Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Menier Chocolate Factory, 30th December 2018

Fiddler on the RoofOne of the most successful musicals of all time has made its way to the Menier for the Christmas/New Year slot, and is now sold out for the entirety of its run, right through to March 9th, so it’s got to be doing something right! The familiar old story of Fiddler on the Roof, with the cantankerous but lovable Reb Tevye, his devoted but not uncritical wife Golde, and their five daughters, three of which are of marryable age, has delighted millions since it first appeared on Broadway in 1964; and yes, gentle reader, I was lucky enough to see Topol in the part – although not until an early 1980s revival. Since then, I’ve seen the surprisingly superb Paul Michael Glaser in the role, and the unsurprisingly brilliant Omid Djalili. And now, this new production at the Menier, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn no less, stars Andy Nyman as the poor dairyman/philosopher/wannabe rich man.

andy nyman as tevyeHowever, unfortunately Mr Nyman, who I understand is excellent in this role, was not performing on the matinee of Sunday December 30th, and his understudy Robert Maskell took the part. Because any production of Fiddler relies heavily on this vital, central performance, I’m going to find it difficult to give a useful review of this show, as I sense the performance I saw was possibly quite different from what everyone else has seen.

fiddler on the roofI go to the theatre to have a good time so let’s dwell on the positives. Firstly, if you’ve never seen it before, Fiddler on the Roof is a brilliant show, you can take that as read. Even though all the best songs and scenes come in the first Act, so that the show feels slightly top-heavy, it’s still a strong and engrossing story with many larger-than-life characters. In the intimate environment of the Menier, it’s the music that really takes charge, with a fantastic performance from Paul Bogaev’s band, and absolutely stunning vocals and harmonies from the ensemble cast. It truly is a feast for the ear – if ears can indeed be feasted.

To LifeI always admire lively choreography, particularly when it’s crammed into such a small space as the Menier. Matt Cole’s expressive and inspiring routines work brilliantly intertwined with some of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, and they were all danced with exquisite knife-edge accuracy. In particular, hats off to everyone involved in the To Life scene, with the great Cossack dancing and its enormous sense of happiness. For me, that was the most enjoyable scene in the show.

evening prayerHowever, much to the surprise of both of us, we were left strangely unmoved by this production. When we saw it in Chichester in 2017, I swear we both had to wipe away the occasional tear. However, in this production, not at all. Despite all the obvious opportunities for an emotional reaction, it just didn’t do it for us. The scene where Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding is disrupted by the first signs of violent oppression by the Russians, came across as simply bad behaviour from some ruffians rather than heart-rending destruction. Similarly, when the end comes, and the pogrom clears them all out of Anatevka, we just didn’t feel the distress or devastation. It felt more like a simple administrative relocation. Sorry, your Anatevka branch has now closed, your nearest branch is now 500 miles away. The only time I felt a true sense of emotion was in that wonderful little and easily overlooked song, Miracle of Miracles, when the ecstatic Motel – Joshua Gannon on magnificent form – can’t get over the fact that he’s finally going to get married to Tzeitel. Even the normally floodgate-opening Sunrise, Sunset only came across as a passive observation of others in love, rather than an overwhelming appreciation of how love carries on from generation to generation. Beautifully sung, but strangely cold.

Judy kuhn and andy rymanSo I’m left to wonder if this lack of emotion came from missing Mr Nyman. You expect – and need – your Tevye to be the most larger-than-life character of all; a big man, with a big heart, and a big voice, and a big load of cheek that he shares with everyone from God downwards. Tevye is a man whom, if you dare to cross him, should make you quake in your boots. That’s why it’s so funny when, having given his approval to Motel and Tzeitel to marry, he worries about what Golde will say – the big boss man, classically under the little woman’s thumb. However, Mr Maskell’s interpretation of Tevye stressed his more lovable side; his is a kindly, softly-spoken, Big Daddy-type of Tevye. When he sings of God’s vast eternal plan (in If I Were a Rich Man) it feels less like an earth-shattering, divisive dispensation of justice and more like a well-maintained Excel document. He was gently amusing, but nothing more, I’m afraid. It’s true, he does have beautiful vocal purity; but shouldn’t Tevye have more raucous power, dominating the proceedings right from the start? For me, his whole interpretation felt like it lacked something.

