Tag Archives: George Dyer

Disenchanted! – Stream Theatre

Disenchanted - Stream Theatre

… and they all lived happily ever after. The princess has found her prince; she’s been rescued from her drab life as a live-in slave for seven little men; freed from sweeping floors for her wicked stepmother with only dressmaking mice for company and retrieved her voice from a scary seawitch, been magically transformed into a real human woman and got MARRIED. This is the end of the story, because for a woman life reaches its pinnacle when a man with a castle proposes and the years of suffering are finally over, you are now a princess. Except, that’s not quite how the story goes and marriage is just the beginning, what happens when Princess Jasmine has to pick-up Aladdin’s harem pants from the floor one too many times, Belle realises the Beast was less moody than her new husband and Rapunzel’s spouse leaves her home alone with nothing to do but grow her hair… happy ever after – as if!

Dennis T. Giacino’s delightful off-Broadway comedy musical is here to set the story straight as the Princesses fight back with their own show that reveals what it is like to be Disneyfied, sculpted into impossible body shapes drawn by men and have their image appropriated and plastered on merchandise from t-shirts to toilet paper. Disenchanted! was first performed in 2009 to much deserved acclaim and a new UK production directed by Tom Jackson Greaves has been created for Stream Theatre and made available for only three days (but expect an encore before too long).

Describing itself as a royal vaudeville, the premise is a simple one, a collective of princesses under the direction of best friends Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are brought together to finally correct the stories that have been told about them. Each one gets their own song staged as a series of Music Hall turns in which the women address the audience directly but there are several ensemble numbers that cut across the show to bring together wider themes about the misappropriation of female narratives, representation and ingrained concepts of sexism.

The tone however is highly satirical, landing perfectly on the line between comedy and politics that makes Disenchanted! a fun but meaningful experience. There is a joyful cheekiness in Giacino’s musical that restores personality and sometimes historical accuracy to these characters, encouraging the audience to revisit the picture-perfect impressions we are spoon-fed from childhood and instead see these princesses as fully-rounded women who can be angry, unpleasant, crass and drunk while still being funny, sassy and full of agency.

Jackson Greaves’s production was rather miraculously filmed in a single day after a brief period of Zoom rehearsal and actively acknowledges its status as a streamed performance. The production design warps the traditional princess hues using simple acid coloured backdrops to heighten the fantasy world to which these women usually belong. To vary the presentation, Jackson Greaves employs several techniques to showcase the backing performances including small roundels that appear in-picture, cast members arriving in shot at a suitable point in the music as well as some of the split screen and image repetition edits that have become a familiar feature as digital productions have advanced beyond socially-distant boxes.

Running at around 85-minutes, this production of Disenchanted! has enough visual variety to keep the audience interested and while this is not always highly polished or perhaps as complex as some of the online material produced recently, this reflects the off-Broadway origins of the show and given the very limited time to create this Stream Theatre production, the approach does more than enough to underscore the charm of Giacino’s musical and imagine how it might be staged in cabaret or revue style in one of the smaller London venues like the Arts Theatre or the Crazy Coqs.

The physical limitations aside, there is a recognition in Jackson Greaves’s production that Giacino’s musical is first and foremost a character piece in which the stories and personalities of the princesses is the focus and it is this rather than flashy set design or technical wizardry that sustains the show’s 14 numbers. That each princess is distinct and distinctly bitter about the life she has been given makes the anticipation of each new story part of the joy of Disenchanted! and some of its best moments come from seeing how Giacino has reorientated and reimagined the wider lives of these women that uses their original story while also operating on a meta level to understand how those narratives have been shaped by external and largely commercial factors.

One of the earliest songs does the latter as Belle from Beauty and the Beast takes a wonderful pot shot at Disney with Insane!, finding herself trapped in the palace with the chattering candlestick, teapot and mantlepiece clock that were introduced into her tale in 1991. Sung brilliantly by Aisha Jawando, Belle is on her last nerve, unable to stomach the constant conversation of inanimate objects and driven mad by the concept. That she finds married life equally burdensome is passingly referenced in her husband’s lack of house-training while her inexplicable American accent mystifies the formerly-French peasant girl. Jawando delivers much of the song through gritted teeth as she rails hilariously against her fate.

