Tag Archives: musical

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.

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News: Meet A Python! Terry Jones to Make Book Signing Appearance This Saturday

Official artwork for 'Nicobobinus'.

Official artwork for ‘Nicobobinus’.

Terry Jones, Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni and children’s author, is the inventive genius behind 5* “…maelstrom of colour, activity, and wonder” Nicobobinus, currently playing at the LOST Theatre, London.

After the matinee showing of Nicobobinus on Saturday 20th December, Jones will be signing copies of his book from 4:30pm. Fans of Jones’ children’s book, young and old alike, should not only miss this opportunity to have him scrawl something on a beloved personal item, but should absolutely, definitely, see Red Ladder and DumbWise’s stupendous musical adaptation.

[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.


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.


#Pantomonium Sneak Peak – EXCLUSIVE Clip from ‘Nicobobinus’

In just over a week’s time, I’ll be launching a serial feature on my YouTube channel, #FreshOffTheStalls. Starting on 1 December 2014 “#Pantomonium” will take a look at pantomime and Christmas shows past and present, and look at the state of current day seasonal theatre.

Featured in the series will be DumbWise theatre company, who are bringing their family musical adaptation of Monty Python’s Flying Circus star Terry Jones’ children’s book, Nicobobinus, to the LOST Theatre this year in association with Red Ladder Theatre Company.

As well as chatting to them about what makes a Christmas show and how this differs from pantomime, I was allowed to film them during a rehearsal. Therefore, as a sneak peak for the series and an EXCLUSIVE clip of their upcoming show, I’m proud to present a rehearsal excerpt of “Morning In Venice”, the show’s opening number.

[youtube http://youtu.be/jiGI8eHKyCw]

Nicobobinus will run at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, from 11 December 2014 – 4 January 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit http://losttheatre.co.uk.


Opinion: Which “Sweeney Todd” to See?

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

It’s pies all round this season, for some reason, as London gets no less than THREE productions of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterful Gothic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Going on right now is the production at the Twickenham Theatre that has had all the critics raving (including myself), and soon we’ll be getting another production in London’s oldest pie shop done by the Tooting Arts Club (TAC), and then the English National Opera (ENO) will stick it’s finger in by bringing Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson into the fray.

Recently, the ENO’s publicity shots have been getting a lot of flack because they look so SO bad, with professional West End photographer Darren Bell saying they made it look like “Mary Berry The Musical”.

But as much as it’s easy to scoff at these incredibly misjudged press images, there is the question is whether any of these productions are actually worth seeing.

ENO

Go?

Thompson as Mrs. Lovett may well be something quite special. She’s an incredible actress with a long an illustrious career, so seeing her take will undoubtedly be something unique. Furthermore, the chance to hear Sondheim’s incredibly rich and complex score played by a full orchestra is one not to be passed up.

Don’t Go?

I’m really unsure about this, for two reasons. Foremost, is the inclusion of Bryn Terfel. Now, that’s not to say I don’t rate Terfel as an opera singer. I think he’s marvellous, and seeing him as Wotan in Das Rhiengold at the Royal Opera House was something rather wonderful. But I have a massive pet peeve about opera singers doing musicals. Opera is a completely different style of singing to that of a musical. Every time I hear opera singers doing musical numbers or even pop songs, I cringe. It doesn’t sound right because it’s not the right style. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect Connie Fisher to handle La Boheme, and the very thought of Michael Ball’s opera album (this actually exists) brings me out in a cold sweat.

As beautiful a bass voice as Terfel has, I can’t see how adding operatic bellows to Sweeney’s part is really going to enhance it. In fairness, Sweeney isn’t a new experience for Terfel, having already done this semi-staged performance earlier this year at the Lincoln Centre, and also in a concert performance at the BBC Proms in 2010. From videos you can readily find on YouTube, he does seem to tone it done a bit. But compared David Badella and Ball’s acclaimed performances, it still sounds a bit out of place and far too arch. Though Sondheim himself, in his published collection of annotated lyrics Finishing the Hat describes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a “dark operetta”, it’s not really an excuse to ramp up the vibrato, no matter how established an opera star is.

[youtube http://youtu.be/ba6U4mZpG6Y]

Secondly, the fact that the ENO are only going to do a semi-staged production is really disheartening. Given the capability of the stage and some of the marvellous sets they’ve done for almost all of their productions, it seems incredibly lazy. It certainly works for the Lincoln Centre due to it’s lack of space but rather marvellous acoustics. But when you’ve got one of the largest stages in London at your disposal, it’s insulting to do so little with it. Plus, when tickets are going for as much as £155, far more than the top priced tickets for Chichester’s celebrated West End transfer, you’d expect at least some glitz and production value (although, there will be 300 £10 seats at each performance)! Thankfully, the terrible publicity shots belay the fact that the semi-staging still looks brooding. But I can’t see how it would better than the 2001 concert version in San Francisco with Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris. Here it was these behemoth performers that carried the show, rather than relying on moody lighting and some people dropping a grand piano on its back.

