Tag Archives: Musical

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] – Park Theatre

Tony Blair became an MP and Prime Minister with the sole intention of meeting Mick Jaggers [sic], at least in Harry Hill and Steve Brown’s new satire Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera]. With a political story that includes celebrity, double dealing, royalty, charisma, war and the allure of a mega-watt smile, this world premiere production at the Park Theatre is already striking a chord well ahead of its Press Night later this week. Perfect fodder for a grand operatic story set to a lively rock, vaudeville and musical theatre score, the experience and consequences of political populism are mercilessly mocked while, like all great lampoonery from the cartoons of the eighteenth-century to the hey day of 1980s Spitting Image, it contains a bedrock of truth for our times.

The 1990s are very much back in vogue with big cultural reappraisals of its music – including reflections on the influence of The Spice Girls and Oasis – its clothing and the political shifts from 18 years of Conservatism to the glamorous hope of New Labour. Slightly ahead of that particular curve, James Graham’s Labour of Love in 2017 re-evaluated the effect of New Labour with a time travel drama set in a fictionalised northern working class constituency as the party tore itself apart over its fresh face. Last year, the BBC followed up on its excellent assessment of Thatcher with a five-part series on Labour focused on the division between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair that shaped the political agenda for over a decade. Both have lain the groundwork for Hill and Brown’s musical that covers much of the same period but with a much jauntier, though no less savage, take on Blair’s fraught premiership. Over two hours of performance, Tony! carefully and cunningly charts the rise and fall of the most successful and most controversial Labour Prime Minister of recent decades.

Hill and Brown structure their story in two Acts, Blair’s ascent told as biography and then as a tightly focused second half on the personalities and key decision-making moments leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All of this pivots from a standard but useful dramatic device, the deathbed reckoning, where the much older Blair is asked to weigh up his achievements and failings. Tony! essentially asks the same of the audience, to decide whether the here presented egomania and failure of judgement in the later years does and should eclipse the better, brighter moments of Blair’s first term in office. And, while the answer to that at a 25-year distance may seem easy, entrenched even in our knowledge of what came next, Hill and Brown challenge us by wondering whether it was all Blair’s fault and the responsibility the electorate must bear for voting for him even after the war. The World is Run By Assholes the finale song decries and we put them there.

Our guide through the story is somewhat appropriately Peter Mandelson who arrives in a puff of smoke and with a crack of thunder, playing up his oily, Blair-devoted loyalty. This fourth-wall-breaking creation interacts directly with the audience, introducing scenes and characters, commenting on events and marshalling history as Tony! compresses more than ten years of political activity into two hours of stage time. But Mandelson’s role sets the tone for plenty of irreverent activity with asides, direct appeals to the audience and attempts to engage people in a sequence of events that most will have already lived through once. And largely it works very well, the silliness of Tony! earning big laughs from the start as the show races through his privileged early years, time at Oxford, revoking a pop music career for politics, marriage and Parliamentary rise, all to meet his hero Mick Jaggers [sic].

The story has more or less written itself, so Hill and Brown look to characterisation for most of the comedy, avoiding direct impressions with the need to look or sound like their counterpart by creating broad interpretations of individuals based on a single characteristic or activity that gives the audience a hook to recognise figures in the story each time they appear. And as few of them require more than a surface introduction in the back of what is Blair’s story, the approach works consistently well, offering opportunities for the surreal slapstick that has become Hill’s trademark while creating opportunities for repeat laughs with versions of the same gag when individuals reappear in later scenarios.

So, John Prescott is all beer-guzzling machismo with a thick northern accent offering everyone a pint, Robin Cook a quietly spoken liberal more interested in his extra-marital affairs than his ministerial duties, Mandelson known as ‘Mandy’ is obsequious and almost cacklingly dark, while Neil Kinnock and John Smith are fleeting figures passed almost in montage as Blair rises to the top. With Blair himself pretty much the straight-man in all of this – defined more by a few well-known mannerisms than any particularly eccentric behaviours – Hill and Brown concentrate on recasting some of the leading players in more interesting and innovative ways to enhance their comedic potential.

A fine decision gives Cherie a Liverpudlian accent akin to Cilla Black that underscores the slight social differences between Blair and the woman he married, as well as giving her a distinct voice in his ear as she tangos into his affections. Gordon Brown as core antagonist repeatedly asking Blair to make good on their deal, is seen as a dour, unsmiling Scot with a passion for macroeconomics and a dry style that leads to several very funny confrontations. Likewise, the presentation in Act Two of Osama Bin Laden, Sadam Hussein and George Bush does just enough to define their personalities, giving each a personalised song that draw on Music Hall styles by contrasting their murderous intentions with an upbeat tune. The creators even look to Groucho Marx for their interpretation of Hussein which, brief as it is, lands well.

Controversial though it may be, the best moments in Tony! take place between Blair and Princess Diana who quietly join forces in their quest for popular appeal, performing a hilarious duet in Act One that is filled with sultry charm while noting a mutual awareness of the media benefit of their relationship – leading of course to Blair’s defining ‘People’s Princess’ speech. Knowing they’re onto a good thing, Hill and Brown reprise the partnership in another form later on as this part of the show takes a quiet savvy perspective on kindred spirits both finding their allure is enhanced by the spotlight and commenting on broader socio-cultural waves in the 90s that celebrated hopeful, seemingly angelic or messiah-like figures of which Blair and the Princess of Wales were the figureheads.

There is a lot packed into Tony! and arguably the second half doesn’t yet quite fulfil the promise of the first, getting a little lost in the details of the war. So where a high-level approach brought a faster pace to the comedy conveyor belt initially, Act Two is a little bogged down in dossiers, resolutions and establishing a homoerotic special relationship which slows the story. This is a more serious subject of course and the centrepiece of Hill and Brown’s show which questions the extent to which these defining moments of Blair’s premiership should erase anything else, but the order of events is well-hashed knowledge. The superfluous addition of extra domestic material including a BSE reference feel like unnecessary padding in a second Act that could be streamlined. It means the laughs are noticeably slower to come as the pacing of Peter Rowe’s production slips.

