Tag Archives: Carrie Hope Fletcher

Cinderella – Gillian Lynne Theatre

Cinderella - Gillian Lynne Theatre (by Tristam Kenton)

Cinderella may well be the most talked about not talked about musical theatre opening in years; during 2020, teaser songs were released, casting announcements were made and the show has been surrounded by publicity since its original West End run was cancelled last autumn and its official Opening Night moved to July. Yet most of the coverage in recent weeks has little to do with the show and more its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who insisted he’d go to jail rather than delay full reopening, sent a public message to the government by refusing to participate in test events without other producers being included and has been rattling sabers all over town. But what is a little controversy? Lloyd Webber has championed theatre throughout the pandemic, trialing audience safety measures and test performances for the press at the Palladium last autumn. But with arts advocacy and politics dominating the headlines, is his new musical Cinderella going to be any good?

Opening with a socially distanced auditorium after all, the show is now ten days into its run with another week before press night, and Cinderella already has quite a few things to offer. Not least, it is a new ‘spin’ on the classic story giving Cinderella and her fellow female characters more agency and individuality than the traditional tale which prioritises beauty as the key attribute that ultimately leads to marriage – the preconfigured destiny for all good fairy-tale women. In fact the obsession with beauty becomes a price to pay for this Cinderella, reimagined as a spirited goth with a wicked wit.

With a book by Emerald Fennell who recently won an Oscar and a Bafta for her screenplay Promising Young Woman, a film that takes a stand against the culture of predatory men, Cinderella tries to flesh-out some of the other female roles as well, replacing the King with a powerful and determined Queen while showcasing the ingenuity and determination of Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother with a backstory that places her and the Queen on par – for these women to shine, however, it means the others must be viewed as pretty but generic or empty-headed, ensuring that for the Prince, it is Cinderella’s alternative approach that stands out.

The idea of perfection becomes a shared obstacle for the male lead as well, contrasting the ideal physical heroism and masculinity of Prince Charming whose loss in battle dominates the opening number with his brother Sebastian who becomes his underwhelming replacement with no grand tales of derring do or rippling muscles to attract a suitor. Applying these same standards of beauty and expected physical shape gives Cinderella a more contemporary feel in a world where the chiseled Marvel superhero is now the standard Hollywood aspiration for men and as equally infeasible as the tiny-waisted sirens long foisted on women. Within the show, this plays out at Court as the warrior-like attendants to Sebastian goad and belittle his lack of strength and machismo while parading their own – much to the delight of the Queen.

With Cinderella and Sebastian made into childhood friends unable to see their true feelings for one another, the story becomes a tale of two people suffering under the weight of external expectations to be something they cannot. That both struggle to live up to standards of feminine and masculine beauty, actively rejecting these traits for something more meaningful but are forced to pursue the wrong course creates new dimensions in a well-worn premise. And while many of the fairy tale’s original pieces are in place – some of the same characters, a ball, a fairy godmother and glass slippers – the narrative is shifted and slightly recast to create a greater power balance between the central couple that relies less on social status and more on self-discovery and appreciation.

Fennell’s book also adds a cheeky wit to the exchanges, the detail of which will go over the heads of any children in the room, to create a few risque moments including barbed exchanges from The Stepmother and a dry sarcasm given to a generally no-nonsense Cinderella that underscores her more broad-ranging personality – there’s no singing to dressmaking mice here or simpering about being rescued from her drudgery. Why she stays to clean for her step-family is less clear and, other than it being her father’s house, the flashes of temper and rebellion sit uneasily against her continued role as the family skivvy – a position someone of her determined personality would have quit long ago.

With the central narrative unlikely to change substantially ahead of its official opening, the overall effect is occasionally patchy. Lloyd Webber’s composition and David Zippel’s lyrics draw on several different music styles as the show evolves, mixing guitar, piano and harpsichord-led numbers that sometimes look to pop and, once or twice, even rap with the fuller orchestration and soaring strings that support the more successful songs. Lloyd’s Webber’s best scores have a compositional and stylistic consistency running across them whether that’s the rock ferocity of Jesus Christ Superstar, the orchestral grandeur of Phantom of the Opera, the tango and Latin rhythms of Evita or the stirring classicism of Sunset Boulevard, and it is their musical cohesion that makes them great, drawing together the big company numbers with the soliloquies and moments of introspection.

