Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mack & Mabel [Winston Churchill Hall, Ruislip]

This was a production by the Wembley Operatic Society, so not a West End super-production, although Winston Churchill Hall in Ruislip is a surprisingly large theatre that would appear to be a secret to almost everyone but the locals.

I should also confess that my friend - and the Muse of this blog, Dr Carrie Dunn, was in it as part of the chorus - so that's all my biases up front.

I have to say I enjoyed myself. I'm not sure Mack & Mabel is one of the great musicals. The story, which is based on the true story of the 'it's complicated' relationship between silent movie director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, a silent movie star. It's a bumpy ride with an unhappy ending, although productions sometimes end with the song 'I Promise You A Happy Ending' and avoid a discussion of the real events.

You could - if you were so inclined - make 'I Promise You A Happy Ending' drip with irony. I'm a sucker for that kind of thing so it is a good job I'm not a director of musical theatre. You can see also why I incline to opera with all its long, dark dying. But, I digress.

Director, Debbie Day, does a fine job with the production though. Not just by getting the best out of her cast but with some of the additional touches - such a silent movie 'clips' etc.

Hang on...I need to go back to the musical itself. I think its problem is it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. This is a subject I think Sondheim would do more justice to perhaps. It's part celebration of silent comedy Hollywood and a mockery of its growing artistic pretentions - see  'I Wanna Make The World Laugh', 'Hundreds of Girls' and 'Hit 'Em On The Head' - for that. And part tragic love story - 'I Won't Send Roses', 'When Mabel Comes Into The Room' and 'Time Heals Everything' but it can't quite decide whether to go down one route or the other.

When I was a lad and the world was in black and white they used to show silent comedy's on the main television channels so I was familiar with Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. the Keystone Cops etc, which makes me sympathetic to that side of the story. I must have seen films with Mabel Normand in as she worked with Chaplin. Indeed, Chaplin's Tramp makes his debut in a Normand film 'Mabel's Strange Predicament' (1914)

The story of Mack and Mabel themselves is a messy one and Normand's life was a short-ish and scandal-filled one. It's the combination of that and the Hollywood story that makes this tonally odd.

However, the weakness of the musical itself, which had a bumpy ride on its original debut in 1974 shouldn't take anything away from this fun production. And I think fun is how you have to make your final judgements on these things. Did I enjoy myself? Yes, I did.

Carl Quaif is great as Mack Sennett and seems to be enjoying himself immensely. I loved Susan Smith as Mabel. The rest of the cast did a fine job too. Steve Benn's Fatty Arbuckle being a personal favourite.

So, this production has finished now but the Wembley Operatic Society (and societies like it) could always do with support. Their next production is 'Anything Goes' in November at the Winston Churchill Hall in Ruislip.


Friday, 8 January 2016

Guys & Dolls (Savoy Theatre)


Let's not beat about the bush this is marvellous, which is annoying because it is so much easier to write reviews of things you loathe. Snark is easy, praise is hard.

I have seen Guys & Dolls once before live & I have seen the Sinatra-Brando-Simmons-Blaine film, which probably makes it the musical I am most familiar with. If you don't count The Doctor Who Stage Play. Which you don't. Clearly.

I've liked what I've seen before but this production was bloody brilliant. I'd go and see it again tomorrow if I could get a ticket.

Why? Well, I like the plot, which actually feels a bit like one of Shakespeare's comedies. The man trying to avoid getting married to the women who loves him despite his marriage avoidance and the ill-matched pair that fall in love against all expectations. But not before one or two mix-ups. The course of true love cannot run smoothly for if it did where would all the drama be?

My friend Carrie, who is responsible for me starting this blog and who I went to see this with, is a woman who loves happy endings. Me, I'm a sucker for misery. I like sad songs and sad endings. As Gretchen Peters - a rather brilliant singer-songwriter - once said at a gig of hers I attended, "We like the sad songs.' So I'm often against enforced jollity and happy endings. But occasionally I'll make an exception for something and Guys & Dolls is one of those.

