Tag Archives: Alexander Hanson

“Jesus Christ Superstar” from The Shows Must Go On!

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s generous gift to theatre-goers confined through Covid-19 during the Easter weekend is, appropriately, the passion story. Retold with an exciting rock score and the brilliant lyrics of Tim Rice, it is one of Webber’s most adventurous endeavours, dating from 1970. This arena production from 2012, while not my favourite, is still a real treat.

The production is star-studded and had a TV competition behind it that led to the casting of Ben Forster in the title role. Mel C of the Spice Girls takes the part of Mary Magdalene and Tim Minchin, a personal hero, is Judas. The delivery is clear, nobody sounds unpleasant and they can all perform to big crowds – important given the settings for the tour – indeed, each gets better as the show progresses. But none of the leads is actors. None manages to get beyond their public personas. Minchin still even sports his trademark eye make-up, and the close-ups provided by a filmed performance highlight this shortcoming.

Things are much better with the Pharisees: Pete Gallagher and Gerard Bentall are strong. Best of all is Alexander Hanson’s very classy Pontius Pilate. All three not only sound great but bring depth to their roles. Hanson’s part during the 39 Lashes is a real study in how to hold a stage. These achievements are despite, rather than aided by, director Laurence Connor’s ideas for the show.

There’s a frisson at the start with a suggested connection between Jesus as a revolutionary figure and modern-day rioters, courtesy of filmed news footage. And it’s understandable that the Occupy movement looked like a godsend for someone seeking to do something different with the show. That the hippy vibes from the original can be given a contemporary spin is fair enough. But the idea isn’t thought through or performed with enough skill. While difficult to judge on screen, the choreography looks suspiciously like a work-out routine and the large ensemble appears drafted en masse from the same drama school.

Some of the ideas fail abysmally. Casting the Pharisees as vaguely Masonic makes no sense, likewise having the Temple as some kind of nightclub surely miss the point that both reflect established religion. Instances of social media seem misplaced (cue projected hashtags) and lots of mobile phones are used. Remember that one of Rice’s best lyrics points out, “Israel in 4BC had no mass communication”.

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
Chris Moyles and Ben Foster

The insistent temptation to form a connection with the crowd should surely have been resisted when it comes to mainstream media, too. Connor has Herod as a game show host (a very uncomfortable performance from Chris Moyles) while it is the press that interrogates Jesus as a celebrity. Filmed as he falls, as if paparazzi provide a new station of the cross, Forster does well. But you don’t need to be a reporter to ask these questions – the media as the medium are not needed – they quite literally get in the way. The particular power of this musical is that it deals with spirituality so directly, and with such humanity. Connor ignores that strength to the show’s detriment.

Available on The Show Must Go On! youtube channel until 12 April 2020

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Committee…” at the Donmar Warehouse

Verbatim theatre, with the script transcribed from everyday speech, is relatively rare. As for a verbatim musical – I can only thing of Alecky Blythe’s hit London Road. So doubling the genre, with music by Tom Derring, this new show counts as a curiosity, while suggesting the novel treatment has potential.

The subject matter might make you question the sanity of the project. The piece’s full title is The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee takes oral evidence on Whitehall’s relationship with Kids Company. Yes, it’s a crazy idea. But it works well.

For further originality, the book and adaptation into lyrics, by Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke, use not the casual conversations admired in most verbatim works, but public testimony in the House of Commons – speech that contributors knew would be on record.

Topical, political, important – all fine qualities for good theatre. It’s clear that, despite the humour, including initial giggles at people bursting into song, this is serious stuff. The cast excels at depicting the MPs we came to know during the news story – Alexander Hanson and Liz Robertson are especially strong as Bernard Jenkin and Cheryl Gillan – but coming so close to impersonations can be distracting. Thankfully, the show isn’t flattering about anybody’s sense of importance – or their desire to capture the “8.10 slot” on the Today programme.

Being grilled are none other than Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the Kids Company charity’s trustee and CEO. The roles are taken by opera singer Oscar Ebrahim and, with a voice to match him, Sandra Marvin. Again, while their impersonations are eye catching, the real achievement is a vocal ability that aids in revealing the complexity of characters and the situation. They add weight to Deering’s compositions and, while the show is static, some clever touches from director Adam Penfold are well used.

While you might find yourself surprised at how entertaining the whole thing is, Committee’s biggest success is drier – it works as a peculiar pedagogy. The MPs sing that their aim is not a show trial but “to learn” what happened to the bankrupt charity. And from this condensed 80 minutes you discover the issues and questions far more efficiently that following the story in the media. The edit deserves credit, of course, but the ability of the music to focus the mind has a strange power I’d happily hear utilised more often.

