Tag Archives: London

Aspects of Love – Lyric Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brokeback Mountain – Soho Place

Brokeback Mountain - Soho Place

When the film Brokeback Mountain first appeared almost 20 years ago in 2005 it seemed like a revolution, two mainstream Hollywood names appearing in a film about a tender same sex love story between cowboys in the 1960s. Two decades on and that has all changed for the better. But the stage has always been way ahead of cinema in the presentation and acceptance of love in all its forms, and in a market spilling over with screen to stage transfers of largely 1980s and 90s films turned into big budget theatre musicals, it is a joy to see the intimacy and sensitivity of Ashley Robinson’s world premiere production of Brokeback Mountain at Soho Place which also marks the West End debuts of Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges. Alive with the tragedy of a love that can never be, Jonathan Butterell’s production will slowly break your heart.

“If you can’t fix it, you gotta take” is the sentiment that follows lovers Ennis and Jack through the wild passion of their early love affair and onto a more complicated existence as their lives away from each other over twenty years conspire to take them far beyond the simple solitude and contentment they found one summer on Brokeback Mountain. And while this production gives a clear sense that these men cannot be together openly – the restrictions of the era and the life-threatening beatings that gay men in this story are reported to suffer – the power in Robinson’s adaptation lies in minimising the external noise and focusing on the inability of Ennis and Jack to understand their feelings for one another and overcome an innate fear of what it might mean to be together, a chance for happiness they all but sacrifice as a result.

The audience knows from the start that there is a tragedy in this love story, told from the perspective of the older Ennis (Paul Hickey) who wakes alone, disheveled and reaching for a bottle, remembering the days of his youth. Robinson makes this an unspoken recognition, a character who stalks the stage but never narrates, lingering meaningfully on the edges of his own memories but only acknowleding who he is with a look at his younger self as the play begins. Its subtle but neatly done, and one of Robinson’s strongest gifts here is to recognise the moments when words are not enough, the playwright getting out of the way of the actors and giving them the silences to fill instead. In a text that is already quite spare, offering only the bare essentials, building that cumulative emotional impact in Brokeback Mountain requires a fine balance between different kinds of creative input and this company has found it.

The promotional text makes it clear this is based on Annie Proulx’s short story and not the film, but there is an unavoidably cinematic quality to this stage adaption. Running at only 90-minutes (45-minutes shorter than the movie) it is unusual for theatre to be structured around a series of short scenes that are more common on screen where the camera framing and use of close-ups can elicit a great deal from a few seconds of film. On stage that is harder to achieve particular for a story that spans so many years in the character’s lives, so Brokeback Mountain must build momentum and investment, toning down the existence of other characters to focus more exclusively on Ennis and Jack’s trajectory both together and apart, as well as savouring the longer term impact of their relationship in place of the instant gratification that film can offer at every encounter.

As a result, there are no lingering looks when the pair first meet and head up the mountain to tend sheep for a few weeks, instead there is a slightly frosty restraint emanating from Ennis in which the men barely exchange a word as they pass each other at their camp. Their first night together seems to happen from nowhere, as much a surprise to them as the audience, but it unleashes a torrent of repressed emotion that they give free reign to. Cinema would likely play a scenario like this quite differently, a shy start and a slow build up to a tentative romance, the consummation of that connection the end goal. But theatre can shift the emphasis onto the longer impacts and implication of this relationship, altering the perspective from the close-up to the long view to find its meaning.

Robinson and Butterell have managed that extremely well across this new production, making the emergence and sustenance of this feeling between Ennis and Jack the spine of the show, the depth of the emotion between them and the way in which it builds even as years pass and lots of activities and experiences occur around them is unfaltering. The writer and director are never distracted from the perspective of older Ennis looking back on the loneliness and emptiness of his life without Jack. This past conjured up for the audience essentially has a single track that is designed to inform the present, away from the tricks of cinema, the full impact of which in this theatre production can only be truly understood and felt at the end of the story.

The cinematic nature of this production is only enhanced by the addition of Dan Gillespie Sells’s music, played live and helping to set the mood and track the emotional pulse of the production. Performed by Eddi Reader playing the Balladeer along with her country and western band, these emotive original songs provide a ranging soundtrack with a depth and potency that integrates perfectly with the story, explaining and enhancing the emotional turbulence experienced by the characters. The music is a constant presence but it also feels deftly applied, providing support at just the right moments, a shorthand to enhance the tacit meaning beneath Robinson’s sparring dialogue and the retrained performances.

