Review - Che Malambo (Peacock Theatre)

After touring the US and Europe, Che Malambo has arrived in the UK. The all-male Argentinian percussive dance and music group is ruled by a performative macho energy, which sees various company members take part in dance based standoffs, drawing inspiration from the traditions and duelling culture of Argentinian gaucho cowboys.
 
Che Malambo
Photo credit - Robert Torres photography
There’s drumming, rhythmic stomping, body percussion, and perhaps most impressively, the hair raising boleadoras, a throwing weapon made of twine weighed down with a stone, which is whirled about over the heads of various company members in an arresting display.
 
The immense skill of the company is plain to see from start to finish. From the perfectly synchronised Argentinian bombos which opens the show accompanied by simplistic but striking lighting, all the way through to sizzling finale where all of the elements previous displayed come together, Che Malambo keeps the eye trained to the stage at all times. Astonishingly, at times the dancers move their feel with such speed and precision that everything becomes a bit of a blur, and the sheer pounding energy and meticulousness of the whole company is one of the most impressive aspects of the entire show.
 
Che Malambo
Photo credit - Diane Smithers
That being said, running at a relentless 80 minutes and full of almost uninterrupted stomping, fighting and singing, Che Malambo does occasionally start to feel a bit repetitive. Thankfully, there’s a fair amount of variety which keeps everything moving forward, with one lovely understated moment featuring a single vocalist accompanied by a guitar. More moments like this would help to diffuse some of the unyielding intensity of the production.

Che Malambo presents a completely unique entertainment experience which combines several impressive traditional Argentinian dance and music elements to staggering effect.

Review - Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney Fantasia (The Vaults)

In the labyrinth of tunnels which make up The Vaults, one of London’s most exciting and versatile performance spaces, a new immersive music concert experience is hoping to enchant audiences old and new with a combination of gorgeous classical music, stunning set pieces, and entrancing performances, inspired by Disney’s 1940 classic Fantasia.
 
The Vaults Presents Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney Fantasia
Photo credit - Hanson Leatherby
In the foyer at the entrance to Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney’s Fantasia, audiences don a set of headphones playing binaural recordings, and roam freely through 5 dreamy rooms, inhabited by all manner of wonders. There’s an enchanted garden where flowers glow and a disembodied voice whispers in the air, a room where a destructive volcano pulses in the pitch darkness, and a couple of iconic characters from the original film also make appearances too. But Disney fans take heed; the famous mouse does not make an appearance.

What’s immediately obvious is that Sounds and Sorcery would benefit from more structure. After queuing to be let into the attraction, audiences are met with several glowing clocks, which denote whether each room is ready to be entered or not. There’s a lot of milling about aimlessly, waiting for a room to be ready, and it does feel a little anticlimactic.

However, the bar is always open, and therefore the hilarious Dance of the Hours, which takes place in the bar area every few minutes, is the most easily accessible first stop. And one of the most enjoyable! The whimsical Dance of the Hours is an adorable segment which sees a parade of animals take to the stage to show off their dancing skills, there’s a clumsy knock kneed Ostrich, an attention seeking hippo, a noble elephant, and a fearsome crocodile. Miranda Menzies’s aerial silks display as the hissing croc is a particularly exhilarating moment, and when the animals take their bow and exit the audience is definitely left wanting more. At least there is a particularly inventive themed cocktail menu to peruse in the gaps between performances.  
 
The Vaults Presents Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney Fantasia
Photo credit - Hanson Leatherby
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is also great fun, combining the instantly recognisable symphonic poem with an engaging live action retelling of a cleaning spell gone awry and anthropomorphic brooms turning on each other, all set within a dank candlelit cavern.

