Tag Archives: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

“Jesus Christ Superstar” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Artistic Director Timothy Sheader scores tops marks yet again for his venue’s annual musical. Sheader has wowed with grown-up and demanding shows before, but in this production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept album/rock opera even the glitter is gritty. This abbreviated Passion of Christ could win converts with its charged staging of ‘The Flagellation’ alone.

Updates to the music are respectful, coming mostly from the vocals. The score feels fresh and the rock guitars aren’t just retained, they are revelled in. More startlingly contemporary is choreographer Drew McOnie’s work and the athleisure clothes from designer Tom Scutt. Jesus and the apostles aren’t hippies but hipsters. It makes sense. Flares, glitter, a glam-Rocky-Horror outfit for Peter Caulfield’s excellent Herod and Judas’ hands dripping in silver paint, show carefully colour-coded scenes. All aided by Lee Curran, whose lighting for the finale is breath taking.

Sheader emphasises community (those ‘Shoreditch’ touches have a point). This is a big cast and it encircles the auditorium before mounting the stage, grabbing microphones and playing around with the stands, cultivating the idea this being a concert. The performative angle provides insight into the piece. And such a commanding use of the ensemble adds emotion as those who followed Jesus quickly turn, to hound him, then demand his death.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR by Webber,         , Lyrics - Tim Rice, Music - Andrew Lloyd Webber, Director - Timothy Sheader, Designer - Tom Scutt, Choreography - Drew McOnie, Lighting - Lee Curran, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, UK, 2016, Credit - Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /

There are as many superstars on stage as you could pray for. Anoushka Lucas is an excellent Mary, making the most of her show-stopping number. Tryone Huntley (above) is a faultless Judas, with a soaring range and tremendous power. As the lead, Declan Bennett may strike you as lacking charisma – his Christ is introspective – but when power is called for Bennett delivers and his acting is astonishingly focused. Moments when it is difficult to hear what Bennett is singing are an especial pity, given that these are Tim Rice’s best lyrics. It’s testament to the strength of the production that a normally fatal flaw does little to diminish the power of this revelatory show.

Until 27 August 2016

www.openairtheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Seagull” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Given that The Seagull opens with its hero Konstantin putting on an outdoor performance, Regent’s Park feels a pretty good match for Chekhov’s play. The stunning venue is enhanced by Jon Bausor’s splendid design – a giant mirror hangs above the action, literally adding another dimension to reflect upon. Matthew Dunster’s production looks fantastic, but sadly there’s too much chasing after laughs so the play falls curiously flat.

The problem isn’t so much with Torben Betts’ new adaptation of the play – although the language is sometimes too direct, it can be good to shake up a classic. This version is easy to follow and feels modern. Rather, it’s Dunster’s emphasis on the comedy; he gets plenty of laughs but the humour doesn’t build and the play’s more poignant moments feel thrown away. Some characters suffer dreadfully: Medviedenko, the teacher, is reduced to a comedian with just one punch line, the ever-miserable Masha a wailing drunk and the young leads are simply too gauche. Matthew Tennyson and Sabrina Bartlett hold the stage as the aspiring artists Konstantin and Nina, and their naiveté gets laughs but both actors aren’t given a chance to delve deeper.

Other roles fare better. The writer Trigorin’s ego fascinates. Alex Robertson makes him funny and irritating – a petulant take on the character that’s interesting. And Janie Dee’s Arkadina manages to be at once jolly and roundly three-dimensional. Dunster is strongest with group scenes, highlighting uncomfortable dynamics as an “angel of the awkward silence” is said to descend. Also interesting are the two servants (Tom Greaves and Tara D’Arquian), who giggle at innuendo and silently respond to events.

The production also has the novel device of using a voiceover for character’s thoughts. It’s certainly startling but privileges certain players too much. Frustratingly, despite being inside their heads, we don’t feel any closer to them, and this internal dialogue is used indiscriminately and again mostly just for laughs. Nice try, but this showy device is symptomatic of a production that tries hard but doesn’t hit anything… apart from that poor seagull, of course.

