Tag Archives: Menier Chocolate Factory

“She Loves Me” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Here’s a real treat for loyal fans of David Babani’s London Bridge venue. The ‘musical lovers’ musical’, by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, is perfect fare for the Menier, ticking every box with gorgeous songs and great lyrics. And this fine production does the musical masterpiece full justice.

Joe Masteroff’s book is one of many adaptations of Miklós László’s play about two lonely-heart letter writers, Georg and Amalia, who are in love while unaware that they work together in a posh perfumery. It’s a delicious, fun-filled scenario, given weight by the performances of Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen. The couple’s delivery of each song is spot on. And each song is wonderful.

Katherine Kingsley and Dominic Tighe
Katherine Kingsley and Dominic Tighe

There’s a second love story, too: the romantic adventures of Ilona, betrayed by her colleague, the womanising Kodaly. What could be a sub plot stands proudly alongside the leads because of Katherine Kingsley and Dominic Tighe’s performances. And a third affair: the melancholy discovery of the shop’s owner, played by Les Dennis, that his wife is betraying him.

For every sentimental element in this musical, the trials of the characters make you feel this is a grown-up affair. The careful age distribution adds to the effect – Umbers does well to show us George as a middle-aged man. As with Amalia’s letters, everyone becomes a ‘dear friend’, their lives, loves and ambitions so perfectly encapsulated in the songs.

Director Matthew White does an impeccable job. Superb cameos from shop clerk Sipos (Alastair Brookshaw) and Cory English’s maître d’ show his level of attention and care. His decision to have strong British accents seems an unnecessary complication. There’s no reason for Georg and Amalia to sound like something from Brief Encounter. The only role that benefits is Ilona – turned into a northern blonde bombshell that makes Kingsley irresistible. A minor quibble for a production that deserves applause even for the set – brilliant work from Paul Farnsworth. And if some scenes seem cramped, it’s only more proof that the production deserves a bigger venue. She Loves Me is increasingly recognised as a major work. What a present a transfer of this great show would be.

Until 4 March 2017

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Alastair Muir

Norman Pace will take over from Cory English between 10 January – 6 February.

“Travesties” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Wearing his director’s hat, Patrick Marber has excelled with this revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play. A characteristically dense affair, it uses the flawed reminiscences of an English diplomat in Zurich, one Henry Carr, to bring together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, thus covering politics, literature and art. You need to pace yourself to keep up.

Formally inventive, Stoppard uses speeches, verse and songs, while modifying Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (if you need a reason, Carr performed the play in his youth). The elderly Henry suggests his memoirs could be a collection of sketches, and Marber embraces this to create some vaudeville scenes worthy of Cabaret Voltaire. Carr’s dementia is a wicked parallel to free association, ironically utilised in this satisfyingly controlled puzzle of postmodern plenitude.

Carr observes that as an artist you have to “pick your time and place” and in choosing such a fertile moment in European history, applying his own frame and distorting it, Stoppard has the audience enthralled. OK, it’s difficult to imagine many erudite enough to get their heads around the whole thing (you’d have to be as clever as, well, Tom Stoppard), but it’s great fun trying to keep up. It’s so crammed with humour that getting just half the jokes makes it worth it.

There’s a lot going on in Henry’s head, and Tom Hollander’s finest moments come when memories overwhelm his irascible character. Playing his younger self, he makes the comedy work hard. Stoppard even provides the review for his lead actor: parts don’t come much more demanding than this and Hollander really is superb. This this is a technically brilliant performance, the aged voice truly remarkable.

The rest of the cast seem spurred on by Hollander’s star turn, making each role memorable. Freddie Fox is superbly cast as the decadent Tzara – his switch to Wildean mode is faultless. Peter McDonald and Forbes Masson manage to make, respectively, Joyce and Lenin men you can laugh with as well as at. Clare Foster and Amy Morgan’s witty singing battle as Cecily and Gwendolen is a highlight in a show that has no shortage of brilliant moments. Stoppard and Marber run from any potential the play might have toward pretention. Just don’t forget to take a breath yourself.

