Tag Archives: Jenna Russell

“Steve” at the Seven Dials Playhouse

The European première of this neat comedy drama is a sensible bet for a new venue. Mark Gerrard’s play is a solid affair, Andrew Keates’ direction is sure-footed, and the cast is a dream. With the refurbished Actors Centre looking swanky, and exciting forthcoming productions announced (don’t miss Foxes), the Seven Dials Playhouse is off to a great start.

Steve has the eponymous character’s marriage, to Steven, under pressure, not least because of their young son Stevie. Their best friends are either starting a new life as a ménage à trois or sick. If this mid-life trauma is sadly predictable, Gerrard handles the tropes… by adding show tunes. And we all know, musical theatre improves everything.

To be clear, nobody actually sings. But Steve and his circle are obsessed with Broadway shows and the work of Stephen Sondheim in particular. No matter what – infidelity, parenthood, sex, death, and friendship – there’s a Sondheim song to quote. And there’s musical accompaniment from a pianist to suggest, to those in the know, what might be coming next.

When it comes to the humour, it helps to have a working knowledge of Sondheim’s work. I’m such a fan I’ve seen Do I Hear A Waltz? so I thought it was all hilarious. But with so many references to Into the Woods and Company there is a danger some of the jokes are obscure. That said, my favourite line was a reference to the Géricault painting, with Steve describing his group’s fading sexual attraction akin to a gay Raft of the Medusa. With the help of confident comedy skills from the cast, Gerrard’s wit should entertain all.

Joe Aaron Reid in Steve at the Seven Dials Playhouse credit The Other Richard
Joe Aaron Reid

It helps that Steve is appealing, aided by a sterling performance from David Ames. Even the character’s moaning is entertaining. But the central relationship needs work in the script as well as in the play. Joe Aaron Reid plays the husband and does well in a horrible scene where he is juggling phone calls on his own. But we need to know this character better.

For heart the play relies on friendship. Most notably with Carrie, dying of cancer yet still very much alive: full of intelligence, integrity and humour. Taking the role, Jenna Russell shows why she is an actress to never miss – each scene she is in is lifted immeasurably. There are many reasons to see the show, but it’s Russell that makes Steve unmissable.

Until 19 March 2022

www.sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by The Other Richard

“Godspell” On Line, In Concert

This recorded concert, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a legendary show, boasts a special introduction from its composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Fans have the chance to hear some great new performances from a strong cast. And it’s all in aid of good causes: Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, Acting For Others and the National AIDS Trust.

I’m not a huge admirer of the piece, but there are plenty of good songs. While Schwartz knows variety is needed, both in style and emotional tempo, there aren’t enough stand-out numbers in a score that’s a little too easy on the ear. Thankfully, there’s no sense that any of the performers share my reservations. Among the West End stars assembled, it’s great to see and hear talents such as Alison Jiear, Jenna Russell and Sam Tutty. George Carter’s musical direction is of the highest quality.

Director Michael Strassen tries hard to tackle the fluid nature of the song cycle format. While original productions presented parables, here inserts reveal abstract concepts of what the songs are ‘about’: Prepare, Hope, Faith, even Class. The approach provides some structure but conflicts with the inclusion of photographs from the present day, mostly of care workers, that feel proscriptive. And Godspell’s religious content is strangely absent. It takes a while to remember that John-Michael Tebelak’s book is loosely based on the Gospel story. As a result, Darren Day’s emotive performance as Jesus ends up disconnected and rather odd.

Although a smaller problem, the performers are not helped by the video work in this production. The variety of backgrounds is nice, but the split scenes, phone screens (of course) and graphics are frequently, well, naff. Especially disappointing is their intrusion in Ruthie Henshall’s number, Turn Back, O Man, performed in the bath! With a rubber duck on board, we don’t need bubbles added – the performance alone is enough.

