Must-See Musicals DVD Collection

For someone who loves musicals, I really haven’t seen many filmed versions. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve seen The Sound of Music, for example. Last Christmas I asked for a box set of Must-See Musicals in an attempt to rectify this.

The set consists of 15 classic musicals in a striking yellow box, spanning the years from 1933 to 1962. It was great to be able to watch some musicals that I’d only ever seen on stage, including 42nd Street, Meet Me In St Louis and Singing In the Rain, as well as High Society, Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Calamity Jane and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

Some of them I wasn’t all that keen on. I thought On Moonlight Bay, April In Paris and Love Me Or Leave Me were a little bit dull, and A Star is Born was spoilt by being a full-length version including stills that had been added in without sound, really taking you out of the movie.

There are no extras (apart from A Star Is Born) and there’s nothing to suggest the films have been restored in any way – but if you just want the films you can’t go wrong. On balance, it’s a great collection for anyone wanting to improve their knowledge of classic musicals.

Venus and Adonis

As you might expect from a collaboration between the Little Angel Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company, Venus and Adonis is simply superb. This puppet show for adults tells the story of this classical pair in an approachable, accessible way.

Shakespeare fan as I am, I’ve found his longer poetry quite challenging, but here it’s brought to life. The poem is narrated by Suzanne Burden as it is acted out by puppets against the backdrop of a miniature proscenium arch.

The puppeteers manipulate the puppets perfectly: Venus’ coquettish nature and Adonis’ shy refusal are perfectly portrayed. There are occasional appearances from animals, including a pair of horses, a hare that bounds among the audience, and a fearsome boar. The show is simply a delight, and I kind of wish it hadn’t ended.

Disco Pigs

I must admit, it was the presence of Harry Potter’s Evanna Lynch that drew me to the 20th anniversary production of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs. She’s chosen a challenging play for her West End debut – the two-hander is a complex piece and, performed on a near-empty Trafalgar Studios 2 stage, there’s nowhere to hide.

The play is about two teenagers, known to one another as Pig and Runt, who are born on the same day and grow up next to each other. They develop a intensely close friendship with their own language and a somewhat disturbing mutual dependency. It begins in a Beckettian fashion as the pair recount being born, but as they grow up their inner world becomes more and more worrying and their adventures, as they explore the neighbourhood and go disco dancing, are shown to have a dark side.

The language is rich, hard to follow at first but once you get into the rhythm you can follow what is going on even if you don’t understand every word. It’s an intensely physical play, and both Lynch and her co-star, Colin Campbell, give it their all. They are both excellent and entirely convincing.

Set in the nineties, there’s a great soundtrack and some entertaining dancing – which means that when things get darker it’s all the more shocking. Almost inevitably, the pair begin to grow apart, with Lynch’s Runt coming to the realisation that she wants more from life. As events move towards their tragic conclusion it’s impossible not to root for her, even as you sympathise with Campbell’s Pig, who comes to realise Runt is growing away from him.

The play is fairly short but manages to pack a punch. Despite the Nineties setting it’s certainly not old-fashioned and it still feels fresh. I don’t think I expected to enjoy it as much as I did, but my verdict is positive.

Bat Out of Hell: The Musical

Exploding motorbikes! Animatronic bats! Wobbly handheld cameras! I heard Bat Out of Hell: The Musical described as We Will Rock You on acid, and as being worthy of both zero stars and five stars at the same time. These are both pretty fair comments. The London Coliseum, normally the home of English National Opera, has been transformed. The dramatic dystopian set creeps into the auditorium. As you take your seats, projections flash up on the screen in front of you explaining the plot.

Said plot is fairly ludicrous and overly complex. As you enter you are handed a newspaper which explains what’s going on with various characters: presumably so that the show itself doesn’t have to waste time on such trivialities as plot and motivation. Basically there is a rich businessman with a daughter, Raven, who is about to turn eighteen. Raven is fascinated by ‘the Lost’, a group of outsiders who for some unknown reason reached their eighteenth birthdays and stopped ageing, and with one particular gang member, their leader Strat. Predictable conflicts ensue. Much of the plot detail is frankly irrelevant, and characterisation is poor, with characters changing their minds from scene to scene. It’s easy to see that the musical is designed to appeal to older people who remember the Bat Out of Hell album when it was first released: Raven and Strat take them back to their younger days, while Raven’s parents, played by Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton represent them as they are now, getting older, worrying about their child, and thinking with nostalgia of days gone by. Actually I found the parents the most interesting couple in the show: Raven came across as a spoiled brat and Strat was pretty creepy, sneaking into Raven’s bedroom and spying on her in the manner of Edward Cullen. Thinking about it, the whole idea of ‘the Lost’ remaining eighteen forever is pretty vampiric, and the dialogue is fairly Twilight, too. I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Despite all of these problems, it’s impossible not to be swept away by the energy of the show. Jim Steinman’s songs – many of them Meatloaf classics – are perfectly suited to a musical setting. The hugely talented cast, including Christina Bennington as Raven and Danielle Steers as Zahara, do them full justice. The standout for me was Andrew Polec as Strat, whose voice was simply incredible.

