All posts by Edward Lukes

“East” at the King’s Head Theatre

This is a play for the more adventurous. Steven Berkoff’s East returns to its original London venue after 43 years and, courtesy of its clear influence on in-yer-face theatre, feels startlingly contemporary. With meta touches and strong physical performances, including plenty of mime, there’s lots to excite anyone with a keen interest in the stage.

A paean to life in working-class London, Berkoff presents an impressive psychogeography for a quintet of characters. The violence, racism and antisemitism exposed are all unpleasant. But I suspect the sexism here will upset the most. Even when celebrating sexuality and enjoying a crude, ruthless satire, the objectification of women is relentless.

With Berkoff’s reluctance to embrace a traditional narrative, scenes are told and retold from different perspectives. The time of the action slips mischievously between the 1950s and 1970s with some good jokes around this potentially stuffy technique. As for the five characters – personality shifts as much as it develops. Remarkably, none of this is as confusing as it sounds… you just might not like it if you fancy a good story.

An attempt to extend the already quirky time span in the final scene is a slip on the part of director Jessica Lazar – nice try, though. And there are moments when the staging doesn’t take into account the sight lines – disappointing in such a small space. Both criticisms pale when the performances Lazar nurtures from her cast are taken into account.

Debra Penny and Russell Barnett do well in arguably the hardest roles – Berkoff seems toughest on the older generation. With youthful characters, even when unappealing, their energy is exciting: a vitality embraced by Boadicea Ricketts and James Craze, who play a couple in love (or at least lust). The play’s real partnership comes from Craze, as Mike, and his friend Les. A brilliant combination of physicality and comedy marks an astounding professional debut for Jack Condon. Casting directors don’t often get a mention, but Stephen Moore has struck gold here.

Any risk of upset through its confrontational themes or downright rudeness wouldn’t bother Berkoff – the number of expletives tells you that much. And, quite rightly, Lazar doesn’t shy away from any uncomfortable moments. Whether a string of obscenities goes too far is a matter of taste, but sheer repetition makes a couple of scenes tiresome. Overall, though, the play’s appeal rests on its language, which is full of flashes of startling brilliance. Frequently appropriating Shakespeare alongside Cockney rhyming slang creates so much depth and resonance that the “witty verbiage spewing” from every “gutter mouth” has to be heard to be believed.

Until 3 February 2018

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“The Phantom of the Opera” at Her Majesty’s Theatre

January sales for theatregoers means getintolondontheatre.co.uk, which offers good discounts for big shows, giving me the chance to catch up with an old favourite. Boasting the third longest run in the West End – there’s a reason it’s been going since 1986 – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenal hit is still a treat.

Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, with the story effectively captured by Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s book, the love triangle between singer Christine, her ghostly tutor, the Phantom, and eligible bachelor Raoul, with a backdrop of 19th-century Paris, makes for a mix of romance and mystery that’s hard to resist. Any element of horror, due to the Phantom’s crime or his deformity, is so deftly handled it adds to the intrigue without giving the show any age restrictions.

There’s no shortage of hits in a score that grabs the audience, and Stilgoe deserves more praise for his admirable lyrics. Plenty of the numbers have been covered by famous singers but they work well theatrically and are delivered in fine style by a cast keen to show their acting skills as much as their fantastic voices.

The show is really Christine’s, played currently by Kelly Mathieson, who gives the role a feisty edge as her character is “twisted every way” by the demands placed on her. If the camp touches get to her by the end of the show, that’s what capes are for and she works hers expertly. Ben Lewis takes the title role, sounding great and managing to show the “man behind the monster” that drives the show. The Phantom is a charismatic and sympathetic figure, despite his pathology. And Jeremy Taylor is also good, even if we all know that Raoul is too bland to really be with Christine.

