Tag Archives: Wilton’s Music Hall

"Macbeth" at Wilton’s Music Hall

There was bad and good luck for the Watermill Theatre last night with its transfer of Shakespeare’s Scottish play (I’m risking nothing). After just one scene, Lady Macduff needed medical attention – sympathies and best wishes to her. Fortunately, a decision was made to persevere thanks to a member of the audience who was in the production previously. Gratitude to Emma Barclay for helping out – she did a great job. Although the circumstances for reviewing aren’t ideal, it’s only appropriate that I also go on.

So huge credit to the show’s small cast who gave little sense of being thrown by events – their professionalism is commendable. The production is marked out by its youthful appeal and tension (maybe a few extra nerves helped). Director Paul Hart clearly has plenty of ideas and, even if they are a mixed bag, they can be appraised regardless of injuries.

On the plus side, the depiction of the violence in the play through movement is done well (congratulation to Tom Jackson Greaves). The lighting effects, from Tom White, and projections from Louise Rhoades-Brown, are very good. The idea of using actor musicians is always impressive. But the delivery here needs finessing: the songs chosen prove distracting and, more importantly, too many lines are lost in the noise.

Emma McDonald in Macbeth at Wilton's Music Hall
Emma McDonald

If Hart wants a Macbeth that’s brash and bold then he has succeeded. But the consequence is a production that’s overblown and loud. Both leads are strong performers who seem wasted. Emma McDonald’s Lady Macbeth is, frankly, camp – a decision that does not serve the character well, no matter how great her outfits. It’s a shame, since McDonald and her stage husband have great chemistry and fantastic stage presence.

In the lead, Billy Postlethwaite possesses all the magnetism you could wish for as a guerrilla-style soldier with a hipsterish edge. I liked the way this Macbeth is out of his depth when it comes to plotting. But there’s no respite from madness for Postletwaite to work with. The witches (nicely delivered by the whole company) turn him too quickly. Both he and the production are hampered by the conceit of Hotel Macbeth. Macbeth as a rebel and rock star I get, but not a hotelier!

While Lucy Keirl has a good night doubling up as Seyton and Macbeth’s Porter, little else seems achieved by the hotel idea. It’s not the only tweak Hart makes that puzzles: are Macduff’s children really killed? And why is Duncan strangled first? But the abundance of ideas, like the events of the evening, show a company full of spirit. Regards again to the injured Lauryn Redding. Her colleagues displayed a determination the whole ensemble should be proud of.

In repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream until 15 February 2020

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photos by Pamela Raith

“The Pirates of Penzance” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas are truly special. Starting at the Union Theatre a decade ago, receiving rave reviews from the beginning, the greatest success – so far – has been this comedy romance of sweet corsairs, beautiful sisters and bumbling authority figures. Having toured the world #PiratesIsBack returns to what must be the perfect venue for this five-star show.

So, what’s so great? While clever cynicism on stage is common, increasingly so with musicals, and is present here, Regan brings back an innocence that is enchanting. There’s nothing infantile about the show – Gilbert’s lyrics show a master of sarcasm and irony, while the class consciousness that he parodied in 1879, and throughout his career, makes him seem forward thinking. For all the childish fun, Gilbert takes a grown-up look at how silly the world is. Some 140 years later, Regan understands that. Look at the famous Major General role – pompous as ever, yet still endearing in David McKechnie’s fantastic interpretation. Or the lamenting policeman, led magnificently by Duncan Sandilands, getting a lot of laughs but also a touch of sympathy. And best of all the “Piratical Maid of all work” Ruth, a role that Alan Richardson, fresh from success in the West End – whose voice is truly sublime – saves from any trace of distasteful sexism with a performance that is as sensitive and empowering as it is funny.

David McKechnie as the Major General

Then there is a romance in the piece, a peculiar kind that feels out of time. This is, after all, a fairy-book story of love at first sight, no matter how tongue in cheek. James Thackeray masters the blend as the Pirate King who is sensitive yet still dashing and sure to steal hearts. The gallant Frederic and charming Mabel are made a gorgeous couple by Tom Senior and Tom Bales respectively. Senior actually manages to make you admire the character’s silly sense of duty. There’s a real sense of tenderness here that might very well bring a tear to your eye. Regan takes the love story seriously, no matter how old-fashioned the sentimentality, in a necessary leap of faith that allows it to work as theatre.

