Tag Archives: Noel Coward 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

“Mrs Henderson Presents” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Let’s not be prudish – for the West End it’s essential to put bums on seats. Taking a lesson from its real-life subject – a nude variety show presented by the eponymous producer during WWII – there’s plenty of flesh on display here and scope for good old-fashioned smutty humour. At least in 2016, Mrs Henderson’s girls are given a voice, although the exploitation of their naked bodies is glossed over as an opportunity for them to be extraordinary. And the show’s boast of bravely running throughout the Blitz provides predictable flag-waving sentimentality. Neither crowd-pleasing tactic is particularly edifying.

This is not, of course, the fault of the cast. And while Terry Johnson’s book is surprisingly leaden, his direction is good, as are a strong set from Tim Shortall and costumes by Paul Wills. Tracie Bennett and Ian Bartholomew are excellent leads as Mrs Henderson and her right-hand man, Vivian Van Damm. Entering the theatre business is a whim for her and he is Jewish – this seems to be all we need to know about them. There’s a sweet love story for Emma Williams, who leads a strong ensemble, but a general lack of emotional attachment to an assortment of quickly sketched characters. The biggest disappointment comes with a dreadful role for Jamie Foreman, a pointless narrator and comedian with dire jokes – a warm-up man who leaves you cold.

Indeed, Mrs Henderson Presents is a pretty frigid and calculated affair. Much could be forgiven if the songs were good but George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s tunes are mostly forgettable. The first half is particularly foggy and while things do pick up there’s really only one adventurous number – foolishly the only chance for Williams to show off a great voice. The real shock comes from Don Black’s lyrics, at times so banal that you start guessing which rhyme will come up next. Unforgivably, one song has lad, mad and bad in one verse. The performances on offer might mean the show should be a hit but the lyrics are merde.

Until 18 June 2016

www.mrshenderson.co.uk

Photo by Paul Coltas

“Photograph 51” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The promise of a film star who is just as good on stage is fulfilled in Anna Zeigler’s new play. A-lister Nicole Kidman takes the role of scientist Rosalind Franklin, who made a vital contribution to the discovery of DNA, and she doesn’t disappoint (just as she delighted critics with her first famous foray into London theatre in 1998). In this play, more about sexism than science, the characters remember the actor but not the actress in a production they attend – no one could make such an oversight here.

Kidman commands the stage, her performance as controlled as Franklin’s character and is brave enough not to try to make us like this frosty, determined woman. There are just enough perfectly placed glimpses to show a sensitive side. Equally impressively, Kidman works impeccably with fellow performers. Director Michael Grandage’s male casting is another achievement. Stephen Campbell Moore, Will Attenborough, Edward Bennett and Patrick Kennedy excel as a quartet of scientists Franklin has to deal with, while Joshua Silver is an amiable PhD student who serves as a narrator.

PHOTOGRAPH 51 by Ziegler, , writer -Anna Ziegler, Director -Michael Grandage, Set & Costume Designer - Christopher Oram, Lighting Designer - Neil Austin, The Noel Coward Theatre, London, UK, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/
Christopher Oram’s design and Neil Austin’s lighting.

Ziegler writes with ample characterisation and good dialogue. While period detail about post-war London feels sketchy, the male hostility experienced by our heroine generates outrage that makes the play fizz. Unfortunately Photograph 51 is not exactly gripping. We’ve all seen science on stage done better by Frayn, Payne and most recently Tom Morton-Smith. And yet Grandage and Kidman do a remarkable job of spicing things up, the pace is terrific and Christopher Oram’s startling design, evoking London’s ruined King’s College, uses a light-box-style floor to great effect.

One problem is that attempts to reflect the excitement of discovery are contrasted by Franklin’s methodical behaviour. And the focus is so much on how she was treated that her scientific achievements get lost. Conspiracies against Franklin, with an eye to historical accuracy, have to be muted: Crick and Watson, who ‘won’ the DNA race are “a couple of old rogues” rather than anything more sinister. Franklin is a victim of everyday sexism, which is annoying but not the stuff of high-octane drama. I’m somewhat ashamed to have never heard of Franklin, which is much of the play’s point. It’s good to have my ignorance corrected, but the lesson is more admirable than enjoyable.