Sophie Thompson and David Haig play Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. They're excellent. They've got comic timing to die for but they're also good at the serious stuff when its needed.

Poor Miss Adelaide. Engaged for fourteen years to Nathan Detroit and never yet married. She's resorted to telling her mother lies by letter. Adelaide laments a lot. The thing is you always feel that Nathan really loves her but just can't bring himself to finally do the right thing. It's like he see marriage as the end of his fun. Haig & Thompson do a rather lovely version of Sue Me. And Adelaide's Lament is both sweet & funny.

Jamie Parker and Siubhan Harrison are Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown : the bad boy and the good woman. Although you always get the impression Sky's trying too hard. He's clearly a nice bloke as he can't bring himself to take advantage of Sarah when the chance arises. Both Parker and Harrison are brilliant. I loved Parker's version of Luck Be A Lady and Harrison's If I Were A Bell (which by the by has a couple of odd lines in it.)

And Siubhan Harrison is a Mission Doll. The Mission Doll - to mangle a Raymond Chandler quote - to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. She's really good.

But I can't think of a single dud in the whole cast. Gavin Spokes as Nicely-Nicely Johnson does a great job and the version of Sit Down Your Rockin' the Boat is stonkingly brilliant. It's the shows party piece really, even if Havana is where all the action is supposed to be. Sit Down You're Rockin' The Boat is the song I've found myself singing most since seeing this, although Sue Me (the male bit) is a close second. Indeed I've come dangerously close to thinking I can sing, which as those who know me will know is utterly delusional.

So massive applause for Spokes. And Ian Hughes. And Neil McCaul. And the whole darn cast, although for the sake of some quibbling I'm going to note some very ahistorical facial hair from some of the chaps. I've really only put that in to avoid this being a total gushathon.

When I was a kid I knew how good a film was by how much I wanted to be in it. So, as my Mum reminded me recently, I saw Star Wars in 1977 with my Dad and brother and when she came to collect us we were pretending to fight with light sabres (which is an insight into one of the many reasons I love my Dad btw. There are more important reasons but the ability to pretend to be a Jedi Knight when your kids need you to be isn't a bad thing to be.) But coming back from that digression the really great stuff I like always makes me want to be part of it. I want to be The Doctor (or a companion if needs must. ;-) in Doctor Who, I want to be Indiana Jones or Han Solo or Vila from Blake's 7*. They made me want to be the hero and the best thing about this production of Guys & Dolls is it made me feel that kind of joyous, childish enthusiasm again. And that can't be a bad thing can it?





*Yes, Vila doesn't fit well into that company but for me Vila was the real hero of Blake's 7. So sue me. Sue me. Put bullets through me...Sorry.


Saturday, 5 September 2015

Mary Poppins (Film)


I've seen Mary Poppins before but that was a long, long time ago when I was a wee lad bereft of the cynicism and grumpiness that seems to have come with adulthood. Since then I've managed to miss watching it many times and all it has become is a running joke about Dick van Dyke's accent, which I now realise is just stupid.

Mary Poppins is brilliant. It's jumped to top spot in my 'Favourite Musicals' list pushing Guys and Dolls off its perch. It's the first film musical I've seen where I've come out & bought the soundtrack pretty much straight away. It's a wonderful film. If you've got kids I envy you the joy of watching it with them. If you're an adult you should find time to watch it on a semi-regular basis.

Because this is a Disney film with children in it there's a tendency to think it is just a children's film but weaved into the story are some pretty adult themes: how work can grind, grind, grind you down and put distance between you and your family & how we all can trap ourselves in cages that can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Bert's comment to Jane and Michael to that effect when he's giving them his speech about what being a Dad is like basically says that. The ending of the film, when George Banks effectively breaks the door of his cage, reminds me of a Rumi quote, "Why do you stay in prison, when the door is wide open."

It takes Mary Poppins to show George the open door. It isn't the children Mary Poppins saves, its George Banks. In saving George, she saves the entire family but it is George whose cage is opened.

