Tag Archives: musical

Flowers for Mrs Harris – Chichester Festival Theatre Broadcast

Flowers for Mrs Harris - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

The reponse from the arts community to the restrictions of the COVID pandemic has been remarkable; theatre buildings may be closed for a few months but online the industry is thriving with almost overwhelming numbers of productions available to stream, remote theatre and musical events being put together and new content being uploaded regularly. The speed and dexterity with which this has all happened has been astonishing with audiences consuming it in their millions, yes millions! Some of the newer events are for charity including a screening of sell-out event Fleabag where for a few pounds, donated to support NHS workers, as well as theatremakers and staff affected by closures, you can watch one of the hot ticket shows of the last few years at a fraction of the £200 top seat price in the West End. But much of the content available is completely free to keep the community of theatre-lovers alive, and last week Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) also joined the party.

The theatre in Chichester has long been a major feeder location for the West End, transferring numerous productions in recent years including Ian McKellen’s moving King Lear, a superb version of Private Lives with Anna Chancellor and Toby Stephens, and James Graham’s last big hit Quiz which has been reworked as a three-part television drama broadcast from tonight. CFT has also had major success with musical productions including Half a Sixpence which came to London, so the choice of last year’s Flowers for Mrs Harris to launch its production screening programme is an interesting one.

Looking at the synopsis, it would be easy to dismiss Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor’s show, which premiered in 2016 at the Sheffield Theatre, as a frivolous, inconsequential thing in which a Working Class cleaner in the late 1940s dreams of owning a Dior dress, a consumerist fantasy about fashion that has little to tell us. But across the 2 hours and 15 minutes of this life-affirming production, you will be enchanted by its heart, fall in love with its sweetly self-effacing central character and be swept away by the importance of even the smallest of dreams. For this is the rarest of things, a Working Class musical.

Seeing Blood Brothers again on its recent UK tour, it was a striking reminder of how few musicals truly explore the Working Class experience and even fewer from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. The big new shows of the past few years – HadestownSix and Dear Evan Hansen – are balanced by film to stage translations of American movies such as Heathers9 to 5 and Waitress, none of which had class as a key driver. Apart from Billy Elliot, also a film adaptation, and a Spend, Spend, Spend revival which popped-up at the Union Theatre in 2015, the Working Class have been largely excluded from the modern musical. Even plays tend to be quite narrow in their depiction of Working Class characters (usually living in blocks of flats, dealing drugs or participating in antisocial behaviour), so this heartwarming depiction of a hard-working woman whose decency and humanity make her dreams come true is a tonic in more ways than one.

This production has been filmed with considerable care and with good quality camerwork. It is a broad stage at Chichester and while occasionally the intimacy of the first half looks a little lost in the expanse, on the whole the balance between capturing the myriad interactions Mrs Harris has with clients and friends that demonstrate the breadth of her world, as well as the psychological development of her character as she learns that wish fulfillment is not all it seems, are well presented in the use of wideshots and close-ups throughout the show. But the filming style really comes into its own in Act Two as the story moves to the Dior showroom in Paris, transporting the audience to the Hollywood Golden Age influence by films featuring fashion sequences including Funny Face and Singing in the Rain, as well as the warmly fantastical visuals of An American in Paris.

Director Daniel Evans draws those contrasts so well, comparing Mrs Harris’s dream and the reality of her life in post-war London with some skill. Designer Lez Brotherston takes his influence from cinema in the heightened reality of both locations, delineated by charming painted and staged backdrops of the very different London and Paris skylines. The Battersea of 1947 is overshadowed by the circular metal scale of gas towers and the close-packed terraced housing of the era. Ada Harris’s home is a represented by a welcoming kitchen table and cupboard that imply simplicity but easy comfort, a small but cosy flat where neighbours and friends drop by for tea and cake. The homes of her customers are even simpler, a scattering of clothes and props on the revolve around the central circle, all on a cobbled floor that doubles seamlessly for the streets of London and of fashionable Paris.