[youtube http://youtu.be/D3-4JHLO12Y]

Tooting Arts Club

Go?

You get pre-performance pie, a gin cocktail, and a sense of novelty.

Don’t Go?

Lynn Gardener recently wrote a very interesting piece on the gimmick of site-specific/”immersive” theatre. Ultimately, she states that, more often than not, it’s a term used as a sales pitch more than anything else. With only taking an audience of 32 into the tiny pie shop at a time, my misgivings is that it’s going to be very difficult to create a performance that’s of much substance, let alone conjurer up the wide variety of scenes and locations within the musical in what will be a very restrictive space. Therefore, on the face of it, this seems like a prime example of the cynical selling-point theatre companies undertake to lure in the punters. If you’re just going to sat be watching Sweeney Todd in a pie-shop, where’s the immersion in that? And what will take the production beyond shallow novelty to warrant something site-specific?

Harrington's Pie & Mash, Tooting.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, Tooting.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Derek Anderson’s production at the Twickenham Theatre is brimming with little innovations and tenacities that manage to reduce this massive musical into the tiny sardine-can space. But TAC will have to come up with something seriously good to even contend with the Twickenham production. In saying that, they have been getting a lot of praise for their recent site-specific theatre productions, so they could still pull a coup de grace none the less, and perhaps I should have a little more faith.

Twickenham Theatre

Go?

There’s not been any review that’s been less than 4*s. But particularly, Anderson’s characterisations played out by Badella and Sarah Ingram are astonishing and superbly performed.

Don’t Go?

Because you’ll be hard pressed to get a ticket! The show originally sold out its entire run, BUT there have been a few extra shows added, extending the run until 12 October. Buy them quick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Verdict

Given that it’s tried and tested, the Twickenham Theatre production is a version that you just can’t go wrong with. Therefore, if you have the chance, try and see this above others. Mind you, such an opinion is only based on the apprehensions I’ve outlined above, and am certainly not saying that either the ENO or TAC’s productions won’t be worth your time and money.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at:

English National Opera, London, WC2N 4ES, between 30 March and 12 April 2015. Tickets are £10 – £155. To book, visit www.eno.org.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, London, SW17 OER, between 21 October – 29 November 2014. Tickets are sold out. For more information about tickets, visit www.tootingartsclub.co.uk.

Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 12 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.


Musical Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Twickenham Theatre, London)

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Perhaps the most ingenious and tenacious of productions ever, the brand spanking new Twickenham Theatre opens with a production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece that all future versions will be judged by.

Overview

One of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated and well known works, this musical thriller draws its influence from similar tales appearing in Victorian penny dreadfuls that have since become urban legend. A barber murders his customers and packs their dismembered bodies into pastries to be sold in the pie shop below, forming part of a larger revenge plot.

Book

Hugh Wheeler’s book combines together the rag-bag of grim horror stories, sold for a penny on the streets of Victorian London (hence, ‘penny dreadfuls’), and weaves from it a plot of revenge and dastardly companionship. Sweeney is given the back story of being transported, as a ploy by a judge to snatch his beautiful wife: thus giving him a mens rea for his murderous spree. Mrs. Lovett is the long-time and besotted companion of Mr. Todd who abets him by literally using his crimes to flesh out her ailing pie business.

But what’s best about Wheeler’s book is that he also seasons this tale with a ghastly sense of humour. He creates a varied tapestry that takes audiences through everything from the frenzied to the funny, and from the tender to the tense, sometimes simultaneously. His characters are colourful, and each play an integral and in the story’s complex development. No-one feels like a superfluous after-thought, and character development (and dispatching) slides neatly into the main narrative without being forced in. It’s a meticulous and well constructed book that puts most other musicals to shame. Everything has a purpose, place, and pace here.

Music & Lyrics

Some, including myself, would argue that this is probably one of Sondheim’s richest and most complex scores. Particularly, it has some of his most memorable songs with very few (if any) of the numbers here being forgettable or lacking in lustre. But the real genius is his use of leitmotifs throughout. By themselves they are sweeping and notable, marking a character with aural dexterity and giving them an extra layer to their persona of their written role. But the real genius is how these keep cropping up in incredibly complex quartets or echoed subtly in the orchestral underlay. It’s a score that meticulously holds everything in place as much as it drives the action.

Sondheim’s music manages to compliment Wheeler’s characterisations and plot development, embracing both the manic and the magical. Sondheim really compliments the many juxtapositions and little in-jokes that Wheeler toys so well with. Particularly, numbers such as “Joanna” in the Second Act, where Sweeney wistfully laments the distance between him and his daughter whilst causally cuts the throats of his victims, is one of the most outrageous and memorable moments of the entire musical. But then there are numbers such as “City on Fire” that is a tense and fretful, crescendoing to the musical’s climax.