Without a doubt, it is the cast of fantastic live actors who bring Sounds and Sorcery to life, and both the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Dance of the Hours are delightful. However, as a result, the rest of the exhibition, which seeks to engage audiences through solely the use of music and otherworldly visuals, falls slightly flat. The psychedelic garden is mystical (and very instagrammable thanks to Kitty Callister’s ethereal designs), but even so there’s not much to engage audiences for more than a few minutes, despite the gorgeous tones of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite playing through their headphones. The same goes for the room containing an inhospitable volcanic world, which is underscored Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The world looks visually stunning, and sounds magnificent, but there’s not much to do other than stand and listen, and wade through a few foam blocks symbolising cooling magma, and so audiences quickly move on.
 
The Vaults Presents Sounds and Sorcery celebrating Disney Fantasia
Photo credit - Hanson Leatherby
Additionally, the venue does look and feel quite rickety in places, with crackling headsets, sheets blowing back to reveal backstage mechanisms, and at one point, a rather sad looking bubble machine foaming up a black curtain which was seemingly put in place to keep it hidden. While these issues are mostly seemingly minor, they do rather deteriorate the atmosphere of the experience, which should feel entrancing from start to finish to achieve the desired effect.

All in all Sounds and Sorcery is a production of two halves. Some magical high points combine music, production design and performance to great effect, and showcase the exquisite orchestral recordings of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. But the sparsely populated word which frays at the seams at times leaves the attraction feeling a bit underwhelming.

Review - Kinky Boots (Adelphi Theatre)

After the sudden death of his father, Charlie Price is forced to abandon his life in London and return to his hometown of Northampton to take care of Price & Son, his family’s failing shoe factory. Thankfully, after a chance run-in with a gaggle of drag queens, led by the glamourous Lola, Charlie is struck with the genius idea to start manufacturing ‘a range of shoes for a range of men’. But tensions rise in the lead up to a make-or-break fashion show in Milan, and Charlie finds that pulling off his plan may not be as easy as he'd hoped.

The cast of Kinky Boots
Photo credit - Matt Crockett
Having joined the cast at the most recent cast change, musical theatre star Oliver Tompsett takes on the role of Charlie Price, bringing with him an interesting new interpretation of a character who has the misfortune of coming across as a bit of a square. At least to begin with. Costumed in muted browns, navies and beiges Tompsett's Charlie is the polar opposite to Simon-Anthony Rhoden’s outrageous and larger than life Lola, whose wardrobe, artfully designed by Gregg Barnes, is filled with electric azures and animal prints, and accented, of course, with pillar-box red!
 
Nevertheless, Thompsett embraces Charlie’s awkwardness and uncertainty, and lends his effortless voice to some of the musical’s most show stopping numbers. Rhoden is equally impressive as Lola, with buckets of stage presence which keeps the audience’s eyes glued to the stage at all times.

It’s impossible not to have fun with Kinky Boots. Especially when it features one outstanding musical number after another. Songwriter Cyndi Lauper’s bubble gum pop music translates perfectly to the stage, and captures the party atmosphere which Lola and the Angels leave in their wake, as well as the more grounded numbers needed to bring light and shade to the musical’s plot.

The cast of Kinky Boots
Photo credit - Matt Crockett
And because Kinky Boots is not a musical to do things by halves, it has not one but two eleven o’clock numbers! When it looks like all hope for Price & Son is lost, the factory may have to be shut down, and Charlie and Lola go their separate ways, Charlie’s angry, sorrowful Soul Of A man is followed in quick succession by Lola’s goosebump inducing Hold Me In Your Heart. 
Similarly  Jerry Mitchell’s scintillating choreography is a deluxe visual treat which complements the stage commanding presence of Lola and the Angels, giving their every appearance a bit of extra pizazz, and contributing to what is possibly one of the most uplifting finales in all musical theatre.

It’s no wonder that Kinky Boots continues to entertain audiences in the West End. With plenty of heart, and even more sequins, this stellar musical is a joyous celebration of self-love and acceptance which inspires audiences to ‘just be who you wanna be.’

I was invited to review Kinky Boots thanks to www.londonboxoffice.co.uk.

