Comedy double acts have a distinct appeal to British audiences that funny men Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen know all about. The clever duo tap into a peculiarly nostalgic appeal – and their considerable chemistry – to write and perform a show that is funny and sweet.
AKA The Pin, Ashenden and Owen have a gentle style that plays on humility and sensitivity. Puns and touches of the ridiculous are light and make Owen’s character appealing, while Ashenden’s skill at delivering deadpan lines is strong.
The duo and their show gesture toward audience participation. You’ve got to expect a little… but there’s nothing scary here. A different guest star each evening (an impressive rota), creates a sense of expectation – who will you see?
Also taking on the roles of Jimmy and Sid, two older performers whose comeback tour the pair are the warm-up act for, proves less successful. Little effort is made to convey the age of these secondary characters and you can’t help wondering if stronger actors could do more. But the roles are written well and the older act get laughs of their own. It’s nice to note the duo’s respect for their elders… even as their characters take advantage to try and further their careers.
It is with the plot of The Comeback that the show stands out as more than just stand-up comedy. Mayhem ensues as both acts become keen to impress a Hollywood director in the audience. Yes, it’s silly, but the back stage shenanigans are well done and the fun with props emphasises theatricality.
A thoughtful conflict between young and old – both ambitious about their careers – adds weight to The Comeback. Both acts aim to be true to themselves and to retain a spirit to their performances in a manner that ends up surprisingly touching.
Theatrical responses to young adult mental health hit the big time with this highly anticipated tear-jerking transfer from Broadway. Teen suicide and all manner of problems for millennials make the target audience sometimes painfully clear. But there’s an intelligence behind Steven Levenson’s excellent book that raises Dear Evan Hansen well above many coming-of-age dramas.
The action revolves around social media (these kids are more online than at school). Tension mounts as Evan’s deceit, about his friendship with deceased class mate Connor, entangles him in the world wide web. A campaign, including Kickstarter, and the inevitable empowering vocabulary that follows, is treated with a mature, sometimes sceptical, touch.
Connor’s death is the best thing that’s happened to Evan; he finally has a profile at school. But the friendship it engenders is an imaginary one with the dead boy. Meanwhile, contact with Connor’s sister results in a clever twist on Cyrano de Bergerac that’s heartbreaking. Along the way, the roles provide strong parts for Doug Colling and Lucy Anderson, who contribute to the uneasy atmosphere that Michael Greif’s direction explicates. As Evan promises his lost and lonely cohorts “You Will Be Found” – becoming an internet hit himself – the drama that he will be found out is considerable.
The story may be simple, even predictable, but it broadens gracefully. Becoming a show that concerns mourning and parenthood, there are well-drawn roles for the adults in the piece. Unashamedly, rather than learning from themselves or their peers, they are the characters for their children to learn from. Rebecca McKinnis is superb as Evan’s struggling mum, while Lauren Ward and Rupert Young play Connor’s grieving parents with believable intensity. All three are included in scenes of psychological complexity that ensure depth.
Scenes of extended dialogue mean that Dear Evan Hansen is – almost – as much a play with songs as a musical. The show has its own pace, handled boldly by Greif, that is distinctive. The numbers by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are already hits, so whatever formula they have for bringing on the tears is clearly effective. The music is good, although more of it, as well as more variety, would be welcome. And the lyrics are superb – not a word jars.
These numbers are not easy to perform. As well as demanding considerable acting skills, the score acts symbiotically with the performances to make the show increasingly impressive. The same pressure makes the title role especially exciting, as you need a superb singer and a strong actor. Ticking both boxes, the part of Evan is sure to make a star of Sam Tutty. While the show is more of an ensemble piece than you might expect, the role of Evan is crucial. Again, Levenson allows a considerable complexity that Tutty can develop: this isn’t your average hero, or even your everyday misfit. The balance to retain sympathy for Evan proves fascinating.
If the conclusion of Dear Evan Hansen is a little pat, it is also impressively understated; any positivity isn’t cloying. Hope for the future is the best that can be offered, maintaining a distinctly melancholy air. Seclusion is the prevailing theme; which is especially sad as you never forget this is a show for young people. Thankfully, support and a sense of perspective are present – they give the piece an underlying wisdom. And the show’s success provides inspiration; the audience response, amidst much sniffling, is contagious. Deservedly, lonely Evan Hansen should prove to be a long runner.
