Tag Archives: Union Theatre

“Romeo And Juliet” at the Union Theatre

Like Daniel Kramer’s production of the same play, currently showing at the Globe, Andy Bewley reimagines Shakespeare in a radical fashion. Here the most famous lovers in the world are men. And they and their families are rival football fans. Think Beautiful Thing with the beautiful game thrown in. Both ideas are interesting – bravo for originality – but neither works that convincingly. Put together, the creative team have too much to tackle.

As Joe M. Mackenzie’s credit for dramaturgy and adaptation indicates, the production is a version of Shakespeare. A lot of text is left out. I suspect the inspiration is the scene of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage night – enchantingly transformed using movement rather than verse. Other cuts should have been as bold. Predictably, changing the genders becomes messy. Maybe I’m missing a point but why not just change Juliet’s name to Julian?

Even more puzzling, the novel ideas don’t do much. Everyone is remarkably comfortable about the men’s sexuality and apart from some empty pint glasses, these football fans are pretty refined. Which is lovely…but avoiding the chance for extra drama seems odd. The ball skills shown off impress and Mercutio’s Balotelli t-shirt is a nice touch. But the sporting veneer adds little. Dropping it leads to a strong final scene; the action in the tomb plays like an unfolding news story, all the cast are used well, and a feeling of chaos is skilfully constructed.

Best of all, there are some fine performances here. Bewley is a careful, even-handed director with his cast. There is an air of earnestness that flattens some characters but all roles are well delivered. Gabrielle Nellis-Pain is a hard working nurse, Allegra Marland does very well as Paris and Celeste De Veazey makes the often-neglected role of Benvolio stand out. Sam Perry’s Juliet is impressively sweet; he is good at bringing some caution to the role, showing a timidity that’s seldom expressed. Abram Rooney’s Romeo has a down-to-earth delivery that is captivating, with brilliantly petulant touches. The scene of Romeo’s banishment – snotty tears and all – shows great talent. It’s the leading men that that really score.

Until 20 May 2017

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“Three Sisters” at the Union Theatre

Director Phil Willmott uses award-winning American playwright Tracy Letts’ version of Chekhov’s masterpiece to deliver a fine new production with wide appeal. The adaptation, faithful to the structure and events in the original, is direct, forceful and clear – all qualities embraced and amplified by cast and creative team.

Celine Abrahams, Ivy Corbin and Molly Crookes play the eponymous siblings conscientiously. Trying to work out how to live while yearning for Moscow, each performer injects plenty of energy and angst. Joined by Benjamin Chandler as their younger brother the consistent impression is of brattish siblings suffering from “endless winter and talk”. All four performers develop their characters with precision to crisis pitch.

It’s the partners and lovers who benefit most in this production. Francesca Burgoyne, as detested sister-in-law Natasha, reveals the layers of her shrewish role well. Stephen Rodgers makes Masha’s husband more substantial than the wimp he appears on the page. And Masha’s lover, the philosophising Vershinin, becomes especially moving due to the skill of Ashley Russell. Two younger roles, soldiers in love with Irina, also stand out due to a careful performance by Tom Malmed as Tusenbach and Hugo Nicholson’s virile energy in the role of Solyony.

Willmott manoeuvres his cast expertly; it feels as if theatre-in-the-round is the only way to stage this play with debates and ideas flying around. The pace is speedy, once or twice too swift, with no fussy touches to diminish tragic events or lessen the seriousness of frustration. This is an angry show and emotions explode as often as they simmer. If there’s a fault, Chekhov’s humour is ignored. There’s little sense of the ridiculousness of situations and few attempts to raise even a smile. But the melancholy air of the play is aimed for with confidence, and that target hit with resolution.

Until 4 February 2017

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Photo by Scott Rylander

“The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” at the Union Theatre

This, the last show before the venue moves across the road to a swanky new home (with nicer loos, one hopes), continues a tradition of strong productions. Jim Cartwright’s hit 1992 play makes for an entertaining, dramatic evening with belly laughs secured by Alastair Knights.

