Hershey Felder, Our Great Tchaikovsky, The Other Palace, Victoria, London

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Hershey Felder has spent the last two decades recreating, on stage, the lives of great composers, while playing their music to highlight salient moments from those lives. Tchaikovsky is the sixth in this series. The genre is part biography, part piano recital.

The stage is set to resemble a room in his dacha in Klin, with rugs, cabinets and a baby grand piano. There is a large portrait over a writing table, whose likeness changes to whoever he is speaking about. The backdrop to the set also has illustrations which change to reflect different periods of his life.

Felder begins the show by coming on to the stage with a letter he has received from the Russian Government inviting him to bring his story of the life their greatest composer to be performed in his home country. He asks the audience whether he should do this.  This is a rhetorical question, as the difference between his account of Tchaikovsky’s life and the official Russian version is vast, and it seems unlikely that Hershey Felder’s telling of events would prove popular there.

Tchaikovsky’s story is told by picking out individual snippets of his life, mostly in chronological order, and combining them with music that he was writing or performing at the time. The effect is like an entertaining lesson combined with a piano recitation by an inventive and musically talented professor; imagine one of the best university lectures that you have attended and you won’t be far wrong.

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Hershey Felder has chosen which events to recreate, so we are given the narrative from his point of view, and he makes us aware that others may look upon his life differently. For me, who liked Tchaikovsky’s music, but who knew hardly anything about his life, it was a perfect combination. I was given an insight into the man while listening to an accomplished pianist playing his greatest hits.review

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Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

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.

 

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Duke of York’s Theatre

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Six catholic schoolgirls in uniform arrive on stage to sing a hymn, Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes”. They have angelic voices, it is beautiful. After the song they begin to talk, the language is sinful and the subjects are carnal. The juxtaposition is funny and moving.

This play is the story of their day trip to Edinburgh to sing in a choir competition. Over the course of this twenty four hours they meet various characters from the places they visit. These characters are played by the girls themselves and this combined with the strong accents and dialect made following the action hard work in places. However, the script is witty and coarse and the singing is fantastic, especially the classical pieces and hymns. Many of the rock songs are Electric Light Orchestra covers.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is a well observed play. It is insightful, in that it makes us aware of the difference between the world that their convent schooling is preparing them for and the actual world that they will inhabit when they leave. This play makes you question how qualified ecclesiastic schools are at preparing children for a life in a secular society.

An entertaining and thought provoking show, with a very talented cast. I am sure we shall hear of many of these actors again.

Girl from the North Country, Old Vic Theatre, London

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Girl from the North Country contains three or four intertwining stories. These are slight, almost sketches really, but are beautifully told so that we care about the people we see on stage. It contains about twenty songs from Dylan’s back catalogue. These are used, in  an abstract way, to accentuate the drama rather than to move the narrative forward. It would be misleading to call this a musical, it is more a play with musical accompaniment.

The prose and the songs complement each other very well. Given the quality of the cast, the strength of the acting is no surprise. The singing, orchestration and choreography are the revelation. There are some amazing voices in the ensemble. Shirley Henderson and Jack Shalloo, in particular, shock when they sing, but every song is delivered well. The impact of a downtrodden, beaten character suddenly opening their vocal cords is not to be underestimated. Even the songs that I already knew, appeared to be given new life in the context of the play.

The reception of the audience was good, it is not too often that the whole audience stands at the end. I enjoyed this show, Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan are a combination that go together very well.

School Of Rock, New London Theatre, London, 2017

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School of Rock’s plot has more holes than a polo mint factory. I almost had to talk myself into suspending my disbelief. However, when I did, this show has funny lines, great tongue-in-cheek, rock songs, and some very talented children.

The opening song “I’m too hot for you” is a clever parody and “Stick it to the man” and “School of Rock” are crowd pleasing, audience participation, stadium rock pastiches. There are other good songs too “You’re in the Band” is catchy and I liked the “Faculty Quadrille” which has recognisable Lloyd Webber moments.

David Finn is likeable and irritating in equal measures as Dewey, but this is as it meant to be. The plot involves him living out his teenage fantasy by changing a class of nerdy kids into 1980s style rock stars. The story is fun, ridiculous and there is a big enjoyable finale, where the crowd goes wild. The children play all their own instruments and their acting and singing is excellent.

This show is a real crowd pleaser, the whole audience was involved by the end and there was a standing ovation. The cynic in me saw a lack of narrative, did not see the ending as happy and felt a bit manipulated. However, I took a lesson that I learned from the “Book of Mormon” song “Turn it Off” and did just that.

Put away your critical eye, embrace your inner teenager, and you will enjoy it too!

The Other Palace, Victoria, London, SW1

The Other Palace started life as St James Theatre in 2012 when it was the first newly built theatre in Central London for over 30 years. It was bought by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, Really Useful Group, last year and has been rebranded and it intended as a place to develop new musicals.

The opening season looks very promising.  The first show was  “The Wild Party” which was an auspicious start . This was my review of it. The Wild Party, The Other Palace, Victoria, London.  Later in the year The National Youth Music Theatre will be bringing “Sunday in the Park with George”. A musical based on Fellini’s “La Strada” should be interesting too.

The complex itself, is a space containing two theatres, a restaurant upstairs and a ground floor bar. The building is glass fronted on the ground and first floor making the entrance, bar and restaurant feel bright and airy. The main theatre is relatively small, with around 300 capacity, nicely laid out, with every seat giving a good view of the stage. The studio is quite intimate, capacity around 100, it was laid out as a cabaret bar, but seating arrangements could be flexible. The cabaret tables and chairs worked perfectly for the show on at the time.

The upstairs restaurant, is modern and light. The setting is lovely. I have not eaten there since it has been rebranded as The Other Naughty Piglet but I have heard good things about, Naughty Piglets, their other restaurant, in Brixton.

The bar is set slightly lower than ground level, it catches the light well and it is a comfortable place to chat. It’s not huge, though, and does get crowded during the interval, this is a bar where it is definitely worth pre-ordering your interval drinks. The house white and house rose were both dry and good quality.

The Really Useful group have made a shrewd buy in this handily located theatre. It is  very close to Victoria Station and right across the road from Buckingham Palace.

I love the idea of it being a place to refine new work and I wish them every success in their endeavour.