Monthly Archives: December 2016

Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

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Very few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2016, politically and socially it’s been a tough year all round. But it hasn’t been all bad with London’s cultural output thriving in uncertain times and at the start of 2016 there was much to anticipate. While 2015 theatre was all about five big male performance, 2016 was a time for some of our leading female actors to take to the stage with powerful productions of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory on devastating form as Rattigan’s desperate heroine, while The Young Vic’s Yerma cemented Billie Piper’s growing status as a very fine stage performer, and closing the year, The National’s innovative Hedda Gabler with a brutally savage turn from Ruth Wilson as the suffocated society wife.

Some other good but not perfect productions also heralded some noteworthy for roles for Gemma Chang in Jamie Lloyd’s exciting take on Pinter’s The Homecoming, for Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart (review to follow next week), Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Not to be outdone notable male performances including Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder which was one of his finest ever stage roles, shamefully overlooked by the Olivier committee, as well as the lead in a notable Richard III at the Almeida. Later in the year Kenneth Branagh defied comparisons to deliver a moving and powerful interpretation of The Entertainer while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith found new depth in The Dresser, not forgetting Kit Harrington cavorting about in his pants and making a decent job of the leading role in Jamie Lloyd’s controversial but resonant Faustus. But my favourite was Mark Strong’s incredible performance in The Red Barn which earned a first professional five-star review from me.

For theatre 2017 is already promising a host of hotly anticipated male roles and having opened 2016 with another chance to see his magnificent Richard II at the Barbican, David Tennant returns to the Wyndhams stage in March for Patrick Marber’s contemporary adaptation of Don Juan in Soho which promises a great deal. Also in March Daniel Radcliffe returns to London in an Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in April star-director Ivo van Hove’s version of Obsession opens at the Barbican with film-star Jude Law. The National also revives its production of Angels in America with Russell Tovey which will be one of the big openers in 2017.  But the show to watch next year is a hotly anticipated version of Hamlet at the Almeida which opens in late February staring Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Jessica Brown Findlay and rising star Luke Thompson. Comparisons with Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are inevitable but the Almeida is a much smaller space and Robert Icke’s vision may yet surprise us.

Art and exhibitions have noted a major change in presentation and style since the 2015 Alexander McQueen show which really altered the way items are presented. Utilising the success of this the V&A called on their design experience to present a lively examination of 60s popular and political culture in Records and Rebels which you can still see a little while longer. In a similar vein Vogue celebrated its 100th birthday with an excellent exhibition of its fashion photography which emphasised its role in reflecting the changing world around the magazine, while the Barbicans show about The Vulgar collected some excellent exhibits but misused them in over-intellectualised structure. And Somerset House celebrated fan-art inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Kubrick films.

From July the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme offered two of London’s most successful shows focused on very different aspects of conflict. The Science Museum’s Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care was an eye-opening and well researched examination of a little known aspect of the First Wold War, while the Imperial War Museum comes very close to show of the year with its excellent Real to Reel exhibition on war movies. That accolade actually goes to the Royal Academy for its Painting the Modern Garden show which collated so many beautiful paintings that wandering from crowded room to crowded room was never less than a joy.

Looking ahead and the headline show for 2017 is the Tate’s David Hockney retrospective from February which is set to unite his UK and US work for the first time. After a stunning 2012 show at the Royal Academy, a proper examination of Hockney’s work is long overdue and this is sure to be a big hit for Tate Britain after their disappointing Paul Nash and Empire shows. This will be followed by a show on the impressionists in London from November.

Meanwhile other American art comes into focus with big shows on post-1930s art at the Royal Academy from February and Pop Art and the American Dream at the British Museum from March. In February Kensington Palace opens a guaranteed money-spinning crowd-pleaser with a showcase of Princess Diana’s dresses set to run for two years, while at the tail end of next year the Queen’s Gallery launches its examination of Charles II’s art.