Tom Senior and Tom Bales

The stars are backed by a fantastic ensemble, with a real sense of camaraderie that must surely be credited to Regan. Their first switch from pirates to girls, giggling around the balcony, is divine. The air is one of improvisation, a sense of dressing up for fun with wooden swords and a broom for a horse, that takes us back to the basics of theatre. The rough-and-ready aesthetic of Wilton’s Music Hall complements this, as well as serving the acoustics brilliantly. All this belies the skill behind a top-notch production: Lizzi Gee’s ambitious choreography, the expert musical direction from Richard Baker (that transforms Sullivan’s orchestral score so perfectly) and Regan’s never-failing eye for detail. A lot of work goes into creating something that feels this spontaneous, that has such a sense of effortless energy, and the result is a joy that is contagious.

Until 16 March 2019

www.piratesisback.com

Photos by Scott Rylander

“The Box of Delights” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Taking up the challenge of Christmas entertainment for a second year running, award-winning writer Piers Torday’s adaptation of John Mansfield’s classic novel is a children’s show with lots of imagination and energy. As our hero Kay, with his chums Mariah and Peter, battle to save Christmas from the claws of an evil magician and a pack of wolves, this show should keep even the most restless of pre-teens engaged. It’s a great introduction to theatre which is, of course, a fantastic gift to give.

Director Justin Audibert is artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre, which focuses on work for younger audiences, and his expertise shows. There’s a mix of simple, effective tricks (especially around the cast taking multiple roles) alongside some impressive video projections from Nina Dunn. As is de rigueur, puppetry is added and there’s a set full of surprises from Tom Piper that culminates in a strong finale. Some of the adult characters we meet aren’t that interesting, and pepping them up through performance has mixed success. Those who play the younger roles have abetter time: Theo Ancient tackles a very dated kind of hero superbly, Safiyya Ingar is good as the tomboy Mariah (let’s skip over her penchant for weaponry), and Samuel Simmonds get some extra laughs out of his bookish character. The real delight, though, is the villains, with Nigel Betts in a silk dressing gown, and especially Sara Stewart, who clearly came top of the class in evil laughs at drama school – a deliciously enviable skill not to be sniffed at.

As for the adaptation, Torday focuses on the adventure story and the result is so fast paced it doesn’t always make sense, even if it’s exciting enough. A gamble seems to have been taken that people know the story, or at least recognise elements within it that have proved so influential on subsequent children’s fiction. Some of this can drag and start to look silly if you’ve any humbug about you. But there’s a lot of fun with the source material as a period piece, with the cast playing youngsters working especially well here. There’s some great slang (scrobble for kidnap) and Ancient has an expert line in wide-eyed naivety. The second act really picks up and becomes much funnier so that, overall, the show makes good its claim of being “a fine tale for Christmas”.

Until 6 January 2019

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by Nobby Clark

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Wilton’s Music Hall

The Faction theatre company wastes no time with its new production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. Tamarin McGinley’s brilliant Hippolyta is imprisoned in a ring created by her fellow cast members and snarls at her soon-to-be husband Theseus – he wooed with his sword, after all! The startling depiction of their relationship shows a skill at interpreting the text. And the method of using the actors’ bodies rather than props as a cage shows off a signature physical style. Setting out its stall from the get go, this production excites from the very beginning.

Christopher Hughes as Bottom
Christopher Hughes as Bottom

Director Mark Leipacher is well aware that the course of true love isn’t supposed to run smooth and injects a tension into the romantic turmoil of the play. When it comes to the Athenian workmen, preparing a play of their own for the nuptial celebrations, the company does just as well with the play’s comedy. Led by Christopher Hughes as Bottom, in blissfully funny thespian form, the transformation into an ass has the cast taking turns as his ears and tail. It’s surprisingly effective and shockingly… sexy. Again, there is an attention to the text that shows an underlying intelligence: this is the first time I’ve been interested in the scene when Bottom is introduced to his fairy attendants.

