The Inquiry – Minerva – review

New political play by Guardian writer lacks drama

★★

John Heffernan, a male actor, stands in front of Deborah Findlay, a female actor, and leans forward to make a point, in the play The Inquiry at Chichestre's Minerva Theatre
Deborah Findlay & John Heffernan in The Inquiry. Photo: Manuel Harlan

I’ve probably been to and enjoyed more plays at Chichester Festival Theatres than anywhere else except the National Theatre. Unfortunately, The Inquiry at The Minerva wasn’t one of them.

The finale of Chichester’s 2023 season is Harry Davies’ theatrical debut and, no question, he is a promising playwright. Indeed there are signs that he has the potential to be another James Graham. I even suspect that, with more work, this play could take off but, at the moment, it’s still on the runway.

Before I report on my inquiry into what went wrong with The Inquiry, let me describe the subject of the play. Public Inquiries were established to answer the need for independent investigations into major incidents, as opposed to the previous practice of governments scrutinising their own wrongdoing. Harry Davies questions just how independent they are.
The subject of this particular Inquiry is a mass poisoning involving a water company. We join it at the stage known as ‘Maxwellisation’, a word I’d never come across before, but which is the term used for the moment when an Inquiry’s draft report is passed to those criticised, for comment and possible correction of facts.
The Justice Minister, who is also Lord Chancellor and an aspiring Prime Minister, has been chastised in the report for his actions whilst Environment Minister. He is dragging his feet in providing his response. To spice things up, someone is leaking confidential information about the report. The minister and his cohort are convinced it must be the Inquiry chair’s team. They plan a counterattack through the media to undermine the inquiry.
You might imagine this is the stuff of gripping drama. It’s not. Apparently, the Inquiry has so far taken four years, and the first act, in which the groundwork is laid for the second act, at some moments felt like it was going to last as long.
The complexities of public inquiries and political intrigues have the potential to be interesting, but only if the characters are meaty. The problem with The Inquiry is that they’re all rather more vegetable than red-blooded.
John Heffernan plays Arthur Gill, the minister under siege. Soft spoken with a ready smile and a flippant approach to serious questions, he is never likely to be accused of being a bully, or arrogant or even ambitious, despite having his eyes on the prime ministerial prize. Mr Heffernan brings colour to the role but he’s working from a pastel palette.
His assistant Helen played by Stephanie Street and his civil servant-cum-just-plain-servant Donna, played by Macy Nyman, are scarcely less pleasant.
Over on the opposing team, Lady Justice Deborah Wingate who chairs the Inquiry is just as quietly spoken, reasonable and smiley. You do get a sense of the steel she would need to employ in her position, but Deborah Findlay’s portrayal emphasises the niceness. No less nice is her right-hand man Jonathan Hayden KC, a charming fixer played by Nicholas Rowe.
Oh, and there’s Arthur Gill’s fixer, his old mentor, Lord Patrick Thorncliffe, who ‘knows’ people and shows at least a hint of ruthlessness behind his smooth exterior. Malcolm Sinclair is appropriately patrician in the role.

Not enough variety in the characters

Mr Davies writes decent, flowing dialogue but his characters all have the same way of speaking, and they’re all ever so polite. It’s as if they all went to the same public school, the same university and belong to the same club. Imagine you bought a Kellogg’s variety pack, and found they were all cornflakes. At one point, Arthur and Deborah even compare memories of their barrister days.
Now, Harry Davies might be making a point that those who run our government and judicial system are all part of an elite club, who know one another and have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of us. But, in a drama, we need characters to have characteristics that will amuse us and annoy us, but, most of all, make us believe their story.
Take David Cameron and Boris Johnson. They have almost identical educational backgrounds but very different characters. The people in The Inquiry seem to have no distinguishing features. When it comes to vanilla, they rival Madagascar.
John Heffernan, Stephanie Street and Malcolm Sinclair who are three actors in the play The Inquiry at The Minerva Theatre in Chichester, are grouped around a table
John Heffernan, Stephanie Street & Malcolm Sinclair in The Inquiry. Photo: Manuel Harlan

I don’t mean The Inquiry should be like The Thick Of It but it would help if the combatants had some distinguishing mannerisms, verbal habits, or, heaven forbid, volatility. For goodness sake, these are politicians and barristers, professions full of actors manqués, people who deliberately adopt a persona for effect. It not only undermines the drama than none of them possess a ready wit, a line in sarcasm, a short fuse, or even a twitch, it takes away credibility.

