Theatre Review – Rent The Musical

Jonathan Larson‘s hit musical, presented by Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd
York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 18th April 2017

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Rent is an imperfect musical about imperfect people, produced originally in 1996 and countless times since (and before – it’s a modern adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème.) It’s easy to see why we keep coming back to this tale comprised of author Jonathan Larson’s heart and soul. A landmark turn in musical theatre, Larson’s unusual, rocking score captures the lives of the marginalised citizens of mid-90’s East Village.

Dancer Mimi (Philippa Stefani), drag queen Angel (Layton Williams) and boyfriend Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman), performance artist Maureen (Christina Modestou), and singer-songwriter Roger (Ross Hunter) are among the strugglers and stragglers. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Billy Cullum) frames the piece as a disposable white male narrator; his own troubles unrousing but his lines painfully relevant:

How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more like fiction each day?”

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Despite the obvious incredible talent of the cast, the atmosphere and chemistry fall slightly short. There is something missing in the room; only occasional moments hitting the mark and sending home the sentiment that should be firing a crowd in any decade. Lee Proud’s choreography is in turns over-ambitious and bafflingly meaningless and dull. The use of gritty industrial scaffold set from Theatr Clwyd mostly as a backdrop is a missed opportunity, and the music levels vary from too loud to be intelligible, to too quiet to have any impact. The love matches aren’t quite convincing either, though this is not the fault of the cast; the script simply doesn’t allow the breathing room to relax into their spark.

Highlights are Stefani’s sexy, emotional and empowered Out Tonight, Modestou‘s masterfully observed Over The Moon and Santa Fe, performed with knowing compassion by O’Gorman, Cullum, and the impressive Williams, whom you fall hopelessly in love with at first sight. Thanks both to his sublime voice and Williams’ colourful performance, O’Gorman’s reprise of I’ll Cover You is simply beautiful.

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

As always, full-scale high-end musical theatre about the marginalised presented to paying middle-class audiences raises the question of who this is speaking to, and what its message really is.

Catch the show and decide for yourself, tonight and tomorrow at York Theatre Royal. Tickets are available online or on 01904 623568.

The Review That Got Me Fired

I’ve been writing reviews for a few years now, mostly for an online local arts journal, but before that, I covered a few shows for a print publication. I considered myself very lucky and honoured to be a part of the team, and took my contributions very seriously. One day, though, I stopped receiving invites, and the following review was the last I ever submitted. It was never printed, and I never knew why. Indeed, I never even heard from the publication again. I’ve been back and forth over it since then. Is it just not good enough? Did they have a special relationship with the performers I was unaware of and didn’t honour articulately enough? Did the draft I submitted contain hidden Satanic messages? I still don’t know, but having revisited the review again, I’d like to share my appreciation for the show, which I did really enjoy, here.

Music Review: The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Grand Opera House, York, Wed 17th June 2015

From American Blues to Russian folk to British pop, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have got it covered in their touring anniversary show, 30 Plucking Years.

Formed in 1985 “as a bit of fun”, the charm and energy of this eight-piece ensemble after thirty years of international touring is impressive to say the least, in an industry where most artists perish after around five years. It’s fair to say that the speculation on the Orchestra being a big part of the inspiration behind the current worldwide trend for turning every tune into a tiny, twangy cover is justified. Of course, the instruments may be small but the sound is anything but.

Willingly misleading segues and nonsensical, self-aware banter fill the gaps in a pleasing array of covers across genres including Kiss by Prince, Life On Mars by David Bowie and the inevitable Get Lucky by Daft Punk; all with their own individual twist. Each of the six men and two women take their turn in the spotlight with effortless prowess, hosting tracks suited to their various voices and tastes. The band allow the audience to let their guard down in the second half with some low-key numbers before a punchy, funky finale.

The group are fleeing to Germany – one of their “this song is very popular in…” inspirational travel destinations – for one gig before returning to the UK to continue their tour on the 27th June.

I believe this particular tour is over now, but you can read more about The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and their upcoming gig dates all over the world here.

Foodie Review: The Pig & Pastry

I was recently inspired by my friend Martha at Tulips, Teashops and Tales to try out a foodie blog for a change. If you’re into food and based near York (or London), she’s your gal.

This weekend I was helping a friend clean out her very first house what she now owns and after a few hours of getting intimate with parts of second-hand white goods that one never wishes to make the acquaintance of, we decided it was Tea and Cake time.

We ambled into a nearby old favourite, The Pig & Pastry on Bishopthorpe Road, York. Bishy Rd is known for its inclusive, bohemian, independent vibe, and the P&P might just be the keystone of that community. It’s a forever-bustling family-run hub of yummy mummies and bookish types, (books conveniently provided in the nooks and crannies) and it’s the kind of place you sit down with strangers, whether it’s full or not (it mostly is). Children and babies (and, I think, dogs) are welcome.

The menu comprises fresh, locally-sourced, homemade recipes spanning indulgent all-day breakfast treats like waffle-bacon-maple volcanoes, Benedict Cumberland, cheesy-chutney sarnies, quiches, salads and more – the lunch specials change regularly just to keep you on your toes.

