Review - Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (UK Tour)

Almost 50 years after its premiere, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is still as popular as ever, attracting audiences of all ages and playing to full houses up and down the country. The titular dreamcoat is currently being sported by X Factor winner Joe McElderry, who returns to the role this year after a stint in 2016. He stars opposite Lucy Kay, a Britain's Got Talent alumni best known for her classical singing, who takes on the role of the narrator.

The cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Photo credit - Mark Yeoman
Joe McElderry's clean cut look and radiant grin make him a perfect teen idol Joseph aesthetically, but it's his excellent voice which make McElderry's turn as the eponymous dreamer so commendable. His show stopping rendition of iconic ballad Close Every Door on its own is almost worth the price of admission. It's just a shame that at times the production's zealous band overpower vocals, making the sung through musical slightly harder to follow. 

There are some really brilliant numbers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Of course everyone is familiar with Any Dream Will Do, but Jacob and Son, and One Less Angel in Heaven are also earworms worth mentioning. Lloyd Webber has certainly always known how to write a catchy tune. The show is full of toe tapping numbers, in musical styles ranging from country to calypso! There's even an Elvis Presley inspired rock and roll number for Pharaoh in act two, as well as a rather fun Charleston inspired number. The various music styles, and accompanying props and costumes, make the whole show extremely bizarre, but also help to create a fun party atmosphere. 

Although at some points this production does seem a bit cheap and cheerful, amid the dizzying myriad of lights, corny '90s boy band choreography, and blindingly bright costumes, the slightly outmoded elements are scarcely noticeable. 

Of course, this production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat isn't perfect, not least because the musical itself is hardly a musical theatre masterpiece. In fact, it's a total cheese fest with lots of posturing, jumping up and down and inviting the audience to clap. However, at the end of the day it's good clean family fun that will no doubt provide many youngsters with their first taste of musical theatre, and which continues to be a beloved show to both theatre fanatics and casual audiences. It's hard to criticise a show as joyful as this one, and so regardless of its outlandish unconventionality, and economical production design, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is worth seeing at least once! 

Find more information at www.kenwright.com/microsite/joseph

Review - Death Takes A Holiday (Charing Cross Theatre)

The UK premiere of Death Takes A Holiday is the latest of Thom Southerland's offerings as artistic director of the Charing Cross Theatre. Set in Northern Italy in the summer of 1922, the story begins when the Grim Reaper spares a young woman's life, and decides to become human for one weekend in order to try and comprehend why people fear death.  

Chris Peluso and Zoë Doano in Death Takes A Holiday
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Just as epic scale was powerfully presented on a tiny stage in the acclaimed European premiere of Titanic the Musical which ran last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, Death Takes A Holiday feels grand and rather luxe. Elegant and sophisticated costumes by Jonathan Lipman, and glorious atmospheric lighting by Matt Daw, give the whole production an attractive Mediterranean glow. 

The production as a whole cannot be faulted. Aside from a couple of scenes where too many chairs makes the whole stage look cluttered, resulting in a few chairography heavy transitions, Death Takes A Holiday is as slick and polished as has come to be expected from production at the Charing Cross Theatre during under Thom Southerland's direction. 

It's just a shame that the story itself lacks a certain spark and, despite its exploration of poignant themes such as loss and heartbreak, feels rather trivial. The relationship between Death and Grazia, the young beautiful woman whose life he spares, feels rushed and somewhat unbelievable from the outset, as Death claims to save her life because of her overwhelming youth and vitality, thus suggesting that no other bright young things ever met an early demise before her. 

It also feels like there are too many superfluous characters, who seem interesting but don't make much difference to the outcome of the plot at all. For instance, pilot Eric Fenton, the best friend of Grazia's deceased brother, is introduced near the end of act 1, sings one of the most affecting songs in the show and then almost instantaneously becomes irrelevant again. 

Of course, the idea of Death deciding to become a human is an undeniably interesting premise, and the potential for some brilliant fish out of water comedy is not ignored, to begin with at least.  As Death parades around in his human guise, in the body of recently deceased Russian Prince Nikolai Sirki, his exploration of what it means to be human is rather enjoyable to behold. Especially as he waxes lyrical about eating eggs for breakfast, and discovers human lust after an encounter with a sensual housemaid. However, these lighter scenes feel very much at odds with the dark, voluptuous romance between Grazia and Death, and as such the latter character quickly starts to feel like a hybrid of Jack Skeleton and the Phantom of the Opera. 

