Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review Pure Imagination. The Songs of Leslie Bricusse.

Pure Imagination. The Songs of Leslie Bricusse.

Thank You Very Much

Years ago TLT,  when her jalopy was not even a twinkling nut-and-bolt on a conveyor belt,  saw the late Anthony Newley  in a 1989 revival  of musical  Stop The World - I Want To Get To Get Off, co-written by Newley and Leslie Bricusse. 

Now film and musical theatre composer Lesley Bricusse is back from California in London with a new memoir and a show, the world première of Pure Imagination, The Songs of Leslie Bricusse. 

It's a non stop Bricusse-fest from the moment the soaring harmonies of Pure Imagination fill the auditorium. Players, Dave Willetts  "The Man", Siobhán McCarthy, "The Woman" and younger generation, Niall Sheehy "The Boy" and Julie Atherton "The Girl", singing, descend the St James Theatre staircases from the audience, on to the stage.  

Devised by Bricusse, director Chrisopher Renshaw and producer Danielle Tarento, the production's whirling concentric circles of songs, written either alone or with an impressive list of collaborators, ripple through the show without the need for spoken narrative.  

A waterfall of musical scores sweep down literally and musically on to the glistening black St James stage with the song medleys linked by the five characters,  their relationships, projections (video: Timothy Bird), dance and symbolic props (musical staging: Matthew Cole).

Stage right  the accompanying versatile six-piece band, led by musical director and pianist  Michael England, testifies to the sheer range of Bricusse's opus from musical theatre through pop songs of the day and jazz to classic film themes. 

The characters,while updated for the mobile phone age and casually dressed,  pick up the archetypal spirit of the Marcel Marceau personalities inhabiting early Newley and  Bricusse hits, Stop The World and The Roar Of The Greasepaint - The Smell Of The Crowd

It's an invigorating mash-up of a life in song.

Initiating the stage action, Giles Terera, "The Joker" strolls on, a colourful patchwork suited, bowler hatted  hobo with coloured odd shoes, eventually inviting "everybody to come and dine ... and I will pay the bill" On A Wonderful Day Like Today.

Songs at first tangle themselves up with the speed of office life. 

Nothing Can Stop Me Now sung by Sheehy before a trip to the country with tartan picnic rug and Atherton's red-apple-fresh "Out Of Town" keeping up the pace,  through to Beautiful Things from Dr Doolitte (yes, he wrote Dr Doolittle!) with McCarthy and Willets before we land in Pickwick politics "Gandhi, Mandela and me ... If I Ruled The World" ... 

On to the Hollywood studio lot with an iconic sexy star tended by red aproned make up girl and Love Is ...  from the university studient Bricusse's  Cambridge Footlights' time  before he was plucked out to star with comedy revue star Beatrice Lillie. And there always will be Paris with more songs and love rivals and the inevitable broken heart.  

Then hardly stopping to inhale, back to the rehearsal room piano and costume trunk for a knees-up celebration of London. Bricusse wrote the lyrics to Lonnie Donegan's My Old Man's A Dustman, who knew?!!. Thank You Very Much from Scrooge and The Good Old Bad Old Days from the eponymous music give a rousing end to the first act.

A change-of-tone slinky Le Jazz Hot led by McCarthy opens the second before Willetts and Sheehy launch slickly into the James Bond themes. And who can resist when Terrera's The Candyman from the Willy Wonka movie tosses out sweets "for the critics"! 

Finally having travelled far through a sometimes crazy world, the show two hours older, having made us musically wiser about Bricusse's life in songs, McCarthy leads the cast in Feeling Good (famously covered by Nina Simone).

All the performances are as polished as the shiny St James Theatre stage with the natural stand-out of jester figure Giles Terera including a teardrop-in-the-voice What Kind Of Fool Am I.   

But every performer, hardly needing the mikes, encompasses the gamut of styles from musically Chaplinesque to hot jazz with powerful but nuanced ease.

Interestingly the show also includes unused work and songs from future shows (although with  histories typical of the entertainment world's ups and downs) including lyrics written to instrumental music of Gershwin and Tchaikovsky. 

With Bricusse himself and wife Evie, Newley's former wife actress Joan Collins and chanteuse Petula Clark among the slew of celebrities in the audience, this could only be a Feeling Good evening, dedicated by Bricusse to his friend and musical arranger Ian Fraser who died last year.

 For anyone with a tad of interest in the development of musical theatre or just out for a showstopper-packed night out, this is a must-see. A green light.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Review Horniman's Choice

Horniman's Choice
Four Plays by Harold Brighouse, Allan Monkhouse and Stanley Houghton

Spinning A Yarn
TLT and her motor sped along to the Finborough Theatre in South West London, turned into a corner of Lancashire. A small-scale repertory company presents four one-act plays from the Manchester School of playwrights  written between the Russian Revolution and the middle of the First World War.

Founded in 1908 and inspired by a German model - industrial Manchester seemed a sympathetic environment with its flourishing German community - the theatre's focus was on local new writing as well as encompassing Ibsen, Shaw, Euripides and Shakespeare. 

It toured both in Britain, with a West London base, and North America but achieved international repute with its Manchester-based plays.

And it's the theatrical Lancashire idiom which immediately grabs attention in the first play, The Price Of Coal by Harold Brighouse, later of Hobson's Choice fame. Written in 1909, this piece combines a conscious move towards working class and enconomic "realism"  but includes elements of the supernatural and  a music hall sensibility.

Anna Marsland directs  the plays with precision and sensitivity within a versatile tabernacle-shaped set furnished simply by designer Amelia Jane Hankin, serving as coal miner's family home, a Red Cross hospital room, a chapelgoer's living room and  a weaver's cottage.  

All the playwrights are linked by the British Empire cotton trade,  Manchester Guardian journalism and their association with Annie Horniman.  In addition, in an area where the Cooperative Society has its roots, they also catered for the tastes of an audience of politically idealistic young factory workers with weekly wage packets and a thirst for current affairs.  

In The Price of Coal, at crack of dawn, collier Jack Tyldsley (Lewis Maiella) pleads his case as would-be husband to cousin Mary Bradshaw (Hannah Edwards), before setting off for his shift, his offer to wed teasingly unanswered. 

Amost immediately, with lighting by Rob Mills ratcheting up the tension, the tragedy of a colliery accident, inevitable both in theatre and real life,  overshadows  the course of the day.

Yet The Price Of Coal is also a marriage proposal comedy with two housewives, Jack's mother Ellen (Ursula Mohan) and neighbour Polly Livesey (Jemma Churchill), mining disaster veterans, educating a relative newcomer of  "foreign" extraction about mining life. That is to say, "foreign" meaning a weaver's daughter from outside the village.  

This juxtaposition of melodrama, underpinned by documentary working class reality, comedy and a wry theatricality establishes the intriguing almost Chekhovian tone of the evening translated into Lancastrian.

It continues seamlessly with Allan Monkhouse's Nightwatches, jumping forward in time to a First World War Red Cross hospital. An authoritarian nurse (Churchill again) leaves a nervous, educated but sentimental new hospital orderly (James Holmes) in  his quarters on the night shift.

Almost immediately he's drawn into another war: Between voluble aggressive private (Graham O'Mara) and a deaf and dumb shell shock victim (Maiella). 

