Interview - Simon Lipkin (Nativity! The Musical)

'They say never work with children or animals, and we’ve got 27 kids and a dog, so we really went there. We really took on all the challenges'. 

I'm chatting to Simon Lipkin, who is currently touring the UK as Mr Poppy in a brand new musical adaptation of the popular 2009 christmas film Nativity! which tells the story of a school teacher who tries to persuade his Hollywood producer ex-girlfriend to come and see his class's Nativity. With an enviable list of acting credits in popular musical comedies such as Nicky/Trekkie Monster in the original London cast of Avenue Q, Lonnie in the original London cast of Rock of Ages, and more recently Rat in the West End transfer of Stiles and Drewe's The Wind in The Willows, the role of the fun loving teaching assistant Mr Poppy, who Lipkin describes as 'sort of Peter Pan-ish' and 'one of the kids' is a natural fit.

Having first become involved with Nativity! The Musical during workshops 4 years ago, Simon Lipkin's enthusiasm for the show is extremely palpable. Having previously seen the film and loved it, he explains that 'some things translate really well to the stage and then other things not as well, but this one was so right to be turned into a stage show' adding that 'it’s so joyous and brilliant, and the songs in it are brilliant, and they’ve embedded in a bunch of new songs that kind of work just as well. Some of them are my new favourites'. 

In recent years the number of films being adapted on stage has seemingly grown rapidly, so it's great to hear that Nativity! lends itself so perfectly to the stage. Critics and audiences have been very positive about the show, and Simon Lipkin even remarks during our interview that they have been receiving standing ovations. I query whether taking on a role in the musical adaptation of such a popular film is daunting in any way, to which Simon Lipkin replies that '[Mr Poppy] is such a well known character from the films, and Mark Wooten who plays him in the film does it so brilliantly, so it was slightly daunting.' However, Lipkin adds, 'I’ve tried to give it my twist, so it honours what he’s created, and what people love about him in the movies, but I’ve sort of put another twist on it.' In the films Mr Poppy is a very likable and very funny character. I ask if Lipkin relates to his character in any way and he answers that '[Mr Poppy is] an adult and he’s lived his life, but he’s kind of a big kid who’s held onto his imagination and likes to play, and likes to be silly. Well, not always, but a lot of the time I’m just like that'.

Simon Lipkin as Mr Poppy and Daniel Boys as Mr Maddens with the company of Nativity! The Musical
Photo credit - Richard Davenport
Having been brought up on comedians such as Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Tommy Cooper, Lipkin is naturally a comedy lover, and as we chat he praises the comedic aspects of Nativity! the Musical. He enthuses that 'it’s a very very funny show, it’s a true family show and there are beautiful heartfelt moments, but most of the time you’re laughing a lot.' As we chat I notice that not only is Simon Lipkin very humble and down to earth, he is also extremely appreciative of his co-stars and the creatives working on Nativity! The Musical too. 'We’ve got 27 kids in the cast, 18 performing every night, and they are brilliant! They’re like comedy gold! And the best thing is that they don’t know it'. He also praises Debbie Isitt, the writer and director of both the film and the musical, saying 'our director loves to find just normal kids who are very very funny'.

I query whether there are any challenging aspects involved with playing to a younger audience and working with such young co-stars (the actors portraying the children in the show range from 8 to 12 years old) and Lipkin is quick to explain that although it was a little daunting to begin with, once they got into rehearsals they knew that everything was going to be alright. In fact, he has nothing but good things to say about his young co-stars, remarking that 'when we were little we could play for hours and pretend that we were in a spaceship or a castle or a pirate ship, and we would believe it. Their imaginations are so intact when they get onstage and they’re in a scene. They believe it. They’re playing. They’re having so much fun that it’s infectious'.

The Company of Nativity! The Musical
Photo credit - Richard Davenport
Another brilliant thing about Nativity! The Musical is that, similarly to the film, it is very much a story based in Coventry, and that reflects in the young cast, which all come from the Midlands. When discussing this, Simon Lipkin tells me that Birmingham born writer and director Debbie Isitt is very proud of the story's Coventry setting. Lipkin shares this feeling, explaining that 'I think it’s what made the first movie so special. It was made with love and it really was home-grown. It was shot in and around Coventry and Debbie was pretty adamant that it stayed that way'. 

