Review - Around the World in 80 Days (Union Theatre)

Based on Jules Verne’s much-loved novel of the same name, Around the World in 80 Days follows Phileas Fogg, an uptight explorer who bets he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days and arrive back in London in time for Christmas. With the help of his French manservant Passepartout, and accompanied by an exiled Indian Princess named Aouda, Fogg sets off on his quest, but hot on their tale is the dastardly big game hunter Captain Fix, who bet against Fogg and is determined to see that he comes out on top.

The cast of Around the World in 80 Days
Photo credit - Mark Senior
Phil Willmott and Annemarie Lewis-Thomas’ Around the World in 80 Days is a funny old musical, which packs loads of adventure into the plot, but still ambles slightly at times. Nevertheless, Brendan Matthew’s sleek direction must be applauded, as for the most part this production rumbles along at a steady pace despite multiple distractions.

A gigantic cast bustle on the petite stage of the Union Theatre, filling every corner with life, whilst managing not to cramp up the miniscule space. Sam Peggs nails Fogg’s overtly English eccentricities, and Connor Hughes brings a lovable twinkle to Passepartout, despite the fact that Passepartout’s actions get rather grating as he constantly winds up in trouble at every turn. Robert Oliver is a domineering presence as Fix, and has a streak of unhinged terror running through his gleefully hammy performance.

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s simple but effective set design aids the maximisation of the stage, using the Union Theatre’s bare bones aesthetic as the basis for a stage full of surprising, inventive set pieces. The infamous hot air balloon, for example, although scarcely seen in the musical (and in the original source material, for that matter), is inventively conjured out of umbrellas, with an open book flapping birdlike around the heads of the balloon's passengers.

The cast of Around the World in 80 Days
Photo credit - Mark Senior
The musical’s songs are also great fun; jaunty and immensely catchy, if not particularly clever, lyrically. It’s a shame that the backing tracks, used alongside the live keyboard playing of Musical Director Henry Brennan, sound tinny and artificial, as the cast are all in excellent voice and ensemble numbers in particular are full of rowdy, sprightly joy.

The musical’s book also lets itself down slightly at times. The story may be viewed mostly through the eyes of Fogg and Passepartout, a pair of uptight westerners from the 1870s, but the exoticising of several counties and the mystifying of certain cultures feels a little bit regressive in 2018, and along those lines Passepartout’s visit to a Hong Kong opium den is a bit wince inducing. Additionally, with innuendos galore, it’s a segment of the musical which will no doubt alienate younger audience members, who’d much rather see Fogg and co. ride a music loving elephant for a few more minutes.

The book muddles even further with the introduction of a very rushed romance, which is jumped on the audience midway through act 2. Fogg’s an old fashioned, stiff-upper-lipped gentleman, whilst Princess Aouda is a free spirited, modern woman, so of course they have to fall in love. It’s practically musical comedy law. But that doesn’t make it any less nonsensical. Sam Peggs and Jasmin Minjoot do sell the love hate relationship well though, especially in their duet What Do I Love, which is mediated by Ceris Hine as their hilariously oblivious matchmaker.

All in all, Around the World In 80 Days is a delightfully zany, if meandering, musical comedy. With a committed cast and catchy upbeat tunes aplenty, it is a fine piece of family entertainment, despite its flaws.

Interview - Lara Martins (The Phantom of the Opera)

'Usually in opera you do eight or ten performances and then it's finished and you move on. So in that sense this is very, very different.'

For 6 years, Lara Martins has been playing the role of spurned soprano Carlotta Giudicelli in the phenomenally popular West End mega musical The Phantom of the Opera. In the final few weeks before she passes on the mantle, Martins takes some time to chat to me about her career, her transition from opera to musical theatre, and why she has stayed with the role of Carlotta for so long.

Lara Martins
Photo credit - Anna Paganini
Hailing from Portugal, Lara Martins began her career as an opera singer, training at Guildhall School of Music and Drama before joining the young artists’ programme at France's Centre National d'Insertion Professionnelle des Artistes Lyriques. 'I played various roles in various productions all over Europe and did lots of travelling,' Martins recalls. 'I never really thought about going down the musical theatre route, but my agent at the time contacted me and said the casting team from The Phantom of the Opera would like to invite me for an audition, for Carlotta. I thought that could be interesting, so I went along, and I got the role, and so I decided to give it a go!'

