Tag Archives: Bob Crowley

“An American In Paris” at the Dominion Theatre

Like a recent almost-best-film-Oscar-winner, this adaptation of the 1951 MGM classic movie musical gains a lot of momentum from nostalgia. It’s a trip to Ooh-La-La Land – a struggling post-war France full of artists and amour. With a classic score and gorgeous dancing, aided by updated touches from Craig Lucas, the yearning for style and sincerity so often connected with the past is delivered to perfection.

The romance here has plenty of swoon, but is satisfyingly grown up – with three men falling for one girl, they can’t all get her. Set in the “ashes of war”, conflict hangs over the show. It’s Christopher Wheeldon’s achievement as director to combine this trauma with the theme of celebration: optimism is the role of the Arts post-war. This is arguable, of course, but it makes this show joyous.

Since the music and lyrics are by George and Ira Gershwin it’s a given that the tunes are sublime, but the orchestration from Rob Fisher is particularly sensitive and the voices well suited. David Seadon-Young plays talented young composer Adam, working with wannabe cabaret performer Henri (Haydn Oakley); both sound great and act well. With the same qualifications, Zoë Rainey plays Milo Davenport, the American patron of the ballet that forms the show’s divine finale. Described as a “pistol” of a woman, Rainey hits the bulls-eye with her performance.

From left, Robert Fairchild, David Seadon-Young and Haydn Oakley
From left, Robert Fairchild, David Seadon-Young and Haydn Oakley

Ballet star Robert Fairchild originated the role of Jerry on stage. An aspiring demobbed artist, Fairchild has a gracefulness that most could only dream of. Everyman’s muse Lise is played by Leanne Cope, whose gorgeous gamine looks make this perfect casting. Both dancers, who travelled with the show from Broadway, can sing well and their chemistry is breathtaking. Their romance isn’t a matter of youthful optimism on Jerry’s part, but rather the drive to make the most of the rest of his life, while Lise’s desire to live with “no history, no past” shows there is plenty she needs to escape. It makes the stakes high and their dancing together truly ecstatic.

It’s the footwork that is the star of the show. Wheeldon has played to his strengths as a choreographer by emphasising the dance, and it is among the best you could see. Even moving the scenery around is done stylishly, with everyone dressed in costumes by Bob Crowley that are good enough make you sigh. There’s a sense you wouldn’t want to work for those in charge here – the rigour on display is so daunting – but watching the result is amazing. It’s an ensemble of impeccable talent working flat out for an audience’s entertainment and achieving tens across the board.

Until 30 September 2017

www.anamericaninparisthemusical.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

This is the best production of a Tennessee Williams play I’ve seen . Director John Tiffany brings out the text’s peculiar humour and pathos while exploring its status as the author’s first ‘memory play’. A superb cast responds with style to this trilogy of achievements.

The memory play was an idea Williams explored throughout his career. This original effort, with our hero Tom recalling his life with the mother and sister he abandoned, is raw with autobiographical guilt. It is also highly poetic. Respecting this lyricism is one of the production’s fortes, mostly secured by Michael Esper’s beautiful delivery, as well as suggestions of movement, mime and dance aided by a score from Nico Muhly.

Bob Crowley’s design also complements the elegiac air: an Escher-style fire escape and pools of water might sound artsy but are understated. The set is a dreamlike, darkened bubble without walls, yet the claustrophobia of the two-by-four flat closes in on you. But there’s something comforting in that darkness as well, with a hint of masochistic pleasure in the nostalgia can.

Michael Esper and Cherry Jones

The memories are those of Esper’s Tom. Fey, often funny, his guilt makes him a tragic figure, whose outbursts are tinged with a hysteria that Esper handles especially well, convincing us that he is living in a “nailed up coffin”. As a contrast, remembering how complex Williams’ heroines are, there is a magisterial performance from Cherry Jones as his dignified mother, Amanda, whose wit brings out the play’s lighter touches. After all, these lives have their high points – joy in reflecting on the past and fantasising about the future, with realistic fears adding a degree of tension. As “a woman of action as well as words”, this Amanda is someone to respect.

