Again, here’s many reviews in a single post. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I get a better definition of normal.
A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON
A very big miss. There’s a terrific play somewere in the horrifying story of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, but this isn’t it. Lucy Prebble seems, as she was with Enron, to be more preoccupied with theatrical tricks than with telling a story or advancing a thesis. There are puppets, there are songs, and there’s sometimes the germ of an idea, most successfully in the final section in which Prebble steps back and lets MyAnna Buren’s Marina Litvinenko speak the real Marina Litvinenko’s own words. Elsewhere, terrific as he is, the device of having Reece Shearsmith’s reptilian Vladimir Putin supply commentary via a microphone from one of the boxes is very much subject to the law of diminishing returns, and it wouldn’t be if the writing was sharper. The drama is ineffective, the satire is ineffectual, the play as a whole is an incoherent mess, and a fine cast can’t save it.
MAME – Hope Mill, Manchester
Tracie Bennett plays Tracie Bennett. If you like Tracie Bennett, and I often do, then you’ll love this (it’s closed in Manchester but it’s touring next year). If you don’t, you’ll be in for a long evening. Harriet Thorpe is fabulous as Mame’s best frenemy Vera, Tim Flavin is underused as a love interest who appears towards the end of the first act and disappears for good two scenes into the second, and while the Jerry Herman songs are peerless, the big takeaway ballad – If He Walked Into My Life – feels like it’s burst in from an entirely different show. It’s an achievement, certainly, that director/choreographer Nick Winston manages to cram so much into such a tiny space, but it’s all a bit relentless. They don’t make star vehicles like this anymore… and I’m afraid there’s a good reason: it needs an Angela Lansbury, and while Tracie Bennett has many admirable qualities, she just isn’t that kind of star.
& JULIET – Opera House, Manchester and Shaftesbury Theatre, London
Maybe the year’s most delightful surprise. I bought the ticket, I admit, mostly for Miriam-Teak Lee and Cassidy Janson – the idea of a jukebox musical built around the Max Martin oeuvre didn’t immediately appeal – but it’s cleverly written, VERY funny, and the singing is spectacular. It’s a play-within-a-play in which Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway argue over the ending of Romeo and Juliet – she doesn’t like it – and the plot defies description, but you have to love a show in which Juliet’s non-binary best friend May belts out I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman, Romeo descends from the flies singing It’s My Life, Juliet tears a strip off her back-from-the-dead lover with a stinging rendition of Since U Been Gone, and the Nurse gets to sing Pink’s Fuckin’ Perfect to Juliet. I’ll admit to wholeheartedly loathing Céline Dion’s That’s The Way It Is… or rather, I did until I heard what Cassidy Janson does with it, because it’s the sort of performance that makes your mouth drop open. Ms. Teak-Lee is sensational (she was sensational in On The Town, too) – fabulous voice, fabulous timing, and anyone who can get bring-down-the-house laughs out of Britney’s Oops, I Did It Again deserves to be a major, major star. How much did I like it? I went back for a return visit.
CURTAINS – Palace Theatre, Manchester
Second-tier Kander and Ebb elevated by inventive direction from Paul Foster, a terrific comic performance from Rebecca Lock as a take-no-prisoners Broadway producer, and a surprisingly charming turn from the (very) resistable Jason Manford as a detective who is obsessed with musical theatre. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s a good night out.
MASTER HAROLD… AND THE BOYS – National Theatre
One of those productions in which everything works apart from one of the performances, which is a problem in a three-hander. It’s a stunning play, it’s directed with loving care by Roy Alexander Weise, there’s a terrific period tearoom set from Rajha Shakiry, complete with real rain, and Lucian Msamati gives a towering performance as Sam, one of the ‘boys’ (that is, middle-aged black men in 1950s South Africa) employed by Master Harold’s (unseen) mother. The only thing wrong with the production is Anson Boon’s performance as Harold, which is a flailing, overacted, inconsistently-accented mess.
THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT
It’s a very, very long time since I walked out of a show at the interval. Moving on…
GYPSY – Royal Exchange
Not the best musical the Exchange has ever done, and certainly not the best revival this show has ever received. The material is peerless, but it’s not the easiest show to do in the round, and director Jo Davies makes at least one misstep for every element she gets right. The strip sequence, which here makes spectacular use of a revolving gantry/proscenium, is sensationally good; elsewhere, too often the production feels laboured, and at over three hours it’s certainly overlong (and that’s mostly down to pacing, the script is long but not THAT long). A big part of the problem is Ria Jones’s Rose – Jones is terrific in the right role, but this isn’t the right role for her, and she doesn’t supply the galvanising drive in Rose that’s necessary to make the show take off. It’s obvious everybody involved loves the material, but that isn’t always enough.
GHOST QUARTET – Boulevard Theatre
Song cycle by Dave Malloy, which makes me sorry I missed Preludes at the Southwark Playhouse. The music here is stunning, and performed magnificently by four actor-musicians – Carly Bawden, Niccoló Curradi, Maimuna Memon, and Zubin Varla – and the finale, in which the performers more or less literally hand the show over to the audience, is a lovely, lovely moment (I won’t spoil the surprise… but I found myself onstage playing a glockenspiel, so if audience participation bothers you don’t sit in the front row). Yes, the text, which moves from modern New York into all manner of myths and fairytakes and back again, is sometimes a bit too pretentious for its own good, but this is a fascinating piece of music theatre, and those four singers are more than worth an hour and a half of your time.
NOISES OFF – the Garrick
So good it more or less banished the stench of the appalling BITTER WHEAT, which graced the same venue earlier this year. Masterful revival of a masterful play, with a perfect ensemble cast led by a magnificent comic turn from the wonderful Meera Syal. Yes, the play seems to come around every ten minutes, and it’s always good – but it isn’t always THIS good.
FASCINATING AIDA – Southbank Centre
I’m a fan, they’re wonderful, their new show is (predictably) splendid, and the opening number has a line about Priti Patel that produced the kind of laugh that measures on the Richter scale.
THE BOYFRIEND – Menier
Utterly charming, utterly silly, and Janie Dee’s Mme. Dubonnet is sublime. Whether the show will be AS charming in a theatre ten times the size in Toronto next year is another question, but at the Menier it’s pure pleasure; director Matthew White gets everyone to hit exactly the right wide-eyed-but-not-too-arch tone, Bill Deamer’s choreography pushes all the right period buttons, and the performances are lovely.
MY BRILLIANT FRIEND – National Theatre
A two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s four Naples novels. It’s one of those frustrating combinations of things that are brilliant and things that don’t quite work. Melly Still’s direction gives us a terrific, sweeping epic story of a complicated friendship conducted over several decades, and her work is often best when she makes a decisive departure from kitchen-sink naturalism, but the use of puppets to represent children seems jarringly out-of-place. As Lila and Lenù, the two friends who drive the plot, Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack are magnificent, but far too many of the supporting performances veer too close to caricature, which is an obvious trap in a piece in which nearly everyone in the ensemble plays multiple roles. It’s often splendid to look at – Soutra Gilmour’s set, Tal Yarden’s video projections, and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting give us some eye-popping visuals, and do a superb job of taking us inside Lila’s fracturing mind – but April De Angelis’s script feels rushed, as if she’s giving us the Cliff’s Notes version of the story. It’s a long day at the theatre, but each act could easily use another fifteen minutes. This is a show that wants to be a much richer theatrical experience than it is at the moment, and it’s the script that lets the side down. It’s sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating, and always entertaining – but it’s this close to being a theatrical masterpiece, and a miss is as good as a mile.
So that was 2019. First ticket booked for 2020: Cynthia Erivo in concert… in Tokyo.
No, I will not be travelling to Tokyo specifically to see Cynthia Erivo. She and I just happen to be there at the same time, that’s all.