Tag Archives: Vaudeville Theatre

“Emilia” from the Vaudeville Theatre

Archive recordings of shows can never match a live experience. But, thankfully, the energy that powers Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s 2018 play is so ferocious, exciting and contagious that this filming (far from the highest quality) still does this stirring play proud.

Lloyd Malcom uses the life of Renaissance writer Emilia Bassano to highlight modern concerns about representation, sexism and racism. I’ve seen it described as “mock history”, which sums up its irreverent tone if not quite doing justice to the anger in the piece.

That rage first: Bassano’s life story provides a framework for examining the prejudices women and immigrants face. There are efforts to highlight hope, too – calls for action as much as anger. If a balance was intended it has, surely, failed. But what’s wrong with angry? Bassano – “stifled, ignored, abused” – certainly had plenty to be cross about.

As for cheek, Emilia is a very witty play, with lots of jokes around period details and plenty of fun at the expense of men. Lloyd Malcom is a dab hand at deadpan lines that the cast deliver brilliantly. Unafraid of crudity or contemporary touches (a dance lesson proves a fantastic scene for Jenni Maitland as the Countess of Kent), the jokes are strong.

Lloyd Malcolm spoils us with ideas and loose ends result. There’s the notion of “muscle memory” that women have concerning feminine experiences that surely needs developing. And the matter of Emilia’s own privilege causes the play to stumble more than once. Part of acknowledging Emilia’s relative wealth, scenes with her as an educator (of working-class women) deserve to be a play in their own right.

This recording is of the show’s second outing after a premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe. Some of the charge of having Shakespeare as a character in Emilia might be diminished in the new location. In truth, this is not the strongest role, despite Charity Wakefield’s efforts. But the play isn’t hampered by the Vaudeville’s smaller stage and Luisa Gerstein’s music benefits from being indoors. Nicole Charles’ direction is excellent, keeping the action moving with well-placed pauses at emotional moments. Thanks to Charles the production is more contained and focused.

All involved excel at making Emilia clear. Getting hung up on period detail (well, any detail really) is avoided in favour of entertainment and polemic. That so much ground is covered, with such confidence, is aided by having Emilia represented by three actors. Which leads to a trio of fantastic performances from Saffron Coomber and Adelle Leonce, led by Clare Perkins. In a play whose project is to provide a voice to those ignored, these women prove the foundation for the production’s success.

Until 2 December 2020

www.emilialive.com

"Three Sisters" at the Vaudeville Theatre

The world-renowned Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg and its director Lev Dodin have a phenomenal reputation. The company’s visits to London are anticipated events for theatre aficionados and, with only ten performances this time around, you should hurry to get a ticket. Maly’s work is an example of high expectations fulfilled, and this production of Chekhov’s classic does not disappoint.

Dodin and his talented cast of performers (embedded in the company in a fashion that’s rare in the UK nowadays), create the perfect mix of melancholy and humour. Initially it is the comedy that stands out – a combination of looks that are laugh-out-loud funny and a subtle appreciation of the play’s more ridiculous moments. It feels surprisingly light at times, confident and relaxed, despite the surtitles ruining some of the jokes.

This Three Sisters is very much Irina’s play and not just because of the masterful performance from Ekaterina Tarasova, who takes the role. Irina is full of energy and promise, Tarasova appropriately captivating and funny. The younger sibling has all the men from the local regiment courting her and is amusingly contemptuous. Her despair at rural life is allowed to grow convincingly – it starts off almost sweet, so that it becomes a real tragedy rather than just a trope.

This play of unfulfilled dreams and desires has plenty of painful moments. Masha’s adultery with the philosophising Vershinin is made into a passionate affair, with Ksenia Rappoport revealing a palpable mania within the character that makes her performance exciting. As for the eldest of the trio, Olga’s career as a school teacher develops into a case of genuine despair (often a tough ask) with a brilliant performance from Irina Tychinina. Her metamorphosis into a formidable figure by the finale – where she seems frozen, rigid with disappointment – is truly commanding.

