Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Calendar Girls: the Musical

De Montfort Hall, Leicester

16th October, 2018

‘It’s Wednesday, I’m grieving!’

It’s a story that’s captured the hearts and minds of the nation; that of a small WI group that came up with a most risqué scheme to raise money in memory of a beloved husband and community member. Tasteful, humorous and brimming with good will, the famed ‘nude calendar’ (currant buns, knitting, teapots covering all the essentials) spawned a multitude of copycats and has become as iconically British as jam, ‘Jerusalem’ and Victoria Sponge. Tim Firth first breached the subject back in 2003 with the hugely successful film, followed by an even more successful play version, beloved on national stages and am-dram town halls alike. Now Firth has teamed up with Gary Barlow for a musical adaptation (initially premiering as The Girls, but now renamed after its more famous sister show). The result is a crowd pleasing, rousing and fun evening of theatre that’s not without its oddities.

Barlow’s music is as melodious and inoffensive as you’d expect, pulling off soaring leitmotifs and bouncy character numbers with a breeze afforded by nearly 30 years in the pop industry. Yet the greatest surprise in Calendar Girls is Barlow’s droll and often poignant lyrics. He writes in a way that illuminates the beauty, comfort, fear and joy of a distinctly British type of mundanity. Think bus stops, crossword puzzles and cups of tea. This is no more apparent than in the touching songs, ‘Scarborough’ and ‘Kilimanjaro’, in which protagonist, Annie (Anna-Jane Casey), contemplates life without her husband John, who is diagnosed with cancer early on in the musical. Barlow has a talent for simple honesty (no jokes about tax-evasion, now!), focusing on the small things that we perhaps don’t appreciate until they’re gone. Annie misses John most when thinking about shopping at Tesco, fishing by the seaside, making dinner for one, and the unbearable pain of climbing the stairs to bed alone. Firth and Barlow manage to portray the grieving process in a manner that avoids mawkishness, but is never flippant, despite the humour elsewhere in the show.

While I appreciate this exploration of loss and love in Calendar Girls the show is nevertheless full of padding and underdeveloped subplots. Each ‘girl’ gets her moment in the spotlight in a series of oddly truncated songs that either fail to move the plot along, or come completely out of the blue – a Christmas scene seems shoehorned into the narrative in order for Barlow to showcase a catchy tune he’s had earworming round his brain for the last decade, while ‘My Russian Friend and I’ is a puzzling eleventh hour interlude in an otherwise feel-good production (are we supposed to find Ruth’s alcoholism funny? Empowering? Tragic? The tone and lack of precedence is confusing to say the least). Conversely, I would question whether single mothers and plastic surgery are nowadays the controvercial subjects they’re presented as here. While the real ‘girls’ story took place in the late nineties, Firth’s decision to update the setting (selfies, Bake Off references) seems unnecessary and only emphasises the slightly outdated themes. I also could have done without the teenage subplot, which is a bit of a nonentity.

These niggles, however, melt away with the hearty triumph of the photoshoot scene. The abandonment felt and displayed by the women on stage ripples throughout the auditorium as the audience cheers them on. Here, director Matt Ryan comes into his own, as the sequence of tableaus materialise with precision, only to be subverted with the sheer fervour of the women.

The cast clearly love what they do, and with the uproarious reception they get, who can blame them? Ruth Madoc nearly blew the roof off with her ‘What Age Expects’, while Sara Crowe gets the majority of the laughs as the stiffly coy busybody, Ruth. Yet the outstanding moments belong to Casey as the grieving Annie, and Rebecca Storm as her brash best friend, Chris. Storm is a deft hand at both comedy and pathos and has a likeable phlegmatic air. Her chemistry with Casey ensures the women’s friendship is believable, while the duo’s singing showcases Barlow’s music splendidly.

It’s easy to be snobby about musicals such as this – film adaptation, pop star score – and, as I mentioned, the production isn’t without its problems, however, as a piece of enjoyable, light-hearted theatre, Firth and Barlow’s show is certainly a crowd pleaser. What’s more, to say the show is celebratory seems cliché, yet there’s no better description; Calendar Girls is an unashamed celebration of love, life, and community (and cake!).

