Sunny Afternoon

I’m never quite sure about jukebox musicals: really, I’d rather see an original show with brand new music. And when the jukebox musical in question is based around music from a band I know next to nothing about, that’s another reason not to bother. However, after hearing about Sunny Afternoon‘s Olivier win and how well received it’s been by fellow bloggers, I began to change my mind and was very grateful to be able to see it courtesy of OfficialTheatre.

The musical, which premiered at Hampstead Theatre, has music and lyrics by Ray Davies, founder member and songwriter of the Kinks, and charts the band’s rise to stardom during the 1960s. With very little knowledge of the band’s music, I wasn’t sure what to expect but it really appealed to me: I loved the songs I already knew, like You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night, as well as those I didn’t, such as Waterloo SunsetLola and the title track itself. The cast played their own instruments alongside a talented on-stage band, giving a raw, energetic feel to the show.

The development of the band is seen through Ray’s eyes, and we learn more about his life than that of any of the other band members: the sister who gave him his first guitar, only to die shortly afterwards; his marriage; and his state of mind as expressed in the lyrics of the songs he writes. John Dagleish won an Olivier for his portrayal and I’m not surprised: he had charm and stage presence, a strong voice and a likeable vulnerability. During the interval, someone behind me said, “he’s the one from Lark Rise to Candleford, isn’t he”, and it gave me a shock: of course it was him, but I hadn’t recognised him at all, his character was so different. George Maguire also won an Olivier for his supporting role as brother Dave, and his was my favourite character of all: his wildness summed up in a scene in which he swings from a chandelier wearing a pink dress. The duet between the two brothers in Act II was a highlight for me: poignant and heartfelt, it perfectly captured their chemistry. Drummer Mick Avory (Adam Sopp) and bassist Pete Quaife (Ned Derrington) get less stage time, which is a shame: I would have liked to find out more about them. Still, their supporting performances add considerably to the show, as do those of Lillie Flynn as Ray’s wife Rasa, who demonstrates a beautiful singing voice, and a talented ensemble cast.

Directed by Edward Hall and with a book by Joe Penhall, the piece has warmth and shows how the band’s songs were rooted in their own experiences. I was intrigued to learn how they fell foul of the unions during a tour of the US, and I thought the piece did well in exploring the contradictions between the band’s socialist views, their upper-class managers and their desire – particularly Ray’s – to retain control of and the income from the music. The band members fight and make up as befits a rock band; I was expecting some kind of tragedy to occur but this didn’t happen – this is very much a feel-good show. I thought the book was a little uneven, with a second half that dragged slightly, but for me this was a minor issue.

As previously mentioned, I don’t have much knowledge of the Kinks so I can’t comment on how accurate the portrayals of people and events in Sunny Afternoon are, nor how the versions of the songs presented here compare with the originals. Taken on its own merits, however, this is a great show with great music – even if you’ve never heard it before – and a strong cast. One of the better jukebox musicals to hit the West End in recent years, it’s an electric night out.

The Vote (More4)

Looking back on election night, the highlight of what turned out to be a thoroughly depressing evening was the live TV stream of The Vote on More4. The play, showing at the Donmar Warehouse, was unusual in that it had a preview period of a couple of weeks followed by only one “official” performance night, streamed live on the television. I hadn’t bothered to enter the ballot for preview tickets as I knew I would be spending the first week of May in the North East with family. However, I was determined to watch it from the comfort of my sofa, even though it meant persuading my parents to let me have control of their TV for an hour or two.

Created by writer James Graham and Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke, The Vote, which is played out in real time, is set during the last hour and a half of voting time in a south London polling station. The staff, including presiding officer Steven (Mark Gatiss) and polling clerks Kirsty (Catherine Tate) and Laura (Nina Sosanya), are overseeing proceedings, which see a huge number of actors, some famous and some unknown, pop in to play members of the public casting their votes. Most notable are Hadley Fraser as an extremely drunk would-be voter and the young teenage girls coming to cast their votes for the first time: one comments that the paper-and-pencil voting method is somewhat “retro” while another gets out her iPhone and asks, “Siri, who do I vote for?” I must admit that this made me feel particularly old!