London’s 2016 Film Festival was once again lived up to anticipation and seems to be going from strength to strength. As well as the Amy Adams double bill of linguistic sci-fi adventure Arrival and Tom Ford’s stylishly dark morality tale Nocturnal Animals which have already opened in the UK as well as Andrea Arnold’s superb American Honey, the Film Festival also showcased a number of significant films due to open here in the early part of 2017. Best among and them already earning countless award nominations is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which is in cinemas from 13 January and is an exceptional clash of the classic Hollywood musical and modern grittier experiences of trying to make it in LA. It is beautifully realised and its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, have never been better.

Out in the same week is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (review to follow shortly), a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt with its stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams certain to dominate the acting honours in February. Although full release dates are not yet announced theatre director Benedict Andrews’s adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, now retitled Una and starring Rooney Mara deals with the difficult issue of abuse and its consequences. Although the film’s approach does undermine its purpose to a degree it will create talking points on release, and a review will follow when that date is announced. Finally Adam Smith’s first film Trespass Against Us, starring Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender is scheduled for 3 March, with both playing members of a Gloucestershire traveller community, replete with local accents, who account for much of the local crime rate. Premiering at the Film Festival, it offers some impressive low-budget car chases and great black comedy moments, as well as fine performances from its top-notch cast.

So as we swiftly kick 2016 away it may not have been a great year but it has offered a number of cultural highs. With plenty of potentially excellent theatre, exhibitions and films in the works, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Reviews are posted every Monday at 12.30pm.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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Art – Old Vic

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Modern art can still be incredibly controversial and more often than not the annual Turner prize nominees raise more than a few eyebrows. In some ways little has changed since Yasmin Reza’s play Art was first premiered in the West End over 20 years ago with debates still raging between those who prefer classical to contemporary art. Can a giant sculpture of a bottom be art; what about a brick, an unmade bed or, in the case of Serge in this play, a white painting crossed with thin white lines? And would you really be prepared to lose friends over your taste in art?

The Old Vic’s revival of Art should feel very timely then – a discussion that never goes out of fashion – but there’s something about this 90 minute play, though interesting and well performed, that never seems to get beyond its own surface engagement with the issues it tries to debate. There are two key themes that it considers; the questions about art and taste that divide the three friends in this story, and a second strand on the nature of (particularly) male friendships and whether longevity alone is a good enough reason for sustaining them.

At the start of the play, Serge has purchased a large entirely white canvas for a considerable sum which he shows to his friend Marc, an intellectual with a preference for the Dutch Masters who baulks at the stupidity of Serge’s decision. With their friendship now under strain, they both appeal to mutual friend Yvan, a people pleaser in the midst of stressful wedding plans, who is caught between them. Over the course of several meetings, the discussions about the painting reveal deep rifts in their friendship which may end their association for good.

A lot of people really love this play and during its extended eight year run in the early 2000s it attracted a large number of comedians in its frequently rotating cast, including The League of Gentlemen, Jack Dee and Frank Skinner, as well as established actors. Mixing the two, as the Old Vic does here, actually accentuates the slightly shallow story while not quite resolving the serious introspection vs slapstick tone, which draws quite a distinct line between the times experienced thespians Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell are on stage alone, and the scenes that utilise Tim Key’s comic talents.

And while it skirts a number of intellectual questions it doesn’t really delve beneath the surface of its characters and their traits in any meaningful way. Characterisation on the page is rather thin; who these people are, the nature of their relationship to each other and any sense that they genuinely exist outside the rooms of this play, despite repeated references to partners, seems brittle and unlikely. It feels in many ways like it starts a conversation that it doesn’t finish which can be a bit frustrating to watch and this production focuses on getting the laugh – which it frequently does – rather than on anything more meaningful.

Yet, in this case, as in many previous versions, it is the strength of the performances that carries you along. Rufus Sewell rarely disappoints, here adding much needed gravitas to the tricky role of Serge – a man who has purchased a controversial painting at great expense and initially at least is surprised by his friends’ lack of acceptance. Sewell is very good at keeping the audience mostly on his side, and while Serge is an arrogant bachelor living a pretty comfortable existence, able to make elaborate purchases on a whim, Sewell makes him seem reasonable, calm and appealing – although this will depend on your views on modern art I suppose.

