Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2013/2014 London West End Reviews by Stan Mazin

LONDON 2013 TO 2014

lyrics by Tim Rice; music by Stuart Brayson; book by Bill Oaks

How interesting that Time Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber opened shows on the West End in London within one month of each other!  Mr. Webber’s show will be reviewed below.  What a treat to be able to see From Here to Eternity, the Musical the first night of my visit!  Usually when I attempt to do this, I am tired and start to nod off.  Not with this show!  With a good sized cast of 22 able performers, the director Tamara Harvey has put the cast through its paces without a glitch.  Each character is well defined, and creates the 40s era to a tea.  The music is good and very appropriate for the times… often filled with humor, and then at other times quite moving.  I’ll be surprised if you don’t find this show on Broadway in a year or two.  But I do hope they don’t have to subject it to the demanding cast cuts of other shows brought to Broadway in the past.

a new comedy by Clive Exton

What a farce… and I mean that in the best way!  With a capable cast of 5 brilliantly funny actors, and a shocking bit of spicy language, this play takes off and never stops.  Sheila Hancock as the matriarch of the family has you in stitches, as does her son Lee Evans, who I have to say chews up the scenery and almost upstages every scene he is in, for the good of the show.  He gets the award this year for his facial antics as well as his body contortions, which are nothing short of hilarious.  Harry Burton directed with much tongue in cheek.  A good British comedy that everyone seemed to enjoy.

by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed  by Richard Eyre

When one is taking a full 3 act classic play like Ghosts and editing it down to 90 minutes with no intermission, some things must get lost.  But I believe every play should be merited on its own, and not judged based on a previous rendition.  Given that, I can honestly say that Ghosts certainly carries with it a sense of the morality of the times.  Were it not for the lead actress Lesley Manville playing Helene Alving, the play would not come as alive as it does.  With a set design by Tim Hatley and fantastic costumes credited to Cosprop with additional costumes made by Kirsty Reid, this play is a credit to the tradition that we expect from Ibsen’s other plays.


How happy I was to be able to see this show at the London Palladium, since I am so fond of Dame Edna… and I’m sure this will be the first of his many farewell performances… at least I hope so.  He is backed by 2 female and 4 male dancers, one of whom is also his well-accomplished piano accompanist, Nick Lee.  This show is split into 2 acts, the first act allowing Mr. Humphries to perform several of his character creations.  The first character he plays, however, made me a little bit queasy as the character spits at the audience, and drools over the stage as well.  Most of the Brits love that bit, but with the audio of other body sounds, I was slightly put off… and I feel I am quite liberal when it comes to the stage.  Other characters in the first act are fun, and with the inclusion of a couple of audience members, we all felt like we participated.  After the interval… enter Dame Edna!  What a delight she is, and with her ability to give and take via spontaneous dialogue with her fans, she is an absolute dynamo… filled with humor that seems to show her improvisational skills as well as her love of people… and the sarcasm is a scream.  The credited director is Simon Phillips, but if I didn’t read Simon’s bio in the program I would wonder whether he isn’t one of her creations as well.  A delight!


This hysterical adult panto is put on by the Charles Court Opera Company, at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, over a pub in Islington.  I discovered this group 2 years ago, and now I try not to miss a performance.  The talent is so sensational for a tiny theatre of around 50 or so seats.  But the quality of the singing!!!… One would expect all of these people to be working on the West End, each and every one of them.  With a cast of only 7, the panto was written and directed by John Savournin, the artistic director of the company, with musical direction, arrangements and lyrics by David Eaton.  In a panto, several roles are played by the opposite sex, to hysterical ends, and this panto is no exception.  Joanna Marie Skillett plays Cinderella with honesty. John Savournin plays Cinderella’s mother brilliantly, and Prince Charming and his valet Dandini are played by Rosie Strobel and Nichola Jolley respectively.  Cinderella’s teddy bear, Buttons is played to the physical hilt by Mathew Kellett.  The Fairy Godfather, played by Simon Masterton-Smith and PC Pumpkin played by Amy J Payne round out the extremely talented cast.  WHAT A TREAT!!!

by Jez Butterworth; direction by Ian Rickson

Now I understand what may have happened to British male teenagers who were beginning to become men in 1956… lost, seeking financial and peer acceptance, and beginning to show their basic animal instincts with respect to crime and morality.  Even though all of the acting seemed flawless to me, I still had trouble understanding a bit of the accent, until Brendan Coyle, one of the stars of Downton Abbey entered.  Rupert Grint from Harry Potter makes his professional stage debut here.  Other actors are Daniel Mays (one I had difficulty understanding), Colin Morgan and Ben Wishaw.  I must admit, being an American, it is not the fault of the creators or actors if I may have difficulty with any accent from time to time. Suffice to say their renditions are true to the characters, and that is what counts most. This play is filled with drama and physicality and sets an example of Britain's pop culture of the 50s.  

by Dan Patterson and Colin Swash

Talk about a door slamming British farce!!!  This is one of 2 politically scandalous plays this year… this one poking fun at Parliament and specifically 646 members of Parliament who created a true scandal in government.  In fact, over 380 MPs were forced to repay over 1 million British pounds back to the taxpayers.  Often over the top (it is a farce, after all), Ben Miller plays Robert Houston MP with so much physicality that my sides felt like they were splitting.  Supported by down to earth wife Felicity Houston is Nancy Carroll, whose credits include the films Iris and An Ideal Husband.  Playing their son Seb Houston is James Musgrove.  Filling out the able cast are Diana Vickers as Seb’s girlfriend, Debbie Chazen, in a tour de force as Ludmilla, their foreign housekeeper, and Simon Shepherd as Sir Norman Cavendish, another fantastically funny portrayal.  Ably directed by Terry Johnson, I almost missed this one, and I am so happy I didn’t.