The set designed by Max Jones reflects this: a background of a large rectangle of oak against a larger rectangle of marble, a leather-topped desk on a green carpet on a polished wooden floor. What could be more solid, more neutral- and more boring? This would be highly effective, if only it were in contrast to the characters squabbling on this stage.
Thank goodness for the quality of acting and Joanna Bowman’s direction, which breathed some life into the story.
There are moments within the play when you wake up and take notice. Each act features an ongoing interview between Arthur and a friendly journalist, Elyse. She’s not exactly Jeremy Paxman but she does get beneath his skin, and enables him to reveal more about himself than we might otherwise have learned. It’s a part played with zest by Shazia Nichols.
And I did like the way the play was full of misdirections, admittedly some more clever than others, before it gets to its big question: whether these two powerful people- the minister and the judge- will put their personal feelings or their ambition first.
Everything leads to the one-on-one confrontation, as he tries to force her into resignation and she steadfastly stands her ground. This provides some real drama, as an amiable irresistible force meets a mild-mannered immovable object. It’s a scene of revelations and one major twist. However, that twist is so implausible that when Dame Deborah said, ‘I find that hard to believe’, I found myself nodding: ‘You and me both, my Lady.’

I wondered for a moment whether I’d got the time frame wrong but the play is clearly set in the present day or thereabouts. Both have secrets that could have been scandals in a play from the early 1950s, maybe by Terence Rattigan whose style this drama resembles, but today? I wasn’t convinced. 
Even if The Inquiry doesn’t quite deliver the goods, I hope to see more from Harry Davies.
The Inquiry can be seen at The Minerva until 11 November 2023
Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre

A View From The Bridge – Headlong – review

Headlong’s version of Arthur Miller’s classic is well acted but over egged

★★★

Jonathan Slinger & Katy Bushell in A View From The Bridge. Photo: The Other Richard

A View from The Bridge is a modern classic. Rooted in ancient Greek tragedy, it was written by Arthur Miller, a man who has a claim to be the greatest playwright of the twentieth century.

When you produce a new version of a classic play, inevitably some of your audience will have memories of previous productions. In Britain, Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 National Theatre production with the great Michael Gambon and Ivo Von Hove’s 2014 Young Vic production starring Mark Strong both loom large as benchmarks. They may be hard acts to follow, but theatre demands new productions. Of course, you can watch a film of the Young Vic production, but a stage play is designed to be a unique nightly collaboration between actors and us the audience.

So I looked forward to Headlong’s production, which has been co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, Octagon Theatre Bolton, and the Rose Theatre. Thanks to the accomplished well-directed cast, Headlong’s A View From The Bridge is worth seeing, but, in an over egged production, the director doesn’t allow the play to speak for itself.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the plot. Eddie Carbone is a longshoreman or dock worker in New York. He lives in an Italian American community, just below the Brooklyn Bridge. And Miller tells us that title refers to us- the middle class audience with our modern outlook- observing from the bridge this normally out-of-sight working class community rooted in a more ancient culture.

Eddie and his wife Beatrice have brought up her dead sister’s daughter Catherine who has now arrived at that moment when a child becomes an adult. (It’s around 1950, so we must accept that kids grew up more slowly in those days.) Eddie still sees her as the little girl he needs to protect but that feeling is now coloured by an unacknowledged sexual attraction.

Then two of Bea’s cousins arrive from Italy. The brothers are illegal immigrants, what we might call today economic migrants who have escaped the poverty, in Rodolpho’s case to become an American citizen, in Marco’s case to earn money to support his family.