While the score has aged and the music isn’t as sophisticated as Lloyd Webber’s later musicals, it is always entertaining. It has to be admitted that there’s a lack of menace, even for a family show, with the Phantom stripped of his mask and mystery too early and gaining a touch too much sympathy when you come to consider what he gets up to. But the humour in the show is still strong, and the easy metatheatricality of staging a musical in an opera house works well. The parody behind the scenes extends into the Phantom’s lair in the sewers – there are plenty of hammy touches, many intentional, and it’s impossible not to love it all.

www.thephantomoftheopera.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Into The Numbers” at the Finborough Theatre

The celebrated American playwright Christopher Chen uses the work and death of scholar Iris Chang to create a complex philosophical play. Structured around a book tour for Chang’s best-seller The Rape of Nanking, billed as detailing the forgotten holocaust of World War II, the play follows the tragic journey towards the author’s suicide. The piece is powerful and demanding.

Elizabeth Chan gives a superb performance in the lead role, reflecting Chang’s articulacy and fragility. Presented as a series of lectures, interviews, and then visits to her therapist, as an insight into mental health Chen’s writing is disturbing and poignant. The roles of the host, husband and doctor are all played by Timothy Knightly – a remarkable performance – and the drama escalates skilfully, evoking Chang’s increasing pain, paranoia and grasp on reality.

Both the story of Nanking and the effect studying such trauma had on Chang are embodied in a series of mystical encounters: with a Japanese soldier, an anonymous victim, and real-life heroine, Minnie Vautrin. The massacre’s moral importance, dramatically essential as Chang becomes “trapped” by her work, is depicted with respectful conviction by all. And the direction from Georgie Staight is impeccable throughout (aided by Matt Cater’s lighting). But these scenes from “another dimension” are less successful. A trio of performers struggles with such token appearances and some ponderous moments. While our attachment to Chang deepens, these forays into philosophical speculation pale.

The text is full of complicated concepts, some of which are surely dead ends, and it would be helpful to point those out more clearly: a representative for modern Japan proves a particular stumbling block. But Chen’s ambition is bracing and the considerations of monism, evil and time are all fascinating. There’s nothing patronising, and I confess some of the ideas were over my head even before having them expressed through the prism of mental illness. If occasionally laboured, Into The Numbers is impressively intellectual, layered and invigorating. Just make sure you’ve blown away any Christmas cobwebs from your brain before trying to tackle this one.

Until 27 January 2018

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Five Guys Named Moe” at the Marble Arch Theatre

A hit musical that ran for four years in the West End and transferred to Broadway, this revival boasts its own venue – a spiegeltent courtesy of Underbelly Productions. The pop-up feel is fun but doesn’t really evoke the New Orleans setting. And while the auditorium adds to the sense of an event, the show’s creator and director Clarke Peters uses it clumsily: a racetrack style stage, complete with a walkalator, is little used and creates a sense of distance for most of the audience. The lack of intimacy is a shame, given the terrific performances here.

A quintet of talented singers and dancers perform as the titular characters: they are all consummate showmen, sounding great with impressive moves. Ian Carlyle takes the lead in terms of sheer charisma, while Idriss Kargbo, arguably, has the best voice. Along with Emile Ruddock, Horace Oliver and Dex Lee, this is a team drilled to perfection – yet it makes the party atmosphere the show aims for feel natural. With little help from the script, the actors establish an otherworldly presence – their magical appearance is to impart wisdom on to a drunk with relationship problems called Nomax. This is a tricky role for Edward Baruwa (for too much of the piece he has little to do but stumble around), highlighting the weak story. Nomax’s problems are a slim scaffold for a revue show that in itself is excellent.

Peters’ musical knowledge, attested by his shows on Radio 4, is the overriding talent here; his passion and interest drive the musical, curating a selection of songs not to be missed. The numbers are mostly by Louis Jordan, grandfather of rock & roll and a chief architect of rhythm & blues. The entertaining lyrics are both heartfelt and humorous. The music combines adventurous experimentation with a slick confidence and Jordan’s massive influence makes listening fascinating. Many might be tempted to ignore Five Guys Named Moe as a jukebox musical, and its problems are familiar ones for the genre. But the soundtrack is inspirational, the pacing perfect and the performances excellent.

Until 24 March 2018

www.fiveguysmusical.com

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Big Fish” at The Other Palace

For this musical version of Daniel Wallace’s novel, John August has adapted his own screenplay from Tim Burton’s film and produced a satisfyingly theatrical show. Big Fish fits into a genre of Americana started by Thornton Wilder’s This Town that celebrates everyday life with a magical touch. At times it is captivating.