Now Christmas is upon us and audiences are flocking to the theatre to get a dose of festivity, I'm curious as to whether Simon Lipkin has any festive traditions of his own. He explains 'I never did a Nativity, largely because I’m Jewish and it would have been weird to do a Nativity in a Jewish Primary School, but we did lots of school plays and stuff.' He goes on to say that 'in terms of traditions, I like all of the normal stuff. Pre-Christmas is my favourite. The run up when there’s fairy lights everywhere and everyone’s a bit festive, it’s a bit cold outside, and there’s Christmas music playing.' It really is a wonderful time of year, and Lipkin summarises that 'sitting down, eating lots, having fun, and watching awful Christmas film, that pretty much sums up Christmas for me'.

Album Review - A Christmas Carol (Simon Callow with the Brighouse and Rastrick Band)

175 years after the publication of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, actor Simon Callow and the acclaimed Brighouse and Rastrick Band celebrate the classic novella with a special recording. Callow's self-written adaptation of A Christmas Carol was first seen on stage in 2016, at the Arts Theatre, and is captured superbly in audio format, with a full bodied soundtrack underscoring the narration and injecting plenty of festive warmth into it, and 19 christmas carols on a second disk providing the listener with an abundance of winter merriment. 

The story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge's ghostly visitations, which prompt him to reconsider his selfish attitude and become a better person, is a beloved christmas tale, and a staple during the festive season. This new recording fully captures both the light and darker more eerie elements of the story, with Callow's animated narration bringing each of Dickens' iconic characters to life, and the Brighouse and Rastrick Band's rich musical accompaniment imbuing the story with extra festivity and capturing the zeitgeist of the Victorian era. 

The recording is extremely atmospheric from start to finish, with some of the most memorable of the story's events being emphasised by the accompanying carols. Notably, Scrooge's glimpse into his grim future with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, is accompanied by the Brighouse and Rastrick Band's brass section leading a jolly rendition of Good King Wenceslas. It's a somewhat sinister and very effective juxtaposition, which really makes the particular moment stand out. In a similar vein, Scrooge's eventual change of heart is marked with a particularly exuberant rendition of Joy To The World, with Callow's narration merrily cutting through the sparkling melody.

Looking at Simon Callow's career, it's clear that he has a passion for all things Dickens, having played the writer multiple times on stage and screen, and written extensively about him. It's a passion which is extremely tangible in this recording of A Christmas Carol, which is narrated enthusiastically and engages the listener throughout. Callow has an excellent gift for engaging storytelling, which compliments the ghostly tale perfectly. 

Dickens' traditional festive tale can now been seen in many iterations on stage and screen, a testament to its timelessness, but whilst watching puppets or uncanny CGI comedians perform the definitive christmas ghost story, there's nothing quite like enjoying the story in its simplicity, accompanied by some wonderfully ambient christmas carols. For that reason, this recording of A Christmas Carol should be at the top of everyone's wish list this christmas. 

Review - Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (UK and Ireland Tour)

Following an impressive run on the West End, which finished in February 2017, just shy of it's 2 year anniversary, the Broadway smash hit jukebox musical Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is now touring the UK. With actress Bronté Barbé taking on the mantle of the eponymous Brooklyn born singer-songwriter, the touring production is as fresh and energetic as ever.

Bronté Barbé and the cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
With more than a couple of embellishments here and there, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tells the story of Carole King's life and career, from her early days writing music with classmate and childhood sweetheart Gerry Goffin to her first ever concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971. There's love, friendship and heartbreak, and of course, plenty of brilliant music to tie everything together. Admittedly, the plot is not the most exciting or groundbreaking one, but King's impressive back catalogue provides more than enough enjoyment to fill a couple of hours.

It's impossible to resist the bouncy melodies of It Might As Well Rain Until September and Take Good Care Of My Baby. The end of act 1 also packs a punch, with King unveiling some dramatic news about her relationship with the conflicted Gerry Goffin, and joining in with fictional girl group modeled on The Shirelles, as they sing One Fine Day, voice cracking as she reels from the news. King's discomfort with her surroundings is signified through her slightly frumpy clothing, which contrasts the sleek and glamorous 1960s chic which dominates Derek McLane's set design and Alejo Vietti's costumes. Bronté Barbé does a fantastic job of portraying King, sounding and acting with inflections which mirror King's own, but never impersonating her.

