Wednesday, 15 January 2020

RAGS: The Musical @ The Park Theatre

RAGS: The Musical

When RAGS first opened on Broadway in 1986, with book from Joseph Stein, score from Charles Strouse, and lyrics from Stephen Schwartz, it ran for just four performances - yet still managed to receive a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical. Since then it's been revised numerous times, but didn't reach the UK until 2019 in a new version from David Thompson produced at Manchester's Hope Mill Theatre.

It's this version that's arrived at London's Park Theatre with a fresh cast, marking the musical's debut in the capital, once again directed by Bronagh Lagan in an accomplished production.

RAGS follows in the footsteps of Fiddler On The Roof with its focus on Jewish characters, here Russian immigrant Rebecca who arrives in New York City at the turn of the century with her son David. Together they struggle to assimilate into American culture and face prejudice outside their immediate Jewish community.

The immigration theme is a pertinent one to present day America, but more so the musical is an interrogation of the American Dream - exposing the xenophobia lurking behind a melting pot of cultures celebrated for their similarities and differences. In Adam Crossley and Matthew Gent's gaily dressed parading Americans we witness America in all its false glamour, in contrast to the heartwarming immigrant family at the narrative's core.

For a musical with such a downbeat subject, it is surprisingly humorous. There are cute romantic subplots and the cast are characterised by bumbling older men and pushy know-it-all women who are all lovably argumentative. It does, however, lend the musical a sheen of romance - beyond some shock moments, prejudice is largely kept in the background.

Strouse's score, likewise, struggles to assimilate. It combines elements of Yiddish traditions, jazz, ragtime and modern musicals, sometimes lurching between styles. The clash of cultures makes sense and there are some standout moments, but it doesn't quite coalesce. Including musicians on-stage, though, adds a welcome touch of colour and intimacy.

Gregor Donnelly's design uses suitcases to great effect, despite being a slightly trite representation of the characters' journey. And while the second half pulls emotional punches, it does err on schmaltzy melodrama. For all its hidden menace and serious themes, RAGS still relies on musical traditions and predictable love stories for tension.

What raises this production, though, is the quality of the cast. Performances throughout are polished, with exceptional singing and musicianship. From the bustling, sometimes dizzying, ensemble emerges Carolyn Maitland who leads the cast as the strong and determined Rebecca with warmth and a subtle soprano. Her rendition of 'Children of the Wind' at the climactic end ensures this production soars.


Watch: RAGS: The Musical runs at the Park Theatre until 8th February.

RAGS: The Musical

RAGS: The Musical
Photos: Pamela Raith

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Rise of Skywalker

No matter what you think of the trilogy sequels, Star Wars still sends tingles down the spine. We prepare to travel to a galaxy "far far away", John Williams' iconic score blasts out the speakers, and that yellow scroll introduces us to another fantastical adventure. That's as true with The Rise of Skywalker as with any other film in the franchise.

In many ways, director J.J Abrams returns to right the wrongs of Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi. Where that film was a mess of multiple story threads and tonal inconsistencies, The Rise of Skywalker sees the series back in safe(r) hands. This is a more confident, consistent and focused movie than its predecessor. Yet in righting its wrongs, it also wrongs some of its rights.

Continuing the saga of Rey and Kylo Ren, the plot brings together its three key heroes in a grand fight of good vs evil. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) join forces against an evil power, fulfilling destiny, and bringing this trilogy to a close. It's a tight and focused storyline that rounds out into a satisfying conclusion.

And yet...the entire film hinges on a plot point as sudden, outlandish and unsubtle as a Star Destroying warping in overhead. It's not set up by the previous films, instead introduced in the opening scroll, immediately linking it strongly with the legacy of the past.

That goes for the film as a whole. If The Last Jedi was a film that sought to let go of the past and look to the future (while failing itself to actually do so), The Rise of Skywalker is an about-turn. Like the trilogy overall, it relies too heavily on cheap nostalgia to drive the narrative. Older characters pop up out of nowhere. The story is reliant on coincidence and chance. There are multiple wearisome callbacks to the previous films. A later twist, meant to shock, is merely groan-inducing. It all whiffs of unnecessary fan service.

