Review - Our Town (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

This summer, director Ellen McDougall has brought a bit of olde worlde Americana to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning drama about birth, life, and death in the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners.
 
The cast of  Our Town
Photo credit - Johan Persson
The play is a thought provoking one, although it begins rather slowly. Using meta theatrical techniques which were undoubtedly rather innovative when the play first premiered, a twinkly eyed Stage Manager talks directly to the audience, introducing them to several key personalities within the town. There are plenty of characters to get to know, but at the heart of the story are childhood sweethearts George and Emily, whose rocky courtship marks the beginning of a much more focused and streamlined tale. Actors Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry make a sweet couple, and their awkward first date over ice-cream sodas is an endearing scene which encapsulates the play’s fly-on-the-wall set-up extremely well.

However, the production doesn’t really ramp up until the final act, running at a brisk 30 minutes compared to 1 hour and 20 minutes in the first half. Taking place after the untimely demise of one of the town’s beloved residents, the play delves into the ephemerality of life, dishing out a didactic message about making the most of every second of every day. It’s rather profound, and excellently acted all round, especially when aided by the eerie silence of the outdoor setting post-sunset.

Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town fits perfectly into the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, with its messages about life and themes of introspection reflected in Rosie Elnile’s homespun set design, which mirrors the auditorium’s tiered bleachers, placing the audience well and truly within Grover’s Corners. Structurally Our Town may be a bit of a slow burn, but those who persevere as the story stretches into the chilly summer evening will be rewarded with a conclusion to leave a lump in anyone’s throat.

I was invited to review Our Town thanks to London Box Office

Review - American Idiot (UK Tour)

I can still remember hearing the iconic opening bars of American Idiot for the first time. Looking back the moment feels life changing, in a way. At age 9 I was way too young to understand the meaning behind the song’s subversive lyrics, denouncing the way the Iraq war was being turned into a spectator sport for rabid public onlookers thousands of miles away, but even at age 9 I knew a great song when I heard one. A great song which would go be Grammy nominated, become the band’s signature song, and eventually, share its name with a Tony Award winning rock musical.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
Of course, the fact is, when Green Day dropped their 7th studio album back in 2004, the world was in chaos. The Iraq War was making headlines every night, a global recession was affecting billions, and the USA was still reeling from the September 11th terrorist attacks which had shaken the world just 3 short years earlier. American Idiot was a direct response to this chaos – a punk rock opera telling the story of the Jesus of Suburbia; a restless kid coming of age in a harsh and hostile world. That storyline became the basis of the album’s 2009 stage adaptation, with the central character Johnny, the self-proclaimed Jesus of Suburbia, and his friends Will and Tunny setting out to escape the mundanity of their hometown, each coming up against barriers as they discover that the world is a pretty hostile and unforgiving place.
 
It’s a pretty profound and often uncomfortable watch, and in the 10th Anniversary UK tour director Racky Plews has done something extraordinary with it. The grandiose fist pumping Green Day anthems (the musical comprises of the entire American Idiot album, plus additional songs from 2009's 21st Century Breakdown, and one original song)  are just as hair raising as they’ve always been, but each feels surprisingly intimate and internal, and the book by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Broadway director Michael Mayer, although undeniably thin on the ground, ties the whole thing together and elevates it. Designer Sara Perks’ squalid sets bring the grim and hopeless world into even clearer view, casting a grimy haze over the production.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
The musical’s anti-hero Johnny documents his year in defiant letters; to his parents, his friends, himself. At times he’s funny, even charming in an odd way, possibly thanks to Tom Milner’s astute performance, but he’s also teetering on the edge of terrifying. He’s our narrator, yes, but far from taking us by the hand and leading us through the story, he’s constantly chomping at the bit, pulling away, losing himself on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Especially once he meets the swaggering rocker St Jimmy, who (spoiler alert) is later revealed to be nothing more than Johnny’s drug laden alter ego.

Johnny’s desperation to escape the claustrophobia of his small town is a familiar one. Especially to today’s millennials, promised the world by their parents, who find themselves instead inheriting a bleak, violent, hostile planet, which also happens to be dying at an alarming rate. With that in mind, plus the context of Bush-era America, is it any wonder that all we can do is watch in horror as Johnny’s dream decays, and he’s pulled into a self-destructive spiral of festering nihilism?

