Category Archives: Musical

Aspects of Love – Lyric Theatre

With the return of Aspects of Love to the West End for the first time in decades, Michael Ball continues a professional journey back through the shows that made him. Starting with the Les Miserables Staged Concert in 2019 in which Ball took on the role of Javert and then to Hairspray in 2021 with Ball once again playing Edna Turnblad, the decision to revisit another of his early formative productions, albeit in another role, and the song with which he is still most associated – Love Changes Everything – seems part of a particular trajectory through the roles and music that have shaped his career. Aspects of Love is based on a English novella by David Garnett written in the 1950s, an episodic and sweeping narrative that starts with a love triangle which then becomes a square and possibly a hexagon with people swapping lovers while keeping far too much of it in the family.

As an Andrew Lloyd Webber sung-through musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart, this show has always had its problems, several of which have delayed revivals while other Lloyd Webber musicals have found a different resonance in recent years in the hands of a new generation of directors. Aspects of Love was revived in both 2010 at the Menier Chocolate Factory and at Southwark Playhouse in 2019 but has never seemed able to overcome its problematic source material about a collection of slightly icky love affairs. Large age gaps between consenting adults may be a feature of literature from Jane Austen’s Mr Knightly and Emma to Daphne Du Maurier’s Max de Winter and his second wife, but with Aspects of Love placing impressionable teenagers in the mix who form attachments to people decades older than they are, writers may have got away that in the 1950s and even when the musical first appeared in the 1980s, but with a much greater understanding of sexual power and coercion, it feels considerably more uncomfortable now.

A feature of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, there is a tendency to overuse the same refrain, limiting the score to a few melodies that recur often throughout the show just with different lyrics. Aspects of Love is perhaps one of the worst offenders with the music for Love Changes Everything, Anything But Lonely, The First Man You Remember and particularly Seeing is Believing repeated often throughout the show. These four songs alone make up the majority of the score and they are lush, beautiful, romantic melodies that have a considerable life of their own beyond this musical, appearing frequently in concerts, albums and cabaret evenings, but they are the backbone of the 2.5 hour production so expect to hear them often.

Jonathan Kent’s revival running at the Lyric Theatre has, then, had some hard thinking to do about how to manage a dubious plot line in the Second Act and how to deliver a story that travels from Paris to a villa in Pau and later to Venice while keeping track of its characters interwoven love lives for nearly 20-years. Set designer John McFarlane has developed a creative solution to the rapidly changing locations using a combination of multiple revolving discs in the centre of the performance space, a moving fly screen that travels across the stage and a series of projected painterly backdrops and screens that create the impression of the verdant countryside at the villa which appeals to each of the characters in turn.

There is something of Sunday in the Park with George about the approach here with McFarlane working closely with video designer Douglas O’Connell to project artistic renderings of key backdrops that suit both the period setting which ranges from the late 1940s to the 1960s, and the chief occupation of Uncle George, a celebrated painter, and main love interest Rose, an actor. At the villa O’Connell projects dense impressionistic painted foliage stretching for miles, providing the substance behind McFarlane’s minimalist staging, just a suggestion of doors and a piece of furniture or two to imply the scale and perfect situation of the villa. The moving fly screen guides the audience to new locations, onto which O’Connell projects impressions of city life for Paris, pigeons for St Mark’s Square and an assortment of mountain scenes when returning to Pau.

And sometimes this creates absorbing impressions as trees and vegetation grow across the stage, filling what is a large space with a feeling of abundant nature as Rose and Alex first fall in love at the start of the story. Occasionally a semi-transparent front curtain is used to give depth to the projections – similar to Akram Khan’s Jungle Book: Reimagined at Sadler’s Wells – in which different animation appears at the front and back of the stage to add extra romanticism. But domestic scenes are not neglected; George’s Italian sculptor lover Giulietta is given a magnificent room overlooking the Venetian canals largely created by O’Connell’s painterly images, while George’s own Paris flat is beautifully implied and well appointed with a tasteful street-scene sketch through an expensive-looking window.

Arguably the early scenes in Paris in Rose’s dressing room and at the bar she takes Alex too seem a little flat, large black spaces that make the production seem semi-staged at first. There are nice touches including a moving train carriage as the early lovers escape to the country and clearly the creative team are saving the splendor for later in the show, but these early sections slightly suffer, looking a little lost on the large stage. But through these scene changing tools, Kent is able to give the production an easy flow, actively gliding between scenes in moments as unobserved stage hands replace furniture and reposition props in the few moments it takes the moving fly to traverse the stage.

Aspects of Love is by nature a very ‘bitty’ story that looks at different relationship angels and several different menages a trois – Alex-George-Rose being the through-line but George-Rose-Giulietta as well as Alex-Rose and Rose’s daughter Jenny being a problematic addition. The show must also cover many years in the seconds between scenes, none of which is specifically announced in the songs or signaled in the staging, emerging through the action and costume (also by McFarlane) and leaving the audience to work out the time elapsed and how characters align with one another since their last meeting.

Kent navigates all of that really well, creating just the right amount of sweep, capturing the light-heartedness of these changing love affairs, particularly among the artistic characters who trade partners easily and seem to fall in and out of love quite as soon as someone else shows an interest in them. But there is also a sense of the deep impression that love makes on the individuals, the intensity of youthful infatuation that shapes Alex in particular in which the memory of first love is forever intermingled with the villa location and his feeling for Rose even years later. There’s a really strong contrast between the wildness and irresponsibility of young love, an imagined, romantic and impractical feeling that can only last a moment and the more adult grounded affection that exists between Rose and George, an affection that is somehow more accepting of the failings and needs of the other.

