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.

Queen of the Mist is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th April.


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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.

Review: Strike Up The Band at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

If you didn’t know there was a Gershwin musical about cheese, don’t feel bad – you’re not the only one. When Strike Up The Band was first performed in 1927, Philadelphia audiences didn’t respond well to its political satire, and it took three years and significant rewrites (including swapping cheese for chocolate) for the show to make it to Broadway. But it’s the original version that opened last night at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, finally making its London premiere after 90 years courtesy of Alces Productions. Written by George S. Kaufman with music by George and Ira Gershwin, the show is a complex web of sub-plots that takes some time to unravel. It’s also completely bonkers – but quite enjoyably so.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

The central storyline involves American tycoon Horace J. Fletcher (Richard Emerson), who convinces the U.S. president’s advisor (Robert Finlayson) that the country should go to war with Switzerland after they protest against high tariffs on imported cheese. While this is going on, a number of romances are underway: Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Beth Burrows) has fallen for journalist Jim Townsend (Paul Biggin), but faces a dilemma when she discovers he objects to her father’s war, widow Mrs Draper (Pippa Winslow) has her heart set on Fletcher himself, and her daughter Anne (Charlotte Christensen) is desperate to marry her man, Timothy Harper (Adam Scott Pringle) despite her mother’s objections (and only being seventeen years old). And that’s not even all of it; with so much to get through, it’s a wonder the show isn’t longer than its already impressive run time of three hours.

It may not have resonated with Americans in 1927, when war was over and the economy was booming, but the story certainly strikes a chord in 2019. In a show about America’s lust for war and obsession with putting its own interests first, with a protagonist who’s a success in business but not much good at anything else, parallels with Donald Trump are there for the taking and director Mark Giesser doesn’t hesitate. It may not always be particularly subtly done (at one point four characters in this 1920s musical all don bright yellow “Make America Grate” baseball caps) but that doesn’t stop it being funny – at least to a British audience; who knows if Americans would be as amused.

Whether or not it tickles your funny bone, though, there’s no arguing the production is very well done. The excellent cast deliver skilful comedy performances, with a delivery at times so deadpan it takes a moment for the audience to catch on to the joke. And amidst the madness there are moments of real emotion too; Beth Burrows and Paul Biggin’s romantic duet – and one of the show’s best-known numbers – The Man I Love is a highlight, as is the moving Homeward Bound, performed by Sammy Graham, Adam Scott Pringle and Paul Biggin in Act 2. Bobby Goulder’s band (on stage but largely hidden from view by the set) are equally impressive, though the intimacy of the space at times means the vocals get overpowered by the music.

Photo credit: Andreas Lambis

Occasionally bewildering and frequently ridiculous, Strike Up The Band is nevertheless always great fun. It does have darker undertones and, baseball caps or no baseball caps, it’s impossible to ignore how relevant the story still is. But it’s first and foremost a comedy, and makes an excellent (if long) evening’s entertainment – well worth waiting 90 years for.

Strike Up The Band is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 31st March.


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Review: Calendar Girls at the Orchard Theatre

The true story behind Calendar Girls – and the inspiration for a movie, play and musical – is, by now, pretty well known. Back in 1999, the ladies of the Women’s Institute in Cracoe, Yorkshire, decided to make a nude calendar to raise funds in memory of a close friend and fellow member’s husband, who had recently died of leukaemia. What started as a fun idea to raise a few pounds soon hit the headlines, and to date the real life Calendar Girls have raised nearly £5 million for blood cancer research charity Bloodwise.

What captured the public’s imagination about the Calendar Girls was the fact that here were ordinary women doing something extraordinary. Tim Firth and Gary Barlow’s hit musical (which ran for a surprisingly short time in the West End despite great reviews and obvious popularity) has the same spirit; like its characters, it’s refreshingly genuine and down to earth, with a cheeky sense of humour as an added bonus. It’s also quite the rollercoaster, with desperately sad moments followed almost immediately by scenes that have the audience howling with laughter – the most notable of which, unsurprisingly, is the legendary nude photo shoot that brings the evening to a joyous conclusion.

