and Red Ladder theatre companies have produced a spellbinding production using incredibly resourceful means. All there is by means of set is the stage painted like a giant map, and two moving halves of a bridge that alter their positions to suggest everything from the canals of Venice, to giant walls, and even a pirate ship. Couple with this projected images and textures upon the set and stage, it prompts a fervid imagination among the audience to fill in the blanks. Where imagination can’t quite deliver, Joshua Pharo’s video work keep the pace going using luscious animated illustrations. It adds to further wonder and variation that keeps adults and children engrossed. Elsewhere, Ward, also directing, ensures that there’s rarely a static moment, also using length, breadth, and height of the space to almost dizzying effect!

Everything in this production is spot on and well thought out. A maelstrom of colour, activity, and wonder: it’s captivating.

Golden Boy. Max Runham as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Golden Boy. Max Runham as Nicobobinus. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Cast

If the adaptation, the music, and the production wasn’t perfect enough, there is also an amazing cast involved. Max Runham as titular Nicobobinus is exceedingly sprightly, bounding about the stage with ferocious energy. Indeed, on press night his fervour and dedication was so much so that he ended up sustaining an injury, coming on for final bows with a bloodied nose! Samantha Sutherland as Rosie matched him stride for stride, and together they’re exude an almost exhausting power and child-like quality between them, perfect for the roles of our exuberant hero and heroine.

But they are supported by a trio of supreme comic talent: Debonnaire, Jofre Alsina, and Lloyd Gorman. As excellent entertainers, they are side-splittingly hilarious to watch. Excelling at everything from facial physicality to physical high jinx and marvellous vocal characterisations, they keep both adults and children in roars of laugher throughout. They also work effortlessly together to create a close-knit ball of comic energy that is unbearably funny.

Verdict

Out-rightly one of the most magical pieces of theatre I’ve seen as both a child and an adult. A dazzling Christmas show that will have each and every member of the family utterly dumbstruck with amazement.

[youtube http://youtu.be/hqR4ZWg4klI]

Nicobobinus plays at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, until 3 January 2015. Tickets are £15 (concessions and family tickets available). To book, visit http://losttheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play (Bridge House Theatre, London)

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Wonderful! Sophie Scott (left) and Gerard McCarthy (right). Photograph: courtesy of Anton Hewins.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Proof that all you need for great theatre is a good story and brilliant storytellers. The production finds an ineffable charm in its resourcefulness.

Overview

George Bailey is a man with great ambitions. Yet his good nature has meant he has never been able to leave the sleepy up-state New York town of Bedford Falls. And now, things have come to a head and he’s contemplating suicide. But can rookie second class angel, Clarence, intent on earning his wings, be the one to convince him that he really has a wonderful life?

Writing

If I’m going to be upfront about things, I’m going to have to admit that, for all it’s praise, I’m not a huge fan of the film of It’s A Wonderful Life: even though it’s synonymous with Christmas and considered one of film’s all time greats. Yet famed radio-playwright, Tony Palermo, in his scaled back and succinct adaptation, has managed to find a different and hidden magic in the tale through it’s resetting. It might just be actors speaking into microphones accompanied by live sound effects, but he’s managed to still find a pace and an imagination that is difficult not to get drawn into. It’s an excellent radio play, even it’s being performed on stage. Palermo’s focus is, in his own words:

“…presenting theatre audiences with an authentic and delightful experience of radio drama in its heyday.” – www.ruyasonic.com.

He achieves this wholly and effortlessly.  Most astonishingly is, that despite the bareness of the concept, the children in the audience were completely hooked: something I had not expected, and speaks volumes for the show’s ability to engage and enchant.

The production’s setting the show as a local Penge 1949 live radio broadcast adds even more charm, including 1940s style adverts for actual business. Actor Daniel Hill also does a wonderful job of playing the broadcasts’ host too, working the crowd and creating a friendly and festive atmosphere. All in all, it not just create a sense of nostalgia but a palpable sense of time-travel.

Direction & Production

If you think that mainly getting a cast together to speak into microphones would make for lazy direction, you’d be wrong. Guy Retallack ensures that he never drops the ball and adds wonderful nuances throughout the production. There’s still plenty of interaction between characters, and they often ignore the mics and focus on each other, responding directly both physically and emotionally among themselves rather than just at the microphones. Retallack also makes great use of the small stage space, having actors muster and perform at the back of the stage even if it be feet away from the front, as well as make use of the passageway towards the dressing rooms. In fact, you almost forget the microphones are there and are engaged in the action as if it were a play rather than a radio broadcast. Retallack has added myriad visual details to something that doesn’t require it, and in doing so has incredibly elevated it into something extra special.

Elsewhere, Susan Burns on the sound effects is always on cue, adding an aural colour where visuals are missing. Whilst Fiona Martin’s minimal set of retro mics and “On Air” sign, coupled with the beautifully tailored period costumes, add further suspension of disbelief that the theatre space is a time casual fresh from 70 years ago.

It’s an incredibly resourceful production, but it has ensured that at every step of the way it’s frugal necessity is converted into inescapable charm.

Cast

I really can’t think of anyone to pick out in particular from the cast as they’re all top notch. Each and every one of them are not just great actors, but brilliant storytellers. Working with nothing but themselves and very few props, they manage to conjure up a lost era of a small town far overseas without having to force anything or try too hard. They’re as integral to the magic as the script and the production, and have the audience hang on every word and command their every attention when executing their craft: it’s utterly bewitching.

What’s more, as many of them play several characters, they switch instantly between them, not just in voice but in stature and physical characteristics that gives a striking visual difference as well as an aural one.

Verdict

It’s a Wonderful Life – The Radio Play is a wonderful time-warp. A warmth and heart that’s moving, unfathomably cosy, and steadfastly brilliant. Palermo’s writing and Retallack’s cast and production add an unexpected and surprising magic to, and perhaps even bettering, a story that has long been a pinnacle of Christmas.

It’s A Wonderful Life – The Radio Play plays at the Bridge House Theatre, London, SE20 8RZ, until 4 January 2015. Tickets from £10. To book, visit www.bhtheatre.co.uk.


Panto Review: Booty and the Biatch (LOST Theatre, London)

bootyRating: ****

In A Nutshell

A fantastic anarchy of panto, satire, and general filth, exploding into a larger new home with hilarious bombast.

Overview

In the French village of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, a cold-hearted prince is turned into a biatch and given sh*t Netflix connection as punishment for his insolence. In order to break the spell he must learn to love. Enter Beauty (aka Booty), who is trying to be wooed by UKIP candidate Nigel Garage. Her father, Crazy Old Maurice, after being capture by The Biatch, makes a pact to exchange his freedom for Beauty’s imprisonment. With a gaggle of mal-transformed servants, can Beauty teach Biatch how to love and break the curse, and enable Mrs. Pots to finish Orange Is The New Black?

Writing

Paul L. Martin, who until recently did bi-yearly adult pantos aboard the Battersea Barge, moves into the more generous confines of the LOST Theatre on Wandsworth Road. He continues to employ his trademark wit and knowing with gusto to create a colourful and daring panto, despite it being more risqué than the norm. All the trappings are there, including rousing songs and sing-a-longs, and high-spirited dance numbers. What’s great about Booty and the Biatch, though, is the cutting and no-prisoners-taken approach to satire, sending up everything from UKIP and Operation Yewtree, to the Disney version of the fairy tale on which the show has heavily stolen from based itself upon.

Whilst it’s not as out-rightly filthy as the capital’s other adult panto offerings, such as Sleeping Booty!, it doesn’t mean that Martin has lost any flare or frivolity. There’s still jokes about bum-sex and more than a few naughty words that slip through, but Martin still manages to ensure that a joy and magic that is crucial to panto is there every step of the way. Creating a solid panto as a basis for the evening is what takes precedence here, and therefore where the focus lies. If you take away the smut and the rudeness, you’d still be left with something that’s a hoot of a show because of this. With plenty of knowing jokes about the industry and it’s rivalries, along the sexual references and the send-ups, and you’ve got blistering funny moments left, right, and centre.

But most wonderful, as always, with Martin’s pantos, is just how relaxed they are. Yes, there is (vaguely) a script, but Martin and his company thrive in the fact that things are allowed to go wrong. In fact, these are some of the best moments.

Everything isn’t perfect, though. There are parts of the show aren’t as tight as others, and moments where the cast (and the audience) run away with themselves just a little too much. But it’s still all part of the fun, and are foibles that can be forgiven through affection, rather than becoming any major detriment.

