Tag Archives: Chichester Festival Theatre

“Half A Sixpence” at the Noel Coward Theatre

The Chichester Festival Theatre’s new version of David Heneker’s musical arrives in the West End trailing rave reviews. And rightly so. Surely some critics were aggrieved that producer Cameron Mackintosh, credited as co-creator, had already bagged the perfect description to promote his work – this really is a “flash, bang, wallop” of a show.

The simple love story of an apprentice haberdasher who comes into money and has to choose between his childhood sweetheart and a once unattainable upper-class lady gives us a pleasingly Pygmalion spin and a hero, one Arthur Kipps, every bit as endearing as Eliza Doolittle.

Arthur may be called Art by his friends, but it is his artlessness that makes him so appealing, genuine and infectiously joyous. Taking the lead has catapulted Charlie Stemp into the big time with a star-is-born moment that theatre goers will find electrifying. Stemp can sing as superbly as he can dance – and he can act, too. In short, he’s the real deal.

Ironically the big achievement of the show, with new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and a book by Julian Fellowes, is to downplay Kipps’ part. Originally an uneven vehicle for Tommy Steele, the show has been recalibrated to allow the rest of the cast to rise to Stemp’s achievements. Both of Arthur’s love interests are superb. Devon-Elise Johnson plays the love-token-swapping parlour maid with credible vigour. The posh idol, Helen Walsingham, is Emma Williams, and, in a piece where toffs do badly, she’s still appealing, making Arthur’s decision a real dilemma.

Half A Sixpence praises working-class culture in a manner that is out of fashion and makes for a fresh change. Arthur’s colleagues in the shop are wonderfully delineated (praise for Sam O’Rourke, Alex Hope and Callum Train). As for Bethany Huckle’s Flo, Arthur may not fall for her, but I did, with an end-of-the-pier number about sexual frustration that makes the role stand out. This new song, ‘A Little Touch of Happiness’, perfectly embodies a postcard humour that makes many numbers here laugh-out-loud funny, with a sentimentality that magically weaves naiveté and nostalgia. All are combined to perfection by director Rachel Kavanaugh. And this is before the storming second-act number, ‘Pick Out a Simple Tune’, with one cast member literally swinging from a chandelier. What more could you ask for?

It isn’t just the deserving praise already received that gives the show its unbounded confidence. In Kavanaugh’s capable hands, taking a lead from the cleverly constructed new material, Half A Sixpence is akin to a theatrical comfort blanket. We know when to applaud – freeze frame on the action and get ready to clap – and when to give a standing ovation. With the keen-as-mustard cast delighting in its triumph everyone goes home happy.

Until 2 September 2017

www.halfasixpence.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Guys and Dolls” at the Phoenix Theatre

With so many shows on offer in London, it’s unusual to see the same production twice. But the latest hit from the Chichester Festival Theatre, a brilliant revival of Frank Loesser’s classic musical of gamblers, gangsters and their gals, has a new cast that makes revisiting as joyous as the first time around.

The production is also on a parallel UK tour, and Peter McKintosh’s clever neon sign design is sure to serve the show well on its travels. A fine ensemble does justice to the choreography from Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright, while director Gordon Greenberg gives the show a Broadway feel despite its modest size.

Gavin Spokes remains with the show to reprise his brilliant Nicely Nicely Johnson and get yet more encores for Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat. Joined by Jason Pennycooke as Benny Southstreet, this is a double act that gets the show up to speed double quick. Siubhan Harrison also remains in town, ever more comfortable in her role as Salvation Army Sergeant Miss Sarah. Playing her love interest Sky Masterson is Oliver Tompsett, who gives a fine performance showcasing a surprisingly old-fashioned voice – he’s a proper crooner, sure to acquire fans. If the chemistry and charisma you might hope for isn’t quite magical, the humour is spot on.