And so to the more complex question of Jenny and her troublesome relationship with much older cousin Alex. There have been some important changes to this story but the subplot has not been reworked completely (or arguably enough) with several important consequences. Much of the original concept is retained, Alex watches Jenny grow up and is tempted by her ardent affection for him, one which she shamelessly flaunts in front of her parents. The second part of the show explores the corruption of love and the darker, more complicated desires it evokes – impulses that make Alex’s character, now around 35 years old, quite murky. The audience knows by this point that he has already had a long obsessive affair with Jenny’s mother that was consummated, he and Jenny are first cousins and he has played a semi-parental role in her upbringing, living with them since she was 12 years old. Alex does resist for a while but it is definitely icky.

None of this is altered in this updated production, but Kent and his team have made some amendments to the scenario, making Jenny slightly older than in Garnett’s version at the point her infatuation declares itself and excising the final song, putting an alternative and more ambiguous ending in its place. It goes some way to addressing the deep-rooted issues in the plot but the result is to make Alex less sympathetic, no longer a lost boy still reeling from losing his first great love and turns him instead into an untrustworthy and slightly seedy rogue, led, as Jenny explains, by his physical needs above any true emotional commitment to the women he pursues or to the romantic ideals of a true love he once espoused. Is the show now saying that love is something grubby, miserable and ruinous? The message is less clear than it once was, but Alex is certainly no boyish hero.

Michael Ball’s return to this production is the main draw of course and one received with raptures by a delighted audience when it is George and not Alex who is given the chance to sing Love Changes Everything. An exquisite vocalist as always, Ball’s powerful vibrato reverberates around the auditorium. Not belted out with a passionate longing this time but a more somber reflection on a mature feeling and contentment that George discovers early in the show. Ball anchors the piece with a performance that allows the other characters to move around him. George is a man happy to take life as it comes, enjoy the pleasures where they exist and not expect too much from others or himself, but he grows across the years of the story and Ball charts his settling down to the comforts of a happy home life, a soulful existence in the countryside with his family and an ultimate goodness that create a big impression on those around him.

Laura Pitt Pulford is also perfectly cast as Rose, a woman driven by her career but also the desire for a comfortable life. Rose’s motivations remain open to interpretation in Pitt Pulford’s performance, is she truly in love with Alex and George as she claims and perhaps even convinces herself she is, or does she choose the most comfortable option with the better long-term prospects? There are faults in the story but Rose’s character isn’t one of them, she is complicated and varied, changes her mind, finds strength in herself, gets swept up and finds her own way all at once and Pitt Pulford gives her lots of really interesting and convincing dimensions. Vocally outstanding, her renditions of Seeing is Believing and Anything But Lonely are a particular delight.

John Bogyo’s Alex is now far more ambiguous as a result of the changes made to this production and altered perceptions of male sexual power in the world that has since developed around the show. Bogyo certainly captures Alex’s youthful verve, the adoration of Rose and the impression this formative love affair has on him. He ages up well later in the show and while the forbidden feeling for Jenny never entirely convinces, Bogyo navigates Alex’s flexible feelings well.  Danielle de Niese makes fine work of the breezy Giulietta, perhaps the character most at ease with her choices and certainly most realistic about the reality of human passion.

Has Aspects of Love been sufficiently reconcieved for the twenty-first century. Maybe not entirely. For those new to it, it is still a very strange and overlong show that skitters about between different places and times, with lots of very messy love affairs that for a while everyone is terribly casual about, but none are drawn in enough depth to really feel beneath the surface. Love does appear to matter an awful lot to everyone but Aspects of Love tells rather than shows it as it skims across the surface of these interconnected lives. This production does find an ugliness in the deeply uncomfortable romantic dilemma at its heart that is still treated perhaps too casually and makes some of the motivations in the second half of the show quite perplexing.

But none of this will deter audiences from enjoying the soaring music with its occasional Tchaikovsky accents and hearing those four big songs in their original context perhaps for the first time. A clever staging that has potential for touring and the continuation of Michael Ball’s journey back through the shows that made him will be more than enough to keep them watching.

Aspects of Love is at the Lyric Theatre until 11 November with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Pal Joey – Tower Theatre

Rodgers and Hart have fallen out of fashion, certainly in the UK where there work hasn’t been seen on a major stage for a long time, their 1920s and 30s sound finding a lesser resonance among the revivals of the more emotionally wide-ranging Sondheim, the political and social urgency we have been rediscovering in Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the continued influence of pre-twenty-first-century Lloyd Webber. Nonetheless, the Tower Theatre is making a case for the relevance of the earlier composers with its first musical at its new base, a revival of Pal Joey running for ten days at the venue and a rare opportunity to see the show from which their most famous song Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered originates – a number modern audiences may now associated with Alan Bennett’s The History Boys as well. An ambitious choice for this small fringe theatre, still the Tower company under the direction of David Taylor and Angus Jacobs create the smooth style of this tale of aspiring club owner and kept man, the titular Joey, while the song and dance numbers have much to recommend them.

