Murder for Two, The Other Palace, London SW1

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The Studio at The Other palace is an intimate theatre with a small stage and seating for about a hundred people. This is the perfect setting for this show, which is an affectionate homage to black and white murder mystery movies and to camp musical theatre. It is written by an American pair, Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, who clearly have a love for both of the genres that they are sending up.

This is a two handed play, with Ed MacArthur playing the investigating officer and Jeremy Legat playing everybody else, apart from the moment when an audience member is brought onstage to play the death throes of a poisoned murder victim. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the quick changes between all the different characters, but soon with only a single prop and a shift in demeanour, Jeremy Legat has us following his transitions through the roles at breakneck speed.

Murder for Two is a madcap musical. It has eleven songs. Usually one of the pair plays the piano while the other sings and dances but there are duets or songs with multiple parts. The songs that have the officer interviewing three members of a boys choir, and an arguing married couple are particularly inventive. The lyrics in the songs are clever. “A Friend Like You” which opens the second act is particularly good.

The familiar elements of the story arc are magnified and made into a virtue, so that we can derive pleasure from knowing what is about to happen and laugh when it does. There are very funny lines in the dialogue, but the main comedy comes from the character portrayal. The intimacy of the theatre adds to the warmth of the performances, Ed MacArthur and Jeremy Legat have charisma and there was a personal connection with the audience.

Murder For Two is pure light entertainment, every trope from film noir and musical theatre has been thrown in the mix. The only thing that could have made it camper would have been the addition of a butler in a feather boa. It is on at The Studio of The Other Palace until 18 January. It is a witty and likeable presentation, a warm hearted murder mystery musical.

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Don Quixote, Royal Shakespeare Company, Garrick Theatre, London WC2

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The Royal Shakespeare Company have gone the whole hog in this version of Don Quixote.  They commissioned James Fenton and Grant Olding to adapt Miguel De Cervantes story for a modern audience and the pair have come up with a show that feels contemporary but true to time in which it was written. With audience participation encouraged and the cast entering and exiting through the stalls, it feels like a show that would have worked very well in the Globe Theatre even in the 17th Century.

David Threlfall is Don Quixote. He plays him as the straight man to Rufus Hounds’ Sancho Panza. This works very well as we care for Quixote, the fantasist who sees the world as he wishes it was. Panza is his faithful squire who sees the real world but makes sure that we are laughing at the situation not at the man. They make a fantastic double act, Rufus Hound improvises and involves the audience while Threlfall is too involved in his windmills to notice.

Audience participation is a large part of the show, it has a panto feel in places. Some of the comedy is slapstick and it is still funny – a sweary monk as he trips over an audience members foot, a bun fight between the cast and the audience. However, there is more to the show than this, it has so much going on that catching it all in one viewing is unlikely. The songs are good and give the piece an Andalusian atmosphere. There is puppetry that is both attractive and clever. The lion is spectacular and the hawk is funny. The horses are brilliant and their interaction threatens to steal the scene on a number of occasions.

The Don Quixote that we see these days consists of two books, the original and the follow up. The second was written roughly a decade after the success of the first, it tells of the exploits of Don Quixote after he becomes famous and this show retains that tradition. Often it leads to a change in tone between the two acts. Here is it handled cleverly by making the Duke and Duchess, nicely played by Richard Dempsey and Ruth Everett, into caricatures of pantomime villains, so their cruel tricks are jokes on them rather than our hero Quixote.

The ending of the story is done well, Rufus Hound has surprising depth, having laughed with him through the show, we feel his sadness at the end. Don Quixote has the last laugh though and we can be moved and still grin at his ascent to heaven.

The RSC have invented posh panto. A show that an Eton educated ex prime minister might take his son to see.  This show is a blast from beginning to end, great fun and a great night out. It deserves to be this year’s big Christmas hit.

 

Victoria’s Knickers, Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1.

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I love when the National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End season comes around. This year their shows are on at the Soho Theatre throughout November. Victoria’s Knickers is the second production of the season. Consensual began a week ago and you can still catch a performance of that if you are quick, I saw it last week and you can read what I thought of it here: Consensual.

One of the things I really enjoy about the National Youth Theatre shows is that you often have absolutely no idea what kind of thing you are going to see until the curtain goes up. This particular show is a historical romp set in the early nineteenth century delivered in modern language with musical interludes and current world references. It is, very loosely, based on a real historical incident when a teenage boy repeatedly broke into Buckingham Palace. He was feted by the papers at the time, he was interviewed by Charles Dickens and it was even reported that on one occasion he was caught with a pair of Victoria’s Knickers.

