Tag Archives: Aldwych Theatre

“Beautiful” at the Aldwych Theatre

Advice about writing reviews includes avoiding overused adjectives. Top of the list is hilarious… beautiful comes next. So, it’s a bad sign when a show has such an inane moniker. There are joyous moments in this biography of singer-songwriter Carole King – her back catalogue ensures that – but they are few and far between, leaving me mystified as to the show’s acclaim. Maybe the aim was to be beautifully simple – instead it is simply boring.

The cast of Beautiful performs well. The four leads sound great, especially Katie Brayben as King and Alan Morrissey, who plays her husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin. The ensemble takes on cameos of the stars and bands that performed King and Goffin hits with a good deal of spirit. The problem is with the book. Douglas McGrath pays only lip service to the changing times of the Sixties, while King’s life story is ticked off like a list.

Precocious teenager Carol writes a hit song. Meets a boy and writes some more hit songs. Breaks up with the boy and writes her best stuff yet. There just isn’t enough going on. Another song-writing couple, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, joins in, and McGrath makes their similarly humdrum story not just a foil but a focus. Lorna Want and Ian McIntosh, as the more spirited and humorous Weil and Mann, end up more appealing than the show’s real subjects.

The hit factory at 1650 Broadway that they all work in is the setting, under the management of Donnie Kirshner (Gary Trainor does well with this thinly-written role). The atmosphere is strangely amiable, maybe writing just wasn’t a struggle for King – I can believe it given her talent – but it turns the show into more of a CV than a story. Goffin’s adultery and nervous breakdown are downbeat: King didn’t have a nice marriage, then she got a haircut and everything was OK.

Performances of the songs by anyone else aren’t allowed to outshine King’s so they are presented, if not performed, as frigid relics – a problem since they make up most of the show. Which means Beautiful doesn’t even work as a jukebox musical. When we get to King’s success, someway into the second act, the story of Tapestry, her Grammy award-winning album, feels truncated. Any idea of her growing into a performer or her life feeding into her art, have no time to develop. Her achievements in this telling aren’t worth waiting for, which is as bad as a biography can get.

Photo by Brinkhoff Moegenburg


“Stephen Ward” at the Aldwych Theatre

Let’s face it, Stephen Ward is a terrible name for a show and, given that its eponymous subject ends shamed and committing suicide, it’s also an unlikely topic for a West End musical. But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new work deserves the kind words received from critics. An adult affair, looking at the 60s Profumo scandal, the focus is on hypocrisy and injustice – on how revenge was meted out to Ward by the upper classes he once counted as friends.

The show’s credentials are impeccable. Lloyd Webber’s score lives up to his reputation and the book and lyrics are provided by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. This is a complicated story presented in exemplary fashion, with startlingly confident lyrics and efficient directing by Trevor Nunn.

The show rests on the lead and Alexander Hanson is terrific at conveying the complexity of this “man of many parts”. And Charlotte Spencer and Charlotte Blackledge (above with Hanson) depict the more famous stars of the real-life drama, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies, with depth. Secondary characters also satisfy: Anthony Calf is perfect as Ward’s fair-weather friend Lord Astor and there’s a tremendous turn from Joanna Riding as Profumo’s wife. It’s a lovely twist to see the betrayed minister’s spouse get to have her say.

The show isn’t perfect – rousing emotion has to wait until the end (Hanson again delivers) and this seems too late. Attempts at humour when it comes to both Keeler’s Russian lover and the police who frame Ward on a trumped-up charge are frankly embarrassing.

Stephen Ward has a quiet ambition. A concise, penetrating view of British culture, it scores many a hit. The scene of an upper-class orgy may raise eyebrows amongst Lloyd Webber fans but, sensibly, it doesn’t try to shock. There may be some Coco de Mer style accessories on sale in the foyer (a riding crop and silk blindfold) but humour is used well here. Another highlight is a song for The News of the World journalists, set to twist Keeler’s kiss and tell story, demanding she “give us something juicy”. Keller’s lyrics go further than the hacks are willing to print, but Lloyd Webber and his team don’t shy away from the explicit – even crudity is used intelligently in this smart work.

Until 1 March 2014

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 23 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“Top Hat” at the Aldwych Theatre

Few people love their jobs like the character Jerry Travers in Top Hat. A Broadway star who can’t stop performing, on stage or off, he is lucky enough to check into the Hotel Excelsior, where the staff start dancing at a moment’s notice and where he meets the love of his life. Fortunately, she likes dancing too. It’s hard not to enjoy this enthusiastic adaptation of the classic film, famous for Irving Berlin’s songs and the performances of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s great fun, with a plot so daft it takes us back to the farces the Aldwych Theatre is famous for.

In the lead role Tom Chambers, of Strictly Come Dancing fame, deserves credit for propelling the show and showing off his skills. He’s slightly upstaged by his love interest, played by Summer Strallen: not just because of her gorgeous dresses but also, as a line cribbed from Ginger points out, because she does everything Chambers does “backwards and in heels”. Strallen has the legs for a role like this, has clearly been practising her back bends, and with her sweet voice gives a heavenly performance. Together, Strallen and Chambers make a likeable couple and are convincingly glamorous in Hildegard Bechtler’s stylish set. Their courtship by tap dance is delightful and the big numbers such as ‘Cheek to Cheek’ are real crowd-pleasers.

Director Matthew White makes the most of the gentle comedy on offer from the secondary players. Martin Bell plays a theatre producer and Vivien Parry his wife with a comic panache that’s remarkable given the age and standard of the jokes they have to deliver. Stephen Boswell is superb as their butler Bates and Ricardo Alfonso gives a tremendous performance with actually quite a weak number. A lot of the show’s undoubted success comes from sheer momentum – it’s relentlessly upbeat and determined to entertain, and hardly anyone stops smiling the whole way through. Including the audience.

Until 27 April 2014

Photo by Alaistair Muir

Written 11 May 2012 for The London Magazine

“Cool Hand Luke” at the Aldwych Theatre

Marc Warren is a brave man. In the new stage adaptation of Cool Hand Luke, he takes on the title role immortalised by Paul Newman in the 1967 film. Like his character, a rebel with applause, it is satisfying to see a move some would call foolhardy pay off. With the help of a deft production that plays with the character’s iconic status and focuses on the original book by Don Pearce rather than the movie, Warren’s performance is commendable.

Imprisoned for petty vandalism after leaving the army, Luke Johnson’s play-it-cool attitude doesn’t help him on the chain gang. His repeated escapes inspire his fellow prisoners, but not the religious guards who conflate belief in God with the ability to conform. Director Andrew Loudon marshals his cast well, but the camaraderie amongst the prisoners is sugary – these felons are fine fellows, overwhelming the nasty prison guards with a good will that diminishes any tension.

Emma Reeves’ clever adaptation gives us plenty to think about, though. What interests her is Luke’s status as an iconoclast, a diehard atheist committed to the truth – about the fantasies of the inmates or his take on theodicy – and the irony of his elevated status amongst the prisoners who gather to hear his ‘gospel’. Reeves and Warren preserve an enigma behind the character marvellously. Even better, the script and Loudon’s direction make Cool Hand Luke a genuinely theatrical work: using a chorus to comment and set the mood through song may be an old trick, but by God it works and Sandra Marvin’s performance leading the gospel songs is luminous.

The West End may seem somewhat saturated with film tie-ins at the moment but that isn’t this production’s fault. Plays examining religion are very much in vogue and Cool Hand Luke is an interesting addition to this field. If there is any justice, it will get the audience it deserves.

Until 19 November 2011

Photo by Alaistair Muir

Written 6 October 2011 for The London Magazine