David Tomlinson is perfect as George Banks. He does a fine line in confusion, British stiff-upper lipped foolishness and when he finally escapes his cage does a great job of showing the weight lifting off his shoulders: the unbearable lightness of freedom.

Karen Dotrice & Matthew Garber play Jane and Michael. They manage to avoid being annoying, which is often how I feel about child actors. Gerber does wide-eyed surprise with panache. Indeed there is a festival of face-pulling from a lot of the supporting cast.

But this film rises on two great performances: Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke. Much comedy is had by British people about Dick van Dyke's accent, which clearly isn't very cockney. But you know it doesn't matter a jot. He's full of joy and energy. Apparent Dick van Dyke thinks he was miscast, but I think that's because he thinks a British actor would have made sense. Perhaps it would. Van Dyke suggested Jim Dale or Ron Moody. Dr Carrie Dunn suggested Roy Castle. I think Dale or Castle could have done a brilliant job but Dick van Dyke's a joy throughout so I think he's wrong about miscasting.

Julie Andrews though is exceptional. Her Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way. She sings wonderfully and acts brilliantly. She manages to make Mary Poppins mysterious without making her cold. Indeed to divert to my actual favourite thing in the world, Doctor Who, if you want to see what a female Doctor could be like say hello to Mary Poppins (and I'm not even talking about Missy's apparent theft of Mary Poppins' look for her current incarnation.)

The songs are great. I've been singing 'Let's Go Fly a Kite' since I saw it. And found myself doing my own version of 'Step In Time' on the tube homewards. Then there's 'Supercalifragillisticexpialidocious', 'A Spoonful of Sugar', 'Chim-Chim Cher-ee' etc etc. It's clever too with a brilliant mix of animation and real actors

So to cut a long blog short this is a jewel. Darker and deeper than you think. It's funny, moving and just plain wonderful. A reminder to us all to make sure we don't lock ourselves in our own cages and that, "In every job that must be done there's an element of fun. You find the fun and - snap! - the job's a game."

Go watch it again.

Spit. Spot.


Sunday, 26 July 2015

Fiddler on the Roof (Royal Albert Hall)


This was absolutely fabulous.

The location was The Royal Albert Hall for Prom 11, The Fiddler on the Roof. Starring Bryn Terfel as Tevye, the milkman and his family. They're part of a tight-knit Jewish community in the village of Anatevka. It's Tsarist Russia so probably not one of the better times and places to be Jewish - although there aren't many of them in general to be honest.

Tevye is married to Golde (Janet Fullerlove). He has many daughters all of whom will need to be found suitable husbands. This means involving Yente (Rebecca Wheatley), the matchmaker.

Obviously none of this can be simple. Yente lines up Lazar, the butcher (Cameron Blakeley) for Tzeitel (Charlotte Harwood) but she's already in love with the tailor, Motel (Anthony Flaum). There's supposed to be a wedding. And there is. Tzeitel persuades her father to let him marry Motel. The first break in 'tradition'.

It means it is harder for Tevye to turn down Hodel (Katie Hall) when she chooses to marry Perchik (Jordan Simon Pollard). Perchik is a visitor to Anatevka from Kiev. He's a student and a radical. Symbolic of a lot of young, educated Russian Jews of the time, many of whom would help bring about the Russian Revolutions (and beyond). They don't even get married before Perchik returns to Kiev to carry on his 'work'. Another tradition bites the dust.

But even Tevye can't accept the choice of Chava (Molly Lynch). She wants to marry Fyedka (Craig Fletcher). Fyedka is Christian. Tevye chooses this as step too far and claims Chava is dead to him. Even as tradition becomes eroded - and I can't imagine that Fyedke's family would have been happy with his decision either at the time - there is a line Tevye can't - or won't - cross.

Unfortunately even as we try and live our lives in peace and quiet history has a habit of stomping all over our happiness with its jackboots and uniforms.