The Little Mermaid is also starting to regret her choice, turning to drink to help her cope with the real legs she substituted sea legs for. Missing the freedom to dive back in, Millie O’Connell gives a big performance as the disillusioned princess with a touch of the Southern Belle blues who has come to the realisation that Two Legs are too many, Giacino focusing her woes largely within her own marital choices rather than how she has been presented.

Some of the most affecting numbers are more overtly political and ask some big questions about the erasing of women’s stories and how history has been rewritten to suppress the agency and independence of women. Natalie Chua’s Hau Mulan notes her lack of partner, the only princess present Without the Guy and wonders about her sexuality, while Grace Mouat almost steals the show as Pocahontas whose impassioned Honestly was the first song former teacher Giacino wrote when he saw the animated version of her life. It’s a sad and beautiful song in which Pocahontas outlines these inaccuracies which gloss over the rape, brutality and kidnap she really endured by sexualising her story – the only time this production pauses to note the violence against Indigenous American women – and Mouat absolutely grabs her moment to shine.

But other fictional characters want to set the record straight as well including Princess Badroulbadour known as Jasmine thanks to yet another Disney simplification who notes that Aladdin actually comes from a different part of East Asia. Sung by Courtney Bowman, Secondary Princess is a fierce number about a woman reclaiming her place. Equally determined is Shanay Holmes as The Princess Who Kissed the Frog whose upbeat soul number Finally is full of impressive trills and ranges as she celebrates receiving the same level of recognition as the Beautys and the Belles in her own fully-told story with a black female lead.

Holding the show together as comperes are Jodie Steele’s Snow White, Sophie Isaacs’s Cinderella and Allie Daniel as a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty which becomes a running gag. Steele is having a great digital year having recently appearing as a wonderfully ethereal Daisy in Gatsby: A Musical at Cadogan Hall, and here plays a very snarky Snow White, the leader of this rebel band of put-upon princesses. Some of her best moments are the husband-baiting A Happy Tune? which showcases her incredible range. Cinderella leads the body-shaming number All I Want to Do is Eat which critiques the impossibly thin bodies the women are expected to maintain and showcases Isaacs’s comic timing while Daniel challenges standard definitions of beauty with the ensemble number I’m Perfect while, completing the cast, Rapunzel (Jenny O’Leary) lends an operatic range to Not V’one Red Cent that questions the commodification of their image.

The early part of the show keeps the performers separate, giving each princess her own individual platform apart from our three regal guides who appear together between the guest appearances to compere and provide a running commentary. But the show builds to larger and larger ensemble numbers until the full cast of nine appear for the finale. Musical Director George Dyer has updated the musical styles across these different songs, giving each a distinctive flavour but drawing less on classic musical theatre to introduce more contemporary beats and varied song styles including hints of hip hop, cabaret, opera, country, blues and soul that emphasises the unique experience of each women, while still feeling like a a coherent score that builds to a satisfying conclusion.

The leveling opportunities generated by digital theatre have created something of a moment for reclaiming and reimagining female-led narratives. On the surface, a musical about fairy tale princesses may seem entirely out of kilter with the pioneering work of productions like Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels or 15 Heroines that excavated the ingrained nature of patriarchy and women’s behaviour to each other as much as their interaction with men, but look a little deeper and Giacino’s musical is doing much the same thing – even noting that the Princesses themselves judge others using male-defined expected behaviours – its tools just happen to be comedy and music. But after 85-minutes it more than makes its point and had the post-show Q&A audience demanding a West End transfer which it well deserves. Though written long before, this new outlet for Disenchanted! will do for fairy tale princesses what Six did for the wives of Henry VIII, making them more than prizes to be won in the stories of men and instead creating a potential phenomenon by giving them back their individuality and their voice. Now that’s the kind happy ever after we can believe in.