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
Similarly horrifying is the ease with which Tunny is seduced into enlisting in the army. Ross William Wild’s Favourite Son, appearing via TV to advertise the military as a glamourous and glorious pursuit, is more akin to a rock star than a military recruiter. Joshua Dowen sings the heck out of the role throughout, making a standout moment out of Are We The Waiting; a rare slow, reflective moment in the musical, which shows Tunny and his fellow recruits, stumbling uncertainly into a route march.

The third member of the trio, Will, doesn’t even make it out of town. His girlfriend Heather tells him that she is pregnant and he decides to do the right thing and stay with her. Will and Heather’s storyline is an interesting one, showing the struggle young people experience when they’re forced by circumstance to mature before they’re ready. Heather handles the situation significantly better than Will to begin with, but in the end they make up for the sake of their child. It’s a slightly more uplifting story on the outside, but of course it’s seeped it sadness, because it represents a cycle. Another generation destined to be raised, as the doctrine of the Jesus of Suburbia foretells, ‘on a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin’.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
There’s a reason Green Day’s American Idiot resonated with so many when it was released. Beyond the fact that every song is a killer, the album encapsulates the anger, frustration, and loss that kicked off the 21st century. And to be honest we’re still living in the shadow of that time now. Which is probably why the musical continues to feel relevant, and why it affected me so deeply. American Idiot is a high octane musical middle finger, and in today’s rocky political climate when it seems as if the world is destined to repeat its past mistakes all over again in addition to making a tonne of new ones, it’s never been more necessary!

Review - Matilda the Musical (Cambridge Theatre)

Oliver, Annie… Matilda?
 
The cast of Matilda the Musical
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
 Almost 10 years after its premiere in Stratford-upon-Avon, Matilda the Musical is still as fresh and fun as ever, and with a film adaptation rumoured to be in the works, it surely won’t be long until the Royal Shakespeare Company’s golden goose becomes as ubiquitous as the likes of family favourite musicals Annie and Oliver.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s book, Matilda the Musical tells the story of a 5 year old genius named Matilda Wormwood, who seeks refuge from her TV and microwave dinner loving parents with the kindly Miss Honey, and rallies her classmates to help take down the school’s bullish head teacher Miss Trunchbull.

Before the show even begins, the world of Matilda the Musical is already apparent, thanks to Rob Howell’s sprawling set design, which covers the proscenium arch with scrabble tiles which spell out little Matilda the Musical themed clues. The whole stage is a pop-up book come to life – kooky, primary coloured, and well matched by some pretty zany costume designs. Matilda’s mum, an amateur ballroom dancer and box-dye enthusiast, is kitted out in an eye-popping pink and purple number, whilst Miss Trunchbull’s drill sergeant-chic blazer and culottes cast a foreboding shadow over the otherwise vivid world.

And the musical isn’t all style over substance (contrary to the doctrine of Matilda's appearance-obsessed mum, who isn't afraid to assert that 'looks are more important than books!). Dennis Kelly’s book is endearing, with some moments of excellent comedy alongside the standard child friendly toilet humour. And the vibrant music by Tim Minchin solidifies Matilda the Musical as a cut above the rest. From Matilda’s synonymous solo Naughty, to the fist pumping heck-yes war cry of Revolting Children, when Matilda and her classmates finally stand up to the tyrannical Trunchbull, there’s not a song in the show that doesn’t jump out off the stage.

There may be plenty of family shows to entertain audiences in London right now, but few radiate the megawatts of joy that Matilda the Musical produces night after night. It's well and truly a must-see musical!
 
I was invited to review Matilda the Musical thanks to seatplan.com

Review - Rosmersholm (Duke of York's Theatre)

Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm is a politically charged tragedy swelling with a melancholy which seeps from every nook.

