Small is beautiful in first-class fringe revival

Face The Music – All Star Productions @ Ye Olde Rose and Crown, until 03 July 2015 (tickets)

Sometimes, through no fault of their own, theatres are so indelibly linked with a traumatic experience that all plays there become tarred by association. Three years ago I sat in a sweltering black box theatre above the Rose and Crown and watched WAG: The Musical – a show so terrible it effectively caused me to avoidwpid-wp-1434282633307.jpg my local Walthamstow-based theatre ever since.

During that time All Star Productions have continued to develop their reputation as purveyors of solid fringe productions of near forgotten musicals. Having seen a production of Howard Goodall’s Girlfriends that showed the limitations of the venue alongside the strength of the performances, the team had rather fallen off my radar during to the horror of the singing footballers’ wives.

However whispers across the blogging sphere in the intervening years had led me to believe All Star Productions had been going from strength to strength, and earlier this year they scored a West End transfer when Superman: The Musical made it to the Leicester Square theatre. So when an unexpected, but wholly welcomed, invitation to accompany View From The Gods to the depths of E17 to watch an Irving Berlin & Moss Hart musical that I had not previously heard of, Civilian Theatre finally felt it was time to seek closure on the past.

All Star Productions should be lauded for their dedication for restaging the unknown and the forgotten. I would imagine it is a rather canny financial position as well – one would think the staging rights to an Irving Berlin musical not performed for 70 years are rather less than for Anything Goes. It also doesn’t come weighted with expectation and if it proves to be a success then you may find yourself – well if not Cameron Mackintosh rich – then at least as rich as Croesus.

Face The Music has the distinction of being the first collaboration between Berlin & Hart and is the first professional UK staging of the show.  These facts make the show worthy of interest but are certainly not enough to praise it. And the potential downside of All Star Productions dedication is obvious – there may well be good reasons why a musical has sat on the shelf for 70 years.

While it may lack the absolute belters that can be found in the best works of both Berlin & Hart, there are still some lovely tunes in here. If You Believe closes the first half and is a thumping, toe-tapping cod-evangelical feel that musical devotees will find has distinct echoes of Blow, Gabriel, Blow, that wonderful number which kicks-off the second half of Anything Goes. Equally songs like Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee, My Beautiful Rhinestone Cowboy and Manhattan Madness are not ground-breaking numbers but they do tend to be quite delightful (or given who we are talking about, possibly it is in fact de-lovely).

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'So you wanna be a boxer' Bugsy Malone. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

New generation muscles in as Bugsy Malone takes over Hammersmith

Bugsy Malone – Lyric Hammersmith, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

Michael Billington (or as I imagine him – the Sage of Shaftesbury Avenue) described the Lyric’s production of Alan Parker’s sublime 1975 musical as “having nothing new to say about the gangster-movie”.

Whilst being factually correct, it also totally misses the point. Bugsy Malone is to musicals what an 18th century folly is to architecture. It has no purpose other than to be enjoyed for what it is. Bugsy Malone is pure sugar-rush pleasure. It enthrals children by showing people their own age James Okulaja-as-fat-sam-and-company. Photo credit: Manuel Harlanplaying at adults, whilst grown-ups are drawn in by the infectious enthusiasm and energy of the cast.

Bringing it all together is a highly effective team. Phil Bateman’s careful musical direction ensures songs stay within the cast’s natural ranges and Drew McOnie’s choreography has a highly physical comic style that adds vim to some terrific numbers, whilst Sean Holmes’ fluid but precise direction keeps everything humming along.

Eleanor Worthington-Cox already has one Olivier award for Matilda; she could get another for her Blousie Brown. It was a spectacular assured performance and her rendition of I’m feeling fine was exceptional. However it is James Okulaja’s Fat Sam that steals the show. Vibrantly energetic, full of confidence but still able to deliver a sparkling comedy pratfall – Okulaja shows who the true star of Bugsy Malone is.

The Grand Tour? Oh you mean ‘Le Grand Tour’, oui?

