Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Woman in Black 25th Anniversary Tour - Swansea Grand Theatre - Saturday 23rd Feb

Now in its 25th year, The Woman in Black is a play I’ve revisited a few times. Generally, I’m more drawn to musical theatre than straight plays but there’s something about this play that keeps on pulling me back.

 With a cast of only two – Arthur Kipps and ‘the Actor’ – many first timers wonder how the story can possibly be portrayed effectively with so few cast members. If there’s one thing you don’t need to fear, it’s this. If anything, the lack of people on stage heightens the feeling of isolation which only adds to the atmosphere.

Kipps has sought out ‘the Actor’ to help him tell his story – a story that has haunted him since he visited Eel Marsh house many years before. He feels it is time to share it, and as the audience we are privy to this first, tentative retelling. We are, essentially, watching a play within a play. From the moment Kipps steps onstage and mumbles his way through the first few sentences of his memoirs, we sense his reluctance to tell his tale and this sets us on edge – we know the story to come won’t be pleasant. The tone has been set. 

Since setting the atmosphere is so important to get right for this show to work, the pace at the start can seem a little plodding. There are a lot of pauses and re-starts and although it is done quite amusingly  (Kipps is no performer) it takes a good 20 minutes for the story of the haunted Eel Marsh House and its tortured resident to begin.

One of my favourite things about this production is the interaction between performer and scenic/technical elements. As ‘the Actor’ explains to Kipps – simply play a track of birds and light traffic and, suddenly, we are outside in the day time. No need for explanation. In one scene, a costume hamper may play the part of a table in a stuffy office. In the next, it becomes a pony & trap with no more than a soundtrack of hooves and whinnies and the choreographed action of motion. At no point, though, do we question the authenticity of the object – in our minds, the hamper is the table or trap.

I found the second act to have a much quicker pace than the first as this is where the mere suggestion of the woman in black turn into actual hauntings and we are kept permanently on the edge of our seats (unless you're my nan, who was "so lovely and warm" in the theatre that she fell asleep!! - with all the screaming, I'm really not sure how).

The roles of Arthur Kipps and ‘the Actor’ were played by Julian Forsyth and Antony Eden respectively.  Forsyth gets to show off his versatility as an actor in this role – he starts out as a nervous, bumbling man, who, under ‘the Actor’s’ encouragement, progresses into a more confident performer, taking on the characteristics of the many different residents of the ill fated village of Crythin Gifford. Eden, on the other hand, is almost a parody of his profession as ‘the Actor’ - at times seemingly over the top in his enthusiasm but nevertheless enabling and encouraging Kipps in the unfolding of the story. I’ve seen the roles performed more subtly with previous casts and I do think subtle works best; these performers were skirting a little too close to getting swept away in the high tension for me and this has the danger of it becoming a little ridiculous. Subtlety of performance lends itself to a more believable ghost story.

However, I cant think of a more admirable demonstration of performance skill than when you find an audience scared for the fate of a dog who is nothing more substantial than suggestion and collective imagination. These two powerful components are expertly woven together throughout and the result is all the commendation this show and these performers need. Well, that, and it's a damn good ghost story that'll cause you to turn all the lights on when you get home.

Woman in Black is currently half way through its tour, so please check the official website http://www.thewomaninblack.com/tour/ for upcoming dates and venues.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Rock of Ages - Garrick Theatre - 4th Feb

What's going down home readers?

Rock may be dead as far as the charts are concerned, but inside the Garrick theatre it's alive and melting its audiences faces off.

It's strange that it's taken me this long to venture to the Sunset Strip considering my love for both musicals and 80s 'hair metal' or 'glam rock'. To rectify this I put it at the top of my shows to be seen in 2013 list and booked straight away as part of my birthday visit.

On a cold Monday evening in February the theatre was disappointingly empty but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm and spirit of the production. Sitting in my seat there was a sense that I was in a realm somewhere between victorian theatre and sleazy rock venue. Sure enough, I was sitting in the just-this-side-of-comfortable red plush seating with the politely ornate architecture delicately decorating the balconies and pillars. Yet pounding from the speakers was Def Leppard's 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' and headbanging ushers dressed in torn up clothing thrusted bottles of booze in an airpunch to the beat.

In front of me the interior of the Bourbon Room awaits it's occupants.

I'm not sure what the atmosphere of the show was like at its former home, the Shaftesbury Theatre, but I can't help but feel the intimate nature of the Garrick will only enhance the experience as it really does feel like you're there in the Bourbon Room waiting for the gig to begin.

The band walks on stage and kicks up a small offering of 'Welcome to the Jungle' before we are thrown straight into a busy shift at the club.

In this production many of the understudies were on including Tim Driesen as Drew and Cordelia Farnworth as Sherrie, who are the central characters in this story.

There's a lot to be said for the west end's understudies. So often people seem to think they're getting a second rate performance and this just isn't the case. The understudies are well rehearsed, equally talented and, often, better than the main cast (especially where stunt casting is employed). The understudies in this show are shining examples of how great they can be.

Driesen and Farnworth portray their characters with a degree of naivety, open heartedness and vulnerability while still having that steely rockers edge and sing with fantastically strong, unwavering voices.

