Category Archives: musical

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] – Park Theatre

Tony Blair became an MP and Prime Minister with the sole intention of meeting Mick Jaggers [sic], at least in Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s new satire Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera]. With a political story that includes celebrity, double dealing, royalty, charisma, war and the allure of a mega-watt smile, this world premiere production at the Park Theatre is already striking a chord well ahead of its Press Night later this week. Perfect fodder for a grand operatic story set to a lively rock, vaudeville and musical theatre score, the experience and consequences of political populism are mercilessly mocked while, like all great lampoonery from the cartoons of the eighteenth-century to the hey day of 1980s Spitting Image, it contains a bedrock of truth for our times.

The 1990s are very much back in vogue with big cultural reappraisals of its music – including reflections on the influence of The Spice Girls and Oasis – its clothing and the political shifts from 18 years of Conservatism to the glamorous hope of New Labour. Slightly ahead of that particular curve, James Graham’s Labour of Love in 2017 re-evaluated the effect of New Labour with a time travel drama set in a fictionalised northern working class constituency as the party tore itself apart over its fresh face. Last year, the BBC followed up on its excellent assessment of Thatcher with a five-part series on Labour focused on the division between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair that shaped the political agenda for over a decade. Both have lain the groundwork for Hill and Brown’s musical that covers much of the same period but with a much jauntier, though no less savage, take on Blair’s fraught premiership. Over two hours of performance, Tony! carefully and cunningly charts the rise and fall of the most successful and most controversial Labour Prime Minister of recent decades.

Hill and Brown structure their story in two Acts, Blair’s ascent told as biography and then as a tightly focused second half on the personalities and key decision-making moments leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of this pivots from a standard but useful dramatic device, the deathbed reckoning, where the much older Blair is asked to weigh up his achievements and failings. Tony! essentially asks the same of the audience, to decide whether the here presented egomania and failure of judgement in the later years does and should eclipse the better, brighter moments of Blair’s first term in office. And, while the answer to that at a 25-year distance may seem easy, entrenched even in our knowledge of what came next, Hill and Brown challenge us by wondering whether it was all Blair’s fault and the responsibility the electorate must bear for voting for him even after the war. The World is Run By Assholes the finale song decries and we put them there.

Our guide through the story is somewhat appropriately Peter Mandelson who arrives in a puff of smoke and with a crack of thunder, playing up his oily, Blair-devoted loyalty. This fourth-wall-breaking creation interacts directly with the audience, introducing scenes and characters, commenting on events and marshalling history as Tony! compresses more than ten years of political activity into two hours of stage time. But Mandelson’s role sets the tone for plenty of irreverent activity with asides, direct appeals to the audience and attempts to engage people in a sequence of events that most will have already lived through once. And largely it works very well, the silliness of Tony! earning big laughs from the start as the show races through his privileged early years, time at Oxford, revoking a pop music career for politics, marriage and Parliamentary rise, all to meet his hero Mick Jaggers [sic].

The story has more or less written itself, so Hill and Brown look to characterisation for most of the comedy, avoiding direct impressions with the need to look or sound like their counterpart by creating broad interpretations of individuals based on a single characteristic or activity that gives the audience a hook to recognise figures in the story each time they appear. And as few of them require more than a surface introduction in the back of what is Blair’s story, the approach works consistently well, offering opportunities for the surreal slapstick that has become Hill’s trademark while creating opportunities for repeat laughs with versions of the same gag when individuals reappear in later scenarios.

So, John Prescott is all beer-guzzling machismo with a thick northern accent offering everyone a pint, Robin Cook a quietly spoken liberal more interested in his extra-marital affairs than his ministerial duties, Mandelson known as ‘Mandy’ is obsequious and almost cacklingly dark, while Neil Kinnock and John Smith are fleeting figures passed almost in montage as Blair rises to the top. With Blair himself pretty much the straight-man in all of this – defined more by a few well-known mannerisms than any particularly eccentric behaviours – Hill and Brown concentrate on recasting some of the leading players in more interesting and innovative ways to enhance their comedic potential.

A fine decision gives Cherie a Liverpudlian accent akin to Cilla Black that underscores the slight social differences between Blair and the woman he married, as well as giving her a distinct voice in his ear as she tangos into his affections. Gordon Brown as core antagonist repeatedly asking Blair to make good on their deal, is seen as a dour, unsmiling Scot with a passion for macroeconomics and a dry style that leads to several very funny confrontations. Likewise, the presentation in Act Two of Osama Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein and George Bush does just enough to define their personalities, giving each a personalised song that draw on Music Hall styles by contrasting their murderous intentions with an upbeat tune. The creators even look to Groucho Marx for their interpretation of Hussein which, brief as it is, lands well.