Until 19 November 2016

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Johan Persson

 

“Into The Woods” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Derek McLane’s set, surrounding the Fiasco Theatre Company as it performs its hit transfer from the States, is a sculptural presence that takes us inside a piano. Discarded keyboards frame the stage and the strings are ropes, suggesting the trees among which James Lapine cleverly mixes and matches fairy tales to Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant music.

menier chocolate factory
Claire Karpen as Cinderella with Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen as the Stepsisters

Visually and aurally, this is a stripped-back show. A single piano, with an impressive array of percussion and a smattering of other instruments, is performed by the cast, and led by pianist Evan Rees. Sacrifices are inevitable, incidentally discordant notes at the entrée of Act Two are unnecessary, but the singing is all you could wish for, especially with Claire Karpen and Vanessa Reseland as Cinderella and The Witch. There’s some lovely doubling of roles as well. Having the princes perform as the wicked stepsisters is worth sacrificing two sopranos; Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen are marvellous, also taking the roles of the wolf and the cow in their stride.

Vanessa Reseland as The Witch
Vanessa Reseland as The Witch

It all seems a casual and convivial affair. The troupe wear home-spun costumes (crochet is always comforting), the props are minimal and the emphasis on invention is, well, jolly. There’s a conversational tone injected by directors Brody and Ben Steinfeld, constructed by having the cast share the role of narrator, while nodding at audience participation and our shared knowledge of the stories. Brilliantly done, but the payoff is to come.

It’s the ‘ever after’ that’s the best bit, when the wishes made have come true but life remains just as complicated. The baker and his wife come into focus – with terrific performances from Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian. This couple are the key and the most relatable characters in the show, even if they do live next to a witch. Fiasco has prepared the ground cleverly; all that complicity and transparency links their stories to our own lives. In showing how you make the make believe, going into these woods feels like a real journey we must all undertake.

Until 17 September 2016

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Catheine Ashmore

“The Truth” at Wyndham’s Theatre

French playwright Florian Zeller’s well-deserved success continues with this sparkling comedy of manners about adultery. As with his previous hit, The Father, Christopher Hampton adapts and the production comes from Bath, this time via the Menier Chocolate Factory. Twisting perspectives and playing with expectations, Zeller’s winning formula engages the audience in an enthralling fashion. This is edge-of-your seat comedy – as exciting as it is funny.

The staging is an austere affair – the flair comes with the writing and director Lindsay Posner keeps the action and performances taut. Four friends and their affairs, the deceit and double crossing, interrogations and revelations, are delicious. The thoughtful overtones of a play so self-consciously about lying are held in check to serve the high-quality humour.

Alexander Hanson, as Michel, gives a gleeful performance as an arch hypocrite who sees guilt as “useless” and lying as the sensitive thing to do. Hanson gets the lion’s share of the lines, followed by the mistress, a convincingly chic Frances O’Connor, her husband, who is his best friend, and the wife. The latter two, played by a wonderfully dry Robert Portal and Tanya Franks (brilliant in the final scene), may be on stage less but it’s testament to the script and cast that this play feels such a firm four-hander. The betrayed have secrets of their own (of course!), providing shocks and laughs.

The circle of lies Zeller constructs is viciously funny and satisfyingly clever. Silly slips and people trapped into telling the truth all happen in a wealthy milieu where discretion is the obsession. With lashes of Gallic sophistication only adding to the fun for a London audience, the wit and irony here is finessed to perfection.

Until 3 September 2016

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Funny Girl” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Sheridan Smith once again proves she’s a great star by making this the fastest selling production in the Menier’s history. But let’s not forget how brave her decision was to take on the part of Fanny Brice. Few roles in theatre are so intimately connected with one performer – Barbra Streisand no less – and this show is all about its leading lady. The joy here is that, like her predecessor, Smith makes the piece work.

Jule Styne’s musical about the Ziegfeld Follies comedy star – a rise to fame and failed marriage story – is too feeble a plot, despite the string of hit songs and Bob Merrill’s witty lyrics, to be anything other than a star vehicle. This production does well to showcase the talents of leading man Darius Campbell. And Marilyn Cutts can kvell with the best of them as Fanny’s Yiddisher mama. But both characters are written flatter than a matzo and are ultimately unsatisfying.

