Tag Archives: Menier Chocolate Factory

"The Boy Friend" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Sandy Wilson’s light-as-a-feather-boa musical was a legendary hit in the 1950s. Superb work from Matthew White, assisted with direction by his choreographer Bill Deamer, show us why.

It’s hard to imagine a show more fantastically escapist. Inspired by work from the 1920s, please remember The Boy Friend was nostalgic nonsense from its inception. The romantic adventures of rich kids and their elders on the French Riviera are deliberately low stakes. White appreciates the piece needs to appear effortless and banishes worries from the stage.

Tiffany Graves in 'The Boyfriend' at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Tiffany Graves as Hortense

The characters are flat-as-cardboard cut-outs and a marvellous cast understand the humour this can generate. There’s a wonderful sweetness to our leading lovers, Polly and Tony, given a fresh feel by Amara Okereke and Dylan Mason, who both sound fantastic. A star-turn from Janie Dee, as a head teacher with a past, is just as delightful. Dee allows you to laugh at the character while believing she’s sophisticated (and that’s hard). Meanwhile her maid, Hortense, is a brilliant vehicle for Tiffany Graves, who embodies the comedic tone. Within a minute of coming on stage she’s given us an accent Vicki Michelle would be proud of and crossed her legs like Cupid Stunt. It’s clear, very quickly, you need to relax and enjoy yourself.

Jack Butterworth and Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson in 'The Boyfriend' at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Jack Butterworth and Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson

Talking of legs, there’s plenty of them in The Boy Friend. Deamer’s work as choreographer foregrounds the piece’s potential as a dance show and the limbs of the cast deliver. There’s the Charleston, tap, tango and the show’s very own ‘Riviera’. Winning the high-kicking competition is Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as “mad-cap Maisie” whose dances with her beau Bobby (Jack Butterworth) are a dream. On a relatively small stage, there are moments when the show feels cramped – transfer anyone? – but the dancing consistently impresses with its wit and sense of ease, just the qualities needed here.

Wilson’s cynicism is of the gentlest kind – which White is strict in preserving – and the result is frothy from first to last. But don’t be fooled; this easy fun has work behind it. The score is a perfect combination of comedy numbers, catchy tunes and sentimental ballads. The lyrics are consistently smart and very funny. This is a show constructed to make you clap – nearly every number has a reprise – it is literally built to please.

Rejoicing in pink lighting from designer Paul Anderson for that vie en rose touch and gorgeous costumes from Paul Farnsworth that got a round of applause the night I attended (I can’t remember the last time that happened in the theatre), White and his team create a bubble of happiness. It’s all smiles, romance and charm, with every performer seeming to enjoy themselves. Why not, when there’s so much love in the air? The Boy Friend is a show to simply adore.

Until 7 March 2020

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Orpheus Descending" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

While recent revivals of works by the great Arthur Miller have attracted a lot of deserved attention, new productions of plays by his compatriot Tennessee Williams are just as exciting. This one, showcasing a difficult piece that’s often ignored or dismissed, should be a hot ticket. Director Tamara Harvey has crafted a great show that views the text as an opportunity rather than a problem, and the result is revelatory.

Harvey isn’t satisfied with the clichés of Southern Gothic that surround much of Williams’ work. She takes a quieter approach and, at first, the arrival of a charismatic stranger in a small town is played – almost – like a soap opera. There’s a strong sense of community embodied by gossiping neighbours, roles that Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson excel in. After all, there’s no reason for the set-up to be instantly claustrophobic. There’s plenty of time for that to develop.

The same restraint is shown with the central pairing of the shopkeeper Lady Torrance and the wandering minstrel Valentine Xavier who comes to work for her. We can see Lady’s frustration and his charisma from the start, but the move into an affair is depicted with sophistication. The excellent performances from Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich intrigue the audience before ratcheting up the tension.

Of course, Orpheus Descending has oddities – wonderful ones. Lady ends up as one of Williams’ most tragic female leads (which is saying something), while Valentine’s fate aims at being mythic. Yet Morahan prevents Lady from being too much the victim, exciting our interest and arousing our sympathy. Numrich makes his role credible by underplaying the extraordinary – he’s a nice guy rather than some unearthly gigolo.

You might be wondering if Harvey has shorn off too much of the show and perhaps domesticated Williams somehow? But it would be a tough allegation to substantiate. Music and myth are still central to the piece – and focused all the better. The score from Simon Slater is excellent, if too muted. The figure of Uncle Pleasant, suggesting both history and racism – played with commanding presence by Valentine Hanson – is given some of Williams’ scene-setting stage directions to read, enforcing his all-seeing role. There’s still plenty to question and unnerve.