Physicality is pushed to an extreme at times: the four Athenian lovers, interfered with by magic, end up wrestling one another in the woods – it’s brilliantly done, but you do lose some lines. And with only eight in the cast, the normal doubling of roles becomes a tripling and leads to a truncated finale that loses the witty commentary from those usually watching the show (since the same actors are performing it). But it’s a thrill to see every role embraced by each performer, especially Christopher York, who gets full comic potential out of a trio of parts.

It should be pointed out that a knowledge of the play helps, especially when it comes to the scene changes, crafted using sound and light by Ben Jacobs and Yaiza Varona, respectively – they are beautiful, but might not aid comprehension enough. But the production is full of rewards, with Richard James Neale’s direction of movement continually fascinating and Leipacher’s engagement with the text consistently intelligent. Combined, this is a winning offer and I think it’s magic.

Until 30 June 2018

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by The Other Richard

“Sancho” at Wilton’s Music Hall

As an introduction to his first play, the respected actor Paterson Joseph says hello as himself and sets an amiable tone. Explaining he wanted to appear in a costume drama, but wasn’t cast because of his race, he has taken the admirable step of making his own. Transforming into the 18th-century gentleman Charles Ignatius Sancho – he seems to put on weight for the corpulent character as you watch – the author, actor and subject are combined to cast a suitably charismatic spell.

Sancho is not unknown. His portrait by Thomas Gainsborough is in the National Gallery of Canada and art historians have paid it considerable attention. The play includes Sancho sitting for the portrait, an intelligent device to display his personality and kick off a recounting of his fascinating life. He was an actor, a musician, a valet, a man of letters and, finally, a grocer. And getting to know the man becomes a real treat: he’s an epicurean and wit, full of idiosyncrasies and a dash of camp that make you want to share a syllabub with him… although he would probably want one to himself.

A lightness of touch belies the play’s testimony of racism and the fact that it is a great history lesson. Taking us from Sancho’s childhood through to his old age the show is, somewhat self-consciously, a tour de force for an actor. But having already extensively toured, Joseph is in relaxed control of his one-man show and reveals himself to be a great entertainer, appealing and encouraging the crowd. Joseph’s skill as a writer is to combine, with clarity, the casual cruelties his subject faced with the systemic prejudice of his times. It’s also fascinating to see, before we start feeling too superior, an 18th-century ideal of masculinity; to note how being a true man was associated with education and refinement. This close study culminates in a moving finale that elevates the piece to a play you feel everyone should see: as Sancho secures his place in history, in 1780, in Westminster – as the first Afro-British person to vote. It’s a fact worth remembering, and one that Joseph makes feel alive and important.

Until 16 June 2018

www.wiltons.org.uk

“The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk” at Wilton’s Music Hall

It’s a delight that this early work from director Emma Rice and writer Daniel Jamieson has been revived and returns to London as part of a tour. Telling the tale of Bella and Marc Chagall, it’s a romance made blissful to watch by its combination of music, movement and imagery. Inspired by Marc’s paintings, flight is used a metaphor for love and applying this to the stage makes the show sky high with beauty, passion and emotion.

The performers are Marc Antolin and Daisy Maywood, who play the couple throughout their lives, as well as incidental characters along the way. Joined by multi-talented musicians James Gow and the show’s composer Ian Ross – whose music is integral to the piece – the singing is divine. The movement the piece demands, with choreography from Rice and Etta Murfitt, emphasises the trust actors and lovers have to have in one another and is a marvel: every limb performs, every action is considered.

From the start, Marc and Bella’s love at first sight is captivating. But their marriage is never free of tension. Chagall fell for his role as a genius early, it seems, and Bella suffered. It’s one of many triumphs that this formidable woman gets her side of the story told: it’s 50/50 all the way, with no trace of Bella a victim. Marc published his wife’s writing after her death, and admits that she could have been “hidden” by history. But not under Rice’s watch!