The combination of comedy and tragedy is a delicate skill but the two here are not entirely woven together. Instead, the comedy almost stops for a melancholy interlude in which a seemingly unassuming audience member confronts Blair about the war dead and failures of his leadership, accusations that are reasonable if a little blunt in comparison to the tighter satire of the rest of the story. And while the character of Blair acknowledges the ‘tragic bit’ as part of the disarming structure in which these creations recognise the staginess of their own lives, and there is a need to confront the man with his ‘crimes’ as part of the weighing of conscience that his deathbed moment has established, it does cut rather inelegantly into the show without perhaps offering any new information. Tony! quickly recovers itself, returning to its caricatured best in the closing scenes with a rapid handover to Brown and Blair’s final assessment of his time as Prime Minister but there may be a cleaner way to integrate the two styles.

Steve Brown’s songs are very enjoyable, merging different musical influences to create an eclectic but consistent score and some very memorable songs that are a production highlight and provide each character with a distinctive sound while merging solos and duets with larger ensemble numbers that are crying out for a bigger theatre. Libby Watson has mastered the look and feel of New Labour in Whitehall with a formal black suit, red tie base for all characters over which she adds more extreme and elaborate wigs, jackets, masks and even a full cow head to create different personality quirks that adds a nice visual humour to Tony! that sits well with both the tone and the limited physical comedy aspects. Watson also ensures the set is minimal but multifunctional with a backdrop of wood panelling and a hardworking chest that becomes Blair’s birthplace, desk and platform all overlooked and impressively dominated by a large sign ensuring Tony’s name is up in lights throughout.

As Blair, Charlie Baker doesn’t need to look like the character but captures the trademark tics and habits that replicate his speech pattern, gestures and cheery charm, clinging to the notion that he is a good guy. Over the performance, Baker shows Blair’s lust for power growing, enjoying the mania resulting from a hyped-up encounter with George Bush and providing a solid central vocal around which the song and dance numbers are built. Holly Sumpton’s excellent Cherie is a great foil, a powerful presence with an impressive voice that keeps her husband in line and on track while Gary Trainor’s Gordon Brown becomes a blank and monotone contrast to Blair.

No one enjoys their performance more than Howard Samuels as nefarious narrator and Master of Ceremonies Peter Mandelson, with Samuels virtually bounding around the stage in glee while delivering a great character study of one of Blair’s most notorious supporters and, as it turns out, a balloon animal expert. Kudos too for Madison Swan’s on the nose Princess Diana, capturing those familiar shy eyes and coquettish glances which Swan has comically exaggerated just the right amount while adding a powerful vocal to an ensemble who perform multiple roles as established political and social figures from the Cabinet to international leaders and noted cultural personalities from the 1990s version of Number 10 parties attended by Liam Gallagher and Bernie Ecclestone.

Tony! needs to smooth its wartime narrative, but it gets the balance right most of the time by taking familiar events and squeezing them for comedy value. And there’s plenty of it in a show that begins by questioning Blair and slowly turns its gaze on the audience asking us who is really culpable for the people we elect or allow to continue in power. Already well on the way to being a very fine political satire, once its run at the Park Theatre concludes Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] might soon find itself on an even bigger stage.

Tony! [The Tony Blair Rock Opera] is at the Park Theatre until 9 July with tickets from £18. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

My Fair Lady – London Coliseum

My Fair Lady - London Coliseum (by Marc Brenner)

Henry Higgins is a problem. The question facing the creative team behind the London transfer of Bartlett’s Sher’s production of My Fair Lady, which opens at the London Coliseum this week, is what do you do about a lead character whose attitudes to women, to the sacred preservation of language and to poverty are at best dismissive and at worst, openly offensive? One of the greatest stage and screen musicals of all time, the comic extremes of Higgins views, aired frequently throughout the story, are easy to dismiss as being of their time and, even in the context of the narrative, shown to be of step with others. But a contemporary production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s story cannot avoid the conclusion than Higgins is the very epitome of a toxic bachelor and Sher’s team must decide whether he should be rewarded for it.

Last year, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre faced a similar dilemma with its portrayal of Billy Bigelow in Carousel who, in the original score and romanticised Hollywood movie, is able to gain entry to heaven despite repeat acts of domestic abuse. Not so in Timothy Sheader’s production and Billy was given a slightly different kind of ending. Higgins is even more overt in his disdain for other people, and the snobbish superiority of his manner to Eliza – that he would treat a Duchess the same as a flower girl – may give him plenty of humorous lines, but in this entirely faithful adaptation, Sher’s production asks whether Higgins really learns anything about himself in the course of his encounter with Eliza Doolittle and whether his attachment to her is anything more than a personal indulgence.

It has been more than two decades since My Fair Lady was last seen in London in a fateful production that paired Martine McCutcheon with Jonathan Pryce, and the show itself in many ways is exactly the same as it was in 2001 and in 1956. Purists will be delighted that Sher’s production is true to Lerner’s lyrics and book while a full orchestra fills the Coliseum with Loewe’s unparalleled score. From Wouldn’t It Be Lovely to I’m Getting Married in the Morning, I Could Have Danced All Night to On the Street Where you Live, visually and musically, Sher’s production is entirely traditional, retaining the same period setting, full Edwardian costumes and every recognisable line.

The surprise here is in creating a show that is in look, feel and style exactly the My Fair Lady we all know, even if only from the indelible 1964 film, and without changing a single word, making the audience think again about the characters and their behaviour to one another. This is a story that pivots on the choice and pronunciation of language so hearing again Higgins’s repeated use of ‘baggage’, ‘guttersnipe’ and ‘squashed cabbage leaf’ feel uncomfortably different in 2022. This Cinderella story of a young woman’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan becomes mired in Higgins’s problematic insistence that Eliza has no feelings of note, that she has no right to live if she ‘utters such depressing and disgusting sounds’ and that credit for her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball is his alone.