It must be a dream scenario for any performer wanting to transition into the musical theatre world, to be cast in one of the most iconic and longevous musicals ever. 'It's a timeless show, you know' Martins tells me. 'It's been on stage for 32 years, and in terms of the visual part of it, it's still quite stunning. Everybody that goes to see The Phantom of the Opera loves it. The costumes, the set, the stage, it's absolutely magical!'

Many may know Carlotta and her partner Ubaldo Piangi as simply comedy relief characters, to juxtapose the tumultuous love triangle of ingenue Christine, her childhood friend turned sweetheart Raoul, and the mysterious Phantom, but after getting to know her character for more than half a decade, Martins has other ideas. 'She's very, very comical, but it's quite interesting, dramatically she has a lot of shades. She's feisty, she's stroppy, she's a strong character, but she's actually quite vulnerable as well'.

Lara Martins backstage at Her Majesty's Theatre
Photo credit - Danny Kaan
For Martins, this vulnerability is vital to her portrayal of Carlotta. 'I always think of Carlotta as someone that really had to fight to be where she is. She had to build her career. Maybe she was from a deprived background but she was very talented and she had to do many things to get where she is'. Martins channels all of this into her portrayal of Carlotta, who is seen to be quite villainous towards her rival Christine, openly mocking and disparaging her throughout the musical. 'Her role is being threatened by a ballet girl, her status as the prima donna is being threatened by a ballet girl!' Martins explains, feigning incredulity. 'This is quite major in an opera house in the 19th century.'

It's clear that Lara Martins has a lot of sympathy for the pushy leading lady she plays on stage. I am reminded of The Phantom of the Opera's controversial sequel, Love Never Dies, which sought to further humanise the titular character, and explore the dynamics of several of the original musical's major players 10 years later. Notably, Carlotta does not make an appearance. 'I think she's probably dead by that time, or something happened to her, an accident in the theatre, who knows' Martins speculates. As bleak as that is, I agree that Carlotta does seem a bit cursed, especially as her life unravels rather dramatically in the second act. 'Exactly,' Martins concurs solemnly. 'I feel like the Phantom has done something to her.'

On that rather grim note, I'm hesitant to ask my next question: does Martins see any similarities between Carlotta and herself, besides their joint background in opera? 'In a way I feel like I have that strength like Carlotta,' she replies 'but obviously we are very different I think. I don't see myself as a real life diva!'

Lara Martins as Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera
Photo credit - Johan Persson
But diva or not, what's it like for a singer with a background in opera to transition to musical theatre, I wonder. 'It's a completely different kind of art form isn't it?' She tells me. 'I mean everything. Vocally, the way people work, and the demands on the voice are completely different for musical theatre'. Therefore, I have to ask, what it is about The Phantom of the Opera which keeps her coming back for more? 'Over all these years I still felt I could always bring something new to the character, and I was having fun doing it, so why not stay?'

Martins now holds the title of the West End's longest running Carlotta, but all things must come to an end, and this September she'll take her final bow at London's Her Majesty's Theatre.

But does this mean Lara Martins will be saying goodbye to the glitzy musical theatre of the West End too, I ask? She certainly hopes not. 'All these years I've been becoming more and more interested in the musical theatre world and there's definitely more roles that I would love to go and try. Obviously the more classical, legit musicals, but also, who knows... there is always new material being written. There are loads of thing I would like to try.'

Review - The Trail To Oregon! (theSpace on North Bridge)

This year, Gone Rogue Productions presents the European premiere of The Trail To Oregon!, a unique audience participation musical  based on video game The Oregon Trail. which tells the story of a fictional family of mid-19th century American farmers head west in search of a new life, pursued by the malicious Bandit King and his love-struck sidekick Cletus Jones. The audience collectively names each member of the family before they head off on their journey, and in the end, the audience chooses who dies of dysentery before crossing the state line. Thankfully, it’s not as dark as it sounds.
 
The cast of The Trail To Oregon!
Photo credit - Charlie House Media
Written by Jeff Blim, Matt Lang, and Nick Lang of Starkid Productions, the American theatre company known for their cult parody musicals A Very Potter Musical and A Very Potter Sequel, the script is full of sarky dialogue and broad, often crude jokes. At times the plot feels like a bit of a slog, much like the journey to Oregon itself, but plenty of wild side quests and wacky characters appear throughout to keep the story rolling along.

The cast are game for a laugh and work extremely well together. In particular, Josh Vaatstra plays the ineffectual patriarch of the family with a permanently knitted brow, and is instantly endearing. Meanwhile, Bella Norris gives a hilariously deadpan performance as the family’s 8 year old son, who either eats everything he can get his hands on, or throws it off the wagon to see if it bounces. 
 
