Tag Archives: Menier Chocolate Factory

“The Baker’s Wife” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Merci beaucoup to David Babani’s venue and director Gordon Greenberg for staging this musical theatre curio from the legendary Stephen Schwartz.

The Baker’s Wife is a sweet show with good songs and a great sense of humour. Schwartz and the book’s writer Joseph Stein are Francophiles both. There’s a clear affection for the source material – La Femme du boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono – that adds a warmth. And it is hard to imagine a better production for what is a deceptively complicated work.

The appeal is clear and the show unusual for Schwartz in being, very self-consciously, a chamber piece. There is an interesting tension between proclamations about small sensual moments said to encompass all our lives. And they really do mean everyone. The intimate Menier, with a superb set from Paul Farnsworth, reflects this ambition. The location might be a small village, upset by a new baker and his much younger wife arriving, but we see a lot of the locale and the cast numbers 19. It’s to Greenberg’s credit that not too many of the characters get lost. 

There are serious intentions. Genevieve, the wife in question, runs off with a younger man, leaving her devoted spouse, Aimable, devastated… and after such lovely songs, too. There are great numbers for both Lucie Jones and Clive Rowe, who take the roles, but their rather pat dilemma is not helped by the rogue she runs off with being a weak character (Joaquin Pedro Valdes, who sings wonderfully, is distinctly short changed). There’s a lot of sentiment, arguably an excess of slow numbers, and surely too many sincere looks with clasping hands between the cast. The lyrics are great, though perhaps a touch repetitious. 

Lighter moments are better – and these aren’t just comedic. There’s a powerful thread of nostalgia and melancholy to the piece, exemplified by a fine performance from café owner Denise, played by the always excellent Josefina Gabrielle, that is surprisingly airy. And the show is funny. The triumvirate of teacher, curate and mayor make great roles for Mark Extance, Matthew Seadon-Young and Michael Matus, who are all superb. There’s fun, too, for Norman Pace and Liam Tamne, playing old rivals who become friends. And a highlight is a song called ‘Bread’, which is rather brilliant.

It’s a lot, though, and, despite admirable efforts from Rowe in particular, The Baker’s Wife doesn’t quite come together. For a start, the story has too easy a solution. While an effort is made with the women in the show, including the mayor’s three “nieces” (one of whom he, ahem, offers to the baker to cheer him up) their group number, entitled ‘Romance’, feels forced and none of the female characters as vivid. Since the aim is to show us a whole community, that’s a big fault. For all the strong songs – very well performed – there isn’t enough to take away. Sketchy rather than slim, there are laughs and plenty of heart-felt moments, but the pleasure is from a fine production of a show seldom seen. 

Until 14 September 2024

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“The Power of Sail” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Paul Grellong’s strong play works well as both a think piece and a thriller. Set in Harvard, a professor who invites a right-wing speaker to a prestigious symposium causes predictable trouble that escalates into tragedy. With the help of director Dominic Dromgoole, and a crack cast, this quality affair is a success.

First the debate, and top marks for topicality. Arguments for and against the invitation are set out well. Free speech versus the feelings of students is only one angle. Our professor, Charles Nichols, wants to defeat the Neo-Nazi believing that the answer to hate speech is more speech. But Nichols is a narcissist, full of pride and privilege, even if we don’t doubt he’s one of the good guys. Julian Ovenden is perfectly cast in the lead and does a great job. The arguments are clear, presented with a cool passion, while there are just enough hints that something else is going on.

The-Power-of-Sail-at-the-Menier-Chocolate-Factory-Julian-Ovenden-and-Giles-Terera-by-Manuel-Harlan
Julian Ovenden and Giles Terera

Students past and present argue with him, providing neat roles for Michael Benz, Katie Bernstein and Giles Terera. There is more to each than meets the eye. Meanwhile the Dean, played by Tanya Franks, isn’t happy either as her friend Nichols is turning into her biggest problem. Franks is perfect at showing underlying tension, making us wonder if her problems are personal or political. It turns out everyone here has other agendas.

The-Power-of-Sail-at-the-Menier-Chocolate-Factory-Katie-Bernstein-and-Tanya-Franks-by-Manuel-Harlan
Katie Bernstein and Tanya Franks

As motives come to light, the play contains twists. OK, there aren’t any gasp out loud moments. And moving the action back and forth in time might be a bit clearer. But the sense of disappointment over some characters or a wish to cheer others on is real and shows how smart the writing is. Plus, all those extras complicate the debate in an intelligent way.

Campus dramas can be rarefied. The Power of Sail doesn’t quite escape that problem and, although Dromgoole keeps the pace quick, in general the characters are too naïve. How caught up everyone is in their own world might be explored, how their actions have wider consequences emphasised, instead everyone just seems a little out of touch. Nonetheless, what could be a dry subject, although important, is made dramatic and the production impresses.

