Tag Archives: Charing Cross Theatre

“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

“The Braille Legacy” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This new French musical’s world premiere benefits from the talents of director Thom Southerland. It’s the story of Louis Braille, who battles against prejudice to improve lives with his invention of a reading and writing system for the blind. The aim is to inspire and, with a rousing, diligent score, there’s a chance it’ll induce goose bumps and maybe a tear or two.

Now, while Braille changed the world for the better, he did so from behind a desk, his “silent revolution” being slow rather than dramatic. So it’s quite a task for Sébastian Lancrenon’s book to animate Braille’s story for the stage and the results are unsteady.

The first good idea is to show Louis as a rebellious teenager, affording Jack Wolfe in the lead role enough to work with to ensure that this makes a strong professional debut for him. Wolfe’s singing is great and he clearly has a promising future.

But the awful discrimination faced by the blind in the 19th century isn’t established well. The banning of Braille’s system shows the shocking extent of inequity and could have been given greater impact, while a dramatic subplot (about children being used in fatal experiments to “cure” blindness) should have been introduced much earlier. The battle of wills at Louis’ school for the blind becomes deadly serious: and only then can both Jérôme Pradon and Ashley Stillburn, as rival pedagogues, really show their mettle.

Further efforts to enliven the story are similarly flawed. Humour is thin, despite the efforts of Kate Milner-Evans as the wife of Captain Barbier, whose “night writing” formed the basis of Braille’s work. Themes of family and friendship, leading to emotional songs for Ceili O’Connor and Jason Broderick, are powerfully delivered, but hampered by woefully under-inspiring lyrics, translated by Ranjit Bolt.

With this uneven mix, Southerland’s skills come to the fore. He clearly believes the show deserves a large stage and a big sound. Knowing that sentimentality is the strongest element in the show, the director doesn’t shy away from it. And he is a persuasive man.

Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick
Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick

Tim Shortall’s revolving set literally adds the motion needed. The singing is flawless, the whole cast showing an impeccable delivery that makes a lot of a competent score by Jean-Baptiste Sauray. Taking just one detail, the use of blindfolds discarded when blind characters can “see” (if dreaming or using Braille), shows the impressive creativity on offer – a saving grace for a show struggling with some big problems.

Until 24 June 2017

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

“Ragtime” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This is a big one. Based on EL Doctorow’s novel, this musical has a book by Terrence McNally that preserves the theme of hope on a grand scale. The music and lyrics, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, are a huge success, with not a melody or line out of place. It’s the most ambitious show yet from Thom Southerland, who handles the piece brilliantly and deserves the largest number of accolades possible – Ragtime gets five stars from me.

There are many stories to follow here, each with a musical motif meticulously combined into a satisfying whole. An in-depth examination of the ‘pyramid’ of American society, before World War I and on the cusp of change, WASPs, African-Americans and European immigrants are all compellingly portrayed. The fate of children is at the fore, as is the question, what kind of community do we really want? I told you it was immense.

Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell
Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell

A wealthy white family embodies conflict. Father is resistant to change and disconcerted by the “new music”. Mother, a Liberty-like figure, understands you can never go “back to before”. Their roles are superbly performed by Earl Carpenter and Anita Louise Combe. Family life is changed by contact with an African-American couple, Sarah and Coalhouse, whose powerful story of romance and racism is performed with passion by Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell. And there’s a Jewish immigrant, Tateh, whose trials and eventual success are the lightest part of the piece. Gary Tushaw comes close to stealing the show (no mean feat) with a gorgeous performance.

Gary Tushaw
Gary Tushaw

More radical discontent comes with the presence of Anarchist Emma Goldman, ruthlessly embodied by Valerie Cutko, while Mother’s brother (a strong role for Jonathan Stewart) joins Coalhouse’s plan for revenge after a personal tragedy. Violent protest is the focus of the tension-filled second act – almost a mini Les Mis as the mix of fact and fiction creates a powerful synergy. Tackling the theme of terrorism, home grown at that, provides a startling edge.

Joanna Hickman
Joanna Hickman

The production’s masterstroke is to have talented onstage musicians, who memorably use their instruments as props. Tateh beats a drum as he attacks an assailant; there’s banjo-playing Simon Anthony, who makes a chilling racist thug; fife-playing Tom Giles, getting the most out of a number as Henry Ford; and an excellent role for cellist Joanna Hickman as a Chicago-style celebrity with a vaudeville routine. All are led by Jordan Li-Smith, the awesome onstage musical director, who holds the whole score in his head.