This is a fairy tale, of sorts, with appropriately dark tones. Our Cinderella is a teenager with a taste for diva records she is uncannily good at imitating. Carly Thoms takes the title role, giving a concentrated performance. Credit, please, for speaking softly yet being heard – that’s not easy. When her turn in the spotlight arrives, performing as Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and more, shine she does. I could happily have heard more from Thoms. Especially her Marilyn Monroe.

Along the way there are some good performances from those ready to exploit Little Voice’s talent: Ken Christiansen as wannabe agent Ray Say and James Peake as a local nightclub manager. Mandy Dassa gets laughs as the next-door neighbour of Little Voice’s dangerously dilapidated home. One minor quibble is the lack of chemistry between Little Voice and Glenn Adamson as her sweet, but underwritten, love interest.

Charlotte Gorton
Charlotte Gorton

It’s the wicked witch who makes the show – Little Voice’s mother Mari Hoff – a fabulous creation of Cartwright’s, with the soul of a poet and the slingbacks of Bet Lynch. The costumes alone get laughs (designer Libby Todd must have searched hard for that much leopard print). And Charlotte Gorton is superb as the garrulous whirlwind with her rapid-fire Northern wit. Even more impressively, Gorton develops the role from the ‘merry widow’ we first encounter to a figure as tragic as she is vicious. Great stuff.

Until 25 June 2016

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Photos by Scott Rylander

“Road Show” at the Union Theatre

The construction of luxury flats on Union Street is a topical tag for Phil Willmott’s production of this Sondheim and Weidman musical. Following the fortune-seeking Meisner brothers, the focus is their later careers as Florida property developers, and the American Dream is examined through the land boom building of Boca Raton. It’s an odd subject matter and a strangely clinical piece.

There’s a good deal of brothers Addison and Wilson’s journey that’s entertaining and insightful: from the gold rush to gambling, with the familiar Sondheim theme of the arts and patronage. The songs and the lyrics are strong but this is sub-standard Sondheim – still good, of course, but much time is spent wondering why it isn’t better.

On his deathbed, the brothers’ father wonders what type of nation his boys will help to create, but this weighty central question feels forced. Too quickly afterwards there’s a deal of rushed campery as the hapless siblings struggle away. Road Show is notable for its explicit gay relationship between Addison and a poor little rich kid called Hollis. It’s the only time we’re allowed a glimpse of sentiment. Call me soppy, but this seems a bit mean.

There’s not much Willmott can do with these problems. However, while miming sequences in the show are a neat move, they could have been better (and should surely have been suspended for a scene in which one brother draws a knife on the other). Willmott is too keen to use his large cast, but having them double up to fill the stage proves distracting. And yet the director has secured a number of strong performances.

In the lead roles Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig perform well and sound great. The latter, as Wilson, convinces as a rogue, fool and thriller but his acting might be better suited to a larger venue. Jenkins’ appropriate restraint is preferable. The brothers’ mother has a great number that Cathryn Sherman makes the most of, and Joshua LeClair is a fine Hollis.

Another big problem is the show’s lack of humour. The laughs are set up but seldom land. Sometimes it’s a question of delivery but more often it’s the piece’s downbeat tone. Both brothers feel like devices to show societal ills, Wilson a con artist, and architect Addison denied his chance to be more a than master builder. The central relationship between them is poorly constructed, their closeness clumsily established and not fully explored until the conclusion. It’s simply not motivating enough, making this a show you can’t roll with, merrily or otherwise.

Until 5 March 2016

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“H.M.S.Pinafore” at the Union Theatre

Given their success on London’s fringe theatre scene, Sasha Regan’s all male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan are much anticipated. Her latest, H.M.S. Pinafore, would seem a natural selection from the Victorian composer and lyricist’s opus – a story full of camp potential, with plenty of sailors and satire. The production lives up to expectations and also surprises.

Not content to rest on her reputation, Regan adds a sense of melancholy to the usual wit and fun. The cast are deliberately presented as though improvising, and so the production opens up some interesting questions: are we here to watch ‘real’ sailors aboard a ship, prisoners of war trying to alleviate boredom, or possibly children at a boarding school? It’s a brilliantly original twist that will win your heart.