Until 21 November 2015

www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Death of a Salesman” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Gregory Doran’s revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman fully justifies the director’s claim that this is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Although rooted in post-war US society, Miller’s family tragedy and critique of capitalism transcends time and place. Perhaps recent economic woes make this powerful play freshly pertinent: the loss of job security for long-serving salesman Willy Loman rings alarm bells for us all. And perhaps, too – aided by our increased awareness of dementia – Willy’s tragic decline has added poignancy. Just as likely, the play is simply a masterpiece.

Antony Sher is confident and controlled in the lead role. Clearly passionate about the part, Sher projects an intensity that enfolds you. It’s an exceptionally subtle and intelligent delivery: for all Willy’s faults, we see why his family loves him, he isn’t made an underdog and there are no excuses for his behaviour – but he still retains our sympathy. Willy’s confidence seesaws constantly, moments of self-doubt are carefully hinted at. When Willy is presented with the gas pipe he plans to kill himself with, Sher’s whole body becomes frozen. It’s a tremendous theatrical moment.

Backed by Harriet Walter as Willy’s wife, with Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as his sons, the family struggles with the delusions of success and excess of optimism that construct their dreams. This is an unbeatable quartet of performances. The fight to see facts instead of fantasy is a relentless focus. Willy’s memories, possibly false, presented as the consequence of his age and misfortune, slide into the action dynamically. The downward spiral of the whole family in the second half is gut-wrenching and miraculously suspense-filled. We can all predict what’s coming but Doran makes it riveting, obeying the play’s demand that “attention must be paid”.

Until 18 July 2015

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“Shakespeare in Love” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Films brought to the stage are often maligned, but Shakespeare in Love, which opened this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, should make all playgoers happy. Theatre power couple Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, world renowned for their Cheek by Jowl Company, make it a hot ticket. Skillfully adapted by Lee Hall, from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Oscar winning 1998 hit, this is a clever crowd pleaser it’s easy to recommend.

Hall wisely retains much of the original script. All the jokes created by a modern eye on the imagined creation of Romeo and Juliet are as funny as ever. The romance is preserved and the story’s second love affair – with the theatre – is expanded. The ensemble engender an intimate complicity as they remain on stage to interact with the young playwright Will during his hopeless love affair with the aristocratic Viola De Lesseps.

With the movie in our minds the performers have a lot of live up to – it was a film with no shortage of stars. The cast acquit themselves well, with David Oakes benefiting most from a beefed up role as Christopher Marlowe. Director Donnellan uses the many small roles to focus attention on the lovers – showing their differences in rank and contrasting overblown acting with their sincerity as the romance mirrors and molds that of the fictional Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare In Love 6 - Company with Tom Bateman as Will. Photo by Johan Persson ∏Disney
Tom Bateman

In the star roles Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen give exciting performances. Bateman has the looks for a leading man and gives Will a Byronic feel that he builds well. Briggs-Owen is full of ambition, keen to get the laughs and conveying a spirit that makes you fall in love with her character. Viola is the star and her desire to become an actor is the motivation that is inspirational.

Donnellan marshals Shakespeare in Love with efficiency and Ormerod’s set is impressive. Could the play have been more adventurous? Probably. The finest addition is the music from Paddy Cunneen that has a boldly crafted authentic feel. But the production sensibly decides to please those who loved the film and here it’s an unqualified success. There’s even a dog that almost steals the show – sure proof those in charge know what people want: love, and a bit with a dog.

Until 25 October 2014

www.shakespeareinlove.com

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 23 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Full Monty” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Already a triumph in its hometown of Sheffield, The Full Monty received its London premiere last night. Adapted by Simon Beaufoy from his own hugely successful 1997 screenplay, this is yet another safe bet for a West End hit. It’s all about auditions at the moment, and this well-loved story of unemployed steel workers who decide to become strippers deftly uses rehearsals and try-out tribulations to build to the (quite literal) denouement. It’s so well done, in fact, that any cynicism is blown away: this is a terrifically fun show with a big heart that London should love.

