Reviews Roundup: Sister Act The Musical 3.4★

Dominion Theatre

Sister Act The Musical. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

A gangster’s moll sees a crime and goes into a witness protection in a nunnery where she teaches the nun choir to sing, and generally enjoy life a little more. The production has toured and played the Eventim Apollo in 2022 which is where it was reviewed by the London-based critics.  Beverley Knight returns in what we inevitably think of as the Whoopi Goldberg role until 8 June 2024 when she is succeeded by Alexandra Burke. This roundup will be revised after the official opening night of the latest run. The critics previously loved Beverley Knight’s singing, although some had reservations about her skill as a comic actor. Other well-liked members of the previous cast return for the current run including Clive Rowe and Lesley Joseph. Ruth Jones is a newcomer as the Mother Superior.

[Links to full reviews are included but a number are behind paywalls and therefore may not be accessible]
Adam Bloodworth in CityAM (5) awarded the first 5 star review, calling it ‘simple, straightforward fun channelled through a production that is so precision-tooled that every moment becomes either a huge laugh or a visual spectacular.’
In her review of the opening night of the current run, Marianka Swain in The Telegraph (4) said ‘the Dominion Theatre is a perfect fit for Bill Buckhurst’s warm hug of a production.’ She picked out newcomer Ruth Jones playing the Mother Superior as ‘another reason to make a bee-line for Sister Act tickets.’ She concluded: ‘Watching the sisters in full flow, boogieing away in rainbow-sequinned habits, is sheer theatrical bliss.’
Franco Milazzo st Broadway World (4) also welcomes Ruth Jones: ‘What the Gavin and Stacey star lacks in lung power, she more than makes up for in sheer charisma.’ He also pays tribute to ‘a sterling cast, Menken and Slater’s songs and Morgan Large’s ingenious set.’
The earlier reviews were generally appreciative of the feel-good nature of the musical without being carried away by it. There were some notable exceptions. ‘This revival is heavenly’ said Nicole Vassell in The Independent (5★).  ‘Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s uplifting score is excellent,’ she wrote, and concluded: ‘the show’s an irresistibly great time.’ Neil Norman writing in The Express (4★) stated: ‘It puts a smile on your face that refuses to leave.’ About Beverley Knight, he said: ‘Not only is that voice goosebumpingly glorious, she has … impressive comedy chops.’ He also liked ‘Morgan Large’s simple but effective stained glass set design.’  Alex Wood for Whats On Stage (4★) agreed about Large’s ‘glittery menagerie of set pieces.’ He had mixed feelings about the songs: ‘“Fabulous, Baby!”, “Take Me to Heaven” and “Raise Your Voice” are all veritable ear-worms’ but ‘For every “Raise Your Voice” there’s a much more forgettable number.’ However, he was bowled over by ‘a deluge of sugar-rush sentimentality and spirited vim’ and concluded: ‘The revival lands squarely in the “feel-good and proud of it” camp.’
Andrzej Lukowski’s reaction in Time Out (3★) was more typical: While praising Beverley Knight – ‘she is an extraordinary singer’, he damned the first half with faint praise – ‘It’s a sturdy enough comic romp ‘- and damned the second half with no praise- ‘bloated and ponderous.’ It’s ‘an okay musical, he concluded.  Natasha Tripney in The Stage (3★) took an opposite view of the musical’s progression: ‘Bill Buckhurst’s production takes a while warming up in the first half…but the pacing and energy levels improve significantly in the second half.’ She agreed about Beverley Knight, saying ‘She brings vocal heft and requisite presence to the role.’
Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian (3★) described Beverley Knight as ‘full-throated, comically twitchy’ but dismissed the plot, saying it ‘could be scratched on a sacramental wafer’. While he found  ‘inspiration flags’, he conceded ‘good humour sees it through.’ The Standard‘s Nick Curtis (3★) enjoyed Beverley Knight’s ‘storming voice and personality’, but like most of the others thought ‘The plot is reduced to a skeletal framework on which to hang musical or comic set pieces’. He wasn’t too keen on Alan Menken’s score either, describing it as ‘only occasionally soulful and never funky’.
Clive Davis writing in The Times (3★) admitted ‘There are some inspired hot gospel belters’. Otherwise he was unimpressed: ‘The script, though, slips into automatic pilot after an engaging first act’, and ‘Morgan Large’s set design is a little basic’. The Telegraph‘s Dominic Cavendish (3★) decided: ‘The joy is preordained but it’s joy all the same.’

Average critic rating (out of 5) 3.4★

Value rating  38 (Value rating is the Average critic rating divided by the most common Stalls/Circle ticket price. In theory this means the higher the score the better value but, because of price variations, a West End show could be excellent value if it scores above 30 while an off-West End show may need to score above 60. This rating is based on opening night prices- theatres may raise or lower prices during the run.)

Sister Act The Musical can be seen at the Dominion Theatre London until 31 August 2024. Buy tickets directly from the theatre here

If you’ve seen Sister Act The Musical, you are welcome to add your review and rating below (but please keep it relevant and polite)

Richard Hawley & Chris Bush’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge – Gillian Lynne Theatre – Review

Sheffield high-rise musical hits the heights


★★★★

Standing At The Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff Moegenburg

With a book written by Chris Bush and music by Richard Hawley, both born in Sheffield, and direction by Robert Hastie, who is the Artistic Director of the city’s Crucible theatre where it began life, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is Made In Sheffield, just as much as the steel for which the city was famous. Yet it has a universal appeal, as shown by its the National Theatre and now to the West End.

Starting in 1961 and spanning nearly sixty years, the musical tells the story of three families who at separate times live in a high-rise flat in the huge Sheffield housing estate called Park Hill. Their narratives later intersect but initially it seems like a portrait of three discrete times adding up to a history of modern Britain. There’s the socialist optimism following the second world war; the decimation of industrial Britain and the destruction of working-class communities during the Thatcher years (Act One concludes with a shocking riot to the tune of There’s A Storm A-Coming); and today’s liberal-minded but materialistic services economy. I assume Chris Bush leans to the left but she wears her socialism lightly.

They all have their histories, their tragedies, and most of all their love stories. A neon sign says ‘I love you Will u marry me’ replicating the real sign on the flats which itself was based on a famous piece of graffiti.

The main interest is in characters who try to make the best of their situations, even if some fall through the cracks. Her dialogue flows as smoothly as the River Sheaf.