Jemima Roper

Harvey’s strategy in miniature is shown with the role of local girl gone wrong, Carol. Suggesting conflicts in human nature that Williams wanted to examine makes it a tough call for a performer. But Jemima Roper conveys the ideas with real drama, presenting the desperate figure of a “lewd vagrant”, and a campaigner, clear about the corruption that surrounds her. Finally, she is a visionary who is “sick with neon”. Carefully taking us through these steps enforces the play’s structure, characters and ideas. With Harvey’s skills, Orpheus Descending gradually goes up, up, up, all the way.

Until 6 July 2019

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Johan Persson

"Fiddler on the Roof" at the Playhouse Theatre

It’s great to see the Menier Chocolate Factory back in the West End. Tickets for this revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s musical sold out quicker than a Brick Lane beigel for its home run near London Bridge, so a bigger venue means a welcome chance to see this excellent show. One word of warning, though – behave as if you were a rich man and treat yourself to a good seat.

Under Paul Bogaev’s musical direction Bock’s music sounds great, Sheldon’s lyrics are always a treat and director Trevor Nunn has a careful appreciation of Joseph Stein’s book: the structure is kept tight, the characters vivid and the jokes are great. Famously recounting the story of Jewish life in a Russian village just before the revolution, the lead role of Tevye has been career defining before and, taking the part here, Andy Nyman does not disappoint. The poverty-stricken patriarch struggles with his wife (a strong performance from Judy Kuhn) and the marriages of his three eldest daughters. Taking these roles Molly Osborne, Nicola Brown and Harriet Bunton do a fabulous job of injecting youth and energy into the show, and their opening number is a real delight. Each of the troubled romances convinces, mixing sweetness and poignancy with strong songs.

It really is worth splashing out on a posh seat, though. While Robert Jones’s set design – evoking Chagall but with a restrained colour palette appropriate to the piece’s surprisingly somber tone – deserves praise, projecting the stage into stalls causes problems. A lot of seats have been sacrificed (hence the ticket price?) but little account taken of the view from the balcony. Nunn should know better than this. Thankfully Matt Cole’s choreography, based on Jerome Robbins’ original work, is still strong enough to thrill; not just the acrobatics but the way dance is used to illustrate the close community and the struggles with modernity that it faces.

Fiddler on the Roof really fascinates. It’s funny, a simple story, well told, that feels solidly old fashioned. But, while focused on tradition, the theme of the show is actually change. New and old are both present in the 1964 piece itself. Much of the first half seems very Broadway – the format is conservative and almost predictable. But, as a concern for history takes over, the show become bravely dark. As the approaching Cossacks move from a threat to a reality, Tevye shows the limits of his own tolerance (Nyman is an excellent here). There’s a combination of pain, incomprehension and dignity in the characters and the story that the production embraces, moving us from high-class entertainment to a questioning and emotionally turbulent finale.

Until 2 November 2019

www.fiddlerwestend.com

Photo by Johan Persson

"The Grönholm Method" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s a good idea to splash out on this venue’s excellent meal deal for this one. While this blog doesn’t recommend food and drink, this play, from Jordi Galceran, is perfect after-dinner theatre. With some wine helping you to swallow the improbable antics that four candidates for a job are put through, and a digestif over shared stories afterwards, an evening should go well enough. If a little smugly.
It’s no surprise that the play has been a global success (since its Spanish premiere in 2003 there have been productions in 60 countries). The job interview is a nice enough universal scenario, even if are watching executives here. Does Galceran tap into truths about the modern work place? Inevitably, if exaggerated for comedy, but not profoundly. The production itself goes down smoothly, with efficient direction from BT NcNicholl and a suitably sleek office design from Tim Hatley. There is humour in the bizarre interview situation, the cruel and pointless challenges posed, and lots of surprising twists that are set up well.
The characters themselves are simply devices to play with. It’s a bit of a shock to see one transgendered character bullied, partly because even bigoted interviewees would surely be more guarded, but more because this leaves a nasty taste in what is predominantly easy fare. But Jonathan Cake does well as a ruthless salesman we can all enjoy hating, Greg McHugh and John Gordon Sinclair have a firm grasp of the comedy, and Laura Pitt-Pulford is her usual good value as the predictably-tough-but-still-more-sensitive-than-the-men Melanie. All the cast make it look easy – which it isn’t – and without these strong performances the show would stink. But, as things stand, this play is an entertaining, if forgettable, diversion.
Until 7 July 2018
www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photo by Manuel Harlan

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" at the Menier Chocolate Factor