The past and memory are continually evoked as the Chagall story mirrors the momentous events of the Russian Revolution and World War II. The result is a portrayal of Jewish life as sensitive as Chagall’s own work, full of warmth, humour and, of course, the tragedy of anti-Semitism never far away. A scene where our wandering couple unpack their bags as they discuss the Holocaust uses the powerful symbolism of books and shoes in a breathtakingly simple manner.

What really elevates The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk is that Rice and Jamieson have created a uniquely theatrical experience that celebrates the power of make-believe. Highlighted by Bella’s own interest in the stage (which includes Marc’s assumption that she can’t work as she is a mother), imagination is the key to their love and the show. The invention that Rice employs is full of touches that have become her trademarks: the use of costume, and simple props that add humour, with cheeky nods to the mechanics of production. All engender a complicity with the audience that makes a crowd soar all the way through this show.

Until 10 February 2018, then on tour

www.kneehigh.co.uk

Photo by Steve Tanner

“How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Frank Loesser’s 1961 hit musical doesn’t get a London airing very often, so this revival, from director Benji Sperring, is an exciting chance to see the show. As you would expect from the creator of Guys and Dolls, Loesser’s smart score has a satisfying complexity, served well by Ben Ferguson’s musical direction and Wilton’s acoustics. The story is a neat idea, too – following the corporate career rise of a former window cleaner, J Pierrepont Finch, aided only by guile and a self-help book. While many of the jokes are laboured, a committed cast gives its very best.

Sperring’s actors adopt an exaggerated style that’s apt, fun, and makes light of the outmoded working environment and sexual politics on offer. The cast gets a lot from camping it up, especially the lead, Marc Pickering – a charismatic comedian with a strong voice. Also benefitting are Matthew Whitby and Daniel Graham as Finch’s dastardly colleagues, accompanied by Richard Emerson, who multi-tasks a shocking number different roles… at least that’s one thing that reflects current workplaces.

The mannered treatment might have been pushed further; not so much with the performances but rather Mike Lees’ set and costume design. Maybe even more drastic measures are needed – especially given the cringing sexism of the piece. Despite valiant efforts from all the actresses, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the delivery, there are too many uncomfortable moments. Hannah Grover sounds sweet as Finch’s love interest, but this character makes Miss Adelaide look like Germaine Greer. Her sidekick is more interesting. Played by Geri Allen with a voice perfect for this music, she almost manages to make you forget that she is singing about marriage being a woman’s ultimate goal.

Of course, Sperring doesn’t take any of the show seriously. His production’s silliness builds pace and humour (despite a lot of moving office furniture) while Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography gets funnier throughout. The actors are unfailing in their efforts but it’s a shame a more ruthless approach wasn’t taken. The germ of how to deal with the piece’s problems is clear to all – but more of an aggressive takeover is needed to make this business succeed.

Until 22 April 2017

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“Frankenstein” at Wilton’s Music Hall

This potted production of Mary Shelley’s tale makes for an entertaining evening. In this somewhat ruthlessly adapted version by Tristan Bernays, the skeleton of the story remains, while casting one performer as both the eponymous doctor and his monster puts flesh on the bones of ideas about their relationship. Adding only simple props – lamps, buckets and a flight case – establishes a strong story-telling feel of considerable charm.

The show is a star vehicle for recent graduate George Fletcher, who plays both creator and creature. We see mostly monster – racing through ‘infancy’ efficaciously with admirable physicality, while creating possibly too much sympathy. He is joined as The Chorus by Rowena Lennon, who takes on some extra speaking roles admirably and even more impressively creates visual and aural echoes of Fletcher’s actions and emotions.

The show comes fromThe Watermill Theatre. Might it have been scarier if its genesis was the atmospheric mid-19th century Wilton’s? The Victorian loved to be spooked, after all. Director Eleanor Rhode brings clarity to weighty questions, but there could be more tension here. Nonetheless, the performances are strong, while excellent effects (light and sound by Lawrence T Doyle and David Gregory) ensure the show impresses, even if it is cerebral rather than creepy.

