, , ,

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

a touching musical about a man who ages backwards

Youth is wasted on the young. Maybe.

First seen off West End four years ago, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (The Musical) takes F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short supernatural story and 2008 Brad Pitt film, smashes them both together, and shifts the setting to Cornwall.

Benjamin Button (Jamie Parker) is born, as a 70-year-old, to bemused parents in December 1918. Time marches forward, he ages backwards.

Parker never does the expected, and is never sloppy or over-expressive. The role of Benjamin seems to have released something in him.

There is no overkill in writer-director Jethro Compton’s production that is always self-aware that this is a stage version of a story that most people are familiar with from the film: a man who is old when he is born and an infant when he dies.

The chief pleasure, however, lies in the music and the production. Some of the songs – especially the wistful ‘Matter of Time’ – etches itself on the memory.

Sometimes the evening feels a little underpowered, and while Molly Osborne and the enthusiastic 12-strong actor-musician ensemble deliver, some of the 22 scenes need a touch more definition.

But the whole Benjamin Button cast is blessed with a zest and captivating charm I have rarely seen equalled, and one leaves this ambitious production in a mist of joy and tears.

Yes, there are rough edges that could be chopped, yes, there are occasional scenes that are not powerfully played. Yes, it is too long. But there is so much more that is big and bold, imaginative and great-hearted.

Olivier Award-winning actor Jamie Parker plays the title character who ages in reverse in the actor-muso production at Southwark Playhouse Elephant

Indeed, it’s hard not to compare it to foot-stomping musicals Come From Away and a Once for all its sentiment. Darren Clark’s score is lush; what makes it so special is the ripple of bitterness beneath the surface.

The film was a twee train wreck. This Benjamin Button, however, is a multifaceted gem, chock-full of love, charm and joy, and it fits the Southwark Playhouse Elephant space like a glove.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs until 1 July (020 7407 0234southwarkplayhouse.co.uk)

, , ,

Aspects of Love

There is something off in the tone of Aspects of Love right from the start.

The decision to revive Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical – based on David Garnett’s 1955 novella – about a love triangle in 2023 was Michael Ball’s idea.

Ball – who played Alex in the 1989 production – returns to sing Love Changes Everything, (lyrics by Charles Hart and Don Black) this time as uncle George. He does it nobly.

There are 39 random scenes. At some point through Alex (Jamie Bogoyo) shoots former lover Rose (Laura Pitt-Pulford) in the arm. His uncle (Ball) is more concerned about his Matisse wall art. 

The majority of the book and lyrics are stupefying. At the interval I thought my drink had been spiked.

“I only have one life,”‘ drones one character. Only judderingly to add: “Not two.”

In one bit, the chaotic singing collides with the unspeakable: “George used to say you can have more than one emotion at the same time.”

The actual dialogue seems almost an afterthought, and the actors speak their lines without much confidence that they’re worth saying. And so we’re aware of the performers as performers. They’re not all sure what they’re meant to be conveying. And we’re not either.

The other overriding issue with this toe-curling production is that it borders on misogyny. Grooming is overlooked. It’s grim viewing, obviously.

Theatre is an addictively evil thing, though, so once I’d watched act 1 I knew I’d sit through the lot, just to see if something deeply significant actually happened. It didn’t, obviously.

The second half of Jonathan Kent’s production is scattered – as if it had been added to or subtracted from at random. Everything is spelled out. 

Nothing you think could possibly be worth salvaging from this abomination.

The ones who really stand out in this mess, though, are Pitt Pullford and Bogoyo. But their work doesn’t really hold together here, how could it?

They deserve better.

One of the only other things I thought, though, that really elevated the occasion beyond the sum of its parts was the 13-piece band and Tom Kelly’s lush new orchestrations. Other redeeming moments come thanks partly to John Macfarlane’s design and Jon Clark’s lighting. 

But the set, expensive costumes and people seem to be sitting there on stage, waiting for the unifying magic that never happens.

Leaving the Lyric theatre where I saw Aspects of Love, I felt the same way the women must have when uncle George dropped dead: exhausted and relieved.

, ,

Operation Mincemeat

How good is Operation Mincemeat?

When I saw it 12 months ago at Riverside Studios, I thought it a marvellously tart, wry, original musical that got away from the blundering cliches of the formula-bound movie musicals plaguing the West End. 

Second time round I admire it more; partly because its surface joy seems to conceal a great wit, partly because it has the whiplash precision of the best shows plus a good deal of intellectual prescience.

“I don’t know what’s going on!” “Welcome to the British government” goes one exchange.

It’s a bold and imaginative work—a fizzing work and it’s important to mention Operation Mincemeat was nurtured at that powerhouse of a London fringe venue, the New Diorama.