Controversial though it may be, the best moments in Tony! take place between Blair and Princess Diana who quietly join forces in their quest for popular appeal, performing a hilarious duet in Act One that is filled with sultry charm while noting a mutual awareness of the media benefit of their relationship – leading of course to Blair’s defining ‘People’s Princess’ speech. Knowing they’re onto a good thing, Hill and Brown reprise the partnership in another form later on as this part of the show takes a quiet savvy perspective on kindred spirits both finding their allure is enhanced by the spotlight and commenting on broader socio-cultural waves in the 90s that celebrated hopeful, seemingly angelic or messiah-like figures of which Blair and the Princess of Wales were the figureheads.

There is a lot packed into Tony! and arguably the second half doesn’t yet quite fulfil the promise of the first, getting a little lost in the details of the war. So where a high-level approach brought a faster pace to the comedy conveyor belt initially, Act Two is a little bogged down in dossiers, resolutions and establishing a homoerotic special relationship which slows the story. This is a more serious subject of course and the centrepiece of Hill and Brown’s show which questions the extent to which these defining moments of Blair’s premiership should erase anything else, but the order of events is well-hashed knowledge. The superfluous addition of extra domestic material including a BSE reference feel like unnecessary padding in a second Act that could be streamlined. It means the laughs are noticeably slower to come as the pacing of Peter Rowe’s production slips.

The combination of comedy and tragedy is a delicate skill but the two here are not entirely woven together. Instead, the comedy almost stops for a melancholy interlude in which a seemingly unassuming audience member confronts Blair about the war dead and failures of his leadership, accusations that are reasonable if a little blunt in comparison to the tighter satire of the rest of the story. And while the character of Blair acknowledges the ‘tragic bit’ as part of the disarming structure in which these creations recognise the staginess of their own lives, and there is a need to confront the man with his ‘crimes’ as part of the weighing of conscience that his deathbed moment has established, it does cut rather inelegantly into the show without perhaps offering any new information. Tony! quickly recovers itself, returning to its caricatured best in the closing scenes with a rapid handover to Brown and Blair’s final assessment of his time as Prime Minister but there may be a cleaner way to integrate the two styles.

Steve Brown’s songs are very enjoyable, merging different musical influences to create an eclectic but consistent score and some very memorable songs that are a production highlight and provide each character with a distinctive sound while merging solos and duets with larger ensemble numbers that are crying out for a bigger theatre. Libby Watson has mastered the look and feel of New Labour in Whitehall with a formal black suit, red tie base for all characters over which she adds more extreme and elaborate wigs, jackets, masks and even a full cow head to create different personality quirks that adds a nice visual humour to Tony! that sits well with both the tone and the limited physical comedy aspects. Watson also ensures the set is minimal but multifunctional with a backdrop of wood panelling and a hardworking chest that becomes Blair’s birthplace, desk and platform all overlooked and impressively dominated by a large sign ensuring Tony’s name is up in lights throughout.

As Blair, Charlie Baker doesn’t need to look like the character but captures the trademark tics and habits that replicate his speech pattern, gestures and cheery charm, clinging to the notion that he is a good guy. Over the performance, Baker shows Blair’s lust for power growing, enjoying the mania resulting from a hyped-up encounter with George Bush and providing a solid central vocal around which the song and dance numbers are built. Holly Sumpton’s excellent Cherie is a great foil, a powerful presence with an impressive voice that keeps her husband in line and on track while Gary Trainor’s Gordon Brown becomes a blank and monotone contrast to Blair.

No one enjoys their performance more than Howard Samuels as nefarious narrator and Master of Ceremonies Peter Mandelson, with Samuels virtually bounding around the stage in glee while delivering a great character study of one of Blair’s most notorious supporters and, as it turns out, a balloon animal expert. Kudos too for Madison Swan’s on the nose Princess Diana, capturing those familiar shy eyes and coquettish glances which Swan has comically exaggerated just the right amount while adding a powerful vocal to an ensemble who perform multiple roles as established political and social figures from the Cabinet to international leaders and noted cultural personalities from the 1990s version of Number 10 parties attended by Liam Gallagher and Bernie Ecclestone.

