Whistle Down The Wind

I went to see this production at the Union Theatre in Southwark on a last-minute whim, being at a loose end one Sunday afternoon. This is NOT the Andrew Lloyd Webber version, but an earlier adaptation of Mary Hayley Bell’s novel by Russell Labey and Richard Taylor, with music and lyrics by Taylor. Here, it is directed by Sasha Regan; the production was originally performed in 2015 and has been revived for 2019.

Whistle Down The Wind is the story of three children who find a man hiding in their barn who they believe to be Jesus Christ. Frankly it sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but the production manages to make this odd deduction somewhat plausible. Jesus, and religion, are on the minds of these motherless youngsters (they are being brought up by their dad and their aunt on a rural Lancashire farm in the 1950s) and it makes an odd sort of sense to have him turn up in their vicinity. What the children don’t know, though, is that ‘Jesus’ is an escaped convict, and is being hunted by by the local police.

There is much that is poignant in this show, which is incredibly moving regardless of your views on Christianity. There are also moments of humour, most notably during the school Nativity play towards the end. The music is beautiful and superbly sung by all involved, particularly during the ensemble numbers featuring the young cast in chorus.

Of the cast, Sadie Levett particularly stands out as Cathy, the eldest of the three children, naive without being annoying. Juan Miralles as the mysterious man in the barn conveys a complex personality hidden beneath a grumpy exterior, and there is an amusing turn from Eoin McKenna as the tense local vicar.

Overall, a profound and memorable production, which I’m glad I made the effort to see.

The Boy Friend

The Menier Chocolate Factory are known for their quality productions of classic works, and I was excited when I learned earlier this year that they would be producing Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend. Wilson wrote the book, lyrics and music for this show, which first premiered in 1954, and was designed as a pastiche of 1920s shows such as those by Rodgers and Hart.

The setting is the town of Nice on the French Riviera; Polly Browne attends Madame Dubonnet’s finishing school. The daughter of a millionaire, Polly has been taught by her father to avoid boys as they will only be after her money, so she has resorted to inventing a boyfriend in Paris. Secretly she remains lonely, until a messenger-boy walks in to deliver her dress for that evening’s ball. Meanwhile, her school chums keep their own boyfriends on tenterhooks, and their teacher rekindles a romance of her own. I found myself thinking that the discipline of the school seemed pretty lax: though set in the twenties, this is a show with a more modern sensibility.

The show should be incredibly annoying. Its message that girls aren’t happy unless they have a boyfriend is ridiculously outdated, and the central plotline is pure “poor little rich girl” (as one of the characters actually says). But it’s all done with such charm that you don’t care. As Polly, Amara Okereke oozes wide-eyed innocence without being irritating, and her teacher, the marvellous Janie Dee, is superb. There are some excellently choreographed set-pieces, and glorious costumes, especially during the final act’s fancy dress ball.

The music is toe-tapping and memorable, with key comic moments coming from the supporting characters, especially Hortense the maid (a fabulous Tiffany Graves) who sings a song about it being “so much nicer in Nice,” and Tony’s parents who duet on an amusing number about falling in love when you’re older.

In these cold, dark, depressing times, it’s good to enjoy a bit of escapism, and The Boy Friend is perfect for this purpose.

Classical Spectacular

Almost five years to the day since my auntie first took my cousin and me to the Classical Spectacular at the Royal Albert Hall, she took us again, during the show’s 30th anniversary.

As before, the show included a range of classics from the repertoire as well as indoor fireworks and multicoloured lasers. So much fun.

ORFF O Fortuna from Carmina Burana
STRAUSS Also sprach zarathustra
TCHAIKOVSKY Sleeping Beauty Waltz
VERDI Grand March from Aida
SOUSA Semper Fidelis
RAVEL Bolero
ELGAR Nimrod
DENZA Funiculi, Funicula
HANDEL Hallelujah Chorus
GOUNOD Soldier’s Chorus from Faust
WAGNER Prelude to Act III Lohengrin
VERDI Brindisi from La Traviata
PUCCINI O soave fanciulla from La bohème
MASCAGNI Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana

Also: Rule Britannia!, Nessun Dorma, Land of Hope and Glory and
1812 OVERTURE

The Man in the White Suit

The Man in the White Suit, which opened at Wyndham’s Theatre in September, is sadly closing early, so I went along to see it before it goes. The show is based on the Ealing comedy from 1955, and tells the story of Sidney, an inventor working in a textile manufacturing town who is trying to create the ultimate fabric: one which repels dirt, doesn’t need washing and doesn’t wear out over time.