Smith’s interpretation of Brice is startling, even riveting. Of course, it’s clever to steer clear of Streisand’s well-known recordings, although a handful of occasions when the famous phrasing is simply better are still, studiously, avoided. But make no mistake – Smith owns the role with perfect comic timing and an ability to belt out a song if she has too. Most importantly is her sheer charm, which makes Brice’s success easy to believe. There are few performers who can win an audience over so quickly and completely.

New York bigwig Michael Mayer is the director here – a coup for the venue. And Isobel Lennart’s book has been spruced up by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein. A transfer to the Savoy was quickly announced and there’s already speculation about the show travelling across the Atlantic. It’s clear the production is itching to get into a bigger space, and expanding Michael Pavelka’s design would be all too easy. I’d be happy to see it again and suspect it could be a rare instance of a move that is better bigger.

Until 5 March 2016

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“What’s It All About?” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

What it’s all about is simple – Burt Bacharach’s wonderful music – somewhat grandly described as “reimagined”. The brainchild of performer and arranger Kyle Riabko, this mash-up of much-altered classic songs takes the idea of a tribute show to a whole other level. It’s a must for fans of good music.

It’s really only theatre in a loose sense – the songs are woven together musically, but there are no detectable themes or stories. Instead, there’s an atmosphere of conviviality and overall relaxation. The show is full of wit and surprises, which are probably more obvious the more you know about the music. And it’s beautifully dressed, with a boho-chic set by Christine Jones and Brett Banakis.

Be warned, though. As an indication of how fresh Riabko’s ear is, the loud guitars proved too much for a couple of visitors. If some of the versions push the songs too far, it is always with the best of intentions and the skill of the performers cannot be questioned – it’s a privilege to hear talent like this.

If you think of these songs as old friends, this is less about revisiting them, and more about learning something new from them. A stirring tribute to Bacharach’s genius, showing how strong the great man’s writing is, it’s no surprise that he’s supported the show. And what more of a recommendation could you want than that?

Until 5 September 2015

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Nobby Clark

“Communicating Doors” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

If anyone can deal with that tricksy genre – the comedy thriller – it’s playwright Alan Ayckbourn. And as if combining chuckles with tension weren’t enough, this sci-fi story of murder and time travel challenges the cerebellum as well. As Lindsey Posner’s studied revival of the 1994 play shows, Ayckbourn comes as close as anyone can to cracking such an ambitious juggling act.

As you’d expect, there’s plenty of running around rooms, the twist being that it’s one hotel suite at three different times. And while doors aren’t slammed, creeping around between the decades, with the threat of bumping into a murderer, provides a couple of good jumps. There’s a dominatrix call girl for laughs and an officious security guard (nicely paced by Matthew Cottle). Be patient with the comedy, as it gets stronger in the second half.

It’s fitting that only the women in the story can use the eponymous portals. Ayckbourn has written three fine roles for women that mischievously outshine the play’s male characters. The ruthless Reece (Robert Portal) and his henchman Julian (David Bamber) manage to be threatening, with Bamber’s toupee and dastardly laugh deserving their own credit in the programme, but it’s the women – working out time travel and taking control – that make the show.

Rachel Tucker’s tart-with-a-heart manages to be believably frightened and feisty by turns. Lucy Briggs-Owen and Imogen Stubbs play Harold’s former wives, both murdered, with suitable flashback appeal. Stubbs is particularly strong at carrying the scenario, with a no-nonsense approach aiding the surprisingly credible edge of this entertaining evening.

Until 27 June 2015

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Buyer and Cellar” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s a pretty crazy premise: a man working alone in a shopping mall created by Barbra Streisand underneath her home. But hold on – the bit about the shops, designed to hold Streisand’s various collections, is true. Jonathan Tolins’ award-winning one man play, Buyer and Cellar, overflows with jokes that arise from this bizarre scenario, while serving as a tremendous vehicle for Michael Urie, as out-of-work actor Alex, giving one of the most endearing performances you’re likely to see.

Alex’s meeting with Streisand, who Urie also plays, makes for an enchanting fiction. Stephen Brackett’s direction carefully preserves a spontaneous feel that makes Alex so personable. His mix of wry humour and naïve enthusiasm goes to the heart of a play very much about cynicism. There are great one-liners, slow-burning gags and plenty of observations about gay life. With a Jewish mother joke as well, of course. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any camper, Alex starts to coach Streisand for a new film version of Gypsy. And if the casting strikes you as impractical as quickly as it does Alex’s boyfriend (another character Urie conveys impressively), then this is the play for you.

