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Mesmerising Sweeney Todd got me by the throat

Sweeney and Mrs Lovett (image with him sat on chair)

Lots to love about Nick Bagnall’s stripped-back Sweeney Todd in Liverpool, including the cast, acting, and absorbing scenes between Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett and the decision to set it in a time of Brexhaustion. Everything seems fresh minted. 

Bagnall’s wickedly heartfelt production with just four musicians and nine actors is something very special indeed. The marriage of humour and horror is expertly done and never gimmicky. 

Liam Tobin is a grounded Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who “shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again.” His ghoulish demeanour is always striking.  

‘Demons are prowling everywhere, nowadays,’ observes young street orphan Tobias, here played brilliantly by Shiv Rabheru, in ‘Not While I’m Around’. This sequence shines through the prism of social poverty, environmental apocalypse and Brexit Britain. 

It’s a lot more earnest, prescient as well.

You can see why Everyman programmed Sondheim’s musical thriller: it’s a genuinely political piece about austerity, the underdog and the lengths that desperate people will go to for survival. 

The thing that’s really been obsessing me though, is everything about the muted design and brilliant cast who prove truly inventive – interacting with the audience with verve and wrapping their brains around Sondheim’s complex score with a knowing wink.

Michael Vale’s design envelopes the stage with simple effects and minimal props – the staging is in the round and the action takes place on a metallic disc that is often lit from below in tones of blood red and spooky green. 

There is real invention: the cast take turns to rotate the central action manually using their hands or a stick. 

The most surprising thing about this Sweeney Todd, however, is Kacey Ainsworth as nonchalant Mrs Lovett – the criminal mastermind behind all this human pie-making; dressed in a white vest and wearing trainers Ainsworth has the audience in the palm of her hands from the start and this Mrs Lovett is a creation of true genius.

Ainsworth is very good throughout, especially in extended dream sequence ‘By The Sea’, which may be the happiest few minutes of regional theatre that you will see all year. 

In short, this is the food of love: get on a train and play on.

Sweeney Todd is at Everyman, Liverpool, until 18 May.

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Standing at The Sky’s Edge

Standing At The Sky’s Edge’s portrayal of high-rise communities in the iconic concrete housing estate could hardly be bettered.

It’s an evocative setting.

Park Hill was built in the 1950’s as a solution to the city’s social housing. This new musical is all about that estate, its residents and is something very special indeed. It celebrates the people, place and  times.

Written by Chris Bush and with songs by Richard Hawley this new musical delicately tells the story of three very different families through generations in the 1960s, 80s, and 2000s on Sheffield’s most notorious estate. 

The songs? 

Well, here, Hawley’s lethargic northern atmospheric music sound like being punched in the face feels, in a good way. As comforting as a premium whiskey. 

The music pulses and then retracts before erupting in emotional outbursts. The results are kind of brilliant: a show of world-beating standard yet still intimate and gentle, a cherishing of the mundane, a blast of the everyday, a love of life. 

The story? Bush’s book cleverly tells the tale of three generations of Park Hill tenants. The words probably read like quirky poetry on the page but they cut through the air with wit & warmth when spoken. 

It is inevitably kaleidoscopic and somewhat beautifully fragmented, leaving the audience to piece together the connections. It’s political too; unpacking the destructive role of class in British society. It feels vital in its portrait of a divided nation.

Technically, Alex Young delivers an all-round emotionally true performance that grips from the start with ‘Lady Solitude’. Nevertheless, a fine cast shine consistently.

In the best possible sense, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is like a 21st Century Blood Brothers: authentic socialist principles intact, a gripping story and frankly sensational songs.

We get the industrial pain, Thatcher despair, Brexit Britain & more, it wears its political heart on its sleeve. It isn’t West End razzle dazzle, it is theatre rooted in its time(s) and place. 

There are some big gloriously unifying moments, too — all the ingredients are here for a massive crossover theatre moment, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving creative team. 

In Act 1 closing number ‘There’s a Storm A-Comin’ a sofa is lobbed off a balcony, litter bins are emptied across the stage & the current political crisis context lends the audacious choreography  an added intensity. 

Robert Hastie’s production delights in being visceral. Ben Stone’s concrete multi-level design are to be both stunningly simple and enchanting; it all adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Seriously, this show made grown men around me weep, made me fall deeper in love with Sheffield than I have ever been before, could save as many relationships as it ignites. It touched people around me deeply. 