The farcical plot involves an older gentleman (Timothy West) who somehow manages to cast his vote twice, leading to the increasingly frenzied attempts of Kirsty and Nina to nullify his vote in some way, breaking every rule in the book. I haven’t always been Catherine Tate’s biggest fan, but she is very funny as the inventive Kirsty, and the elaborate use she makes of coloured jelly sweets to represent votes is increasingly comic. Her on-stage relationship with Nina Sosyana as Laura is believable and the two also work well with the always-good Mark Gatiss, whose professional demeanour comes under increasing pressure as the evening goes on.

A highlight for me was the presence of Judi Dench towards the end of the play, alongside her real-life daughter Finty Williams. The two play a mother and daughter with the same name who live at the same address; circumstances mean that only one of them will be able to vote, but who will get the chance? Paul Chahidi, an actor I last saw in the excellent all-male Twelfth Night at the Globe, is also on top form as a one-issue independent candidate.

Watching the play on television felt very strange to me at first. The picture quality wasn’t great and at the beginning I felt rather detached from the action. The ad breaks didn’t help either, though I admire the efforts of those involved in the production to ensure that special scenes not necessary to the whole plot were inserted to cover them, so that we TV viewers didn’t come back to the play mid-sentence. As the evening went on, I began to feel more comfortable with what was going on and by the end I was really enjoying myself. Well done to the Donmar and to More4 for coming up with such a novel idea. I’m sure it’s not the last time something like this will occur.

By Jeeves

Originally created as Jeeves in 1975, a collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Alan Ayckbourn (lyrics), and rewritten in 1996 as By Jeeves, this musical was performed by Thistles Musical Theatre Company at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford. Being a Lloyd Webber completist, I knew I wanted to see this, particularly as I love Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. The show is based on various stories, particularly The Code of the Woosters.

The setting is a village hall, where Bertie Wooster is called upon to make a speech and play his banjo. When his banjo goes missing, the ever-reliable Jeeves orders another and fills up the time before it should arrive with stories of Bertie’s exploits. Village residents “become” the characters in Bertie’s story, and the props, used imaginatively, are taken from the hall.

With a talented cast and a number of good tunes (I recognised the melody of one of the songs from the earlier The Likes of Us) including “Banjo Boy” and “It’s a Pig”, as well as a witty book staying true to the spirit of the original Wodehouse stories, I found By Jeeves to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

A Mad World My Masters

Updating Shakespeare’s contemporaries is a tricky business. Sometimes it fails – as in the RSC’s recent version of The White Devil, a classic by John Webster. However, in this raucous version of A Mad World My Masters, an early Jacobean play by Thomas Middleton, the updated 1950s Soho setting courtesy of Sean Foley works wonderfully, keeping the spirit of the original work while capturing the atmosphere of half a century ago.

This RSC joint production with English Touring Theatre comes to the Barbican as part of a national tour, a couple of years after it premiered in Stratford. I was sorry to see that the theatre was relatively quiet, particularly as this would be a perfect play to introduce Jacobean theatre to teenagers, who might be under the impression that old plays are stuffy and boring.

The plot centres on the adventures of Dick Follywit who is trying to get hold of his uncle’s fortune. This proves an excuse to show us disguises, cross-dressing, a gleefully over-the-top seduction scene and various forms of trickery, culminating in a final scene fancy-dress party which sees the cast clad, rather wonderfully, in Jacobean garb. Characters rejoice in subtle and not-so-subtle names like Sir Bounteous Deersucker and Mr Littledick. I have never heard so much innuendo in any play, old or new.

The majority of the text is Middleton’s, which I was grateful for: I don’t believe in updating language for the sake of it, preferring that the staging and acting of a play should be responsible for ensuring its clarity. However, there are several well-chosen modern interjections, most notably a reference to the “angry young men” of the Royal Court Theatre in the 1950s. These sit easily alongside the original language.