I restrained myself with great difficulty from the waffles this time, with the thought of returning to heavy duty cleaning with a belly full of said waffles (you kind of owe them an immediate nap of appreciation.) I opted for the roasted squash and sweet potato soup, served with spongy bread and what was possibly crème fraîche, certainly delicious. My friend went for a sourdough cheese and chutney sandwich and we shared a large, warm, wobbly slice of custard tart for afters.

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The P&P always delivery first-class food and service at affordable prices. It’s an absolute haven and I hope it never changes.

Theatre Review – The Rivals by York Settlement Community Players

York Thearte Royal Studio, Wednesday 16th November 2016 

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Photograph by Michael J. Oakes featuring Mike Hickman as Bob Acres and Jamie McKeller as Captain Jack Absolute

Sheridan’s The Rivals is a comedy of manners in five (too many) acts. Its 1775 sensibilities are rather politically outdated and can now serve only as a satire of the trivial and detestable upper classes to whom true compassion and interest in others is a joke. This sedate production’s charming cast give it an unnatural timelessness by making us care for those who would never care for any but themselves. 

 

“O, Gemini!” 

Jill Maris’ apt, simple design consists of twin banners sporting a peacock’s plumage, through and around which the cast can slip, and Georgian parlour music plays the audience in and out of the black-box theatre. Helen Taylor’s costume is mostly authentic with a few fitting appropriations such as servant Lucy’s hints of denim and flashes of pink, bringing the piece up to date.

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Photograph by Michael J. Oakes featuring Catherine Edge as Julia Melville and Matt Pattison as Faulkland

Jamie McKeller brings his considerable theatrical prowess to the character of Captain Jack Absolute, the playful cad moonlighting in hand as Ensign Beverley, entreating all to look elsewhere while he hoodwinks in the name of love. 

 

I intended only to have teased him three days and a half.” 

Speaking of his love, Jessica Murray lavishly doles out the conceited, conniving Lydia Languish to complement a timid Mrs Malaprop (Sue Skirrow) and a haughty but pure-hearted Julia (Catherine Edge). Matt Pattison delivers a perfectly whiney Faulkland you can’t help but root for, Alexander King a deliciously smug and sycophantic Fag, and Paul Mason the put-upon servants Thomas and David. Director Graham Sanderson himself plays the outraged Sir Anthony with remarkable smiling calm, alongside Simon Tompsett’s lascivious Sir Lucius O’Trigger and Mike Hickman’s brilliantly buffoonish Bob Acres. Sonia Di Lorenzo brings us a delightfully crooked Lucy to cross the t’s and dot the i‘s.

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Photograph by Michael J. Oakes featuring Jessica Murray as Lydia Languish and Jamie McKeller as Captain Jack Absolute

Heigh-ho!”

The charm of the cast elevates the show, although the text could do with some ruthless cuts, appearing unabridged at two and a half hours’ run time. 
 
Performances are 7:45pm nightly with 2pm Saturday matinees until 26th November at York Theatre Royal Studio. Tickets are available from York Theatre Royal’s box office on 01904 623568 / https://goo.gl/G1L7hI.

Theatre Review – Moby Dick by Theatre Mill

Adapted by Nick Lane and John Godber, directed by Gareth Tudor Price
York Guildhall, Wednesday 26th October, 2016

Clay-faced sailors advise us of our journey’s weekly cost before ushering us into a driftwood arena complete with mobile bar. Captain’s barrel tables dot the stage, ladders and oars leaning against the majestic historical pillars of the Guildhall. Graham Kirk’s design is a sight to behold, making up for the lack of [spoiler alert] any actual appearance of the mythical whale from the novel.

Strings of lanterns and soft lightbulbs line the heights of the great hall, dropping a nostalgic veil over the decks of the Pequod for this adaptation of the tale of bloody-minded revenge.

While visually stunning, the text falls short of delivering the right build of tension – characters remain on a level throughout the story, without an initial sense of camaraderie to serve the payoff of Ahab’s fatal determination, or any real character development. Ahab is gnarled and feared from the first; the crew wary, the storytelling a little too knowing of its fate.

The framework is a relocation to a deserted Hull pub – a setting which seems to suit the home comforts of the company more than the adventurous thrill of the story. An entirely new set of characters from another era relate their own stories tenuously linked to the main arc, which leaves those unfamiliar with it a bit adrift. The sense of grandeur and adventure are missing and the climax low-key, despite the lofty surroundings and Joshua Goodman’s beautiful soundtrack. Actors hop from one character and locale to another adeptly, although rarely engaging with convincing emotion as they’re too busy telling the story.

There are however some touching moments, such as the breaking of Pip’s spirit, all greatly augmented with live music played by the lead storyteller, and Queequeg is endearing throughout. It must also be noted that the choreography capably avoids the in-the-round curse of forgotten angles, and does rather swim.

