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Review – 4**** The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – Charing Cross Theatre

A previously hidden gem from one of America’s greatest playwrights crackles with tension and atmosphere.

Amongst the pantheon of great American playwrights Tennessee Williams mingles with the very best. So it’s difficult to imagine the creator of a ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ having anything resembling a flop. But that’s exactly what happened with ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’. Premiering in 1963 it ran for a paltry 69 performances on Broadway. Since then the play has rarely been performed. It was re-written for the big screen as Boom! in 1968. But the intended star vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was also a failure. This new outing at the Charing Cross Theatre is undoubtedly a treat; with trains rumbling overhead the venue sets an atmosphere befitting any play by Williams.

Nick Haeffner

Flora Goforth (Linda Marlowe) is a rich widow and former society beauty writing her memoirs. She is terminally ill and ensconced in a mountaintop villa on the Amalfi Coast. Blackie (Lucie Shorthouse) is her stressed secretary trying to make sense of her random musing.  The moody and mysterious Chris Flanders (Sanee Raval) soon enters the fray; a social climber who is anxious to be seen with the right people at the right parties.  Flanders ingratiates himself with Flora who is very taken with him. The party is complete when the Witch of Capri (Sara Kestelman) rocks up. But for Flora it’s a time of reflection and contemplation of her own mortality.

Whilst the pivotal relationship is between Flora and Chris it’s her verbal sparring with the Witch that stands out most clearly. There are memorable one liners that keep the plot ticking along (‘my eyebrows were in focus but my eyes failed me!’) and Williams’ acerbic observations still hit the spot. There is something very familiar about Flora; she would have much in common with Blanche DuBois from a ‘Streetcar Named Desire’. Both have a sense of their fading beauty and how others might see them. In many respects this play shows a writer who is long past his best and re-cycling old characters; Williams’ finest moments had clearly been and gone. But there are enough chinks of light to sustain a piece that has something to say.

Although set in the present day it bears all the motifs of something written much earlier. It remains a work of its time but is no worse off being a period piece. All these niggles aside it’s still better than most plays that do the rounds. For one of Williams’ lesser known works it’s highly watchable and a notable theatrical event because of its scarcity.

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director: Robert Chevara

Produced By: Steven M. Levy for Charing Cross Theatre Productions Limited

Review by: Brian Penn

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Review – 3*** Ghosts on a Wire – Union Theatre

A tale of people meeting the modern world with ghostly spirits providing the inspiration in an inventive new piece of theatre.

Electricity is something we used to take for granted; in this current climate it feels something of a precious commodity; even a luxury as economic realities bite into increasingly finite resources. But few would consider the origins of an effective power supply. ‘Ghosts on a Wire’ tells the story of the world’s largest coal powered electric plant at Bankside in Southwark. There could not be a more perfect venue than the Union Theatre, which is a stone’s throw away from the plant that now houses the Tate Modern Gallery. Called the Pioneer it powered homes north of the river but had a devastating effect on communities in South London.

It’s the early 1890s and the City of London Electric Lighting Company has been established. They aim to build a factory to supply electricity in London, especially north of the city where so much wealth and power resides. However, local residents are on the horns of a dilemma. The factory will be a rich source of employment, but will ultimately spell the destruction of local housing and traditional business.

Martin Butterworth

Social reformer Octavia Hill (Gerri Farrell) is a vocal critic and maintains that clean air is vital for public health. Politician Lyon Playfair (Andrew Fettes) believes in progress and dismisses her concerns. Sarah Shelfer (Ali Kemp) is a pub landlady who fears for trade in the factory’s shadow. One of her customers Benny (Tom Neill) suspects his job as a lighterman may now be over.

As the debate rumbles on they are visited by ghostly spirits from the past. The poet William Blake (Timothy Harker) and writer Mary Shelley (Deborah Klayman) contemplate the future as the latter sees her vision of electricity realised. Legendary scientist Michael Faraday puts in an appearance as does 18th century diarist Hester Thrale. The scene is set as ambition clashes with humanity.

Writer and producer Linda Wilkinson presents an intriguing mix of ideas and perception that constantly challenges the audience. We have the inexorable rise of the industrial age set against historical figures that pre-date the Victorian era. The compact space of the Union Theatre provides a typically intimate setting. But the limited scale reduces the impact of some excellent visual projection designed by Martin Butterworth. It cries out for a much bigger setting where the visuals can fully complement the narrative. Even so, it remains an entertaining play that dares to be different for which it deserves much credit.

Writer/Producer: Linda Wilkinson

Director: PK Taylor

Sound Designer and Composer: Jack Baxter

Photographer and Graphic Design: Martin Butterworth

Review by: Brian Penn

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Review – 3*** Help! We Are Still Alive – Seven Dials Playhouse

One man, one woman and a reptile called Brian Eno in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Survival of the fittest pulling Darwinian principles in a new direction!