Tony! needs to smooth its wartime narrative, but it gets the balance right most of the time by taking familiar events and squeezing them for comedy value. And there’s plenty of it in a show that begins by questioning Blair and slowly turns its gaze on the audience asking us who is really culpable for the people we elect or allow to continue in power. Already well on the way to being a very fine political satire, once its run at the Park Theatre concludes Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] might soon find itself on an even bigger stage.

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is at the Park Theatre until 9 July with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Oklahoma! – Young Vic

Productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have undergone quite the transformation in the past 12 months with versions that return to the source text to reimagine and reconsider shows like Carousel and South Pacific for the twenty-first century by returning the darker, often violent, subthemes that beat beneath the surface or to reposition some of the attitudes to race, gender, conquest and even physical attraction that reflect contemporary morality. Now, the Young Vic presents a rather sexy version of Oklahoma! that replaces twee interpretations of cowboy country with a throbbing desire that inflicts the inhabitants of this rural town, and becomes a fascinating technical exercise in deconstructing a musical.

Oklahoma! is perhaps not the best loved Rodgers and Hammerstein show, its dual romance plot is pretty thin and it lacks an expansive moral message to pin the show together. And while there is plenty of crossover with scenarios in Carousel – the same small community, the same drum beat of violence and notions of performative masculinity amidst non-conforming women and a similar commercial connection to the landscape – a set-to over a barn dance and bake sell doesn’t have quite the same sense of life and death jeopardy as some of their more accomplished work.

But Hollywood has much to do with interpretation, toning down the raunchier aspects of Oklahoma! to pass the censorship requirements but also to create romanticised versions of the great American past. What directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein have done at the Young Vic is to pull back the gingham curtains to reveal a showing that is teeming with unfulfilled sexual desire among a group of young characters confused about what their futures hold and unable to articulate or fulfil those needs. Looking again at the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Fish and Fein set notions of true love aside and instead look at the causes and sometimes hefty consequences of desire as unrequited passions, sexual jealousy and denial drive the characters to extreme behaviours.

And in doing so, the directors open up a far murkier version of this story, one in which the two love triangles, Laurey-Curly-Jud and Ado Annie-Ali-Will, have less clear cut resolutions, leaving the audience uncertain about the destined lovers and losers as well as where they should place their sympathies. Ado Annie, principally a comic creation, is also a woman embracing her sexual liberation, control of her own body and the freedom to ‘flirt’ with as many men as she chooses, an agency that the Young Vic’s production wholeheartedly embraces. Yet, her actions not only cause hurt to others that arouses a dangerous jealousy, but her fun is ultimately dampened by the old-fashioned morality represented by her father that, in resolution, ends up clipping her wings rather than freeing her. And this show is not afraid to leave us with that somewhat dissatisfied feeling that Ado Annie has been cheated out of becoming the women she wanted to be by embracing someone else’s notion of tradition.

Likewise, there is something deeply unsettling about the central relationship between Laurey and her contentious beaux Curly and Jud. Usually presented as unsavoury, predatory and a bit weird (and therefore undeserving of love), Jud is the easy villain of Oklahoma!, his lurking presence designed to make the audience root for Curly as the avowed and deserving lover of the plucky Laurey. But it’s not quite so clear cut in Fish and Fein’s new interpretation, and while Jud may be a friendless loner, there is a nervy sensitivity that asks whether, knowing of his affection for her, did Jud deserve to be used by Laurey and have his hopes raised? And is Curly’s reaction proportionate?

At the same time, Curly is by no means a straightforward hero; he too is drawn to Laurey but at no point does he declare his love for her or, in the early part of the musical, any clear intention to marry her. Instead there is a physical chemistry between them that drives their intention, corrupting their behaviours in the remainder of the story. Here Curly’s reaction to Jud feels extreme – if he loved Laurey and she loved him there should be no reason to fear Jud – which implies that Curly either has no better purpose in pursuing Laurey and fears exposure, and/or that his competitive spirit is aroused by the presence of second suitor, that winning rather than the girl of his dreams are the ultimate motivation.

What unfolds in the final moments of this production is the result of this complex mixture of emotional and physical desires that is, it seems, deliberately designed to leave a sense of discontent with the conclusion. As the townspeople rapidly close ranks, the truth of Jud and Curly’s final encounter is foggier than previously seen, a statement that morality and justice are not fixed certainties but that the community can influence them for their own ends. And while Rodgers and Hammerstein have tied up all the love story loose ends with two couples in the ‘right’ relationship, this is not the happy ending you might be expecting and instead Fish and Fein leave you to feel disquieted and even sullied by our observation of this tale.

