Review – Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th July 2014

Forbidden BroadwayAs soon as we saw that Forbidden Broadway was returning to the Menier, the booking was made in an instant. We saw it last time, in 2009, and thought it was a complete hoot. Well, it’s returned, as is just as hooty as it was before. It’s not the same show of course – it’s been completely rewritten, with loads more musicals to parody and loads more musical performers to tease mercilessly.

There’s no pretension, no back story, no hidden meaning to this show – it just takes the “four performers and a pianist” format, showers the stage with glitzy star lighting, has tinselly curtains on every available wall, and four entrances from which our performers can make continuous star appearances. Actually, given all the quick costume and number changes, this is less like a show and more like a showbiz triathlon. They must be the fittest actors in London.

Anna Jane CaseyA series of musical sketches rapidly follow each other, in which no holds are barred with the extent to which they ridicule, humiliate and lampoon our most beloved musicals. The traditional shows come in for their regular treatment – Phantom, Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Lion King; but we also have new kids on the block in the form of Book of Mormon, Once, Jersey Boys and Charlie (of the Other Chocolate Factory). Obviously, if you‘ve actually seen the show they’re parodying it makes it a lot funnier and a lot easier to understand. We realised that we’ve got a bit behind with our London musicals, and there were probably more shows featured that we hadn’t seen, than that we had. However, for the most part, this doesn’t matter because the sketches themselves are so funny and superbly performed that you can enjoy them regardless.

Ben LewisThere are also some extra numbers that don’t reflect any one particular show – there’s an homage to Cameron Mackintosh (which we understood completely), a showbiz love-in between Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone which nicely took the rise out of those gushing, artificial combinations of stars done purely for “entertainment” that you get sometimes – without actually realising that the two of them really are doing shows together in America; and a slightly odd number combining Hugh Jackman and Peter Allen which we didn’t follow at all. I’ve Googled it now, and discovered that Mr Jackman did a show about Mr Allen about eleven years ago – in America; but I think that’s a bit distant and esoteric even for the Menier. We enjoyed it though, as the teenage Mrs Chrisparkle had a crush on Peter Allen and there’s not many weeks that pass by without an enthusiastic burst from her in the shower of “I Go to Rio”. And of course, we had our traditional, brief appearance of Elaine Paige on the radio, cruel but hilarious. We can only think that EP must be a damned good sport.

Damian HumbleyThe majority of the sketches are pant-wettingly funny, and as a result of this show, we certainly now have no intention of seeing Once – any combination of all those elements must make for the most ghastly night at the theatre. Oh, that accordion. I loved the presentation of Miss Saigon as a shouting contest (that’s another show we haven’t seen) and Jersey Boys looked and sounded hilarious – for all the wrong reasons – again new to me, but Mrs C who saw it in America whilst on business assures me it was a perfect parody. Not sure I’ll ever be able to think of “Walk Like a Man” in the same way. The treatment of Book of Mormon was clever rather than outrageous – but then the original show is so wacky that it must be hard to devise a version that’s funnier than the original. There was a brilliant updating of Guys and Dolls’ Fugue for Tinhorns, a wonderful fantasia on Sondheim (Into the Words), a rather telling number about child exploitation on stage (whilst still keeping it light), a battle (literally) between Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, and Wicked’s fantastic “Defying Subtlety”.

My two favourite sketches were the Lion King – primarily because of the fabulously stupid costumes and the excruciating (this time for all the right reasons) song about wearing the heavy headpieces; but most of all their treatment of Les Miserables, with the perils of the revolving stage and the incredibly funny rewrites to those favourites, On My Own, Bring Him Home, One Day More and Master of the House. To tell you what they did to them would spoil the surprise – but we were completely in tears of laughter.

Sophie-Louise DannNo matter how cleverly the whole thing has been written and assembled it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the four amazing performers – the showbizzy Anna-Jane Casey and Ben Lewis who can also do wry, and the wry Sophie-Louise Dann and Damian Humbley who can also do showbizzy. They’re all magnificent. In amongst all the rest of it, Miss Casey did a splendidly ditzy Liza Minelli which included simulated hows-your-father with the man sitting next to Mrs C – much to his delight; Miss Dann did an incredibly accurate Angela Lansbury, which soared musically and became much more of a genuine appreciation of the Grande Dame than a micky-take; Mr Humbley raised his Sweeney razor directly at me and threatened, and threatened closer, so I had to shrink further back and back in my seat; and Mr Lewis bestrode the stage like the Colossus he is and didn’t mind being referred to as the one we didn’t like in Candide. Not to forget the sterling work put in by Mr Joel Fram on the piano, whose entertaining musical arrangements can summon up any mood you want.

