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.


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Review: After the Ball at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

The aptly named Time Productions have set themselves an ambitious challenge in staging Ian Grant’s After the Ball, which covers several decades in the life of one family. Opening just before World War 1, it’s the story of William and Blanche, a young couple brought together by friends and shared political views, but with little else in common. Then, despite having spoken out frequently against the war, William voluntarily joins the army and heads to Belgium, where he falls in love with another woman. Back home, meanwhile, Blanche is left alone to raise their daughter, and even after he comes back she’s never able to forgive her husband for his betrayal.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

The play, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, opened on International Women’s Day, and at the start there are some promising discussions about votes for women that suggest we’re about to see a play with some strong female characters. And admittedly Blanche’s friend Margery, who chooses not to marry and later goes off to travel the world on her own, fits the bill – as does daughter Joyce, who grows up to be a leading light in the Labour Party and refuses to let a cheating husband get in her way.

Blanche, on the other hand, loses any independent spirit she once had the minute she gets married, spends their first few months together pleading with William not to go to war – and when he does, she ends up a sad, bitter woman stuck in a loveless marriage and unable to let go of the past. We don’t get to see how she copes without him because we’re in Belgium watching William, first getting wounded and then having an affair. On his return, any hope we might have that Blanche somehow gets the last laugh gradually fades as the same conversations and recriminations come up again and again. The result is, sadly, a script that becomes repetitive and characters that begin to feel a bit annoying; we even go back to the start of their marriage at one point in Act 2, for no obvious reason, to replay the argument again.

The same actors play the characters throughout their lives, which means in some cases they’re faced with the challenging task of playing both a 20-something and an 80-something. Stuart Fox is poignantly impressive as a fragile, elderly William, suffering with dementia and lost in fragmented recollections of his life – but both he and Julia Watson as Blanche struggle to differentiate clearly between their younger and older selves, and it’s down to the other characters and the historical context to help us locate where we are in the story. There is, however, a welcome injection of energy from Emily Tucker as Joyce, determined to live life on her own terms despite her mother’s disapproval, and Elizabeth Healey is a refreshing voice of reason as both Margery and Marguerite.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

In a programme note, writer Ian Grant explains that After the Ball is “a story of resilience in the face of personal trauma … of political and social bonds that get stretched beyond breaking point … of female liberation and political emancipation”. That’s a lot to tackle in two hours, but unfortunately we never really get to explore any of it in much depth. Nor do we feel much connection to the characters – again, with the possible exception of Joyce – which means a twist ending has far less impact than it should. All in all, sadly After the Ball is an interesting idea that begins well but never quite delivers on its early promise.


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Review: The Ladykillers at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Based on William Rose’s 1955 movie, The Ladykillers was adapted for the stage by Graham Linehan in 2011. A hilariously over the top and extremely British slapstick comedy, the play’s staged with great exuberance at the Gatehouse by the always entertaining Tower Theatre Company.

The story behind The Ladykillers is almost as much fun as the plot itself, which apparently came to screenwriter William Rose in a dream; he woke up in the middle of the night and told his wife, then went back to sleep – while she got up and wrote it all down so that she could remind him in the morning.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Mrs Wilberforce is a little old lady who lives alone with her ailing parrot, General Gordon. When she rents her upstairs room to what she thinks is a group of classical musicians, little does she know they’re actually robbers planning a heist at Kings Cross. This is quite surprising – partly because Mrs Wilberforce usually sees conspiracy theories everywhere, but also because the eccentric Professor Marcus and his gang are particularly inept criminals. The stage is set for chaos, and this production certainly delivers – even the set seemed to be in on the joke, with Mrs Wilberforce’s front door frequently swinging open of its own accord.

That little issue aside, the set is impressive; stretching the full length of the substantial stage area at the Gatehouse, it allows us to see simultaneously into Mrs Wilberforce’s front room, the upstairs room and even, briefly, on to the roof. Everything in the house is a bit lop-sided (Mrs W unfortunately suffers from subsidence), and its proximity to the nearby railway line presents various comic opportunities in both set design and storyline.

The cast have a lot of fun with their characters, all of whom are entirely ridiculous in their own way. Alison Liney leads the way as the clueless yet indomitable Mrs Wilberforce, while Ed Malcomson channels Basil Fawlty as the artist and criminal “mastermind” Professor Marcus, desperately trying to hold his plan together despite the best efforts of his incompetent colleagues. Dan Usztan’s nice but dim One Round is a delight, and there’s some enjoyable physical comedy from pill-popping Harry, played by Samuel Currie-Smith. Completing the gang of misfits are Alex T Hornby as Louis, a brooding Romanian hitman, and Michael Bettell as nervous wreck (and closet cross-dresser), the Major.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Like most farces, many of the jokes – and the play’s ending – can be anticipated, but that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. There are also a few enjoyable digs at artistic pretension and the British obsession with class and social appearances (which landed particularly well with the North London audience). The Ladykillers is perfect light-hearted evening entertainment, with a reminder that there’s a little good in the worst of men – though it may just turn out to be their downfall.