Sher presents Higgins exactly as he is, a man who believes women are vague, eager to be married and objects to be dispatched, that they are ‘exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags’ and that men are intellectually and culturally superior. None of this is softened or altered, and although he is a character that audiences have only ever been asked to take semi-seriously in his rants – particularly in Rex Harrison’s charismatic performance – and who is deeply affected by the presence of Eliza in his life, he still curses her intention and scoffs at her liberty until almost the last moment in I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face while still wanting her around to continue to support his lifestyle, locating his slippers and liaising with the housekeeper on his breakfast choices.

What you see in this production is, then, in some ways what we always see, a man of his time and an eager bachelor. Yet, a barely perceptible shift has occurred where inclusion, individuality and class are no longer tightly controlled by white Oxbridge-educated men who determine what is considered an ‘acceptable’ speech pattern and dialect, or the eugenicist undertones that imply one life is more worthy than another. In a subtly cast contemporary light, Higgins’s attitudes are far more damaging and deplorable than their surface comedy suggests. And while Eliza expresses precisely the same sentiment that Willy Russell’s Rita would later experience, that education leaves her in a no man’s land between one class and another, the swan Higgins has created is far less content or at ease with herself than the young flower girl he met in the Covent Garden piazza.

So is Higgins a villain? Well not quite. Although selfish and driven by a Leopold and Loeb feeling of superiority over his fellow men, his motives are reasonably pure and he genuinely believes that what he offers Eliza will improve her life and give her the kind of choices she lacks in her original state. That she feels far more caged after her transformation is an unforeseen outcome of their experiment and his growing feeling for her is testament to a respect that grows between them. Higgins is capable of some change, moving towards a more generous acceptance of the capacity for growth in others than he previously possessed. However, like Billy Bigelow, does Higgins learn or do enough to earn a happy ending? In 1964, George Cukor and Hollywood clearly thought so, in 2022 that is not so clear and in creating a final ending for Eliza and Higgins that weighs-up the balance of morality across the three hours of performance, Sher consults George Bernard Shaw’s original script for Pygmalion.

So while Higgins becomes more ambiguous, Eliza is given greater clarity, with an enlarged spirit of independence and personality that give her far greater agency. When she arrives at Higgins’s door, Eliza is already a woman who has financially supported herself since her father abandoned her years before, who moves without fear around the late night streets of London and is confident in herself. Unafraid to ask for what she wants or to fight back when being maltreated, her quest for self-improvement is presented as a determination to take control of her future and a reflection of the respect with which she wants to be treated. Language, for her, is the tool for that but Eliza retains her savvy natural instincts. It is a shame that Sharif Afifi’s Freddy is played as a buffoon, rather than a credible suitor, throwing away both Lerner and Loewe’s sublime On the Street Where You Live but also the realistic prospect of marriage for Eliza, no one in this production could believe for a second that such a shrewd woman would consider this Freddy as a realistic option.

And while he may not think so, the audience is encouraged to see her as Higgins’s equal from the first, a woman who disregards social convention and the expectation of others as highly as her tutor prizes them. She scowls and scorns him repeatedly during their lessons, standing up to his bullying and refusing to broken by either his methods or his overbearing nature. The more he treats her as a semi-invisible living doll (as Mrs Higgins notes), the more unyielding Eliza becomes and the more determined to succeed, as much to spite him as to work towards her floristry shop aspiration. In Sher’s production, we note that while Eliza’s speech pattern may change, she holds on to a connection to the woman she was six months before, retaining the better part of her courage and self-sufficiency that allows her to face a different kind of future – far more bravely than Higgins does in fact. That instinctual ability to find her own way and to make a final choice that will be of most benefit to herself is an indication of her essential resilience and her intellect, underpinning the notion that the only person who transforms Eliza is Eliza herself.

Amara Okereke is outstanding as Eliza with a vocal that rivals Marnie Nixon. While it would be so easy to play her like Audrey Hepburn, Okereke finds entirely her own beat, exploring Eliza’s multifaceted personality while using both songs and scenes to create her own, distinct version of the character. Her cockney accent is authentically rooted in South London while her transformed voice retains a nicely false note of refinement, slightly over-pronounced, that makes Zoltan Karpathy’s suspicions of her origin more credible. But Okereke’s biggest achievement is to make Eliza feel real, a women plagued by self-doubt and aspiration in equal part, entirely sympathetic, scrappy and determined to forge her own path, and while she accepts help from Higgins, she never needs him or allows herself to rely on him.

Reprising his Lincoln Centre performance, Harry Hadden-Paton is bullish, self-satisfied and commanding as Higgins, a man unused to being challenged, particularly by women who, when he gives them a second thought, expects others to bow to his superior mind and reasoning. Hadden-Paton finds tones of humility in there somewhere, a spark of feeling that offers up the possibility of redemption and prevents Higgins from becoming too flat while delivering the songs with vigour and certainly singing them unlike Rex Harrison. Higgins, of course, never sees himself as a bad man and that is the greatness in Hadden-Patton’s performance, Higgins doesn’t purposefully offer himself up to be judged, that rests entirely with the viewer.

To do all of this within the chocolate box tradition of My Fair Lady is fascinating and Sher’s production applies many of the same staging techniques that his version of To Kill a Mockingbird is using only a few streets away. Michael Yeargen’s set is a series of watercolour flats that drop or are consciously wheeled into place to suggest the façade of Covent Garden, railings and the market scenes while some moveable lampposts and disconnected door frames stand in for Wimpole Street. Broadway often romanticises the classic film musicals and draws on the Technicolor studio production style as its theme – see also An American in Paris. The concept here is semi-fantastical, a heightened version of a London that never existed in which real characters and emotions take place in front of painted scenes visibly wheeled around in choreographed patterns by the actors in a sort of Brechtian escapism.