Direction & Production

As well as these pantos have always worked very well in the claustrophobic space of the Battersea Barge, Director Vanessa Pope really embraces the larger venue. Even thought the audience is now bigger and more formally arranged, they are still as integral a part of the panto as before and are involved at every given opportunity, even if it is to trample through them and steal their booze! But specifically, what’s certainly most spectacular about this venue transfer, is that Pope has gone to wonderful lengths to include wonderfully ambitious song and dance numbers that were not possible before, and they’re delivered effortlessly. Couple this with Matt Overfield’s glitzy choreography, and you’ve got a fringe panto that can rival the shazam of larger more affluent affairs. For a company which is used to a very small space, you wouldn’t have known it seeing as how comfortable they seem here at the LOST Theatre. Pope also knows how to get the best out of panto pacing, whilst leaving enough flexibility for her cast to interact and improvise according to how the audience respond/heckle.

Birgitta Kenyon’s involvement on stage as Musical Director also adds a really nice sense of live music and interaction which the cast thrives off, adding fun and spontaneity that a backing track just can’t provide. Also, despite budget constraints, Miranda Evan’s costumes find a humour in their resourcefulness that forms as much a part as the panto’s jokes as Martin’s script.

Cast

Martin and his team couldn’t have assembled a better panto cast. Martin, as the dame/Mrs. Pots is not only fantastically camp, saucy, and ridiculous, but brings a side-splitting psychosis to his character, especially when interacting with Chip.

To point out but a few of the fantastic performances; Jamie Anderson as The Biatch is also as fierce as they come commanding an outlandish queeny bitchiness, with quick-fire put-downs and heels as sharp as his remarks; and Becky Finlay Hall is preposterously funny as Cogsworth, pulling in the laughs with her lovey-dovey professional-actor-in-panto demeanour, rapaciously sending up an actor’s sensibilities. But that’s not to say that these particular cast members are better than the rest. Everyone involved, even the cameo from the stage manager, all expertly contribute in propelling the illicit Pandemonium of this rip-roaring evening.

As a company, they all work off each other’s charisma, feeding off their own energy as well as the audience’s. Most surprisingly, however, is how well they actually sing together. There’s a real power, punch, and immaculate sound that they bring to the big numbers that makes them as incredibly slick as they are silly. It’s a unexpected touch of talent and professionalism for a production that knowingly postures itself as a little ramshackle.

Verdict

An anarchy most splendid. A manic panto with added naughtiness guaranteed to make you laugh your party hat off!

Booty and the Biatch plays at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU until 17 December 2015. Tickets are £18.35. To book, visit www.paullmartin.com.


Theatre Review: This Is Not A Christmas Play (Top Secret Comedy Club, London)

Jordan Kuoame (left) and MAtthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Jordan Kouame (left) and Matthew Leigh (right) getting a little board. Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Rating: ***

In A Nutshell

Some great comic turns and fresh ideas, but is let down by some awkward pitching and pacing.

Overview

David and Tim, have made a pact: to sit through Christmas Day without mentioning and acknowledging it. Will David’s ex turn up for dinner? Will Tim pay this month’s rent? And just who are the torrent of bizarre characters that keep coming in and out of their flat?

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (;left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Sofi Berenger.

Proud Mary! Alice Coles (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Writing

Robert Wallis and Liam Fleming of Encompass productions turn their hand to providing an alternative but fun and frivolous seasonal titbit that does away with the trappings of British Christmas theatre. It’s a comedy, and it starts off as such. There are some wonderfully comic turns in the script, especially in it’s knowing nods at the fact that you just can’t quite escape the holidays. Some of these moments are laugh out loud, especially when executed with some of the impeccable comic timing from the cast. There are also great reference moments that, if you do get, are incredibly well placed and delivered.

However, Wallis and Flemming then start to turn the play into a farce, and this is where This Is Not A Christmas Play starts to lose its lustre. Farce is perhaps the most difficult theatrical genre to master: it requires an astute ability for punchy timing and just the right of amount of silliness. Thankfully, Wallis and Flemming never make the on-stage shenanigans too over-the-top and unconvincing: one of the easiest mistakes to make in farces make. But the problem is that the gags just don’t have the requisite energy and weight to meet the very high bar needed. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that good direction can fix: it’s a pacing that needs to already be there in the writing. This is not helped that sometimes it lingers a little to long on an attempt to make the character’s have too emotional an epiphany, as this ends up dragging the pace down even more. It’s something that could have comfortably have had it’s placed in a more straightforward comedy, but something that really irks the pace of a farce.