Rob Hastie has been brought in as director to finesse the piece and it has paid off. He is an intelligent, tentative director — see: Standing At The Sky’s Edge — which is another way of saying that his virtues are largely negative.

Stones’ sensational design places the audience in the MI5 headquarters, while Jak Malone merits a medal of honour as the staunch secretary Hester Leggett, who performs a standout love-letter song.

This clever spoof musical tackles a secret service ruse in which the body of an unknown homeless man was used as a decoy, leading German troops away from Sicily in 1943.

It has a powerful and gripping plot, hardly a single extractable tune, a fierce sense of self awareness. The triumph of Hastie’s production and Stones’ design lies in their visualisation of SplitLip’s ideas.

In this regard, the show was concocted by a genius young cast of five: Natasha Hodgson, David Cumming and Zoë Roberts, who were later joined by Jak Malone and Claire-Marie Hall.

It’s very neatly done, the fine quintet of actors rising to the technical challenges of a piece that worms its way into the brain and send you scurrying out into the city blinking – and more attuned to the majesty of serendipity.

The score — it was put together by Cumming, Hagan, Hodgson & Roberts — has a life of its own that gives the show a buzzing vitality. 

Indeed, Operation Mincemeat may turn out to be the most liberating musical ever made. The whole production is a joy; a five year overnight success story. 

I loved it.

Operation Mincemeat runs at the Fortune theatre, London, until 19 August

, , ,

Brokeback Mountain

Yeehaw!

I had an uneasy feeling that maybe it would be better if I didn’t go to see Brokeback Mountain— but, if you’re driven to seek the truth, you’re driven.

The West End is currently overrun with movie musicals and stage adaptations, they serve a useful purpose, because they lead people to see live theatre on which the films are based. Not a bad thing in my book.

The young producers who are pushing their way up don’t want to waste their time considering scripts or new ideas that may not attract stars. For them, too, a good show is a show that makes money.

God forbid it that they should have to sit through the whole thing.

But when you see a stage show after seeing the film, your mind is saturated with the actors (Jake Gyllenhaal & Heath Ledger in this instance) and the imagery, and you tend to view it in terms of the movie, ignoring characters and complexities that were not included in it, because they are not as vivid.

This 90 minute stage adaptation is directed by Jonathan Butterell, with a functional script by Ashley Robinson.

Anyway, Young cowboys Jack Twist (Mike Faist) and Ennis Del Mar (Lucas Hedges) meet in the early 1960s when they are hired to tend a huge flock of sheep up on Brokeback Mountain.

They begin a physical affair, but then go their separate ways. Both marry women. When they cross paths four years later, they resume their relationship behind their wives’ backs. Ugh.

Brokeback Mountain, here a memory play with songs, features a live band who perform throughout. Eddi Reader, perched on a stool, delivers these mediocre bluegrass numbers by Dan Gillespie Sells. 

On the one hand, it’s lightweight, and too stifled to be boring. On the other, it’s efficient and visually engaging.

But the colour imagery of Tom Pye’s set and design is so muted that I regretted the need to look at the older Ennis (Paul Hickey) haunting the proceedings. It took precious time away from the other two’s complex performances, their hint of something passive, brooding and repressed.

Technically, the production is slovenly, and the in-the-round staging at the clinical 602 seat sohoplace doesn’t always work. There are totally dead spots in Butterell’s direction. And I was sat by the bed.

There are, however, marvelous actors here, and now and then almost all of them demonstrate how wonderful they can be, but they can’t sustain their roles or blend them without the guidance of the director, because in a show only the director, finally, can be responsible for the coming together of the piece.

Add to that, young and handsome Faist who delivers the famous speech “I wish I knew how to quit you” with raw emotion. He is a remarkably intelligent casting selection for Jack. Faist, fortunately, can wear white pants and suggest splendour without falling into the narcissistic athleticism that juveniles so often mistake for grace.

I suppose it’s a bit crude to say there isn’t enough gay sex. But we do get a quick shadow fumble of belts and zippers in a tent. Apart from one tender embrace, the show mostly left me cold.

There is a chemistry void. Still, it’s a great play for people who don’t like plays.

At worst, Brokeback Mountain becomes a desolate souvenir of the movie, an extended reminiscence.

Brokeback Mountain runs at @sohoplace, London, until 12 August

, , ,

Hamnet at the RSC

Maggie O’Farrell’s 1.5mn selling plague-driven novel explores the loss the Shakespeare family experiences when eponymous son Hamnet dies, aged 11.

The boy’s short life is, effectively, subordinated to the legacy of a Great Man, felt only in the shadows it may or may not have cast on the Bard’s most beloved plays.

Now, Lolita Chakribati’s honourable adaptation reopens the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan theatre after a three-year closure.

