Tag Archives: Charing Cross Theatre

“GHBoy” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Tackling the topic of drug addiction among gay men, Paul Harvard’s debut play provides the perverse pleasure of seeing a piece about a health issue that has nothing to do with coronavirus. It’s escapism of a sort, I suppose, but GHBoy proves grim without being hard hitting and is, regrettably, rambling.

An impressive sincerity

Capably directed by Jon Pashley, the show is well acted. Very much a vehicle for Jimmy Essex, in the demanding lead role of Robert, there’s an impressive sincerity to the writing and the performance. But understanding or sympathising with Robert is a challenge: a middle-aged man saying he needs to grow up isn’t much of an excuse for so much bizarrely infantile behaviour.

Robert’s problems – self-medication with drugs and sex, driven by low self-esteem, abuse and his father’s death – arrive on stage in a torrent. So quickly, in fact, that there’s little time to really know the character and scant background detail. While what happens sounds dramatic – along with the inclusion of a crime story – too many rapid incidents make GHBoy confusing.

A central scene – where Robert’s conversation with his mother and his friend are interwoven – shows promise. There is a sense of mounting pressure and of a man trapped by his decisions. But this technique only works the once. Most of the time, overlapping dialogue with flashbacks and fantasies, scenes feel truncated and cinematic rather than theatrical.

Strong support

Jimmy Essex and Devesh Kishore in GHBoy at the Charing Cross Theatre
Jimmy Essex and Devesh Kishore

There’s strong support for Essex’s performance to enjoy. Robert’s youthful lover and his therapist, played by Marc Bosch and Devesh Kishore respectively, both do well and Harvard has managed to make these smaller roles effective. There’s also an impressive performance from Sylvester Akinrolabu, who plays different sexual partners for Robert with clarity.

Ultimately the play’s problems mount and prove inescapable. Harvard has taken on too much. So much so that the script seems to resort to two finales. A reprise with characters confronting Robert summarises his problems without adding drama. Then a suggestion that Robert’s art therapy may prove a solution is offered as an unconvincing parting note. Neither conclusion amounts to much despite the considerable effort taken by all involved.

Until 20 December 2020

charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Bettina John

“Queen of the Mist” at the Charing Cross Theatre

A long-forgotten story is the odd subject matter for this musical from the estimable Michael John LaChiusa. In 1901, at the age of 63, Anna Edson Taylor went over Niagara Falls in a barrel of her own design and managed to survive. Incredible as that may be, it isn’t much to work with. Somewhat magically, LaChiusa creates an unusually detailed exploration of a peculiar psychology with a unique draw – if you seek originality, this show has it by the tun.

Our heroine tackles sexism and ageism, while her impoverished status conflicts with a belief that she has “greatness within her”. While others consider her past her prime, Anna seeks her fortune with the world’s weirdest pension plan. Whether joining a rush of daredevils flocking to the falls is a scientific experiment or a stunt is much debated. So there’s inspiration for and resonance with our times balanced by a strong period feel (and an odd Zelig moment around the assassination of President McKinley) from an intelligent score, bursting with historic detail and Vaudevillian touches. Director Dom O’Hanlon does a great job doing justice to all of the above. But I’ve a suspicion none of it is the real driving force.

The Queen of the Mist is really about one woman. Anna is fascinating. But maybe she’s too original to tell us much about her times or our own? Smart, funny and full of contradictions (a radical Episcopalian!), she is truly formidable. It makes for an unusually focused show, but one that is occasionally claustrophobic.

O’Hanlon uses his talented performers expertly: Emily Juler deserves a special mention, playing Anna’s sister among other roles, while Andrew Carter’s voice is a real pleasure. And Will Arundell does well as Anna’s manager, making the role and their relationship complex. But the other characters barely need names, this is so much Anna’s show. It makes a daunting title role for Trudi Camilleri, who casts a suitably commanding presence. A model of clarity, Camilleri’s voice sounds raw rather than refined, running from exuberance to panic, including a good deal of pain. Defiance becomes the key note, not just for Anna – bravo Camilleri – but for this unconventional piece as a whole.

Trudi Camilleri in 'Queen of the Mist'
Trudi Camilleri

For while Anna may be interesting, she is far from likeable. One of the many beautiful musical refrains is that she doesn’t “delight” in the way a “quintessential hero” should; an observation (rather than a criticism) that holds for the whole show. Some of the most demanding moments of the score surround Anna’s mental stability. There’s the suggestion her daring deed damaged her head and she’s never far from being a desperate character, making the music especially febrile. A great deal is made of a childhood encounter with a tiger and she’s described as a “dangerous animal”.