Lyrically, Sondheim pens a libretto that is as poetic and playful as his music. Internal rhymes and rhythm being a speciality. There aren’t any predictable or groan-worthy couplets here: just surprising and joy-inducing lines that bounce through the score and really draws you into the music.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of 'Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’.

Direction & Production

For a musical that was originally penned for a vast Broadway stage with a full orchestral score, and has since been done recently as such in the West End, reducing the show into the minuscule space was always going to be a challenge. But producers David Adkin and Tony Green have ended up with some of the most tenacious, inspired, and innovative productions to have ever happened on the fringe. Whilst some of the text has been given the chop to make the small-scale production flow unabated, nothing of the charm of the musical has been lost. Their myriad surprises and ingenuities don’t just merely accommodate this behemoth of a musical, but manages to enhance it.

Most of this can be found in Rachel Stone’s set design. It’s essentially the one set that suggests all those that happen, with nothing but a few wooden boxed to play with. But there are many surprises that help the audience imagine and distinguish each place and moment from the last. Tables rise up out of the floor,and  gauzes uncover hidden cubby-holes. particularly ingenious is Sweeney’s chair. In countless production has usually opted for a vertical setting, Stone doesn’t let the absence of a below stage pit deter her from making it work just as effectively. Whilst it seems like a trifle to go on about a piece of furniture, once you’ve seen the musical you’ll understand just how critical getting the chair right in relation to the rest of the musical.

But it’s other little touches that are absolutely fantastic. Particularly, the tangled network of piping in the ceiling that look purely decorative, actually drip water onto cast iron grates at one point, creating an stunning soundscape that is a jaw-dropping coup de grace. Stone’s set is also greatly augmented by Simon Getin Thomas’ lightening, that does some marvellous things with colour and back-lighting to help bolster what’s happening on stage, and really denote those changes of place without props of scenery.

Derek Anderson also does a brilliant job at directing the show with a small cast on an even smaller stage. He manages to not only find space for the busy going-ons of Sweeney’s London, but sometimes turns it into a meticulous maelstrom of tightly knit activity. The only things that remind you of the size of the theatre space is that fact that, if you’re in the front row, your knees are literally up against the stage, and if at the ends of them, you’ll end up having to have actors squeezing past you down the aisle to reach the stage at points.

But it’s Anderson’s treatment of the characters that is the most interesting. Whereas countless productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street see’s Sweeney as a formidable and domineering character, and Mrs. Lovett as mad and completely delude, Anderson has tried something different. Here, Mrs. Lovett is conniving and in total control of her faculties. What’s more, she’s a lot more aware of Todd’s ever-distancing interest in her, rather than holding onto some obsessed pipe-dream. In contrast, Sweeney here is almost too mild mannered and docile to be believed capable of carrying out his blood-soaked spree: a bit too weedy and pathetic to actually do anything about the gross injustice he’s suffered. Thus, you get the sense that Mrs. Lovett is the brains and means of the entire operation, rather than just a clingy, and somewhat batty, convenience to Sweeney. Whilst it’s a bit difficult to accept if you know the musical, and it’s most famed productions – especially Sweeney’s characterisations – it’s actually one that works, even if it initially irks.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Cast

You could not ask for a better cast here. Headlining, is the indomitable David Badella in the title role. But Badella, although brilliant here, isn’t actually the main event. Even though the chance to see him perform with his utterly lucious crushed-velvet baritone voice of his in such close quarters, he’s upstaged (in minutia, might I add) by Sarah Ingram and the rest of the cast.

Mark McKerracher as Judge Turpin is suitably unhinged and devious, accompanied by a wondrously flamboyant Chris Coleman as Beadle Banford, who minces about like some fiendish incarnation of Larry Grayson. Mikeala Newton is also wonderful as Tobias Ragg, injecting a wonderfully boyish innocence into the fray, as well as performing “Not While I’m Around” with a sweet and lilting grace.

But Ingram really steals the show. Embracing every inch of Anderson’s interpretation of Mrs. Lovett, she’s supreme. Streetwise, manipulative, direct, and in charge, she’s a revelation. Every moment of her time on stage is viscous and elating. You almost feel her character should have gotten what she wanted at the end of it all, rather than what she gets. Ingram is a presence that puts both Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone (my two favourite Mrs. Lovett’s) to shame as a theatrical force beyond reckoning.

Verdict

If you’ve never seen this before, or if you have only the film adaptation to go by, this is the perfect gateway drug to Sondheim and the beginning of a lifelong addiction to this musical. But what really marks this production out as spectacular is that if, like me, you know the musical inside out, you should still be prepared to be surprised and astonished every crotchet and throat-slit of the way: a real testament to just how outstanding this production is. This is a production that every future version of this musical will be judged by. The West End? Let them eat pie!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 4 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.


