Tag Archives: St James Theatre

“The Wild Party” at The Other Palace

The renamed St James Theatre, now in Lord Lloyd Webber’s portfolio, has the new raison d’être of trying out and refining musicals. And there’s the aim of starting conversations from artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills that warms a blogger’s heart. The first show, by Michael John LaChiusa, is a strong start, but a puzzle, too. Seen on Broadway in 2000, it already seems so cogently formed that there is little new to talk about.

The piece is experimental in that it is based on a poem – by Joseph McClure March – can anyone think of another apart from Cats? musical with such a source? George C Wolfe’s book is structurally audacious and, while the scenario couldn’t be slimmer – someone holds a party, that’s it – the tension ratchets up and up. Both music and lyrics have little time for novices or a discernable eye on commercial success. The milieu here isn’t that familiar to a British audience (jokes, in particular, are a touch obscure) but LaChiusa’s knowledge of American music is obviously profound.

A good portion of the show is a series of introductions. Taking the lead is Queenie, a dancer in Vaudeville, brilliantly portrayed by the legendary Frances Ruffelle, who gives this tart-with-a-heart appropriate depth. Her common law husband, played by John Owen-Jones – also tremendous – ensures the show is not one for coulrophobics. This complicated relationship is the vehicle for exploring obsession and dependence.

John Owen-Jones and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt
John Owen-Jones and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt

Presenting other partygoers gives the rest of the ensemble a chance to shine. Dex Lee is particularly strong as the arch hedonist Jackie, a sophisticate who turns bestial. And, as Queenie’s best friend Victoria Hamilton-Barritt really gets her teeth into a juicy role. It would be hard to sacrifice any of these characters… but maybe more focus might have made the show more enjoyable? Combining high and low life and a mix of ages, races and sexualities has a point but means there’s a lot to handle here. And don’t forget a moral. Like many works of art about libertines, The Wild Party is a warning. When the bootleg gin arrives, complete with bathtub on stage, it would make Hogarth proud.

The venue’s aim as an experimental home is fulfilled for Drew McOnie. While his acclaimed choreography adds enormously to what could be a static affair, his remarkably assured debut as a director is the real story. The piece calls for strong acting and McOnie secures it. There’s a cutting pathos to many of the affairs. And a crazed wish for love, sex, drugs and ambition, with a scary intensity that McOnie doesn’t spare us from.

Until 1 April 2017

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“My Mother Said I Never Should” at the St James Theatre

Charlotte Keatley’s acclaimed play was one of the first I ever saw, leaving a profound impression that, I’m pleased to say, is retained by this revival. The story of four women from one family, the action covers most of the 20th century and uses a non-chronological structure that was once regarded as radical. Going backwards and forwards in time has made the play influential. More importantly, this time-travelling technique elevates an interesting domestic drama into something extra special.

Flitting through the decades makes the women’s shared experiences bristle with connections. Family and motherhood link them, while their marriages and experience of work differ. This is the first production from a new company, Tiny Fires, led by producer Tara Finney and director Paul Robinson. Clearly excited by the prestige of the piece, history is emphasised – fair enough – and the ‘progress’ for women is examined carefully. But I’d argue this isn’t the heart of the play. There’s too much focus on generational differences rather than similarities here.

Katie Brayben & Serena Manteghi
Katie Brayben & Serena Manteghi

What can’t be disputed is that, by showing the women throughout their lives, Keatley created four remarkable roles for performers. Serena Manteghi and Katie Brayben take on the younger parts, full of energy and angst. And ably stepping into the role of Margaret mid-production is Hilary Tones (replacing Caroline Faber). The star casting comes with Maureen Lipman in the role of Doris. Given Lipman’s skills, it’s no surprise that comedy leaps to the fore (there are lessons that Manteghi and Brayben will surely learn). But there’s more than laughs here. Remember, the role goes from infancy to old age and, at the conclusion, Lipman switches from a great-grandmother to a young fiancée – the phrase tour de force could have been invented for her character.

