Tag Archives: Ben Stones

“Passing Strange” at the Young Vic

Another fantastic American musical has, finally, reached London. Stew’s 2006 award-winning piece, which follows the adventures of a ‘Youth’, narrated by his older self, is full of big sounds and grand ideas. Ben Stones’ wide-open set makes the Young Vic feel huge. It’s an appropriate stage for tremendous performances from the two leads – Keenan Munn-Francis and Giles Terera – that nobody should miss.

Like Hadestown and Next to Normal (now in the West End), Passing Strange is a very grown-up affair. Despite being a story about a young man, and both leads being magnetic performers, it is the older character we watch. Our narrator is harsh about his early years, coming close to suggesting such self-discovery is just a phase.

There are tough political topics tackled. The ‘passing’ of the title refers to race, but Stew also looks at prejudices associated with being a songwriter – as both he and his characters are. Observations are bravely close to the bone… and specific. The 1970s middle-class Los Angeles milieu is keenly observed (there are sure to be nuances missed). This is the life Youth wants to escape, and we travel with him to vivid depictions of Amsterdam and Berlin. 

Rachel Adedeji

In each location, supporting performers – David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson, Renée Lamb and Caleb Roberts – get the chance to shine in a variety of roles. It’s noticeable that the women we meet are treated badly, but the characters played by Johnson and Lamb have great numbers (and tricksy accents). All the time the action is anchored by Youth’s long-suffering mum – a role brilliantly performed by Rachel Adedeji.

“The head’s footnotes”

There’s also humour in the piece. Again, some depends on understanding what is being satirised. The laughs don’t always fit comfortably in such a serious work, but director Liesl Tommy appreciates the power of such disquieting moments. Mental health is examined as is, as part of this, frequent drug use. As one girlfriend sings, Youth is deep in his “head’s footnotes” (what a great description) and such self-absorption is intense. Like a third recent show from the states, A Strange Loop, there’s an interest in how the mind works that is insightful.

If this weren’t deep enough, the big topic is Art itself. Those questions about the mind, and the past, connect to how we tell stories. Passing Strange looks at how art is made, but also at what it can do, what a comfort it can be. Want another step? The search for “the Real” is an obsessive refrain. Again, it’s about passing – what passes for the real… and what is really real. There’s some profound thinking here, saved from pretentiousness by a big heart and humour.

Given the big ideas, Stew’s songs (the music written with Heidi Rodewald), have a lot to do. The score doesn’t just deliver, it is full of unexpected turns and hugely exciting. While predominantly rock, it serves up a potted musical history with so many styles that it is clear, despite protestations to the contrary, Stew can write anything. Numbers are heart-breaking, funny and dramatic. They are all catchy and their story telling is excellent. The lyrics are consistently intelligent – every word is worth hearing – and matched by superb verse dialogue. 

The trials and tribulations of artists can be a turn-off. I don’t doubt how difficult the job is and how much suffering is involved, but they do go on about it don’t they? But Passing Strange plays with such tropes, interrogating them and providing tough love, thereby breathing new life into old questions and sounding great along the way. 

Until 6 July 2024


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Standing at the Sky’s Edge” at the Gillian Lynne Theatre

Originality is a big draw for this exciting new show from Richard Hawley. It’s about working-class people in Sheffield…which you don’t get very often. And the stories are told in a slightly different way. Events around three groups of characters, from different times, who live in the same tower block flat, are all interwoven.

Set in the 1960s, 1980s, and the present day, we take in a lot of history. From post-war optimism and immigration to industrial decline and unrest, then gentrification. And a good deal of attention is paid to the changing role of women. I’m not sure what a tourist crowd will make of it. But the book from playwright Chris Bush is skilful – nothing is overplayed, personal stories dominate, and these private lives are moving.

The narration is poetic (to a fault at times), beautifully delivered by Mel Lowe and deliberately contrasting in its grandiosity with the action. For it is ordinary people and “the traffic of life” that’s given attention. It’s a simple focus on romance but with such a large cast, and three big love affairs going on, the show feels inclusive and embracing. And, again, just that little bit different.