Like Atticus Finch’s house, Yeargen’s design for Higgins’s home is a block set that both moves in from the back of stage and has the capacity to rotate, giving a multi-room view of his Victorian townhouse that includes the Study / Library with spiral staircase and the hallway where Eliza dreams of Higgins’s death at the hand of the King. Catherine Zuber echoes Cecil Beaton in the costume design, creating a homage to his vision particularly for the stylish Ascot sequence, Eliza’s beautiful ballgown and even nodding to the lines and shape of her leaving Wimpole Street outfit, although Zuber exchanges the dour peach for a hot pink. There are plenty of choices here that pay court to the very specific look that My Fair Lady has and its audience might expect while also introducing some bolder tones that stand out in a large auditorium.

Yet, the size of the space does have its downsides and the pre-sized set blocks and scenarios occasionally looks a little swamped in the Coliseum. With a relatively small ensemble cast, this is most noticeable in the two numbers that really ought to fill the stage. The Ascot scene with only two lines of well dressed aristocrats looks very sparse at first with almost no set to offset the large gap at the back of the stage – not even some silhouetted horses projected across the back wall. A similar issue afflicts the Embassy Ball where only a dozen couples stand to one side in what should be a crowded society event full of whispers and intrigue. Covid safety and budget aside, what should be set piece moments feel a little underpowered compared to the dense decoration of the Higgins residence.

Part of this is a lack of dance incorporated into this interpretation on a sizeable stage made for ballet and opera, which last year was filled to capacity by teenage dance fanatics in Hairspray. My Fair Lady on stage actually has very limited full ensemble choreography until late in the second half when Alfred sings I’m Getting Married in the Morning, and here Sher’s production comes alive with a spectacular performance from Stephen K. Amos, departing from the Stanley Holloway take, to create a colourful pub-based extravaganza filled with can-can dancers, working men and plenty of table-hopping joy. In a sequence that lasts several joyous minutes, Trude Rittmann’s choreography is multi-tonal as Alfred celebrates and mourns his last night of freedom, lighting up the show with an energy slightly lacking from those other big ensemble pieces.

If you want to see a My Fair Lady that feels like a scene for scene remake of the film, then this production will not disappoint, but equally for anyone looking for a more contemporary resonance beneath the surface, then that is certainly here as well. Sher’s re-examination of the show’s central relationship and shifts in the balance of power are enlightening, proving the modern musical doesn’t have to be gritty or necessarily stripped-back to find new meaning.

My Fair Lady is at the London Coliseum until 27 August with tickets from £20, followed by a UK and Ireland tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Broken Wings – Charing Cross Theatre

A tragic love story is perfect for Valentine’s Day and in Nadim Naaman and Dana Al Fardan’s new musical Broken Wings there are plenty of soaring melodies for lovers and just as many haunted and broken-hearted ballads for the less romantic. Set largely in Beirut – a location rarely seen in musical theatre – Broken Wings is in many ways a very traditional musical that places the classic boy-meets-girl-but-can’t-have-her template in a new location and sets it to a fairly typical, if rather lovely, score. Yet, with attempts to look at the impact of duel nationality on identity and social expectations, the inherent yearning for cultural and spiritual homes, the restrictive consequences of binding traditions as well as the effects of gendered societies on concepts of motherhood and female liberty, Broken Wings has something new to say.

Having played briefly at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2018 and in concert in the Middle East, Broken Wings is back in London at the Charing Cross Theatre in a revised version. Based on Kahlil Gibran’s novel The Prophet published in 1923, this story is set in Beirut at the turn of the twentieth-century, setting Gibran’s wider philosophical discussions about politics, society and self-knowledge within an international tale of love and loss that partially mirrors Gibran’s biography in which the young man is sent back to his birthplace from Boston to learn more about his heritage and the richness of the country he barely knew.

In fact, the musical’s first major number is an exuberant one as the 18-year old Gibran fresh off the boat is flung into the heady experience of a central Beirut, a place alive with colour, light and people that equally overwhelm and delight him. And the richness of the Lebanese culture filters through Naaman and Al Fardan’s story, as the central affair is given both an epic and timeless quality played out against the backdrop of an ancient society on the cusp of a new century that the characters hope will bring change, and about which the writers have much to say.

And while there is plenty of vigour in this story of love denied by status, reputation and the expectations placed on wealthy families to marry appropriately, what really gives Broken Wings its heart is its soulful frame as the older Gibran narrates the story almost thirty years later still feeling the ache of youthful romance and telling the audience from the start what that unhappy ending will be. It is a often-used device but here lends the drama added depth, drawing valuable and often quite meaningful contrasts between the hopeful lovers and the despairing emptiness of Gibran’s future life.

The story then becomes a series of happy but painful memories recast by the older Gibran who stalks the action, preciously protecting the moments he treasures as his only connection to the beautiful Selma. On the sidelines for much of the action, Naaman and Al Fardan use the character well, allowing him to set the scene and move events along, drawing on first person narratives in Victorian novels as the audience’s way into and guide for the story, but still giving him a complex inner life that feels just as real and just as complete as the younger version of Gibran who is actively living the life that the elder merely reflects on.

And it is this that truly moves the drama on, pinning back some of the musical’s more sentimental moments and successfully adding a darker tinge particularly to the cheerier first Act where the lovers declare their feelings for one another. The stakes in fact become even higher, giving a driving inevitability to the plot that sustains the momentum while still leaving the audience waiting to find out how and when it all goes wrong, and why Gibran continues to cling to these memories decades later. Yes the love story is romantic but the contrasting loss of it is where the musical really packs an emotional punch.

