Tag Archives: Musical Theatre

Aspects of Love – Southwark Playhouse

Aspects of Love - Southwark Playhouse

The 1980s gave us some of the most enduring modern musicals, with shows that more than three decades later still dominate the West End. Phantom of the Opera opened in 1986 and still resides at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Les Misérables is celebrating almost 35 continuous years with a nationwide tour and a controversial revamp while a new tour of Blood Brothers (1983) begins in 2019 which also had a notable 24-year run in West End. But there are some musicals that have fallen by the wayside, overshadowed by their more steadfast counterparts. But in the last year, first Chess and now Aspects of Love have earned revivals that offer a new generation a chance to see these productions for the first time.

Anyone born after 1980 may never have seen Aspects of Love and know it only for the song Love Changes Everything which made Michael Ball a star, so the Manchester Hope Mill’s garlanded revival which transfers to the Southwark Playhouse for four weeks will be a first for many of us. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart is based on the 1955 novella by David Garnett which charts the incestuous romantic relationships of a group of bohemian friends over almost two decades. Himself a member of Bloomsbury group, it’s not difficult to see the refraction of Garnett’s own experience in the story that is darker than its quixotic title suggests.

The famous strains of Love Changes Everything open the show as former lovers meet once more at a funeral before the years roll back to the beginning of this sorry tale. The song initially seems to signal to the audience that love is a hopefully, positive force, one that will define your life for the better. Heard repeatedly out of context on LP as a child, the lyrics and emotional swell of the music have always implied a happy passion, one in which the singer welcomes the bittersweet thrill of it all. How different the unfolding tale proves to be, and heard now in context it seems Michael Ball was singing about something else altogether.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s revival’s gives you the first clue as you take your seat, what look like foxglove stems hang upside down from the ceiling, lilac and beautiful, they are romantically struck into semi-shadow by the theatre lights. But designer Jason Denvir is playing with us; beautiful on the outside but deadly within, foxgloves are the source of digitalis a dangerous and near traceless poison beloved of Agatha Christie novels and even used against James Bond in the 2005 film of Casino Royale. Love, the company want us to know is a poisonous contraction of the heart.

While providing enough open space to fit 46 songs and indicate the rapid passing of the years, the rest of the set stresses the dreamlike quality of the characters’ lives, sunset colours stream through the shuttered doors at the rear of the stage as Denvir recreates the theatres of post-war Montpellier, the cafes of Paris and George’s restful countryside villa. It has a 50’s technicolor glamour that references the golden age of Hollywood and the artistic leanings of this little group – the actress, the sculptor, the benefactor and the star-struck boy.

Despite all of this, it’s easy to see why Aspects of Love rather fell by the wayside, sandwiched between Lloyd’s Webber’s gold-plated hit The Phantom of the Opera (another novel adaptation) and Sunset Boulevard based on the 1950 film which earned its own revival two years ago with Glenn Close at The Coliseum. The fragmented nature of Aspects of Love is both its saviour and its downfall; relatively short scenes flow very quickly offering only snatches of time before years pass and characters have entirely changed location, status and relationship making it much harder to understand or sympathise with the emotions of this bed-hopping set. Repeatedly characters profess love for one another but that never keeps them from other lovers and the story rarley pauses long enough to properly engage with the psychology of these people, to really explore the multiple versions and depths of love that the show toys with.

This flitting from scene to scene also makes the show feel longer than it really is, with no clear structure to guide the viewer through to the unexpectedly open conclusion. Unlike Phantom or Sunset Boulevard there is a bagginess to the show which, with no obvious driver or drama beyond the various emotional entanglements, lacks shape. Yet, as Denvir so clearly shows in the staging, there is colour in every moment of the show, and particularly so in this Hope Mill production. Over time you start to feel there is a thesis about the changing nature of passion, the fallibility of the heart and frailty of the individual to resist another opportunity to feel loved, a craving for the kind of validation it brings whatever the cost.