After a number of failed experiments, Sidney succeeds, but he finds his work isn’t particularly appreciated by the townspeople. With the help of factory owner’s daughter Daphne, he tries to escape and bring news of his wonderful new fabric to the world.

The show is billed as a lighthearted comedy but I kept thinking that it is really an indictment of capitalism: the factory owners don’t want the new fabric once they realise it will put them out of business, the workers don’t want it because they fear losing their jobs. And so progress and innovation are suppressed in the interests of money.

On a lighter note, the show, directed by Sean Foley, is a pleasant and entertaining couple of hours, with entertaining skiffle songs. Stephen Mangan as Sidney and Kara Tointon as Daphne make an appealing pair, and Sue Johnston also makes an appearance as Sidney’s landlady. Rina Fatania as a fierce factory worker and Richard Cordery as an industrial magnate also impress.

There is an inventive set by Michael Taylor with plenty of old-school special effects. I also, ironically for a show about a miracle fabric, spent an inordinate amount of time admiring Kara Tointon’s outfits.

The Man in the White Suit isn’t a particularly groundbreaking piece of theatre, but it makes for an enjoyable experience and there are worse ways to spend a cold evening in London.

Vassa

“Our family doesn’t get on,” remarks Vassa during the third act of her titular play at the Almeida. It’s something of an understatement: the work sees this ruthless matriarch treat her children with contempt, plot the murder of her sickly but slow to die husband, and be the catalyst for any number of conflicts within the family.

Gorky’s play, originally titled Vassa Zheleznova, was first published in 1910 but not performed until 1936, having been rewritten in 1935 (this production sticks with the earlier version). Tinuke Craig’s production, using Mike Bartlett’s adaptation, updates the action to the modern day, but the sentiment remains the same. For all that the play is set in a late-capitalist world on the verge of revolution (which we are reminded of at the beginning of the evening), the action takes place in a domestic setting, and every character in the show is connected to Vassa by blood, marriage or servitude.

Despite the dry farcical tone of the production, which at first entertained me greatly, the second act started to drag and seemed to lose momentum. It isn’t a long play, either, so this was worrying. There were so many characters it was sometimes hard to keep track of who was who, although Siobhan Redmond as Vassa maintained a strong and commanding presence.

Fly Davis’s set made the versatile Almeida a traditional proscenium arch theatre, three sides bounded by smart wooden walls and containing a well-to-do yet functional office space. The flowers strewn across the floor during the third act made a particularly dramatic impression.

Overall, I didn’t love Vassa, but it’s another Russian work to add to my list.

Read Not Dead: The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington

The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington is a 1598 play written by Anthony Munday, performed as part of the Read Not Dead series at the Globe. This year the performances have been focused on the Robin Hood legend, and Munday’s play along with its prequel has been credited as the first to identify Robin Hood with the Earl of Huntingdon.

The sequel to The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington didn’t quite reach the heights of the first play, but it was entertaining nontheless. The title gives away much of the plot, though Robin dies fairly early on, leaving the rest of the play to focus on Marian (Matilda) and her struggles to escape from King John.

Red Palace

I’m a huge fan of immersive theatre, and I was excited at the thought of experiencing Shotgun Carousel’s new show Red Palace at the Vaults Theatre beneath Waterloo Station. Inspired by fairy tales and, loosely, Edgar Allan Poe, the show is a magical experience with a distinctly adult flavour.

There is the option to begin the evening with an elaborate dinner, but I didn’t go for that. Instead, I joined the rest of the “rabble” in the ballroom, where the prince joined us and declared that he was celebrating the 1000th day of his reign. When he first took the throne he visited a seer who prophesied that he would die on this day, killed by a “red sickness”, so he wiped out the sickness from the forest and settled back to enjoy his reign…

From here the audience divides, visiting four different spaces in random order throughout the next couple of hours. There are five spaces and only four choices, so choose wisely. I didn’t get to visit the Gingerbread House, but I did get to see the mermaid in the bath house, Baba Yaga (the Seer) in her hideaway, Snow White in her boudoir and most importantly, the forest (where I definitely recommend you go, wherever else you end up).

I loved the idea that the show was about women from fairytales seen in a different light, taking revenge on men who had wronged them. Each set-piece was beautifully designed and atmospheric, reminding me of the similarly-immersive Alice’s Adventures Underground that I visited a few years ago. There is a core script but plenty of opportunity for ad-libs and audience interaction, which is what keeps this kind of theatre interesting.

My only criticisms of the piece are that the final scene, back in the ballroom, ends rather abruptly, and crowd control could have been better during the changeover between scenes. Overall, I loved this show and would definitely recommend it to immersive theatre lovers.