Until 11 July 2015

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Porgy and Bess” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s annual musical is always at the top of my must-see list. For 2014, artistic director Timothy Sheader is more ambitious than ever with a production of the Gershwins’ iconic Porgy and Bess. The show lives up to expectations in near miraculous fashion – it’s an easy five stars.

The musical landscape Gershwin created to reflect the doomed love affair, between the crippled Porgy and the drug-addled fallen woman, Bess, is legendary. Musical director David Shrubsole has done a remarkable job, with the largest number of musicians ever working at the venue, to reinforce the adventurous nature of the score. This production reminds us how mind blowing Porgy and Bess must have sounded in 1935.

Sheader’s stripped-back production brings out the power of the story. What this man does with a few chairs and tables is fantastic. Firmly placing the protagonists within context is masterfully done. We are transported to a different world – full of pain and prejudice – and never doubt its coherence. Good and bad are clear here, brutality omniscient, but Sheader’s attention to detail insures complexity and depth.

The cast is superb. Sharon D Clarke and Golda Rosheuvel play the matriarchs of the setting, Catfish Row. Leading a stunning chorus, they sound fantastic and are utterly convincing as women committed to fighting for their community who suffer cruel lives with dignity. As Bess, Nicola Hughes is magnificent, her voice stunning. A study in sensuality, repentance and conflict, she takes Bess to the edge and comes perilously close to testing the audience’s affection for her.

Arthur Kyeyune and Tyrone Huntley with Cedric Neal as Sporting Life. Photo Johan Persson
Cedric Neal

Three cast members from America join these truly leading ladies. Phillip Boykin and Cedric Neal play very different bad guys: the instinctual Crown, who claims Bess as his woman, and the insinuating Sporting Life. Boykin is a powerful presence with a voice to match. Neal, like many a stage devil, gets great lines, his It Ain’t Necessarily So as intoxicating as the drugs he peddles. In the title role, Rufus Bonds Jr is deeply moving, with a voice that will melt your heart. Seeing any one of these performers on stage would be a privilege. Seeing all of them is an honour.

Until 23 August

www.openairtheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 30 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“Hobson’s Choice” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

It’s shaping up to be a special season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with last night’s premiere of Hobson’s Choice. Salford shoe salesman, H. H. Hobson and his fabled decisions, manipulated by his shrewish daughters, makes a blissfully nostalgic tale of money, marriage and one-upwomanship in director Nadia Fall’s enchanting production.

Updating the action from the Victorian era to the 1960s, not unlike smash hit One Man Two Guvnors, makes a comfy fit that brings Hobson’s bigotry closer to home and utilises some great music from the period. The potential for drama suffers a little by the move to the swinging sixties – Hobson is too clearly on the losing side – but there’s enough family tension to entertain, and the emphasis on jokes is a wise choice. If you like your humour Northern, you’ll be laughing a lot.

Mark Benton takes the role of the troubled trader. Certainly not more sinned against than sinning, Benton ensures he’s too funny to be sinister – which is saying something given his bullying, snobbish hypocrisy – and it’s a joy to see him “diddled”. Pitted against him are his three graceless daughters, working in the shop for free while plotting lives, or at least husbands, of their own. It’s the year of women at work in the theatre with The Pyjama Game running and Made in Dagenham coming soon. Hobson’s Choice makes an interesting precursor: literally, sisters doing it for themselves.

Hannah Britland and Nadia Clifford fill the younger sisters with spirit, while Jodie McNee is electric as Maggie. Razor-sharp and determined to tame her father, Maggie never lets us doubt the intelligence beneath the plain speaking, and cleverly understated touches show her vulnerability, too.