The musical's B plot follows King and Goffin's friends, the songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, played by Matthew Gonsalves and Amy Ellen Richardson. Not only do the duo provide ample comedy relief, their presence also allows for a couple of additional toe tapping tunes to be included in the show, such as He's Sure The Boy I love, and You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling, the latter famously being the most played song on American Radio and TV in the 20th century!

It may not be the most historically accurate biography, but with one toe tapping tune after another, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical provides pure and simple escapism, and does justice to one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.

Review - Sunset Boulevard (UK tour)

Followers of theatre news are likely to remember April last year when during a run of Sunset Boulevard at the ENO, actress Glenn Close fell ill and understudy Ria Jones took on the leading role of Norma Desmond, winning over audiences and receiving raves for her performance. The musical, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has been a firm favourite with musical theatre fans for years, and the juicy leading role is one which any actress would surely love to take on. Well, now Jones is back in that role again, this time in director Nikolai Foster's touring production. Stunning audiences with her refined acting and immense vocal power, she gives a performance which is hard to forget.

Danny Mac, Ria Jones and Adam Pearce in Sunset Boulevard
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
As Norma Desmond, a faded silent movie star desperate to make a return to the limelight in Hollywood, Ria Jones captivates from her very first entrance. Clad head to toe in decadent and outlandishly glamorous attire, she carries herself airily, and it is clear that she is a woman living in her own world, unaware that her audience has left her behind. As well as some enthralling acting, Jones sings the role staggeringly well. Accompanied by a sumptuous live orchestra, Jones lends her thrilling vocals to iconic numbers such as With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye, bringing the house down in several occasions.

Opposite Jones, Hollyoaks and Strictly Come Dancing star Danny Mac proves himself to be a charming leading man as Joe Gillis, a down on his luck screenwriter who accidentally stumbles into Norma's home one night and finds himself thrust into her world of fantasy. His cynical narration ties the story together, and he plays his own part in Norma's illusion without hesitancy. Impressively, in a musical full of showstoppers for its female lead, Mac holds his own and performs the title number passionately, showcasing strong vocals. Following his turn as Warner Huntington III in the Leicester Curve's production of Legally Blonde last year, and more recently Gabey in the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's On The Town, it seems as if his musical theatre career is on the rise!

Aside from the masterful performances, set and costume designer Colin Richmond's gorgeous designs are undoubtedly the highlight of this touring production. Cleverly playing on the idea of Norma's life mirroring the artificial facade of Hollywood, the set pieces break apart throughout the show to reveal their fakeness. Car chase scenes are played like something from a movie, with the bare bones of a vehicle being swayed by a barely disguised stage hand whilst the road is projected on a screen behind it. Yet despite this, the production maintains a sense of old Hollywood glamour. This is further emphasised by Ben Cracknell's lighting design, which is full of glorious brightness and warmth, and serves to increase the filmic aspect of the production design.

Sunset Boulevard is undoubtedly one of the most well known and loved musicals to have ever been written, and this touring production does an excellent job of showing just exactly why that is. With countless sublime musical numbers, a wonderfully atmospoheric design and a couple of exemplary leading performances, this production of Sunset Boulevard should not be missed.

Review - 42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

'You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!' 

That immortal quote has never rung truer than today, as the classic Broadway smash hit 42nd Street taps its way back into the hearts of London audiences. At a time when atypical musicals such as the outrageous The Book of Mormon, and the rap sensation that is Hamilton, are ruling in the hearts of musical theatre lovers, it's easy to envision a good old fashioned musical like 42nd Street missing the mark and being rejected in favour of more modern hits. Thankfully though, it seems as if there is room for both old and new in the West End, as 42nd Street wows from start to finish, and never feels anything but fresh and vibrant.