Hamnet tells the story of 18 years of Shakespeare’s life from the point of view of Anne Hathaway, the countrywoman who was left behind with three children. 

Erica Whyman’s gentle Elizabethan production and 14-strong ensemble glide over Tom Piper’s simple set of wooden beams and ladders. 

The audience is alive to it.

The remarkable and young Madeleine Mantock, in her second stage credit, as Agnes (“but the ‘g’ is silent”) Hathaway has great chemistry with family Latin tutor, William (Tom Varey). She grows herbs and keeps bees “in hemp-woven skeps, which hum with industrious and absorbed life”.

The whole thing is an efficient show — not a great show but one that will probably stir audiences’ emotions and join the ranks of such Shakespeare inspired spin-offs as Shakespeare in Love& Juliet, and also Emilia

The trap Whyman and Chakrabarti sets for the audience, baiting it with a historically famous figure, is unfortunately, a trap we can’t get out of. There is a lot of exposition. 

There is a memorable soundscape featuring Oğuz Kaplangı’s compositions and Xana’s serene sound design; birdsong, the flapping of wings, sporadic knocking.

Still, Whyman has made the English heritage women heroically, mythically alive on the stage. The treatment is certainly on a high level. I was impressed by adult Hamnet, Ajani Cabey 

Although Hamnet is moderately elegant and literate and expensive, and the female driven creative team gussies things up with what may or may not be the key to something or other, it’s basically a traditional tragedy. But the show doesn’t wear its conspicuous cleverness lightly.

Disappointingly, despite a rousing Act 2, the whole thing doesn’t quite come off, and we’re always too aware of the sensitive qualities it’s aiming at.

Yet Hamnet is a reasonably good evening that misses being a really memorable one. This atmospheric show is entertainment, which doesn’t require it to be justified in the light of historical theory. 

Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley, are said to be in talks to star in Chloe Zhao’s movie version. A West End run looms.

Hamnet runs at the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 17 Jun. It transfers to the Garrick theatre, London, from 30 Sep to 6 Jan

, , ,

Olivier Awards 2023: the winners in full

My Neighbour Totoro has scooped six wins at the Olivier Awards 2023, with Jodie Comer and Paul Mescal winning best actor and actress.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s My Neighbour Totoro had the most wins, triumphing in six out of the nine categories it was nominated in, including best entertainment or comedy play and best director.

Rebecca Frecknall’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre won three awards, including best actor for Mescal, best revival and best actress in a supporting role for Anjana Vasan.

Other acting winners included Katie Brayben, Beverley Knight, Arthur Darvill and Will Keen.

The National Theatre’s Standing at the Sky’s Edge won best new musical, while Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! won best musical revival.

The winners in full

Best revival

Winner: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre|

Also nominated:
The Crucible at the National Theatre
Good at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre

Best actor in a supporting role

Winner: Will Keen for Patriots at the Almeida Theatre

Also nominated:
Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh and Kaine Lawrence for For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court Theatre
Elliot Levey for Good at the Harold Pinter Theatre
David Moorst for To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre
Sule Rimi for Blues for an Alabama Sky at the National Theatre

Best actress in a supporting role

Winner: Anjana Vasan for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre

Also nominated:
Rose Ayling-Ellis for As You Like It at @sohoplace
Pamela Nomvete for To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre
Caroline Quentin for Jack Absolute Flies Againat the National Theatre
Sharon Small for Good at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Best set design

Winner: Tom Pye for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

Also nominated:
Miriam Buether for To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre
Ben Stones for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre
Mark Walters for Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium

Best costume design

Winner: Kimie Nakano for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

Also nominated:
Frankie Bradshaw for Blues for an Alabama Sky at the National Theatre
Hugh Durrant for Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium
Jean Paul Gaultier for Jean Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show at Roundhouse

Best actress

Winner: Jodie Comer for Prima Facie at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Also nominated:
Patsy Ferran for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre
Mei Mac for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre
Janet McTeer for Phaedra at the National Theatre
Nicola Walker for The Corn Is Green at the National Theatre

Best actor

Winner: Paul Mescal for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre

Also nominated:
Tom Hollander for Patriots at the Almeida Theatre
Rafe Spall for To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre
David Tennant for Good at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Giles Terera for Blues for an Alabama Sky at the National Theatre

Outstanding achievement in opera

Winner: William Kentridge for his conception and direction of Sibyl at the Barbican Theatre

Also nominated:
Sinéad Campbell-Wallace for her performance in Tosca by English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Antony McDonald for his design of Alcina at the Royal Opera House

Best new opera production

Winner: Alcina by Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House

Also nominated:
Least Like the Other by Irish National Opera and Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House
Peter Grimes by Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House
Sibyl at the Barbican Theatre

