Review: Bare: A Pop Opera at The Vaults

A couple of weeks after a priest in the USA tweeted that “Catholics should not support or attend LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June”, Bare: A Pop Opera – the story of two teenage boys at a Catholic boarding school who are forced to keep their love a secret – feels depressingly topical. Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere’s show premiered in California nearly two decades ago, but there’s nothing historic about the issues it tackles, as is emotionally demonstrated in the powerful finale of this new London production at The Vaults.

Photo credit: Tom Grace

Set against the backdrop of a school production of Romeo and Juliet, Bare‘s own star-crossed lovers are Peter (Daniel Mack Shand) and Jason (Darragh Cowley), who know all too well the dangers of making their relationship public. While Peter tries to come out to his mum (Jo Napthine), Jason allows himself to be drawn into an ill-fated liaison with Ivy (Lizzie Emery) – with inevitably tragic consequences. Meanwhile, as the seniors prepare to graduate, Jason’s twin sister Nadia (Georgie Lovatt) and classmate Matt (Tom Hier) each deal in their own way with living in the golden boy’s shadow.

The show tackles several important issues, and on the whole does so pretty well, though the storyline feels at times a bit predictable. Intrabartolo’s rock score, performed by Alasdair Brown’s band from the balcony at one end of the theatre, is not instantly memorable but still exciting enough to hold our attention, and there are several highlights among the extensive list of musical numbers; it has the feel of a soundtrack that would really grow on you after a few repeat listens. Though the cast is universally solid, it’s the female vocalists who really stand out, especially Georgie Lovatt (in a sensational professional debut), Lizzie Emery and – not altogether surprisingly – X Factor USA finalist Stacy Francis as the delightfully exasperated Sister Chantelle.

Julie Atherton’s production gets a lot of things right, and showcases some considerable talent among its young cast. Unfortunately, though, the staging at The Vaults feels badly thought through, and results in an audience experience that isn’t nearly as enjoyable or comfortable as the show and its hardworking cast deserve. A very long, narrow stage and poor venue acoustics mean that frequently lyrics and dialogue go unheard by half the audience because the actor’s so far away, and with the stage raised at eye level, parts of the action get completely hidden from view by whatever’s happening in the foreground. In addition, there’s a thrust stage out into the auditorium that means part of the audience must watch a lot of the action over their shoulder – including the big finale, which takes place towards the back of the room – and run the risk of being dazzled by spotlights at fairly regular intervals.

Photo credit: Tom Grace

It’s a pity that we don’t get to see everything that happens, because what we do see is visually very striking. At the rear of Libby Watson’s otherwise functional set, forbidding religious art looks down on the teenagers, while at the other end stands a single tree covered in glorious autumnal foliage, the significance of which only becomes clear in the show’s emotional closing moments. Andrew Ellis’ lighting design brings extra vibrancy to certain key scenes, particularly when coupled with Stuart Rogers’ choreography.

Recent headlines have made it all too clear that Bare is a story the world still needs to hear, and this production is a decent attempt at telling it. In a different venue, it’s easy to imagine the show making quite an impact; unfortunately in its current home, it just misses the mark.

Bare: A Pop Opera is at The Vaults until 4th August.

Review: Summer Street at Waterloo East Theatre

The idea for Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical (to give it its full title) dates back to 2004, when writer and director Andrew Norris was inspired to pay homage to the Australian soaps of his youth, and the stars who dominated UK pop charts and panto line-ups for much of the 80s and 90s. The result is a well-meaning, nostalgic and unashamedly ridiculous comedy musical that’s probably best appreciated after a glass of wine or two.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

The plot revolves around Bruce (Simon Snashall), Angie (Sarah-Louise Young), Paul (Myke Cotton) and Steph (Julie Clare), four former stars of popular musical “soapy”, Summer Street. All but one have failed to have any kind of acting career following their dramatic exits from the show, so they jump at the chance to reunite for an anniversary special – but all is not as it seems… While on camera one of the characters has to be rescued from an abandoned mine just before her wedding, life behind the scenes has its own share of drama as each of the four actors reflects on life post-Summer Street.

The show obviously takes great delight in sending up all the well-worn soapy tropes, from dramatic deaths to product placement. The on-screen characters are recognisable stereotypes – the doctor with an alcohol problem, the in-the-closet lesbian in love with her best friend, the nosey neighbour – and anyone who knows anything about Neighbours or Home and Away (or, to be fair, any of the UK soaps) will never fail to get the joke. It’s all enjoyably silly and there are some quite funny bits, often at the most unexpected moments – one character’s account of his wife’s tragic demise and the heroic actions of Pogo the neighbourhood dog are highlights.

The problem is that in trying to poke fun at the banality of the soap format, Summer Street ends up suffering a similar fate; the characters are under-developed, the story makes little sense, and several of the familiar jokes are repeated so often that they start to feel a bit tired. The same, unfortunately, goes for the musical numbers, which are for the most part catchy enough but tend to go on just a bit longer than seems necessary. (In Brighton only half of the songs were performed, which says quite a lot about their value within the production.)

