Tag Archives: Wilton’s Music Hall

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” at Wilton’s Music Hall

It’s a delight that this early work from director Emma Rice and writer Daniel Jamieson has been revived and returns to London as part of a tour. Telling the tale of Bella and Marc Chagall, it’s a romance made blissful to watch by its combination of music, movement and imagery. Inspired by Marc’s paintings, flight is used a metaphor for love and applying this to the stage makes the show sky high with beauty, passion and emotion.

The performers are Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood, who play the couple throughout their lives, as well as incidental characters along the way. Joined by multi-talented musicians James Gow and the show’s composer Ian Ross – whose music is integral to the piece – the singing is divine. The movement the piece demands, with choreography from Rice and Etta Murfitt, emphasises the trust actors and lovers have to have in one another and is a marvel: every limb performs, every action is considered.

From the start, Marc and Bella’s love at first sight is captivating. But their marriage is never free of tension. Chagall fell for his role as a genius early, it seems, and Bella suffered. It’s one of many triumphs that this formidable woman gets her side of the story told: it’s 50/50 all the way, with no trace of Bella a victim. Marc published his wife’s writing after her death, and admits that she could have been “hidden” by history. But not under Rice’s watch!

The past and memory are continually evoked as the Chagall story mirrors the momentous events of the Russian Revolution and World War II. The result is a portrayal of Jewish life as sensitive as Chagall’s own work, full of warmth, humour and, of course, the tragedy of anti-Semitism never far away. A scene where our wandering couple unpack their bags as they discuss the Holocaust uses the powerful symbolism of books and shoes in a breathtakingly simple manner.

What really elevates The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is that Rice and Jamieson have created a uniquely theatrical experience that celebrates the power of make-believe. Highlighted by Bella’s own interest in the stage (which includes Marc’s assumption that she can’t work as she is a mother), imagination is the key to their love and the show. The invention that Rice employs is full of touches that have become her trademarks: the use of costume, and simple props that add humour, with cheeky nods to the mechanics of production. All engender a complicity with the audience that makes a crowd soar all the way through this show.

Until 10 February 2018, then on tour


Photo by Steve Tanner

“How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Frank Loesser’s 1961 hit musical doesn’t get a London airing very often, so this revival, from director Benji Sperring, is an exciting chance to see the show. As you would expect from the creator of Guys and Dolls, Loesser’s smart score has a satisfying complexity, served well by Ben Ferguson’s musical direction and Wilton’s acoustics. The story is a neat idea, too – following the corporate career rise of a former window cleaner, J Pierrepont Finch, aided only by guile and a self-help book. While many of the jokes are laboured, a committed cast gives its very best.

Sperring’s actors adopt an exaggerated style that’s apt, fun, and makes light of the outmoded working environment and sexual politics on offer. The cast gets a lot from camping it up, especially the lead, Marc Pickering – a charismatic comedian with a strong voice. Also benefitting are Matthew Whitby and Daniel Graham as Finch’s dastardly colleagues, accompanied by Richard Emerson, who multi-tasks a shocking number different roles… at least that’s one thing that reflects current workplaces.

The mannered treatment might have been pushed further; not so much with the performances but rather Mike Lees’ set and costume design. Maybe even more drastic measures are needed – especially given the cringing sexism of the piece. Despite valiant efforts from all the actresses, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the delivery, there are too many uncomfortable moments. Hannah Grover sounds sweet as Finch’s love interest, but this character makes Miss Adelaide look like Germaine Greer. Her sidekick is more interesting. Played by Geri Allen with a voice perfect for this music, she almost manages to make you forget that she is singing about marriage being a woman’s ultimate goal.

Of course, Sperring doesn’t take any of the show seriously. His production’s silliness builds pace and humour (despite a lot of moving office furniture) while Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography gets funnier throughout. The actors are unfailing in their efforts but it’s a shame a more ruthless approach wasn’t taken. The germ of how to deal with the piece’s problems is clear to all – but more of an aggressive takeover is needed to make this business succeed.

Until 22 April 2017


Photo by Darren Bell

“Frankenstein” at Wilton’s Music Hall

This potted production of Mary Shelley’s tale makes for an entertaining evening. In this somewhat ruthlessly adapted version by Tristan Bernays, the skeleton of the story remains, while casting one performer as both the eponymous doctor and his monster puts flesh on the bones of ideas about their relationship. Adding only simple props – lamps, buckets and a flight case – establishes a strong story-telling feel of considerable charm.

The show is a star vehicle for recent graduate George Fletcher, who plays both creator and creature. We see mostly monster – racing through ‘infancy’ efficaciously with admirable physicality, while creating possibly too much sympathy. He is joined as The Chorus by Rowena Lennon, who takes on some extra speaking roles admirably and even more impressively creates visual and aural echoes of Fletcher’s actions and emotions.