Hayley Atwell and the cast of Rosmersholm
Photo credit - Johan Persson
In a small Norwegian town, on the eve of an election which sees the conservative status quo challenged by radical new liberalist thinking, widowed atheist John Rosmer, formerly a well-respected pastor, wavers between embracing modern thinking, and buckling under the history and tradition which his family name, and home, is built on. On one side of the argument is his friend, and former companion to his deceased wife, Rebecca, whose intellect and self-sufficiency is at odds with the patriarchal thinking of the old. However, on the other side Rosmer’s brother-in-law Andreas Kroll campaigns for the ruling class to remain in what he sees as its rightful place. As both sides’ campaigning increases in ferocity, Rosmersholm becomes an epicentre of chaos, both personal and political. 

Tom Burke and Giles Terera in Rosmersholm
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Ian Rickson, former artistic director at the Royal Court Theatre, has done an extraordinary job of bringing this rarely performed Ibsen gem to the stage. Really, it could have been written yesterday. Rosmersholm is the perfect play for 2019, capturing the utter chaos of post-Brexit Britain, and the fervent tidal wave of fake news which notably swelled up in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election and has continued to wreak havoc politically ever since. 

Rae Smith's production design brings the bleakness of Rosmersholm to life; dozens of portraits hang on the walls and act as a constant reminder of the house’s proud history, meanwhile a grim line of grime and peeling paint trailing the bottom of the walls betrays the ghost of a flood which ravaged the house a year ago. That waterline, and the house’s accompanying disarray, acts as a constant symbol of guilt for Rosmer, as it betrays the upsetting and somewhat scandalous conditions of Rosmer’s late wife’s death; suicide by drowning, in the house’s adjacent millrun.

Giles Terera and Hayley Atwell in Rosmersholm
Photo credit - Johan Persson
The spectral canvas of the house is adorned with vivid, impressive performers in the play’s central trio. Hayley Atwell's Rebecca West is as enthralling & unreadable as characters get, engaging Tom Burke's disengaged John Rosmer in a precarious tug-of-war; do what's right or do what's safe. Meanwhile Giles Terera’s Kroll exudes an agitated energy as a member of the ruling class who intends to keep the lower societal classes subjugated. Yet another aspect of the play which feels uncomfortably familiar today. 

Holding a mirror up to modern day issues, while providing a glimpse into gender, society and politics of the late 1800s, Rosmersholm proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ibsen’s smart, sophisticated dialogue is in good hands with the trio of star leads, in a production which captures today’s rocky political climate scarily well.

I was invited to review Rosmersholm thanks to London Box Office 

Review - Mamma Mia! (Novello Theatre)

If the grey London evenings are getting you down, head down to the Novello Theatre and take a trip to sunny Greece with Mamma Mia! Catherine Johnson, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ irresistible jukebox musical hit.

The cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo credit - Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
The sunny West End staple, which has been running for 20 years on the West End, has most definitely reached icon status, inspiring two movies, and countless international productions around the world. And it’s easy to see why.

Mamma Mia! is an easy musical to love. The fun and fairly lightweight plot is bursting with ABBA bangers, and the cast certainly revels in the musical’s over the top energy and zest. From wetsuit clad groomsmen dancing in synchronicity to Lay All Your Love On Me, to a neon hazed dream sequence accompanied by the cool synthy Under Attack, Mamma Mia! is certainly not short on zany musical numbers, choreographed for peak dancefloor copycattery by Anthony Van Laast. Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out is a vivacious highlight, and the musical’s concert-like finale seals the deal, ensuring that the audience leaves on a high.

The cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo credit - Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
At 20 years old, Mamma Mia! is one of the oldest musicals on the West End, and at times it does show its age. Mark Thompson’s Ionian blue and white set design perfectly evokes Grecian summer on the fictional island of Kalokairi but looks a bit washed out. The glaringly 90s costumes however are delightful and add massively to the musical’s overall nostalgia factor.

This is a musical which shows no sign of slowing down. At this point it’s basically part of the fabric of London’s West End; a delight from start to finish. Seen it before? (Here we) go again!

I was invited to review Mamma Mia! thanks to London Box Office 

Review - 9 to 5 the Musical (Savoy Theatre)

This year, 10 years after it opened on Broadway, Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s 9 to 5 the Musical has finally made it to the West End. Based on the 1980 film of the same name, it tells the story of Violet, Doralee and Judy, three exasperated colleagues who join forces to try and banish sexism from their office.
 
