Brian Blogs – The Lost 18 months: What Rhiannon missed….

 

#Tweetingit – What no theatre for 18 months?! Culturally bereft, not natural is it? Let’s fix it then; lowdown on the highlights is a good place to start….

Eighteen months is a long time in the theatre, particularly when shows come and go in the blink of an eye and the only constants are perennial money trains that keep London theatre ticking over; no bad thing in itself; I can’t imagine the West End without Phantom, Les Mis or the Mousetrap; but what about the laboratory, the testing ground of provincial and fringe theatre?  I’m pleased to say Off West End is thriving with some brilliantly inventive productions ranging from musicals and plays to stand up and immersive theatre.  Jukebox musicals, however, remain the dominant genre with Mama Mia and Thriller Live (https://wordpress.com/post/playhousepickings1.wordpress.com/284) still going strong as is Beautiful, a show based on the genius of Carol King, and Motown the Musical currently tearing the roof off the Shaftsbury Theatre.

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It just reminds me how much theatre I’ve got to catch up on myself. But over the last 18 months I’ve seen around 50 shows and I think FOMO has seriously kicked in for Rhiannon, and here’s why. The top shows that Rhiannon (probably) wishes she had seen:-

The Elephant Man, Theatre Royal Haymarket @ElephantMan – Want a heart breaking tale of physical deformity and emotional beauty; with a Hollywood heavyweight thrown in for good measure? Bradley Cooper was simply brilliant as the legendary John Merrick, having nothing more elaborate than a walking stick to aid his performance. The reference point for any such portrayal is Sir John Hurt’s unforgettable turn in the David Lynch film. However, Sir John had the benefit of complex make-up, not a realistic option for stage work, which made Bradley’s performance even more of a towering achievement. During the run, he complained of a severe back problem; which is hardly surprising, contorting his body for two hours a night, seven nights a week must have been like locking himself in a suitcase. Cigars all round methinks.

The Merchant of Venice, Almeida Theatre @AlmeidaTheatre – Having seen ‘Merchant’ several times over the years, I quietly despaired at how safe and even boring some productions have been. How refreshing it was to enjoy director Rupert Goold’s glorious take on the machinations of Shylock, Antonio and Portia. The action relocates to Las Vegas with Elvis impersonators, skits on blind date, female characters with Dallas accents and the Prince of Morocco as an Ali styled sharp talking boxer. A top cast was the icing on the cake; Ian McDiarmid, veteran of three Star Wars movies was a cracking Shylock; but the star of the show was the beautiful, sexy Susannah Fielding as Portia.  Can’t imagine why she stands out in the memory so much?  

The State vs John Hayes, Kings Head Theatre @KingsHeadThtr – A one woman play is always a risk; holding the attention of the audience is a massive ask, let alone keep the story ticking over. But for writer/performer Lucy Roslyn, it seemed so easy. Set in a Texas prison, Lucy played an inmate on death row for murdering her husband and lover. The audience eavesdrop on her deepest desires and fears as the date of her execution creeps closer.  She took on the role of her husband, son, lover, prison governor, warden and alter ego of John Hayes, as key relationships were sketched out in a series of monologues. Powerful, thought provoking and in places very funny.  A dazzling performance from a significant new talent.

The Jest, the Vaults at Waterloo @TheJestComedy @thevaultsuk– Sketch based comedy has been waiting for someone to take over the mantle of Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield, and now they are finally here; the Jest, comprised of Ella Ainsworth, Tristan Rogers, Jack Stanley, Luke Theobald and Bryony Twydle were a complete revelation in their debut show. This immensely talented quintet raced through a plethora of characters, both real and imagined. From  ‘corrupt travel agents showing tourists around an Eastern Bloc state’ to ‘irritated ghost hunters trying to lose a spirit’, they presented some wonderfully absurd set ups. They also took pot shots at pompous history presenters with ‘historical misunderstandings’. Their finest moment was however recovering Imodium addicts teaching primary school children about the dangers of drugs; simply inspired.

You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews, St James Theatre @st_jamestheatre  – Now check this out – a history lesson, Broadway tutorial and entertainment fest all rolled into one. It’s easy to forget just how influential Jewish composers were in the development of musical theatre.  A screen played short biographical films, while a talented company of performers ran through some of the greatest show tunes ever written. Then it hit me, virtually every successful musical had input from a Jewish composer; from Crazy for you, Porgy & Bess and Babes in Arms before the war; through Oklahoma, Guys & Dolls and My Fair Lady in the post war years; to Sweet Charity, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret and Chicago in the 1970s and Rent, Hairspray and Dreamgirls in the Noughties. I thought my knowledge of musical theatre was pretty decent, but this production proved me wrong over and over again. It’s also a useful reminder, if one was ever needed, how much harder a minority community worked for acceptance and success. Wow…I was informed, educated and entertained!