The musical begins with a traditional British working-class couple moving in, thrilled to have all mod cons. Rachael Wooding as Rose is excellent as she goes from excited young wife to strong partner when her husband loses his job following the steelworks closures and to a weary acceptance when life often doesn’t work out as expected, exemplified in her heart breaking rendition of After The Rain. Her husband Harry, played by Joel Harper-Jackson, makes a journey too, starting as a confident provider, then falling apart as so many proud working-class men did without a job to give meaning to their lives.

Next, as the estate becomes run down, we see the arrival of immigrant refugees.  Joy has been brought by her aunt and uncle from Liberia to the safety of Sheffield. Played by   Elizabeth Ayodele, she undergoes a transformation as she rebels against the values of the old country and adopts the culture of Sheffield, including a change in accent.

Finally, we meet Poppy, perhaps the one with whom we will feel the most in common. She’s a marketing person from London who has headed north to get over a broken relationship. Although she has the least dramatic story, mainly relying on jokes about today’s middle class lifestyle, it’s hard not to be touched by Laura Pitt-Pulford as she conveys Poppy’s desire to be part of a community.  Lauryn Redding as her desperate ex belts out a rousing version of Open Up Your Door.

Laura Pitt-Pulford, Elizabeth Ayodele and Rachael Wooding in Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg.

Chris Bush’s witty, angry and moving script finds parallels in the different eras, so that all three families eventually appear on the stage at the same time, their conversations overlapping. It’s a real sense of how a building retains its history and a way to see how much ostensibly different people can have in common. It reminded me of some of Alan Aykbourn’s experiments in presenting more than one narrative simultaneously on stage. The disadvantage of this approach is that it’s harder to become involved with individual stories.

The selection of Richard Hawley’s poetic songs creates an impressive soundtrack for a rock musical but there is plenty of variation in style. A blistering bluesy version of the title number opens Act Two.  The many excellent songs, angry, poignant or passionate, augment what’s happening on stage and are wonderfully performed but inevitably they seem too often as if they have been tacked on to the story rather than integral to it, like the blistering bluesy version of the title number that opens Act Two.

Robert Hastie moves these various narratives deftly around the set and at tiumes has the whoile cast of over thirty players interweaving on stage. Lynn Page’s clever choreography at times had the cast moving in a rhythmical walking motion and swaying embraces, uniting different times, generations and classes.

Ben Stone’s set is magnificent, filling the stage with a three storey section of a building with the features of a Park Hill high rise. The main action takes place on a basic but sufficient representation of a flat while the upper two floors are occupied by a large band. The flat apparently offers a glorious view of Sheffield but for us it is down-to-earth.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge is an excellent musical that not only has much to say but says it from the heart. It deserves a long life in the West End.

Standing At Sky’s Edge continues at Gillian Lynne Theatre until 3 August 2024.

Click here to buy tickets directly.

Paul was given a review ticket by the producer.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

The Witches musical at the National Theatre – review

Daniel Rigby & Katherine Kingsley reach comedy heights in musical spectacular


★★★

Daniel Rigby and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s hard not to compare the National Theatre’s The Witches with the

West End hit Matilda. Both originated as stories by Road Dahl, both have been turned into much-loved films before being transformed into musical spectaculars.

Good as this well-produced show is, The Witches never quite reaches the heights of its RSC rival. But it does offer an entertaining evening, especially if you want to take your older children to a theatrical show more inventive, and less cliched, than a pantomime.

National Theatre favourite Lucy Kirkwood has done a good job with the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, although it does take a while to get going. It could have gained from being half an hour shorter than its current two-and-a-half hours plus interval.

Still, her lyrics, jointly credited with the composer Dave Malloy, are sharp and witty. The latter clearly knows his way round musicals and has written varied hummable tunes appropriate to the different situations.

The plot goes back to the original story, losing the happier ending of the 1990 film. To remind you, a child discovers that a group of witches is meeting in the hotel at which he’s staying and they are planning to turn every child into a mouse. With the aid of his Gran, he sets out to thwart them.

The cast of The Witches

Director Lyndsey Turner was previously at the National with a very different show about witches. Following the tense drama of The Crucible,  she shows she is also a champion of fast-moving musical comedy. Supported by set and costume designer Lizzie Clachan, Ms Turner takes full advantage of the large cast, and the Olivier revolve.

My only reservation about Ms Clachan’s contribution is the surround of dark thorns which provide a contrast to the brightly colourful sets and costumes (and fill in the enormous Olivier space) but seem like too heavy handed a reminder that the world is a dark place.

Spectacular routines

There’s a Broadway chorus style number Magnificent, which introduces Mr Stringer, a character much expanded from the novel and played by Daniel Rigby as a frantic Basil Fawlty-style hotel manager, obsequious to his rich guests and rude to the less well off.

By the time there is an outbreak of mice in the building, Mr Stringer becomes hysterical and leads possibly the stand-out routine of the show- Out! Out! Out! It’s a dizzying number in which he and his staff prance round the revolve going from room to room looking for mice, placating complaining guests along the way. Daniel Rigby‘s contortions of face and body combined with a strangulated voice surely make him the finest physical comedy actor currently on the London stage.

Katherine Kingsley and cast of The Witches. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Grand High Witch is a superb villain, and Katherine Kingsley extracts every drop of evil from her cauldron. She is imperiously haughty, she snarls at everyone including the audience, and sings an hilarious song Wouldn’t It Be Nice, about how marvellous it would be for parents if they didn’t have children dominating their lives.

Both Daniel Rigby and Katherine Kingsley are a gift wrapped in a bowto this musical. They take the foundations of words, music and situation, and build upon them until the comedy reaches summits of laughter.

The good adult, so to speak, is the boy’s cantankerous elderly gran, beautifully played for laughs and pathos by Sally Anne Triplett. She sings a gorgeous song with her grandson Luke called Heartbeat Duet.

Let’s go back to the comparison with Matilda. Where the earlier musical scores is that its child hero survives intact to the end whereas Luke is turned into a mouse halfway through. At that point, his character alternates between being a mechanical mouse and a  boy in a costume. I know we often need to use our imagination in theatre, but this particular concept failed to fire mine.

One other caveat. Although this is a family show, it is not for young children. It’s not only the complexities of the plot and the darkness of some of the events (Luke’s parents die early on), the language and length are too much for anyone under about ten years old.

Still, for the rest, children and adults alike, there’s plenty of spectacle and comedy in this musical

The Witches performed at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre until 27 January 2024.