Things start to go wrong when Catherine and Rodolpho fall in love. Eddie is jealous but hides this by implying that Rodolpho is really gay and is tricking Catherine into marrying him in order to gain US citizenship. Eddie’s inner conflict and how this inarticulate working class man deals with it is the core of the tragedy of this play.

The cast are uniformly excellent and Holly Race Roughan’s production gives them the space to savour the language of the play. Jonathan Slinger as Eddie brings out the frustration, ignorance and anger required in the role, as he swaggers, slumps, stares and rages.

Rachelle Diedericks as Catherine starts naïve, barely recognising her own sexual power. She matures until by the end of the play she is confident enough to shout down Eddie. It’s a subtle blossoming that marks Ms Diedericks as an actor to watch out for.

Eddie’s conduct is appalling and it’s hard to feel sympathy for him but he presents a challenge for Catherine and Beatrice, who both love him, and are in many ways the play’s ultimate victims.

Bea is possibly the most interesting character. She clearly envies Catherine and encourages her to take advantage of opportunities she never had. Kirsty Bushell imbues Bea with an inner strength and confidence which give her a power over Eddie, and for much of the play she is able to subdue his more extreme behaviour.  She is frustrated by Eddie’s lack of sexual interest in her and her constant revealing of her legs can be taken as a sign of her own active sexuality.

Why is Eddie not interested in her? It is not simply that he is distracted by Catherine. The text hints that he may have, again uncoinscious, homosexual leanings, which adds another layer to this complex play. Maybe Eddie is even attracted to Rodolpho.

It’s possible that Arthur Miller would have developed this more, if he’d written the play today, but this production decides to do the job for him by featuring a fantasy male ballet dancer performing homoerotically in front of Eddie. I don’t know why Holly Race Roughan, who us s talented director, felt we needed this aspect of the play marked with a fluorescent pen. Just as earlier, when we first see Catherine, she is on a children’s swing, a prop that seems to clutter the stage and serve no purpose except to underline her adolescence. It’s as if the director doesn’t trust the text to make the point without underlining it.

The Headlong production of A View From The Bridge

As for Rodolpho,  Luke Newberry plays him as artistic, sensitive and passionate, but without any obvious sign of him being gay. Like the modern American he aspires to be, Rodolpho sees the value in the virtues of compromise and forgiveness.

By contrast, his brother Marco, in a beautifully restrained performance by Tommy Sim’aan, is strong and silent except for the moment when he dramatically takes centre stage to show Eddie who is the alpha male.

The conflict between the rule of law and the code of the Italian community is another major theme. And Eddie’s self-inflicted downfall comes from his breach of the code, and his recourse to the law. This makes the part of the lawyer Alfieri pivotal in raising questions about the limits of the law in providing justice, particularly in a community which in the past has sorted out its own forms of justice. Nancy Crane takes on this role, possibly the first time a woman has played the part. She is authoritative and sympathetic, in a way appropriate to someone who is also a narrator-cum-Greek chorus, a role designed to remind us that we are outsiders viewing the unfolding tragedy.

The austere set by Moi Tran comprises a claustrophobic shiny black wall and stage, with an oppressive neon sign saying Red Hook, the name of the neighbourhood, that might have looked good in an art gallery but was over the top for this family drama. A staircase and high walkway are a further indication of how low this family are. The main props are a number of wooden chairs. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time to make the chairs double as the heavy bales the longshoremen carry, but it didn’t really work.

I regret I have one more criticism to make of the directing. During the final moving final tableau, a very large member of the cast stands at the front of the stage, blocking the view of a significant part of the audience. This is frankly unforgivable.

Having got that off my chest, let me say that, generally, Holly Race Roughan has put together a decent version of A View From The Bridge. It has light and shade, variations of pace, and dollops of tension. But, if the creative team had done less, they could have achieved more.

A View From The Bridge opened at Octagon Theatre Bolton on 8 September 2023. It can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until  28 October and at Rose Theatre from 31 October to 11 November 2023.

Paul was given a review ticket by the theatre.

Watch 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

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.