Part of the reason for that is a series of technical decisions that keep the audience on the outside and prevents the viewer from becoming too invested in anyone. Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher nod to Soutra Gilmour’s recent work for Jamie Lloyd (particularly Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull) by covering the Young Vic auditorium in untreated and bare slabs of MDF into which two shallow bunkers have been carved out for the onstage band. In what feels like a homage to Lloyd’s style of theatremaking, the set becomes a representative space with some trestle tables and fold-up chairs in which imagined scenarios take place, allowing the text and songs alone to move the physical location from Aunt Eller’s farmyard to the venue for the box social and its environs. Eschewing elaborate scenery feels appropriate for the way in which Fish and Fein mine beneath the surface of Oklahoma!, while the occasional use of handheld microphones is an emphasis device that has had considerable impact in Lloyd’s recent work.

This production makes its most experimental contribution through Scott Zielinski’s complex lighting design that takes the musical in a new direction, drawing attention to different emotional emphases and carving really interesting boundaries between fantasy and reality, not only in the purposeful ‘dream ballet’ but especially within the everyday interaction. Zielinki’s choices are designed to alienate the audience, keeping the house lights up for much of the show which makes it frustratingly difficult to focus at times but ties into Fish and Fein’s vision for a show that denies investment in the characters and traditional notions of emotional involvement in their lives. That concluding feeling of contamination, of being tarnished comes partly from this stark visibility, making the audience complicit in the outcomes of the story, blurring the line between the characters and us, all under the same unforgiving bright lights.

But this is not all Zielinki has to say and lighting, or its absence, becomes a pointed communication choice throughout. When Laurey and Curly first connect, it happens suddenly in a deep green pulse that almost freezes the frame – more a Royal Court trick than a typical musical moment. In the Second Act, a deep orange and red starts to creep into the lighting tones, taking Laurey from her dream self confronting her emotions at the end of the ballet to a touch of twinkly romance in the false half light that feels laden with doom. But it is the absence of light that becomes pivotal when Zielinki employs two periods of blackout. The first is uncomfortably long, a total absence of light under which Jud and Curly intensely contend, speaking with whispered heaviness into the microphones to create a disembodied experience – echoing Mrs Danvers urging the second Mrs de Winter to destruction. A partial blackout with fairy lights happens in the second half as well, another emotional turning point which brings events between Jud and Laurey to a head. This is really interesting work from Zielinki, taking what is often perceived as a sunny musical and creating so many textures within the Young Vic space that provoke bodily reactions that accentuate the disorientation and ambiguity the production is aiming for.

The venue has assembled an excellent cast whose performances dig deep into the moral turpitude of the characters and their unsavoury behaviours. Anouska Lucas is in fine voice as Laurey, a happily independent woman who doesn’t need a man to improve her lot but finds herself almost undeniably attracted to Curly. Lucas and Arthur Darvill have an intense chemistry as the would-be lovers, with Lucas capturing the subtle but sultry physicality of her character, almost Katherina Minola-like in her self-possession and determination to fight for her independence while equally confused when she accepts Jud’s date in spite of herself. Lucas’s voice really is stunning too, deep and bluesy when she sings People Will Say We’re in Love and wistful during the toe-tapping number Many a New Day.

Darvill too is excellent, a confident figure who swaggers into town but with real affection for Eller and a strong desire for Laurey, although it is the darker strands that Darvill finds most interesting, leaving the audience unsure whether or not Curly is a good man. A recourse to violence, to getting what he wants at any cost runs through the character and whether he’s manipulating Jud into ending his life, which Darvill does in hushed and hurried tones, or acting reflexively in the final moments, Darvill’s Curly isn’t a man to admire, a dubiety that he evokes well. Many of his songs are consciously performed into a microphone while playing guitar but Darvill excels in spinning the musical numbers, giving those famous pieces Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey with the Fringe on Top a fresh, less orchestral feel, playing with pitch and trills to bed them into the country-blusey sound of this production.