The cast of 42nd Street
photo credit - Brinkhoff & Moegenburg 
The plot is your standard rags to riches fairytale. When the out of town tryout of legendary theatre director Julian Marsh's next big hit Pretty Lady is halted by the indisposition of his demanding leading lady Dorothy Brock, young chorus girl Peggy Sawyer is thrust into the limelight. Luckily the story's formula is a winning one in the case of 42nd Street, which revels in showing every single thrill and spill. It's a show about show business, and the hyperdramatic will-she-won't-she element fits in perfectly with that, and doesn't seem stale or overplayed at all. Admittedly the musical does show its age elsewhere, such as in songs like Keep Young And Beautiful, which reminds women to 'keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved'. But 42nd Street has so much deliberate hokiness and self-awareness that it could be said that the retro sexist aspects are just a reflection of the era in which the musical is set. 

It's an utter joy to see 42nd Street thriving at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. It's hard to resist the megawatt smiles of the ensemble, currently the biggest on the West End, as they set the stage alight in popular numbers such as Lullaby Of Broadway and the titular Forty-Second Street. Special praise must also go to Stuart Neal as self professed temperamental tenor Billy Lawlor. He leads the gigantic ensemble in huge production numbers such as We're In The Money, a moment which is sure to delight even the most stoic audience members. However, amid all the pomp and circumstance, it is young star Clare Halse who truly steals the show as Peggy Sawyer. From the moment she stumbles onto stage unassumingly, only to reveal herself as a formidable hoofer, Peggy has her co-workers beguiled, and it doesn't take long for Halse to have the audience following suit. 

42nd Street is nothing less than showstopping in every sense. From the moment the curtain rises to reveal the 50 strong cast furiously tapping away to the opening routine, it's abundantly clear that no expense has been spared on this production. From the cast of first rate performers to the feast of spectacle which oozes from the sets and gorgeous costumes, this is what a big budget West End musical should aspire to be. It's a giant, glitzy, eye-popping production with enough energy to light up the whole of Theatreland. 

Review - An American In Paris (Dominion Theatre)

The glorious elegance of Paris meets the malaise of post war Europe in An American In Paris, which transfers to London after a hugely successful Broadway run. The production is based on the 1951 film of the same name, and is directed by Christopher Wheeldon, the acclaimed contemporary ballet choreographer. Wheeldon's expertise inflects each dance sequence with sensation, and is notable throughout the production as a whole, which moves smoothly and kinetically from start to end. Meanwhile, the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin are irresistibly charming and full of flair.

Haydn Oakley and the cast of An American In Paris
Photo credit - Johan Persson 
In a Paris racked with guilt and haunted by the events of the war, Jewish-American Pianist Adam Hochberg narrates a story in which he is curiously sidelined, about how his friend, American Lieutenant Jerry Mulligan, arrives in Paris after its liberation, and decides to stay and pursue artistic endeavours. Hochberg and Mulligan team up with Henri Baurel, the son of a wealthy family obsessed with appearances, who dreams of being an entertainer. The trio are brought together by their artistic interests, and inexorably linked by their attraction to a talented and demure ballet dancer named Lise, whose talent and spirit enraptures them all.

Bob Crowley's production design is gorgeously painted in a light dreamy pallet, which transports the audience to some of Paris' most recognisable and evocative locations. In a uniformly excellent cast of performers, Royal Ballet star Leanne Cope shines as Lise, with a sweet voice and unmatched dancing skills, which is only to be expected given her impressive career prior to her star turn originating the role of Lise of Broadway in 2015. She effortlessly sells Lise's remarkable talent as a ballet dancer to be reckoned with, and adds innocence and personality to Christopher Wheeldon's striking choreography. 

However, despite its heavenly design and mesmerizing choreography, An American In Paris doesn't quite hit every mark. Like many musicals originating several decades ago, what constitutes 'romance' within the setting of 1940s France comes of as a little bit uncomfortable by today's standards. Certainly, having three men lust after the same woman after she initially shows very minimal interest in any of them can be a little unnerving. This is made all the more noticeable as we're currently in the midst of an outpouring of allegations of sexual assault in the arts. Of course, within the context of the story, it's not intended to be anything more than an innocent tale of a woman opening herself up to love after enduring emotional trauma, but nevertheless to an audience in 2017 the story's connotations could be seen as a little uncomfortable. 

