Tag Archives: Tim Shortall

“Ken” at the Bunker Theatre

This tribute piece to the multi-talented Ken Campbell, who died ten years ago, comes from the pen of his old friend the playwright Terry Johnson. Campbell is clearly much missed and this celebratory evening explains why: originality, intelligence and independence made him a presence in the theatre, while a maverick sense of humour made his company appealing.

A skilled impersonator, Jeremy Stockwell takes the title role, and the show is very much for those who will recognise his Ken straight away. But as he strides through the audience, with Tim Shortall’s design recreating late 1970s hippydom, his confidence and enthusiasm are highly entertaining. And there’s a touch of insanity: old-fashioned smut alongside experimental avant-garde makes for an edgy combination that could have been elaborated on. Campbell’s theatre was a long time before ‘safe spaces’, of course, but questioning some of his actions might make the show feel less cliquey. Instead, the atmosphere is convivial-clubby, if you are being harsh. Stockwell knows how to work a crowd, but I am just not sure how you’d feel if Ken’s wasn’t a club you wanted to belong to.

Johnson takes to the stage as himself, showing a modesty and honesty as impressive as his erudition. The finale, recounting Campbell’s funeral, is vividly written. The impact Campbell had on Johnson’s life, imbued with a confessional air and a great deal of humour, is moving and intensely personal. This isn’t your standard biography. Described as a “seeker” with a perpetually open mind, it’s Campbell’s antics, the kind of shows he put on, and the tricks he played that make him memorable. Indeed, some of it is so far-fetched that a writer wouldn’t dare to make it up. And it’s interesting to journey back to a time when theatre was so different: especially in an exciting venue that’s announced such a forward-thinking season for 2018. After all, who doesn’t want to learn about the holder of the world record for the longest ever play, or the man who took it upon himself to rename the RSC? This “Essex estuary incarnation of Pan” gets a fond farewell that is suitably idiosyncratic.

Until 24 February 2018

www.bunkertheatre.com

Photo by Robert Day

“The Braille Legacy” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This new French musical’s world premiere benefits from the talents of director Thom Southerland. It’s the story of Louis Braille, who battles against prejudice to improve lives with his invention of a reading and writing system for the blind. The aim is to inspire and, with a rousing, diligent score, there’s a chance it’ll induce goose bumps and maybe a tear or two.

Now, while Braille changed the world for the better, he did so from behind a desk, his “silent revolution” being slow rather than dramatic. So it’s quite a task for Sébastian Lancrenon’s book to animate Braille’s story for the stage and the results are unsteady.

The first good idea is to show Louis as a rebellious teenager, affording Jack Wolfe in the lead role enough to work with to ensure that this makes a strong professional debut for him. Wolfe’s singing is great and he clearly has a promising future.

But the awful discrimination faced by the blind in the 19th century isn’t established well. The banning of Braille’s system shows the shocking extent of inequity and could have been given greater impact, while a dramatic subplot (about children being used in fatal experiments to “cure” blindness) should have been introduced much earlier. The battle of wills at Louis’ school for the blind becomes deadly serious: and only then can both Jérôme Pradon and Ashley Stillburn, as rival pedagogues, really show their mettle.

Further efforts to enliven the story are similarly flawed. Humour is thin, despite the efforts of Kate Milner-Evans as the wife of Captain Barbier, whose “night writing” formed the basis of Braille’s work. Themes of family and friendship, leading to emotional songs for Ceili O’Connor and Jason Broderick, are powerfully delivered, but hampered by woefully under-inspiring lyrics, translated by Ranjit Bolt.

With this uneven mix, Southerland’s skills come to the fore. He clearly believes the show deserves a large stage and a big sound. Knowing that sentimentality is the strongest element in the show, the director doesn’t shy away from it. And he is a persuasive man.

Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick
Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick

Tim Shortall’s revolving set literally adds the motion needed. The singing is flawless, the whole cast showing an impeccable delivery that makes a lot of a competent score by Jean-Baptiste Sauray. Taking just one detail, the use of blindfolds discarded when blind characters can “see” (if dreaming or using Braille), shows the impressive creativity on offer – a saving grace for a show struggling with some big problems.

Until 24 June 2017

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

“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