With a drunken defrocked priest battling his demons, while two women fight over his future, this play is classic Tennessee Williams. Brimming with disturbed characters and melancholy abstract observations, it may be verbose (it has a three-hour running time), but this fan lapped it up. And with the production’s star casting – a triple whammy of big-hitters – it’s a quality night out that deserves success.
Clive Owen takes the lead, filling big shoes as the not-so-Reverend Shannon, a part made famous by Richard Burton in the 1964 film. Owen seems uncomfortable at first but grows into the part and always manages a kind of charm; that’s quite something, given Shannon’s predatory violent abuse of women (no, the play hasn’t aged well in that respect). There are plenty of references to Shannon being a gentleman, and he could be played aloof, but Owen ignores this to give us a rough-and-ready chancer. Even the “crack up” that Shannon suffers is moving as we’re taken through the range of rage and infantilism that Williams too studiously lists. That Owen ends up overshadowed by his female co-stars is down to Williams more than him.
The iconic status of certain roles by Williams may have blinded us to the variety of his writing female parts, and here a blunt contrast between Hannah and Maxine proves illuminating. It’s a conflict full of ambiguity, notably between a spinster and a widow (roles that both characters play tellingly with). Anna Gunn is Maxine, manager of the hotel the play is set in. A “bigger than life” personality, she offers Shannon fun and vitality, but at what cost? Gunn makes her character’s loneliness, one of the play’s main themes, a subtle undertone. What Maxine would get out of a partnership with Shannon remains an intriguing question. But it’s Lia Williams as Hannah Jelkes who lights up the play. Twee one moment, a “cool hustler” the next, this is a magnetic performance of a mesmerising character. Has Shannon met his match? Does Hannah care either way? Carefully revealing the characters’ own troubles, this is a picture of eccentricity that Williams – the actress more than the author – grounds in real life. No matter how bizarre Jelkes or her aged poet grandfather (another strong performance here from Julian Glover) may be, they feel recognisable – and not just exaggerations in a Tennessee Williams play.
Controlling some of the playwright’s often inspired flights of fancy means plenty of credit for director James Macdonald. One approach is to embrace the offbeat humour, making the play surprisingly funny, with both Owen and Williams excelling here. Another technique is for a muted feel that roots the play in its bizarre love triangle and provides necessary focus. The Night of the Iguana is overpopulated – not just with that titular reptile – and nothing can redeem a group of German tourists who make random appearances for not-at-all-light relief. But Macdonald handles the numbers well. The talk of “spooks” who haunt Shannon is made to feel practical, a dramatic plot point rather than overplayed metaphor. Macdonald clarifies a battle between reality and the fantastic. The latter is Shannon’s favourite word, as Jelkes wryly notes, but it ends up serving as a good summation of the show overall.
Inspired by EM Forster’s novel, Howards End, Matthew Lopez’s epic play, in
two parts, develops the novelist’s dictum of “only connect” in almost-present-day
New York. Combining important ideas with big characters and plots that pull at
the heart strings, it is soon to be on every best-of-the-year list – mine
included. A transfer from its
sell-out run at The Young Vic means more people have the chance to see this
unmissable piece. Or, if they are lucky enough to have seen it already, spot
any differences the move to the West End might have brought.
Packing both parts into the same day was my (unnecessary) excuse for going again, leaving me even more in awe of the amazing cast. Paul Hilton ends up the star of the show, primarily through his skilled depiction of Forster. The Edwardian author joins a group of young men to help tell their stories, and is coaxing and commanding in turn as we learn about their lives. This premise, which is such a delight, means we miss the great author too much in Part 2. Hilton’s second role is as Walter, who uses his home as a refuge for the sick during the AIDS epidemic. This story serves as the finale to Part 1 and guarantees not a dry eye in the house.