GUYS AND DOLLS, ,Music and lyrics - FRANK LOESSER., Book - JO SWERLING and ABE BURROWS, Director Gordan Greenberg, Choreographer - Carlos Acosta, Designer - Peter MaKintosh, Phoenix Theatre, London, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /
Richard Kind and Samantha Spiro

Greenberg’s focuses on the fun in Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book. As a result, it is low-rent fixer Nathon Detroit and his long-suffering fiancée Adelaide who become our heroes. Chichester’s original casting coup (David Haig and Sophie Thompson) is, if anything, bettered. American comedian Richard Kind takes over as Detroit, adding a down-at-heel quality that makes this smalltime crook all the more appealing, while Samantha Spiro is wonderful as his eternal bride to be, with comedy skills second to none and a belting voice that makes the most of Adelaide’s Lament and brings a Dietrich spin to Take Back Your Mink.

Until 29 October 2016

www.guysanddollsthemusical.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Guys and Dolls” at the Savoy Theatre

Another hit transfer from the Chichester Festival Theatre which, after its production of Gypsy, must be feeling at home in the Savoy. This exquisitely polished show matches the venue’s sophisticated glamour perfectly. New Yorker Gordon Greenberg directs, bringing an appropriate feel for Broadway to Frank Loesser’s “musical fable” of men about town and their much put-upon women.

Great material, superbly executed, the show’s hit songs sound better than ever. At the risk of being ungallant, the guys have the edge slightly, creating a big sound and working together to get the laughs. Greenberg pays attention to the humour in Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book, following two gamblers, the high-rolling Sky Masterson and fixer Nathan Detroit, placing their bets on matrimony to, respectively, a Salvation Army sergeant and a nightclub hostess. Space is created for a series of strong comic performances, especially from Gavin Spokes and Ian Hughes, as Nicely Nicely and Benny – a double act to die for. This gang of gamblers forms a coherent group that’s more than just a background note to the love affairs on offer.

A further highlight is the production’s strong choreography – they’ve got both Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright on board – with a trip to Havana generating a genuine fantasia as well as a spirited fight scene. Peter McKintosh’s design is a simple affair that will serve the production well on tour, but aids the dancers immeasurably. The key is the lighting (bravo designer Tim Mitchell) impressively adding structure to scenes. And special mention goes to the gloriously colourful costumes.

The central performances are superb. These characters are grown-ups and the balance between romance and realism is deftly handled. While Siubhan Harrison stalls slightly as Salvation Army Sarah, failing to exploit the book’s satire, Jamie Parker is a hit from the start as Sky. Charismatic and sounding superb, Parker adds tension to Luck Be A Lady – a revelatory performance of a well-known number. Close to stealing the show are David Haig and Sophie Thompson as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide (we all recognise the cracking chemistry from Four Weddings And a Funeral). Haig is at his most charming and Thompson makes both renditions of her Adelaide’s Lament something to celebrate.

Until 12 March 2016

www.guysanddollsthemusical.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Gypsy” at the Savoy Theatre

Believe the hype. Jonathan Kent’s triumphant revival of Gypsy, coming from the Chichester Festival Theatre, deserves every one of the many stars critics have lavished upon it. And, as for stars, Imelda Staunton’s much lauded performance in the lead really is a triumph, attracting every superlative imaginable.

Of course, it helps that the musical itself is wonderful. Jule Styne’s score has hits and a satisfying coherence that builds power in a symphonic fashion. Arthur Laurents’ book is perfection: powerful family relationships and fundamental emotions elaborated through the story of a pushy showbiz mother, touring America’s dying Vaudeville circuit, and the bitter success of her daughter becoming the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are justly legendary, from ‘Have an Egg Roll Mr Goldstone’ to the phenomenal ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’.