DaughtersElsewhere in the cast there are some enjoyable performances from Judy Kuhn as the much-tried Golde, Louise Gold as a particularly scatter-brained Yentl, Dermot Canavan as a rather well-mannered and reasonable Lazar Wolf, Harriet Bunton as a spirited Hodel and Molly Osbourne as an enthusiastic Tzeitel. However, despite these good performances and the superb ensemble, I did come away from this show feeling slightly flat and a little disappointed. Sometimes 5 star-hype, such as accompanies this production, only sets you up to being let down. Nevertheless, it’s fully sold out and I heard a rumour of a West End transfer, so what do I know?

perchik says helloP. S. Maybe some of my disappointment at the show could be explained by, once again, being surrounded by some audience members distinctly lacking in the manners department. Again, we encountered a refusal to move when trying to leave or return during the interval (in fact, the woman next to me, when she saw I wanted to pass, actually stood up and blocked my path, so I had to go the longer way across the stage). She spent a lot of the show explaining to her son what was happening in the story (clearly he wasn’t using his listening ears). Another extended family group decided it was a good idea to feed their children a picnic during the performance, with all the rustling, munching, squeaking and chomping that entailed. When they weren’t doing that they were lolling all over the seats or explaining the plot animatedly to their children whilst the actors were performing right in front of them. Sigh. Modern audiences are turning me into a Grumpy Old Man.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory, 11th January 2015

AssassinsThe musical theatre is a very broad church. Only a few hours ago I was writing about how Anything Goes is a brilliant show but ever so lightweight. Today I am writing about Assassins, also a brilliant show (in a different way) but as dark as dark can be. If Anything Goes can be likened to nibbling at a stick of candy floss (and I think it can), Assassins is like tucking in to a lump of nutty slack. It first hit the UK stage in 1992, at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see much theatre, so it’s great to be able to fill in the gaps of one’s Sondheim knowledge. Up till now the only link I had between the notion of assassins and musicals theatre was a character called The Assassin, who sang “I’m an A double S a double S I N”, from Tim Rice’s long forgotten Blondel. I think I used to irritate Mrs C by singing it a lot. Fortunately it’s a phase I’ve grown out of.

EnsembleSondheim’s assassins are not really in the Tim Rice mould. The show takes several famous assassins (or wannabe assassins), all of whom had a crack at taking out an American President (and I don’t mean on a dinner date). The show gathers them together and makes them confront each other, even though in real life they lived at different times and places. Sondheim forces them to look at their motives, their modus operandi, and their influence on each other. They challenge each other, they support each other, they goad each other on; and, for the most part, they each come to a sticky end. All this jollity set in a nightmare fantasy fairground. Well, where else would you set such a show? In fact when you descend those old steps into the Menier auditorium it’s like going to Luna Park in Sydney – a thoroughly creepy experience. The place is littered with all sorts of fairground ephemera, including those huge open mouthed clown faces and a decrepit old dodgems car. You have pick your way quite carefully to your seat, which may include encroaching on the stage a little -which is in traverse for this performance, something the Menier lends itself to superbly well.

RehearsalsRegular readers (bless you), may recollect my mantra that I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. Well, this is an extremely brave and innovative show, and I certainly wouldn’t class it a failure by any means. To be fair, you couldn’t call it Sondheim’s strongest score, and I can’t really remember any of the tunes; but it’s very enjoyable. However, when it was all over, Mrs C and I looked at each other and just felt completely baffled by the whole thing. If I were to be able to ask Mr Sondheim just one question about it, it would be the one word: “why?” It’s an incredibly niche content – not just murderers, but assassins; not just assassins but assassins of US Presidents. I can’t believe Sondheim had people knocking at his door begging for this to be the subject matter of his latest show. I can only put it down to a huge burst of creative eccentricity.

in your faceOne of the great things about the Menier is its intimacy. When you sit in row A, our usual chosen position, you’re within touching distance of the cast. Assassins has a cast of sixteen, the majority of whom are all on stage at the same time, and when they’re doing fairly intricate and powerful dance moves and gestures in that relatively small area, it feels incredibly close. There’s a lot of bringing your feet in as much as possible so you can’t trip anyone up (never send a murderer arse over tip is a good motto I feel); and there are some sequences when the cast sit on chairs staring out at the audience, which is an opportunity to see if you can out-stare them. They’ve practised that – they always out-stare you back. Much of Chris Bailey’s choreography is quite stompy (not a criticism, merely an observation), and as the cast stomp around you, you can feel yourself literally shaking in your seat. This is an all-round experience production – loud, vibrating, vivid, powerful and literally in-your-face. No one’s going to nod off during this show.

