Monthly Archives: February 2015

Miss Saigon – Prince Edward Theatre

Miss Saigon swept up a record 9 gongs at the What’s On Stage Awards. Even as a die-hard “plays over musicals” type, I couldn’t help but be curious to see it for myself.  Thankfully the wonderful people at Official Theatre had managed to snaffle some tickets at short notice, so I and some of the #LDNTheatreBloggers went along to see what all the fuss was about.

Set the sleazy brothels of Vietnam in 1975, the girls are forced into prostitution, and American GIs are looking for a good time and an escape from the horrors of war.  The recently orphaned Kim falls for a soldier, Chris – but when Saigon falls, the military pull out and the two lovers are torn apart.  There is love, loss, injustice, hope, despair, joy, unfortunate timing and complications.  As tear-jerking, heart-wrenching formulas go, Miss Saigon has every base covered.

Eva Noblezada and Alastair Brammer

Eva Noblezada gives a detailed and complex performance as Kim – from naive, vulnerable and complicit right through tentatively lovestruck to angry and force to be reckoned with – all of this echoed in her immense vocal range.  She commands the stage with great skill, but she is at her most striking during You Will Not Touch Him, filled with a primal determination to protect her child. Chris (Alastair Brammer) ticks every box on the all-American West End good guy checklist, torn between love and duty. His scenes with Kim are full of warmth and tenderness – completely at odds with the chaos erupting around them.

Rachelle Ann Go as stripper Gigi oozes sex from every pore – she confidently gyrates amongst the customers during the very graphic The Heat Is On In Saigon and this is contrasted heavily with her troubled bitterness in her haunting ballad The Movie In My Mind. The Engineer (Jon Jon Briones) is an abhorrent weasel, pretending to be everyone’s friend, but the only person’s side he’s really on, is his own.  Briones imbues him with a vile slipperiness that makes your skin crawl, especially when other characters have no option but to trust him.  He’s like a Vietnamese Fagin, but with better-looking urchins.

Jon Jon Briones

Jon Jon Briones

John (Hugh Maynard) undergoes quite a transformation from hardened soldier to a humanitarian worker, trying to make amends for the terrible mess left behind. Tamsin Carroll makes a brief but good performance out of her underused character Ellen, Chris’ American wife of 2 years. For someone written purely as the plot device to prevent the simple reunion between Chris and Kim, Carroll is genuinely likeable – crucial, in order for the ending to have its full impact.

A special mention must also go to the very young child playing Tam – his close rapport with Eva made their parent/child relationship very believeable and he was on stage during some very traumatic scenes, maintaining an incredible stillness – a big ask for a kid of his age.

As with many musicals, there’s a lot of “singing a conversation” – something which I tolerate rather than enjoy.  However, the sound, lighting and stage design all work together as one, culminating in some truly terrifying moments – helicopters seem to thunder through the air above our heads, lights evoke the murky grime of the crumbling shanty towns, the tacky glitz of Bangkok and the warm glow of a comfortable hotel suite.  The sets move in and out with ease, often leaving a large bare stage for the big displays of military might, and letting the space speak for itself at the end of Act 1 as Kim, Tam and the Engineer dare to hope that they might go to America.  It would take the hardest of hearts to be completely unmoved by the projections of footage from the orphanages during the swirling crescendos of Bui Doi.

helicopter

The final scene left me choked up – I was ready for the big finale (a devastatingly poignant reprise of Bui Doi perhaps), the bombastic company number with the entire cast belting with everything their lungs had left to give. I might prefer plays, but I want – and expect – musical theatre to move me to tears.

But it didn’t happen.

The ensemble filed onto stage in silence, took their bows (to rapturous applause), followed by individual walkdowns for the lead roles. Still nothing. The orchestra strikes up, but no one sings. They shuffle backwards, take a last bow, the curtain comes down and the house lights come up. Some would call it subtle, understated, less is more – I found it strangely clinical and unsatisfying.  I wanted to be overcome and cry my eyes out – but I was denied that release.

A great show, a phenomenal cast, all very worthy of their 9 WOS Awards – I’m sure there will be many more trophies to come. I can see this being in the West End for a good few years. But how can you end a musical without a musical number?

Miss Saigon is currently booking until 19th December 2015 at the Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street, London, W1D 4HS.  Contains strong language, violence and scenes of a sexual nature.  Not suitable for children under the age of 12.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.miss-saigon.com/ 

The 15th Annual What’s On Stage Awards

image

We had a fantastic evening at the What’s On Stage Awards at The Prince of Wales Theatre (usually home to The Book of Mormon) – a chance to get dolled up and do a bit of ‘sleb spotting, aided by the fact that we managed to snaffle some of the last cheap(er) tickets in the stalls.  Even from seats on the far side of row R, we still had a great view of the stage.  We also managed to rub shoulders with the theatrati – @westendproducer complimented me on my coat #dear

image

Our hosts for the evening were Mel Giedroyc (from Great British Bake Off) and Steve Furst (currently starring in Made In Dagenham) and the evening skipped along as they riffed off each other between awards.