directed by Thea Sharrock; orchestrations & musical arrangements by Lawrence Kasdan; book by Alexander Dinelaris

This brilliant musical stars Tristan Gemmill as Frank Farmer, and Beverley Knight as Rachel Marron.  I cannot give enough platitudes to Ms Knight, as I thought she was unbelievable!  Her singing, her acting, everything about her gives the correct illusion for the STAR she is playing.  And I love to go to the theatre where you see where the money is spent.  It is all ONSTAGE, as it should be… the sets and costumes by Tim Hatley, hair, wigs, & makeup by Campbell Young, musical director Richard Beadle, sound designer Richard Brooker, and finally video designer Duncan McLean and lighting designer Mark Henderson… the lighting effects are unbelievable, along with the video and all the other elements that blend so beautifully.  The appropriately wonderful choreography by Arthur Pita and the creative direction by Thea Sharrock are so well meshed, and so, so enjoyable.  It is not necessary for you to have seen the film of The Bodyguard to truly love this musical.  I have no doubt that Broadway will see a version of this show, if they can afford to do it… I may have counted 32 actors… I never mind spending money on a show that gives me such joy in the theatre!


I don’t really want to be repetitive… but this is another great show that has all the makings… NO!… it already is a great musical, and the money spent is all onstage for our pleasure!!!  The same creators of Matilda have produced here a show of probably even greater audience appeal.  Book is by David Greig; music by Marc Shaiman; lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; orchestrations by Doug Besterman; arrangements by Marc Shaiman; musical direction by Nigel Lilley; lighting design by Paul Pyant; video and projection design by Jon Driscoll; puppet and illusion design by Jamie Harrison; musical supervisor is Nicholas Skilbeck… I hope I haven’t left anyone out! Roald Dahl’s CHARLIE is a tribute to what musical theatre should hope to be.  With set and costume design by Mark Thompson, choreography by Peter Darling, and direction by Sam Mendes, the quality of this piece soars over and above what we usually have to settle for on Broadway.  Granted, some may say that it shouldn’t have to take so much money for the physical part of a production to make it great… but considering all the huge shows that we no longer have because of money issues, what a treat to see the finished product here with a huge, great cast and great costumes, on a great set, with great direction, effects…and flow.  It is THEATRE and we all love it… No doubt there will be productions of this musical, albeit smaller casts, around the world shortly…

music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; book & lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black

This is the other ‘political’ show I mentioned which caused another of Britain’s many scandals over the years.  This one is about the Profumo affair scandal of 1962.
Webber always picks interesting subjects, some of which are not generally thought of as great subjects for musicals.  But all of his shows are provocative, and entertaining, as is Stephen Ward.  Basically every political scandal has a scapegoat.  That being said, I found the show enormously entertaining.  The score is basically what I call ‘low key’ for a Webber score, but his songs are haunting, plot- pushing, and humorous.  Alexander Hanson plays the title character with all the panache, charm, and sometime elegant sleaze of a playboy and woman procurer.  Although never seeming to get involved with his ‘merchandise’ (women), it is never really insinuated whether he is interested in a sexual partner of either sex.  This helps create an aura of mystery which the actor maintains throughout.  I believe Mr. Hanson was last seen on Broadway in the revival of A Little Night Music, which he also starred in previously at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London.  So it is no mystery that this man is a strong actor as well as singer.  With the supporting cast of Charlotte Blackledge (Mandy Rice-Davies), Charlotte Spencer (Christine Keeler), Ricardo Coke-Thomas (Lucky Gordon), and many others who played dual roles, the show, being of a more serious nature, still has its comedic moments such as Super Duper Hula Hooper, Manipulation, Black-Hearted Woman, etc.  This is helped by the clever numbers choreographed by Stephen Mear, as well as Richard Eyre’s appropriate direction.  This cast of 22, although larger than I expected, creates an environment that pulled me into the life and times of Stephen Ward.  I expect an outcome by the public to be somewhat similar to the outcome of Aspects of Love, which I also enjoyed thoroughly. 

by Voltaire; music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Hugh Wheeler; lyrics by Richard Wilbur (and Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein)

What a delight!!!  I tried earlier in the week to see this, but several of the performers were out with flu, so I arranged to go back and be put on a waitlist until the end of my stay… and it was so worth it.  I have seen Candide several times and I have always felt the music is so wonderful, but it is a difficult piece to direct.  This musical is being performed at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which is not a huge theatre.  It is done in the round, as I originally saw it at the Broadway theatre in NY, but in a space a fraction of the size of that house.  With choreography by Adam Cooper, of Bourne’s Swan Lake fame, and direction by Mathew White, Candide absolutely comes to life in a way I have not seen before.  The able cast is constantly being used, playing parts, doing the lines of the narrator split among the cast, dancing and inter-acting with the audience, and generally having such a great time themselves, within their own parts, we were all drawn into the Candide ‘happening’ (at the loss of a more proper term).  The costumes and set pieces, both by Paul Farnsworth, are fantastic… the music, which is the greatest element of the show, is nothing short of great, with musical supervision David Charles Abell, musical direction by Seann Alderking, and orchestrations by Jason Carr; the light design by Paul Anderson and sound design by Gareth Owen are absolutely super.  And the cast are all just WONDERFUL, most of them playing multiple roles… among them Fra Free as Candide, James Dreyfus as Pangloss, Scarlett Strallen as Cunegonde  - her “Glitter and Be Gay” is a sensation, Cassidy Janson as Paquette, and David Thaxton as Maximilian… and more (over 17 in total), each and every one brilliant in each of the many, many roles they play.  Over all, a fantastic musical experience with one of the best scores ever on Broadway!


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