Opinion: Dogfight – Misogynistic, Or Just A Show About Misogynists?

Jamie Muscato (front) as Eddie. Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Jamie Muscato (front) as Eddie. More “douche” than a French shower! Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Anyone who has seen Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse, or even been aware of it, will also be aware of the divisive twitter it’s gotten critics in. Some, like myself, loved the show, whilst others found it to be offensive in it’s apparent excusing of misogyny. So, I’ve decided to wade into the argument (late) with my own thoughts as the show closed at the weekend.

Where’s the Offence?

I was actually quite shocked to hear that some people had found the show abhorrent, even going as low as 2*s from The Evening Standard. I consider myself a male feminist, so was a little taken aback at the whole debate, and was panicked at the prospect that I missed something quite dire. I thought it was fantastic, and whilst my review wasn’t a full 5*s, I think there’s so much here that’s worth praising and was genuinely some of the best new musical theatre to have hit London in a long time.

Particularly, I loved Peter Duncan’s book, based on the film by the same name. Gone is the fairy tale/Hollywood transformation and shallow redemption of a protagonist bee-lining towards a happily-ever-after, and instead we get a tale that’s awkward and a resolution that’s rocky and incomplete. The number “First Date, Last Night” wonderfully encapsulates this less than perfect character development.

But I’ve been trying my hardest to think about what could possibly be offensive. The easiest thing I could find offensive were the marines themselves. I myself describe them as “odious” in my review. And I think that’s the point: you’re supposed to hate them. They’re chauvinistic pigs of the highest order, even going as far to rape a prostitute, forcing her to have sex against her will by using the threat of violence. I would loathe to meet anyone who didn’t find them deplorable! But just having them present and behaving such doesn’t mean this celebrates or excuses them, does it? At least, it shouldn’t.

What I think may enshrine this as a misogynistic show in some people’s minds is that they don’t get their just comeuppance. Eddie, on the cusp of a moment of self-awareness and self-respect, literally throws it away for pride and bully-boy camaraderie. He doesn’t learn, and it’s infuriating. But in the very last scene, we see Eddie return to San Francisco, and is embraced by Rose. There are two possible ways of interpreting this. Either we praise Rose for being a most forgiving, intelligent, and humanitarian character that sees the good in everyone and tries to educate them to being better people. Or we scold Rose as someone who suffers patriarchy, and/or is too shallow, cowardly, or stupid (!!!) to give Eddie the scorn he justly deserves: thus misogyny wins.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Heroine, or patriarchal enabler? Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Heroine, or patriarchal enabler? Photograph: Courtesy of Darren Bell.

Other Misogynistic Theatre

Though I can see at least one way of interpreting Dogfight as misogynistic, what makes me titter about this debate is that there is far more misogynistic theatre out there. For example, the solid but lengthy recent musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles isn’t exactly a feminist war-cry. The whole crux of Hardy’s story is, “patriarchy sucks, but there’s bugger all you can do except die by it,” which is probably more uneasy to accept than Eddie’s difficulty in changing into a civil citizen. Then there’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Whilst the last thing I want to do is wander into the debate surrounding people who chose to stay with their abusive partners, neither do I wish to belittle their reasons, I find this a bigger excuse for misogyny (and domestic violence) than Dogfight. Also, there’s the production that the fringe forgot, The Last Ever Musical, which was out-rightly the most offensive and misogynistic thing I’ve ever seen. Two hours of singing songs and making schoolboy jokes about menstruation almost had me storming out of the theatre and forfeiting my review because I was so aghast.

So why has Dogfight received the brunt of criticism? I think it’s because the misogyny here is so explicit; it’s not shielded away from, and shocks because of this. In contrast, a quite easy way of looking at Carousel is that it’s a piece exploring difficulty in consoling love and violence, dressed in some great music and a lot of high-romantic ideas. But Dogfight is balls-out outrageous regarding the disrespect the marines have for women. It’s far more visible, therefore easier to be offended by it.

Male v Female?

The majority of critics who loves the show have been male, and the majority of critics who disliked the show were female. But this is no means, “Oh, well that explains it!” It’s a red herring, if anything, and probably says more about male critics than it does female. But is this really a male v female situation? I think not. It’s more of how a person, regardless of gender, interprets the show. Indeed, there are plenty of females who see the show in a similar light as I and many others.

Worth reading is Rebecca Trehearn’s, who plays Marcy, blog post that brilliantly tackles the debate: one of the most intelligent and objective looks at the argument, where she ultimately takes a positive view of the show. But I also took the time to ask one of the most prominent female theatrical figures in London for her views, who also just happens to be Dogfight’s producer: Danielle Tarento.

“I’ve been astounded by [the debate], to be frank,” claims Tarento. “Firstly, just because we don’t like something, doesn’t mean that a) it doesn’t exist or b) that we shouldn’t look at it. And secondly, surely the show is the opposite of this! Yes, the boys behave badly, but in each instance the girls come out on top. Yes, there was bravado and bad behaviour but to hide the fear and ignorance and to bond as a group. That may not make it right, but that’s no reason not to not confront it.”

