Tag Archives: Union Theatre

"An Enemy of the People" at the Union Theatre

Laudably, award-winning director Phil Willmott likes his classics to have modern-day relevance. The title of Ibsen’s 1882 play, which pitches the individual against the masses, is to be adopted for a season of shows that runs through the first quarter of this year. The idea is exciting – look out for Can-Can! next month and a production of Othello after that – but unfortunately An Enemy of the People itself is not a propitious start.

This adaptation, from none other than Arthur Miller, has Ibsen’s Doctor Stockmann in America and pitted against his community when he discovers that a plan for its economic regeneration, based on a spa, is doomed by environmental pollution. The fit with the original sounds snug but proves uncomfortable. The time and place end up as a kind of allegorical wilderness. The emblematic roles for small businesses (Ibsen’s bourgeoisie) are confusing, and representation of the press also fails. Despite a nice depiction from Jed Shardlow as a mendacious editor, this fourth estate needs updating.

Willmott’s direction is impeccable and, when pressure grows on Stockmann to deny scientific facts, he manages to inject tension. The cast is generally strong, although some accents could be tighter. David Mildon takes the lead role, which, despite being written as ridiculously naïve, he grows into the nicely. And there is admirable support from Emily Byrt as his wife – it’s good to see her doubt and anger at spousal inflexibility. Mary Stewart also does a stand-out job as the town’s mayor, injecting just enough exaggeration into her performance as a politician so that we are never quite sure how self-deluded the character is.  

At least with the mayor, a parallel with a current world leader is clear. It’s the other roles searching for contemporary resonance that prove a problem. Miller’s work on the piece is from the 1950s, while the production’s poster promises us Donald Trump’s America. The treatment feels old-fashioned, the dialogue clunky. There’s talk of radicals, insurgents and free thinking that cries out for refinement. A couple of potentially interesting points – the role of religion and the doctor’s intellectual superiority complex – could have been made far more challenging. Didactic in the original, the message is still clear, but too many annoying details get in the way of any lesson.

Until 2 February 2019

www.uniontheatre.biz

Photo by Scott Rylander.

"Striking 12" at the Union Theatre

Declan Bennett is the star attraction for this new musical, a clever riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl. Joined by Bronté Barbé, both performers sound great and recap the original tale, which Bennett’s character reads and Barbé acts out, alongside an update that involves a sales girl for lightbulbs aimed at sufferers of Season Affective Disorder. The show is cute, charming, and uses its fairy tale antecedents wisely.

Bronté Barbé
Bronté Barbé

The piece comes from musical theatre team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda with expert help on the book and lyrics from Rachel Sheinkin. The structure is tight and the words very good: clear and direct with smart plays on rhythm. When it comes to the modern melancholy, as the countdown for New Year approaches, the team does well. Attempts at humour don’t quite land, which is a shame given the wit and intelligence behind the show. The music is proficient and enjoyable if, I fear, not quite memorable enough.

At just over an hour, Striking 12 feels truncated. Bennett’s mopish character could easily be given more backstory. And the modern-day girlhe meets urgently needs one. Transforming Andersen into a romance needs more work. But the production skilfully glosses over shortcomings. Kate Robson-Stuart and Leon Scott have a good go at a variety of roles alongside sitting at the drums and taking up the violin. Danielle Kassaraté makes an amiable, if underused, narrator. Oliver Kaderbhai, who is choreographer (with Marah Stafford) as well as director, has plenty of ideas – like the piece itself -and the whole show faces the perils of striking a match on stage bravely. There are plenty of warm glowing moments that make Striking 12 sparky, if not with quite enough material to get a goodfire going.