Four decades is a long time in sexual politics, but it makes this revival of Manuel Puig’s story all the more interesting. There’s no shortage of clichés about gay life surrounding the imprisoned Molina, some of which might make you feel uncomfortable. But, as the relationship with his cell mate Valentin develops into something ‘beyond’ masculine and feminine, we see more clearly now than ever the original intention that Molina is a transgendered character. Missing the opportunity to cast a performer who identifies as such in the role is a debate I leave to others better qualified to discuss. But this timely new version, by José Rivera and Allan Baker, provides the kind of detailed depiction of human sexuality many crave to see on stage.
Jon Bausor’s ambitious design visualises Molina’s fantasy life. As he passes the time recounting and embellishing old movie plots, there are projections on to prison corridors and sound effects. The space surrounding the couple’s cell come into use: as love blossoms, the men start to venture outside, each step they take dramatically thrilling, leading to a magically poignant finale of escape through death. Sorry for the plot spoiler, but it would be surprising if anyone thought the play, set in a police state and full of torture, would end happily. The important point is a victory, of sorts, with both men’s spirits unconquered.
The show is a triumph for its stars, on stage without a break for just shy of two hours. Declan Bennett, well known as a musical theatre performer, shows his strength an actor playing Valentin. He’s a political prisoner and, while this element of the plot, and the tension surrounding it, is downplayed, Bennett convinces as a man of powerful integrity and intelligence. Samuel Barnett takes the role of Molina. He may ham up the more theatrical moments a touch, but he is never less than magnetic. Molina bargains with his captors, acting as a double agent, and there could be the suggestion of more complex motivations on his part. But the strategy is to present Molina wholly sympathetically and, pursuing this, Barnett secures affection for his character, making the show deeply moving.
Until 5 May 2018
www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photo by Tristram Kenton

"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 the shows 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

"She Loves Me" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Here’s a real treat for loyal fans of David Babani’s London Bridge venue. The ‘musical lovers’ musical’, by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, is perfect fare for the Menier, ticking every box with gorgeous songs and great lyrics. And this fine production does the musical masterpiece full justice.
Joe Masteroff’s book is one of many adaptations of Miklós László’s play about two lonely-heart letter writers, Georg and Amalia, who are in love while unaware that they work together in a posh perfumery. It’s a delicious, fun-filled scenario, given weight by the performances of Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen. The couple’s delivery of each song is spot on. And each song is wonderful.

Katherine Kingsley and Dominic Tighe
Katherine Kingsley and Dominic Tighe

There’s a second love story, too: the romantic adventures of Ilona, betrayed by her colleague, the womanising Kodaly. What could be a sub plot stands proudly alongside the leads because of Katherine Kingsley and Dominic Tighe’s performances. And a third affair: the melancholy discovery of the shop’s owner, played by Les Dennis, that his wife is betraying him.
For every sentimental element in this musical, the trials of the characters make you feel this is a grown-up affair. The careful age distribution adds to the effect – Umbers does well to show us George as a middle-aged man. As with Amalia’s letters, everyone becomes a ‘dear friend’, their lives, loves and ambitions so perfectly encapsulated in the songs.
Director Matthew White does an impeccable job. Superb cameos from shop clerk Sipos (Alastair Brookshaw) and Cory English’s maître d’ show his level of attention and care. His decision to have strong British accents seems an unnecessary complication. There’s no reason for Georg and Amalia to sound like something from Brief Encounter. The only role that benefits is Ilona – turned into a northern blonde bombshell that makes Kingsley irresistible. A minor quibble for a production that deserves applause even for the set – brilliant work from Paul Farnsworth. And if some scenes seem cramped, it’s only more proof that the production deserves a bigger venue. She Loves Me is increasingly recognised as a major work. What a present a transfer of this great show would be.
Until 4 March 2017
www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photos by Alastair Muir
Norman Pace will take over from Cory English between 10 January – 6 February.