And while The Last Jedi (for all its flaws) set up intriguing ideas about its central pair of characters, their family, the history of the Jedi and the Force, in focusing this film Abrams' work lacks a clear identity. As a whole it satisfies, but its revolutionary ending doesn't feel earned.

That said, this Star Wars does what a Star Wars should do: deliver a swashbuckling space fantasy of good triumphing over evil, unlikely friendships forming, and a plethora of bizarre worlds and creatures. There's less childish, slapstick humour than its predecessor, instead relying on jokey one-liners more in keeping with the original trilogy. Its effects are astonishing, its battles memorable, its characters mostly endearing. In short, it's a thrill ride undermined by links to the past.

Just as the previous two trilogies were really the story of Anakin Skywalker more than Luke, this third trilogy is Kylo Ren's story more than anything, with Adam Driver emerging as its star. In the fight between good and evil, Ren is the only character to truly embody both - the most human, flawed and interesting of them all.

The Rise of Skywalker might be a decent and fitting - if not great - finale to the trilogy, but with Disney at the helm the end of the franchise remains far far away. If the various spin-off films and TV shows have taught us one thing, though, it's that Star Wars doesn't need a Skywalker to be Star Wars. It's time for the rise of something new.


Watch: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is out now.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

One Under @ The Arcola Theatre

One Under @ The Arcola Theatre

Playwright Winsome Pinnock has revised her 2005 play One Under for this new production at the Arcola Theatre, in conjunction with Leicester Curve Theatre, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Graeae.

Despite its varying collaborators, One Under feels like a particularly London-focused narrative. A quiet, intimate portrait of grief, it depicts the before and aftermath of a suicide when a young black man jumps in front of a tube train. Its driver, Cyrus (Stanley J. Browne), is wrought with guilt and seeks information on Sonny (Reece Pantry), the man he killed, leading him to his family and a woman Sonny dated the night he died.

Graeae are known for their support of disabled and deaf people in theatre. Here, the set includes tube announcement boards that cleverly double as captioning screens, and the play's emphasis on mental health is a vital look at invisible disabilities in young men.

It is, however, a slow mystery. The play's structure jumps between past and present, piecing together the plot points of Sonny's final hours. It highlights key people in his life - his adopted mother Nella (Shenagh Govan), sister Zoe (Evlyne Oyedokun), and laundrette worker Christine (Clare-Louise English) - and the impact his death has had on their lives and regrets. Pantry, in particular, portrays an unpredictable young man who, by the end, we still never really get to know.

The play's opening, tragic event sets up a dramatic psychological thriller that never quite comes to fruition. Instead, it's a slow-burn exploration of grief with some poignant scenes from its cast, but a reliance on coincidence for its drama and a lack of focus in its meandering character-driven plot.

Amelia Jane Hankin's set design subtly mimics the Underground, but with few changes (nor with lighting) we're lulled rather than gripped by the story. The cast, though, offer some captivating performances, notably Govan and Oyedokun as adoptive mother and daughter whose relationship is sadly wrenched apart.


Watch: One Under runs at the Arcola Theatre until 21st December.

One Under @ The Arcola Theatre

One Under @ The Arcola Theatre
Photos: Patrick Baldwin

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Björk - Cornucopia @ O2 London

Björk - Cornucopia Live @ O2 London

Björk takes us to another planet.

It is beautiful and terrifying. It is filled with creatures and mutations, darkness and luminescence, all feathers, tentacles and limbs morphing and merging like bubbling lava. A curtain of shimmering projections curls around the stage.

Björk is at the centre of it all. She is our mythological guide, singing in spiritual, hushed whispers. She is Mother Earth, crying out in agony, in a guttural, yearning song. She is the planet itself, petals and growths and tendrils. She is a god.

