King’s Theatre

Fame: The Musical

Unknown

21/07/17

Alan Parker’s 1980 movie, Fame, is the film that launched a million star jumps – and, throughout the 1980s, the television series captured the imaginations of countless more viewers. This musical by The Beyond Broadway Experience manages to take the essence of the concept and uncork it spectacularly in the splendid surroundings of the King’s Theatre. I should point out that this is an amateur production but, like many of the community shows here, it makes you want to find a better word than ‘amateur’ to describe what’s happening, because it’s genuinely dazzling.

The musical follows a cohort of successful applicants through their time at the New York High School of Performing Arts (a genuine establishment with incredibly exacting standards). There’s Tyrone (Rory McLeod), strutting and dancing up a storm, but hiding the fact that he’s dyslexic. There’s Carmen (Caitlin Tipping), bold, brassy and struggling to control a fatal fascination with the street drugs that keep her dancer-thin. There’s Nick (Reuben Woolard), already the star of a peanut butter TV commercial, but desperate to prove himself as a genuine actor, and there’s Serena (Melissa McNaught), a shy girl with a huge voice who finds herself a little bit fixated on Nick.

But perhaps it’s unfair to single out individuals – although Mabel (Sarah Kerr)’s singing is so impressive it gives me chills – because the whole company performs with such aplomb. Choreographer Murray Grant has somehow schooled one hundred and sixty (count them!) young actors into giving the performances of their lives – they jump, twirl and pirouette around the crowded stage with perfect precision and during the song  Dancing On The Sidewalk actually burst off the stage and through the audience in a display of infectious enthusiasm that nearly lifts the roof off the theatre. This is a thrilling production and director Gerard Bentall should really take a well-deserved bow for helming this complex piece so expertly.

The show’s only on for one more night at the King’s but, if you can get seats for it, I’d advise you to grab them. If the pizzazz and energy from tonight’s performance could be bottled we’d all live an extra ten years – and with great big smiles on our faces too.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Death of a Salesman

20/06/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s no doubting the power and tragic beauty of this Arthur Miller play: I remember its strength from sixth-form English lessons; even reading around the classroom, it seemed to come alive. On stage and film, I have always found it utterly compelling, a desperately sad – and sadly desperate – illumination of our times.

Okay, so the specifics are late-forties New York, but Willy Loman is an everyman, and his predicament still common to those of us who live in capitalist societies around the world.  We are sold a dream: we are in charge of our own destinies. Work hard, and you will get somewhere. Compete, and you can be the best. Buy these products; owning them will show others what you’re worth. But for Willy, the dream he’s bought in to is crumbling: he isn’t great; he’s ordinary. And he’s lost his edge. He’s a salesman who no longer sells, and corporate America spits him out. Willy is outraged to discover he’s been had, and rails against the boss that now deems him obsolete: “You can’t eat the orange, and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” But his rage is impotent: the odds are stacked against him. Howard does indeed discard him, and Willy is left bereft, forced to confront the reality that his life has been a sham. His house is small and crumbling; his children haven’t changed the world. He can’t even grow beets in his yard, for pity’s sake. And now, when he’s old and tired, he’s left frantic and worried: how can he make ends meet?

This touring production (by Royal & Derngate, Northampton, in association with Cambridge Arts Theatre) has a thoroughly modern feel. It’s not that the period has changed, exactly, it’s just been made less prominent. The minimalist stage, with its fizzing neon illumination – THE LAND OF THE FREE – gives an eerie sense of transience and flimsiness. Costumes are subtly contemporary in style; Howard’s voice-recorder is tiny and looks like today’s technology, but there’s no suggestion it has more than one function. Howard’s reaction to this piece of kit is illustrative too: Thom Tuck (last seen by Bouquets & Brickbats as the excellent Scaramouche Jones) is delightfully brash and insensitive, showing off about how much money he’s spent on this vanity item, even as he refuses to grant Willy a living wage. “Ask your sons,” he tells Willy, blissfully unaware of his own hypocrisy. “Now’s no time for pride.”

Nicholas Woodeson is perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality. We are frustrated by his refusal to accept a job offer from Charley (Geff Francis), but we understand it too: Howard is wrong; Willy’s pride is all he has left. The anger that spills out of him in response to Linda’s concern is utterly convincing too: he doesn’t want her to worry about him, to prop him up because he’s down. He wants her to be impressed by him, and he’s self-aware enough to know she pities him these days. Tricia Kelly plays Linda with real heart; her anguish, although quieter, is every bit as real as her husband’s, and her epilogue speech is delivered with unbearable dignity. It makes me weep.

I think it’s the direction that makes this production so good: Abigail Graham has done a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. We know what they’re all feeling, and can’t help but empathise, even when they’re behaving as badly as they can. Indeed, George Taylor’s dysfunctional Biff is the most fully realised I have ever seen. Infidelities, theft, cruelty: none of these are hidden from our view. Because flawed people are people too, and we’re all deserving of respect.