Until 12 August 2017

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“The Truth” at Wyndham’s Theatre

French playwright Florian Zeller’s well-deserved success continues with this sparkling comedy of manners about adultery. As with his previous hit, The Father, Christopher Hampton adapts and the production comes from Bath, this time via the Menier Chocolate Factory. Twisting perspectives and playing with expectations, Zeller’s winning formula engages the audience in an enthralling fashion. This is edge-of-your seat comedy – as exciting as it is funny.

The staging is an austere affair – the flair comes with the writing and director Lindsay Posner keeps the action and performances taut. Four friends and their affairs, the deceit and double crossing, interrogations and revelations, are delicious. The thoughtful overtones of a play so self-consciously about lying are held in check to serve the high-quality humour.

Alexander Hanson, as Michel, gives a gleeful performance as an arch hypocrite who sees guilt as “useless” and lying as the sensitive thing to do. Hanson gets the lion’s share of the lines, followed by the mistress, a convincingly chic Frances O’Connor, her husband, who is his best friend, and the wife. The latter two, played by a wonderfully dry Robert Portal and Tanya Franks (brilliant in the final scene), may be on stage less but it’s testament to the script and cast that this play feels such a firm four-hander. The betrayed have secrets of their own (of course!), providing shocks and laughs.

The circle of lies Zeller constructs is viciously funny and satisfyingly clever. Silly slips and people trapped into telling the truth all happen in a wealthy milieu where discretion is the obsession. With lashes of Gallic sophistication only adding to the fun for a London audience, the wit and irony here is finessed to perfection.

Until 3 September 2016

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Gathered Leaves” at the Park Theatre

It’s surely the acting that has made Andrew Keatley’s well-crafted family drama such a sell-out success. Although fertile ground, upper-class dysfunction, with a dash of historical perspective, along with dementia and autism, make the play a mix and match of familiar topics. Yet Keatley writes short scenes and characters with textbook precision and the 11-strong cast responds with exciting vigour.

William is the patriarch, testily patching up past mistakes while struggling with his memory – Clive Francis is superb in the role. Jane Asher is perfectly cast as his careful wife (she even gets to comment on a cake). Alexander Hanson and Nick Sampson play his sons, the later stealing the show as the autistic Samuel, while Katie Scarfe brings a family resemblance and carefully understated performance as an estranged daughter. The younger generation is represented by Tom Hanson (it really is a family affair), Amber James and Georgina Beedle – all well delineated roles that bring plenty of humour to savvy, if slightly predictable, observations. In short, this cast should transfer to the West End tomorrow.

Credit to Antony Eden’s direction (tellingly, he’s a performer himself as well) for covering so much ground so quickly. But herein lies a problem. With so much going on it’s difficult to find a focus, any resolution feels pat, and the play lacks momentum. There are plenty of secrets in this family, but very little tension. So, while the characters are three dimensional, we don’t see enough of anyone to really get a satisfying sense of depth. Frustratingly, the solution seems simple – this is a family tree that could do with some pruning.

Until 15 August 2015

www.parktheatre.co.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

“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

“An Ideal Husband” at the Vaudeville Theatre

We sometimes forget what a political writer Oscar Wilde was. An Ideal Husband is the story of a successful MP whose corruption comes back to haunt him. A crime he once committed, and upon which his fortune is based, is used to blackmail him in a play that is as much a comedy of morals as of manners.

This is a luxurious production. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s golden sets deserve the applause they receive, and are all the more impressive for not being slavishly historical. Lindsay Posner’s direction is similarly lavish, the pace is leisurely, so that we can fully savour Wilde’s delicious ironies.

Alexander Hanson and Rachael Stirling play the couple that faces ruin from the unravelling scandal. Both work well with the play’s occasional melodrama, and inject real emotion into their very Victorian marriage. Samantha Bond excels as, “that dreadful Mrs Cheveley, in a most lovely gown” who is, “as large as life and not nearly so natural”. Bond is fresh and deliciously wicked as this crinolined thief and blackmailer.

Elliot Cowan’s performance as the Viscount Goring is revelatory. Goring is the Wildean dandy we all expect but Cowan not only delivers his aphorisms admirably, he adds a depth to the character that includes a truly steely edge.

Both Goring and his fiancée Mabel, charmingly performed by Fiona Button, tackle Wilde’s epigrams with just the right amount of knowing glances, for some of them are silly. But one line resonates: “Always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it.” My advice? Get a ticket for this classy production as quickly as you can.

Until 26 February 2011

Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 12 November 2010 for The London Magazine