It is the aftermath of events that interests LaChiusa most, and credit to O’Hanlon for respecting this. The music becomes progressively more adventurous. Anna’s sad demise takes a long time. Many an audience member might get restless and it requires guts to ignore that. Ending up as a piece about mortality, this mature musical will not be for all. But as the production comes to believe in Anna’s delusions of grandeur – the final tableau from O’Hanlon is effective and moving – it seems LaChiusa has created a perfect subject for his eccentric extravaganza.

Until 5 October 2019

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Stephen Russell

“Amour” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This quirky musical from the legendary Michael Legrand is a fairy tale for Francophiles. The romance is between Isabelle, an unhappy wife kept under lock and key by her older husband, and a conscientious clerk called Dusoleil. Anna O’Byrne makes a suitably enchanting leading lady, who sounds great, while the show should make a big star of Gary Tushaw, who is excellent throughout. Their intriguing affair is about dreams as much as passion and is transformed when Dusoleil finds himself able to walk through walls!

Anna O’Byrne and Gary Tushaw

Being French, Dusoleil turns out to be a superhero with an Existentialist edge – you need a philosophical frame of mind to end up in prison when you could just walk out of one. And he has an eye on revolutionary values, making his alter-ego Passepartout a hero of the people and the fantasy of Isabelle. Turning himself into the law to win his love – he’s too shy to reveal his true identity in any other way – leads to a crazy court scene (including a nun, always a good move in a musical), where Isabella claims her own freedom, leaving her husband and running away with Dusoleil to what should be a happy ever after. Another twist leads to a very odd ending, which ensures the show proves memorable. Suffice to say, Amour is unpredictable.

Even at its climax, and its most fantastical, the show has a strong sense of time and place that adds appeal and plays wittily with caricature. Paris in the 1950s, the city of Legrand’s childhood, is evoked with cigarettes and Camembert. There are some close-to-the knuckle jokes about Nazi collaboration, sexism and the best gendarmes since ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Crabtree. And incredibly, through our hero, communists and Catholics come to agree. Although, of course, everyone is still ready to go on strike.

Amour is charming, escapist and funny. Director Hannah Chissick does well to emphasis all this. She tries a little too hard at times, overusing bikes, suitcases and chairs (the umbrellas are fine, a nice nod to those of Legrand’s Cherbourg). But Chissick’s real strength is to make the show more of an ensemble piece than it might be; giving time for cameos that others might cut. Jack Reitman, stepping into the roles of a doctor, gendarme and judge for the press night, is impressive. And there’s Clare Machin – always good value – as a local prostitute and a colleague of Dusoleil who visits him in prison and steals the scene with an éclair.

Gary Tushaw and Clare Machin

Arguably, the biggest achievement comes with the show’s English adapter Jeremy Sams, who dealt with Didier van Cauwelaert’s libretto and took the show, albeit briefly, to Broadway. There are fits and starts, for sure, but the lyrics are funny and often inspired (who knew so much rhymed with Montmartre?). Sams’ work is impressive, but he sometimes seems self-conscious about the poetry. Maybe it’s better to adopt that Gallic shrug on occasion. When letting go, for example, in a number for Dusoleil’s new boss, the results are good (and a boon for Steven Serlin in the role), and when he sneaks in a bad pun it’s a treat.

The real reason to love the show is the score. It’s true that Amour is more a collection of songs than a real musical – but what songs! If there are fussy touches in the production, some flaws in the lyrics, or the story isn’t to your taste, all is excused by a score that is gorgeous, catchy, inventive and adventurous. It shows Legrand, who died earlier this year, in his prime. He wrote music that could makes you smile through its romance as well as its humour. I had a grin on my face for most of the show. Amour stole my heart.

Until 20 July 2019

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“It Happened in Key West” at the Charing Cross Theatre

If you are going to base a musical on a true story, it makes sense to choose an incredible one. Jill Santoriello, Jason Huza and Jeremiah James, who co-wrote the book for this new show, picked the you-couldn’t-make-it-up story of Count Carl von Casel. Shipwrecked off Cuba, although unqualified he treated a young girl for tuberculosis, dug her up after she died, “married” her, then lived with her body for seven years. At her request. You really can try to make a show out of anything and the result of such bravado here is intriguingly insane and often entertaining.

Santoriello’s score makes us, for the most part, forget how icky the whole thing is. But the unashamed romanticism of the music, while pleasant, makes the love affair a little dull. And very old fashioned. The piece may start in the 1930s but with such an off-beat story you might expect more musical quirks – such a crazy tale needs to be madder overall. When it comes to the comic implications of the scenario, the show gets better (and the lyrics, by Santoriello with Huza, improve immeasurably). There are several jolly moments and even some jazz hands.