The cast of The Trail To Oregon!
Photo credit - Charlie House Media
The whole cast is clearly very close, and their camaraderie is tangible at all times. There are moments when this amity is extended to the audience also, allowing the nudge-nudge-wink-wink dialogue to reach its fullest effect, but it seems as if they need a little more time to bed in and get to grips with the audience participation to really allow the comedy to soar. Additionally, in some moments clarity is an issue as the cast barrel through the snippy dialogue at top speed, leaving little room for the jibes to land. The script relies on a nonstop barrage of witticisms and call-backs, and so rushing can leave the jokes falling flat, but this is certainly something that will settle in as the Edinburgh run gets going.

The company’s small band, directed by Ben McQuigg, masters the twangy score well, and the musicianship of the cast must also be commended, as they are often called upon to play in the band when not on stage themselves. The songs are certainly fun if not totally memorable, and they allow each cast member their moment to shine. Georgia Harper as the mother of the family is given a particularly impressive moment to shine with When The World's At Stake, a surprisingly grounded ballad which stands out against the rest of The Trail To Oregon!’s all-out silliness.

All in all, despite some flat moments, Gone Rogue Productions’ The Trail To Oregon! is an enjoyable musical comedy brought to life by a keen cast of performers and musicians. Worth catching a couple of times if you want to see all of the alternative endings. Come prepared to shout out and get involved and you’ll have a great time!

Review - Everybody's Talking About Jamie (Apollo Theatre)

Jamie New is a star on the rise. He’s an out and proud 16 year old who dreams of drag queen stardom, and isn't about to let anyone hold him back. But first things first, he wants to attend his high school prom in a dress. What follows is a hilarious and touching story about love, acceptance, and identity, set to a pulsing pop score. 

The cast of Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Photo credit - Alastair Muir
After helping to create Jamie during the musical's conception in Sheffield, and subsequently making his West End debut when the musical transferred to London, McCrae was nominated for a 2018 Olivier Award for the role, and it’s easy to see why. He fills the stage from edge to edge with immutable presence and from start to finish it’s impossible to look away as McCrea imbues Jamie with a sharp, flawed realness. Undoubtedly, he is giving one of the most remarkable performances currently on the West End. 

Equally impressive, is the grounded world which has been created on stage for Jamie to inhabit. The home where Jamie and his doting mom Margaret live feels totally grounded in reality. The language and actions of Jamie’s school friends and rivals is completely naturalistic and believable. And when Margaret’s best friend and rock Ray (the lovable best friend everyone wishes they had, brought vividly to life by Shobna Gulati) produces some knock off chocolate bars from her bag which she picked up from the local market, the attention to detail is so perfect that a chuckle of recognition ripples through the audience. It’s a bit of a thrill to see such a truthful slice of British working class life presented on a major West End stage so frankly, without resorting to poorsploitation, and that is a testament to the writing of Tom MacRae and co-writer Jonathan Butterall.

John McCrea and Lucie Shorthouse in Everybody's Talking About Jamie
Photo credit - Johan Persson
There are also a couple of standout musical numbers from Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells which pique some of the musical’s most affirming moments. The palpitating groove of You Don’t Even Know It is an electric ode to self-confidence, and the title song Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is equally joyous, allowing the young ensemble to show off. Additionally, supporting characters like Margaret and Jamie’s best friend Pritti, played sweetly by Lucie Shorthouse, are given beautiful songs which allow the actors’ voices to shine. 

That being said, a couple of the songs do seem a little superfluous to the story due, in part, to the fact that the script is so good, and the characters so compelling, that at times the songs seem to stop the action in its tracks. None of this however distracts for the perpetual pizazz of the musical as a whole. 

Full of pep and heart, Everybody's Talking About Jamie is a feel-good musical celebrating strength in the face of adversity, which fizzes with sheer joy.  

Review - Broken Wings (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Broken Wings is a story about forbidden love. Based on a poetic novel by Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran, this semi-autobiographical musical tells the story of a young Gibran, who returns to Beirut after 5 years away in America, and meets a local woman named Selma, the daughter of the rich Farris Karamy. The two young people fall in love at first sight, but Selma’s father arranges for his daughter to marry the nephew of powerful local Bishop. Duty bound, Selma reluctantly goes ahead with the marriage, leaving Gibran behind to stew in his loneliness, until the pair find a way to reconnect again in secret.
 
