Tag Archives: Charing Cross Theatre

“From Here to Eternity” at the Charing Cross Theatre

This first London revival of the musical by Stuart Brayson and Tim Rice has admirable qualities but unfortunately highlights some of the show’s shortcomings. It’s set on the eve of Pearl Harbour, where the love lives of bored soldiers, more interested in boxing than war, is a little too much like a soap opera. The book, by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes, is impressively adult but rushes the action. And the production, directed by Brett Smock, follows suit, splurging on plot and leaving little time for emotion.

The music might not be the most memorable, but Brayson’s songs are good and the score coherent. The new orchestration from Nick J Barstow is bold. And the performances are enjoyable. But the effort to inject energy is too transparent. There’s a lot of soldiers running around and far too much moving the boxes that make up a big part of Stewart J Charlesworth’s design. Scenes feel truncated – snapshots of army life – and are occasionally confusing.

Nervous rather than macho is the atmosphere. The show has something to say about masculinity and war, but gives us little time to think. The roles of Warden and Prewitt are interesting and Adam Rhys-Charles and Jonathon Bentley, who take the roles, sound great, though neither holds attention for long. We are on to another scene too quickly, too often. The build-up to the bombing, clearly designed to provide structure and tension, is overworked and underdelivers.

Jonny-Amies-(Maggio)-Photo-Mark-Senior
Jonny Amies as Maggio photographed by Mark Senior

The cast has plenty of young talent to enjoy and they acquit themselves well. There is a sense of life in the barracks that is tense if not particularly detailed. Jonny Amies as Maggio, “the Joker of the pack”, is smart not to force the show’s attempts at humour and ends up a moving figure. But more experienced performers do shine. Alan Turkington makes the role of the cuckolded Captain work. And Eve Polycarpou, who plays the show’s brothel owner, makes her number (not the strongest) stand out.

The women in the piece – despite being outnumbered – are the highlight. There are strong performances from Carley Stenson and Desmonda Cathabel as the love interests, who inject some much-needed pathos. The songs are sometimes hampered by the lyrics – serviceable yet uninspired – but the delivery is good. The singing gets better and better. But there’s still the problem of just too much going on that feels rushed through or episodic. Storylines have to be resolved even quicker than they were set up. This leaves a poor impression of good show.

Until 17 December 2022

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Alex Brenner

“The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” at the Charing Cross Theatre 

It takes courage as well as expertise to tackle this 1963 play by Tennessee Williams. Director Robert Chevara has the bravery and expertise to do the job but there’s no pretending this a show for everyone. 

Williams’ overwrought, some might say overwritten, script suffers from his own biography (the programme contains a note to that effect). The playwright’s reputation weighs heavily over the work. Take the lead – an aging, addled Southern Belle called Flora – who could be a cliché of earlier writing or, too temptingly, a reflection of Williams’ life. 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is rich in symbols and ideas, with dialogue so convoluted it can seem ridiculous. It’s a meditation on mortality, with a terminally ill heroine who’s out of her mind and another character nicknamed The Angel of Death, who is really a (pretty bad) poet. And it’s one of Williams’ ‘memory plays’ as Flora recounts her “demented memoirs” out loud. What kind of a book that would be is a puzzle; ambitions to be another Proust indicate that what she is writing, in snatches, is more fiction than fact. But, as Flora’s grip on reality weakens, she comes to believe her own legend… maybe. 

Chevara gives as much guidance as he can. The production is hampered by a set from Nicolai Hart-Hansen, separating locations in Flora’s Italian villa to little effect. But Chevara makes the piece tense and tender – neither quality easily achieved – and he has a commendable view about the humour in the piece. 

“A witch and a bitch”

The production has strong performances that win respect. The star casting of Linda Marlowe and Sara Kestelman, as Flora and her ‘friend’ The Witch of Capri, is exciting. Kestelman is superb with the waspish humour so many Williams fans adore. But the catty remarks – which are very funny – are handled with restraint. This play shows a serious side of camp, and that is one of its many challenges. 

