Review: All Male H.M.S. Pinafore at Hackney Empire

As a newcomer not just to H.M.S. Pinafore but to Gilbert and Sullivan in general (hangs head in shame), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an all male version of the popular comic opera – but it’s safe to say I’m officially sold. Inspired by memories of childhood productions at her girls only school, director Sasha Regan has assembled a talented and enthusiastic cast who know how to have fun with the concept, but never compromise on the quality of their performance.

This version of H.M.S. Pinafore sees some bored sailors on a World War II battleship entertaining themselves by recreating the story of humble sailor Ralph Rackstraw, who’s in love with his captain’s daughter, Josephine. It seems like Josephine might just feel the same way, but she’s held back by Ralph’s social inferiority and her father’s wish that she should marry the ridiculous (but rich) Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., the First Lord of the Admiralty. One melodramatic suicide attempt later, the lovers decide to elope but are caught by her father, and all seems lost until the revelation of a bizarre secret sets everything right and brings the story to a neat and happy -if a teeny bit weird – conclusion.

Photo credit: Francis Loney
Photo credit: Francis Loney
The show was written as light entertainment, poking affectionate fun at the English obsession with class, and the allocation of positions of power based on social standing rather than any kind of ability. The main target of the satire is the diminutive and rosy-cheeked Sir Joseph, whose pomposity is softened only by his unfailingly good manners. Michael Burgen plays his character’s absurdities to the max, sharing some particularly enjoyable comic scenes with Neil Moors’ Captain Corcoran. 

But there’s additional enjoyment to be had here in watching the male actors camp it up in the female roles, a task to which they devote themselves with great enthusiasm. It’s an idea that could have gone horribly wrong – but any fears that the all male casting might lead the show to feel gimmicky, or that the quality of the musical numbers could suffer from the absence of female voices, are quickly dispelled by some fabulous performances from male and female characters alike, backed by musical director Richard Bates on piano. Ben Irish, in particular, is exquisite as Josephine, his clear, beautiful falsetto hitting the high notes with enviable ease.

Photo credit: Francis Loney
Photo credit: Francis Loney
Lizzi Gee’s choreography is slick and polished, and the show is full of energy and movement, so there’s literally never a dull moment, whether the actors are somersaulting or skipping across the set. The simple staging, which sees a rope, a few boxes and some bunk beds used to great creative effect, is a charming reminder that sometimes you don’t need big budgets, an enormous orchestra or complex special effects to make fantastic theatre, as long as you’ve got enthusiasm, energy and a desire to entertain – oh, and a few catchy tunes. These are things this production and its fantastic cast have in buckets, and the result is as enjoyable to watch as any lavish West End show. Highly recommended.

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Review: I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Carousel

As I took my seat last night for Pop-Up Opera’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, I heard someone explain, ‘It’s basically Romeo and Juliet without any of the nice bits.’ Which, as it turns out, is a pretty accurate summary of this opera by Vincenzo Bellini. By the time our story begins, Romeo and Giulietta are already embroiled in a secret love affair, helped by their friend Lorenzo, and Romeo’s on the run for killing her brother. Giulietta’s father, Capellio, decides to marry her off to Tebaldo, and in desperation she fakes her death. But Lorenzo’s¬†prevented from getting a message to Romeo, who – as in Shakespeare’s version of the tale – goes to Giulietta’s¬†tomb to kill himself.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Now, I haven’t seen a huge amount of opera, but I think it’s fair to assume¬†this was quite a unique experience, even for those who have. First, the venue. Pop-Up Opera are a touring company who bring opera to new audiences in unusual locations;¬†this particular tour will take them to the Asylum Chapel in Peckham, the London Museum of Water and Steam, and the spectacular Minack Theatre in Cornwall. In comparison, our venue – the basement bar of a restaurant in Marylebone – may not have been the most romantic, but it was¬†still a suitably intimate and atmospheric setting, and my only complaint was that occasionally events took place¬†on the other side of a concrete¬†pillar.