What this means is that, in trying to tread water in an area between comedy and farce, the pacing and therefore the pitch of the play is somewhat awkward. The energy is never consistent meaning everything stops and starts too often. But that doesn’t mean that Wallis and Flemming fail at either genres. especially as there are some inspired gags that are well set-up and executed. It’s just that they don’t excel at both.

I have a great deal of admiration for any writers who turn a hand at farce, because it’s something that can so easily go wrong. But despite Wallis and Flemming not hitting the mark, it’s still a solid and promising attempt. And even if it is uneven and sometimes ineffectual, the comedy that they do get right provide for a an enjoyable and grin-inducing hour.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left)  and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Un-civil service. James Unworth (left) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Couresty of Sofi Berenger.

Direction & Production

Sarah Buller’s set does a wonderful job of turning the bare space of the Top Secret Comedy Club into a squalid flat. Everything from the snack detritus to grimy carpets are wonderful little details. But despite its grotty appearance, Buller has managed to turn the stage into something that, but for some much needed deep cleaning, is quite homely.

Director Johnathan Woodhouse and Associate Director Rachel Owens also make good use of the space, especially with regards to movement. In the chase scene/climax, it really does brim with a manic energy and sense of fun, with unexpected little turns and quips. Elsewhere, Woodhouse and Owens make sure that the comedy that does works really comes through: nothing else gets in the way of the good jokes, understanding the turnaround from punch-line to laughter thus giving the audience the space they need to react appropriately.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Virgin active! Alice Coles (left), Matthew Leigh (centre) and Jordan Kouame (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Sofi Berenger.

Cast

This Is Not A Christmas Play certainly has a great comic cast. Jordan Kouame, especially, has a wonderfully lightness and knowing in everything he does that really enhance his share of the gags. His physicality is also spot on for his comic moments, too. Although an actor who has a natural physical dominance, there’s still room for comic nuance in his presence. Furthermore, despite the clash of personality against his counterpart, Matthew Leigh as David, together they bounce their opposing charismas off each other to make themselves out as a wonderful odd couple.

James Unsworth, as Clive, embodies very similar qualities to Kouame in churning out another comic performance of a high standard, but has the added luxury of looking surprisingly dashing in just a pair of shiny hot pants!

Alice Coles, as Mary, as also enacts some wonderful moments of colourful melodrama. Between her and Unsworth, they carry the moments where the farce almost works, injecting a hilarious shot of gusto and fun as the piece’s unlikely villains.

Verdict

Despite stumbling somewhere between the two genres it tries to straddle, it’s still a giggly-good evening for all that does work with it. A fun alternative for those who come out in a cold sweat at the thought of panto or Christmas shows, but still embracing a warm sense of fun and good cheer that comes with all the festive fuss.

[youtube http://youtu.be/YJSHv-0XnNo]

This Is Not A Christmas Play runs at the Top Secret Comedy Club, London, WC2B 5PD, until 4 January 2015. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit www.encompassproductions.co.uk/this-is-not-a-christmas-play.


Theatre Review: Back Door (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A twisted powder-keg thriller blending reality and fiction for a sharp and glamorous play looking at truth, fact, and obsession.

Overview

Associated Press photographer, Tabitha Montgomery, lives in Paris. After badly spraining her ankle in Montmartre, she’s housebound with only her American houseboy, John, an arsenal of wine, and the luxury of spying on her neighbours across the courtyard to keep her company. Female impersonator and film artists Violette moves in across the way, for which Tabitha has the perfect view of from her apartment window. One night, Tabitha is awoken by a scream and the sound of glass breaking. When she spies Violette with blood on her hands, Tabitha is convinced that Violette has murdered her dance partner, and starts on a quest to prove her suspicions. But at what cost? And when does investigative intuition turn into dangerous obsession?

Writing

Polis Loizou combines the influence of real life female impersonator, Barbette, in an art-Deco resetting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window: gender-bending and twisting the characters involved.

Taking on something that is arguably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed film is something that is always going to be difficult to live up to. Thankfully, Loizou doesn’t try to emulate Rear Window but merely use it to frame his own unique razor wit and a colourfully imaginative exploration of the thin line between fact and fiction and paranoia and prejudice. The result is an uncanny and debauched comic-thriller, which, although laced with plenty of catty quips and flamboyant put-downs, still manages to intensely explore its themes, throw in a few marvellous red herrings, and keep an absolutely tight and suspenseful grip on the audience to the very last beat. It’s as if Loizou was the love-child of Noel Coward and Agatha Christie: cheeky, yet masterfully capricious.