Best new play

Winner: Prima Facie at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Also nominated: 
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy at the Royal Court Theatre
Patriots at the Almeida Theatre
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre

Best director

Winner: Phelim McDermott for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

Also nominated:
Rebecca Frecknall for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre
Robert Hastie for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre
Justin Martin for Prima Facie at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Bartlett Sher for To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre

Outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre

Winner: The P Word at the Bush Theatre

Also nominated:
Age Is a Feeling at Soho Theatre
Blackout Songs at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs
Paradise Now! at the Bush Theatre
two Palestinians go dogging at the Royal Court Theatre

Best entertainment or comedy play

Winner: My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

Also nominated: 
Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium
My Son’s a Queer (But What Can You Do?) at the Garrick Theatre and the Ambassadors Theatre
One Woman Show at the Ambassadors Theatre

Best family show

Winner: Hey Duggee the Live Theatre Showat Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre

Also nominated:
Blippi the Musical at the Apollo Theatre
Midsummer Mechanicals at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe
The Smartest Giant in Town at St Martin’s Theatre

Outstanding achievement in dance

Winner: Dickson Mbi for his choreography of Enowate at Sadler’s Wells

Also nominated:
Manuel Liñán for his choreography of ¡VIVA! at Sadler’s Wells
Raquel Meseguer Zafe for her dramaturgy of Ruination by Lost Dog at the Royal Opera House
Catrina Nisbett for her performance in Family Honour by Spoken Movement at Sadler’s Wells

Best new dance production

Winner: Traplord by Ivan Michael Blackstock at 180 Studios (The Strand)

Also nominated: 
Light of Passage by Crystal Pite at the Royal Opera House
Pasionaria by La Veronal at Sadler’s Wells
Triptych: The Missing Door, The Lost Room, and The Hidden Floor by Peeping Tom at the Barbican Theatre

Best musical revival

Winner: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic

Also nominated:
My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum
Sister Act at the Eventim Apollo
South Pacific at Sadler’s Wells

Best original score or new orchestrations

Winner: Richard Hawley and Tom Deering – music and lyrics by Richard Hawley and orchestrations by Tom Deering – for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre

Also nominated:
David Yazbek, Jamshied Sharifi and Andrea Grody – music and lyrics by David Yazbek, orchestrations by Jamshied Sharifi and additional arrangements by Andrea Grody – for The Band’s Visit at the Donmar Warehouse
Joe Hisaishi and Will Stuart – music by Joe Hisaishi and orchestrations and arrangements by Will Stuart – for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre
Daniel Kluger and Nathan Koci – orchestrations and arrangements by Daniel Kluger and additional vocal arrangements by Nathan Koci – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic
Best theatre choreographer

Winner: Matt Cole for Newsies at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre

Also nominated:
Lynne Page for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre
Kate Prince for Sylvia at the Old Vic
Basil Twist for puppetry direction for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

Best lighting design

Winner: Jessica Hung Han Yun for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

Also nominated:
Natasha Chivers for Prima Facie at the Harold Pinter Theatre
Lee Curran for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre
Tim Lutkin for The Crucible at the National Theatre

Best sound design

Winner: Tony Gayle for My Neighbour Totoro at the Barbican Theatre

Also nominated:
Bobby Aitken for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre
Drew Levy for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic
Ben and Max Ringham for Prima Facie at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Best actress in a supporting role in a musical

Winner: Beverley Knight for Sylvia at the Old Vic

Also nominated:
Maimuna Memon for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre
Liza Sadovy for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic
Marisha Wallace for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic

Best actor in a supporting role in a musical

Winner: Zubin Varla for Tammy Faye at the Almeida Theatre

Also nominated:
Sharif Afifi for The Band’s Visit at the Donmar Warehouse
Peter Polycarpou for The Band’s Visit at the Donmar Warehouse
Clive Rowe for Sister Act at the Eventim Apollo

Best actor in a musical

Winner: Arthur Darvill for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic

Also nominated:
Alon Moni Aboutboul for The Band’s Visit at the Donmar Warehouse
Julian Ovenden for South Pacific at Sadler’s Wells
Andrew Rannells for Tammy Faye at the Almeida Theatre

Best actress in a musical

Winner: Katie Brayben for Tammy Faye at the Almeida Theatre

Also nominated:
Anoushka Lucas for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at the Young Vic
Miri Mesika for The Band’s Visit at the Donmar Warehouse
Faith Omole for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre

Best new musical

Winner: Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre

Also nominated: 
The Band’s Visit at the Donmar Warehouse
Sylvia at the Old Vic
Tammy Faye at the Almeida Theatre

, , , ,

Guys and Dolls, Bridge theatre – buckets of fun

Critic Kenneth Tynan described Guys and Dolls as “the Beggar’s Opera of Broadway”, which articulates how earnestly this least earnest of musicals is, and should be, taken. 