Within the show, the writers also explore the contrasting fates of men and women partly using Young Gibran’s experience of living in America to consider what Selma describes as a man’s freedom to follow his dreams while a woman must follow her duty. And this becomes essential to the developing relationship between the lovers, Gibran is infused by US notions of liberty and the necessity to push against traditional boundaries to forge a new path, free to choose a life outside standard moral codes created and imposed by others while Selma is unable and somewhat unwilling to move beyond the familiarity of these expectations and structures while still acknowledging how painfully they restrict her.

There are several points in the show where the lack of choices for women becomes the key focus and while sometimes this is a little heavy-handed and spoken in that very self-aware manner that only people in fiction seem to use, these themes come out more powerfully through the drama itself as Selma is effectively traded in marriage to preserve her father’s reputation and must silently suffer the immediate indignities of being shackled to an adulterous villain, a fate she calmly submits to and becomes a major statement of her character.

But Selma as a creation still needs a little more work. It is very difficult to write purity and goodness while making them seem credible, attractive and dramatically interesting qualities, and while Selma is never bland, more of her decency and perfection is reported by Gibran that the audience ever sees in practice. We are told she is a woman ahead of her time, filled with knowledge and insight about the world as well as a kindness that make a lasting impression on the young man, and yet, performance aside, the musical only gives her love songs to sing or conversations about her feelings for Gibran or her father that make Selma seem less rounded in practice than she is when the men talk about it. And it leaves you slightly wondering whether Gibran is mystified by his own memory of her, over proscribing her qualities because he was blinded by love.

And to a small degree this feeds through to the love story itself and while love at first sight is a musical staple, there just needs to be a little more context to go from that initial meeting to full blown, life changing ardour. Older Gibran tells the audience that the couple met regularly but the audience just needs to see a little bit more of that in presentation, even an extra scene or two that reveal more about Selma’s qualities in particular, just to better ground the romance in their personalities. Les Miserables, of which there are occasional echoes here, has the same problem, Marius’s passion for Cosette is dampened by her complete lack of characterisation again because purity and goodness are dramatically difficult traits to give depth to, but Selma has far more to give.

Noah Sinigaglia however does everything she can to correct this with a full-bodied and vocally impressive performance reaching the depth of feeling in song that arguable the book denies her. Whether in solo or in duets with Young Gibran, Sinigaglia is a powerful presence and ultimately, as her character’s fate is revealed, a very moving one. Lucca Chadwick-Patel matches her in enthusiasm and vocal range as Young Gibran, an ardent boy eager to embrace all the experiences of his homeland while pushing for change in social attitudes. Chadwick-Patel also has one eye on his later incarnation, sometimes singing together and while Chadwick-Patel’s final buoyance seems a long way from the despair Gibran senior inherits, the two men largely work well as a single character at different stages of life.

But for the less overtly romantic in the audience, it is really Naaman playing the 40-year old Gibran who is the emotional and intellectual heart of Broken Wings, a man tormented by years of regret and grief, consumed by memories. Continuously acting and reacting to every moment, even when required to sit on the side of the stage and observe for much of the first half, Naaman brings real gravitas in a deeply felt performance, adding a necessary balance to sharpen the poignancy of the piece.

The score is one of Broken Wings biggest hits, orchestral in composition it leans in to more traditional musical theatre writing to create that epic sweep that supports the towering nature of the love story and the vibrancy of its youth perspective with a rousing quality that underscores the excitement of a changing Beirut in this era. And while it has fewer Middle Eastern influences or instruments in Naaman and Al Fardan’s melodies than you might expect, the contrasting melancholy of the older Gibran’s music adds depth to the soundscape and leaves a lasting impression. Special mention for Soophia Foroughi’s extraordinary voice as a multifaceted and eternal mother figure that adds real texture to the show.

Staged in traverse by director Bronagh Lagan at Charing Cross who uses both sides of the stage with relative balance and makes good use of the revolve for emotional emphasis and to create physical character movement, designer Gregor Donnelly using beige and cream along with occasional shots of terracotta and spice tones to evoke the warm feeling of early twentieth-century Beirut repurposing the in situ pillars that support the musicians’ balconies to create doorways, courtyards and gardens that allow the story to travel easily around the city. Nic Farman’s lighting is glorious, shifting between bright yellows and oranges to reflect the bright days to the more atmospheric blues and purples of romantic night scenes and the intense grief of older Gibran.

Ultimately a memory play, Broken Wings is interested in the power of remembrances to shape the present, not only in the person of Gibran, but through moments of recollection experienced by other characters and how they affect concepts of motherhood, friendship and identity. The female lead needs just a little more time in Act One to establish her qualities but this first full staging of the musical by super-producer Katie Lipson has a notable impact, and Broken Wings should have a greater life to come.

Broken Wings is at Charing Cross Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cabaret – Playhouse Theatre

Cabaret - Playhouse Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

We’ve all spent far too long sitting alone in our rooms so the cabaret is exactly where we need to be. What emerged as a delicious theatre rumour a few months ago has not only become a real production but a dream come true experience. Theatre closure was long and ruinous for many but Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret is our long-awaited reward. It may still be some time until press night but you may as well hand this company a truck load of Oliviers right not because this production is why theatre matters so much, staged at the newly refurbished Playhouse Theatre which welcomes audiences for the first time since March 2020 – you won’t want to go home.

The venue has undergone a remarkable transformation, taking a theatre with some of the poorest sight-lines, particularly from its steeply raked upper circle, to create a central in-the-round space that is far more visible, building on the original stalls to place cabaret tables around a small, circular stage. The effect is quite something and incredibly atmospheric, with the carpentry and creative team give it a Music Hall style design that feels historic, lived-in and cosily intimate.

There is no sawdust and paint aroma as you might expect and, with strategic use of drapes, a new box space has been added on either side of the original dress circle to house the musicians. This former proscenium-arch theatre has been completely opened-up which gives Frecknall the freedom to use the entire playing space for performance, underscoring the central thesis that characters exist beyond their Kit Kat Club persona, intermingling with and reflecting the very real people who have come to see them.