Until 23 December 2018

http://www.uniontheatre.biz

Photo by Tom Grace

"H.R.Haitch" at the Union Theatre

This ridiculously silly new musical presents an alternative history for London in 2012 while at the same time taking a dig at present day problems. Crammed with jokes and a generous spirit, it is a great deal of fun.
There’s a catalogue of fears and wish-fulfilment: a Populist political party, formed only six months before the election, has promised a referendum on the monarchy – a Rexit – while a secret prince’s identity and mixed-race fiancée are about to be revealed to the public. A lot of crazy stuff… that’s not entirely crazy: writer and lyricist Maz Evans revels in all the potential parallels and absurdities.
There are too many jokes based on hindsight: recurring gags about the Olympics and Uber try too hard. But enough laughs land and it’s clear that, as the run beds down, the piece will get funnier. It’s great that there’s so much going – an imagined but recognisable royal group, including machinations for the throne, and a salt-of-the-earth family whose pub is in danger from gentrification – but director Daniel Winder needs to escalate the pace for a true farce. It’s a shame so much exposition (and time wasted) comes from fake news reports played on the pub TV. So the piece is far from polished to perfection. Luke Bateman’s music is overwhelmed by Evans’ imagination and the staging has ambitions beyond the cast. But the show is sound and has some characters that rightly rule over it.
Doubling roles as the family who run the Dog and Duck and the far more dysfunctional one that runs the country, Christopher Lyne, Andrea Miller and Prince Plockey acquit themselves well, despite some tentative moments. Emily Jane Kerr is consistently strong as the villainous Princess Victoria. But the crown jewels of the show are the Prince who has been slumming it and his modern-day Eliza Doolittle, born in Dagenham but called Chelsea. Here’s a sweet love affair for winning characters. Christian James makes his nice but dim heir to the throne truly likeable. Tori Allen-Martin’s working-class heroine sounds and looks great and is simply adorable, with a laugh so infectious it’s easy to believe this ‘pleb’ would win a plebiscite. Their love affair is aided by Bateman’s music and provides heart for the show, making this crazy fantasia deserve your vote.
Until 2 June 2018
www.uniontheatre.biz
Photo by Nick Rutter

"Privates on Parade" at the Union Theatre

It’s the aim of the singing and dancing soldiers in Peter Nichols’ play to entertain the troops with light-hearted fun. The piece is structured around their musical numbers, written by Denis King, which break up backstage drama and the story of Malayan independence. But it is themes of the isolation of Brits abroad – and an empire in decline – that are emphasised by director Kirk James in his thoughtful, provocative, revival.
You don’t need to be a snowflake Millennial to find the colonial attitudes parodied here tough at times – that’s Nichols’ point and James doesn’t shy away from it. The racism is pervasive and wince-worthy. The sexism has an uncomfortable topicality, since the play’s only woman is in show business. It makes the role of the mixed-race Sylvia particularly weighted and Martha Pothen is vital in managing to make the issues part of her character’s lived experience. Pothen’s isn’t the only impressive stage debut: Mikey Howe plays the sole indigene, standing out while remaining speechless throughout, and Matt Hayden as the indomitable Eric should also be proud of his performance.
Back to all that grim prejudice. The homophobia in army life shows Kirk’s strategy. As the entertainment corps is a refuge for the gay men who work there, it’s something to celebrate. The performers are held together capably by Simon Green as Terri, “an Officer and a Lady”, in charge of his fellow ‘theatricals’. His defiance is delicious and the direct addresses to the audience show what an experienced professional Green is. But this tolerance is rare and highlighting it as exceptional creates considerable tension, aided by Matt Beveridge’s criminal and bullying Drummond.
You might miss the sense of contrast that King’s songs provide Privates On Parade. There is little relief here and most of the jokes are allowed to leave a bitter taste. It’s with a sense of resignation that the dangerously clueless commander, a role capably tackled by Callum Coates, gets his moment to shine with a pointless military escapade. As for the fate of the show’s young hero figure, who acts as the narrator, his corruption is similarly predictable – although Samuel Curry’s performance makes it nonetheless a sad affair. James has created a melancholy show that many might feel suitable to our downbeat times – it aids the poignancy of Nichols’ script and contains a smouldering anger that makes it memorable.
Until 17 December 2017
www.uniontheatre.biz
Photos by Toby Lee