Another notable exception – some humour – comes with a fine performance from Ria Jones of Learn Your Lessons Well. Otherwise, the tone is earnest, dry even. Plenty of effort is made to inject energy (Jiear is especially good at this) but as a collection of short films, momentum never takes off. Much of this is not Strassen’s fault – it’s a reflection of the show itself. While it always sounds top notch, the piece is downright monotonous.

Until 29th August 2020

www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk

“The Bridges of Madison County” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s easy to see why talented composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown would be the go-to man for this project. His masterful The Last Five Years was a similarly simple love story that he managed to make interesting. But here the source material is Robert James Waller’s surprise best-selling book – a soppy affair of little promise. So, while the musical is wonderful and the production, from director Trevor Nunn, consistent with this venue’s high standards, the story is too thin and the show just a little dull.

In Iowa, which we’re too frequently reminded is a boring location, while housewife Francesca’s family is at the state fair, she has an affair with Rick, a photographer on assignment from National Geographic. Francesca’s dedication to her family means the romance is doomed. And that’s it – although on stage this brief encounter doesn’t exactly speed along.

A good deal of the problem comes from the men in Francesca’s life. Her husband, despite Dale Rapley’s efforts in the role, really is boring. And her lover, while initially charismatic, ends up pretentious and annoying. Edward Baker-Duly sounds good as Rick but the character is flat and the performance suffers as a result. Talk of his art, let alone his back story, grates. By the time he starts using his hands to frame a picture (which I’ve never seen a real photographer do), you wonder why Francesca isn’t planning to run away from both of them.

Mercifully, Marsha Norman’s book focuses on Francesca and the piece becomes her story. Since Jenna Russell takes the role – and is, thankfully, barely off stage – the show is pretty much saved. Russell sings every song to perfection and many of her numbers are superb. While Francesca is written as a touch too much the martyr, Russell has the presence to make her seem courageous. And she also injects some humour into the role, allowing us to warm to the character. Unfortunately, Russell is the only cast member that gets even a smile (sorry, the nosey neighbours and squabbling teenage kids don’t cut it).

With a score this intelligent, much can be forgiven: it’s a smart mix of Americana, with a controlled period feel, and delicate Italian touches indicating Francesca’s heritage. But not even Robert Brown’s brains can escape from the clichés in the story and his lyrics are, unusually, pedestrian at times. The whole piece is deliberately underplayed, which Nunn appreciates, and as a strategy that is understandable. This is supposed to be a story of everyday lives. When romance arrives, the score is lush but any heady moments are the only speedy thing here; the result is humdrum and humourless and the show ends up a frigid affair.

Until 14 September 2019

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

“Fun Home” at the Young Vic

Jeanine Tesori’s Tony award-winning musical is deceptively simple. It’s a modest story of family tragedy, a shell marriage and a suicide that is never overplayed. The lyrics, by Lisa Kron, are seldom flashy but always smart. Tesori’s music is beautiful, but folksy rather than symphonic. Such restraint takes sophistication. And the show’s aim, of a truthful search into the past, gains sincerity and emotional power through prudent understatement.

Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, it is the artist’s wish to paint “a picture of my father” that we are privileged to see performed. Bechdel is a lesbian and her father slept with men. Rather than supporting one another, in the style of the Gay Union Bechdel joins at college, repressed embarrassment and his frustrated life remain the consistent note. The roles make great parts for Kaisa Hammarlund and Zubin Varla, who are commanding throughout. But note: there are no sentimental pleas for understanding, no claims for revelations. Instead, what’s special about the tone of the piece is that no apologies are made. And there is a refreshing joy about Bechdel’s sexuality, with two songs of discovery – as a child and at college – that are highlights. Bechdel’s mother gets a fair turn, too, brilliantly portrayed by Jenna Russell. Again, there are no answers or explanations as to why she would stay in this marriage, but a bare dignity that is deeply moving.

