Tag Archives: Julie Atherton

“Bare: A Pop Opera” at the Vaults

It’s tough to knock this well-intentioned musical from Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere. Dating from the year 2000, it’s a coming-of-age story with real catastrophe at its heart and this new production emphasises the tragedy of youth suicides because of homophobia. As promised by the title, there’s plenty of raw emotion. The target audience is clear – it’s a teen drama with trigger warnings that will surely become a much-loved favourite for many.

Set in a Catholic boarding school, where religion makes a powerful and well-explored theme, the story revolves around a closeted gay couple, students Jason and Peter. Taking the roles, Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand deliver sincere performances, while director Julie Atherton speeds the action along nicely. But the plot is as predictable as a Christmas Day sermon. Take the end-of-year theatrical production the school puts on – with its very heavy parallels to the main story – well, I don’t need to tell you which Shakespeare play they pick do I?

Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand

The Romeo and Romeo subtext has powerful moments and a distressing finale, as well as providing the score’s most interesting moments. But the characters we get to know are unfortunately flat and stereotyped: Peter, smart and sensitive, Jason, the school hero and heartthrob who wants to keep their love a secret. Cowley and Mack Shand work marvels with little but it is still too clichéd a combination.

Georgie Lovatt and Lizzie Emery

The women in the piece fare even worse. Georgie Lovatt takes her chance to stand out but her introductory number, ‘Plain Jane Fat Ass’, is uncomfortable. Her bête noire Ivy has a better song that Lizzie Emery shines with, but only after she’s been disgracefully used by Jason. Both women are characterised by their bodies – naughty – in a depressingly predictable manner.

Of course, we feel for these characters – but only because of their age and that isn’t quite enough. The only youngster who intrigues is the spurned Matt, who Tom Hier does well with. He may have a more hum-drum dilemma but, with less sentimentality, ends up surprisingly effective.

Jo Napthine

Thankfully, the more mature roles are better. Jo Napthine is woefully underused as Peter’s mother, but her main number is delivered superbly. As for Stacy Francis – she is the real deal. Playing the Virgin Mary in a dream sequence proves a real highlight; the show needs more lifts like this – the only other flight of fancy, the Act Two opener is also good. And, as the school’s drama teacher, Sister Chantelle, Francis can’t help but steal every scene. And prove yet again that good musicals really must include a nun.

Stacy Francis

There are quibbles with the production itself, which fans will happily ignore. Atherton has clearly done fine work in the rehearsal room – all the angsty one-on-ones are well executed. But the show comes unstuck in the venue. The auditorium (for Vault Festival regulars, usually the big bar) is poorly laid out. The choreography suffers, too. Stuart Rogers work is impressive but the sight lines here are very awkward and the stage noisy. There’s generally too much racket from moving around props, which proves distracting.

Nonetheless, success for the show would be welcome. The seriousness may be too earnest at times but the aspirations are impressive. If Intrabartolo’s score lacks stand-out numbers, the music works well dramatically and some of the duets are nice. Barman’s lyrics are dense and prove too much a bit too often – but they give voice to all manner of teenage concerns, from the trivial to the tragic. Shows like this are perennial, but Bare’s passion answers an important need with credibility.

Until 4 August 2019


Photos by Tom Grace

“The Grinning Man” at the Trafalgar Studios

The theatre world often fantasises about the next big British musical, and a home-grown piece is always something to celebrate, so this work, spearheaded by composer and lyricist team Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, has arrived from Bristol to the West End like a dream. The Grinning Man is original, polished and has a sense of integrity that, while making its success cultish rather than mainstream, wins respect.

The story is a fairy tale, heavy on the Gothic, but for grownups. Set in a familiar work, although with surprisingly little satire, our eponymous hero was disfigured as a child and is now a circus freak show. It’s a star role that Louis Maskell delivers with conviction. With a blind girlfriend and sinister adopted father in tow (Sanne Den Besten and Sean Kingsley), the much sung about “ugly beautiful” appearance of this charismatic changeling alters society for the better. The colourful royal family, with a strong quartet of performances from Julie Atherton, David Bardsley, Amanda Wilkin and Mark Anderson, all fall under his (inexplicable) spell. The only one on stage who seems immune is a villainous jester, for my money the lead of the show, brilliantly portrayed by Julian Bleach and winning most of the laughs.

The tale is as good as any by the Grimms. It’s based on a novel by Victor Hugo, and writer Carl Grose tackles it well. But the swearing, nymphomania and a bizarre incest plot make it adults only. It’s something of a puzzle – the temptation to appeal to a larger audience must have been great. A bigger problem is that the score only interests by including some bizarre electronic sounds and the songs aren’t catchy enough. While the dialogue is good, the lyrics, from Phillips, Teitler, Grose and also the show’s director Tom Morris, are too often uninspired.