Until 12 May 2024

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Pacific Overtures” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Two white Americans telling a story from an Asian perspective might ring alarm bells for some nowadays. Investigating Western Imperialism, with the arrival of a military presence to an isolated Japan in 1853, is tricky. But, surely, the first point in favour of this revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical is that you’re going to have to think. The work is as challenging as it was when it débuted in 1976, maybe more so.

It turns out that in skilful hands the project works… for the most part. The casting is sensitive. Indeed, this is a co-production with the Umeda Arts Theatre in Japan. There are clichés about the country and the history is whistle-stop, but it should be noted that the show has been updated, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler. Attempts at humour are limited (and excellent, by the way, ‘Please Hello’ is an erudite highlight). Two numbers that deal with sex – both showing violence toward women – make a powerful, disturbing pairing. Nonetheless, it all feels slim.

Director Matthew White’s brilliant staging is a triumph of minimalism, and the show looks amazing. Paul Farnsworth’s set, Ayako Maeda’s costumes and Paul Pyant’s lighting are all gorgeous. And there’s Ashley Nottingham’s choreography, with You-Ri Yamanaka credited as a cultural consultant – the way the cast moves is fascinating, and every action in the show is carefully curated. Could all this almost be a problem? Could the aesthetics be fetishistic: the idea of Japan (that Empire of Signs) can be intoxicating. Maybe you’d counter by saying the idea is potent for nations all over the world. White is certainly overt about the idea of presenting the past like a museum display.

It isn’t fair to say Sondheim, Weidman or White paint broad strokes when they are also precise. But a lot of ground is covered very quickly (the show is short). A saving grace comes with something surprisingly old-fashioned – the characters. A trio focus drama and emotion. There’s Kayama, a samurai given the thankless task of dealing with the unwelcome Americans, and his wife, Tamate, who have a brief but beautiful romantic number and tragic story. Takuro Ohno and Kanako Nakano give exquisite performances in the roles. Afterwards, Kayama’s friendship with Manjiro, a strong role for rising star Joaquin Pedro Valdes, reflects responses to cultural change in an easy manner. And John Chew also deserves praise as the narrator who anchors the show – although his role’s transformation into Emperor Meiji is the book’s poorest move.

Unusually for a Sondheim piece, consideration of his music and lyrics is delayed – there is so much else to bear in mind. There are brilliant songs in Pacific Overtures, the lyrics are a model of efficiency as smart as you’d expect. The score was innovative in 1976 and stands out just as much now. The show is a must for fans – it doesn’t come around that often – and this is as fine a production as I can imagine. Still, for most, the evening is probably more interesting than enjoyable, its brevity being a problem that makes it an overture rather than a complete work.

Until 24 February 2024

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Third Man” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

The creative crew for this new musical thriller, based on Graham Greene’s spy classic, cannot fail to impress. The book and lyrics are by the renowned Don Black and Christopher Hampton. The music is from none other than George Fenton. And Trevor Nunn himself directs. The experience behind the show is almost intimidating and the result of all this consummate skill makes it hard to find flaws. With one caveat.

Black and Hampton do their strong source material proud. The story of old friends Holly Martins and Harry Lime in post-war Vienna is well known but thrilling. Greene’s themes of innocence and corruption become vivid, the moral dilemmas vital. There are strong moments of absurdity and cruel humour while exposing villainy. The lyrics may not excite, but they are a model of clarity. Best of all, the characters are fantastic.

Martins describes himself as a “hack writer who drinks too much”. But he is much more and, as Sam Underwood’s fraught performance in this enormous role reveals, he intrigues. Is he a hapless figure who finds the desperation on the streets of Vienna contagious? Or is he troubled on arrival? There’s something unnerving as well as innocent about the laugh Underwood employs. And, as the night goes on, he genuinely looks ill.

Lime appears late in the story, but the criminal mastermind looms large over everything. Simon Bailey’s charisma in the role – and a jaunty entrance number – make the wait for his arrival worth it. The stage is electric whenever Bailey occupies it. Meanwhile, the bigger winner in making the story a musical is the love interest, Anna. Performed with skill by Natalie Dunne, the character has a satisfying agency. And as a cabaret singer she provides some humour. The big idea is to emphasis the romance in The Third Man.

The love songs are some of the score’s finest moments, though Fenton’s music is accomplished throughout. If there aren’t enough memorable tunes for all tastes, this is an erudite score to study. Full of references and interest, it sets time and place with intelligence. The theme tune of the film (by Anton Karan) does appear – oh, so, very well placed – but its inclusion is the least of Fenton’s achievements.