Cinderella doesn’t have the same coherent basis for the development of its songs and so it lacks a centre of gravity that pulls all of the numbers together. When they’re good, they are very good including a couple of the pre-released numbers such as Only You, Lonely You sung by Sebastian which is classic Lloyd Webber, filled with those familiar rising strings and room-filling emotion that gives the audience an insight into the character’s emotional state and psychology with a subtle nod to Sondheim’s Loving You. Cinderella’s own post-ball disaster song I Know I Have a Heart is also a big moment as the character realises her feelings for Sebastian are greater than she knew which the song expresses with clarity.

But the best songs really belong to the wider cast and will be a delightful surprise to audiences who won’t yet have heard them. A very fine and spiky duet entitled I Know You between The Queen and and The Stepmother is a comic highlight as two titans battle it out, both revealing something of their shared past, the clamber to the top and refusal to be cowed by it, while a late number Marry For Love provides a nice ensemble moment that fills the stage with big 50s Technicolor movie musical sounds. The Godmother has a fierce pre-interval number in which the real cost of beauty is visited on the naive Cinderella, while the men of the court perform an amusing thigh-slapping number, cavorting around the Queen in homage to the manly memory of Prince Charming.

But not all of the songs have quite the same verve which occasionally flattens the drama. With several big characters among the secondary cast and the chemistry between Cinderella and Sebastian not yet working as well as it could, their sometimes lengthy moments of introspection, including the protagonist’s regretful Far Too Late, don’t quite match the spectacle in other parts of the show. This same variability is also evident in Joann M. Hunter’s choreography with some numbers – particularly those that include ballroom dance sequences – still needing a bit of polish to maximise their impact and harmonisation, although this is a relatively small Ensemble with a lot of ground to cover.

In staging Cinderella, director Laurence Connor generally balances the big set pieces and the individual emotional trajectories very well, easily transporting the show from town square to The Stepmother’s kitchen, the woody rendezvous between Cinderella and Sebastian and the Palace. The latter is a memorable coup de theatre at the start of the second half as the front-on staging transforms into an in-the-round space for the famous ball scene, a smart piece of stage management that emphasises the decisive nature of the event for the characters and offers its audience a bit of magic.

Set designer Gabriela Tylesova creates a half-world somewhere between fairy tale, gothicism and historical fantasy epic to bring Cinderella’s town to life – think a mash-up of The Grinning Man, pastoral ballet and Game of Thrones with touches of contemporary shapes which also infuse Tylesova’s elaborate costume design with cut-aways skirts in bejeweled eighteenth-century gowns, elaborate couture styles and some 1950s and 1980s shaping as well as Cinderella’s distinctive Emo look constructed from black net, firm boots and checked fabrics. Most memorable are The Queen’s outstanding scarlet corseted gown with long tiered skirt, the Godmother’s sharp power suit referencing the Wall Street pinstripe and The Stepmother’s fitted gowns that threaten to trip her up but give her character a style that purposefully contrasts with everyone else.

Carrie Hope Fletcher is building a great character in Cinderella, a more spirited and grounded version of the blandly perfect fairy tale. But this Cinderella is rebellious and often sarcastic which in dress and attitude separate her from the other women of the town. The story explores the simultaneous desire to be different to everybody else and at the same time accepted within the same standards of beauty, and Hope Fletcher’s performance navigates those contradictions well, showing how Cinderella’s head is (albeit momentarily) turned by conventionality.

The chemistry with Ivano Turco’s Sebastian is something to work on and while both sing beautifully, conveying their character’s inner uncertainties and lack of confidence, their scenes together still feel like words being spoken in a play rather than two people unable to express their feelings in the moment. Elsewhere, Turco suggests all the pressures of being the disappointing second son thrust unwillingly into the limelight and forced to question his own purpose in the face of the imposing almost offensive manliness of his attendants. With a couple of great solos and an exciting dance number later in the show, Turco well captures the nuances of a different kind of prince.

There are are some terrific performances among the supporting cast who in many ways dominate the show, not least Rebecca Trehearn as The Queen whose sparkly regal charm belies a firm determination to dominate her son and the kingdom in several impressive song and dance segments. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt channels some late Judy and Liza while performing as The Stepmother, whose traditional wickedness is given just enough of a social climbing backstory to give greater purpose to her scheming, while Gloria Onitiri is fabulous and arguably underused as The Godmother whose main song is a twisted turning point in a show that could use more of her energy to cast darker shadows across the entire piece.

Press reactions may well be mixed when this much delayed show officially opens and this could be one where audiences and critics part ways with early reactions from theatre-goers already quite positive. With social distancing currently slated to end in a few weeks time and a very long run available to book, no one will have to go to jail for seeing this musical and, as a developing production, Cinderella is definitely on its way to the ball. With a week of performances before Opening Night, there is plenty of time to rebalance and smooth out the performance kinks by really polishing-up those glass slippers.

