Review: 3*** The Last Act of Harry Houdini – The Cockpit Theatre @cockpittheatre @UKTheatreNet @TheCompanyO

Tweetingit: 3* A solid one man show delving into the mind of a puzzling and often misunderstood showman. Harry Houdini wouldn’t have had it any other way.

On 31 October 1926, magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died in Detroit. Ninety three years later almost to the day, Barry Killerby performs The Last Act of Harry Houdini at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone. There was certainly an eerie atmosphere as the spotlight settled on a top hat glistening with stardust. Our story begins two weeks prior to his death in Montreal, where he is preparing for a theatre show. Aged 52 Houdini’s glory days were largely behind him and had returned to his roots in Vaudeville.

The circumstances of his life and death are analysed in a highly literate one hour monologue. The narrative works well in flashback as snap shots feature key stages in Houdini’s life. The son of a Rabbi, Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Hungary. The family immigrated to America in the late 1870s, where they struggled to find their way. Houdini’s courtship of future wife Bess is well documented; so too his rise to prominence as an escape artist and keen eye for a photo opportunity. His obsession with spiritualism was evident and frequently clashed with mediums, whom he saw as nothing more than poorly trained magicians.

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Review: 4**** Fame – The Peacock Theatre peacocktheatre @famemusicaluk

Tweetingit: 4* Dust off those leggings and crop tops, it’s time to sing and dance the night away in this brilliantly staged piece of 80s popular culture.

I can catch the moon in my hands don’t you know who I am…remember my name..fame!..I wanna live forever; I want to learn how to fly. I always found those lines vaguely psychedelic with more than a passing nod to some dodgy cigarettes. But of course it’s really about the wholesome world of stage school; a world that might have been inhabited by Simon Cowell in a previous life. The narrative falls on the New York High School For Performing Arts in the early 80s.

It is the latest incarnation of a story that began life as a highly acclaimed film directed by Alan Parker. It spawned the hugely successful but inferior TV spin-off; and then the Kids from Fame, a thankfully short lived recording act. Now, the musical complete with original songs is beginning to mature in this excellent production at the Peacock Theatre.

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Review: 3*** Macbeth – The Musical. White Bear Theatre #MacbeththeMusical @WhiteBearTheatr @StageSplinters

Tweetingit: 3* Shakespeare meets Avenue Q in a refreshing new treatment of the Scottish Play. The pub crowd will love it!

Shakespeare productions are frequently accused of stuffiness and dense language. But just occasionally an adaptation will break down these barriers. Stage Splinters have produced just such a show with great imagination and potential. Using Avenue Q style puppets and engaging original songs they place Macbeth in an entirely new light. The White Bear is a lovely pub with a neat and compact theatre upstairs.  A basic set is adorned with a simple curtain from which performers emerge. Two TV screens project sketch images prior to every scene; which work surprisingly well although the screens could have been slightly bigger.

For the purpose of visualisation this is the plot they bring to life: somewhere in the Scottish moorlands Macbeth and Banquo, two of King Duncan’s generals come upon three witches. They predict Macbeth’s promotion and elevation to the Kingship of Scotland. It is also foretold that Banquo’s descendants shall be kings. Afterwards, King Duncan names Macbeth Thane of Cawdor in thanks for his success in recent battles, which seems to support the prophecy. Lady Macbeth receives news from her husband about the prophecy and his new title, and vows to help him become king by any means necessary.

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Review: 3*** World’s End – King’s Head Theatre @WorldsEndPlay @KingsHeadThtr #QueerSeason2019

Tweetingit: 3* Parents and sons with dysfunctional relationships in a 90s time capsule. Patchy, but strong performances bring it home.

For any retrospective piece to work it has to clearly identify the period in question. World’s End doesn’t exactly scream the 90s but does lack the unique motif of the decade that preceded it. So whilst we are told it’s 1998 it could be any year from the recent past. It is only towards the end of this thoughtful play that memorable events kick in and we gain a true sense of time and place.

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Review: 4**** The Weatherman – Park Theatre 200 #TheWeatherman @parktheatre

Tweetingit: 4* A harrowing story of good men turning bad at the hands of an unscrupulous landlord. Human trafficking could never be pleasant viewing; but it is something we ignore at our peril.