In Act Two, the French capital fills the stage more fully and the production really comes into its own as a fashion show transforms it with colour and beauty. Brotherston has created a grand central staircase that references the famous Chanel Steps and adds elegance to the showcase of stunning gowns that Mrs Harris finally gets to witness – and note the newness of the designs and the fresh influence of Dior in the years after the Second World War was considerable and suprising after years of rationing and austerity. The revolve is put to good use here too as a slightly expanded set of characters linked to the fashion house emerge including the head seamstress, the manager and accountant as well as a lonely young model and charming fellow customer. It is a whirl of soft-focus glamour and dreamlike appeal which on camera has the rosy glow and pizzazz of an MGM 50s musical, a cartoony vision centered around a character whose gentle charm grows with every moment of the production.

“Every woman is a princess” is this show’s mantra, inspired by a phrase in the Dior catalogue that well to do Lady Dant gives to Ada after admiring the splendid evening gown she sees in her wardrobe. And in many ways this is a classic story of Working Class aspiration, where, just like Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, Ada Harris dreams of a better life, a different kind of world that could have been hers had she been born in a different class. The light comparison in Act One between Ada and Lady Dant mirrors that between Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers, a chance to juxtapose lives and purpose.

But Wagstaff and Taylor are offering something far more complex in fact, and while Ada covets the beautiful gown, her reasons are personal and meaningful, while at no point does she express any dissatisfaction with her lot in life or desire to be anyone other than she is. It is crucial that she wants the dress purely as an object of art, not to wear or to be someone else, but to lift her spirits of an evening by admiring its cut and flow, a right she has earned by saving and working hard rather than by luck or happenstance. And that is what makes this show so heartwarming, that all she wants is a little unobtainable beauty in her life as any of us might admire a painting or scenic view.

And one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story is how it continues to subvert your expectation throughout, including an upending revelation in the final moments of Act One as the audience realises things have not been quite what they seem. There are no easy ways out for these characters, so when Ada finally has some luck in the early part of the show and you expect that she will inevitably end up in Paris, before long that dream once again has moved out of reach as fate steps in to dampen the effect of the lucky break.

The message instead focuses on hardwork and kindness in achieving your goals, that participating in community, as Ada does and her clients go on to learn, brings manifold rewards for everyone – surely a message for our times. So as Ada gives her attention and care to the sweet aspiring photographer, the grumbling major, the isolated Countess and the selfish wannabe actress as well as the equivalent workers of Dior that she meets only for a couple of days, Ada as much as any of then learns the value of that connectedness – goodness is its own reward.

What a delightful performance from Clare Burt as Mrs Harris and the camerawork ensures you really come to know and root for her by the end of the night. Her charm lies in her essential decency, a motherly approach to her customers’ chaotic lives and the hardworking acceptance of every trial and tribulation. When discussing the dress, Burt’s face lights up with a childlike wonder at discovering something quite beyond her experience and imagination hitherto, but there is incredible pathos as the audience learns more about this quiet but resolute woman whose earlier life has been unceremoniously packed away. You really feel for her as her dreams come true and generate their own set of consequences which Burt charts with care and sensitivity while never detracting from the determination and drive  to make the best of every situation, largely for the benefit of others.

The secondary cast double roles as Ada’s London clients and friends as well as their Parisian equivalents in Dior. Having been so wonderful in The Grinning Man (and a streamed version of that would be a delight right now), Louis Maskell tackles two accountants in love with an unobtainable girl. The Parisian version Andre has most of the limelight and Maskell draws out the comic nervousness of a shy young man with big wobbly gestures and a hesitancy that becomes very sweet. Laura Pitt-Pulford as his love interest is two quite different girls, the sulky and histrionic Pamela in London as well as the reluctant model who longs to forego the parties for a more homely life. Gary Wilmot is a gruff military man desperate to rediscover the foxtrot and an exuberant fashion house manager, while Joanna Riding takes on two pivotal roles as the dress-owning society Dame and the Dior frontwoman whose gruff exterior melts in Mrs Harris’s presence. Lovely work too from Mark Meadows as the gentle Arthur Harris encouraging his wife to go for her dreams and take care of herself.