Calendar Girls plays at De Montfort Hall, Leicester until 20th October, and continues to tour the UK.
For more details please visit:

Tim Firth, Gary Barlow and the cast of Calendar Girls.
Credit: John Swanell.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Cilla the Musical

Curve, Leicester

9th October, 2018


I am not the target audience for Cilla the Musical. Let me start by saying this as the possible reason why swathes of the audience were stood up around me – dancing, cheering, booking minibreaks to Liverpool – before the night was out whilst I stayed seated.  I admire Bill Kenwright’s instinct for a hit, here carved out of his love of 60s’ music set in the Midas days of Cavern Club era Liverpool, and the rags-to-riches story of Cilla Black (born White). And although there were some entertaining moments (including that he and co-producer Laurie Mansfield have invested a lot into the production values, which is good to see), I remained cynical of the story, bored by the direction, and deafened by the sound levels.

Daughter of a docker and living in a flat with no front door above a barber’s, Cilla is an ordinary working class northern girl. In the eyes of her mum, her career prospects are exciting because she’s been deemed ‘suitable for office work’. I’m not doubting the humble beginnings of her life, but in Jeff Pope’s book (adapted from the ITV mini-series starring Sheridan Smith) this life is about as ordinary as a bad sitcom: a dotty mum, an irate dad, and a crowbarred physical joke featuring a hairdryer. I understand that dramatised life stories necessitate elements of fiction. Years of struggle may be truncated down to scenes and edges are rounded in order to create an archness to the narrative that fits into a nearly three hour show (although surely there could be some trimming here!). But I wonder where the line was drawn between the reality and the fiction. For me, there is a disconnect between the Cilla Black we see in Cilla the Musical and the Cilla Black I saw on TV when growing up, presenting game shows, and seeming to overcompensate her Liverpudlian accent. There is even a disconnect in the book between act one Cilla and act two Cilla, denying her road manager and eventual husband to take a record deal. The effects of fame, the need to have a voice in a male-dominated era and industry, and the move away from working class roots are all interesting underlying issues that never fully get explored. I’m convinced, therefore, we are left with an ultimately flattering and partly fictionalised rags to riches story that in reality probably wasn’t so (surprise surprise) Black or White.

Designer Gary McCann turns the stage into the legendary Cavern Club, its bands providing a through-way that links the story.  We go from here to Liverpool terraces, Abbey Road studios, the London Palladium and The Ed Sullivan Show in New York and so on. It’s not an innovative set – simply lighting rigs, flats, back cloths and huge ‘Cilla’ lights – but it’s quite attractive and does the job. Less effective in creating a sense of place and atmosphere is Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s direction. A chorus of dancers in the Cavern Club dance in the same spot in each scene and one scene set on way to a football match is completed by a steady stream of background actors crossing the stage shaking their scarves to hammer home the point of what they’re doing. They pad the show out with hit after mediocre hit from the 60s catalogue and there are occasionally uneasy transitions from book to song.

Kara Lily Hayworth is undoubtedly unmatchable in the title role. She is vocally excellent, funny and (I think) perfectly imitates Black. Andrew Lancel fills the role of manager Brian Epstein, an underwritten role in a weak subplot, and Alexander Patmore plays Cilla’s beloved Bobby with a likeable charm. The rest of the cast spend half of their time auditioning for Blood Brothers and the other half nicely imitating 60s celebrities, from Danny La Rue to Burt Bacharach. And what a right bunch of dicks The Beatles are written as!

Overall, Cilla the Musical is a watchable and well-produced show. On the other hand, I think there’s possibly a more interesting story in there. At the end of the show, in front of 12 foot high letters of her name, Cilla and the band sing a number of hits at an unbearably high volume. But a strong 95% of the audience were dancing and won over by the Cilla enigma.

Cilla the Musical plays at Curve, Leicester until 13th October as part of its UK tour.

Kara Lily Hayworth in Cilla the Musical. Credit: Matt Martin

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual

Curve, Leicester

3rd October, 2018

I hate skinheads, but it’s clear they’re part of something.

What am I part of?

There’s been a recent trend of regional theatres looking closer to home to stage their cities’ stories: Songs from the Seven Hills in Sheffield, We’ll Live and Die in these Towns in Coventry, Shebeen in Nottingham. Now, Curve has adapted former Baby Squad firm member Riaz Khan’s memoirs about his time as a 1980s football hooligan. The result is an unsentimental, highly charged, immersive production that is fearlessly performed by Jay Varsani and Hareet Deol. And although its focus is a niche and troubled bit of Leicester history, Khan and director Nikolai Foster emphasise themes regarding race, religion, class and identity in Riaz’s story which resonate on a national (and international) scale.