This is a superb production of a truly great play. It’s on at the King’s until 24th June, and the tour continues elsewhere until 15th July. I urge you to try to catch it if you can.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

The Wedding Singer

06/06/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ll be honest, I’m not expecting much of The Wedding Singer. Its tagline (“The Hilarious Musical Based on the Hit Film”) seems designed to put me off: I didn’t much care for the film and am suspicious of anything that calls itself funny. Still, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to give stuff a chance; joy is often found in the most unlikely places.

And The Wedding Singer is really very good. It’s an energetic, riotous show, with some great set pieces and strong performances throughout. The tone is set before the lights go down, with a skewed cinema screen projecting trailers from 1980s classics: there’s The Goonies! Oh, and Desperately Seeking Susan! It’s a real nostalgia-fest, and makes one thing absolutely clear: this is a period piece.

And it needs to be, because the unquestioning conformity to gender roles would surely raise an eyebrow nowadays. Girls just want to get married, you see; they like dresses and rings and crockery. As for homosexuality, it’s the punchline to a lot of jokes in this play – and I don’t think that would fly in a contemporary piece, however affectionate the quips. (Maybe it shouldn’t work here either, but the crowd seems to lap it up; surely some of them are feeling as uncomfortable as I am though?)

Despite these issues, this is undoubtedly a feel-good musical with a lot of heart. It’s easy to engage with the two main characters, Robbie and Julia, who are played with warmth and good humour by Jon Robyns and Cassie Compton respectively. Both have lovely voices, ideally suited to the songs they sing. They make a delightful pair.

Ray Quinn, as Julia’s love-rat fiancé, Glen Gulia, is a standout: his dancing in particular is really impressive. And Ruth Madoc’s turn as Robbie’s young-at-heart grandma, Rosie, is the stuff that comic dreams are made of: sure, it’s a pantomime-ish caricature of a role, but her evident enthusiasm for the sheer silliness of it all is absolutely catching.

So yeah, if you’re after something to make you ponder, to broaden your understanding of the world, then this probably isn’t the play for you. But if you’re up for an evening of unabashed fun, then make your way to the King’s Theatre, and prepare to feel the buzz.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Mikado

09/05/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Sasha Regan’s all-male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are undoubtedly very good indeed: we saw and enjoyed HMS Pinafore last year at the Lowry, and tonight’s Mikado is equally assured. The conceit is similar: in Pinafore the men were sailors, performing to entertain themselves, this time they are boy scouts, play-acting in the woods – and thus the lack of women is explained. But is it justified?

In some ways: yes. The performances are uniformly strong, and the direction is sprightly and engaging. The set design (by Ryan Dawson Laight) is delightful, evoking a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like sense of magical unreality. It’s fun and it’s funny, accessible and entertaining. We thoroughly enjoy ourselves.

But it’s an odd thing to do, isn’t it? There are few enough parts for female actors, without appropriating those that do exist. Sasha Regan’s assertion that “the fact that we have men dressed as women is silly enough” doesn’t really tell us anything. Of course, there is a fine tradition of drag on the British stage, but I have to confess I’m not convinced it serves much purpose here.

Still, despite this reservation, there is much to admire. Alan Richardson’s portrayal of Yum-Yum is really rather lovely, while David McKechnie’s Ko-Ko is the comedic highlight of the piece. Richard Baker’s piano is faultless – I’ll never cease to be impressed by a one-person musical accompaniment to shows as demanding as these.

In short, this is a high quality piece, with commendable production values. I can’t pretend the all-male cast isn’t a problematic idea, but it doesn’t alter the fact that this is excellent theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Fiddler on the Roof

05/04/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Fiddler on the Roof premiered on Broadway in 1964, a whole seven years before I was born. And yet, even though it has existed longer than I have, and despite my theatre habit, I was almost entirely ignorant of this musical before tonight. I mean, I knew the title, and I was familiar with a couple of the songs, of course, but I knew nothing of the story or the characters. So I came to this modern classic almost entirely unprepared.

Most people probably already know what I didn’t: that the play is about a Jewish community, living precariously in the Russian Pale of Settlement in 1905. Their village, Anatekva, is a temporary safe haven, where, for the most part, people rub along quite well. Teyve (played with assurance and charisma by Alex Kantor) has just one big worry: how to find suitable husbands for his five dowry-less daughters. But times are a-changing, and he soon discovers that he needn’t trouble himself; his daughters are more than capable of finding lovers for themselves, whatever he may think of them. And, by and large, Teyve gloomily accepts his diminishing role as a patriarch, although Chava (Katie McLean) pushes things just a bit too far when she falls for Fyedka (Keith McLeod), a Russian youth. The Russians are the enemy.

Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production is very good indeed, the kind of polished amateur performance that gladdens the heart. Direction and music (by Ian Hammond Brown and Paul Gudgin, respectively) are proficient and adept, and the crowd work (choreographed by Sarah Wilkie) is beautifully done. The performances are uniformly strong; this feels like real ensemble work, but Libby Crabtree’s Golde is particularly good: an engaging interpretation of a fascinating role.

Standout moments include the nightmare scene, where Teyve constructs an elaborate lie to convince Golde to allow Tzeitel (Sally Pugh) to marry impoverished tailor, Motel (Fraser Shand). The choreography here is lively and inventive, and an absolute joy to watch.

And then there’s that devastating ending. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to reveal what happens when the play is so well-known. But, for me, it is a complete surprise, and a jolting one at that. I sit watching the villagers gather up their belongings as they are evicted from their homes, and I can’t stop the tears from falling. I’ve just spent ninety minutes getting to know these people; I’ve laughed with them, shared their gossip and their fears. And now they’re being exiled, sent to seek another home. The slow circular trudge around the stage feels like a never-ending sorrow. And how apposite a story for our times: this is what it means to be a refugee. Not a cockroach, a scrounger, a potential terrorist. Just this. People. In all their many guises. Sent away from all they know and love, and needing welcome somewhere new.

An excellent production of a truly moving play.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Anita and Me

28/03/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Meera Syal really knows how to spin a yarn. I read and enjoyed Anita and Me when it was first published, back in 1996. I watched the 2002 movie adaptation too, which was okay, although more superficial than the source novel. So I am interested to see this musical stage production, which is a collaborative effort by The Touring Consortium Theatre Company and Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

And it’s a lively, energetic piece, with an animated central performance from Aasiya Shah as Meena. The story of a young British-Indian girl, coming of age in a time of overt racism, is nicely told. There is anger here – Meena’s fury at local heart-throb Sam’s bigotry and ignorance, for example, and her refusal to allow him to get away with saying “I don’t mean you; I mean those other ones” – but there is humour, sadness, and forgiveness too. Sam’s anger is misdirected, but it’s understandable. He’s at the bottom of the pile, and he’s just lashing out. Far more important is Meena’s internal struggle to come to terms with who she is and who she wants to be.

It doesn’t work as well as the novel: the brush strokes are too broad and the nuances are lost. Without Meena’s internal monologue to temper our impressions, we’re left with a lot of stock characters behaving in predictable ways, declaiming their positions in loud, stagey voices. The Black Country accents feel overdone; it all needs toning down a bit. The novel has the same naivety, but it’s more credible on the page, when it’s told from a ten-year-old’s point of view. Here, we see the adults on their own terms, not Meena’s, and they are just too exaggerated to convince. It’s a shame, because the amplification hides the heart.

Despite this, there are some lovely moments, and some strong performances. Shobna Gulati and Robert Mountford, as Meena’s parents, give the subtlest characterisations, and these are easiest to believe. Nanima is a gift of a comic role, and Rina Fatania clearly revels in it. Meena’s sung letters to agony aunts Cathy and Claire are a nifty device, allowing us some insight into how she feels. And the set is impressively detailed, with some clever scene changes incorporated.

All in all, this is an enjoyable show, with much to recommend it. But it’s not as good as the book.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Cuttin’ A Rug

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

07/03/17

It’s 1957, a Friday night and, in Paisley Town Hall, the annual staff dance of carpet manufacturers, AF Stobo & Co., is about to kick off in style. All the usual suspects have arrived for the do: the teddy boys and the ready girls, the starchy ex-army boss of the design room, the out-of-his-depth University student. There’s also an aging dowager still steadfastly looking for love, a bluntly spoken tea lady – and let’s not forget ‘weedy Hector’, newly promoted to the role of designer and proudly dressed in his Uncle Bertie’s dinner suit. It promises to be an eventful evening.

This is the second part of John Byrne’s ‘Slab Boys’ trilogy (originally known as Paisley Patterns), first performed at the Traverse Theatre in 1979 and revived here by Glasgow’s iconic Citizens Theatre. It’s unashamedly a period piece, performed in broad Glaswegian dialect and punctuated with lively shots of rock n’ roll. It pinpoints an era, a few years before the Beatles changed the world, when American music still dominated the airwaves. As the protagonists talk and drink and dance and drink and fight and drink, the events become increasingly frenetic, as old rivalries rise to the surface and the Town Hall’s electricity supply becomes ever more erratic.

In all honesty, this production is a little one-note; there’s no real change of pace or tone at any point in the proceedings. But this is made up for by the enthusiasm of the performances. I particularly like Anne Lacey’s turn as the tragic Miss Walkinshaw, dressed in outmoded clothes and drunkenly lamenting the various ways in which life and romance have unerringly passed her by. Ryan Fletcher is also assured as snappy dresser Phil, a role first played by one Robbie Coltrane. Whatever happened to him?

If you know the era and you can handle the salty dialogue, this ribald, saucy comedy might just be the play for you. It’s on at the King’s Theatre until the 11th of March.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney