Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Constellations

 Vaudeville, London

7th July, 2021, matinee

There’s no straightforward explanation I’m afraid

This is the first time I’ve seen Constellations but, in the spirit of the play, I wondered how differently I might have watched this latest iteration of Nick Payne’s modern classic if I’d seen the original production in 2012. It’s feasible that I could’ve seen it. 2012 was around the time I started to go to London on my own and see a greater variety of theatre. And I did see Laura Wade’s Posh as part of the same West End season of Royal Court transfers so it is entirely possible I could have ventured to this. Back then, I was a single, unemployed student still living at home. Now, in 2021, I’m a married, employed homeowner still at university. Where will I be, I wonder, when the next iteration of this play comes about?

Constellations is a love story between Marianne, a scientist, and Roland, a beekeeper, which plays with the possibility that we’re part of a multiverse. It’s a world (or several) where all of our decisions and their outcomes ‘can co-exist simultaneously’. As Marianne puts it, ‘in the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes’. In a running time of 70 minutes, Michael Longhurst’s economic production played on Tom Scutt’s striking and now iconic design, we see glimpses of their relationship playing out in the multiverse. The idea is elevated by this revival having four different casts to reiterate the amount of possibilities to be pondered over. Dramatically, this concept is entertaining and scientifically, it is mind-boggling. I don’t normally enjoy doing such a biopsy on a play (who am I kidding, I love it!) but Constellations has left me craving further meaning.

The play’s structure is fascinating. It initially reminded me of Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart (1997). Scenes jump back to the beginning and are replayed, sometimes with minor word fluctuations, sometimes with momentous changes. They head in different directions, relationship dynamics shift, motivations and moods change. It can jump from rain to sunshine, from violence to tenderness. But it also largely follows a chronological narrative arc:

·       First encounter

·       Getting together

·       Splitting up

·       Dance lessons, reuniting

·       Proposal

·       Diagnosis

·       Waiting for the taxi

·       Dance lessons, reuniting

These rough sections are interspersed with snippets which jump forward to late in their relationship when Marianne’s illness is quite advanced. I was expecting one scene to swap the characters’ roles – for Roland to become the scientist and Marianne the beekeeper. This may have added a dynamic of another possible universe, but I now think it would have been a frivolous, redundant change. Instead, although Payne presents different outcomes in different universes, there is structure, purpose and sentiment behind it, and we care all the more for Marianne and Roland because of it. Maybe such an exercise in breaking down the scenes is futile but it’s natural to seek meaning. Meaning is something Roland mostly craves. He wants to know what exactly Marianne does for a living, why doesn’t she want him to stay the night, when does he have to move out, what her diagnosis is. And he admires the simple existence of bees: ‘If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing’. Marianne is perhaps more accepting of the unknown. However, in one universe it is Roland who is more accepting of uncertainty. What is it, I wonder, which led to that outcome? As Marianne says, there’s no straightforward explanation I’m afraid.

Reading the text, it’s all played out as one scene with each universe separated by a line. This flow is achieved by Longhurst’s short, sharp changes evoked by pops of sound and sudden lighting changes. In this version produced by the Donmar Warehouse, Zoë Wanamaker played Marianne and Peter Capaldi played Roland. Casting an older couple opens up new interpretations to the text. For instance, when the couple reunites at dance classes, Roland tells us Heather is getting married. We later find out this is his sister but I initially assumed it was his daughter from a previous marriage: another life. And when Marianne reveals her diagnosis, we hear that it may have been in her favour if she was under 40. Age alters how we perceive her illness. But overall, their age prompts us to reflect on their lived experience and the multitude of other lives and outcomes they may have, the time they’ve spent together and indeed the time they’ve spent apart. Could it be that they’ve known each other 40 or more years by the time they’re contemplating life without Marianne, making that penultimate scene all the more poignant:

We have all the time we’ve always had.

You’ll still have all our time.

Once I

Once

Once

There’s not going to be any more or less of it.

Once I’m gone.