The revival of Miss Saigon swept the board with a staggering 9 awards.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I will definitely make time for it this year – and based on the acceptance speeches, I can confirm that they have one of the nicest, warmest, most passionate and gracious casts/creative teams in the West End.  It was a pleasure to see and hear their thanks.

I didn’t agree with all of the awards, but we must be mindful of the fact that this is a public vote, chosen by audiences of ordinary people – I haven’t seen all of the shows on the shortlist, so it’s very difficult to cast scorn on shows that you are not in a position to judge.  Some of the shows and actors that I voted for were much smaller productions, probably seen by fewer people, so it is a testament to them that they appeared in the nominations alongside some of the heavyweights of the theatre industry.  I would particularly like to pick out The Nether for Best New Play and Best Design, and Imelda Staunton for Best Actress In A Play in Good People.  They are my winners, even if the largest share of the votes went elsewhere.

Between awards, we were treated to a wonderful showcase of highlights of shows from the past year.  Beverley Knight’s jaw-dropping solo has ensured I’ll be booking to see Memphis: The Musical at the earliest opportunity.  I missed In The Heights at Southwark Playhouse due to my hectic theatre schedule and I sat half in joy at a taster from this exceptional latino musical (I dance salsa and bachata whenever time allows) and half in devastation that I was now seeing exactly what I’d missed.  Someone please do something to bring this show back to London.  I NEED TO SEE IT.  Not even want – NEED.

But perhaps the highlight of the evening was David Tennant, who had this to say as he collected his award for Best Actor in a Play in Richard II:

“British theatre has this unerring knack of reinventing and reinvigorating itself and staying the best theatre in the world year after year after year.

“We are rightly proud of all our creative arts but we have to protect them. I think it’s worth saying in an election year, if I may: any pound spent on the creative industries is not an expense, it’s an investment.

“The arts bring in so much more money to this economy than they take out. Just saying.”

It is a sentiment that many of us share.  If Britain is to continue to produce world-class theatre that attracts people in droves and pulls its weight in our economy, then we must continue to fund the arts.  It is one of our greatest assets and something to be nurtured and celebrated, not sneered at and derided as frivolous.  Talent trickles upwards – gains in the arts are passed on to film and TV.  The very media we enjoy of an evening or a lazy weekend, the entertainment, escapism, skill and imagination – all these pivot on the very existence of a thriving arts scene.

After a drink in the bar, Rebecca and I found ourselves wandering up completely the wrong staircase to get back into the auditorium, which is how we ran into David Tennant.  As I think you can tell, he was a little overwhelmed to meet me, but I totally kept my cool.  No, really.  I definitely didn’t become a rabbit in headlines with nothing to say.  Absolutely not.  I definitely managed to tell him how much I was enjoying Broadchurch and his recent achievement on Just A Minute rather than just going very quiet.  (I’m not convincing anyone, am I?).  But he was lovely enough to let me take this to prove I’m not making it up.

image

A huge thank you to What’s On Stage for putting on a memorable show-stopping evening.  Next stop, the Oliviers!

You can see the results in full here.

The Wasp – Hampstead Theatre

Just over a year ago, I had absolutely no idea where the Hampstead Theatre was – which is a bit silly, as I’ve spent the last 5 and a bit years obliviously wandering past it whilst out visiting properties for work.  Plonked practically on top of Swiss Cottage tube station on the Jubilee line, it’s easily accessible for those brave enough to venture beyond the confines of the West End.  But in the year and a bit that I’ve been going to the HT, I’ve only seen stuff in their upstairs theatre – all of it good quality, so I had high hopes for their downstairs studio space.

MyAnna Buring (Carla) and Sinéad Matthews (Heather).

The Wasp certainly didn’t disappoint. Heather and Carla haven’t seen each other since school and their lives have taken wildly different paths. Carla is living with a man twice her age and pregnant with her fifth child, while Heather and her husband are struggling to conceive their first. When Heather offers Carla a substantial sum of money that she cannot afford to refuse, we have the perfect ingredients for a textbook tale of surrogacy and one woman doing a selfless act for another. Cue hilarity, snappy one-liners and possible drama when Carla refuses to hand over the baby.

But that’s not where this play goes.

Oh no.

Writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm has conjured something far darker than that. A script that is both deliciously malevolent and wildly unpredictable. Loaded with red herrings, we are lulled into the belief that the narrative is heading off in a particular direction, then without warning, it lurches off in another. With many thrillers, it’s all too easy for the writing to drop a few clues for that satisfying “I knew that was going to happen!”, but instead this one routinely pulls the rug from under your feet and leaves you kicking yourself that you hadn’t spotted the plot device. It takes a little while to construct the story, but once it gets going, it’s 90 minutes of twisty turny malice.