We usually see theatre as a brief escape from life’s routine and stark reality. But just occasionally, it rips us from our comfort zone and portrays life as it happens. The Park Theatre never shirks a challenge and is pitching itself as the new Royal Court with its own brand of gritty drama.

Weatherman tells the story of decent men trapped in a circle they can’t square. O’Rourke (Alec Newman) and Beezer (Mark Hadfield) are drifters waiting for their turn in life’s lottery. They share a flat together and landlord Dollar (David Schaal) wants them to take care of someone. In return, their rent will be paid for six months plus £200 per week to cover expenses. The scales come crashing down when they realise ‘someone’ is a 12 year old Romanian girl called Mara (Niamh James). They are under strict instructions to care for her in their flat. The only time she leaves is when Dollar has a job for her. Fellow tenant Turkey (Cyril Nri) is co-opted to drive Mara to and from jobs.

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Review: 3*** River in the Sky – Hope Theatre @TheHopeTheatre

Tweetingit: 3* A young couple dealing with the death of a child; a surprisingly touching story of life and loss.

Society rarely deals with death as well as it should. How could it be any other way? Those left behind are consumed by grief; but an instinct for survival somehow finds a way of coping with the trauma. River in the Sky portrays the death of an infant; perhaps the most challenging loss of all. How do you mourn a life lost and unlived; a stream of ifs, buts and maybes. No first day at school, no first girlfriend, no memories of potential fulfilled?

Ellie and Jack (Lindsey Cross and Howard Horner) begin life as an idealistic young couple, happily joshing about the number of children they might have. Reality soon kicks in as Ellie suffers a series of miscarriages. A longed for baby boy finally arrives and their happiness knows no bounds. However, tragedy strikes when their child dies suddenly.  Couples will typically react in one of two ways; bereavement can draw them closer together or completely drive them apart. Ellie and Jack occupy the middle ground as they come to terms with the trauma. They try to rationalise their feelings but struggle to find the same page. Talk of tea and biscuits are substitute for the painful conversations that lie in wait. But they find relief in wondrous tales of tornadoes and magnificent beasts. It becomes a powerful diversion and escape from the grief they both share. A touching final scene allows them peace, resolution and closure.

The play works well as a two-hander and is solidly written. Lindsey Cross and Howard Horner are both very capable actors and deliver controlled performances. A most distressing emotion is portrayed with sensitivity and understanding. The realisation we are never quite the same when a loved dies is laid bare. But the essential message that we survive and move on is equally apparent. The subject matter is depressing and would not ordinarily constitute a great night out. A disappointingly thin audience would bear testament to the fact. We are confronted with the one thing we dread most in life. But it’s a brave decision to write a play that explores the emotional fallout of bereavement. For that alone it deserves our respect and admiration.

Author/Director: Peter Taylor

Producers: Charlie Arundel, Lindsey Cross and Peter Taylor

Box Office: 0333 666 3366

Booking Link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/thehopetheatre/river-in-the-sky/e-reblop

Booking Until: 24 August 2019

Review: 4**** The Hunchback of Notre Dame – St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden @Iristheatre

Tweetingit: 4* Victor Hugo’s legendary tale is given new life by a gloriously original production in a near perfect venue. Esmerelda has never looked or sounded quite so good.

A quiet sense of expectation grows whenever I walk through the gates of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden; a wonderful setting for an evening’s entertainment; provided the weather keeps its happy face on. We just about got that with a cool and breezy 21c. The excellent Iris Theatre might usually focus on Shakespeare, but the Hunchback of Notre Dame comes as a welcome departure. The Actors’ Church would seem tailor made for this classic story, no need for recorded bells here: or so you would think?

As the witching hour of 7pm grew closer I wasn’t disappointed as the church bells sounded with ominous intent. People were mingling outside patiently waiting for show to start; deep in conversation with beer in hand when the cast suddenly appeared with musical accompaniment. It was a lively introduction to the six strong company although they each took on multiple roles in the piece.