Yet I want to do is use Tarento’s words to justify a dismissal of those who think otherwise. As much as I hate the phrase, “check your privilege,” I think it’s important here. I’m a white(ish) lower middle-class male. I am probably going to default to a more to a rosy view of the show than others with less privilege than I, and that’s something I need to bear in mind. Therefore, even with Tarneto’s backing, I recognise that I may not be the best person to have an opinion on the issue. Thus, I’ve actually found my rethinking of how I view and interpret the show a thoughtful experience as a result of this debate.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Critical Miss

Elsewhere, I think too many people have looked to put weight their own, and only their own, opinions on the subject. Particularly, Paul Taylor and Mark Shenton (I use these as two as of the most prominent current critical voices) were quick to come to the show’s defence and fend off the cries of misogyny, neglecting to try to actively engage in their articles with those who oppose their thoughts, even missing a trick in getting in contact with any authoritative females voices, such as Tarento.

I’m disappointed with their responses. Taylor ultimately says that people should see it again and try to see it as not a misogynistic piece, suggesting they “resisted” the first time around, thus implying there isn’t any other viable way to interpret Dogfight. Shenton, though a little more balanced, concluded that, “perhaps some have proved blind to what the show is trying to show.” Whilst I agree that people have seen something quite different to what Tarento has said about her vision in her own words, I think saying that they’re “blind” is a bit too dismissive. I think Taylor and Shenton’s defence of the show is too defensive which hasn’t helped the discussion. Even if difficult to understand and/or agree, these dissents are at worst interesting and at best important, and shouldn’t be shrugged off with such ferocity. Misogyny in entertainment should be an important discussion, and one approached without such polemic dialogue.

The Real Question

Whilst I think it’s right that we’re having this debate, and I think it’s right that people have seen it the way they have, I think the real question is whether audiences should be sheltered. Should producers be putting on shows that offend?

Offence is something that Tarento isn’t worried about. I asked her what she would do if she was given a piece that was potentially offensive. Although being very clear that she does not find Dogfight offensive, she says, that:

Should I actively be choosing a show because of its potential to offend, I would serve the text as honestly and as fully as possible by giving it the best possible production and letting the audience decide.”

As Tarento’s response shows, theatre should challenge and it is up to us to take whatever we will from it. Producers and directors shouldn’t shy away from putting on shows that may offend, within reason and proper context, especially if they spark much needed debates such as this one. But in doing so audiences and critics should not scoff at the fact that something some people might be offended, even if it didn’t offend them: this approach only stymies debate.

In summary, to me Dogfight is just a show about misogynists, and not a show that is misogynistic. I think the fact that Eddie and his marines are hideous human beings, really colours the show and makes it different and engaging, especially as it doesn’t end the way we’d like it to. But just because you disagree, does not make your opinion invalid. In fact, I’m more than interested to hear what you think, and have my own perceptions of the show challenged.

Dogfight played at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD between 8 August – 13 September 2014.


Musical Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles (New Wimbledon Studio, London)

17304_fullRating: ***

In A Nutshell

A rich, dramatic, and inventive score, but a show that is far too long for its own good.

Overview

Based on Thomas Hardy’s romantic melodrama, we see farm-girl Tess’ life turned upside down when her family learn that they’re the surviving heirs to an ancient aristocratic lineage. But her attempts to re-affiliate their family to the bloodline only ends in heartbreak and violence, causing Tess’ world to crumble around her in tragedy most bleak.

Writing

Award winning musical playwright, Alex Loveless, makes an incredibly comprehensive attempt at adapting Hardy’s celebrated novel into a musical. Indeed, there is very little, if anything, that is missing from the book in the musical. But whilst this is an incredibly worthy effort to stay as true to the original novel as possible, it also is the show’s major downfall as Alex Loveless’ work is a stark reminder at how complex and lengthy the original novel is. Given the story’s heavy emphasis on melodrama and tragedy, at over 2.5 hours long (including interval) – with Act I an epic 80 minutes long – it’s very difficult to stay engaged, even with such a solid score behind the production.

Not helping is that important plot points feel a bit rattled through whilst minor aspects of the story are dwelt upon for longer than needed. For example, Tess’ first meeting with Angel, accompanied by a wonderfully lilting romantic song, ‘I Saw Your Face’, feels disappointingly truncated, whereas later on we get almost a full four minutes of the ensemble singing about milking cows. There are more than a handful of moments and musical numbers that could have easily have been axed to speed the show along and make it more digestable. But instead, the audience are left to become fatigued for want of trying to stay focused, being made to sit through a truly mammoth amount of material.