The rest of the cast are excellent too, the ever-amazing Marisha Wallace is a comic joy as Ado Annie, revelling in her sexuality and selling every cheeky moment to an audience who adore her from the start. Liza Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier award-winning triumph in Cabaret, is commanding if underused as matriarch Aunt Eller whose match-making attempts motor the drama while James Davis and Stavros Demetraki as Ado Annie’s lovers Will and Ali have a great time as hilarious rivals who lighten the mood. Particular plaudits to Patrick Vaill who makes Jud an awkward outsider but belies his villain status with an emotional depth that makes his big pathos number Lonely Room especially affecting and leaves you questioning the outcome of the show.

This is not the jaunty Oklahoma! many may be expecting and in a period of significant rethinking and repositioning of the musical, this almost abstract approach feels like a natural progression. With some striking design choices, not least the sparring use of Joshua Thorson’s intimate facial projection, Fish and Fein have created something that disconcerts more than entertains, its dissatisfactory feeling engineered through a deliberate combination of theatre techniques designed to distract and disengage the audience from the characters to make broader points about destructive jealousy, female agency and townsfolk closing ranks against outsiders. This is not an Oklahoma! to love, but its staging choices and intent to challenge the viewer make it an interesting experiment in dramatic practice.

Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until 25 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Anyone Can Whistle-Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse is this first major theatre to respond to the recent death of Stephen Sondheim with their new revival of Anyone Can Whistle, one of the strangest and least performed musicals in the canon. This wacky tale of faked miracles, town economics, mental health and social segregation is a puzzling one, combining some really great Sondheim songs and some strong female characters with a cartoonish plot by Arthur Laurents that barely holds together. But with some great performances and more than enough gusto, Southwark Playhouse just about make it worth a two hour and 30-minute investment.

First performed in 1964, Anyone Can Whistle is most notable for introducing (now Dame) Angela Lansbury to musical theatre on Broadway, but the show was deemed a disaster, closing after only 21 performances, a dozen of which can before press night. Southwark Playhouse will hope they fair rather better but the full show has largely been scavenged to provide numbers for out of context cabaret and concert performances including the glorious title song and brilliant melodies including There Won’t Be Trumpets.

So, is it any good? Well as a story, even as a socio-political commentary it is really quite lightweight and, while Laurents’s script taps into some interesting arguments, few of them feel properly developed or particularly tangible in their hugely exaggerated form. The plot is weak at best, even nonsensical and almost criminally basic by Sondheim’s usually rather high standards, lacking depth or even proper purpose. Most characters are either elaborate grotesques or generic concepts that lack individuality and are never fully fleshed out within the story in spite of the wonderful emotional nuance and interior landscape that Sondheim creates for the leads in the music. Yet, there is fun to be had in its broad-brush generality and the amplified silliness of the scenario that stays on just the right side of panto.

Stunted themes about the compromising nature of power are potentially quite interesting as the female Mayoress with the big name – Cora Hoover Hooper – in some senses tries to do the right thing by drumming up business for her economically-compromised town and struggles to manage the nuances of civic action. Here too, there is a sense of the venality of those in authority and Clara’s determination to not only shore-up her personal power but to gain more of it using a team of underlings appointed to civil positions including Comptroller, Treasurer and Police Chief are designed to retain her grip on the town. And it is through Cora’s desire for the personal acquisition of that wealth, that Laurents and Sondheim want to make their points about the intricacies of civic corruption across multiple forms of public office, showcasing the distance between those who govern and the people they are supposed to care for, a note which certainly has plenty of contemporary resonance.

The story hinges on classifications of mental illness when patients of an asylum known as The Cookie Jar are released into society because Cora refuses permission to let them taste the miracle waters for fear of revealing her scam when all 40+ of them remain uncured. Later, the authorities are unable to identify them among the ordinary citizens and, like the corruption theme, there is little subtly here and a great deal of simplification. But Laurents and Sondheim are asking some interesting questions about where the boundary between sanity and insanity lies and by what criteria societies define madness – should Cora and her team in fact be institutionalised for their scheming and lack of empathy?

In developing this revival, Southwark Playhouse plays up the exuberance of it all and chooses to embrace the kooky style. Staged on a thin traverse catwalk, it creates opportunities for the actors to include the audience in the action, physically dividing the auditorium into J. Bowden Hapgood’s Group A and Group 1, moving characters between them to underscore the comedy of their indistinct categorisation. Designed by Cory Shipp, this is a children’s TV world of bright colours as pinks, reds, yellows, bright greens and bold blues filter through the set and costume design, making this an intense visual experience with a carnival feel, all given an extra boost when ticker tape is released on several occasions and bold modernist paintings adorn the end walls.