It stays reasonably faithful to Hugo’s story; beguiling gypsy girl Esmerelda (Izzy Jones) has many admirers; none more so than deformed bell ringer Quasimodo (Robert Rhodes). Her upbringing is shrouded in mystery and rumour. Sister Gudole (Darrie Gardner) has an intimate connection, but Esmerelda remembers nothing of her early life. Quasimodo falls hopelessly in love but has rivals for her affection; his adopted father Archdeacon Frollo (Ed Bruggemeyer) and dashing Captain Phoebus (Max Alexander Taylor) each have designs on the gypsy girl. Meanwhile, poet and musician Pierre Gringore (Katie Tranter) muses about love and life.

This production is refreshingly inventive with song, dance and cast members each contributing their party piece on guitar, tambourine, accordion and whistle. There was strong emphasis on audience participation which added to the feeling of inclusivity; however there was a ‘plant’ in the audience acting as stooge when required. I might pick the tiniest of bones in the way performance areas were organised. The convention at St. Pauls Church dictates the show moves around the gardens with periodic scenes inside the church. I naturally assumed the church interior would frequently feature; especially with Quasimodo as bell ringer and Esmerelda seeking sanctuary within the church. However, with the exception of the last ten minutes all the scenes were outside. Nevertheless, Iris Theatre is a proven master of outdoor theatre; even if the venue ultimately gains them an extra star.

Author: Victor Hugo

Adaptation: Benjamin Polya

Director: Bertie Watkins

Musical Director: Matthew Malone

Producer: Iris Theatre

Booking Link:  http://www.iristheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/873600092/events

Booking Until: 1 September 2019

Review: 3*** The Actor’s Nightmare – Park Theatre 90 @ParkTheatre

Tweetingit: 3* Six mini playlets explore the mysteries of theatre in this patchy but broadly enjoyable portrayal of industry stereotypes.

Satire is the most challenging genre for both writer and performer. It requires a subtle, understated form of wit and a deep understanding of the subject matter. Actor’s Nightmare is Christopher Durang’s take on the entertainment industry; although hit and miss there is enough substance to hold the interest with the help of a bright cast. Meaghan Martin, Kate Sumpter, Layo-Christina Akinlude, Adrian Richards and Stefan Menaul take on multiple roles in six short plays collected as a stand-alone piece.

Mrs Sorken is a monologue based exposition of theatre and the art of acting. Annoying and po faced, the title character cleverly reminds us of someone we’ve all met before. Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room relates a familiar tale; a struggling screenwriter desperate for a break will take anything for a decent paycheck. His grasping agent introduces him to a voracious producer who pitches the most outlandish ideas for a film; but will he take the bait?

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Review: 4**** A Beautiful Noise – Lyric Theatre #ABeautifulNoise @TheLyricTheatre @FisherStevensUK

Tweetingit: 4* Dust off your best karaoke voice for a good old sing song; but more importantly, the celebration of a great modern songwriter.

So the great tribute bandwagon rolls on with A Beautiful Noise at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue. The title song was a top 20 hit for Neil Diamond, one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. Such tribute is even more poignant now Diamond has retired from touring due to the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Longevity is rare in an industry that no longer cares for talent or innovation; only the next puppet on the production line.

Neil Diamond in contrast represents staying power; producing roughly an album each year since 1966, he has sold 100 million records worldwide. With a guitar over his shoulder, Diamond might have been a cut price Dylan, straddling folk and blues on his early recordings. However, a label switch in the early 70s produced a succession of classic pop songs including Cracklin’ Rosie, I am…I said and Sweet Caroline. All three are featured in this excellent show starring Fisher Stevens as Diamond.  