"Romeo And Juliet" at the Union Theatre

Like Daniel Kramer’s production of the same play, currently showing at the Globe, Andy Bewley reimagines Shakespeare in a radical fashion. Here the most famous lovers in the world are men. And they and their families are rival football fans. Think Beautiful Thing with the beautiful game thrown in. Both ideas are interesting – bravo for originality – but neither works that convincingly. Put together, the creative team have too much to tackle.
As Joe M. Mackenzie’s credit for dramaturgy and adaptation indicates, the production is a version of Shakespeare. A lot of text is left out. I suspect the inspiration is the scene of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage night – enchantingly transformed using movement rather than verse. Other cuts should have been as bold. Predictably, changing the genders becomes messy. Maybe I’m missing a point but why not just change Juliet’s name to Julian?
Even more puzzling, the novel ideas don’t do much. Everyone is remarkably comfortable about the men’s sexuality and apart from some empty pint glasses, these football fans are pretty refined. Which is lovely…but avoiding the chance for extra drama seems odd. The ball skills shown off impress and Mercutio’s Balotelli t-shirt is a nice touch. But the sporting veneer adds little. Dropping it leads to a strong final scene; the action in the tomb plays like an unfolding news story, all the cast are used well, and a feeling of chaos is skilfully constructed.
Best of all, there are some fine performances here. Bewley is a careful, even-handed director with his cast. There is an air of earnestness that flattens some characters but all roles are well delivered. Gabrielle Nellis-Pain is a hard working nurse, Allegra Marland does very well as Paris and Celeste De Veazey makes the often-neglected role of Benvolio stand out. Sam Perry’s Juliet is impressively sweet; he is good at bringing some caution to the role, showing a timidity that’s seldom expressed. Abram Rooney’s Romeo has a down-to-earth delivery that is captivating, with brilliantly petulant touches. The scene of Romeo’s banishment – snotty tears and all – shows great talent. It’s the leading men that that really score.
Until 20 May 2017
www.uniontheatre.biz

"Three Sisters" at the Union Theatre

Director Phil Willmott uses award-winning American playwright Tracy Letts’ version of Chekhov’s masterpiece to deliver a fine new production with wide appeal. The adaptation, faithful to the structure and events in the original, is direct, forceful and clear – all qualities embraced and amplified by cast and creative team.
Celine Abrahams, Ivy Corbin and Molly Crookes play the eponymous siblings conscientiously. Trying to work out how to live while yearning for Moscow, each performer injects plenty of energy and angst. Joined by Benjamin Chandler as their younger brother the consistent impression is of brattish siblings suffering from “endless winter and talk”. All four performers develop their characters with precision to crisis pitch.
It’s the partners and lovers who benefit most in this production. Francesca Burgoyne, as detested sister-in-law Natasha, reveals the layers of her shrewish role well. Stephen Rodgers makes Masha’s husband more substantial than the wimp he appears on the page. And Masha’s lover, the philosophising Vershinin, becomes especially moving due to the skill of Ashley Russell. Two younger roles, soldiers in love with Irina, also stand out due to a careful performance by Tom Malmed as Tusenbach and Hugo Nicholson’s virile energy in the role of Solyony.
Willmott manoeuvres his cast expertly; it feels as if theatre-in-the-round is the only way to stage this play with debates and ideas flying around. The pace is speedy, once or twice too swift, with no fussy touches to diminish tragic events or lessen the seriousness of frustration. This is an angry show and emotions explode as often as they simmer. If there’s a fault, Chekhov’s humour is ignored. There’s little sense of the ridiculousness of situations and few attempts to raise even a smile. But the melancholy air of the play is aimed for with confidence, and that target hit with resolution.
Until 4 February 2017
www.uniontheatre.biz
Photo by Scott Rylander