During the second part, the story of Walter’s heir, Eric (a career-defining performance from Kyle Soller), takes over and would more than satisfy in any other play. But, despite Soller’s efforts, Eric doesn’t fascinate in the way Forster did. While his story is also moving, it’s far less entertaining. There’s a cruel irony – and a call to action – as, despite improvements in gay rights and the treatment of AIDS, as we come into the Trump era the play becomes more fraught and less joyous. Lopez struggles with the privilege many of his characters possess, while the misery that comes with the stories of Toby Darling and Leo (two more superb performances, from Andrew Burnap and Samuel H Levine) start to feel a touch overblown.
Some of the exaggerations may come
from the show’s new location. While the leads are superb and Stephen Daldry’s
direction fool-proofs the show, some smaller roles are too exaggerated. The result
on the night I attended was whoops of joy from the stalls at political observations.
It’s nice to hear such enthusiasm, but the sentiment seems misplaced. Surely Lopez
isn’t as partisan as some of his characters? But guessing (which might be presumptuous)
that the West End audience was less well acquainted with the original source material
leads to a new joy. Instead of nudges at recognition with the book there was
shock at revelations in the plot. A gasp from a crowd is always exciting and
illustrates the story-telling craft behind the clever ideas here. It’s Lopez’s attention
to detail, his rigour, alongside his ambition, that will, let’s hope, result in
this play serving as an inspiration and having an inheritance in its own right.
The Chichester Festival Theatre’s new version of David Heneker’s musical arrives in the West End trailing rave reviews. And rightly so. Surely some critics were aggrieved that producer Cameron Mackintosh, credited as co-creator, had already bagged the perfect description to promote his work – this really is a “flash, bang, wallop” of a show.
The simple love story of an apprentice haberdasher who comes into money and has to choose between his childhood sweetheart and a once unattainable upper-class lady gives us a pleasingly Pygmalion spin and a hero, one Arthur Kipps, every bit as endearing as Eliza Doolittle.
Arthur may be called Art by his friends, but it is his artlessness that makes him so appealing, genuine and infectiously joyous. Taking the lead has catapulted Charlie Stemp into the big time with a star-is-born moment that theatre goers will find electrifying. Stemp can sing as superbly as he can dance – and he can act, too. In short, he’s the real deal.
Ironically the big achievement of the show, with new music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, and a book by Julian Fellowes, is to downplay Kipps’ part. Originally an uneven vehicle for Tommy Steele, the show has been recalibrated to allow the rest of the cast to rise to Stemp’s achievements. Both of Arthur’s love interests are superb. Devon-Elise Johnson plays the love-token-swapping parlour maid with credible vigour. The posh idol, Helen Walsingham, is Emma Williams, and, in a piece where toffs do badly, she’s still appealing, making Arthur’s decision a real dilemma.
Half A Sixpence praises working-class culture in a manner that is out of fashion and makes for a fresh change. Arthur’s colleagues in the shop are wonderfully delineated (praise for Sam O’Rourke, Alex Hope and Callum Train). As for Bethany Huckle’s Flo, Arthur may not fall for her, but I did, with an end-of-the-pier number about sexual frustration that makes the role stand out. This new song, ‘A Little Touch of Happiness’, perfectly embodies a postcard humour that makes many numbers here laugh-out-loud funny, with a sentimentality that magically weaves naiveté and nostalgia. All are combined to perfection by director Rachel Kavanaugh. And this is before the storming second-act number, ‘Pick Out a Simple Tune’, with one cast member literally swinging from a chandelier. What more could you ask for?
It isn’t just the deserving praise already received that gives the show its unbounded confidence. In Kavanaugh’s capable hands, taking a lead from the cleverly constructed new material, Half A Sixpence is akin to a theatrical comfort blanket. We know when to applaud – freeze frame on the action and get ready to clap – and when to give a standing ovation. With the keen-as-mustard cast delighting in its triumph everyone goes home happy.
Let’s not be prudish – for the West End it’s essential to put bums on seats. Taking a lesson from its real-life subject – a nude variety show presented by the eponymous producer during WWII – there’s plenty of flesh on display here and scope for good old-fashioned smutty humour. At least in 2016, Mrs Henderson’s girls are given a voice, although the exploitation of their naked bodies is glossed over as an opportunity for them to be extraordinary. And the show’s boast of bravely running throughout the Blitz provides predictable flag-waving sentimentality. Neither crowd-pleasing tactic is particularly edifying.
