Tag Archives: Alex Young

“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

“Carousel” at the English National Opera

Director Lonny Price’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical is billed as ‘semi-staged’. But with a massive stage that rotates, impressive projections to set the scene and a huge cast – you’d be very fussy to feel short changed. This is a big-scale show, befitting such an iconic piece, with star names and an orchestra that do justice to the legendary score.

The much-loved Alfie Boe takes the lead of wastrel Billy Bigelow. Star soprano Katherine Jenkins joins him as the devoted Julie Jordan. Their doomed love affair sounds so good that any deficiencies in their acting skills are easily forgiven. Jenkins is a little wooden and Boe seems to regard running around as shorthand for frustration. But it’s a tough job making characters fit for a parable really breathe.

Smaller roles compensate. The show boasts a strong villain in Derek Hagen’s Jigger Craigin – his work with the chorus on Blow High, Blow Low is a real highlight, full of convincing machismo, adding tension that ripples out through the whole piece. And there’s a super Mr and Mrs Snow, in Gavin Spokes and Alex Young, who are full of sweet comic touches.

The operatic voices here, bolstered by the excellent ENO chorus make an ambitious statement about taking the sublime score seriously. But the production has a reverence that’s questionable when it comes to the dated sexism of the piece. Julie’s final exoneration of Billy’s domestic abuse is too tough a line to stomach. Changing it wouldn’t be a matter of political correctness – it was never the suggestion that hitting your wife is OK. The finale is for resolution and keeping the line doesn’t work anymore. A small quibble about an excellent show… but it leaves a nasty taste that could be avoided.

Until 13 May 2017

www.eno.org

“Promises Promises” at the Southwark Playhouse

The credentials for this musical are impeccable: a book by Neil Simon, with music and lyrics fromBurt Bacharach and Hal David. That should be enough to get you booking tickets. The endearing, nostalgic piece follows the adventures of New Yorker Chuck, who lends his flat to his bosses for their extra-marital affairs, while his own love life flounders.

Adapted from the 1960 movie The Apartment, it’s the script that dominates. There’s a lot of Simon here – no bad thing – playing with cynicism, packing in jolly touches and good plotting. If the songs don’t fuse into a score in the manner that makes some musicals heavenly, they are great numbers, with a trip to the back catalogue sublimely incorporated as an extra treat.

Paul Robinson
Paul Robinson

The smooth sounds are well performed and Bronagh Lagan’s direction has a calm pace that’s appropriate – disguising how much work her dozen cast members are doing – so the show feels like relaxed fun. There’s swinging going on (it’s the Sixties, after all) but, despite the Mad Men vibe, evoked especially well by Paul Robinson as the arch philanderer Sheldrake, the tones are pastel and the atmosphere oh-so cool.

Gabriel Vick and Alex Young
Gabriel Vick and Alex Young

Darker shades are present and handled well by leading lady Daisy Maywood, whose character Fran is driven to attempt suicide. The sobering moments are a little jarring and stem from the sexism within Promises Promises itself. Women are, literally, backing singers, playing secretaries and ‘pick ups’ (providing a blissful cameo for Alex Young). And the office Christmas party would give an HR department a fit. Lagan deals cleverly with the unsavoury middle-aged executives, presenting a collection of more sad than mad men that we can laugh at. It’s a sensible move, and the cast makes it work for them.

The saving grace is our heroine, at times displaying an emotional depth that overwhelms the show – welcome nonetheless – and Maywood’s acting is as strong as her powerful voice. The equally impressive Gabriel Vick, playing Chuck, joins her. Ostensibly, this is his character’s story. He’s a “puny” figure that Vick makes winning with perfectly pitched direct addresses to the audience. Fantasy conversations only endear us to him further. It’s the two leads who make the show, culminating in a gorgeous duet that is the fulfilment of all the talent on offer.

Until 18 February 2017

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Claire Bilyard