There are certainly parallels with Payne’s Elegy (2016) which also starred Wanamaker at the Donmar. Here the language is more prosaic, characters wear their heart on their sleeve more, but both plays seem to be interested in how we articulate ourselves. It’s a beautiful play, cathartic, full of multiple interpretations, humour and warmth. On another note, we both felt safe and confident in the safety measures Nimax Theatres had put in place.

Constellations plays at the Vaudeville Theatre until 12th September, 2021. Wanamaker and Capaldi have finished their run, however the other three companies continue to play in rep: Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah play until 1st August; Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey play from 30th July-11th September; and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd play from 6th August-12th September.



 

 

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

The Music Of Andrew Lloyd Webber

 Curve, Leicester

8th June 2021

 

‘Feel the magic in the making’

 

When I was 7, my primary school did a production of Cats. You had to be in the years above to be in it but this didn’t stop me being consumed by it for weeks. I was obsessed with the songs (‘Skimbleshanks’ and ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ especially) and my dad got me the recording of the London production on VHS – during the concert Madalena Alberto tells a similar story of being introduced to Andrew Lloyd Webber (and musical theatre in general) this way. I remember we got to watch one of the last dress rehearsals and, as we sat on the dusty parquet floor, I was mesmerised by how the school hall was transformed into the junk yard set. A stage was put up and a starlit backdrop covered the back wall, adorned with bin lids and incorporating the folded-up climbing apparatus which the cast used as part of the show. The following year, I was similarly obsessed when we did Joseph and I was old enough to be in the cast. I remember being bumped up from Chorus member to one of the Brothers (Naphtali), watching the hall transform this time with a backdrop of pyramids and palm trees, and spending summer afternoons stopping after school to rehearse the show. Like many kids, these musicals were my gateway into a lifelong passion for theatre. It seems fitting then that as theatres reopen, Curve is welcoming back audiences (and hopefully enchanting a whole new generation of youngsters and future theatre-lovers) with a celebration of the UK’s most prolific musical theatre composer.

 

The Lord himself, appearing on screen at various locations throughout Leicester, guides us through the evening - a musical biography of sorts - moving chronologically (for the most part) through his oeuvre. The set pieces are punctuated by Lloyd Webber’s anecdotes: his and Tim Rice’s misguided foray into pop music with their song ‘Kansas Morning’ (which had later success when rewritten as ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ in Jesus Christ Superstar); the touching inspiration behind his Requiem; and how he persuaded the edgy hit-maker Hal Prince to take a gamble on directing a ‘High Romance’ (Phantom). These biographic morsels are an intriguing glimpse into Musical Theatre history and Lloyd Webber’s slightly awkward delivery ends up being rather endearing.

 

The music is a real treat for fans and newcomers alike. Best described as a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation, Lloyd Webber, along with Director Nikolai Foster and co. have sifted through the back catalogue and selected only the gold standard of tunes. From the powerhouse aria ‘Gethsemane’, to the plaintive ‘Another Suitcase’, or the sensuous ‘The Music of the Night’ to the underrated ‘Take That Look Off Your Face’, the show revels in a variety of Lloyd Webber’s successes (Phantom; JCS; Cats; School of Rock; Evita; Sunset Boulevard), ensuring that every song is a certified banger. That’s not to say the less successful productions are completely glossed over. Lloyd Webber is self-deprecatingly honest when addressing his shows that didn’t work, from the disaster that was the original Jeeves musical (later revised as By Jeeves in the 90’s) to the creative snags in the London premier of Love Never Dies (an issue that was fixed in the subsequent Australian production). However, despite his extensive body of work there were some misses that were conspicuously absent from comment *ahem*Stephen Ward*ahem*.