That the characters change so much during the play is one of Dodin’s key insights, illustrated by the skilled performances he has nurtured (special note has to be made of Stanislav Nikolskiy’s Soleni, whose transformation by the final scene is stunning). The action takes place over four years, after all, and highlighting this gives the piece great momentum. In this potentially static play (there’s an awful lot of looking out of windows), Dodin carefully adds a sense of action. Even Alexander Borovsky’s set – an outline of the Prozorov home – moves, advancing towards us as tension mounts. Action creeps into the audience with steps leading into the stalls.

Dodin’s appreciation of Chekhov’s rhythm is clear, the balance he injects precise and controlled without feeling forced. There’s no doubt that there is a master in our midst. The production is a fantastic chance to see a superb director at work.

Until 29 June 2019

www.nimaxtheatre.com

Photo (c) MDT

"True West" at the Vaudeville Theatre

Director Matthew Dunster makes commendably light work of Sam Shepard’s heavy play. With a couple of star names attached – Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn – the production is enjoyable and entertaining.

Dunster and his cast, who play two bickering brothers, have a keen appreciation of Shepard’s humour. Even as their antics flip from the sinister to the increasingly desperate, elements of the absurd are emphasised. While the siblings’ estrangement has a longer history than Harington or Flynn manage to suggest and the tension throughout could be sharper (Flynn is never quite as physically threatening as the text suggests), these are detailed studies and the performances are worth the price of admission. Harington is unrecognisable as the geeky Austin, a semi-successful screen writer. His rivalry with Lee, who Flynn makes a charismatic rogue, is subtly played. As the movie Austin thought he had lined up is canned, in preference to a feeble pitch that part-time crook Lee thought up and promoted through a combination of gambling and “beginner’s luck”, the professional setback leads to a breakdown that Harington makes very convincing.

Austin’s occupation – and, through it, Shepard’s exploration of writing – proves tiresome. The illusions crafted in movies (not films, please note) are all a part of exploring that old American Dream. Admittedly Shepard does this in detail. The sense of time and place is wonderful – credit to Jon Bausor’s set and costume design here, too – but this is a small spin on an old topic. And credit, also, to raising the problems associated with masculinity at a time before the word toxic was attached to any discussion of men. Sadly, accurate as it may be, True West is ultimately heavy handed despite the efforts of a talented director and his leading men.

Until 23 February 2019-01-04

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

"The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Vaudeville Theatre

A year-long season of Oscar Wilde plays, masterminded by Dominic Dromgoole, draws to a close with the biggest and best: the great man’s famous comedy of misconstrued manners and identities that everyone agrees is a masterpiece. All the productions from the Classic Spring Theatre Company have been fresh and intelligent, with a marked confidence in their material, and this show from director Michael Fentiman is no exception.
A talented cast is inspired to be bold. Fehinti Balogun has real star quality as a particularly dandyish Algernon, while his fellow bachelor Jack is played with amusing bluster by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. Their love interests are both portrayed as formidable characters, with great performances from Fiona Button and Pippa Nixon. As for the older generation, looking on at the love affairs and ostensibly in charge, every line from Sophie Thompson’s Lady Bracknell and Stella Gonet’s Miss Prism is worth listening to, as Wilde pokes at any and all pretension.
This is as bacchanalian a production as you could wish for Wilde – full of food and sex. Compulsive eating is picked out; watching the cast manage sandwiches and crumpets while delivering such complex lines is its own pleasure. And while remaining credibly fin de siècle, these are the lustiest ladies you could get away with (Button’s “tremors” are beautifully delivered). Meanwhile Balogun plays Algernon with a polyamorous streak that’s blissfully naughty.
The production has a careful eye on class with the servants’ limited lines playing a big part. Algernon’s butler, Lane, becomes part of the family and benefits from a strong performance from Geoffrey Freshwater. Thompson’s Lady B is satisfyingly innovative: there’s no dithering about with that handbag line and there’s a touching moment at the plot reveal. Yes, no matter how silly, Thompson is right to bring a tear to her eye here.
A clean, clear look at a famous text, even one as perfect as this, is always good. The balance with retaining what made it a classic is perfect here. Perhaps the approach can be summed up with the complementary work on set and costume design from Madeline Girling and Gabriella Slade, respectively. The stage is almost bare, free of fussy period details, while the wardrobe is spot on and gorgeous. So there’s nothing to get in the way of the comedy. And nothing to deny the date of the piece either. It’s to Fentiman’s credit that his touches are thought provoking and respectful – and in every case increase the wonderful humour on offer.
Until 20 October 2018
www.classicspring.co.uk
Photo by Marc Brenner