The production from director Sam Gold is exemplary in its understanding of the piece – nothing distracts from the excellent storytelling and there isn’t a soap box in sight. And Gold gets strong performances from his child performers – indeed the acting all around is superb. Final praise goes to designer David Zinn for a stunning set that embodies the show: a rotating circle of furniture shows Bechdel’s obsession with bird’s-eye views, then a section in New York uses lighting to create comic book style panels, and finally the family home is revealed like a doll’s house. In each case, the point is clear and direct, forceful and impeccably well drawn.

Until 1 September 2018

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Doctor Faustus” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Smartphone screens light up the auditorium before this show begins, indicating that the crowd drawn by Jamie Lloyd’s new production is young and, it’s safe to guess, here for leading man Kit Harington. Good on Lloyd for making an Elizabethan (see below) play trendy. With creepy touches, bold humour and brilliant theatricality it feels as if you’re in with the cool crowd.

Harington is, thankfully, highly credible as the scholar who sells his soul to the devil. He wears just pants for a lot of the play, and even shows his bum a couple of times, but he gives a focused performance that demands to be taken seriously. Harington works well with the ensemble, even joining the innovative dance sections. It isn’t just a physique that is eye-catching here – Polly Bennett’s movement direction adds a sense of adventure, while the lighting design from Jon Clark is stunning.

I might be one of a small number whose real draw to the show isn’t the Game of Thrones star but Jenna Russell, who plays Mephistopheles. Odd I know. Russell’s brilliant performance made my night, with an uncanny ability to be physically threatening, as well as showing the sorrowful side of this fallen angel, creating a moving, grieving quality. Lloyd even gets some songs out of a great vocalist – Kylie’s ‘Better The Devil You Know’ and Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’.

The eclectic mix of music filling the show brings us to its modern additions: Christopher Marlowe’s opening and concluding scenes bookend a new play by Colin Teevan. Things start well by enforcing Faustus’ desire for celebrity. Miming air guitar, the doctor is on the party scene – told to “Sin big. Sin famously” – he’s a magician, clever, with servant Wagner reimagined as a woman called Grace who he falls in love with. Teevan adds compassion as well as contemporary touches that a modern audience easily relates to.

Later satire with attempts at topicality fall flat: bankers, businessmen, Obama, Cameron, Pope Francis and a particularly nasty scene with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have parallels with Marlowe’s seven deadly sins. But the real-life characters are dealt with too crassly. Lloyd likes to shock, and this production will go too far for many, me included, but it is to his credit that he reminds us of theatre’s power to be subversive. Introducing a new audience to this force is something magical.

Until 25 June 2016

www.atgtickets.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Grey Gardens” at the Southwark Playhouse

There are two five-star performances in this European première of Scott Frankel’s brave musical. Taking the roles of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little Edie’ – socialites who descend into far from genteel poverty – are Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell. The latter takes both parts, playing mother at the play’s start in 1941, and then daughter when the action leaps into the 1970s. Full marks in both instances – I’m losing count of how many stars Russell deserves.

Notable as the first musical to be based on a documentary film, the book by Doug Wright and bold lyrics from Michael Korie get a lot from this true story of privilege and mental instability. Grey Gardens is a nuanced look at a bizarre filial relationship that broadens beautifully as it questions frustrations about art, age and class. If there are reservations, there’s a feeling it helps to know the original film, although director Thom Southerland’s characteristically ambitious staging makes this a satisfying theatrical evening.

