Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Album Review: Leading Ladies - Songs From The Stage

"Lock the door and stop complaining
Gather 'round and listen well"


Between them, Amber Riley, Beverley Knight and Cassidy Janson have racked up Olivier Awards and accolades aplenty and their mutual respect has led to them joining forces to create musical supergroup Leading Ladies. And working with producers Brian Rawling and Paul Meehan through East West Records (Warner), their debut album Songs From The Stage is about to be released.

Across the 14 tracks of the collection, there's a variety of approaches as they tackle songs from a wide range of musicals. Each singer gets a couple of solo numbers, and they all chip in with backing vocals on some of those, but the highlights come when the trio sing together. And none more so than on an utterly transcendent version of Carole King's 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow' whose close harmonies are goosebump-inducingly extraordinary, the marriage of their voices a perfect alchemy.

Album Review: Helen Power - Enraptured

"There is joy in the air
So be gone with dull care"

What to do to make your album stand out in a crowded marketplace of musical theatre-related albums? Get Auburn Jam's Joe Davison in to do your arrangements, that's what. A glimpse at the tracklisting of Helen Power's new album Enraptured may not initially suggest a great adventurousness but on first listen, its playful and subtly daring nature soon become apparent.

A relaxed take on Porgy & Bess' Summertime is a strong opener, full of bold musicality and Power's confident soprano, but it's the next of couple of tracks that set out the vision here. A Latin-inflected 'The Sound Of Music' has no right to be effective but as Davison introduces silky bossanova rhythms and elastic double-bass lines, it's impossible to resist its easygoing charm. And if less radical, his Bond-esque re-arrangement of the title track from The Phantom Of The Opera is no less exciting, its duelling brass section and violins building to a breathless climax that thrills just as much as Power's soaring top E.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Review: Drip, Bush

"Dive, dive, dive right in
Dive, dive, dive, dive, dive right in..."

On the one hand, I think I'd like to see Tom Wells really surprise us with something completely different. But on the other, he does what he does so bloody well that I kinda never want him to stop. Drip sees him playing with form, as it is a one-man musical but thematically, we're once again in the world he has explored so affectingly in plays such as Me As A Penguin, The Kitchen Sink and Jumpers for Goalposts

Our protagonist is Liam, a 15 year old from South Shields who has moved to Hull cos his mum is seeing a guy named Barry who lives there. Making fast friends with Caz, the 'other queer student' at school, he throws himself into helping her with the annual project prize presentation that she is so desperate to win. Only thing is, she's planning Hull's first synchronised swimming team and Liam can't swim... 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Review: Network, National Theatre

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore"

With Network, Lee Hall's adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 film, Ivo van Hove re-asserts his place as one of the premier theatremakers working, anywhere. A satire that managed to predict just how powerful a tool populist anger can be when leveraged effectively, it is transformed into the immersive bustle of a TV studio, that of UBS Evening News where old hack Howard Beale - a transcendent performance by Bryan Cranston - has been handed his notice. Though initially appearing to accept it with good grace, he causes an almighty media stir when he declares, on air, that he's going to kill himself, triggering a most unlikely rebirth as a truth-spilling 'prophet'. 

And as ever, van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld challenge our notions of theatrical space and how it is used. An onstage restaurant puts (some) audience members right in the thick of the action, the fourth wall gets well and truly shattered, and the use of live video and big screens forces us into the role of active observers - as Beale goes live on air, do you watch Cranston himself, do you watch him onscreen, do you watch the team observing him from the producers' box...the multiplicity of perspectives reminds us how easy it is to manipulate media, how there can always be other sides to the story. 

The Barricade Boys announce a Christmas Cabaret season with an amazing guest cast

As Mrs Merton might have asked, what first attracted you to musical theatre supergroup The Barricade Boys...?

Clearly, it was their cumulative musical talent - between them, Scott Garnham, Simon Schofield, Craig Mather and Kieran Brown have racked up credits in pretty much every major musical from The Phantom of The Opera, Wicked and Billy Elliot to Jersey Boys, The Sound Of Music and Les Misérables. And now they're bringing their cabaret show to The Other Palace's Studio for a Christmas season which is enough to bring festive cheer to even the most Scrooge-like of hearts.

But not content with filling our stockings thus, they've gone through their contact lists to find a frankly astonishing array of guest stars to accompany them across the entire run, making it nigh-on impossible to choose just one night to go along.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review: No Place Like Hope, Old Red Lion

"Remember, hope is a good thing. 
Maybe the best of things. 
And no good thing ever dies"

On a night when the big West End opening of the evening is an absolute testosterone-fest, it is rather gratifying to see people actually doing something about it, to try and start to redress the balance in their own way. Producer Holly Donovan is one such shining light, using her own negative experiences of gender bias to act as an impetus to finding a play that passed the Bechdel Test and then building a production around it that uses an all-female creative team.

Callum McGowan's No Place Like Hope is that play and what a delicately moving thing it is, depicting an unlikely friendship between two women reeling from the tragedy that life has thrown at them. Becca is a troubled young woman who is carrying out her community service at a hospice and Anna is a cancer patient there and from inauspicious beginnings, a kinship is recognised as they each find in the other something to cling onto, something that might alleviate their despair.