"Lady Windermere’s Fan" at the Vaudeville Theatre

The estimable Kathy Burke is an expert in comedy. Wearing her director’s hat for Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play, her feel for laughs is instinctual: she makes the most heavily quoted of aphorisms light and the whole evening fun. In a cast of big guns, national treasure Jennifer Saunders is the star and has the audience laughing at every turn. Despite a small role, Saunders fans won’t be disappointed. A front of cloth song, written for her by Burke, is the funniest three minutes in a theatre that you can imagine.
Saunders is a good enough actress to know she’s not the lead; her role as the Duchess of Berwick is to show the follies of society and, channelling a previous performance in the much underrated Let Them Eat Cake, she is brilliant at this. The leads are Grace Molony as the moral Lady Windermere and the always excellent Samantha Spiro as the mannered Mrs Erlynne – a woman “with a past before her” –  captivating society despite scandal, and adding drama to attempts at reclaiming respectability.

Grace Molony and Samantha Spiro
Grace Molony and Samantha Spiro

This trio of performers alone makes this a show that celebrates women. And there are some strong performances from the men in the play, too: Kevin Bishop plays the rakish Lord Darlington with passion, and Joseph Marcell gives a first-rate comic turn. But Burke reminds us how strong Wilde’s writing for female roles is – how he treated them with a fairness, if not an equality, far beyond his time. The respect extends to smaller roles for women: Natasha Magigi has a lovely cameo. And Burke makes sure even a maid gets a personality here. There’s a struggle with our titular character, the lesson she has to learn – and the protection those close to her insist on ­– are so dated that she is hard to connect to. But, as Lady Windermere herself says, she is “behind the age” – we are supposed to feel unsatisfied with her, and her development is captured adroitly by Molony.
Most impressive is the production’s treatment of the play’s histrionic moments. We cannot be shocked in the way Wilde expected, although it’s easy to see that the drama and comedy would have been more violently contrasted in his day. But, in keeping with this season of his plays, masterminded by Dominic Dromgoole, we can still see Wilde as a radical. Burke has a clear appreciation of how he played with the theatrical melodramas of his age. There’s a brilliant scene with the burning of a plot-turning letter, and the ironies of family history don’t deserve a spoiler. Wilde was having fun with conventions – Burke follows his lead, and fun is what you’ll have too with this clever revival.
Until 7 April 2018
www.nimaxtheatres.com
Photos by Marc Brenner

"A Woman of No Importance" at the Vaudeville Theatre

Dominic Dromgoole’s latest project, with his new company, Classic Spring, is a year of Oscar Wilde plays. It’s off to a fantastic start with this story of adultery and sexual inequality. Wilde, the Victorian radical, has a sharp eye on masculine privilege that feels depressingly topical.
Providing effective pathos is Eve Best as the wronged woman, Mrs Arbuthnot. It’s hard for modern ears to hear her self-excoriation. But Best sets up an underlying anger towards her reencountered seducer (impressively performed by Dominic Rowan) that thrills. Best and the whole company’s handling of the play’s plentiful melodrama is masterful – a few well-placed laughs help us over some crippling sincerity.
This play is serious. But this is Wilde, so the comedy is as good as any you could find – in his day or now. Leading the epigrams alongside Rowan is Emma Fielding as the archly aesthetic Mrs Allonby. And there’s a great little performance from Phoebe Fildes as a sophisticate in training. Leading the way are Eleanor Bron and Anne Reid as two aristocratic dowagers giving top-class performances. It takes a lot not to be controlled by Wilde’s comedy; both make the lines natural, while Reid’s suggestion of a little too much digestif in the third act is a cheeky move that gets a laugh with every line.
So far, this is strong actors making the most of a genius. More than enough reason to see the show. But Dromgoole has a programme of ideas driving his production that elevates this to one of the finest of revivals.
First is the idea of exploring the proscenium theatre that Wilde’s plays were written for and that the Vaudeville is such a gorgeous example of. Let’s celebrate this wonderful format. It leads to fantastic sets and costumes from Jonathan Fensom and sensitive lighting from Ben Ormerod. Scene changes include some songs and period numbers arranged by Jason Carr – now that’s entertainment. After years at Shakespeare’s Globe, Dromgoole is an expert at the potential of a period.
Dromgoole also knows how to make sure a play doesn’t get stuck in the past. In a revelatory move, he’s utilised a study of the play’s previous drafts. The assumption that Wilde would have been bolder had the theatre of his day allowed it is a point for discussion. But it’s a fun debate, and all-too- suitable for a figure whose legacy has been so often used (and abused). You have to know the text well to work out what’s gone on, and plenty of lines still feel old-fashioned, but the idea is brave and effective. Classic Spring has a winning formula set up for an exciting year. Get booking.
Until 30 December 2017
www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

 
 

"Hand to God" at the Vaudeville Theatre

Puppets, on stage and screen, often misbehave. The simple sock in Robert Askins’ play, created to perform Bible stories as part of a church project, is as foul-mouthed and frisky as any teenage boy. And that’s pretty much the drive and destination of this funny, crowd-pleasing Broadway hit. Said to demonically possess our hero Jason, the puppet, like the devil, has all the best lines, delivering outrage and a brief investigation of religion. Better still, there’s tension and tenderness as the puppet reflects his owner’s fears, a mother and son relationship and the pain of recent bereavement. Travelling with the show is director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, creating a polished, confident feel and benefitting from a heavenly cast for this devilish comedy.
Hand-To-God-Vaudeville-302
Jemima Rooper is particularly impressive as a well-meaning potential girlfriend for Jason. Also landing laughs are Kevin Mains and Neil Pearson as, respectively, a small-town bad boy and the local pastor, both shockingly in thrall to Jason’s mother. Here’s a brilliant role for Janie Dee who excels as Margery – it’s hard to pin down whether her husband’s death or his miserable life have done the most damage. It’s Margery’s son who is the focus, going off the rails in manic (and bloody) style: a star role for Harry Melling, and performed faultlessly. With precise comedy timing, superb puppetry and accomplished physicality, Melling brings an intensity to the role that carries the show – this is one actor who’s no puppet.
Until 11 June 2016
www.handtogod.co.uk

"The Importance Of Being Earnest" at the Vaudeville Theatre

Adrian Noble’s high quality revival of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece has more to offer than its gender blind casting of David Suchet in the role of the indomitable Lady Bracknell. It has to be stressed that Suchet is brilliant and very much a star. Without those Poirot moustaches, he’s surprisingly convincing in drag. Did I detect a nod to his former role when Bracknell interviews a prospective groom for her daughter? Notes are taken in a book you can imagine the sleuth using for clues. But more importantly, Suchet has a playful coyness that brings more laughs to a character with no shortage of great lines. The ultimate snob, Lady Bracknell’s disgust at that infamous handbag is as we expect, but Suchet adds a repugnance to the location of Bayswater that should go down in theatre history.

Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest
Imogen Doel as Cecily and Philip Cumbus as Algernon

Just as good as Suchet is the strong cast that Noble utilises to create a zippy production with just the right amount of irreverence towards a classic. The four young lovers do justice to the play, while adding contemporary touches. Michael Benz and Philip Cumbus play the bachelors, John and Algernon, with as many laddish touches as the text will allow. The scene of them fighting over muffins is daring – I fear for Cumbus choking one night – but pays off. Emily Barber does well to suggest how she might, as predicted, face the “tragedy” of becoming like her mother, Lady Bracknell, while Imogen Doel adds a quirky youthfulness to the role of Cecily that feels strikingly modern. This quartet, plus Suchet, live up to the freshness of Wilde’s script and are sure to please admirers of the play.
Until 7 November 2015