"The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" at the Union Theatre

This, the last show before the venue moves across the road to a swanky new home (with nicer loos, one hopes), continues a tradition of strong productions. Jim Cartwright’s hit 1992 play makes for an entertaining, dramatic evening with belly laughs secured by Alastair Knights.
This is a fairy tale, of sorts, with appropriately dark tones. Our Cinderella is a teenager with a taste for diva records she is uncannily good at imitating. Carly Thoms takes the title role, giving a concentrated performance. Credit, please, for speaking softly yet being heard – that’s not easy. When her turn in the spotlight arrives, performing as Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and more, shine she does. I could happily have heard more from Thoms. Especially her Marilyn Monroe.
Along the way there are some good performances from those ready to exploit Little Voice’s talent: Ken Christiansen as wannabe agent Ray Say and James Peake as a local nightclub manager. Mandy Dassa gets laughs as the next-door neighbour of Little Voice’s dangerously dilapidated home. One minor quibble is the lack of chemistry between Little Voice and Glenn Adamson as her sweet, but underwritten, love interest.

Charlotte Gorton
Charlotte Gorton

It’s the wicked witch who makes the show – Little Voice’s mother Mari Hoff – a fabulous creation of Cartwright’s, with the soul of a poet and the slingbacks of Bet Lynch. The costumes alone get laughs (designer Libby Todd must have searched hard for that much leopard print). And Charlotte Gorton is superb as the garrulous whirlwind with her rapid-fire Northern wit. Even more impressively, Gorton develops the role from the ‘merry widow’ we first encounter to a figure as tragic as she is vicious. Great stuff.
Until 25 June 2016
www.uniontheatre.biz
Photos by Scott Rylander

"Road Show" at the Union Theatre

The construction of luxury flats on Union Street is a topical tag for Phil Willmott’s production of this Sondheim and Weidman musical. Following the fortune-seeking Meisner brothers, the focus is their later careers as Florida property developers, and the American Dream is examined through the land boom building of Boca Raton. It’s an odd subject matter and a strangely clinical piece.
There’s a good deal of brothers Addison and Wilson’s journey that’s entertaining and insightful: from the gold rush to gambling, with the familiar Sondheim theme of the arts and patronage. The songs and the lyrics are strong but this is sub-standard Sondheim – still good, of course, but much time is spent wondering why it isn’t better.
On his deathbed, the brothers’ father wonders what type of nation his boys will help to create, but this weighty central question feels forced. Too quickly afterwards there’s a deal of rushed campery as the hapless siblings struggle away. Road Show is notable for its explicit gay relationship between Addison and a poor little rich kid called Hollis. It’s the only time we’re allowed a glimpse of sentiment. Call me soppy, but this seems a bit mean.
There’s not much Willmott can do with these problems. However, while miming sequences in the show are a neat move, they could have been better (and should surely have been suspended for a scene in which one brother draws a knife on the other). Willmott is too keen to use his large cast, but having them double up to fill the stage proves distracting. And yet the director has secured a number of strong performances.
In the lead roles Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig perform well and sound great. The latter, as Wilson, convinces as a rogue, fool and thriller but his acting might be better suited to a larger venue. Jenkins’ appropriate restraint is preferable. The brothers’ mother has a great number that Cathryn Sherman makes the most of, and Joshua LeClair is a fine Hollis.
Another big problem is the show’s lack of humour. The laughs are set up but seldom land. Sometimes it’s a question of delivery but more often it’s the piece’s downbeat tone. Both brothers feel like devices to show societal ills, Wilson a con artist, and architect Addison denied his chance to be more a than master builder. The central relationship between them is poorly constructed, their closeness clumsily established and not fully explored until the conclusion. It’s simply not motivating enough, making this a show you can’t roll with, merrily or otherwise.
Until 5 March 2016
www.uniontheatre.biz

