“& Juliet” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Just imagine Juliet decides not to kill herself at the end of Shakespeare’s play. David West Read’s mashup show pretends to be written as we watch… by none other than Anne Hathaway and her hubby, who battle to change the script before our eyes. And it’s all set to hit songs. It’s a mad idea, even if not entirely original. But & Juliet is so silly it ends up a success.

The key is Luke Sheppard’s direction, which powers through a lot of action and even more songs. There are some big problems, and there’s little time for questions of credibility, but just sit back and enjoy until the standing ovation at the end.

Creating most of the atmosphere is an amazing performance from the show’s titular lead, played by Miriam-Teak Lee. This Juliet is just… cool. And, like her character, Lee is someone you want to watch – and hear – with an uncanny ability to make any song sound great, again and again and again.

What’s selling the tickets is the music of Max Martin, one of the most successful producers and song writers ever. Hits for the Backstreet Boys, Bon Jovi and Britney Spears are used to tell a coming-of-age story. So, you know the joke. Will Juliet learn from her mistakes or (oops) do them again? Will her troubles make her Stronger? It’s been done before (and, if memory serves, We Will Rock You did it better). But although it’s only one joke per song. It is a very good joke.

Martin may be second only to Lennon and McCartney for US number one hits (how’s that for pub trivia?) but that doesn’t mean the songs are suited to the stage. No matter how excellent the arrangement (credited to Dominic Fallacaro and Bill Sherman, who have done superb work), the songs are used for a laugh, or occasionally to get across an idea that gets a cheer. A lot of dialogue ends up interrupting some very good singing.

Melanie-La-Barrie-and-Miriam-Teak-Lee
Melanie La Barrie and Miriam-Teak-Lee

There is a lot to get through. There’s a romance for Juliet’s Nurse: the excellent Melanie La Barrie who, with her paramour, played by David Bedella, offers strong comic support as well as sounding fantastic. There’s a new marriage for Juliet, this time with a sweet and spoiled Francois Du Bois (what kind of band do you think he’s in?) that Tim Mahendran makes appealing. And there’s a twist. For Francois falls for Juliet’s gender-neutral best friend named May, portrayed with sensitivity by Alex Thomas-Smith, who sings I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman.

Tim-Mahendran-and-Alex-Thomas-Smith
Tim Mahendran and Alex Thomas-Smith

I enjoyed all the above.  A lot. But the show is let down by its wimpy Romeo (yes, he returns), a role that Jordan Luke Gage doesn’t seem to be allowed to do much with. Worse still is the second plot, with Mr & Mrs Shakespeare trying to save their marriage. Poor Will comes off as a bore (Oliver Tompsett is wasted in the part) and, in a show proud of bad puns, seems embarrassed at one or two. And despite a spirited performance from Cassidy Janson as Anne Hathaway, her character doesn’t impress either. It’s a conceit too far from West Read that gets in the way of more interesting action.

It you’re going to dismiss the show as woke, don’t. Jargon may jar but it’s well intentioned, while I feel obliged to point out Juliet has ‘agency’ in the original play anyway – and that rewriting history is being done better down the road by Six. Nonetheless, seeing the young woman alongside two older female characters getting what they want is heartening. And the inclusion of a non-binary character is important. Remember, a juke-box musical doesn’t have to do any of this to sell tickets. Which makes claims for & Juliet that are a long way from the nonsense on stage. Make no mistake – silliness propels the show. And the energetic ensemble is led by a true star. There’s sincerity here to make any faults forgivable.

www.andjulietthemusical.co.uk

Until 25 June 2022

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Child in the Snow” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Who doesn’t love a ghost story at Christmas? With London’s oldest surviving music hall as a venue, director Justin Audibert’s show has a great start – even a chill in the auditorium adds to the atmosphere.

Based on a story by Elizabeth Gaskell, writer Piers Torday’s tale isn’t that scary. Despite a seance in progress, in an abandoned house no less, it is the past that haunts the strong and spirited Hester. The Child in the Snow is a good yarn, well performed. 