This is Fall’s focus – the love story at the heart of the piece and Maggie’s choice to find a man for herself. Selecting her father’s employee indicates a radical streak that makes her heroic. Karl Davies performs as Willie, the lad she transforms, and their unusual courtship produces the finest scenes in the show. Davies’ performance is so endearing you’re behind him all the way. All power to this Willie. And the woman behind him, of course.

Until 12 July 2014

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 18 June 2014 for The London Magazine

“All My Sons” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s 2014 season got off to a cracking start last night with a new production of All My Sons. The Arthur Miller classic, about a war profiteer and his family, is given a terrific treatment by the theatre’s artistic director Timothy Sheader. The play’s moral concerns and complexity receive due deference while a tremendous amount of suspense is added in.

Sheader has some fine performers to work with. Tom Mannion and Bríd Brennan play the Kellers with care and skill; he seems all conviviality, the working man made good, while her fixed grin belies an iron will corroded by the secrets they share. Rich from supplying faulty goods to the US Air Force, the next generation must share the legacy of their mistakes.

Back from fighting in World War II, the Keller’s son Chris is caught between a family mourning his lost brother and his own noble ambitions to live a better life. Chris’ love for his brother’s sweetheart, Ann, literally the girl next door, forces him to confront the role her father took as a patsy for the Kellers’ crime. Amy Nuttall plays Ann with skilful restraint, building momentum as the play’s shocking revelations unfold.

Charles Aitken excels as Keller Jnr, the war-traumatised conscience of the piece, with a perfect smile that reflects his character’s optimism and the charm to convince us that he is as good as he seems. In a play seething about the hypocrisy behind the poster-perfect American suburbs (aided here by Maddie Rice’s superb performance as a neighbour), Chris has to be the believable beacon of integrity, and Aitken delivers a great performance.

Not surprisingly, Sheader knows how to use the space at his own theatre. Tying the play’s timing to the setting of the sun is hugely effective, while Lizzie Clachan’s set is thought provoking and Nick Powell’s music superb. The play speeds by at a cracking pace and the carefully controlled tension is tremendous. A stunning final scene makes this a truly haunting evening and shows a director in charge of a quality production.

Until 7 June 2014

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Tommy Ga Ken Wan

Written 21 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Sound of Music” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

This year’s musical at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s firm favourite The Sound of Music. Whisper it, but not everyone is a fan of the family Von Trapp, or the novice-turned-governess Maria’s journey of self-discovery: tarnished by TV, the problem to solve here is one of over familiarity. Courageously, this production demands an open mind, presenting the piece with remarkable freshness.

The Sound of Music is one of those musicals where everything is expressed in a song, and a good tune can literally be your salvation. While it’s hard to imagine a heart hard enough not to melt at the children cast as the Von Trapp infants, the real achievement is that that sweetness doesn’t become saccharine. Rachel Kavanaugh directs the show with ruthless efficiency and creates a version devoid of silly camp theatricality – no small feat when everyone is dressed as nuns and soldiers with a smattering of lederhosen.

There is an impressive simplicity that serves the show well, even managing to inject menace and tension. Kavanaugh seems to have taken Maria’s back to basic approach to music making to heart. The songs we love are delivered without fanfare and are all the better for it. And this approach is echoed by Peter McKintosh’s superb meadow-fringed set, effectively changing from convent to mansion, concert hall to mountain range with a magical minimalism.

Taking on the lead role must be an uphill struggle for any performer, but Charlotte Wakefield gambols along, sounding great, with a gawky, infectious charm. Like policemen, it seems Captain von Trapps are getting younger – surely someone with seven children has to have a tinge of grey in the hair? – but Michael Xavier has a great voice and is a virile presence on stage (remember, seven children). And who can remember the supporting characters in the much re-played 1965 film? Here, Michael Matus and Caroline Keiff make room for their roles as the Captain’s cowardly friend and sophisticated Viennese fiancée with humour and grace and a couple of decent songs. But my favourite thing? Helen Hobson as the Mother Abbess and her superfluity of nuns performing their chorus numbers with a real feeling of religiosity. A brave move that injects weight into the show and, as night falls over Austria both literally and figuratively, provides a stunning finale that has both a bang and a wimple.