Paul paid for his ticket.

Click here to watch the video of this review on the YouTube channel Theatre Reviews With Paul Seven

 

 

 

 

The Lord of the Rings – a musical tale at The Watermill- review

Watermill version of Tolkien musical is small but beautiful

★★★★

Three male actors (Louis Maskell, Matthew Bugg and Nuwan Hugh Perera) in The Lord of the rings A Musical Tale at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury August 2023
Louis Maskell, Matthew Bugg & Nuwan Hugh Perera in The Lord of the Rings. Photo: Pamela Raith

This musical version of The Lord Of The Rings was once a no-expense-spared spectacular that became the West End’s most expensive flop, described by one critic as ‘bored of the rings’.

This revival at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire, is a more modest affair that focuses on the small fellowship at the centre of the story. It relies on the power not of the ring but of acting, and gives more weight to the innate quality of the musical itself.

I have seen the films and read the books, but so long ago it was almost in the Second Age. I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of Sword and Sorcery in general, or Tolkien’s combination of nostalgia and whimsy in particular, so I probably wouldn’t choose to go to this show if I hadn’t been invited to review it. However, I took a major devotee of The Lord of the Rings with me for a different perspective.
When I think of the films, I remember huge battle scenes but, when I think of the books, I remember those ordinary, frightened hobbits finding strength when it’s needed. Director Paul Hart’s emphasis in this version of the musical is very much on the latter, showing the effect war has on the everyday people who are called to serve a cause. This is at the heart of why his magical production triumphs.
The Watermill team has gone all out to make this a special event. When we arrived at the front lawn, we found a hog roast and other food, and a beer and wine stall, perhaps reflecting the hobbits’ passion for food and drink. Then it’s round the back to the Watermill’s garden, a verdant setting perfectly suited to represent the Shires, the bucolic homeland of the hobbits that must be defended. We join the celebrations for Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy first birthday. John O’Mahony combines perkiness with wistfulness in the role of the old hobbit.
It’s here that we first meet our heroes- Frodo and Sam, as well as their fellow travellers Merry and Pippin, and the wizard Gandalf, given an authoritative but kindly demeanour by Peter Matrinker.
Soon the quest to destroy the One Ring and thereby curb the power of the evil Sauron begins, and we transfer to the auditorium where the adventure will take place. You may be relieved, given the current summer, that you can put aside any worry that this might be a largely outdoor production requiring a mac and wellies.
If you’re familiar with The Watermill, you will know that it has a hobbit-scale stage, so Simon Kenny has designed a deceptively bare set to allow room for the many characters and their encounters. However, he has covered the floor and back of the stage in wood that blends with the existing wood of the auditorium to create an all-encompassing atmosphere.
There are double doors at the back, decorated with Celtic knots, and a lift that raises characters above the action. Vivid back projections by George Reeve create a sense of place, from the Elven settlement of Rivendell to the fires of Mount Doom.
Since the floor is empty, it’s mostly down to the quality of the acting of the cast of twenty to create each scene. There are also no concessions to height, even though the story repeatedly makes the point that hobbits are small creatures, so the actors’ achievement is all the greater.
You may gather this is the polar opposite of a spectacular production. We begin, end, and are always rooted in the simple home-loving community of the hobbits, and we see the great war between good and evil from the viewpoint of these ordinary people plus the small band of allies they acquire. We only observe those major battles that so impressed in the films in microcosm, as our heroes engage in one-on-one fights. And the fights, directed by Dani McCallum, are tremendous. There is excitement in buckets as they swing their weapons and duck and dive, sometimes in slow motion, and starkly lit by Rory Beaton.

Great acting is at the heart of the production

Mostly it is the intimacies of the relationships that take centre stage, often in the form of warm or tense exchanges. We witness the growing bravery of the pacifist hobbits, such as the timorous Pippin played by Amelia Gabriel overcoming her fear of trees and the bouncing enthusiasm of Geraint Downing as Merry. We see the warm-hearted but melancholic Frodo displaying inner conflict as the ring tempts him to the dark side (sorry, I’ve gone a bit Star Wars there). It’s a riveting performance from Louis Maskell.
We observe Nuwan Hugh Perera‘s Sam subtly growing from a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed follower to a strong clear-eyed leader as the story progresses. The separated lovers Arwen and Aragorn, played by Aoife O’Dea and Aaron Sidwell, add poignancy. Then there’s the growing respect between the brave but hotheaded dwarf Gimli, played by Folarin Akinmade, and the proud elf Legolas played by Yazdan Qafouri. Tom Giles doubles up as two contrasting leaders- the wise elf Elrond and the scheming wizard Saruman. Peter Dukes (who impressed in The Watermill’s version of Sondheim’s Assassins) reveals bravery and vulnerability as Boromir.
The Lord of the Rings at The Watermill. Photo: Pamela Raith

Not that the production is without spectacle. The most startling and frightening moment comes when a giant spider emerges from the back of the stage and advances on Frodo and Sam. Puppetry designer and maker Charlie Tymms and puppetry director Ashleigh Cheadle deserve credit for that and for some other impressive creatures like the Black Riders.

The intimate nature of this production allows the music to shine. As is a trademark of The Watermill, many of the actors play instruments and sing, beautifully in the case of Yazdan Qafouri and Georgia Louise who also gave an authoritative performance as the Elfin leader Galadriel. The music is by A R Rahman, Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale. The combination of English folk, haunting ballads and Indian style songs works very well in conveying the Peter mood and emotion of the show. There is much exhilarating dancing too choreographed by Anjali Mehra.
It has been described as an immersive production. This is not really the case. We stay in our seats and on the whole the actors stay on the stage. When they don’t though, as when Gollum climbs, almost slithers, around the gallery rail hissing ‘my precious’, it emphasises how much we are part of this journey. Matthew Bugg’s athletic, contorting, slimy Gollum is a star turn, as he wavers between virtue and sin.
The Watermill has been severely hit by the loss of its Arts Council grant, so it’s even more extraordinary that this small theatre in Newbury has been able to achieve what major producers with millions at their disposal were not.
The only reservation I have is that I wished I could have engaged more with these characters and Tolkien’s world of elves and orcs, but there was always a voice whispering in my ear: ‘what a load of tosh’. And, no, that wasn’t the voice of my companion. He loved it and would give it 5 stars.
I loved it too but I do think, at over three hours, it’s a bit too long for the simple story this musical has to tell, and too short to do justice to the complexity of Tolkien’s three weighty books.
The Lord Of The Rings can be experienced at The Watermill Theatre until 15 October 2023. Tickets are available from watermill.org.uk
Paul was given a review ticket by the producer.
Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Rock Follies – Minerva Chichester – Review

Legendary TV series returns as a musical

Three female actors standing in a line raising their right arms in a scne from Rock Follies at the Minerva Theatre Chichetser in July 2023
Zizi Strallen, Angela Marie Hurst & Carly Bawden in Rock Follies. Photo: Johan Persson

Back in 1976, when Rock Follies first appeared on the nation’s screens, TV was very different to today. There was no satellite or streaming, not even recorders, so whereas nowadays 3 million viewers is considered a success, back then Rock Follies had 15 million people watching live.