As much Loizou captures the sass and dirty glamour of 1920s Paris, what’s most astonishing about the writing is Loizou’s turn at suspense. This is not just in re-enacting Hitchcock’s infamous scene where Jeff watches Lisa snoop around the apartment opposite for clues, but in the play’s climax. It gets so intense that you honestly can’t tell for love or money which way things are going to pan out, especially as one of the possibilities places a character in considerable peril. You’re absolutely hooked in this nail-biting crescendo whilst, amazingly, Loizou manges to simultaneously deliver a bewitching finale that leaves you haunted.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Direction & Production

Whilst this is an incredibly small scale and humble touring fringe production, Andrew Denyer’s set, whilst simple, does it’s job marvellously. The three windows attached to Tabitha’s apartment also double as those at Violette’s far away abode. It looks a bit odd at first, with the issue of proximity being hard to ignore. But cast ability and direction draw the audience’s attention and imagination to do the work for them, suspending the belief and building the suspense. It’s a straightforward yet inventive solution to what could have been the biggest problem and tripping point for the entire production. It also bristles with wonderful art-Deco style that really compliments the wit and epoch that the show is set in.

There are also some really striking uses of projected image, fractured and distorted by being projected directly onto the set, adding a real atmosphere of sinister enigma especially given the wonderfully Man Ray-esque nature of Loizou’s video work here. It’s a production of real ingenuity that pays dividends in lieu of having the means to do something grander: an exquisite execution of essence beyond budget.

Cast

This three hander is also incredibly well delivered by the small company’s cast. Loizou takes on the role of John, and has plays him with a wonderful coy campness that crumbles into boyish vulnerability when Tabitha manipulatively picks apart his façade. Fragile, yet brimming with energy and venomous wit, he marvellously toys with the writing’s unexpected juxtaposition of camp hilarity against brooding jeopardy.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha is a little difficult to warm to initially, playing Tabitha as too steely, hurried, and terse to begin with. But quickly, she starts to command her performance and really dominates the stage. She brings a stark authority to Tabitha that, for better or for worse, exudes a gravitas that has you completely convinced that she’s the one closer to the truth than anyone else. Severe and expertly conniving, both her and her character are forces not to be reckoned with.

Jaacq Hugo is ethereal as the Barbette-inspired Violette. He oozes a mysterious suavity that is so chic it hurts. But most the astonishing aspect of his performance is when Violette is not Violette. Here, he turns into a brutal adversary of unnerving power, adding to the twisted and dangerous feel of the play. His switch from fay siren to threatening hulk is tremendous.

Together, the three conspire and clash meticulously, playing both sides of their characters off whatever face the other decides to reveal. It’s these constant slick and untrusting fraught interactions between them that really compel.

Verdict

A riot of Deco daring and wit. Suspense and comedy collide to create one of the most inspired and surprising plays this year. Tight, cutting, and edge-of-you seat thrilling, it’s murderously good.

[youtube http://youtu.be/t9wrJWFwLDg]

Back Door played at the Tristan Bates Theatre 9-10 December 2014. For more information about the production, including upcoming tour dates, visit www.offoffoffbroadway.co.uk.


Musical Review: Apartment 40c (London Theatre Workshop, London)

Cosy. The cast of 'Apartment 40c'. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cosy. The cast of ‘Apartment 40c’. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

Despite narrative faults, Apartment 40c is a surprising and engaging new musical, marking Tom Lees and Ray Rackham as a musicals writing duo to watch out for.

Overview

One apartment, three couples, six lives. Apartment 40c in New York has seen many occupants of the years. Some of them have loved, some of them have lost, and some of them have found each other. By blurring time and place, it would appear that despite the age and era of its occupants, they have more in common with each other than you’d think.

Nova Skipp (left) and Peter Gerald (right) as Kathryn and Edward. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Nova Skipp (left) and Peter Gerald (right) as Kathryn and Edward. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Book

Librettist Ray Rackam’s almost sci-fi multiverse approach to three different couples is an interesting experience as the stories cross and interact indirectly in very interesting ways, creating a curious enigma about how, and even “if”, these sets of people are linked together. By doing this, Rackham frames the way for some astute exploration of the human condition in surprising ways. Even if you don’t quite connect with the characters on a personal level, or aren’t entirely convinced by their situations, there’s a very clear and intelligent empathy that chimes whenever they open up. It’s never over the top when this happens either. Everything is very honest and as is, meaning you as an audience member take away what you want from each emotional encounter, rather than being told what to feel. This casual and arms length approach continues even when looking at some of the more severe circumstances the characters are placed in, such as loosing a loved one. The result is a musical that is very personal to each audience member.