 

Lloyd Webber’s music is often criticised for being trite and overproduced. But the truth is, at his best as seen here, Lloyd Webber’s melodies soar and hit a musical sweet-spot that many have tried and failed to emulate. These songs have become standards for a reason and it was a pleasure to hear them performed by an excellent cast including three previous Evitas and two veteran Phantoms. A lush acapella opening features a clever mash-up of songs that the cast clearly have a lot of fun with. Despite suffering a leg injury Karen Mavundukure (a highlight of Curve’s production of The Color Purple) raises the roof with her storming rendition of ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ from Starlight Express, and Jessica Daley demonstrates astonishing versatility and a vocal range to die for in her various roles, a particular highlight being her effortless performance of ‘Love Never Dies’. Tim Rogers belts out ‘Gethsemane’ before transforming into playful scamp, Mr Mistoffelees , and newcomer Shem Omari James brings a fresh exuberance to proceedings in his roles as Judas and Joe Gillis. Madalena Alberto and Ria Jones show us just why they have the reputation as some of the best of Lloyd Webber’s leading ladies with their charismatic turns as Eva Peron and Norma Desmond. Jones’ rendition of ‘Memory’ is chill-inducing, and incredibly poignant. Foster and co. capitalise on this moment with some simple but exquisite staging; Jones’ lament is accompanied by a single ‘ghost-light’, a theatrical superstition transformed into a symbol of hope. For theatre, and for the world, the lyrics ring true; ‘a new day is dawning’. Finally, special congratulations to Jennifer Lane Baker, as Trainee Director on the production she admirably stepped in for the injured Mavundukure during the ensemble numbers. Ah, I’ve missed the spontaneity of live theatre!

 

Since reconfiguring Curve’s stage and auditorium Ben Cracknell has truly come into his own with some outstanding lighting design. The immense rig is a character in its own right as the lights literally dance around us during the upbeat numbers, creating an exciting and immersive atmosphere. It was also lovely to see the return of the Curve Young Company in the larger ensemble pieces. The past year has been tough on everyone, but the sacrifices of the younger generation have been innumerable, and to see these teens thriving once again is exemplary of the hard work and pride that Curve takes in their commitment to the wider community.

 

It was a thrill to be back in the theatre, and we were thoroughly entertained and left Curve humming our favourite tunes. This celebration of a life’s work is representative of the resilience of the arts community. Long may music and stories continue to inspire and enchant audiences world-wide. Theatre is back and the only way is up!

 

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber plays at Curve until 19th June.

For tickets and more information please visit: https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/the-music-of-andrew-lloyd-webber/

Madalena Alberto and the cast of The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber
Credit: Ellie Kurttz


Friday, 21 May 2021

Curve Season Launch

Curve, Leicester

20th May 2021

 

‘Love endures’

 

It had been over 14 months since we last set foot in Leicester’s leading producing theatre to see the launch of the new tour of Phantom of the Opera. Chief Executive, Chris Stafford, described the heartbreak and uncertainty of the fateful day when audiences arriving to watch the show last March had to be turned away at the doors due to new government Covid-19 guidance. He went on to explain how he and Artistic Director, Nikolai Foster, sat that night in an empty auditorium, the iconic Phantom chandelier looming overhead, and vowed to do everything they could to ensure the survival of Curve. More than a year on, the monumental support extended to Curve by the local and wider theatre loving community shines through as they successfully reopen their doors to audiences in a season that celebrates togetherness, art and home.

Prior to our arrival we were sent a comprehensive set of instructions detailing Curve’s safety procedures. Their strategy has been intricately thought-out and was implemented with immaculate diligence; the safety of everyone involved was, rightly, at the forefront of proceedings. A brief list of safety procedures includes: all audience members and staff wear face coverings; hand sanitizer is located throughout the building; zoned entrances and staggered entry times; contactless ticket scanners; socially distanced seating and increased ventilation in the auditorium (we’re advised to bring a jacket as it can get a little chilly); in-seat hospitality services; track and trace; and temperature checks via infrared cameras. The auditorium that usually seats 1,600 has been reduced to a maximum capacity of 533. Reducing capacity by this scale may seem extreme and detrimental to the atmosphere of a night at the theatre, yet Curve’s state of the art design means the new configuration seems completely natural, and the in-the-round set up ensures we still feel that sense of unity as an audience. The new triple revolve (donated by Cameron Macintosh) that was used so effectively in the @Home streaming performances of Sunset Boulevard and The Color Purple allows fantastic 360° views and is a great addition to the theatre’s already impressive infrastructure.