Big budget has obviously been thrown at the elaborate set, although I wasn’t too sure about the handheld camera productions. The whole thing is performed with a knowing wink to the audience, with cast members using handheld microphones at times as if they were at a proper music concert. One scene particularly stuck in my mind: Raven pushes a car off the stage into the orchestra pit, and soon angry orchestra members clamber out, waving their broken instruments in chagrin.

It’s overblown and ridiculous, but Bat Out of Hell is also huge fun and unmissable for anyone who likes cheesy musicals and overblown rock.

Retro Reviews – London 2011

You may (but probably don’t) remember that several months ago, I posted that I was going to start posting ‘retro reviews’ of productions I’d seen in the past. My plans have changed slightly: I don’t think it’s viable to post long reviews of any of these, as I simply saw them too long ago, so instead I’ve written a sentence or two about each production. I’ve focused on the productions I saw after I moved to London in 2011, but before I officially started this blog at the end of the year.

After Troy, Glyn Maxwell after Euripides, The Shaw Theatre, 28 March
This was the first play I saw after moving to London, over a month after I arrived. My friend invited me to see it. It was based on Euripides’ The Women of Troy and Hecuba by poet Glyn Maxwell.

The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov, Olivier, National Theatre, 19 May
My first experience of the National Theatre, I loved this production of The Cherry Orchard starring Zoe Wanamaker.

Cause Celebre, Terence Rattigan, Old Vic, 21 May
Rather an odd play to be my first Rattigan, but I enjoyed this, inspired by the trial of Alma Rattenbury, starring Niamh Cusack.

As You Like It, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 22 May
My first Globe production since moving to London, this version of As You Like It was set in the nineteenth century and was lots of fun.

Pygmalion, Bernard Shaw, Garrick Theatre, 26 May
This production starred Rupert Everett and Kara Tointon, and I really enjoyed it.

Rocket to the Moon, Clifford Odets, Lyttelton, National Theatre, 28 May
I basically went to see this play because I found out that it starred Joseph Millson, who I used to have a major crush on in his Peak Practice days, and I wanted to see if he was a good stage actor. Yes, is the answer, although I don’t remember much about this play.

All’s Well That Ends Well, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 29 May
Not my favourite Shakespeare play, but given a good performance at the Globe.

The 39 Steps, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, rewritten by Patrick Barlow, Criterion Theatre, 30 May
I thoroughly enjoyed this long-running comedy, so much so that I went to see it again before it closed.

Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward, Apollo Theatre, 9 June
Later overshadowed by the production starring Angela Lansbury, this earlier version was my first encounter with the Noël Coward play.

Ghost Stories, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, Duke of York’s Theatre, 10 June
I booked to see this after some friends recommended it. I found it quite spooky, but very clever.

Flare Path, Terence Rattigan, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 11 June
I took my mam to see this one, because she loves anything to do with World War II. I enjoyed this 1942 play, too, and though that Sienna Miller and Sheridan Smith did a good job.

The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol, Young Vic, 14 June
I brought a friend along to see this famous Russian comedy, given a modern twist by director Richard Jones. Julian Barratt gave a good performance, although it wasn’t until recently when I went on a tour of the Young Vic that I realised Louise Brealey was also in it.

Betrayal, Harold Pinter, The Comedy Theatre, 15 June
It seems apt that the first play I saw at the Comedy Theatre was by Harold Pinter, as it was subsequently renamed the Harold Pinter Theatre. Betrayal is the story of an extra-marital affair told back wards, and Kristin Scott-Thomas and Lia Williams swapped roles every night.

The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 23 June
My first experience of the Open Air Theatre was to see John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a wild romp through eighteenth century London with a surprisingly modern ending.

Richard III, William Shakespeare, Old Vic, 26 June
Kevin Spacey starred as Richard III in this Old Vic production and I thought he was brilliant, wonderfully villainous. I’ll never forget the image of him blowing a party popper collapsed into a chair.

Cymbeline, William Shakespeare, Tabard Theatre, 29 June
This was my first experience of Cymbeline, and it was pretty interesting.

The Railway Children, E Nesbit, adapted by Damian Cruden, Waterloo Station Theatre, 30 June
I loved this and it nearly made me cry. Incredibly charming with an unforgettable appearance from a REAL STEAM TRAIN.

Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater, Adelphi Theatre, 1 July
The story was a bit dodgy, but I adored the music. Also, this was notable for being the first time ever I saw Ramin Karimloo on stage.

Emperor and Galilean, Henrik Ibsen, Olivier, National Theatre, 5 July
This was… very long. That’s all I really remember about it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 7 July
Funny, clever, thoroughly enjoyable.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 9 July
My first experience of Hamlet at the Globe. Not the best Hamlet I’ve ever seen, but decent enough.

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Globe, 14 July
Eve Best and Charles Edwards together on stage. An intensely joyous production.

Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 July
An intriguing and unforgettable production.

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare, Wyndham’s Theatre, 4 August
A decent effort by David Tennant and Catherine Tate, but it didn’t compare to the Globe’s version.

