“Dreamgirls” at the Savoy Theatre

This 1981 Broadway hit, with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music from Henry Krieger, reached movie screens before the London stage, so theatregoers have had to be patient. But it has been worth the wait. The story of a Motown girl group, and their trials in show business, its cast’s superb voices mean that from the first talent contest there’s no doubt fame will arrive for The Dreamettes. As the focus becomes the trio’s personal lives, with professional betrayals and broken relationships, powerful songs guarantee strong emotion.

Liisi LaFontaine plays Deena, the shy girl chosen to lead the band into stardom. She sounds fantastic and her acting is adroit. Asmeret Ghebremichael is Lorrell, another member of the group, who holds her own providing a welcome comic number, Ain’t No Party. Lorrell’s affair with the star the girls used to sing backing vocals for – played by the multi-talented Adam J Bernard – is strong in its own right.

Joe Aaron Reid and Liisi LaFontaine
Joe Aaron Reid and Liisi LaFontaine

The bigger story is the love triangle between Deena, the band’s manager Curtis (performed with a slick edge by Joe Aaron Reid), and Effie, jilted in love and abandoned by the band. And it’s all about Effie. Taking the role of this complex character, Glee star Amber Riley has the audience on its feet more than once. Her powerful voice brings goose bumps – do take the chance to hear her – but big credit also goes to her acting.

The music tells the simple story in a satisfyingly layered manner. Even weaker numbers, examples of cynicism rather than soul through the machinations of Curtis, reflect and comment on the characters’ lives. With the development of R&B into disco (again, blame the manager) variety is built in. It’s an accomplished musical history, aided by Gregg Barnes’ costume design, with a riot of sequins guiding us through the years and illustrating how to really wear a feather boa… if you didn’t already know.

But it’s the women rather than some calculated social history who bring this dream to life. Brilliant performances, packaged by Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography affording speed and immediacy, make the success, struggle and reconciliation both uplifting and entertaining.

Booking until February 2018

www.dreamgirlswestend.com

Photos by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg

“The Enchanted” at the Bunker Theatre

Rene Denfeld is an investigator for death-row prisoners, discovering facts that might save their lives. But her award-winning novel, adapted by Joanne and Connie Treves, is a poetic affair with a magical strain. Bringing such lyricism to the stage is a big task and this attempt is both impressive and intriguing.

Our guide is the prison “monster” Arden, institutionalised his whole life and now awaiting execution. A mute bibliophile, he narrates even his own death, and Corey Montague-Sholay is terrific in the role. His is a captivating performance, with some contrived internal dialogue delivered naturally and a remarkable physicality (including a great catuspadapitham).

Montague-Sholay’s movement, directed by Emily Orme is a nice attempt to express the novel’s flights into both fantasy and despair. But as the director Connie Treves uses it too much; particularly when the whole cast join in for small reason. Likewise, chalk drawing over the set is a good idea, linking the world of legal documentation and the prison cell, but it could be employed with more restraint.

There are fewer reservations with the second major character, known as The Lady, who has the same job as Denfeld. Jade Ogugua tackles emotions sensitively and leads the plot, finding evidence to help a prisoner called York, with suitably intensity. There’s strong supporting work from Liam Harkins as various characters she meets while puzzling over the case’s history. It’s a shame The Lady’s love interest, a defrocked priest, feels tacked on.

I am loathe to criticise the Treves’ work on the adaptation – it is excellent. Having only just finished the novel, let’s go all out and call it exemplary. With a steel will, the tone of calm around the emotive issues raised is preserved. Ruthless in all the right places, the adaptation doesn’t just preserve Denfeld’s themes and style, but enhances them. The characters are more vivid and the action clearer. There might be flaws when it comes to the staging, but this development from page to script is superb.