So, now that theatre is well and truly BACK it’s onwards and upwards and Curve has an exciting programme of shows coming up over the next few months. The team continue to support local artists by launching the new season with a two day showcase of new work on 21st & 22nd May. We were treated to some taster performances from dance group Wayward Thread and some brilliantly witty musical comedy from Sheep Soup. I can’t emphasise how exciting it is to see fresh work again, and amidst all the chaos of the last year Curve have even managed to schedule the world premiere of Katie Lam and Alex Parker’s Am Dram: A Musical Comedy. The team has assembled a stellar cast including Janie Dee, Wendy Furguson and Curve regular, Sharan Phull, to tell the self-professed ‘love letter’ to community theatre. If Laura Pitt-Pulford’s performance of ‘Out In The Light’ is anything to go by, Am Dram promises to be a warm, heartfelt show with a large dollop of British whimsy. Audiences can book tickets now for performances from 27th – 29th May.

Equally exciting offerings come from old favourites including Aakash Odedra who cements his long-standing working relationship with Curve by returning to celebrate his dance company’s 10th Anniversary with a revival of Rising, which plays 24th & 25th May. Odedra spoke beautifully about the themes of community and home in his work, a sentiment which extends to much of Curve’s season this year. In August audiences can look forward to RENT: in concert, an event that promises to be deeply moving as Jonathan Larson’s seminal musical reflects on the suffering and resilience of the human spirit, a theme that is particularly relatable of late. Elsewhere, the team have programmed their own ‘love-letter’ to theatre with a run of Andrew Lloyd Webber concerts (7th – 19th June) and that most stagey of musicals, A Chorus Line, playing over Christmas. Melanie La Barrie treated us to a sneak peak of what’s to come with her barn-storming rendition of ‘What I Did For Love’, which is bound to ensure a sell-out festive season.

While Curve have a well established reputation as a producing house, the theatre has recently garnered attention as host to a fantastic and varied array of touring shows. Rescheduled runs of Hairspray (4th – 9th October), Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (20th – 26th September), and Six (28th September – 3rd October) are joined touring productions of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (13th – 18th September), the sublime Magic Goes Wrong (16th – 24th July), the world premiere of Peter James’ thriller Looking Good Dead (1st – 3rd July), and Matthew Bourne’s latest venture The Midnight Bell (11th – 16th October). Tempting announcements for 2022 include the new tours of Mamma Mia, Waitress and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the launch of a new touring production of The Cher Show from creatives Arlene Phillips and Oti Mabuse, and the launch of Curve’s new touring production of The Wizard of Oz.

Any regular patron of Curve will know how committed the team are to championing young people and new talent: from their own stellar Curve Young Company to the break dancers frequently seen in and around the foyer. I’m so pleased to see that this ethos continues in an upcoming piece we are particularly excited about; the rescheduled production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Originally planned for Autumn 2020, the play is to be directed by 2019 RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Awardee, Anthony Almeida, who last year spoke so eloquently about his plans for a fresh, reimagined take on the classic. This advocating of new talent is why I adore my local theatre and I can’t wait to see Almeida’s vision manifest on stage. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof plays at Curve from 3rd - 18th September.

Curve have maintained their commitment to nurturing new talent and educating young people over the last year, as seen in a recently published retrospective report. Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic over the last year Curve has reached a variety of audiences on an international level, interacting with 650,000 people across 120 countries. Their embracing of digital platforms has enabled communities, local and international, to benefit from the arts even in the darkest of times. ‘In Conversation’ interviews, online classes, highly acclaimed streamed productions, and the continuation of the Young Company via online workshops demonstrated the resilience of Curve and the arts in general as well as a determination to make theatre more accessible for everyone. Stafford mentioned that, while eager to get back to live performances, the theatre is keen to maintain its digital presence and work within the community.

