Kiss Me Kate, Opera North, London Coliseum, London WC2

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Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate is a complex show, some of its numbers are  classic Broadway showtunes, while others have a light opera edge. It has complicated, full company dance routines as well as individual virtuoso displays. It also has a couple of good comedy roles that require great timing and delivery. On top of this, the Coliseum itself, has a big stage that needs a large company to fill. All in all, this is a show, in a venue, which will test every part of the company putting it on, to the fullest degree. I have to say that Opera North have passed this test with honours.

The two operatic leads, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate both have splendid voices, suited to their roles.  Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt, as Lois and Billy, carry the more standard musical numbers perfectly. Each of the four of them has at least one great song to show of their respective talent. Lois has possibly the most famous songs in “Always true to you in my fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry” but Kate’s “I hate men” and Petruchio’s “Where is the life that I led” are really great songs that show of their vocal abilities. The show’s biggest song, of course, “Too Darn Hot” is sung by the chorus, and the dancers, particularly Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli, deliver a truly show stopping performance to this number.

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Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin play the comedy roles of first and second Gunman. They work very well together, their interaction is excellent and they make the most of their comedy duet “Brush up your Shakespeare” – a song more full of puns than I had previously realised. The company as a whole is excellent and you realise that this is going to be a show full of movement and vigour, right from the first song of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.

Kiss Me Kate is a big show, and this is a big full-on production of it. The costumes are bright and lavish.  The choreographer has a tough job, with so many people on stage at once, however the dance routines are vivacious and have lovely shape. The set design needs ingenuity too, and is very clever at swapping from front of stage to back of house in seconds.

The director, Jo Davies, has taken the bold decision not to update the show in any obvious way. At times, it felt like you were actually watching a show made in the 1940s, giving the show an interesting post-war period feel. The tap routine, in particular, had a dated, black and white movie quality, which suited the production very nicely. This is a lush and exuberant production of a distinguished show and it fully deserved the love it received from the packed audience at curtain down.

 

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Ruthless! The Musical, Arts Theatre, London.

'Ruthless' Musical performed at the Arts Theatre, London, UK

Ruthless! The Musical, first opened off Broadway 26 years ago. It is the almost archetypal off-Broadway show. It makes the fact that it is a low budget show in a small theatre part of its appeal. So, I was worried that the Arts Theatre, although it is the smallest theatre in the West End, would be too big for it.

Having said that, Ruthless is a great show, with a wonderful part for an aspiring young actress as  the 8 year old, Tina.  Given the importance of understudies in the storyline, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the first two understudies for Tina when the show opened in 1992 were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. This being the UK, with child protection laws, we have 4 Tinas and no understudies. Anya Evans played Tina on the night I attended and she was very good, great dancing and a frighteningly bright smile.

It has become usual for the role of Sylvia St Croix to be played by a man and Jason Gardiner makes a good job of it here, his movement is excellent and he can certainly dance in heels. Kim Maresca is fantastic as Tina’s mother, very Stepford Wife in the first act and very Liza Minnelli in the second. In fact,  all the acting in this production is top notch, Tracie Bennett and Harriet Thorpe are both pantomime villain good as theatre critic Lita and drama teacher Myrna.

The musical numbers are mostly good, two standout songs are “I hate musicals” sung, with many funny reprises, by Lita and the title song, Ruthless! by the whole company. The set and costumes are both “fabulous dahling”, 1950’s crinoline petticoats in a 1960’s Formica living room.

The real stand out thing about this show is the references, Shirley Temple, All about Eve, Bob Fosse, interpretive dance, Judy Garland – far too many to list – all get a mention in some way. It’s enjoyable trying to spot them and there’s no way that you will get them all.  Everything about this show is kitsch, but if you didn’t know that before you arrived, you should have done more research before buying the ticket. The humour is camp and low brow, but still great fun. This is good production of a good show, perhaps it could have been even better in a more intimate theatre.

 

Lady Windermere’s Fan, Vaudeville Theatre, London 2018

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This is the second play in Dominic Drumgoole’s Oscar Wilde season in the West End and it is directed by Kathy Burke. I attended this production with some trepidation because, although I really admire Oscar Wilde and find him very witty; his plays are full of arch bon mots, but this can make his characters cool and short on compassion. I often find myself laughing at what they say but I have little empathy for their plight.

However, Kathy Burke really brings out the difference between how the actions of men and the actions of women were perceived, by society, at the turn of the last century. She makes us aware of how sympathetic Oscar Wilde was to that difference. He demonstrates real dexterity in pinpointing this and he mocks it mercilessly. This is a  modern take on a play that is ultimately about the empowerment of women. Sam Spiro is excellent as Mrs Erlynne, the unrepentant scarlet woman, she perfected the brittle, sharp exterior protecting her secret and the emotions she did not wish to show.

Jennifer Saunders plays The Duchess of Berwick, in full-on dame mode. She sails into each scene with a new wonderful hat, drops her witty insights, sows the seeds of anarchy, and sails off. A wonderfully written cameo role, beautifully delivered.

It is the men in this play who are shallow. They are the real figures of fun, Joshua James is good as the insecure but supportive Lord Windermere.  Kevin Bishop is excellent as Lord Darlington; charming and in love, but likely untrustworthy. The scene with all the male characters, drunk, in the library is well done and very funny. This play is so full of famous lines that occasionally it feels like a litany of Wildean quotations.

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The set is cleverly done, all pastels and relatively simple, with echoes of the titular fan throughout – the shape of the windows and even the motif on the stage curtains. This is in contrast to the costumes.  The men are formal, I am convinced that Lord Darlington and Jacob Rees-Mogg have the same butler. The ladies are dressed in full rich concoctions designed to demonstrate a time when it was more important to show off ones wealth than ones taste.