"H.M.S.Pinafore" at the Union Theatre

Given their success on London’s fringe theatre scene, Sasha Regan’s all male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan are much anticipated. Her latest, H.M.S. Pinafore, would seem a natural selection from the Victorian composer and lyricist’s opus – a story full of camp potential, with plenty of sailors and satire. The production lives up to expectations and also surprises.
Not content to rest on her reputation, Regan adds a sense of melancholy to the usual wit and fun. The cast are deliberately presented as though improvising, and so the production opens up some interesting questions: are we here to watch ‘real’ sailors aboard a ship, prisoners of war trying to alleviate boredom, or possibly children at a boarding school? It’s a brilliantly original twist that will win your heart.
Rough and ready staging becomes a powerful tool. So much is achieved with just ropes and kit boxes. The design from Ryan Dawson-Laight, full of inspired touches, including shirt collars used as millinery, contributes to making this show immediate and involving – bunk beds have never been this much fun. And that’s saying something.
From the heroic sailor Ralph, an appropriately dashing Tom Senior, fighting for his love to his Captain’s daughter Josephine, played by Bex Roberts (a  male  actor, to clarify), the cast sound fantastic. As her father the Captain, Benjamin Vivian-Jones is magnificent, bringing out the laughs and in fine voice. Ciarán O’Driscoll renders buttercup, the “plump and pleasing person” who is the key to the ‘topsy-turvy’ story, both loveable and formidable. Accounting for the highest and the lowest in this magnificent class comedy, Lee Van Geleen impresses with his fantastically powerful voice as the dastardly Dick Deadeye and David McKenchnie gives a superb comic performance as The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B.
The inventive staging by Regan, along with fantastic choreography from Lizzi Gee, is a constant delight. The ensemble show their talent, morphing from exercising studs into the gaggle of “sisters, cousins and aunts” that accompany the Rt.Hon, for comic touches a plenty. Special note has to be given to be given to Richard Russell Edwards as Hebe, who can swoon with the best of them. And finally, underpinning all this is the musical adaptation from Michael England and Chris Mundy, extracting the spirit of the score with an intelligent transformation accommodating all male voices.
Even if you’re a G&S fan of a more traditional persuasion, you’re still going to love Regan’s work. There is a reverence here in the best sense of the word – a genuine enthusiasm and love of the piece that is infectious. This is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year and although it’s only November, and there are plenty of exciting things coming up, I doubt it will be bettered in 2013.
Until 30 November 2013
www.uniontheatre.biz
Written 4 November 2013 for The London Magazine

“Steel Pier” at the Union Theatre

Well known for its excellent, ambitious productions of musicals, the Union Theatre’s latest offering is Kander and Ebb’s 1997 work Steel Pier. Directed by Paul Taylor-Mills, it’s a strange offering, superbly presented. Centring on a dance marathon in the 1930s, a group of semi-professional performers reveal their bitchy rivalry and needy posturing. The competition is a seedy affair, fixed, of course, that becomes increasingly humiliating and ends in medication for most participants. Our heroine Rita can only escape from it with the help of a very special, if unsuccessful, daredevil pilot.

Steel Pier is set on the fringes of celebrity but the cast at the Union Theatre is anything but mediocre. In the lead roles Sarah Galbraith and Jay Rincon, both visiting from the States, give fine performances. Singing unmiked, a real treat that makes the show worth seeing alone, they get the most out of songs that are a long way from Kander and Ebb’s finest. The excellent Aimie Atkinson has the show’s best number, ‘Everybody’s Girl’, and the best lines, managing to inject some much-needed humour. The large, hardworking cast is impressively marshalled by Taylor-Mills, and special note goes to Samuel Parker making a high-energy professional debut and Lisa-Anne Wood, who gives a spirited performance as the dancer most desperate to become a star.

Taylor-Mills combines the singing and dancing marvellously, making the most of Richard Jones’ excellent choreography. The show has such dazzle is almost manages to convince you this is a major work but, useful setting aside, the book by David Thompson, is lacking. The stakes played for – a moment in the spotlight or a chance of sponsorship – just aren’t high enough, and a supernatural twist, exploited well by Jones and musical director Angharad Sanders, adds little. Despite the best efforts of all involved, Steel Pier is something of a curio – essential for fans of musical theatre – but not stainless enough to appeal to everyone.

Until 24 November 2012

www.uniontheatre.biz

Photo by Claire Bilyard

Written 7 November 2012 for The London Magazine