Additionally, the production maintains a sleepy pace throughout, which works in its favour in many ways, but does mean that more urgent or even just flashier moments jar with the piece's tone. Henri's act two dream sequence I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise seems to come out of nowhere, and is enjoyable but bizarre after the production has established a subdued and grounded tone throughout. Similarly, the unmistakably brave and angsty 'Laurey's Dream From Oklahoma'-esque abstract ballet sequence which brings the second act near enough to a close, is exciting and fabulously performed, but seems incongruous with the musical's mellowness, which is maintained for the majority of the show.

All of that being said, dance lovers will no doubt adore An American In Paris' gorgeous ballet scenes, which are undoubtedly the musical's main draw. Full of joie de vivre, it calls back to a time when musicals were easy breezy, but also contains a bit of bite for modern day audiences to get their teeth into. 

Interview - Belinda Lang (Duet For One)

When asked for a brief overview of her career, Belinda Lang admits, 'I've been doing this for over 40 years, I suppose I must have been in dozens and dozens and dozens of plays, and a lot of telly as well, so I really don't think I can summarise it'. An enviable answer, and totally founded. Lang has been working as an actor since 1980, and made a name for herself in the 90s, in sitcoms Seconds Thoughts and 2point4 Children. Since then her CV has filled up with a massive variety of roles across several different mediums. In fact, you may have seen her earlier this year as Aunt Eller, in the BBC's Oklahoma Proms, reprising the role she played on tour a few years ago. And now she's returning to the stage yet again, to play Stephanie Abrahams in the UK tour of Tom Kempinski's award-winning play Duet For One

Based loosely on the real life musician Jacqueline du Pré, Duet For One is the sparkling and moving story of concert a violinist who is forced to consult a psychiatrist after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a life changing disease which forces her to reevaluate her life. Being a two hander, focusing on such an affecting subject, it's interesting to hear Lang describe the play as 'actually quite funny', before adding, 'you wouldn't think it would be.' In fact, despite playing a character whose life has been shaken by such a significant health issue, Lang maintains that Duet For One is not an upsetting play to watch or be a part of.  'Of course it's moving in that it's about a person who is struggling, but she's a very feisty woman and it's the not MS that going to get her. She's not dying. She's dealing with her life, and she goes about it in a very spirited fashion'. It seems as if Lang has a lot of admiration for the character she plays, which is understandable. Especially as she adds 'it's not a play about somebody in decline, it's a play about someone learning to live with themselves as they are, rather than as they thought they were going to be.'

Due to the two hander nature of the play, Duet For One has its own specific set of challenges, not least because sharing the stage with just one other actor is hugely exposing. Even when the actor opposite you is wildly successful writer and actor Oliver Cotton. Lang explains that 'every play brings different challenges', before elaborating that 'the main challenge in this [play] is learning it, because there are only two of us so there's a lot to take in, but it's very well written so once you know it it kind of sweeps you along.' That being said, she does joke that 'it's hard remembering it all in the right order!' It's surprising and heartening to hear such a seasoned actor talk so candidly and humbly about the challenges which such a play presents, with Lang admitting that 'you can't not concentrate for a single second, and of course, when you're in a play you should be concentrating, but it's frightening to know that if you drop your concentration then the whole thing could hit the deck.'

Belinda Lang in Duet For One
Understandably, the two-hander nature of the play affects the dynamic of the relationships between actors on stage, but interesting Lang explains that it also alters the connection between the actors and audience too. 'It's very personal. The fact that there's only two of us, and the fact that it's a conversation, sucks the audience into it. They get drawn in like a vortex, and when the bits come that are quite quiet you can feel the concentration. They concentrate with you, and they go through the process with you, which they might not so much if it was dissipated by other scenes and other characters. They do seem to come on a journey with us.' 

And it's that journey which Lang describes as Duet For One's main selling point Particularly in regards to her character's exploration of her feelings, and attitudes towards her new life. Lang describes how' 'a lot of people either have been through therapy, or haven't and wonder what it's like, and this does give you a sort of bird's eye view of what can happen. Therapy is a space to explore your feelings, some of which are aggressive, and it's a safe place to let off steam. I think people who've been there would recognise it, and for other people it's quite interesting. A revelation.'