The Grand Tour – Finborough Theatre, until 21 February (tickets)

In Hello Dolly Jerry Herman can lay claim to having created one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. It ran for over 2800 performance and won a staggering 10 Tony Awards. Two decades later he enjoyed another huge hit in La Cage aux Folles, which has won a major Tony in each of its Broadway runs.The Grand Tour 3 Alastair Brookshaw (Jacobowsky) photo Annabel Vere

In the decade between these two huge hits Herman wrote three less successful musicals (which include the cult classic Mack and Mabel) of which one was ‘The Grand Tour’. It has never having previously been performed in Europe and there was, despite the Finborough’s mighty reputation, a question mark in my mind over the reason why this might be so.

Well it certainly isn’t a dud. If this is not the strongest musical to hit the London stage then one only need cast a jaded eye over the offerings from ‘Theatreland’ to see that it is a long, long way from being the weakest.

However for all the spirited energy of the cast and another piece of spritely direction from Thom Southerland – who currently appears to be operating a cartel in the relatively niche field of small-scale musical direction – there are enough problems with Michael Stewart’s and Mark Bramble’s Book to suggest the work is destined to remain a curio piece for the dedicated rather than be reassessed as a missed masterpiece.

The Grand Tour 5 Natasha Karp, Nic Kyle, Vincent Pirillo, Michael Cotton, Samuel J Weir, Laurel Dooling Dougall, Alastair Brookshaw and Lizzie Wofford photo Annabel VereThe main problem is that, despite being based on a pre-existing play, the production feels more akin to fragmentary scenes forced into a thematic connection by the overarching story of Jacobowsky and the Colonel. As a result, after a strong opening, we have ‘a scene on a train’, ‘a scene at the circus’ and then, most jarringly, ‘a scene at Jewish wedding’. All of these are performed extremely well and are very enjoyable to watch, but it is hard to be convinced as to why it is all occurring.

The relationship between the three leads is rather too closely reminiscent to the dynamics between Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo in Casablanca. However the creators are too fond of Jacoboswky to allow for the depiction of humanity’s shades of grey that makes Casablanca such a masterpiece. In the end Jacoboswky is both the humane, philosophical Jewish refugee and the hero who will lay down his life for his friends.

In opposition to this Colonel Stjerbinsky really is a clunking idiot – at least Victor Laszlo got the wonderful moment of being able to singLa Marseillaise to remind the audience why Ilsa would have fallen for him in the first place. Without a similar moment we are left to wonder why on earth Marianne prefers him to our hero, Jacobokwsky, and how Stjerbinsky got even half as far as he did without someone selling him out to the Nazis.

Yet despite all of this, it still works remarkably well. There are a number of songs that show us that Herman was still in the middle of his three decade purple patch. I’ll be here tomorrow would stand
up well in any musical, and underneath the lightness of touch is a reminder of the quiet pain and necessary stoicism of anyone born into a Jewish family pretty much anywhere in central Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

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Revisiting…The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys – Garrick Theatre, booking util 21 December 2014 (tickets)

Almost a year ago Civilian Theatre went to see a Kander and Ebb musical at the Young Vic. Going in with no expectations and a complete lack of awareness about anything regarding this unknown musical, I was absolutely blown away by a production that balanced the real-life emotional power of the story with an entertaining book, vaudeville repartee and stunning performances. It was a rare show that managed to entertain whilst delivering a devastating story that can resonates today. Of all the West End transfers from smaller venues in 2014 , it is seeing The Scottsboro Boys’ name in lights at the Garrick Theatre which most lifts my spirits and leads my to retain some faith in the high and mighty who control the content of the West End. Below I revisit my end of year review, which saw The Scottsboro Boys awarded my No.1 show of 2013. 

No 01 The Scottsboro Boys

For more of my thoughts have a read of Spotlight On: The Scottsboro Boys 


Forbidden but not forgotten

Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre, booking until 22 November 2014

With a song in my heart and a smile on my face, Civilian Theatre came as close he ever will to skipping with joy out of theatre at the end of Forbidden Broadway. This relentlessly silly, endlessly enjoyable show has transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the Vaudeville to a fill a gap in scheduling after the short notice postponement of Rabbit Hole. It is a mark of the show’s fluid nature that a joke about being a ‘late season replacement’ hasanna-jane-casey-damian-humbley-ben-lewis-and-christina-90856 already been shoehorned in.

Forbidden Broadway has been around New York since the early 1980s but the nature of the show allows it to seamlessly weave in new musicals as they appear and as a result it broadly resembles the current West End, with The Book of Mormon and Once coming in for two of the most vicious sketches.