With an almost absurdist quality, this is arguably the most complex and most flawed piece. Nonetheless, bringing up "pretendin'" and "shamming", it not only deals with judgement and perception of shellshock, but also the nature of theatre, through its clearly defined characters and plot twists.  
Struggles continue with the equally absorbing latter two plays: The Old Testament And The New by Stanley Houghton, (celebrated for the better-known Hindle Wakes)  where the head of the household and chapel bookkeeper (Holmes) retreats into biblical dictatorship, when only a monetary arrangement remains after family events spiral out of his control. 
The final play is Lonesome Like, again by Harold Brighouse (the only writer, it seems, who remains in copyright)  set in 1911, the year of the National Insurance Act

It centres on a disabled widow (Mohan), forced into the workhouse, hoping for a last-minute reprieve from the parson as she packs up her widow's weeds and Elizabeth Gaskell-like mop caps with the help of a young female factory worker (Edwards).
Nevertheless, in scenes threaded with social and literary references, and filled with humour, she finds a saviour from an unexpected quarter.

Along with a carefully modulated sprinkling of music and other sound effects by Simon Gethin Thomas, these populist yet sophisticated pieces receive full justice in this production with skilful and warm performances by all the cast. A green light from TLT for an intricate weave of melodrama, humour and self-knowingness.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Review Eventide

by Barney Norris

Tied Landlord

"It's like everyone's trying to keep a secret. Trouble is the secret's out."

Barney Norris's secretive lyrical three-hander, directed by Alice Hamilton at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, covers a year bookended by a funeral and a marriage, revolving around a Hampshire village pub. 

Enter John the heavy-drinking freeholder pub landlord (an ebullient James Doherty) into the pub garden on his last day before selling up to a chain. 

The time of a village centred on the local Downton-Abbey big house, the Anglican church and local pub is now long past,  although, we learn by the play's end, charity at the point of delivery appears to have made a comeback.

Eventide means end of the day, but is also name of the tune and mentioned in the lyrics of hymn "Abide With Me". 

Delightfully, at least one more senior member of the audience sang along when it came up, testifying to the abiding influence of church services or, just as, if not more, likely, school assemblies.  The origin of the play's title appears to be one of the secrets of the play, part of a web of somewhat cryptic allusions.  

Forced to liquidate to pay an ex-wife her half share of the assets, presumably after tax, as the couple's tax bill is also involved (we never see or hear of the accountant or bookkeeper who allowed this to happen!), Bible-quoting publican John entertains two final-day customers. 

Local lad Mark (Hasan Dixon) can hardly afford to pay the rent to live in his own village. He takes jobs where he can including, while mourning the death of his best friend, one to patch up the village war memorial with which her car collided.  While Liz (an excellent Ellie Piercy) drives a couple of hours a day to play the ramshackle church organ, taking a loss on her expenses.

Lucky mine host of this blog had a copy of the script/programme for this review. For TLT mistakenly thought she heard "always civil service when you come to The White Horse" as a clever pun on the old role of pubs in civil and criminal law, as even the Inns of Court and Inns of Chancery were part of a network of taverns where business was conducted and not part of (landlord) universities.
In fact, the line was  "always silver [my italics] service at the White Horse". Oh, the perils of doing reviews :o ;)!!!  

Yet set against a simple, but evocative of centuries of pub life, set design by James Perkins, the playwright  does investigate, dramatically, pub and English history in other ways.

The framework of monologues linked by sequences with two or three of the characters, is more apparent in the  somewhat self-consciously symbolic and poetic first half. Here ideas and arguments, although insightful, sometimes feel schematic and take over from characterisation, despite sterling work by the actors. 

And maybe some of the over-explanatory nooks and crannies over all the script could have been directed and played with a sharper, self-knowing irony rather than at face value. However, once the foundations have been laid, the play comes more into its own as it moves into the second act.

A year later, Mark, suited and booted, is an employee assistant manager of the pub, part of a chain, with a staff drawn from around the globe, preparing for his wedding. 

Liz is ready to play her last organist gig as Mark takes his bride up the aisle. 

John, previously sent off after describing the tribute to him from a communally-minded now deceased village elder, unexpectedly arrives and the threads of the play are drawn together.  

This  bookish, thought-provoking and sometimes charmingly mysterious piece has a definite appeal with a tour lined up after its Arcola run. Another amber/green light.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Review The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence Review

The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence
by Julie McNamara
(Audio Describers Alison Clarke and Chris Berry)

Off The Record
A deceptively simple tale by Julie McNamara and theatre company Vital Xposure educates us about the real-life First World War would-be war correspondent Dorothy Lawrence, effectively gagged from telling her journalistic exploits by the authorities.

Yet The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence at Islington's Pleasance Theatre turns into something more in an 80 minute piece which never outstays its welcome and makes evocative use of signing for hearing and non-hearing audience alike.

TLT has to admit she initially groaned when the play started with an aged Dorothy (Penelope Freeman) in a mental asylum with nurse (Suni La) - a popular clichéd literary trope for females.

Except in this case, Dorothy, whose background remains shrouded in mystery, did end up after 1925 in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, later to become Friern Hospital where she died 39 years later.

Lawrence, aged barely 20, managed to make her way to war-torn 1915 France and for 10 days lived amongst British soldiers disguised as Sapper Denis Smith in the Royal Engineers' tunnelling corps, keeping a journal and sending back reports to the broadsheets.

The action, lit with subtlety by Crin Claxton, swaps between two time lines.  The elderly patient tended by the  nurse, who encourages  publication of Dorothy's story while medicating her, and Dorothy's memories of the First World War trenches where some of the soldiers, represented by Sappers McCormack (Gareth Turkington) and Shura (Simon Balcon) eventually aided her deception.

Finally she is turned in. Forced into a secret no (wo)man's land when the Defence of The Realm Act (DORA) kicked in, she disappeared,  re-emerging briefly with a post World War 1 bestseller before disappearing once more to enter back into the records with her 1964 death in Friern Hospital, a mental institution.

The theatre piece benefits from precise and muscular direction by Paulette Randall, bringing out every centimetre of subtext. 

Equally, an expressive and compact set design for this touring production from Libby Watson evokes wartime destruction plus life in the trenches, brothels and beyond. 

And it's the projections of narrators Becky Allen, hair in an Edwardian bun and enveloped in a shawl, and Matthew Gurney in uniform, taking on a life of their own, which give the production its distinctive feel, often even forcing the pace, alongside carefully escalated sound effects (Theo Holloway). 
The video and computer technology look forward to our time. Yet the film has the tinted colours of hand-painted silent films and postcards of the period.

There are a few weaknesses. The simple structure sometimes has the feel of a children's theatre-in-education piece until elliptical adult and political references chime with the present day and the linear timeline cards are shuffled. 

The ridiculing of the bicycle, bought for £2, as a means of transport jars when bikes played a vital part in warfare even during the Second World War.  

 At a time when the illustrated tabloids were often trumping the broadsheets, Lawrence's relationship with broadsheet editors is never fully explored

The time shifts could also bring with them more of a visceral sense of betrayal.

The play equally leaves out the dubious background of Lawrence, possibly the illegitimate daughter of an Islington single mother or alternatively born to Warwickshire parents. Adopted by a respected Church guardian in Salisbury, she later confided to a doctor he had raped her and this may have been the trigger for her incarceration as insane.

Nevertheless, other touches focus the story in up-to-date ways. Interminable wars. The  ambiguity of terms which also reflect the computer age. Songs travelling through time from First World War cynical ditties to 1960s' country and western.

 The mention of licensing refers to the licensed wartime brothels, but could also indicate continual debate over press freedom and effective armed forces' licensing of the media with "embedding"   

The casting and interesting costuming of an actress of Chinese origin, while having historical accuracy, could hint too at something more current.

In fact,  the old adage "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story" is invoked during the play. And there are hints in this telling of Dorothy Lawrence's story of how common literary clichés, distortions of journalism and biassed archives shape official records and make 'real' stories disappear.

While at times the biography in this play feels a little thin, this is a resonant touring production opening the door to many current issues. An amber/green light.