Over the course of the evening it was evident that as the world has evolved due to the pandemic, so too has theatre and the arts. While there have been many devastating losses in the industry, the emphasis is now firmly on the positive, as theatre makers have adapted and gained new skills that will make theatre even more exciting and accessible as we move forward into a new era.

I cannot wait to attend a full show, but this taster has more that whetted my appetite for theatre-going and I am so proud to call Curve my local!

 

For full details of all scheduled shows please visit https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/ 


Curve
Credit: Ellie Kurttz

Thursday, 18 February 2021

The Color Purple

 

Curve @ Home

17th February 2021

 

‘What about tears when I’m happy?

What about wings when I fall?’

 

I’ll preface this review with a brief apology for the lack of content we’ve provided over the past year. This is, of course, due to ‘you-know-what’, and like much of the rest of the world we’ve been housebound with little else but our now one-year-old cat (Monty) and reminiscences of theatre trips past to keep us company over these 11 months of stasis. Honestly, we’ve been pretty lucky in the grand scheme of things. We’re healthy, we still have jobs, we were blessed with an intimate wedding last October, and, thanks to the tireless efforts and communal spirit of many arts producers, we’ve been able to experience new ways of engaging with theatre, watching countless productions from the safety of our own sofa. A few highlights for us include Jane Eyre, Amadeus, This House, Streetcar and Death of England: Delroy from the National Theatre At Home, Mood Music from The Old Vic and Ian Rickson’s production of Uncle Vanya which was shown on the BBC over Christmas. This new theatrical frontier, while generated by necessity, has been an exciting and wonderfully accessible development in spite of the widespread hardship that those working in the arts have faced. I hope the dedication, innovation and talent of all involved can persuade authorities that the performing arts are an industry in need of, and very much worthy of, significant support.


Curve have been at the forefront of this campaign, releasing archive performance footage, engaging in outreach programmes and creating thrilling new productions that embrace our current way of living. Following on from the immensely successful Sunset Boulevard in Concert, Curve have reunited the company of 2019’s The Color Purple (a co-production with Birmingham Hippodrome) to once again bring a much needed dose of musical enrichment to theatre lovers worldwide.


While Sunset’s cinematic quality and themes of artistic growth and redundancy transitioned seamlessly to the screen, The Color Purple instead benefits from the intimacy afforded by the camerawork of Crosscut Media. We weave in and out of a circular stage that seems invariably vast, claustrophobic, homely and ethereal. The use of a revolve complements Mark Smith’s rhythmic choreography, and coupled with Ben Cracknell’s evocative lighting, helps us navigate the frequent scene changes and passages of time throughout the narrative. This set-up also demonstrates the sometimes caged nature of Celie’s existence. We are presented with a ground-eye view of one woman’s, at once, constricted, mundane, and yet extraordinary universe. Similarly, the tight camera angles complement Tinuke Craig’s frantic direction during ‘Mister Song’. The multimedia element of the piece succeeds in augmenting the dizzying blur of sinister but sympathetic soliloquising. This novel vantage gives what was originally an enjoyable and touching production an extra edge that makes for compelling viewing.


Russell, Willis and Bray’s bluesy score sounds even better than I remembered, with a glorious mix of upbeat jazz, soul and funk (‘Push Da Button’; ‘Hell No!’; ‘Any Little Thing’) and poignant, uplifting ballads (‘What About Love?’; ‘I’m Here’; ‘The Color Purple’). It’s a musical score that has really grown on me and I love the bombastic advances into operatic storytelling. As a musical drama it hits all the right buttons (excuse the pun) in using melody and lyric to drive the narrative while enhancing our empathetic understanding of what is presented.