As for the production being emotionally potent, it is Briton Kate O’Flynn as fragile sister Laura and Brian J Smith with a tender portrayal of her gentleman caller who deliver the goods. Smith is heart breaking not just due to her innocence but because she has a wider awareness than her family credits her with

Tiffany’s credentials are currently high due his work on Harry Potter. Famously in The Glass Menagerie, Tom claims he is a magician, but it is the whole cast and their director who deserve that title here. Conjuring the best out of each element of this masterpiece, they make the production enchanting.

Until 29 April 2017

www.theglassmenagerie.co.uk/

Photos by Johan Persson

 

“Aladdin” at the Prince Edward Theatre

Nobody does family entertainment like Disney. As this latest transfer from Broadway illustrates, their franchises cover all bases for a hit. Theatre is always a gamble, but it’s a safe bet that Aladdin will reap dividends, and someone has clearly put a great deal of money on it. With its many neon-coloured costumes and intricate sets (brilliant work by Gregg Barnes and Bob Crowley), this is a sumptuous night out. And that’s not to mention the magic carpet – with this budget they might have paid for a real one.

Adapted from the 1992 animation, Chad Beguelin’s book is a masterclass in moving movie to stage. It’s what people want and the show does exactly what it says on the tin lamp. Maybe it’s churlish (or naïve) but could they have been more adventurous? If I had one wish the film’s romantic theme, A Whole New World, would have been ditched despite its Oscar. It’s an uncharacteristically weak song from the impressive Alan Menken, who wrote the music here, working with Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin on lyrics.

 Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson
Jade Ewen and Dean John-Wilson

The additional songs are good and, as they were cut from the original film, they fit well. The first couple of numbers are best, carefully fleshing out the main characters. Dean John-Wilson cuts a dash in the lead (although if you’ve heard his magnificent voice before you might feel he is underused) and Jade Ewen is a charming Princess Jasmine. Combine the strong performances and their opening numbers and the two leads escape from being cartoon characters. Other tunes are catchy, and clever, if functional rather than magical.

With Casey Nicholaw’s ruthlessly efficient direction and choreography there’s little time to pick holes. A breakneck pace defies boredom and there’s plenty of humour as well. The role of Aladdin’s chums, embraced by Nathan Amzi, Stephen Rahman- Hughes and Rachid Sabitri, is a good case in point: their number is good and the staging so exaggerated it might be better suited to a cartoon. But the whole thing is so invigorating, with the addition of some food-based puns, it takes your breath away.

Trevor Dion Nicholas
Trevor Dion Nicholas

Aladdin’s secret weapon is, of course, the Genie. It’s the same for this show. Travelling with the production is Trevor Dion Nicholas, a real high value pro: commanding the stage, directing the fun and guiding the pieces wry edge. Gleefully telling us when his “big production number” is coming up and pointing out “we don’t have time for self discovery”, Nicholas is the proverbial dream. Such a strong theatrical performance fulfils my wish for the show. Bravo.

Booking until 11 February 2017

www.aladdinthemusical.co.uk

Photos by Deen van Meer © Disney

“Once” at the Phoenix Theatre

Arriving from America with eight Tony Awards to boast about, the new musical, Once, which opened this week at the Phoenix Theatre, is a fantastic show, impressive in its simplicity. This love story is a world away from the brummagem you often see in the West End. This is genuine, heartfelt stuff – and refreshing for being so.

Declan Bennett (Guy) and Zrinka Cvitesic (Girl) in Once. Photo Credit Ma...
Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić

The guy and girl are a Dublin busker and a Czech immigrant, played by talented duo Declan Bennett and Zrinka Cvitešić. They fall in love because of a shared passion for music. This is a modern affair with complications that make them chaste; their brief encounter is more about creativity than carnality, as she inspires him with the confidence to pursue his musical career.

Based on the 2006 film of the same name, spruced up with poetic moments from writer Enda Walsh, Once started out at the New York Theatre Workshop before its transfer to Broadway. It’s easy to fantasise how wonderful it would be in a small venue. But the atmospheric design by Bob Crowley, recreating an Irish pub where all the action takes place, is wonderfully intimate. The bar can be visited by the audience, and the actor-musicians, who perform marvellously, never leave the set.

Most of the songs, including the Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’, are marvelled at as they are performed: by the girl when she first hears them, a sympathetic bank manager approached for a loan (Jez Unwin providing some much needed comic relief) and the studio manager as the band make their demo tape. It’s key to the piece’s charm – the invitation to revel in creativity. Behind this is the beautiful score written by Glen Hansard and Markèta Irglovà. A mix of folk-inspired tunes, performed with a raw energy that is infectious. Instantly appealing, and with the potential to grow on you – these are songs you will want to hear more than once.