Grace Smart has transformed the studio space into the Filbert Street terraces, complete with graffiti tags, De Montfort Hall posters, and football flags, our protagonists pitched (no pun intended) between the onlookers. The story begins in 1987, with Riaz preparing for the Baby Squad’s biggest brawl yet; encamped on the banks of New Walk he waits for his rival firm to depart the train station. How did he get here? The next two hours traverse Riaz’s upbringing, his ancestral roots, and his gradual intoxication with the camaraderie and violence of gang culture.

One of Memoirs’ major successes is that Khan (and adaptor, Dougal Irvine) never falls into hackneyed traps of sentimentality or, adversely, patronising didactism. The piece is contextually solid; we understand and even empathise with the allure of the Baby Squad and the football casual way of life through Riaz’s perspective as the son of Pakistani immigrants. Neo-Nazi, Enoch Powell-inspired bigotry is encountered everywhere – from the bus, to the shopping centre, and even primary school playgrounds and Humanities debate classes – meaning Riaz doesn’t feel welcome in his hometown. But we also hear how he doesn’t fully ‘belong’ at home. He and his brother can’t share their mum’s enthusiasm for watching three hour long Bollywood movies on a Sunday with the gas fire on full. Nor can they understand their dad’s appreciation of lazy and xenophobic 70s sitcoms such as Mind Your Language. This sense of displacement is extended to the motherland, as a trip to Pakistan leaves Riaz and Suf overwhelmed and entirely disconnected with their family’s social and cultural heritage. So when Riaz encounters the stylish, multi-cultural Baby Squad he sees an opportunity for integration by joining the co-founders of a new, ultra-contemporary subculture.

Irvine’s adaptation is thoughtful and never overshadows Khan’s story. The structure of the piece echoes epic theatre techniques by having Riaz and Suf address the audience directly and even discuss how they’re going to play certain scenes. This outline allows for some interesting language play, as Irvine strikingly assimilates language with violence. Early on in the play Riaz and Suf step away from the narrative to debate the appropriation and re-appropriation of offensive language. Language and race is a hot topic of late, and Khan and Irvine take a refreshingly post-modern approach by acknowledging the fact that in re-appropriating the language of the oppressor Riaz and Suf are themselves degrading and oppressing their ‘souls’. From then on, we hear only the opening syllables of slurs that are scratched out by a screech of chalk, the brothers visually marking each assault. The violence of these actions cuts deep, creating near-physical reactions from the audience each and every time. There is no room for complacency where racism is concerned, and the play is all the more shocking and perceptive for it.

As Riaz ingrains himself further into the football casual culture we see his world paradoxically expand and narrow. He’s found his place, but is confined within it. Life now boils down to the next high, the next game, the next fight, the next must-have fashion (from golfing sportswear, to designer brands and questionable paisley shirts, to hip-hop and acid house – ironically a football casual would never be caught wearing their team’s strip). Unemployed or stuck in menial jobs, nothing else matters except loyalty to the firm. Smart’s design comes into its own here, the overhead stadia lighting rig closes in on Riaz as he delves further into violence.

It takes a lot to pull of an immersive show, but I imagine even more so when there are only two actors. Varsani (as Riaz) and Deol (as Riaz’s brother, Suf) have no problem filling the stage as they switch between playing dozens of characters with chameleonic ease; from their parents and ancestors, to Enoch Powell and a camp Skegness skinhead. Varsani and Deol bask in the comedy (and parts are very, very funny), playfully dart in and around the audience, and bring a solemn sobriety to the darker aspects of the narrative while avoiding what in other hands could appear cloyingly earnest. These charismatic young actors are definitely ones to watch.

One of the fascinations about this production, heightened by Foster’s choice of a traverse stage, is being able to see and hear others’ reactions. Some reacted in recognition to familiar Leicestershire place names (Upperton Road, the Haymarket, Gallowtree Gate, Eyres Monsell); others were perhaps nostalgic about the terraces of the old Filbert Street ground (now replaced by the nearby King Power Stadium). Above all of that, however, was the unique experience of having the play’s protagonist sat in the audience. Khan, along with his family and friends sat nearby, was enthralled watching his experiences relived in front of him. At the end, he walks onstage, speaking to us and his younger self in a moment touching catharsis.