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The story is delivered in a musical madcap romcom style, with a touch of 18th century political drama. The genre of the play changes from minute to minute and the musical styles vary from hip-hop, through Disney to Ed Sheeran and Adele. The plot line is full of holes, the story is ridiculous, the set is practically non-existent and it all adds up to a fantastic evenings entertainment, that the audience loved.

This show could not work without brilliant writing and direction. Josh Azouz on this showing is a very talented writer with a sharp eye for inventive situational comedy.  There are some great individual one line jokes in the script too. When Victoria tells Ed that she loves Albert, he replies conversationally “Of course you do, he’s your cousin”. Director, Ned Bennett does a brilliant job in drawing attention to the preposterous, and finding the humour in the clashes of cultures between all the different genres of theatre on show in this production. The set consists of unadorned MDF at the back, what looks like brown paper at the sides, and dozens of old random cardboard boxes that arrive on stage for most of the second half of the play.

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Alice Vilanculo is amazing as the soon to be Queen Victoria with a very 21st century sensibility, she makes you care for her situation while still having you laugh at it. Jamie Ankrah is excellent as Ed, 19th Century pauper, dreamer…. teenage lover. Aiden Chang has a fantastic role as Sasha, a soldier/torturer disguised as a lady of the court, he attacks the part with gusto and steals almost every scene in which he appears. Oseloka Obi is great as the rapping prince Albert, the acting throughout the company is brilliant and the show is littered with great cameos.

Victoria’s Knickers is difficult to describe and there are so many levels on which it should not work. However it is funny, inventive, musically clever and likeable. This is another success for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and for a writer and actors with big careers ahead of them.

Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

 

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Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs was first performed twenty three years ago in Sydney and has been constantly touring the world since then. The reason for its success is that, in the words of a DIY product advertisement, “it does what it says on the tin”. The workman analogy is apt here. The dancers in this show are at pains to demonstrate that they are workmen, in work clothes and work boots, tap dancing on various parts of a construction site. They are rugged, rough and laddish as well as very talented tap dancers.

This show has much in common with a rock concert and that is only partly because of how loud it is. Most of the show they operate as a group but each routine has the opportunity for one of them to show off their skills in a solo performance. It has the energy and individual showmanship of a rock show.

The set is a construction site, with ladders and scaffolding, that they build and dismantle as they work through their routines. The show is high energy throughout, there is hardly a moment in the hour and a half when there is not at least one of them dancing at full tilt. They manage to keep the routines different and interesting with humour, competition and clever props. Torches, blowtorches, basketballs and water trays are all used to great effect and I would be surprised if the front rows don’t leave a lot damper than when they arrived.

There are two drummers who perform for part of the show but mostly the percussion is provided by the tap dancing. A particularly clever routine is one where they dance on drum machines, with each making a different percussive resonance. The dancers are all very talented and all of the routines are either very fast or technically difficult. Both their skill and their stamina is admirable, they do not let up for a minute during the entire show.

You won’t be surprised to hear that this show is loud. I think it is the loudest performance that I have ever seen – and I saw Status Quo and Simple Minds in the 1980s. If you like tap dancing, you will be hard pushed to find a show with a better demonstration of the skill. Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs has a winning formula and I would not be surprised to see it still touring in another twenty three years.

 

Consensual, Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1

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Consensual is the latest production from the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. Set in an urban modern school, it deals with very current issues. It was first performed three years ago, but following the rise of the #metoo movement in the intervening time, it catches the zeitgeist even more today than it did at the time.

The thrust of the play is about the what exactly constitutes consent and where the abuse of power begins. The play wastes no time getting into the subject matter.  A teacher is discussing the “Healthy Relationships” curriculum in  class, then after school, she is confronted by a relationship that she had with a student seven years earlier when she was a teaching assistant. She believes that the student took advantage of her naïveté at the time. He believes that she groomed him while he was underage.

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These two, Diane and Freddie, nicely played by Marilyn Nnadebe and Fred Hughes-Stanton, are the main protagonists of the story. The are supported by a cast of pupils, teachers and family who highlight the blurring of the lines, between their opposing points of view. There is a host of great cameo performances among them, the play is sharply observed and cleverly written, so there are some nice characters and some excellent lines to be delivered. I particularly like Alice Vilanculo as Georgia, who manages to convey a begging for help by resolutely deny that she needs it. Jay Mailer is also outstanding in his one scene as Jake, Freddie’s brother, his exasperation giving way to  grudging support in the end.