The cast of 9 to 5 the Musical
Photo credit - Craig Sugden
Patricia Resnick’s book offers plenty of laughs, but also addresses, amongst other things, the gender pay gap, workplace harassment, and the bias against working mothers. All of which are issues which continue to make headlines today. The script’s puerile humour won’t be for everyone, but 9 to 5 the Musical certainly has its moments.

It also, obviously, puts its female stars front and centre, and wisely so as they are undoubtedly 9 to 5 the Musical’s strongest asset.
 
Caroline Sheen, Natalie McQueen, and Amber Davies in 9 to 5 the Musical
Photo credit - Pamela Raith
Amber Davies is sweet as young soon-to-be divorcee Judy, showing up for her first day of work looking like a child who raided her mother’s wardrobe, and with the naivety to match. She starts off unassuming, but ends up lifting the roof off the Savoy Theatre with Get Out and Stay Out, an empowering up tempo war cry which Judy delivers to her skeevy ex-husband.

Natalie McQueen is just as tremendous as Doralee, a “Backwoods Barbie” who has to prove that there’s more to her than meets the eye after facing relentless hostility from her female co-workers as well as relentless sexual abuse at the hands of Brian Conley’s lascivious CEO Franklin Hart Jr (Perfectly slimy and extremely gravelly voiced, so much so that at times he’s barely comprehendible). Bold, brassy, and hysterically funny, McQueen’s Doralee is a total scene stealer.
 
Brian Conley and Natalie McQueen in 9 to 5 the Musical
Photo Craig Sugden
Caroline Sheen completes 9 to 5 the Musical’s central power-trio as Violet, a strung out yet assertive single mother trying to make it to the top in her male dominated workplace. Her budding romance with a younger male colleague may not be the most compelling side plot, but she’s otherwise a fantastically well-rounded and dimensional heroine, and foil to the inimitable Bonnie Langford’s waspish Roz Keith.

The production is bolstered by comically 80s production design. The set which is bright and visually appealing, if a little bit sparse on the Savoy Theatre’s deep stage, with roll-on set pieces which betray the production’s past life on tour but are otherwise perfectly functional. Video design by Nina Dunn is sleek and vibrant, and while a Dolly Parton video cameo is evidently shoehorned in where it isn’t necessarily needed, having her pop up to sing a little bit of the title song is an undeniably upbeat crowd-pleasing moment.
 
It may not be the most robust or profound musical on the West End right now, but 9 to 5 the Musical offers a huge dose of girl power, which is sorely needed in 2019.

Review - West End Live Lounge: WOMAN (The Other Palace)

To coincide with International Women’s Day, West End Live Lounge presented WOMAN; a powerful celebration of women in the world of music.

Emma Hatton at West End Live Lounge
Photo credit - Nick Brittain (Brittain Photography)
Featuring an eclectic song list ranging from evergreen musical sensations like Carole King, to modern day chart toppers such as Little Mix, there was definitely something for everyone to enjoy. West End Live Lounge creator Shaun McCourt assembled a line-up of talent that could any musical theatre fan’s attention, featuring headliners Louise Dearman and Emma Hatton alongside a whole host of outstanding vocalists.
 
Accompanied by the Live Lounge Band under the musical direction of Sam Coates, the performances were invariably jawdropping, with highlights included recent Bat Out Of Hell alumnus Simon Gordon’s rendition of Lady Gaga’s Oscar winning Shallow and Jennifer Tierney's performance of All By Myself which began as a beautiful yet unassuming ballad before building to a face-melting finale. Finally, sensational vocal trio Divalution’s rendition of Little Mix jam Power ensured that the concert ended on the highest of a high notes!
 
It may have been nice to hear more mainstream female pop offerings, as a number of iconic 00s performers were notably omitted, but with the runtime pushing 3 hours already, and a set list which kept audiences guessing from start to finish, a follow-up concert ought to be considered in order to squeeze in the likes of Rhianna, Lily Allen and Beyoncé.

Presented by the indomitable affable Samuel J Holmes, whose panto inspired patter kept the concert running slickly, West End Live Lounge’s latest offering was a resounding Sunday evening success.