On a technical level, The Full Monty is a masterclass in direction from Daniel Evans. He’s always a treat to see on stage as an actor and, with a string of achievements as artistic director at Sheffield Theatres, he has firmly established his talents behind the scenes as well. Here he excels, pacing the show perfectly, balancing its humour with emotional impact.

Evans has secured superb performances from his talented cast. Kenny Doughty leads as charismatic lad-about-town Gaz, desperate for cash to pay maintenance so he can see his son. Roger Morlidge gives a sensitive performance as his cumbersome best friend, and there’s a cracking cameo from Rachel Lumberg as the latter’s wife. Their former foreman-turned-choreographer is played with satisfyingly dryness by Simon Rousse, the only Conservative voter in sight. To suit broader tastes there’s fine work from Sidney Cole, Craig Gazey and Kieran O’Brien, who is accompanied by a gasp-worthy prosthetic addition.

Of course it’s crude – it’s about strippers after all – and some jokes show their age. A couple of scenes carried over from the film are weak, simply feeding a desire to see the movie recreated on stage. More impressive are new touches; an expanded exploration of a gay relationship and the use of Robert Jones’ nimble set, which sees cranes, girders and sparking machinery used to great effect.

The laughs are plentiful but, beyond the giggles, Evans uses Beaufoy’s scenario to explore all manner of sensitive issues, from gender roles to unemployment. This celebration of men of all shapes and sizes is a real make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry treat with plenty to think about. In fact, it’s a refreshing blast of Northern wind.

Until 14 June 2014

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 26 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Cripple of Inishmaan” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The latest star on stage in Michael Grandage’s season at the Noël Coward theatre is Daniel Radcliffe, taking the title role in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Martin McDonagh’s 1996 comedy, set around the arrival of a film crew making a documentary in 1930s Ireland, is a viciously funny piece that’s worth seeking out regardless of casting.

All eyes are on Radcliffe, of course, and the pressure on the critic to give a verdict pales in significance with that on him to perform. His accent isn’t as strong as those of other members of the cast, and he doesn’t have the same comic aplomb, but there’s nothing here to be ashamed of. Making the role even more physically demanding than it needs to be is testament to his determination, and his thoroughness impresses.

And in terms of Radcliffe’s career this is a clever move. The Cripple of Inishmaan is an ensemble piece. Radcliffe gets further credit from a controlled performance as part of the group; there’s never an attempt to upstage, and his intelligence about the dynamics on stage, shared by director Grandage, is clear.

Pat Shortt and June Watson
Pat Shortt and June Watson

There are several wonderful performances to enjoy. Pat Shortt shows himself the natural comedian as Johnnypateenmike, the village’s self-appointed news service: the scene with his ‘drunken mammy’ June Watson had me in tears of laughter. And Cripple Billy’s adopted aunts Ingrid Craigie and Gillian Hanna have a marvellous command of the stage that reveals their appreciation of McDonagh’s language.

It is the writer who is the real star here. McDonagh’s depiction of a rural community so dull that Billy’s only entertainment is to watch cows, and so insular that everyone regards this as a little risqué, is deliciously offensive. The jokes are worthy of any stand-up and the entertaining plot turns continually enforce serious, satisfying themes. McDonagh’s playfulness, with audience expectations and prejudices, make this revival a welcome one. And you get to see a star into the bargain.

Until 31 August 2013

www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 24 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“Privates on Parade” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Privates on Parade marks the start of the Michael Grandage Company’s exciting residence at the Noel Coward Theatre. Peter Nichol’s play about an army song and dance unit in Malaysia during a time of colonial struggle, has “the Queers and the Boys” camping it up to entertain the troops. The service is a refuge for gay men and misfits fleeing from Atlee’s Britain, but the vicissitudes and corruption of Army life, along with a mad major, make the escapism on stage essential: no matter how hard these guys try, their lives are far from a cabaret.

Taking the flamboyant lead is the Unit’s ‘Auntie’, Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a man on a mission to do his best for the boys on stage and off. Simon Russell Beale is hilarious in the role (his Marlene Dietrich routine has the audience in stitches), but he’s more than this – showing us the man behind the costumes. He makes the crass seems classy and the double entendres close to wit. The ensemble’s rendering of Denis King’s songs is skilful, with just the right amount of fluff to remind us that these men are for, the most part, amateur performers and conscripts far from home.