Yet the production itself is an unreserved triumph. There’s fascinating movement and choreography from Jane Gibson and Lynne Page, accompanying Morris’s strong direction. And when it comes to portraying the worlds of circus and court, Jon Bausor’s design is magnificent. There’s a lot of puppetry, superb in design and execution, complemented by sets that are like a trip to Pollock’s toy shop. Topping it all, with a range of influences from steam punk to Gormenghast, are terrific costumes by Jean Chan. It’s the attention to detail, the look of the show, that puts smiles on faces.

Until 5 May 2018


Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Thérèse Raquin” at the Finborough Theatre

Thérèse Raquin, a new musical with book, lyrics and direction from Nona Shepphard and music by Craig Adams, has just opened at the Finborough Theatre. It’s bold, courageous even, with feet firmly planted on adventurous ground: an exciting evening of musical theatre with operatic ambitions.

Billed as a radical adaptation (you have been warned) by Shepphard it takes inspiration from Émile Zola’s tale of adultery and murder. The characters have a flatness that calls to mind myths or fairy tales – the conviction of Shepphard’s text makes them captivating. And Adams’ piano score is not easy listening, reminiscent of Philip Glass with its choral emphasis, rounds and repetition.

None of this makes it easy for the cast. But even performances that could be finessed win admiration for their bravura – and many of them are fantastic. The excellent Julie Atherton takes the title role, notable for her weighted silence long into the first act. Jeremy Legat has a trickier job as her sickly husband Camille. Legat sounds great but I am not sure about trying to inject some humour into the part. Ben Lewis plays the lover Laurent, complementing his tall, dark and handsome qualifications with a voice that’ll knock your socks off. Thérèse is accompanied by a chorus, with Matt Wilman, who also doubles as an oarsman, standing out. Shepphard puts Madame Raquin at the centre of the show and Tara Hugo gives a startling performance in the role, especially as the elderly lady succumbs to illness.

Shepphard also deserves credit for her directing skills, creating some great theatrical moments that enforce the imagery in her text. The recurring domino evenings, part of why Thérèse feels she is “buried alive” with her mother-in-law and feeble husband, are full of detail. The scene in a morgue, where Laurent tries to face his murderous actions, and a wedding night, with a ghostly reappearance from Camille, are superb.

Ultimately, to its credit, Thérèse Raquin is too big for the Finborough. This tiny venue is often top of my list for a visit, and what it achieves is remarkable, but the potential of this show seems too much. Despite the skillful set design from Laura Cordery, the production, especially the music, deserves a bigger stage. Naïve, perhaps, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if some far-sighted producer took a risk on something as different as this? Here’s hoping.

Until 19 April 2014


Photo by Darren Bell

Written 2 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Ordinary Days” at the Trafalgar Studios

Having had its London premiere at the Finborough Theatre back in 2008 we owe director Adam Lenson enormous thanks for staging another production of Ordinary Days. Adam Gwon’s musical is as far from the quotidian as it is possible to be. It’s a must-see.

Gwon’s story of four young people on one day in New York is a song cycle of love to the city. New York’s stresses and excitement, its random possibilities, are common enough urban tropes but Gwon presents them with unusual, appealing modesty as well as intelligence and great tunes.

Lenson has a similarly light touch, focusing on the intimacy of the piece and getting the best from his cast of familiar musical theatre performers. It would be a privilege to see these guys on any stage, but in a venue as intimate as the Trafalgar Studios it’s an unmissable opportunity.

Daniel Boys is perfectly cast as the lovelorn James. The chemistry he has with co-star Julie Atherton, who plays the recondite Claire, is palpable and both are in fine voice.
Deb and Warren
Lee William-Davis shows off his fine acting skills playing Warren, a sensitive soul lost in the city. Yet the revelation of the night is Alexia Khadime, who gives a tremendous performance as Deb, a frenzied graduate student who loses her notes and finds something more important. Khadime’s voice is as stunning as her comic ability.

Comparisons with writer/composer Jason Robert Brown are somewhat inevitable for Gwon. There are similarities and that is no bad thing. Ordinary Days is fresh, contemporary and brave. But Gwon’s musical has a more immediate lyricism and his writing a sentimental touch Robert Brown might shy away from.

Underlying Ordinary Days are questions that resonate with a modern urban audience, and ruminations on art and life that are delivered with emotional truth. Beauty is never far away in the city, or in Gwon’s wonderful score. With Lenson on board, Ordinary Days is 80 minutes of near perfection, so good you’ll want to see it again as soon as it’s finished.

Until 5 March 2011