Music & Lyrics

Score and songs is certainly Alex Loveless’ strong point. Having already picked up several awards for his work, including the Howard Goodall Award for composition, it’s no surprise that his score here is as solid here as elsewhere. For starters, Alex Loveless is not afraid to experiment a little, giving Tess of the d’Urbervilles a unique and inventive sound that marks it out from other new musicals. Here, Alex Loveless really embraces not just a modern musical style, but also the sounds, harmonies, and rhythms of English folk and pastoral music. Behind these he also puts behind a lot of thought and emotion, resulting in such stirring numbers like ‘Children of the Earth’ and ‘Joyfully, We Praise’, to soaring and rich numbers like ‘I Hear Your Voice’.

But not everything Alex Loveless writes works though. There are several weaker numbers such as ‘Saturday Night’ that is just too unwieldy and messy to be entertaining, and ‘The Belly of the Beast’ that is just a bit too unorthodox making it stick out like a sore thumb as it doesn’t gel with the timbre of the rest of the score.

Lyrically, whilst Alex Loveless doesn’t emulate the arch-poetry of Hardy’s style, he does bring an own sense of wit and creativity to the libretto that really compliment and augment the emotions he’s encapsulating in his music. There are more than a few unique and attention grabbing songs that demonstrate that Alex Loveless’ reputation is by no means one garnered from false praise.

Direction and Production

The production behind the show is also of a high standard and is as impressive as the new musical writing on offer here. David Shields stage design does a good job of portraying several of the abstract themes. His dilapidated arches, with peeling wood panelling and painted with drab pastoral scenes, very handsomely represent the ideas of a waning aristocracy and nature being unforgiving and harsh, not to mention easily conjuring up Stonehenge: where the novel’s climax takes place.

Director Chris Loveless also makes great use of the space. Particularly in capitalising on the nooks and crannies among Shield’s flats, meaning that actors end up being framed dramatically, appear, disappear, or be hidden with ease. Working closely with  Movement Director, Lucy Cullingford, there are also bits of choreography and physical theatre that really add energy and slick showmanship to parts of the show. It’s just a shame that these excellent production values can’t stop the show from labouring.

Cast

Kudos to Casting Director Benjamin Newsome for finding a cast that can also play a plethora of instruments on stage without sacrificing acting ability. It’s really great to find such multi-talented performers, and make full use of their many skills. Particularly, Emma Harrold, Sarah Kate Howarth, and Jessica Millward are a trio of ladies who not only interact and bounce high-spirits and impish energy off each other, they work just as close-knit and refined an ensemble on violin, flute, and viola respectively.

However, Jess Daley in the titular role really steals the show. She’s astonishing at being the heartbroken heroine, balancing out devastating misery with a wonderful sense of romantic hope and feminine tenacity. You really feel the inner pain and turmoil that is written clear across her face, and even if you find yourself flagging because of the length of the show, it’s still easy to get lost in her the beautifully tragic portrayal of Tess.

Verdict

Certainly worth a look if you’re a hardy Hardy fan, or keen on supporting some really great new British musical writing. Whilst the score is rich, vibrant, and original, be prepared for a show as long as the book is thick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/uTKh3pLmZ_U]

Tess of the d’Urbervilles plays at the New Wimbledon Studio, London, SW19 1QG, until 27 September 2014. Tickets are £15.40 (concessions available). To book, visit www.atgtickets.com.


Camden Fringe Review: Go! A Mini Disaster Musical (Phoenix Artist Club, London)

GoRating: **

In A Nutshell

Clichéd characters, bewildering musical numbers, and tawdry innuendo distract from moments of the otherwise nuanced pathos of a powerful songstress.

Overview

Flight GO999 takes off, but never makes it to its intended destination. Seven characters on board the flight, both passengers and crew, relate to us in song their lives, aspirations, and libidos.

I feel quite bad about giving this such a bad review, especially as cabaret star and creator of this piece, Nikki Aitken, allowed me to review the production after I’d contacted her directly to do so as the blurb sparked my interest. However, I can’t bring myself other than to be honest about this show, so here goes.

Book

After Mile High – The Musical I have been left thinking that there is very little more that anyone can prise out of airline comedies. Unfortunately, Aitken has not managed to make me disparage this opinion.

Characters are generally clichéd: posh English gent it posh and English, loud American gal is American and loud, and oversexed “mincing” gay air steward is still the irritating stereotype that we’re apparently still defaulting to for comedy. The attempt at humour mostly falls flat. For the most part it relies of a few snippets of innuendo that’s a cross between some budget Pam Ann and a Great British Bake Off soggy bottom. Otherwise, we’re expected to find jokes in the characters that are over the top, unbelievable, and less than compelling.

Yet there are a few flits of depth here and there. Aitken’s momentary pause to explore the failed relationship and charisma of said English gent is actually quite sweet and enchanting, with traces of nuanced pathos. As is another character’s exasperation about her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which is pursued with quirk and interest: a genuinely human look at living with such a condition. But otherwise, there’s little to go on that engages. It seems Aitken works best when she’s not trying to be funny and actually trying to find a degree of humanity in what she’s doing.