The direction is clever, the dark subject matter and deep conversation is interspersed with musical breaks and funny moments.  The song where the school boys deliver a song in the manner of the Pussycat Dolls or Destiny’s Child is a highlight.  There are some very witty exchanges between classmates and these lines are delivered fast and the scenes are short. Jamie Ankrah, Muhammad Abubakar Khan, Olivia Dowd and Simran Hunjun deliver nice brashness and impudence, they keep the mood upbeat and the pace brisk.

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The set is sparse and inventive, allowing the direction and writing to shine. I did love the way the cast quickly make a car from school benches. Consensual is a thought provoking show, it tackles a difficult subject in an entertaining way. It could not be more topical.  It has some great acting, keep your eyes on the cast list – I’m sure we will be seeing more of these actors in the future!

 

 

Taj Express, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

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Taj Express is a jukebox musical with a Bollywood movie theme. About half the music comes from hits of the Indian film industry, half is written by musical director Abhijit Vaghani, who has composed the background score to over 50 films himself. My knowledge of this area is scant, to say the least, so I only recognised a couple of the songs, but this took nothing away from my enjoyment of the show.

This show is basically a set of twenty four dance routines with short breaks in between for the dancers to change costume and regain their breath. None of the dancers have spoken lines, there is a kind of narrator whose job it is to join the dances together, to propel the story forward and to inject some comedy into the proceedings.

There is a tradition in jukebox musicals for the storyline to be thin. It is basically a hook on which to hang the songs and dance routines. Here the story practically transparent, although cleverly they make this into a joke, so we can laugh at how unlikely a tale it is, and to be fair, the story is not what the audience have come to see.

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The dancing is spectacular. This show is an exhilarating riot of colour and energy. The variety in the music is surprising, there are elements of tango, salsa, mixed up with bhangra and rock. The opening of the second act even had a techno rave feel with its ultra-violet lights and dayglo costumes and props. Hiten Shah and Tanvi Patil play Arjun and Kareena, the shows romantic leads, their job is to relate the narrator’s story through their dance routines, a job they accomplish with considerable charm and allure. The ensemble as a whole are dazzling, full of acrobatic tumbling, gymnastic break dancing and twisting somersaults, their dynamic vigour is infectious and the audience is clapping along enthusiastically towards the end of may of the routines.

The set is simple but effective, a white backdrop leaves the stage completely clear for the main event, and pictures projected onto it provide the various settings in which the dancing is taking place. Bipin Tanna deserves special mention as the costume designer. They are a highlight of the show. To say they are bright and glittering is an understatement, they flow and shimmer with the dance moves, enhancing the movement of the dancers. They are vibrant and vivid, yet elegant and graceful when this is called for in the dance.

Taj Express is a show that you have to allow yourself to enjoy. It has elements of pantomime, don’t overthink – just let the pageant that unfolds onstage envelop you and  become swept up in the spectacle. By the end of the show much of the audience was up dancing in the aisles, a testament to the appeal of a most enjoyable evening.

 

Now The Hero, Swansea International Festival.

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Swansea International Festival runs from the 22nd September to the 7th October this year. It has many interesting events, among them a stand up performance by Rob Bryden and a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”.

The centrepiece of the Festival is a Welsh Commission for 14-18NOW called “Now The Hero” 14-18NOW have collaborated with various artists to make some very compelling pieces over the past few years, related to the centenary of the First World War. A particularly thought provoking event earlier this year was “Fly by Night” where thousands of pigeons with LED lights were released over the Thames at sunset.

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“Now The Hero” is their final piece and it looks like another winner. It is an immersive musical/theatrical parade, starting in Swansea Bay and finishing with a choir recital in Brangwyn Hall in the city. It tells the story of three Welsh warriors from different time periods. There is an ancient Celtic soldier, a First World War conscript and a contemporary service man. There is also a voice for peace, with Eddie Ladd voicing quotes from protestors at Greenham Common’s women’s camp.

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The music is a choral requiem written by Owen Morgan Roberts and Owen Sheers. It is based on a traditional old Welsh poem “Y Gododdin” and will be performed by Cambridge choir, Polyphony. Brangwyn Hall where the event finishes contains “The British Empire Panels” a work originally commissioned to be hung in the House of Lords but rejected by them as too colourful.  It was notoriously described at the time by Lord Crawford as “all tits and bananas”, however almost a hundred years later it is regarded as a powerful commemoration of Welsh participation in the First World War.

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This event will transform Swansea over the course of five days  on 25th to 29th September and it looks as though it will be a spectacular highlight of the Swansea International Festival.

Other performances at the Festival are The BBC National Orchestra with Karl Jenkins and The Welsh National Opera doing “Rhondda Rips it Up” with Lesley Garrett and Madeline Shaw. So if you are looking for some art and culture at the end of September, Swansea is the place to be!