Review: Cabaret at Laban Theatre

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome… to Cabaret, presented by final year Musical Theatre students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Written in 1966 by Kander and Ebb, the musical is set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis, and explores how easily good people can be taken in by clever propaganda, or choose to look the other way and ignore what’s going on around them. In light of all that’s going on in the world in 2018, this subject matter makes it, depressingly, a particularly timely choice for the students’ two-date showcase.

Photo credit: Trinity Laban Musical Theatre

American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Harry Newton / Michael McGeough) arrives in Berlin hoping to find inspiration for his novel. What he finds is the Kit Kat Klub, a nightclub overseen by the sinister Emcee (Barney Fritz / Jake Lomas), where Cliff falls for carefree English cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Jenny Coates / Amy Blanchard). Meanwhile, his landlady Fräulein Schneider (Hannah Macpherson / Hannah Qureshi) is enjoying a romance with another resident, Herr Schultz (Calum Rickman), but when her friends and neighbours realise he’s Jewish, she must decide if marrying him is worth all the trouble it would undoubtedly bring to her door.

For the majority of the 90-minute Act 1 Cabaret is very much a feel-good show, peppered with infectiously toe-tapping tunes and charting two charmingly unconventional new romances. It’s only as the first act comes to a close that we see through the Emcee’s carefully constructed facade and begin to understand what’s really happening, before a much shorter Act 2 hammers the message home with brutal efficiency. And immediately following Sally’s defiant performance of the show’s big title number, the deliberately off-key finale is unsettling – if not particularly shocking – as it forces the audience to re-evaluate all that we’ve just watched from a dark new perspective.

On a brighter note the production, directed by Karen Rabinowitz, was excellent, with confident performances from a talented young cast and stage band. It’s worth noting that most of the central characters were played by two actors over the two days; at the performance I attended, Barney Fritz absolutely owned the stage as the Emcee – intensely creepy but weirdly seductive, he quickly won the audience over with the opening number, and never looked back. Jenny Coates and Harry Newton were strong leads as Sally and Cliff (the former bringing the house down with her performance of Cabaret), but for me the more compelling of the two romances was that between Hannah Macpherson and Calum Rickman as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Despite playing two people much older than themselves, both were totally convincing in their roles, and utterly charming whenever they were on stage together.

Photo credit: Trinity Laban Musical Theatre

With slick choreography from Graham Newell and a simple but attractive set designed by Louis Carver, if you didn’t know then you’d be hard pressed to guess that you were watching a student performance. With the exception of rare – and always quickly corrected – moments of over-exuberance from the band that briefly drowned out the dialogue, there was little to set this apart from a professional performance; it’s certainly a show I’d happily recommend to anyone looking for a great night out. And it also offered a valuable opportunity to see a cast of exciting new talent, who I’ve no doubt will go on to own plenty of much larger stages in the future.

Cabaret was performed at Laban Theatre on 6th and 7th December. For details of future productions, visit trinitylaban.ac.uk/whats-on.

Review: Rock of Ages at the Orchard Theatre

Chris D’Arienzo’s 2005 jukebox musical Rock of Ages has a lot going for it: a soundtrack of epic 80s rock classics, a feel-good LA love story, and perhaps most importantly, an absolute refusal to take itself seriously at any point. Add in the universally fantastic cast of Nick Winston’s touring production, and – a little bit of questionable humour aside – you’ve got the recipe for a great show (but maybe leave the kids at home).

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The year is 1987, and wannabe actress Sherrie (Danielle Hope) has just arrived on the Sunset Strip, where she meets wannabe rockstar Drew (Luke Walsh), but their budding romance is endangered when actual rockstar Stacee Jaxx (Sam Ferriday) turns up. One thing leads to another, and as Drew’s getting discovered by a record producer, Sherrie ends up working as a stripper for Justice (Zoe Birkett) at the Venus Club. Meanwhile local legend Dennis Dupree (Kevin Kennedy) must defend his beloved bar from two Germans (Andrew Carthy and Vas Constanti), who want to tear down the Strip and replace it with a Foot Locker – a plan also opposed vehemently by former City Planner Regina (Rhiannon Chesterman). It’s a long and bumpy road, but in the end everyone gets what they want – even if they didn’t know it was what they wanted in the first place.

The story is nothing we haven’t seen plenty of times before, but Rock of Ages realises that and leans into it, understanding that nobody in the audience has bought a ticket for the plot anyway, so why not have some fun with it? Narrator Lonny – in a hilarious, show-stealing performance from Lucas Rush – does exactly that, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, openly acknowledging the formulaic nature of the story and turning it into a running joke that the audience is more than happy to go along with while we wait for the next rock classic.