First Tezitel and Motel's wedding ends with a bunch of Russian thugs, led by a Constable (Mark Heenehan) whose heart doesn't seem to be in it but can't bring himself to disobey orders, smash up the place, including the newly weds presents. It is the beginning of the end for the Jews of Anatevka.

Next they are told they must sell up and leave within three days.

They are all to go to different places. To New York, to Chicago, to Warsaw or Krakow. The flight of the Russian Jews has begun. Some of those places will be safe, but some of them will be the graveyards of their children and grandchildren. The Jews of Warsaw and of Krakow will experience a new, more industrial form of antisemitism.

That is a much more serious note than I intended to strike but you can't watch this musical without the ghosts of the Holocaust haunting you. Or, as they sing 'Anatevka', and pack up their belongings to make the long march to wherever you can't not think about the fate of refugees in the modern world.

So it's not exactly the most light-hearted of musicals, although it can be quite funny at points.

Whenever I see a musical with my Musicals Tutor, Dr Carrie Dunn, there's always a point where we talk about which songs I know from a musical I've never seen. I was astonished, as an example, to realise I knew lots of the songs from The Sound of Music. They'd got into my brain without ever having seen it. I knew two songs from Fiddler on The Roof, 'Matchmaker' and 'If I Were A Rich Man' (Obviously) so this was all pretty fresh to me.

I have to say I liked pretty much every song. 'If I Were A Rich Man' is brilliant (and Bryn Terfel performs it magnificently.) I liked 'Miracle of Miracles' but loved 'Sunrise , Sunset' and 'Now I Have Everything.' Perhaps I'm just a old romantic.

The performances were really good too. I'm a bit of a Bryn Terfel fanboy and he's great here. His voice is majestic and you always get the impression that he could blow people off stage if he let rip with the full works. I've never seen Terfel in an opera, which is something I should try and remedy as soon as possible, but I've enjoyed both this and Sweeney Todd. His acting is also pretty good here. He's obviously not the best actor in the world but who needs to be in opera. However he's got that voice, charisma in buckets and the ability to deliver a funny line when needed. I'd watch him in anything I think.

The rest of the cast are pretty damn fine to but I'm going to be invidious and flag up Charlotte Harwood's Tzietel and Anthony Flaum's Motol; Jordan Simon Pollard's Perchik and Katie Hall's Hodel.

Basically I'd happily go and see this again and it rivals Guys and Dolls and Sweeney Todd for top spot in my favourite musicals list.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Sweeney Todd (ENO)


That's how to spend an Easter Sunday afternoon.

It's hard to imagine that something as theoretically dark as this - revenge, murder and cannibalism to name but three - can be so much fun. It's not going to end well this but then, as I said to Dr Carrie, 99% of things you see at the ENO don't end well. But at least this one avoids having a consumptive heroine.

Anyway attend to the tale of Sweeney Todd, fitted up by nasty Judge Turpin so that Turpin can get his hands on Todd's beautiful wife. And then having finished with the beautiful wife moving on - rather creepily - to the daughter Johanna. Todd has returned to London from Australia where he was sentenced to stay for life.

Bryn Terfel plays Todd. It's a really stupid piece of obviousness to say but boy can Terfel sing. His voice, which seems to rise up with almost minimal effort, is fantastic, although I got the impression that he was dialling it down a bit as this wasn't Wagnerian opera but a Sondheim musical. I felt that if he'd really gone for it he'd have blown everyone off the stage.

He's not the best actor in the world but his physical presence is perfect for the brooding, vengeful Todd. It makes me wish I could have afforded to get a ticket to see him as the Flying Dutchman at the Royal Opera House.

Todd returns to his old haunts where he joins forces with Mrs Lovett, the sharp-minded, amoral maker of London's worst pies.

Emma Thompson is brilliant as Mrs Lovett, who gets most of the funny bits in Sweeney Todd. She's got a real presence and can sing a bit too.

