Bring It On

Bring It On is Southwark Playhouse’s summer musical, the 2012 show based on the 2000 film and with music and lyrics by Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda. With a book by Jeff Whitty, the production features students from the British Theatre Academy. I really hope there are a few casting directors in the audience, because these young performers really impressed me.

Bring It On is the story of a cheerleader, Campbell, who successfully leads her squad to qualify for the national cheerleading championships. However, when she is forced to move schools and attend a high school where cheerleading is ignored in favour of more modern dancing, she is faced with the prospect of giving up on her dream. Can she convince her new friends to embrace her favourite sport, and in the process take revenge on the girl who engineered all her problems?

Though based on a Noughties movie, this is a modern teenage tale, body positive with an awareness of race and class issues, and an acknowledgement that, as Campbell’s Jackson High love interest points out, your teenage years won’t seem so important in the years to come. Campbell is encouraged to embrace friendship and experiences over winning – an oft-told tale, but delivered with an appealing freshness.

There is an absolute wealth of talent here: Robyn McIntye as Campbell is sincere and likeable, while Kristine Kruse as her geeky friend Bridget (my personal favourite) is warm and funny. Isabella Pappas is hilarious as the popularity-conscious Skylar, while Sydnie Hocknell as the sweet but manipulative Eva is very funny, especially during her individual number which features performers in unicorn onesies. At Jackson High, Chisara Agor, Mary Celeste and Matthew Brazier are superb as the key members of the hip-hop dance crew.

The choreography is dynamic and impressive, although it is inevitably restricted by the small space of the theatre. It’s easy to spot Lin-Manuel Miranda ‘s songs, as they have that recognisable toe-tapping energy, but the other contributions by Tom Kitt and Amanda Green are good too.

I had so much fun at this show and I would definitely recommend it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve just seen some of the stars of the future, too.

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The Boatswain’s Mate

“That overture was an absolute joy,” I overheard one gentleman say while leaving Arcola Theatre’s tiny Studio 2. The audience had just witnessed a performance of The Boatswain’s Mate, a little-known opera by Ethel Smyth, performed by Spectra Ensemble as part of the Arcola’s annual Grimeborn festival. While I agreed with this random man’s pronuncement, it would be more accurate to say the whole thing – not just the overture – was an absolute joy.

Ethel Smyth was a composer and suffragette (she is responsible for the suffrage anthem ‘The March of the Women’, the music of which is woven into this very overture), the first female composer to have an opera performed at the Met. I read her ‘Memoirs’ earlier this year and was pleased to have the chance to experience one of her works. Her most famous opera is perhaps The Wreckers, but The Boatswain’s Mate, which she composed after a period of campaigning for women’s suffrage, shows how her style had developed into her own distinctive voice.

This comparatively short piece has the kind of farcical storyline beloved of opera composers. The widowed Mrs Waters (Hilary Cronin) runs a small public house by the sea, fiercely insisting on her independence and rejecting every offer of marriage from retired seaman Harry Benn (John Upperton). When Benn meets former army man Ned Travers (Shaun Aquilina), he hatches a plot: if Travers breaks into Mrs Waters’ house in the middle of the night, Benn can rush in and save her, leading to the landlady’s undying gratitude and the realisation that she cannot possibly live without a husband. However, it seems as though Benn has underestimated his would-be bride, and things do not go according to plan.

This sparkling opera was great fun to watch, partly thanks to Smyth’s own libretto, partly because of the talented cast performing it. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much at an opera; the little touches in the penultimate scene were particularly funny, and I loved the comic policeman (Christopher Foster). The cast, both principals and support (Lily Evangeline Scott and Michael TK Lam), were superb, Hilary Cronin tackling a challenging part with passion and character, Shaun Aquilina charming as the ‘pretend’ burglar Ned, and John Upperton comic but sympathetic as Harry Benn. The company and director, Cecilia Stinton, have added another layer to the work by setting it in 1953, a time when equality was still a long way off and yet Queen Elizabeth II was about to have her coronation. The opera plays with gender roles by presenting and then overturning conventional expectations, and the setting certainly fits.

As far as the music is concerned, it is rich and varied, by turns rousing, amusing and heartfelt. Much of it has a humorous bent, and yet one of the most memorable arias is sung by Mrs Waters, and is heartbreakingly sincere.

I had planned to travel up and see my parents this week, but postponed the trip by a day so that I could see this production. It was worth it – it was brilliant, and I hope this production isn’t the last we see of it.

The Gin Chronicles in New York

I’ve seen the first three instalments of The Gin Chronicles, so I had to go and see the fourth, The Gin Chronicles in New York. In this episode, detectives John Jobling and Doris Golightly finally land in New York, where they come up against a group of gangsters who are posing another threat to the gin industry.