Nevertheless, Chris Peluso is the perfect leading man for the role, with an imposing presence and a silky voice versatile enough to effortlessly tackle Maury Yeston's soaring score. Similarly, Zoë Doano's pure tone suits the youthfulness of Grazia, and it's lovely to see pluckiness in her portrayal of the young lover, despite the disadvantages that her age and gender afford her in the somewhat outdated story. 

Additionally, although it is not the strongest or most memorable of Maury Yeston's compositions, Death Takes A Holiday's sumptuous score is full of rich, goose bump inducing harmonies and contains plenty of light and shade, which is perfectly apt for a musical about life and death. 

It's a shame that a brilliantly atmospheric production with such a strong cast can still feel underwhelming, as on aesthetics alone Death Takes A Holiday cannot be faulted. Ironically and somewhat inexplicably the production just lacks a certain spirit. The performances are well worth a listen, and fans of chamber musicals will no doubt adore Maury Yeston's opulent oeuvre, but as a whole the show seems to be missing something, and ends rather abruptly, in a finale which lacks drama and emotion, despite a rousing accompanying score. 

Review - The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York's Theatre)

Having begun its journey at the American Repertory Theatre in 2013, transferred to Broadway and received Tony Award success, then crossed the pond last summer to entertain audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival, John Tiffany’s acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie has finally arrived in London’s West End.

Kate O'Flynn as Laura
Photo credit - Johan Persson
It's no wonder The Glass Menagerie is considered by many to be Williams' greatest achievement as a playwright. The emotionally shattering memory play perfectly balances humour, intrigue, heartbreak and desire as it tells the story of a family in tatters, trying desperately to thrive despite their multitude of hindrances. 

Based on Williams himself, Tom Wingfield's desire for creativity and freedom repels him from his family, and his sister Laura, living with a limp as a result of childhood illness, is a fragile and isolated creature living inside her own world. The products of depression era America, both siblings are dreamers in their own ways, at odds with their woebegone homeland. 

Watching over her forlorn family is Amanda Wingfield, an erstwhile Southern Belle who hides a multitude of pains and regrets behind a bright, comely smile. Struggling to eek out a living on Tom's warehouse salary and the pittance Amanda earns by selling magazines over the phone to her acquaintances, the Wingfield family's plight is a serious one. Despite Amanda's attempts to disguise their troubles, both emotional and monetary, the truth is always looming over them like the portrait of Mr Wingfield, the absent husband, which hangs in the family apartment. 
The cast of The Glass Menagerie
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Making her West End debut, the exquisite Cherry Jones is a force to be reckoned with as the domineering matriarch of the Wingfield family. Her exuberance and gaiety flickers on and off throughout the show, occasionally revealing a glimpse of the anxiety which lies underneath her well rehearsed charm. Meanwhile Michael Esper is engaging as Tom Wingfield. Balancing a multitude of conflicting tormenting emotions, it's clear he's not just a drunkard blindly stumbling into his absent father's footsteps, but rather a young man desperate to escape an oppressive existence, menial job and soulless town. Both actors do excellent jobs of making their characters sympathetic, while maintaining their individual complexities.

However, it is Kate O'Flynn who undoubtedly steals the show as mawkish Laura. The endearing gawkiness which Amanda Wingfield does her best to erase is perfectly calculated in O'Flynn's performance. An unconventional yet apt comparison to the mournfulness of Laura's emotional arc would be watching a child let go of a balloon in slow motion. The tragic, heartbreaking inevitability of her fate is almost too much to bear. She shines especially brightly in act two, which centres around Laura's encounter with a gentleman caller. Brian J. Smith's overly confident yet kind hearted Jim O'Connor is the perfect foil for Laura, and the tenderness radiated from the bittersweet couple is enough to move anyone to tears.

