Category Archives: Musical

On the Ropes – Park Theatre

On the Ropes - Park Theatre

The sports biography is a great focus for drama and at the Park Theatre the focus is on boxing legend Vernon Vanriel who is telling his own story in the world premiere of On the Ropes, a play he has co-written with Dougie Blaxland. A tale of sporting prowess, celebrity self-destruction and eventually national betrayal, Vanriel and Blaxland’s overlong story doesn’t pull many punches, presenting the good, bad and the alarming misdirections of Vanriel’s event-filled life. It is a play that occasionally explores the context and consequences of Black British identity, the incipient racism and the incumbent police brutality that follows, although On the Ropes could take a clearer perspective on how the protagonist’s life is shaped by these external forces.

Vanriel’s story is undoubtedly an interesting one, beginning with scholastic under-achievement and concluding with a Windrush-related rejection despite having grown-up in Britain. In between is a lengthy intermediary chapter in which Vanriel becomes both the No 2-rated British boxer and, as the play argues, an innovator who introduced both walk-on music and cheap tickets to boxing matches that allowed more people like Vernon to see his fights, rapidly democratising access to sport. There are though a lot of notes like this wrapped into the play’s long biographical structure that takes a strictly chronological approach to presenting the episodes of Vanriel’s life without pausing for long enough to really tot up or properly analyse those decisive contributions. The political disaster of Vernon’s struggle for recognition pre-dates the Windrush scandal but the play never asks why this is so decisive in shaping his eventual identity which is only ever alluded to and not fully excavated.

On the Ropes uses the architecture of a boxing match, a 12 Round drama with chapters of indeterminate length that stages 6 of these rounds in each half of the play. It is a reasonable device given the subject matter and one that focuses the many fights and experiences of Vanriel’s life as the boxer’s rise and fall gives way to a prolonged exile in Jamaica and the sportsman’s well-documented fight to return to the UK and then on to the citizenship that should have been his right from the age of 6. The Round structure though has a significant downside, becoming a way to mark time for the audience, knowing for better or worse that the story cannot end before all 12 bouts are played out.

It is a concept that becomes problematic when the chapters are of such unequal length, reaching only 6 of these after a 90-minute first Act that makes the tempo feel slow despite Vernon’s incident-packed life, much of it interesting of itself. Yet, the show overshoots its advertised running time by nearly 40-minutes taking a 2 hour and 20 minute biography to nearly 3 hours of stage time, all paced against the slowly ticking 12 Round clock that makes narrative drive and momentum hard to sustain.

The difficulty is that On the Ropes is packed with conversations and encounters, covering a varied and engaging life that becomes perhaps even more compelling once Vanriel and Blaxland move into political territory and the questions of citizenship that focus Act Two. There is perhaps too much to say and more than one play lurking within this story meaning these strands ultimately struggle against one another, both competing for notice and to be labelled the most important or decisive periods of Vanriel’s life. What On the Ropes could do is decide which of its many stories it wants to tell and which version of Vernon Vanriel it wants the audience to see.

Is this the story of damaged celebrity, a boxing star thrust too soon into the limelight with little self-care or protection who, like so many others, burned brightly for a time before the inevitability of self-destruction burned him out with drugs and plaguing mental health that led to doubt and depression, or is this the story of a man betrayed by his nation after a lifetime of service, when bureaucracy and bigoted Government decision-making left him destitute in a place far from home? On the Ropes tries to be both but can’t entirely excel at either while the stories and length of this play compete to exhaust an audience nonetheless eager to hear the life of this fascinating man who enjoyed the highest highs and lowest lows of British society.

There is some gripping stuff in here which the overly episodic and completest nature of the biographical drama cannot entirely satisfy in the way that a publication perhaps could. A lightly sketched childhood would be sufficient for the stage and instead Vanriel and Blaxland’s drama should launch immediately into Vernon’s boxing career – perhaps even with a foreshadowing scene of the exile to come that will give purpose and direction to the drama. The first Act is where the excitement of the ring should live along with the increasing scale of the arenas, and thereby the stakes, then contrasted with Vernon’s too hasty fall from grace, where drugs and a growing arrogance make the character of Vernon overconfident and careless.

The very best moments of the existing Act One are those intense boxing encounters presented against a range of invisible opponents and accompanied by a running commentary describing the action into microphones. Here the plays comes alive with fight sequences that are served by their very theatricality on stage and the energy the descriptions bring. The thrust and parry, the choreographed dance of feet, the battle between lone individuals all come across well in On the Ropes as Vanriel’s rise and rise plays out nicely against a backdrop of conflicted management, Vernon’s demands and confidence as his success expands, while the scale of his talent takes him to the heart of the Establishment with a match at the Royal Albert Hall.