Until 18 March 2017

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by Philip Tull

“The Great Gatsby” at Wilton’s Music Hall

It seems to be the year of The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel about the American dream: The New York Public Theatre is bringing its enactment, Gatz, to London in June and later in the summer The Kings Head premieres a new musical version by Joe Evans. First up is Peter Joucla’s adaptation at Wilton’s Music Hall. The show has already been on tour and runs like one of the well-oiled, expensive cars its protagonists drive – it’s a fun affair full of atmosphere.

Joucla’s version is admirably precise and concise, snappy even. He adds an a capella choir, bespectacled as a nifty acknowledgement of Fitzgerald’s theme of vision, which performs jazz numbers. The cast gets to show off its musical skills and the delivery is superb – it adds a great deal of humour, possibly too much, as the songs dilute the tragedy of Gatsby’s doomed love affair.

In the title role Michael Malarkey is so appealing it seems a shame not to see more of him and Nick Chambers, who plays the central character of Nick, doesn’t seem to have been given enough time to establish himself as our narrator. Joucla’s adaptation benefits smaller roles: Christopher Brandon is superb as the “hulking” Tom and Vicki Campbell electric as glamorous hanger-on Jordan.

The Great Gatsby benefits immeasurably from its setting in Wilton’s Music Hall, as do all the shows it hosts. The venue exudes a decayed glamour and is one of the few theatres worth arriving early and staying late for to enjoy the bar. Capitalising on the play’s speakeasy era, cocktails are served and the party carries on after the show. Wilton’s closes soon for an essential refurbishment, but please note that it’s still open for donations, so make sure you don’t miss the party.

Until 19 May 2012

www.wiltons.org.uk

Photo by Michelle Robek

Written 26 April 2012 for The London Magazine

“Into thy hands” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Politics and prayer seem to have been much more interesting 400 years ago, at least if Jonathan Holmes’ new play at Wilton’s Music Hall is to be believed. Set in 1611, Into thy hands is a story of sex and death, religion and science, with the life of poet and preacher John Donne as its catalyst.

Holmes is a scholar as well as the production’s writer and director. He has staged a Jacobean court masque as well as recovering some of Donne’s songs and both become valuable additions to his play. So Into thy hands doesn’t wear its learning lightly, it’s too ambitious for that. There’s even a nod to verbatim theatre (another of Renaissance man Holmes’ interests). You have to be on your toes for this one.

Part of the challenge is the inspiration taken from Donne’s poetry. Complex and full of conceits, you could never call it an easy read. Rewarding certainly, but characters discussing theology in this manner is hard work. Donne’s very name is a case in point, dripping with puns and prophecy – he can be finished, satiated, but also downcast, undone. Donne’s role in public life adds another level: he becomes trapped as a symbol himself, forced into the church as a reformed soul. For Holmes, the early seventeenth century was a period when a new world of science and religion saw “words move” while reactionaries fought to pin everything “in place”.

Donne’s position in this struggle is never less than compelling. He wants to be “a voice not a text”, arguing for fluidity and a sensuality that is shockingly modern. Zubin Varla plays the lead and delivers his verbose lines with remarkable fluidity, convincing us of the man’s passion and originality. But Donne shouldn’t just be unconventional and Varla’s occasional rants make him unconvincing – a flaw in a man so famous for his sermons.

Listening to the debate is Donne’s circle of allies and adversaries. It is a strength of Holmes’ text that he attempts to give a voice to the strong women of the period. Donne’s wife Ann is a fascinating character, played articulately by Jess Murphy. There are also strong performances from Helen Masters as Lady Danvers and Stephanie Langton as the Countess of Bedford. The latter has to deal with some explicit scenes concerning her character’s sexuality and manages to create an emotionally rounded performance.

Nothing about Into thy hands is easy. Even the humour is a sophisticated kind of bawdy. But any trip to Wilton’s music hall is worth taking and Holmes deals well with the building’s fantastic acoustics. This ‘hidden gem’ of a stage, derelict for so many years and London’s last surviving music hall, is at risk because the Heritage Lottery has refused a grant for its redevelopment. This makes a visit more important than ever – and with a play that has a preacher as its hero, surely a donation is called for?

Until 2 July 2011

www.wiltons.org.uk

Written 3 June 2011 for The London Magazine