Yet more astounding, it’s the quieter, emotional scenes that Lipman pulls out the stops for, highlighting the pervasive repression that Keatley writes of. Churlish as it sounds, Lipman’s achievement unbalances the show. Doris does have many of the best lines, but all four characters share the quality of having “no sense of compromise” and this could come across more clearly. It’s a small flaw that doesn’t stop all four women, precisely defined, convey themes that have that often-searched-for quality of timelessness in a play that is both compelling and moving.

Until 21 May 2016

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo courtesy Savannah Photographic

 

“Miss Atomic Bomb” at the St James Theatre

The critics have not been kind to this new musical from Adam Long, Alex Jackson-Long and Gabriel Vick. With the action framed by the 50s enthusiasm for nuclear testing in the Nevada desert, including beauty pageants to entertain tourists coming to see the mushroom clouds, this show feels like an unfinished canvas. Not sharp enough to be a satire, nor energetic enough to be an extravaganza, the romance is too funny and the comedy too lame.

The shame is that the talent on stage is fantastic, with some of my favourite performers. Dean John Wilson and Florence Andrews are the young leads, playing an army deserter and a sheep farmer who fall in love – and they both sound great. The same can’t be said about the songs. Too generic and forgettable, there are maybe three fun tunes. Furthermore, poor pacing stubbornly deflates the show’s momentum.

Dean John-Wilson and Simon Lipkin
Dean John-Wilson and Simon Lipkin

Then there’s Simon Lipkin and Catherine Tate, playing a hotel manager threatened by the mob and a wannabe fashion designer. What these talented comedians manage to salvage out of so little is astonishing. Lipkin can command a stage and Tate have them rolling in the aisles by sheer force of personality. Which is what they have to rely on here. The laughs they generate come mostly from adlibbing.

Florence Andrews, Daniel Boys and Catherine Tate
Florence Andrews, Daniel Boys and Catherine Tate

There’s an excellent performance from Daniel Boys as well, as a banking villain, but why some of the incidental numbers weren’t sacrificed to give him another song is a mystery. The ensemble are committed (if thin on the ground) but over amplified, making listening hard work. The convoluted lyrics are sometimes clever but mostly not worth the effort.

Nearly every line, let alone most of the numbers here, is just that little bit too long. There’s a plot about a Soviet spy and a character or two that could be cut. A harsher hand is needed from co-directors Long and Bill Deamer. But the bigger problem remains the question of what Miss Atomic Bomb really wants to say. There’s an anarchic streak – a song crazily connecting sheep and hope and a good second act opener about the Cold War – that point out potential. Unfortunately there isn’t enough oddity. Inspired moments fail to detonate anything big.

Until 9 April 2016

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Around The World In 80 Days” at the St James Theatre

A rip-roaring comedy adventure that’s a thrill a minute, Laura Eason’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s story makes perfect family entertainment. Phileas Fogg’s race around the world – the result of a bizarre bet based on his confidence in Bradshaw’s guide and Victorian travel – is an extravaganza that keeps kids of all ages enraptured.

As an English gent of the Empire era, Fogg, a character created by a French novelist and adapted by an American playwright, provides laugh-out-loud moments for grown ups. A master of understated observation, Robert Portal is perfect in the lead, with the “mathematical precision” his character lives by making a romance with Mrs Aouda (Shanaya Rafaat) all the more endearing. Fogg is more interested in whist than tourism, taking derring-do in his stride. And all in a top hat. There’s plenty of fun with accents and just four actors take on all the extra roles – bravo! But it’s the superb physical comedy that marks the show. Fogg’s valet Passepartout’s punches alone make Simon Gregor a big hit.

There are escapades on an elephant, jungle rescues, sledges and a shoot out in the American Wild West. In the background, providing even more jokes, is a warrant for Fogg’s arrest following him around the world. Tony Gardner is superb as Inspector Fix (the clue’s in the name) observing that Scotland Yard has sent its best man to solve a robbery at the Bank of England… “as well as myself”.