Act 2 swells the heart completely and invites the audience in with the unavailingly stirring ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ during this storming scene the company takes off; ensemble are startlingly confrontational. 

I mean, bloody hell. 

Later on, intimacy suits: ‘After The Rain’ is so fragile as to nearly come apart at the seams. Importantly, it was a lot of fun.

This is a musical that, in Robert Hastie’s beautifully clear production, left the heart full & the brain buzzing. 

Standing at The Sky’s Edge deserves to transfer to our Royal National Theatre. 

Cheers, Rufus. 

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How bad can Strictly Ballroom be? Spectacularly.

Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom

The first in Baz Luhrmann’s “red curtain trilogy”, Strictly Ballroom became the sixth most successful film of all time in Australia. The show is based on Luhrmann’s musical film of the same name. If this sort of brainless commercialism is one of the great enemies of light entertainment then the other is definitely excessive Drew McOnie (In the Heights, Bugsy Malone, On the Town). McOnie is an accomplished choreographer – he is not a very good director, which is a shame.

Certain things happened during the jaw-droppingly messy musical version of Strictly Ballroom, at the Piccadilly Theatre that I don’t wish to dwell upon, mainly involving Will Young, wasted talent and a misjudged ode to ballroom dance, it is with deep regret that I must report that the resulting two and three-quarter hours are not ideal.

It’s the oddest thing I’ve watched this decade, though, and has been the top of my to do list ever since I saw Will Young had washed up in it. Unfortunately, his dreadful over-acting really is terrible.

Part jukebox, part movie musical then. What this means is that McOnie has taken songs such as Mambo Number 5(!), Love Is In The Air and I Wanna Dance With Somebody & stripped them of their merit. He then puts the songs in the mouth of Pop Idol winner Young, who is reduced to standing around and/or sitting on a stool.

The strange thing is, though, someone has actually planned it this way, because they think it is entertaining and therefore consider it entirely appropriate for a top price ticket to be £129.00. The wigs are dicey, the costumes don’t fit and the show has nothing to say.

One or two moments are really worth recalling for posterity, though.

The first is Will Young whizzing around the stage in roller skates like a slug; falling over during key moments of the story and the unforgivable caricatures (racist) Spanish parents. You or I, in this situation, might have asked: “what the fu**” Or suggested: “Just close your eyes and pretend it isn’t happening.”

At the end the day, it is one of the worst musicals I have seen in the last five years. Soutra Gilmour’s ghastly design made me lose sleep and the costumes bring a Worthing Rep quality to the West End – last seen in Spice Girls’ car crash musical: Viva Forever.

Some of this might just be forgiven if the musical had any flair at all, but it is dire in vision and execution and quite inane and reductive in the way it reduces all women to being desperate to please idiotic men, succeed and portrays them as a bunch of hysterical, image-obsessed neurotics.

It’s about making money. Avoid.

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Young Frankenstein: do we all make our own monsters?

The gender roles in Young Frankenstein raise huge questions around our own collusion as audiences and Mel Brooks’ musical comedy starring Ross Noble, Hadley Fraser, Summer Strallen and Lesley Joseph is ruffling feathers.

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The background is that, in Natasha Tripney’s two-star review for The Stage she makes her case very pertinently about how certain attitudes towards women feed in to a culture that is damaging to women. “You could argue that I’m taking things too seriously, that this show is basically benign and just out to make its audience laugh, but this stuff matters. It adds up. It contributes to a culture in which men in positions of power, movie producers say, can treat women like they exist solely for their titillation and amusement. It’s damaging – and it’s just not funny anymore.

Similarly, Alice Saville wrote a piece for Exeunt (Let’s not forget that Tripney co-founded Exeunt) examining mass culture and sexism within the industry, but misses a trick of weighing the best of the present against the worst of the past. Saville too seems to think that the Guardian’s Chief Theatre critic is conspiring against women: “If the most common way to deal with women who call out sexism and harassment is silence, a close second is this time-honoured strategy of casting people who object to rape jokes and sexism as humourless. Michael Billington’s Guardian review seems to do so, too, albeit in a weird coded way – “This may not be a show for sensitive souls whose idea of a jolly evening is sitting at home reading Walter Pater. For the rest of us, who cherish popular theatre’s roots in laughter and song, it offers two-and-a-half hours of time-suspending pleasure.”