Likewise Paul Ritter’s Marc has an entrenched academic flavour, a man who has spent years committed to his way of thinking and enraged by the idiocy of his friend. Marc expresses his rage more visibly that Serge, and while occasionally petty, feels genuinely affected by the cracks in their friendship which reveal he is not the person he thought he was. Much of Marc’s self-worth is invested in the role of “intellectual” he feels he has played amongst his friends, particularly with Serge, and seeing him make a rash choice so far from a purchase Marc would have made is demoralising and eye-opening for him.  Again this is hinted at in the text but Ritter gives a much fuller life to it than the character suggests.

Tim Key, as the only professional comedian in the group, takes a slightly different approach, naturally playing up the humour of the luckless middle-man whose chaotic personal life takes precedence over his friend’s minor wrangles about a painting. Yvan is easily swayed however and initially is talked into his opinion, agreeing with whoever he is with and it is only when the three come together for the only time in the play that his people-pleasing is put under pressure. Given his background, Key’s approach is more sitcom-like so the balance with the straighter approach of the other two actors isn’t always quite right and although he understandably has less stagecraft – with one previous play to his credit –  there are a lot of fans in the audience who enjoy every minute.

Looking back on previous versions of this play some commenters have noted that what you get out of Art will depend considerably on the cast and while that’s probably true of most theatre, that feels particularly relevant here. The Old Vic’s version is pitched somewhere between serious drama and sitcom which somewhat blunts any deeper points the production is trying to make. More than ever it really felt like a product of its time – that late 90s period of Damien Hirst conceptual art, shamelessly wealthy individuals and conspicuous consumption – that just doesn’t seem real in quite the same way anymore. London has changed so much since this play was first premiered with international investment being more prominent, so while art is still being brought and sold the shamefacedness of it is less obvious. Perhaps the slight feeling of disassociation this production creates comes from the fact the play just doesn’t resonate in our more austere and ecological times?

Matthew Warchus – who directed the original London run – keeps things moving swiftly in the mere 90 minute uninterrupted runtime and Christopher Hampton’s translation has lots of funny moment, while Mark Thompson’s set flexibly creates two, rather fancy, apartments with only a lighting change and a swivelling wall revealing that we’re in Marc’s home rather than Serge’s although it’s not clear that we’re in Paris particularly. Like art itself your response to this play may be very different to mine – there are people who love it and tomorrow’s press night will be particularly interesting. While it could say much more about the approach to modern art and the competitive nature of male friendships, the chance to see Ritter and particularly the ever-excellent Sewell keeps you watching.

Art is at the Old Vic until 18 February and has an age appropriate rating of 12 years+. Tickets start from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Hedda Gabler – National Theatre

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“Academics are no fun” according to Hedda Gabler in Patrick Marber’s modern reworking of Ibsen’s famous play, but they are dependable, reliable and safe, so despite years of flirtation and numerous suitors she marries one because it was time. This year we have seen some particularly outstanding female performances; Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea and Billy Piper in Yerma were two of the finest portrayals not just in 2016 but any year, and with a couple of weeks to go Ruth Wilson joins them with her take on the infamous heroine.

Ivo van Hove is one of the few theatre directors who is as well-known as his productions. Much like Robert Icke, Carrie Cracknell and Jamie Lloyd, his style is distinctive, recognisable and notably innovative – incidentally this production of Hedda is sharing the Lyttelton stage with Icke’s astonishing version of The Red Barn (which earned my first five star professional review) staring Mark Strong who’s last stage appearance was coincidentally in van Hove’s game-changing A View From the Bridge. To Hedda Gabler, van Hove brings his ability to deconstruct classic plays and sweep away preconceptions to create slicing visions of quite modern people engaged in battles against their own destruction.