Review - Knights of the Rose (Arts Theatre)

Set in a fantastical Medieval England alternate universe, Knights of the Rose is a rocky romantic tale which follows the exploits of a dashing band of Knights, who return home after 5 long years at war. Combining snippets from iconic Medieval and Early Modern literature with the music of bands such as Bon Jovi, Muse, and No Doubt, Jennifer Marsden's Knights of the Rose is a new musical with ambitious scope.
 
Andy Moss and the cast of Knight of the Rose
Photo credit - Mark Dawson
Prince Gawain of the House of Rose makes the mistake of introducing two of his trusted friends to his sister, the golden haired Princess Hannah, and just like that an all-consuming love triangle ensues as the bright eyed and princely Sir Hugo and the dark and dangerous Sir Palamon fight it out for the fair maiden’s hand. But danger is just around the corner, and a brewing battle against the House of Rose’s greatest enemies spells peril for all three of the fledgling love birds, and sets Sir Palamon down a shadowy path.

It has to be said that the plot of Knights of the Rose is not its strong point. It’s an extremely severe and aggressively masculine tale, inexcusably told by an all-white cast, and filled with back slapping, wench wooing, and sword swinging. In every sense. The writing is also needlessly wordy, with creator Jennifer Marsden weaving together phases borrowed from Chaucer, Marlowe and Shakespeare to create an olde worlde patter which may very well be impressive and intricate on the page, but doesn’t always work on its feet. Ruben Van keer’s bard John, the narrator of the piece, just about pulls off the unwieldy shtick, but more often than not it just comes across as clunky.

The script is also less than kind to its female characters. Princess Hannah, the king’s ward Lady Isabel and their handmaiden Emily are a vocally electric trio of castle dwelling young women who announce themselves early on with an earth shattering rendition of I Need A Hero. It’s a moment that really gets the heart pounding and director Racky Plews’ simplistic synchronised choreography gives it a rather epic girl band vibe. What a shame then, that from that moment on they really have little else to do but pine after knights, swoon over knights and then worry about the knights of the Rose when they head off to battle again. Bleu Woodward’s Emily does have an interesting moment, wherein Sir Palamon uses knowledge about Emily’s sexual past (which he himself plays a part in) to blackmail her into silence after she catches him mid-dastardly monologue, and for a brief moment it seems as if Jennifer Marsden’s writing intends to explore and critique the dominant hegemonic masculinity within the story. But unfortunately the thread peters out, and never reaches a fulfilling conclusion. 
 
Rebekah Lowings, Bleu Woodward and Katie Birtill in Knights of the Rose
Photo credit - Mark Dawson
It must be said though, that whilst the plot leaves much to be desired, some moments do bring a welcome light-hearted streak to the proceedings. When Sir Hugo falls instantaneously in love with Princess Hannah for example, he wastes no time wooing her with some prime Enrique Iglesias. Hardly in keeping with the musical's classic rock vibe, intentionally or not it’s one of the musical’s most light-hearted scenes, and it’s pretty irresistible!

In fact, any time Knights of the Rose leans into its overblown and over the top elements it’s kind of hard not to be temporarily won over. After all, who doesn’t want to hear some of the most beloved classic rock songs of all time, performed by a cast of immensely talented vocalists, going full throttle? But for every fun and breezy moment there are several overly earnest ones. To put it simply, the musical is let down by its solemnity. Even the hapless knight Sir Horatio, introduced as a bumbling underdog desperately lovesick for his childhood friend Lady Isabel, eventually falls in line and becomes just as stoic as his brothers in arms. Matt Thorpe is excellent in the role though, with his rendition of Bon Jovi’s Always standing out as a particular musical highlight.

Despite all of Knights of the Rose’s aforementioned pitfalls, the cast do an incredible job of keeping the show marching along. Andy Moss undoubtedly gets the short end of the stick as the rather dry Prince Gawain, but the cast work well as an ensemble and there’s not a weak link amongst them. Although its Oliver Savile and Chris Cowley as Sir Hugo and Sir Palamon respectively, whose paint stripping vocals make the biggest mark.