Until 17 June 2017

www.bunkertheatre.com

Photo by Dina T

“Common” at the National Theatre

With big subjects, a huge cast, and the Olivier stage to play with, DC Moore’s new play aims at being epic – and, up to its interval, it feels as if it might be. The twisting plot, following the story of Mary, brilliantly portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff, is an interesting mix of melodrama and the supernatural. The language, combining old and new vocabulary, odd syntax and lots of swearing, makes the text original, satisfyingly dense and a great deal of fun.

Set in the early 18th century, the play’s first topic is the enclosure of common land and one community’s struggle to prevent this devastating policy. The dramatic potential and importance are clear – a description of enclosure as “a dry word with a sharp end” is great – but the play seems embarrassed by its subject matter. Painful metatheatricality is thrown in with an overt disavowal of “dry historical accuracy”. But facts are fine, really – a bit of history won’t hurt a play.

Common is more interested in the superstition that filled agricultural communities. Director Jeremy Herrin goes to town with some Wicker Man horror that makes one gory scene especially good. The costumes and lighting, by Richard Hudson and Paule Constable, fit well. But there’s little sense of anything else – despite a subplot about incest that… well, I guess must have some point to it. As the action boils over, interest cools: the plot is abbreviated and the sign off comes across as trite. There’s too little concern for anyone apart from Mary, who overpowers the play. Cush Jumbo as a former lover and Tim McMullan as the local landowner have a go, but Duff is left to propel all.

However uneven, Mary is a brilliant creation that Duff makes a joy to watch. A romantic rogue (her self-description is a good deal more colourful) returning to the country after a debauched life in London, Mary’s psychic abilities and supernatural invincibility batter credulity – even before a crow starts talking to her. But like all devils Mary gets great lines – Moore’s expletive-ridden insults are quite something. It’s a shame the “jigsaw” of Mary’s story isn’t solved satisfactorily. Too quickly moving from the people’s saviour into a “blight” ruining their lives, the role is overburdened – and since Mary is the only thing rooted in the play, the overall harvest is poor.

Until 5 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Richard III” at the Arcola Theatre

Greg Hicks is dream casting for Shakespeare’s villainous monarch. An experienced RSC actor who commands the stage with just a shrug of his shoulder, he delivers every line impeccably, making director Mehmet Ergen’s production unmissable. This Richard carries a chain to pull himself upright but it could clearly be used as a weapon. He’s nasty and thuggish, a bar room brawler not to mess with – there’s no nonsense here about the character’s charisma. Hicks shows the world through a psychopath’s eyes rather than presenting us with a cunning politician, and using the king’s cold logic to create a chilling persuasiveness that leaves you gasping.

A mature cast join Hicks, securing further praise for the production. Peter Guinness is particularly strong as Richard’s partner in crime Buckingham. This is where the politicking comes, with a cloak-and-dagger feel aided by noirish staging, with Ergen using Anthony Lamble’s split-level set boldly. The big news is a superb Catesby, the sinister instigator of Richard’s plans, with Matthew Sim making an elegant assassin out of a usually minor role with super-spooky meticulous gestures. Strong female characters are another reason to love the play: Jane Bertish is an excellent deposed Margaret, her curses on the “bottled spider” Richard containing a sense of the tragedy that motivates her. Sara Powell gives an emotional portrayal of Queen Elizabeth that also impresses.

It’s a grown-up affair all around. Ergen is comfortable with his audience managing to work out contemporary resonances in the play if they wish, but there’s no sense of this being forced on us. Of course, the play isn’t performed in doublet and hose, but there’s no obvious spin or agenda, and this, ironically, feels original. Ergen even credits us with knowledge about the play’s propaganda content. Jamie de Courcey’s Richmond has a dash of the heroic that would have made the Tudors proud. Winning against the tyrant “raised in blood” gives the play a resolution worth suspending cynicism for. A final intelligent touch – one of many – in a strong production with consistently fine acting.

Until 10 June 2017

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by Alex Brenner

“Ordinary Days” at the London Theatre Workshop

Adam Gwon’s tyro musical from 2008 has a special place in many hearts. Presenting the lives of four everyday New Yorkers, with the ambition of making the prosaic poetic, it’s full of enthusiasm, hearts on sleeves and clever comedy. A budding friendship and a struggling romance, with meditations on art and urban life, fused by super piano score, make this a short but fulfilling gem of a show.