Directed by Georgie Rankcom, they chose to overcome the shortcomings of the book and plot with a more-is-more approach that makes the best of the material by heightening its unreality. It’s not easy to manage quite a big show filled with dance numbers, multiple group scenes and changing locations in a very thin strip of performance space but Rankcom controls it well, using the length of the room effectively to move the action around as well as playing evenly to both sides of the divided auditorium.

Together, the company do evoke the impression of a much larger town than the dozen people we see as well as the external competition from other municipal centres nearby, each looking to boost their own local tourism. The audience must double for the broader community and Rankcom has the actors appeal to the room as well as distributing the ‘Cookies’ in empty seats as they attempt to blend in. There are a few occasions where unsuspecting members of the public are drawn into the action as readers or even dancers so avoid the front rows if you’d rather not participate. But Rankcom’s choices largely work and with entrances at both ends of the stage, it creates a feeling of distance across the auditorium that allows groups of characters to meet and conspire in what feel like subtly different parts of town. While the raggedy plot requires some considerable suspension of disbelief, the scene setting is more than good enough to at least construct the world of the musical.

Choreographically, Lisa Stevens is constrained a little by the space and what could have been some big showcase numbers are necessarily pinned-back by the thin catwalk and small aisle’s in front of them. As well as scale, Stevens has on the whole limited the complexity of dance, giving performers something they can do without too much movement or needing sequences of activity given how many people are sharing the same stage strip at times. But, drawing out the cabaret and jazzy notes in Sondheim’s more sultry music, Stevens has created a tap-based choreography that leans into A Chorus Line with high kicks, rapid pivots and Fosse long-armed wrist-flicks for bigger numbers with occasion soft salsa for duet moments.

And there is something very characterful in the way Stevens has created specific movements for different individuals depending on their relative allure, power and personality while also allowing the quality of the dance to come from the haplessness or skill of the character. One great sequence at the top of Act Three sees Cora performing an aerobics workout routine with hand weights that has a lovely jaunty comedy when joined by her three stooges who cook up a new dastardly plan and reconfirm their allegiance to one another. It is a bold moment and one that rises to meet Sondheim’s music.

There are moments of real greatness in Anyone Can Whistle and most of them are in the music in which Sondheim gives a tenderness and complexity to leading characters nurse Fay Apple who, somewhat incredulously disguises herself as a French miracle authenticator from Lourdes, and Hapgood, believed to be the new doctor and therefore in charge of the classification of the townspeople. Through the title song, the pair draw closer, suggesting an emotional connection filled with vulnerability and need that is entirely lacking from the text and the silly subterfuge they enter into, but brings some real clout to the show which Rankcom’s production really makes the most of.

Performed by Chrystine Symone nurse Apple is really two characters, one an order-loving nurse who demands respect for her patients and refuses to be brow beaten by the political elite. Symone has a superb voice for Sondheim and her version of There Won’t Be Trumpets is a high point of Acts I and II capturing all the hope and certainty in the song as well as Fay’s grounded belief in justice. Her second character, the French miracle inspector is a tougher proposition, an Allo Allo cliche in lingerie and curly pink wig which Symone shows is essentially her superhero costume, allowing Fay to explore more forthright aspects of her character without fear or reget.

Fay’s duet with Hapgood as they hopelessly fall for one another, With So Little to Be Sure Of, is tender and charmingly performed showing the balance they bring to each’s others lives and quite different but complementary personalities, while the solo See Where It Gets You is another highlight as Symone’s vocals explore the emotional range of her character in way that the book and disguise devices never fully allow. In song, Symone ensures that Fay emerges in three dimensions with a trajectory worth investing in.

This is contrasted by a quite joyous comic performance from Alex Young as Cora who wrings every ounce of amusing malevolence from her character giving her a love-to-hate quality that all but steals the show. Cora may be self-serving, callous and devoid of empathy but Young also makes her glamorous, witty and powerful, controlling the men around her and running rings around the other characters. Even at the end, when good triumphs to a degree, the audience is assured that true survivor Cora still has the nous to find a way out of her predicament.

Young also has a great vocal quality and Sondheim’s tunes suit her very well. The delightful Me and My Town and A Parade in Town have an anthemic quality in which Young encapsulates all of Cora’s ambition, while I’ve Got You to Lean On at the beginning of Act III is a cheeky piece that Young brings extra comedy to through her big but tempered performance. You may even feel a bit sorry for Cora at the end, testament to the way in which Young fills and exudes this role.