There’s a lot of history here, but it never overwhelms the show. Emotion is the key. Southerland directs with clarity yet avoids any mechanical precision. With songs as good at telling stories as these, goosebumps are guaranteed. This is one of the most moving musicals you could buy a ticket for. If it tips over into sentiment, so be it. To sum up a big success quickly – see this show.

Until 10 December 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Titanic” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Maury Yeston’s musical, set on the doomed ocean liner, won five Tony Awards, and praise for this production from the Southwark Playhouse has followed it around the world. Now that director Thom Southerland has taken up residence at an oddly charming venue underneath Charing Cross, there’s another chance to see the show. And it’s every bit as good as critics say.

Yeston, with the story and book from Peter Stone, succeeds in making a well-known story exciting enough. Seeing the ship as a microcosm of society is neat, if hardly novel. It’s all about the details, and a careful and inventive execution along with an ambitious and intelligent score ensure success here.

There’s the combination of observing different classes of passengers, mankind’s inevitable search for “progress”, and plenty of emotion when the boat sinks. Impressively, the dangers of Downton Abbey kitsch are avoided and the excitement and glamour of the boat is persuasive, despite audience hindsight. And get ready for tears before the end, with characters we have come to love at a rate of, well it would have to be, knots.

Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere
Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere

The production is hugely impressive. Southerland’s direction is faultless, a miracle of economically effective staging. David Woodhead’s set and costume design are smart, facilitating swift role changes for the 20-strong cast. Yes, 20 –and all performing at the highest standard. One bold thing about Titanic is that there aren’t ‘leading’ roles so it isn’t really fair to highlight individual performers. But indulge me. Niall Sheehy’s role as a coal miner stands out (there just aren’t enough songs about men from the Midlands in musicals) and I can’t resist pointing out that the cast includes the excellent Victoria Serra.

Of course, it’s Yeston who’s the real star. The lyrics, filled as they are with facts and figures, could so easily have failed, but the score energises them remarkably: combining waltz themes with historical references such as rag, inspired contemporary touches and a big choral sound that uses that huge cast superbly. This is a truly accomplished score. Adoration of the ship, described as a “perfectly working machine” could carry to a critique of the musical – its well-engineered construction is a marvel.

Until 13 August 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Main photo by  Scott Rylander

“In the bar of a Tokyo Hotel” at the Charing Cross Theatre

With the benefit of director Robert Chevara’s intelligent handling, here’s an unmissable opportunity to see a rarely performed late work by Tennessee Williams. This startlingly innovative play, which ruthlessly examines a broken marriage, shows Williams’ unique and challenging voice in a new light.

Mark is a successful artist who believes he has made a breakthrough with his painting, with a new style that has clear parallels with Williams’ writing. According to his sexually ferocious wife Miriam, he has simply gone mad. Aggressive advances toward a barman fill Miriam’s time as she waits for Mark’s agent to arrive and take him away – she’s had enough of him and his art.

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Andrew Koji

These are tough roles that Chevara supervises carefully. David Whitworth is entirely credible as the (literally) unstable, dying artist. Andrew Koji and Alan Turkington, playing the barman and gallerist, appreciate the piece’s humour perfectly. Linda Marlowe has the star role, delivering a mesmerising performance that establishes Miriam as another leading lady in the Williams canon.

In this hugely difficult text, few lines of dialogue are completed – a treatment that toys with naturalism while being extremely stylised – so it’s forgivable that the delivery isn’t quite perfect. And yet the stilted language has a distinct and demanding beauty. Key words are isolated and repeated for weight, creating a rhythm to the piece that carries into Miriam’s witty insults, desperation and, finally, transcendental ideas.

Inspired by Japanese poetry, the sensibility is still Williams, making a fusion of East and West that’s often disorientating and exquisitely reflected in the production’s video projections. There are times this play feels like an out-of-body experience – characters describe actions we can clearly observe – compounded by suggestions that Mark and Miriam are really two sides of the same character (get your head around that one). A weird and wonderful play that stands alone and proud.

Until 14 May 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Keeler” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Now we know why Andrew Lloyd Webber selected Stephen Ward as the subject of his new musical –  a small production has beaten him into the West End – and reminds us what a fascinating character he was. In Gill Adams’ Keeler, the woman at the centre of the 60s scandal, the Profumo affair, takes the title and the play is based on Keeler’s own book. But it is Ward, a queasy-making anti-hero, who interests most.