The show may have its flaws but the cast enthusiastically make the best of it, and there are some strong vocal performances – particularly from Sarah-Louise Young, who steals the show in Act 2 with pop ballad Chains Around My Heart. The nature of the production calls for larger than life performances, and all four cast members seem more than happy to oblige, adopting suitably flamboyant Aussie accents, cheerfully reeling off lines of expositional dialogue – often at high speed – and throwing themselves without hesitation into Lauren Chinery’s comically stagey dance routines.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

To give credit where it’s due, Summer Street never pretends to be anything other than what it is: a spoof comedy musical that takes an already over-the-top TV format and takes it up another notch or three. In that sense, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Could it have been done with a bit more finesse? Yes, probably. But as it stands the show is harmless fun, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Review: Hair at the Orchard Theatre

When it was first performed 50 years ago, Hair caused quite a stir with its profanity, depictions of drug use and full frontal nudity. These days it’s far less shocking, but still raises an eyebrow or two with its extensive list of pre-show warnings (it’s the first – and quite possibly last – time I’ve ever seen a notice on the door alerting me to “a 20-minute UV sequence”) and even in these more liberal times, it’s still not a show I’d recommend if you’re easily offended. But there’s no question that this 50th anniversary tour is a very strong production, which explodes on to the Orchard stage in a psychedelic showcase of spectacular vocal and visual talent. And songs. A lot of songs.

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair is set in 1960s New York and invites us into the world of “the tribe”, a group of long-haired, peace-loving hippies who take a lot of drugs, have a lot of sex, and ultimately take to the streets in protest against the war in Vietnam. One of their number, Claude (Paul Wilkins), becomes torn between staying true to the pacifist views he shares with his friends and burning his draft card in protest, and the expectation of society and his conservative parents that he go and fight for his country.

A large proportion of Act 1 is taken up by introducing the characters and their way of life; it’s not so much a plot as a picture, which forms piece by piece as each member of the group has their moment in the spotlight. Among them are Berger (Jake Quickenden), who within minutes is running around in the audience wearing a very skimpy loin cloth and not a lot else; Sheila (Daisy Wood Davis), the group’s most outspoken political protester; Jeanie (Alison Arnopp), who’s pregnant and in love with Claude; Woof (Bradley Judge), who’s in love with Mick Jagger… Everyone has their part to play – and although in Act 2 Claude emerges as the story’s central character, the show is performed throughout by a well-honed and seamless ensemble.

While the almost total absence of a coherent plot won’t be to everyone’s taste, one thing that can’t be denied is the quality of the performances. The vocally demanding score – which features an unusually large number of songs, including timeless favourites I Got Life, Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In – proves no match for either Gareth Bretherton’s on-stage band or the fourteen-strong cast. The latter in particular seem utterly unfazed by the high notes, the tongue-twisting lyrics or the fact that they often have to tackle both whilst jumping up and down, lying on the floor, or stark naked (although in fairness, that only happens once and you don’t really see anything).

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

As we were leaving, my friend said that she thought Hair was “of its time” – but I’m not sure I agree. While the set, costumes and characters are very obviously from the 60s and the story speaks about a specific moment in American history and culture, the idea of a nation divided and the responsibility we all have to speak out against injustice and toxic nationalism is, depressingly, as topical now as it’s ever been. So maybe what’s most shocking about Hair isn’t the nudity or the drugs, but the fact that 50 years have passed and nothing’s really changed.

Hair is at the Orchard Theatre until 18th May, then continues on tour.

Review: Queen of the Mist at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

I felt a bit bad going into Queen of the Mist last night, because I’d never heard of its subject: Anna Edson Taylor, who in 1901 on her 63rd birthday, became the first person to survive going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel (as one does). But as it turns out I needn’t have worried, because very few people have heard of her; despite her achievement, which was motivated by dreams of fame and fortune, Taylor quickly lost the public’s interest and died a pauper 20 years later.

Queen of the Mist at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Photo credit: Stephen James Russell @SpeedyJR

Annie (Trudi Camilleri) tells her extraordinary story in Michael John LaChiusa’s 2011 musical, which receives a resounding European premiere at the Brockley Jack courtesy of the excellently named Pint of Wine. As a production, it’s hard to fault; it’s polished, looks great, and is exquisitely sung by a cast of seven, who share the stage with Jordan Li-Smith’s equally impressive band.

Where there are flaws, they belong to the show itself, which doesn’t have a great deal of plot to speak of; it reaches its dramatic climax by the end of Act 1 – when Annie and her custom-made barrel go over the Falls – but even then, it doesn’t devote more than a few minutes to this pivotal event. By the time we return from the interval, the adventure’s all over and things are already going wrong for Annie. She’s struggling to keep people interested in her “deed” (largely due to her refusal to answer the recurring question of Act 2: what did it feel like going over the Falls?), she’s fired her manager Frank Russell (Will Arundel), her relationship with her sister Jane (Emily Juler) is at breaking point; even her barrel’s been stolen. A few grimly humorous moments aside, there’s not a glimmer of the excitement or ambition of Act 1, and as such the show’s second act feels much longer than the first.