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

 

Visitors by Barney Norris – The Watermill – review

Threatened theatre produces a jewel of a play

★★★★

Tessa Bell-Briggs and Christopher Ravenscroft in Visitors. Pamela Raith Photography

The Arts Council has cut its annual funding to The Watermill Theatre in Newbury which will be a tragedy for UK theatre if they are no longer able to produce shows like last year’s Whistle Down The Wind, Bleak Expectations (soon to open in the West End), or their current production of Visitors.

Visitors was written by Barney Norris about ten years ago and has been revived with the author now directing. It is a sad but ultimately uplifting play about the long-lasting relationship of an elderly couple, one of whom is succumbing to dementia, contrasted with the rootlessness of newer generations. It is beautifully written, both in its construction and in its language.

After my recent visit to A Little Life where I was bombarded with blood, violence and video, it was something of a relief to be witnessing a play that relies on actors and words- pure but never simple. The Watermill has a small stage and the designers Good Teeth use it well to create a farmhouse sitting room made for two and, to the sides, a suggestion of the ripe wheat fields that were the business of the farm and now being symbolically harvested.

The occupants are Edie and Arthur, now well into their old age. In many ways, the play is a eulogy to a rural way of life that has been lost in our consumer-driven metropolitan world. They met as very young people and have adapted to each other in the same way as they have lived their lives, with a kind of make-do-and-mend. They may not have had the family or the holidays they would have liked, but they have happy memories, especially of a wedding on a beach. They have come to rely on one another and take strength from their shared experience. They talk, well Edie talks mainly, but now, as Edie puts it, her dementia has created a dam that holds back what she wants to think and say.

Barney Norris is clearly interested in the power of roots and tradition. His adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding at Salisbury Playhouse in 2020 was firmly set in the community of Salisbury Plain. In Visitors, the Wiltshire farm has been in Arthur’s family for three generations, but the continuity that it, and the elderly couple who have lived there all their married life, represents is under threat. Their son Steve isn’t interested in taking over the farm and has pursued a career in insurance. A young carer, Kate, has been drafted in to help them in their old age but she is neither skilled nor certain to stay.

The restless attitude of the newer generations contrasts with the stoicism and acceptance of the older one. Steve is dissatisfied with his life and whose marriage is on the rocks. The millennial Kate is drifting aimlessly. As Edie says to her: ‘You’re unsure because you could be anyone, really, and you don’t know which life to have.’ Edie may wonder what other lives she might have led, but is content with the one she did.

If Steve and Kate are visitors to Edie and Arthur, Edie in her more lucid moments regards us all as visitors to the earth for the duration of our lives, and sees that we must make the most of it, which she fears Steve and Kate will not, given the illusion of choice that today’s rootless world offers.

As the play moves towards the inevitable closing of the door on Edie and Arthur’s life together, we learn more about all four characters.

An authentic portrait of old age

Edie is revealed to be well-read and quite a philosopher, and, in her use of language, a poet. Her brain may now be letting her down in her interactions with others but she sees the patterns of sunlight across the room and over the wheat fields, changing but eternal. Tessa Bell-Briggs as Edie seamlessly segues between warm awareness and drowning in dementia, while always retaining the sense of who she is.

Three characters sit in a circle chatting and laughing in a scene from Visitors at The Watermill Newbury April 2023
Tessa Bell-Briggs, Patrick Toomey and Nathalie Barclay in Visitors. Pamela Raith Photography

Arthur is quiet and, like many men of that generation, not given to showing his emotions, which makes the moment all the more poignant when, contemplating the prospect of Edie going into a home, he breaks down in tears. Christopher Ravenscroft gives a deep performance as a shy, gentle man whose eyes twinkle with contentment and who is horrified when his lack of social skills causes him to say the wrong thing. It’s a portrayal so authentic, you feel you know him from somewhere.

Patrick Toomey plays the middle-aged, but yet to grow up, son. As we find out more about him, his initial crassness gives way to a sense that, despite his different life choices, he is like his father in his inarticulacy and social blunders.

Nathalie Barclay is Kate, the slightly on edge young woman with blue hair who finds temporary security by caring for his parents.

Despite how I have described the play, Visitors is celebratory rather than depressing. Yes, all life is temporary and usually ends badly, but Edie and Arthur have had a fulfilled life, made so by things that can’t be accounted for by economists and marketers, like tradition, love and acceptance. I thank Barney Norris for putting it on record before people like Edie and Arthur end their visit to our world and their way of life disappears forever.

Visitors is running at The Watermill until 22 April 2023. https://www.watermill.org.uk/

Paul was given a review ticket by the producer

Click here to watch this review on our YouTube channel

 

 

 

The Two Popes – touring – review

★★★

Production photo from The Two Popes at Rose Theatre near London showing Nicholas Woodeson holding Anton Lesser in September 2022
Nicholas Woodeson & Anton Lesser in The Two Popes. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If like me, you have little knowledge of the Roman Catholic Church and even less interest in it, you might think an evening with not one but two popes would be akin to a visit to the Spanish Inquisition. In fact, this combative conversation between Pope Benedict XVI, who abdicated in 2013, and Pope Francis, who replaced him, is both intriguing and amusing.

It helps that one is deeply conservative and the other highly liberal, so there is plenty of room for conflict. It helps even more that these two contrasting kings of Catholicism are played by two sovereigns of the stage, Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson.

Benedict XVI’s abdication was almost unprecedented. (I say ‘almost’, because a pope did abdicate 700 years previously.) Anthony McCarten’s play about this conservative German and his successor, the liberal Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio, was first produced by Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre in 2019, before Covid intervened. Their Artistic Director James Dacre directs this revived co-production, which I saw at the Rose Theatre in Kingston before its tour to a number of regional theatres.

Mr McCarten, who previously wrote The Theory Of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody as well as the film version of this play, recently penned The Collaboration. It’s another play about two people with contrasting characters and views, the artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was very enjoyable and is now on its way to Broadway following a run at the Young Vic.

You can see why the idea of a meeting between these two very different popes intrigued Anthony McCarten. The facts of the transfer of power are true but the details of what conversations may have taken place come from his fertile imagination.

The two popes don’t get together straightaway. Initially, we meet each of them separately, beginning with Pope Benedict played by Anton Lesser. We find him in his apartment with a German nun, played by Lynsey Beachamp. They share a conservative nostalgia for their country of birth that manifests itself in the food they eat and the German whodunit series that they watch enthusiastically on TV. He moves stiffly, conveying both old age and, metaphorically, a rigidity of views. Mr Lesser has a clipped but silky way of speaking, that conveys both authority and warmth. The warmth is important because he is publicly perceived as ‘God’s rottweiler’. The reality is, we learn, that he is more shy than cold, more a scholar than a front man. He didn’t want the job of Pope and he still doesn’t.

Without this insight into Benedict’s human side, this would be a very one-sided play between a cold fish and the warm human being that is Cardinal Bergoglio. We meet the latter on a visit to a slum church in his home country of Argentina. Played by Nicholas Woodeson, he has an impish smile and bounces round the stage like a Duracell bunny. He too chats with a nun, played by Leaphia Darko, but this time about his liberal views, which appeal to the poor of the developing world. Ironically, he too wants to retire from his job.

Although they are as different as The Telegraph and The Guardian, Pope Benedict is aware that the Cardinal is his likely successor, and that he can prevent this from happening simply by accepting the Cardinal’s resignation. He decides to meet him and check him out.

The first meeting is very much a clash of views, which frankly I found a little tedious, but I suspect someone more interested in the Catholic Church might find it fascinating.

Anton Lesser & Nicholas Woddeson in The Two Popes. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The second act really takes off, as the two find out that despite their differences, what they have in common may be what is important. We know the outcome so it’s not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff but the exchanges are funny at times, interesting at others, and sometimes quite moving, as when the two confess their weaknesses and shortcomings. It is a joy to see the interaction between these two great actors.

The set, designed Jonathan Fensom, comprises an artificial proscenium arch onto which a marble surface and the scene locations are projected- in Latin! This reinforces that what is happening is contained within the solidity of a church that has been around for two thousand years. So maybe these two popes, while appearing to be taking the church from one extreme to another, merely represent a natural adjustment that has and will take place again and again over time.