Joining the London cast is Christina Bianco, a star in the Broadway run and perhaps as importantly from the ticket agencies point of view, someone whose Youtube video of Let It Go has racked up more than 5 million hits. A not insignificant number when you have a mainly unknown cast and a West End theatre to fill.

The variety on display is quite startling. There is no plot, not even an attempt at one. This is a musical revue through and through, and the talented performers seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience. It reminded, more than anything else, of the Reduced Shakespeare Company – a fixture in London for many years.

The cast, Christina Bianco, Anne-Jane Casey, Damien Humbley and Ben Lewis, are impressively versatile and can switch between musical genres at the drop of a hat. They work well together as an ensemble and there isn’t a weak link among them, but it was Bianco demonstrating a stunning range in her pitch-perfect takedown of Kristin Chenoweth that came closest to bring the house down.

Like all parody shows there are hits and misses. However the ratio is certainly in favour of the hits, and even the misses are well sung. It is a show that does require a pretty good knowledge of musical theatre, and it has been written by people who know the form inside out – something seen in their canny choice of beginning with their take on ‘Fugue For Tinhorns’ from Guys and Dolls; a song that any musical aficionado will know has a fair claim of being the best opening number of any musical.

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I must thank the good people at Official Theatre for the tickets. Even without this shameless plug, please do check out their website to find out what is going on across the West End; it has links to tickets, venue contact details and bits ‘n bobs about all the theatres – the sort of thing I would do if I wasn’t so damn lazy.  (

What we leave behind

The Return of the Soldier – Jermyn Street Theatre, until 20 September 2014 (Tickets)

The Return of the Soldier is one of a number of WW1-themed productions out this year that, if nothing else, proves that theatre land is not entirely unaware of events in the outside world. Having always been a sucker for a new musical and with source material that gives voice to the rarely heard, it was one of the few that intrigued Civilian Theatre enough to be filled with a genuine sense of anticipation.

The production adapts Rebecca West’s novel about a shell-shocked captain who returns from war and turns the lives of the three female protagonists upside down. The original novel is remarkable for its frankness in tacklingThe Return of the Soldier, Tristan Bates Theatre, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Stewart Clarke, 2014. Courtesy Darren Bell these issues before the war had even ended and presents an openness to issues of class and gender that reflects a Britain on the cusp of a series of social revolutions that ultimately were as important as the war in ushering in a post-Edwardian modern era.

The plot is simple enough but contains a refreshing moral ambiguity that makes it difficult to take sides with the characters. The damaged captain cannot remember his wife and instead has eyes only for his young love, a lower class girl he met years ago on Monkey Island. Now both married, they find themselves caught in the rapture of the life they could have had. Yet it is Margaret who must carry the burden of unfaithfulness and remember they are trapped within a fantasy of his creating. Eventually they must re-engage with the real world and he must face the trauma that stops him connecting with the present.

The Return of the Soldier, Tristan Bates Theatre, Zoe Rainey and Stewart Clarke, 2014. Courtesy Darren BellThe war looms as a dark presence unmentioned in the background as he recuperates, and the unspoken knowledge that to be ‘cured’ means an expectation of a return to the frontline. The ‘return’ of the title has a multiplicity of meanings; it leads to the return home, the return to first love, the return to normality and, finally, the return to the front line.

The decision to turn it into a musical is a curious one and the limited space at Jermyn Street necessitates a chamber approach; it would be difficult enough to swing a cat in the space and it is a credit to Matthew Cole’s dextrous choreography that there were at least a couple of items that could be called dance numbers. This fluidity was generally matched in Charlotte Westenra’s direction that stopped the cast from tripping over one another, and managed to create two very distinct worlds on one very small stage.

The cast and musicians also deserve praise for modulating delivery to match their surroundings. One of the biggest criticisms reserved for Dessa Rose, a similar ‘big theme-little venue’ chamber musical at the Trafalgar Studios, was that it seemed to be produced with one eye on a larger theatre and during the bigger numbers the audience were subjected to a sonic assault. The Return of the Soldier was beautifully delivered, at exactly the right volume. Delivery matched the style and crucially it recognised that lyrically clarity does not necessarily equate to maximum volume.

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Have a listen: