Tag Archives: Vaudeville Theatre

“A Woman of No Importance” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Dominic Dromgoole’s latest project, with his new company, Classic Spring, is a year of Oscar Wilde plays. It’s off to a fantastic start with this story of adultery and sexual inequality. Wilde, the Victorian radical, has a sharp eye on masculine privilege that feels depressingly topical.

Providing effective pathos is Eve Best as the wronged woman, Mrs Arbuthnot. It’s hard for modern ears to hear her self-excoriation. But Best sets up an underlying anger towards her reencountered seducer (impressively performed by Dominic Rowan) that thrills. Best and the whole company’s handling of the play’s plentiful melodrama is masterful – a few well-placed laughs help us over some crippling sincerity.

This play is serious. But this is Wilde, so the comedy is as good as any you could find – in his day or now. Leading the epigrams alongside Rowan is Emma Fielding as the archly aesthetic Mrs Allonby. And there’s a great little performance from Phoebe Fildes as a sophisticate in training. Leading the way are Eleanor Bron and Anne Reid as two aristocratic dowagers giving top-class performances. It takes a lot not to be controlled by Wilde’s comedy; both make the lines natural, while Reid’s suggestion of a little too much digestif in the third act is a cheeky move that gets a laugh with every line.

So far, this is strong actors making the most of a genius. More than enough reason to see the show. But Dromgoole has a programme of ideas driving his production that elevates this to one of the finest of revivals.

First is the idea of exploring the proscenium theatre that Wilde’s plays were written for and that the Vaudeville is such a gorgeous example of. Let’s celebrate this wonderful format. It leads to fantastic sets and costumes from Jonathan Fensom and sensitive lighting from Ben Ormerod. Scene changes include some songs and period numbers arranged by Jason Carr – now that’s entertainment. After years at Shakespeare’s Globe, Dromgoole is an expert at the potential of a period.

Dromgoole also knows how to make sure a play doesn’t get stuck in the past. In a revelatory move, he’s utilised a study of the play’s previous drafts. The assumption that Wilde would have been bolder had the theatre of his day allowed it is a point for discussion. But it’s a fun debate, and all-too- suitable for a figure whose legacy has been so often used (and abused). You have to know the text well to work out what’s gone on, and plenty of lines still feel old-fashioned, but the idea is brave and effective. Classic Spring has a winning formula set up for an exciting year. Get booking.

Until 30 December 2017

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

 

 

“Hand to God” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Puppets, on stage and screen, often misbehave. The simple sock in Robert Askins’ play, created to perform Bible stories as part of a church project, is as foul-mouthed and frisky as any teenage boy. And that’s pretty much the drive and destination of this funny, crowd-pleasing Broadway hit. Said to demonically possess our hero Jason, the puppet, like the devil, has all the best lines, delivering outrage and a brief investigation of religion. Better still, there’s tension and tenderness as the puppet reflects his owner’s fears, a mother and son relationship and the pain of recent bereavement. Travelling with the show is director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, creating a polished, confident feel and benefitting from a heavenly cast for this devilish comedy.

Hand-To-God-Vaudeville-302

Jemima Rooper is particularly impressive as a well-meaning potential girlfriend for Jason. Also landing laughs are Kevin Mains and Neil Pearson as, respectively, a small-town bad boy and the local pastor, both shockingly in thrall to Jason’s mother. Here’s a brilliant role for Janie Dee who excels as Margery – it’s hard to pin down whether her husband’s death or his miserable life have done the most damage. It’s Margery’s son who is the focus, going off the rails in manic (and bloody) style: a star role for Harry Melling, and performed faultlessly. With precise comedy timing, superb puppetry and accomplished physicality, Melling brings an intensity to the role that carries the show – this is one actor who’s no puppet.

Until 11 June 2016

www.handtogod.co.uk

“The Importance Of Being Earnest” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Adrian Noble’s high quality revival of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece has more to offer than its gender blind casting of David Suchet in the role of the indomitable Lady Bracknell. It has to be stressed that Suchet is brilliant and very much a star. Without those Poirot moustaches, he’s surprisingly convincing in drag. Did I detect a nod to his former role when Bracknell interviews a prospective groom for her daughter? Notes are taken in a book you can imagine the sleuth using for clues. But more importantly, Suchet has a playful coyness that brings more laughs to a character with no shortage of great lines. The ultimate snob, Lady Bracknell’s disgust at that infamous handbag is as we expect, but Suchet adds a repugnance to the location of Bayswater that should go down in theatre history.

Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest
Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon

Just as good as Suchet is the strong cast that Noble utilises to create a zippy production with just the right amount of irreverence towards a classic. The four young lovers do justice to the play, while adding contemporary touches. Michael Benz and Philip Cumbus play the bachelors, John and Algernon, with as many laddish touches as the text will allow. The scene of them fighting over muffins is daring – I fear for Cumbus choking one night – but pays off. Emily Barber does well to suggest how she might, as predicted, face the “tragedy” of becoming like her mother, Lady Bracknell, while Imogen Doel adds a quirky youthfulness to the role of Cecily that feels strikingly modern. This quartet, plus Suchet, live up to the freshness of Wilde’s script and are sure to please admirers of the play.

Until 7 November 2015

www.importanceofearnest.com

Photos by Alastair Muir

“Oppenheimer” at the Vaudeville Theatre

The RSC’s transfer of Tom Morton-Smith’s new play immerses us in the history of the first atomic bomb and the mind of its maker, J Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a story with overwhelming potential – a rich mix of documentary and speculation – and the play is fascinating, if over ambitious. Angus Jackson’s direction deserves credit for inventive staging that aids dryer moments, using Robert Innes Hopkins design, and an impressive injection of music from Grant Olding.

Overall, strong performances balance some over enthusiastic accents – émigré scientists drafted onto the project to build the bomb prove too much of a temptation – so acting that benefits the script sits alongside some delivery that’s tricky to comprehend. The women in the piece stand out, both Hedydd Dylan and Catherine Steadman, as Oppenheimer’s love interests, do well with roles that come perilously close to tokenistic.

There are passages of writing that make it clear how talented Morton-Smith is. But he seems in thrall to history and detail, so the play ends up too long. Are this many characters really needed to explain the allegation that Oppenheimer turned his back on friends and ideals to win fame? And difficult though the science is, I’ve seen better attempts at explaining complex theories on stage. The biggest problem is knowing where to end the story: the bombs’ impact on all our lives might be a whole other play – tacking it on to this one doesn’t do the phenomena justice.

Nor does Morton-Smith make it easy for his leading character. Oppenheimer is a man of iron, cold and remote, yet forced to reveal enough trauma for any lifetime. His affairs, childhood, politics and philosophy are all tackled and none of it is simple. All the more credit, then, to John Heffernan in the title role. Seldom have I seen a show rest so heavily on its leading man. Heffernan’s performance confirms his status as one of the finest actors around – conveying the complexity of the physicist, making all that history and politics seem manageable and even convincing us of his character’s particular charisma. A stunning performance that gives this show enough bang to counter the occasional whimper.

Until 23 May 2015

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

“Forbidden Broadway” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Forbidden Broadway may modestly describe itself as a “fringe revival transfer” but the hugely successful US show’s latest incarnation is a screamingly funny compendium of songs and impersonations. Relocating from the Menier, the legendary cabaret troupe has just begun a limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre, which can only be good news as the larger venue gives more Londoners a chance to laugh along to this irreverent take on show biz.

Writer and creator Gerard Alessandrini uses the songs from the very shows he lampoons (Les Mis, Phantom, Once et al) taking sweeps at commercialism and, the cardinal sin, laziness. The stolen songs are cleverly adapted, the new lyrics a wickedly guilty pleasure and lazy is one thing you can’t accuse these performers of. The four actors playing multiple characters are astonishing throughout, not least for their costume changes. There isn’t moment when you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

Forbidden Broadway’s other target is celebrity. There’s Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Cameron Mackintosh and Hugh Jackman. If some of the names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry: the delivery is enough to keep you happy. Christina Bianco and Anna-Jane Casey are marvellous impersonators, their co-stars Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, similarly, terrific comedians, and affectionate jokes about what it must be like to perform a hit show night after night ring true.

Despite their efforts, the emphasis is on Broadway rather than the West End. But we share many shows and there’s plenty of attention paid to London. The stab at Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (it’s not a good show) is more accurate than funny but songs about the forthcoming revivals of Evita and Cats are superb. If you’ve ever loved a show and are interested in the theatre you’ll laugh long and hard.

Admittedly, there is a danger the show is preaching to the choir. When Forbidden Broadway gets annoyed, demanding more for us as an audience, ironically, it delivers slightly less. But it’s here that you see the passion. There’s so much great theatre out there, there’s no excuse not to put on something superb. A sense of complicity with the creators puts us, the punters, at the fore, wanting the best. So, even if you’ve hated musicals in the past – this could still be the night out for you.

Until 22 November 2014

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

Written 16 September 2014 for The London Magazine

“Handbagged” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, which after a hit run at the Tricycle Theatre had its West End premiere last night, tells the story of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Prime Minister by imagining her private audiences with the Queen. The characters Liz and Mags reenact their 1980s meetings and are watched over by Q and T – the same figures in later life, who are portrayed as staging the show and provide an acerbic additional commentary on the action. For every joke there’s an equally amusing interjection, so you get two laughs for the price of one – brilliant.