The Two Popes is at the Rose Theatre until 23 September 2022 and will then tour to Cambridge Arts Theatre (27 September-1 October), Cheltenham Everyman (4-8 October), Northampton Royal & Derngate (11-15 October), Oxford Playhouse (18-22 October) and Theatre Royal Bath (25-29 October).

Paul was given a complimentary review ticket by the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

 

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads – Chichester – review

Roy Williams’ portrayal of racist England supporters retains its power

★★★★★

Production photo from Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads at Chichetser 2022 showing members of the cast
Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads. Photo: Helen Murray

Seeing Roy WilliamsSing Yer Heart Out For The Lads is not a comfortable experience but this is an important play in a flawless production from Chichester Festival Theatre. I suspect some people may think this is a play about football. It isn’t. It takes us to the heart of the dark side of English football supporters- the so-called hooligans, the ones who chant racist remarks, the ones who nowadays abuse black players on social media- and those who let it happen.

Racism exists in all corners of society but this play looks at a microcosm, the working class (or mainly working class) tribalism that afflicts the national game. It has its funny moments but for the most part, Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads is horrifying.  I came out shocked to the core by this forensic exposure of racist, nationalist England.

We meet the all too believable characters in the King George pub in London where they have assembled to watch England play Germany in the year 2000. To an extent, they are representative of various kinds of working class people, but Roy Williams imbues them with a complexity that takes them far beyond stereotypes. He writes natural-sounding dialogue that is fitting for each character but that also sparkles and punches. (If you’ve heard his BBC Radio 4 series The Interrogation, you’ll be familiar with his ability to create convincing conversation.) He is truly one of our finest living playwrights.

The play was first performed in 2002. I’d like to think we’ve moved on to a more equal and tolerant society since then, and perhaps we have a little, but there is still an unacceptable amount of racism around, as the Black Lives Matter campaign has shown, and as revealed, for example, by the report into racism at Yorkshire County Cricket Club.

Connected with racism, as the ‘England supporters’ in the play show, we are plagued by a kind of nationalism that goes beyond pride in one’s country to hatred of foreigners and immigrants. As Billy Bragg said recently: ‘Not everyone who voted Brexit is racist, but every racist voted Brexit.’

Fun set houses a serious play

This is a revival of the Chichester production which was first performed in 2019 in the so-called Spiegeltent. Nearly all of that cast has reassembled, and the immersive set, conceived by the original director Nicole Charles, is also reproduced but on a larger scale.

The first thing you see is the set, designed by Joanna Scotcher. It replicates in painstaking detail a traditional London pub, which overflows into and beyond the auditorium. Some of the audience sit around the perimeter of the set like drinkers in the pub. It’s actually a working bar and I had a drink there during the interval, perched on a barstool. Screens that show the match double as CCTV showing us private conversations.

But the fun stops as soon as the play begins. We meet and get to know these characters, some of whom are members of the pub’s football team, all there to watch England playing Germany in a game of football. Some are out-and-out racist; some are covert racists; some hide and are maybe even unaware of their racism, however it comes out at times when emotion takes over.

Production photo from Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads at Chichester's Minerva Theatre 2022 showing Michael Hidgson and Richard Riddell
Michael Hodgson & Richard Riddell in Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads. Photo: Helen Murray

At one extreme is Lawrie, an angry skinhead played by Richard Riddell as so close to boiling point that his face is lobster red. We can see that all of these people have reasons to resent their lowly position in society and that aggressively supporting their football team may give them some reflected status. But Lawrie is more than that. He is a psychopath looking for anyone to kick. At his side, whispering in his ear, is Alan, played with a cold voice and dispassionate demeanour by Michael Hodgson. He’s an articulate man who proudly justifies his sense of racial superiority. Like the leaders of fascist parties through the ages, he manipulates ignorant people like Lawrie to do his dirty work.

There are two black people in the group: Mark and his younger brother Barry. Mark has been in the army and fought for his country only to find that his country doesn’t seem to regard him as truly British. We discover that his own behaviour as a soldier has been brutal. Mark Springer plays him as superficially calm but with a low-key resentment that rumbles across the pub floor.

Makir Ahmed is Barry, the team’s star player. He knows that his teammates are racist, to a greater or lesser extent, but chooses to ignore that in an attempt to fit in. He even chants about winning World War Two (an event over 40 years before, even in 2000) and describes in mysoginistic detail what he’d like to do sexually to Victoria Beckham. These moments are cringeworthy but show how the disenfranchised fantasise about having power.

Also trying to fit in is Jess, played by Kirsty J Curtis, who goes over the top in what I interpreted as an attempt to be one of the lads, by using the most continuously and aggressively obscene language of any of them.

Steven Dykes is Jimmy, the father of the pub landlady. He represents an older generation which doesn’t like change. The play begins as he’s preparing the pub and singing a Kinks song. A deliberate choice, I suspect, as the Kinks started by playing a version of American rhythm and blues before they went on to epitomise a certain kind of English nostalgia. Ironically Jimmy can’t understand why his grandson Glen (Jem Matthews) is attracted to American rappers, and he bullies the sensitive teenager for being too soft.

Gina is the woman whose name is above the door. In a nuanced performance, Sian Reese-Williams shows her as someone used to getting her way through charm but having no control over her son or her customers. She threatens but never takes action over racist or aggressive behaviour. In this respect, she can be seen as a symbol of the rest of us, the majority in society who are against racism but don’t confront it.

Lawrie’s brother Lee is another example. He is an off-duty police officer, ostensibly against prejudice, but constantly turning a blind eye to Lawrie’s violence and racism. ‘I didn’t hear that’, he quips. His conflicted personality is conveyed brilliantly through haunted eyes, sagging shoulders and sudden violence by Alexander Cobb.

We do see that confronting bad behaviour works when teenager and would-be gangster Bad T (Duramaney Kamara) is not allowed to get away with bullying.

Harold Addo, Simon Armfield, Rob Compton and Jennifer Daley make the remainder of this talented, pitch perfect cast.

Well orchestrated crescendo of violence

As the match progresses, and goes badly for England, the tension grows, and an explosion by Lawrie becomes ever more likely. His racist comments are more and more explicit but, when the violence comes, it’s from an unexpected direction. I won’t say more about that for fear of spoiling the end but I will say that, in a shocking play, the crescendo of action was so well orchestrated that I was shaking at the end.

Massive credit must be given to the original director Nicole Charles, the director of the revival Joanna Bowman, movement director Chris Whittaker and fight director Kate Waters.

I felt I needed a shower after being in the company of this group of ‘England supporters’. If there is a message in this play, it is that racism will flourish unless we all take a stand against it whenever we encounter it on a personal level. And that you can’t fight something unless you understand it. Not only will this play give you greater understanding, it will stay with you.

Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads performed  at Chichester until 13 August 2022. Click here for CFT website

Paul was given a review ticket by the producers.

Click here to watch a video of this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

 

 

Whistle Down The Wind – Watermill – review

Do dance and a dead mother improve Lloyd Webber’s ‘problem’ musical?

★★★

Production photo from Whistle Down The Wind at The Watermill Theatre Newbury 2022 showing Robert Tripolino and Lydia White
Robert Tripolino & Lydia White in Whistle Down The Wind. Photo: Pamela Raith

This energetic production of Whistle Down The Wind at The Watermill Theatre offers a radical re-interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s problem musical. I say ‘problem’ because it’s never quite been the hit many of us thought it would be. The musical was launched in the USA back in 1998. I think it has one of Lloyd Webber’s better scores, the country rock style being preferable to his attempts at being a modern day Puccini.

You might think a clash of beliefs would be just right as a story for our times. In this case, the conflict is between children who believe an escaped prisoner (called The Man in the cast list) is Jesus and adults who think he is the devil incarnate. Yet, despite this, and Jim Steinman’s gothic lyrics, Whistle Down The Wind never made it to Broadway.

