Tag Archives: Musical

Guys & Dolls – Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre has had most success with its immersive productions, Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which made the best of the flexible space and have created new ways to tell familiar stories by putting the audience at the heart of the action. While the role of the crowd was a little fudged in the Athenian woods, the physicality of the very mob that all the key political figures must appeal to created an additional verve for Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. Now, the audience become the sinners of downtown New York for the Bridge Theatre’s first ever musical, a show that is sure to be a hit when it officially opens later in the month, with great performances and a Technicolor visual design. But it is the technical management and directorial inventiveness of the production that really underpins its future success.

There has been a major trend for revisiting old musicals in recent years to update their overly romantic sensibilities and, in some cases, return to the original source material to mine the darker and more troubling themes that always lingered beneath the surface. From Regent’s Park Theatre’s Evita and Carousel to West End revivals of Cabaret and more recently Oklahoma!, reimagining the classic musicals has brought depth and invention to a sometimes deeply sentimental genre. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Guys & Dolls, however heads in a slightly more traditional direction, at least in the interpretation, retaining the glossy and glamorous exterior and finding fresh purpose in the excellent and very well managed immersive staging.

As with Hytner’s previous immersive shows, this relies on a series of raised blocks that emerge from the theatre floor in a carefully coordinated sequence that produce the various locations of this story. Designer Bunny Christie has created a road map on the floor of the pit where the immersive audience gather, a series of streets that make up this particular part of the city, Broadway, where most of the action takes place. Suspended above their heads at circle level are traffic lights and neon signs that point to cafes and bars, giving a flavour of 50s New York, a place filled with gamblers, showgirls and the odd Salvation Army mission.

The genius of Christie’s design is in how sections of the floor rise seamlessly to form connected trajectories through which the characters and the story can advance. The earlier Shakespeare productions demonstrated how well these platforms can work, creating a chain of mini stages which allows the cast to travel, but its potential has never been better realised than here in Christie’s design for Guys & Dolls which requires a complex network of perfectly timed blocks to appear, often at different levels and in different configurations running across the length of the pit. It creates staging opportunities in all four corners of the performance area as well, ensuring the seated in the round audience at the various circle levels are also able to engage with the production.

The result is an incredibly satisfying one whatever type of ticket you choose. Christie’s clever combination of building blocks creates street scenes the wind their way at angles across the floor from which characters can enter restaurants, clubs, bars and even a barber’s shop while placing a set of these together forms a larger rectangular playing space in the centre of the room to form the heart of the Hot Box club where Miss Adelaide performs her raunchy stage show or the interior of Sarah Brown’s Mission House where some of the most famous numbers will take place. Christie’s design is endlessly inventive as the story travels briefly to Havana as well as below ground to the New York sewer where Nathan Detroit’s vital craps game takes place.

Most locations are sparsely but suggestively propped to create the right atmosphere and tone for the scenes including pieces of recognisably American street furniture such as the fire hydrant and globe-style lamps to some cabaret tables hinting at a larger nightclub venues, as well as chain ropes that suggest the gantries of the subterranean scene. Lit by Paule Constable, the green-tinge of the city’s underworld is nicely balanced by the bright bulbs of Broadway while the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat sequence blends both together to create a sparky movement piece with a dreamlike feel that becomes more daring as the number unfolds. Constable has taken inspiration from 50s Hollywood movies in selecting particular tones and clarity of light for this and the club sequences that reference numerous starlet performances from the Golden Age of moviemaking.

More generally, the strong, almost cartoon colours creates a hyper-reality that allows the characters to be bold and brash, larger-than-life creations living in a colour pop world. There’s no deep moralising or attempt to reconcieve the show for a twenty-first century audience, but instead the design and production choices lean into the overtly comic and overtly romantic themes of the story, facilitating a space in which both can exist side-by-side. This is a sanitised version of both love and crime, where only one of the gamblers carries a gun and the worse thing any of these men do is keep a woman waiting for 14-years to get married. And it works, allowing the excitement of the unexpected staging arrangements to add novelty without overhauling the story.

The show itself is, like many classic musicals, about whether you should change for love. And pleasingly, this one focuses on changing the men. Neither Miss Adelaide or devoted Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah require a Sandy from Grease overhaul and it is their gambler beaux who must prove themselves worthy of the women they eventually realise they love more than their wild late night life. While what’s on offer is largely a traditional future with themes of settling down, staying home every night and steady dependability, which may not seem like everyone’s idea of a happy ending, Hytner makes a couple of additions that add a more contemporary resonance.