I said there was no hidden meaning to the show – but the final number which draws our attention to the effects of increased commercial sponsorship in the West End, whilst funny, is as hard-hitting as a jackboot in your privates. The fact that the season virtually sold out so quickly, has a two week extension at the Menier until the end of August, and is now scheduled to transfer to the Vaudeville later in the year, tells its own story. One of the funniest things you can see on a stage!

The super production photos are by Alastair Muir.

Review – Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory, 9th December 2012

Merrily We Roll AlongThank you for your patience, gentle reader. If you’ve been hanging around waiting for an account of another theatre trip, I’ve had to spend the last few weeks twiddling thumbs and urging the diary pages to lurch forward. Still, we’ve broken our fast now, and if you’ve got to wait ages for a show to come around, you might as well wait for a good one. And that’s certainly what the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along is. A very very good one.

What’s really hard to believe is that this 1981 Stephen Sondheim classic was such a flop on its first outing. The lyrics and melodies are Sondheim at his toppermost; George Furth’s book is witty, shocking, sad, funny and everything in between; the characters, storyline and structure are gripping. Obviously what 1981 didn’t have was Maria Friedman in charge; someone who has Sondheim written through her like a stick of rock,Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers  and who can identify and enhance the sweet and sour within each scene, if that isn’t too many food metaphors for you. Ms Friedman introduced us to the show in the delightful 80th birthday gala for Stephen Sondheim at the Derngate in Northampton we saw two years ago, when the first half of the evening was a concert performance of the songs from Merrily. You knew even then that she was itching to direct it. Well, it’s been worth the wait.

Like Pinter’s Betrayal, that we saw at Sheffield earlier this year, it starts at the end and ends at the beginning (must have been a late 70s, early 80s thing.) This gives a whole new dimension to dramatic irony, so as the show develops you watch out for the clues that created the future out of the past. “How did you get to be here” is the big question that’s continually asked as the whole jigsaw puzzle gets assembled in retrospect. Definitive moments from the three friends’ lives are highlighted, each one a “dangerous corner”, as we go back in time to their first meeting. J B Priestley would have loved it.

Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers and Damian HumbleyThe show digs deep into the nature of friendship and loyalty, ambition and expectation, what’s for real and what’s façade, and I for one found it absolutely spellbinding all the way through. Not only do these themes run throughout the show as a whole, you also get visual and musical reminders of them – the interlocking little fingers; the advice to write “from the heart”; the internal rhythms of Charley’s 1973 song “Franklin Shepard Inc” that are proven to be an accurate recollection of their late 1950s Opening Doors scene. These constant little reminders are like individual moments of reward as you appreciate the ebb and flow of the relationships.

Jenna Russell, Josefina Gabrielle and Glyn KerslakePerfectly suited to the intimacy of the Menier, it’s superbly staged – clear, crisp, practical, sensible; no element of the staging has been sacrificed to any directorial whim or “clever idea”, it simply lets the words and music tell their tale, and the occasional spilling out of the action away from the stage only involves the audience even more. One segment of the song “It’s a Hit” was performed so close to where Mrs Chrisparkle and I were sitting that we had to bring our feet and coats in a bit otherwise they would have formed part of the action too. I love it when it gets that close.

It’s not only the quiet, revelatory, personal songs that come across so well, the big numbers are also impressively staged. I loved the whole opening scene in Frank’s Beach House with the company doing “That Frank” – engaging, funny, insightful and beautifully put together – only Mr Ashley Robinson’s microphone was not quite loud enough for his voice to be heard over the music. The scene at Gussie and Joe’s Brownstone in 1962 with all the decadent trendsetters doing “The Blob” was equally entertaining (Mrs C was laughing her head off at it actually). And I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so camp – but absolutely realistic in its context – as Act Two’s opening scene, the finale of “Musical Husbands” involving French tap dancers and Miss Josefina Gabrielle in best vamp mode; quite brilliant.