Daniel Evans’s production may on camera seem a little stranded on the wide stage which offers little variation in the staging of Act One, but the transition to Paris is brilliantly achieved and by then the loveliness of the tale has already taken hold. One Man, Two Guvnors was a morale-boosting romp last week while Flowers for Mrs Harris is the sweet story of goodness and community we all need to hear. Far from frivolous, this fashion-based drama is a great choice for Chichester Festival Theatre’s inaugural broadcast, from a venue that so often gets it right. Perfect escapism.

Flowers for Mrs Harris is available for free on the Chichester Festival Theatre website until 8 May. 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.

Curtains: The Musical Comedy – Wyndhams Theatre

Curtains - Touring Production (by Richard Davenport)

Christmas is the perfect time for a murder mystery, the dark nights, the cold weather that makes you want to bustle up and the obligatory frustration of people gathering together for enforced celebration feel like the perfect setting for a bit of seasonal homicide. From Agatha Christie to Georges Simenon, plenty of mysteries have been based in the festive period, usually in isolated mansions, cut off by blizzards from the the outside world as a disparate family or group with an axe decide to grind it. And for an audience, we love the opportunity to embrace the cosy drama of it all, relishing the chance to pit ourselves against the lone detective as we work out the connection between the victim, suspects and plenty of unearthed secrets.

Curtains: The Musical Comedy arrives in London at just the right time and while it’s not set at Christmas or even discernibly wintery, it nonetheless feels like a perfect festive treat in the most theatrical of wrappers. And it is certainly a gift to the Wyndhams Theatre after the disastrous Man in the White Suit crashed out of the West End after horrible reviews and poor ticket sales, leaving a 4 week slot available for this transfer (and the West End premiere) of Kander and Ebb’s musical which has been touring the UK in the last few months, earning critical and audience applause – a feat it repeated at last week’s press night.

Curtains is in some ways a strange splicing of theatre and narrative styles, simultaneously – and ambitiously – telling the story of a murder but also the journey from out of town flop in Boston to viable Broadway show, along with the backstage politics that make every member of this large Company a potential suspect. Naturally, across its 2 hours and 45-minute run-time these different strands compete for primacy with the murder investigation often taking a backseat as other storylines are established and followed with greater energy.

The mixed-style of the piece also merges songs written specifically for the Western musical-within-a-musical that the Company are producing, as well as numbers sung by the characters playing actors and their detective behind the scenes, which adds to what is a rich and complex proposition for any stage musical. Yet somehow it works, the energy of it carrying the show between delightful set-pieces while steadily advancing the plot – this is more than just a whodunnit, Kander and Ebb want to immerse you in the theatrical world of actors, producers, directors and investors to understand quite what’s at stake when putting on a show.

Famed for creating Chicago and Cabaret, John Kander, Fred Ebb and book writer Rupert Holmes created Curtains  in the early 2000s with an eventual Broadway transfer in 2007, and the whole show is an unabashed celebration of musical theatre. And in a strong year for new London productions, Curtains finishes 2019 on a high with a true song and dance show that glories in its love of the stage and the process of putting on a production. It is a very different style of show to the sultry atmosphere of Kander and Ebb’s earlier work, a glossier, glitzier and somewhat sanitised vision of human nature where not even some silly murders will stop the show from going on.

It has tones of 42nd Street and A Chorus Line on stage in the way it blends the action in front of and behind the curtain, but there’s also plenty of old Hollywood in there too with the 1959 setting allowing the design and choreography to draw on the big MGM movies which set the standard for song and dance on film. The central premise of Curtains is a theatre-loving detective who needs to simultaneously find the killer by refusing to let the cast and crew leave the building while helping them to fix the ailing Robin Hood musical that has failed to impress the Boston critics – the fact the story of the Nottinghamshire outlaw is relocated to the Wild West doesn’t raise so much as an eyebrow, so it’s best just to go with it. It is a fun twist on the generic Colombo-type investigator by giving him a sideline in amateur theatrics and a director’s eye for detail and drama.