This production of Gypsy has the highest standards. It feels like a bit of Broadway in the West End. Kent’s handling is loving – he knows he’s crafting a gem and creates a tremendous energy. The show sounds gloriously brassy, which is just right, while the detailed, mobile sets from Anthony Ward embody a ‘Hi, ho the glamorous life’ of travelling performers. There are strong performances from Gemma Sutton and Lara Pulver as Momma Rose’s long-suffering daughters, especially Pulver and she blossoms into the striptease sensation that is Gypsy.

Against this flawless backdrop, Staunton excels as Momma Rose. Surely there can be few roles more daunting – remember, the critic Frank Rich described the part as musical theatre’s unlikely answer to King Lear. And think of what big shoes there are to fill. Staunton’s comedy skills are the best around and, in Gypsy, her acting shines. When Staunton wants a laugh – she got it. But Momma Rose is grown with subtlety, her fragility well established before her final breakdown. This makes the famous scene of ‘Rose’s Turn’ startlingly brave and painfully real.

Curtain up until 28 November 2015

www.gypsythemusical.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Pajama Game” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Recent closures and current bargains on tickets for some damn fine shows remind us how precious a hit in the West End is. But the transfer from Chichester of Richard Eyre’s superb production of Adler and Ross’ The Pajama Game is a safe bet if ever there was one. This unashamedly old-fashioned musical great is so conscientiously staged that there’s everything to like.

The Pajama Game is the prototype for a small genre of musicals that deal, believe it or not, with industrial disputes. Billy Elliot and the forthcoming Made in Dagenham both aim for a similar blue-collar theme. Here the employees of the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory are about to strike for a pay rise, albeit in a jolly manner. Meetings include entertainment, the hit song Steam Heat, and a rally is really a parade, based on the requested remuneration, with the number Seven-and-a-Half Cents. Life should imitate art sometimes but I fear even Equity isn’t this much fun.

As if commerce and labour weren’t enough, there are love stories, too. One is between a secretary and a jealous time-and-motion manager who used to be in a knife-throwing act – the circus connotation is apt as they are some pretty mad moments here. The other features the love-struck leads: Sid, who runs the factory, and Babe, who deals with grievances for the Union. There’s trouble ahead, obviously, but, for all her feistiness, Babe doesn’t really get that mad, even when Sid sacks her, so there’s no need to worry. It all ends happily with a gloriously silly pajama party at Hernando’s Hideaway.

Just in case it’s not obvious yet, this is one for those who enjoy a song and a dance. If you have ever liked a musical, you’ll love The Pajama Game. The performances are great, the ensemble is strong and there are fine comic turns from Peter Polycarpou (performing until 2 June after which Gary Wilmot takes the role) and Claire Machin. In the leads Joanna Riding and Michael Xavier make a handsome couple and their old-fashioned flirting is a delight. Riding’s Babe is a “firecracker” without labouring the point and is impressively convincing. Xavier’s voice is as strong as any you will hear on stage.

The talented choreographer Stephen Mear steps into the shoes of none other than Bob Fosse. But this version is really a singers’ show, so Mear deserves praise for injecting so much visual joy into the piece. In fact, he ‘gets’ Eyre’s production perfectly, with his honest, uncynical and exuberant approach. I smiled from start to finish.

Until 13 September 2014

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 15 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Another Country” at the Trafalgar Studios

The Theatre Royal Bath and Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country is now showing at the Trafalgar Studios. The 1981 play, which imagines the school days of a future spy, to all intents the real-life traitor Guy Burgess, is an accomplished text and this fluid production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, serves it well.

Set in a prestigious public school, the play begins with a pupil’s offstage suicide. This tragic death compels the lead character, Bennett, to confront his homosexuality and take comfort from his only friend, a schoolboy communist, Judd. It’s possible Herrin could have injected more tension by conveying just how much the political machination of the prefects matter to these youngsters. But Peter McKintosh’s set and, above all, the writing itself recreate the world of the school with conviction. Despite levels of repression that could strike you as clichéd, melodrama is avoided.

