Tag Archives: Gary Tushaw

“Turning the Screw” at the King’s Head Theatre 

It’s a brave play that tries to tackle the awful subject of paedophilia with any kind of nuance. There are queasy moments in Kevin Kelly’s fictionalized account of composer Benjamin Britten and schoolboy singer David Hemmings. Director Tim McArthur’s bumpy production doesn’t always match the slickness of the script. But the piece is both provocative and thought-provoking.

The action takes us behind the scenes of the opera The Turn of the Screw. It helps a lot to know the history beforehand. Both the play and Gary Tushaw, who does well in the role of Britten, show The Great Man’s power and charisma at work. It’s clear separating the art from the artist is not a new dilemma. But, admirably, Kelly wants to show us many sides of the story and McArthur aids his project.

Efforts to protect Britten and his “divine” art are heady. Two roles, for Jo Wickham and Jonathan Clarkson, as his assistant and producer, are under-written but serve to show Britten’s prestige and status. Less successfully, there’s the man who most admires Britten, his life partner Peter Pears. It’s an unhappy role for Simon Willmont as avowals of love and dismissal of “passing infatuations” ring hollow.

Then we come to Britten’s victims. The play (and in real life Hemmings) is clear that behavior was “inappropriate” rather than criminal, leaving the audience to judge morality. But Hemmings, despite a good performance from Liam Watson, is written as too mature. There are too many questions left hanging: the character’s class, or “rough edges”, and the absence of his parents. One great touch, which McArthur gets a lot from, is that Hemmings narrates and helps as a stage hand; his reactions are always worth watching.

Hemmings is seen as a threat rather than a victim, taking us to the most interesting but also flawed parts of the play. As tense rehearsals progress, parallels are drawn between fiction and fact. So, the ambiguity between characters in the opera infects real life. Britten even makes mistakes over Hemmings’ name. It’s a shame the idea isn’t explored more. Meanwhile Britten’s troubles are credited to the illegality of homosexuality. The point is problematic, even nonsensical. The history here is crammed in. And there’s a dream sequence that, as well as being executed poorly, creates too much sympathy for Britten and is crying out to be cut.

While it might seem the play struggles to determine a focus, flip-flopping between Britten, his entourage and Hemmings, it seems more accurate to suggest Kelly doesn’t want one – he provides lots of perspectives. A cool tone for such an emotive subject is an interesting idea. But in the end, this strength becomes Turning the Screw’s weakness. Hemming’s story is truncated and another boy, a ghostly figure who haunts the composer, needs urgent elaboration. Despite trying, the piece is weighted too much to Britten for comfort.

Until 10 March 2024


“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


Photos 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


Photos by Scott Rylander

“Allegro” at the Southwark Playhouse

It’s hard to believe there’s a musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that is only now receiving its UK premiere. The coup of finally staging this 1947 piece goes to the team of producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland. While you can understand why this life story of an Everyman, Joseph Taylor Jr, hasn’t joined the composer and lyricist’s formidable hit parade, the show is well worth seeing.

Taking the lead is Gary Tushaw, first handling the puppet that represents his role’s young years, taking us through first love at high school, a career as a doctor and finally the breakdown of his marriage. Tushaw is endearing and sounds great but his character is perhaps a little too saintly. We meet his family, of course – grandmother (Susan Travers) and parents (Steve Watts and Julia J Nagle) – all fine upstanding performances for the roles of fine upstanding citizens. Surprisingly, his love interest isn’t likeable, which makes her a deal more interesting and gives Emily Bull something to get her teeth into.

ALLEGRO 1 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander
Southerland injects as much energy into Hammerstein’s book as he can, with the help of some superb choreography from Lee Proud and a nimble set from Anthony Lamble that makes me confident none of the cast suffers from vertigo. And it’s difficult to criticise this “simple” story for being just that – when the “commonplace” is so clearly the aim. Taylor turns his back on big success – that’s his achievement. Time in the city, where living a “ratrace” gives the musical its title song, is far from the overall tone. The piece is obsessed with hope and home. Maybe I am a softie but I was amazed something so sentimental wasn’t cloying.

The ambition of Rodgers and Hammerstein in Allegro wasn’t timid, and nor is Southerland, but the show is small in scope and occasionally condescending. And yet a collection of songs this strong should not be missed. It’s clear that the ensemble, which includes professional debuts for Matthew McDonald, Benjamin Purkiss and Samuel Thomas, are committed to them. With numbers as good as The Gentleman is a Dope for a supporting role (a superb Katie Bernstein), you can’t fail to be impressed.

Until 10 September 2016


Photos by Scott Rylander