PInch in the Comedy of ErrorsWhilst there are some star names in the cast, it’s very much an ensemble piece, and it’s hard to identify any particular role that outweighs the others – apart, perhaps, from the central character, “the Proprietor”, played by Simon Lipkin, whose fairground (I presume) we inhabit. He spends most of the show standing up to the assassins and getting regularly shot by them, all the time masked in the most terrifying circus make up. If you see Mr Lipkin’s face in the programme, you’d never believe they were the same person. Imagine an elaborately painted clown’s face that has been left out in the rain for an hour or so, resulting in streams of contrasting colours trickling down and ruining his vest. It’s a long shot, but if you remember the RSC’s Comedy of Errors from the late 1970s, his appearance reminded me strongly of Doctor Pinch, the Schoolmaster. I really enjoyed Mr Lipkin’s performance – powerful, terrifying, intense; the stuff of nightmares.

Balladeer and ProprietorAnother slightly strange role is that of the Balladeer. For the first three-quarters of the show, he sings and strums his banjo on the sidelines, commenting on the action, like an Everyman figure; pivotal in the show numbers but neither, as far as one can make out, an assassin nor a victim. However, towards the end he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, antagonised by John Wilkes Booth (who despatched Abraham Lincoln) into committing a crime you feel he had no reason to undertake other than that supreme sense of flattery when everyone knows your name. He’s played by one of our favourite performers, Jamie Parker; you always know you’re in very safe hands with him in the cast.

Catherine Tate Andy Nyman Carly BawdenThe majority of the male assassins are rather dour creatures. David Roberts’ Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley, could be mistaken for Lenin on a dark night, despairingly flitting across the stage in an angst-ridden quest for justice, until he goes all gooey eyed at his heroine Emma Goldman – it’s an unexpectedly amusing scene between them. I was very impressed with Harry Morrison’s performance as John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Reagan; a seething mass of vengeance under a barely concealed veneer of calm – so different from the Mr Morrison we enjoyed a few months ago in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, which is, coincidentally, where was last saw Jamie Parker too.

Mike McShaneSteward Clarke’s Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted assassination on Franklin D Roosevelt, is portrayed as a vicious, angry victim himself – driven mental because of his constant stomach pains., Mr Clarke’s unnervingly wild eyes contribute to a very compelling performance, particularly when Zangara meets his electrifying death. Mike McShane, dressed as a rather bedraggled Santa Claus for a reason I couldn’t quite make out, takes the role of Samuel Byck, the unhinged wannabe assassin of Richard Nixon, whose murderous attempt was somewhat hapless and ended up with him killing himself instead. Mr McShane is a fine actor with a great stage presence, but I found his monologues where he is recording messages to Leonard Bernstein just a bit too long, and lacking in dramatic tension. It’s the only place where I felt John Weidman’s book needed some trimming.

Aaron TveitOn the other hand, a couple of the male assassins were much brighter characters. The always entertaining Andy Nyman (who we’ve seen at the Menier twice before – has he taken up residence?) plays Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield), bouncing around the stage like an excited puppy. He’s obsessed with becoming Ambassador to France, and is clearly a maverick and a charlatan, and immense fun to watch. His death by hanging scene is a great piece of stagecraft, encompassing tragedy and hilarity at the same time. Broadway favourite Aaron Tveit takes the role of John Wilkes Booth, bestriding the stage, moustachioed like Van Dyck, cajoling and coaxing many a wannabe assassin into action. With controlled power, Mr Tveit gives us almost every emotion under the sun; never let him near an empty coke bottle. It’s a very enjoyable performance.

More AssassinsThere are only two female assassins, both of whom acted in collaboration with each other in two separate attempts to assassinate Gerald Ford: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played by the excellent Carly Bawden (unforgettable as Eliza in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady), and TV favourite Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore. Carly Bawden is wonderfully irrepressible as Fromme, balancing no-nonsense serious threats with totally loopy adoration of Charles Manson; and Catherine Tate is hilarious as the rather inept and definitely thick Moore, taking her son and her dog to the assassination, hurling bullets manually at the President when the gun doesn’t work (which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long time). If you like Catherine Tate’s TV show, you’ll love her in this – Sara Jane Moore would fit perfectly into her repertoire of weird and wacky characters. Mind you, I’d better be careful what I say about Moore and Fromme as they’re both out on parole now.