Being a play in four acts, there is an entr’acte between the first and second and between the third and fourth. These were not written by Wilde and they felt out of place, the humour was crude by comparison, but they were common at the time of writing and it did give the production a period feel.

This was a very good production of a sparkling play, it made me see Wilde’s writing in a new light and I am looking forward to seeing the others in this promising season.

 

 

Young Frankenstein, Garrick Theatre, London, 2018

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Young Frankenstein is written by Mel Brooks and based on his 1974 film starring Gene Wilder, so don’t go in expecting any deep insights into the nature of the world. What you get is a smutty, slapstick, laugh-a-minute show, full of quick, clever, off-colour punchlines. It is packed with song and dance routines, which come along so swiftly that you haven’t time to notice the poor ones before you are being entertained by the next one which might be more to your taste.

There are some good performances, Hadley Fraser shows that he can do farce in a rare comedic role. His voice is excellent as you would expect from an actor who has previously been in “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera”. Lesley Joseph is as good as Frau Blucher, hamming it up just enough, without going too pantomime. Cory English has taken over from Ross Noble as Igor and he is very good indeed, his experience of playing the role on Broadway working to his advantage.

The jokes are sometimes obvious and often telegraphed but the direction is clever in making us enjoy the expectation of the punchline as much as the delivery itself. This is particularly evident in the scene involving the monster and the blind hermit. There are also nice homages to bygone musicals in the songs, “there ain’t nothing like a brain” and “the Liths in Lithuania, do it” are two lines that spring to mind. The show stopping number however, is the one song that is not an original. Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is fantastically choreographed, inventive, surprising and funny; it will have you smiling at odd times for hours after you leave the theatre, remembering the routine.

Young Frankenstein is not profound, it is not ground-breaking, it is not even particularly original, but it is funny, it is fast and it is a very good evenings entertainment. I enjoyed it and judging by the reaction at the close, the rest of the audience enjoyed it too. Recommended.

The Hippopotamus (dir. John Jencks) 2017

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“The Hippopotamus” the novel came out in 1994. At the time the book was mildly shocking, moderately funny and quite witty. Stephen Fry was at the height of his popularity, he was clever, droll and sharp. 23 years later and everything has changed, the storyline is slightly distasteful, the writing seems bland and the dialogue is pompous.

Roger Allam is good as Ted Wallace, a washed up poet who investigates a series of miracles taking place in a country house, but he is just about the only good thing about this film. As a comedy it is remarkably banal, his vicious put downs and arch insights fall flat because everyone in the film has some major character flaw that makes the shot too easy to be funny.

The most interesting thing about this movie was trying to work out what had changed in the intervening years, that made the experience of watching it in 2017 so different to reading it in 1994. In the end, I decided that there was a combination of factors conspiring against it. Watching it over an hour and a half  as opposed to reading it over a few days, intensified the characters, made them less rounded, and as the flaws were the part that was important to the storyline, these were the traits that were magnified.  My taste has changed, and although I still enjoy a barbed riposte, I prefer it when both sides have the wit to take part. Sitting ducks make unexciting targets. Attitudes have changed in the last 23 years too, and the story that was shocking, but quite funny in 1994, appears borderline abusive now in 2017.

These things go in cycles, and although Stephen Fry’s star is on the wane currently, in the future he may again be recognised as a major talent. However, at the moment there is not much to recommend this film – save it to watch in 2040.

 

 

 

Zigger Zagger, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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From the second the opening whistle sounds and the cast of 50 begin their football chants, the audience is dragged in – to a world of youth tribalism, disaffection and tough choices. Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect size for this play, large enough that the cast doesn’t outnumber the audience, small enough that the cacophony of sound envelops you to feel part of the crowd.

Zigger Zagger is a late 20th century parable, ostensibly about football hooliganism but also about loyalty and fitting in. The protagonist, Harry Philton, excellently played by Josh Barrow, is a school leaver searching for belonging and is drawn to the local football terraces. He is aware of its limitations as a life choice so investigates the alternatives.

Among these are: Police, Army, Religion, Apprenticeship and, settling down. These options are caricatured, often in musical or poetic form. Adam Smart is particularly funny as the Youth Careers Officer. In between each option we are brought back to the terraces for a song and each time we feel the allure of being part of the crowd.

The soundtrack is great, T.Rex, Mud, Bay City Rollers even the Sex Pistols. The crowd songs are classical and traditional, with some chanting thrown in for good measure. Zigger Zagger is a boisterous and entertaining evening, with some great performances, and an interesting reminder of a specific moment in this country’s development.

 

Quartet (dir. Dustin Hoffman) 2012

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Don’t sit down to watch this expecting any deep revelations about the meaning of life. Think more in terms of an episode of Glee with opera music and old people.

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut is full of visual metaphors for old age. The time of year is late autumn, there are beautiful sunsets and it is all set in a wonderfully maintained ancient building.  The acting is good, the direction is good, the setting is beautiful and the music is lovely. The story is undemanding, particularly predictable, in fact it is almost facile but it is all very likeable and chilled. It is probably perfect Sunday afternoon fare, you could doze off for a few minutes and when you come back you will still know exactly where you are in the storyline.

It has a cracking cast and the director has left them to do what they do best. Maggie Smith has some great arch put downs, which she delivers perfectly. Michael Gambon is a wonderfully camp, self obsessed director.  Pauline Collins is giddy and dizzy. Tom Courtenay is wounded and rueful, and Billy Connolly is a rude and distasteful old charmer. The dialogue is sharp and there a few nice cameos and set pieces.

Easy and comfortable, if films were shoes, then quartet would be the tartan slipper!