Lauren James Ray, Nikita Johal and Soophia Foroughi
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Kahlil Gibran is one of the most successful writers of all time, and so the adaptation of his The Broken Wings for the stage makes perfect sense. With a book by Nadim Naaman and music and lyrics by Naaman and Dana Al Fardan, Broken Wings sees a 40 year old Gibran looking back with dismay on his younger years, and touches on issues of corruption, as well as women’s rights, all set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Lebanon.

Broken Wings paints a warm, sepia toned picture of Beirut, bustling and welcoming, but stuck in its ways. In fact, the characters frequently remark to each other that nothing ever changes in the city, and those who have never left never challenge the status quo at all. A stark contrast to the life Gibran has led, straddled between two very different countries and cultures. The sumptuous strings of the onstage orchestra constantly reinforce the elysian atmosphere effused by the Beirut of Gibran’s memories, whilst his 40 year old self is scored with more ominous tones. Orchestrations by Joe Davison are utterly faultless throughout, subtle yet striking at every moment.

Rob Houchen and Nadim Naaman
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
The show is also impeccably sung and acted, with Nadim Naaman taking on the role of Gibran aged 40, whilst Rob Houchen plays his younger self. Houchen breathes youthful exuberance into the young and naïve man, whilst Naaman is distinctly more haunted, grounded in a dark and shadowy solitude as he reminisces about his first and only love, his memories bathed in a soft and glowing sunlight. Making her West End debut, Nikita Johal is charming as soft spoken yet strong willed Selma, a woman ahead of her time, and the score gives her plenty of moments to shine, juxtaposing her quiet and patient exterior with the turbulent inner emotions which are revealed through song. In the supporting role of Karim, Gibran’s childhood friend, Nadeem Crowe brings a much needed comedic touch to the proceedings, giving a dynamic and endearing performance.

Some of the most stirring moments in Broken Wings result from the songs, the most wrenching of which are the ensemble numbers, which lift Beirut off the stage and into the audience. That being said, Gibran and Selma’s love duets, whilst offering an insight into the demure couple’s inner feelings, are sometimes a little too syrupy and feel hyperbolic. Gibran’s frequent musical fawning sees Selma described using some beautifully evocative natural imagery, but it is used repetitively, lessening the effect of Gibran’s declarations. The script is also slightly stilted on some occasions, leading to a further disconnect between the characters.
 
The cast of Broken Wings
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
The love story is sweet and ultimately tragic, as the audience is told in Gibran’s opening monologue, and Rob Houchen and Nikita Johal sell their characters’ adoration of one another well, but the book affords them little time alone together, and as such their separation, which should feel like a knife though the heart, is rather more subdued. If the audience is to believe that Gibran is still in love with Selma over 20 years after her death, then the bond which ties the pair together in life should be that of an epic, all-consuming, butterfly-inducing romance. Of course, the traditions and expectations which they are confined to keep them from expressing their true feelings, and Broken Wings carries some strong messages regarding this, but it’d still be nice to feel a more fervent bond between the pair. Nevertheless, the book’s tonal peaks and dips, which take the story from celebratory to desolate and back again, keep the musical engaging throughout.
 
Impressive in scale and soundly structured, Broken Wings is a haunting story which sheds light on important social issues which feel just as relevant today as when Gibran’s poetic novel was first published, back in 1912. Admittedly, a more sweeping romance would have deepened the cutting sadness of the older Gibran’s remembrances, but even so, Broken Wings oozes delight and tragedy, with a finale which truly soars.

I was invited to review Broken Wings thanks to seatplan.com

Review - Carmen La Cubana (Sadler's Wells)

Georges Bizet's beloved opera Carmen has been reinvented many times, in many different settings. The timeless story of a beautiful and free spirited cigarette girl who seduces a soldier but cannot commit to him, was perhaps most famously reinvented in Oscar Hammerstein II's Carmen Jones, and now, under the direction of Christopher Renshaw, yet another new layer has been added to Carmen's reinvention. 

The cast of Carmen La Cubana
Photo credit - Nilz Böhme
Carmen La Cubana is based on Hammerstein II's Carmen Jones, and features Bizet's classic score, but relocates the story to Cuba in 1958, at the beginning of the Cuban revolution. Soldier José is engaged, but becomes infatuated with Carmen. They run away to Havana together, but Carmen tires of him when she meets famous boxer El Niño whose power and influence she cannot resist.

Bizet's score is reinvented in this production by Tony Award winner Alex Lacamoire, whose new orchestrations breathe vividness and urgency into every note. The famous Habanera is a particular highlight. Sultry yet playful, it immediately establishes Carmen's breezy attitude to love and life, which disguises a cold domineering core. 