www.importanceofearnest.com

Photos by Alastair Muir

"Oppenheimer" at the Vaudeville Theatre

The RSC’s transfer of Tom Morton-Smith’s new play immerses us in the history of the first atomic bomb and the mind of its maker, J Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a story with overwhelming potential – a rich mix of documentary and speculation – and the play is fascinating, if over ambitious. Angus Jackson’s direction deserves credit for inventive staging that aids dryer moments, using Robert Innes Hopkins design, and an impressive injection of music from Grant Olding.
Overall, strong performances balance some over enthusiastic accents – émigré scientists drafted onto the project to build the bomb prove too much of a temptation – so acting that benefits the script sits alongside some delivery that’s tricky to comprehend. The women in the piece stand out, both Hedydd Dylan and Catherine Steadman, as Oppenheimer’s love interests, do well with roles that come perilously close to tokenistic.
There are passages of writing that make it clear how talented Morton-Smith is. But he seems in thrall to history and detail, so the play ends up too long. Are this many characters really needed to explain the allegation that Oppenheimer turned his back on friends and ideals to win fame? And difficult though the science is, I’ve seen better attempts at explaining complex theories on stage. The biggest problem is knowing where to end the story: the bombs’ impact on all our lives might be a whole other play – tacking it on to this one doesn’t do the phenomena justice.
Nor does Morton-Smith make it easy for his leading character. Oppenheimer is a man of iron, cold and remote, yet forced to reveal enough trauma for any lifetime. His affairs, childhood, politics and philosophy are all tackled and none of it is simple. All the more credit, then, to John Heffernan in the title role. Seldom have I seen a show rest so heavily on its leading man. Heffernan’s performance confirms his status as one of the finest actors around – conveying the complexity of the physicist, making all that history and politics seem manageable and even convincing us of his character’s particular charisma. A stunning performance that gives this show enough bang to counter the occasional whimper.
Until 23 May 2015
www.rsc.org.uk
Photo by Keith Pattison

"Forbidden Broadway" at the Vaudeville Theatre

Forbidden Broadway may modestly describe itself as a “fringe revival transfer” but the hugely successful US show’s latest incarnation is a screamingly funny compendium of songs and impersonations. Relocating from the Menier, the legendary cabaret troupe has just begun a limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre, which can only be good news as the larger venue gives more Londoners a chance to laugh along to this irreverent take on show biz.
Writer and creator Gerard Alessandrini uses the songs from the very shows he lampoons (Les Mis, Phantom, Once et al) taking sweeps at commercialism and, the cardinal sin, laziness. The stolen songs are cleverly adapted, the new lyrics a wickedly guilty pleasure and lazy is one thing you can’t accuse these performers of. The four actors playing multiple characters are astonishing throughout, not least for their costume changes. There isn’t moment when you aren’t getting your money’s worth.
Forbidden Broadway’s other target is celebrity. There’s Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Cameron Mackintosh and Hugh Jackman. If some of the names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry: the delivery is enough to keep you happy. Christina Bianco and Anna-Jane Casey are marvellous impersonators, their co-stars Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, similarly, terrific comedians, and affectionate jokes about what it must be like to perform a hit show night after night ring true.
Despite their efforts, the emphasis is on Broadway rather than the West End. But we share many shows and there’s plenty of attention paid to London. The stab at Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (it’s not a good show) is more accurate than funny but songs about the forthcoming revivals of Evita and Cats are superb. If you’ve ever loved a show and are interested in the theatre you’ll laugh long and hard.
Admittedly, there is a danger the show is preaching to the choir. When Forbidden Broadway gets annoyed, demanding more for us as an audience, ironically, it delivers slightly less. But it’s here that you see the passion. There’s so much great theatre out there, there’s no excuse not to put on something superb. A sense of complicity with the creators puts us, the punters, at the fore, wanting the best. So, even if you’ve hated musicals in the past – this could still be the night out for you.
Until 22 November 2014
www.nimaxtheatres.com
Photo by Alastair Muir
Written 16 September 2014 for The London Magazine