And then there is the music. While Black and Hart’s lyrics never quite match the highs of Lloyd Webber’s emotive, swelling score, and the same refrains from the opening number and others are recycled too many times to be entirely satisfactory, nonetheless there is something engaging, charming and, at times, even moving in the way the show builds as a whole. If you’ve watched enough Royal Variety Performances or theatre concerts you may even recognise more songs than you thought ,with numbers including wistful duet Seeing is Believing, the swaying tones of The First Man You Remember and the powerful ache of Anything But Lonely, all of which are as good as anything Lloyd Webber ever wrote, but a shame to hear them with only a piano here.

O’Boyle’s production staged in the ¾ round at the Southwark Playhouse makes a reasonable case for the return of Aspects of Love to the Lloyd Webber canon. There is a playful quality to the first act in which love affairs begin and hearts are carelessly broken with little thought for the consequences. There is no sense of foreboding, no future waiting to claim them, just endless summers, optimism and a couple of love triangles that reek of bohemian freedom, enhanced by some well-staged ensemble numbers.

Aspects of Love is full of slightly troubling age-gap relationships, starting with the connection between the ardent 17-year old Alex and the older Rose who appropriately appears in The Master Builder when they first meet. Sweet and idealistic, it takes place in secluded picnic spots away from reality, but O’Boyle’s production is clear that the characters are on parallel tracks (a trait to be repeated in the love stories to follow), being nothing more than a harmless fling for Rose, while a defining passion for Alex that he is expected to grow out of – everyone needs to get their heart broken at least once. The entrance of the more mature Uncle George offers Rose stability and an open relationship, welcoming his other younger lover Giulietta into the home.

Act II marks a notable shift in tone and, 12-years on, Rose now entertains her own adoring fans in Paris, while married to George who cares for their daughter Jenny at the Pau villa. Giulietta’s unexplained absence after years of happiness is portentous, writing to say she cannot be with them, just as Alex re-enters the picture, forming a connection to the 14-year old Jenny that becomes incredibly problematic both for the strange ménage and for the audience. With the passing of the years, it’s hard to know how this particularly unsavoury aspect was originally perceived by audiences, but the characters take it surprisingly in their stride, whether they just fail to notice or fail to act is never entirely clear but the result is too underplayed for the severity of the subject matter and the implied collusion of her parents leaves a slightly bitter taste.

As Alex, Felix Mosse’s puppy love for a rising actress gives way to jealousy, rage and resentment as he imagines her drifting away before she eventually does. Having spent 30-years hearing Michael Ball’s verdant take on the opening number Mosse’s rendition is rather clipped and quiet by comparison, offering a quieter, guarded performance that gives little away throughout the show. In fairness, there’s not much in the character of Alex for Mosse to get his teeth into so while the experience and then memory of his grand passion for Rose propel the story, Mosse navigates the fluctuations between outrage and mild acceptance as well as he can. Yet, it is not until the far more inappropriate attraction to Jenny, who is more than half his age, that he is able to amplify his inner turmoil most effectively.

It is Kelly Price’s Rose who comes most sharply into view through this production, a woman who craves love in all its forms while searching for a permanency she can return to when her temporary amours are over. Price’s semi-operatic voice fits the range of Lloyd Webber’s music extremely well giving life to songs as well as reflecting the passing years in Rose’s growing comfort and complacency. Price is particularly affecting in the final moments of the show, tearing at the heart with the sorrowful and haunting Anything But Lonely in which her free-spirited exuberance reveals an essential vulnerability that makes sense of her choices, creating genuine empathy for a woman who has had to make her own way in the world by whatever means she can.

The leads are supported by notable performances from Madalena Alberto as artist Giulietta who makes you wish the character had a much bigger role, Jerome Pradon who brings texture and feeling as lascivious Uncle George, as well as Eleanor Walsh as the precocious Jenny who certainly brings an uncomfortable and earnest sexuality to the part even if she doesn’t always suggest quite how young Jenny really is.