Just as Tom offers the audience 'truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion' in his opening monologue, this perfectly crafted production captures the fantastical, dreamlike quality of The Glass Menagerie, and amplifies it tenfold. 1930s Missouri is brought to vivid life through Bob Crowley's set design. The Wingfield family's apartment feels small and humble, and along with the iconic fire escape, a pool of dark water which surrounds their hexagonal apartment on all sides epitomises the confinement each character struggles with throughout the play. 

The striking set design is coupled with gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz. Wistfully delivered narration is lit in cool blue, and muggy everyday St Louis is lit like a faded photograph. However, at night the sky is enchanted with glimmering stars, reflected in the water around the Wingfield apartment so it almost appears to float in the night sky. 

There is an awful lot to admire about John Tiffany's beguiling production of The Glass Menagerie. Watching it is like ascending a staircase in the dark. Gut wrenching at every turn. As ennui is faultlessly contorted into enrapture it becomes abundantly clear that this show is nothing short of wondrous. In every sense. 

Visit theglassmenagerie.co.uk for more information about this production

Review - Hedda Gabler (National Theatre)

Ruth Wilson takes on one of Henrik Ibsen's most fascinating and polarising characters in Ivo Van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. Ibsen's play has been modernised in Patrick Marber's new adaptation. In short, it tells the story of Hedda, the daughter of a deceased army general, who hastily married a man she doesn't care for, and now lives beyond her middle class husband's means, unable to escape the boredom of her pedestrian lifestyle.

Ruth Wilson as Hedda Gabler
Photo credit - Jan Versweyveld
What is instantly noticeable about this production is its stark set design, which is almost as unbearable for the audience as it is for Hedda herself. In many aspects this production is reminiscent of Lazarus another recent collaboration between director Ivo Van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld. In both pieces the action takes place in a large, sparsely furnished room which is slowly dishevelled as the piece goes on. Both pieces also feature large symbolic glass windows. And female characters dressed in silky slip dresses.

To judge it on its own terms, this production of Hedda Gabler is subtly imbued with unmistakable Nordic design, despite its sparseness. Regardless of her disdain for the house she is trapped in, it's modernism suits Hedda, and situates her bookish husband Tesman as an antiquated outsider who invades her life, trailing piles of dusty books and papers behind him. Hedda fights back, armed with a staple gun and limp floral bouquets, but her attempt to aestheticize only results in a mulch of flower petals and stems, which are trodden into the ground as the first act progresses, and are removed before act 2 begins, leaving only a few petals scattered around.

This production's design makes use of some very blatant symbolism, although for the most part it steers clear of heavy handedness. Along with his blank canvas of a set, Jan Versweyveld's lighting design is subdued yet atmospheric, with his use of shadows and silhouettes being particularly interesting. On one occasion, a large window lets in air and light on one side of the room, while on the opposite wall vertical blinds cast long shadows, creating the appearance of a prison cell. On another occasion the conniving Judge Brack threatens Hedda while his silhouette, with legs spread, looms over her small, cowering frame.

Ruth Wilson brings an undertone of grotesqueness to Hedda, seething and scheming nonstop while Kyle Soller's Tesman flutters in her periphery, poring over books all day. The trouble is, while Tesman is usually played as an older gentleman, mithering about money and work all the time, in this production he's a sprightly, sociable young man, who evokes spontaneity and good nature. Wilson is a fierce presence, and plays Hedda with a fantastic physicality, switching from restless slouch to catlike languor as soon as she's alone with a pliable man. But it's hard to elicit a strong emotional response to any of Hedda's struggles when she's so cruel to all those around her. She treats her mousy old school friend Mrs Elvsted with such content, and goes out of her way to seduce her ex-lover Lovberg into resorting back to his old alcoholic habits.

Patrick Marber's new adaptation of Ibsen's text transports the story from the 1890s to the present day, thus removing the historical context which would ordinarily drive Hedda's actions as a woman out of time. Regrettably, as a result of this modernisation the terse relationship between Hedda and the men in her life seems softened and as such her frustrated outburst often come across as brattish rather than rebellious, resulting in a less sympathetic central character.