Jordan Broatch is also well cast as Hapgood, proving a decent foil for Symone and adding a stranger-in-town energy that explores identity and assumption. The musical complexities of Simple are very well managed while Broatch brings a calm but grounded messiah-like quality that draws on some of the themes in Sondheim’s lyrics. The larger ensemble of Cookies are unfortunately given a collective identity in the story but here are individually distinguished by costume, providing excellent support in the bigger numbers while Danny Lane grows in confidence as the Comptroller.

Anyone Can Whistle is really not the greatest musical and Sondheim’s songs deserve a better vehicle than this strange little tale that isn’t quite abstract or absurdist enough to make its concept work. But this Southwark Playhouse production has more than novelty merit, and by embracing its failings to make it a boldly comic piece, it earns a lot of credit. Fortunately, where plot and purpose are lacking, Sondheim’s timeless music remains enough.

Anyone Can Whistle is at Southwark Playhouse until 7 May with tickets from £16. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Broken Wings – Charing Cross Theatre

A tragic love story is perfect for Valentine’s Day and in Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan’s new musical Broken Wings there are plenty of soaring melodies for lovers and just as many haunted and broken-hearted ballads for the less romantic. Set largely in Beirut – a location rarely seen in musical theatre – Broken Wings is in many ways a very traditional musical that places the classic boy-meets-girl-but-can’t-have-her template in a new location and sets it to a fairly typical, if rather lovely, score. Yet, with attempts to look at the impact of duel nationality on identity and social expectations, the inherent yearning for cultural and spiritual homes, the restrictive consequences of binding traditions as well as the effects of gendered societies on concepts of motherhood and female liberty, Broken Wings has something new to say.

Having played briefly at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2018 and in concert in the Middle East, Broken Wings is back in London at the Charing Cross Theatre in a revised version. Based on Kahlil Gibran’s novel The Prophet published in 1923, this story is set in Beirut at the turn of the twentieth-century, setting Gibran’s wider philosophical discussions about politics, society and self-knowledge within an international tale of love and loss that partially mirrors Gibran’s biography in which the young man is sent back to his birthplace from Boston to learn more about his heritage and the richness of the country he barely knew.

In fact, the musical’s first major number is an exuberant one as the 18-year old Gibran fresh off the boat is flung into the heady experience of a central Beirut, a place alive with colour, light and people that equally overwhelm and delight him. And the richness of the Lebanese culture filters through Naaman and Al Fardan’s story, as the central affair is given both an epic and timeless quality played out against the backdrop of an ancient society on the cusp of a new century that the characters hope will bring change, and about which the writers have much to say.

And while there is plenty of vigour in this story of love denied by status, reputation and the expectations placed on wealthy families to marry appropriately, what really gives Broken Wings its heart is its soulful frame as the older Gibran narrates the story almost thirty years later still feeling the ache of youthful romance and telling the audience from the start what that unhappy ending will be. It is a often-used device but here lends the drama added depth, drawing valuable and often quite meaningful contrasts between the hopeful lovers and the despairing emptiness of Gibran’s future life.

The story then becomes a series of happy but painful memories recast by the older Gibran who stalks the action, preciously protecting the moments he treasures as his only connection to the beautiful Selma. On the sidelines for much of the action, Naaman and Al Fardan use the character well, allowing him to set the scene and move events along, drawing on first person narratives in Victorian novels as the audience’s way into and guide for the story, but still giving him a complex inner life that feels just as real and just as complete as the younger version of Gibran who is actively living the life that the elder merely reflects on.

And it is this that truly moves the drama on, pinning back some of the musical’s more sentimental moments and successfully adding a darker tinge particularly to the cheerier first Act where the lovers declare their feelings for one another. The stakes in fact become even higher, giving a driving inevitability to the plot that sustains the momentum while still leaving the audience waiting to find out how and when it all goes wrong, and why Gibran continues to cling to these memories decades later. Yes the love story is romantic but the contrasting loss of it is where the musical really packs an emotional punch.

Within the show, the writers also explore the contrasting fates of men and women partly using Young Gibran’s experience of living in America to consider what Selma describes as a man’s freedom to follow his dreams while a woman must follow her duty. And this becomes essential to the developing relationship between the lovers, Gibran is infused by US notions of liberty and the necessity to push against traditional boundaries to forge a new path, free to choose a life outside standard moral codes created and imposed by others while Selma is unable and somewhat unwilling to move beyond the familiarity of these expectations and structures while still acknowledging how painfully they restrict her.