Until 14 September 2013

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 7 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Pride and Prejudice” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

It’s a brave soul who takes on the task of adapting Pride and Prejudice, one of English literature’s best-loved novels, for the stage. Jane Austen is so famous she might be on a bank note soon, and the fact that this book is a masterpiece has to be – dare we say –universally acknowledged. But Simon Reade’s interpretation of the love lives of the Bennet sisters will please diehard Austen fans, preserving swathes of conversation rather than dumbing them down, while still presenting a light romcom that makes for a hugely entertaining evening.

A few minor characters are casualties of the adaptation (who would have thought you would miss Mr Gardiner?) and the Bennets are denied trips to Brighton and London. The action is concertinaed to satisfying theatrical effect, with an emphasis on laughter. Director Deborah Bruce uses designer Max Jones’ set dynamically (there’s a great scene in the portrait gallery of a palatial home that uses the whole cast). Toward the climax, the revolving stage could be joined by a revolving door to the Bennets’ home – visitors arrive so thick and fast – but the speed of the show employs the sillier aspects of Regency Romance to comic effect.

Ed Birch as Mr Collins
Ed Birch as Mr Collins

The biggest loss, unavoidably, is Austen’s own voice. The task of delivering her irony falls on the cast and the performances reflect Austen’s wit superbly. Rebecca Lacey is wonderful as the foolish Mrs Bennet and Timothy Walker gives a weighty performance as her long-suffering husband. There are strong performances from minor characters, with Jane Asher frozen with imperiousness as Lady Catherine De Bourgh. The Bennet sisters are portrayed convincingly as a family group, and differentiated effectively. Amongst their suitors, Ed Birch almost steals the show, with his crane-like Mr Collins – full of “servility and self-importance” – getting plenty of laughs.

Just as the novel belongs to Elizabeth Bennet, the night is, fittingly, owned by the actress playing her – Jennifer Kirby. Making her professional debut in the show, Kirby takes on the mantle of plenty of people’s favourite heroine with an unaffected charm. My bet is that Kirby was a fan of Elizabeth long before she landed the part, and her performance makes you love this great heroine even more.

Until 20 July 2013

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 26 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has such a long association with A Midsummer Night’s Dream that any production of the Shakespearean favourite is highly anticipated. Director Matthew Dunster’s bold version seeks to challenge any tendency to see the play as comfortable by reimagining the setting as a gypsy camp.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea: it allows a fresh look at a well-known text and affords designer Jon Bausor the chance to create a fantastic set, full of surprises, that Laura Hopkin’s costumes look great on. Unfortunately, it’s a concept that pays few dividends and results in a misguided midsummer night.

The gypsy theme works fine for the play’s quartet of lovers. Making their entrance mid-fight, Demetrius and Lysander, finely performed by Kingsley Ben Adir and Tom Padley, are full of youthful virility. As Hermia and Helena, Rebecca Oldfield is spirited and Hayley Gullivan superb.

In comparison, the fairies are conventionally supernatural. Despite a BMX-riding Puck, they seem to have little connection with the rest of the play and this is hampered by some histrionic performances and laboured choreography. When Titania falls in love with Bottom, the result is crude and silly.

The workmen who perform for the now Gypsy King are another unhappy fit. Valiantly led by George Bukhari, their extended party scene is a surreal mix of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Britain’s Got Talent that pleases the crowd but creates an unbalanced production. Their play within a play is performed in mock-operatic style with great energy, but the laughs they get become a problem as their success jars with the overall feel of the production.

Dunster makes many efforts to inject menace into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, emphasising violence from the start. Theseus’ confession to his bride – “I woo’ed thee with my sword” – remains a threat throughout: their wedding celebrations are fraught. But as a device to add tension the idea is overplayed. Dunster has to add to the play – to the extent of including a karaoke performance! Like much of the show, it’s inventive, but this is a problem that Dunster has created in the first place.

Until 5 September 2012

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 13 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“Ragtime” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s annual musical is an essential part of summer in London. Following hot on the heels of recent successes might intimidate a lesser man than director Timothy Sheader, but this year’s show, Ragtime, is more ambitious than ever. In a season crowded with events, it’s a bold and spirited affair.

Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical is a serious, dark work about American history and ideas, with a complex score that draws on the music from which it takes its title. It’s a challenging piece, taking on racism and terrorism with strong language; and there’s no playing safe for Sheader, who fights to make it relevant and broadens the work in astonishing fashion and to wonderful effect.

Jon Bausor’s excellent design is the first surprise – for last year’s Lord of the Flies he crashed a jet in the park – for Ragtime the auditorium looks like a rubbish dump with the cast entering through a derelict poster for the Obama campaign. Bausor’s work is a perfect match for Sheader’s time-bending twist on a story ostensibly set in 1906. The focus is on the power of politics to change and Ragtime’s ideals are moving ones. In true musical style, the characters’ aspirations gravitate around the world of entertainment: this is a world where dreams and drama occur “in heaven, in trouble and in Vaudeville”.

The production spoils us with strong central performances. Rosalie Craig and David Birrell are superb as a wealthy husband and wife whose lives intersect with the tragedy of a black couple, performed with great intensity by Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki, who makes a professional debut not to be missed. We also get a story of immigrant success, powerfully portrayed by John Marquez, and a host of historical figures that include Stephane Anelli as Harry Houdini in a scene-stealing escape act.

Sheader excels when dealing with Ragtime’s ensemble nature. The whole cast works exceptionally hard and shows great acting skill as well as doing justice to choreography from Javier de Frutos. Although one might consider Ragtime an alternative take on the American dream, it is deeply patriotic. Even though we have plenty of patriotism of our own at the moment, when this cast sings together it is sure to raise goose bumps regardless of the weather this summer – or your nationality.

Until 8 September 2012

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 29 May 2012 for The London Magazine

“Crazy For You” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Crazy For You, which had its Broadway debut in 1993, is a tribute musical woven from the work of George and Ira Gershwin. Inspired by the 1930 stage hit Girl Crazy, Ken Ludwig provides a new book and adds hit songs. An appropriately slim, yet seamless, plot has a banker-cum- wannabe-dancer disguising himself as a theatrical impresario in order to save a neglected theatre and win a girl.

Taking us from New York to Nevada, mixing the Ziegfeld Follies with the Wild West, there are plenty of laughs and, more importantly, plenty of tunes. Musical theatre takes any opportunity to sing -‘Let’s put on a show’ – and witness, without questioning, the power of a show tune to change lives. This is joyous stuff full of the feelgood factor.

The Regent’s Park production is marked by a justified sense of confidence, most notably in director Timothy Sheader’s lightness of touch. These days, Sheader has an enviable reputation for musicals and he has reunited the team that brought us Hello Dolly, including Peter McKintosh, whose intelligent costume design surely merits him another Olivier nomination.

Sheader gets the best out of his cast. Sean Palmer takes the lead of Bobby with ever-present charm and elegance. His love interest, Polly, is played by Clare Foster. Her voice doesn’t zing, but it is wonderfully sweet and her acting skills are superb. And there’s a thrilling supporting cast, including Harriet Thorpe and Kim Medcalf, with a string of great numbers.

Gershwin’s music is made to dance to. This is the real joy of Crazy For You and Stephen Mear’s choreography, full of wit as well as grace, does it justice. McKintosh provides a moon to ride and Tim Mitchell’s lighting design means the stars aren’t just in the skies above you. This team succeeds in making Regent’s Park more glamorous and romantic than it has ever been.

Until 10 September 2011

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 11 August 2011 for The London Magazine