Hedda Gabler is a much admired local society beauty who surprises the town by marrying quiet up-and-coming academic Tesman. The play opens as the couple return home from a 6 month honeymoon and research trip to the house Hedda once claimed she always wanted and to face the men she once dallied with including Judge Brack who continues to visit in the hope of an opportunity.  As Hedda begins to suffocate, rival academic Lovborg returns to town with his lover Mrs Elvsted, casting doubt on Tesman’s academic future, and when Hedda decides to alleviate her boredom by meddling with the relationships around her, she brings only destruction.

van Hove’s production is strikingly modern from the off, and instantly sets it apart from earlier period-set versions – including Sheridan Smith’s excellent take at the Old Vic in 2012. We’re used to seeing Ibsen in claustrophobic rooms overstuffed with furniture that mimics the oppression of his characters, but here van Hove instead introduces a virtually bare city apartment, designed by Jan Versweyveld, suggesting both the current poverty of the newlyweds unable to furnish it to the standards Hedda expected, and reiterating the idea that it is the moral and emotional lives of the characters that oppresses them not their décor. They would be equally tormented in any room and it is credit to van Hove and particularly to Wilson that they manage to fill the cavernous Lyttleton stage with Hedda’s interior life.

Occasionally referred to as the female Hamlet, this version departs somewhat from the idea of inevitable doom and instead slowly charts the descent of a smart woman, used to controlling and toying with those around her who stubbornly refuses to help herself when several opportunities for escape present themselves. She is more than merely a bird in a cage, but someone who has built that cage for herself and (almost morally) refuses to go back on her word, accepting the consequences. So, the play’s conclusion comes not from certainty but after a moment of weakness is politically outmanoeuvred and backed into a corner by fear of the kind of public scandal which has kept her marriage intact.

Wilson’s Hedda is complex and fascinating, managing to tread the line between alluring and repellent, victim of circumstance and active agent in events. During the first half we see her frustration build and snap; she’s barely civil to her husband and his aunt, rapidly wheedles the truth with faux friendship from Mrs Elvsted and relishes the moments of flirtation with Lovborg and Brack. Coming back from a dull honeymoon, Wilson shows Hedda slowly resuming her former, rather vicious and arrogant, character and belief in her power over others, so at the interval she feels emboldened by the havoc she has unleashed.

In the second half of the evening we see just how wrong she has been, so here Wilson is able to display Hedda’s delusion and vulnerability – particularly as a supposedly strong woman that never leaves that empty house. Her belief in her irresistibility comes crashing down as both her liaisons prove, in her words, “vulgar” and still fails to realise that her husband is the only man who genuinely loved her unconditionally. Meanwhile the small victory she claims in the first half over Lovborg and Mrs Elvsted is brutally revisited upon her and, on stage throughout, Wilson conveys every nuance of Hedda’s suffering and loss of spirit as fate turns against her. It is an excellent and meaningful performance that doesn’t try to make you like her, but compels you to watch her nonetheless.

Wilson is given excellent support by the rest of the cast, particularly Rafe Spall as Brack. Often portrayed as a bearded old man, this young Judge is slick, confidence and right out of some sinister gangster movie. Spall is all charm and determination as he oils is way around Hedda in the early scenes, but not put off by her refusals to betray her marriage, he is also a predator and waits for the perfect opportunity to bite. The chemistry with Wilson crackles as they flirt dangerously with one another, which is a high point of the show.

Likewise there is considerable chemistry with Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg, a man driven by the discovery of his own genius and the fruition of his ideas. Along with Mrs Elvsted – an occasionally stilted but felt Sinead Matthews – they are the counterpoint to Hedda and Tesman’s relationship, one built on mutual understanding, support and respect which Hedda decides to destroy. Poldark fans will recognise Kyle Soller’s Tesman, a character not that dissimilar to Francis who also married a women who didn’t love him, but here Soller retains his natural American accent which does stand out a bit, especially as the narrative has all the characters originating in the same town. Nonetheless, Tesman is given a parallel life of his own driven by academia and the strong bonds with his aunts while being in thrall to Heddar which Soller conveys really well.