Pal Joey is Rodgers and Hart’s most famous show with book by John O’Hara, a piece that reverses some of the tropes associated with the young ingenue and the old benefactor cliche by making the more powerful partner a married woman. The younger man is an ambitious chancer who is keen on the ladies but trying to make it in the tough world of low level showbusiness, the Chicago club scene. The setting is deliberate, eschewing the showier New York or Hollywood in favour of a grittier and harder city where it is more difficult to disappear, and Joey’s reputation on the club scene is better able to follow him around. It creates a much stronger contrast between the wealthy patrons of the nightclub – of which there are few including the woman who will go on to become Joey’s lover and financier – and the working characters, dancers, managers and Joey himself enduring low paid work, frequently moving between venues and not necessarily finding greater success elsewhere.

This is a moral world to a point, the people who have criminal intent are ultimately punished and the truly good, such as Joey’s first girlfriend in the show, Linda, leave with their dignity and unimpeachable virtue in tact. But this is also a place, like now, where the rich stay rich by walking away unscathed, calling in social favours from influential friends to protect them from ignominy, while the less protected like Joey just end up right back where they started. There is a cycle of behaviour for all of the characters in Pal Joey that prevents them from escaping from their social role or try to fight against it. Even the central relationship between Joey and Vera feels less about crossing a social divide than boredom and convenient proximity to one another for a time.

It is a commentary that largely takes a back seat in Taylor and Jacob’s revival, and that’s fine, there is plenty to enjoy within the main story and the elusive charm of the central character who is not quite hero or villain, nor is he the stuff of noirish antiheroes from the same era. Joey is just Joey, an easy-come-easy-go fella who certainly in this adaptation dreams big and gambles all the time, often lying about who he is and what he is worth to do it yet happy to ride whatever wave comes and as reconciled to the good times as the bad. In fact he has far more in common with the Technicolor musical leads to come, a hapless Nathan Detroit perhaps when he was just starting out. Joey feels like an entrepreneur in the making, except his life is a series of failed businesses and after each disappointment, he dusts himself off ready to try again – maybe one day he’ll hit the big time, maybe he won’t, it’s all the same to him.

It is a trope applied to female characters all to often, the eternal mistress or the gangster’s moll with no power, so it’s interesting to see such an early example of a young man in the same position, a model that Blake Edwards would apply more than two decades later to the character of Paul Varjak in his film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, expanding on Capote’s character who is having an affair with an older woman who helps him to dress well, gives him entry to society and receives his private favour in return, the parallels with Rodgers and Hart’s leading man here are all too clear.

Pal Joey is an overwritten musical however, extending to over two hours and 40-minutes at the Tower Theatre. O’Hara’s dialogue tends to the verbose, with long scenes in which characters talk around their intentions for some minutes before they finally get to the point, often in ways that slow the pace or create bottlenecks in the plot with individuals frequently signalling their intentions to one another as part of a scheme, then having virtually the same conversation with the target of the action some minutes later. It is a style of writing and dramatic presentation that will either make you feel warm and nostalgic for an 80-year old golden age or will be frustrating in a tale that sometimes ambles instead of zipping along.

But Taylor and Jacob’s production makes the best of it on the whole, wading through the boggier sections and making the most of the sprightly dance numbers and vocal performances that are a notable success in this site’s first musical production, combining choreography, lighting and costume to interesting and very entertaining effect. Rodgers and Hart’s approach is a mix of character and scenario based songs that reveal the interior life of the individuals or the plans or dreams that directly affected the narrative direction of Pal Joey, but they also include several performance pieces as part of the club experience that turn the Tower audience into the Chicago-based guests of Chez Joey as the showgirls play to the crowd.

Jacobs, in a duel role as choreographer, does a great job at making these Act One numbers feel a little ropey as part of the scene setting for the poorly attended and seedy club where Joey gets his first job. The dance ensemble Gladys (Maeve Curry), Valerie (Kaya Minton), Diane (Caroline Scott) and Tilda (Emma Rossi) are deliberately just out of sync with one another or not equally energised, and while Minton in particular struggles to conceal her excellent dance skills, numbers including Chicago and Happy Hunting Horn feel nicely worn. There is some razzle dazzle though with glitzy costumes by Lynda Twidale that add nicely to the effect – including a beautiful cloak infused with lights – that develop in grandeur as the fortunes of the club change, while in Terrific Rainbow, lighting designer Stephen Ley has lots of fun playing with colour changes timed to perfection with Gladys’s lyrics.

But as Act One concludes and Joey’s dream of opening a slightly more upmarket club are realised through Vera’s investment, Jude Chalk and David Taylor’s set design transforms and with it the quality of the dance performances. The rapid renovations as stylised panels, classy red tablecloths and even a chandelier arrive at the newly rebranded Chez Joey, Jacobs’s choreography changes with it to represent the more Follies-like direction that Joey quietly pursues. The Act Two opener, The Flower Garden of My Heart, is a real change in tone with a storytelling number about grace and beauty that is given a comic twist here by an unhappy chorus girl unwilling to jolly along with the rest – and Twidale again delivers some inspired costume choices. All of these numbers are imaginatively and thoughtfully staged to create an impact and although not all of the dancing is equally confident, more performances will settle any nerves.

Chalk and Taylor have also thought creatively about their set design, placing the band on a rostrum at the back to double as the club music space and using fold-out and revolving panels to create the different locations that Joey must visit. It’s a really smart solution allowing for very quick scene changes with only a few seconds of black out that allow the directors to maintain the pace quite nicely. Particularly clever approaches include a hinged panel that opens out to reveal a painted pet shop where a meeting between Joey and Linda bookend the musical, as well as a revolving section that one moment is the main wall of the club but turns into a full room either as the tailor’s shop where Vera takes Joey to buy new clothes and later his rundown flat which they affectionately term their “den of iniquity.” These are convincing solutions that easily transform the small space and add a little theatre magic to show.

The performances develop across the evening and will continue to evolve as the run plays out. Alex Dehn has captured Joey’s easy charm but gives the character an aloofness that makes him seem detached from everyone and never emotionally involved with his girlfriends or even the business. This matches the tone of Rodgers and Hart’s songs that don’t allow Joey any truly introspective moments and the writers have no interest in changing their character which Dehn captures. The vocal performance is strong, although his first Act finale dance is a little hesitant and, while both actors are separately very good, there is a lack of chemistry with Victoria Flint’s Vera Prentice.

Flint is much stronger in the second half of the show and has responsibility for delivering that favourite song, certainly suggesting Vera’s infatuation with the younger man and how rapidly that fades. Vera too has a pattern that she clings to and Flint brings a real dignity to the role, suggesting the impeccable manners and poise that comfortable wealth brings, escaping her situation as gracefully as she encountered it. There’s great support from the ensemble particularly Minton and Curry as the characterful dancers while Jack Hanrahan channels a number of noirish mobster baddies as sinister agent Ludlow Lowell. Adam Pennington, who steps away from Musical Director duties momentarily to deliver an impressive Act Two opener, leads an eight-strong on-stage band who deliver the melodies with a mix of instruments that create the swell in Rodgers’s composition as well as the cheeky cabaret performances.

The Tower Theatre company flexes its performance muscles in its first musical at this site, delivering an entertaining production with attention to the visual impact of choreography and design. O’Hara’s book is a little lumpy in places, a product of its time, which perhaps doesn’t quite the make the case for restoring Rodgers and Hart to the front line along with the composers that succeeded them. The Tower, like Joey, has taken a gamble by programming this much older piece alongside the more contemporary plays that have become part of its offering, but it’s one that pays off, getting their Spring and Summer season underway in style.

Pal Joey is at the Tower Theatre until 29 April. Tickets are £13 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Secret Life of Bees – Almeida Theatre

The Secret Life of Bees - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

In 2015, Lynn Nottage wrote one of the most important plays of the twenty-first- century, Sweat, a searing examination of class division, economic depression and the forgotten communities of former industrial towns, a play that, when it came to the Donmar Warehouse in 2017, said as much about contemporary Britain as it did about the US rust belt states where it was set. Four years later and the writer lent her sharp understanding of social forces and their political purpose to a musical adaptation of Su Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, which now arrives at the Almeida Theatre, that puts women’s experience of civil rights at the heart of a politically complex but nonetheless uplifting show about runaway companions escaping their small-minded, male-dominated, racist town to find solace in a private community of honey-making worshipers of a black madonna.

Nottage adds a sharp edge to a sometimes sentimental novel working with Duncan Sheik the composer of Spring Awakening which the Almeida revived to considerable acclaim at the end of 2021, emphasising the positioning of this tale on the cusp of a new era, where the possibility of a better, more equitable future chafes against a traditional and hate-filled past that still seeks to order society by race and gender, retaining power in the hands of white men prepared to employ violent means to protect their supremacy. Like Hairspray before it, Nottage draws out this important socio-political commentary while Sheik’s extraordinary songs with lyricist Susan Birkenhead combine funk, gospel, folksy rock and a hint of blues that carries the unusual plot along and makes you root for this powerful group of women determined to live their lives as equals.

Like Sweat, Nottage emphasises the dangers of trying to hide from the outside world, of the inevitability of reality intruding even in the calmest and most secluded forms of paradise. The contrast between the state of semi-urban 1960s America that this creative team showcase and the rural idyll among the beekeeping women living on a kind of commune led by August (along with sisters May and June) is stark, but there is no stopping the backdrop of racial segregation and Southern violence coming between them, placing the women in the midst of personal as well as socio-political challenges. And it is a balance that this new Almeida production, directed by Whitney White, manages pretty well, and while Monk Kidd’s plot often seems underdeveloped, the impact of those songs successfully knocks your socks off.

During the course of the show, that external world is brought into the quiet community as runaways Rosaleen, a black maid, and Lily, the white teenager she protects, seek refuge, challenging the women’s ability to live apart and bringing additional strife to their door. And while Act One presents a rosy picture, Act Two reveals a darker side, as the new arrivals and the audience learn more about the reasons this community of women exists along with the attacks, humiliations and losses they have already endured. Nottage’s book and Birkenhead’s lyrics draw out a longer history of suffering that shapes individual, collective, generational and community identity in this story, helping to temper the sweet simplicity of The Secret Life of Bees messaging and instead turn it into a rousing and even moving declaration of intent.

The frame for this 1964-set story is the opportunity for black women to vote for the first time, something that the downtrodden Rosaleen is setting out to do at the start of the show, a display of enfranchisement in which she is determined to Sign My Name. It is a full-blooded opener and a chance to reference some of the key personalities that made it theoretically possible including President Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, while later a character is reading essays by James Baldwin. And the growing political awareness of these women is a thread that runs through the play as a violent altercation prevents Rosaleen from expressing her newly won democratic right and gives her a reason to leave, while later reluctant to face a similar threat the community briefly demur. But, like the Pankhursts in Sylvia and Motormouth Mable in Hairspray, the sisters and their friends determine to make a stand together and finally fulfill their electoral role.

But there are other kinds of political comment working through this musical that explores the difficulties that Lily’s arrival repeatedly creates for her companions. June warns of the danger that Lily’s presence poses, eager to be rid of her and to make her stay as short as possible. It is notable too that the attack on Rosaleen takes place because she is walking through the town with Lily which draws attention to them and makes her a target. This is mirrored in Act Two when Zachary and Lily leave the commune to deliver honey and are stopped by the police, the presence of a white girl in his car posing an added danger to his freedom and his life. This deeply embedded and systemic racism in American society comes out in other ways as well, as the sisters sing of their endurance while the circumstances surrounding the death of the fourth Boatwright sibling April becomes a symbol of the chains they are trying to throw off.

This all takes place at this moment of change in which the old ways are being overridden and a new hope emerges, one that The Secret Life of Bees clings to throughout and leaves as its lasting message, so however challenging the musical becomes, and there is physical violence, child abuse and offensive language, the outcome is always to see a brighter future. These two thoughts the dark and the light work quite nicely together in White’s production, never becoming too sickly sweet but also refusing to wallow in the hopelessness and misery of these endless cycles of suffering. And it is here that Nottage’s influence comes to the fore, drawing on her work in Sweat to tighten up the broader purpose of this story and expand on the feeling of disenfranchised powerlessness that affects ordinary working people as opportunity shuts down. And while they may be fighting for different things at different times, the industrial community and this women’s beekeeping commune are not so far apart, each seeking recognition, to be seen by others and counted as equals. It’s an approach that brings great humanity to these characters and while the 2 hour and 30 minute running time may only provide a surface engagement with many of these issues, the cumulative effect is nonetheless emotive.

Sheikh and Birkenhead’s songs are tremendous, a series of ferocious anthems that work well together, supporting the narrative arc while also providing powerful insight into character need and the challenges and pain that shape their collective and individual identity. It is through song, rather than dialogue that character depth emerges, showcasing Rosaleen’s determination to assume her right to vote as well as staging the argument song between June and August who debate Lily’s presence among them. The worship of the black madonna also has a couple of lively and high tempo numbers that explain their faith while some sweet romance songs offer a different kind of optimism for the future. All of this is supported by Shelley Maxwell’s excellent choreography that eschews big song and dance approaches that take the audience outside of the story and draws movement from character instead, creating patterns of dance as individuals lose themselves in the excitement of their prayer or the possibility of first love.

Staged on a broad set with a revolving segment used sparingly to indicate tension or movement, Soutra Gilmour’s stage is surrounded by long grasses that evoke the South, a largely representative space that becomes the kitchen of Lily’s original home, the dusty roads of the town as well as the serene Eden of August’s exclusive retreat with its prayer-house-like gazebo holding the central figure of the black Madonna. Gilmour creates a sense that the characters are always outside, part of the natural world to which they tend while giving an impression of roasting summer sun that slowly turns to autumn as the story unfolds. Neil Austin’s lighting has quite a range here from golden afternoons that Rosaleen basks in to the oppressive red and orange blaze of heat that forces them all into the shade and even lowering that brightness every time the shadowy presence of the angry men threaten their harmony, supporting the emotional changes of pace as local tensions also simmer over.

The bees themselves are implied, a set of hives and honey frames eked out by Simon Baker’s swarm sounds that vary the intensity of the activity as Lily becomes more used to the behaviour of the creatures and tries to calm them, alongside a broader soundscape of subtle birdsong and rural sounds that support context creation and staging choices. Whitney’s direction is smooth, allowing scenes to flow quickly that carry the story along and build an interesting tension between the women and the interjection of the outside world that is inevitably in store for them. And Whitney makes space for the musical performances as the heart of this piece in which individual characters come more clearly into view.

There is considerable talent on display in The Secret Life of Bees and across the performances there is astonishing vocal depth and range from everyone involved. But it is a collective performance, one that gives equal space to all of the voices, creating a kind of harmony in performance that allows the audience to enjoy and understand each character perspective. From determined Rosaleen refusing to be pushed around by her employer or the men determined to limit her future to the calm and angel-like August commanding respect and loyalty from those around her, kindly May and ferocious June hiding a softer heart beneath her harsh exterior, while the broken and nervy Lily whose powerful voice starts to emerge as her confidence grows, along with the sweet neighbour who, like Tommy Trafford in An Ideal Husband, comes to propose to June every couple of weeks. The vocal performances including Abiona Omonua, Rachel John, Danielle Fiamanya, Ava Brennan and Eleanor Worthington-Cox are outstanding, along with excellent support from Noah Thomas and Tarinn Callender.

The source material for The Secret Life of Bees may have a perhaps overly simplistic plot and limited character development but Nottage, Sheikh and Birkenhead have done much to bring this story to life through the much more grounded civil rights frame and ongoing challenges faced by working communities, while the music brings a real soulful and impassioned perspective that builds audience engagement. Whitney’s production for the Almeida has its moments of sentiment but it is never a passive experience, ultimately delivering a hopeful and meaningful night.

The Secret Life of Bees runs at the Almeida Theatre until 27 May with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Betty Blue Eyes – Union Theatre

Betty Blue Eyes - Union Theatre

When the Union Theatre was forced to cancel its excellent production of Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time after only a few performances back in March 2020, little did the venue know it would be more than three years until it would produce its own work once again. The theatre itself reopen some time ago but Betty Blue Eyes is its first in house production since then, a revival of the Stiles and Drewe musical from 2011 about social mobility, the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and a pig heist. Directed by Sasha Regan, this charming production, which has its press night this week, is a long overdue reminder of the adaptive skills of the Union Theatre and its role as a fringe leader in the presentation of intimate musical theatre.