Rough and ready staging becomes a powerful tool. So much is achieved with just ropes and kit boxes. The design from Ryan Dawson-Laight, full of inspired touches, including shirt collars used as millinery, contributes to making this show immediate and involving – bunk beds have never been this much fun. And that’s saying something.

From the heroic sailor Ralph, an appropriately dashing Tom Senior, fighting for his love to his Captain’s daughter Josephine, played by Bex Roberts (a  male  actor, to clarify), the cast sound fantastic. As her father the Captain, Benjamin Vivian-Jones is magnificent, bringing out the laughs and in fine voice. Ciarán O’Driscoll renders buttercup, the “plump and pleasing person” who is the key to the ‘topsy-turvy’ story, both loveable and formidable. Accounting for the highest and the lowest in this magnificent class comedy, Lee Van Geleen impresses with his fantastically powerful voice as the dastardly Dick Deadeye and David McKenchnie gives a superb comic performance as The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B.

The inventive staging by Regan, along with fantastic choreography from Lizzi Gee, is a constant delight. The ensemble show their talent, morphing from exercising studs into the gaggle of “sisters, cousins and aunts” that accompany the Rt.Hon, for comic touches a plenty. Special note has to be given to be given to Richard Russell Edwards as Hebe, who can swoon with the best of them. And finally, underpinning all this is the musical adaptation from Michael England and Chris Mundy, extracting the spirit of the score with an intelligent transformation accommodating all male voices.

Even if you’re a G&S fan of a more traditional persuasion, you’re still going to love Regan’s work. There is a reverence here in the best sense of the word – a genuine enthusiasm and love of the piece that is infectious. This is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year and although it’s only November, and there are plenty of exciting things coming up, I doubt it will be bettered in 2013.

Until 30 November 2013

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Written 4 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“Steel Pier” at the Union Theatre

Well known for its excellent, ambitious productions of musicals, the Union Theatre’s latest offering is Kander and Ebb’s 1997 work Steel Pier. Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills, it’s a strange offering, superbly presented. Centring on a dance marathon in the 1930s, a group of semi-professional performers reveal their bitchy rivalry and needy posturing. The competition is a seedy affair, fixed, of course, that becomes increasingly humiliating and ends in medication for most participants. Our heroine Rita can only escape from it with the help of a very special, if unsuccessful, daredevil pilot.

Steel Pier is set on the fringes of celebrity but the cast at the Union Theatre is anything but mediocre. In the lead roles Sarah Galbraith and Jay Rincon, both visiting from the States, give fine performances. Singing unmiked, a real treat that makes the show worth seeing alone, they get the most out of songs that are a long way from Kander and Ebb’s finest. The excellent Aimie Atkinson has the show’s best number, ‘Everybody’s Girl’, and the best lines, managing to inject some much-needed humour. The large, hardworking cast is impressively marshalled by Taylor-Mills, and special note goes to Samuel Parker making a high-energy professional debut and Lisa-Anne Wood, who gives a spirited performance as the dancer most desperate to become a star.

Taylor-Mills combines the singing and dancing marvellously, making the most of Richard Jones’ excellent choreography. The show has such dazzle is almost manages to convince you this is a major work but, useful setting aside, the book by David Thompson, is lacking. The stakes played for – a moment in the spotlight or a chance of sponsorship – just aren’t high enough, and a supernatural twist, exploited well by Jones and musical director Angharad Sanders, adds little. Despite the best efforts of all involved, Steel Pier is something of a curio – essential for fans of musical theatre – but not stainless enough to appeal to everyone.

Until 24 November 2012

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Photo by Claire Bilyard

Written 7 November 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Fix” at the Union Theatre

Those who love musicals know that the art form can tackle pretty much any subject matter. But some might raise eyebrows at show tunes about an American presidential campaign. John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe’s musical The Fix shows there’s a good fit between the two since the theatricality and artificiality of politics is highlighted by the genre.