Basically one thing leads to another and the next thing you know Todd's lining up to slay his enemies and Mrs Lovett is popping them in to rather wonderful pies for the unsuspecting population of London. They're great pies apparently - oh and 'A Little Priest' is I think my favourite song in the entire production.

Meanwhile a young sailor called Anthony - who we meet right at the beginning of our story with Todd - has fallen in love with Johanna and wants to steal her away from the horrid Judge Turpin. Turpin's got fantasies of marrying Johanna. Turpin's a bit of a git, basically.

So we're all lined up for a happy endin...oh, obviously not.

Terfel and Thompson (which sounds like a Welsh law firm) lead the line magnificently but the whole cast are pretty damn good and Doctor Carrie tells me are well-known musical theatre people.

Matthew Seadon-Young is a fine Anthony, Katie Hall is Johanna, Rosalie Craig the Beggar Woman - who gets involved in some rather unsubtle innuendo early on, Alex Gaumond is Beadle Bamford and Philip Quast is a magnificent Turpin. Oh and I shouldn't forget John Owen-Jones as the preposterous Pirelli and Jack North as Jack North.

Which covers pretty much everyone, which tells you how brilliant this was.

The orchestra are on stage here so the cast weave in and out, use the orchestra as props and generally behave as if they're part of the show. It's a bit odd initially but once you get used to it then it's fine.

Alas it is only on in London for a short-time (having transferred from Broadway), which is a shame as I'd happily go see it again.

So excellent was it I think it's knocked Guys and Dolls off the number one spot in the short list of musicals I've seen live on stage.

Dark but brilliant stuff.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

West Side Story (And Other Stories)


Before we begin I should explain what this blog is about. I have an aversion to musicals. Or I thought I had. Until I shared a house with and got to know Dr Carrie Dunn. Since then I have gradually been watching various musicals. Some on stage. Some on film and some both.

Last month we put this process on a semi-official basis. An education in musicals has begun. It started with Guys and Dolls, the 1955 film starring Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine. I liked it. But I've liked Guys and Dolls since I saw it with Ewan McGregor back in whatever year it was. Carrie filled me in on the changes made, usually because Frank wanted them and we had a good laugh about the idea of Frank as Sky Masterson. It wouldn't have worked. Brando's excellent and 'Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat' cemented its place in my favourite scenes/songs list.

We've also watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Film), Phantom of the Opera (Film and Stage), and The Sound of Music (Stage). This will matter later when my Pointless League Table goes up.

Now, West Side Story.

It's not that great. Sorry.

From its plodding title sequence through its unconvincing street gangs and over-made up George Chakiris to its incredibly inept police department I found it all rather silly and tedious. Even the songs with the exception of America hardly impacted on me at all.

It's no coincidence that America sticks. It's given oomph by Rita Moreno - who is the best thing in this film. In fact I want a musical called Anita, which tells her story. With the doomed couple left in the background. Anita's given a horrible time.

Actually Natalie Wood's acting is excellent. Her grief and rage at Tony's death is genuinely moving and uncomfortable to watch. George Chakiris is pretty good to, although I'm not quite sure it was worthy of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (although I say that without bothering to look at who he was up against.) Richard Beymer as Tony I have forgotten almost entirely already, except for his impressive teeth.

Whilst Wood's acting is great her singing voice is provided by Marni Nixon and whilst it is obviously a good voice it didn't work for me as either the characters voice or how I imagine Natalie Wood sounds. Too pure, too clean and just too perfect. Maybe it is just me.

We all know this is loosely based on Romeo & Juliet. The problem is I find Romeo & Juliet less good as I get older and I found myself lacking much love for Tony or Maria. Perhaps I'm just an old grump but for heaven's sake stop being so stupid. I don't dislike them as much I do Cathy and Heathcliff for example but get a grip for heaven's sake.

So, I'm afraid West Side Story finds itself at the bottom of my Pointless League Table of Film Musicals, which as of today is:

Guys and Dolls
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Phantom of the Opera
West Side Story

Next month: Oklahoma (1955)