Based on a film written by Alan Bennett and Malcolm Mowbray and set in a wholesome if cartoony version of Britain immediately following the Second World War, Betty Blue Eyes is nonetheless a surprisingly sharp satirical work that has added resonance in 2023. Much has happened since its premiere more than a decade ago as the optimism of the early 2010s has given way to a far graver present, yet Stiles and Drewe’s songs along with the book by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman about food rationing, hunger and working class deprivation couldn’t be more timely as food prices rise and ordinary families struggle to stay afloat.

The small northern town in which it is set has a fairly timeless existence, riven with the same social and political divides that speak to our times as rich councillors and their landowning friends connive to ensure that they retain the best of the food on offer, hiding an illegal pig at farm that they intend to serve at a banquet while the housewives of the town spends hours in futile queues at butchers’ shops for meat that never comes. But society is just as divided along class lines and the same rich social leaders look down on the town’s newest family, a local chiropodist and his wife who they actively bully, preventing him from establishing a surgery on the parade based solely on their belief in his inferiority to them.

The musical opens with a cast-wide demand for Fair Shares for All, a motif that is reprised several times during the show as the post-war effects of rationing create tough circumstances for the townspeople, while the arrival of an evil meat inspector on the look-out for illegal supply that closes most of the food shops leads to Les Miserables-style riots towards the end of Act One as inequality and the insistence that these decent people should just accept and endure increasing privation with no sign of improvement pushes them to the edge. Sometimes the musical’s social commentary is so on the nose, it is as though it were written yesterday.

And in attempting to address social position and the lengths individual families must go to to protect themselves, there is also a major theme looking at modern masculinity in the immediate post-war context, especially for men like chiropodist hero Gilbert who do not conform to the soldierly notion of manliness that is still idolised, particularly by his wife Joyce who repeatedly questions her husband’s ability to provide. Gilbert is a sweet, mild-mannered man who doesn’t fit the prototype hero model that emerged from the war and in his daily life is unable to seize opportunities without her needing to intervene on his behalf. Cowen and Lipman drop a couple of Macbeth references into the script and even a Lord of the Flies incitement to ‘kill the pig’ but Gilbert fails to heed them.

Gilbert is offering a different and better kind of masculinity, based on goodness and decency rather than physical strength and blood-lust which becomes one of the major outcomes of Betty Blues Eyes, giving Gilbert a significant solo in Act Two exploring The Kind of Man I Am in which he reflects on himself and doubts his ability to act when required. Of course, in the end it is clear that Joyce adores her husband really and must go on her own character journey to remind her of that, but a comedy musical of this kind is an interesting place to have a discussion about changing perceptions of manliness and, like Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors, put the unassuming nice guy at the heart of the story.

All of this underlying seriousness is encased in a light and entertaining comic wrapper, and the interaction between the light farce surface style of Betty Blue Eyes and some of its deeper political themes is nicely balanced in Regan’s production for the Union Theatre that holds both of these styles together very nicely. The director controls the pace, giving just enough space to the introspective character numbers that helps the audience to find emotional value in the trajectory of the leads and their plight while the big ensemble song and dance segments are full of energy. Regan draws out the broader story of the town and the complex interactions between the groups of men and women who are simultaneously a community and rivals for the scraps of food available each day, while the petty standoffs about class are simultaneously funny and vicious, creating a sense of jeopardy and dislocation for the central couple that drives their actions.

Most impressive though is Kasper Cornish’s choreography – something the Union Theatre has always done well – despite the astonishingly small performance space for the number of cast members present on stage. This is inventive stuff from Cornish who combines tap and jazz styles that pay tribute to Fosse primarily but also cabaret while generating power in the ensemble numbers such as Steal the Pig and the Act Two opener Another Little Victory that sees 15 dancers on stage simultaneously. Given the meat rationing theme, Cornish has some fun with canes made to look like strings of sausages and also creates a two-tier system for working class and more affluent characters, but the range and inventiveness of the choreographic choices across the production are a joy and a chance to play with different approaches that meld really well together.

Regan easily directs the flow between lots of different locations on Reuben Speed’s two tier set, as well as a flashback sequence for Joyce who recalls her first meeting with Gilbert during the Blitz, and the placement of scenes helps the action run smoothly. There are a couple of particularly well managed sequences of high farce set to music including the Pig No Pig number that involves lots of running around, multiple character entrances and nicely timed potential disasters averted by some quick thinking as well as the Finale Ultimo with multiple ‘confessions’ and perfectly timed coordinated reactions that every cast member seems to relish. There is a real liveliness to this Union Theatre production that make its 2 hour and 40-minute running time zip by.

And then, of course, there is the pig herself, the titular Betty named by the wealthy Mr Allardyce after the Princess and becomes obsessed with her blue eyes. There are various ways this could have gone, and in fact, there’s no actually reason to see Betty at all but the Union have a rather lovely rag-doll-style pig puppet made from scraps of cloth to be roughly life size and operated by one of the cast members. Appearing for the first time towards the end of Act One, there is convincing personality in the puppet and although used sparingly throughout the show, adds nicely to the chaos of Joyce and Gilbert’s home during the farcical scenes, while the deliberate cuteness given to Betty in the use of floral cloth squares helps to reinforce the difficulty everyone has in killing her later in the show.