Knights of the Rose features an enticing song list, which fits Jennifer Marsden’s story to a fault, but the unnecessary complexity of the book, and overly sincere tone, prevent it from soaring. The cast salvage what they can with committed performances and thrilling vocals, but unfortunately it's rarely enough.

Review - King in Concert (Hackney Empire)

It's been 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, one of the most influential and inspirational historical figures of all time. Although many may be familiar with the legacy of King, his personal life is decidedly less well publicised, and yet it is equally fascinating. Happily though, 30 years after its single public performance at the Prince Edward Theatre, Martin Smith's musical King was revived for just two performances at the Hackney Empire, featuring a story which spanned from King's time at university right up until his untimely death on the 4th of April, 1968.

Cedric Neal and Debbie Kurup in King
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Getting to understand what drove King, initially a very reluctant leader, to become the iconic figure he is now seen as, was clearly at the heart of actor Cedric Neal's performance, as his embodiment of Martin Luther King was full of nervous energy, but also teamed with immutable power and conviction which only grew as the story went on. 

The supporting cast were equally strong, with especially affecting vocal performances courtesy of Jo Servi, Daniel Bailey, Adrian Hansel and Adam J Bernard. The quartet's touching a cappella number Freedom On My Mind stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the show, and provided a somber moment of reflection during an otherwise rather fast paced story. 

The story's pace may have been King's only real downfall. It moved so swiftly from one moment in Martin Luther King's life to another, touching on so many of his triumphs as a Civil Rights Movement leader that there was very little room for any deeper exploration of the events, and how they affected King and his family.

In fact, Coretta King, who was initially established as King's equal and even partially narrated the prologue and epilogue, was shunted to the side quite a bit throughout, which was a shame given the extraordinarily nuanced performance by Debbie Kurup, who was a statuesque marvel in the role. It may have been nice to see more of Coretta and the part she played in the Civil Rights Movement, independent of her husband.

The cast of KingPhoto credit - Nick Rutter 
That being said, the musical still packed plenty of painful punches, and the addition of archival images and video footage of the events taking place in the story was an inspired touch by Reuben Cook, which proved particularly potent during the Act 1 closing number; a musical interpretation of the emotions stirred by King's I Have A Dream speech. 

As is always the case with London Musical Theatre Orchestra productions, the orchestra was utterly faultless, embracing the verve and jubilance of Simon Nathan's orchestrations wholeheartedly, under the baton of conductor and London Musical Theatre Orchestra founder Freddie Tapner. Additionally, the voices of both the Hackney Empire Community Choir and the Gospel Essence Choir helped to bolster the already strong cast, and made large ensemble numbers soar even higher.

50 years after Martin Luther King's tragic death, his legacy still lives on, and King explored just exactly why that is. The man who rallied for the Civil Rights Movement, using his skills as a master orator to inspire crowds and arrange peaceful protests, will always be remembered for the part he played in changing the world, and in 2018 reviving a musical like King in order to honour him seems like the least that can be done. 

Interview - Oliver Savile (Knights of the Rose)

‘I actually don't think even we know how special this is going to be yet’ Oliver Savile muses. In the run up to the opening night of new musical Knights of the Rose, he's taken some time out of rehearsals to chat all about how he got started in musical theatre, why classic rock music is so enduring, and of course, how he's preparing for his latest role.


Every actor finds their way into the profession in a different way, and for Oliver Savile, who grew up ‘on the side of a hill, in Buxton’, his start came at age 11 when his dad coerced him into attending a Saturday drama school. After a bit of initial hesitancy (‘I was like, "I don't want to go! If I don't like it I'm not staying!”’ he recalls), he almost instantaneously discovered an affinity for performing. After seeing a touring production of Blood Brothers at Buxton Opera House, he recollects that his dad told him that some people actually made their living as actors, and from that moment on he knew what he wanted to do as a career. ‘It was the biggest mistake of my dad's life’ Savile laughs. 

