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WHAT'S NEW IN THE WEST END by Tim Connor
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1st February, 2002

RECENT NEWS

- Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats will be bowing out of the West End on May 11, the London production’s 21st birthday. The song and dance spectacular based on T.S. Eliot’s poems needs no introduction, being one of the most popular musicals around the world. It has yet to be announced what will be the next production at the New London Theatre, though Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida is rumoured to be a strong possibility.

- Word from the rumour mill also suggests that Lloyd Webber’s touring production of Sunset Boulevard will be making a brief return to London later in the year. Sources say it will play at the Cambridge Theatre, currently housing Fame.

- The complete London cast for The Full Monty has been announced. Several of the original Broadway cast members will be making the trip over with the production, whilst amongst the British artists involved are Rebecca Thornhill, most recently seen as Sukie Rougement in The Witches Of Eastwick, and Dora Bryan, cast in the role of Jeanette Burmeister. Sounds very promising indeed!

- The Vagina Monologues will be closing at the Arts Theatre on February 23, transferring to the New Ambassador’s Theatre from February 26. Girl power is also currently represented in the West End by Carol Churchill’s play Top Girls. The Oxford Stage Company production opened to positive press and is playing for a limited season at the Aldwych Theatre until February 2. Following into the Aldwych will be the National Theatre’s production of‘Mother Clap’s Molly House’ by Mark Ravenhill, directed by the National’s Artistic Director to-be Nicholas Hytner.

- Below I have revealed some of the productions planned for the National Theatre in the forthcoming months. It looks like we are in for a very exciting year of plays.

IN THE LYTTLETON
Moliere’s Tartuffe, in a new version by Ranjit Bolt, directed by Lindsay Posner (March 2002)
Cast includes Martin Clunes, David Threlfall, Margaret Tyzack and Julian Wadham

IN THE OLIVIER
The Bacchae by Euripides in a new version by Colin Teeran Directed by Peter Hall (May 2002)
Tom Stoppard’s new trilogy (title to be announced), directed by Trevor Nunn

IN THE COTTESLOE
Vincent In Brixton by Nicholas Wright, directed by Richard Eyre (May 2002) Hinterland by Sebastian Barrym, directed by Max Stafford-Clark
Cast includes Patrick Malahide

ALSO PLANNED…
The House of Secrets by Nicholas Wright, directed by Richard Eyre
Woyzeck, in a new version by David Harrower, directed by Katie Mitchell
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, starring Glenn Close as Blanche Dubois

- This year’s Laurence Olivier Award nominations have been announced, and a full list can be found at the Official London Theatre Guide Web site (www.officiallondontheatre.co.uk). I am personally greatly saddened to see that the ‘Best Musical’ category has been omitted from this year’s list, a sign that new British musical theatre is in serious need of greater support.

RADIO REVIEW – PETER PAN A Musical Adventure

I would not normally review a radio broadcast but this piece was so outstanding that I feel everyone should know about it.

In April of last year, the song writing team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe had their musical version of Peter Pan premiered in concert at the Royal Festival Hall. I was lucky enough to attend, and it was a truly magical night. I raved about the songs then, and this radio broadcast of the concert has only increased my enthusiasm.

Anthony Drewe’s lyrics are sheer brilliance; packed with wit, deeply touching and completely relevant to the story. George Stiles’ music is heavenly, a stream of blissful melodies that you are sure to fall in love with. The score also contains the most perfect song I have ever heard in the shape of ‘Never land’. I will never forget when I first heard the song live at the Festival Hall. I felt a terrific tingle of excitement up the back of my neck, and the applause that followed was ecstatic - clearly I was not alone in adoring the number! It is a jubilant, joyous and glorious experience, touching me beyond any other song I know. Add to this a string of equally brilliant musical numbers along with a cracking book by Willis Hall, and you have got a terrifically entertaining new show.

Unfortunately, there is currently no official recording of the piece available, though a UK production is in the pipeline, and I can only hope it will spawn a cast album. Whenever a recording does become available make sure you get yourself a copy, for this Peter Pan is tremendous. And remember – you heard it here first!

THEATRE REVIEW - CAT ON A HOT ROOF
Lyric Theatre

Before seeing this production I had never seen or read Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. I left the theatre overwhelmed by the brilliance of Tennessee Williams’ play, rich in themes - loneliness, betrayal, friendship to name but three - and beautifully expressed, in language crafted like the finest poetry.

Sadly, this production does not manage to live up to the material. It is not a bad production, but lacks enough affecting performances. As the central character of the alcoholic Brick, Brendan Fraser gives a terribly wooden performance. The news of a Hollywood star coming to the West End aroused a lot of excitement in theatre circles, but the blunt truth is that he just does not cut the mustard on stage. He did not act drunk convincingly and whenever his character had to throw a tantrum his reactions appeared very unnatural and staged. He did improve during the second act with Warren Beatty, whose Big Daddy was electrifying, but I would attribute the success of that exchange more to Beatty than Fraser.