Elizabeth Ayodele and Samuel Jordan

There are stand-out performances in the show – but not stars in the way you might expect. We follow Rose and Harry over the course of their lives, so Rachel Wooding and Joel Harper-Jackson impress with their performances as these characters. Joy and Jimmy show us young love and Elizabeth Ayodele and Samuel Jordan bring huge charm to these parts. Meanwhile, Poppy and Nikki have problems in the present day and make angsty roles for Laura Pitt-Pulford and Lauryn Redding, who do a great job. The singing from all is fantastic. But this précis doesn’t reveal how much is going on.

Lauryn Redding and Laura Pitt-Pulford

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is constructed to give equal weight to the different stories. Even more, to highlight other characters and the ensemble who join them. It creates a very different feel as the whole cast take moments as leads. And when they all sing together, there are guaranteed goosebumps. The result is, at times, odd. An audience likes a focus. But through the talents of director Robert Hastie, it isn’t confusing. And the sense of place, of community, created is incredible. Originally from The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, via The National Theatre, Ben Stones’ excellent set and costume design help immeasurably here.

Above all, Hawley’s songs are fantastic. A great mix of styles with strong lyrics and a bold emphasis on big emotions. Not one number is bad, and plenty bring a tear to the eye. The show does lose momentum after a tremendous opening for act two. There are fewer songs and Bush’s dialogue starts to dominate. And, without giving to much away, things become morbid. A lot of time has been spent telling us Poppy and Nikki’s relationship is unhealthy, so it is odd to have it as some kind of happy ending.  I guess that at least the surprises keep coming. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is one of the most original musicals I’ve seen in a long time.

Until 3 August 2024


Photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg 

“The Suicide” at the National Theatre

There are some interesting ideas lurking within Suhayla El-Bushra’s new version of Nikolai Erdman’s comedy. The basis is brilliant – when a man announces he will take his own life he becomes hounded by those looking to use his death for their own ends. You might guess that the production updates the action to modern-day London (doesn’t everything?). More surprisingly, the satirical target is moved from Soviet Russia, not to the greed and inequality in our own times, but to left-leaning well- meaning folk. And El-Bushra replaces the State with social media – a neat move that offers insight and great satirical potential (after all, you can’t exaggerate online excess). Unfortunately, neither of these twists actually makes the play funnier than its original premise.

Mocking a desperate group of people living on a council estate is in questionable taste, aside from coming close to sitcom or reality TV show territory. More importantly, the treatment just isn’t witty enough. The script has a few risqué jokes but hardly any big laughs and a reliance on bad language for punchlines that is offensive in being so lazy. Director Nadia Fall doesn’t help, using a great-looking set (by Ben Stones) in a cumbersome manner and adding music and dance – presumably to appeal to a young audience – that may be good, but slows things down. There are frantic scenes, which the cast are well choreographed for, but the energy is wasted as stops and starts ruin the pace.

The collection of stereotypes that come to hassle our hero Sam aren’t all badly written. There’s a café-owning ex-PR girl, a teacher-performance-poet, local councillor, mental health worker, an old friend trying to hide an affair and assorted local youths. It’s a long play. All look for Sam to take the blame for something and to make a ‘statement’. But there’s an inverse relationship between characters where the satire has real bite, such as a despicable documentary filmmaker, and disappointing performances. Jokes are wasted with one-note delivery. Then some strong comic potential (Lizzie Winkler and Ayesha Antoine) isn’t given enough to do. It’s tempting to see an element of bad luck for El-Bushra here.

My intention was attend the scheduled press night, which was then postponed due to the indisposition of the lead, Javone Prince – surely the biggest misfortune for the show. However, the poorly presented main character is reduced to little more than a foolish bore, while scenes of Sam’s home life with his wife (a hard-working Rebecca Scroggs) and mother-in-law (the always excellent Ashley McGuire) achieve little. Yet the role was a triumph for Prince’s understudy, Adrian Richards, who gave a performance that has made me want to post this review despite it being, strictly speaking, about a preview. Richards’ comic timing is among the best of the night and he managed to give Sam a lost, youthful, appeal. Richards’ valiant efforts lifted the atmosphere for the whole evening. Luck at last, but little to do with the show’s actual merits.

Until 25 June 2016


Photo by Johan Persson