This is the story of Cal – a young man from a dynasty that sees politics as a game – and his journey to power, from a stint in the military to a marriage of convenience, and the ensuing sleaze, affairs and mafia connections. Director Michael Strassen does a superb job with this fast-paced, exciting story, injecting it with humour and passion. A 60s setting allows Rowe to show off a panoply of musical styles that can’t fail to impress and Dempsey’s smart lyrics are full of satire.

If The Fix has a failing it serves to prove a point. Cal is blank slate for others to manipulate. The suggestion is that’s what it takes to get ahead in politics, and his character is somewhat flat – though this certainly isn’t the case with Louis Maskell’s singing, which resonates beautifully. Maskell also displays considerable acting skills and manages to put some flesh on his character in scenes with his mistress Tina, played by Daisy Tonge, whose strong voice makes this young actress one to watch.

As the plot thickens to include Cal’s desperation for a fix because of his drug addiction, the real focus becomes not the heir in waiting to the presidential throne, but his mentor and his mother. As the former, Miles Western gives a tremendous performance as a Machiavellian mastermind of spin with plenty of motivation – his continual questioning of the very sanity of his plan gives The Fix its edge. Yet the star of the show is Liz May Brice as Cal’s mother. In superb voice with the highest calibre of acting, this mad mixture of Lady Macbeth and Mama Rose is truly captivating.

Until 14 July 2012

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Photo by Roy Tan

Written 28 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“Patience” at the Union Theatre

Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas have become much-anticipated events. And rightly so. Regan’s direction breaths life into G&S in a manner that retains respect for the classics she is dealing with. Patience follows the successful formula: presenting a silly story of love amongst poets, with a milk maid and dragoons thrown in, that does justice to Gilbert’s contemporary satire while providing a knowing eye to what a modern audience might make of it all.

Sullivan’s take on satire was to mock everyone indiscriminately – being uniformly sarcastic somehow makes it seem fairer. The primary target in Patience was the Aesthetic movement, and there are plenty of reference to lilies and the like, but Regan effortlessly broadens the focus to pretentiousness and fashion in general. In so doing, she preserves and expands the show’s humour, ensuring that this is a night full of laughter.

The main character, Bunthorne, a sham aesthete who confesses “my medievalism’s affectation, born of a morbid love of admiration”, is played marvellously by Dominic Brewer, who takes lyrics such as these into his appropriately elongated stride. Followed around by a troupe of smitten maidens, played by an ensemble of uniformly admirable young performers, Bunthorne’s heart belongs to Patience, a young girl confused by the fuss everyone makes about love.

Following topsy-turvy logic, Patience decides the best way to make her love a sacrifice, a key element to its being Aesthetic, is to marry someone she dislikes, so she ignores her true love for the narcissistic Adonis Grosvenor. Edward Charles Bernstone gives an immaculate, intelligent performance in the title role, while the startling Stiofàn O’Doherty is perfectly cast as Grosvenor.

As well as followers of fashion, Sullivan has an eye on the establishment with a troop of dragoons, the residuum of all that is noble in British manhood. There are sterling performances here from both Edward Simpson and Matthew James Willis, who bring out the wit in Drew McOnie’s choreography and whose strong voices highlight another reason why Patience is so good.

This is a musical, after all, and the splendidly subtle musical direction from Richard Bates, with additional input from Michael England, is just as much a star of the show. Accompanying the performance on only a piano and allowing plenty of a capella makes the most of the remarkable voices on offer, ensuring the show is something to be heard as well as seen.

Until 10 March 2012

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Written 22 February 2012 for The London Magazine

“Double Falsehood” at the Union Theatre

The Union Theatre in Southwark gives us the opportunity to see a ‘lost’ play by Shakespeare. Double Falsehood has been declared by the Arden Shakespeare to be a late collaboration with John Fletcher, and director Phil Willmott’s fascinating production provides us with the opportunity to decide if they are right.