Around her is a futuristic rural idyll. A collection of nymphs play flutes while dancing balletically around the stage. A young choir release a wash of polyphonous textures and harmonies before jumping and raving wildly. It's like the Rite of Spring for a sci-fi age. Delicate melodies and birdsong are countered with deep percussion that bellows from the depths of the earth and shudders around us.

It is an otherworldly, out of body and out of mind experience. A hallucination. It's the familiar sound of harps and flutes, with a technical undercurrent that distorts. Above it, Björk sings poetry in broken melodies.

Though older songs are included - often in beautiful new arrangements to match the sound of the latest album - we hear songs for a new world. Songs of love, songs loaded with politics, songs that empower us, songs that urge us to do better. These are songs for a world we need to create, a world we need to protect, performed with space and urgency. She is apocalyptic, but she is also rebirth.

Björk takes us to utopia.

Take me back.


Saturday, 16 November 2019

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

How do you put a mountain on the stage? It's a colossal task and an integral part of this adaptation of Joe Simpson's 1988 book (also a documentary film, 2003). The answer is to put the mountain in your mind.

Chairs, tables and other pub paraphernalia are strewn across the stage. The proscenium arch becomes a climbing wall. Snow blows in from the side of the stage. An abstract scaffold quivers ominously above the actors, jagged and harsh. The sound design (Jon Nicholls) is all howls and pulses. And then the perspective suddenly shifts as chairs and actors alike are swept back into the void of the stage. It's your imagination that puts the pieces together, the mountain forming like a terrifying, sublime jigsaw.

So why the pub stuff? Well it's not just the mountain that's in our minds. The entire narrative takes place within the mind of Joe (Josh Williams), a climber who ventures up the never-before-done Siula Grande mountain in the Andes with his fellow mountaineer Simon (Angus Yellowlees). When Joe breaks his leg during the descent and is left dangling, Simon makes the dire decision to cut the rope.

In his catatonic, delirious state, Joe's mind takes him back to his favourite pub where he and Simon are joined by their camp mate Richard (Patrick McNamee) and his sister Sarah (Fiona Hampton). So the play takes place both on the mountainside and the imaginary safety of the Clachaig Inn. It's a clever way for adapter David Greig to present this story on stage, a story that pivots between beautiful and ugly: from imaginary vistas and powerful landscapes, to inconceivable pain both emotional and physical.

Even for anyone already familiar with the plot, the narrative gradually ramps up to high intensity, drawing us in towards its climactic choice that has us questioning what we would do in such a situation. The second half is an incredible story of human endurance and willpower, harrowing, visceral and life-affirming.

There's warmth too amongst all the ice. Williams gives a superb physical performance as Joe, full of anguish, but as Sarah, Hampton embodies big sister energy as she taunts and motivates him on his daring descent. She is our emotional anchor too as we relive the journey through her eyes. As Richard, McNamee provides some welcome comic relief, and a beautiful singing voice.

Touching The Void is an extraordinary real life story, and an extraordinary piece of theatre.


Watch: Touching The Void runs at the Duke of York's Theatre until 29th February.

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre

Touching The Void @ Duke Of York's Theatre
Photos: Michael Wharley

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Reputation @ The Other Palace

Reputation @ The Other Palace

Reputation initially seems timely. In a post #MeToo world of feminism, it's a new musical from Alick Glass that depicts a woman whose work is plagiarised by a man. The young Michelle Grant (Maddy Banks) is tricked into submitting her work to influential film director Freddy Larceny (Jeremy Secomb), who promptly steals the plot. And so, the young woman must regain her work and her dignity.

It's ironic, then, that it's narrated by a man. Larceny's direct addresses to the audience bookend the narrative, returning at key moments to provide further insight. Perhaps this parallel was intentional, as Larceny literally takes over Michelle's story. But it robs the musical of any sort of feminist power.

