Tag Archives: Joanna Riding

Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

With her last show in charge at Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice is going out in style with a musical romantic comedy that showcases her talents. This adaptation of the French film Les Émotifs Anonymes, is hilarious and heart-warming with a sense of wonder – at stories and making theatre – that is Rice’s trademark appeal.

The story of two chocolate makers falling in love sounds sickly sweet but a big dose of humour prevents any cloying aftertaste. Angélique and Jean-René are pathologically shy – émotif as the French say – and that’s the obstacle they have to overcome to find love. It’s great material for a musical: when the tongue-tied characters can’t speak, they can sing. And the scenario allows the lead performers, Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh, to win hearts, as we fear and hope alongside them.

You’d be cold indeed not to fall for this fumbling pair. But to cater for cynics, Rice’s book for the show has a cool edge. The therapies tried (including the film’s titular support group) are viciously funny. As is pointed out, the secret of chocolate is a touch of bitterness. So, alongside all the Gallic sensitivity, we have old-fashioned English wit. Even the self-help tape Jean-René listens to loses patience with him! Great jokes and a sense of playfulness mean laughs throughout.

While Bawden and Marsh are brilliant as our emotionally challenged couple, this is the kind of ensemble piece Rice excels with. The often Breton-topped troupe takes on a range of delightful roles. Take your pick: Joanna Riding as Angélique’s uncouth mother, or Gareth Snook as two chocolate shop owners, both male and female. When the cast assemble as the misfit support group, each and every characterisation gets a laugh.

Although the comedy numbers are superb from the start, Michael Kooman’s sophisticated score gets off to a slow start and the lyrics by Christopher Dimond seem serviceable rather than inspired. But, like another description of chocolate from Angélique and Jean-René, the music has a complexity and power that builds.

Despite its everyday story, and a score of satisfying references, Romantics Anonymous is an original. It’s the first new musical at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a start. It glorifies in lo-fi touches, often Rice’s forte, that show each moment approached with fresh intelligence. It revels in the mechanics of theatre, creating complicity with the audience, with a novel self-deprecation. But the underlying, unabashed aim here is to create theatrical magic. And Rice succeeds so well, you feel gratitude for experiencing this great show.

Until 6 January 2018

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Steve Tanner

“The Girls” at the Phoenix Theatre

It’s right that the arrival of a new musical should be a positive, optimistic occasion. The opening night atmosphere for Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s show was extra electric. With a crowd this committed – including the original, real-life ‘Calendar Girls’ who are the show’s inspiration making a trip to the West End – it’s hard to gain an objective impression. But it’s clear that this is a fun and engaging night out, with lots of heart and plenty of brains behind it.

Firth has already written up the story, of Women’s Institute members who posed nude for a calendar, for stage and screen. Here, the plot is simplified, which works well, and the script more youth friendly, which works less well. Big emotions arrive quickly. Annie, grieving for her husband, and her friends, led by school chum Chris, decide to raise money in his memory. They fight stuffy conventions to make this a feel-good, grown-up show that’s sentimental but effective.

As with many a British musical of late, the show removes us from London. Here, it becomes a paean for Yorkshire (it’s canny of the tourist board to sponsor the programme). The view is idealised, but the team have clearly worked closely with the community to develop the show. And, with its admiration for women of “a certain age”, Firth’s focus is on an under-represented demographic without patronising it… too much.

The cast makes a lot out of roles far from complex. In the leads, Joanna Riding and Claire Moore hold the stage and their chemistry leads to both funny and sad moments. The turns provided for other WI stalwarts are contrived and slight, but superbly performed and entertaining. Sophie-Louise Dann and Claire Machin bring strong voices to their roles, while Michele Dotrice and Debbie Chazen show off impeccable comedy skills. The finale, of the group disrobing for the cameras, takes guts, and handling it so lightly is a big achievement.

The music is a collaborative effort from Barlow and Firth. It’s an understatement that the former can write a good tune and there are plenty here. It would be too generous to say that they are memorable but all the songs are enjoyable, and there’s a nice mix of comedy and pathos. A variety of musical styles are included, somewhat studiously, and there’s a satisfying distance from any pop-song fodder. The lyrics are the best and boldest bit, basking in the prosaic, everyday details that embody the show’s down-to-earth nature and generous spirit.