Even so, the score does include some enjoyable – and rather catchy – musical numbers, and the cast really are excellent. Trudi Camilleri is a formidable lead with incredibly powerful vocals; her Anna isn’t particularly likeable, but while we may have little sympathy for her, it’s hard not to respect her intelligence, determination and courage. The complex relationships she has with her conservative sister and charismatic manager are well played by Emily Juler and Will Arundel respectively, and Emma Ralston, Tom Blackmore, Conor McFarlane and Andrew Carter provide versatility and strong vocals as a host of other characters – among them temperance campaigner Carrie Nation, a young soldier on his way to fight in World War 1, a mysterious man with his hand wrapped in a handkerchief (it makes sense at the time), and Annie’s exasperated new manager(s) following Frank’s departure.

Queen of the Mist at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Stephen James Russell @SpeedyJR

Considering the intimacy of the performance space (a decent proportion of which is taken up by the band) and the number of times the cast have to enter and exit the stage in different guises, Dom O’Hanlon’s tightly choreographed production feels surprisingly uncluttered; nor is there ever any danger of the singers being drowned out by the orchestra. Having said that, the production could certainly benefit from a larger stage, if only to accommodate the sheer vocal power of the cast, which at times does threaten to become overwhelming in such a small venue.

Queen of the Mist is, first and foremost, Anna Edson Taylor’s little-known story, but it also has things to say about the lengths to which people will go for fame, and the fickle nature of both public and press – both of which are issues we still grapple with today. The show is not without flaws and does feel longer than it needs to be, but even taking into account these shortcomings, the quality of this excellent production cannot be denied.


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… 😉

Review: Fiddler on the Roof at Playhouse Theatre

Earlier this year, only a few weeks into the Menier Chocolate Factory run of Trevor Nunn’s critically acclaimed Fiddler on the Roof, its West End transfer was confirmed. Yesterday, a mere couple of days after the show opened at the Playhouse Theatre, it was announced that booking has been extended to September. And it’s not hard to see why.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Set in 1905, Fiddler on the Roof tells the deceptively feel-good story of Tevye (Andy Nyman), a Jewish patriarch in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka, whose determination to abide by tradition is repeatedly tested by the insistence of his strong-willed eldest daughters (Molly Osborne, Harriet Bunton and Nicola Brown) on choosing their own husbands. But as Tevye himself explains in the show’s opening monologue, the lives of the Jewish community in Anatevka are as precarious as a fiddler on a roof; no spoilers here, but let’s just say anyone hoping for a happy ending to the show is in for a bit of a shock.

And yet, in a way, it’s not such a shock. This is a story that shouldn’t strike any kind of chord for a supposedly enlightened 21st century audience – yet tragically (and incredibly), it still feels all too relevant, and the final scenes all too inevitable. The production very deliberately immerses us in the life of Tevye and his community, with Robert Jones’ stunning set design wrapped all the way around the theatre, and the actors frequently walking among the audience to enter and exit the stage. Having joined them for the Sabbath, for a wedding and a joyous, alcohol-fuelled celebration of life, the show’s heartbreaking conclusion becomes all the more impactful, not least when you acknowledge it’s based on historical fact.

Andy Nyman is an absolute natural as Tevye; from the moment he arrives on stage, he has such energy, wit and warmth that it’s impossible not to like him. Tevye as a character provides plenty of opportunities for humour – always quick with a witty retort, not afraid to give God a good talking to, and amusingly full of bluster while he secretly lets his wife and daughters walk all over him. But as the show goes on the role calls for much greater emotional depth, and Nyman is absolutely on the money on both fronts. Alongside him, Judy Kuhn is similarly captivating as his wife Golde, and the two have touchingly believable chemistry as a husband and wife who may not have married for love, but have discovered it together over the past 25 years.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s score is one that most people will be familiar with, even if you’ve never seen the show, and it boasts some excellent tunes. Despite their catchiness, though, the musical numbers shouldn’t be dismissed as simply a singalong opportunity, and seeing them performed – without exception, brilliantly – in the context of the production lends them layers of new meaning. The choreography, by Jerome Robbins (who directed and choreographed the original Broadway production) and Matt Cole, is sensational to watch and performed with such enthusiasm and joy by the whole cast that it becomes utterly infectious.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Oh, and did I mention the production is gorgeous to look at? Robert Jones’ set overflows from the stage to take in the whole of the Playhouse (now starting to get a bit of a reputation for its incredible transformations) – and it’s exquisite in every detail, from the dim, smoky atmosphere that envelops you as you walk in, to the simple rustic homes of Anatevka and the trees silhouetted dramatically against the subtly changing light as day turns gradually to night.

Funny, heartwarming, fascinating, tragic and devastating, Fiddler on the Roof is an unusual but hugely powerful musical, and this production brings out the very best in it. The previous run at the Menier was a sell-out, and this one looks set – and deserves – to go the same way. So get yourself a ticket while you can; this triumphant revival is not to be missed.

Fiddler on the Roof is now booking to 28th September at the Playhouse Theatre.