The story is peopled by some very Alan Bennett-ish characters with a great capacity for interior life and only modest expectations for themselves. Stiles and Drewe have drawn that across very nicely into their musical capturing a very British fascination with prestige and snobbery, a desire to maintain the status quo at the expense of others but also a very particularly desire for betterment, to achieve a little more than you were born into through the conduct of a respectable and, where possible, dignified life. So while chiropodist Gilbert is a comedy character in that mode with a modest profession, his dream of a permanent practice and a decent home with his wife and Joyce’s desire to be part of the town’s social circle may seem like small ambitions but are enormous and consuming in the context of their lives to which Bennet, and here Stiles, Drewe, Cowen and Lipman give a genuine emotional purpose.

Joyce is a wonderful character, a very capable and worthy heroine trapped by the times into the role of housewife but more than a match for any of the town’s menfolk. There is a touch of the social climber in Joyce and the haughty disdain of the ladies hurts her but she shows great resourcefulness and pride in refusing to be cowed by them. Played by Amelia Atherton, Joyce is a character to root for as she tries to make her mark on local society and come to terms with where her life has gone. Atherton makes Joyce strident and decisive in her marriage but also takes her through some more introspective reflections on the slight dint in social status that marrying Gilbert and moving has created, as well as a misguided and momentary lack of faith in those choices. But Atherton never loses the audience’s sympathy or investment in the Chilvers family’s eventual success.

Gilbert is one of those great comic characters who gets into a series of accidental scrapes that seem to be beyond his control before finally taking decisive action that brings the things he wants. Sam Kipling is a great unassuming hero, riling up the women of the town with his Magic Fingers that ease their aching feet and there are some great scenes as they flirt or even throw themselves at him with Kipling’s Gilbert affecting not to notice while quietly panicking. The devotion to his wife and their joint dream of a stable home is well explained while Gilbert’s questioning of his ability to be a man against a backdrop of war heroes and town bullies is very affecting.

The rest of the cast people the town nicely and give a engaging sense of its politics and social structure. Josh Perry gets plenty of laughs with Henry Allardyce’s very innocent adoration of Betty, David Pendlebury has great fun as the boo-hiss Inspector Wormold dressed like a Gestapo character from Allo Allo while Stuart Simon is a comparable baddie in Dr Swaby determined to keep the Chilvers in their place. But much of the success of this production rest in the all-singing all-dancing ensemble who deliver Cornish’s choreography with real verve and impressive coordinated control in a tiny space that charts the growing frustration of the town.

There’s so much to admire in this revival of Betty Blue Eyes and the many interesting choices that Regan and her team have made. A bigger stage would certainly create more space for the choreography and more location options within the set but the intimacy of the Union Theatre and the proximity of the audience to the characters and story offer a more immersive experience than the show’s last London outing at the Novello. So, welcome back to the Union’s in-house company with this highly entertaining and all-too-pertinent social satire.

Betty Blue Eyes is at the Union Theatre until 22 April and tickets are £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Guys & Dolls – Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre has had most success with its immersive productions, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which made the best of the flexible space and have created new ways to tell familiar stories by putting the audience at the heart of the action. While the role of the crowd was a little fudged in the Athenian woods, the physicality of the very mob that all the key political figures must appeal to created an additional verve for Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. Now, the audience become the sinners of downtown New York for the Bridge Theatre’s first ever musical, a show that is sure to be a hit when it officially opens later in the month, with great performances and a Technicolor visual design. But it is the technical management and directorial inventiveness of the production that really underpins its future success.

There has been a major trend for revisiting old musicals in recent years to update their overly romantic sensibilities and, in some cases, return to the original source material to mine the darker and more troubling themes that always lingered beneath the surface. From Regent’s Park Theatre’s Evita and Carousel to West End revivals of Cabaret and more recently Oklahoma!, reimagining the classic musicals has brought depth and invention to a sometimes deeply sentimental genre. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys & Dolls, however heads in a slightly more traditional direction, at least in the interpretation, retaining the glossy and glamorous exterior and finding fresh purpose in the excellent and very well managed immersive staging.

As with Hytner’s previous immersive shows, this relies on a series of raised blocks that emerge from the theatre floor in a carefully coordinated sequence that produce the various locations of this story. Designer Bunny Christie has created a road map on the floor of the pit where the immersive audience gather, a series of streets that make up this particular part of the city, Broadway, where most of the action takes place. Suspended above their heads at circle level are traffic lights and neon signs that point to cafes and bars, giving a flavour of 50s New York, a place filled with gamblers, showgirls and the odd Salvation Army mission.

The genius of Christie’s design is in how sections of the floor rise seamlessly to form connected trajectories through which the characters and the story can advance. The earlier Shakespeare productions demonstrated how well these platforms can work, creating a chain of mini stages which allows the cast to travel, but its potential has never been better realised than here in Christie’s design for Guys & Dolls which requires a complex network of perfectly timed blocks to appear, often at different levels and in different configurations running across the length of the pit. It creates staging opportunities in all four corners of the performance area as well, ensuring the seated in the round audience at the various circle levels are also able to engage with the production.

The result is an incredibly satisfying one whatever type of ticket you choose. Christie’s clever combination of building blocks creates street scenes the wind their way at angles across the floor from which characters can enter restaurants, clubs, bars and even a barber’s shop while placing a set of these together forms a larger rectangular playing space in the centre of the room to form the heart of the Hot Box club where Miss Adelaide performs her raunchy stage show or the interior of Sarah Brown’s Mission House where some of the most famous numbers will take place. Christie’s design is endlessly inventive as the story travels briefly to Havana as well as below ground to the New York sewer where Nathan Detroit’s vital craps game takes place.