Throughout the play, Riaz asks ‘Who am I?’. It’s a question Leicester has had to ask itself over the years, with sometimes uneasy answers. Khan’s time in the Baby Squad precedes my birth and yet it still resonates with this changing and vibrant city. Thirty years on, Brucciani’s is still here and the clock tower remains a beacon of the city. But it’s also changed considerably in the last decade, with the monopolising of the king in the car park, the LCFC murals dotted about town, and indeed the opening of Curve itself. In its tenth year, Curve’s two biggest productions have been a new musical that has attracted audiences in their droves up and down the country, and this very local play about a very specific and pertinent part of Leicester’s lifeblood. These are the highlights of a richly diverse programme made for its city. And in Memoirs, they’ve made a pulsating bit of theatre which is simultaneously sensitively staged with stimulating ambivalence, while remaining jubilant about the making of a man and a city.

Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual plays at Curve, Leicester until 6th October.

This post was corrected on 4th October - the traverse stage was mislabelled as a promenade stage.

Hareet Deol (Suf) and Jay Varsani (Riaz) -Photography by Ellie Kurttz

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Curve, Leicester

2nd October, 2018


‘How do you quote a dance show?’ I asked my partner this morning. It may seem trivial, but this quandary perfectly exemplifies Matthew Bourne’s genius ability to tell stories both sweeping and intricate without the utterance of a single syllable. Following his most recent smash hits, The Red Shoes and Cinderella, Bourne has returned to the piece that made his name and irrevocably rocked the dance world. In a newly revised production of Swan Lake, Bourne and the New Adventures company demonstrate yet again why they are the most inventive, compassionate and exciting producers of dance around.

Retaining the essential themes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – duty, freedom and doomed love – Bourne has crafted something altogether more psychological, unnerving and heartbreaking with his tale of a Prince that longs to escape the bonds of royal responsibility, yearns for his frosty mother’s love, and is haunted by visions of gathering swans, majestic yet brutal. 

Much has been made of the now iconic ‘male swans’ section in Act Two, and over the years has lost none of its potency. The striking visuals of the muscular, brooding, graceful yet intimidating swans is heightened in this productions revised aesthetic; eschewing the traditional ‘slicked back’ look of the original, Bourne and Assistant Director Pia Driver instead opt for a troupe of male dancers sporting identical ‘skinhead’ looks. This uniformity heightens the viciousness of the pack mentality seen in the finale, while also creating an enigmatic frisson of beauty and menace in the hyper-masculinity of the ensemble.

Yet to reduce Swan Lake to that one, albeit stunning scene, is to neglect the other joys that Bourne concocts in this veritable cornucopia of delights. From the comedic pitfalls of the Prince’s Girlfriend we are transported back to the type of slapstick coquettishness that made early silent films such a success, while the nightmarish chain of mother-masked and anaesthetised nurses that prey on the deranged Prince is a twisted allegorical exercise in quasi-oedipal castration. Played upon a larger-than-life story-book set designed by Lez Brotherston, the production is sumptuous, while avoiding the type of ostentation that could detach us from the action.

Standing out amidst an overall spectacular cast, Nicole Kabera exudes poise and elegance as the duty-bound but unfeeling Queen, and Katrina Lyndon has pitch-perfect comic timing as the hapless Girlfriend. New Adventures veteran, Dominic North expresses all the despair, abandonment and melancholy of the Prince, displaying a vulnerability which is deeply touching. The chemistry between North and Will Bozier’s inscrutable and alluring Swan/Stranger is electric; their pas de duex is a treat both tender and powerful, sensuous and romantic, while the intense eye contact between the two during the ball as they dance with their respective partners is compelling. Bozier and North’s unspoken connection ensures we are invested in the piece, so when tragedy befalls the royal household the effect is devastating.

Bourne’s Swan Lake is timeless, this production as fresh as ever, while a company that embody a tireless amount verve, ingenuity, precision and emotion ensure this is a revival to be universally celebrated. I defy anyone to watch Swan Lake and not fall completely under its spell. In short, this is an enchanting show for fans of dance and novices alike that truly justifies and deserves the years of acclaim bestowed upon it.