Marlowe’s Flora is fragile and builds to ferocious as death approaches. Generating surprising sympathy for this “dying monster”, Marlowe also aids suspense. Flora declares, “everything is urgentissimo this summer”, with the aim of taking a lover – quite literally – on her death bed. How’s that for uncomfortable? 

Sanee Raval’s role as Chris Flanders, that so-called Angel of Death, sums up many of the difficulties with the play. More credit to him for his performance. The role is caught between the real and the symbolic. Raval’s performance shows intelligence as the character starts to believe his own myth, while being aware it is one constructed by Gothic gossip. 

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is extreme to the point of crazed, so you need a director with a very firm hand in charge and an open mind (ready to be blown away) to watch it. Of course, the theatre can only provide one of these. Be prepared to work if you go to this one. 

Until 22 October 2022 

www.charingcrosstheatre.com 

Photo by Nick Haeffner 

“Ride” at the Charing Cross Theatre

What a story! This new musical from Freya Catrin Smith and Jack Williams is about the life of Annie Londonderry (née Kopchovsky), who cycled around the world in 1895 and then became a journalist. 

The clever book makes the most of her adventures and draws important points about privilege along the way. The device of Annie pitching to newspaper editors is skilfully managed by director Sarah Meadows, utilising Amy Jane Cook’s clever set and costume designs.

The music is good, maybe pleasing more than memorable. The score is eclectic with a light period touch. And the lyrics are excellent – not just for their superb geographical rhymes, but by being consistently smart, unshowy, thought provoking and easy on the ear. I haven’t heard new songs this good in a long time.

What a woman Annie was. As a working-class Jewish immigrant in America, the odds were against her. But Smith and Williams tackle her potential role as an inspirational figure intelligently… because Annie made some questionable choices and was a liar. Or at least a shameless salesperson, ready to sing Everybody Loves a Lie with a smile on her face. And the show is better for her cynicism – Annie’s tall tales feel like a present Smith and Williams enjoying playing with.

The character is a gift to a performer, too – what a role! This troublemaker and trailblazer is brought to the stage by Liv Andrusier doing a great job with those fabulous lyrics and enforcing the impression of a woman who is enticing and complex. It’s all energy at first, which Andrusier makes infectious. Then there’s swooning romance. And, as we learn more about Annie’s difficult life, great pathos. It’s quite the journey, but Andrusier makes it look easy.

Yuki-Sutton-and-Liv-Andrusier-in-Ride-credit-Danny-Kaan
Yuki Sutton and Liv Andrusier

Ride isn’t a one woman show. Joining in is Martha, played by Yuki Sutton. And how this second role is tackled is indicative of the skill throughout: the character is a device, but a supremely effective one. Drafted in by Annie herself to help tell the story, Martha takes on several characters, which gives Sutton a chance to impress: she plays two romantic interests, the French customs official Celine by far my favourite.

The clever part comes with how the playacting affects the character. By the end, Martha carries the show, briefly adopting Annie’s self-fashioned persona. This smart move suggests how role models work. Almost regardless of Annie herself, another young woman is now willing to put her foot down and pedal towards her dreams.

As for the show’s path, with a lead that’s a mix of Mabel and Dolly, with all that ambition and chops, someone needs to take this to New York. The sense of potential for the production is exciting – see it now so that you can boast about it later.

Until 17 September 2022

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Danny Kaan

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Charing Cross Theatre

Christopher Durang’s award-winning comedy is a Chekhov mashup that regular theatregoers should lap up. Full of clever references that are witty and sometimes silly. Durang’s admiration for his playwriting predecessor is endearing. But the question arises – will you enjoy the play without knowing your Russian classics?

I think the answer is yes. Without pretending I got all the allusions, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is an effective family drama with plenty of laughs.