After moving to Manchester to study for a BTEC in Musical Theatre, Savile landed a place at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, but his drama school audition process almost took him in a different direction entirely. ‘I started auditioning for every drama school under the sun, and I didn't actually think I was going to do Musical Theatre at that time. I wanted to be an actor, so it was all RADA and the Acting course at GSA, and Central, and Italia Conti and all that’ he explains, ‘and my very last audition was for Musical Theatre at Mountview. I just loved what musicals did to me at the time, so I decided to go there.’ And it seems that serendipitous decision was the right one! In his third year of study he was cast in a tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and, as he puts it, ‘the rest is history’. 

Which brings us to the present day, and Oliver Savile's latest role in Jennifer Marsden's ambitious classic rock musical, where he will play high ranking and valiant knight Sir Hugo. Featuring songs by Meat Loaf, Bon Jovi and Bonnie Tyler to name but a few, Knights of the Rose will open at the Arts Theatre in the middle of what seems to be a rock musical renaissance. With Bat Out Of Hell currently rocking audiences on the West End, and American Idiot and Rock of Ages rolling out on tour in the near future, it seems as if there couldn’t be a better time for a musical like Knights of the Rose to premiere. 

The cast in rehearsal
Photo credit - Mark Dawson
‘It's a bit of a gift to an actor, especially nowadays, to get to do something new. That's what drew me to it. It's this brand new production, which has never been done before’ Savile admits. ‘On paper, yeah I've definitely played a role like this before, but this one is a lot deeper. There’s a lot of tragedy and a lot of heartache.’

After 8 years of acting, he has quite an impressive range of credits to his name, from the Rum Tum Tugger in Cats to Bobby in Company. But to many musical theatre aficionados, he’ll be best known for his stint in the 10th Anniversary cast of the megalithic musical that is Wicked, a show with a fan base which is almost unparalleled in its enthusiasm and dedication! Savile recalls how Wicked was at its early heights of popularity when he was studying at drama school, and back then the role of Fiyero was a dream for him. 

Now that he's crossed Fiyero off his list I wonder if he has any new dreams? ‘Honestly I want to do everything. I want to be in everything’ he says, ‘it used to be Fiyero and now it seems to be whatever I'm auditioning for at the time!’ But after 2 years as the rebellious prince and love interest to the wicked witch of the west, there is another equally regal yet rather more evil part which he’s got his eye on… Hans in Disney's Frozen! ‘I would love to do that when it comes over. Another Prince. I'll grab them all while I can, and I've still got my hair' he jokes.

But back to Knights of the Rose. A musical with such an iconic song list seems like such a gift, so of course I'm curious to know whether Savile has any favourite songs or moments in the show. He divulges a personal highlight. 'Obviously singing [Enrique Iglesias'] Hero every day is going to be fun, but there are so many awesome songs', he enthuses, before jokingly adding 'everyone used to ask me on Wicked "What's your favourite song?" And I'd say Dancing Through Life, it's my song, but I actually don't know in this show!' 

The cast and creatives in rehearsal
Photo credit - Mark Dawson
Of course, one of the things which seems most interesting about Knights of the Rose is that unlike other musicals like Jersey Boys and We Will Rock You, both of which focus solely on the music of one particular band, Knights of the Rose combines a number of different musical artists' most recognisable songs. I wonder if there are any other classic rock songs which Savile wishes had made it into the show. 'I probably shouldn't say this' he professes, 'but I'm the least "rockiest" person!'