It’s easy to imagine the piece as a treasure trove for performers, with four evenly exposed, meaty characters who demand attention. Finding friendship in the big city are sensitive artist Warren and grad student Deb. Neil Cameron makes his role an appealing figure while Nora Perone does well with her character’s easily recognisable anger management issues.Warren might be played more bohemian and Deb a little sassier, but these are questions of interpretation rather than presentation – top marks to both performers. Meanwhile, struggling to love her new boyfriend, Kirby Hughes makes a convincing Claire, and her voice is a real pleasure. While the chemistry between Claire and her just-moved-in partner is necessarily reserved – much of the plot is her journey to accepting love – Alistair Frederick’s Jason was the highlight for me. Frederick makes a slightly soppy character shine and reveals solo numbers stronger than I’d previously recognised. I’ll stop skipping those tracks on my Ordinary Days CD from now on.

The production is admirably directed by Jen Coles, who keeps up momentum and adds nice touches that bring a sense of movement, specifically circularity, which suits the piece. It hardly matters that the staging here is so basic – it simply adds to the charm. As a final treat, there’s the special thrill of hearing performers without amplification – a rare event that always wins admiration for a cast and is perfect for this wonderfully intimate piece.

Until 17 June 2017

www.londontheatreworkshop.co.uk

Photo by Natalie Lomako

“Woyzeck” at the Old Vic

John Boyega is the young actor who impressed everyone in the reboot of the Star Wars franchise. Bringing him a further credibility it’s questionable he needs, this stage foray is a serious affair, with lots of forehead slapping, that shows he can handle angst with ease. In the title role as a soldier suffering a nervous breakdown, Boyega establishes sympathy for his character commendably. As his health deteriorates, the magnetism increases – it’s tough stuff to watch but gripping, too.

Boyega is star material, but the revelation of the night is young director Joe Murphy. It’s top man Matthew Warchus’ idea to give him the title of Baylis Director, offering emerging talent ‘main stage’ shows. And it’s an opportunity Murphy has embraced. Woyzeck can work well in any space, but the cavernous stage of the Old Vic is used to emphasise a lost, lonely, quality. Tom Scutt’s brilliant design has panels that suggest both walls and beds – sliding in and out, up and down – brilliantly lit by Neil Austin.

Jack Thorne has updated George Büchner’s unfinished play from the German provinces of the 19th century to Berlin at the end of Cold War, with Woyzeck traumatised by action seen in Northern Ireland. The move makes the play approachable but better still are changes to Woyzeck’s unfortunate love, Marie, played by Sarah Greene. More than a foil to her troubled partner, Greene’s modern sensibility makes the play’s domestic violence potent. Along with the addition of a plot about a medical trial Woyzeck participates in to raise cash, the play’s first half feels like a thriller.

Unfortunately the tension falters. As the play becomes ‘madder’ it feels too drawn out. The staging remains impressive but secondary characters, seen through Woyzeck’s eyes and affected by his increasing paranoia, become tiresome rather than threatening. The roles of Woyzeck’s Captain and his comrade, Andrews, are well performed and funny – but thinly written. It’s a great show for Nancy Carrol, playing the Captain’s wife and transforming in flashbacks into Woyzeck’s mother, but her posh cow character shows the problem best – an interest in the army’s class structure feels forced. Woyzeck becomes a victim in search of an excuse. Exploited by all and trapped by his past, causes are crammed in rather than explored.

Until 24 June 2017

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Chummy” at the White Bear Theatre

John Foster’s new play has two strong ideas behind it: the scenario, of a killer hiring a private detective to stop him killing, and the delivery, which has the story retold and commented on simultaneously. The plot has the potential to grip and the telling, with characters revealing their inner dialogue, creates the entertaining sensation of reading a book. Sadly, implementation of this novel technique has appeal only for aficionados of crime fiction.

Megan Pemberton takes the lead as Jackie, an ex CID with PTSD and an overripe vocabulary, who is haunted by phone calls from the titular “maybe murderer”. Foster knows his heroine is too close to cliché and is playing here – but the game has limited appeal and doesn’t make things easy for Pemberton. Credit to Pemberton for holding the stage: direct addresses are strong and her detailing of Jackie’s mental breakdown, leading to the play’s twist, is good.

Her friend on the phone, Chummy, is an even harder role that Calum Speed tackles well. The character is a blank slate described in detail – an oxymoron that should ring bells well before we learn his name. Speed manages to make it work with a creepy laugh and various voices. As for Chummy’s victims – played valiantly by Jessica Tomlinson – oh dear. The first has a little wicker basket to carry flowers and uses the word “fudge” a lot. The second is an equally unbelievable police woman who acts as a stand-in at the world’s least successful crime reconstruction.

There is a point to reach and some skilled direction from Alice Kornitzer propels the audience. But Foster needs to curb his enthusiasm. More than one scene might be cut and all of them curtailed. The plot is slow and the language verbose. The aim of steeping us in noirish thrillers falters with painted metaphors, excessive alliteration and a lack of humour. That the dialogue is odd eventually makes sense, but the language is jolting – I am sure I heard the word milquetoast used at one point, and lost a few lines after that in bewilderment. There’s far too much lyrical talk of The City – unspecified – and as Foster surely knows, fictional detectives need defined locales; nice try for something different but it doesn’t work. The evening is saved by some nice touches from Kornitzer and three strong performances but the play is overwhelmed by the genre that inspired it.

Until 10 June 2017

www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk

Photo by Headshot Toby

“Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Emma Rice has chosen well for her last show as director of the Globe, with a cross-dressing comedy that updates the Bard for our gender-fluid times. If you don’t think Shakespeare and Sister Sledge mix, then be warned – Rice’s energy, sensitivity and sense of irreverence are bountiful. The disco lights are on and it’s time to celebrate her reign at The Globe.

Let’s not forget that organising a good party is hard work and can call for tough decisions. There are moments of forced jollity – musical chairs proves messy – and a close reading of the text isn’t invited. But the passion in Twelfth Night is frenzied and Rice’s insight is to allow this. Nasty edges have poignancy, fate is presented as a choreographed natural phenomenon (cleverly mocked as a touch of “community theatre”) and the laughs are manic.

The twins, Sebastian and Viola, whose adventures we follow, are used to anchor the show. In these roles Anita-Joy Uwajeh and John Pfumojena impress, respectively showing a touching vulnerability and sounding particular gorgeous. The confused suitors who fall for the ship-wrecked siblings are played by Annette McLaughlin, who makes for a joyous Olivia, and Joshua Lacey, whose river-dancing-mullet-sporting-lothario Duke is the funniest I’ve seen.

Marc Antolin
Marc Antolin

The trio of pranksters in Olivia’s house continue the strong comedy. Sir Toby, Fabian and Maria, played by Tony Jayawardena, Nandi Bhebhe and the super-talented Carly Bawden (another strong voice) really go for it. The revelation is Marc Antolin as Aguecheek, transforming the role with physical comedy, ad-libs and fluorescent Y-fronts. And a lisp… sorry, but lisps are funny.

Katy Owen
Katy Owen

What the production takes seriously is drag, spoiling us with cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat, whose Feste steers the tempestuous proceedings like a glittering, magical MC. It’s impossible to steal a show from six feet of sequins, but Katy Owen’s Malvolio holds his/her moustachioed own. Funny again (well, most jokes are better with a Welsh accent), Owen tackles bullying intelligently, tempting us to join in, then allowing the character to retain some dignity. Role-play can be dangerous.

All good parties depend on their soundtrack. Rice’s secret weapon is Ian Ross, whose compositions dominate the show: driving plots, aiding comedy, interacting with the text – check them out online. Using so many lines as lyrics enforces how productive treating the text loosely can be. It annoys purists when Shakespeare is tampered with, but Rice does so intelligently, aided by additional lyrics and lines from Carl Grose. The revisions sustain her imaginative interpretation, making the play both accessible and stimulating and her the sadly departing hostess with the mostess.

Until 5 August 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Hugo Glendinning

“Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A big hit on the Edinburgh Fringe and at the National’s Dorfman auditorium last year, this coming-of-age show is now out on the town in the West End. Following the day-long misadventures of convent schoolgirls from Oban, let loose in the Scottish capital for a choir competition, it’s raucous fun, peppered with thought-provoking moments and fantastic singing.

Lee Hall’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s book (The Sopranos) is adventurous and tackled at suitable speed by director Vicky Featherstone. Partly a concert – and the singing deserves a second mention – and then a collection of character studies, the six performers all do a terrific job. Frances Mayli McCann’s voice is particularly strong and supremely versatile, while Dawn Sievewright and Isis Hainsworth do well with the strongest story lines, as a young lesbian and a cancer survivor, respectively. There’s plenty of drama in these teenage lives, but a spirit of humour presides. Caroline Deyga delivers insults with enviable skill while Kirsty MacLaren and Karen Fishwick are especially good when taking on male roles. There’s a pretty shaming view of masculinity here, but I am not going to argue with it – I wouldn’t dare take these girls on.

“Really, really rude” language is the warning all over the theatre foyer. And they aren’t joking. The swearing is enough to make a submariner blush – let alone what else they might have to say about him. The discussions of sex are… frank. Impressively, the drink- and drug-filled binge is fun but not glamorised. For all the crudity, Hall and Featherstone want this to be a play that respects its characters. The girls know they aren’t angels but they aren’t hypocrites either. Telling teenage life as it is, even if it makes some squirm, makes this a mature show about youth.

Until 2 September 2017

www.ourladiestheplay.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Brimstone and Treacle” at the Hope Theatre

Here is a real find on the fringe. Many a larger venue might have considered a 40th revival of Dennis Potter’s landmark play, but director Matthew Parker has beaten them to it and can bask in the glory of his superb production of this brilliant piece.

Potter’s scenario has a severely disabled girl, tended by her desperate parents, visited by evil. It’s a remarkable performance by Olivia Beardsley as Pattie, the bedridden victim of a hit and run who’s unable to speak yet communicates frustration and fear. Pattie’s father regards her as dead. The alternative – that she is “locked in” –is just too frightening for him, but the possibility that she is sentient haunts the play.

Both Pattie’s parents are struggling. Her mother, a house-bound full-time nurse, is played to perfection by Stephanie Beattie, who combines her wretchedness with humorous touches. The talented Paul Clayton plays the father, an objectionable figure who’s close to parody. Clayton invites us to take the character seriously, while glimpses of his love and regret are tender without being mawkish. The couple’s flirtation with right-wing politics makes Potter visionary – the yearning for isolationism and a past where people “did less sniggering” – gives us plenty to think about in 2017.

It’s with the character of Martin, played here by Fergus Leathem, that Brimstone and Treacle becomes unforgettable. He is a visitor claiming to have been Pattie’s fiancé. First comes nervous laughter at supernatural overtones, then chills with his monotonal singing and glances to the audience, culminating in truly shocking abuse. Parker’s staging of all these levels of discomfort is handled brilliantly, destabilising the audience and aiding the tension in the text.

This suburban Satan may have a Rosemary’s Baby plan in mind. But he is also a common conman and out of luck crook, all combined to make him a catalogue of fears. There’s a twist, too – a sin that has nothing to do with him revealed as a last disorientation. Fully developing Potter’s nuanced play, without denying dangerous edges and firmly establishing it within its period, are all big achievements for this tiny theatre. With four performances as good as any you could see on a stage, this is one to grab a ticket for… quick.

Until 20 May 2017

www.thehopetheatre.com

Photo by lhphotoshots