However, not everything in the actual narrative is as slick as it could be. Some of the couples and their situations aren’t really convincing. For example Eddie and Katie’s double-booked apartment is a bit far-fetched, but not as bewildering as the situation they end up in at the end of a single evening. Elsewhere, plot points and revelations feel contrived, adding to disbelief rather than the suspension of belief.

But it’s Rackham’s ability to make an audience feel and think that’s the main event, despite the sometimes ropey narratives. Plot faults are therefore small niggles rather than major issues. So what if the story is a little unconvincing? The point is how we emote rather than whether we believe.

Alex James Ellison (left) and Alex Crossley (right) as Eddie and Katie. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Alex James Ellison (left) and Alex Crossley (right) as Eddie and Katie. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Music & Lyrics

At first, Tom Lees music seems a bit too recognisable: something along the lines of the American rock music style than has been replicated (often poorly) ad naseum since Rent. However, though familiar, Lee’s music is far from derivative. In it are little shocks and indiscretions with regards to tone and rhythm, deviating away from the formula enough to prick your attention. Lees has found a way to really make the style his own, and by doing so keeps your attention. There are a couple of really haunting ballads that are incredibly beguiling. “Fairy Tales” was my personal highlight from the score: a mixture of childhood innocence and adult pathos with a sweeping melody, performer perfectly by Alex Crossley.

Rackham meets Lees’ musical idiosyncrasies by including unexpected internal rhymes and phrases. They don’t always work well with some feeling more clumsy than others, but they’re certainly interesting. Elsewhere, Rackham employs a more lyrical approach to exploring the themes and feelings that he’s already prying into, using alternative and more abstract imagery to achieve deeper understanding. This is where Rackham as a librettist really shines through, with an unmatched wit and imagination.

Lees arrangements for piano, violin, and cello also work really well. Despite the humility of the ensemble, Lees prises a rich and tender sound from the trio that undulates and colours each musical number. It’s a shame that we only hear Lees’ music and arrangements during the songs, and perhaps a bit of underscoring wouldn’t have gone amiss given just how enchanting it is.

Music and lyrics is certainly the strongest aspect of Lees and Rackham’s partnership. In fact, even if you go wanting to hate this, it’s simply not possible. Yes, you can pick at the smaller foibles, but the score has an absolute and inescapable charm. Maybe, with a different narrative and/or a dedicated book writer, Lees and Rackham can be the new British musicals writers that we’ve been waiting for.

Direction & Production

Jonti Angel and Evie Holdcroft’s set is incredibly striking, turning the upstairs theatre space of the Eel Brook Pub into a real doppelgänger for a New York apartment. It’s brimming with detail and minutia that really lifts the show.

Lees and Rackham,also directing, make good use of the generous space, often having all characters on set at all times, and sometimes choreograph their movements the intricately intersect each other, sometimes recognising but often ignoring their time-bound counterparts. It certainly adds even more enigma and questions to just how closely are these people interlinked. It’s a slickly executed show despite its fringe credentials.

Lizzie Wofford (left) and Drew Weston (right) sharing a tender moment as Kate and Ed. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Lizzie Wofford (left) and Drew Weston (right) sharing a tender moment as Kate and Ed. Photograph: Courtesy of the production.

Cast

Lees and Rackham have a solid cast on board, although some of the younger actors come across as a little inexperienced alongside more established talents. But overall, it’s very difficult to really pick out anyone particularly outstanding.

If any warrant a particular mention, it’s Lizzie Wofford as long-suffering and good wife, Kate. She has a lot of fun with her character in the little humours she puts up around her as things don’t quite go her way. Her on-stage chemistry with partner Drew Weston as Ed, is really natural and wonderfully sweet too, helped by the fact that he seems to really enjoy playing his role too. However, when push comes to shove, there is a real strength that she finds in her character’s vulnerability, powering on despite the difficult situation she ends up in without completely breaking down. She’s a powerful actress to watch perform in perhaps the strongest of the musical’s roles.

Verdict

It’s not only impossible not find something to like, but something to love. Original and beguiling, this is a thoroughly enjoyable musical penned by a duo with astonishing promise.

Apartment 40c plays at the London Theatre Workshop, London, SW6 4SG, until 20 December 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit http://londontheatreworkshop.co.uk.