MyAnna Buring (Carla) has her slovenly character down to a tee. Yet behind the swagger and the tough talk are flickers of a troubled childhood, of potential that never had the opportunity to be realised, of problems taken out on others. By contrast, Sinéad Matthews (Heather) is middle class, indulged but not spoilt, yet unaware of her patronising streak – swamped in her capacious afghan, she is the epitome of well-meaning benevolence.

Under the direction of Tom Attenborough, the balance of power seesaws between the two women as each pushes their own agenda without ever straying into melodrama. We explore long-held grudges and whether victimising someone is necessarily worse when it’s either spontaneous or pre-meditated. As we piece together the true motives, the reality of the situation becomes ever more chilling and psychological. The knot in my stomach got tighter – half of me wanted to run out the theatre and the other half was rooted to the spot and fascinated to find out what would happen.

The danger with any such situation is that it falls into stalemate and gets trapped in a loop. But this play is far cleverer than that – the final resolution slots neatly into place and leaves the audience aghast.

The Wasp is playing until Saturday 7th March at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 3EU.  This production is 90 minutes with no interval.  Contains strong language.  Cigarettes are smoked during the course of the play.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2015/the-wasp/

A Fine Bright Day Today – Letting go

BrightDay-FB

I am now redundant.  I have been for the best part of a week.

On Thursday of last week, the project which has eaten my life for the last 12-18 months finally opened to a paying public.  I arrived, nervous as hell, hoping against hope that people would like it, wondering if it was just me who thought I’d come up with something good.  I lurched between narcissistic self-congratulation and crippling doubt, right up until curtain up (and quite honestly, all the way through the show).

One of the hardest bits of directing has to be the end – the final handover.  Entrusting what has been your baby to other people.  Very capable people.  People YOU’VE chosen to do this.  People who in rehearsals have learnt lines, hit marks, been exactly where they should be, run like clockwork and made you smile, laugh and get something in your eye at the opportune moments in the script.  But that small voice of inhibition that you pushed to the back of your mind is now very present, very loud, and it’s asking difficult questions.  You start second-guessing your every decision, wondering whether you got any of it right, from music choices right through to whether you were actually the best person to direct it.  It’s terrifying.

The difficulty is that in the last few rehearsals, the whole production suddenly stopped giving you those butterflies and that punch to the guts that it always used to.  It’s having the presence of mind to remember that your cast are delivering it exactly as prescribed and that it’s YOU who has become desensitised through repetition.  It’s trusting that it’ll have the desired effect on an audience who are hearing and seeing it for the first time.  It’s the sadness that you’ll never completely get to enjoy the play, because no matter how hard you try to block the last 2 months of rehearsal from your mind, you cannot help but anticipate every single line, pause, move, entrance, exit, lighting and sound cue.

But a week in, while none of it is new, I’ve slowly been able to relinquish some of that.  Audiences seem to have enjoyed themselves, they’ve laughed in all the right places (plus in a few spots where it doesn’t leap out as being funny, but turns out to be).  I’ve been able to relax a bit and laugh with them – I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by all the little nuances my cast have found in the script since performing in front of more than 3 people.  But I’m also having to resist the sudden flood of ideas that have sprung out of having an audience.  There is a terrible urge to tinker with a few things – but I can’t.  They’ve already got enough to concentrate on, never mind me adding more in.  I’ve discovered the trick is to not watch every single performance – otherwise I will just drive myself crazy.

Set design by moi.  Beautifully executed by Keith Orton, Jenny Kingman and Mary Griffiths.  Photo by Keith Orton.

Set design by moi. Beautifully executed by Keith Orton, Jenny Kingman and Mary Griffiths. Photo by Keith Orton.

I’ve had lots of lovely feedback about the play itself: “nice”, “lovely”, “charming”, “heartwarming” are the words that keep cropping up.  A fellow blogger has given me a glowing review (no bribery/blackmail necessary!)  Others have been impressed with my staging and set-design.  If I’m allowed to be completely self-indulgent, so am I.  I’ve derived a huge amount of inspiration from various 2014 professional theatre productions and hoped to emulate some of their methods.  I like to think we’ve pulled it off.  To say that I am relieved that people like it would be an understatement.

But above all else, I am exceptionally proud of my cast and crew – they’ve worked hard and done everything I’ve asked (and more) with unfaltering patience and good humour.  As much as it’s been a bit of a wrench to hand it over, it’s a given and it has to be done.  Overall, directing has been an enjoyable experience and I think I’ve coped quite well with this whole “pretending to look like I know what I’m doing” lark.

I fell in love with this play on first read 18 months ago.  All the ideas came at once, fully formed.  What I wouldn’t give to have a memory-wiping machine (like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and be able to watch the show with fresh ears and eyes.  You all get to do that – I don’t.  So with 4 nights left to go, please come and see it (partly so I can enjoy it vicariously through your reactions).

A Fine Bright Day Today is on until Saturday 14th February at the Miller Centre Theatre, 30 Godstone Road, Caterham, Surrey, CR3 6RA.  For tickets and more information, go to http://www.millercentretheatre.org