Director Lucy Bailey inspires awe with her talents. Revelling in the mechanics of theatre, with trapdoors and tricks to make the show magical, her craft is clear to see. Showing us the world, while emphasising the theatre’s intimate scale, Bailey co-opts our own imaginations marvellously. Speed is of the essence, and Eason brings out the pace, but it’s Bailey who is in charge of punctuality here and, like Fogg, she is spot on time.

Until 17 January 2016

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

“Songs For A New World” at the St James Theatre

Jason Robert Brown is a composer known for his clever musicals and skilled songwriting, both evident in Adam Lenson’s 20th anniversary revival of his first work, Songs For A New World. A song cycle, rather than ‘proper’ musical, it has numbers set in distant ages and places, mixed with those about relationships that could be from any time and anywhere. The songs are connected by a moment when a life changes and a character develops. Startling and original, it’s the music’s instant appeal and variety, rather than the concept, that is the real highlight.

Lenson has some nice touches to suggest the fluidity the show aims for, but he never distracts attention from the performers – wise, as the four stars on stage are truly stellar. They sound better singing solo than as a group, but their voices are fantastic. First the boys – Damian Humbley and Dean John-Wilson – with songs of depression and ambition, often linked by the mistakes of fathers, perfectly delivered. Then Cynthia Erivo, who sounds appropriately heavenly as a woman who sings about her pregnancy and has a wonderful stage presence. But since I’m such a fan, Jenna Russell was my favourite, with the show’s funniest numbers: a suicidal rich bitch and the desperate wife of Santa Claus.

Yet even with performances like these, it’s frustrating to hunt for themes and connections when you really just want to enjoy the music. Songs For A New World feels like a collection of musicals waiting to break out rather than its bolder aim of something abstract. You want each song to develop – they sound so great. And each character introduced is one you want to know better. A surfeit of talent perhaps, the piece is more a soundtrack to love than a show to see.

Until 8 August 2015

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“The Three Lions” at the St James Theatre

One of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time, William Gaminara’s The Three Lions imagines the meeting of David Cameron, Prince William and David Beckham, as they campaign for England to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Every ounce of comic potential in the scenario is exploited and the play opens up to be about far more than football – politics, power, celebrity and compromise – all perfect sport for excellent satire.

The material is superb and the demanding mix of one-liners and farce played expertly. Ably supported by Antonia Kinlay, as Cameron’s gushing PR, and Ravi Aujla, as a suspiciously effusive hotel employee, the three leads give a winning hat-trick of performances. All embrace the caricatured, public faces of these famous men, so the portraits convincingly duplicate what we think we know about Cameron’s slickness, William’s blandness or Beckham’s intellect.

Tom Davey has the hardest job as Prince William, a generic nice-but-dim, but reveals a taste for practical jokes perfectly. Cameron comes out well, with Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s careful study of a leader new to power and struggling with it already. A scene where Cameron swaps trousers with Beckham caused so much laughter I missed some lines. Stealing the show is Séan Browne’s Beckham. And not just because of the casting coup of an uncanny physical resemblance. As soon as Browne opens his mouth he has won the audience and there are countless times when Beckham’s idiotic replies are deftly handled.

While Gaminara’s targets might be easy, there’s nothing mean spirited about The Three Lions. And there’s a healthy undercurrent of anger about the abuses of power that are the play’s real concern. The text has a mass of gags and it’s Philip Wilson’s direction that ensures its success. There must be a football metaphor for how sure his work is: never taking his eye off the ball and scoring with each line. Simply insert your favourite football manager here to praise his work. Not that an interest in the game is needed to enjoy this beautifully crafted piece: huge fun, superbly done, Premier League stuff.

Until 2 May 2015

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Craig Sugden

“This May Hurt A Bit” at the St James Theatre

If you are in any doubt as to the current state of the NHS, then Stella Feehily’s new play, This May Hurt A Bit, will cure you of that. Just opened at the St James Theatre, this is one of the most overtly political works I’ve seen in a long time and, as such, has to come with a contraindication: for all its important messages, it makes fairly exhausting watching.