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Review: Paper Hearts at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

You know in The BFG (stay with me) how he makes dreams for people by taking all the different elements and blending them together? Well, this is essentially what Liam O’Rafferty, Daniel Jarvis and Tania Azevedo have done in Paper Hearts. Musical? Check. Books? Check. Love story? Check. Folksy score performed live on stage by actor-musicians with gorgeous¬†harmonies and catchy choruses? Check, check, check, check, check. Long story short – this is my dream show, and I’m a little bit in love.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

After proving¬†a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the show’s been developed into a full-length musical set in The Final Chapter bookshop, where aspiring¬†writer¬†Atticus (Adam Small) is trying to finish¬†his¬†epic novel of romance and betrayal in Stalin’s Russia. When the shop’s threatened with closure at the hands of a large online retailer, Atticus finds himself with only one option – finish the novel in time for the upcoming young writers competition, win top prize, save the bookshop. Simple, right? Well no, actually, because his girlfriend (Sin√©ad Wall) could hardly be less supportive, he’s got history to work out with his dad (Alasdair Baker) and he’s just met a girl (Gabriella Margulies), who may just be his soulmate – but for one fairly major¬†complication…

Fact and fiction are effortlessly interwoven as we slip into the snowy Russia¬†of Atticus’ main characters Yanna and Isaak, and follow their story – which seems to bear some striking parallels to their creator’s own life. And as the characters develop, it becomes clear they’re shaping his destiny just as much as he is theirs.

Liam O’Rafferty was inspired to write Paper Hearts by his passion for bookshops, and the show overflows from the start with that love for the written word. From Anna Driftmier’s¬†set – built largely from books, and full of delightful details like the floating book light¬†(which is something¬†I never knew I wanted until I saw it, and now it’s all I can think about) – to the brilliant “book-off” where Atticus and new shop manager¬†Lilly challenge each other’s literary knowledge, it’s a thrill for anyone who loves to read.

The cast of actor-musicians are sensational and work seamlessly as an ensemble to bring the score to life. And what a score it is, taking in a range of genres but always feeling very natural, like it’s just a bunch of friends getting together to play – and did I mention the gorgeous harmonies? There are some really beautiful songs here, with two of many highlights the heart-wrenching duet Stand Up and the title number Paper Hearts, which closes the show on a soaring high.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Perhaps one of my favourite things about the show is, despite its frequent forays into Stalin’s Russia, how very British it is; you can totally imagine it on screen as a Richard Curtis rom-com in the vein of Notting Hill. The dusty old bookshop is quintessentially British, the script has a wry, self-deprecating humour – particularly from Matthew Atkins’ gloriously camp shop owner Norman – and when things go wrong, everyone’s immediate response is to put the kettle on. This gives the production a very cosy, homely feel, and makes the characters and everything that happens to them incredibly¬†relatable.

The show does get a bit dark and tense at times (gun alert) and there’s no shortage of emotion either. But overall Paper Hearts is uplifting, heartwarming and basically just a joy from start to finish. It’s got everything you could want from a West End show at a fraction of the ticket price – so see it now before it gets snapped up for a transfer. And then go again, because it’s worth it.


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Review: Othello at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Othello forms part of the Arrows and Traps repertory season, alongside Twelfth Night (read more about that show, and the double bill as a whole, in my¬†review). The two shows are both directed by Ross McGregor and performed by the same cast on the same set, but there the similarities end. While Twelfth Night is a riotous comedy full of romantic mischief, Othello is a dark, dramatic and gripping thriller, with a stunning climactic scene that I’d willingly watch over and over again.

In a modern day setting, army general Othello (Spencer Lee Osborne), known by most as the Moor, has married Desdemona (Pippa Caddick) against her father’s wishes. The couple’s¬†happiness is set to be shortlived, however, thanks to¬†the machinations of Othello’s ensign Iago (Pearce Sampson), who was recently passed over for promotion in favour of Cassio (Adam Elliott). In revenge, and with the unwitting help of his wife Emilia (Cornelia Baumann), Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona¬†has been unfaithful with Cassio, setting in motion a dramatic¬†and ultimately tragic chain of events.

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

While Arrows and Traps have proved they can turn their hand to pretty much anything, it seems tragedy is where they really excel. Othello, like their recent blood-soaked Macbeth, is intense, powerful and utterly compelling from start to breathless finish. And as in¬†Macbeth, the production draws on the talents of movement director Will Pinchin, particularly in¬†the murder¬†scene, a dream-like montage of music and movement¬†that’s quite spine-tinglingly beautiful to watch.

Unlike Twelfth Night, which draws on the cast’s talents as an ensemble, this play primarily focuses on three central characters: Othello, Iago and Desdemona. As the duped Othello, Spencer Lee Osborne shows us¬†the insecurity of a man who’s always been an outsider, and can’t quite believe his luck that the woman he loves should return his feelings. My problem with Shakespeare’s play has always been in believing¬†that a loving husband could be so quickly persuaded¬†of his wife’s betrayal – but this Othello, though powerful in stature, has an emotional fragility that makes him easy to manipulate, and his willingness to believe Iago’s lies becomes therefore much more convincing for the audience.

Pearce Sampson, fresh from playing Jesus in the Arrows’ last production, here skilfully turns his hand to¬†an altogether different role as the¬†villainous Iago, his¬†twinkly northern charm disguising his evil intentions. This is a bad guy who gets – and deserves – no sympathy from us. On the other hand, we feel nothing but sympathy for Pippa Caddick’s Desdemona, a devoted wife and kind-hearted, loyal friend, with an independence of mind and playful, ever so slightly flirtatious nature that unknowingly hasten her downfall at Iago’s hands.

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

The Gatehouse has a much larger stage area than many fringe theatres, and the production takes full advantage of the space, with actors appearing from all directions and even on the balcony above the stage. The set’s divided into three parts, which removes¬†the need to¬†break up the action with scene changes, but more importantly allows scenes to unfold simultaneously,¬†heightening the drama and creating¬†the¬†familiar cinematic effect seen¬†in previous Arrows productions.

Othello¬†is a deliciously dark flip side to the madcap comedy of Twelfth Night, but it also stands alone as an intense and thrilling drama about human weakness. In addition, it¬†makes a powerful statement about the way we treat those we see as different to ourselves, a topic that could hardly be more relevant at this moment in history. And it’s confirmed my view that Arrows and Traps are one of the best companies producing Shakespeare in London right now. Check them out if you can; you won’t regret it.


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