Jesus Christ Superstar

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1977 musical Jesus Christ Superstar has come back to the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park to round off the season, after an initial successful run last year. I tend to try and limit my theatregoing to things I haven’t seen before, so I wasn’t originally going to see this production, but it got such good reviews that I gave it a go anyway. I’m really glad I did.

The score sounds marvellous out here in the park – you could almost be attending a rock gig. The production, directed by Timothy Sheader, emphasises the show’s rock concert roots, as the characters use handheld microphones and sometimes stand and perform to the audience. The other musicians are visible on stage, at the back of designer Tom Scutt’s set, which works well with the production and incorporates a large cross.

Declan Bennett is a superb Jesus, and he conveys the character’s conflict really well, at times seeming almost tired of his followers, and desirous of a bit of peace and quiet. Tyrone Huntley returns as Judas and all the positive things I’ve heard about him are true: he’s marvellous, in both singing and acting.

I was impressed, too, with Maimuna Memon’s Mary Magdalene and the assorted supporting cast. Peter Caulfield’s Herod was hugely entertaining but his over-the-top performance seemed a tad out of place during the tense second half: a flaw of the show itself, rather than this production.

The strength of the show – and as a non-believer I’m aware there will be many who disagree – is that you can get a lot out of it whether you are religious or not. The ending is genuinely moving and this production makes the most of it. It also asks important questions about the nature of power and authority, and the role of belief.

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Five Guys Named Moe

I bought my ticket to Five Guys Named Moe several weeks ago without really knowing anything about it, so it was with excitement and a little bit of apprehension that I headed down towards the purpose-built Marble Arch Theatre. The space evokes the blues and jazz culture of the 1930s and 40s, which, as it turns out, reflects the show pretty well.
The plot follows one man, Nomax (Edward Baruwa), who after splitting with his girlfriend is drowning his sorrows in drink. All of a sudden, out of his radio appear five men: Big Moe (Horace Oliver), Little Moe (Idriss Kargbo), Know Moe (Dex Lee), Four-Eyed Moe (Ian Carlyle) and Eat Moe (Emile Ruddock). The Moes proceed to teach Nomax various lessons in love and encourage him to get his girlfriend back.

That’s pretty much it; but the thin book by Clarke Peters is just an excuse for a joyous evening of song and dance, using the music of jazz musician and trailblazer Louis Jordan. I must admit I’d never heard of him, but I recognised several of his tunes, which are performed wonderfully by the talented cast. There is even some audience participation, which I normally shy away from, but here I was so caught up in the show that I was happy to join in the conga line out of the auditorium that signified the interval.

Performed sometimes in the round and sometimes on the stage at the back of the room, this is a dynamic show that makes full use of the space inside the gorgeous theatrical tent, cleverly designed by takis.

Five Guys Named Moe is an uplifting show that is definitely worth seeing. It’s running until next year, and I’m really tempted to make another visit, perhaps in January to chase away the winter blues.

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.

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.

Blondel

Blondel is a musical I’d never previously heard of, but after the Union Theatre announced their production of it recently, the more I heard about it, the more interested I was. Written by Tim Rice, Tom Williams and Stephen Oliver, it’s the story of a musician at the court of King Richard the Lionheart. Richard famously goes off to the crusades, taking with him Blondel’s sweetheart, Fiona, leaving the balladeer to deal with the usurping Prince John. Eventually Blondel decides to leave England in search of both Richard and Fiona, not knowing that he is being pursued by a deadly assassin (Michael Burgen).

The best thing about the show is undoubtedly the quartet of singing monks (David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville) – I would be happy to watch a show featuring just them. I also loved JamesThackeray’s camp Prince John – his anthem ‘No Rhyme for Richard’ is one of the highlights of the show, as is the Assassin’s hilarious introductory number. Neil Moors is suitably regal as King Richard, while Jessie May’s Fiona is strong-willed and determined. Connor Arnold does a great job as Blondel himself, with charm and a great voice, but it doesn’t help that the character himself is a bit bland and he basically has one song, which gets a bit repetitive after a while.

The whole thing rather put me in mind of the 80s and 90s BBC classic Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. In fact, Robin Hood does make an appearance in this story, though he’s very much a peripheral character. The show has been updated somewhat, with bits of social commentary and nods to other musicals, and I don’t think you’d be able to get a better production of it anywhere. Blondel has its flaws, but it’s also great fun.

Curtains

I’ve seen several good productions by the Mitre Players, including their last summer’s musical, The Clockmaker’s Daughter. I was impressed with that, and considering I was curious to see the musical Curtains – rarely performed in the UK – it wasn’t a difficult decision to go and see it.

The show was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the partnership responsible for Cabaret, Chicago and The Scottsboro Boys. It has a book by Rupert Holmes. Curtains is a comedy murder mystery set in a theatre. No one is particularly grief-stricken when the less-than-talented singer and actress Jessica Cranshaw is killed at the curtain call of the opening night of a musical. However, the mystery needs to be solved nevertheless, particularly when other members of the cast and crew start getting bumped off. There are some fine performances and several memorable songs in what proves to be a hugely entertaining show, another triumph for the Mitre Players.