Swan Lake plays at Curve Leicester until 6th October and continues to tour the UK. For further details please visit:

The ensemble of Swan Lake.
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

The Wipers Times

Curve, Leicester

24th September, 2018

From the dread of crying, we laugh instead

With the centenary of the armistice imminent it seems of particular pertinence to reflect on the lost generation of service men that fought and died in World War One. Over the past four years of commemoration we’ve seen Northern Broadsides’ staging of Deborah McAndrew's new play An August Bank Holiday Lark, films such as Dunkirk and a screen adaptation of Journey’s End, and November will see the anticipated return of War Horse to the National Theatre. Yet, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman have chosen a lesser known aspect of the period to home in on. The Wipers Times (named after the British Tommys’ mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’) recounts the strange but true story of a group of soldiers endeavour to publish a trench-grown satirical newspaper to the forces – ‘like Punch, but funny’.

If Hislop and Newman have a point to make – and I feel they do– it’s that satire has an important, moralising place in society. It boosts the morale of those on the frontline whilst calling out the ironies, double standards and faults of anything with authority. That right and enjoyment is timeless, but the two crowbar pertinent dialogue into a number of scenes to hammer the point home. Another weakness of the show, surprising considering the both of their contribution to satire on Have I Got News for You and in Private Eye, is that it’s (dare I say it?) not that funny. It definitely has its moments, best of all being the sketches taken from the magazine, acted in an over the top manner in an area (over the top?) of the trench, framed in fairy-lit barbed wire. ‘Are you suffering from optimism?’ delivers a cheesy advertisement voice in one sketch whilst a man lies in bed with a naïve smile beaming from his face. Another sketch lampoons the supposed roaming war reporters of the time, putting their lives at risk as they sip from champagne flutes miles back from the trenches. There are also some timeless digs at the Daily Mail. But other than that, in terms of light entertainment about life in the trenches, it pales in comparison to Blackadder Goes Forth.

The piece plays out upon Dora Schweitzer’s playground fort of a set. It may depict trench warfare as cosy, but it also by turns evokes a music hall theatricality. I can’t decide whether this lack of jeopardy presented in the play is welcome or even intentional. For all the background booms and downfalls of dust as the bombs shake the ramparts, our protagonists never seem to be in any genuine danger. And this lack of danger is perhaps what makes the gallows humour less effective than it should be.

The Wipers Times is well-acted by a tight-knit company, reminiscent of The History Boys, with one of Hislop and Newman’s triumphs being in the recreation of the comradery between the men on the front line. These genuine friendships are heart-warmingly portrayed by the cast. In a brief moment of reflection, Amar Aggoun’s Barnes reads from a poignant and shatteringly simple poem he wrote following his friend Henderson’s (Kevin Brewer) death at the Somme. For all Roberts and Pearson complain about being sent ‘too much poetry’ for the paper, the play conveys the ways in which the soldiers express themselves through veiled and artistic means, however crude the form. Sam Ducane plays the snivelling Lieutenant Howfield with an air of pantomime villainy, while James Dutton’s Captain-cum-editor, Roberts is a likeable lead, if a little idealised, and Dan Mersh plays the General with an air of affable complacency. Yet the play is an ensemble piece, and some of the most memorable moments are when this ‘togetherness’ shines through, whether that be in the music hall song and dance numbers, or quietly huddled, shivering in a trench waiting for the signal to go over the top.

The play is directed with unrelenting pace by Caroline Leslie, who excels in ensuring that every second of stage time is utilised in the evocation of the era. Scene changes feature pithy trench songs which are orchestrated and choreographed with sardonic ease – ‘Ten Fat Germans’, a play on ‘Ten Green Bottles’, was my favourite. Despite a lack of connection, The Wipers Times celebrates a great, previously untold story, about war, journalism, tenacity, and the need for humour in difficult times.