Edward Bloom is the not-so-average Joe who is our hero and, as he approaches death, he recounts some wild and wonderful tales about his life. These stories have – somewhat inexplicably – alienated his fact-driven reporter son, Will. Their reconciliation makes the show a family drama of low stakes – and the journey the latter has to take to embrace his father’s optimism is too gentle to be compelling.

Kelsey Grammer takes the lead, ably abetted by Jamie Muscato who appears as Joe’s younger self, and delivers the star factor: he sells the character of a travelling salesman superbly and is a strong enough comedian to make a bad joke go a long way. Matthew Seadon-Young plays son Will, giving a dedicated performance with a strong voice, but his character doesn’t convince. It’s a problem shared by the roles of wives to both men – capably performed by Frances McNamee and Clare Burt – who are sketched with depressing brevity.

The music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa fail to excite – a collection of try-hard numbers that feel forced and end up forgettable. Yet as a chamber piece Big Fish has charm. It’s when we see an ambition to be big that the cracks show; there isn’t the power to deliver a big West End feel here. Tom Rogers’ design is a case in point – clever, even charming, but inventive rather than impressive.

With too much sentimentality – fathers and sons skimming stones on a river is always a bad sign – the death bed reconciliation ends up uncomfortably long. I had plenty of time to check, in case I was just cold and heartless, and there was barely a wet eye in the house. “Part epic tale, part fire sale” is a description of Bloom’s life that could have been a warning – mixing the show’s simplicity with attempts at grandeur fails too many times, and director Nigel Harman struggles to accommodate the piece’s inconsistencies.

Until 31 December 2018

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

Photo by Tristram Kenton

“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” at the Apollo Theatre

This topical coming of age story won the critics’ heart at its Sheffield Crucible debut. Producer Nina Burns was an instant fan, too, and brought the show to London pronto. Although it doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny, it’s hard to be cynical about a school boy drag queen and a triumph of individuality over adversity. With its welcome diversity this is a true tale for our times and feel good fantasia.

The show has created an exciting new star – John McCrea – who takes the title role. The raving for McCrae is spot on, his stage presence and voice are remarkable; when Jamie acts like a star he makes you believe he is one and, best of all, his precocity is established without betraying the character’s youth and immaturity. For Jamie is obnoxious and self-obsessed – his drag queen name of Meme Me tells that much – yet McCrea manages to make him irresistible.

The ensemble is excellent: especially Lucie Shorthouse, as Jamie’s best friend Pritti, and Mina Anwar, as logical family member Ray. That McCrea carries the show is the fault of the piece rather than his fellow performers. Seeing so much from the central character’s perspective makes the show shallow. There are other great characters here and we should see their stories rather than just have them defined by Jamie.

Although it probably won’t bother many people, this is a collection of songs by Dan Gillespie Sells rather than a real musical. But many of the songs are good, a couple are memorable, and all are well performed. Monotony almost creeps in; too many numbers are mawkish and too many are solos or duets. The lack of songs for the chorus is surprising, given the strength of the cast, and provokes a sense of talent underused.

The oddest decision comes with Tom MacRae’s book. While his lyrics depict working-class life in Sheffield well, and there are some good jokes, the dramatic stakes are downplayed. There’s Jamie’s unbelievably supportive mother (an excellent performance from Josie Walker) and tolerant class mates – just the one school bully? Jamie does face prejudice, but it never feels enough of a threat. Maybe the theatre is the right place for this kind of wish fulfilment – it certainly makes for an enjoyable show – but tension is lacking. There’s no sense of debate or argument, just a token baddy and a school teacher who comes around eventually. The ironic result is a musical with a bold statement that is welcome, but leaves little to talk about.

Until 21 April 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Woman in White” at the Charing Cross Theatre

If memory serves me correctly, the West End debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, at the Palace Theatre back in 2004, was a grand affair with ambitious, if ineffective, projections and a big orchestra that served a lush score superbly. For its first revival the music has been revised, by Lloyd Webber himself, to suit a smaller setting. As a result, the show joins a string of revivals that remind us how versatile the composer’s work is. This is a piece that impressed first time around but now it is a musical to fall in love with.