The first is a dance piece set in one of the Havana clubs that Sky Masterson takes Sarah to during their brief trip, a location where men only dance with each other and no other women are seen, the only place in the show where an alternative to the heteronormative perspective is offered. But Hytner also makes Sky one of the dancers, engaging briefly in some intimate caresses with his partner. It’s used as a comic scene to arouse Sarah’s drunken jealous as she starts a chaotic fight with the dancers, but this hint at Sky’s more fluid sexuality is an interesting one, although not followed through anywhere else in the production or in Andrew Richardson’s characterisation. A second addition is more of an addendum to facilitate the individual cast bows as the Hot Box club becomes Adelaides, suggesting a quiet life in the country wasn’t quite what the eternal fiancee wanted after all.

Arlene Phillips and James Cousins’s choreography will invariably sharpen before the Press performance but, like Constable’s lighting scheme, this takes its cue from the jazz ballet style of the classic musicals. Occasionally, due to the thin rectangular shape of the various mini-stages, it feels a little cramped for the dancers which makes it seems as though they are holding back with curtailed stretches and not quite finished lines (perhaps deliberately) but Phillips and Cousins have created some great showbiz numbers on the large central rostrum for the pivotal Luck Be a Lady as well as those staged at Hot Box Club for Miss Adelaide’s saucy performances including A Bushel and a Peck – and this is a musical with consciously sung numbers as part of someone’s profession but also with introspective character monologues and duets where they reflect on their emotional responses and expectations.

It’s very early days but the cast are already having a great time, particularly Daniel Mays in the comic role of Nathan Detroit. Less smooth than Sinatra but perhaps far more human, this is a rare chance for Mays to enjoy a funny man role that is already winning the hearts of the audience while his interpretation of Detroit as a loveable rogue suits the tone of Hytner’s show. Mays also has great chemistry with Marisha Wallace whose Miss Adelaide embraces the sultry numbers and Christie’s beautiful showgirl costume designs. Wallace’s powerful vocal can fill this large room but she balances the professional performer in Miss Adelaide with the long-suffering sweetness of a woman holding out for an apple pie American family.

Lovers Celinde Schoenmaker as Sarah Brown and Richardson as Sky Masterson are developing a great chemistry that makes their connection believable, while the comedy scenes in Cuba as Sarah over-imbibes are a lot of fun for both actors. It is an accelerated relationship given the relatively short 2 hour and 40-minute running time so both characters compromise on their principles almost immediately, but there is something lovely in watching them grow towards one another, overcoming their slightly aloof tendencies and merging Schoenmaker’s operatic style with Richardson’s more classic musical vocals. And Cedric Neal is sure to feature in future reviews with a small role as Nicely-Nicely Johnson but delivery of the show’s big number Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat which in combining choreography, staging and performance is a real highlight.

This production of Guys & Dolls is a show that needs to give both the immersive and seated audience an equally rich and entertaining experience while carefully managing the standing participants around the room. The use of ushers and stage managers dressed as New York cops is a great touch, helping them to blend in but with an authority for crowd control that facilitates the changes of set, moves props and actors safely into position and out again, as well as ensuring the seamless running of a piece that is not easy to stage. Hytner’s directorial control of all of this feels just right in a complex show that may tell a glossy and lively story but requires a technical management of the floorspace and a quality control that you really don’t see in other theatres or indeed other immersive shows. Hytner’s production may not take the revisionist approach of other modern musical interpretations but there is plenty of innovation and invention in the staging choices that will set this apart. The Bridge hasn’t always got it right and to some extent every theatre production is a gamble, but this roll of the dice should prove a winner.

Guys & Dolls is at the Bridge Theatre until 2 September with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Standing at the Sky’s Edge – National Theatre

It is still a relatively rare experience to see a Working Class drama that invests its characters with a profound and complex, even a poetic interior, life, but from the first moments of Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s Standing at the Sky’s Edge when a workman stops to greet the beauty of the dawn and the sound of birdsong, it is clear that this is no ordinary representation of
Working Class life. Set on what was a council estate in Sheffield, Park Hill, where the last residents were lured out in the early 2000s, Hawley and Bush’s musical imagines three stories lived across 60 years in one flat and the changing social and political circumstances that affects the individual lives during their time as residents as well as the changing face of Britain during
this period. Most importantly, the writers invest each of these scenarios with a deep and wide-ranging humanity supported by Hawley’s often soulful composition that gives these Working Class lives both resonance and significance in ways that theatre rarely manages to achieve.