Watch those gunsA big theatrical experience, with a great band, costumes, make up, and set; more gunshots than you would normally expect in a lifetime at the theatre; and a colourful finale that cleverly covers the entire stage and some of the seats in a sea of blood (don’t worry, it’s an illusion, you don’t get wet). A very high impact production and, rarely for me, one of the occasions when not having an interval feels strangely appropriate. Whilst there is some humour, it’s not what you’d call a Musical Comedy; and I can’t say that you leave the theatre on a high – we left it rather shell-shocked at what we’d seen. But it’s certainly a stunner. It’s on at the Menier until 7th March, but if you haven’t booked, it’s too late as the whole of the rest of the run is sold out. There’s got to be the potential of a transfer, surely – but it needs to be kept intimate, so as to preserve the claustrophobic power of the whole thing. Congratulations to the Menier, another winner!

Production photographs by Nobby Clark

Review – Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London, 7th April 2012

Abigail's PartyIt’s a really big risk to take such a well known play that is so associated with one particular star performance in one particular star production and to revive it with a brand new cast. The big question is, will you be constantly comparing it with Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski and the rest, or does the new cast stand on its own two feet and make its own mark? Without question the answer is the latter. This is a superb revival of this wonderful Mike Leigh play from the 1970s, and the cast absolutely make it their own.

The set is brilliant. Even before the play starts, there are so many wonderful little details to take in. The plastic lampshades from Woolworths; the Radio Times; the trimphone (very trendy!); the fibre optic lamp (colours a bit on the subtle side perhaps); the Spanish lady doll and traditional (on the Costa Brava at least) wine pourer; I could go on. Fantastic work by the props department – when did you last see a tub of Blue Band margarine? Superb attention to detail.

Andy NymanDespite the progress of the years, the play remains very relevant today. If Laurence despaired at Beverley’s low-brow tastes in art and music, heaven knows what he would have made of today’s X-Factor generation. Laurence remains a lone voice fighting, in his fatally inept way, for recognition of artistic endeavour in a sea of dumbing-down. Andy Nyman’s Laurence is a very angry man. The pressures of work and living with Beverley have really taken their toll on him and he finds it toe-curlingly difficult to keep his feelings in, even when he has company round for drinks. It’s a superb performance. He brings out the full crassness of Laurence’s desperate closed-questioning line of conversation: “Sue, do you like art?”, “Do you like Paris?”; “Have you read any Dickens?” One of the things that makes the play so brilliant is the fact that the character with whom one ought to have the most sympathy is more or less just as grotesque as the others.

Joe AbsolomOne part of the story that is really emphasised in this production is the mystery of what happens when Laurence and Tony go over to Sue’s house to check on the party. My memory of the original production is that in the second act Laurence and Tony exchange quizzical looks at each other as to what each of them did while they were there. In this production this has escalated to outright animosity between the two, especially from Laurence. It really spikes up the story no end and adds a level of subtlety and mystery. Joe Absolom makes a great Tony. This must be a very hard role to play as so many of Tony’s lines consist of sullen, largely monosyllabic replies – you don’t feel that the script gives you a lot of clues as to his character – but Mr Absolom was totally believable in this part – despite very nearly corpsing at the huge laugh that came when Angela said to Beverley, “well we’re alike aren’t we”.

Natalie CaseyWhich brings us to Natalie Casey’s brilliant reinvention of the role of Angela. Janine Duvitski’s interpretation concentrated on her dowdy and downtrodden nature, but Ms Casey is a much more upbeat Angela – even though she still delivers the text in that marvellous deadpan tone. I feel this Angela really knows her own mind and she’s nobody’s fool – when Beverley and Tony are dancing smooch to smooch, Ms Casey, rather than just accepting it, expresses her resentment with a change of tone and some simple but wonderful comic business. But her whole performance is a comic delight, a truly delicate balance of the grotesque and the ridiculous, infused through with a kind compassion.

Susannah HarkerCompassion, but without subtlety or tact, as her wonderfully intrusive questioning about Susan’s ex-husband shows. Another wonderful performance, Susannah Harker’s Susan is not as pompous or remote as previous interpretations; she is very uncomfortable but beautifully polite, with a splendidly breathy way of saying thank you. Her distaste for some of the activity around her is perfectly realised by being delightfully underplayed, and her comic timing is superb.

Jill HalfpennyAnd of course there’s Beverley, one of the best comic roles written for a woman in the 20th century. I always thought Alison Steadman was the absolute incarnation of Beverley and that no one else would be able to match it. Wrong. Jill Halfpenny is brilliant. Very wisely, she is not doing an Alison Steadman impersonation, but fills the character really convincingly in her own way.