The Woman in White is impressively plot driven. It’s based on Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel, expertly condensed by Charlotte Jones, with its Victorian morality deftly handled to embrace current concerns about equality. This is a great yarn – a romance and a crime mystery that flirts with the supernatural – following the adventures of the Fairlie sisters and the mysterious titular character who has a secret that will change their lives. David Zippel’s lyrics serve the story superbly, even if all that exposition makes them occasionally prosaic. Director Thom Southerland aids the clarity to ensure we are entertained – with a staging full of atmosphere via strong work with the striped back set from designer Morgan Large.

For all Southerland’s accomplishments it is his cast that makes the show stand out – a particularly strong group of singers with exquisite control appropriate to the precision in both the score and the production.

Ashley Stillburn makes an appealing hero, as the Fairlies’ drawing teacher and love interest, who becomes a man of action when danger arrives. His rival in love is Chris Peluso as Sir Percival Glyde – “a liar, a braggart and a philistine” – full of charisma and danger. Glyde’s partner in crime is Count Fosco, played by Greg Castiglioni, who comes dangerously close to stealing scenes as he has the musical’s only light relief (credit where it’s due, for an Italian accent that isn’t just a cheap gag).

The trio of female roles secure more praise. The wealthy heiress Laura might be a little too wet but Anna O’Byrne tackles the role sensibly and gives her as much spirit as possible. Similarly, her half-sister Marian is one of those martyred women, beloved by Victorians, that can annoy – but in the role Carolyn Maitland makes her devotion believable and her sacrifices moving. Finally, Sophie Reeves, who plays the ghostly woman in white, delivers an impressive portrayal of mental illness. The whole cast tackles the satisfyingly complex storyline and its melodrama while singing to perfection, making this a clear five-star show.

Until 10 February 2018

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“Follies” at the National Theatre

This lavish production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical is a triumph for director Dominic Cooke. This is a piece that divides opinion. While its songs have gained fame, the rambling story of past lives, set around a reunion of former Broadway performers, has too slender a book by James Goldman. But in Cooke’s hands this feast of melancholic nostalgia is coherent and compelling. With no small help from the Olivier’s revolve, a static story is made to at least feel dynamic. The tone is serious, suitably so, with any camp fiercely controlled. The cast is huge, the orchestra lush and Vicki Mortimer’s design will surely garner her an award for the costumes alone. The ‘ghosts’ of lives past appear with a gorgeous array of headgear, while the late 1960s costumes of those meeting one last time before a theatre is demolished are just as meticulous and impressive.

Imelda Staunton as playing Sally and Janie Dee as Phyllis

Follies provides the irony of performers at the top of their game pretending that their careers are over. Imelda Staunton continues her reign as Queen of Musicals by playing Sally and is matched by Janie Dee as Phyllis. The women performed and dated together but have ended up in sad marriages with the wrong men. Sharing their unhappiness are the husbands, Ben and Buddy, brilliantly performed by Philip Quast and Peter Forbes respectively. The women have the stronger numbers. Staunton delivers the hit Losing My Mind impeccably and her hysterical devotion to the man who got away manages against all odds to be convincing. Dee is the wicked witch of the piece, getting the laughs and showing the emptiness of her character’s successful life with pathos. But of all the mid-to-late-life crisis on offer here (and there’s plenty of it) Phyllis is the only one that entertains. There’s young talent in the show, too: Adam Rhys-Charles and Fred Haig both do well as the immature versions of the men but, while Zizi Strallen and Alex Young ably perform their roles as the younger women, the parts themselves are frustratingly thinly written.

Zizi Strallen as Young Phyllis, Alex Young as Young Sally, Fred Haig as Young Buddy and Adam Rhys-Charles as Young Ben

Given its size, Follies is a major investment to stage – a concert production was my only experience so expectations were high. To say this isn’t Sondheim’s best work still makes it head and shoulders above most musicals. But some of the lyrics are strangely flat and a couple of numbers, which take us back the early days of Broadway, of primarily academic interest. It’s the book that causes most problems – much of the show is a series of introductions – that fail to excite – about characters not met again. It’s a poor build up to a prolonged conclusion – the central quartet’s individual “follies” numbers that feel like ground already trodden. The stakes simply aren’t high enough to truly engage and the characters’ angst start to look like whinging. Musicals can cover serious topics – nobody proves that better than Sondheim – but here we just have a collection of personal crises that ends up dispiriting.