Vanriel and Blaxland also handle Vernon’s decline with skill, the personal frustrations that lead to substance abuse and the breakup of his family while also robbing him of the savvy management skills that consumed his earnings and left him with little to show for his years on top when the bailiffs come knocking. The notions of self-destruction, of fighting demons that destroy Vernon’s mental health taking him further from the man he was and wants to be are baked into the play but this needs to be the driving arc of Act One, a trajectory relieved of its fatty excesses, trimmed and given the necessary musculature to fight for Vernon’s central story in which the character is taken through and beyond fame. Losing some of the secondary roles to create a leaner, more focused first Act lasting around 60-minutes would make Vanriel’s story all the more powerful, leaving the character in a position to enter Act Two having experienced personal betrayal and ready to confront the State’s attack on his liberty after the interval. Most importantly, it would transform On the Ropes from an episodic and densely written narrative into a dramatically realised one.

Act Two could then concentrate, as it does now, on Vernon’s battle with the British Government to recognise his status as a citizen and the underhand tricks employed to keep him in Jamaica by callous British policymakers. Most of this is already in place but it also needs a slight trim. It may have taken 13 years, many trips to the visa service and many family calls to get to the bottom of these issues but it adds minimally to the drama to see all of them. Tidying up some of the more repetitious scenes would help the flow and pacing of the play. Compression may not be strictly accurate but the audience need only see an indication to get the gist while acknowledging the personal pain in this faceless attack on his humanity

Navigating these failures and the private toll it took on Vernon unable to live or work in Jamaica is already well-handled while the transition from The Guardian interview to the High Court battle for eventual justice makes for a compelling and neatly written conclusion in which the audience sees both Vernon’s failings – about which this play is remarkably clear-sighted and honest – and the circumstances where he was failed by whole systems pitted against him. A moving end to the play is well developed and the writers have created a character in which the audience can invest and empathise. Overly detailed it may be, but there is no denying the extraordinary life of Vernon Vanriel and the courage he has shown by staying in the fight to the bitter end.

Directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, this production, which has its Press Night imminently, has endured an interrupted rehearsal period due to illness and won’t have the chance to address the text ahead of its opening night. But there is the glimmer of some really interesting approaches to staging, using a cast of just three actors playing tens of people across Vernon’s lifetime as well as performing the numerous reggae and ska songs that have been inserted at appropriate moments in jukebox musical style, capturing the flavour of British-Caribbean culture and the atmosphere of Vanriel’s time in both countries.

Osie-Kuffour stages the play in a boxing ring giving the in-the-round audience a view of the biography from all angles with even the non-boxing scenes played inside the structure, at least until Vanriel’s life starts to come apart. Designed by Zahra Mansouri there is a nod to the boxer’s destiny in this staging, the inevitability of his career and the ways in which it shaped his life, as well as the obvious allusion to the endless fights he would embark upon. But it becomes a little cumbersome, especially in Act One as it keeps the audience at bay. The fluidity of this story, of the movement between the personal and the professional begs for something simpler and perhaps a more representative set might help to better create the multiple spaces that Vanriel’s life requires. Like the text, the set could imply more than it needs to show, perhaps offering only half of the boxing ring or the four corners without the ropes that impede the actors’ movements.

The concept comes into its own in the more consistent narrative of Act Two as Vanriel’s life comes apart so too does Mansouri’s structure which is broken up and revolved, creating different spaces in which the characters can interact as connections to the protagonist’s former self become fractured. Mensah Bediako captures all of those changes in Vernon, a character he plays from the age of 6 through to his 60s, using his physicality to imply the force of the boxer during his prime as well as the toll of Vernon’s later years as homelessness and hopelessness eat away at him. Other roles are performed with verve by Amber James and Ashley D. Gayle who carry the energy of the production, transforming into boxing commentators, relatives, friends and officials while giving fine voice to all those great songs.

On the Ropes really does have a remarkable story (or several remarkable stories) to tell but it needs bringing into the light, helping the audience to understand why this is a stage show instead of a written biography. Vanriel’s tale of suffering, survival and showbiz needs an ending, not just a slightly sentimental rendition of (Something Inside) So Strong but an analysis of what all of this has meant. There is much more to say on the play’s central themes, the effects of continual harassment from the police and others as well as Vanriel’s final reflections on what Black British identity means to him now and whether his sense of nationhood has been forever tarnished by his experiences. Yes he eventually won every fight for his freedom, but was it all worth it?