The focus on Ward may well come from Paul Nicholas taking on the role. A strictly controlled performance adds to this enigmatic character: his motives tantalisingly unclear, his emotions ambiguous. A kind of pimp to Christine and other girls from Murray’s Cabaret Club, he uses women to advance himself with the establishment and the powerful. It’s more than creepy but we never doubt his charisma.

Unfortunately, Nicholas dominates too much. Other characters, including “the Minister of War and the man from Moscow” – Keeler’s lovers, John Profumo and Eugene Ivanovo – are sketchily written. In the title role, Sarah Armstrong fights hard to portray Keeler as more than a victim, but this results in little sense of how young and vulnerable she must have been. Through abortion and abandonment, to having her life threatened by mad lovers from Notting Hill, Armstrong conveys Keeler’s cool rather than the drama.

Sexual tension is conspicuously absent. Despite a couple of showgirls, who inject some feathered glamour, the uniformly odious male characters, with their talk of “botties and boobies”, make you squirm. Nicholas, who also directs with a thorough hand, aided by Charlie Cams’ neat set, is at his best as Ward is taken to court. Injecting a more serious tone, this scene almost grabs you. Laid bare for the law, you can see the story for the scoop it really was – sensational still.

Until 30 November 2013

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Irina Chira

Written 7 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“Afraid of the Dark” at the Charing Cross Theatre

The latest attempt to scare London theatregoers out of their seats is Afraid of the Dark, which opened last night at the Charing Cross Theatre. I chickened out of Ghost Stories but always recommend The Woman in Black, so consider myself open-minded about scary shows. Afraid of the Dark didn’t make me jump much – you wouldn’t bother daring someone to see it – but it’s perfectly diverting.

Intriguingly penned by Anonymous, the play’s various scenes of suspense circle around an old Vaudevillian magician who delights in scaring the wits out of a B-movie producer and his minions. Julian Forsyth takes on the role of ‘Master of Terror’, Dr Henry Charlier, with nice prestidigitation. And those he terrorises at the film studios (by giving them an envelope predicting their darkest fears) ham it up in appropriate fashion. Rebecca Blackstone’s screams are great and Mark Rice-Oxley tries hard to shed some light on his character’s motivation. None of the actors has that much to work with – characterisation isn’t the point after all – and nor is the plot trying to thread them together up to much. But there’s a good sense of humour here and some neat touches.

What impresses is the show’s production team. Effective light and sound, along with illusions from Darren Lang, reveal this to be a magic show that is entertaining rather than eerie. The stories are made the most of with technical expertise as well as some lo-fi touches that receive eager applause. Just like the movie producer looking for the next gimmick, Afraid of the Dark shows that cheap touches can work well. The real thrill comes from experienced director Ian Talbot who has more than earned his fee here. Consistently tense and swiftly paced, this play is more fun-filled than fear inducing.

Until 26 October 2013

Photo by Eric Richmond

Written 12 September 2013 for The London Magazine

“Vieux Carré” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Vieux Carré is a late work by Tennessee Williams that might be dismissed as overblown melodrama, but a new production from director Robert Chevara, transferring to the Charing Cross Theatre after a successful run at the King’s Head in Islington, asks us to think beyond the campery and caricature. In contrast to Williams’ baroque writing, Chevara and his designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen present a stripped-back, minimal affair that focuses attention and allows the poetry in the play to shine.

Set in a squalid boarding house in New Orleans, much of the action in Vieux Carré borders on the macabre or the insane. The gentlemen callers of Williams’ earlier plays have turned into vagrants and the playwright’s approach to sex and death is painfully direct. The occupants of this “New Babylon” seem familiar from earlier work but are now “far past pride”; grotesque enough to make “remarkable tableaux vivants” that even they seem shocked by. Considering the extreme characters, the cast’s performances are admirably restrained: the landlady Mrs Wire (Helen Sheals) sinks into madness at a controlled pace and a tortured love affair is performed convincingly by Samantha Coughlan and Paul Standell.

None of the characters is closer to dangerous parody than the “rapacious” homosexual artist Nightingale, so David Whitworth’s performance deserves special note for its appreciation of Williams’ humour as well as emphasising the loneliness that so occupied the author and gives the play its emotional power.

It is Nightingale’s relationship with the play’s narrator, a young writer naturally, that interests most – an autobiographical tease that Tom Ross-Williams has the talent and stage presence to carry. His neighbours are the material for his work but his observations lack coherence and are a shadow of Williams’ own oeuvre. As a play, Vieux Carré is frustrating but Chevara comes within a hair’s breadth of convincing us this is a major work, and that makes his production an important one to see.

Until 1 September 2012

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Tim Medley

Written 20 August 2012