Cinderella is at the Gillian Lynne Theatre until 13 February 2022 with tickets from £19.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Les Miserables: The Stage Concert – Gielgud Theatre

Les Miserables The Staged Concert - Gielgud Theatre

After 34 uninterrupted years, Les Misérables has a strong claim to be the greatest musical ever written and 2019 is proving to be one of the most memorable in its history. Victor Hugo’s redemptive tale of an ex-convict discovering his lost soul through the love of a child amidst the revolutionary fervor of the Parisian underworld received a starry six-part BBC period drama by Andrew Davies earlier this year and it is a story that continues to captivate. But in 1985 it was beautifully and evocatively adapted by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricst Alain Boublil (English translation by Herbert Kretzmer), condensing Hugo’s broad sweep and focus on compassion for all of humanity into a neat three-hour show. Les Misérables is nothing if not a call to arms, a melodious message to fight for the things that matter and above all to be kind, to ask yourself whether “You Hear the People Sing?”

Having previously been staged at the Barbican and a long run at the Palace Theatre, Les Misérables moved into the Queen’s Theatre in 2004. But the soon to be renamed Sondheim Theatre is being renovated before the touring version is (somewhat controversially for fans of the original revolve) permanently installed on Shaftesbury Avenue. So, producer Cameron Mackintosh has stripped back his most well-known show to create a staged concert version running at the neighbouring Gielgud Theatre for four months which will allow Les Misérables to retain its position as longest running West End show.

It’s actually a rather canny move and one that speaks nicely to the show’s own performance history. Concert versions have been staged for key anniversaries, welcoming back a fantasy league of theatre stars who have passed through its UK and International ranks but never appeared together. Most recently the 25th Anniversary Concert was held at the O2 in 2010 but it was the 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall that has never been bettered – Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean, Ruthie Henshall as Fantine, Alan Armstrong as Thénardier, Lea Salonger as Éponine and Michael Ball as the original and definitive Marius.

With directing credits for James Powell and Jean Pierre Van Der Spuy, this new version is essentially semi-staged in what is a fully acted approach from the cast with performers in costume to embody their character and some props. It uses a technically excellent but also meaningful lighting design primarily to shift between the many locations of Hugo’s story as well as the 15 or so years that it covers. The prepared stage opens with a lighting rig crashed like a barricade across the space which rises up to reveal four large microphone stands during those famous opening bars.

The lighting design is particularly striking, emphasising the changing moods and purpose of the vocals. One of Les Misérables  most notable features are the generous solos given to all the key characters that rapidly and effectively reveal their psychological state, motivations and often tragic pre-history. These are lit with care, picking out the more spiritual conversations of Valjean, Fantine and later Javert in bright white and pale blue, changing the intensity of the spotlights or combining them as the singer peaks, while opting for darker purples and greens for the murkier scenarios including Cosette’s childhood enslavement and the Thénardier sewer.

Most notable though is how vividly the team create the feeling of violent action at the barricade, bathing the stage in red light as the stationary students are picked-off one by one with blasts of white light like individual bullets darting across the stage to their target. It is a key scene in the fully staged version on a real barricade that lingers on their sacrifice during ‘The Final Battle’, but is cleverly and effectively rendered on the smaller Gielgud stage here.

Powell and Van Der Spuy also maintain the audience’s attention with a number of small moments that prevent the show from seeming too static including a meaningful approach to character entrances and exits. Matt Kinley has designed three routes to the stage with a staircase at the back between choir stalls that house the ensemble and a metal gantry that lowers into place from above to create variation in height and volume – although core performances are all given at the downstage microphones. Departing performers freeze in their final moments to cast meaningful glances that summarise their struggles; Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Fantine reacts to her daughter Cosette crossing her path, while Shan Ako’s Éponine turns to offer-up a final glance at Marius as she departs. These moments add poignancy and credibility to the performances, a concert version that still ably creates and conveys Hugo’s world.

Like its predecessors, 2019’s Les Misérables: The Staged Concert will be long remembered as another notable event in the musical’s performance history, heralding the return of Michael Ball to a show he helped to establish, but this time in the role of Javert. Recently, Ball was described as the last great musical star, with fame extending beyond the regular theatre-going audience. Now a household name with TV and radio success, a Eurovision runner-up in the days when the UK stood a chance, and chart success as well as frequent appearances in shows from Aspects of Love to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweeney Todd and Hairspray to which he returns next year, Ball’s star has never dimmed.