The show comes fromThe Watermill Theatre. Might it have been scarier if its genesis was the atmospheric mid-19th century Wilton’s? The Victorian loved to be spooked, after all. Director Eleanor Rhode brings clarity to weighty questions, but there could be more tension here. Nonetheless, the performances are strong, while excellent effects (light and sound by Lawrence T Doyle and David Gregory) ensure the show impresses, even if it is cerebral rather than creepy.

Until 18 March 2017


Photo by Philip Tull

“The Great Gatsby” at Wilton’s Music Hall

It seems to be the year of The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel about the American dream: The New York Public Theatre is bringing its enactment, Gatz, to London in June and later in the summer The Kings Head premieres a new musical version by Joe Evans. First up is Peter Joucla’s adaptation at Wilton’s Music Hall. The show has already been on tour and runs like one of the well-oiled, expensive cars its protagonists drive – it’s a fun affair full of atmosphere.

Joucla’s version is admirably precise and concise, snappy even. He adds an a capella choir, bespectacled as a nifty acknowledgement of Fitzgerald’s theme of vision, which performs jazz numbers. The cast gets to show off its musical skills and the delivery is superb – it adds a great deal of humour, possibly too much, as the songs dilute the tragedy of Gatsby’s doomed love affair.

In the title role Michael Malarkey is so appealing it seems a shame not to see more of him and Nick Chambers, who plays the central character of Nick, doesn’t seem to have been given enough time to establish himself as our narrator. Joucla’s adaptation benefits smaller roles: Christopher Brandon is superb as the “hulking” Tom and Vicki Campbell electric as glamorous hanger-on Jordan.

The Great Gatsby benefits immeasurably from its setting in Wilton’s Music Hall, as do all the shows it hosts. The venue exudes a decayed glamour and is one of the few theatres worth arriving early and staying late for to enjoy the bar. Capitalising on the play’s speakeasy era, cocktails are served and the party carries on after the show. Wilton’s closes soon for an essential refurbishment, but please note that it’s still open for donations, so make sure you don’t miss the party.

Until 19 May 2012


Photo by Michelle Robek

Written 26 April 2012 for The London Magazine

“Into thy hands” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Politics and prayer seem to have been much more interesting 400 years ago, at least if Jonathan Holmes’ new play at Wilton’s Music Hall is to be believed. Set in 1611, Into thy hands is a story of sex and death, religion and science, with the life of poet and preacher John Donne as its catalyst.

Holmes is a scholar as well as the production’s writer and director. He has staged a Jacobean court masque as well as recovering some of Donne’s songs and both become valuable additions to his play. So Into thy hands doesn’t wear its learning lightly, it’s too ambitious for that. There’s even a nod to verbatim theatre (another of Renaissance man Holmes’ interests). You have to be on your toes for this one.

Part of the challenge is the inspiration taken from Donne’s poetry. Complex and full of conceits, you could never call it an easy read. Rewarding certainly, but characters discussing theology in this manner is hard work. Donne’s very name is a case in point, dripping with puns and prophecy – he can be finished, satiated, but also downcast, undone. Donne’s role in public life adds another level: he becomes trapped as a symbol himself, forced into the church as a reformed soul. For Holmes, the early seventeenth century was a period when a new world of science and religion saw “words move” while reactionaries fought to pin everything “in place”.

Donne’s position in this struggle is never less than compelling. He wants to be “a voice not a text”, arguing for fluidity and a sensuality that is shockingly modern. Zubin Varla plays the lead and delivers his verbose lines with remarkable fluidity, convincing us of the man’s passion and originality. But Donne shouldn’t just be unconventional and Varla’s occasional rants make him unconvincing – a flaw in a man so famous for his sermons.

Listening to the debate is Donne’s circle of allies and adversaries. It is a strength of Holmes’ text that he attempts to give a voice to the strong women of the period. Donne’s wife Ann is a fascinating character, played articulately by Jess Murphy. There are also strong performances from Helen Masters as Lady Danvers and Stephanie Langton as the Countess of Bedford. The latter has to deal with some explicit scenes concerning her character’s sexuality and manages to create an emotionally rounded performance.

Nothing about Into thy hands is easy. Even the humour is a sophisticated kind of bawdy. But any trip to Wilton’s music hall is worth taking and Holmes deals well with the building’s fantastic acoustics. This ‘hidden gem’ of a stage, derelict for so many years and London’s last surviving music hall, is at risk because the Heritage Lottery has refused a grant for its redevelopment. This makes a visit more important than ever – and with a play that has a preacher as its hero, surely a donation is called for?

Until 2 July 2011


Written 3 June 2011 for The London Magazine