Throughout van Hove creates drama and tension while Marber cleverly plays with metaphors of emptiness and dawning light. The bare apartment and repeated references to whether Hedda is pregnant or not imply an emptiness inside her that cannot be filled, and here An D’Huys costumes puts Hedda initially in a visible silk slip shrouded in a black dressing gown suggesting her suppressed sexuality, but later in the play the dressing gown is removed as the real Hedda emerges – as slippery and thin as her costume. Linked to this is the use of sunlight in the room which Hedda initially reacts badly to and tries to shade, but at the start of part two as her real self emerges the stage is bathed in a bronze sunrise as she flirts heatedly with Brack, and then as events close in around her, she becomes entirely entombed in a dark and falsely lit world.

The National Theatre has hit a purple patch and this version of Hedda Gabler rounds off a fantastic year of shows that, after a lengthy dry spell, has ensured its back at the top of its game. The attraction of visionary directors like Cracknell, Icke and van Hove has given momentum to its programme of new and classic productions that are not just good quality but also innovative and appealing for new audiences. Marber’s translation of Hedda Gabler feels fresh and dangerous, and while the strange decision to use occasional music to underscore Hedda’s depression jars – and is something Wilson manages perfectly well on her own – this memorable production adds one final flourish to a year of great female performances.

Hedda Gabler is at the National Theatre until 21 March 2017. Tickets start at £15 and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme offering tickets to sold out productions for the following week at £20 –  1pm every Friday. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Dreamgirls – Savoy Theatre

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Growing up, my house was always full of music, predominantly Motown, which even now always takes me back to being eight years old listening to my mum play her records. Stevie Wonder, Billy Ocean, Marvin Gaye all featured regularly but the artist I most remember hearing is Diana Ross, her silky, hauntingly romantic voice pleading with some unknown man to keep loving her while she looked unbelievably glamorous on the record covers. But most of this music came from Ross’s solo career, long after she left The Supremes to go it alone, as so many former band members seem to do, and it’s easy to forget how she got there.

The last couple of years in London have been a fantastic time for lovers of the origins of soul and RnB music, and the fight for equality with several plays and musicals that chart their development. From the Royal Court’s Father Comes Home from the Wars to The National Theatre’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Shepherd Bush Theatre’s The Royale, to all singing all dancing productions like Memphis, Motown The Musical and now Dreamgirls, these productions have shown us greater diversity by telling stories about the (largely American) experience of segregation, slavery and the role of music in breaking down racial divides. All of which have been reinforced by the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, as well as perfectly timed Black Star season of films currently at the BFI.

The shamefully late arrival of Dreamgirls in the UK may seem astonishing seeing as it premiered on Broadway 35 years ago, but actually it is, in many ways, perfectly timed to coincide with this growing momentum. The show, still in preview at the Savoy Theatre, will be a sensation combining an engaging semi-real story that utilises its songs to advance the characters emotions, with sequin-bedecked visuals – including sets and costume – that look as though they have stepped right out of one of Shirley Bassey’s dreams.

Ettie White is the leader of three-piece girl group The Dreamettes in 1960s America who enter a local talent competition in front of big record producers. But spotting the girls, manger Curtis has other ideas and wants them to sing backing vocals for established singer Jimmy Early rather than have their own career. As relationships form and tempers fray the group begins to separate and when they finally get the chance to go it alone, someone is left behind. The consequences are played out in the 1970s-set Act Two as we see what happens to the characters and whether any of them can ever really break free to pursue their dreams.

Perhaps unexpectedly, one of the most striking elements of the show is just how much it deals with the experience of the men surrounding the group and as many of the scenes are about them and their struggle for political and musical acceptance as about the development of the group. Central to the changing dynamics of the plot is the character of Curtis Taylor loosely modelled on Berry Gordy, the former manager of The Supremes, who is both the key to the success of the Dreamgirls and eventually the one holding them back.

The 60s and 70s were still a period when men ruled the world and certainly the music industry, and as this show suggests the same was still true in the black community. Curtis’s world is entirely about fulfilling his dream to merge soul music into something with a pop focus that will make it more tenable to the Hit Parade – gaining radio play and traction among a white-dominated industry. Joe Aaron Reid’s performance makes the character ambiguous enough that you hate his methods but admire his attempt to pioneer musical cross-over, as well as having a degree of sympathy for his motives. Boxing drama The Royale recently asked whether a few casualties are worth it if you start to chip away at the wall and create heroes, and I think Dreamgirls, perhaps unexpectedly, has some of that political edge in places.