Craig has reunited the majority of her 2019 cast and their collective experience is telling in the sense of community emanating from the screen. Simon-Anthony Rhoden retains a likeable charm as Celie’s step-son, Harpo, and his double act with Karen Mavundukure’s forthright Sofia is highly enjoyable. A new addition to the cast sees Carly Mercedes Dyer (a powerhouse in Curve’s 2019 production of West Side Story) take over the role of the ubiquitous Shug Avery. While being able to belt out the tunes with ease, Dyer brings a fragility and occasional waspishness to Shug, rounding the character out in all her charismatic flightiness. The company is led by T’Shan Williams’ unfaltering performance as Celie, radiating warmth, joy and beauty. Her Celie is utterly loveable and my heart wept with delight when she finally realises her worth with a triumphant ‘I’m thankful for loving who I really am […] Yes, I’m beautiful and I’m here’.


During the closing moments of the show the emotion flooding from the stage is overwhelming. The cast weep, for the uplifting denouement, for the powerful message of the story, but also, I imagine, for what this production represents in our current climate. The Color Purple imparts such a strong sense of hope that I deny anyone not to be moved by the final bars and dimming of the lights. Acts of community and acts of creation such as this, amid a time of physical and political separation, isolation and, sadly, destruction on a near universal level, serve to remind us of the importance of supporting each other. In coming together we can remember those times we once had, and those we will have once more.

Support the arts, they are the greatest keepers of our lives.


The Color Purple is streaming until 7th March 2021.

For more information please visit https://www.curveonline.co.uk/whats-on/shows/the-color-purple-at-home/

The Color Purple - at Home. Photography by Pamela Raith


Monday, 16 March 2020

Coriolanus


Crucible Theatre
14th March, 2020 matinee

“Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am”

Do actions speak louder than words? In order for people to have faith in them, do leaders need the skill of language, and the ability to connect? These questions are the crux of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Its title character is a skilled and successful fighter, but when attempting to become Consul, he doesn’t convince the people of Rome and is banished, which in turn leads him to turn to his old enemy Aufidius, for the two of them to then turn on Rome together. This is my first encounter with Coriolanus. I imagine some productions could take a more intimate approach, focusing on the psychology of the characters and the inner machinations of power grabs. Here, Robert Hastie’s production, confidently led by Tom Bateman, uses the Crucible’s large forum stage to great effect, placing the city and its people, including the audience, at its centre.

Ben Stones’ set borrows much from his design for Julius Caesar in 2017. Sunken desks with microphones and leather chairs, rows of strip lights, and wooden panels complete with a Roman insignia stretch out into the auditorium so we too are part of the senate. The citizens play many of their scenes amongst us, and Hastie peoples his production with dedicated members from the Sheffield People’s Theatre. From this plush setting comes barbed wire fences to show us the world in which Coriolanus is more at home: the battlefield. Bateman has a strong physical prowess as demonstrated in Renny Krupinksy’s inventive and long fight scenes, including a rather gory death. So when Coriolanus attempts to make Consul, his wounds are not enough to prove him. Standing on a soapbox in the marketplace in rags (‘the gown of humility’), he proves he cannot appeal to the common man: ‘Must I with base tongue give my noble heart’. What’s fascinating is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays are about the act of seeming, something which often brings about characters’ downfalls. Yet here is a man whose downfall comes from his inability to play the part.

In this production, Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia (Hermon Berhane) is hearing impaired, leading to the clever incorporation of British Sign Language and captioning. The creative integration of BSL and audio-visual technologies in British theatre has mainly been pioneered by Graeae, so kudos to the Crucible for championing this on their main stage. It also has added effects. For a play so much about the art of rhetoric, these scenes see the characters communicate differently, making us think about how we interact with language as a tool. It also adds intimacy to the few scenes between Coriolanus and Virgilia, particularly in the scene where she and Volumnia persuade him to not give up on Rome. When we see these exchanges, I think it allows us to sympathise more with him as we see that he can communicate, thoughtfully and skilfully, something which he lacks the power to do with the plebeians in the marketplace.