What gives purpose to these stories is the changing political climate and the governmental elections that decisively shape the fortunes of the residents of Park Hill as well as the broader decline of the physical structure in which they are contained, noting the shifting patterns of Sheffield itself. It opens with the optimism of people moving into their new homes in 1960, 1989 and 2015, enjoying the promise that this opportunity to begin a new life brings, yet the clock soon ticks forward, eating up the years and taking each set of characters to the eve of a Conservative election victory in 1979, 1992 and 2017 that shatter these expectations and facilitate the social ruin of a once happy and desirable estate.

By the twenty-first century, time and policy has erased the Working Class tenants, turning the building into a commercial endeavor sold to wealthier escapees from London, dulling the social history of this both illustrious and notorious location. Aligning crisis moments in the lives of the inhabitants with these decisive political changes is effective and affecting in a story that reflects the state of the nation at key moments since the Second World War and the ultimately disastrous effects of Conservative governments on ordinary people who in class, wealth and geography are far from the seat of power. But these themes are subtly woven through Act Two as time moves on again to the end of 1986, 2005 and 2019 where the consequences of personal and political decisions play-out.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is lightly navigated by a narrator, the Estate Agent who introduces the final resident Poppy to her now chic brutalist home, a device used to coincide with the changes of years, helping to move the audience’s understanding along, the infrequency of which gives the role a Greek chorus feel able to step back from the day-to-day dramas the characters are living through to make more explicit or ominous statements about the changing face of Sheffield and its potential consequences for the residents of Park Hill. It works in a similar way to the Narrator in Blood Brothers, deepening this sense of the profundity and importance of Working Class lives that Hawley’s lyrics in particular evoke.

Directed by Robert Hastie and performed on a semi-staged set by Ben Stones, the action takes place simultaneously in the living room and kitchen of a flat, one space which all three residents occupy at the same time but decades apart, allowing scenes and stories to overlap while occasional activity from the wider estate bleeds in through the invisible walls. Choreographer Lynne Page uses these moments to create the bustle of multiple lives happening side-by-side with residents passing by, above and around, a changing community that surrounds the inhabitants of this particular flat which gives a sense of scale to Standing at the Sky’s Edge by adding an unexpected macro non-verbal texture to the micro stories that Hawley and Bush create.

And this is an unusual production in other ways, particularly in the presentation and style of the musical numbers which largely eschew traditional forms of presentation. Songs are incorporated into the narrative with characters singing their troubles in the moment essentially to themselves – few of the numbers here are duets by couples sharing feelings with one another and instead unrelated characters reflect on similar emotional experiences across different eras simultaneously along with a wider ensemble representing a community of similar feeling. But musical numbers are also presented directly to the audience sung with stand microphones in which the character steps out of the scenario to perform a concert solo of their feelings

This approach asks the audience to think less about the drama of the story and to see the specific character for who they are, giving their lives the profound and poetic importance that Hawley and Bush seek. All of the principals have at least one solo moment and even in ensemble numbers, such as the beautiful title song that opens Act Two with everyone on stage, there is a sense that they are all singing a solo at the same time telling us that these are important, meaningful lives. Hawley’s musical choices only underscore that notion with deeply soulful melodies and even a bluesy feel that is so rarely applied to Working Class lives on stage but creates deep wells of emotional resonance that roll out into the audience.

The three stories, all connected by the pursuit and changing experience of love, are variably engaging and with six decades to cover in the two hour and 50-minute running time, there isn’t always enough space to really explore each individual in sufficient detail across the three eras they experience. The most affecting of these is the middle story starting in 1989 when Joy (beautifully voiced by Faith Omole) comes to live in the UK with her aunt and cousin, given a flat on the Park Hill estate where she worries for the safety of her parents who may face war at home while she endures racist taunts from the local boys. But it is the meeting with former Park Hill resident Jimmy (a charming Samuel Jordan) that soon proves the heart of this story as a tender emotion develops between them despite having so much in the way.