Leanne Garretty played the feisty Regina in this performance and bounces hilariously off Sandy Moffat's Franz.

I wasn't entirely sure about Tim Howar as Stacee Jaxx but whether this is down to performer or character, I don't know. I watched the film version before seeing the show and I think I'd like to see a portrayal of the character that's somewhere in between these two very different versions. Tom Cruise's Jaxx has far more of the untouchable rock star about him but I like the confused and bewildered characteristic of the stage show incarnation. Perhaps it's Howar himself who doesn't give off that aura of elevated idol - which given that he actually belongs to real life rock band 'Mike and the Mechanics' should come naturally.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the one who, by all other standards, would usually lurk in the shadows of the story - Simon Lipkin as Lonny/Narrator. His camp stage presence has the audience crying with laughter and anxiously awaiting his next appearance. Should the narrator character carry a show this much? in the context of this particular show - without a doubt. He's more than just a narrator, after all, he is a character in his own right with a love story of his own brewing in the sidelines.

The thing I love about Rock of Ages is that it knows that to work well, it can't take itself seriously and it completely embraces this. Chris D'Arienzo has written a book that's so tongue in cheek that it mocks it's own story.

A serious night at the theatre this ain't. It's a rip roaring night of fun and air guitars, so don your big hair wigs, put on lashings of eyeliner, tear up your theatre attire and start headbanging in the aisles - whether you were there in the 80s or not, this show'll transport you straight back to a simpler but by no means quieter time.

If you'd like more information or want to book tickets, please go to the official website www.rockofagesmusical.co.uk 

While writing this review I got sidetracked by the song 'To Be With You' which had a strange resonance with me. I listened to the original on youtube and still had this weird feeling. Then it hit me - it was a song on one of the first albums I ever owned, 'Now 21' 21 years ago when I was 8! It was, obviously, on cassette and I had listened to it over and over. It just goes to show the power that music holds - so many years later it still managed to evoke a memory of the emotions I felt at the time. Suddenly, this feels like a very long time ago and I feel old - and nostalgic.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

A Chorus Line : First Night Previews – 5th February – London Palladium

Having recently attended my very first closing performance, this was another first for me. The first night of previews; a new production, never before seen. It was also my first trip to the Palladium.

Lots of firsts going on there.

After a little trouble finding the theatre, I finally got there 10 mins before the start. No problem, though – it was so packed with people the show went up late anyway by the time everyone had been herded in.

A Chorus Line has the slightly later start time at 7.45pm and I must say this 15 minutes makes all the difference – I much prefer it to a 7.30pm start. It just feels more manageable.

The audience had a much higher percentage of ‘young’ people (20s & 30s) than older people which is quite unusual. I’m not sure if this was because the show appeals to a younger demographic or if it was because there were certainly a lot of performers in the audience supporting their friends (I didn’t recognise any, incidentally, except for a girl who used to be in Hollyoaks).

The best thing about so many performers in the audience? - the atmosphere. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of such a lively audience.

The really unique thing about this musical is the lack of set. It felt quite odd to see such a huge stage so empty and yet this is what the reality of the audition process would be. There is nothing but a wall of mirrors upstage and a white line along the front – the chorus line.

In a musical so lacking the spectacle of effects and technicality, it must go right back to basics – back to what every show should really be about – the story. Each character has their own story to tell; why they’re here, how they got there etc. Such focus on the characters to deliver that story means the actors must have every nuance down to perfection. I don’t think I’ve been to a musical where I’ve listened quite so intently and watched individuals quite so closely.

And I’m happy to say that they all deliver. The performance is incredibly polished and shines under the stage lights. I can’t pick out any one performer in particular because that really isn’t the point of ‘A Chorus Line’. They are all equal – there’s no star because the process isn’t looking for a star. Even at the end of the production there is no build up to any one performer. They all come onto the stage in random order in a line singing the iconic ‘One’.

I will, however, pick my show highlight and that has to be the whole of the ‘Montage’ right in the middle of the show – the pace is good and we learn a little about a lot about all the characters in that 20 minutes or so. I particularly enjoyed Part 4 ‘Gimme the Ball’ where the chorus join Richie’s story in a high energy dance sequence and Part 2 – Diana’s song ‘Nothing’ (mostly because that’s a long time favourite of mine).

In contrast, my other show highlight is the much more subdued contemplation sequence, after the director, Zach, asks them ‘If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?’ a question that prompts the chorus line to analyse why they put themselves through it all, leading into the song ‘What I Did for Love’.

Something I didn’t realise before writing this was ‘A Chorus Line’ was inspired by tapes of true stories straight from the actual audition rooms of frustrated dancers. Not taken verbatim, of course but used as a jumping board in the lengthy workshop period that followed. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a ‘real’, sometimes quite dark, sense to it.   

This is a musical that strips away all the modern additions to musicals as we know them nowadays, down to the bare bones, until we’re left with ‘the music & the mirror’ almost literally. If you want to see a show that’s genuinely funny with strong character development and some frantic, high energy dance numbers then this is the one for you.

A Chorus Line officially opens on 19th February with previews up until that date. To find out more, or book tickets, please visit the official site http://www.achoruslinelondon.com/