Consequently, many older people will remember it well, however anyone under, say, 60, may be puzzled as to what the fuss is about. So first, a bit of background. It’s hard to imagine now but in the 1970s, women were rare in the British pop charts and female groups were non-existent. The pop industry was dominated by men both on and off stage. Rock Follies imagined the fate of a female singing group.
And that fate at that time was always likely to be one of chauvinism and exploitation. Equal pay for women had only come into law a few months before the series began. The assumption was still that women in the music industry would be secretaries or groupies. It was a very different world, although the Me-Too movement has shown that less has changed than we might hope.
The title Rock we understand, but why Follies? I’m not sure. Perhaps the creators wanted to reassure an older audience who might be wary of a TV drama about rock music that it would be in the tradition of the spectacular song and dance ‘Follies’ from the early part of the 20th century. Or maybe it was meant to be an ironic suggestion that the idea of a female rock group was a foolish fantasy.
In fact, there’s a lot of irony involved in Rock Follies. Given the way the three singers are treated in the drama, it’s ironic that the people who actually came up with the original idea were also three women but it was used without payment or credit by the television company. Only after a court case are Diane Langton, Gaye Brown and Annabel Leventon getting the recognition they deserve, including a credit in the programme for this new musical version at the Minerva Theatre.
And,  although it is a story of three feminist women who challenge the male world by writing and singing their own songs, the original screenplay and lyrics were written by a man, Howard Schuman. That’s not a criticism. Mr Schuman created great characters and a compelling story. The songs were also composed by a man, the talented Andy Mackay from Roxy Music.
In the current production, the backing musicians are all men. A good band, by the way, led by Toby Higgins.
So when the women call themselves The Little Ladies and then have to explain ‘it’s ironic’, the question is always there: how ironic is it when they are patronised, abused and exploited by men from the music industry, and manipulated into being something they don’t want to be? The women also encounter chauvinist journalists, drugs and messy personal relationships. They do try to stand their ground and some of the best moments are when the men are put in their place.  Eventually, they are driven apart by internal rivalry and differences. (By the way, a lot of young male pop artists were also abused and exploited.)
It’s been the job of Chloë Moss to take all the riches of ten hours of TV drama and reduce them to a two-and-a-half hour musical, while integrating nearly all of two albums worth of songs. On the whole, she does a good job, retaining the essential elements, and making a few changes for the sake of a much shorter story arc. Where I think she could have done better is to have slowed the pace a little. We rush through scene after scene. This is partly because there are over 30 songs to fit in. Good as they are, and often accompanied by some delightful choreography by Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, they don’t tend to advance the story or reveal character.
Consequently, there is even less time to get to know the characters and be involved in their experiences. The dialogue is often a brief exchange that can sound stilted. Having said that, the musical could have done with the women performing more than one song in a row, maybe at the end. That way, they could have got the audience clapping along and appreciating the women united in ‘girl power’.

Strong singers

Philippa Stefani and cast in Rock Follies. Photo: Johan Persson

The main characters are well drawn. Dee is a strong feminist and the driving force of the group. Played by Angela Marie Hurst, she has, and is meant to have, the best voice- a stirring top note-hitting soul sound. Anna, played by Carly Bawden is the intellectual. She’s thoughtful but also unable to cope with pressure. Zizi Strallen is the funny, privileged Q, who avoids confrontation, and has, as someone says, splinters in her bottom from sitting on the fence.

The two people who try to guide them with some degree of care are Harry, played as kindly but weak, by Samuel Barnett and Kitty, a plain speaking, forceful American, played by Tamsin Carroll, who probably gets the most laughs. Philippa Stefani, a late addition to the group, is a plain-speaking Geordie called Roxy who adds another powerful voice.
The others are pretty much one dimensional but, in the time available, it would unfair to expect them to be anything more. The cast including Fred Haig, Stephenson Ardern-Sodje and Sebastian Torkia bring them to life.
Designer Vicki Mortimer makes clever and appropriate use of flight cases (those black boxes with metal edges that are on wheels and contain sound equipment) to represent all the furniture as needed- dressing tables, chairs, even a bed. They roll easily on and off and around the otherwise empty stage floor with the minimum of fuss but the maximum of effect.
In such an open space, lighting plays a vital part. Paule Constable‘s design is excellent at conveying the varying atmospheres of a pub, an office, a recording studio, a dressing room, a TV chat show, and of course a concert stage.
For me, Rock Follies didn’t quite work in the Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva Theatre. It’s an intimate theatre with the audience on three sides. There’s no reason why a musical shouldn’t work there. I recall a brilliant production of The Pajama Game. But it does require the actors to play to all three sides.
Unfortunately, the back of the stage is filled with a structure that accommodates the live band at the top and a small stage for the occasional song sung at a concert. I don’t doubt this was brought about by necessity but it has the effect of forcing the cast too far forward into the open space.  Director Dominic Cooke moves the cast around in a smooth flowing performance but they inevitably pitch too much of the show to the centre with their backs, or at best their sides, often being all that can be seen from the extreme edges of the seating. If you do decide to see this show, I strongly recommend that you sit in that centre block.
Nevertheless, Rock Follies is an entertaining musical blessed with some very good performances.
Rock Follies runs at the Minerva until 26 August 2023
Paul was given a review ticket by the producer

Operation Mincemeat- West End review

​From fringe to hit West End musical

★★★★★

Two actors watch as another dances in front of a painting of Winston Churchill in the stage musical Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre June 2023
Zoe Roberts, Jak Malone & Natasha Hodgson in Operation Mincemeat Photo: Matt Crockett

This was my first ever visit to the Fortune Theatre, because for the last 33 years it has been the home to The Woman In Black. Now it’s hosting Operation Mincemeat and while it may not match the previous occupant’s three decades, this accomplished, fast-moving musical comedy certainly deserves a long run.

