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.

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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.

 

Strictly Ballroom, Piccadilly Theatre, London W1.

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Strictly Ballroom is a crowd pleasing juke box musical. It certainly has a lot of good things going for it. The film, on which is based, is a classic Australian indie comedy of the early ’90s and it is wonderfully odd and funny. The songs are popular upbeat singalong tunes that the audience will know and love. The cast is great and the director and choreographer have some great musicals on their CV.

The show has been rewritten for the stage and a new character, a narrator, has been added. The idea is brilliant, he sings the songs, adds perspective to the larger than life characters and propels the action along with some knowing repartee. Matt Cardle plays this part, Wally Strand, and he does a good job. He has a great voice and he is nicely self deprecating. However there are 35 different songs in this 2 hour show, many of them delivered in two, three or more pieces. He rarely get to sing more than one bar without stopping. It would have been lovely to listen to a complete song in one go, instead of hearing them broken up into fragments.

The story has not been changed from the film and is simple but solid. The difference is that, in the film it was mostly played straight and the characters were unintentionally amusing. Here we have cartoon-like caricatures played for laughs and the comedy feels strained at times. There are funny lines and the caricatures are comical. The acting is  good, Matthew Stevens and Anna Francolini’s over the top performances as Doug and Shirley Hastings were both enjoyable.

Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen are both good dancers and excellent as Scott and Fran. The ensemble look good, but the stage at the Piccadilly is too small fit the entire company  and the group set pieces feel cramped and uncomfortable.

The set is sparse and effective, it needs to be because of the lack of space. The costumes are wonderfully sparkly and camp. “Strictly Ballroom, the Musical” has been damned with faint praise, the show is fun and the audience gave it a warm reception. It is a good show, but the sum does not quite live up to all its parts. I liked it but the expectations are high and, in London’s West End, the competition is fierce.

 

 

Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Alan Bennett has consistently been one of England’s best playwrights over the course of the past fifty years. His last couple of plays have been well written and funny, but were a little too cosy to be among my personal favourites of his work. Having said that, everything he writes is at least very good and nicely droll.

Allelujah! is set in the geriatric ward of a hospital that is at risk of closure, and for most of the first act we are lulled into a gentle musical comedy about the hardships and indignities of growing old. However, towards the end of the act, things take an unexpected and darker direction and we realise that, during the first third of the play, the scene was being set for a biting political satire. Alan Bennett is cross, and this irritation has led to some of his best writing in years.

This is a play about how poorly we treat the aged in our society and it examines the reasons why this is the case, while entertaining us with smart one liners and whimsical song and dance routines. Nicholas Hynter directs the play, he is a long time collaborator with Bennett and he complements him well. The cast is big and there are many good performances. I particularly liked Sacha Dhawan as Valentine, diffident at first, but bristling with restrained anger by the end. Samuel Barnett is good too, he has an unlikable character to play, yet he manages to have us understand his motivation.

The play has so many scene changes that it might have been written for television. The ingenious set design prevents us feeling that the stage is in a constant state of flux. Arlene Phillips is the choreographer and she has a fine line to tread between keeping the routines tight and having us remember that these people are too old and unwell to be released from hospital – she does a fine job.

The real star of the show is the writing. I love Alan Bennett’s balance, he always presents both sides of an argument. Even when he is presenting a personal point of view, I admire his fairness in giving the other side a voice. He does this particularly well here, he writes some characters with quite unsavoury personality traits in this play, yet they are unapologetic and we understand that they feel justified in their actions, even if we cannot condone them ourselves.

I hope that I haven’t made the play seem too dark and political, because it is a truly funny and entertaining show, made all the better by the fact that it makes you think about the way the old and infirm are treated in our society. I think this is possibly my favourite Alan Bennett play yet.

 

 

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.

 

Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

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Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.