There are several points in the show where the lack of choices for women becomes the key focus and while sometimes this is a little heavy-handed and spoken in that very self-aware manner that only people in fiction seem to use, these themes come out more powerfully through the drama itself as Selma is effectively traded in marriage to preserve her father’s reputation and must silently suffer the immediate indignities of being shackled to an adulterous villain, a fate she calmly submits to and becomes a major statement of her character.

But Selma as a creation still needs a little more work. It is very difficult to write purity and goodness while making them seem credible, attractive and dramatically interesting qualities, and while Selma is never bland, more of her decency and perfection is reported by Gibran that the audience ever sees in practice. We are told she is a woman ahead of her time, filled with knowledge and insight about the world as well as a kindness that make a lasting impression on the young man, and yet, performance aside, the musical only gives her love songs to sing or conversations about her feelings for Gibran or her father that make Selma seem less rounded in practice than she is when the men talk about it. And it leaves you slightly wondering whether Gibran is mystified by his own memory of her, over proscribing her qualities because he was blinded by love.

And to a small degree this feeds through to the love story itself and while love at first sight is a musical staple, there just needs to be a little more context to go from that initial meeting to full blown, life changing ardour. Older Gibran tells the audience that the couple met regularly but the audience just needs to see a little bit more of that in presentation, even an extra scene or two that reveal more about Selma’s qualities in particular, just to better ground the romance in their personalities. Les Miserables, of which there are occasional echoes here, has the same problem, Marius’s passion for Cosette is dampened by her complete lack of characterisation again because purity and goodness are dramatically difficult traits to give depth to, but Selma has far more to give.

Noah Sinigaglia however does everything she can to correct this with a full-bodied and vocally impressive performance reaching the depth of feeling in song that arguable the book denies her. Whether in solo or in duets with Young Gibran, Sinigaglia is a powerful presence and ultimately, as her character’s fate is revealed, a very moving one. Lucca Chadwick-Patel matches her in enthusiasm and vocal range as Young Gibran, an ardent boy eager to embrace all the experiences of his homeland while pushing for change in social attitudes. Chadwick-Patel also has one eye on his later incarnation, sometimes singing together and while Chadwick-Patel’s final buoyance seems a long way from the despair Gibran senior inherits, the two men largely work well as a single character at different stages of life.

But for the less overtly romantic in the audience, it is really Naaman playing the 40-year old Gibran who is the emotional and intellectual heart of Broken Wings, a man tormented by years of regret and grief, consumed by memories. Continuously acting and reacting to every moment, even when required to sit on the side of the stage and observe for much of the first half, Naaman brings real gravitas in a deeply felt performance, adding a necessary balance to sharpen the poignancy of the piece.

The score is one of Broken Wings biggest hits, orchestral in composition it leans in to more traditional musical theatre writing to create that epic sweep that supports the towering nature of the love story and the vibrancy of its youth perspective with a rousing quality that underscores the excitement of a changing Beirut in this era. And while it has fewer Middle Eastern influences or instruments in Naaman and Al Fardan’s melodies than you might expect, the contrasting melancholy of the older Gibran’s music adds depth to the soundscape and leaves a lasting impression. Special mention for Soophia Foroughi’s extraordinary voice as a multifaceted and eternal mother figure that adds real texture to the show.

Staged in traverse by director Bronagh Lagan at Charing Cross who uses both sides of the stage with relative balance and makes good use of the revolve for emotional emphasis and to create physical character movement, designer Gregor Donnelly using beige and cream along with occasional shots of terracotta and spice tones to evoke the warm feeling of early twentieth-century Beirut repurposing the in situ pillars that support the musicians’ balconies to create doorways, courtyards and gardens that allow the story to travel easily around the city. Nic Farman’s lighting is glorious, shifting between bright yellows and oranges to reflect the bright days to the more atmospheric blues and purples of romantic night scenes and the intense grief of older Gibran.

Ultimately a memory play, Broken Wings is interested in the power of remembrances to shape the present, not only in the person of Gibran, but through moments of recollection experienced by other characters and how they affect concepts of motherhood, friendship and identity. The female lead needs just a little more time in Act One to establish her qualities but this first full staging of the musical by super-producer Katie Lipson has a notable impact, and Broken Wings should have a greater life to come.

Broken Wings is at Charing Cross Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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