From the moment the yellow curtain goes up on Operation Mincemeat, you know you’re in for a treat. It begins with a chorus number by the five cast members, who start as they mean to go on. They fill the stage with their larger than life characters, exuberant performances and the sheer enjoyment of being there.
Over a couple of hours, we are told the true, albeit embellished, story from World War Two of an MI5 plan to use a dead body with fake papers to fool the German army into thinking the British will invade Sardinia rather than Sicily. However, this is not really a tribute to MI5, more a satire on male chauvinism in general and the Old Boy network in particular.
Operation Mincemeat is written and composed by David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoë Roberts, developed from an idea that became a run at the tiny New Diorama theatre in London and then polished into a West End show. Currently, all of the creators, less composer Felix Hagan, are in the cast and are joined by Claire Marie Hall and Jak Malone who have fantastic singing voices. The others sing well too. I’m pretty sure the four understudies who are given equal billing in the programme are also multi-talented.
The cast play many parts of both male and female gender, and this adds an additional layer of humour, as when Natasha Hodgson, playing the group’s leader Ewen Montagu, struts with old Etonian entitlement and masculine pomposity. His response to the question ‘Is it legal?’ is ‘Does it matter?’ And he tells us in song:
​For we were made to give the orders / While lesser men take heed / For some were born to follow / But we were born to lead.

Outstanding performances

Outstanding is Jak Malone as the secretary Hester, who sings the most moving song of the evening, Dear Bill, a fictitious letter to a soldier on the front line. Zoë Roberts is constantly hilarious as Johnny Bevan, the bureaucratic man ultimately in charge, Ian Fleming with his eccentric ideas for a spy novel, and Haselden, our out-of-his-depth ‘man in Spain’. David Cumming is a riot as the shy, panicking, nerdy Charles, while Claire Marie Hall excels as the artless young assistant Jean.
The cast of Operation Mincement, a stage musical at the Fortune Theatre in London. Three actors are standing, one is sitting on a desk, the fifth is seated holding a phone.
Zoe Roberts, Jak Malone,, David Cumming, Natasha Hodgson & Claire-Marie Hall in Operation Mincemeat. Photo: Matt Crockett

Many of the routines seem like classic comedy- music hall even. For example, there’s a scene where all five are exchanging and getting tangled in hats, phones and a briefcase, with clockwork precision. And there are moments of stage magic when they change characters and costumes in the blink of an eye.

The cast are greatly aided by having director Robert Hastie and choregrapher Jenny Arnold on board. Both are highly experienced and it shows in the slickness of the production. And yet Operation Mincemeat retains the feel and excitement of a fringe show. The theatre is one of the smallest in the West End with a stage to match.  Ben Stones‘ set is deliberately sparse with a couple of desks and chairs, a display board and a mobile staircase, plus a backdrop reminiscent of a map, and, that staple of farces, lots of doors. Until that is, we launch into a very non-fringe-like finale, complete with glittering Nazis, which really is as ‘glitzy’ as they announce.
The songs cross a number of musical genres, with clever, witty lyrics that are often delivered at the sort of breakneck speed that may remind you of Gilbert and Sullivan or Frank Loesser. How about this?
If we cannot storm the beaches / It’s sure to spell defeat / If the muscle-men can’t do it / Call the masters of deceit.
In a way, there is a parallel between the small MI5 team that pulled off this unlikely deceit that helped an invasion, and the small group that created this unexpected hit that invaded the West End. It is an incredibly polished, laugh-out-loud musical, and one that deserves to run and run.
Operation Mincemeat is at the Fortune Theatre until at least 4 November 2023. operationmincemeat.com
Paul paid for his ticket.
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The Sound of Music – Chichester – Review

The sound of Rodgers & Hammerstein conquers all

★★★★

Gina Beck and children in The Sound of Music. Photo: Manuel Harlan

I arrived at Chichester Festival Theatre with a lot of prejudice against The Sound Of Music. I’ve never liked nuns (don’t ask), the use of children is so often manipulative, the story is sweeter than aspartame, and the plot is flimsy to nonexistent. And yet Adam Penford‘s production conquered me as surely as Maria wins over Captain Von Trapp.

You’ve almost certainly seen the film version of The Sound Of Music. You’ve definitely heard some of the songs because the soundtrack was the UK’s second best selling album of the 1960s (only Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band outsold it) and it’s still the third best selling soundtrack album of all time. So, even though it came first, the stage show is overshadowed by its screen offspring.
Not that there’s a problem with Maria. Gina Beck brings out all her inner Julie Andrews and more besides to give us a joyful but conflicted character torn between her wish to serve God and her love of the secular world. Her voice is terrific. As is that of Janis Kelly who plays the Mother Abbess. It’s an inspired idea to have an opera singer in this role, giving the part an added authority, and a striking contrast between her maturity and Maria’s youth, when they duet on My Favorite Things. She sends us out of the auditorium at the end of both acts with a rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain that is spine tingling.
No matter how saccharine you think the film is, the stage musical is sweeter. If there were ever any sharp edges to any of the characters, they’ve been well and truly sandpapered. The plot verges on the invisible: there’s a romance with the smallest of bumps in the road to marriage, and a slight touch of peril at the end. (At least the film increases the peril.)
Just to remind you, a novice nun goes to help a widower bring up his children, he is buttoned up, she is open in her emotions, he relaxes, they fall in love. In the background, there’s a battle between good and evil as the Nazis from Germany take over Austria and the von Trapps are forced to flee. Although, when I say ‘evil’, the Nazis’ main fault seems to be bad manners.
Then there’s what we sometimes refer to as the attitudes of the time it was written, in this case 1958 when a woman is encouraged to follow every rainbow till she finds her dream, provided her dream is to find a man who will protect her and whom she can look after.
But none of this matters, because we have the gift of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs. There have been some recent productions of their musicals where a modern eye has been cast over their perceived shortcomings, but here director Adam Penford has decided not to mess with this classic, and simply let those songs speak from the hearts of their creators to the hearts of the audience.
While The Sound Of Music can seem like a massive step backward from the ground-breaking Oklahoma! which launched their partnership, not to mention South Pacific, Carousel and The King And I. I mean, where is the grittiness, where are the challenges to our thoughts and feelings, where is the driving narrative? But in some ways, it is more modern than its predecessors in that the plot is treated as an excuse to show off a concept about the power of song. Song is the driving force for good in the musical: the hills are alive with it, and it’s the pure emotion of the songs, rather than a narrative, through which characters are explored and developed.
From the title song, to Maria (as in How do we solve a problem like), to  My Favorite Things, Do-Re-Mi, Sixteen Going On Seventeen, The Lonely Goatherd, So Long Farewell, Edelweiss and Climb Ev’ry Mountain, the songs provide a lasso that captures your heart, so that what your head thinks really doesn’t matter.
Not that the songs are entirely beyond criticism- I can’t knock Richard Rodgers’ music but Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics can grate a bit at times. It’s a shame the soaring power of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is slightly undermined by the greetings card lyrics:
A dream that will need, All the love you can give
Every day of your life, For as long as you live.
Then again, he wrote: How do you keep a wave upon the sand? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? And of course: Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, which may sound like a random search for videos on YouTube but work perfectly.