Until 4 July 2014

oncemusical.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 12 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“Travelling Light” at the National Theatre

Cinema and theatre have always had a close symbiosis. The relationship is often fruitful but, for those who love live arts more, Nicholas Wright’s new play, Travelling Light, about the fascinating early days of the motion picture, is an opportunity to convey emotions and ideas with an intimacy that stage, rather than screen, promotes.

There are moments when Travelling Light uses the power theatre has to grab your attention like nothing else. It’s the tale of Motl Mendl, a Russian Jew, falling in love with the new medium of film and a girl who acts in his first picture. Punctuated with witty observations on the nature of art (a scene of the first focus group for a movie is delightful) and nostalgically interspaced with reflections from Mendl in later life, it’s an interesting story, well told – unfortunately there never seems very much at stake.

Damien Molony and Paul Jesson are both commendable as the flawed hero Mendl and there is a strong performance from Lauren O’Neil as his love interest. But the core of the play is Mendl’s relationship with his first ‘producer’, the rough and ready mill-owner of his hometown performed by Antony Sher. Clearly loving being back on stage at the National, Sher gives a robust, heart-warming performance in a difficult role that could easily turn into parody.

Unfortunately, Sher’s performance is the only thing that makes Travelling Light really compelling. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is clear and concise but the projection of film on to Bob Crowley’s design seems to have missed a trick or two.

Wright’s text seldom rises above the level of entertainment, and that isn’t much of a fault, but we often expect more from theatre, don’t we? It’s a double standard, of course, but Travelling Light is a little too light and this story of moving pictures not moving enough.

Until 6 March 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 19 January 2012 for The London Magazine

“Juno and the Paycock” at the National Theatre

This new production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock is the first collaboration between the National and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. It’s the quality affair you might expect – a classic play with an impressive cast that is scrupulously directed.

It is the story of the Boyle family, poverty stricken, living in an Ireland divided by political turmoil. O’Casey’s husband and wife team, known by their mythically inspired nicknames, are such charismatic characters that their plight packs a real punch. Their children, Mary and Jerry, also have demons to battle with, fighting for independence in very different ways and subtly conveying problems O’Casey’s society faced. The family’s troubles seem about to be ended by an unexpected financial windfall – but circumstances and politics catch up with them.

The strongest aspect of the production is the performances on offer. Ciaran Hinds’ Jack Boyle really is the magnificent peacock-like character his appellation claims – strutting around the stage and fooling nobody except himself. Ronan Raftery’s excellent portrayal of his son, broken physically and emotionally, couldn’t be a stronger counterpoint. O’Casey’s female roles are cherished amongst actresses and both Sinéad Cusack and Clare Dunne are superb. Dunne plays the daughter, bringing out the beauty in O’Casey’s language. With Cusack, this poetry becomes a prayer as the family disintegrates around her.

Bob Crowley’s design reflects the squalor Dublin’s magnificent Georgian terraces were reduced to in the 1920s, but we have little sense of the overcrowding suffered from. The set seems overblown and the same could be said for the humour; there are moments in Juno and the Paycock where conditions don’t seem that bad – the camaraderie O’Casey hints at is occasionally overplayed. But, for the most part Howard Davies direction is assured – the plot speeds along, embracing the thrilling story line, and the tragedy of the play is deeply moving. If Davies’ impeccably careful work disappoints it is really because it contains no surprises. This is a conservative affair that is easy to respect but difficult to fall in love with.

Until 26 February 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

Written 18 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“Collaborators” at the National Theatre

Having welcomed Danny Boyle earlier this year, the National Theatre now stages a new play written by his frequent collaborator John Hodge. A fantasia inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s play about Stalin, commissioned for the dictator’s 60th birthday, Collaborators is a romp around censorship and responsibility.

Working in the round for the first time in many years Nicholas Hytner directs with zeal. Designer Bob Crowley’s constructivist inspired set doubles as the Bulgakov home and a bunker under the Kremlin where the writer and tyrant meet. The theatre-loving Stalin can’t resist helping out. “Leave the slave labour to me,” he says, offering himself as amanuensis, then taking up the pen in person – on the condition that Bulgakov has a turn at running the country. It’s a glib allusion, but performed with such brilliance that its questionable taste is pushed to the back of your mind.