The Wipers Times is playing at Curve, Leicester until 29th September and then tours until 13th October. It then transfers to the Arts Theatre, London from 16th October to 1st December.
To coincide with the commemoration of the end of WW1 there will be a special gala performance of The Wipers Times on Remembrance Sunday 11 November at 6pm at the Arts Theatre, London in support of The Royal British Legion’s Thank You campaign.
The cast of The Wipers Times.
Credit: Kirsten McTernan.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Lovely Bones

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
15th September 2018, matinee

"These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence"

Later this month, Cyndi Lauper’s, Harvey Fierstein’s and Jerry Mitchell’s musical Kinky Boots plays in the Derngate to kick off its UK tour. Although American-made, it’s returning to its spiritual home. However, across the labyrinthine foyer is the quaint toy box Royal theatre, home to the latest ‘Made in Northampton’ production, Bryony Lavery’s new stage adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones. It’s about the utterly harrowing story of 14 year old Susie Salmon, who watches down on the world she’s left behind after being murdered. However, Melly Still’s production is vibrantly theatrical and Lavery’s deft text balances the cold details of the story while bringing out the catharsis and hope in life after loss.

Susie is in limbo where she meets Franny, a heavenly caretaker and sort of spiritual guide to the place in which she finds herself and the rules of her new existence. From here she narrates her story; the retelling of her murder is shocking and brutal, but is interspersed with Susie’s memories such as her first kiss – a small but by no means trivial event that emphasises the fact that Susie is a typical young girl, full of vitality and teenage foibles who’s life has been crudely torn from her.

Unprepared and abandoned, Susie tries to understand her circumstances. Intent on justice, she leads her desperate father to foil her murderer; gets angry at her mum for sleeping with the detective; shares her sister’s experiences of discovering love; and comes to terms with watching her friends and siblings grow up without her. Brief moments of whimsy, such as Susie’s ecstatic lounging to the sounds of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, or her calling on all the dogs in heaven for an angelic game of fetch, offer a reprieve from the terrestrial grief, while reminding us that it’s the small things in life that enrich us. Memories of splashing through icy water and capturing her mother in a rare moment of vulnerability are the things Susie values, and this epitomises Lavery’s (and Sebold’s) talent for homing in on the strangely melancholic nature of happiness.

Stuck in a place in between the living and the dead, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design cleverly toggles these two worlds, playing with notions of what we can see and believe, what is tangible and what isn’t. An angled mirror stands at the back reflecting the stage. Some parts appear odd in the mirror such as a chair seemingly attached to the back wall. Other things only make sense in the mirror such as the cornstalks which appear the right way up only in the mirror. Jabares-Pita further distorts things with her use of two-way mirrors, affording us glimpses into a space beyond. This gives Still a space to create the effect of staging the ghostly. But, perhaps conversely, it is also a space to show the concrete and the intimate, such as sister Lindsay’s first time having sex. And again, it’s also a space for the internalised. Overall, we find ourselves occasionally watching things on stage, occasionally watching the reflections, occasionally through the glass, and often all three. It’s a complex, mesmeric design made all the more stunning by Matt Haskins’ lighting and Still’s stage images: a blur of telephone wires, the gentle falling of snow, subtle and simple puppetry, and Mike Ashcroft’s effective use of movement.

The cast live up to the task set for them, very swiftly doubling up from dogs to boyfriends, or from little brothers to worldly classmates. Keith Dunphy brings a cold presence as the murderer Mr Harvey. Susan Bovell adds some much-needed humour as the cop with a southern-drawl and dry wit and as Susie’s nan. But, if anyone’s, this is Charlotte Beaumont’s show, playing Susie with all the breezy confidence, naivety and tempestuousness of teenage-dom. She and Ayoola Smart as Lindsay have a palpable connection despite Lindsay not being able to see or hear Susie. Smart’s performance is subtly effective, and it is in Lindsay that we see the fullness of the grieving process; she is confused, enraged, and ultimately happy again. She matures before our eyes while Susie remains forever young, and this disparity between Susie’s stasis and Lindsay’s faltering progress is deeply moving.

About a minute in to this performance, the stage manager stopped the performance due to technical difficulties. After clearing the auditorium and about a 40 minute wait, they were able to restart the show. I’m so glad that the performance went ahead (props to Beaumont and the company for doing those opening moments again) as The Lovely Bones is one of the best plays I’ve seen this year. In fact, Melly Still’s vital production is the best page to stage adaptation I’ve seen since Curious Incident.

The Lovely Bones plays at the Royal & Derngate until 22nd September before touring to the Everyman Liverpool, Northern Stage, Birmingham Rep, and New Wolsey Theatre.

Charlotte Beaumont in The Lovely Bones. Credit: Sheila Burnett

Monday, 10 September 2018

Sweet Charity

Nottingham Playhouse

8th September 2018, matinee

‘There ain’t no use flappin’ your wings,‘cause we’re stuck in the fly-paper of life!’