There is plenty to enjoy in Paul Foster’s production; the staging of the Western sections take on a heightened quality to differentiate them from the rest of the story with some zesty numbers, well choreographed by Alistair David, that reference the golden era of Hollywood. The Act One finale ‘Thataway!’, the eventual restyling of ‘In the Same Boat’ and ‘Wide Open Spaces’ in Act Two are particularly enjoyable calling on influences from the Cyd Charisse sections of ‘Broadway Melody’ in Singin’ in the Rain and there’s a clear nod to Oklahoma and, of course, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in the light and upbeat dance stylisation that emphasies open gestures and Technicolor charm directed right at the audience.

There are some great dance performance here too across the ensemble who tirelessly provide a lot of the texture with syncopated group numbers that draw on line and folk dance, while the foregrounded performance of Alan Burkitt as the Robin Hood character (actor Bobby in the backstage world) is full of balletic skill with his performance of the jazz choreography particularly accomplished. His “pas de deux for two” partner Elaine (Emma Caffrey) who likes to be known as “Bambi” is a great match for him in the penultimate number in an impressive sequence.

Outside of the ailing show, the suspects pile up – as do the bodies – although the show doesn’t have the usual drive and looming sense of doom that characterises most murder mysteries. Depending on what you’re hoping for from Curtains that may be a negative as the story frequently digresses to focus on other types of theatrics, but the possible motives abound and as the story unfolds various characters come more firmly into the spotlight which draws the plot back to the central puzzle. Across Act Two this eventually builds to a high stakes denouement that makes for a satisfying conclusion to the murder, romance and musical rewrite co-plots as well as throwing up a few surprises to tie-up loose ends.

While primarily known for his work as a comedian Jason Manford proves he’s a rounded theatre performer at heart, instilling his interpretation of Detective Frank Cioffi with boyish excitement at being among a company of actors. There is a glee in his interactions with the various suspects that calls on the character’s experience as an amateur and dreams of joining a professional company, so Manford finds lots of humour in Cioffi’s semi-star-struck interactions. There’s also a nice symmetry to the parallel plots which centre around Cioffi’s problem solving ability and Manford makes it entirely credible that the policeman could sift through the evidence while simultaneously offering independent advice on the musical’s failings. Finally, Manford’s Cioffi offers a surface naivety, developing a sweet intimacy with suspect Niki that keeps the audience guessing about the outcome, while his singing voice in their duets ‘Coffee Shop Nights’ and ‘A Tough Act to Follow’ is delightful.

Carley Stenson’s lyricist turned replacement leading lady Georgia is wonderfully sympathetic, wowing the audience with an early rendition of ‘Thinking of Him’ before delivering the sassy ‘Thatawaty!’ in her Western role that shows her character’s developing confidence. There’s a love triangle with Burkitt’s Bobby and Georgia’s songwriter ex-husband Aaron played by Andy Coxon (from 6 January this role is played by Ore Oduba) whose lovelorn version of ‘I Miss the Music’ is a treat. As well as showcasing her dance skills, Caffrey’s “Bambi” also well represents the pushy young actress desperate to improve her part by stealing the limelight but resentfully held in check by a critical mother, which Caffrey vividly creates. And not forgetting a great turn from Samuel Holmes as snooty English director Christopher Belling whose razor sharp put-downs and one liners lift many a scene.

Further texture comes from the characters who represent the business of show, especially the excellent Rebecca Lock as producer Carmen, locked in battles with her husband and balancing the budget as she decides to defy the critics and take the show to Broadway somehow. Lock has some great numbers including the hilarious ‘It’s a Business’ which is a fierce dismissal of art in favour of theatre’s money-making purpose. And the different theatre perspectives are completed by a fleeting glance at an evil critic from the Boston Globe, Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles) whose hatchet job propels the show as well as inspiring the comic song ‘What Kind of Man’ sung by the creative team behind the Robin Hood musical. With all of that happening backstage, there’s plenty to kill for.