Until 22 April 2017

www.thegirlsmusical.com

Photo by Matt Crockett, Dewynters

“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

“Stephen Ward” at the Aldwych Theatre

Let’s face it, Stephen Ward is a terrible name for a show and, given that its eponymous subject ends shamed and committing suicide, it’s also an unlikely topic for a West End musical. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new work deserves the kind words received from critics. An adult affair, looking at the 60s Profumo scandal, the focus is on hypocrisy and injustice – on how revenge was meted out to Ward by the upper classes he once counted as friends.

The show’s credentials are impeccable. Lloyd Webber’s score lives up to his reputation and the book and lyrics are provided by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. This is a complicated story presented in exemplary fashion, with startlingly confident lyrics and efficient directing by Trevor Nunn.

The show rests on the lead and Alexander Hanson is terrific at conveying the complexity of this “man of many parts”. And Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge (above with Hanson) depict the more famous stars of the real-life drama, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, with depth. Secondary characters also satisfy: Anthony Calf is perfect as Ward’s fair-weather friend Lord Astor and there’s a tremendous turn from Joanna Riding as Profumo’s wife. It’s a lovely twist to see the betrayed minister’s spouse get to have her say.

The show isn’t perfect – rousing emotion has to wait until the end (Hanson again delivers) and this seems too late. Attempts at humour when it comes to both Keeler’s Russian lover and the police who frame Ward on a trumped-up charge are frankly embarrassing.

Stephen Ward has a quiet ambition. A concise, penetrating view of British culture, it scores many a hit. The scene of an upper-class orgy may raise eyebrows amongst Lloyd Webber fans but, sensibly, it doesn’t try to shock. There may be some Coco de Mer style accessories on sale in the foyer (a riding crop and silk blindfold) but humour is used well here. Another highlight is a song for The News of the World journalists, set to twist Keeler’s kiss and tell story, demanding she “give us something juicy”. Keller’s lyrics go further than the hacks are willing to print, but Lloyd Webber and his team don’t shy away from the explicit – even crudity is used intelligently in this smart work.

Until 1 March 2014

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 23 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“Lend Me A Tenor: The Musical” at the Gielgud Theatre

A musical farce is a tricky thing to pull off, but Lend Me A Tenor shows us how it’s done. The book is the important thing. Based on the play by Ken Ludwig, Peter Sham’s adaptation of a star tenor’s guest performance is as simple as a farce is able to be. Confused love affairs, disguises, behind-the-scenes dramas and onstage shenanigans at a Midwestern opera house are combined with ease and plenty of laughs.

Sham’s lyrics are a model of clarity and hilarity. And if it takes guts to rhyme the name Tito with “indeed-o” then it pays off. Brad Carroll’s intelligently nostalgic score is easy on the ear. So what if you can see the mechanics? It works.

Despite the manic action (with the doors on Paul Farnsworth’s impressive set naturally getting a satisfactory amount of slamming), Ian Talbot’s direction seems effortless. With this cast, he can afford to be confident – Lend Me A Tenor has plenty of experience on stage and it really shows.

Matthew Kelly takes the role of Henry Saunders, harassed opera impresario, in his stride. Michael Matus is the star singer with a believably great voice and the kind of Italian accent you only get on stage. This team knows there is only one thing funnier than an outrageous accent… another character faking an outrageous accent. Stepping into the tenor’s shoes is Damian Humbley as mild-mannered Max, who gets the show’s big tune, ‘Be Yourself’, just as he is going onstage to masquerade as the divo.

With its female leads, Lend Me A Tenor, also excels. Maggie (Cassidy Janson) is our ingénue, and the opera’s resident diva Diana DiVane (Sophie-Louise Dann) is the “not so ingen-new”. Both are infatuated with Tito the tenor for romantic and professional reasons: Maggie wants to borrow him for a fling before she settles down, leading to the show’s romantic title tune, DiVane sees him as a kind of bridging loan to the Met and has a show-stopping ‘audition’ number. The superb Joanna Riding plays Tito’s long-suffering wife with delightful comic timing.

This cast is so strong that the performers might seem somewhat wasted; it’s an enviable position for any production to be in. But a musical needs more – that special something that critics are loath to describe as ‘heart’, and Lend Me A Tenor is such an enchanting piece that it’s clearly in credit.

Until 6 August 2011

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 1 July 2011 for The London Magazine