The plot development is scant and implausible, lacking drama or drive. It makes a quick landing before it even gets a chance to take off. Even the salvation from the mild peril our characters are placed in doesn’t really lead to much or instigate any substantial arousal.

Songs

Much like the book, the songs are mostly misses with a few hits. There’s a boringly burlesque song about a baggage-handler in love, a bewildering romp through the airline’s safety demonstrating, and a Black Box a la Barry White soul number. But again, coinciding with the flits of character exploration as mentioned above, there are a couple of solid songs that reflect a more pensive and insightful side to Aitken’s intelligence. There are even moments of musical originality, in the form of melodic quips and less than ordinary turns of phrases, marking Aitken out as someone who has talent somewhere among all this.

Performance

Aitken certainly has a voice. When she lets rip you really know about it. It’s her singing talent that’s the most sure-fire thing about this production: a testament to the reputation she’s garnered.

However, her ability to portray multiple characters in quick succession doesn’t measure up to her vocal prowess. She doesn’t have the physical acumen to create the tangible detail that would define and personify the characters she’s trying to channel. At some points, it wasn’t clear who she’s playing, not helped by the fact that sometimes Aitken would remain stationary through several characters changing only her voice, rather than trying to embed herself in the spaces that her characters would otherwise be in. If the personality of the characters didn’t endear enough to begin with, it’s hard enough to believe that they have manifested in the theatre space.

Verdict

It’s a real shame that Go! A Mini Disaster Musical hasn’t worked as there is evidence that Aitken could achieve something much better. But whilst writing comedy musical theatre may not be her calling, her powerful voice, small peeks at a keen poignancy, and moments of musical originality, means that she won’t be a performer as forgettable as this show.

Go! A Mini Disaster Musical runs at the Phoenix Artist Club, London, WC2H 8BU, until 21 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £10 (concessions available). To book, visit www.camdenfringe.com.


Musical Review: Dogfight (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson (left) and Jamie Muscato (right). Photograph: Darren Bell.

Rating: ****

In A Nutshell

A forceful and energetic production of a surprising and captivating musical.

Overview

Based on the 1991 film of the same name, Peter Duchan (book) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) won acclaim Off-Broadway. Now, Danielle Tarento and her multi-award winning team brings the production to Europe for the first time.

US Marine Eddie is on his last night out with his comrades in San Francisco before being shipped off to Vietnam. They put together a “Dogfight” – where each marine competes to bring a date to a party, and the marine with the ugliest date wins a cash prize. Eddie thinks he’s on to a winner with Rose, but quickly sees past her frumpy veneer and connects with her sweet and docile personality. Remorsefulness of his actions, can he undo the hurt he’s caused her before he faces the horrors of ’63?

Book

Duchan’s adaptation of the film manages to combine all of it’s main elements, but also expands it to add more narrative substance and intelligence on what is otherwise a bit of a whistle-stop and slightly unbelievable story. Particularly, his lambaste of military hubris has created one of the most instantly unlikable protagonists on the stage. Brash, oversexed, and grossly arrogant, Eddie and his band of “B”s are as odious as they come. Though setting-up a rather easy juxtaposition between Eddie and Rose, Duchan exploits the vast room to explore a less direct, more humorous, heartfelt, and satisfying redemption for Eddie. There’s no fairytale transformation, but a rough and bumpy gradual change that is entertainingly convincing.

Furthermore, Duchan also manages to brutally bring the futility and tragedy of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War to the stage, as well as the ire it garnered from the American public. It explores a real sense of loss and regret that crescendos to a most devastating finale, making it brutally moving as well as adorably sweet.

The only criticism is that, having penned such a high-octane and riotous first act, Act II does slump as the narrative becomes less hectic and more tender. But thankfully, you never lose engagement with the show and are with it all the way to the end, even though you want it to move just a little quicker and as giddy as Act I during the second half.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Laura Jane Matthewson as Rose. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Music and Lyrics

It’s easy to compare the score to Spring Awakening, especially as there have been many poor imitations since. Composers and lyricists Pasek and Paul certainly following suit with writing a score in this very American modern rock musical in style; in many ways is very comparable to Duncan Sheik’s masterpiece. However, just when you think you’ve heard it all before, Pasek and Paul put in twists in melody, style, timbre, and pace that prick up you ears and reel you right in. There are so many surprises in the music that despite it being very definite of genre,  it’s one of the freshest and original scores to come from America in a long time.

Their orchestrations and choral harmonies are part of the excitement they build into their work. Whilst these intriguing intricacies are rich and rousing, they are always used sparingly and only when it is best suited. The result is an incredibly dynamic score that goes from riotous to tender and lyrical from moment to moment, tossing the audience from wonderment to arousal with masterful strokes.

Lyrically, Pasek and Paul have an incredible grasp on language. The rhymes are seldom obvious, and words are toyed and played about with intelligent and immense wit. Most importantly, they manage to embrace a very real essence of Duchan’s characters. Flits of very homely and unembellished personality comes through every now and then, cutting through the clever language and smarts, giving us flashes of real and believable charisma. An example is Rose quipping, mid-ballad, about the bad choice in dress colour during “Pretty Funny”, which is otherwise one of the most lilting and heartbreaking songs in the whole score. Elsewhere, nothing ever feels silly, clumsy, or forced in the score. Pasek and Paul have the ability to write songs fluidly as if everyday chatter, and it’s astonishing.

Production and Direction

Tarento has done it again, despite not working with her regular partner in crime, Thom Southerland, who is in New York looking after the transfer of Titanic: The MusicalBut director, Matt Ryan, works just as well with Tarento and the rest of the team to create what is another superb production for the Southwark Playhouse. Lee Newby’s set evoking the Golden Gate Bridge sets the scene with whimsy and charm, whilst also giving the orchestra somewhere to sit and a higher level for Ryan to work with at points. But it’s main purpose is to create a sizeable thrust area as somewhere for the bulk of the action takes place. Though there’s little else by way of scenery, Newby’s set allows  Ryan to direct the show in a manner that simply allows the musical itself to do the talking, rather than the production.

Other noticeable aspects of the production is Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography. It’s as high-voltage, slick, and lively as they come. Given the relatively limited space has by no means contained Pankhurst either. Though during the large chorus numbers when there’s limited space for the 11-strong cast as there is, the performance area is filled to the brim but with an exhilarating amount of intricate moves fittingly together like some extraordinary human-Difference Engine. Newby’s attention to detail with the props and costume, too, is something of note. Laura Jane Matthewson, playing Rose, is by far an “ugly” creature, but Newby still managesd to find what is quite possibly the most hideous dress to have ever graced the stage to exaggerate Rose’s frumpiness, making Matthewson look less like Alice in Wonderland and more like Alice in Primark!

Whilst Ryan fills the space action and energy around the various props that are brought in, there are times where he doesn’t quite handle the thrust space entirely well. If you’re sat on the sides you’ll see mostly a character’s back for significant periods of times. There are some very basic directional attempts to try and overcome this, such as sing to this side first then turn and sing to this side, but it’s still a bit of irk to be left to admire an actors back pocket for too long. Whilst it really is difficult to avoid completely, these moments could probably be contained and limited a bit better.

The only other criticism is the sound levels. There are more than a few moments where it’s difficult to hear Pasek and Paul’s great lyrics because it’s drowned out by the level of the band. It’s difficult to know whether this is because of an inability to adjust the sound properly or because of the problems that come with the intimate size of the venue. Whilst the band and the performers are all mic-ed up, part of the problem is that the audience are still getting the sound of the natural acoustic sound that the band makes. This is something which isn’t necessary going to be picked up by the sound engineers who will be listening mostly to just what’s being picked up by the mics. But hopefully this will be corrected in the next few performances because, unless you’re already familiar with the score, you miss out on some of the brilliance of the songs.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie. Photograph: Darren Bell.

Cast

Tarento has managed to find a superlative cast for the production. Making her debut, Matthewson is sensational. Not only has she got a voice that is both soft and powerful at the same time, she portrays Rose in such a sweet and naive manner that it’s impossible not to love her. See draws instant empathy from the audience making you cheer her on every step of the way, as well as struggle to get through “Pretty Funny” with anything less than a tear in your eye.

Jamie Muscato as Eddie is also absolutely fantastic. His ability to make every song his own is nothing short of marvellous, never being afraid to break from singing and actually act moments of a number. His big solo, “Come Back”, is not only an apex of the show but the height of his performance. He sings it with a crushing and deafening force that is worthy of every possible accolade that can be thrown at him.

Special mention must go to Rebecca Trehearn as Marcy, too. Her duet with Matthewson in “Dogfight” was sang with an incredible rawness and spite that made the number absolutely exhilarating.

The rest of the supporting cast are also brilliant, throwing every inch of energy they can muster into the show to create a piece of theatre that has the Southwark Playhouse vibrating with force. No-one sings flat or sharp, no-one feels like they’re dragging their feet, and everyone feels as integral and vital to the production as the show’s leads.

Verdict

Tarento has once again demonstrated that she’s a formidable producer to be reckoned with, with an exceptional cast and production behind her. Plus, this is a new American musical that could only have been fresher and more original if it came foil-packed. This production absolutely blows the mundane fare of Theatreland clear out of the water, and should have the West End shaking in it’s boots. A barnstorming and phenomenal show.

Dogfight plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, utnil 13 September 2014. Tickets are £22 (concessions available). TO book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.