This production of Aspects of Love certainly gives rise to a number of conflicting feelings and, troubling as the story now is, the music and energy of it have lasted remarkably well, and there are quite deliberate references to La Boehme, The Master Builder and Chekhov that draw on themes about the liberation of nature, city life and a romantic connection to the past that underlie much of the action. You will remember this as a moment of happiness Alex is frequently told, the convolutions and pain of his love affairs reduced by time and memory. The show itself may perhaps benefit from a modern reworking to iron out the more distasteful elements, but Aspects of Love should be fondly remembered.

Aspects of Love is at Southwark Playhouse until 9 February. Tickets are £27 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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The Grinning Man – Trafalgar Studios

The Grinning Man, Bristol Old Vic

However much theatre you see, it is rare to find something that is truly magical, and in the week before Christmas few things will gladdened the heart as completely as Bristol Old Vic’s production of The Grinning Man now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. If you’re not a panto person, can’t face another version of A Christmas Carol and are by now shouting “humbug” at a festive period that started in earnest in October, then this glorious adaptation of Victor Hugo’s dark tale hits all the right notes to tally with your mood, melting your icy exterior with its focus on pain, rejection and injustice.

There is something very distinctive about a Victor Hugo story and even when translated for the stage, the essential characteristics are the same. Whether you’ve read all 1000+ pages of Les Misérables (and you should it’s stunning), or seen the musical, or even watched versions of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, Hugo’s writing manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, covering grand sweeps of history and decades in a character’s life, giving anatomies of entire cities, while focusing on the slog of every day living, the physical and emotional fragility of individual characters, rich or poor united by a common humanity.

The Grinning Man does exactly that, weaving together high and low in a complex story of brutalisation and loss of innocence. As a child Grinpayne is savagely mutilated with his face sliced from ear to ear in a permanent grin. Hidden beneath bandages and orphaned, the boy finds a baby crying in the snow where the two are taken in by a local man who raises them as his own. Years later, at the palace, the three bored children of the King find themselves captivated by the ugly-beautiful face they see at the local fair and set out to know him better. But the man’s history starts to emerge, and very soon the Grinning Man will find out who he really is.

The success of this production lies in the sincerity of Carl Grose’s text, supported by an emotive score by Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, and an absorbing vision from director Tom Morris that marries a shabby travelling circus aesthetic with warped fairy tale quality. Working with Jon Bausor’s design, and while seemingly set in the eighteenth-century, this is a far cry from the cliched vision of downtrodden urchins in designer dirt. Instead we’re offered a semi-fantastical world driven by the characters rather than the period setting, in which the macabre moments are perfectly balanced with humour and romance. It’s never allowed to be either too maudlin or too light, but is constantly full of complexity as characters, divested of their innocence, aspire to be more than they are.

The notion of dreams runs through the show, uniting the key players in their desire to be someone different, a desire that is shared equally among rich and poor, whether it’s the wealthy royal children craving real emotion and escape from the imprisonment of their privilege, or Grinpayne’s adoptive father Ursus (Sean Kingsley) exploiting his son to take them all to a better life in the new world.

Morris’s production implies a permanent night in which characters and sets appear abruptly from the surrounding darkness. It has benefited from some revision and a slightly shorter run time since its first outing in Bristol, but still focuses on all the classic Hugo themes – a sense of personal injustice, a lifelong quest for truth, father-daughter relationships, the transition between the generations and spiritual uplift in moments of political upheaval – and shrouds them in a carefully conceived gothic wrapping that draws together a variety of innovative techniques to keep the audience enraptured.