The whole castJenna Russell is mesmerising as Mary, the aspiring writer who writes one big successful novel but for whom further success dwindles as she relies more and more on alcoholic support. She makes a fantastic old sot of a sourpuss in that opening scene, instantly combining rich comic timing with desperately pathetic sadness. There’s no doubt it’s a superb role – and she really makes the most of it. You follow the sequence of emotions that the character experiences and she tugs at your heartstrings at each event. It’s a wonderful performance.

Mark Umbers, as the hideously successful Frank shows an impressive progress or regression from ambitious purist to selfish sell-out or vice versa, depending on which time structure you’re observing. Mrs C wasn’t over convinced by his characterisation of the very young Frank, finding his youthful innocence a bit girlie and simpering; I know what she means, but I was prepared to forgive it as I was so rapt by the entire show anyway.Josefina Gabrielle in full flow At least the youthful Frank is a bit different from the older Frank, which cannot really be said for the youthful Mary and Charley. Mr Umbers has a great voice and stage presence and he uses them wisely.

Damian Humbley, a very sharp-toothed Harry in Company at Sheffield last Christmas, takes to the role of Charley like the proverbial duck to water, with his opening scene including the show-stopping “Franklin Shepard, Inc”, a bitter slice of savage Sondheim from which Charley and Frank’s friendship cannot recover. Mr Humbley does it brilliantly. His verbal dexterity throughout the whole show is remarkable – I loved his contributions to the Bobbie and Jackie and Jack routine when they’re doing their revue as youngsters.

Clare FosterJosefina Gabrielle is terrifically well cast as the manipulative star Gussie, and her singing and dancing is superb as always. She throws herself into the part with huge gusto and you cannot take your eyes off her when she’s onstage. Her drifting away from husband Joe towards Frank, and Frank’s subsequent rejection of her is all rivetingly well expressed. In a relatively unglamorous role, Glyn Kerslake as Joe does a wonderful progression/deterioration from all-powerful producer to toothless cuckold and it’s an amazingly good portrayal of how influence wanes (or grows, depending on your time perspective).

But all the cast are terrific. It’s a tremendous ensemble – and although the rest of the cast join the applause for the three leading performers at curtain call, each and everyone gives their all and is equally important to the success of the show. Clare Foster as Beth, for example, Frank’s first wife, is stunning as an emotional wreck the first time we see her, and as their earlier days together are revealed, you understand how she’s never going to recover from the shock of the marriage breakdown.Amy Ellen Richardson, Robbie Scotcher, Martin Callaghan and Joanna Woodward Superb support from the likes of Martin Callaghan, Amanda Minihan, Amy Ellen Richardson and Kirk Patterson too, whose appearance as the Reverend is one of the funniest retorts against racism I’ve ever seen on stage. Big up to young Noah Miller who played Frank Jnr on the performance we saw – super singing and word perfect, his use as a pawn in his parents’ warring brought a lump to your throat.

Just two more observations – what a great band! They’re stuck in what looks like a converted garage office at the side of the stage but they can’t half wallop out a show tune. And congratulations to whoever it was that went out and bought all the coats that get used in the course of the show. Some of them were exquisite. I felt like scouring Ebay for similar items as soon as I got home. Wasn’t quite so convinced by all the white socks, however.

All in all a wonderful production of a sensational show; it was one of those occasions that reminded me exactly why I love the theatre. It’s already got a two-week extension at the Menier tagged on to what would otherwise have been the end of its run – but surely this is not going to be the last we see of this. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

Review – Company, Sheffield Crucible, 28th December 2011

CompanyCompany is a Stephen Sondheim musical from 1970, jam packed full of his best tunes, most of which I first heard when as a youngster I finally got to see Side by Side by Sondheim (I had a ticket when I was 16 but my mother grounded me and wouldn’t let me go to London by myself because of the risk of terrorist bombs at the time – boy was I furious.) So I’m delighted to have finally seen it, and to contextualise such wonders as “Getting Married Today” and “Barcelona”.

Daniel Evans This is a fantastic production of a fascinating and rewarding show. The premise is that 35 year old Bobby (or Robert, Bob, Robbo, depending which friend you are) is still unmarried and thinks he might just possibly be ready for it, despite his observations of those good and crazy people his friends, who took the problem of life and applied to it the one-size-fits-all solution of marriage, to a greater or lesser degree of success in each case.