Moby Dick is showing at York Guildhall at 7:30pm nightly until 3rd November. Tickets are available here: https://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/event/moby_dick.php#.WBX8m-CLTIU

Theatre Review: The Witches by York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre

Maddie Drury as Boy credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

Those who grew up with Roald Dahl’s classic tale of terror, or indeed the 1990 film adaptation, will feel right at home with this production. Incidentally, so will audiences of Sherlock Holmes, as the action plays out among the same gothic pillared halls and life-size portrait frames. You can expect the usual pantomime tricks in the form of witches mingling with the audience before and during the show, as well as audience assistance with Boy’s great mouse circus.

Louise Oliver as Tatiana credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

York Theatre Royal’s Youth Theatre cast deliver David Wood’s 1992 script with perfectly chilling ensemble work, drawing out the well-loved story’s dark humour and nightmare fodder alike. There are stand-out performances from a tender Grandmother (Rebekah Burland) with a storytelling knack ripe for audiobooks, a vivacious and earnest Boy (Maddie Drury) who will win and break your heart, a Grand High Witch (Molly Levitt) to rival Anjelica Huston – not to mention her delightfully peevish right-hand witch Edwina (Edward Hooper) – and the haughty but somehow likeable Jenkinses (Dominic Sorrell, Charlotte Wood and Stan Gaskell). 

Rebekah Burland as Grandmother Maddie Drury as Boy credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

The witches’ assembly and The Plan reveal are particularly terrifying; the stage amock with chasing, chanting, cackling, scratching monsters in hunt mode. 

The Grand High Witch and the Witches of England credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

Gem Greaves’ design arranges a deliciously hideous menagerie of witches in garish 1980s jackets, tights and heels, while Becky May’s mouse puppets swim seamlessly through the action like any other cast member. Alexandra Stafford’s lighting also brings to life some poignant moments in startlingly creative ways. 

Dominic Sorrell as Mouse Bruno and Maddie Drury as Mouse Boy credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

The Witches is playing at York Theatre Royal now until 3rd September, 2:30pm & 7pm daily. Tickets available here. Miss it and risk transformation into mice.

You may remove your vigs! credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

Theatre Review: Crossed Swords by York Footlights Theatre and Baron Productions

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Sun 12th July, 41 Monkgate, York

In to sea shanties and a pub sign for the Crossed Swords Inn, barmaids and punters enjoying a tranquil scene and inviting the audience into their world. A large white sail hangs at the back of the stage to host an effective, consistent use of filmed inserts. A small bar, a chest, a table and chairs are manoeuvred smoothly between scenes to create a number of different locations.

Olivia Jayne Newton writes, co-directs and stars in this heart-warming musical pirate romp. Newton’s feisty, rash Anne Bonny collides with co-director and co-star Daniel Wilmot’s refined, effeminate Captain Jack Rackham and the couple share a short-lived but tender unity in their hunt for the ultimate treasure – freedom. With the intention of “exhibiting history”, Newton explores themes of destiny, choice, gender identity and acceptance in a timely, charming fashion.

This is not your typical pirate tale, but is dipped with a healthy dose of drinking, singing, adventuring, sword-fighting and banter.

Live music is provided throughout by a multi-skilled cast on a variety of instruments from cajon to violin to harp, crafting an authentic historical atmosphere and accompanying the score made up of traditional folk classics. Chiffonnette-style barmaids (Chloe Anderson and BethanyAnne Louise) proffer handy interludes of narration including a development of their own personal stories, which makes for a nice touch.

One highlight is a drinking scene between Captain Barnet (Lee Gemmell) and Governor Woodes Rogers (John R Morgan), handled with perfect comic timing.

The secondary love story between Mary Read (Natalie-Claire Brimicombe) and Sam Kendrick (Richard Thirlwall) is the one that steals our hearts. Brimicombe’s gentle, serene, compassionate delivery of Read is absolutely delightful, and her version of When I Was A Fair Maid is wonderful. Thirlwall’s Kendrick is a loveable, loyal shipmate whose talent for falling over is second to none.

One pratfall of the production is this relationship’s outdated reaction to gender-confusion played for comedy, though this is received well by the audience; possibly saved by the innocent charm of the actors. Henry Smythe’s (Samuel Valentine) running misguided ‘compliments’ are another little red flag to feminism; sadly, his comeuppance isn’t at the hand of a ‘complimented’ woman, although this is perhaps balanced by the more riling James Bonny’s (James Tyler) demise at the hand of Mary Read.

While these romances are abruptly introduced and dissolved, sisterhood between the female leads prevails in a rare bond of courage, trust and personal integrity. This culminates in Bonny’s acute sense of loss when Mary dies next to her in prison while they are both pregnant and awaiting retrial, preceded by a moving full-cast rendition of My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.

Newton’s script comprises a complementary blend of modern and historical language, making for an accessible story in which you are rooting for the protagonists all the way, especially when you realise that half the cast are actors who have heroically stepped into the roles somewhere down the line in rehearsals, the latest joining one week before opening night.

Find out more about York Footlights Theatre here.