The classic love story of Romeo and Giulietta has been reworked by stage director James Hurley into a modern thriller, in which the Montecchi and Capuleti are rival gangs locked in a long-running feud. Instead of swords and potions, this version has guns and pills, and unfolds on a set illuminated¬†by harsh electric light and littered with crumpled paper and overturned chairs. From the outset, there are moments of brutal violence (I know I wasn’t the only audience member who flinched when Capellio advanced on a captive Romeo holding a pair of pliers), and the fact that we know how the story’s going to end does nothing to dispel the tension in what turns out to be a¬†gripping drama.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

In another original twist, Harry Percival’s¬†English captions (inspired by Eurotrash, apparently) don’t seek to translate everything word for word, instead summarising each scene in the style of an old black and white movie. This has a¬†dual effect: it means we get to concentrate on the action, and not spend an entire evening staring at the wall,¬†and it allows a little more artistic licence with the translation¬†– I can’t help wondering how Bellini would have felt about his¬†hero being called an ‘asshole’, but it made me smile all the same.

But the modern translations, as amusing as they occasionally are, don’t detract from the beauty and emotion of Bellini’s score, or the quality of the performances – proving once and for all that you don’t necessarily need to understand every word to appreciate what’s going on.¬†Each member of our cast – there are two on the tour – gives it everything, and it’s easy to forget there are only five of them, and that they’re backed by a single piano (played by musical director Berrak Dyer), not a full orchestra. Flora McIntosh’s Romeo is brash and reckless, while Cliff Zammit-Stevens is a sympathetic Tebaldo; an enemy he may be, but it’s clear he genuinely loves Giulietta and is as broken by her ‘death’ as his rival. Andrew Tipple’s proud Capellio is every inch the mafia boss, concerned only with family honour, even if it means rejecting his beloved daughter, and Matthew Palmer, in stark contrast, is a far gentler presence as the lovers’ mutual friend Lorenzo.

But it’s Alice Privett who gives the most memorable – and emotional – performance as Giulietta, a young woman caught between love and duty, and pulled this way and that by the headstrong men in her life. Her visible pain during the lovers’ final farewell means that emotions inevitably run high offstage as well as on.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Pop-Up Opera’s aim is to make opera accessible to a wider audience, people who may perhaps have dismissed it in the past as pretentious or boring. In this they certainly succeed,¬†taking a classic story¬†and giving it a modern twist, so that it feels fresh and exciting. And while it’s clear that they’re a company with a cheeky sense of humour, this doesn’t come¬†at the expense of a¬†high quality performance.

So if you think opera’s not for you, maybe give these guys a try, before you decide for sure…

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Review: Dress Rehearsal at OSO Arts Centre

It’s an intriguing premise – a ‘play with opera’,¬†following a group of performers both on and offstage, and giving us a glimpse¬†at¬†what goes on behind the scenes. And for the Overtones, it’s not a pretty sight; the air in their dressing room is heavy with¬†bitterness, resentment and sadness over opportunities lost. As diva Bella (Amanda Wagg) and young newcomer Kit (Luke Farrugia) vie for the limelight, Steph (Alexandra Cowell) and Lionel (Tony Baker) are left to reflect on what might have been, and the group’s enthusiastic and talented pianist Phyllis (Karen Newby) – who’s secretly a bit of a¬†rockstar – is completely overlooked by everyone.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Meanwhile, in the foreground, another story is unfolding – the story of a younger Steph (Chiara Vinci) and her romance with Micky (James Richards), a stand-up comedian¬†on the verge of fame and fortune. As the truth about her¬†past is gradually revealed, we begin to understand how Steph’s ended up as¬†Bella’s backing singer, when she could have been so much more.

There’s a lot to like about the play, which is directed by Paola Cuffolo – not least the idea itself, which is original and full of comic potential. There are some lovely moments when, just like in an opera, the actors express a world of emotion without saying (or singing) a word, and it’s a nice touch to have AJ MacGillivray, who plays agent Zeno (agent as in talent, not secret, just to be clear),¬†sitting in¬†the audience to enjoy the show before suddenly making himself known to the performers.

