Big The Musical

Big, the 1988 movie starring Tom Hanks, is yet another classic film I’ve never seen. However, this didn’t stop me going to see the musical, currently showing at the Dominion Theatre. With music by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and book by John Weidman, it first premiered in 1996.

The plot sees a young boy, Josh, about to turn thirteen, make a wish via an Eye of Zoltar game, asking to be “big”. The next morning, he finds he has got his wish, as he has somehow transformed into an adult. Escaping his house, where his mother doesn’t believe he is actually her son, he ends up getting a job at a toy factory and falling in love with fellow employee Susan.

It all sounds promising, yet personally I found it overwhelmingly dull. The story seemed clich├ęd, even though I’ve never seen the movie before, and the music was forgettable. The show as a whole was overlong, and yet seemed to end surprisingly abruptly.

It wasn’t all bad: the sets were impressive, even if I wish there had been fewer projections. The performers, including Jay McGuiness, Kimberley Walsh, Matthew Kelly and Wendi Peters, were talented and did their best with the material on offer. One song, in which Susan’s friends meet and size up her new boyfriend Josh, was funny and unexpected and reminded me of Alan Ayckbourn in terms of its suburban satire.

Overall, though, I was incredibly bored and was glad when it was all over. I’m still curious to see the original film, to see why it is viewed as such a classic, but I’ve no interest in seeing this musical again.

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Read Not Dead: The Captain

The latest Read Not Dead organised by the Globe Theatre was unique in taking place at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch. The Captain, by John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, first published in 1647, was directed by James Wallace and staged to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Richard Burbage.

First staged in 1612, the play starred Burbage, who is buried in this church.
The play focuses on Captain Jacomo, a rough ‘old soldier’ with whom a young gentlewoman, Frank, is in love. Her brother and friends try to break off the match, with interesting results. Meanwhile, a wealthy widow, Leila, turns her aged father out on the streets, where he is found by Jacomo and dressed in a new suit of clothes, with shocking consequences.

While being complicated to follow, the play was amusing and interesting, with a strong cast. As Jacomo, Robert Mountford is full of character, hugely entertaining. If a full production of this play is ever staged, I hope he stars in it.

It’s always good to see Read Not Dead out and about, and this church made a particularly atmospheric venue.

Bartholomew Fair

“Give me the Pikachu!” isn’t a line I expected to find in a production of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, the 1614 city comedy set during a raucous summer fair in Jacobean London. This modern-dress production by Blanche McIntyre has much to recommend it, but I was left feeling deflated.

Apparently, there were plans for this production to take place all around the Globe environs and Bankside, but for various reasons this couldn’t go ahead. It’s a shame, because it feels somewhat constrained within the walls of the Globe’s indoor playhouse venue. Even the Globe itself would have been a better bet: at least it would have been in the open, as opposed to a dark indoor space where the candles that normally illuminate the action, but which would have been completely unsuited to this play, have been sacrificed in favour of dull electric light.

Nevertheless, the way the space has been transformed is impressive: most of the pit seating has been removed, with a jutting staircase creating plenty of space for the action to take place. The production expands further on the space by having the actors wander all over the auditorium, commenting on the on-stage action from the upper gallery or climbing down from the lower one, apologising to any audience members in their way.

I confess I found it hard to follow the plot, which featured several interesting characters on their way to Bartholomew Fair, including cutpurses, real and feigned madmen, religious fanatics and a judge in disguise. Fight scenes take place with regularity, including one in which one unfortunate is battered with a giant cuddly Pokemon toy (hence the aforementioned Pikachu comment), but there are sobering assault scenes too, showing the dark side of such unbridled behaviour.

The cast, many of whom play more than one character, are superb but I felt myself wishing I could follow the play better. Some of my favourite scenes included the introductory prologue and the puppet show, the latter of which was definitely not original. I would be curious to see another production of Ben Jonson’s play, just to compare, but I did struggle with this one.

Doctor Zhivago

The musical Doctor Zhivago, last seen on Broadway in 2015, had its UK concert premiere at Cadogan Hall on Sunday 1 September. As a huge fan of the book and TV series, I was very excited for this. Not to mention that it starred Ramin Karimloo.

Karimloo plays Zhivago himself, an impoverished aristocrat who trains to be a doctor and also happens to be a poet. Zhivago marries Tonya, daughter of his adoptive family, but falls in love with Lara, a nurse whom he meets when both are treating wounded soldiers during World War I. Lara is searching for her husband, the revolutionary Pasha, who will play an important part in the pair’s story as they are caught up in the events of the Russian Revolution.

All the performers are superb, particularly Karimloo himself, whose amazing voice is on fine form, and Celinde Schoenmaker who plays Lara. Kelly Mathieson is also excellent as Tonya, while Charlie McCullagh impresses as the revolutionary Pasha. Matthew Woodyatt was also superb as the corrupt lawyer Viktor Komarovsky.