There’s fine support, particularly from Stella Gonet as his mother, Volumnia. She worships her son as a hero, proudly counting his scars and boasting that ‘[blood] more becomes a man/ Than gilt his trophy’. But she’s also a gifted and charismatic orator and has the ability to show empathy. Elsewhere, Malcom Sinclair has the weariness of the professional politician, and Kate Rutter leads the citizens very convincingly. When the people of Rome discover that Coriolanus has turned against them, she walks across the stage saying ‘When I said, banish him, I said 'twas pity’, a reminder that the people don’t always know best even if they do have the collective voice of power. Like Hastie’s first production as AD, this is sharp storytelling, confidently acted, which uses the space to embrace the people in a way that theatre does best.

Coriolanus plays at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 28th March, 2020
Tom Bateman and Stella Gonet in Coriolanus.
Credit: Johan Persson


Wednesday, 11 March 2020

The Mousetrap


Leicester Haymarket
10th March, 2020

See how they run

The last (and first) time I saw Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap was performance number 25,114 at St Martin’s Theatre. I was looking for a Tuesday matinee before seeing a preview of Peter Morgan’s The Audience starring Helen Mirren in the evening. Now in its 68th year in the West End, the play is also touring and shows no signs of slowing down. And whilst the play is more than a bit of a warhorse, it has become a staple of British theatre. In the excellent programme which charts the play’s history, including a list of every London cast, there’s an accompaniment of major news headlines from each year. Through royal scandals, political crises and indeed pandemics, this who-dunnit is still standing. But whether you view it as a museum piece or bona fide murder mystery with a capacity to thrill, Christie’s good old-fashioned stage craft ensures that The Mousetrap is still satiating audiences in 2020.

The curtain rises on a radio bulletin announcing that a woman has been murdered in Paddington. Miles away, in the Berkshire countryside, is the play’s setting of Monkswell Manor, a guesthouse ran by a young married couple. We see a string of guests arrive, many of whom fit the description of the murderer, shortly before Sergeant Trotter who claims that the London murder could well be connected to the guests, all of whom are in danger. There are several twists and interesting backstories, characters not being as they first appear, and even a second murder before the curtain closes on the first act. The second act cuts to the chase a lot quicker, and there’s a clever Hamlet link when characters start to re-enact the murder. Anthony Holland’s design plays the part of charming, rural guesthouse very well: wood-panelling, cosy armchairs, and plenty of exits which hide a rabbit warren of corridors to link up the rest of the house – a nice quirk which also provides a modus operandi. Snow can be seen falling from outside the window, and several nursery rhyme motifs contribute to the production’s playful tone. The cast all do splendid work – I can only imagine how the actors feel having to wear the shoes of dozens of actors before them; mere cogs in a bigger machine. In particular, Susan Penhaligon stands out as the brassy Mrs Boyle, Steven Elliott has a lot of fun chewing the scenery as Mr Paravicini, and Martin Allanson gives a confidently assured performance as Sergeant Trotter.

Christie’s works have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years: from the “sexed-up”, first-rate BBC adaptations to the chocolate box Kenneth Branagh films, even on stage with Lucy Bailey’s production of Witness for the Prosecution at London County Hall. But amongst them all, The Mousetrap is still her calling card. Its enduring popularity remains a bit of a mystery to me, but an enjoyable one at that. There are other curiosities to the play: why the drawn-out exposition? What is in Paravicini’s little bag? And for fans of Mischief Theatre, there’s plenty of fun to be had out of spotting echoes of Murder at Haversham Manor.

The Mousetrap plays at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre until 14th March and continues to tour the UK. For full tour dates, please see https://www.mousetrapontour.com/
The cast of The Mousetrap. Credit: https://www.mousetrapontour.com/gallery/


Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Phantom of the Opera


Curve, Leicester
Wednesday 4th March, 2020

‘Hide your face so the world will never find you’

And now for something completely different… Following the intimate storytelling of Rob Ward’s one man play, The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me the previous night, we returned to Curve for a show that is much grander in scale; the new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The stark contrast between these two equally enjoyable shows reminds me just why I love the theatre so much – the infinite variety, the imaginative scope, the escapism, the immersiveness, the grandeur, the visual and thematic audacity. And it all happens live, right before your eyes. Magic is real, ladies and gentlemen, and it occurs on stages up and down the country every night. There is nothing on Earth quite like it.  