Rather than teenage angst we have an intelligent examination of class and community. Cold War politics seem a distant issue now, but there are plenty of arguments raised by these juvenile protagonists that make you stop and think. The youngsters here are far removed from those we know today, being by turn strangely naïve and remarkably articulate, but the deep passions that arise in youth and their impact later on in life remain compelling themes.

To consider another kind of legacy: the play has always been a springboard for acting talent. The cast is well drilled and highly professional. Rowan Polonski makes a superb Fowler, a youth brimming with religious fervour, and Mark Quartley convinces as the stressed head of house Barclay. As Bennett, Rob Callender is sure to be compared to Rupert Everett, who performed the role in the 1984 film. But what Callender lacks in terms of instant charisma he makes up for in terms of credibility as a gawky schoolboy – Everett never appeared this gauche – and his is a better interpretation of the role. As Bennett’s communist comrade Judd, acting scion Will Attenborough gives a tremendous performance, managing to inject passion into the polemic and demanding we sit up and listen to every word he says.

Until 21 June 2014

www.atgtickets.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 27 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Goodnight Mister Tom” at the Phoenix Theatre

Goodnight Mister Tom arrives in London’s Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road after strong reviews at Chichester and before embarking on a UK tour on 26 January. David Wood’s skilful adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s best-selling book about the relationship between a young evacuee and an elderly widower is a surprisingly challenging and dark tale that’s wonderfully theatrical and hugely entertaining.

Starting with Operation Pied Piper, in 1939, when nearly three million were evacuated from cities into the country, our hero William Beech is a troubled young boy from an abused home. His deeply shocking treatment at the hands of his own mother shoots through the sometimes sickly nostalgia of the piece to give it real bite. William is ‘billeted’ with a reclusive and curmudgeonly old man. It is, of course, their slowly warming relationship that makes Goodnight Mister Tom a tale of redemption for both of them.

The play’s two roles for children, William and his friend Zach, are both hugely demanding, and the youngsters performing on the press night, Ewan Harris and William Price, were impressive indeed, but praise has also to go to the creative teams and the adults in the cast who so skilfully support them. Angus Jackson’s clever direction, the clued-up ensemble who take on a variety of roles, and the clever use of puppetry from Toby Olié make Goodnight Mister Tom a slick affair. In the title role Oliver Ford Davies is marvellous and he has a rapport with his young co-star that will melt your heart.

Until 26 January 2013

www.atgtickets.com/phoenix

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 28 November 2012 for The London Magazine

“Sweeney Todd” at the Adelphi Theatre

Arriving in London from rave reviews at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jonathan Kent’s production of Sweeney Todd is the must-see show of the summer. Arguably Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, certainly his most famous work, it’s a musical that’s as intellectually stimulating as it is approachable.

Kent and his team make the most of each show-stopping number: almost to the production’s detriment as the evening is in danger of turning into a collection of hits rather than flowing as the excellent book by Hugh Wheeler intends it to. To be fair this really isn’t Kent’s fault – the audience response is rapturous, the atmosphere fantastic.

There is plenty to applaud. Michael Ball is remarkable in the title role. His transformation into the demon barber of Fleet Street makes him unrecognisable. More to the point, he gets to show what a fine actor he can be and remind us what a great voice he has. He does justice to Sondheim’s challenging score and embraces Sweeney’s tragic predicament in a stark manner that avoids camp.

Sweeney’s partner in crime, Mrs Lovett, is a role to kill for and Imelda Staunton has a great deal of fun with it. Her comedy is spot on and her voice strong. In love with Sweeney, Lovett’s descent into crime is swift, inevitable and wickedly funny, giving the production great pace. Staunton’s is a cracking performance that never slows and continually impresses.

Several recent productions of Sweeney Todd have been performed by opera companies reverent towards the score and resourced in a manner you might miss here – the chorus seems small and at times unsatisfying. There’s also a suspicion that Anthony Ward’s set feels a little lost on the large Adelphi stage; Sweeney’s London hardly teems with people, even if Mark Henderson’s lighting design creates atmosphere in abundance. But such cavils certainly won’t stop you enjoying the evening. This isn’t the perfect production of Sweeney Todd but it’s within a whisker of it.