The experience begins from the moment you enter the theatre with the creation of a labyrinthine tour through the corridors normally out of bounds to the public but now dressed as basement bars with crinkly gold leaf and low lighting. Before finding your seat, catch a performance from members of the Kit Kat Club in a warm-up act danced on the foyer bar. Pause, marvel and enjoy as suggestively dressed artists create the mood, priming the audience for the main event.

It is a clever approach to immediate immersion that continues as you take your seat with music and dance performances carried through to all levels of the theatre – the fact that everyone looks a little worn, generating a middling enthusiasm is all part of the tone that Frecknall is creating, one that adds a seedy melancholy in which the show is so carefully poised. These are not so much creatures of pleasure determined to fulfil the fantasies of club members, but exhausted dancers struggling to summon the enthusiasm for yet more careless clients, the Underbelly artists perfectly capturing the mood of disdain.

There was always something about this production from the moment of its announcement to the atmospheric visual imagery adorning the posters. In offering a seedy glamour, this Cabaret was always going to be a bit special. And so it proves. We have come to expect a particular style from Frecknall’s work, a way of investigating text and character that finds the crucial emotional beats beneath the surface and gives her productions an almost musical rhythm where pace, tone and style rise and fall like dance or orchestration.

Applying her techniques to an actual musical brings a greater resonance to Cabaret exploring the ways in which songs and story create character insight and narrative development while re-examining the emotional shading in those elements to create a darker and less celebratory interpretation of a world ending and a brief sanctuary that can no longer withstand the political context assailing its walls.

Frecknall’s interpretation looks to works like Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and Somerset Maughan’s Of Human Bondage in its exploration of the waring effect of poverty for both men and women in this era as the characters shuffle from club to boarding house. One particularly astute observation is how rapidly the sheen of glamour wears off, leaving behind a feeling of oppression that grows weightier as the story plays out, suggesting not only the growing political dangers around the characters as society begins to shift, but also the grinding effect of poverty from which individuals struggle to pick themselves up time after time.

In some of the productions more powerful moments, Frecknall elucidates an understanding of the fruitlessness of the characters’ dreams of escape, the hope – as Sally herself suggests – that this time it will be different, but knowing all the while that it never will. In staging this, there are tones of Bob, Jenny and Ella from Hamilton’s novel, creations whose hopes of distraction and escape are inflamed but eventually extinguished, leaving them, at best, the same, but often worse off then before, emotionally if not financially. What Frecknall does so well is to situate the lives of her characters in this broader context, and while we may only encounter them in Kander and Ebb’s songs and the few dramatic scenes between them, these people seem to exist beyond the confines of this night at the Kit Kat Club and even this musical.

In a show filled with some of the most beloved musical theatre numbers and an attachment to how these should be staged using Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography, Frecknall’s triumph is to set aside the performance history of Cabaret – much as Jamie Lloyd did with Evita – to reconsider the integration of music and dramatic scenes as a continuous emotional journey with both serving a clear and consistent vision for the show. Frecknall has made that balance especially compelling, giving equivalent emphasis to character interaction and development while repointing the usually exuberant and ‘big’ approach to staging the song and dance numbers, using them to reflect the changing mood of the club and the advancing political tide that will consume them all in the months and years to come.

The skill that choreographer Julia Cheng and set and costume designer Tom Scutt bring to the staging is to make that shift feel entirely organic, so that not only do we realise that we have been missing a trick all these years by not seeing the possibilities of this small, contained, narrative interpretation, but making it so beautiful and affecting, a grand inevitable tragedy, that operates simultaneously on a large and small scale.

As with Summer and Smoke, it is the emotional beats that Frecknall makes so devastatingly effective, injecting a kind of thrumming life blood into each character that amplifies their wants and needs beyond their role as a performer or neighbour. This is particularly notable in the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz whose shy flirtation in a reasonably bawdy household is at the heart of the show, tracking their late-blooming love and its consequences with a melting tenderness that will warm and eventually break your heart as circumstances conspire against them.

How this is reflected in Cabaret’s few character numbers (i.e. those not doubling as performances at the Kit Kat Club) is very skilful, capturing all the hope, loneliness and fear of the lovers in a consistent journey from spoken interaction to musical exposure of their soul, taking the audience with them entirely as both kinds of theatrical expression reflect and enhance each other, creating a completeness that is very moving.

And this production’s biggest coup is to do exactly the same thing with the Kit Kat Club songs, repositioning them as reflections of inner turmoil and a changing relationship with the nature of performance as their ‘real life’ offers and sometimes shuts-off avenues for development and personal changes that shape how songs are then performed. The greatest example of this is Sally’s version of the title number close to the end of Act Two, the once gloriously upbeat and defiant anthem in which the singer gives her all in the place she feels most at home, here becomes a sarcastic song of broken defeat in which Sally rails against the disappointments of her life, culminating in this cry of pain.

Performed by Jessie Buckley, it is an agonising, seductive and show-stopping moment that entirely captures the end of a trajectory for Sally that has taken her through confidence and self-satisfaction, hopes of a ‘normal’ life to a sad and painful disillusion that casts her lower than she was ever high. And this is not a singular moment but something Frecknall weaves throughout the show, allowing every song to bring that kind of insight and leaving the audience holding their breath in anticipation as every character’s depth and ache is felt through these songs from the saucy Don’t Tell Mama where Sally is on form but still a product of her circumstances, to the Emcee’s pointed interpretation of Money that so clearly emphasises the underlying melancholy of working class life with the long spectre of the First World War shaping Germany’s existence and a vision of the deaths to come, to the bitter chill of Tomorrow Belongs to Me as exuberant individuality is slowly sacrificed to a besuited uniformity – something which creeps across the show, chasing away the light as fascism descends.