Now, playwrights are not generally Thatcher’s natural constituency, so it is no surprise that the highlights picked out by Buffini are predictably low points. The Miners’ strike, the Falklands, South Africa and the Poll Tax: there are plenty of targets for satire. But Handbagged isn’t just funny, it’s intelligent as well. The history lesson here is cleverly told and not as biased as you might fear. As well as the notion that the ultimate establishment figure is to the left of Mrs T, the Queen’s devotion to the Commonwealth is given its due. And Thatcher is allowed to answer back – well, it would beggar belief to think she would give a playwright an easy time.

Acknowledging the evening as a theatrical production full of “artifice and sham” adds an honesty to the piece. Those meetings were private after all, speculation about their relationship just that, and Buffini wisely never presents her work as the final word. It’s fun: not only do we get discussion about whether there should be an interval – carry on through or enjoy your ice cream? – but the real anger at some of Thatcher’s decisions is given a magically light touch.

In their capacity as the show’s ‘producers’, Q and T recruit two jobbing actors to play a huge variety of roles, and they end up trying to take over the show. Jeff Rawle’s repertoire of accents is astounding and Neet Mohan is superb as he endures the “stroke of casting genius” that sees him dragged up as Nancy Reagan.

Handbagged is superbly performed. Under Indhu Rubasingham’s skillful direction, all four leading ladies excel. These are reinventions rather than simple impersonations (although Marion Bailey’s top lip deserves an award of its own). More credit then to Bailey, Stella Gonet, Lucy Robinson and Fenella Woolgar for injecting real heart into the roles. There is gravitas, when it comes to key speeches the women gave, and emotion at traumatic events. Staying just the right side of parody, Woolgar in particular never takes her eye off this fine balance. Politics has seldom been presented so originally or with such great laughs.

Until 2 August 2014

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 11 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Ladykillers” at the Vaudeville Theatre

The Ladykillers are back. After last year’s super-successful run, with the show nominated for five Olivier Awards, a fresh cast has taken over the show, now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre. Father Ted writer Graham Linehan’s adaptation of the Ealing Comedy, from 1955, is respectfully inspired by the much-loved film. Its central premise – a group of incompetent villains determined to try and do away with their little old landlady after she discovers their heist ­– is employed skilfully to create a clever comedy.

It’s a light affair, with just a touch of farce, and although slapstick is used effectively, it’s the quantity and quality of one-liners that stands out. And the superb characters. Everyone will have their favourite for sure, but Ralf Little brings real energy to pill-popping wide boy Harry, and Simon Day steals many a scene as the confidence man with no confidence, Major Courtney. Few people can suggest transvestism quite so amusingly as Day – it’s a rare skill indeed. Holding the whole thing together, as the criminal not-so-mastermind Professor Marcus, is John Gordon Sinclair; spot on the button with his comic timing and with an air of improvising that makes everything feel fresh.

It is the set and costume designer Michael Taylor’s work that impresses most. A proper ‘look at that’ stage, full of gizmos and gags, that really adds to the show. Working on its slopping surfaces must be oddly disorientating but the cast make it look jolly. Wickedly, it’s hard not to laugh at the very idea of assassinating Angela Thorne’s gorgeous granny Louisa Wilberforce, and the crooks failure to do so brings yet more invention from Taylor’s set – there’s even a railway tunnel at one point. The Ladykillers is free from twee and manages to be perfect family fun throughout – even for your grandmother.

Until 26 October 2013

Photo by Dan Tsantilis

Written 10 July 2013 for The London Magazine

“An Ideal Husband” at the Vaudeville Theatre

We sometimes forget what a political writer Oscar Wilde was. An Ideal Husband is the story of a successful MP whose corruption comes back to haunt him. A crime he once committed, and upon which his fortune is based, is used to blackmail him in a play that is as much a comedy of morals as of manners.

This is a luxurious production. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s golden sets deserve the applause they receive, and are all the more impressive for not being slavishly historical. Lindsay Posner’s direction is similarly lavish, the pace is leisurely, so that we can fully savour Wilde’s delicious ironies.

Alexander Hanson and Rachael Stirling play the couple that faces ruin from the unravelling scandal. Both work well with the play’s occasional melodrama, and inject real emotion into their very Victorian marriage. Samantha Bond excels as, “that dreadful Mrs Cheveley, in a most lovely gown” who is, “as large as life and not nearly so natural”. Bond is fresh and deliciously wicked as this crinolined thief and blackmailer.

Elliot Cowan’s performance as the Viscount Goring is revelatory. Goring is the Wildean dandy we all expect but Cowan not only delivers his aphorisms admirably, he adds a depth to the character that includes a truly steely edge.

Both Goring and his fiancée Mabel, charmingly performed by Fiona Button, tackle Wilde’s epigrams with just the right amount of knowing glances, for some of them are silly. But one line resonates: “Always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it.” My advice? Get a ticket for this classy production as quickly as you can.

Until 26 February 2011

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 12 November 2010 for The London Magazine