Thankfully, there are no half-baked storylines clinging to the songs; it is treated as a conventional live set and is all the better for it. A back screen provides a brief biography of the singer’s life while Stevens chipped in with anecdotes. Every notable Neil Diamond song is covered including the ones that were hits for other artists. For example, I’m a believer and A little bit you, little bit me by the Monkees, The boat that I row; a hit for Lulu; and Red red wine a number one hit for UB40 in the 80s. One of my personal favourites checked in early; the dark, haunting Girl you’ll be a woman soon; so memorably covered on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

For all its inclusivity the show did carry a fair amount of padding. For example, the biog rightly made reference to Diamond’s time at the Brill Building in New York; the songwriting powerhouse that produced Carole King and Neil Sedaka among many others. But why feature a medley of songs by Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry (another product of the Brill Building)? Similarly, Woman in love was performed for no other reason than it’s a Barbara Streisand song; who duetted with Diamond on You don’t bring me flowers, which is more logically included in the set list. A glorious finale featured one of Diamond’s greatest creations, the anthemic America from the soundtrack of the Jazz Singer, his only film role.

The seven piece band and two backing singers provided solid support to Fisher Stevens, who effected a pretty decent impression of his subject. However, his carefully constructed New York accent quickly slipped into the ether. It might seem terribly unsporting to point this out, but he’d given up on it by Act II. One thing that didn’t slip was his hair, which didn’t move for two and a half hours; isn’t it amazing what some good hair product can do?

Neil Diamond is a songwriter and performer whose ear for a ballad made him housewife’s choice and a staple of the Radio 2 playlist. Popularity rarely goes unpunished and Diamond became another victim of rock intelligentsia. His induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 was long overdue. A Beautiful Noise is a thoroughly entertaining tribute that keeps you singing long after the show has finished. As Alan Partridge once said ‘You can keep Jesus Christ. That was Neil Diamond truly King of the Jews!’  Well not quite, but close enough.

Music Director: Mark Burton

Producers: Dave Mackay/Flying Music Company Limited

Booking Until: Touring nationally until November 2019

Booking Link:  https://abeautifulnoiseshow.co.uk/fisher-stevens-live-tour-dates/

Review: 4**** Hamlet – St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden @Iristheatre

Tweetingit: 4* A beautiful setting and confidently staged version of a classic Shakespeare tale. Even better the rain stayed away…hurrah!


A damp early morning drizzle had thankfully given way to a bright, warm summer
evening. Performers entertained a crowd on the piazza while an endless throng of tourists passed through. Open air productions are naturally a hostage to the weather; but the gods were kind as the Iris Theatre presented Hamlet at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden. The Actor’s Church looked majestic with its picturesque gardens bathed in sunshine. The action gradually moved around the landscape for each scene, occasionally dipping inside the church to make the most of awe inspiring architecture. Designed by Inigo Jones and finished in 1633, it can easily pass as an authentic Elizabethan building; and so provide a convincing setting for Shakespeare.

Like so much of the Bard’s work, Hamlet plugs into themes that remain timeless and universal. The story lands on Prince Hamlet played by Jenet Le Lacheur. Following the death of his father, kingship has passed to Uncle Claudius (Vinta Morgan) who marries Gertrude (Clare Bloomer), widow of the dead king. Secret machinations abound as Hamlet mourns his dead father, but who can he trust; eyes and ears are everywhere? But he does at least have the support of friend and confidant Horatio (Harold Addo). At court, Claudius takes counsel from Polonius (Paula James) and grants Laertes (Joe Parker) permission to resume his studies in France. Ophelia (Jenny Horsthuis) has designs on the Prince; but her father Polonius warns against the liaison. What revelations will now be brought to bear?

The Iris Theatre has reduced open air productions to a fine art. The design and staging is pretty much spot on; brown military uniforms with red and gold trim bring to mind images of the old Soviet regime; while TV screens lining the performance area offer a great contrast between the classic and modern. Characters would send each other emails; video clips simultaneously played on screens adding a unique dimension to the story. Inevitably with outdoor shows the sound quality suffers, particularly with noise overspill from street entertainers.

Scenes inside the church reached high drama purely because of the spirituality engendered by its surroundings. There were also some excellent set pieces which used the interior to great effect. The cast were charismatic and engaging, making every breath and syllable count. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play with the full version clocking up around four hours. The Iris Theatre sensibly restricted the production to a more manageable two hours thirty minutes. It means the best lines stand out even more; like ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions’. Ain’t that the truth!?

Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Daniel Winder
Producer: Iris Theatre
Booking Link: https://iristheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows
Booking Until: 27 July 2019