The only character who really seems to make an impact on Hedda is Judge Brack. As the unnerving judge, Rafe Spall slimes around the stage and attempts to seduce and manipulate Hedda at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the dynamic between Brack and Hedda is taken to the extreme in this production, and his domination of her mind and body via intimidation and humiliation feels gratuitous.

When the lights come up and the actors take their bows there is a feeling of hesitance in the air. Bare feet trample over the odd wilted petal, and a bright scarlet spatter taints the once blanched box of a set. Hedda Gabler has always been a play which polarises its audiences, but on this occasion a sense of shame seems to permeate through the piece, and come to a head at the very end. Hedda's strength is stripped away, her final defiant acts engineered by the men who surround her. Somehow, by transporting her so far away from her original context, Hedda is robbed of the audience's sympathy.

Find out more information by visiting www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/hedda-gabler

Review - La Cage Aux Folles (UK Tour)

Set in a drag nightclub on the French Riviera, La Cage Aux Folles focuses on the chaos which ensues when drag artist Albin and his husband Georges prepare to meet their son Jean-Michel’s fiancée, and her ultra-conservative parents.
Adrian Zmed and John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles
Photo credit - Pamela Raith
The story of La Cage Aux Folles is entertaining if somewhat predictable. Harvey Fierstein’s book contains a lot of clever wit, undercut by a touching truthfulness which gives the humorous musical a bit of bite. It must be said however that this production of La Cage Aux Folles does feel a little bit too light-hearted at times. The script features several moments of danger and tension but due to the sauntering pace of some scenes several characters act more apathetic than their words suggests at times.

Sporting a broad affected Northern accent John Partridge gives his all as glamorous drag artist Albin, aka Zaza. Despite some slightly awkward audience interaction scenes he commands the stage well and steals the show on multiple occasions. Most notably, his rendition of iconic anthem I Am What I Am, which brings the curtain down on act 1, is a powerful moment both vocally and emotionally, with Partridge showcasing a strong singing voice complete with killer vibrato, which is well suited to Jerry Herman's songs. Alas, as Albin's husband and La Cage Aux Folles's master of ceremonies Georges, American veteran stage and screen actor Adrian Zmed lacks a certain flair and showmanship, and seems a little lost amongst the larger than life personalities he shares the stage with. However, Albin’s fellow entertainers Les Cagelles impress immensely, splitting and high-kicking with boundless energy, each bringing tons of personality to their role. Bill Deamer's choreography really captures the playfulness of the drag numbers, making them a joy to watch throughout. 

In fact, the scenes which take place upon the stage of La Cage Aux Folles itself are definite high points in the show. Set and costume designer Gerry McCann has created a gorgeous, glittering paradise for Albin and company to inhabit. The rich reds and golds which punctuate the production make it seem particularly luxe, while the array of feathers, sequins and baubles make each drag number a real feast for the eyes. 

At its heart, La Cage Aux Folles is about love and acceptance, two universal themes which seem especially relevant given the rocky and somewhat divided nature of the country right now. It's interesting, and in some ways rather sad, to find a musical which deals carefully with a number of social and political issues which ring true today as much as they did when the show first opened on Broadway in 1983. Despite this production’s flaws, it has glitz, pizazz and will leave its audience with their toes tapping.

Find out more about La Cage Aux Folles by visiting www.kenwright.com/microsite/la-cage-aux-folles

Review - The Snowman (Marlowe Theatre)

With Christmas over and done with it seems rather strange to dive back into winter wonderland with The Snowman, but the timeless story is a joy to watch no matter what.

Photo credit - Herbie Knott
The current production of The Snowman, which originated at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, has been enchanting audiences young and old for many years now. Based on Raymond Briggs' beloved children's book, The Snowman takes audiences on a magical adventure filled with dancing woodland animals, a jolly Father Christmas, and an icy Jack Frost!  

The story itself is a quaint one, which could be seen to parallel The Nutcracker in several ways. A young boy builds a snowman which comes to life, and together the pair explore the boy’s own home before heading off to a snowy winter haven, filled with frolicking reindeer and snowpeople from all over the globe. It’s an irresistible tale, which will have its youngest audience members entranced, while older theatregoers will have a hard time not succumbing to the nostalgia it exudes!