On the day of Little Evie’s engagement (with a young Jacqueline Bouvier lined up to be a bridesmaid), family eccentricities make eligible bachelor, one Joseph Kennedy, run away. Both mother and daughter (played in these scenes by one-to-watch Rachel Anne Rayham) have a “yen for the spotlight” and fancy themselves as performers. Frankel’s eclectic score gives them plenty of opportunity. Adding to frivolity is the live-in pianist, an “imported” black sheep, tackled stylishly by Jeremy Legat, and disapproving patriarch, Major Bouvier, impeccably performed by Billy Boyle.
Grey Gardens 2 Jenna Russell Photo Scott RylanderThere’s tragedy in the air even with a lot of 1940s fun, And the nostalgia has bite as the Bouvier Beales become trapped in past. The start of Act Two is one of the funniest things you’ll see: with Little Edie preparing to do battle with neighbours unhappy with the state of the house, now described as a 28-room litter box for their out-of-control cats and condemned as unfit for human habitation.Russell is in total control of the audience’s funny bones – it’s a camp treat with a New England drawl that brings tears to the eyes.
Grey Gardens 8 Sheila Hancock Photo Scott Rylander
As the insanity grows, Hancock gets a song about corn – yes, corn on the cob – and it’s clear this odd couple is in real trouble. Hancock’s ability to deliver cruel remarks gets the laughs, but care is taken to show the pain of these reclusive, paranoid lives. It’s a brave musical that carries such dour overtones but I don’t think either Edie would want our pity. These “staunch” women see character as a question of turning any scandal into triumph. Which is close to what the musical itself achieves, with its celebration of the individual and its characters’(admittedly unfulfilled) artistic aspirations. The Bouvier Beales finally get the applause they craved.

Until 6 February 2016

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by Scott Rylander

“Songs For A New World” at the St James Theatre

Jason Robert Brown is a composer known for his clever musicals and skilled songwriting, both evident in Adam Lenson’s 20th anniversary revival of his first work, Songs For A New World. A song cycle, rather than ‘proper’ musical, it has numbers set in distant ages and places, mixed with those about relationships that could be from any time and anywhere. The songs are connected by a moment when a life changes and a character develops. Startling and original, it’s the music’s instant appeal and variety, rather than the concept, that is the real highlight.

Lenson has some nice touches to suggest the fluidity the show aims for, but he never distracts attention from the performers – wise, as the four stars on stage are truly stellar. They sound better singing solo than as a group, but their voices are fantastic. First the boys – Damian Humbley and Dean John-Wilson – with songs of depression and ambition, often linked by the mistakes of fathers, perfectly delivered. Then Cynthia Erivo, who sounds appropriately heavenly as a woman who sings about her pregnancy and has a wonderful stage presence. But since I’m such a fan, Jenna Russell was my favourite, with the show’s funniest numbers: a suicidal rich bitch and the desperate wife of Santa Claus.

Yet even with performances like these, it’s frustrating to hunt for themes and connections when you really just want to enjoy the music. Songs For A New World feels like a collection of musicals waiting to break out rather than its bolder aim of something abstract. You want each song to develop – they sound so great. And each character introduced is one you want to know better. A surfeit of talent perhaps, the piece is more a soundtrack to love than a show to see.

Until 8 August 2015

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“Urinetown” at the St James Theatre

Finally receiving its London premiere 13 years after it was such a success on Broadway, Urinetown The Musical opened this week at the St. James Theatre. The dystopian satire, by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, earned a host of awards in the States. Although it struck me as strangely dated, a standing ovation at the performance I attended makes it clear that there’s an audience desperate to go.

The unprepossessing premise is that an ecological disaster has resulted in a world where people pay to pee. There’s surprisingly little toilet humour actually. Instead it’s a satire on politics and the musical form itself. I say it’s old fashioned since the mischief and the tastelessness now seem predictable, but the second act provides some memorable musical numbers and it’s always nice to see a musical trying a little bit of politics.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the production – indeed it makes the show worth spending your pennies to see. Jamie Lloyd’s direction is deft and dark, Soutra Gilmour’s design crying out for a West End transfer and the performances from a top rate cast are strong.

Urine Town
Jonathan Slinger

Jonathan Slinger is a revelation as the narrator and police officer Lockstock, ably abetted by Adam Pearce as officer Barrell. Police and politicians are merely the henchmen of business baddy Cladwell, performed archly by Simon Paisley Day, who is ultimately willing to sacrifice his daughter Hope, played by Rosanna Hyland. Hyland is joined by Richard Fleeshman, whose character Bobby Strong leads a Les Mis-style rebellion (wearing a pre-shrunk T-shirt despite the water shortage), both young leads look the part and sound great. Stealing the show, though, is the excellent Jenna Russell, who gives such a spirited performance as Mrs Pennywise she stops you thinking she’s wasted in the role.