Entertaining the audience isn’t the primary aim, of course. And, awash with educational facts and figures, too much of This May Hurt A Bit is depressingly predictable, with A&E closures and PFI rip-offs culminating in the disastrous Health and Social Care Act of last year. To compensate, Feehily and master-director Max Stafford-Clark fill the play with angry humour and ingenious touches. Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan have a heated debate, while Margaret Thatcher and the Grim Reaper make surprise guest appearances. Audience interventions and a couple of dance numbers also keep us on our toes.

And the cast is great. Taking on several roles each, Tristram Wymark and Hywel Morgan excel as the elder statesmen commenting on current events, while Stephanie Cole is in a league of her own as a patient, adding a much needed human aspect to the debate. But here’s the problem – for all Stafford-Clark’s technical ability, there’s little in the way of emotional punch. Worse still, Feehily’s understandable anger starts to grate. There are plenty of fingers pointed, but positive solutions seem tacked on and the argument is so one-sided it becomes alienating.

While Feehily’s conviction is admirable, it isn’t contagious, and this play is no antidote to apathy. Which is a shame since this very problem is highlighted when charcters directly challenge the audience – “Why aren’t you angry?” So here’s a suggestion. If it takes seeing This May Hurt A Bit to get you to write to your MP and join the campaign to save the NHS, then by all means see it. Otherwise, just stay at home and write anyway. I am off to do that right now, which is surely the ultimate praise for the play’s spirit, if not its execution.

Until 21 June 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by John Haynes

Written 20 May 2014 for The London Magazine

“Urinetown” at the St James Theatre

Finally receiving its London premiere 13 years after it was such a success on Broadway, Urinetown The Musical opened this week at the St. James Theatre. The dystopian satire, by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, earned a host of awards in the States. Although it struck me as strangely dated, a standing ovation at the performance I attended makes it clear that there’s an audience desperate to go.

The unprepossessing premise is that an ecological disaster has resulted in a world where people pay to pee. There’s surprisingly little toilet humour actually. Instead it’s a satire on politics and the musical form itself. I say it’s old fashioned since the mischief and the tastelessness now seem predictable, but the second act provides some memorable musical numbers and it’s always nice to see a musical trying a little bit of politics.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the production – indeed it makes the show worth spending your pennies to see. Jamie Lloyd’s direction is deft and dark, Soutra Gilmour’s design crying out for a West End transfer and the performances from a top rate cast are strong.

Urine Town
Jonathan Slinger

Jonathan Slinger is a revelation as the narrator and police officer Lockstock, ably abetted by Adam Pearce as officer Barrell. Police and politicians are merely the henchmen of business baddy Cladwell, performed archly by Simon Paisley Day, who is ultimately willing to sacrifice his daughter Hope, played by Rosanna Hyland. Hyland is joined by Richard Fleeshman, whose character Bobby Strong leads a Les Mis-style rebellion (wearing a pre-shrunk T-shirt despite the water shortage), both young leads look the part and sound great. Stealing the show, though, is the excellent Jenna Russell, who gives such a spirited performance as Mrs Pennywise she stops you thinking she’s wasted in the role.

As the characters’ names will have indicated, and direct addresses to the audience make clear, Urinetown is all very knowing. The conventions of musicals are prodded mercilessly, and this joke, though performed well, tires. Maybe the final irony is that the show shoots itself in the foot – if it doesn’t take the genre seriously then why should we? It’s clever, but not that funny and sacrifices serious points. After all, it’s difficult to say that much with your tongue in your cheek all the time.

Until 3 May 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 13 March 2014 for The London Magazine

“In the next room, or the vibrator play” at the St James Theatre

Sarah Ruhl‘s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play received its London premiere at the St. James theatre last night. A clever take on the drawing room comedy, it doubles as an intelligent peek at love and sex, medicine and gender. Set in the late 19th century, its saucy starting point is the historic practice of using electrical, ahem, instruments ‘down there’ to induce what were termed ‘paroxysms’. It’s guaranteed to generate giggles, but showing how medical discourse generated its own clientele (the procedure was to resolve the complaint of hysteria), a deeper discussion about relationships between the sexes comes to the fore.