I therefore ask if he has any ideas why the music within the show has such a dedicated fan base, and has maintained its popularity for so long. He pauses for a few seconds to think before answering. 'The story is the most important thing within a show. And I think with rock songs, and I'm being quite general here, but they're epic stories', he explains. 'Back in the day, those people didn't just go to a concert to go listen to somebody sing. They went to see the massive shows, and the story within each song.' And it certainly sounds as if creator Jennifer Marsden has latched on to this ideal combination of story and songs in Knights of the Rose. It does seem fitting after all that a musical which is described as being Shakespearian in scope should be coupled with such enduring and adored music.

With our interview time running short, I want to know why Oliver Savile thinks people should buy tickets to this new rock musical. His answer is as persuasive as it is all-encompassing. 'If you like Game of Thrones. If you like A Knight's Tale. If you like rock songs. If you like beautiful love stories. If you like friendship, and betrayal...' he pauses and reflects for a moment ('well, no one ever likes betrayal, but if you like to watch it on stage...'), before summing up his persuasion in two short sentences. 'It is epic. You've just got to come and see it!'

Q&A - Tim McArthur (Into The Woods)

In 2014, director Tim McArthur's dark interpretation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's twisted fairytale musical Into The Woods premiered at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre. This year, the production has returned to the Cockpit Theatre, and McArthur has joined the cast as The Baker, who sets out with his Wife to search for a series of objects they can give to their next door neighbour, The Witch, in exchange for a child.
 
I spoke to Tim McArthur about his role in the show, the challenges of balancing his acting and directing duties, and why Into The Woods is the perfect musical to reflect society today.
 
Tim McArthur and Jo Wickham in Into The Woods
Photo Credit - David Ovenden
For a lot of Into The Woods fans, their first experience of the musical may very well have been through the 2015 Disney film, but as a director you’ve decided to make this version much darker, as it was originally intended. 
Yes, I really disappointed with the film because they Disney-fied it, and actually the original stage show is a lot darker. The whole musical is about loss, and being responsible for your actions, and the ripple effect of how one thing you do can affect other people, and don't think that came across in the movie at all.

It’s interesting that often when a movie musical is released there is an influx of interest in the original source material, but Into the Woods didn't really seem to have that sort of attention. Why is now the right time to stage a production of this Sondheim staple? 

We've got this sort of society where we really don't care about each other. There's more crime, there's more greed, and more fighting. Even conflict between people in the streets, especially since the Brexit. I think it's given people a certain way to behave towards each other. And, I think the issues within the show are really relevant, because everyone feels those issues within society, and also, everyone suffers loss, and grief, and greed, and that desire for always wanting something more. Once you get something, you want the next thing, which the musical also addresses. I think that's really relevant today.

How does this production reflect those themes and their relevance to the present day whilst maintaining the original ideas within the musical?
Into The Woods is my favourite Sondheim show, and I've seen many, many productions of it, but because I wanted it to reflect our society today I based the characters on British reality TV stereotypes. So, we take it away from the fairy tale image, and make the characters into people which audiences might have seen on the telly. So, Jack and his mom, are like guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show. None of the changes effect the story, or what it's saying. It's just the look of the piece and the feel of the piece which we’ve altered.

Into the Woods is an interesting show because it features a big ensemble cast, and there are so many interweaving plot lines happening at once. As a director, is that something that is difficult to work with?
Not really. It's a bitty show. You don't get the full story all at once. So the pace is really important. I don't want the audience to applaud at the end of the musical numbers because it's really vital that as soon as the song finishes, we pick up the action.

As well as directing the show, you also appear as one of the protagonists, The Baker. What is it like to both direct the show and be a part of the cast?
I've got a great Assistant Director (Ellen Verenieks), who gives me notes and things to think about. And some people from previous production which I directed have come back, as well as some newbies. I wanted a company of people that would just get on with the job. And we're going to have fun with. That there's no room for any diva behaviour. So, in that way I've sort of been kind to myself.

What would you say to someone to persuade them to buy a ticket?
I would say, it's a fresh interpretation of a beloved classic musical. And it’s darker than any production of Into The Woods which I’ve ever seen!