Curtains isn’t a perfect show and for something that shines a spotlight on the complex relationships and trade-offs behind the scenes, the characters are largely impressionistic, while at times it becomes overly distracted by the numerous romantic entanglements rather than tightly focusing on murder, mystery and motive. But, there is so much love for musical theatre, the process of co-creating a show as well as the joy of song and dance that the warmth and enthusiasm of this production is sure to win you over. Concluding its West End engagement, Curtains goes back on the road until April visiting venues across the country including Sunderland, Llandudno, Liverpool, Glasgow and Southampton, and while now may feel like the right time of year for a cosy puzzle don’t miss the chance to see this charming show in a venue near you. Perhaps murder mysteries aren’t just for Christmas after all.

Curtains: The Musical Comedy is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 11 January with tickets from £17.50 and then touring until 11 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

Ghost Quartet – Boulevard Theatre

Ghost Quartet - Boulevard Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

The first show in a new theatre is both intriguing and exciting; for an audience member it is a chance to see a new space, to understand its possible configuration while assessing its comfort, sight-lines and to an extent its style. With new theatres popping up all the time, there’s a feeling of change across theatreland and a focus on big commercial venues including a new Nimax build by Tottenham Court Road Station and a second theatre for Nicholas Hytner at King’s Cross. And while there is a cost to some smaller venues like The Bunker which has announced permanent closure in the Spring, others like the King’s Head and Southwark Playhouse are also heading to new purpose-built venues. Somewhere in between is the new Boulevard Theatre, a classy, intimate space in the heart of once-seedy Soho which held its first press night last week for inaugural production Ghost Quartet.

In an area still undergoing extensive corporate redevelopment, this new theatre is a stylish and very comfortable addition to the West End landscape. Complete with a bar and restaurant all modishly decked in pink surfaces and rainforest wallpaper, the auditorium itself is an intimate space arranged in the round for its first unveiling. A central floorspace of burnished copper acts as the stage, with individual chairs – no flip-up stalls here – and an upstairs balcony area with additional seating. In any configuration, the audience will always feel part of the action while the entire concept has a 60s Mad Men vibe that suits the cabaret feel to the opening show.

Ticket prices are fairly reasonable for the area at £24-£36 – down on Shaftesbury Avenue a restricted view in the Balcony would be at least that with the best stalls view now at over a £100 – while the £12 Roulette Ticket scheme is a potential masterstroke if you book early. 10 tickets are available for every performance with seats allocated at random on the day.

Choosing a show to launch your brand new theatre should feel significant, it needs to showcase the facilities, technology and creativity of the artistic team while somehow advocating the brand, what sets it apart from other venues and showing what audiences can expect from the season ahead. But does anyone really remember these first shows with any notability? When the National Theatre launched in 1963 it chose Hamlet, while more recently in 2017 Nicholas Hytner christened the new Bridge Theatre stage with Richard Bean’s Young Marx which opened to warm if not ecstatic reviews but arguably remains the best new play the venue has managed to produce in the subsequent two years.

The Boulevard Theatre has chosen to host the London debut of Dave Malloy’s strange musical Ghost Quartet, and in some ways it is a curious decision. With its fragmented stories and concept-album structure, this is a show that requires the audience to pay attention as several different narratives are woven together, told in a jumbled, mix-up way, out of sequence, and even then you may not be sure exactly what is happening. And while it doesn’t feel like a show you’ll remember much about in a few months time, director Bill Buckhurst marshals the resources of the new venue to create an atmospheric and entertaining experience.

It is the right time of year for a stories of death and remembrance, officially opening on Halloween, Ghost Quartet uses four performers to tell four thematically related stories across 90-minutes. Unusually, the show is conscious of it’s album-like roots, announcing the Side (of which there are of course four) and Track number ahead of every song which has a way of disrupting the rhythm so the audience isn’t drawn too far into any single story, but it also helps to maintain the flow, like chapter headings announcing changes of direction and musical style.

Malloy’s four narrators take on multiple roles throughout the piece, performing as different characters as well as playing all of the music on the instruments that litter the stage. There is no formal scene setting or book, every story is directly created within each ‘track’ so the performers must use the lyrics to conjure the changing locations, settings and scenarios, while moving back and forth between them as Malloy weaves between his various tales.