This reinterpretation casts a more incisive perspective on Sally’s character, breaking away somewhat from Liza Minnelli’s more buoyant approach, taking life’s knocks on the chin, and in Buckley’s performance charting the slow erosion of Sally as each new encounter and every song chips more and more from her ability to endure. Yet Buckley still makes Sally charming, grubbily alluring in her musical performances and pragmatic, a different kind of woman, able to withstand any fresh circumstances and turn them successfully to her advantage.

Yet beneath the surface, Buckley carries a deep well of soulful agony, a desire for more that makes the elusive Sally a desperate dreamer both craving a new, more certain life with the promise of something to love, but so afraid of the reality that she becomes a self-destructive force. It is a beautiful performance, fragile and strong at the same time, and filled with such pathos for Sally and the endless cycles of her life that burrow deep into your consciousness and emotional responses.

Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee does something similar, playing against type in a role that demands a showmanship and transformational physicality that shapes and directs the narrative. It couldn’t be further from his work for film and big franchise, and like Buckley, this may be the greatest performance of Redmayne’s career, presenting that visually dazzling outward face of the club while internalising all of Frecknall’s themes about the toll of long-term poverty and public performance in a dangerous unstable political climate.

Redmayne’s Emcee is a deliberate oddity, with a hunched-over flexibility that allows him to stalk the stage, creating not just an androgynous feel but also the impression of a creative quite distinct from everyone around him. Always dressed in careful but elaborate style including clowns, sailor suits, skeletal soldiers and slick businessmen – and particular kudos to Scutt for his impeccable contribution to character creation – Redmayne’s capacity for metamorphosis is extraordinary while visually and vocally guiding the audience through the sensitively changing tones of this story.

There is superb support from Omari Douglas as the American writer wanting to be corrupted, Stewart Clarke as the personable Nazi supporter whose influence affects the sweet affair between Elliot Levy’s Herr Schultz and Liza Sadovy’s Fraulein Schneider, while the very small company of Kit Kat Club dancers Theo Maddix, Daniel Perry, Andre Refig, Christopher Tenda, Bethany Terry, Lillie-Pearl Wildman and Sophie Maria Wojna bring each number to life, roaming around the revolving and multi-level stage with a slinky but stained glamour.

Frecknall’s Cabaret is truly astounding, a show that will take your breath away from the second it begins and leave you thinking about it for weeks afterwards. The veil of interwar social melancholy is wonderfully pitched, leaving you wondering what Frecknall might make of After the Dance as a future project. The major tragedy here is that so few people will get to see it with prohibitively expensive ticket prices. Cabaret should be seen, it is a true advert for the beguiling, life changing power of theatre that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice a week’s salary for. It is profoundly moving and entirely consuming, it repositions a show we know too well and finds all kinds of new depths, meanings and resonances so our relationship to it will never be quite the same again. As well as accessible tickets deals, let’s make this work of art available affordably online and in cinemas, book the NT Live cameras now because everyone should have the chance to be transfigured by it.

Cabaret is at the Playhouse Theatre until 14 May 2022 although cast changes are likely from February. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Drifters’ Girl – Garrick Theatre

The Drifters Girl - Nimax Theatre

The nostalgia musical is back in full force with crowd-pleasing easy listening stories that looks back to the 1950s and 60s for their inspiration. Structured around the biography of a particular band, these shows prioritise the music, offering opportunities for audiences to relive excerpts from concerts, studio sessions and TV-appearances by the Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls and now the Drifters. Slightly more than a jukebox musical, where a band or individual’s music is used to frame an unrelated narrative, these productions tend to celebrate both the art and gruelling cost of performance as fame, touring and managerial expectations to keep the money rolling in take their toll on the personal lives and stability of the individuals struggling to remember who they once were.

While there are considerable similarities with its counterparts, The Drifters’ Girl also has a slightly different approach in which it attempts to tell the story of this band partly through the changing membership in which the brand rather than its personnel are the key focus of both ownership and identity as the group attempts to move out of the R’n’B chart and into the mainstream Top 100, while it also tries to capture a rarity in these stories, the perspective of a female manager, one who struggles against sexism and racism in the development of the band and its musical direction. Faye Treadwell is the titular Drifter’s Girl and offering her perspective on a male group in a male-led music industry, fighting for recognition in a male-led justice system is an interesting angle but one the show struggles to fully maintain as it tries to balance narrative drive with musical performance – the latter wins out.

Co-created by the cast with a book by Ed Curtis, the idea is a sound one. Framed around a major court case in which the determined Faye fought for exclusive ownership of the Drifters’ name against a producer who formed a subsidiary group by reuniting ex-members, the story of how the Drifters came to be and the challenges they faced over three decades is told in flashback with Faye speaking to her young daughter in preparation for telling the same story to the Judge. It becomes, then, a personal and professional story as the unswerving manager reflects on the creation of the Drifters collective and of Faye’s own family, falling in love with and eventually marrying the Drifters’ manager and working alongside him in equal partnership to cultivate the band.

And there are lots of positives in this approach that give clear, overarching shape and direction to the story, guiding the audience through the episodic content towards a defined conclusion that adds drive to Director Jonathan Church’s production. In what is essentially a progressive, chronological approach wrapped in a flashback, the team create plenty of space for the songs that everyone has come to see, merging two kinds of musical theatre styles using the Drifters tunes.

First, there are the pure performance-based segments in which the actors recreate the band’s appearances in concert style, singing their songs as the Drifters direct to the audience with choreographed movements. This largely provides some context about where and when this particular Drifters performance has taken place, who was the lead singer of the moment, as well as the tour experience or event. The second approach gives characters (usually Faye and husband George) songs in off-stage moments that reflect their emotional state and burst spontaneously from them in place of dialogue. That balance sits a little uneasily within the show and, performances aside, the considerable success of the Drifters segments has a price, confusing the rest of the story about the depth of its female perspective.