As Marius, Ball captured all the complexities of the lonely student dazzled by the revolutionary passion of his friends but distracted by love. Schönberg and Boublil may have compressed hundreds of pages of character development into a few group numbers, duets and one major solo, but Michael Ball’s rendition of the desolating ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ at the 10th Anniversary Concert in particular is a sublime moment in musical theatre history, his voice breaking with emotional despair in the song’s rolling crescendo. That ability to pinpoint and powerfully convey the core of his characters, to unfold the breadth of their interior life makes his casting as Javert such an intriguing prospect, enough to draw audiences who may not have seen the show for years.

The relationship between Jean Valjean and Javert underpins the action, driving the narrative as they collide at different points. The casting of collaborators and friends Alfie Boe and Ball uses their playful yet competitive chemistry to great effect, yielding plenty of rewards for the audience. As Javert, Ball has the most difficult role to pitch, cast as a villain of sorts, operating with an inflexible moral code but through two solos must extract the pathos that Hugo also built into all of the character.

Schönberg and Boublil use Javert as chief antagonist, a harsh and unyielding figure in most of Act One, Javert’s main failing is not his hatred for Valjean but a refusal to accept that people can change, and it is this sudden realisation that determines his path through Act Two. Javert’s first solo ‘Stars’ is an important insight into this belief system, an idea of constancy and stability in which he maintains his faith. Ball sings this with great power, prompting a spontaneous standing ovation from a few audience members. The same occurs with ‘Soliloquy’ his final number as Ball’s Javert unpacks the unravelling of his mind with great meaning, leading movingly to his final turbulent release. It is a big coup for Les Misérables to have tempted him back and it proves a memorable performance – perhaps in the years ahead we may see his Valjean too.

Alfie Boe reprises a role he played next door and in the 25th Anniversary Concert. His operatic voice responds with ease to the changing registers of Valjean’s music but they allow Boe to vary the force of his delivery as his character’s circumstances and mental state fluctuate throughout the show. There is a predominant softness in his tone that reflects Valjean’s gentle nature and the essential goodness of heart that Hugo so carefully charts across the novels 1200 pages. Yet Boe uses the full power of his tenor range in Valjean’s moments of deep crisis, grappling with his own conscience in the Prologue numbers as the Bishop grants him a second chance, and later when the arrest of his lookalike forces him into a confession in the seismic ‘Who Am I?’

In some ways this is a very generous performance by Boe, allowing other cast members to shine, especially in the second half when political and romantic events among the younger generation dominate the story. But this is where Boe also delivers his best work; any Valjean will rise or fall on his ‘Bring Him Home’ and here it is all it should be, a huge transition for man about to lose everything he’s been living for, delivered with emotional might and rewarded with an extended audience ovation.

Les Misérables: The Staged Concert has a few other star names including Matt Lucas’s return as Thénardier in a great partnership with Katy Secombe. ‘Master of the House’ never fails to please the crowd, but Lucas and Secombe add some extra comedy asides and ad libs which the audience adore, although arguably the more serious ‘Dog Eats Dog’ is Lucas’s finest moment with Thénardier ruling the sewers and descrying the loss of God. Carrie Hope Fletcher is a sweet and tragic Fantine, a small role but she makes the first major solo of the show (‘I Dreamed a Dream’) a moving experience.

Any project like this celebrates the show’s past but also has an eye to its future and the younger cast members more than hold their own. The fervent rebel leader Enjolras is one of Les Misérables most exciting characters and Schönberg and Boublil have given him some rousing music which Bradley Jaden delivers exceptionally. Shan Ako is wonderful in Éponine’s ‘On My Own’ but Rob Houchen has the hardest role of all, standing next to the greatest ever Marius and trying to deliver his take on the character. Houchen may be a dreamier, more romantic version of Marius than Ball’s but his ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is a strong moment for him.

If you go to the theatre often, the focus is so often on the new, the next production, a new play or rising star that we dismiss the long-running musicals as tourist fodder. But revisiting Les Misérables for this staged concert is a reminder why this show has lasted so long as well seeing a new chapter in its performance history. Schönberg and Boublil have captured the breadth and richness of Victor Hugo’s incredible novel without losing any of the psychological complexity of its multi-lead format. And it is Hugo’s call for compassion that you will take away – something we all need a little bit more of these days. “Do You Hear the People Sing?” the rebels ask, well they’ve been singing for 34-years and it’s time we listened.

Les Misérables: The Staged Concert is at the Gielgud Theatre until 30th November with tickets from £32.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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