I loved the music, and the orchestra sounded glorious – amazing considering they had apparently received the score only the day before. Composer and lyricist Lucy Simon and Amy Powers were in the audience and got a well-deserved standing ovation when they were brought on stage at the end. The narration by Lucy Drever was very helpful, making sense of the complex events, and if events sometimes jumped around a bit, I can probably put this down to the inevitable shortening of the book for a concert such as this.

I sincerely hope Doctor Zhivago returns to London in a full production, as I’d love to see the show fully-staged.

Appropriate

US writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has already received acclaim for two of his plays in the UK: the funny and subversive An Octoroon and the unexpected Gloria. Appropriate is his latest work, shown for the first time at the Donmar in a production by Ola Ince.

In some ways it’s a typical family drama. A family of three adult children plus spouses and kids descend on the house formerly belonging to their recently deceased father. Tensions abound and resentments surface, particularly where oldest child Toni is concerned, while youngest son Franz is seeking forgiveness for his former drug addiction.

What’s impressive about this play is that Jacobs-Jenkins manages to bring in a wider sense of history, namely the racial history of the segregated south. Early on in the play, Franz and his girlfriend River casually remark on the slaves’ graveyard by the lake. Much of the tension hinges on the discovery of some haunting photographs of lynchings; there is much debate over whether it is appropriate for the younger members of the party to see the photos, and discussion over whether it is possible to sell them for thousands of dollars. No one seems to realise the true horror of the pictures for those who appear in them, or think how inappropriate it would be to make money out of them. Similarly, the family finds it hard to imagine that their father was involved in these events, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One hopes that when the youngest member of the family runs downstairs wearing a Ku Klux Klan mask they finally realise.

In a strong cast, Monica Dolan particularly stands out for her portrayal of oldest sister Toni. Resentful and abrasive, Dolan manages to make her sympathetic. Fly Davis’s set fills the stage with furniture and other bric-a-brac, and there are some impressive special effects in the latter half of the play that make you think the house remembers its traumatic past, even if none of the family members do.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is one of the most exciting new playwrights I’ve come across, and next time one of his plays reaches the UK, I’ll definitely be there.

Black Men Walking

With the increased awareness of Black British history of recent years, Black Men Walking, written by Testament, directed by Dawn Walton and presented by Eclipse Theatre Company, is a timely theatrical production.

Thomas, Matthew and Richard are members of a walking group that takes to the hills of South Yorkshire on the first Saturday of every month. We join them on one of their walks as they seek escape from their everyday lives. Teacher Thomas is concerned with history, seeing their walks as a political act, reclaiming the land where their ancestors walked millions of years ago. IT worker Matthew, just returned from a Star Trek convention, is debating whether to attend his father’s funeral back in Ghana, while doctor Richard is preoccupied with his work and marriage.

The play is very political, concerned with racism and identity, especially when the group encounter a young woman on their walk. The aspiring MC has views of her own and in one interlude relates the story of one particular racist encounter she endured. The play makes the point that experiences are different for everyone, but the audience found a lot to relate to, judging by the nods and noises of agreement throughout. It’s not all serious though – there are plenty of humorous moments.

I’d definitely recommend this play, whether it is related to your own experiences or whether, as with me, it offers you a different perspective. It’s engaging and thought-provoking.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

After the incredible Julius Caesar last year, I was excited at the prospect of another immersive Shakespeare production at the Bridge Theatre. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also directed by Nicholas Hytner, and allows audience members to move freely in the pit, observing the action from close up.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t lend itself to crowd scenes in the way that Julius Caesar does, but by and large the production succeeds. The atmosphere of this production is dreamlike and magical – at least, once you get past the opening scenes, featuring a buttoned-up Duke (Oliver Chris) gloating over his prisoner Hippolyta (Gwendoline Christie). Once the lovers Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and Lysander (Kit Young) make their escape into the forest, the space is filled with beds wrapped in greenery (beautifully designed by Bunny Christie) and acrobatic fairies who perform feats of agility over the audience’s heads (choreographed by none other than Arlene Phillips).

An interesting choice in this production was to switch the roles of Titania and Oberon, giving Titania’s lines to Oberon and vice versa. So it’s Gwendoline Christie’s queenly Titania who orders the punk-like Puck (David Moorst) to play a trick on Oberon, and Oberon who falls in love with an ass, in the form of a transformed Bottom (the excellent Hammed Animashaun). The scene with the pair in a golden bath filled with bubbles is particularly memorable.

The lovers, sometimes the least interesting part of the production, are here very impressive. My favourite was Helena (a hilariously sarcastic Tessa Bonham Jones), whose love for Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) leads her to head into the forest after him as he chases Hermia.

The play is full of energy and entertainment, particularly the play-within-a-play towards the end which features, among other things, a lightsaber. After the cast take their bows, two giant moons are loosed into the audience and there is time to dance and take in the awesomeness of this production: I hope the immersive Shakespeare tradition at the Bridge continues for many years.