Tag Archives: Arts Theatre

“Six” at the Arts Theatre

The so-bonkers-it’s-brilliant idea of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss is to resurrect the wives of Henry VIII as a Spice Girls-style pop group in concert. The show’s hit status on the Edinburgh fringe and transfer to London as part of a tour confirms the concept’s appeal for many. And, if it sounds like a bad premise to you, trust me, think again and go.

From the start, a performance worthy of a crown from Jarneia Richard-Noel as Catherine of Aragon, with a Spanish beat, of course, will have you hooked. There’s a funny turn from Alexia McIntosh as a blingy Anne of Cleves and soulful sounds from Maiya Quansah-Breed to revel in. Marlow and Moss take pop seriously. And even if you find the music simplistic and derivative (yes, there is a riff on Greensleeves), it is effective and shockingly catchy.

The lyrics are sharp, smart and pun-packed. Getting the word ‘annulment’ in a song deserves a salute, making a rhyme for Leviticus requires a full genuflection in homage. The mismatch of history and contemporary references gets laughs from start to finish – the House of Holbein techno number had me in stiches. But note: the song for Katherine Howard, performed with gusto by Aimie Atkinson, tells a tale in text-book musical theatre style. Marlow and Moss really know what they are doing.

As well as the concert format, which clearly enthused the many teens in the audience, there’s another framing device used to ‘overthrow’ history as we know it. While the music is Eurovision, the idea is of a tasteless X Factor-style competition over which Queen should be favourite. And shame on me, I fell for it! As is stated, we all have our favourite, so the lovely ballad for Jane Seymour, beautifully performed by Natalie Paris, seems a naive view of the character. And a ditsy Anne Boleyn, while made nice and spikey by Millie O’Connell, surely doesn’t really do justice to Henry’s most political spouse?

Of course, the twist is that ranking victimhood is part of the problem and isn’t a game anyone wins. That Marlow and Moss use their remix of history to make a point so relevant to the present is their crowning achievement. Introducing some fantasy for a finale means the show ends jubilantly, as well as reminding us that these women’s lives were not happy. Add this intelligence to a score and sense of humour that show such promise and Six becomes very exciting indeed. There isn’t a bad song here and they crowd the mind to be recalled – surely the best thing you can say about any musical. This trip to the past shows an exciting future for its creative team.

Until 23 September


Photo by Idil Sukan/Draw HQ

“I Loved Lucy” at the Arts Theatre

This true story of the friendship between comedy queen Lucille Ball and the play’s author, Lee Tannen, is a gentle, heartfelt and entertaining tale.

Essential to the show’s success is Sandra Dickinson as the sit-com idol. Her frequent joyful laughter is infectious, while the foibles of a megastar, aware of her status and wealth, are fun, too.

While Lucy gets the laughs, the play is really about Tannen, an adman who finds himself in “Gay Icon Heaven” through his friendship with his childhood heroine. It’s a big role for Matthew Scott, who has to win the audience over twice – as a narrator and protagonist – while displaying an adoration most would find incredible.

The presentation of Lucy’s biography is sometimes stilted, with a touch too much taken for granted, and Scott often seems uncomfortable. But Scott succeeds in conveying Tannen’s charisma, abetted by an extensive OBCR collection (*if you have to ask…), which is obviously great preparation for any friendship.

The second act adds some invention, including an appearance by Lucy’s ghost, but the script is sweet rather than slick. Ball’s decline, professionally and physically, is affective. Dickinson and Scott make a great team as the intimate and supportive relationship becomes symbiotic. This isn’t the kind of friendship we see depicted often, making the play feel fresh and intriguing as well as moving.

Until 2 September 2017


Photo by Alessia Chinazzo

*Original Broadway Cast Recordings

“Murder Ballad” at the Arts Theatre

This tale of adultery and death is deliberately downbeat. In the hands of director Sam Yates the realism aimed for casts a spell. With just four characters, who sing throughout, a strong cast creates a greater intimacy than the show really deserves. Distracting from Juliana Nash’s music – efficient with imaginative touches – are too many poor lyrics. Acknowledging truisms doesn’t make them clever. Making stereotypes a theme doesn’t make them interesting.

The cast is superb. Wicked star Kerry Ellis clearly wants to show a serious side and she succeeds, despite nonsensically singing that her character “shouts silently”. Ellis plays Sara, who is in a love triangle with Tom and Michael (Ramin Karimloo and Norman Bowman). The two men in her life sound great, establish their thin characters miraculously – and fans will be pleased that Karimloo takes his shirt off. The latter rises above the fact that he has to sing about the one that got away – literally – moving on to a better number where he gets to be creepy. Shame it occurs so late. Worse, it’s hard to get over Sara and Tom being described as “two cats in a fish bowl”. How big a bowl? How did they get in it? Why don’t they just climb out?

Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo
Kerry Ellis and Ramin Karimloo

The show belongs to a fourth character, played by Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, who acts as a narrator and brings a cooler edge, observing proceedings, with cynical sophistication. She also gets the best song, which compares the tawdry tragedy on stage to the glamour of the movies. Yates takes his cue from this cinematic reference, creating a noirish feel, with admirable use of projections that adds tension and style. It’s the atmosphere Yates crafts that allows us to examine the “roles assigned” – husband, mother, lover – with wit and intelligence. That’s how you work with clichés.

Until 3 December 2016


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Beautiful Thing” at the Arts Theatre

Jonathan Harvey’s iconic gay coming-of-age story, Beautiful Thing, celebrates its 20th anniversary with a new production at the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden. Despite some nostalgic nods, the play is as fresh as ever: a skilfully written comedy drama with fantastic roles and an admirably un-patronising focus on working-class life. Beautiful Thing touches on universal themes with a winning bravery.

The huge success of the play, and the subsequent 1996 film, create a special atmosphere with seemingly every audience member knowing every line. The jokes – of which there are plenty – are anticipated gleefully and the roars of laughter almost interrupt the action. Director Nikolai Foster gives the crowd what they want and his staging is a respectful affair. But it’s impressive to note his firm hand, with moments of quiet imposed as the relationship between the two young boys, Ste and Jamie, neighbours on a council estate in Thamesmead, blossoms into romance.

Beautiful Thing - Jake Davies & Suranne Jones - cMike Lidbetter for QNQ Ltd
Suranne Jones and Jake Davies

The superb Suranne Jones as Jamie’s mother shows the piece is as much about parental relationships as anything else. Playing the hard-nosed Sandra with skill, duelling with her neighbour Leah and dealing with her lover Tony (Zaraah Abrahams and Oliver Farnworth – both in fine form), Jones gives a tremendous emotional edge to the role. Through strong performances from Jake Davies and Danny-Boy Hatchard, Jamie and Ste’s shared fears about emotions and the future are presented as those of boys rather than men – an important point central to the play. Harvey’s writing and the skill of the young actors enhance the empathy and humour and ensure sure the play lives up to its title.

Until 25 May 2013

Photos by Mike Lidbetter

Written 18 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Tailor-Made Man” at the Arts Theatre

Claudio Macor’s musical, just opened at the Arts Theatre in Covent Garden, is inspired by William ‘Billy’ Haines, a 1920s film star you’ve probably never heard of. Brazen about his homosexuality, Haines’ career was ruined by the man who created him – Louis B Mayer – who banished his successful films to the vaults and even destroyed his publicity photographs when Billy refused to enter a fake marriage and give up his “tailor-made” partner Jimmy. It’s a fantastic love story full of romance and glamour that will touch most hearts.

The piece, written by Macor as a play in 1995 and adapted with the help of Amy Rosenthal, has been embellished with lyrics by Adam Meggido, who also wrote the score with Duncan Walsh Atkins. It’s a sterling effort: the music is a highly competent tribute to the 1920s, the words sharp and funny, yet the story seems to overwhelm the musical potential so that the carefully constructed numbers never quite take off.

The cast’s acting is more credible than its singing (perhaps attributable to first-night nerves). In the lead roles of the lovers, Dylan Turner and Bradley Clarkson give strong performances and Mike McShane’s depiction of Mayer is highly satisfying. As the couple’s best friend, William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, Faye Tozer (of former Steps fame) reveals top-notch comic skills. There are also excellent turns from the supporting company, especially Matt Wilman as the studio’s long-suffering publicist, and Kay Murphy, who plays Pola Negri, lined up to marry Haines for the newspapers, who has the show’s best number, a hilarious lament for her tragic life.

A Tailor-Made Man offers some interesting observations about celebrity but is strongest in its honest depiction of the male couple’s relationship. Unafraid of being stereotypes, they went on to becomes Hollywood’s most successful interior decorators, designing the stars’ lives in a symmetry you’d hardly credit if it weren’t all true. The toll that prejudice and violence take on their lives is dealt with admirably and makes up for an occasionally overbearing sentimentality that both actors manage superbly. But the sometimes blunt approach, brave as it is, isn’t the happiest combination for a musical. You don’t leave with a spring in your step but rather a wish to see a revival of the original play itself.

Until 6 April 2013

Photo by Alastair Muir

Written 22 February 2013 for The London Magazine