On the Ropes is at the Park Theatre until 4 February with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


South Pacific – Sadler’s Wells

South Pacific (by Johan Persson)

A year ago, theatre was tentatively recovering from long months of closure and the possibility of covid disrupted performances that could stop an entire run in its tracks. Under these conditions, Chichester Festival Theatre served up one of the shows of the year – a production that many of us could only enjoy as a pre-recorded digital stream. But the screen was no barrier to the consuming magic of Daniel Evans’s South Pacific, a contemporary and rather savvy reinterpretation of arguably the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of them all, a score in which almost every glorious song is known beyond its original story. Now, the production is touring the UK with many of the original cast members and its original leads, allowing those who only saw it remotely to finally enjoy it live.

Sadler’s Wells rarely stages or accepts musicals although Singin’ in the Rain has stopped here recently and the production values now demanded by Matthew Bourne’s company, Northern Ballet and, most recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet are inherently theatrical and akin to big musical shows – Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote and Kenneth Tindell’s Casanova were a masterclass in storytelling using props, set and costume designed by Christopher Oram who frequently works on drama. And Sadler’s Wells has a vast stage, perfect for the ensemble dance element of shows like South Pacific which require plenty of room for spectacle in which the sweeping vistas of military life confront all kinds of civilians on a mystical Tonkinese island. Evans’s production, even in its touring form, requires a revolve, large set blocks that represent the naval base, Emile’s plantation and the mysterious Bali Ha’i as well as the tonal shifts demanded by acts of war and epic love stories for which Sadler’s Wells provides ample space.

Whether watching at home or in person, South Pacific is a complex proposition, not just in size and scale of its multiple islands setting at the end of the Second World War as American naval and marine forces take on their Japanese equivalents, but any new production must also navigate audience expectation based on the, rather jolly, 1958 film starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brassi, as well as the weight of all those almost too famous songs. Music can take on a life of its own, divorced from the context of it original setting where it resides amongst a suite of related music telling a wider, often more complicated, narrative than a single song can convey. But the popularity of the songs in South Pacific, a favourite at musical theatre concerts, Proms and cabaret performances, mean that the jaunty melodiousness of Richard Rodger’s music can even overcome the weighter meaning of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Seeing these songs out of context or via the lighter 50s Technicolor film, an audience, eager to be entertained, can come to the auditorium expecting to be carried away by the romance and the fun of South Pacific without fully reckoning with the darker undertones and alternative emphasis that has always existed in this music.

What makes Evans’s interpretation of South Pacific so magnificent and so powerful, is how skillfully the creative team draw those elements to the surface without losing a shred of the show’s bouncy and exotic charm. As was so abundantly clear on screen, this production openly grapples with concepts of occupation that the arrival of the US troops represents, it deals with the racism that runs through the show in the attitudes to and presentation of native characters while equally considering the, now queasier, prospect of coercion and powerplay in the interactions between white men with guns and very young women that have only ever represented the male gaze. In short, this South Pacific is remarkably honest about itself while still sending you home with a hopeful heart.

Musical theatre has a troubled relationship with presentations of war, the requirements of the form sanitising the experience of men in combat scenarios. The three jolly sailors arriving in New York for a good time in On the Town or in LA for Anchors Away are not fighters or killers jaded by months at sea but dancers and singers getting into innocent japes with the girls they meet. A similar Gene Kelly vehicle It’s Always Fair Weather features happy-go-lucky veterans as does White Christmas where they form a charming song and dance troupe after the war with no sign of PTSD or survivor’s guilt. Even the now controversial Miss Saigon is a Madame Butterfly-inspired tale of epic love that plays down the business and consequences of war for the combatant and those they encounter.

This production of South Pacific understands the wider impact of occupation better than any musical interpretations of modern times. And in what is initially a happy place of love and larks, the arrival of Lieutenant Cable signals a notable dramatic shift. An harbinger of the emotional doom to come, he casts a shadow over the proceedings, an unknowingly self-destructive figure whose arrival with orders to undertake a special mission behind enemy lines signals the beginning of the end for US forces in the region as well as creating negative ramifications for his own life and those he abandons – with huge ethical consequences for the local people used and then left with little to show for it.

This tension starts to creep into Evans’s South Pacific, barely perceptibly at first, but military need increasingly begins to displace the romanticism of this particular story. Even Cable’s first visit to the enchanting Bali Ha’i has a touch of melancholy beneath the surface despite the stunning design by Peter McKintosh working with Howard Harrison to create a rich and seductive lightscape in tones of purple, orange and blue illuminated by candlelight. Cable may be captivated by Liat – a moment this production ensures we know is fed entirely by his months of loneliness and the impossible distance of real life back home – but in singing Younger Than Springtime he almost knows already that this is a decision he will eventually pay heavily for, a desperation underpinning the way this song is presented that starts to address the problematic presentation of this relationship, the respective ages of the characters and the power imbalance within the show.