Exceptional singing

Indeed, the greatest strengths of this production are to do with the sound of the music:  the exceptional quality of singing of all the cast, the stirring orchestral adaptations by Larry Blank and Mark Cumberland, and the vigorous orchestra under Matt Samer.
In contrast to the film, some of the key characters are much less interesting in the original stage version. Maria’s love rival Elsa is very nice and that’s about it. even though she is given a vivacious portrayal in this production by Emma Williams. In fact, this is the one aspect of the original stage musical with which Adam Penford appears to have messed. In both the stage and film versions, Elsa is a ‘wealthy socialite’ or, to put it another way, a member if the idle rich. Here she is described as the CEO of a large corporation which, and if I’m wrong I apologise, appears to be an addition to the dialogue. It may be an attempt to acknowledge to a modern audience that marriage and motherhood are not the only choices available to women. However, since she is the rival of our heroic singing housewife Maria, there is a risk that, far from being admired, Elsa may be disparaged for being a career woman.
The character of Captain Georg von Trapp has none of the depth of Christopher Plummer’s movie version. Likeable as his portrayal is, Edward Harrison simply doesn’t have enough to work with. Ako Mitchell impresses as his warm, humorous but ultimately spineless friend Herr Detweiler.
And of course, dammit, along with whiskers on kittens and warm woollen mittens, there are the children. Much as you know you’re being manipulated, it’s hard for your resistance not to crumble when the children are as good as this. Let’s not count the almost adult Liesl, who is beautifully played by Lauren Conroy. It’s the other six, and of course the smallest, Gretl, most of all, who touch us with their enthusiasm and innocence. In fact, on the night I saw the show, Gretl disappeared almost as soon as the show began, and after a short break was replaced by Felicity Walton who was superb.
They may be children but they are not amateurish. Two teams alternate (I saw the Yellow team plus Felicity from the Green team). I don’t doubt each team is equally accomplished, as they confidently sing, act and dance.
The Sound of Music. Photo: Manuel Harlan

This is a good point at which to compliment the choreographer Lizzi Gee, a name always associated with the highest quality of work. You can also see the results of her creativity currently in Groundhog Day at The Old Vic. In this production, she presents one joyous routine after another inspired by and enhancing the music. There’s the gaucheness of young love between Liesl and Rolf (played by Dylan Mason) in Sixteen Going On Seventeen which sees them at first tentative in their contact until they end up splashing delightfully in a fountain. The Captain and Maria share a thrilling first dance which tells you all you need to know about their feelings for one another. The complex movements of the seven children show both their capacity for fun and their unity as a family. (Captain Von Trapp himself could not have produced more disciplined kids.)

I have one disappointment to report: the set. It’s surprising because Robert Jones has a great track record but I just don’t think his design works on this occasion. Leaving the thrust stage pretty empty is a good idea because there’s a big cast and a lot going on, without bits of set to manoeuvre around. However, the backdrop is dark hewn rock capped off by the shape of a mountain range. This may be intended to represent the Alps but, unlike those ‘friendly’ peaks, it is gloomy and claustrophobic. The abbey, the von Trapp house and the concert hall are conjured up by pieces of scenery in front of it. There is no sense of the Austrian open air, sky and nature that Maria and the Captain love and that is meant to add contrast to the confines of the Abbey and the darkness of the Nazis.
Where it does work is in the concert hall, venue for the von Trapp family’s public performance, when it is draped with swastikas, while Nazi soldiers stand in the aisles of the auditorium- a truly chilling moment.
So my prejudices were swept aside by the sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Whatever your mood going in, you will feel better when you leave, having seen good conquer evil, and love conquer all.
The Sound of Music continues at Chichester Festival Theatre until 3 September 2023
Paul was given a review ticket by the producer.

Groundhog Day – Old Vic – review

Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day musical is worth watching again and again


★★★★★

Two actors Tanisha Spring and AndyKarl raises glasses in a bar in a scene from the stage musical Groundhog Day at The Old Vic in London June 2023
Tanisha Spring and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photo: Manuel Harlan

I hesitate to say this, because it’s been a few years since I saw the movie Groundhog Day, but Tim Minchin‘s stage musical version at the Old Vic in London may be funnier and deeper than the original.

The story is essentially the same. In fact Danny Rubin who wrote the film screenplay has written this musical’s book . So, once again, a cynical, egocentric TV weatherman Phil Connors is fated to repeat the same day until he redeems himself. The day in question is Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, an annual event when a large rodent predicts the end of winter.

There is some rewriting but the added value is Tim Minchin‘s smart music. Apart from boasting some amusing lyrics, the songs add more emotional depth to the main protagonist. In addition, the character of Phil’s producer Rita is expanded to ramp up the romantic element. In fact, post ‘me too’, women generally are given a more important role in this musical version, with critical attention paid to Phil’s initially appallingly sexism.

The song Playing Nancy that opens Act Two is a case in point.  Nancy, nicely played by Eve Norris, has been presented earlier as simply a shapely body that Phil lusts after. Now the woman laments: ‘I wasn’t quite aware that / I was put here to be stared at’, and asks: ‘Who am I to dream of something better?’

The aspiration to be better provides the thrust of the show. As Phil asks early on: ‘What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?’ In some ways, it’s a simple idea, that it’s never too late to be a better person because each day is the first day of the rest of your life. The message may be wrapped up in glorious comedy but it is profound enough to occur in different forms in Nietsche, Aristotle and Buddhism, as the excellent theatre programme reminds us.