Until 3 January 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Cell Mates” at the Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall always puts on a classy show. His direction for this first revival of Simon Gray’s 1995 play is, typically, clear and careful. And Hall always gets great performances from a cast: here Geoffrey Streatfield plays the spy George Blake, alongside Emmet Byrne as Sean Bourke, who “sprung” him from prison, and both are superb. Joined by Philip Bird, Cara Horgan and Danny Lee Wynter, who play different characters aiding and abetting the criminals in the UK and then Russia, it’s as fine an ensemble as you could wish for. The production also boasts an impressive set from Michael Pavelka that feels ready and waiting for a West End transfer.

The only problem is that this is a disappointing play that Hall has an unjustified faith in.

While Cell Mates is based on a thrilling real-life story, complete with Blake’s extraordinary break-out from Wormwood Scrubs prison and subsequent life in Russia, the play steers away from a documentary feel or political commentary. Fair enough. But for a piece rammed with spies and the Cold War, it seems perverse to include so little tension. A scene in Blake’s safe house shows Gray’s strength for farce, expertly executed here, while making the KGB officers we meet funny is fine (Wynter is especially good at this), the play isn’t really a comedy either. The focus is Blake and Bourke’s relationship: why the latter helped the former, and why he was subsequently betrayed and imprisoned when visiting Blake in Moscow. Unfortunately, the duo’s friendship isn’t made interesting enough.

Blake and Bourke’s first meeting is gnomic, if intriguing. Scene II starts to reveal some idea of why Bourke might be around – he wants to be a writer and senses “a story to tell and a story to sell”. While this motif is taken up as both men work on books when in exile it does not settle the question of their bond or provide motivation for what they go through together. Talk of a “country of the future” and ideologies is given the briefest lip service. Streatfield and Byrne depict the stress of imprisonment in an accomplished way but the question of their attachment becomes an overwhelming puzzle. Their friendship may well be inexplicable, but Gray doesn’t speculate or explore it in depth and the void created makes the play a pointless struggle.

Until 20 January 2017

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Shadows” at Teatro Technis

Birmingham-based Carguil Lloyd George Webley’s play has too short a stay in London. This prison drama is a solid, old-fashioned piece with problems but great potential. It’s an ‘issues’ play – all about black men – with palpable conviction. The raising of questions is not subtle, but the arguments are honest, interesting and presented coherently. And Shadows doesn’t preach, even if too many lines sound like essay questions.

Perhaps the characters are mouthpieces a little too obviously. Yet Edmund, an elderly recidivist, talks of “the struggle” in a satisfyingly realistic way. In the role, David Monteith excels in suggesting, then exposing, the violence and frustration that has shaped his life. There are possibilities for more humour in the character (and the play as a whole) but Monteith makes the part work.

Edmund’s cellmate and debating partner is a less successful creation. It’s too tempting to explain his woeful fate simply because he identifies himself as British over and above being black. It might help if the character was less naïve and priggish. A painful backstory and his relationship to religion are tacked on. None of this helps Pharaon El-Nur, who takes the part, but he gives a committed performance although (easily remedied) he needs to speak up.

What also might be made clearer is the two older men’s battle for the future of a third – the young Chase, ably performed by David Ogechukwu Isiguzo. Chase’s youth and potential to turn his life around give Shadows a political urgency in human terms. Here we have a character we can root for, and we could do with seeing more of him.

In the second act the play becomes plot bound, which affords Troy Richards a fine moment centre stage as a prison guard. But the twists are predictable and too condensed. Meanwhile the lighting is erratic and distracting. More importantly, Kevin Michael Read’s direction feels rushed – even with a collection of monologues that (nice touch) are addressed to a camera. Some of the play’s flaws could be palliated with more time given to the action. What’s missing is the monotony of prison life. This could have been a source of tension if tackled with confidence. The play is strong enough to be taken at a slower pace – it deserves that – as well as a return visit.

Until 7 December 2017

www.theatrotechnis.com