Tag Archives: Jason Pennycooke

“Moulin Rouge!” at the Piccadilly Theatre

This theatrical version of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie musical arrived in London with considerable hype (and ten Tony Awards) at the start of this year and is clearly set to be a profitable West End fixture. 

The escapist love story between cabaret courtesan Satine and singer-songwriter Christian has appeal. The book by John Logan may be thin, but it is well crafted – the device of a show-within-a-show is as safe as they come but it is used superbly. And you can literally see what’s drawing in the crowds – the production is as sumptuous as it is entertaining. With wonderful costumes by Catherine Zuber and stunning lighting design from Justin Townsend, Moulin Rouge! looks great. And it sounds, well, it sounds OK.

Luhrmann’s mashed-up soundtrack, taking snatches of songs from very different artists, was innovative and influential at the time. The music supervisor and orchestrator for the show (who has also provided additional lyrics) is Justin Levine and his work is accomplished. But, somehow, the music doesn’t excite as it should. Maybe it just lacks the element of surprise? The new songs utilised are a touch predictable. Or maybe, director Alex Timbers mistakes the wit for humour too often. The technique isn’t just a joke – it’s supposed to reflect Christian’s creativity and is used in serious scenes. Yet too often it becomes a game for the audience… remember the TV show Name That Tune? Frankly, the whole thing is done a little bit better in a much lower key show, &Juliet. Even worse, and more puzzling, the sound itself is underwhelming – and I seldom say that a show isn’t loud enough.

These disappointments are not the fault of the performers (although some of the singing could be tighter). But nearly all the characters have too little to do. The villain and Christian’s friends are woefully one-dimensional: Simon Bailey and Elia Lo Tauro end up wooden as a result. Jason Pennycooke’s Toulouse-Lautrec is better but hampered by a cod French accent. Clive Carter, as the owner of the cabaret, has clearly been directed to give his best impersonation of Jim Broadbent in the film. Carter can whip up a crowd, so it’s shame he isn’t given more freedom. And the character is a car crash – tarts with hearts is one thing but sympathy for the pimp?

The result of poor characters means the show rests on the leads, which isn’t unusual or necessarily a problem but often feels weak or lazy. Thankfully, these leads are good. Liisi LaFontaine uses her powerful voice to the max and really pleases the crowd. Honestly, the consumptive Satine is a bit of a bore, but LaFontaine makes her charisma believable. Jamie Bogyo has the better role as Christian and he can belt out a tune, too. There are moments of pathos as Bogyo sings that show that the musical mash-up can bring about drama as well as comedy. These moments shine, but leave the impression that the source material has been short changed. For once, the film is better than the stage. That’s not something to celebrate.


"Hamilton" at the Palace Theatre Victoria

Coming up to its second year in London and with five other productions all over the world, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster show is a true theatrical phenomenon. It’s nice to agree with the hype – everything you’ve heard about how good it is is true. But originality is only half the story behind how great the show is – a mastery of technique and a thorough knowledge of musical theatre combine to make it an instant classic.

Yes, Hamilton is ground breaking. The decision to cast African-American performers as the founding fathers whose story we are told (apparently more startling to theatregoers in the States) is bold. Alongside the clear and powerful advocacy of immigration, the show makes important statements for our times. Miranda’s engagement with history – the way that he uses the past – powers the show. Not forgetting, of course, the fact that his historical characters rap.

Yet behind the new, it is traditional storytelling that Miranda excels at. It’s a skill shared by director Thomas Kail, who aids clarity without compromising subtlety. There’s a good deal going on in Hamilton – the birth of a nation as much as the eponymous character’s biography – and you’ll learn a lot. But quite simply this is a tale exquisitely told: a mix of the personal and political, with a complex plot and big ideas perfectly balanced.

Dom Hartley-Harris as George Washington
Dom Hartley-Harris as George Washington

Miranda makes his historical characters live and the cast excels as a result. The singing is excellent throughout but it is in fulfilling such rich depictions that the performers really impress. There’s a magnificent George Washington in Dom Hartley-Harris while Jason Pennycooke gives two rousing performances, first as Marquis de Lafayette and then Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton himself seems not just “young, scrappy and hungry” but a little callow – at first. The character’s development is a journey marvellously depicted by Jamael Westman, who takes the part. Like Gore Vidal, who wrote of the same events in his Narratives of Empire series, Miranda knows that Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr is really the more interesting figure. Here is another life story that makes yet more political points, and a character who also narrates much of the show – the result is a breathtaking performance from Sifiso Mazibuko.

Sifiso Mazibuko as Aaron Burr in "Hamilton"
Sifiso Mazibuko as Aaron Burr

Miranda shares his talent for characterisation generously. This is a story about men but the women in the piece get their say. Even the most ardent fan of musicals has to admit this isn’t always the case and here it adds immeasurably to two love stories: Hamilton’s marriage and his unrequited romance with his sister-in-law. In the later role, Allyson Ava-Brown is stunning as she depicts a forceful woman very much of her time that we can still relate to. The role of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, goes to Rachelle Ann Go and, as with the title role, carefully matures to reveal a steely will and independence.