Andy Karl is perfect

So we see Phil go through the steps to redemption, travelling from his initial bemusement, to shock at what seems like a nightmare, to the power going to his head, to suicidal despair, to a growing understanding that the only way to be truly happy is to help others, his redemption completed when he learns humility. Andy Karl is perfect in the role. He can sing and moves well, but the joy of his performance is in his physical appearance: an expressive face that changes from handsome TV star with a fake smile to panic to glee to desperation, and he has an athletic, flexible body that can puff out, deflate, leap, and fall.  Bill Murray, the star of the film, was brilliant as a curmudgeonly weatherman but the complexity Andy Kay and the musical bring to Phil Connors takes the character to a whole new level.

Possibly the most memorable scene is when Phil becomes suicidal. As happens throughout the musical, the day opens with him in bed in his small hotel room. One suicide after another sends him off stage in one direction, only for him to reappear instantly waking up in bed. It’s the sort of trick you see in a film and think little of it but done live on stage, it takes you back to when you first fell in love with the magic of theatre. Credit to Paul Kieve for this and other illusions.

Andy Karl and the company in Groundhog Day. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The set by Rob Howell is a wonder. Scenes of the groundhog ceremony, a diner, a street, and more, switch smoothly from one to the other while consistently returning to the centrepiece of the tiny bedroom. At one point a bar converts to a truck; and there’s also inventive use of model cars and houses to illustrate not only a car chase but a bigger view of the small town.

The nature of the story means that other characters don’t really develop but we do get to know them, and, by Phil’s actions, they do change as they too improve their lives. Take for example Debbie, played by Kamilla Fernandes, who discovers her voice and hits us with a powerful rock’n’roll song.

Tanisha Spring is terrific as Rita Hanson, a sweet, innocent woman who gradually reveals more about her insecure self and her ambitions, and provides the moral example Phil needs. The musical has a lot to say about time: we may all have felt regret at wasting it, or wishing we could have it over again to do things differently, or dreaming of the future while not living in the present. Ms Spring leads two of the best songs about this: she kicks off One Day which becomes an ensemble climax to Act One (Sample line: ‘One day, some day, my prince will come / But I won’t hold my breath / There’s only divorcees and weirdos left’),  and an outstanding second act duet with Andy Karl, If I Had My Time Again which includes the line ‘I’d take the path less trodden / avoid the crap I trod in’.

As well as enjoying the wonder and the laughter again, another reason for seeing Groundhog Day repeatedly is to catch more of Tim Minchin‘s clever lyrics.

Matthew Warchus directs the whole imaginative spectacle with imagination and verve. If this production doesn’t end up with a long run in the West End (and it should), it would make a great alternative to the Old Vic’s annual Groundhog Day-like repeat of A Christmas Carol.

Groundhog Day The Musical can be seen at The Old Vic in London until 19 August 2023.

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket.

Click here to watch this review of Groundhog Day on our YouTube channel

 

 

 

 

The Third Man at The Menier – review

A musical thriller from a stellar team

★★★★

Scene from The Third Man at The Menier in June 2023
Sam Underwood and Natalie Dunne in The Third Man. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Theatre has become something of a vampire in recent years, roaming the dark auditoria of cinemas searching for films to turn into musicals. Sunset Boulevard is being revived; Groundhog Day is at the Old Vic; a version of Brokeback Mountain with music can be seen at Sohoplace; 42nd Street, The Wizard Of Oz, Sunset Boulevard and Grease are all back this year; Mrs Doubtfire is on the way and of course Back To The Future, Moulin Rouge and The Lion King are already racking up long runs. Even so, one film I never expected to be adapted as a stage musical is The Third Man. Yet here it is at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory – and it’s a triumph.

I have a slight reservation about one aspect of the adaptation of The Third Man, which I’ll come to, but it’s far outweighed by the thrilling pace and the rollercoaster emotions it evokes. Wisely it sticks closely to Graham Greene’s original mystery story of love and betrayal with its reluctant hero, its twists and turns, and its shocks. I’ll try not to give too much away because you may not have seen Carol Reed‘s classic black-and-white film from 1949.

The creative team of Christopher Hampton, Don Black, George Fenton and Trevor Nunn are all as old or older than the film. Their new musical version is a distillation of all their talent and experience.

Let’s start with the music written by George Fenton. Among the hundred plus films and TV series for which he has written the score are Gandhi, You’ve Got Mail, The Jewel In The Crown and David Attenborough’s Planet series. Appropriate to a serious story, it leans towards the drama of Claude-Michel Schoenberg‘s music for Les Miserables or the starkness of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.

Mr Fenton is a brave man to tackle The Third Man because the film’s theme is one of the most famous ever written. In this musical version, he pays brief homage to the jangling zither-based hit but goes for a score that suggests danger, passion and anger. Played by a live nine piece orchestra, directed by Tamara Saringer, the songs enhance the story and reveal character, as they should in a good musical.

The legendary Don Black and Christopher Hampton, provide the tight book and sharp lyrics. There are even a couple of duets that Rodgers and Hammerstein would have been proud of.

The story is about a pulp fiction writer called Holly Martins, who arrives in Vienna at the end of World War 2, when it is occupied by the American, British and Russian soldiers. He’s there to do some work for an old school friend Harry Lime, only to find he has died in an accident. As the first act progresses, he becomes increasingly suspicious about the circumstances surrounding his death. The British military police meanwhile indicate to him that Lime was a bad lot.

The first act ends with an astonishing discovery and the show continues with even more shocking revelations and heightened drama.

Where the musical really stands out is in the feelings expressed by Holly and also by Lime’s lover Anna. Both loved Harry and can’t believe he would have been involved in anything truly bad. As the pair investigate Harry’s death, Holly falls in love with Anna and pursues her with reckless, puppy-like devotion, a sentiment she does not return.

Sam Underwood is a fine singer and actor who communicates sadness, frustration and infatuation as he searches for the truth and wrestles with his conscience. With his naïve, boyish determination, Holly could be a hero from one of his adventure novels

Natalie Dunne is strong as Anna. By dwelling on her character more than is the case in the film, the musical is able to show her in a nightclub singing songs that could have come out of The Threepenny Opera or indeed Cabaret, songs both sad and amusing- and indicative of her free-thinking character. And because we get to know her, the subplot of the triangle between Holly, Anna and Harry carries more weight.