Of course, the most anticipated moment of the show is the famous flying scene. There's no denying a sense of awe is elicited when the boy and his snowman lift up into the air, accompanied by the unmistakable vocals of a young Aled Jones singing Howard Blake’s Walking In The Air, now a bonafide Christmas classic!

Unfortunately, the sentimental element does seem to come at a price. This show first opened over 20 years ago, and as such the set design and costumes do appear to lack the kind of vibrancy and sleekness found in more modern children’s theatre productions. It would be nice to see The Snowman given a fresh lick of figurative paint, as in its current form it feels slightly tired.

Although this production’s design does feels dated, the story itself is still fresh and no doubt provides many children with their first introduction to professional dance, which in itself is worth a mention! It is a shame that the sets and costumes feel like they could benefit from a refresh, as the magic of The Snowman is in its spectacle, however, there is still more than enough to keep audiences entertained throughout. 

Review - Ghost the Musical (UK Tour)

When Ghost was released in 1990 it caused a real rumble, broke box office records, won one of its lead actresses an Academy Award, and caused the sales of Unchained Melody to skyrocket too! Eventually, like so many well-loved movies, it was adapted for stage and hit the West End in 2011, before heading off to Broadway to break hearts there too. Now producer Bill Kenwright's reimagined production of the musical is touring the UK, leaving countless watery eyes in its wake. 
Andy Moss as Sam
Photo credit - Matt Martin
Banker Carl and his artist girlfriend Molly are confronted by a mugger one night. When Sam attempts to wrestle a gun from the mugger's hands and ends up getting shot, Molly ends up alone... or so she thinks. It seems Sam has some unfinished business in the world, and with the help of psychic Oda Mae, he sets his mind to concocting revenge upon those who are responsible for his death.  

Unsurprisingly, the heartbreaking story remains as electrifying today as it was 27 years ago, and does a good job of staying true to the original film. In fact, Bruce Joel Rubin who wrote the original screenplay also came on board to write the musical's book and contribute lyrics to the songs by Glen Ballard and Eurythmics' Dave Stewart. Ghost's music is wonderfully moving, especially With You, the hauntingly beautiful ballad sung by a heartbroken Molly as she tries to come to terms with her loss. Thankfully, there are some lighter numbers in the show too, with Oda Mae's introductory song Are You A Believer being particularly entertaining, thanks in no small part to the fantastic performance given by Jacqui Dubois, who steals every scene she appears in as the reluctant medium.

Additionally, Carolyn Maitland and Andy Moss make a sweet couple as Molly and Sam. While Maitland does a lot of the heavy lifting in their duets and showcases her crisp and powerful belt consistently throughout the show, Andy Moss also manages to pack a punch during big numbers such as Rain/Hold On and I Had A Life. The latter is one of the most effectual songs in the show, which allows the lead duo, as well as Sam Ferriday as Sam's conniving friend Carl, to shine, while also laying the groundwork for a high stakes second act. 

Unfortunately while the show is well cast it is slightly let down by serviceable yet slightly soulless sets which feel a bit bare-bones, as well as rather cold and clinical. Several more intimate scenes feel a bit lost amongst such sparse scenery, which is disappointing for a musical which is first and foremost a romance. Even when the full ensemble is on stage it feels as if there is too much unused space on stage. There's no doubt that this production would benefit from a slightly larger ensemble cast, as even the large group numbers feel a little bit lost, although the vocals are strong throughout. Additionally, barring one or two impressive special effects, Sam's ghostly activities are also a little bit underwhelming. His initial transition from living to spectral is a simple yet effective moment which elicits a few gasps here and there, but sadly there is a surprising lack of ghostly activity.   

The cast all give great performances, and it's hard to resist Ghost's tear jerking finale, and ultimately it's the production design and effects that let it down. Some tightening up, a fuller ensemble and the addition of a few more awe inspiring effects could really help to enhance this tour. However, there's no doubt that it is an entertaining evening out as it is, and there is still a lot to enjoy about this musical in terms of songs and characters, especially for those who love the original film!   

Catch Ghost as it tours the UK this year. Visit www.kenwright.com/microsite/ghost-the-musical for more information.