While many will be here for Amber Riley, the finest and most intriguing performances of the night comes from Adam J Bernard as Jimmy Early, the soul singer whose backing group begins to outstrip him. Already nominated for a Whats On Stage award, despite the show still being in preview which only started a week before nominations were announced, Bernard’s scene stealing performance as the confident diva becomes increasingly sympathetic and multi-layered. His character is a metaphor for the treadmill nature of fame, where stars strive for years to “make-it”, shine briefly before being unceremoniously spat-out by the industry and left struggling for an audience. Bernard’s Jimmy has an Elvis-like sex-appeal which gives his songs considerable dynamism, but he struggles to contain his personality and soul-roots to conform to white ideas of music which add a valuable contrast to the success of the Dreamettes.

The story of the female characters is two-fold, seen both as an issue of race – forcing them to change their look, set-up and style of music – and ideas of gender relations being played out in their narratives, as the men in their lives control and direct them, regardless of their burgeoning fame.  Ettie (Amber Riley) may be the original lead but her sass and overconfidence are ultimately her undoing. There is a lot of talk of dreams being stolen throughout the production, with Curtis reminding Diana Ross-based Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) repeatedly that she is fulfilling his dream to produce the kind of music he wants, while Ettie sees Deena living the life she aspired to, yet Deena’s plans to act remain unfulfilled. Likewise third member Lorell (Ibinabo Jack) embarks on an eight-year affair with the married Jimmy when all she wants is to settle down with him. So, based on the decision made by men in the more restrictive society of the 60s and 70s, for much of the production the women are hampered by things outside of their control.

With another week of previews much can change but the production is already a gratifying one for audiences with Riley’s performance as Ettie enthusiastically received. Each Dreamette gets a few solos and Riley’s character has a number of emotional belters that have the audience clapping and whooping from the start. In fairness to the production, Riley’s star power doesn’t overwhelm it and Casey Nicholaw’s direction blends scenes smoothly to ensure the action resumes rapidly, so it really is a team effort telling a story rather than a concert for Riley which it could have become. And pleasingly as the narrative continues the audience begins to show equal appreciation for all the leads because there are some genuinely superb vocal performances particularly from LaFrontaine and Bernard as well as Riley.

With any musical you always want a spectacle and visually Dreamgirls more than delivers the goods. Set designer Tim Hately has created two contrasting worlds with a simple, pared-down set, largely in black for the pre-fame storylines, while his staging of the big concert numbers are full of colour and sparkle. Gregg Barnes’s stunning costumes and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting combine well with Hately’s vision to emphasis the shows core themes, while being practical enough to allow for speedy changes and rapid removal of podia and glitter-curtains.

All of that clearly costs a lot to run, and ticket prices are the big concern with this one. Even in preview, a restricted view seat at the back of the stalls costs the best part of £45 including ATG’s exorbitant booking fees, while those nearer the stage will have parted with £60 to £80 for a single seat. It’s pretty much sold out through December when after press nights the best seats will be £145 while even Grand Circle seats at the very back are £40, all plus booking fee. There is a ticket lottery however and a lucky few may get front row seats for £15 but this will be an expensive night for everyone else.

Dreamgirls is predominately a plot-focused piece so there isn’t always enough time to linger on emotional depth and consequences of events, but the songs and performances give enough of a hint to make the characters more rounded. Yet the overall effect is impressive and at times dazzling. In just over a week’s time the critics will have their say, but audiences are already on their feet about this one. It may have taken 35 years to reach the West End but its central messages are as relevant now as they were in 1981. It may be a bubbly musical, but it has plenty to say about inequality and not letting others stand in your way – and with the year we’ve had, that’s something we all need to hear.

Dreamgirls is at the Savoy Theatre until 6 May and tickets start at £20, although deals are available from other vendors, and a ticket lottery is in operation. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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