Rachelle Ann Go and Jamael Westman in the London production of "Hamilton"
Rachelle Ann Go and Jamael Westman

Eliza has the most wonderful love theme, a tune that really melts the heart. Which illustrates how varied the music in Hamilton is. While the rapping hit the headlines – and is superb – Miranda’s score contains a dizzying variety of styles that continually excite. Again, it is the traditional skills of writing for musical theatre that form the foundation for the show. Each character has a strong leitmotif and how well each number tells a story is remarkable. Like the show as whole, the information and emotions in each number are prodigious: there isn’t a single song that isn’t superb, adding up to a show that’s close to perfection.


Photos by Matthew Murphy

“Father Comes Home From The Wars” at the Royal Court

This American Civil War story, much lauded in the US, comes in three parts, following the adventures of its main character, a slave called Hero. Opening with a debate over his ‘choice’ to accompany his master to war, the second act sees a similar dilemma – an encounter with a Yankee soldier that presents him with an opportunity to escape. Finally, Hero returns home a traumatised man. All three vignettes are strong and cumulatively powerful.

Are you waiting for a twist? There is one, of course – playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ inspiration is Homer. Character names are enough of a clue (a dog called Odyssey has a talking role in the final scene) but also note that, in true Greek style, songs play an important part and there’s a distinct lack of action on stage. So there’s highfalutin analysis to be done here, for sure. Above that is Parks’ skill at story telling. Simple. This is an emotive tale of twisted interdependence. Politics aside, the psychology is fascinating, the writing clever but never tricksy. The concept might sound contrived but it’s a back-to-basics approach that works.

The show is also superbly acted. Steve Toussaint as Hero deserves to be singled out. Having to shoulder so many dilemmas, it’s an achievement to hold the audience so confidently. Working with him is an excellent ensemble – a chorus of fellow slaves who return in the finale as runaways, comprising Sibusiso Mamba, Jason Pennycooke and Sarah Niles. Special mention also to Nadine Marshall as Hero’s love, Penny, whose accent is superb and who ensures the emotions in Parks’ riff on the theme of loyalty.

The play’s questions of identity need little further stress – restraint is the key and with this director Jo Bonney’s job is well done. Moments of direct address or the use of modern costume feel like guiding hands rather than gimmicks, so deftly are they handled. Parks is a shrewd observer of history, an original thinker and technically accomplished. But she also has a sincere eye – with a watch on contemporary resonances and why these lives matter – that confronts the audience and sends a chill down the spine.

Until 22 October 2016


Photo by Tristram Kenton

“Guys and Dolls” at the Phoenix Theatre

With so many shows on offer in London, it’s unusual to see the same production twice. But the latest hit from the Chichester Festival Theatre, a brilliant revival of Frank Loesser’s classic musical of gamblers, gangsters and their gals, has a new cast that makes revisiting as joyous as the first time around.

The production is also on a parallel UK tour, and Peter McKintosh’s clever neon sign design is sure to serve the show well on its travels. A fine ensemble does justice to the choreography from Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright, while director Gordon Greenberg gives the show a Broadway feel despite its modest size.

Gavin Spokes remains with the show to reprise his brilliant Nicely Nicely Johnson and get yet more encores for Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat. Joined by Jason Pennycooke as Benny Southstreet, this is a double act that gets the show up to speed double quick. Siubhan Harrison also remains in town, ever more comfortable in her role as Salvation Army Sergeant Miss Sarah. Playing her love interest Sky Masterson is Oliver Tompsett, who gives a fine performance showcasing a surprisingly old-fashioned voice – he’s a proper crooner, sure to acquire fans. If the chemistry and charisma you might hope for isn’t quite magical, the humour is spot on.

GUYS AND DOLLS, ,Music and lyrics - FRANK LOESSER., Book - JO SWERLING and ABE BURROWS, Director Gordan Greenberg, Choreographer - Carlos Acosta, Designer - Peter MaKintosh, Phoenix Theatre, London, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /
Richard Kind and Samantha Spiro

Greenberg’s focuses on the fun in Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows’ book. As a result, it is low-rent fixer Nathon Detroit and his long-suffering fiancée Adelaide who become our heroes. Chichester’s original casting coup (David Haig and Sophie Thompson) is, if anything, bettered. American comedian Richard Kind takes over as Detroit, adding a down-at-heel quality that makes this smalltime crook all the more appealing, while Samantha Spiro is wonderful as his eternal bride to be, with comedy skills second to none and a belting voice that makes the most of Adelaide’s Lament and brings a Dietrich spin to Take Back Your Mink.

Until 29 October 2016


Photos by Johan Persson