Atmospheric musical interludes, daft physical comedy and an anarchic atmosphere ensured that, for me, this play was a great success. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I found it fresh and funny.

Saturday Night

I visited the Watermans Centre in west London to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s very first musical, Saturday Night. Performed by students of the BA in Musical Theatre at the London College of Music/University of West London, it was an enjoyable treat: I recognised some of the talented students from the last production I attended here, Just So.

Saturday Night has a book by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, and is based on their play Front Porch in Flatbush. Due to open on Broadway in 1954-55, it was not staged owing to the death of the producer, and did not premiere until 1997, at the Bridewell Theatre in London. It is set in New York in 1929 and follows a group of middle-class bachelors who live for Saturday nights, going out dating and socialising. Gene, an ordinary young man who dreams of the high life, is one of them, but his ambitions are bigger. While trying to crash a society party, he meets Helen – who is trying to do the same thing – but their relationship is threatened by Gene’s plans to get rich quick.

While this is clearly an early work, the show does have several catchy tunes and flashes of Sondheim wit. The story is entertaining, though, knowing about the Wall Street Crash, I thought the outcome would be worse than it actually was. I was rather irritated with the lead character, Gene, who stole a relative’s car and cheated his friends with hardly any consequence at all. Nevertheless, it was a fun show and I’m glad I was able to tick this early Sondheim piece off my list.

Follies in Concert

After thoroughly enjoying the A Little Night Music concert staged at the Palace Theatre earlier this year, I was keen to see another Stephen Sondheim musical, Follies, at the Royal Albert Hall. Craig Revel Horwood’s staging transformed the beautiful and ornate Hall into an old and decrepit vaudeville theatre, with four dressing room mirrors, complete with lights, framing performances and standing in for scenery. I was right at the top of the Hall and to one side, but overall my view was pretty good, if a bit distant. I had my opera glasses handy for close-ups.

Follies, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by James Goldman, tells of a reunion between a number of former vaudeville stars, gathering together under the auspices of manager Dimitri Weisman before their theatre is knocked down. Being unfamiliar with the plot, I found it slightly confusing but a number of performances stood out, particularly those of a tap-dancing Anita Dobson, a defiant Lorna Luft and a powerful Betty Buckley as they recall their days of grandeur. The chief storyline, involving four performers with tangled love lives joined on stage by their younger selves, involved stars as diverse as Russell Watson, Alistair McGowan, Peter Polycarpou, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Alexander Hanson. This aspect of the show was pretty complicated, and it took me some time to work out who was who, and which of the younger stars was representing which older character.

Nevertheless, Sondheim’s skill was in evidence and the bittersweet, romantic and memorable musical numbers were pretty powerful. I think this is a show I’d appreciate more in a smaller setting, with more time to appreciate the characters and their nuances, and i suspect it is one that would reward further listening. Nevertheless, this evening was a good introduction to Follies for me.

Death of a Salesman

Over the last year or so, Arthur Miller has become cemented in my mind as one of my favourite playwrights, so I was very much looking forward to the RSC’s new production of his classic 1949 play Death of a Salesman. I was not disappointed.

Miller’s tale of one man’s American Dream-turned-nightmare remains highly relevant, and it’s father-son dynamic echoes last year’s Henry IV and next year’s forthcoming King Lear. Antony Sher and Alex Hassell work well together as Willy Loman and his son Biff, both in the present-day scenes and the “flashback” scenes which see Willy reminiscing about the time when his children were young and the future looked bright.

Sam Marks gives a good performance as the younger Loman son, and Harriet Walter is superb as Mrs Loman, perhaps the quiet heroine of the piece. Greg Doran’s staging is effective on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s thrust stage, a house on two levels separating the boys’ bedroom from their parents’ space, and a raised area used effectively for scenes which take place away from the Loman house.

Like many of Miller’s other plays, Death of a Salesman is a modern-day tragedy, and I found myself profoundly affected by this production. It transfers to London shortly, so get yourself a ticket if you haven’t already.