Here Lies Love, National Theatre @NationalTheatre – Bit of a sleeper this one.  This is the story of local beauty queen, Imelda Romualdez who married Ferdinand Marcos and later became the Philippines’ first lady during a brutally turbulent period in the country’s history. The show’s creators David Byrne and Fatboy Slim broke new ground by confining the story to a nightclub setting. Oh yeah, we’re talking glitterballs, dry ice and strobe lighting; I was briefly thrown back to dimly remembered nights in the Ministry of Sound. A DJ had his own booth, as a three piece rectangular stage continually shifted in the round as marshals in pink jump suits steered the audience into position. Screens at either end aided the narrative with newsreel footage and transcript conversations.  David Byrne’s lyrics tell Imelda’s story with eloquence and insight. Fatboy Slim’s input was obvious as he plundered every club genre in the book; funk, disco, drum ‘n’ bass and house were all used to exhilarating effect. Surprisingly for a musical, a serious story emerged from the songs and eye candy

Close to You: Bacharach Reimagined, Criterion Theatre @CriTheatre  @CloseToYouLDN – Widely panned by critics during its run, but honestly, how could you not love the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David?  It’s all about opinions of course, although this may be the show that got away in the West End. Most people think of lush melodies, cool fanfares and passionate lyrics sung with sultry perfection by Dionne Warwick. But this show attempted something different, how would the songs sound with a stripped down arrangement, backed only with a guitar, bass, drum and keyboard line-up?  Just a great live band; rocking out with their reading of over thirty classic songs. By and large it worked brilliantly, although one or two grinding guitar solos may have buried some of Bacharach’s more subtle melodies. A great evening was rounded off as we waved to the man himself seated in the dress circle, and later watched him play piano as the cast sang raindrops keep falling on my head. So fab…so cool…so Burt, what happened to that Christmas card?
The Godfather Live, Royal Albert Hall @RoyalAlbertHall  – Over the years I’ve seen Coppola’s masterpiece countless times and thought I’d studied every word, glance and nuance in the definition of great storytelling. But I was wrong, run the film on a giant screen and get a live orchestra to perform the soundtrack and I saw it in a completely new light. The ever impressive Royal Albert Hall seals the deal with its unique dynamics and natural gravitas. Performances shine like beacons in the night; John Cazale, hysterically brilliant as the slighted older brother; Al Pacino, reluctant war hero sucked into the family business; James Caan, impulsive heir apparent (still looking cool in vest + braces, how does he pull that look off?); and Marlon Brando, brooding magnificently in the title role.  A new theatrical genre has arrived.

Kiki Dee and Carmelo Luggeri, the Pheasantry @pizzapheasantry– So where would you find a singer who had a chart topping million selling single with Elton John and also happened to be the first British artist signed to Motown? Well it’s obvious isn’t it, downstairs in the King’s Road branch of Pizza Express?! Yes, that’s where I saw the amazing Kiki Dee playing an acoustic set with accomplished guitarist Carmelo Luggeri. Well call me a snob if you want, but it wasn’t the appropriate setting for one of our finest singers. The venue may have its own special place in rock history (Queen and Lou Reed played early gigs there), but should Kiki have contended with customers quibbling over their bill?  That irritant aside, I felt privileged to witness an eclectic two hour set, including her biggest hits Don’t go breaking my heart, Amoureuse and the seriously funky I’ve got the music in me. But I do wonder whether the great British public deserve her.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre @NationalTheatre – I never thought the Mumbai underclass recycling rubbish to survive would be quite so riveting and funny. Just think Del Boy in poverty set to murderous bhangra beats and we got a stunning tale of hope fighting reality. The visual effects were stunning, created with nothing more sophisticated than plastic bottles and waste paper. A well-directed cast moved across the stage with real purpose and fashioned a convincing environment of slumdogs living in Mumbai. David Hare devised a remarkable script which makes you care about the characters fate.  The producers made the most of the theatre’s revolving stage and a functional set gave off a gritty aura. The ensemble cast delivered an excellent all round performance featuring the cream of British Asian actors; Meera Syal and Vincent Ibrahim maintained great chemistry from their work on the Kumars while Stephanie Street, a familiar face on TV provides a compelling character portrayal…and god bless the National Theatre for making £15 stall tickets available, three rows from the front; a brilliant show that made me proud of British theatre.

Let’s Be Careful Out There…

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About Playhouse Pickings

Theatre blog run by Rhiannon Lawson; a civil servant, extreme tea drinker and theatre reviewer.
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