But we are soon in John Osborne territory, at least in the first Act, as their story starts to echo Epitaph For George Dillon (co-written with Antony Creighton), as this Working Class couple filled with aspiration and hope for the future, of the possibility of getting out of the, by now insalubrious, Park Hill estate is inevitably trapped by fate into surrendering all those dreams and living the same life as everyone else. This is particularly affecting in Act Two having followed their path for several years, when Jimmy sings of feeling trapped, of wanting to escape and leave it all behind, something he barely has the courage to do. Turning down a chance to leave in Act One, this recurring desire to reassert his true self is very moving, but he loves his now wife and can’t let her down leaving him deeply and affectingly torn between seizing the chance to be more and quietly accepting he must subsume himself into his family life.

Joy too endures the same trajectory although she is more accepting of the life she develops, scaling down her own dreams to support her marriage and trying to be happy with what she has. The connection between Joy and Jimmy is lovely, developing from a shy childhood meeting to a fear of losing one another and a genuinely happy relationship despite the financial and emotional compromises the couple make to keep their life together afloat. There are big consequences for Joy that make this the most effective of the stories, understanding more about the sacrifices of self imposed on Working Class lives by circumstances that these individuals must then live with.

The middle tale follows couple Rose and Harry, newlyweds who move into Park Hill in its heyday from the slums, filled with the optimism that 1960s social housing was designed to inspire. Initially, there is little to this couple, they are blissfully happy in their relationship and their home, and while they struggle to conceive, Hawley and Bush don’t really get under the skin of the pair until much later in the show when the arrival of Margaret Thatcher brings the closure of the steel factory where Harry (Robert Lonsdale) works, striking miner friends that they support and long-term unemployment that puts a strain on their marriage after 20 years of relative contentment. It is the most overtly political strand of Standing at the Sky’s Edge that, like Mickey in Blood Brothers, looks at the consequences for men like Harry driven to inertia and alcoholism by the removal of whole industries and any opportunity to find alternative work.

This is also an era in which the social decay of the Park Hill estate, begins the underfunded consequences of which begin to affect the residents during the Act One finale, showing the dilapidation and deterioration of the physical estate and the social fabric that had kept the houseproud inhabitants invested in maintaining their environment. One of the show’s best moments places the future Jimmy and Harry side-by-side at home feeling the same sense of dislocation and abandonment many years apart as notions of masculine providers shifts the burden of supporting the household, leaving both with an aching despair about the lives they now endure.

Rose’s character is less well investigated, a surface housewife for much of the show, she is a sweet and likeable woman but the audience learns little about her life beyond, where she came from and what she wanted from life. But Rose gets her moment, a heartbreaking song, movingly performed by Rachael Wooding, when facing the consequences of all those political impacts on her marriage when she opens her heart to the audience. The loss she expresses is deeply felt and consuming, reiterating the depth and meaning within Working Class lives that drama so often overlooks.

The final strand is the least believable, a contemporary story of a Middle Class character Poppy who moves from London to escape a broken relationship and, much to the consternation of her mother, moves into the now renovated flat where she builds a new life but refuses or is unable to move on from her former partner Nikki who inevitably turns up. The story is well performed by Alex Young as Poppy while Maimuna Memon as Nikki provides an extraordinary vocal, but this character faces none of the external shaping that so meaningfully affects the other women who front this musical. Poppy may get caught up in some angst about whether the wealthy deserve to buy former Working Class homes but much of her self-focused introspection feels generic. It means she is presented in the way that theatre always sees Middle Class women, blandly drinking wine alone and feeling sorry for herself in what we assume is an expensive kitchen. Even her conclusion works against the determined independence that Poppy has insisted upon throughout – it certainly feels like some of these stereotypes need updating.

The bright and breezy opening section of Standing at the Sky’s Edge grows into a rich and layered piece about communities shaped by their external landscape as well as their own desires and aspirations. It invests Working Class stories with a meaning and purpose that, as Harry insists, asks you to see their individuality, the hope and pain, of good people doing their best. That Hawley and Bush allow their characters to express all of that in such a soulful way is their biggest achievement and this co-production, transferring from Sheffield to the National Theatre, gives the writers an even greater platform to present the vast humanity of Working Class lives as they really are.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the National Theatre until 25 March with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

On the Ropes – Park Theatre

On the Ropes - Park Theatre

The sports biography is a great focus for drama and at the Park Theatre the focus is on boxing legend Vernon Vanriel who is telling his own story in the world premiere of On the Ropes, a play he has co-written with Dougie Blaxland. A tale of sporting prowess, celebrity self-destruction and eventually national betrayal, Vanriel and Blaxland’s overlong story doesn’t pull many punches, presenting the good, bad and the alarming misdirections of Vanriel’s event-filled life. It is a play that occasionally explores the context and consequences of Black British identity, the incipient racism and the incumbent police brutality that follows, although On the Ropes could take a clearer perspective on how the protagonist’s life is shaped by these external forces.