Most locations are sparsely but suggestively propped to create the right atmosphere and tone for the scenes including pieces of recognisably American street furniture such as the fire hydrant and globe-style lamps to some cabaret tables hinting at a larger nightclub venues, as well as chain ropes that suggest the gantries of the subterranean scene. Lit by Paule Constable, the green-tinge of the city’s underworld is nicely balanced by the bright bulbs of Broadway while the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat sequence blends both together to create a sparky movement piece with a dreamlike feel that becomes more daring as the number unfolds. Constable has taken inspiration from 50s Hollywood movies in selecting particular tones and clarity of light for this and the club sequences that reference numerous starlet performances from the Golden Age of moviemaking.

More generally, the strong, almost cartoon colours creates a hyper-reality that allows the characters to be bold and brash, larger-than-life creations living in a colour pop world. There’s no deep moralising or attempt to reconcieve the show for a twenty-first century audience, but instead the design and production choices lean into the overtly comic and overtly romantic themes of the story, facilitating a space in which both can exist side-by-side. This is a sanitised version of both love and crime, where only one of the gamblers carries a gun and the worse thing any of these men do is keep a woman waiting for 14-years to get married. And it works, allowing the excitement of the unexpected staging arrangements to add novelty without overhauling the story.

The show itself is, like many classic musicals, about whether you should change for love. And pleasingly, this one focuses on changing the men. Neither Miss Adelaide or devoted Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah require a Sandy from Grease overhaul and it is their gambler beaux who must prove themselves worthy of the women they eventually realise they love more than their wild late night life. While what’s on offer is largely a traditional future with themes of settling down, staying home every night and steady dependability, which may not seem like everyone’s idea of a happy ending, Hytner makes a couple of additions that add a more contemporary resonance.

The first is a dance piece set in one of the Havana clubs that Sky Masterson takes Sarah to during their brief trip, a location where men only dance with each other and no other women are seen, the only place in the show where an alternative to the heteronormative perspective is offered. But Hytner also makes Sky one of the dancers, engaging briefly in some intimate caresses with his partner. It’s used as a comic scene to arouse Sarah’s drunken jealous as she starts a chaotic fight with the dancers, but this hint at Sky’s more fluid sexuality is an interesting one, although not followed through anywhere else in the production or in Andrew Richardson’s characterisation. A second addition is more of an addendum to facilitate the individual cast bows as the Hot Box club becomes Adelaides, suggesting a quiet life in the country wasn’t quite what the eternal fiancee wanted after all.

Arlene Phillips and James Cousins’s choreography will invariably sharpen before the Press performance but, like Constable’s lighting scheme, this takes its cue from the jazz ballet style of the classic musicals. Occasionally, due to the thin rectangular shape of the various mini-stages, it feels a little cramped for the dancers which makes it seems as though they are holding back with curtailed stretches and not quite finished lines (perhaps deliberately) but Phillips and Cousins have created some great showbiz numbers on the large central rostrum for the pivotal Luck Be a Lady as well as those staged at Hot Box Club for Miss Adelaide’s saucy performances including A Bushel and a Peck – and this is a musical with consciously sung numbers as part of someone’s profession but also with introspective character monologues and duets where they reflect on their emotional responses and expectations.

It’s very early days but the cast are already having a great time, particularly Daniel Mays in the comic role of Nathan Detroit. Less smooth than Sinatra but perhaps far more human, this is a rare chance for Mays to enjoy a funny man role that is already winning the hearts of the audience while his interpretation of Detroit as a loveable rogue suits the tone of Hytner’s show. Mays also has great chemistry with Marisha Wallace whose Miss Adelaide embraces the sultry numbers and Christie’s beautiful showgirl costume designs. Wallace’s powerful vocal can fill this large room but she balances the professional performer in Miss Adelaide with the long-suffering sweetness of a woman holding out for an apple pie American family.

Lovers Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown and Richardson as Sky Masterson are developing a great chemistry that makes their connection believable, while the comedy scenes in Cuba as Sarah over-imbibes are a lot of fun for both actors. It is an accelerated relationship given the relatively short 2 hour and 40-minute running time so both characters compromise on their principles almost immediately, but there is something lovely in watching them grow towards one another, overcoming their slightly aloof tendencies and merging Schoenmaker’s operatic style with Richardson’s more classic musical vocals. And Cedric Neal is sure to feature in future reviews with a small role as Nicely-Nicely Johnson but delivery of the show’s big number Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat which in combining choreography, staging and performance is a real highlight.

This production of Guys & Dolls is a show that needs to give both the immersive and seated audience an equally rich and entertaining experience while carefully managing the standing participants around the room. The use of ushers and stage managers dressed as New York cops is a great touch, helping them to blend in but with an authority for crowd control that facilitates the changes of set, moves props and actors safely into position and out again, as well as ensuring the seamless running of a piece that is not easy to stage. Hytner’s directorial control of all of this feels just right in a complex show that may tell a glossy and lively story but requires a technical management of the floorspace and a quality control that you really don’t see in other theatres or indeed other immersive shows. Hytner’s production may not take the revisionist approach of other modern musical interpretations but there is plenty of innovation and invention in the staging choices that will set this apart. The Bridge hasn’t always got it right and to some extent every theatre production is a gamble, but this roll of the dice should prove a winner.

Guys & Dolls is at the Bridge Theatre until 2 September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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