As the characters’ names will have indicated, and direct addresses to the audience make clear, Urinetown is all very knowing. The conventions of musicals are prodded mercilessly, and this joke, though performed well, tires. Maybe the final irony is that the show shoots itself in the foot – if it doesn’t take the genre seriously then why should we? It’s clever, but not that funny and sacrifices serious points. After all, it’s difficult to say that much with your tongue in your cheek all the time.

Until 3 May 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 13 March 2014 for The London Magazine

“Merrily We Roll Along” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Another transfer, another success for the Menier Chocolate Factory – Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along has just opened at the Harold Pinter Theatre. It is the show’s first presentation in the West End, which seems remarkable since it is one of the master-composer’s greatest musicals – a complex work with the potential to appeal to a wide audience. The Menier’s production deserves its new location, showcasing the piece to perfection.

Making her directorial debut, renowned singer and Sondheim soulmate Maria Friedman excels. Under her supervision, Merrily We Roll Along serves as a tremendous vehicle for its leading trio: Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers, who star as Charley, Mary and Frank. Just as excellent are Clare Foster and Josefina Gabrielle as the women in Frank’s life. The latter benefits from an additional number, requested from Sondheim by Friedman, that makes a rollicking opener to the second act. With the chorus the production’s modest origins reveal themselves – positively – this is a mature team that sounds fantastic.

The musical is played backwards: we meet our heroes at the height of their careers, but bitter and weary. And in the finale we see the college chums ready to take on the world. It’s a device used to great effect and adds layers of meaning to music that emblazons itself on the memory. The score becomes simpler as the evening progresses, but feels richer with each number – a magical trick to pull off.

Nothing is lost in this production. The performances make the most of the narrative device of hindsight, but keep it sincere and never gimmicky. Merrily We Roll Along is clever stuff but it’s intelligent not pompous. All in all, it’s a brilliant piece that mustn’t be missed.

Until 25 July 2013

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 2 May 2013 for The London Magazine

“Season’s Greetings” at the National Theatre

Season’s Greetings is the National Theatre’s festive offering to its audience. It has a cast of shiny stars (Mark Gatiss, Katherine Parkinson and Catherine Tate) and might be thought of as well wrapped – designer Rae Smith’s set is impressive. Unfortunately, Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy of Christmas misery isn’t really the kind of gift you want to unwrap.

As a dysfunctional family come together for the festive holiday you can prepare yourself for laughs of recognition. Marianne Elliott’s direction gets the most out of Ayckbourn’s multi-vocal dexterity, but it is a touch laboured. The finale of Scene 3 may be hilarious, but it just takes too long to get there. Ayckbourn’s eye for detail delights some, and this piece has an additional nostalgic charm, but there’s a danger of having too many trimmings – just think about your Christmas dinner.

The cast of nine all get their moments in the spotlight and these are justly deserved but, as each marginally indulgent performance unfolds, the cumulative effect is forced. Nicola Walker is great at crying, Jenna Russell makes a tremendous stage drunk and Oliver Chris is superbly natural as the guest who sets the pulses of the families’ frustrated women racing. It is only Tate’s comic timing that is really spot-on. While Gatiss has great control, his character is so endearing that when the humour gets darker you feel a little guilty about laughing at him.

And the humour does get dark. Ayckbourn plays with the despair of the middle classes in a manner that can’t be described as fun – farce is often close to tragedy and the dark undertones here can take the smile off your face pretty sharpish. You will probably laugh – but it isn’t guaranteed. Nor will it leave you satisfied. It’s a Christmas present you don’t know what to do with afterwards.

Until 13 March 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 13 December 2010 for The London Magazine