And fortunately, we never have long to wait. We Built This City, We’re Not Gonna Take It, I Want to Know What Love Is, Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, I Can’t Fight This Feeling, Don’t Stop Believing… and so many more hits make it almost impossible to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. They’re also an excuse for the cast to showcase some sensational vocals; the show has an unusually large quantity of lead characters and without question, every single one of them delivers. Even the numbers that are clearly aiming more for comedy – like Lonny and Dennis’ duet in Act 2, or anything involving the Germans – don’t compromise on vocal quality. Barney Ashworth’s band are similarly excellent, and from a musical point of view, there’s absolutely no doubt that Rock of Ages is a resounding triumph.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The one area where the show falters a little is in some of the humour, which is not so much offensive as just a bit tired. For instance, it’s never really clear why the two property developers have to be German, except as an excuse to make cheap gags at their expense – and in a script that has so much good stuff going for it in terms of comedy, this doesn’t add anything and feels unnecessary. And yes, I know the show is set in the 80s, but the less said about its portrayal of women, the better. (To quote my friend at the interval, “It’s good, but you can tell it was written by a man.”)

All the same, Rock of Ages does what it sets out to do: it well and truly rocks, and does so in an engagingly self-aware way that some other jukebox musicals could definitely learn a thing or two from. Great fun for a cheesy – and slightly cheeky – night out.

Rock of Ages is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th November, before continuing on tour.

Review: Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue at Mid Kent College Theatre

The latest show from Kent-based Fluffy Top Productions’ is Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue about the highs and lows of… well, parenthood. With an original score and book by Emily Moody (who also directs) and Pete Moody, the production takes the form of a series of over 20 individual vignettes, exploring everything from pregnancy to becoming a grandparent. It’s predominantly a comedy, and paints a hilariously accurate – and often less than rosy – picture of life as a parent. But for all the mess and mayhem we encounter along the way, ultimately it’s a celebration of the journey and everything that comes with it.

 

That journey includes the sleep deprivation of the new mum, deciphering fridge doodles, competitive parenting, navigating the treacherous teenage years, waving the kids off to start their adult life… and lots, lots more. Each scene is enjoyable in its own right – many of them very much so, drawing howls of laughter from an audience who could clearly identify with the characters. The score, too, is catchy and fun (though very much adults only, due to quite a bit of bad language and a few dance moves that are best not witnessed by younger eyes). However, the “sketch show” format of the performance, which sees each scene end with a fade-out followed by a pause while the next one is set up, gives the evening a rather stop-start feel. This, along with the lack of any particular narrative flow or returning characters for us to invest in, means the show does begin in Act 2 to feel a little bit longer than it needs to be.

As a picture of parenthood, however, it’s spot on – or so I was reliably informed at the end by the ladies sitting next to me (their review of the evening: “that’s exactly what it’s like!”). Even for a non-parent, it’s clear that the comedy is very well-observed and brutally honest; much of the humour lies in the fact that the writers – who are parents themselves – aren’t afraid to say what they really think, instead of wrapping the experience of having children in excessive sentimentality. While that’s undeniably a good thing, the more reflective moments that do exist feel very few and far between, and the show could perhaps benefit from a little more emotion to balance things up a bit.

The cast of nine give strong comedy and vocal performances, despite being let down quite badly at the performance I attended by problems with the sound system. The show is very much an ensemble piece, and the variety of scenes provides each member of the cast with an opportunity to showcase their versatility, as they perform not only as a multitude of different characters, but also in a range of musical styles and some delightfully eccentric costumes (highlights include Astra Beadle’s show-stopping Superman/Princess outfit and Jordan Brown’s memorable appearance as a star in the school nativity).

As a brand new piece of musical theatre, Parenthood has much to recommend it, and with a bit of tightening up it has great potential for future development. There’s a lot to enjoy for parents and non-parents alike; the former will be able to recognise elements of their own stressful but rewarding experience, while the latter – like Auntie Jen in one of the musical numbers – can sit back, relax and revel in a childfree life of contraception and wine.

Parenthood – The (Brand New!) Musical Revue was performed at Mid Kent College Theatre from 15th-17th November. For details of future performances, visit fluffytopfriends.com.

Preview: Come From Away touches down in Europe

2019 looks set to be more than a little exciting in the West End, with Broadway hits Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress among the shows heading to London over the coming months. This week saw the European launch at Canada House of another American import: multi-award winning Come From Away, the story of a small town in Newfoundland that took in thousands of passengers stranded by the 9/11 terror attacks.

Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away will have its European premiere at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from 6th December to 19th January, before taking up residence at London’s Phoenix Theatre from 30th January.