Anne Boleyn, Howard Brenton, Shakespeare’s Globe, 9 August
Thoughtful, engrossing play about Henry VIII’s second wife.

Journey’s End, R.C. Sherriff, Duke of York’s Theatre, 15 August
Incredibly powerful and moving.

South Pacific, Rodgers & Hammerstein, The Barbican, 22 August
I thoroughly enjoyed this, a lovely old-fashioned musical.

Betty Blue Eyes, Stiles & Drewe, Novello Theatre, 25 August
Quirky and very British. Amazing animatronic pig.

Chicago, Kander & Ebb, Cambridge Theatre, 27 August
Loved this, very well done with some great tunes.

Shakespeare’s Globe Mysteries, Tony Harrison, Shakespeare’s Globe, 29 August
The Globe was the perfect venue for this kind of medieval-style play.

Dreamboats and Petticoats, Playhouse Theatre, 31 August
A jukebox musical, but pleasant enough.

Billy Elliot, Elton John and Lee Hall, Victoria Palace Theatre, 3 September
I’d wanted to see Billy for ages and I loved it.

Betwixt!, Ian McFarlane, Trafalgar Studios 2, 6 September
Small-scale hugely enjoyable musical.

A Woman Killed With Kindness, Thomas Heywood, Lyttelton, National Theatre, 8 September
This is another one I don’t remember all that much about.

Million Dollar Quartet, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, Noël Coward Theatre, 13 September
Enjoyable and surprisingly moving musical.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 15 September
This was possibly one of the worst Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen, even though on paper it should have been a good one.

Yes, Prime Minister, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, Gielgud Theatre, 20 September
This one was pretty funny, and I wasn’t disadvantaged by not having seen the original TV show.

Ghost: The Musical, Bruce Joel Rubin, Piccadilly Theatre, 1 October
I went to see this with my auntie and I enjoyed it more than I’d expected to.

The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart, 25th Anniversary Performance at the Royal Albert Hall, 2 October
This was brilliant, one of my most unforgettable theatrical experiences.

Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce, adapted by Emma Reeves, Aldwych Theatre, 20 October
Quite enjoyed this play.

Crazy For You, George & Ira Gershwin, Novello Theatre, 10 November
‘New’ Gershwin musical, this was nostalgic and fairly enjoyable.

Antony and Cleopatra

From Julius Caesar to Antony and Cleopatra. This second play takes place several years after Caesar but is very different in tone. The link between them both is Mark Antony, far removed from the cunning soldier and politician of the earlier play, an ageing warrior now more concerned with drinking himself into oblivion in Egypt in the company of its queen Cleopatra than in keeping order in the Roman Empire.

Iqbal Khan’s production uses the same set as Julius Caesar, with gorgeous props and costumes conveying the splendid nature of the Egyptian court. His productions always seem to use good music, too: here it’s composed by Laura Mvula.

Antony Byrne did a good job as Antony. At first I was unsure about Josette Simon’s Cleopatra. She seemed far too over the top, petulant and childish. Thinking about it, though, I realised that this portrayal is entirely supported by the text. By the end I had warmed to her and her final scenes were very moving.

Whereas Egypt is often contrasted with dour and serious Rome, this production made clear that Rome was every bit as drunken and full of revelry as Egypt, an interpretation which I found interesting. What also fascinated me was how the play, often seen as a tragedy, combined the two in a way I normally associate with the nineteenth century works of Chekhov. The scene in which Cleopatra pulls up a dying Antony to her mausoleum, causing him untold agonies, manages to be both hilarious and moving.

This production complemented Julius Caesar well and will stick in my mind for a while. Antony and Cleopatra was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the 2002 production starring Sinead Cusack that was performed in Newcastle. This one restored my love for the play, which is one of my favourites, and is definitely worth seeing.

Julius Caesar

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the RSC’s Roman season, consisting of two of my favourite Shakespeare plays and two plays that I would like to get to know better. I headed up to Stratford this summer in order to experience the first couple of these plays, beginning with Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, perhaps because I studied it at school and therefore have a bit more understanding of it (I hope). Based on the real-life assassination of the first Roman Emperor, Shakespeare’s tale is a timely one that raises questions about power, democracy, the voice of the mob and the role of rhetoric.

Angus Jackson’s production is set firmly in the original Roman era; having already seen a very different RSC production in recent years, set in Africa, I thought this provided a nice contrast. I thought the setting brought home the significance of the feast of Lupercal at the beginning of the play, and made me think about how an original audience might have responded to this play, which even then was set in a time many years before.

There was no one particular actor who stood out for me, with the exception perhaps of Martin Hutson’s memorable Cassius. Having said that, I thought they were all strong: James Corrigan in particular made Antony’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech sound fresh. This production really emphasised how Antony is a soldier, not a politician, and how unexpected his speech would have been. I wasn’t convinced by Alex Waldmann’s Brutus at first, but his understated performance grew on me. In a very male-dominated play, Hannah Morrish shone as Brutus’ wife Portia, the first time I’ve actually wished the character had more to do.

This was a solid production of a fascinating play that explored the themes with clarity and was highly enjoyable.