This is another production to arrive at St James from the Ustinov Theatre in Bath. It confirms both venues as exciting locations. Directed with care by Laurence Boswell, the design from Simon Kenny focuses attention on that glorious new discovery – electricity – which revolutionised work and home. For the Givings, the couple at the centre of the play, the two are combined: the Doctor’s surgery is ‘the next room’ in his house, in which patients are satisfied in a manner denied to his wife.

In the lead roles, Natalie Casey and Jason Hughes give fine performances as a man of science and his wife, driven to desperation mostly, it would seem, through sexual frustration. The doctor’s patient, Mrs Daldry, has a similar complaint, depicted with great fun by Flora Montgomery. And lest we should suspect Ruhl is simply recasting a Victorian malady, suggesting sex is a cure-all, there are the deep pains and joys of childhood to consider. The better-off woman’s fears and anxieties are brought into sharp relief by the employment of a wet nurse whose own child has just died. Madeline Appiah does wonders with this small role.

This is a chance for London audiences to see the work of a new, much feted American writer. Well constructed, with a light touch underlined by some deep thinking, it has possibly too many twists; including what happens when there is a power cut and the arrival of a male patient (now that’s got you thinking). Some predictable touches commenting on a battle of the sexes fail to satisfy. The play is impressive for its commercial potential as much as a sense of integrity. Ruhl may try to tackle a little too much but the laughs are uproarious and the romantic ending a delight.

Until 4 January 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Johan-Persson

Written 22 November 2013

“The American Plan” at the St James Theatre

Arriving from the Ustinov Studio (Theatre Royal Bath), having already received a big thumbs-up from the critics, The American Plan opened in London last night at the St. James Theatre. Full of laughs and bittersweet wisdom, this exquisitely written play from 1990 by Richard Greenberg deals with not one but several love stories.

Here we have a fascinating trio of women. Eva and her “difficult” daughter Lili, wealthy refugees from the Nazis, are on vacation with their maid Olivia in the Catskill Mountains across a lake from other Jewish families who flock to the area. The women are isolated by an amusing, imported snobbery. Until a young man arrives.

Nick is a “blue chip stock” kind of guy, but true romance isn’t the story here. All these Americans, émigrés old and new, are full of plans and a warped determination to bring them to fruition. Plots might be a more accurate description if there wasn’t so much sincerity behind their motivation. The lies they tell are often deliciously funny but there’s real heart here, too.

Entangled with a family, not eccentric but “giddy around the circumference”, where the daughter is the wrong side of neurotic and the matriarch lives up to every stereotype of Jewish motherhood, you never much rate Nick’s chances. But he has secrets and pain of his own and watching them revealed is great theatre.

And the lies don’t stop with the introduction of the final character, Gil. In the part, Mark Edel-Hunt more than makes up for his later arrival with a great plot twist that, since I liked the play so much, I really don’t want to spoil.

There is no star role here – rather a great collection of characters, telling fantastic stories, performed impeccably. Greenberg’s trick is to skilfully switch focus, a plan needs to be looked at from every angle after all, keeping you on your toes and entertained. The cast fulfils the tactic, and it’s a kaleidoscopic experience that shows the skill of director David Grindley.

Diana Quick is scene stealing as Eva (her accent alone fascinates), putting the metal in mittel European, and Dona Croll makes a marvellous foil for her as the “enduring” Olivia whose inscrutable privacy hints at yet more tales. Emily Taaffe fully embodies the “mercurial” Lili, delighting with her wit then shocking with a traumatic intensity. And effectively subduing his character’s hidden depths until just the right moment, Luke Allen-Gale is tremendous as Nick.

This production does true justice to a fine play and it’s clear those responsible have a thorough understanding of the text. More than his intelligent exploration of “intricately unhappy” lives, Greenberg brings a Jamesian flavour and intelligent humour to his examination of our deepest self-fashioning. The result is a play that resonates with depth.

Until 10 August 2013

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Jane Hobson

Written 9 July 2013 for The London Magazine