This is not, of course, the fault of the cast. And while Terry Johnson’s book is surprisingly leaden, his direction is good, as are a strong set from Tim Shortall and costumes by Paul Wills. Tracie Bennett and Ian Bartholomew are excellent leads as Mrs Henderson and her right-hand man, Vivian Van Damm. Entering the theatre business is a whim for her and he is Jewish – this seems to be all we need to know about them. There’s a sweet love story for Emma Williams, who leads a strong ensemble, but a general lack of emotional attachment to an assortment of quickly sketched characters. The biggest disappointment comes with a dreadful role for Jamie Foreman, a pointless narrator and comedian with dire jokes – a warm-up man who leaves you cold.
Indeed, Mrs Henderson Presents is a pretty frigid and calculated affair. Much could be forgiven if the songs were good but George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain’s tunes are mostly forgettable. The first half is particularly foggy and while things do pick up there’s really only one adventurous number – foolishly the only chance for Williams to show off a great voice. The real shock comes from Don Black’s lyrics, at times so banal that you start guessing which rhyme will come up next. Unforgivably, one song has lad, mad and bad in one verse. The performances on offer might mean the show should be a hit but the lyrics are merde.
The promise of a film star who is just as good on stage is fulfilled in Anna Zeigler’s new play. A-lister Nicole Kidman takes the role of scientist Rosalind Franklin, who made a vital contribution to the discovery of DNA, and she doesn’t disappoint (just as she delighted critics with her first famous foray into London theatre in 1998). In this play, more about sexism than science, the characters remember the actor but not the actress in a production they attend – no one could make such an oversight here.
Kidman commands the stage, her performance as controlled as Franklin’s character and is brave enough not to try to make us like this frosty, determined woman. There are just enough perfectly placed glimpses to show a sensitive side. Equally impressively, Kidman works impeccably with fellow performers. Director Michael Grandage’s male casting is another achievement. Stephen Campbell Moore, Will Attenborough, Edward Bennett and Patrick Kennedy excel as a quartet of scientists Franklin has to deal with, while Joshua Silver is an amiable PhD student who serves as a narrator.
Ziegler writes with ample characterisation and good dialogue. While period detail about post-war London feels sketchy, the male hostility experienced by our heroine generates outrage that makes the play fizz. Unfortunately Photograph 51 is not exactly gripping. We’ve all seen science on stage done better by Frayn, Payne and most recently Tom Morton-Smith. And yet Grandage and Kidman do a remarkable job of spicing things up, the pace is terrific and Christopher Oram’s startling design, evoking London’s ruined King’s College, uses a light-box-style floor to great effect.
One problem is that attempts to reflect the excitement of discovery are contrasted by Franklin’s methodical behaviour. And the focus is so much on how she was treated that her scientific achievements get lost. Conspiracies against Franklin, with an eye to historical accuracy, have to be muted: Crick and Watson, who ‘won’ the DNA race are “a couple of old rogues” rather than anything more sinister. Franklin is a victim of everyday sexism, which is annoying but not the stuff of high-octane drama. I’m somewhat ashamed to have never heard of Franklin, which is much of the play’s point. It’s good to have my ignorance corrected, but the lesson is more admirable than enjoyable.
Gregory Doran’s revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman fully justifies the director’s claim that this is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Although rooted in post-war US society, Miller’s family tragedy and critique of capitalism transcends time and place. Perhaps recent economic woes make this powerful play freshly pertinent: the loss of job security for long-serving salesman Willy Loman rings alarm bells for us all. And perhaps, too – aided by our increased awareness of dementia – Willy’s tragic decline has added poignancy. Just as likely, the play is simply a masterpiece.
Antony Sher is confident and controlled in the lead role. Clearly passionate about the part, Sher projects an intensity that enfolds you. It’s an exceptionally subtle and intelligent delivery: for all Willy’s faults, we see why his family loves him, he isn’t made an underdog and there are no excuses for his behaviour – but he still retains our sympathy. Willy’s confidence seesaws constantly, moments of self-doubt are carefully hinted at. When Willy is presented with the gas pipe he plans to kill himself with, Sher’s whole body becomes frozen. It’s a tremendous theatrical moment.