The wonderful Alex Jennings is Bulgakov, a “smack head groin doc turned smut scribe,” as Hodge brilliantly describes him. Jennings brings every nuance out of the role showing convincing relationships with Jacqueline Defferary, who plays his wife, and Mark Addy, who excels as the Secret Service man tasked with directing the play. Addy’s changing attitude to his artistic challenge, and the snippets of the play we get to see performed so skilfully by Perri Snowdon and Michael Jenn, are a real joy.

There aren’t many stage actors that can rival Jennings. But Simon Russell Beale is among them. His despot with a West Country burr is a hilarious and chilling creation – one who manipulates the audience as skilfully as his character plays with the writer.

Collaborators suffers slightly from the brevity that is also frequently its virtue: Hodge’s writing is immediate and clear but, as the drama increases, the play itself is not always dark or detailed enough to satisfy. Nonetheless, Collaborators is very funny indeed and, with its stellar cast, is an unmissable winter highlight.

Until 31 March 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 8 November 2011 for The London Magazine

“Love Never Dies” at the Adelphi Theatre

When a theatre’s bar staff wear waistcoats embroidered with the show’s name, it seems pretty clear that the producers are hoping for a limitless run. No question, then, that Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to the phenomenally successful Phantom of the Opera, represents a major investment. A lot rests on it and the critics know this. More vitally, so does the audience. Before curtain up, there is a palpable sense of expectation in the auditorium, and, perhaps unusually, a wish that all should go well. This is a crowd eager to enjoy itself and, I am pleased to report, it gets what it wants.

Love Never Dies takes place a decade after Phantom and has been 20 years in the making. Maybe the world is more complicated now, certainly this show is more nuanced than its predecessor. The book, by Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, does not simply replicate the story we already know, although many of the dramatic devices common to musicals are present: a theatrical setting (moved from the Paris Opera to a show on Coney Island), a battle for the love of a beautiful woman and even a prologue that sets the scene for tragedy. Lloyd Webber knows his trade, and these are all highly effective crowd pleasers.

The fairytale romance of Christine and Raoul has turned sour; indeed it was never as perfect as we were led to believe. No longer an isolated genius, the Phantom is now a successful impresario. He blindly relies on the devotion of his followers from Paris, Madame and Meg Giry. These roles demand a great deal from the cast – there are no pantomime villains here or Disney heroics.

The devotion of the Girys may seem inexplicable, but Liz Robertson and Summer Strallen convince. Raoul is now a drunken gambler but Joseph Millson manages to convey the charm his character once had.  Sierra Boggess’s Christine is torn between the commitment she has to her family and the passion for her art and former tutor. Here we have the biggest change. Ramin Karimloo’s portrayal of the lead may be thought too likeable – less phantom, more friendly ghost, but while some tension is sacrificed, it is more than compensated for with an emotional pay off. The Phantom is human and has dreams of being loved.

This is to leave the best until last – Lloyd Webber’s typically strong score. His characteristic eclecticism moves from vaudeville numbers to a haunting child role reminiscent of Britten. The predominant note is a Romantic one, with wonderful strings and bold orchestration. Music and production alike are confident and assured – this is a surprisingly intimate West End musical with a series of close-up scenes.

Cleverly, the anticipation surrounding Love Never Dies is put to good use. As Meg worries about her performance, her colleagues predict that her audience will applaud before her song is through – a prophecy happily fulfilled before Karimloo’s fantastic opening number is completed. The plot hinges on whether Christine, contracted to sing by the Phantom, will perform for him. The result is a grand theatrical moment reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma returning to a film set or Evita stepping out onto her balcony. As Boggess performs the title in impressive operatic style, the audience becomes part of the drama – participants in the play itself as her rapturous reception on Coney Island is replicated in London’s Adelphi.

Combine this score with such an accomplished cast and you have a winning formula. Add superb production values and you hit the jackpot.  Jon Driscoll’s video projections are breathtaking. Wonderful art nouveau sets and costumes by Bob Crowley are used with surprising restraint as director Jack O’Brien focuses attention on a story and emotions that are potent enough. This is a production all involved in should be proud of and attendance for Londoners should be compulsory. Let’s hope those waistcoats have plenty of wear in them…

www.loveneverdies.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 11 March 2010 for The London Magazine