And those Drifters performances are flawlessly managed and each number is sensationally staged. From Under the Boardwalk to Little Red Book, Kissin; in the Back Row of the Movies to Saturday Night at the Movies, There Goes My Baby and Rat Race there is flair and energy in the harmonious vocal and performance approach. Like Jersey Boys and Dreamgirls, much of this takes place in front of microphone stands with Karen Bruce’s choreography and Fay Fullerton’s unified costume design recreating that 60s group feel with matching suits, small-scale but carefully-timed doo wop movement and synchronised stylings that bring the music alive on stage.

With a cast of just five, four of whom play all of the Drifters’ members, the show explores the frequent, almost comic turnover of singers passing through the band who are drafted into the army, let go for bad behaviour or fail to meet Faye’s exacting standards in an Act One montage sequence included largely to underscore the legal argument that the brand rather than the singers is important. Names are flashed-up on the rear wall and replacements introduce themselves within Faye’s recollection of the story, but the audience isn’t expected to keep up and when that introductory roll call fades away, for the rest of the show it’s no longer clear who is in the band at any one time, and while that may cause some confusion, it isn’t meant to matter.

In fact, it may be the point as the Drifters become an entity, a quartet bigger than individuals, so as that membership changes, each actor takes the lead on a new song giving Adam J. Bernard, Tarinn Callender, Matt Henry and Tosh Wanogho-Mau the opportunity to display their incredible range performing different tempos and variations in the musical style as the decades pass and the band evolves. The exactness of their performances, not in mimicry but homage to the original sound is extraordinary, sometimes playing with the song to make it a little more their own but delivering the high-quality, powerful performances we have come to expect from nostalgia musicals. And these plentiful restagings are the continual high point of The Drifters’ Girl giving the audience exactly what they wanted and expected to see.

Yet, maintaining a consistent point of view becomes problematic and while Faye is meant to be the focus, her own story feels thinly realised and hugely overshadowed by the Drifters’ numbers that steal focus from her. It doesn’t really feel as though the show is about the Drifters’ Girl at all and while those show-stopping songs are impressive, they need to be reorientated so that we see them through Faye’s eyes if the show wants her narrative voice to be the central perspective. This would mean pushing them into the background a little and looking at what Faye is doing during these moments or how she has shaped and directed the performance the band then give.

One way to do this could be to leave Faye onstage throughout these segments, assessing and reflecting on what they do, perhaps shown in conversation with technical staff in studios or TV stations about how she wants her band to be presented. She could be cutting deals for future appearances that demonstrate her ruthless, business-minded side that got and kept her in the business while evolving an internationally famous music group. With Faye so often absent, the show currently runs on what can feel like two parallel tracks – the story of the Drifters in performance and the slightly separate role Faye played in that.

The book is looking in the wrong direction and this is where further development could bolster the show and give it a stronger backbone. While Faye is given scenes where she berates the band off-stage, much of what is presented for her is a love story with George as the initially determined but green young woman gets off the bus in New York, joins the team and finds the man of her dreams. It happened but it’s not really the most interesting thing about Faye Treadwell who needs greater character depth to explore the wider questions the story raises but never really answers about her.

We aren’t told why Faye wanted to be in the music business, why did the Drifters matter so much to her and how did she really climb the ladder? Because the narrative is built around the songs and covers such a long period of time, by necessity it skips quickly over many of the events around them at the cost of Faye’s psychological portrait. We never really understand what drove her and why she sacrificed so much, including a relationship with her daughter – here portrait as cookie-cutter sweet – to keep the band going when so much was stacked against her.

The show tries to tackle the racism she faced as a black woman in the industry as well as the suspicion the band experienced as they toured the American South, involving run-ins with the police, and in a frantic UK tour where they were turned away from hotels or forced to pay upfront for their accommodation. These are fleeting scenes treated too comically that only nod to the socio-political context but could be the dark heart of a show exploring the underbelly of an industry and predominantly white audience that, as Sam Cooke notes in One Night In Miami, expected black musicians to only exist on the stage or in the segregated R’n’B chart. That Faye took all of this on as a woman is doubly admirable and while it’s clear she wasn’t a saint, The Drifters’ Girl could say so much more about this context and it feels hollow without it.

By keeping it light and continually returning to the nostalgic loveliness of the Drifters’ music, the production misses a trick, undercutting its emotional and more complex moments to quickly take the audience back to the safety and feel-good nature of the songs, blunting the very edges the show should sharpen. And this happens not just in the reactions to the band but in the staging of their personal tragedies as well, added to the story to create depth but too quickly forgotten as we drift on.

While it’s true that the band did just that, some sense of the burden of it all, the effect of constantly finding new members and how that changed the dynamic within the band would bolster a story that feels surprisingly lacklustre. How did the band members feel about each other at any given point in time, it certainly can’t be as easy going as presented in The Drifters’ Girl with the changing line-up just accepted without question. There must have been resentments, fights and more bad behaviour than we see, so how did Faye control all of that to keep the show on the road for as long as she did?

And for a musical about her it seems almost inexplicable that Faye has less than half a dozen songs in two hours and twenty minutes. Beverley Knight is spectacular in all of them, she is completely in Faye’s head and her vocals are spine-tingling, filling the auditorium with an outstanding emotional power that has made her one of the West End’s favourite leading ladies. So only imagine how great she would be if her character was better fleshed-out and given the central focus in almost every scene that she is supposed to have. Knight makes absolutely everything she can of Faye and underusing her feels like a criminal waste of her luminous talent.

The Drifters’ Girl is still in preview for another week or more but while the show will tighten up, the underlying structure won’t change. What Church has been able to do with a cast of just five adult performers is remarkable in a fast-paced production (although theatre’s a tendency to overly favour stage right will create greater restricted view issues in some parts of the house), while Antony Ward’s set design of moveable vertical and horizontal neon tubes, black panels and variegated walls has a feel for the era and the tone. This is a great idea for a nostalgic musical that will please fans of the Drifters but you can’t help feeling that the Drifters’ Girl herself could have had more bite.

The Drifters’ Girl is at the Garrick Theatre until 26 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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