It’s an irony that the show doesn’t have enough life. Several subplots appear and are killed off: a scientific rival for the Count and a mercenary sister for his love – throw ‘em a song please. While a tight-knit community is part of the plot, there’s little sense of the titular location. Frustratingly, a device is present – a group of local troubadours – but isn’t exploited enough. The celebrity that Von Casel suffers upon exposure, with locals seeing the chance to make money from the story, is a highlight, until the satire is traded for sentimentality. Efforts to make the show moving are valiant if misguided. But the biggest problem is with our heroine, Elena. To be clear, Alyssa Martyn is great in the part, sounding super, smiling and simpering with the best of them. But this character, who would endanger Alison Bechdel’s health, is dead on arrival and doesn’t get any better in the afterlife.

So, we are left with the story of the Count and, thankfully, that’s an interesting one. Eccentrics can get away with a lot… although maybe not making life-size dolls of dead women. And it’s a great move to make sure Carl never realises how strange he is. Far too much rests on the lead, but the production is blessed with the casting of Wade McCollum. In fine voice, with excellent comic skills, he manages to make you feel for this wannabe Frankenstein, despite everything. McCollum has terrific stage presence and effortlessly propels us over the show’s flaws. Come for the crazy, stay for the star.

Until 18 August 2018

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“The Woman in White” at the Charing Cross Theatre

If memory serves me correctly, the West End debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, at the Palace Theatre back in 2004, was a grand affair with ambitious, if ineffective, projections and a big orchestra that served a lush score superbly. For its first revival the music has been revised, by Lloyd Webber himself, to suit a smaller setting. As a result, the show joins a string of revivals that remind us how versatile the composer’s work is. This is a piece that impressed first time around but now it is a musical to fall in love with.

The Woman in White is impressively plot driven. It’s based on Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel, expertly condensed by Charlotte Jones, with its Victorian morality deftly handled to embrace current concerns about equality. This is a great yarn – a romance and a crime mystery that flirts with the supernatural – following the adventures of the Fairlie sisters and the mysterious titular character who has a secret that will change their lives. David Zippel’s lyrics serve the story superbly, even if all that exposition makes them occasionally prosaic. Director Thom Southerland aids the clarity to ensure we are entertained – with a staging full of atmosphere via strong work with the striped back set from designer Morgan Large.

For all Southerland’s accomplishments it is his cast that makes the show stand out – a particularly strong group of singers with exquisite control appropriate to the precision in both the score and the production.

Ashley Stillburn makes an appealing hero, as the Fairlies’ drawing teacher and love interest, who becomes a man of action when danger arrives. His rival in love is Chris Peluso as Sir Percival Glyde – “a liar, a braggart and a philistine” – full of charisma and danger. Glyde’s partner in crime is Count Fosco, played by Greg Castiglioni, who comes dangerously close to stealing scenes as he has the musical’s only light relief (credit where it’s due, for an Italian accent that isn’t just a cheap gag).

The trio of female roles secure more praise. The wealthy heiress Laura might be a little too wet but Anna O’Byrne tackles the role sensibly and gives her as much spirit as possible. Similarly, her half-sister Marian is one of those martyred women, beloved by Victorians, that can annoy – but in the role Carolyn Maitland makes her devotion believable and her sacrifices moving. Finally, Sophie Reeves, who plays the ghostly woman in white, delivers an impressive portrayal of mental illness. The whole cast tackles the satisfyingly complex storyline and its melodrama while singing to perfection, making this a clear five-star show.

Until 10 February 2018

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“The Braille Legacy” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This new French musical’s world premiere benefits from the talents of director Thom Southerland. It’s the story of Louis Braille, who battles against prejudice to improve lives with his invention of a reading and writing system for the blind. The aim is to inspire and, with a rousing, diligent score, here’s a chance it’ll induce goose bumps and maybe a tear or two.

Now, while Braille changed the world for the better, he did so from behind a desk, his “silent revolution” being slow rather than dramatic. So it’s quite a task for Sébastian Lancrenon’s book to animate Braille’s story for the stage and the results are unsteady.

The first good idea is to show Louis as a rebellious teenager, affording Jack Wolfe in the lead role enough to work with to ensure that this makes a strong professional debut for him. Wolfe’s singing is great and he clearly has a promising future.

But the awful discrimination faced by the blind in the 19th century isn’t established well. The banning of Braille’s system shows the shocking extent of inequity and could have been given greater impact, while a dramatic subplot (about children being used in fatal experiments to “cure” blindness) should have been introduced much earlier. The battle of wills at Louis’ school for the blind becomes deadly serious: and only then can both Jérôme Pradon and Ashley Stillburn, as rival pedagogues, really show their mettle.

Further efforts to enliven the story are similarly flawed. Humour is thin, despite the efforts of Kate Milner-Evans as the wife of Captain Barbier, whose “night writing” formed the basis of Braille’s work. Themes of family and friendship, leading to emotional songs for Ceili O’Connor and Jason Broderick, are powerfully delivered, but hampered by woefully under-inspiring lyrics, translated by Ranjit Bolt.

With this uneven mix, Southerland’s skills come to the fore. He clearly believes the show deserves a large stage and a big sound. Knowing that sentimentality is the strongest element in the show, the director doesn’t shy away from it. And he is a persuasive man.

Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick
Jack Wolfe and Jason Broderick

Tim Shortall’s revolving set literally adds the motion needed. The singing is flawless, the whole cast showing an impeccable delivery that makes a lot of a competent score by Jean-Baptiste Sauray. Taking just one detail, the use of blindfolds discarded when blind characters can “see” (if dreaming or using Braille), shows the impressive creativity on offer – a saving grace for a show struggling with some big problems.

Until 24 June 2017

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

“Ragtime” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This is a big one. Based on EL Doctorow’s novel, this musical has a book by Terrence McNally that preserves the theme of hope on a grand scale. The music and lyrics, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, are a huge success, with not a melody or line out of place. It’s the most ambitious show yet from Thom Southerland, who handles the piece brilliantly and deserves the largest number of accolades possible – Ragtime gets five stars from me.

There are many stories to follow here, each with a musical motif meticulously combined into a satisfying whole. An in-depth examination of the ‘pyramid’ of American society, before World War I and on the cusp of change, WASPs, African-Americans and European immigrants are all compellingly portrayed. The fate of children is at the fore, as is the question, what kind of community do we really want? I told you it was immense.

Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell
Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell

A wealthy white family embodies conflict. Father is resistant to change and disconcerted by the “new music”. Mother, a Liberty-like figure, understands you can never go “back to before”. Their roles are superbly performed by Earl Carpenter and Anita Louise Combe. Family life is changed by contact with an African-American couple, Sarah and Coalhouse, whose powerful story of romance and racism is performed with passion by Jennifer Saayeng and Ako Mitchell. And there’s a Jewish immigrant, Tateh, whose trials and eventual success are the lightest part of the piece. Gary Tushaw comes close to stealing the show (no mean feat) with a gorgeous performance.

Gary Tushaw
Gary Tushaw

More radical discontent comes with the presence of Anarchist Emma Goldman, ruthlessly embodied by Valerie Cutko, while Mother’s brother (a strong role for Jonathan Stewart) joins Coalhouse’s plan for revenge after a personal tragedy. Violent protest is the focus of the tension-filled second act – almost a mini Les Mis as the mix of fact and fiction creates a powerful synergy. Tackling the theme of terrorism, home grown at that, provides a startling edge.

Joanna Hickman
Joanna Hickman

The production’s masterstroke is to have talented onstage musicians, who memorably use their instruments as props. Tateh beats a drum as he attacks an assailant; there’s banjo-playing Simon Anthony, who makes a chilling racist thug; fife-playing Tom Giles, getting the most out of a number as Henry Ford; and an excellent role for cellist Joanna Hickman as a Chicago-style celebrity with a vaudeville routine. All are led by Jordan Li-Smith, the awesome onstage musical director, who holds the whole score in his head.

There’s a lot of history here, but it never overwhelms the show. Emotion is the key. Southerland directs with clarity yet avoids any mechanical precision. With songs as good at telling stories as these, goosebumps are guaranteed. This is one of the most moving musicals you could buy a ticket for. If it tips over into sentiment, so be it. To sum up a big success quickly – see this show.

Until 10 December 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Titanic” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Maury Yeston’s musical, set on the doomed ocean liner, won five Tony Awards, and praise for this production from the Southwark Playhouse has followed it around the world. Now that director Thom Southerland has taken up residence at an oddly charming venue underneath Charing Cross, there’s another chance to see the show. And it’s every bit as good as critics say.

Yeston, with the story and book from Peter Stone, succeeds in making a well-known story exciting enough. Seeing the ship as a microcosm of society is neat, if hardly novel. It’s all about the details, and a careful and inventive execution along with an ambitious and intelligent score ensure success here.

There’s the combination of observing different classes of passengers, mankind’s inevitable search for “progress”, and plenty of emotion when the boat sinks. Impressively, the dangers of Downton Abbey kitsch are avoided and the excitement and glamour of the boat is persuasive, despite audience hindsight. And get ready for tears before the end, with characters we have come to love at a rate of, well it would have to be, knots.

Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere
Niall Sheehy photographed by Annabel Vere

The production is hugely impressive. Southerland’s direction is faultless, a miracle of economically effective staging. David Woodhead’s set and costume design are smart, facilitating swift role changes for the 20-strong cast. Yes, 20 –and all performing at the highest standard. One bold thing about Titanic is that there aren’t ‘leading’ roles so it isn’t really fair to highlight individual performers. But indulge me. Niall Sheehy’s role as a coal miner stands out (there just aren’t enough songs about men from the Midlands in musicals) and I can’t resist pointing out that the cast includes the excellent Victoria Serra.

Of course, it’s Yeston who’s the real star. The lyrics, filled as they are with facts and figures, could so easily have failed, but the score energises them remarkably: combining waltz themes with historical references such as rag, inspired contemporary touches and a big choral sound that uses that huge cast superbly. This is a truly accomplished score. Adoration of the ship, described as a “perfectly working machine” could carry to a critique of the musical – its well-engineered construction is a marvel.

Until 13 August 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Main photo by  Scott Rylander

“In the bar of a Tokyo Hotel” at the Charing Cross Theatre

With the benefit of director Robert Chevara’s intelligent handling, here’s an unmissable opportunity to see a rarely performed late work by Tennessee Williams. This startlingly innovative play, which ruthlessly examines a broken marriage, shows Williams’ unique and challenging voice in a new light.

Mark is a successful artist who believes he has made a breakthrough with his painting, with a new style that has clear parallels with Williams’ writing. According to his sexually ferocious wife Miriam, he has simply gone mad. Aggressive advances toward a barman fill Miriam’s time as she waits for Mark’s agent to arrive and take him away – she’s had enough of him and his art.

unspecified
Andrew Koji

These are tough roles that Chevara supervises carefully. David Whitworth is entirely credible as the (literally) unstable, dying artist. Andrew Koji and Alan Turkington, playing the barman and gallerist, appreciate the piece’s humour perfectly. Linda Marlowe has the star role, delivering a mesmerising performance that establishes Miriam as another leading lady in the Williams canon.

In this hugely difficult text, few lines of dialogue are completed – a treatment that toys with naturalism while being extremely stylised – so it’s forgivable that the delivery isn’t quite perfect. And yet the stilted language has a distinct and demanding beauty. Key words are isolated and repeated for weight, creating a rhythm to the piece that carries into Miriam’s witty insults, desperation and, finally, transcendental ideas.

Inspired by Japanese poetry, the sensibility is still Williams, making a fusion of East and West that’s often disorientating and exquisitely reflected in the production’s video projections. There are times this play feels like an out-of-body experience – characters describe actions we can clearly observe – compounded by suggestions that Mark and Miriam are really two sides of the same character (get your head around that one). A weird and wonderful play that stands alone and proud.

Until 14 May 2016

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Keeler” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Now we know why Andrew Lloyd Webber selected Stephen Ward as the subject of his new musical –  a small production has beaten him into the West End – and reminds us what a fascinating character he was. In Gill Adams’ Keeler, the woman at the centre of the 60s scandal, the Profumo affair, takes the title and the play is based on Keeler’s own book. But it is Ward, a queasy-making anti-hero, who interests most.

The focus on Ward may well come from Paul Nicholas taking on the role. A strictly controlled performance adds to this enigmatic character: his motives tantalisingly unclear, his emotions ambiguous. A kind of pimp to Christine and other girls from Murray’s Cabaret Club, he uses women to advance himself with the establishment and the powerful. It’s more than creepy but we never doubt his charisma.

Unfortunately, Nicholas dominates too much. Other characters, including “the Minister of War and the man from Moscow” – Keeler’s lovers, John Profumo and Eugene Ivanovo – are sketchily written. In the title role, Sarah Armstrong fights hard to portray Keeler as more than a victim, but this results in little sense of how young and vulnerable she must have been. Through abortion and abandonment, to having her life threatened by mad lovers from Notting Hill, Armstrong conveys Keeler’s cool rather than the drama.

Sexual tension is conspicuously absent. Despite a couple of showgirls, who inject some feathered glamour, the uniformly odious male characters, with their talk of “botties and boobies”, make you squirm. Nicholas, who also directs with a thorough hand, aided by Charlie Cams’ neat set, is at his best as Ward is taken to court. Injecting a more serious tone, this scene almost grabs you. Laid bare for the law, you can see the story for the scoop it really was – sensational still.

Until 30 November 2013

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Irina Chira

Written 7 November 2013 for The London Magazine