"Travesties" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Wearing his director’s hat, Patrick Marber has excelled with this revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play. A characteristically dense affair, it uses the flawed reminiscences of an English diplomat in Zurich, one Henry Carr, to bring together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara, thus covering politics, literature and art. You need to pace yourself to keep up.
Formally inventive, Stoppard uses speeches, verse and songs, while modifying Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (if you need a reason, Carr performed the play in his youth). The elderly Henry suggests his memoirs could be a collection of sketches, and Marber embraces this to create some vaudeville scenes worthy of Cabaret Voltaire. Carr’s dementia is a wicked parallel to free association, ironically utilised in this satisfyingly controlled puzzle of postmodern plenitude.
Carr observes that as an artist you have to “pick your time and place” and in choosing such a fertile moment in European history, applying his own frame and distorting it, Stoppard has the audience enthralled. OK, it’s difficult to imagine many erudite enough to get their heads around the whole thing (you’d have to be as clever as, well, Tom Stoppard), but it’s great fun trying to keep up. It’s so crammed with humour that getting just half the jokes makes it worth it.
There’s a lot going on in Henry’s head, and Tom Hollander’s finest moments come when memories overwhelm his irascible character. Playing his younger self, he makes the comedy work hard. Stoppard even provides the review for his lead actor: parts don’t come much more demanding than this and Hollander really is superb. This this is a technically brilliant performance, the aged voice truly remarkable.
The rest of the cast seem spurred on by Hollander’s star turn, making each role memorable. Freddie Fox is superbly cast as the decadent Tzara – his switch to Wildean mode is faultless. Peter McDonald and Forbes Masson manage to make, respectively, Joyce and Lenin men you can laugh with as well as at. Clare Foster and Amy Morgan’s witty singing battle as Cecily and Gwendolen is a highlight in a show that has no shortage of brilliant moments. Stoppard and Marber run from any potential the play might have toward pretention. Just don’t forget to take a breath yourself.
Until 19 November 2016
www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photos by Johan Persson
 

"Into The Woods" at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Derek McLane’s set, surrounding the Fiasco Theatre Company as it performs its hit transfer from the States, is a sculptural presence that takes us inside a piano. Discarded keyboards frame the stage and the strings are ropes, suggesting the trees among which James Lapine cleverly mixes and matches fairy tales to Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant music.

menier chocolate factory
Claire Karpen as Cinderella with Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen as the Stepsisters

Visually and aurally, this is a stripped-back show. A single piano, with an impressive array of percussion and a smattering of other instruments, is performed by the cast, and led by pianist Evan Rees. Sacrifices are inevitable, incidentally discordant notes at the entrée of Act Two are unnecessary, but the singing is all you could wish for, especially with Claire Karpen and Vanessa Reseland as Cinderella and The Witch. There’s some lovely doubling of roles as well. Having the princes perform as the wicked stepsisters is worth sacrificing two sopranos; Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen are marvellous, also taking the roles of the wolf and the cow in their stride.
Vanessa Reseland as The Witch
Vanessa Reseland as The Witch

It all seems a casual and convivial affair. The troupe wear home-spun costumes (crochet is always comforting), the props are minimal and the emphasis on invention is, well, jolly. There’s a conversational tone injected by directors Brody and Ben Steinfeld, constructed by having the cast share the role of narrator, while nodding at audience participation and our shared knowledge of the stories. Brilliantly done, but the payoff is to come.
It’s the ‘ever after’ that’s the best bit, when the wishes made have come true but life remains just as complicated. The baker and his wife come into focus – with terrific performances from Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian. This couple are the key and the most relatable characters in the show, even if they do live next to a witch. Fiasco has prepared the ground cleverly; all that complicity and transparency links their stories to our own lives. In showing how you make the make believe, going into these woods feels like a real journey we must all undertake.
Until 17 September 2016
www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photos by Catheine Ashmore

"The Truth" at Wyndham’s Theatre

French playwright Florian Zeller’s well-deserved success continues with this sparkling comedy of manners about adultery. As with his previous hit, The Father, Christopher Hampton adapts and the production comes from Bath, this time via the Menier Chocolate Factory. Twisting perspectives and playing with expectations, Zeller’s winning formula engages the audience in an enthralling fashion. This is edge-of-your seat comedy – as exciting as it is funny.
The staging is an austere affair – the flair comes with the writing and director Lindsay Posner keeps the action and performances taut. Four friends and their affairs, the deceit and double crossing, interrogations and revelations, are delicious. The thoughtful overtones of a play so self-consciously about lying are held in check to serve the high-quality humour.
Alexander Hanson, as Michel, gives a gleeful performance as an arch hypocrite who sees guilt as “useless” and lying as the sensitive thing to do. Hanson gets the lion’s share of the lines, followed by the mistress, a convincingly chic Frances O’Connor, her husband, who is his best friend, and the wife. The latter two, played by a wonderfully dry Robert Portal and Tanya Franks (brilliant in the final scene), may be on stage less but it’s testament to the script and cast that this play feels such a firm four-hander. The betrayed have secrets of their own (of course!), providing shocks and laughs.
The circle of lies Zeller constructs is viciously funny and satisfyingly clever. Silly slips and people trapped into telling the truth all happen in a wealthy milieu where discretion is the obsession. With lashes of Gallic sophistication only adding to the fun for a London audience, the wit and irony here is finessed to perfection.
Until 3 September 2016
www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk
Photo by Marc Brenner