Vanriel’s story is undoubtedly an interesting one, beginning with scholastic under-achievement and concluding with a Windrush-related rejection despite having grown-up in Britain. In between is a lengthy intermediary chapter in which Vanriel becomes both the No 2-rated British boxer and, as the play argues, an innovator who introduced both walk-on music and cheap tickets to boxing matches that allowed more people like Vernon to see his fights, rapidly democratising access to sport. There are though a lot of notes like this wrapped into the play’s long biographical structure that takes a strictly chronological approach to presenting the episodes of Vanriel’s life without pausing for long enough to really tot up or properly analyse those decisive contributions. The political disaster of Vernon’s struggle for recognition pre-dates the Windrush scandal but the play never asks why this is so decisive in shaping his eventual identity which is only ever alluded to and not fully excavated.

On the Ropes uses the architecture of a boxing match, a 12 Round drama with chapters of indeterminate length that stages 6 of these rounds in each half of the play. It is a reasonable device given the subject matter and one that focuses the many fights and experiences of Vanriel’s life as the boxer’s rise and fall gives way to a prolonged exile in Jamaica and the sportsman’s well-documented fight to return to the UK and then on to the citizenship that should have been his right from the age of 6. The Round structure though has a significant downside, becoming a way to mark time for the audience, knowing for better or worse that the story cannot end before all 12 bouts are played out.

It is a concept that becomes problematic when the chapters are of such unequal length, reaching only 6 of these after a 90-minute first Act that makes the tempo feel slow despite Vernon’s incident-packed life, much of it interesting of itself. Yet, the show overshoots its advertised running time by nearly 40-minutes taking a 2 hour and 20 minute biography to nearly 3 hours of stage time, all paced against the slowly ticking 12 Round clock that makes narrative drive and momentum hard to sustain.

The difficulty is that On the Ropes is packed with conversations and encounters, covering a varied and engaging life that becomes perhaps even more compelling once Vanriel and Blaxland move into political territory and the questions of citizenship that focus Act Two. There is perhaps too much to say and more than one play lurking within this story meaning these strands ultimately struggle against one another, both competing for notice and to be labelled the most important or decisive periods of Vanriel’s life. What On the Ropes could do is decide which of its many stories it wants to tell and which version of Vernon Vanriel it wants the audience to see.

Is this the story of damaged celebrity, a boxing star thrust too soon into the limelight with little self-care or protection who, like so many others, burned brightly for a time before the inevitability of self-destruction burned him out with drugs and plaguing mental health that led to doubt and depression, or is this the story of a man betrayed by his nation after a lifetime of service, when bureaucracy and bigoted Government decision-making left him destitute in a place far from home? On the Ropes tries to be both but can’t entirely excel at either while the stories and length of this play compete to exhaust an audience nonetheless eager to hear the life of this fascinating man who enjoyed the highest highs and lowest lows of British society.

There is some gripping stuff in here which the overly episodic and completest nature of the biographical drama cannot entirely satisfy in the way that a publication perhaps could. A lightly sketched childhood would be sufficient for the stage and instead Vanriel and Blaxland’s drama should launch immediately into Vernon’s boxing career – perhaps even with a foreshadowing scene of the exile to come that will give purpose and direction to the drama. The first Act is where the excitement of the ring should live along with the increasing scale of the arenas, and thereby the stakes, then contrasted with Vernon’s too hasty fall from grace, where drugs and a growing arrogance make the character of Vernon overconfident and careless.

The very best moments of the existing Act One are those intense boxing encounters presented against a range of invisible opponents and accompanied by a running commentary describing the action into microphones. Here the plays comes alive with fight sequences that are served by their very theatricality on stage and the energy the descriptions bring. The thrust and parry, the choreographed dance of feet, the battle between lone individuals all come across well in On the Ropes as Vanriel’s rise and rise plays out nicely against a backdrop of conflicted management, Vernon’s demands and confidence as his success expands, while the scale of his talent takes him to the heart of the Establishment with a match at the Royal Albert Hall.