The action is set in 1918, which makes sense in terms of the fashion for spiritualism and as a specific moment in the history of Britain’s Empire. The theme of a colonial past is handled well and proves thought-provoking.

Maybe there’s too much trauma for young Hester? Returning to her childhood home to deal with her amnesia, she also has her experience as a nurse in France to deal with. Furthermore, there’s a lot of narration for the character. The descriptions are fine, but jar with the action of the seance underway. Safiyya Ingar, who takes the role of Hester, deserves praise. 

The script’s clunky moments don’t hold back Debbie Chazen, who is excellent. Her Mrs Leonard, the Cockney medium Hester hires, is a delight. The comedy is superbly handled and the accent a real study. When Mrs Leonard’s usual spirit guide, a temperamental solicitor called Gerald, doesn’t appear, Chazen impresses more and more by taking on all the play’s other characters.

There are big problems with the off and on nature of the seance that structures the show. Ingar does well: retreating into her character’s childhood and convincing us as to the urgency of her search into the past. There’s a neat magic trick, a good set by Tom Piper, and strong lighting design Jess Bernberg. But it is really Chazen and her consistently strong comic touches that power the performance. While you might question laughing too much in a ghost story, she draws us into the action with great skill and saves a stumbling show.

Until 31 December 2021

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by Nobby Clarke

“Les Misérables” at the Sondheim Theatre

‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ is not the maxim of Cameron Mackintosh. Despite enormous success, the RSC’s production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical has been restaged. Previously a touring version, the ‘new’ show comes from former cast members and now directors Laurence Connor and James Powell. It’s obvious how well they know the piece. And don’t worry – Les Mis is as wonderful as ever.

If a little upstaged by the fantastic concert version of the show, which filled in after lockdown, Connor and Powell have clear ideas. I won’t be drawn into saying if the result is better or worse, but there’s no reasons Trevor Nunn’s previous version should be considered definitive. If the new version seems more static, maybe more traditional, it’s still a crowd pleaser.

The moral struggle between convict turned religious convert Jean Valjean and police inspector Javert, a very literal embodiment of law and order, is focused to the point of perfection. There are social issues, romance and, of course, revolution. The marvel of Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation is not just that all of this is easily followed by an audience, but that it enthrals.

Jon-Robyns-as-Jean-Valjean-Photograph-Johan-Persson
Jon Robyns as Jean-Valjean

There is a rawness to some of the vocals that might raise eyebrows. Squeezing out all possible drama – and the show is melodramatic anyway – is prioritised by Connor and Powell. Bradley Jaden’s Javert is a charismatic figure, fraught with angst. If the role is overshadowed by Valjean, that’s down to Jon Robyns’ star presence. Both male leads give terrific performances.

The comedy is particularly strong, mostly due to the always excellent Josefina Gabrielle and Gerard Carey as the dastardly Thénardier couple. And there’s a superb Enjolras (leader of the 1832 revolt the show documents): Jordan Shaw brings a beauty to the singing of this role that I hadn’t appreciated before.

Connor and Powell have clearly inspired their cast. And credit where it is due, plenty has been learned from Nunn: the staging isn’t fussy, several scenes are powerful because of their simplicity. There is justified confidence in On My Own(and a great performance from Sha Dessi). It’s a shame Empty Chairs at Empty Tables has less impact; I just can’t imagine how that could have been improved.

Talking about the revolution

The redesign comes from Matt Kinley, also long associated with the show. The big news is that the famous revolving stage is gone! The world hasn’t stopped turning as a result, but I did miss it: there’s a little too much marching on a spot. The action, you might say energy, is literally more frontal – with characters facing the audience almost obsessively.

It’s clear where money has been spent. Javert’s final scene does look better. And the projections of Parisian sewers are more technically advanced. Yet backdrops (inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings) impress mostly because of their size. It’s all part of the production being a little, well, flatter. That isn’t always a bad thing: the show also seems speedier.

Nunn was no stranger to a tableau, but the new production feels frozen at times – almost too eager to focus on key moments that are literally in the spotlight. Lighting designer Paule Constable has done lovely work that’s dramatic and directs attention. But occasionally there is a halting feeling to the show. It’s as if everyone is posing for a photo.

These are observations rather than criticism. You are sure to enjoy Les Misérables as much as ever – the music and the performances are marvellous. Debating if the production is tighter and more direct or maybe a little less exciting is now part of the fun. If I’m not sure anything really needed fixing, this new Les Mis is far from broken

www.lesmis.com

Photos by Michael Le Poer Trench and Johan Persson

“While The Sun Shines” at the Orange Tree Theatre

There are plenty of laughs while Paul Miller’s triumphant production of Terence Rattigan’s brilliant comedy lights up the stage. This is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. 

The wartime wedding of Earl Harpeden and Lady Elisabeth becomes a farce when she meets two Allied soldiers who make her think again about getting hitched. The trouble is a question of experience: blasé  Bobbie has been around, while Elisabeth is too innocent for both their good.  

Philip Labey takes the lead as the Earl with an “open boyish manner” balanced by a knowing touch: this toff is nice and not dim. Labey’s is a massive role marked by a generosity to colleagues that benefits all. And Labey has the ability to generate sympathy; for all the flippancy and fun, I wanted the marriage to go ahead. Rebecca Collingwood plays the intended, showing Elisabeth has a mind of her own. Collingwood’s depiction of wide-eyed innocence is funnier than you can imagine – howls of laughter greet the simplest statements. 

Rebecca Collingwood in While the Sun Shines - photo by Ali Wright
Rebecca Collingwood as Lady Elisabeth

Conor Glean is an appealing Lieutenant Mulvaney fresh off the boat from the US of A. The performance is neat and the humour gentle. Michael Lumsden and John Hudson play a bluff Major and a refined butler respectively – both to perfection. If Jordan Mifsúd’s Lieutenant Colbert got more laughs from me, put it down to ‘appy memories of ‘Allo ‘Allo. Mifsúd’s faux-French is a skilled work of genius. 

Sophie Khan Levy in While the Sun Shines - photo by Ali Wright_
Sophie Khan Levy

Really stealing the show is the man-eater and self-confessed trollop Mabel Crum. I wonder if she was Rattigan’s favourite part? Mabel gets laughs even when she’s not on stage. Sophie Khan Levy’s embodiment of this confident and caring character shows how essential the role is in this carefully constructed play. 

It’s Mabel who ends up in charge. Don’t be fooled that she’s continually sent to the kitchen. Prodding male egos in While The Sun Shines shows a subversive touch that has aged well. The distasteful attempts at seduction would have been as off for Rattigan as they are for us, but offence is deflated by how useless the men are! And it isn’t just one couple under the microscope here – it’s the institution of marriage. That Mabel stands aloof from it all makes her a character to cheer. Mabel gets the last laugh. The audience laugh all along. 

Until 15 January 2022 

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk 

 Photos by Ali Wright

“The Lion King” at the Lyceum Theatre

Disney has detractors as well as fans, especially when it comes to the theatre. Stage productions based on movies often feel like money-making machines. Let’s just say that the shop is the first thing that greets visitors to The Lion King. Nonetheless, popular since its première 21 years ago (wow), the story of Simba’s coming of age and coming to power is a great show.

Not that there’s much to the story (even it it is inspired by Hamlet). Like the characters, who make pantomime look like Chekhov, what’s going on is really only for younger members of the audience. The humour is often tiresome. The goodie and the baddie, Mufasa and Scar, only have to show one dimension: current incumbents of the roles, Shaun Escoffery and George Asprey, do it very well. Our hero, Simba (Kayi Ushe), doesn’t so much come to greatness as have it thrust upon him. The only really interesting character is Nala who, as Janique Charles’ performance shows, should probably be the one in charge.

For all the hit songs from Elton John and Tim Rice, you don’t have to enthuse about the score to enjoy The Lion King. Anyway, the musical highlights really come from the choral arrangements by Lebo M.

So, The Lion King is a little like a musical in miniature. The plot, character and score are traditional but truncated. The story is simple, characters stripped back and none of the scenes or songs is very long. But there’s no doubt that the book, by Irene Mecchi, and direction, from Julie Taymor, know exactly what to do. Maybe that’s why children love it, yet all ages appreciate it? The show is confident and comforting.

Surely there is more to such incredible success? Yes. The dancing and puppetry impress all. Hugely complicated technically, the show is a collection of set pieces that are timed to perfection. Garth Fagan’s choreography is ambitious and creative and complements the puppetry designed by Taymor and Michael Curry perfectly. The costumes are justly iconic.

The Lion King delivers its magical moments whenever performers enter the stage or auditorium. Each new creature, filling the stage with colour and light, is greeted with joy. It is the production that wins praise and hearts – alongside the thrill of children seeing that theatre can be better than film. Disney does the stage proud.

www.thelionking.co.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

“Witness for the Prosecution” at County Hall

The selling point for Lucy Bailey’s production of this much-adapted Agatha Christie short story is its location. The former Greater London Council building is an art deco gem and its debating chamber, in which the audience take their seats, magnificent. Gaining access is well worth the effort. Seeing a show at the same time isn’t a bad idea.

Bailey uses the setting – which mostly serves as a courtroom – judiciously. With atmosphere aplenty, this is an exciting show. Excellent lighting design from Chris Davey has a big role to play. The show is hard work on the cast, in such a big space, there’s a lot of running around. But the location really is perfect. Oh, and it’s comfy too.

Martin-Turner-in-Witness-for-the-Prosecution-credit-Ellie-Kurttz
Martin Turner

The Chamber is cavernous. But matching performances to its scale doesn’t make for great results. Emer McDaid’s Dietrich inspired villain, Romaine, is frankly hammy and Johnathan Firth’s defence barrister doesn’t come across as sharp enough. Thankfully, our hero, the accused Leonard Vole, played by Joe McNamara, is appealing. And proceedings are marshalled nicely by Martin Turner’s judge. The latter manages to inject a sense of drama that is generally lacking.

As mystery stories go, Witness for the Prosecution has a great twist; it’s entertaining, if not Christie’s best. But on stage the climax is clumsy. Bailey believes we cannot take Christie seriously. We all like to laugh at quaint period details, but there’s an excess of comedy here. Dealing with toffs and foreigners becomes just too jolly. And there’s too big a conflict with efforts to highlight that the death penalty is an option for judge and jury.

Where Bailey and her cast excel, is to make sure that the story and the action are clear. The diction is perfect, maybe with a clever eye on tourists who have English as a second language? In short, this is a safe show that nearly all will enjoy. With a good story and a great location, the final verdict must be positive. See it… but only if you’ve seen The Mousetrap first.

www.witnesscountyhall.com

Photos by Idil-Sukan and Ellie Kurttz

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Charing Cross Theatre

Christopher Durang’s award-winning comedy is a Chekhov mashup that regular theatregoers should lap up. Full of clever references that are witty and sometimes silly. Durang’s admiration for his playwriting predecessor is endearing. But the question arises – will you enjoy the play without knowing your Russian classics?

I think the answer is yes. Without pretending I got all the allusions, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is an effective family drama with plenty of laughs.

A trio of siblings (get it) bicker while strangers (yes, one wants to be an actress) challenge their routine. Masha is a successful actress and supports Vanya and Sonia financially, but the latter are frustrated by their comfortable rural existence. Masha has troubles, too – her toy-boy version of Trigorin (a good spin) is an indication of her angst.

Durang is justly confident that the closed environment and close observations of human nature will work – and he’s good with them. Sometimes it’s the more modern additions – jokes about Hollywood and a rant against social media – that jar more than the Chekhov. Preparation for a costume party feels a little like an extended sketch – but this highlight scene is excellent.

Best of all are Durang’s characters and the performances, impeccably directed by Walter Bobbie. The “monstrous” Masha is meat and drink to Janie Dee – she is simply marvellous. Michael Maloney and Rebecca Lacey, as the siblings pining for another life, have impressively moving moments in controlled performances. And Lacey’s impression of Maggie Smith is worth the price of a ticket alone.

There’s a strong debut from Lukwesa Mwamba as the star-struck ingénue. And Sara Powell’s eccentric cleaning lady is a fantastic creation (note how her predictions change from being doom and gloom). Charlie Maher’s Spike – attractive “except for his personality” – made me laugh the most, but pick your own favourite.

Durang may not wear his learning lightly, but he is a strong enough writer not to lose his identity. There are bitter touches, yet the quirky humour is gentle and distinct from Chekhov. We’re allowed to like everyone and laugh at them. Watching the family get closer, and starting to hope, proves heart-warming. And we’re even given a happy ending.

Until 16 November 2021

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Rare Earth Mettle” at the Royal Court Theatre

Al Smith’s new play takes us to Bolivia, where tech tycoon Henry Finn and a doctor called Anna bid to mine valuable lithium. Know who your sympathies lie with? It turns out that the former’s electric cars could save the planet, while Anna’s public health project is an ethical nightmare. The dilemma is contrived – most of the plot is just to frame arguments – but the play and Smith’s characters are entertaining.

Arthur Darvill plays the parody of Elon Musk. It’s OK – it’s obvious as it’s well done. There’s a base gratification as clichés we expect are ticked off. Smith doesn’t have to be sensitive (could we feel sorry for this neuro-diverse character at some point?) and Darvill is wonderfully overblown. There’s help from a troupe of not-so-yes-men and women (including good performances from Marcello Cruz, Lesley Lemon and Racheal Ofori) just the right side of sycophancy.

Anna the NHS doctor (actually, Strategic Director of the National Institute for Health Research) is even better: a true frosty Brit with gorgeous elocution brought to the stage by Genevieve O’Reilly. With big plans, presented with frightening calm, bribery and blackmail are nothing to her. There’s a fanaticism that is fascinating. In a play that lacks surprises, I was hanging on to O’Reilly’s every word.

Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court credit Helen Murray
Arthur Darvill and Jaye Griffiths

Smith is understandably anxious to make sure Bolivians in the play have their say. There’s time in the spotlight for Kimsa, admirably played by Carlo Albán, who lives on the valuable salt flat. And a fictional president, portrayed with conviction as well as cheek by Jaye Griffiths. It turns out both are canny politicians. If crowd-pleasing moments are wish fulfilment, it creates a good atmosphere. And plenty of questions are raised – about history and inequality – that are obviously important.

Issues aren’t scarce in this play. Rare Earth Mettle has an excess of ideas that are far from exhausted. Again, Henry first: his creative notions (credited to his messianic streak) could be challenging if explored more. With the Bolivian characters, there are big questions about the interests of an individual versus their community (local and ultimately global). It’s with our doctor that examining themes of responsibility sit easiest – after all, life and death decisions are literally her job.

The play isn’t short. But nor is it long enough to say a lot, given how much ground it covers. Plot and argument become rushed and too far-fetched. Silly is fine (it’s funny), but predictable is not and too much of the second half can be seen coming at the interval. Hamish Pirie’s direction doesn’t help much – like Moi Tran’s design, it’s inappropriately fussy. I’m not sure what snatches of dancing or a giant pendulum add. But plenty of laughs and strong performances make this an enjoyable play.