I suspect the fundamental flaw is that the leader of the children, Swallow, is not a child, as she was in the earlier book and film. Instead, she is portrayed as an adolescent and, really, too old to be so credulous. Maybe the decision was made so that an adult lead could be cast, maybe the authors thought it would be more interesting to include some sexual content. Whatever the reason, the wind never got into the musical’s sails.

Now Tom Jackson Greaves has been given a chance to resurrect this musical about a man mistaken for Jesus, and he has some radical ideas about how to make it work. So does his new interpretation solve the problem? I’m afraid not.

The show begins well. The set, a terrific design by Simon Kenny, is the interior of a building constructed of wide wooden planks, which merges with the auditorium and doubles as the church and the barn. The Watermill Theatre is an intimate space, so, from the start, it is as if we are part of the congregation and of the children’s conspiracy. And we feel the claustrophobia of this closed, deeply religious community, back in 1950s Louisiana. It’s a community that is wary of strangers and over protective of its children.

A spirited interpretation

So far so good, but, as I said, this is a major new interpretation. Tom Jackson Greaves has a long list of credits as a choreographer and, as director, he introduces a considerable amount of dance and stylised movement. This works well to enhance the emotional story and ratchets up the fraught atmosphere, as, for example, when the two sides circle to form impressive physical barriers against each other. And the clever use of dance as a metaphor enables The Man to move among them, right into the centre of scenes in which he would normally be hidden. This is done most notably in the powerful song Wrestle With The Devil in which the townspeople imagine The Man as The Devil.

The biggest change concerns Swallow’s dead mother. In previous productions, she has been an unseen presence, a catalyst in alienating Swallow from her father and therefore giving her greater motivation for wanting a parent figure in her life. In this production, her mother is an actual presence, watching over her shoulder and dancing with her. It brings grief to the forefront and therefore changes the balance of the musical, and indeed the balance of her mind. Grief seems to guide her every thought and deed. It may be an attempt to explain her irrational behaviour but there is, in my view, nothing in the script to justify this interpretation. In the end, it confuses rather than clarifies.

The Mother- beautifully danced by Stephanie Elstob– mostly gets in the way. In the A Kiss Is A Terrible Thing To Waste scene where Amos wants to kiss Swallow and The Man watches and comments, the Mother gets involved too and the tense musical trio becomes a muddled dance quartet. The stage is small enough as it is without squeezing a supernumerary.

Grief or Belief?

Much more than grief, Whistle Down The Wind is a musical about belief, particularly extreme beliefs. Its most well known song, the bland No Matter What, is an anthem for anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. ‘What you believe is true’ is the essence of a divided society in which the two sides will not listen to a different point of view or accept evidence or be prepared to compromise. The children believe The Man is Jesus, the adults believe he is the Devil.

The musical is also about belief in people. We see that it can help redeem an individual, as in the moving scene between The Man and Swallow in which he sings Nature Of The Beast and realises that his life could have been different if someone had believed in him.

Robert Tripolino is outstanding as The Man. He has the right haunted look but also a powerful voice that moves up into a gorgeous falsetto. Lydia White as Swallow is also excellent. Her singing and acting display all the conflicting emotions of this adolescent girl and she plays the part of a grieving daughter with a convincing edge of anger.

Among the other actors, I liked Chrissie Bhima who gives a strong performance as Candy, cheated in love, and the only character with the willpower to leave.

As usual with The Watermill’s musicals, the hard working actors also play instruments. I noted particularly Emma Jane Morton, a one woman wind section including plaintive playing of a flute and saxophone. And she musters a wonderfully stern look as one of the townspeople. Alfie Richards plays his electric guitars beautifully, and sings well. Lewis Cornay as Amos, the rebel without a cause, could have stepped out of a boy band.

So, it’s a vigorous production but the problem of this musical is still to be solved.

Whistle Down The Wind can be seen at The Watermill Theatre until 10 September 2022. Tickets from watermill.org.uk

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channel

Paul received a review ticket from the producers

Changes made 29 July 2022: First sentence: ‘energetic’ added. Last sentence: ‘good effort’ changed to ‘vigorous production’.