According to the programme notes, Sondheim says the whole show takes place in the “now” and consists of various aspects of how Bobby sees his life and his friends. There isn’t a time movement; there is no “journey” as such. Whilst I wouldn’t dare tell Mr Sondheim what his show is about, Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt there was a definite time movement in the show.Claire Price In fact, Mrs C thought the final scene, when the friends are looming with their birthday cake but Bobby is nowhere to be seen, actually takes place the next year, on his next birthday. This comes after the epiphany of “Being Alive” where he actively yearns for life to treat him rough so that he can feel the emotional scars of life. His distancing himself from his friends shows that he doesn’t need them to advise him any more; this is a definite “moving on”. However, it did occur to me after the show – in 1970, Sondheim was still not a fully mature composer and musical-writer. If it had been written ten years later, “Being Alive” would have ended the first act, and the second would have showed Bobby’s married life coming a-cropper. As it stands, it’s almost too clean and easy a way to end to the show. But I’m not complaining.

Damian HumbleyIt’s an officially fabulous set – simple but perfect. The great size of the Crucible stage is just right to represent the expansiveness of Bobby’s New York loft apartment, with a sunken square area in the middle that also represents any other flat, or room, or bar; with bright light panels on the floor around the outside which flash the atmosphere of night spots and other locations; and there is also a balcony type walkway above the stage that doubles as Bobby’s entrance corridor and as other friends’ living spaces. It works really well.

Samantha Seager And at the heart of it all is Bobby, Daniel Evans, who was excellent when we saw him in the Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration show in Northampton last year. Sheffield is remarkably lucky to retain his services as Artistic Director of the Crucible and to have him perform so regularly. He gives one of those performances where you can’t stop watching him. Steven CreeEven when his friends are taking centre stage and acting out their married difficulties you feel you have to keep watching for his reactions to what’s going on. His vocal clarity is superb and he injects great passion and meaning into Sondheim’s admittedly already luxurious lyrics. Even when his character is being a bit of a bastard (i.e. in “Barcelona”) he still carries you with him. Wonderful stuff.

Anna-Jane CaseyAll the roles are extremely well performed and cast. Claire Price and Damian Humbley make a spiky Sarah and Harry whose relationship discrepancies get alleviated by resorting to martial arts; Samantha Seager and Steven Cree’s Susan and Peter are a David Birrellwell-confused couple who are happier together when divorced; Anna-Jane Casey and David Birrell are a very believable Jenny and David, married a bit longer perhaps and stuck in their ways, she trying drugs for the first time and disappointing him because he feels her enjoyment of it is faked for his benefit; Samantha Spiro’s Samantha Spiroriveting performance as the manic Amy whose “not getting married today” is matched beautifully by Jeremy Finch’s well-meaning Paul, who visibly crumbles when she says she doesn’t love him; the magnificent Francesca Annis’ worldly-wise performance as Joanne, supported but never controlled by Ian Gelder’s Jeremy Finchnicely underplayed Larry; and Lucy Montgomery, Kelly Price and Rosalie Craig as Bobby’s three girlfriends, any one of whom the cheeky devil could be bonking at any minute.

To add to our viewing pleasure, we were lucky enough to be in the centre of Row A, which means that so much of the acting is going on at your eye level, very close and with no obstacles. Francesca AnnisI love that feeling of being so physically involved in the play that the actors spit on you. One particularly memorable moment was when Robert’s friends all start ganging up on him, getting closer and closer with their pesky birthday cake, their Ian Gelderintimidating eyes starting to narrow as they get more and more intent on corrupting him with their marriedness. They were looking right at me – I could feel his pain. It’s no wonder the poor chap fled from them.

Lucy MontgomeryThere are some great musical highlights – the way Joanne sings “The Little Things You Do Together” in segments as it reflects the activity on stage; Marta’s broad sweep of urban survival in “Another Hundred People”; Amy’s hilarious but tragic Kelly Price“Getting Married Today”; Joanne’s savage “Ladies who Lunch”; and Bobby’s brilliant interpretation of “Being Alive”, as well as the show-stopping presentation of “Side by Side by Side”. Rosalie CraigBut it’s not just a series of highlights; the whole thing meshes together wonderfully as a whole, and you come away from the show feeling satisfied that you’ve experienced top quality solid entertainment. A super production, that deserves a life hereafter.