Simon Bailey also impresses as a callous villain who commands devotion. And that’s my reservation about the adaptation: he is portrayed as more obviously nasty and not as full of fake charm as this key character was in the film.

The Third Man at The Menier. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Edward Baker-Duly and Jonathan Andrew Hume strike just the right note as righteous but ruthless military policemen Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine. Other characters are more in the way of caricatures but they are well acted- it’s a pleasure to see Derek Griffiths as The Porter. Rachel Izen is his wife, and Gary Milner, Alan Vicary, and Harry Morrison are Lime’s shady associates.

The design by Paul Farnsworth is full of atmosphere. The costumes in grey or other subdued colours add to the film noir effect. Rubble litters the edges of the stage floor, a dark alley or tunnel goes off to the side: You feel you are in a sinister city ravaged by war.

The Menier has been reconfigured so the audience is on three sides. Actors run up and down aisles, ramping up the excitement, and, thank goodness, the sight lines are kept free from obstruction. The simplest of furniture is enough to suggest effectively a hotel lounge, backstage at the nightclub, a flat, and even a ferris wheel gondola.

Getting us off to the best of starts is the opening scene where Holly wanders the dimly lit streets of Vienna at night, helped by dark expressionist lighting from Emma Chapman, and is surrounded by people begging. Straightaway we know we are in desperate times.

It’s a masterpiece of direction by Trevor Nunn, who brings so much that he has learned and practised in a long career that encompasses Les Miserables, Cats and the National Theatre production of Oklahoma! He constantly holds our attention, with a changing pace that switches from frenetic activity to tense conversation.

I must credit to Christopher Hampton whose previous plays and translations  include Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Art, Sunset Boulevard and Florian Zeller’s The Father. I thought a musical adaptation of The Third Man couldn’t be done, but he and his team have done it.

The Third Man is performing at The Menier Chocolate Factory until 9 September 2023.

Paul paid for his ticket to see the final preview performance.

Watch this review of The Third Man at The Menier on YouTube

 

 

 

Assassins at Chichester – review

Assassins looks and sounds great but misses its target

★★★

Danny Mac seated on a bale of straw with smoke around him while playing John Wilkes Booth in the Chichetser Festival Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins in June 2023
Danny Mac in Assassins.Photo: Johan Persson

Chichester Festival Theatre’s reputation as musicals producer is second to none but its latest revival is, for me, a rare mis-step.

Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins may not rank as one of his greatest works, but its reputation has grown since its premiere in 1990. The bleak musical comedy, with book by John Weidman, shows how the American Dream- that anyone can be a success- has become a nightmare. Its bleak view is that celebrity has become a replacement for real achievement, and that one particular short cut to fame is assassinating a President.

A string of would be assassins follows the precedent set by John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abraham Lincoln, and leads ultimately to the traumatic loss of John Kennedy at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald. However, we gain little understanding of the individuals beyond their desire for fame for themselves or their cause (if they have one).

There is a lot to enjoy along the journey. There are songs for a start, which are mainly pastiches of various kinds of popular American music. They may not be Sondheim’s finest tunes but the use of popular music styles to talk about murder is horrifying. There’s the jaunty anthem Everybody’s Got The Right, the right to their dream that is, that bookends the show; and Gun Song, a romantic love song to a killing weapon; and Something Just Broke, a hauntingly sad reaction to the death of Kennedy.

The show originally used the device of a fairground shooting gallery in which contestants are given a gun and invited to take a shot at a President for the prize of fame if they succeed. It’s a metaphor that serves well the concept of the randomness of celebrity. As each takes his or her shot, they sink into oblivion, forming a disappointed community until together they encourage Oswald to commit a presidential assassination that shocked the world.

So where did the Chichester production go wrong?

Not with the performers, who are excellent. The characters they play do not have much depth, but are nevertheless given performances both vivid and amusing. Peter Forbes is suitably authoritative and sinister as The Proprietor or host; Danny Mac, with a strong singing voice, is the handsome and manipulative John Wilkes Booth, who you can believe would inspire the others; Harry Hepple is outstanding as the easy-going Charles Guiteau, who killed President Garfield because he believed he should have been made French ambassador; Sam Oladeinde shines as Leon Czolgosz, the shy, angry killer of President McKinley; Nick Holder as Samuel Byck wanders around the auditorium in a soiled Santa Claus outfit ranting about President Nixon (and Leonard Bernstein, for that matter) in a funny but frightening performance; Amy Booth-Steel is Sarah Jane Moore, the would be assassin of President Ford whose inability to shoot straight gains the most laughs; and Samuel Thomas is a chilling Lee Harvey Oswald, a man so feeble in his resolve as to make you squirm in your seat at the arbitrary nature of Kennedy’s death.

Why improve the perfect musical?

For me, the problem with the production was the way director Polly Findlay updated the concept to cover the modern cult of celebrity, starting with a reference to the recent celebrity President, Donald Trump. So, the on-stage band wear red baseball caps, and, as the audience enter, there are actors in animal mascot costumes encouraging Mexican waves.

The host looks very like Mr Trump. But why is the President handing out the guns? Trump may have encouraged the storming of the Capitol building, but this updating means you straightaway lose the distinction between people who achieve their dream of celebrity through assassinating a President and the Presidents themselves, who achieved their fame through a political and fairly democratic process.

Assassins at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

In support of this change of emphasis, Lizzie Clachan’s wonderful set places the Oval Office rather than a fairground in the centre. Giant video screens on either side show the choice of targets, turning the original shooting gallery concept into a game show, suggesting the way TV turns nonentities into household names. Three TV news reporters replace the single Balladeer to provide the commentary. They hold their mics like guns, perhaps indicating the media’s contribution to the cult of celebrity killers. It’s certainly a long way from the fairground. This is all the more surprising since Stephen Sondheim once said he couldn’t think how to improve Assassins.

This is a musical that takes a superficial meander through various would-be Presidential assassins. It’s loosely held together by a concept that they are a corruption of the American Dream. Its fabric is too delicate to accommodate the tacking on of references to modern day celebrity. The Watermill Theatre production of 2019 didn’t stray from the fairground concept until the death of Kennedy, and was, in my opinion, the better for that single focus.

That quibble aside, Assassins is a musical worth reviving and Chichester Festival Theatre has come up with a fabulous looking production with superb performances.

Assassins can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 24 June 2023.
Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the theatre.

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel Theatre.Reviews With Paul Seven