Frank Loesser’s legendary show may be a classic Broadway fairytale, but here it is, reimagined in a radically immersive production that is full of fun and intimate detail. (make sure you grab a pretzel and beer pre-show) 

So much of this perfectly calibrated machine hits the mark. 

Even the overture, played with gusto by the 14-piece swing band under Tom Brady’s baton, creates a sense of anticipatory excitement.

From the beginning, the delightful show just pulls you in. Everything is bursting with energy and full of panache. It’s fresh minted but old school and owes much to Arlene Phillips smashing choreography. It animates every scene, it’s exquisitely put together.

I especially liked Daniel Mays as crumpled and charming Nathan Detroit and Marisha Wallace a sizzling Miss Adelaide, ‘the well-known fiancée’. 

Wallace makes the often twee ‘Bushel and a Peck’ a raunchy strip tease – with carrots. As a performer, she has a special kind of chicness that takes the form of haste; she’s always ahead of everybody, and this snappy beat – this responsiveness – makes her more exciting to watch, as she was in the Young Vic’s Oklahoma! It is her show.

Elsewhere, Sister Sarah (Celinde Schoenmaker), falls hard for the smooth-talking gambler, Sky Masterson (Andrew Richardson) and they are compelling. 

As for the remainder of this large cast, they dance and sing themselves right into the top league of quality musical performances. Backed up with stunning arrangements and an expert technical team, dressed as New York cops, the actors and musicians really do justice to this outstanding score.

Powered by Bunny Christie’s effective bygone orange and scarlet 1950s in-the-round aesthetic, scenes are staged on hydraulic platforms that shift around a standing audience. There’s seating if you prefer. Stagehands jostle in the neon glow, guided by the gorgeous music, while the audience is swept along. It’s such a lifter. 

The Bridge theatre’s Guys and Dolls restored my faith in musical theatre. It’s a pure emotional high, and you don’t come down when the show is over. None of the big numbers disappoint, from the thrilling dancing of ‘Luck Be a Lady’ to an especially gold rendition of ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat’ led by Cedric Neal.

Hytner’s production is a show that you can’t get out of your system.

I for one can’t wait to go again. 

Guys and Dolls

This review is dedicated to Bridge theatre PR Janine Shalom. Was she really that exacting? Yes. But she was able to laugh at herself, and I very much admired her for that.

Guys & Dolls is at the Bridge, London, until 2 September

, , ,

Shirley Valentine Proves Sheridan Smith Is Our Funniest Star

“I’m going to Greece for the sex — sex for breakfast, sex for dinner, sex for tea and sex for supper!” shrieks Sheridan Smith as Shirley Valentine in this knowingly playful revival.

The same age as Shirley, Smith performs this midlife monologue with heart-catching charm (“It’s like theMiddle East, there are no solutions”) and this classy production exhibits real affection. Smith is disarmingly good.

Sheridan Smith as Shirley Valentine

Like a wonky Samuel Beckett character, Shirley’s most responsive confidante is ‘wall’. And later a rock.

In these circumstances, any change could only be an improvement. Things really get going towards the end of act 1 as she slams the door on her marriage and sets out into the future.

Willy Russell, author of Educating Rita and Blood Brothers, once said of the latter that it was for people who don’t like musicals. Shirley Valentine is a play for people who don’t like plays, I think.

It’s entirely engaging and brilliant.

Anyway, fizzing Shirley heads for Greece where she blossoms like a flower in the sun, always playing directly to gallery. A lovely long bask in Smith’s maturing talent.

Structurally, this play is pretty much a music hall stand-up, directed with efficiency by Matthew Dunster. His production shrewdly offsets Paul Wills’ monochrome kitchen designs with pastel costumes and gorgeous beams of Mediterranean lighting designs by Lucy Carter. 

Fortunately, Smith more than delivers the goods in this swift-moving show about a woman who catches a glimpse of the life she could be living. Playfully cooking chips and egg, Shirley reveals her innermost thoughts to us, thereby endearing herself artlessly to the audience.

“Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and thoughts if they can’t be used?”, Smith says out loud – the power lies in its honesty.

Shirley’s ability to transcend the limitations of the class system is a camp joy to behold: as she conclusively tells us at the play’s end, she is now free to make her own life choices. Of course, women have moved on since it was written. Today, they know they have choices but that was only dawning on people like Shirley back then.

Reviews have been correctly brilliant. An encouraging sign that we as a community can accept the fact that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Is this what civilised society looks like? Perhaps.

It seems to me that Russell is a writer of genuine nobility, with a rare gift and wit for humanity. (Although The Stage did label the production ‘well-worn’, but Smith is quite literally above average when it comes to the whole being-a- performer and transcending the material thing, so I’m not sure if this really proves whatever point it is I’m trying to make.)