The ensemble cast exudes warmth and familiarity, making you believe they really have been friends for years, and there are great performances all round. Sara Crowe is touchingly vulnerable as shy Ruth, who throws herself into the WI to escape her troubled marriage, and Fern Britton hits just the right note as snobby Marie, who’s horrified by the potential damage the calendar could do to her WI’s reputation. There’s some great work too from younger cast members Isabel Caswell, Tyler Dobbs and Danny Howker as teenagers Jenny, Tommo and Danny, who have their own problems to deal with. But the standout performance comes from Anna-Jane Casey as Annie, a beautifully written character whose grief over the loss of her husband is rooted not in grand gestures but in the little details that you never think about until someone isn’t there any more.

The score, like the story, combines rousing ensemble numbers with solo performances and though all are well performed, the former are generally far more memorable than the latter – with highlights including the opening number Yorkshire, an uplifting anthem to the community’s northern home. The setting is an important part of the story, and Robert Jones’ simple rustic set of rolling hills and glorious sunsets makes an attractive and fitting backdrop. And yes, maybe the plot sometimes feels like it’s moving at rather a sedate pace, but that somehow doesn’t feel inappropriate given the rural setting.

Calendar Girls is a charming and very British musical that tells this heartwarming true story of love, loss, courage and friendship with just the right blend of humour and pathos. It’s sometimes a bit naughty – be prepared to get a little more than you may have bargained for in the final scene – but there’s considerably more depth to the story and characters than you might expect. All in all, a really enjoyable evening’s entertainment, and great to see a British musical flourishing.

Calendar Girls is at the Orchard Theatre until 16th March.

Review: Notflix – The Improvised Musical at The Vaults

Ever wanted to see Independence Day: Resurgence performed live on stage as a comedy musical? Well, unfortunately you’ve missed your chance, because that was last night and to quote one of the performers, “it will never happen again”. Who knows what the next Notflix show will be? Answer: nobody – not even the cast.

Notflix is an improvised comedy musical that recreates a movie suggested and chosen on the night by the audience. Completely made up on the spot based on a three-line synopsis and not a lot else, it’s fair to assume that the show bears little resemblance to the original film. It is, however, probably a lot more fun, and for a considerably smaller budget. And naturally it’s a musical – because as we all know, everything is better as a musical.

On the other hand, if you’re an improv performer, I imagine everything is also much more difficult as a musical. The dexterity with which the six performers – Holly Mallet, Ailis Duff, Clare Buckingham, Aisling Groves McKeown, Emma Read and Katie Pritchard (collectively known as Waiting For The Call Improv) – magic up not just characters and plot but also several song and dance numbers is nothing short of amazing. On this occasion, those musical delights included an anthem to the planet Zorbatron, and a Hamilton homage featuring the immortal line, “I am an alien…” Impressively, not only do these songs work, some of them are so catchy I caught myself still humming bits of them a day later – much of the credit for which must go to on-stage band members Patrick Stockbridge and Caroline Scott, on keys and drums respectively.

The plot of Independence Day: Resurgence: The Musical brings together a band of plucky astronauts battling to save Earth with the help of a time whip (I think…?), feuding alien brothers who must put their differences aside and work together to invade Earth, and a couple of gun-toting Americans who must decide what they love more – each other, or killing aliens. Given that nobody will ever see this show again, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that in the end Earth wins, the aliens fatally whip each other (again, I think…? I’m really not sure) then make up, and the Americans realise they do love each other, even though she just tried to destroy the planet. And in case you’re wondering – yes, it’s all exactly as insane and brilliantly bizarre as it sounds.

One tiny niggle: if, like me, you’re sitting directly in front of the speakers, you may find that some of the spoken dialogue gets drowned out by the music. But since that won’t make the slightest difference to your understanding of what’s going on, it hardly seems to matter. So if you’re in the mood for something silly, fun and boasting some serious improv talent, get yourself down to The Vaults this week for a hilarious hour of entertainment that’s also totally unique every time. You don’t get that staying home with Netflix.

Notflix: The Improvised Musical is at VAULT Festival until 10th March.

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