That from this point on Cable is seen to pay for his weakness is pointed, soon contracting a malarial infection from which he never recovers and, eventually, choosing duty over infatuation. Unable to say yes to Bloody Mary’s proposition, this is a consequence that feels like a self-inflicted punishment for the wrong he knows he has done to their family, one that perhaps leads him to a noble military sacrifice but a far cry from the traditional military musical male. The downbeat repositioning of Happy Talk becomes a symbol of this more nuanced examination of inappropriate involvement with the local women, one that leaves them with nothing but regrets and only the male plantation owners to fall back on.

But the show also feels this tonal creep in other areas, moving from external relationships to activities principally on the naval base or in its service. While the focus of the first half of the show is primarily on interactions with local civilians and the exoticism of the region, the second part forces military discipline back into the show as the plot moves to the consequences of occupation. It may start with a light-hearted variety show for the men but Evans creates a parting of the ways as the focus shifts to Cable and de Becque’s mission, filling the stage with military paraphernalia, a giant map of the region and, eventually, plans to evacuate the area. Clearly, the party is over and, with a remarkable lack of sentimentality the real reason for the occupation takes over. Once that is achieved, they depart without a second thought for what they have left in their wake, the pain on Bloody Mary’s face a cue for the audience to consider what right they had to be there at all.

Yet Evans may also, like Nellie, be A Cockeyed Optimist, because his production finds a deep and true love between its principal characters, one that contrasts so meaningfully with the terrible toll of Cable and Liat. Even on screen, the centrality of the Emile-Nellie love story was clear and this production makes better sense of it than any before. From the very first moments of South Pacific as it opens on the deck of Emile’s plantation, the complimentarities and connection between these two quite different people are clear, so the trials and tribulations that inevitably follow make their coming together all the sweeter.

It isn’t easy to pitch an epic love story in our more cynical times and while the rest of the production looks to challenge the cosy image of South Pacific, the purpose of this relationship reinforces the glorious sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music for the couple. There is an innocence in their feeling for each other that is far purer, far more reliable than the terrible price of Cable’s semi-lust for Liat and for whom he is a romantic escape from a less suitable man. But Nellie and Emile have a more adult connection in a way, built on a greater openness about themselves that the events of the story reveal while able to overcome the prejudicial barriers that are thrown up between them. What they offer to each other in this interpretation is an honesty about what they want from one another and it gives the show a rich emotional heart that is very affecting.

Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck have an extraordinary radiating chemistry that easily made it through a screen last year and fills the auditorium at Sadler’s Wells, giving depth and meaning to those sung declarations of love and pain that result from their actions. In the great acoustics of this space, Beck’s vocal is beautiful particularly in the heartfelt I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy but just as charming and full of musical joy in the big sequence pieces like Honey Bun and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, capturing exactly Nellie’s likability and spirit as well as the touching certainty of her feeling for Emile. The moral turpitude that Nellie experiences as Emile’s secrets are revealed is given an edge by Beck, an unreasonableness that adds a helpful shade to the simplicity of Nellie’s character, a recognition that she feels deeply and this makes her eventually deserving of him.

Ovenden is equally outstanding, his powerful voice surging through the room in Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine, two gloriously realised ballads that build to a heart-wrenching poignancy. Less remote than some interpretations, Ovenden’s Emile is a far warmer, more jovial character who in turn is a good father and a man decent enough to turn his complicated past into a willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In a character whose essential purity and goodness shines through, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be half in love with this Emile by the end of the show and the essential stillness in Ovenden’s performance has a powerful charisma.

Also reprising their original roles, Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary has real agency, a successful entrepreneur just as happy to do business with the US marines as plantation owners. Ultimately a mother trying to support her family and get the best deal for her daughter, Ampil’s Mary sets the tone with mournful but impactful versions of Happy Talk and Bali Ha’i. Rob Houchen is superb as the broken Lieutenant Cable, quickly dissolving and almost unable to bear either the absence of the girl he loves or the knowledge of his actions. Houchen’s performance of Younger Than Springtime is a treat while his rapid decline is movingly portrayed.

This is a smart and thoughtful interpretation of South Pacific that takes carefully considered approach to some of the problems in the scenario without fully absolving the characters for their behaviour and choices. Managing to balance the sparkle of the big set-pieces and the not so charming effects of military occupation with some serious emotional clout that will leave you wrung through at the end, this sets the standard against which future productions will be judged. With a UK tour running until November, Bali Ha’i is calling you, don’t resist.

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August followed by a UK tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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


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