West End Producer David Pugh’s production is a love letter to live theatre – breaking the Duke Of York’s box office record for advance bookings totalling £4million in the process – and entertaining as hell.

During act 2 on the opening night, Smith accidentally knocked a wine glass prop onto the stage.

SMASH.

Her knowing composure, and ability to stay in character during the hiccup, was astonishing reminding everyone she is, by a distance, the funniest actor in the West End right now.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

And if she hadn’t been awarded an OBE already, I’d be starting a petition.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London until 3 June 2023.

, , ,

Olivier Awards Nominations 2023: Who Will Win & Who Should Win?

First: a great deal of joy in most nominated musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge for its tremendous successes on this year’s nominations list. 

Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s hit show, about Sheffield communities, has a load of nominations including Best Musical, Best Set Design for Ben Stones and Best Actress in a Musical for Faith Omole.

Standing At The Sky’s Edge

Naturally, much acclaimed My Neighbour Totoro, the stage adaptation of Studio Ghibli’s 1988 animated film, takes pole position with 9 nominations in categories Best Entertainment or Comedy Play, Best Director, Best Theatre Choreographer, Best Original Score and a Best Actress nod for Mei Mac.

Donmar Warehouse’s production of The Band’s Visit gets 6 nominations and it’s good to see Katie Brayben land Best Actress in a Musical for her solid performance as Tammy Faye

However, the Best Actress category is impossible to call – though it could well be that Patsy Ferran will clinch it for her tremendous performance as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Not backing Jodie Comer is now practically a treasonable offence, but a victory for her will happen at the expense of a subtler performance. 

Paul Mescal has added an Olivier nod for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire to his recent Oscar nomination. 27 actors are first-time Olivier nominees.

Jealous insecurities … Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Elsewhere, super producer Sonia Friedman is back on top with 17 nominations for her shows including 6 for To Kill A Mockingbird, 3 for Patriots, 1 for Jerusalem and 7 nods for Oklahoma!

On the play front, my guess is that A Streetcar Named Desire will win almost all its categories, My Neighbour Totoro will, in fact, sweep the board and New Diorama’s hit For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide – soon to run in the West End – could land Best New Play. 

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide


Anyway, let’s have a recap of the nominees plus a guide to who should win each category.

Full list of nominations for Olivier Awards 2023 with Mastercard:

Noël Coward Award for Best Entertainment or Comedy Play

Jack And The Beanstalk at The London Palladium

My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

My Son’s A Queer, (But What Can You Do?) at Garrick Theatre & Ambassadors Theatre

One Woman Show at Ambassadors Theatre

Will win: My Neighbour Totoro

Should win: My Neighbour Totoro 

Gillian Lynne Award for Best Theatre Choreographer

Matt Cole for Newsies at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre

Lynne Page for Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre – Olivier

Kate Prince for Sylvia at The Old Vic

Basil Twist for Puppetry Direction for My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

Will win: Matt Cole for Newsies 

Should win: Lynn Page Standing At The Sky’s Edge 

Best Costume Design

Frankie Bradshaw for Blues For An Alabama Sky at National Theatre – Lyttelton

Hugh Durrant for Jack And The Beanstalk at The London Palladium

Jean Paul Gaultier for Jean Paul Gaultier Fashion Freak Show at Roundhouse

Kimie Nakano for My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

Will win: Kimie Nakano for My Neighbour is Totoro

Should win: Kimie Nakano for My Neighbour is Totoro

Cunard Best Revival

The Crucible at National Theatre – Olivier

Good at Harold Pinter Theatre

Jerusalem at Apollo Theatre

A Streetcar Named Desire at Almeida Theatre

Will win: A Streetcar Named Desire 

Should win: A Streetcar Named Desire

Magic Radio Best Musical Revival

My Fair Lady at London Coliseum

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at Young Vic

Sister Act at Eventim Apollo

South Pacific at Sadler’s Wells

Will win: Oklahoma! 