It seems very apt then that, as I exult in the glories of the theatre, the piece that has sparked this adulation is itself a love-letter to the arts. Say what you want about Lloyd Webber’s hokeyness, his habit of recycling old melodies, or his financial dominance in musical-land – he knows how to put on a damn fine show! And with Phantom being perhaps the most personal of his oeuvre, his passion for music and the arts comes across in the sheer ambition of the piece, and the hard work and talent of everyone involved.

The story of a social outcast murderously infatuated with a young, talented ingénue is well documented, so I needn’t go into the specifics of the plot. As a fan of Gothic literature I’m willing to brush aside the problematic aspects of the story - aka ‘Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical’ - as it’s a pretty perfect example of the genre and all of its underlying social, sexual and psychologically meaty themes. And because of this generic complexity, combined with Lloyd Webber’s sensuous music (‘Music of the Night’ and ‘The Point of No Return’ are sexy songs!) and magnetic performances from the leads, the audience readily accepts the Phantom, a cold blooded serial killer, as a romantic/Romantic figure. Lloyd Webber and lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe struck gold with their ability to call upon our innate desires and repulsions, and our fascination with the grotesque, the beautiful and the wielding of power in all shapes and forms. Upon this foundation a musical sensation was built, sustained and continues to tower over its peers.

Of course, much of the success lies in the hands of the cast. Christine must be more than a simpering waif, the Phantom must compel our sympathy, and the two must have a convincing chemistry to get us fully on board with the melodramatics of the plot. Gladly, the show is in safe hands with Holly-Anne Hull and Killian Donnelly at the helm. In a demanding role, Hull confidently holds the piece together, making Lloyd Webber’s notoriously difficult soprano solos seem effortless and rich. Donnelly continues to cement his reputation as the leading man in musical theatre with a performance that traverses the full spectrum of human emotion, while also bringing a physicality and tactile edge to the role that I haven’t noticed previously. Adam Linstead, Matt Harrop and Saori Oda provide comic relief as the flustered Opera House owners, Andre and Firman, and the stroppy prima donna, Carlotta. Importantly, the exceptional company bring to life all the hectic bustle of 19th Century backstage society. As a theatre nerd I love peeking beyond the wings into the not-so-glamourous side of showbusiness.

I saw the London production as a teen around a decade ago, and while the music and mood have always stayed with me, I’d quite forgotten how visually impressive Phantom is. Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Group have pulled out all the stops for this tour, from the multitudes of lavish scenery – exquisitely reproduced by Matt Kinley from Maria Bjornson’s original designs - the lustrous costumes and all the whizz-bang tricks we expect of a supernatural thriller-cum-Mega Musical. No one can complain that you don’t get your money’s worth!

From the moment the orchestra struck up those famous chords in the overture (on a personal note, can I say how much I love all those 80’s power chords, haha!)  I was spellbound and I’m so pleased that the show still lives up to its spine-tingling renown. The production is brimming with enchanting set-pieces, such as the iconic chandelier crash, the eerily beautiful candle-lit boat ride to the Phantom’s cavernous lair, and the epic carnival of ‘Masquerade’. My fiancé (and co-blogger) hadn’t seen Phantom before (nope, not even the flaccid 2004 film adaptation), and as a self-confessed sceptic, it’s safe to say he was completely won over by the show in every aspect. 

The production is spectacular in the truest sense, and even the most curmudgeonly of spectators will find something to enthuse over. If I could, I would buy a ticket and see the show again this evening (and the next, and the one after that, and… you get the picture!), and that is the surest sign of a great production. While in some spheres it may be unfashionable to like Lloyd Webber, and many will agree that his recent work has produced more misses than hits, it’s fair to say that the ALW classics still hold the power to beguile audiences worldwide, and his reputation as one of the great composers is fully deserved. Bravo!

The Phantom of the Opera plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st March and continues on tour.
For details of further venues please visit: https://uktour.thephantomoftheopera.com/