Initially, the story of the Grinning Man is told to bored Prince Dirry-Moir who escapes to see the fair, but he soon becomes involved in Grinpayne’s life along with his lustful sister Josiana. Using Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie’s child-sized puppets, primarily in the first half, the history of Grinpayne’s tragic childhood is brought engagingly to life, partially operated by his grown-up self, played by Louis Maskell. The addition of a giant wolf that the Ursus family keep as a pet, superbly rendered by combining a mask head and front paws with performer Loren O’Dair as the hind-legs, will impress fans of the War Horse puppeteers. This is highly sophisticated work that seamlessly blends marionettes with the real actors to keep the show on the border of unreality, underscoring Morris’s heightened vision.

The audience is told repeatedly that all who look on the Grinning Man are entirely compelled by him, and Louis Maskell’s performance as Grinpayne is the heart of the show. His lower face is covered by a prosthetic sling and, for the most part, a bandage, so Maskell is only able to use his eyes and voice to deliver all the complexity and suffering of a social outcast, pushed beyond the bounds of normalcy by his disfigurement. It is also an intensely physical performance, and Maskell uses his full body to convey the deep-rooted anguish that has shaped Grinpayne’s character, and you frequently see the strain ripple through his neck and upper body, as he conveys an endless contortion of soul.

Yet, he retains an essential innocence, a purity that raises him above the other characters despite his physical shape, reinforcing Hugo’s notion that external appearance and goodness are not always aligned. Maskell’s voice is extraordinary, with a range and depth that display the complexity of his experience, and in a powerful performance he manifests the combination of loss, fear, determination, love and self-discovery that mark his development as the plot unfolds, demonstrating Grinpayne’s charisma and appeal to the audience. It is extremely skilled work to convey all of this with only half a face.

Of the surrounding cast, there are notable performances from Amanda Wilkin as the sex-crazed Duchess Josiana and Mark Anderson as comically arrogant Prince Dirry-Moir, both living a lifestyle of high hedonism but unable to feel real emotion. And while there is plenty of saucy humour in the female role which Wilkin elicits, she avoids making Josiana entirely cartoonish and instead hints at a woman equally pained by her circumstances, as both she and her brother seek a kind of liberation from their encounter with Grinpayne.

Sean Turner’s Ursus must navigate an equally interesting path through the show, taking him from the lonely and noble widower who houses two abandoned children, raising them as his own, to a man who exploits his mutilated son to win the chance for them all to escape abroad. Turner unfolds the intricacy of Hugo’s character, a man shaped by the circumstances of his life, making bad decisions, often for good reasons, with a similar need to find redemption and atonement.

Hugo’s writing rarely has outright villains, and one of the things he shows so well is how characters are driven by different beliefs and purposes that cause them to clash. Grose stays faithful to this idea with Barkilphedro, the sullied clown and servant to the Royal Family, who in Julian Bleach’s performance is a sinister and resentful figure whose unrewarded loyalty drives the machinations of the plot. By contrast, Hugo includes a highly angelic, if deeply insipid, young love interest – think Cosette in Les Misérables –  and here Sanne den Besten assumes that role as Dea, the blind child Grinpayne rescues from the snow, who grows up with him and becomes his intended. den Besten sings beautifully in what is a bland role and the relationship between Dea and Grinpayne is the only duff note in the show. For the more cynical it may be too much to believe that a virtual brother and sister with so unevenly weighted characters are a perfect pairing.

The Grinning Man may not a be suitable for children (it has an age limit of 12 years), and it’s certainly not a Christmas show in any way, but within the grotesque world that Grose, Morris, Teitler and Phillips create there is a rare and genuine theatre magic. Amidst the endlessly enforced Christmas spirit, it is in this half-way world between fantasy and reality that something entirely unexpected happens, a genuine festive warmth emerges from this tale of broken humanity, sending even the most hardened audience members home with thoughts of goodwill to all men. So, kudos to the Bristol Old Vic, the creators and cast of The Grinning Man, you have achieved what no one else ever has, you have broken London and made it a better place… well, at least until the New Year. Happy Christmas!

The Grinning Man is at Trafalgar Studios until 14 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1.


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