Buyer and Cellar works hard to be more than an extended comedy sketch: looking at the nature of celebrity and questions of self-worth. There’s a West Coast wisdom behind a lot of the jokes that stays with you. It has to be admitted that a knowledge of Streisand, a Yiddish dictionary and familiarity with LA helps – but even without these (believe it or not) I roared with laughter. How Tolins manages to take so many swipes at his icon without the piece feeling mean, while cleverly using Streisand’s status to create his own art, makes his play unique and somehow quite magical. He’s a mensch.

Until 2 May 2015

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Joan Marcus

“Assassins” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Many musicals – and I love them for it – push the boundaries of the genre. Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a great example; musically and lyrically adventurous, with notably long spoken passages and a book by John Weidman that feels defiant. The idea of a musical telling the stories of those who have tried to assassinate presidents of America, seeking out their motivations and uniting them in infamy, is brilliantly bold.

The Menier Chocolate Factory’s new production directed by Jamie Lloyd does justice to the piece’s bravery. Lloyd isn’t frightened by how mad these men and women were. A fairground setting adds a scary surrealism and the staging in traverse makes it confrontational: most of the audience ends up looking down the barrel of a gun at some point. It’s appropriate that we feel ill at ease ­– these are tragic tales and Lloyd’s gory touches ensure there’s no chance of these characters receiving the acclaim many of them wished for.

The cast, onstage watching each other throughout, is tremendous. Intense performances, buoyed by demanding monologues, show the strength of the acting. Catherine Tate plays a hapless housewife who attempted to kill Gerald Ford and Mike McShane has a stirring speech as Samuel Byck who tried to crash a plane into the White House. Assassins takes us to dark places.

A trio serves as the focus of the show. The always-excellent Simon Lipkin presides over the fanatics’ funfair. Aaron Tveit is superb as John Wilkes Booth, creating a charismatic prototype for those who followed his murder of Abraham Lincoln. Jamie Parker is marvellous, first as a balladeer presenting another side of the stories, then as Lee Harvey Oswald, embodying a contest between stability and disruption, so perfectly understood by Lloyd, who has created a show close to perfection.

Until 7 March 2014

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

 

“Forbidden Broadway” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Forbidden Broadway may modestly describe itself as a “fringe revival transfer” but the hugely successful US show’s latest incarnation is a screamingly funny compendium of songs and impersonations. Relocating from the Menier, the legendary cabaret troupe has just begun a limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre, which can only be good news as the larger venue gives more Londoners a chance to laugh along to this irreverent take on show biz.

Writer and creator Gerard Alessandrini uses the songs from the very shows he lampoons (Les Mis, Phantom, Once et al) taking sweeps at commercialism and, the cardinal sin, laziness. The stolen songs are cleverly adapted, the new lyrics a wickedly guilty pleasure and lazy is one thing you can’t accuse these performers of. The four actors playing multiple characters are astonishing throughout, not least for their costume changes. There isn’t moment when you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

Forbidden Broadway’s other target is celebrity. There’s Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Cameron Mackintosh and Hugh Jackman. If some of the names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry: the delivery is enough to keep you happy. Christina Bianco and Anna-Jane Casey are marvellous impersonators, their co-stars Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, similarly, terrific comedians, and affectionate jokes about what it must be like to perform a hit show night after night ring true.

Despite their efforts, the emphasis is on Broadway rather than the West End. But we share many shows and there’s plenty of attention paid to London. The stab at Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (it’s not a good show) is more accurate than funny but songs about the forthcoming revivals of Evita and Cats are superb. If you’ve ever loved a show and are interested in the theatre you’ll laugh long and hard.

Admittedly, there is a danger the show is preaching to the choir. When Forbidden Broadway gets annoyed, demanding more for us as an audience, ironically, it delivers slightly less. But it’s here that you see the passion. There’s so much great theatre out there, there’s no excuse not to put on something superb. A sense of complicity with the creators puts us, the punters, at the fore, wanting the best. So, even if you’ve hated musicals in the past – this could still be the night out for you.

Until 22 November 2014

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

Written 16 September 2014 for The London Magazine