Most recognisable is a version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher which recurs throughout Ghost Quartet as Roxie Usher dies after her child is taken from her and her family keep her body in a vault beneath her mother’s bedroom. In a series of songs entitled ‘Usher’, the narrative moves back and forth through time as the seven year old Roxie talks about an imaginary best friend before later returning from the dead. In another strand two sisters Rose Red and Pearl White vie for the affections of The Astronomer who tries to show them both the constellations, but in the third section Rose Red enlist the help of a magic bear (yes really) to kill her love rival but must gather ingredients for a magic potion, while in the final story a young woman named Pearl is pushed onto the tracks at a subway station.

The names Rose and Pearl connects several of these stories, all in some way versions of the same women but interacting with each other differently depending on the narrative. It is sometimes confusing whether it’s the jealous Rose Red in the Astronomer’s story or the young Rose with a camera who sees Pearl’s train track murder who is being referenced and in Buckhurst’s version they are the same performer. But Malloy’s approach is deliberately opaque, making a wider point about the ways in which all human machinations end the same way, in our obsession with death and regret.

On a stage cluttered with musical instruments, furniture and an assortment of junk that reflects the eclectic tone of the piece, Simon Kenny’s design is not so much a set as a studio, albeit one with different layers allowing Buckhurst to vary the height at different points as stories reach crescendo or talk of the stars. Yet, anything that too obviously suggests time, place or character is deliberately held back, the room is a musician’s space not an actor’s one, and despite the busy mass of items that come close to the audience, nothing detracts from the prominence of the song lyrics and storytelling focus. Emphasis is created by Emma Chapman with a lighting design that adds texture to everything from cheery group numbers to haunting solos and dramatic strobe effects during the Poe horror sections.

And perhaps in a clear signal of what to expect from future Boulevard productions, there is an focus on fully interacting with the audience, passing out glasses of whiskey as they sing ‘Four Friends’, a few boxes of percussion instruments to shake in time with the beat during the Side One finale ‘Any Kind of Dead Person’ and a cunning use of people from the front row to actually play instruments in the show’s concluding number ‘The Wind and Rain.’ It’s all done with ease, as though the barrier between performers and viewers barely exists which is usually so hard to achieve in live theatre or even concerts. The space encourages direct involvement the way listening to an album at home feels like a personal experience with the musicians.

Malloy’s musical influences are as eclectic as his narrative ones, and the 23-song soundtrack use a piano, cello, drums and guitar as their base but incorporate all kinds of percussion and other instruments to create sounds as diverse as folk music, ballads, gospel and avant-garde styles amongst others. And despite its disconnected approach, there’s something about Malloy’s combinations that works, it may not always make a lot of sense as a complete experience but it always maintains your interest. There is a lively warmth to the production which despite its subject matter helps you to feel included even when you’re lost in its twists and helps to maintain an energy that drives your investment as it unfolds.

Performers Carly Bawden, Niccolò Curradi, Maimuna Memon and Zubin Varla are hugely talented actor-musicians with the very difficult job of guiding the audience through so many bits of narrative. Together they create the changing atmosphere of Malloy’s songs and it is testament to their skills and performance as a company that they hold this eclectic evening together. They look to Varla – recently seen in the West End transfer of Equus – on the piano to set the tempo who brings a darkness to his role as The Astronomer, with Memon adding a haunting quality as the various Pearl characters, while Bawden adds emotion and occasionally an ethereal quality as the Roses.

Reminiscent of Hadestown a similar concept-album approach that reimagined the song cycle of musical theatre, Ghost Quartet is a interesting experience if not always a satisfying or even a very clear one, so in what has been a very big year for musicals it may be easily forgotten. Malloy’s experimental musical does however take the building blocks of the genre in a new and unusual direction by utilising different music styles and a fragmented structural approach which certainly has presence in the intimacy of this new performance space. If this inaugural show means the new Boulevard Theatre is setting out its stall for a programme of unusually staged and challenging productions in the future then there is every reason to come back soon.

Ghost Quartet is at the Boulevard Theatre until 4 January with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

Les Miserables: The Stage Concert – Gielgud Theatre

Les Miserables The Staged Concert - Gielgud Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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