Disenchanted! was available via Stream Theatre from 9-11 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Last Five Years-Southwark Playhouse

The Last Five Years - Southwark Playhouse (by Pamela Raith)

Love stories are the bread and butter of most drama; people are born, die, get new jobs, commit crimes or do mundane chores but love is the device used most often to drive character behaviour. Given its prevalence, coming up with more interesting and inventive ways of reimagining the boy meets girl or equivalent scenario and what happens next is crucial for a writer to stand out in a crowded field. We have seen love stories told conventionally from A to B, a concept endlessly repeated, there are some told in reverse of which Harold Pinter’s Betrayal is an especially accomplished example, and plenty of variations thereupon. But Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years manages to bring something quite new, as the two characters tell their stories in different directions – the female lead from devastation to first encounters, and the male lead in an opposing linear style. The effect is remarkable.

This deceptively simple premise manages to create a substantial emotional impact across the show’s 90-minute run time. Structurally, it is a take on the she said / he said idea that not only moves the couple in contradictory directions but alternates the solos between them first her, then him as they fall in and out of love both backwards and forwards at the same time. Initially, it seems as thought this concept will run out of steam before the end – how many songs about the stages of love can people sing and surely both halves of the show will end up looking the same, her impression of early love will uninterestingly match his – but Brown’s writing is much smarter that that, giving us two people who don’t quite feel the same way about each other at the same time, building a cumulative effect that locks the various jigsaw pieces together.

The Last Five Years is like hearing two sides of the conversation only minutes or hours apart, revealing fragments of interactions, arguments, mutual dreams that when we come to it never quite match up. The unfolding narrative is purposefully not quite balanced, we never see the other side of each specific conversation – Brown could easily have shaped his show that way – instead when the other half of the couple eventually arrives in the same time period later in the show we get a similar but not quite equal impression of their life together, one in which many related conversations were clearly taking place about their levels of happiness, commitment and connection. For example, in the early days she sings about her excitement at being with him, he’s excited about his career prospects. And the audience doesn’t need to hear one whole conversation because the emotional clutter that emerges from these snippets suggests plenty of one-sided interactions happening, adding an inevitability to their eventual parting, as though from happiness to sorrow the two of them never really heard each other at all.

And The Last Five Years is at first most notably about the imbalance in relationships, how one person often cares more, contributes more than the other, one thinking always of “us” the other of “me”. This is a musical that both uses and comments on the primacy of male perspective, how Jamie’s career as a writer, his wants and purpose come to dominate not only the day-to-day business of his relationship with Cathy but also her own thoughts and feelings. Across her perspective it is Jamie that is the focus, songs and frustrations addressed to and caused by him, arguments about his perceived neglect and even audition material for her career as an actress shown for his approval. As the show begins it is her paranoia, her pain that is seemingly the cause of their breakup, only later are we shown how entirely Cathy has molded her life around his.

So Jamie is the bad guy? Initially perhaps as he happily focuses on his budding reputation as a writer, his relationship is a happy subplot for Jamie, something he wants but most of his songs in this early section of the musical are about him as a person. Upbeat, rock-inspired numbers including Shiksa Goddess and Moving Too Fast contrast pointedly with Cathy’s I’m Still Hurting after the marriage is over and See I’m Smiling which follows as she begs for more time to fix their problems. Jamie seems insensitive to anything but his own success. But as Brown’s clever story unfolds that perspective shifts and while there is a cruelty in Jamie’s later behaviour there is also feeling which plagues him as he reaches the breakdown of their marriage.

The Last Five Years is also about the deceptive nature of memory, something we see particularly from Cathy’s perspective that regresses from heartbreak and suspicion to hopeful expectation. The sunny optimism of early love and the endless plans for a lifetime together seem naive, even unlikely in the cold blue light of a relationship breakdown. Brown wants the audience to wonder to what extent this formative period is always a fantasy, something that Cathy looks back on as far easier and more joyous than it was. What were the signs she ignored in an eagerness to be loved, and likewise as Jamie journeys forward how little does he really know or care about the woman he wants to marry, how much of love is false memory and illusion?

Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle whose wonderful version of The View Upstairs played at the Soho Theatre last year, this production of The Last Five Years moves away from the dramatic stagings of earlier approaches and instead takes a more representational approach to imagining this relationship (which happily moves away from the 2015 film as well). Like Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre this show becomes a musicians’ performance piece, one that keeps the couple on stage at all times to focus on the emotional experience of each character. Designed by Lee Newby, on a small revolving stage dominated by a grand piano and four chairs at the corners of the 3/4 round space, this simplified, stripped-back approach removes the complexity of rapidly changing rooms and New York backdrops, and with only a few props to give context, it creates a far greater and considerably more powerful emotional intimacy, just the characters and their relationship, no distractions.

O’Boyle’s decision to use actor-musicians is also a canny one, underscoring the culpability of both characters for what ensues, they are quite literally making the music of their life together. But hidden behind Newby’s classy black walls a four piece band under the musical directorship of George Dyer add keyboard, violin (Elaine Ambridge), guitar (Ryan Webber) and cello (Andy Crick / Rachel Shakespeare). At first the sound threatens to overwhelm the singing – a problem of over-amplification dogs many modern musicals in small spaces and drowns out the lyrics – but the balance soon settles to wonderfully create Brown’s eclectic and multifaceted score, with the band bringing shade and tone to the different emotional currents and psychological beats within the show.

Playing piano and guitar, Oli Higginson gives an outstandingly physical performance as Jamie, energetically bounding around the stage and even up onto the piano stool as he belts out the early numbers. Higginson’s voice is extraordinary, full of lush variation, power and sensitivity as he charts Jamie’s difficult trajectory through this show. He’s not an easy character to like but his confidence and charm are magnetic, particularly in the comic touches he brings to numbers such as The Schumel Song which act out the story of a Jewish tailor that Jamie is writing and merges into a declaration of support and love. Like Cathy, the audience is seduced by Higginson’s Jamie and lives through the good years and the bad as commercial success as a writer takes him further away from his wife.

As those good years sour, Higginson finds a different resonance in the quieter and more affecting songs in the latter part of the show. The self-assured Jamie starts to fade and is replaced by cruelty as he jibes at Cathy’s lack of success, refusing to lose because she can’t win. But Higginson introduces notes of self-loathing into the performance, creating just enough understanding and empathy for Jamie’s perspective with emotive versions of Nobody Needs to Know and the affecting I Could Never Rescue You. It is a multi-layered and complex performance that is honest about Jamie’s flaws while never forgetting his own interior landscape.

Molly Lynch is every bit as good in the role of Cathy whose reverse journey through her own chronology has a melancholy feel, starting from a pitch of misery as Jamie chooses to end the marriage that Cathy still wants to save in the excellent Still Hurting, and spooling back to the more optimistic girl she once was. Lynch creates a woman who in many ways never knows who she is, we learn little of her own tastes, desires or plans for the future only what she hopes for them as a couple and her absorption in the relationship contributes to its decline. The sadness of her beginning weaves through every moment of those earlier years and Lynch beautifully charts the disappointments and limitations that stymie Cathy’s acting career and leave her clinging to a relationship that doesn’t work and a husband whose faithfulness she is paranoid about.

There is an excellent sequence in the middle as Cathy sings When You Come Home to Me at first to Jamie and then at auditions, a bouncy 40s-esque cabaret song that is increasingly curtailed and becomes downbeat as her plans stall. The carefree younger Cathy in cool dark glasses sipping coke through a straw seems a lifetime away from the world-weary wife she becomes and, like Higginson, Lynch gives such flesh to Cathy that you wonder 90-minutes later how she will ever survived the crushing blow of divorce, and what sense of self will exist for her in the Jamie-free future.

These versions of the characters meet only once at their own wedding in the middle of the show and it is an unusual task for actors to be constantly on stage together and develop chemistry while never being in the same scene or psychological state. That you can envisage them as a couple and understand why their relationship was always destined to fail is testament to the quality of these performances and the audience never doubts that these two people are and were together for five years. The technical skill O’Boyle utilises along with choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane to place the various Jamies and Cathys together but apart is crucial, amplified by the very few moments where their eyes meet or they momentarily inhabit the same space.

Forget the silly film and the dramatically elaborate versions of The Last Five Years you may have seen before because this production at Southwark Playhouse is the real deal. Within seconds of this preview performance ending the entire audience rose spontaneously and enthusiastically to their feet for an enduring and well-deserved ovation. It may be almost 20 years old, but Brown’s story feels timeless and recognisable, and this bold restaging at Southwark Playhouse is a triumph.

The Last Five Years is at Southwark Playhouse until 29 March with tickets from £16 in preview,  £27.50 (£22 concessions) thereafter. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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