The cast is dominated by women, yet it's men who control the narrative. There are plenty of cute songs for the chorus girls, but no amount of prissy dance numbers about shopping can give these materialistic women any depth. Michelle herself is a pathetic character who, rather than being a strong career woman taking matters into her own hands, relies on her father and a young male lawyer to bail her out - a lawyer who she promptly falls in love with, obviously. The musical may be set in the 1930s but its politics don't have to be.

It's not helped by Secomb playing Larceny like a pantomime villain. His creepy schtick as an older man manipulating a young woman is uncomfortable to watch - one audience member even booed him out loud.

As a whole, Glass' work is derivative. The narrative has all the hallmarks of a 1930s musical - a meet cute, a soppy love story, a diva jazz singer - and his score is typical and repetitive jazz stuff, reprising numbers and musical phrases. It lacks the grit the plot deserves and the 1930s Hollywood setting is missing the glamorous razzle dazzle you'd expect.

It's all held together by a capable cast. The chorus girls sing some lovely harmonies and Banks especially stands out for her pure, Disney voice. As love interest Archie, Ed Wade joins her with a pleasingly light tenor, despite the saccharine writing.

The cabaret setting of The Other Palace's studio space is under-utilised here. It's the kind of musical that's aiming for grand sets and dance numbers, but the story at its core is too weak.


Watch: Reputation runs at The Other Palace until 14th November.

Reputation @ The Other Palace
Photo: Donato

Friday, 25 October 2019

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

It's fitting that Beryl is playing at the Arcola theatre in Dalston, not far from Cafe Beryl's that similarly commemorates the cyclist. Yet for many, Beryl Burton is an unknown.

The opening of this play from Maxine Peake, first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014, admits and laments this. That's why the play, quite literally, aims to answer the question: who was Beryl Burton?

What ensues is a straightforward biographical depiction of Beryl's life, from childhood to her death in 1996. In that time she won numerous championship medals and held countless records (though sadly no Olympic medals, as women's cycling was only included from 1984 onwards). In addition to her life, the play also gives a potted history of the sport.

Yet what the play makes abundantly clear is the hardship she went through for such success. A woman in a man's world (who went on to exceed men's records), she endured farmwork and slowly rose through the ranks to reach the dizzying championship heights. And all with a lack of finances, done to earn money to look after her family as both mother and competitor. The play isn't overtly political, but it is an inherently feminist narrative.

As you'd expect from Peake, the script is funny. Much of this comes from fourth wall breaking moments where the actors banter and address the audience directly. It adds excitement to an otherwise simple piece of storytelling and the cast of four give buoyant performances as multiple characters both on and off their bikes - thighs of steel doesn't begin to cut it. There are plenty of small directorial touches too from Marieke Audsley, resulting in a polished and openly theatrical production.

It all speeds along at a fast pace that perhaps doesn't go into too much detail, instead focusing on the central protagonist with a smattering of secondary caricatures. But this is low stakes theatre, ideal for the Fringe, that's pleasantly enjoyable.

Above all this is an uplifting and wholesome story of a woman's fiery determination to overcome adversity. Who is Beryl Burton? An inspiration. Now there's a play to truly cement her place in sporting history.


Watch: Beryl runs at the Arcola Theatre until 16th November.

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre
Photo: Alex Brenner

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

It seems fitting to watch Mites on Mental Health Awareness Day. Written by James Mannion, this is a surreal, absurdist play that delves deep into psychosis in a visceral portrayal.

It starts innocently enough. Ruth (Claire Marie Hall) has been left by her husband and, when a pest control man named Ken (George Howard) arrives, she believes he's actually her husband returned to her. Why pest control? Because her home has been infested with dust mites. Oh and there's also a talking cat named Bartholomew (Richard Henderson).

This is (mostly) a comedy, with a hard-hitting message simmering beneath the surface, just out of our reach. It slowly becomes more and more bizarre, peeling back Inception-like layers as we delve into the psychological mystery, eventually meeting a family of dust mites themselves. Cecilia Trono's dusty set design similarly unveils itself in parallel with the narrative.