Such is the pace of change, I thought the Seven Dials Playhouse was a new theatre that escaped my beady eye. But it is actually the new moniker for the Tristan Bates Theatre just off St Martin’s Lane. Newly refurbished with slick branding, it plays host to this new comedy musical billed as a cross between 28 Days and When Harry Met Sally. It’s a heady mixture and no mean feat, combining comedy with tuneful musicality. But on the whole they pull it off with a sense of style and gumption.

Jass (Jade Johnson) and Finn (Elija Ferreira) have just survived the apocalypse. They are apparently the last two people left on earth. The inclination would surely favour peaceful co-existence, but what on earth happens when these two souls fall out. No best friend to whom you can pour out your troubles. No counsellor to help you through those rough patches?

We see their relationship develop from first meeting at a party four years before. As the apocalypse strikes Finn has made a decision. But the devastation around them changes the dynamic as they struggle for survival. We follow their adventures as the couple assume control over a land seemingly without challenge. However, Jass is anxious to find other traces of life, desperate to learn it’s not just the two of them. She wants to explore further afield; but Finn is reluctant, why can’t they just be content with each other?

The ‘survivors’ type storyline has been used many times over the years, but rarely (if ever) has it weaved elements of romantic comedy into the darkest of scenarios. The creators deserve real credit for not only trying but actually making it work. A set consisting of a single raised platform with slogans daubed on the walls is surprisingly effective. The lead actors deliver strong and confident performances in a two hander lasting eighty minutes. Both sing beautifully with Elijah Ferreira doubling up on guitar. The songs are deeply embedded in the narrative so aren’t particularly memorable. Nevertheless, they do their job and add extra dimension to an otherwise thin plot. The comedic elements could be stronger and don’t exploit the story’s potential as often as it should. But Jade Johnson and Elija Ferreira are hugely likeable with infectious personalities that see the show hit all the right marks.

Director: Georgie Rankcom

Music and Lyrics: Tim Gilvin

Book and Lyrics: Imogen Palmer

Producer: The Grey Area Productions

Review by Brian Penn

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Review – 4****Tasting Notes: Southwark Playhouse

Think of the sitcom ‘Cheers’ set to music; and then imagine we could see inside the minds of weird and wonderful characters that inhabit a wine bar called ‘LJ’s’. The result is this new musical bursting with potential.

There is a world of difference between what we think and say. Our deepest thoughts will stay hidden and bear little resemblance to our actions. The ability to read minds is a super power many people dream about. Personally, I’d rather not know as it would create more problems than it solved. But what if we could see inside people’s heads the absolute truth would become a powerful weapon. That is the premise for this intriguing new musical by Richard Baker and Charlie Ryall.

The action revolves around a wine bar run by LJ (Nancy Zamit) who eats, sleeps and breathes the bar. She is surrounded by an emotional ragbag of characters that represent her staff and extended family. There is Maggie (Charlie Ryall) a struggling actress who is madly in love with Oliver (Neil Ransome). He wants to reciprocate but just can’t find the words. George (Sam Kipling) is a flamboyant night child searching for the ‘one’ while Eszter (Wendy Morgan) has a needy son in tow. The circle is completed by regular customer Joe (Stephen Hoo) who has a secret.

The same 24 hour period is featured and periodically re-sets to tell the story from a different perspective. Each character expresses their thoughts with complete candour which is then set against how they actually react. The Groundhog Day scenario is never predictable because the story continually presents you with a fresh new angle. The songs are pleasant but not vital to the narrative; this is very much a play with songs as opposed to a standard musical. Whilst there is a smattering of funny lines, it explores some dark themes and delivers a smart twist as the story reaches its climax.

A simple brick based bar occupies the centre of the set while a three piece band sits discreetly at the back. The cast are excellent and combine perfectly in a series of well executed set pieces. The songs almost feel superfluous within a storyline that powers ahead and leaves them behind. Tasting Notes will undoubtedly find a receptive audience on a bigger stage, but also shows potential and creativity that is a rare commodity in modern theatre.

Music & Lyrics: Richard Baker

Book & Lyrics: Charlie Ryall

Director: Shelley Williams

Producer: Caroheda Productions Ltd

Review by Brian Penn

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Review – 4****The Lion: Southwark Playhouse

A Man with five guitars and a microphone weaves a touching story of overriding optimism with a mixture of songs and dialogue.

It’s a brave person who stands up in front of a live audience and delivers a performance that is convincing, engaging and above all entertaining. Imagine the degree of difficulty when that person takes the stage alone and attempts to hold the audience with only a guitar to break the dialogue. Well that’s exactly what Max Alexander-Taylor does in this revival of Benjamin Scheuer’s award winning autobiographical show The Lion. We are taken on a journey through one man’s young life; the highs, lows and inbetweens; a fractious relationship with family and stuttering romance with his girlfriend are captured in the space of 70 minutes.