As the titular seducer, Luna Manzanares Nardo is a fiery delight. From her very first entrance, silhouetted and surrounded by a smokey haze, she is bathed in intrigue. Dressed in red, and wearing an alluring half-smile, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. It's easy to see why Saeed Mohamed Valdés' José falls for her so quickly. He is meeker in contrast, at least to begin with, but as his jealousy grows, so does his boldness, and Valdés portrays José as a man with nothing to lose except Carmen. His eyes, flecked with equal parts tenderness and obsession, follow her every move. Together the pair are dynamite on stage, waiting for the spark which will inevitably blow them apart. 

The cast of Carmen La Cubana
Photo credit - Nilz Böhme
The entire musical has been cast to perfection with a cast of Cuban performers whose unfaltering effervescence is the heartbeat of Carmen La Cubana. The skilled dancers which make up the ensemble are jaw droppingly good, filling every corner of the stage with pulsing life. 

Every second of Carmen La Cubana bursts with colour and sound, passion and danger. Even Tom Piper's stage design, which shows a Cuba crackling at its edges amid the kindling of a revolution, is opulent in its own way, and feels rich and lived in. Fabrice Kebour's balmy, sun soaked lighting design is equally transporting. 

A lively, dramatic retelling of one of the most famous operas of all time, Carmen La Cubana is a sizzling success.

Review - Allelujah! (Bridge Theatre)

An angel of death floats over The Beth, an old fashioned Yorkshire hospital with fading marigold walls, embellished with NHS blue signage, which is clinging on to life by the skin of its teeth and the generosity of the community. As the hospital battles against its decommissioning, a camera crew arrives to document what it means to the patients on the geriatric ward, and staff members who tend to them, but they get more than they bargained for as the camera uncovers dark secrets and outrageous scandals on the seemingly well-tended ward.

Members of the cast of Allelujah!
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Allelujah! is the latest play from playwright Alan Bennett, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and it's a dark one. Humourous too, of course, and full of Bennettisms, but dark nevertheless. Setting a play within the walls of a hospital automatically signals oncoming disease and death, but he still manages to formulate shocking moments of tragedy, injected with a generous dose of bleakness for good measure. 

However, there are also a fair few chuckles to be had. The 12 elderly patients who populate the geriatric ward are fascinating band, each with their own distinct personality. It's a testament to Bennett's talents as a playwright that despite Allelujah!'s gargantuan cast of 25, each and every character has their own very defined story. Simon Williams' Ambrose, a rather cavalier retired school teacher waiting for an old pupil to pay him a visit, is one of the most cleverly drawn characters, bringing humour to the role, as well as a sense of impatience. 

There's plenty of gaggling and gossiping going on in The Beth's geriatric ward, but also lots of singing, as a nurse has encouraged the patients to take part in a choir. Their musical offerings bring levity to the play's proceedings, as well as highlighting the reminiscence and nostalgia which the patients revel in.

However, despite the sweet and clever writing, for a sizable chunk of the first act, a whole lot of nothing actually happens on stage. Samuel Barnett's lycra clad management consultant to the minister for health in particular draws the short straw here, as the character has not got much to do other than loiter cynically around his father's sickbed spouting about his desire to shut the hospital down. He's a well drawn, well played character, but it feels as if he's just passing through, and for all his insidious scheming, he never really takes much action.

Members of the cast of Allelujah! 
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
On the other hand Deborah Findlay's sallow-eyed Sister Gilchrist has no problem taking things into her own hands as she strives to maintain a slickly run ward, largely for her own peace of mind, no matter the cost. Findlay's Gilchrist is an ominous presence floating spectral through the hospital and juxtaposing Nicola Hughes' rather more buoyant Nurse Pinkney.

Allelujah! highlights some of the hospital's foibles and flaws, but also shows how so many rely on it every day. However, instead of trying to improve it, it is being dismantled before the very eyes of those who need it most. It's stark and frankly quite scary. And a painful metaphor for the restlessness of the nation as a whole.

We're undoubtedly living in a time of uncertainty, with Brexit fostering an ugly anti-foreign sentiment (Sacha Dhawan's well-liked Doctor Valentine is risking deportation after his student visa expires because, as a disembodied voice reminds him patronisingly after he states his case to remain, 'we have our own doctors'), and the NHS is at constant risk of dismantlement. 

It's no coincidence that this play debuts in the same year as the NHS celebrates its 70th anniversary.