Though the story is touching, and the characters are entertaining to watch,¬†there are some¬†frustrating plot holes which¬†meant I found myself on the train home repeatedly thinking, ‘But what about…?’¬†There’s an allusion to a scandalous secret involving Kit’s mother, but we never get any further details; the same goes for Bella’s broken marriage, and Lionel’s story is summed up in just a couple of lines. Likewise we never really know what made young Steph decide to run out on her wedding, or how Micky declined¬†in the intervening years to the shambling, broken figure we see in the second act (or even how many years it’s supposed to be). And then the play ends, with every character deep in thought but very little resolved.

Of course it’s¬†not always necessary to wrap everything up, and the writer herself freely admits that¬†it’s her goal to leave the audience with questions, but personally I would have enjoyed¬†a little bit more background to help me really get invested in the characters, so I could share their triumphs and disappointments.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The cast are talented and enthusiastic, especially¬†in the musical numbers; Luke Farrugia is¬†particularly¬†memorable as the young, arrogant Kit,¬†who likes to show off by¬†spontaneously updating the lyrics to some of the most popular opera classics, and Chiara Vinci¬†balances her primarily speaking role with two show-stopping¬†performances of songs¬†by Gilbert and Sullivan. When it comes to silent acting, though, it’s Alexandra Cowell who stands out as Steph; in one scene, she watches her younger self performing with an expression of such longing that it’s genuinely quite heartbreaking.

Dress Rehearsal is a clever and original concept, with some strong vocal performances and an enjoyable repertoire of opera favourites. With a bit more character and plot development, it has the potential to be something special.

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Theatre round-up: 30 Aug 2015

Back on track after a week off, here’s what I’ve seen this week (plus one from the week before):

Twelfth Night

My second visit to see Oddsocks, whilst on holiday in Guernsey. Castle Cornet is a lovely setting, even when it pours with rain, and Oddsocks never fail to entertain with their unique, family-friendly¬†approach to Shakespeare. Their Twelfth Night is a Britpop musical featuring hits from the likes of Adele, Roxy Music, Take That and – yes, really – PJ & Duncan. As always,¬†you never quite know what to expect from an Oddsocks show, but it’s always a safe bet that it’ll be great fun.

Twelfth Night review

Madama Butterfly

I’m no expert on opera, but of the ones I know, this is a favourite. And this particular version, part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre, is different¬†to any I’ve seen before. It’s a unique reinterpretation of¬†the classic story, based on Japanese ghost stories, with a set that looks like something out of a horror movie. But it still retains the emotional punch of the original, thanks to the intimate, candle-lit setting and incredible performances – from the entire cast, but particularly from Natasha Rouhl as the tragic heroine,¬†Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly review for LondonTheatre1

You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews

Yes, that is actually the name of the show; it’s a quote from Monty Python musical, Spamalot. This is a gloriously, unashamedly stagey celebration of the contribution made by Jewish people to musical theatre over the last century. Which actually includes a lot more shows than I realised – Hairspray, The Wizard of Oz, Fame, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Godspell… even my favourite, Les Mis. The show, at St James Theatre, is fast-moving (sometimes a bit too fast), funny and filled with sensational performances from the cast of singers and dancers. If you’re a fan of musical theatre, this is the show for you.

You won’t succeed… review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

The Lion King

This was probably my fifth visit to see The Lion King, one of my favourite shows ever since I first saw it years ago. I don’t know how, but it somehow manages to turn me into a child, and by the time that opening scene (in my opinion, probably one of the best of any show) finally started, I was basically bouncing up and down in my seat like a five-year-old. And it was just as good as I remembered. Between the story, the humour, the music, the set and the incredible puppetry, it’s all brilliant, and so much fun¬†it’s impossible to¬†resist.

Bonus – this time, I was with a friend who’d never been to a musical before, so I was also really excited for her. And¬†although I’d briefed her on the fake happy noises she was to make if she didn’t enjoy the show, the good news is that¬†none were required, because she loved it too.

This week's theatre




Kinky Boots – Adelphi Theatre

Thoroughly Modern Millie – Landor Theatre

The Man Who Had All the Luck (End of Moving Walkway) – King’s Head Theatre