It’s now familiar territory – the ‘tart with a heart of gold’ longs to escape the grimy confines misogyny and objectification, and find ‘true love’. It’s a dated concept, one that has come under scrutiny with the furore over the lack of progression/moral in the recent Pretty Woman Broadway musical. Let’s be honest, the notion that a woman needs a man in order to be happy is pretty tragic. With this in mind, how does Cy Coleman and Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity fare today? Well, if Pretty Woman is a twisted ‘fairytale’ then Sweet Charity is an altogether more realistic affair, while never compromising on entertainment value.

In Bill Buckhurst’s production we benefit from the delicate balance between the seediness of the New York backstreets with the technicolour of Charity’s blithe daydreams. From grubby dressing rooms, to the lo-fi gaudiness of the Fandango Ballroom, and luxurious apartments, Takis’ design is fluid and evocative. His boxed-in rooms within rooms draws us into a world that feels practically subterranean; an effective accompaniment to the themes of claustrophobia and (im)mobility that Simon weaves throughout the narrative.

Into this nether, taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine bursts with effervescent glee. Rebecca Trehearn (in the starring role she’s long-deserved) radiates charisma, charm and talent in a triple threat performance that emphasises Charity’s eternal optimism to the point of fragility. Her rendition of ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ is giddily uplifting, while the goofiness she affords Charity makes an already endearing character all the more loveable.

The music is, naturally, exquisite. The minute those big brassy horns strike up the first notes of ‘Big Spender’ I was sold. I’m a sucker for ‘Fosse’ and choreographer, Alistair David, recreates the magic of those staccato flicks, louche, slouchy shoulders, and sultry hips to perfection. The chorus of taxi dancers strike the antithetical poses of seductive ennui with cold, blistering precision. Likewise, the ‘swinging sixties’ are wonderfully caricatured in ‘The Rhythm of Life’; a surreal interlude that seems devilishly knowing.

The real surprise for me though (my first time seeing the show) is the quality of the book. Neil Simon crafts deft comedy scenes and takes the plot on relatively unexpected routes. Simon has often been stylistically compared to Woody Allen, and this is no more apparent than in the hilariously neurotic elevator scene at the end of act one. The odd-couple pairing of Trehearn’s plucky go-getter and Marc Elliott’s perpetually pessimistic Oscar Lindquist presents a quirky chemistry which sets the musical aside from its contemporaries. Fast paced dialogue, heaps of cynicism and razor-sharp wit, while being able to pull off flights of whimsy without ever becoming sentimental, Simon’s contribution to Sweet Charity highlights the importance of the book to a musical’s success like few others.

Trehearn and Elliott are assured and likeable leads that bounce off each other with intelligent jocularity. After the enormous fun of his scenery-chewing role in the Donmar’s City of Angels, Elliott once again exemplifies his natural talent for comedy. The timing and physicality he brings to the painfully fretful Oscar more than makes up for his underpowered, though pleasant, singing voice. Amy Ellen Richardson and Carly Mercedes Dyer offer splendid support as Charity’s friends and co-dancers Nickie and Helene. Their world-weariness is a gravelly, liquor-and-cigarette-fuelled counterpoint to Charity’s ‘sweetness’, and their numbers ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ and ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ are highlights in an altogether unforgettable score.

In musical theatre land, female sexuality has often been drawn on a scale of two; the virgin versus harlot, the Sandys versus the Rizzos, and in the middle of this there’s always the man, the ‘hero’, that’s inevitably going to take control of that sexuality and either ‘save’ or ‘awaken’ her. While Sweet Charity has its issues (Oscar still, in effect, ‘saves’ Charity by snubbing her), we see in Charity a female character that makes her own decisions and remains unapologetic about being herself. For a musical that’s over fifty years old, Sweet Charity certainly resonates in today’s world of disposable culture, fake news, and reinvigorated sexual politics. Combined with stonking music, a corker of a book that holds its own against Coleman’s score, and a production that juxtaposes sceptical veracity with quirky reverie, Buckhurst has a sure-fire hit on his hands.

Sweet Charity plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 22nd September 2018.

Rebecca Trehearn and Marc Elliott in Sweet Charity.
Photo: Darren Bell