Review: Glengarry Glen Ross, Playhouse

"We're a dying breed"

Obviously, the choice to stage David Mamet's ode to toxic masculinity Glengarry Glen Ross was made long before the hashtag #MeToo shattered the blinkers of anyone unaware of what men have been getting away with. But it feels indicative of a theatrical culture that has reflected and reinforced a societal imbalance - all-male plays, written by men, directed by men, lauded by prize ceremonies and thus easy targets (and safer bets) for revivals, a self-perpetuating loop that doesn't seem to even be coming close to stopping. 

And why should it, one might argue. Sam Yates' production is astutely cast and tightly wound as it visits the world of Chicago real estate. Firstly through a set of short duologues in a Chinese restaurant in which we variously meet a set of salesmen and discover their place in the pecking order. And then after the interval, they're all brought together in their office (an impressive almighty set change from Chiara Stephenson) which has been broken into and where all the frustrations and feelings they've been bottling up now come tumbling free. 

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Review: Contractions, ND2

"We have a duty of care to all our employees"

I may not be a Deaf Critic but I am a critic who is partially deaf, a state of affairs positions me rather uniquely when it comes to appreciating Deafinitely Theatre's latest production - a bilingual version of Mike Bartlett's 2008 two-hander Contractions. Bilingual as a matter of course, as all of Deafinitely's productions are in using British Sign Language and English but bilingual too as a provocation, in that director Paula Garfield uses neither language continuously.

So as we sit through a series of business meetings between a brutally officious manager (who signs) and corporate wannabe Emma (who both speaks and signs), there's an ingenious sense of dislocation, of delayed and incomplete comprehension, which is as incisive a theatrical representation of what it is like to be deaf in a hearing world as I could ever imagine. And it is a fascinating way to portray the brutal acuity that typifies much of Bartlett's small-scale plays and their sharp dialogue.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Album Review: Michael Ball and Alfie Boe - Together Again

"I hang suspended
Until I know
There's a chance that you care"


It is no secret that I am no great fan of a booming tenor and so it was little surprise that Michael Ball and Alfie Boe's album Together was not really my cup of tea. But it was however what many other people wanted and following its success and reaching number 1 in the charts, the pair have collaborated again to produce the imaginatively titled Together Again. And in the spirit of open-mindedness, plus the acknowledgement that there's a more adventurous tracklisting, I steeled myself to listen.

I have to hold up my hands and say I was pleasantly surprised by more than a few of the songs here. The first two-thirds of 'The Rose' are genuinely spine-tinglingly lovely and even when the bombast kicks in for the finale, it stills maintains a heartfelt sincerity. A stroll through 'White Christmas' is marvellously restrained and all the more effective for it. Even the big band swing through 'Bring Me Sunshine' has a gentleness to it that allows both men to demonstrate their performative range.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Cast for the West End transfer of Girl From The North Country announced


Conor McPherson's Girl From The North Country was an absolutely glorious thing at the Old Vic this summer and I'm pleased to see that its relatively slow-burning success has translated into a West End transfer. It is also gratifying to see that many of the original cast of this Bob Dylan musical (or play with songs if you're precious like that) are remaining with the production, especially Shirley Henderson and Sheila Atim, who I suspect we should be looking out for come awards season.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Album Review: Sheridan Smith - Sheridan

"Feels like we could go on for forever this way"

Over the past decade, Sheridan Smith has established herself as one of the UK's finest actresses. From comedies such as The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps and Gavin & Stacey, she has graduated to BAFTA-winning success in Mrs Biggs, Cilla and this year's exceptional The Moorside. And onstage, she's a 4-time Olivier Award nominee and 2-time winner, being recognised for her work in both plays - Flare Path - and musicals - Legally Blonde. Now she has the music world in her sights as she releases her debut album Sheridan.

There's returns to the material that has justly made her reputation. Her impassioned take on Cilla Black's swinging 'Anyone Who Had a Heart' remains an absolute joy and a full-throated rendition of Funny Girl's 'My Man' recalls the energy of her Fanny Brice. It feels she is most at home in the torch song arena though, and whether in the oldies (Timi Yuro's 'Hurt', The Carpenters' 'Superstar') or newer tracks (Rufus Wainwright's 'Dinner at Eight'), the tone of her lower register glows with charismatic warmth. With producer Tris Penna and co-producer, arranger and musical director Steve Sidwell, there's a real appreciation for the collation of music that suits Smith and really does create a harmonious whole.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Review: Nativity! The Musical, Birmingham Rep

"A cheeky drink, a naughty wink,
we'll loosen up alright"

Just like a wise man, I came late to Nativity, only getting round to watching Debbie Isitt's film a couple of years ago but oh, how it won me over, feeling like an instant Christmas classic. (The less said about the sequel and the shocking third film, the better). So it was little surprise to hear that Isitt was adapting her film for the stage, in the form of Nativity! The Musical. And though I have once again embraced my inner Scrooge and won't be reviewing much, if any, festive fare this year, I couldn't resist the chance to sparkle and shine.

And I'm glad I did, even if it is a full month too early to be even thinking of anything Christmassy. Nativity remains a beautifully heart-warming story and if anything, has even more of a feel-good factor about it through all the liveness of this production. The story centres on Coventry primary school St Bernadette's, trying to escape Ofsted-imposed special measures by beating a rival school to putting on the best Christmas show which, through the most tenuous of links, might just attract Hollywood interest and get turned into a film.