Vanriel and Blaxland also handle Vernon’s decline with skill, the personal frustrations that lead to substance abuse and the breakup of his family while also robbing him of the savvy management skills that consumed his earnings and left him with little to show for his years on top when the bailiffs come knocking. The notions of self-destruction, of fighting demons that destroy Vernon’s mental health taking him further from the man he was and wants to be are baked into the play but this needs to be the driving arc of Act One, a trajectory relieved of its fatty excesses, trimmed and given the necessary musculature to fight for Vernon’s central story in which the character is taken through and beyond fame. Losing some of the secondary roles to create a leaner, more focused first Act lasting around 60-minutes would make Vanriel’s story all the more powerful, leaving the character in a position to enter Act Two having experienced personal betrayal and ready to confront the State’s attack on his liberty after the interval. Most importantly, it would transform On the Ropes from an episodic and densely written narrative into a dramatically realised one.

Act Two could then concentrate, as it does now, on Vernon’s battle with the British Government to recognise his status as a citizen and the underhand tricks employed to keep him in Jamaica by callous British policymakers. Most of this is already in place but it also needs a slight trim. It may have taken 13 years, many trips to the visa service and many family calls to get to the bottom of these issues but it adds minimally to the drama to see all of them. Tidying up some of the more repetitious scenes would help the flow and pacing of the play. Compression may not be strictly accurate but the audience need only see an indication to get the gist while acknowledging the personal pain in this faceless attack on his humanity

Navigating these failures and the private toll it took on Vernon unable to live or work in Jamaica is already well-handled while the transition from The Guardian interview to the High Court battle for eventual justice makes for a compelling and neatly written conclusion in which the audience sees both Vernon’s failings – about which this play is remarkably clear-sighted and honest – and the circumstances where he was failed by whole systems pitted against him. A moving end to the play is well developed and the writers have created a character in which the audience can invest and empathise. Overly detailed it may be, but there is no denying the extraordinary life of Vernon Vanriel and the courage he has shown by staying in the fight to the bitter end.

Directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, this production, which has its Press Night imminently, has endured an interrupted rehearsal period due to illness and won’t have the chance to address the text ahead of its opening night. But there is the glimmer of some really interesting approaches to staging, using a cast of just three actors playing tens of people across Vernon’s lifetime as well as performing the numerous reggae and ska songs that have been inserted at appropriate moments in jukebox musical style, capturing the flavour of British-Caribbean culture and the atmosphere of Vanriel’s time in both countries.

Osie-Kuffour stages the play in a boxing ring giving the in-the-round audience a view of the biography from all angles with even the non-boxing scenes played inside the structure, at least until Vanriel’s life starts to come apart. Designed by Zahra Mansouri there is a nod to the boxer’s destiny in this staging, the inevitability of his career and the ways in which it shaped his life, as well as the obvious allusion to the endless fights he would embark upon. But it becomes a little cumbersome, especially in Act One as it keeps the audience at bay. The fluidity of this story, of the movement between the personal and the professional begs for something simpler and perhaps a more representative set might help to better create the multiple spaces that Vanriel’s life requires. Like the text, the set could imply more than it needs to show, perhaps offering only half of the boxing ring or the four corners without the ropes that impede the actors’ movements.

The concept comes into its own in the more consistent narrative of Act Two as Vanriel’s life comes apart so too does Mansouri’s structure which is broken up and revolved, creating different spaces in which the characters can interact as connections to the protagonist’s former self become fractured. Mensah Bediako captures all of those changes in Vernon, a character he plays from the age of 6 through to his 60s, using his physicality to imply the force of the boxer during his prime as well as the toll of Vernon’s later years as homelessness and hopelessness eat away at him. Other roles are performed with verve by Amber James and Ashley D. Gayle who carry the energy of the production, transforming into boxing commentators, relatives, friends and officials while giving fine voice to all those great songs.

On the Ropes really does have a remarkable story (or several remarkable stories) to tell but it needs bringing into the light, helping the audience to understand why this is a stage show instead of a written biography. Vanriel’s tale of suffering, survival and showbiz needs an ending, not just a slightly sentimental rendition of (Something Inside) So Strong but an analysis of what all of this has meant. There is much more to say on the play’s central themes, the effects of continual harassment from the police and others as well as Vanriel’s final reflections on what Black British identity means to him now and whether his sense of nationhood has been forever tarnished by his experiences. Yes he eventually won every fight for his freedom, but was it all worth it?

On the Ropes is at the Park Theatre until 4 February with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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

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