Until 22 September 2012

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 March 2012 for The London Magazine

“Top Girls” at the Trafalgar Studios

What an opening: given its first act, it’s no wonder Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls has such a great reputation. A riotous dinner party unites women from myth, history and fiction in an Absurdist tableau to discuss their lives, loves and deaths. The stuff of doctoral thesis is seldom this funny – witness the Victorian explorer’s racist faux pas towards the medieval Japanese noblewoman – but what makes the scene so riveting is Churchill’s ability to bring the pain these women experienced so close to the surface.

How this connects to the rest of Top Girls is another chapter in that thesis. The play becomes the story of the party’s host Marlene. An 80s career women with a recruitment agency, the role is performed superbly by Suranne Jones. Wonderfully attired and every inch the thrusting executive, Joseph Epstein could have had her in mind when he coined the phrase ‘yuppie’.

Marlene’s is a cruel world. One of her clients, in a stand-out performance from Lucy Briers (who has a great night, also playing Pope Joan), is a bitter middle manager of 47, who’s told that her age is a “disabling handicap”. And Marlene’s back story, escaping to the city, has enough drama when she returns to Ipswich to match The Homecoming.

Max Stafford-Clark’s assured direction does a lot of favours to Churchill’s text. He has the experience, having directed the premiere in 1982 at the Royal Court, and this new production arrives from Chichester with rave reviews.

Marlene’s casual rejection of her daughter Angie, played cogently by Olivia Poulet, is devastating – she’s no “top girl”. The family confrontation that centres on Angie’s future is electric, with a passionate performance from Stella Gonet, the character who gets to ask what will happen if the young girl just can’t “make it”.

Top Girls is political to its core. Marlene’s pin-up girl is Mrs Thatcher – she’d give her the job – and Churchill’s particular politics of fear, debatably, makes the play feel dated. But the strength of this revival is to show the nuances within this landmark play. The complexity of the characters indicates that there are still questions to ask – Churchill’s provocative presentation demands they are answered.

Until 29 October 2011

Photo by John Haynes

Written 17 August 2011 for The London Magazine

“Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Having to write about a play can spoil watching it. Many a schoolchild has been put off Hamlet, trying to fathom out what happens, conscious they will be examined on it. It’s a relief to find that in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the characters are in the same situation; baffled by the unfolding plot and their role in it, their predicament creates a special affinity with the audience.

Tom Stoppard, of course, knows exactly what is going on, in his hands we never feel too scared – just highly entertained. Stoppard’s first masterpiece, from 1965, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, doesn’t feel dated in the slightest – its intelligent humour shines forth. Seeing the events in Hamlet unfold via once minor, now major characters, we are introduced to the theme of free will, with speculation on aesthetics, and dazzling verbal badinage.

Stoppard’s dexterous writing is well served in director Trevor Nunn’s superb production. Having missed out on the chance to direct the plays premiere, Nunn relishes the opportunity now. There is an appropriate exuberance in his direction that does him credit.

Arriving from the Chichester Festival the production is already polished. The Players that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter make a convincing ensemble of tatterdemalions. Times are tough for performers, they will “stoop to anything” to entertain, and as their leader Chris Andrew Mellon conquers, hilariously guiding our heroes around the artifice of the world they are trapped in.

In the lead roles, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, the one-time History Boys, are reunited, and this duo needs no lessons in comedy. Parker explains their predicament marvellously: seeking logic and justice in the theatre, fate means they are condemned to “death followed by eternity”, with their roles puzzled over forever more. But Barnett literally runs rings around his colleague, getting every laugh going and showing that Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is a very lively affair indeed.

Until 20 August 2011

www.trh.co.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 22 June 2011 for The London Magazine