Pamela Raith

The smaller performance area of the Southwark Playhouse was beautifully lit by strategically placed light bulbs. It felt more like the setting for an MTV Unplugged session. With guitar in hand Max mingled with the crowd as patrons took their seats. A small raised platform represented the stage. Four additional guitars sat at the back; three acoustic guitars and a shiny electric guitar. I couldn’t help thinking when he might plug in the amp and start rocking out; but for the time being it was a natural approach as the story began.

Playing the show’s author Max quickly assimilated as ‘Ben’ leading us through his early life. His father was academically outstanding gaining degrees in mathematics and law. However, Ben struggled and longed for his father to teach him the guitar. The eldest of three brothers he soon had to contend with siblings who had the same passion for music. Like all families they are dysfunctional but are always there for each other. The inevitable bumps in the road are negotiated as the family flits between England and the States. His unpredictable relationships are explored as Ben reaches his 30s with mental and physical scars. But as Weather The Storm (one of many fine songs) puts it ‘Every heart is made stronger by scars’

The Lion is a hugely affecting account of somebody growing up and coping with the worst life can throw at him. Max Alexander-Taylor is an excellent all-round performer. His proficiency on guitar is nothing short of remarkable as he went electric with licks that gave his time at boarding school extra kick. There was a smooth transition between monologue and song driven narrative that ticked over nicely. Max’s likeability as a performer went through the roof towards the end of the show. Half way into a song a gentleman fainted in the front row; he quickly abandoned the song and rushed to his aid. Most performers would have done the same thing but the look of concern was genuine and heart felt. He later returned and completed the set to rapturous applause. Add all-round good guy to all-round performer.

Book, Music & Lyrics: Benjamin Scheuer

Directors: Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels

Producers: Danielle Tarento in association with Arizona Theatre Company

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Review – 4**** To Have and to Hold: The Hope Theatre

A love story for all seasons told with simple charm, and a tribute to the qualities that make us fundamentally decent human beings.

Mid-February is marked on every calendar as the most romantic day of the year.  When cupid’s arrow looks for an unwitting target and a match made in heaven becomes a reality. Well that’s the general idea, but isn’t every day St Valentine’s Day? A time to tell to someone how we feel can be today, tomorrow or any day we choose. Well, the excellent Hope Theatre has come up with an antidote to the sentiment and fluff with To have and to hold; a raw, honest and touching play about a couple weathering the storms of life, yet still enduring as a unit.

Gina (Susan Graham) and Dennis (Mark Steere) have been married for over 50 years and have two children Liam and Maddie. Eight months previously Gina had a stroke and is effectively bed bound. With parallel monologues they each tell their story in flashback. From that very first glance to frailty in old age, every major milestone is described in crystal clear detail. Whilst they never directly speak the monologues often fall into ‘call and response’ mode, where Dennis relates an incident then Gina gives her version of events or vice versa.

In the present, we see Dennis as Gina’s primary carer as he wistfully recalls their wedding vows. We suppose Gina is expressing her thoughts from a sharp mind trapped in a broken body. They were never love’s young dream even when they were young. Gina laments missed opportunities and Dennis struggles to recall the peaks in their relationship. But affection remains as the realisation dawns: they need each other. The venue works like a dream with a play made for an intimate setting. Director Finlay Glen makes full use of space and perspective offered by a catwalk style performance area.

Andrew Barrett

To stage this play on St Valentine’s Day is a smart move because it explodes a faded mythology. It tells a real love story that isn’t all hearts and flowers. It’s a genuine snapshot of the lives people lead. A marriage is rarely perfect because we are human and bear the strain of making a relationship work. Mark Bastin’s script is bright, witty and thought provoking. The play connects on a very human level and lands in reality; which is sometimes a long way from the romantic ideal that we imagine. He makes us know and like the characters as people we immediately recognise. With a painfully short two date run now complete this should be a ‘must see’ when it returns for hopefully a longer run.

Writer: Mark Bastin

Director: Finlay Glen

Set & Costume Designer: Ceci Calf

Stage Manager/Lighting & Sound Design: Jasmine Kint

Review by Brian Penn

Review – 4**** West End Musical Celebration: Live at the Palace Theatre

Some of our brightest young performers shine in this well produced greatest hits package. The West End is alive and well!

This time last year the first lockdown was in full swing and a great night out seemed a distant dream. But just like the Covid jab this show is a shot in the arm for theatre goers starved of real entertainment. West End Musical Celebration is billed as a greatest hits package and essentially this is what we get.  

Co-producer and host Shanay Holmes kicked off with a great version of You Can’t stop the beat from Hairspray, and introduced a succession of brilliantly talented performers. Ben Forster, winner of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Superstar TV show totally nailed Music of the night and Superstar. Sophie Evans delivers a spine tingling rendition of Somewhere over the rainbow and almost brings a tear to the eye. 