The debate over authorship rages: the play has plenty of Shakespearean cross-dressing and a villain that seems familiar. However, the poetry is weak and there is a distinct lack of humour. But what does make the evening exciting is the chance to watch a ‘Shakespeare’ without knowing the plot! For that reason I’ll avoid any spoilers so you can see for yourself how gripping the story really is.

As Willmott has stated, academic speculation surrounding the text is less interesting than whether or not Double Falsehood works as theatre. He presents the play clearly and embraces some melodramatic vignettes that are compelling. Deciding to set the play near a monastery has some hairy moments – it can feel a little Carry on Cloisters at times, but the denouement feels all the more miraculous for its religious connotations.

There is a super cast to watch. Richard Franklin is suitably dignified as the Duke Angelo. His diabolical son Henrique is played by Adam Redmore with appropriate mania. Henrique’s victims are many (there’s more than a double falsehood going on here) and include the convincingly heroic Julio (Gabriel Vick) and courageous Leonora (Emily Plumtree).

The main victim is Violante (the clue is in her name). Jessie Lilley makes a professional debut to be proud of but the role itself poses problems for a modern audience. We are more or less comfortable with the outmoded beliefs of Shakespeare’s time, but Violante’s decisions take us too far. She certainly isn’t the kind of woman Shakespeare usually harps on about.

But join the debate – at the Union Theatre and online (the play’s website has a guestbook for your opinions). With the RSC preparing its version of the text (to be staged as Cardenio in April) the talk isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

Until 12 February 2011

Photo by Scott Rylander

Written 24 January 2011 for The London Magazine

“Iolanthe” at the Union Theatre

Gilbert and Sullivan are a guilty pleasure. Those confessing admiration can face polite confusion or, at worst, a disdain that might suggest S&M is more acceptable than G&S. There have been many attempts to change opinions about Gilbert and Sullivan but none more liberating than Sasha Regan’s work at the Union Theatre. Her new production of Iolanthe continues this campaign – it is joyous, fun and simply unmissable.

Iolanthe is quite as silly as any other G&S. It’s the one about fairies and the House of Lords. With Regan’s trademark all-male cast, you can imagine where this is heading. But Regan is too clever a director to make things crass, no matter how camp they become. With a nod to Narnia, the action takes place at a school and the magic begins when the costume wardrobe is opened.

This isn’t Gilbert and Sullivan forced into the 21st century. Regan’s masterstroke is not to patronise these eminent Victorians. Gilbert’s satire is still razor sharp and Sullivan’s uncanny ability to write a popular tune ageless. Regan brings out the humour and Chris Mundy’s solo piano accompaniment is a superb interpretation of the score.

The real pay off comes not from innuendo but from sincerity. Victorians could be soppy and G&S were no exception. But Regan allows this so that, behind the laughs, this Iolanthe is sweat. With fairies dressed in furs and pearls and lords wearing conker chains of office, you smile all the way through, while the sentiment washes over you. It is a combination that can only be described as sophisticated.

There is a palpable sense of excitement from a talented cast. Christopher Finn takes the title role in his stride and Shaun McCourt deals impeccably with the Lord Chancellor’s tongue-tying lyrics. It is great to see Alan Richardson at the Union once more. His terrific voice is matched by an endearing stage presence. Kris Manuel is unforgettable in the role of the Fairy Queen, while Matthew James Willis’s Harry Potter-inspired Earl, and Raymond Tait as Private Willis, show off their voices particularly well.

This really is an ensemble piece, as the cast all perform in the equally fantastic realms of the supernatural and the political. As both tripping fairies and noble lords they faultlessly do justice to Mark Smith’s witty choreography. Like the whole production, Smith’s work isn’t just delightful – it is bold and interesting. His use of sign language in dance creates a new level of meaning that complements the humour and excitement of the piece. Regan should join her team on stage as they hold their heads up high when the lords all marry and become fairies themselves! Gilbert and Sullivan fans can come out of the closet at last.

www.uniontheatre.biz

Until 11 December 2010

Photo by Ben de Wynter

Written 23 November 2010 for The London Magazine