Should win: South Pacific 

d&b audiotechnik Award for Best Sound Design

Bobby Aitken for Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre – Olivier

Tony Gayle for My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

Drew Levy for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at Young Vic

Ben & Max Ringham for Prima Facie at Harold Pinter Theatre

Will win: Standing At The Sky’s Edge 

Should win: Standing At The Sky’s Edge 

Best Original Score or New Orchestrations

David Yazbek, Jamshied Sharifi & Andrea Grody – Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek, Orchestrations by Jamshied Sharifi & Additional Arrangements by Andrea Grody – The Band’s Visit at Donmar Warehouse

Joe Hisaishi & Will Stuart – Music by Joe Hisaishi & Orchestrations and Arrangements by Will Stuart – My Neighbour Totoro for Barbican Theatre

Daniel Kluger & Nathan Koci – Orchestrations and Arrangements by Daniel Kluger & Additional Vocal Arrangements by Nathan Koci  – Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!  Young Vic

Richard Hawley & Tom Deering – Music and Lyrics by Richard Hawley & Orchestrations by Tom Deering – Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre – Olivier

Will win: Standing At The Sky’s Edge 

Should win: Standing At The Sky’s Edge 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh & Kaine Lawrence for For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at The Royal Court Theatre

Will Keen for Patriots at Almeida Theatre

Elliot Levey for Good at Harold Pinter Theatre

David Moorst for To Kill A Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre

Sule Rimi for Blues For An Alabama Sky at National Theatre – Lyttelton

Will win: Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh & Kaine Lawrence for For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide

Should win: Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh & Kaine Lawrence for For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Rose Ayling-Ellis for As You Like It at @sohoplace

Pamela Nomvete for To Kill A Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre

Caroline Quentin for Jack Absolute Flies Again at National Theatre – Olivier

Sharon Small for Good at Harold Pinter Theatre

Anjana Vasan for A Streetcar Named Desire at Almeida Theatre

Will win: Anjana Vasan for A Streetcar Named Desire 

Should win: Anjana Vasan for A Streetcar Named Desire 

Blue-i Theatre Technology Award for Best Set Design

Miriam Buether for To Kill A Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre

Tom Pye for My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

Ben Stones for Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre – Olivier

Mark Walters for Jack And The Beanstalk at The London Palladium

Will win: Tom Pye for My Neighbour Tototoro 

Should win: Tom Pye for My Neighbour Tototoro 

White Light Award for Best Lighting Design

Natasha Chivers for Prima Facie at Harold Pinter Theatre

Lee Curran for A Streetcar Named Desire at Almeida Theatre

Jessica Hung Han Yun for My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

Tim Lutkin for The Crucible at National Theatre – Olivier

Will win: Natasha Chivers for Prima Facie 

Should win: Lee Curran for A Streetcar Named Desire 

Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical

Beverley Knight for Sylvia The Old Vic

Maimuna Memon for Standing At The Sky’s Edge National Theatre – Olivier

Liza Sadovy for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at Young Vic

Marisha Wallace for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at Young Vic

Will win: Beverley Knight for Sylvia The Old Vic 

Should win: Marisha Wallace for Oklahoma! 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical

Sharif Afifi for The Band’s Visit at Donmar Warehouse

Peter Polycarpou for The Band’s Visit at Donmar Warehouse

Clive Rowe for Sister Act at Eventim Apollo

Zubin Varla for Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre

Will win: Sharif Afifi for The Band’s Visit

Should win: Zubin Varla for Tammy Faye 

Best Actor in a Musical

Alon Moni Aboutboul for The Band’s Visit at Donmar Warehouse

Arthur Darvill for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at Young Vic

Julian Ovenden for South Pacific at Sadler’s Wells

Andrew Rannells for Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre

Will win: Arthur Darvill for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at Young Vic

Should win: Julian Ovenden for South Pacific 

Best Actress in a Musical

Katie Brayben for Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre

Anoushka Lucas for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at Young Vic

Miri Mesika for The Band’s Visit at Donmar Warehouse

Faith Omole for Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre – Olivier

Will win: Katie Brayben for Tammy Faye

Should win: Katie Brayben for Tammy Faye

Unusual Rigging Award for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre

Age Is A Feeling at Soho Theatre

Blackout Songs at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs

The P Word at Bush Theatre

Paradise Now! at Bush Theatre

Two Palestinians Go Dogging at Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at The Royal Court Theatre

Will win: The P Word 

Should win: Age is A Feeling 

Sir Peter Hall Award for Best Director

Rebecca Frecknall for A Streetcar Named Desire at Almeida Theatre

Robert Hastie for Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre – Olivier

Justin Martin for Prima Facie at Harold Pinter Theatre

Phelim McDermott for My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

Bartlett Sher for To Kill A Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre

Will win: Phelim McDermott for My Neighbour Totoro 

Should win: Rebecca Frecknall for a Streetcar Named Desire 

Best Actress

Jodie Comer for Prima Facie at Harold Pinter Theatre

Patsy Ferran for A Streetcar Named Desire at Almeida Theatre

Mei Mac for My Neighbour Totoro at Barbican Theatre

Janet McTeer for Phaedra at National Theatre – Lyttelton

Nicola Walker for The Corn Is Green at National Theatre – Lyttelton

Will win: Jodie Comer for Prima Facie 

Should win: Mei Mac for My Neighbour Totoro

Best Actor

Tom Hollander for Patriots at Almeida Theatre

Paul Mescal for A Streetcar Named Desire at Almeida Theatre

Rafe Spall for To Kill A Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre

David Tennant for Good at Harold Pinter Theatre

Giles Terera for Blues For An Alabama Sky at National Theatre – Lyttelton

Will win: Paul Mescal for A Streetcar Named Desire 

Should win: Paul Mescal for A Streetcar Named Desire 

Delta Air Lines Best New Play

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at The Royal Court Theatre

Patriots at Almeida Theatre

Prima Facie at Harold Pinter Theatre

To Kill A Mockingbird at Gielgud Theatre

Will win: Prima Facie  

Should win: Patriots 

Mastercard Best New Musical

The Band’s Visit at Donmar Warehouse

Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre – Olivier

Sylvia at The Old Vic

Tammy Faye at Almeida Theatre

Will win: Standing at the Sky’s Edge 

Should win: Standing at the Sky’s Edge 

And there we have it.

The Olivier Awards will be hosted by Hannah Waddingham and broadcast via ITV and Magic Radio. Further details of the ceremony will be announced soon.

, , ,

Let’s Hope Oldham Coliseum Survives Levelling Up

Artistic Director of Oldham Coliseum theatre, Chris Lawson (Image: Kenny Brown | Manchester Evening News)

Let’s face it, Arts Council England’s attempt to reframe England’s cultural life has come at a price. One of the North’s leading producing theatres is going dark.
 
The curtain will fall in late March at Oldham Coliseum, one of only 32 regularly producing theatres in England, with its board blaming removal of Arts Council funding for the decision. The theatre is now in consultation with its 20 strong team of full-time staff and extended freelancers.
 
By way of a reminder, The Coliseum dates to 1885, it had been funded by ACE for decades and had asked for £615,182 a year over the next three-year funding period, totalling £1,845,546. It was one of several arts and culture organisations not to be included in the National Portfolio for 2023-26.
 
Oldham’s artistic director Chris Lawson, (who also recently became its chief executive) has warned that the venue, which is in a priority area for the government’s Levelling Up fund, may never open its doors again.
The Coliseum says it has been “working hard to find a solution to this reduction in funding” but that “the current financial situation is not sustainable for the season as planned”.
 
Speaking to The Stage, Lawson said: “They [the artists] understand the climate we operate in and our financial commitment to them remains, as we are determined to be able to protect them and ensure those artists are looked after regardless of whether the work is happening or not.”
 
Alarmingly, Arts Council England’s grant-in-aid budget of £341m represents a decline in value of between 30% and 50% since 2010. So, in 12 years of Tory government, the arts have staggeringly lost between a third and a half of their real-term income. Bastards. And by cancelling all its shows from March, the Oldham Coliseum has thrown down a challenge to both central and local government.

“These are difficult times, but arts and culture are in the lifeblood of our town and remain very much a part of our Coliseum,” said the thunderstruck leader of Oldham Council, Cllr Amanda Chadderton, who at least appears keen to be part of the ongoing discussions.
 
She continued: “This will not be the end of Oldham Coliseum. A new theatre is a key part of our regeneration plans for the town centre, and this has not changed.” 
 
But the bigger, unanswered question after this mess is surely: what does it say about us? What does it say about our fractured values? How has ACE and DCMS allowed it to get to this point? On an immediate level, the past week has presented as another way for British theatre and the state to look in decline, thoughtless and chaotic on the world stage, too. So sad and senseless.

We know that a higher spend on the arts (particularly when it is going to deprived communities) can save many times that amount from the budgets of the NHS and other public institutions. Culture is not a burden.
 
It goes almost without saying then, that this bombshell development reminds us of the precariousness of many theatres (even those with reserves). The grief of the profession has been palpable and the shock loud. Because the truth is that everyone knows that while Oldham Coliseum is one of the first major causalities of ACE’s decision-making, it is unlikely to be the last.


This week the International Monetary Fund predicted the UK would be the worst-performing major economy of the year, and the only one to plunge into recession. 

Oldham Coliseum

Elsewhere, a recent report published by the House of Lords condemned the government’s approach to the arts, describing it as complacent and at risk of “jeopardising the sector’s commercial potential”.

Before we conclude, the £120m so-called Festival of Brexit ‘Unboxed’ could have funded the Oldham Coliseum for another 135 years. A third of audiences for this appalling waste of money came from viewers watching Countryfile on the BBC. I kid you not, reader.

A multi-layered disaster zone.

An Arts Council England spokesperson said: “We appreciate how difficult it has been for the team at Oldham Coliseum to come to a decision to cancel forthcoming events, and how unsettling this must be for the staff and all those who work with the theatre, as well as how disappointing this is for audiences.”


To which there is only one possible response. No s**t.