Backed by Harriet Walter as Willy’s wife, with Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as his sons, the family struggles with the delusions of success and excess of optimism that construct their dreams. This is an unbeatable quartet of performances. The fight to see facts instead of fantasy is a relentless focus. Willy’s memories, possibly false, presented as the consequence of his age and misfortune, slide into the action dynamically. The downward spiral of the whole family in the second half is gut-wrenching and miraculously suspense-filled. We can all predict what’s coming but Doran makes it riveting, obeying the play’s demand that “attention must be paid”.
Films brought to the stage are often maligned, but Shakespeare in Love, which opened this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, should make all playgoers happy. Theatre power couple Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, world renowned for their Cheek by Jowl Company, make it a hot ticket. Skillfully adapted by Lee Hall, from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Oscar winning 1998 hit, this is a clever crowd pleaser it’s easy to recommend.
Hall wisely retains much of the original script. All the jokes created by a modern eye on the imagined creation of Romeo and Juliet are as funny as ever. The romance is preserved and the story’s second love affair – with the theatre – is expanded. The ensemble engender an intimate complicity as they remain on stage to interact with the young playwright Will during his hopeless love affair with the aristocratic Viola De Lesseps.
With the movie in our minds the performers have a lot of live up to – it was a film with no shortage of stars. The cast acquit themselves well, with David Oakes benefiting most from a beefed up role as Christopher Marlowe. Director Donnellan uses the many small roles to focus attention on the lovers – showing their differences in rank and contrasting overblown acting with their sincerity as the romance mirrors and molds that of the fictional Romeo and Juliet.
In the star roles Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen give exciting performances. Bateman has the looks for a leading man and gives Will a Byronic feel that he builds well. Briggs-Owen is full of ambition, keen to get the laughs and conveying a spirit that makes you fall in love with her character. Viola is the star and her desire to become an actor is the motivation that is inspirational.
Donnellan marshals Shakespeare in Love with efficiency and Ormerod’s set is impressive. Could the play have been more adventurous? Probably. The finest addition is the music from Paddy Cunneen that has a boldly crafted authentic feel. But the production sensibly decides to please those who loved the film and here it’s an unqualified success. There’s even a dog that almost steals the show – sure proof those in charge know what people want: love, and a bit with a dog.
Already a triumph in its hometown of Sheffield, The Full Monty received its London premiere last night. Adapted by Simon Beaufoy from his own hugely successful 1997 screenplay, this is yet another safe bet for a West End hit. It’s all about auditions at the moment, and this well-loved story of unemployed steel workers who decide to become strippers deftly uses rehearsals and try-out tribulations to build to the (quite literal) denouement. It’s so well done, in fact, that any cynicism is blown away: this is a terrifically fun show with a big heart that London should love.
On a technical level, The Full Monty is a masterclass in direction from Daniel Evans. He’s always a treat to see on stage as an actor and, with a string of achievements as artistic director at Sheffield Theatres, he has firmly established his talents behind the scenes as well. Here he excels, pacing the show perfectly, balancing its humour with emotional impact.
Evans has secured superb performances from his talented cast. Kenny Doughty leads as charismatic lad-about-town Gaz, desperate for cash to pay maintenance so he can see his son. Roger Morlidge gives a sensitive performance as his cumbersome best friend, and there’s a cracking cameo from Rachel Lumberg as the latter’s wife. Their former foreman-turned-choreographer is played with satisfyingly dryness by Simon Rousse, the only Conservative voter in sight. To suit broader tastes there’s fine work from Sidney Cole, Craig Gazey and Kieran O’Brien, who is accompanied by a gasp-worthy prosthetic addition.
Of course it’s crude – it’s about strippers after all – and some jokes show their age. A couple of scenes carried over from the film are weak, simply feeding a desire to see the movie recreated on stage. More impressive are new touches; an expanded exploration of a gay relationship and the use of Robert Jones’ nimble set, which sees cranes, girders and sparking machinery used to great effect.
The laughs are plentiful but, beyond the giggles, Evans uses Beaufoy’s scenario to explore all manner of sensitive issues, from gender roles to unemployment. This celebration of men of all shapes and sizes is a real make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry treat with plenty to think about. In fact, it’s a refreshing blast of Northern wind.