As always, the performers – four actors and a Foley artist – were impressive, each taking on a number of characters and switching accents at will. As usual, it was a hugely entertaining piece of theatre.

Othello

The chance to see Mark Rylance at the Globe is always a treat. This summer, he is starring as Iago and, as usual, brings a completely different take to the character.

This production of Othello is directed by Claire van Kampen, and judging by the costumes seems to be set in the early 1800s, a period which evokes memories of slavery that add another dimension to Othello. Yet as a play so driven by lies and deceit, it seems particularly appropriate for the modern ‘fake news’ era. Iago’s blatant lies and trickery – we first meet him as he informs Brabantio (William Chubb) that his daughter has run off with Othello, disparaging the general with racist and other unpleasant language, before acting like Othello’s best friend to his face – are shocking, even as he tries to get the audience on side.

I confess I was so excited about Mark Rylance I didn’t bother to check who else was in the production. Othello himself is played by André Holland, urbane, charming and polished, speaking in (his own) Deep South accent. His portrayal of a man driven mad by jealousy is heartfelt and strong. Jessica Warbeck as Desdemona does as much as she can with what is a really underwritten role, and is thoroughly convincing.

The character of Emilia runs through many of this summer’s plays, culminating in a new play of that name to premier at the end of August. This Emilia, played by Sheila Atim, is the strongest female character in the play, and Atim does full justice to her storming speech at the end. Another supporting character I loved was Roderigo (Steffan Donnelly), here portrayed as a nineteenth-century dandy, while Aaron Pierre lent a confident swagger to Cassio.

This production of Othello is unconventional but it really works. It’s probably my favourite Globe production of the season so far.

Ten Songs To Die For

I haven’t got round to seeing many Edinburgh Fringe previews this year, but one show I did manage to get to was Ten Songs to Die For at Tara Theatre. Performed by comedian Owen O’Neill, it is a cross between a stand-up show and a one-man play, as O’Neill uses music to mark notable moments in his life. From his childhood in Northern Ireland to growing up and moving to London, O’Neill regales us with stories of friends, girlfriends, family and running from the IRA.

O’Neill can tell a good story – I doubt if most people could create an engrossing show made up of anecdotes about their own family. Some of his anecdotes are very funny, as when he talks about his first acid trip; others have a different tone entirely, which is inevitable when you bring death into the conversation. Ultimately though the show is heartwarming, and particularly celebrates family.

I didn’t really know what to expect from this show, but I loved it, and would definitely recommend it to anyone heading up to the Fringe.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Performed at the Edward Alderton Theatre and directed by Keith Neville, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown is a musical based on the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. Originally performed in 1967 with a book, music and lyrics by Clark M. Gesner, it was revised in 1998 with additional music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and additional dialogue by Michael Mayer.

The show is more a collection of scenes than a coherent musical, taking stories from the comic strips and bringing them to life. The cynical adult attitudes of the young characters got wearing after a while, and I was a bit creeped out by the portrayal of Snoopy as a man in a dog costume (no reflection on the actors, who were very good), but overall I thought the show was fun, with some pleasant tunes and a colourful cartoon-style set.

Macbeth

After Romeo and Juliet I went to see the contrasting Macbeth: a production starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack and directed by Polly Findlay.  After the fairly dire National Theatre version, I had high hopes for this one and I wasn’t disappointed.

The tale of the Scottish thane tempted by a prophecy into murdering his king to indulge his ambition is a well-known one. This production of Macbeth brings out the darker aspects of the play – it is presented as a psychological horror. I don’t know whose idea it was to have the three witches played by three little girls in pyjamas clutching dolls, but it was a stroke of genius. They are super creepy and very impressive, considering they are so young. Another good move is suggesting that the Porter is in fact the Devil, watching over Macbeth’s every move. Played superbly by Michael Hodgson, his very presence is sinister, even when calmly vacuuming the floor. Sound and lighting reminiscent of horror movies further reinforces this impression.

Christopher Eccleston is a strong Macbeth, but Niamh Cusack is even better as his ambitious wife, sensual and calulating. There is the interesting suggestion that what pushes her over the edge is the news that Macduff’s children have been murdered – a nod to her presumed own lost child. I was also glad to see Edward Bennett again – his performance as Macduff as he hears the news of his family’s murder is heartbreaking.

Fly Davis’ set is used effectively, with a higher stage level used to emphasise the difference between the characters playing a role, on their best behaviour following the rules of court, while the ‘real’ stuff happens on the ground.

One of the most memorable and exciting Macbeths I’ve seen, this production is superbly well done and well worth seeing.