Staged on a simple but evocative set designed by Tom Pye, there is never any doubt that the action takes place in semi-rural America of small towns and bleak, isolated but potentially freeing landscapes. All of this is cleverly implied by Pye who stages in-the-round on a raised central platform into which bits of furniture can sink or emerge depending on whether the location is a domestic space or the empty landscape, providing a neat and smooth solution to a piece that often needs to move quickly between locations. This is surrounded by gravelly landscape where the Brokeback Mountain camp and other outdoor locations can be partially staged, more than enough to evoke the outdoors feel when needed, but suggesting the pressure of the landscape and the limited freedoms for its inhabitants even in town.

On a small stage Director Butterell eschews any elaborate staging but keeps the focus on the intimacy that grows between the two men using the scale of the auditorium to infer perspective as the landscape dwarfs them. At the same time, Butterell manages to fill this space with their story and the emotional connection between them that simultaneously shows the insignificance of two people but also their importance. Using all four entrance ways at the stalls level brings the story into the audience while the raised platform stage creates at least one more inventive way for characters to appear as if from nowhere that, as a directorial choice, maintains the theatrical spell.

While it is inevitable that some comparisons will be made with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s originating film performances when critics review the show later this week, Lucas Hedges and Mike Faist have made their show and these roles entirely their own. With previous stage experience in the US, this is an early opportunity to see two young stars on the rise and both are compelling, giving a sense of the quite different forces that bring them together as well as the sweep of decades as their characters mature from not very idealistic 20-somethings to men with responsibilities and financial pressures in their late 30s.

Hedges’s Ennis is the more brooding of the pair, a quiet, reserved man who says very little and barely acknowledges his emotions at all, and Ennis is actively trying to perform a particular archetype of cowboy masculinity that makes his feelings for Jack so difficult to manage. There is a gruff edge to Hedges’s approach that is forbidding at first, refusing to engage, which means he is taken by surprise on Brokeback Mountain. Over time Hedges’s charts Ennis’s struggle with maintaining a surface respectability and the deep, unavoidable feeling he harbours for Jack even years later and the constant conflict within the character, an inability to see himself clearly and to risk having the life he wants that ultimately becomes both tragic and moving.

Faist’s Jack by contrast is a live wire, bouncing around the stage with an early energy that suggests a comfort with himself and all the things he is that make him a complete contrast with Ennis’s repression. Jack is more responsive to his physical needs and although fearful of the dangers of living openly as a gay man, feels no shame or confusion within himself. Faist’s performance suggesting this is society’s problem and not Jack’s. Over time, Faist reveals the depth of the love that Jack feels for Ennis, an addiction of sorts but also a certainty that his lover denies him, with Jack more willing to make the leap to something substantial, making the life they could have had a bittersweet regret. And “If you can’t fix it, you gotta take it” becomes his pragmatic mantra.

While the boundaries between film and theatre are increasingly blurred, they are different experiences and require different techniques to convey their story. Film can use close-up and cutting techniques to create emotional investment in an instant while theatre must play the long-game and here this premiere production of Brokeback Mountain does that with considerable care, constructing an emotional connection with the audience that yields results as the show unfolds. Love on stage and screen certainly looks quite different now than it did twenty years ago but there is still a quiet power in the story of two men who couldn’t fix it and just had to endure.

Brokeback Mountain is at Soho Place until 12 August with tickets from £29.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Pal Joey – Tower Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betty Blue Eyes – Union Theatre

Betty Blue Eyes - Union Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance of Death – Coronet Theatre

This review expands an alternative version originally published by The Reviews Hub.

One part of the theatre ecosystem has taken a little longer to get back on its feet than any others and that is the opportunity to see some of the very best European theatre touring shows in London. And although there are plenty of European theatremakers who have made their homes here, seeing how familiar productions are interpreted quite differently in a stage tradition that is not always the same as our own is an important part of the ecosystem and a chance to reflect on how and why classic texts continue to offer up new and resonant interpretations. Usually, European productions find a home at the Barbican but The National Theatre of Norway has gone west to Notting Hill for the UK transfer of Dance of Death performed in the original Norwegian with English surtitles. This often thrilling production that explores the melodrama and violence in a 25-year marriage is compelling stuff, demonstrating how to make 120-year-old material feel brand new.

August Strindberg’s play is a glorious dystopian vision in which three over-familiar people tear each other to pieces for 85-minutes. The remote island setting and isolation of the central couple Alice and Edgar is palpable, particularly in this sparsely-staged National Theatre of Norway production that creates claustrophobia and distance between the characters in both a physical and emotional sense. Drama is filled with duos trapped in their own version of hell, from the oddities of Beckett including Waiting for Godot and Endgame, to works like Two Character Play by Tennessee Williams, all of which place their protagonists in complicated love-hate relationships with no way to escape their situation even though much of the drama focuses on the futility of their attempts to do so.

Strindberg essentially invents this concept here, long before it became an absurdist standard by placing a married couple at the heart of the play and exploring the complex dynamic between them, initially as a pairing, but later when old friend Kurt joins them and a triangle of sorts is created, shifting the power structure. However, Strindberg continues to execute his drama as primarily a series of duologues and only occasionally bringing the three characters together to examine how the balance has changed between them in the intervening scenes.

We are equally used to a third element signifying a change of power, an outsider whose purpose is to distort and intrude, usually claiming some kind of ascendancy over the other characters at the expense of one or both who are consequently displaced – and we largely have Pinter to thank for this model. But Strindberg has quite another purpose in mind, using Kurt to bring to the surface the various issues and ugliness in the lives of Alice and Edgar but ultimately drawing him into their problems and style of interaction rather than providing a potential solution to it – although Alice certainly (and perhaps even Edgar to an extent) believe Kurt will break the impasse between them. Strindberg is looking at the human capacity for self-destruction and degradation, a shameless need to exert power and influence over others that emerges from an emotion that was once love but has since crystallised into hate. That neither spouse attempts to conceal their nature from their guest is a clue to how far beyond redemption they are and why the creation of a mini-hell on this small island consumes them all.

Directed by Marit Moum Aune, this production creates a really strong sense of corrupted abandonment in which the two leads, despised within the community for reasons that the writer does not explain, have withdrawn into a cycle of loathed existence. Their routine annoys them and they live only to torment and hate the other, the only thing sustaining them in their vastly unvarying lives. That Edgar has a military authority to govern seems almost ludicrous and while essential to the plot following Kurt’s arrival, his lack of respect within the town and consequent inability to buy goods leaves the couple scratching an existence and creates further reasons to despise each other. Their life is the same every day, their interactions with others few and filled with the contempt of service providers and the privation of their living arrangements only worsens the punishment of their enforced co-existence.

But Aune notes a kind of mutual joy in their misery, even flickers of residual sexual attraction that lingers between them as the couple’s physical encounters border on the flirtatious even when Edgar violently grabs at his wife’s face and body. Whether he intends to harm her or wants to possess her is ambiguous in this production and neither option is fully confirmed, although it does make sense of the long years spent together as well as their continued engagement in a dangerous kind of game that both could have left or ended years before but chose not to. Life without each other is almost as inconceivable as more life together.

That this cycle of relationships exists outside of the central marriage as well is something that Strindberg explores during the few days that the audience spends with these characters, unpicking their intertwined history and how it affects their present. The misremembered idea that Kurt introduced the couple is repeated, leading to discussions on whether he is their cupid or the person to blame for the quarter century torture that has ensued. There is a strong chemistry between Alice and Kurt in the National Theatre of Norway’s production, noting a pre-existing frisson between them that may finally come to fruition more than a decade since they last saw one another.

But Strindberg is far more cynical about this than the audience and our conditioned notions of movie love stories suggest, encouraging us to believe in happy endings. Instead, Alice and Kurt fall into the same pattern of behaviour later in the play with an equivalent feisty attraction meeting potential violence and the wearing experience of too much of one person’s company with little respite. They bicker as Alice and Edgar do until the once abstemious Kurt falls into the same alcoholic pattern as his friend – is Alice the cause, this production wonders, as a common factor between the men, or is this just what all relationships are like in the end?

The second strand of this complicated dance that Aune’s production emphasises is the use of wider family members for blackmail purposes and as a tool for extorting compliance from others. This is principally Edgar’s trick and several references are made to Alice’s children being taught to despise her by their father, kept from her, she believes, by the lies their father has told them. Part of her decision to stay is the result of this use of her children. Similarly, later in the play, Edgar does the same with Kurt, a man whose relationship with his own sons is not straightforward, with custody awarded to his wife. Whether or not he abandoned his family is something Edgar is able to use to control Kurt’s time on the island and determine his future. Family for Strindberg is just another emotional connection that can be manipulated and Aune’s interpretation makes the separate dilemmas faced by Alice and Kurt quite central to their continued compliance with the demands this island places on them.

It is the wish for an ending that captivates all of them in different ways. The desire to break the cycle leads them all to terrible things and a series of spiteful acts, but it is Edgar’s health that creates the most dramatic opportunity. But Strindberg quickly suggests the double dilemma his possible demise would create for Alice, potentially evicting her from the home she has lived in for 25-years with no rights as a military widow, while assurance from the doctor of his longevity may equally encourage him to seek alternative comfort, leaving her unprotected and without finance in a period that was not kind to divorced women.

The central drama is melodramatic and excessive, sometimes aiming for big performances where perhaps the British tendency is to lower the mood and underplay the bombast or shrill emotional encounters which is quite interesting to observer. Yet it works really effectively here with Aune using a more allegorical staging to balance out and make space for the intricacies of these intense exchanges that bubble and spill out of the characters without any attempt to contain them. The lack of emotional restraint, the inability and unwillingness to hold back love, hate, passion or even mild indifference fills the stage instead and Aune’s approach does enough to suggest the wildness, disrepair and stranded state of a group of people who have not only forgotten how to live in society but no longer care.

Even Børsum’s set is in three parts that might be part of the same room but may equally be entirely separate locations, in some sense representing the three entities of this play who try but fail to come together. Sometimes characters walk across the breadth of it and others contain themselves to particular areas. Aune directs in one continuous flow with few obvious breaks between scenes or moments of complete darkness. At every point a character is onstage contemplating what is happening to their life or what the options might be, adding a growing and unremitting tension to the production that gives the audience as little relief from this situation as it does the characters.

Alice is such an interesting and impressive woman in many ways, demonstrating a level of forbearance and endurance that is admirable. But she also has an equal capacity for cruelty, just as strong as her husband and really quite unaffected by the possibility of his demise. Her complete disinterestedness in him and active attempts to harm are brilliantly realised in Pia Tjelta’s performance that vacillates between seductress, bored housewife and vicious avenger, all the while grasping at anything that will help her to escape, although she is never exactly sympathetic. Whether her feelings for Kurt are real or convenient is something Tjelta plays with throughout the show but having embarked on a particular course, she is determined to make him her life raft but seems unsurprised when she ends up back where she started.

Jon Øigarden’s performance as Edgar is sometimes harder to fathom, a largely comic approach relying on a childlike explosion of anger or sulkiness that tends to suck the air out of the room with over-elaborate fits that leaves the audience unsure whether Edgar is really sick or deliberately feigning illness to win the argument. But Øigarden makes Edgar quite dangerous, there is real threat in the way he mauls his wife and pure calculation in the latter half of the play when he tries to punish Alice and Kurt quite separately for their perceived failures towards him. No cuckold, this Edgar may have little respect in town but somehow he still has power.

Thorbjørn Harr’s is initially the only grown up in the room, an old friend dropping by and hoping to find welcome. Instead his seriousness instantly rankles, at least with Edgar who tries to drawn him into a battle about his family while Alice hopes to stir up old emotions between them. That they both succeed and drag Kurt into their game is well managed by Harr who shows his character’s gradual decline really effectively and how easily a good and decent man can be broken – underpinning Strindberg’s point that humanity is never far from degradation and it actually takes very little to destroy the thin surface of civilisation and politeness that we all cling to.

The National Theatre of Norway’s production of Dance of Death only has a short run but is an interesting and meaningful exploration of the excesses of emotion and desire in Strindberg’s play and the destructive routine of a long unhappy marriage. That this takes place in a period setting explains the limitations placed on character behaviour but Aune’s production and the complex central performances make this a really worthwhile experience and a fascinating opportunity to see Norwegian approaches to staging a classic Scandinavian text.

Dance of Death is at the Coronet Theatre until 31 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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