Until 18 December 2021

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“The Ocean at the end of the Lane” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Neil Gaiman’s fantasy tale, adapted for the stage by Joel Horwood, is clever. An introduction to some metaphysics as well as the supernatural makes the story as thought-provoking as it’s entertaining. The piece is as much about childhood and parenthood as adventure, which makes it moving emotionally as well as being action-packed. If a little too attentive to its genre (which you either love or hate), The Ocean at the End of the Lane is brought to the stage with great style. 

Having a best friend, Lettie, who is some kind of witch proves a mixed blessing for our young hero. A play date results in the unnamed boy’s home being invaded by a monster who usually lives on the fringes of our reality! The creature, who transforms into Ursula (played very capably by Laura Rogers) controls a grieving father and gullible sister. Thankfully, Lettie (who isn’t really young) can magically help out. The plot is diverting enough – but solidly aimed at children.

Gaiman says his story is about memory, which doesn’t come across so much on stage. But having an adult character reminisce about the events of his childhood, and then perform as his own father, adds layers to the characters, which helps both James Bamford and Nicolas Tennant in their roles. Other characters are fun, if sketchy, such as the ‘Sis’ter, played by Grace Hogg-Robinson. But there are too many questions around Lettie’s motivation, skated over with the powerful performance from Nia Towle.

As with previous National Theatre hits for children (War HorseCoram Boy) the show isn’t scared to be dark, a little gory and sometimes funny – well done for trying on all counts. The gore is good, but the humour is unoriginal and there is too little threat. It’s really director Katy Rudd’s work that makes the show a success. Breathless and excited about adventure and magic, the piece convinces against the odds.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The puppets (credited to Samuel Wyer) are as good as any I’ve seen on stage. Paule Constable has surpassed herself with lighting design. Above all, the soundtrack from Jherek Bischoff is superb – it’s no surprise it’s on sale. And Steven Hoggett’s movement direction is the key, well done (all the more welcome, since the dialogue is poor), with everyone moving props and acting all the while. Rudd has made sure the show eminently theatrical. Of course, fantasy on stage works! Imagination is the key to theatre and the genre – and the production harnesses this with great skill.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Until May 2022

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Six” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ brilliant show is the kind of hit that warms the heart. From the Edinburgh Fringe to Broadway and now a new West End home, this musical ‘herstory’ of Henry VIII’s wives deserves its success. No excuse is needed to see it again (and again).

Let’s start with the performers. Pitting the queens against one another isn’t the spirit of Six – that’s one of many clever twists. And they are all fantastic. 

Suffice to say Jarnéia Richard-Noel sets the tone of the show perfectly with the first solo number. Hana Stewart’s Catherine Parr guides the show. Sophie Isaacs expertly handles the hardest number, for Katherine Howard, where Marlow and Moss change the emotional tone to make us think again about all those sexy pop songs. 

Make no mistake – there are six stars here. Collette Guitart (understudying on the night and the show’s talented Dance Captain) brings big emotion to her ballad – a huge achievement given how funny the show is. And Cherelle Jay shows herself as a delightful natural comedian as Anne Boleyn. Alexia McIntosh really has the funniest role, as Anne of Cleves. It is a joy to see a performer so in control of the room: McIntosh doesn’t just have the audience in the palm of her hand – she makes them happy to be there.

Alexia McIntosh in Six credit Pamela Raith
Alexia McIntosh

The mock rivalry between the Queens is thought-provoking and a neat commentary on celebrity culture. Underneath, they all bond, emotionally and as singers, to fantastic result. Best of all, the cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience. And that’s saying something.

I did a disservice to the score at my first encounter. The music has far more references than the Spice Girls. And if I’m still not up to speed with exactly who inspires each queen, this short show has more hits than much longer musicals. It is a faultless collection of songs.

There’s an intelligence and sharp humour to Six that is not to be underrated. The importance of telling the story of the ‘divorced, beheaded and died’ from their own perspective belies how many laughs there are. Add a touch of fantasy as the ex-wives are represented as popstars and you get real magic. Long may this show reign.

Until 1 May 2022

www.sixthemusical.com

Photo by Pamela Raith