Director Anthony Page draws a brilliant performance from Frances O’ Connor as Margaret, the “cat” on a hot tin roof, desperate to re-kindle Brick’s passion for her. O’ Connor conveys a barrage of emotions, moving with ease from being playful to sardonic whilst also behaving in a highly sensual manner. Apart from O’Connor and Beatty, the cast seemed wrongly suited to their parts. Gemma Jones’ Big Mama was too much of a caricature, and was dressed in a terribly cut frock that was irritatingly ugly to the eye. Big Mama is supposed to be an undesirable woman, but in this case the dress proved a great distraction from the actress’ performance. Abigail McKern’s Mae was your stereotype high pitched wife, whilst David Firth as the Reverend seemed unable to get his tongue around the Southern accent required, sounding more like a stray cast member from My Fair Lady. The saving grace was Clive Carter as the money grabbing Gooper, in a part that was all too small for such an excellent actor.

Maria Bjornson’s awesome stage design of a windowed bedroom had an airy effect and proved the perfect setting, ironically calm compared to the high charged events that take place within the space. Howard Harrison’s lighting was also effective, especially when conveying the contrast between indoors and outside.

Though I may sound rather critical of the production, I should stress that the whole was a great deal better than the individual aspects. I just could not help feeling that many of the stunning speeches in the text were not being given the all-out treatment they deserve. But Williams’ script in the hands of Beatty and O’Connor makes an unbeatable combination, and was well worth the ticket price.

ON THE WINGS OF A DREAM
Bridewell Theatre

In response to the devastating events of September 11th, The Bridewell decided to stage a charity concert that would benefit Action Aid and the New York Firefighters Relief Fund. The show’s directors Carol Metcalfe and Clive Paget devised this entertainment, billed as an ‘exploration of dreams’, staged in collaboration with their choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane. One might imagine this being an evening of sugary numbers in the vein of Disney’s ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’. Not so. This was a stimulating night of intelligent songs and poetry.

From the moment I entered the auditorium I had the feeling I was in for a good show. As always, the Bridewell space has been used in an inventive fashion, with Emma Donovan’s set of a sandpit stage floor and blue lit walls looking nothing short of stunning (lighting by James Farncombe). A small round platform centre stage allowed for some height difference in the staging, whilst behind it a curtain was loosely hung, acting as an entrance and exit for the performers.

Drawing on the concept of things we all dream for, the directors took musical numbers from a wide catalogue of sources ranging from Richard Rodgers to Ricky Ian Gordon, with some inspired choices. It is hard to pick out highlights because every number was special (and I really do mean every number), but amongst my favourites were a fantastic ‘If I Were A Rich Man’, stripped of it’s traditional delivery and sung by a drunk on a beach, and ‘Everybody Ought To Have A Maid’, with two English wives dreaming about the luxury of having a serving girl ‘around the house’, whilst their husbands discussed the “other” advantages! I also loved the company’s powerful ‘Children Will Listen’, a poignant end to the evening.

The cast, comprising of Harry Burton, Jon-Paul Hevey, Shona Lindsay and Elizabeth Renihan, were superb in every respect. Each was not only an excellent actor (the poetry deliveries were sensitively done) but a very strong singer, and there was a sense of rapport between them that made their performances all the more enjoyable. I do hate to single out at individual in a cast so small, but I though Elizabeth Renihan was just divine. She has a voice as stunning as her looks and was, in my opinion, the strongest performer in an extremely impressive cast. Her performance of Guettel’s ‘Migratory V’ was sublime and Sondheim’s ‘The Miller’s Song’ delightfully saucy.

At each performance of the concert there is a guest artist who appears for a cabaret-style slot of fifteen minutes or so. On my visit it was Susannah Fellows, to my ear the finest female singer in the West End, who easily outshines the so-called “leading ladies” Elaine Paige and Ruthie Henshall. She sang a super comedy number I have not come across, which I guess from the lyric was called ‘Shy’, a lovely interpretation of ‘The Man I Love’, and rounded up with a splendid ‘Back To Before’, one of my all-time favourite female solos.

I really cannot criticise the evening. Excellent acting and singing (equally well backed by the band led by John Gladstone Smith), great material that challenges but also entertains, impressive set and lighting, and refreshingly imaginative staging – musical theatre at its best.

UK CD RELEASE – ‘REQUIEM’ BY GARETH VALENTINE
(Available from Dress Circle, Leicester Square)

Strictly speaking this is not a show music release. However, its composer is Gareth Valentine, to my knowledge the West End’s only tattooed conductor! He is also one of the best. I say this from an audience point of view for he is always a pleasure to watch, memorably amusing in Chicago jiving to the raucous melody of ‘Mister Cellophane’, and currently conducting the hit revival of Kiss Me, Kate. I have also had the lucky chance to meet him twice to ask for his autograph, and both times he was extremely friendly. I am a great admirer of his work and so was keen to support the release of his Requiem on the TER label.

This piece is in memory of Gareth’s partner, who tragically died of AIDS in 1993. It is his musical response to the tragedy and is extraordinarily beautiful, a haunting work that deserves a place amongst the best pieces of choral music. Yet unlike older choral compositions, it does have a more modern edge, thanks to the musical arrangements by David Krane and Gareth’s fabulous melodies, which draw on a range of influences. I find ‘Recordare’ and ‘Pie Jesu’ the most moving tracks, both excellently performed (as is the rest of the recording) by singers and musicians alike. The vocal strength of group choral numbers such as ‘Introit’, in turn both gentle and passionate, has to be heard to be believed.

Michael Haas’ excellently produced album should be in everyone’s collection. This Requiem is an incredibly emotive tribute, and it is warming to know that by buying the CD you are also helping the charities Crusaid and Broadway Cares.

Tim Connor, London

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