It's all very confusing, but also well-paced to draw us in. And that confusion is purposeful - it puts us (literally) inside Ruth's head so that we are just as confused as she is. We too are unsure what is real and what is fantasy, what's the truth and what is simply occurring in her mind.

Eventually the layers build up to a more lucid state. Yet there's an element of misogyny added towards the end which makes for uncomfortable viewing as both Ruth's husband and a psychiatric doctor appear to manipulate her and take advantage of her. This then morphs into a feminist revenge tale that feels tacked on, as if Mannion felt the play needed explaining, when its cleverness lies in its ambiguity.

What makes Mites so compelling though are the committed performances from the cast. As Ruth, Hall is particularly enthralling - her distress is palpable, her mood swings endearing. Despite the craziness around her, she's a character we immediately warm to from start to finish.


Watch: Mites runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 26th October.

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Monday, 7 October 2019

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

What could be more British than karaoke in a pub? That's the setting for this state of the nation play written by Annie Jenkins and produced by pluck. productions.

The four-strong cast deliver four monologues to the sounds of cheap instrumental karaoke songs, each bravely stepping up to tell their story. It's a clever idea, monologue and song in parallel as if revealing the internal thoughts of each character. The stories gradually interlink with internal references and callbacks, slowly weaving a web and drawing us in.

Yet despite some comedic moments, Karaoke Play has an oppressive, dismal tone. Collectively, the stories touch on rape, drugs, terrorism and violence, all told through vulgar and overtly sexual language. This may be a comment on our modern society, but it lacks nuance and feels as if trying too hard to shock.

What's more, the narrative is ultimately circular but lacks drive and urgency, meandering through each story before ramping up to a crescendo of shouting and bad singing (likely on purpose, but still unpleasant). By the end, the play has established an apocalyptic tone that thoroughly depresses, but it's unclear what Jenkins is trying to say beyond this.

There's some strong acting on stage from Philip Honeywell as Darren and Lucy Bromilow as Perri, though their characters remain wholly unlikeable and lack humanity. Perhaps that too is a comment on present day Britain, but Jenkins' play leaves us cold.


Watch: Karaoke Play runs at the Bunker Theatre until 14th October.

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre
Photo: Michael Lindall

Monday, 23 September 2019

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

Midlife Cowboy @ Pleasance Theatre

If country music is about dramatizing the mundane, then Midlife Cowboy is country and western through and through. Written by Radio 4 comedian Tony Hawks, this new musical yee-haws its way to the Pleasance Theatre, but not our hearts.

The narrative is as mundane as they come, concerning a handful of Swindon residents and their local country and western club. It's led by a middle-aged couple whose marriage is facing difficulties, through a lack of children and potential infidelity. And their upcoming gala night performance piles on additional stress as they seek for new members and wrestle with their (lack of) talent during rehearsals. Drama!

It’s like some white middle class fantasy; small scale drama in small town Britain. The drama feels stiff and forced, not aided by a lack of energy in the performances. And Hawks' script has an absence of jokes, with tired innuendo and punchlines that fall flat, despite being explained by the characters in case we didn’t get them the first time. Later, the drama relies on a gay twist that’s played for laughs – what could have been a chance to challenge preconceptions is missed in lazy humour.

There is some fun to be had here with the jaunty tunes and lighthearted plot. The songs may be derivative, but they’re catchy enough and well performed by the five-strong cast alternating between various instruments as well as taking lead vocals. A few too many repetitive ballads tend to drag the pacing, however, and the lack of microphones leaves both singers and musicians exposed. A bit of editing would've tightened up this sagging cowboy.

Though largely in support roles, Georgina Field brings plenty of character and zaniness to the role of Penny, and James Thackeray shows off some strong vocals as Dan. Mainly, though, there’s not enough of a reason to care about these people or their relationships, and it all predictably ties up neatly in the end. As fluffy entertainment – and it’s not trying to be anything more – it’s enjoyable enough. But this cowboy with confidence is too bland to have us line dancing home.


Watch: Midlife Cowboy runs at the Pleasance Theatre until 6th October.

Photo: Adam Trigg