By contrast, it’s when the music ends, that things start to drag. Only Harry Hempel manages to match Russell Beale in finding the depth needed when the piece aims at intense drama. The end-of-empire politics of the play are supposed to jar with the high jinks on stage, of course, but the elements of farce in military life aren’t played with a dark enough edge and the rest of the show is so funny you really just want to focus on that. Grandage is lucky that lucky Russell Beale as Carmen Miranda still makes the show worth it.

Until 2 March 2013

www.michaelgrandagecompany.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 13 December 2012 for The London Magazine

“Hay Fever” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The winter is over and what better way to clear the head than a trip to see Noel Coward’s Hay Fever? Howard Davies’ fabulous new production is spring-like in its appeal; fresh and life affirming, it positively bounces along and is a sure hit.

Coward’s comedy about a bohemian family and their unfortunate weekend guests is one of his finest and liveliest works. The Bliss family are wonderful characters, dripping with 1920s glamour. In keeping with their ecstatic nomenclature, the Blisses are out of this world – inhabiting an altogether more theatrical sphere.

Lindsay Duncan is perfect as the matriarch Judith. Not that one would dare use that term in front of her. Sexily voiced and revelling in her “celebrated actress glamour,” she casts everyone in a play of her own making – whether they like it or not. Drama follows her like an expensive scent, with hilarious results. And not good drama either – it takes talent to act this badly. Duncan delights as she hams it up creating ‘scenes’ that include her baffled visitors.

L-R Olivia Colman (Myra Arundel) and Freddie Fox (Simon Bliss) in Hay Fever at the Noel Coward Theatre. Photo credit Catheri
Olivia Colman and Freddie Fox

Hay Fever has a strong supporting cast, including rising star Freddie Fox, whose cheek bones alone make him perfect for period drama, and Jeremy Northam, who gives a charmingly understated performance. Two more members of this talented ensemble must be highlighted. Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays Judith’s daughter, getting a laugh out of every line, and Olivia Coleman is Myra – the only guest to challenge the Bliss phenomenon. Far more at home in London, Myra cattily accuses Judith of “rusticating” in the country. It’s a glorious put-down, delivered sublimely in a play full of clever insults, which is sort of ironic, since nothing but praise should be written about this play or this production.

Until 2 June 2012

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 27 February 2012 for The London Magazine

“Deathtrap” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Deathtrap – A Comedy Thriller, is a stylish affair. The smoking gun sign outside the Noel Coward theatre; the set by Rob Howell that looks great in a storm; and there is even the opportunity to praise graphic designer, Adam Wiltshire, for his clever artwork. On top of that, the whole thing is quality entertainment, living up to its claim to be both comedy and thriller.

You’ll laugh, and you’ll jump out of your seat. At some points you may very well squeal. Granted, not a dignified reaction – but tremendous fun. Borne along by Matthew Warchus’ subtle direction, this is an evening to enjoy.

But there will be no squealing about the plot here. It’s only fair to respect the programme’s request – to keep the storyline a secret and not spoil the fun for future audiences. Without dropping any spoilers, a once successful thriller writer, observing that “nothing recedes like success”, is driven to drastic action. Ira Levin’s cleverly crafted play is as much about the theatre as the action in it, but is no less thrilling for that.

Hugely successful on Broadway, Deathtrap’s main draw for British audiences is Simon Russell Beale. Happily, his co-stars are also superb; Claire Skinner sports a jolly American accent and Jonathan Groff makes an impressive West End debut. Estelle Parsons has a great comic turn as a psychic who has moved next door (an uncomfortable neighbour for someone planning a murder).

But it’s Russell Beale who steals the show. A great classical actor with comedy credentials confirmed at the National Theatre’s London Assurance, getting this many laughs while sculpting waves of tension, is impressive even with such a great script. It is proof that there is nothing the man cannot do.

Until 22 January 2011

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Written 15 September 2010 for The London Magazine