A trio of siblings (get it) bicker while strangers (yes, one wants to be an actress) challenge their routine. Masha is a successful actress and supports Vanya and Sonia financially, but the latter are frustrated by their comfortable rural existence. Masha has troubles, too – her toy-boy version of Trigorin (a good spin) is an indication of her angst.

Durang is justly confident that the closed environment and close observations of human nature will work – and he’s good with them. Sometimes it’s the more modern additions – jokes about Hollywood and a rant against social media – that jar more than the Chekhov. Preparation for a costume party feels a little like an extended sketch – but this highlight scene is excellent.

Best of all are Durang’s characters and the performances, impeccably directed by Walter Bobbie. The “monstrous” Masha is meat and drink to Janie Dee – she is simply marvellous. Michael Maloney and Rebecca Lacey, as the siblings pining for another life, have impressively moving moments in controlled performances. And Lacey’s impression of Maggie Smith is worth the price of a ticket alone.

There’s a strong debut from Lukwesa Mwamba as the star-struck ingénue. And Sara Powell’s eccentric cleaning lady is a fantastic creation (note how her predictions change from being doom and gloom). Charlie Maher’s Spike – attractive “except for his personality” – made me laugh the most, but pick your own favourite.

Durang may not wear his learning lightly, but he is a strong enough writer not to lose his identity. There are bitter touches, yet the quirky humour is gentle and distinct from Chekhov. We’re allowed to like everyone and laugh at them. Watching the family get closer, and starting to hope, proves heart-warming. And we’re even given a happy ending.

Until 16 November 2021

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Pippin” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Among the many devotees of Stephen Schwartz’s musical, originally written in 1967, director Steven Dexter is an expert. Having staged the show at a pop-up venue last year (a boon between lockdowns), Dexter is back with his hippie-inspired version of the piece. Bigger and just as accomplished, this intelligent take on the Summer of Love does Pippin proud.

I’m still not a fan of the show. Yes, it has great songs. Although the score is contrived. And Roger O. Hirson’s book has wit, even if the humour is dated. But this story of Charlemagne’s son, presented by ‘Players’ who form a show within a show, is a tricky affair: a cautionary tale too close to reactionary in its suspicion of dreams and ambition.

Any reservations aren’t shared by Dexter or his eight energetic cast members. Akin to Pippin’s search for meaning, this production has a “goal and a plan”. And it is well executed. More serious than you might expect, considering the Players’ promises of what we are about to see, the production has more magic than merriment. Take the performance of Ian Carlyle, who makes for a sinister and in-command Lead Player, there’s an appropriately dark edge to proceedings.

Genevieve Nicole in Pippin
Genevieve Nicole

With strong performances from the (not-so-well-written) women in Pippin’s life, we are never allowed to forget they are Players, too. The effect is cold. Genevieve Nicole gets the most out of her big number – she’s super as Pippin’s let-it-all-hang-out grandma. While Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as the stepmother manipulates events at court in style. It’s only Natalie McQueen, as Catherine, who really cares for our hero and makes the show’s sweet love song, with lots of laughs, enjoyable.

Ryan Anderson in Pippin
Ryan Anderson

The big danger is that Pippin himself becomes something of a puppet. Arguably he is exactly that and Dexter makes the case forcefully. And, who really likes Pippin anyway? Schwartz wanted him to check his privilege half a century ago! More credit to the show’s lead, Ryan Anderson, who get as much sympathy as he can for the character. Genuine emotion comes late (the penny drops – that’s why I’m not a fan) and, when it arrives, Anderson does well.

It is with dancing that Anderson, and the whole cast, excel. Choreographer Nick Winston comes into his own with smart moves, superbly executed. Engaging with each song, adding depth and interest, there’s extraordinary insight into the characters. Winston’s work sculpts the roles. With a nice big space, staged in the round, the dancing is the most joyous part of the show and, too frequently, the most emotional. It’s with the movement in the production that this Pippin moves.

Until 14 August 2021

www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

Photos by Edward Johnson

“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