Trevor Dion Nicholas performed Friend like me from Aladdin, a song that could have been written for him. Alice Fearn took a standing ovation for Defying gravity and drew a similar response for Let it go in Act II. Rachel John displayed an impressive vocal range with Don’t rain on my parade, while Layton Williams tore the roof off with the touring production Everybody’s talking about Jamie. As the show cranked up to its finale Shanay displayed her diva credentials on Listen and One night only. The cast joined together at the end to perform the rousing From now on from the Greatest Showman.

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3*** Public Domain – The Vaudeville Theatre @VaudevilleTh @publicdomainwe

Public Domain – The Vaudeville Theatre

Tweetingit: 3* The toxic reality of social media laid bare in this innovative new piece from two highly talented performers.

Our reliance on social media during the pandemic was undeniably complete. It provided a vital lifeline and maintained a semblance of human industry allowing many to work from home. However, it must be wondered if real communication has been usurped by a range of annoyingly convenient devices that do everything except keep us real.

So Public Domain is a timely study of how social media became an animal we feed but can no longer control. Following its well-received digital debut at the Southwark Playhouse, it now features in a limited four date run at the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand.

As a verbatim musical it draws heavily on the indelible universe of the internet. There is a disturbing air of familiarity, as Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke portray characters and moods that increasingly dominate our lives. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are thoroughly analysed and exposed, resplendent with their obvious shortcomings. Forristal and Clarke occupy boxes on either side of the stage and engage through words and gestures; but never really talk.

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Review: 4**** Titus Andronicus The Show Must Go Online @robmyles #ShakespeareDeck #cultureduringquarantine #staycreative

Tweetingit: 4* The ancient and modern meet head on as social media lends a hand in this inventive production of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tale.

The techno phobe lurking deep within me is now under control thanks in no small part to the ever inventive Show Must Go Online. It’s difficult to imagine how a theatrical production could possibly work on Zoom via YouTube. But these talented thespians turn the trick despite a maddening dip in sound levels.

However the company were undaunted and the gremlins were thankfully defeated. Zoom splits the screen which can feature anything between two and eight actors at any given time. Stage directions are provided with vision mixing according to the requirements of each scene. A green border marked the actor when they spoke as a surprisingly tense live performance began.

Titus Andronicus explores the vagaries of power and ambition as fragile alliances are made and broken at will. The Roman Emperor is dead and his sons Saturninus (Wayne Lee) and Bassianus (Khuyen Le) are fighting over who should succeed him. However Marcus Andronicus (Julia Walker Wyson) appears to calm troubled waters with the announcement that brother Titus (Michael Bertenshaw) is the people’s choice of Emperor. Titus will shortly return from a victorious war against the Goths with numerous scores to settle.

From an actor’s point of view it can’t be easy delivering a performance under these conditions. Actors invariably take their cue from other cast members.

They rely on gestures and mannerisms when delivering a line. Eye contact is vital in timing the correct response especially on stage. All these physical prompts the actors might rely upon are, inevitably largely missing but this did not matter. There was the occasional moment where they spoke over each other’s lines and in these circumstances, this is an occupational hazard but it never troubled the performer nor viewer. The company happily improvised props and links to smooth the transition between scenes.  

An actor will never just do a reading, it is always more than that and this group of fantastic actors prove this.

The Show Must Go Online has also produced an online guide for viewers staging a themed party including themed drinks and food. The mind wanders to dark places where Titus Andronicus is concerned but hey, why not?   

Director: Rob Myles

Next week is Richard III

To support the production, go to their patreon

To watch, go to their YouTube page

Review: 3*** Love Never Dies – via the Shows Must Go On YouTube @OfficialALW #cultureduringquarantine #stayathome #musicals

Tweetingit: 3*** Andrew Lloyd Webber’s magic touch just about sees this sequel to Phantom through any rough patches. But it’s sometimes difficult to see the join with plainly familiar melodies.

The sequel is generally confined to the big screen where we’re accustomed to roman numerals in the title and resigned to the money printing potential of a follow-up tale. However, in the theatre it’s rarely if ever tried with any degree of success. 

Who else but Andrew Lloyd Webber would have the nerve and financial muscle to pull it off? Despite ALW’s protestations Love Never Dies is a sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Negative previews in 2010 forced a re-write before it opened for a year-long run in the West End. However, a planned Broadway transfer was shelved after more mixed reviews.  The show decamped to Australia in 2011 where it generally found a warmer reception.  This film is a recording of the show staged at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne.

Continue reading “Review: 3*** Love Never Dies – via the Shows Must Go On YouTube @OfficialALW #cultureduringquarantine #stayathome #musicals”
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