On September 11th, 2001, as news broke of the terror attacks in the States, U.S. airspace was closed, leaving 7,000 people on planes with nowhere to go. Landing in Newfoundland, they were taken in by the residents of Gander, who had dropped everything to get the town ready, and worked tirelessly for five days to make their unexpected guests feel at home.

It’s hard to imagine how a musical inspired by 9/11 could be uplifting, but this heartwarming and universal story, which celebrates friendship, support and resilience in the darkest of times – not to mention the unique and infectious Newfoundland spirit – has been warmly received across North America since it was first performed in Ontario in 2013. “People around the world are hungry for stories about kindness,” said writer David Hein in a video message sent to the London launch, as he and Irene Sankoff prepared for the opening of the North American tour in Seattle. “We can’t wait to share it with the world.”

Directed by Christopher Ashley, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, the European cast includes former Wicked star Rachel Tucker as Beverley Bass, the first female captain for American Airlines, who was among those stranded in Gander. Starring alongside her will be Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon and Cat Simmons.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The London launch concluded with cast performances of three musical numbers from the show, and even after only two days of rehearsal guests were left in no doubt that we’re in for a treat when Come From Away touches down in Europe. Get booking now for this joyous celebration of the very best of humanity – in a world that often feels a very dark place, this is exactly the kind of story we need to be sharing, and I for one cannot wait.

Book now for Come From Away at Abbey Theatre, Dublin (6th December to 19th January), and Phoenix Theatre, London (from 30th January).

Review: Jekyll and Hyde at Chickenshed

Like the gothic novella on which it’s based, Chickenshed’s new musical adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde is short and to the point. Storming through Robert Louis Stevenson’s story in around 70 minutes (plus interval), Jonny Morton’s highly physical piece takes the original plot and adds a modern twist to the performance, along with a strong theme of social responsibility that feels particularly resonant today.

The studio space at Chickenshed has been transformed by set designer Constance Villemot into a smoky, dimly lit Victorian London street, where the poor huddle in corners while the more well-to-do go about their business, blind to the suffering around them. The story’s opening incident, which sees Hyde trampling a young girl in the street, has been upgraded in this version from a moment of carelessness to a deliberate and prolonged attack, which is observed but not interrupted by passing lawyer Utterson (Demar Lambert) and his companion Dr Lanyon (Finn Kebbe). Their chief concern in that moment is not for the nameless girl who’s beaten and left for dead in the street, but for their friend Dr Jekyll (Nathaniel Leigertwood), who they fear is being blackmailed by the perpetrator of the attack, Hyde.

Utterson’s anxiety grows when he’s informed by Jekyll’s household staff, led by butler Poole (Will Laurence), that their master seems changed – but it’s only much later that he learns the truth: Hyde is Jekyll, transformed by a potion of the doctor’s own invention into a villain. Over time, this side of Jekyll has seized control and gone on the rampage, climaxing at the end of Act 1 with the brutal, unprovoked murder of philanthropist Sir Danvers Carew (Ecevit Kulucan) as he tends to the poor.

Both Jekyll and Hyde are played by Nathaniel Leigertwood, and while he gives a good performance as both, it’s as the more interesting of the two – Hyde – that he really comes into his own. His transformation from the elegant and mild-mannered Jekyll into Hyde (further enhanced by Andrew Caddies’ particularly atmospheric lighting) is frighteningly convincing: appearance, voice and personality all change beyond recognition as he’s wracked by spasms and emerges a hunched, animalistic figure with an evil cackle and an absolute lack of remorse.

Strong individual support comes in the form of Demar Lambert and Finn Kebbe as Utterson and Lanyon – the former a commanding presence, the latter ultimately a broken man destroyed by the knowledge of his complicity in Hyde’s crimes. In reality, however (and in keeping with Chickenshed’s inclusive philosophy), this is an ensemble piece; a diverse, hard-working and vocally impressive chorus perform the majority of the physically demanding musical numbers and provide commentary on events as they unfold.

Like the rest of the production, Dave Carey and Hanna Bohlin’s up-tempo rock musical score has a distinctly modern flavour. With no spoken dialogue, the show moves swiftly from one number to the next, managing to pack an impressive 21 songs (albeit with several reprises) into its 70-minute duration. There are occasions when the vocals struggle to compete with the volume of the pre-recorded soundtrack, and combined with the pace of some of the songs, this can make it difficult to catch every word. Perhaps in recognition of this, the “penny dreadfuls” that are distributed as we arrive contain a handy synopsis of the plot, while the title of each new chapter is projected on the wall to help us orientate ourselves and fill in any plot gaps.

With this production, Chickenshed proves once again that it knows how to entertain audiences with a good story. But the show also asks us to consider some pertinent and rather topical questions about the importance of the choices we make – for ourselves, for others and for society as a whole.

Jekyll and Hyde is at Chickenshed until 20th October.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