Tag Archives: Mark Bramble

“Barnum” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

With the success of the film The Greatest Showman, also about nineteenth century theatrical impresario P.T.Barnum, the time should be ripe for this revival of Cy Coleman’s 1980 hit show. This is a whistle stop biography of the biggest barker in show business, rattling past his eventful life courtesy of Mark Bramble’s concisely structured book. With a big top themed design, by Paul Farnsworth, the stage is set for an extravaganza worthy of the man himself. There’s a lot of skill on stage and off so it’s a surprise and a shame that this production never reaches its full potential.

A multi-talented ensemble, many with breath taking circus skills, are impossible to fault. There’s a tremendous turn from Harry Francis as Tom Thumb, and an excellent performance from Celinde Shoenmaker as the famous singer Jenny Lind. The direction from Gordon Greenberg is accomplished, alongside Rebecca Howell’s choreography, it’s notable how well the theatre-in-the-round staging is handled. As for Coleman, there are some great show tunes here, truly rousing numbers you go away humming. To top it all is Laura Pitt-Pulford, as Barnum’s aptly named spouse Charity. Featuring large in his story – well done Bramble – Pitt-Pulford crafts a developed performance that gives a real sense of the character throughout her life. And she sounds great. Unfortunately, it’s a performance uncomfortably superior to Marcus Brigstocke who takes the title role.

Quite early into the show, Barnum notes that his “humbug” is old fashioned and that “educated” people won’t fall for his sales technique anymore. But what could create sympathy distances us from a potential hero. Even if Barnum’s politics were progressive, his affair with Lind strikes a sour note right before the interval – it’s enough to put you off your ice cream. There simply isn’t enough charm here and the fault falls with Brigstocke. We never get past the well-known comedian’s personality – a nice way of saying he can’t act. And while some adlibs around audience participation, including a painful attempt at tightrope walking, are fun Brigstocke doesn’t land the jokes in the show. Yes, he’s a funny man, but his Barnum isn’t funny. Worse still Brigstocke cannot sing. More specifically, his voice is weak and renders Michael Stewart’s patter lyrics, which should excite, inaudible. In short, he can tightrope walk better than he can act, and act better than he can sing, and he can’t walk the tightrope.

Until 3 March 2018

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Nobby Clark

“42nd Street” at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Bringing one of the most famous movie musicals to the stage, Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart’s adaptation of the 1933 backstage-on-Broadway tale relies on scale to secure success. Taking Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s fantastic collection of songs, they add more hits to the original list. Accompanying the great tunes, Randy Skinner’s Busby Berkeley-style choreography uses an enormous ensemble and every bit of the theatre’s huge stage. Spectacular is the key word.

As one of the many hit songs proclaims, “Who cares if there’s a plot or not?” Following chorus girl Peggy Sawyer’s rise to stardom, after breaking the ankle of her leading lady, doesn’t take much time. Instead 42nd Street is a collection of set pieces. Delivered big, with giant mirrors and staircases included in Douglas W Schmidt’s design. And what costumes – bravo to Roger Kirk. Who knew it was possible to be overwhelmed by sequins? To quote another song – “We’re in the money” – the producers haven’t skimped here.

Bramble is in charge and stamps his mark on the piece, like his potential onstage alter ego – another director – Julian Marsh. Tom Lister takes this role and shouts in capitals throughout, no doubt as instructed, detoxing the character’s old-fashioned pomposity and sexism. Camp is a clever way to deal with how the show has dated. But it isn’t the only possibility: so while An American in Paris give us old-age panache, here we have pastiche. Lots of humour and the over-the-top staging make everything ridiculous – deliberately so – and enormous fun.

Clare Halse
Clare Halse

Yet all the parody kills the characters. The star playing the star (she of the broken ankle) is Sheena Easton, who can belt out a number but fails to transfer personality into her role. Stuart Neal, as the shows tenor, makes all his smiling look like hard work; he is technically brilliant but the character leaves no mark. Thankfully, Clare Halse can’t be faulted as new star Peggy. She has ingénue down to a T and her tap dancing is superb. And Jasna Ivir, playing a matriarchal producer, is the epitome of value for money. Which is exactly what this show is – a West End ticket that’s worth every penny, delivering jaw-dropping, extravagant entertainment.

Booking until 10 February 2018

www.42ndstreetmusical.co.uk

Photo by Brinkhoff & Moegenbur

“The Grand Tour” at the Finborough Theatre

Those hoping to find a formula for the success of a musical may be confused by the The Grand Tour’s poor reception on Broadway. The 1979 show by the legendary Jerry Herman is only now receiving its London premiere at the tiny Finborough Theatre, and I can’t for the life of me work out why. The book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble is more than serviceable, while the music and lyrics by Herman are superb. The show’s themes certainly live up to its ambitious title.

OK, so The Grand Tour is old fashioned. Maybe it’s not that original either. And the escapades of Jewish intellectual Jacobowsky and Polish Colonel Stjerbinksy as they flee from the Nazis are sometimes a little silly: there’s a circus, a wedding and even some nuns. But these flights of fancy fill a desperate journey with colour – even a scene on a crowded train is vivacious – and Herman’s score looks past dark events to embrace affirmation.

The Grand Tour 5 Natasha Karp, Nic Kyle, Vincent Pirillo, Michael Cotton, Samuel J Weir, Laurel Dooling Dougall, Alastair Brookshaw and Lizzie Wofford photo Annabel Vere
Natasha Karp, Vincent Pirillo, Michael Cotton, Samuel J Weir, Laurel Dooling Dougall and Lizzie Wofford make up a powerful ensemble

Alastair Brookshaw succeeds in making the unbelievably optimistic Jacobowsky heroic, while Nic Kyle gives Stjerbinsky more dimensionality than he’s written with. The finest moments come with a gentle love triangle around Marianne, the Colonel’s fiancée, played by the charming Zoë Doano. The excellent Thom Sutherland directs a powerful ensemble and Phil Lindley’s set is cleverly cartographic. Sutherland works flawlessly in small venues and The Grand Tour deserves big success.

Until 21 February 2015

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Annabel Vere