Where I always thought Alison Steadman’s Beverley was sexy primarily in her own mind, Jill Halfpenny’s Beverley is full-on-sexy. There’s a lengthy scene where she is sitting provocatively in an armchair, fondling her cigarette as though it were a sex toy, whilst directly opposite her Tony is silently spellbound, subtly adjusting his position for comfort, whilst the others carry on talking oblivious to the growing attraction. In a different scene, when she is quizzing Angela about what Tony is like, she gets really turned on by the possibility he might be violent. Uncomfortable but very believable, Jill Halfpenny’s central performance is just great; totally credible, never over the top in the grotesque department, not too obviously “Essex” in her approach, and above all, very very funny.

The tragedy that ends the play comes to bring everything back down to earth and to reverse the roles – with the dominant Beverley railing pathetically, the struggling Laurence put to rest and the underdog Angela taking control. Even this final scene was given a hilarious comic twist played beautifully by Ms Casey and Mr Absolom.

An absolutely first rate production, one of the best things the Menier has produced for a long time, and it would be a crime if it didn’t transfer.

Review – Terrible Advice, Menier Chocolate Factory, October 9th 2011

Terrible AdviceThere’s a very enjoyable article in the programme for “Terrible Advice” by the writer Saul Rubinek, about how he came to write the play. It seems that it’s been a mere 34 years in the making. At this rate, it’ll be 2045 before we see his next offering, which would be a shame because this is an intelligent, witty, hard-hitting, and extremely funny play, tightly directed by Frank (How’d you like a Pork Chop!) Oz, who gets the best out of the talented cast, and I’m pleased to say it’s all good.

Scott BakulaIt’s a little difficult to talk too much about the play without giving away a lot of the plot, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. But once the first scene gets underway, you’re hooked. Two guys, who have been friends for years, talk about sex on a hot afternoon by the pool. The difference between the two is instantly obvious. Scott Bakula’s Jake is clearly the kind of guy who is Very Successful With Girls, and knows it. He lounges around in his swimming shorts, all tanned and confident, knocking back the beers while watching the ball game on his computer; the ultimate in cool. You know this guy – we all do. It’s a really excellent performance, completely convincing, wonderfully capturing the reprobate nature of the man whilst still getting us to have some sympathy for him.

Andy NymanAndy Nyman’s Stanley is clearly Not Very Successful With Girls, and is a vision of repression by comparison. Dressed in a formal shirt, jacket and even reinforced with an undervest, the sweat uncomfortably trickles off him. Not cool at all. Again you feel totally familiar with this character – some of us may actually be him. Andy Nyman turns in a wonderfully comic performance, lurching from sad to confused to distinctly unhinged as he carries out Jake’s terrible advice. These two characters work really well together. They’re funny, they’re miserable; they’re way out of their depth although only one of them realises; they’re both on their way down, but for how long will either of them stay there?

Caroline QuentinHelping and hindering them on their journeys down and up and in all directions are two of the girls in their lives – Sharon Morgan’s Delila (Stanley’s wannabe fiancée, or maybe not) and Caroline Quentin’s Hedda (Jake’s long time girl friend). There’s a great scene where Hedda has video’d herself so that she can ensure she gets Jake’s attention – and it brings all Caroline Quentin’s marvellous comic abilities to the forefront. Dealing with all those Men Behaving Badly was a useful preparation for this role. She also shows herself to be something of a dab hand at changing a car wheel – and hats off to the Menier for the clever way they get that car on the set! Mind you, whereas Meera Syal’s Chips and Egg was of a Michelin star quality, I’m not sure Ms Quentin’s car would get round the corner without the wheel falling off – I think she should spend more time tightening her nuts. Elsewhere she is superb as an impatiently randy bed partner, and also really rather scary when confronting Stanley as she tries to get to the bottom of the guys’ suspicious behaviour.

Sharon MorganIt’s also brilliantly funny to watch Sharon Morgan experiencing Delila’s world falling apart. As her façade of relative normality unravels, she has to cope with her relationships spinning off in all directions, which I won’t tell you about because that will spoil the plot. The four actors integrate so well together, and the entertainment lever is set to full-on energy, that you have to think the rehearsals must have been a complete hoot. After the excellent Road Show, the Menier remains on form with this very funny play, with all four performers giving star turns. What more could one ask?