Final praise is for Nunn’s direction – big and ambitious, despite the small venue. Nunn is too enthralled by the famous film – it was by Carol Reed, after all! Which cannot apply to Rebecca Howell’s choreography, at its best in more manic moments. Paul Farnsworth’s set and costumes are appropriate studies in shades of grey. Add Emma Chapman’s lighting design and it all looks very stylish. If the action is followed too faithfully, the amount packed on to the stage is fantastic.

With all this undoubted ability, where is my reservation? This crew knows what it’s doing and has created a grown-up musical that is credible. Nor can you question the amount of work behind the show or on stage from a committed ensemble. Not only does everyone run around (a lot), it is clear that every decision is considered. But – it is a strange flaw to find – that becomes the problem. There’s no spark, no adventure. Everything runs so very well that there is nothing unexpected. So, while The Third Man is a musical to admire, it is not, theatrically, a thriller.

Until 9 September 2023

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Marjorie Prime” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Given that it deals with dementia, grief and artificial intelligence it’s not a surprise that Jordan Harrison’s play is fairly hard work. But given that there’s little so little action in the piece, Marjorie Prime packs a remarkable punch. Tightly written, fraught conversations lead to a chilling conclusion, which I suspect was the inspiration for the whole show.

Although the 2014 play has already been a hit – and a film – plot spoilers are especially tricky as so much of the piece’s power come from its twists and structure. It doesn’t seem too naughty to say the show opens with Marjorie and her ‘Prime’ – a robot that looks like her husband 50 years ago and is learning to be like him to aid her memory. Creeped out yet?

Harrison is light on the science behind AI, and some might like more explanation – or even more exploration of problems that, surely, come with the very idea. The technology is accepted (which is probably an accurate prediction) and doesn’t follow a cliché of becoming evil. Richard Fleeshman seems underused in the robotic role, but his calm performance is entirely appropriate. Likewise, Dominic Dromgoole’s cool direction appreciates the play’s tone. Understatement is fine… this is all scary enough in its own right.

Tony-Jayawardena-and-Nacy-Carroll-credit-Manuel-Harlan
Tony Jayawardena and Nacy Carroll

How AI impacts on Marjorie, her daughter, Tess, and son-in-law, Jon, leads to troubled characters and excellent performances. Taking the title role, Anne Reid gives a brilliant portrayal of someone suffering from dementia, which is all the more moving through flashes of humour. The complicated relationship between Marjorie and her daughter results in a passionate performance from Nancy Carroll that almost steals the show. Tony Jayawardena gives a further fine portrayal as Jon, who ends up haunted by the past, too. Let’s not say how.

The characters are, oddly, unsympathetic, despite what they are going through – it’s a surprising move, skilfully done, but adds to the piece’s cold tone. Problems with memories and how personal identity is formed might be a little predictable given the scenario; the script almost wants to move on from the themes. The result is that the play relies on its intriguing conclusion. And here is a plot spoiler – Harrison’s unexpected idea about what happens to AI when we are no longer around makes for a brilliant scene. I’m just not sure much else about the play is that memorable.

Until 6 May 2023

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Habeas Corpus” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

This early Alan Bennett play, revived by Patrick Marber, is an odd one. It’s a farce about sexual frustration among the middle classes. But with meta-theatrical touches that play with the genre, it’s an attempt to write this kind of comedy in a different way (the lack of a set tells you that much). Along with crudity, poetic moments focus on mortality. And there are touches of a revue, too, complete with songs. It’s novel, experimental even. But Habeas Corpus is more interesting than it is funny.

There are laughs. The sillier jokes are good and have aged best. Darker moments, leading to the cautious billing of the show as “from a less enlightened age” have immoral doctors and queasy Ortonesque moments. But Bennett is appropriately harsh about bad conduct. And, impressively, the women in the show are as sexual as the men. Yet those laugh-out-loud moments come from the cast performances rather than the script.

Our guide to proceedings, the cleaning lady Mrs Swabb, is great fun (and Ria Jones excellent in the part). Dr and Mrs Wicksteed, and son Dennis, are all looking for love and easy enough to laugh at… initially. But their desperation is double-edged, and strong performances from Jasper Britton, Catherine Russell and Dan Wolff (standing in for Thomas Josling) mean we come to care for them. Does feeling empathy make us laugh less?

It isn’t unreasonable to expect a comedy to be fun. But if that’s all you require, Habeas Corpus might leave you disappointed. Lust here is for life as much as sex, and there’s a weighty, existential, edge. There’s also an awful lot of loneliness in the play. Bennett’s mix of comedy and melancholy may keep an audience on its toes, but Habeas Corpus doesn’t allow relaxation into a really good time.

Until 27 February 2022

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

"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