Good grief.

This recurring debate speaks volumes – and prompts this writer’s irony-meter to explode – especially when Young Frankenstein is a musical from a lost vaudevillian universe where the women were leggy and offence was given (and taken) in the spirit it was intended. This all happened in a time pre ‘Trial By Social Media.’

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Can the imagery of gender stereotypes, now so deeply carved on our brains, prevent us from looking beyond the roles assigned to us? I found the elements in question to be a subversive use of entertainment as a means of consciousness-raising. This show is portraying a period, with humour and accuracy.

I felt uncomfortable at times. But isn’t that the point?

Post-Weinstein, I was hyper-aware about my own gaze at the females on stage; but the performances in question here are very funny and subtly ridiculing that.

Even when Hadley Fraser lecherously embraces his fiancé and she pushes his tongue back into his mouth, singing ‘Please Don’t Touch Me’ – I couldn’t but applaud what in other hands might seem tasteless. It could be argued that the show is an inappropriate artefact and should be *at the very least* seriously reconstructed or consigned to the archives. Or, how about not watching it?

Amid the frenzy, we should also pause to remember the Mel Brooks’ heyday as a filmmaker was in the 1960s and 1970s, when sociopath Richard Nixon was in office. Brooks is one of the greatest comedians of the twentieth century whose work is slapstick, irreverent and certainly not polemic.

It’s true that some genres, such as comedy, have thrived on dementedly sexualised and explicitly demeaning imagery of leggy women and ‘funny-sexy’ for decades, but this old-fashioned approach should not represent a line being crossed. I think it’s slightly naïve to beat up the past with the stick of the present.

We know now that sex and sexuality is always going to be part of theatre, and always should be.

But that’s not to say it’s all plain sailing…

After the show I asked ten humans, who identified as female, whether they found anything in Young Frankenstein to be a) offensive or b) misogynistic. Interestingly, they all said no. One woman told me: “I am actually pretty sick and tired of all this right-on idiocy. I have three daughters and I have raised them as independent women. We have loved every minute of it.”

Another woman that I was sat next to told me: “I didn’t want a female Doctor Who – but here we are. I don’t need approval from anybody to enjoy the theatre, I don’t read reviews because the writers often bring their own agenda.”

Nevertheless, just because the ten women did not have a problem with the content of the musical as a misogyny-fest does not mean that no female humans will have a problem with the representation of women on stage.

If a lost British musical was unearthed tomorrow featuring a cartoon monster raping a woman in a cave as a term of abuse, would Cameron Mackintosh commission it, or would he censor it? He’d censor it.

Perhaps there should have been a 2017 sensibility to Young Frankenstein, in much the same way that racist elements are removed from repeats of 1970’s sitcoms on daytime TV. Arguments that “they’ve been playing it uncensored for decades” are irrelevant: society moves on, which is why slavery is a crime, marriage is equal, homosexuality is not a crime and why women are allowed to vote.

Obviously, the history of patriarchy is extensive and entrenched. So, do we remake these stories and tell them differently if we are going to change our own culture and its attitudes towards women? Progress on justice for women is slow, but it’s happening. Young Frankenstein has been directed with aplomb by Broadway’s finest director-choreographer, Susan Stroman. What’s that? A female director, in the West End.

Whether it is cynical, misogynistic, artistic, all three or none, perhaps this will prove a cultural blip, a peculiar aberration like the huge success of the Take That musical: The Band that theatre fans in the future will look back on as nothing more than a snapshot of pop culture in 2017.

But it is hard not to feel that in 2077, people are more likely to look back on the fuss around Young Frankenstein in the way we now regard the reaction, 50 years ago, to the uproar of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ featuring goose-stepping chorus girls and choreographed swastikas: as rather quaint.

I salute Young Frankenstein for sticking a bonfire under good taste and scorching political correctness. Theatre is full of surprises. All we can do, as audiences, is say it how we see it and respond accordingly because there’s nothing more miserable than silence.

We all make our own monsters and I don’t think that anybody associated with Young Frankenstein is one.

Anyway, there is something rotten in the world if you need approval to laugh at a Mel Brooks musical.

Go and see it for yourself.

N.B. I am, though, still upset that there wasn’t a gay bar in Transylvania.

Young Frankenstein runs at the Garrick Theatre until September 2018.