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WHAT'S NEW IN THE WEST END by Tim Connor
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LONDON - June 7, 2001

RECENT OPENINGS AND CLOSURES

In the last week, London has been hit with two poorly received musicals. Closer To Heaven opened at the Arts Theatre with mixed to poor reviews, although the Evening Standard's Nicholas De Jongh, normally a dragon when it comes to new musicals, gave it a thumbs up. Congratulations to the shows creators, that is quite some feat! The younger theatre-goers also seem to think it's great, so it may run for a respectable length of time. I think it may have the same appeal as Rent, as it deals with the pressing issues of drugs and sex, set in a night club run by proprietor David Burt (a magnificent Talleyrand in the sadly short-lived Napoleon). Also included in the cast is Paul Keating, who last appeared in La Cava, surely one of the most stunning spectacles to have graced the West End in years. The score, written by the Pet Shop Boys, is said to be a cocktail of club tunes, which no doubt makes an interesting change from the typical styles you hear in musicals.

The second item that received a bruising from the critics is All You Need Is Love, a compilation show based around the songs of the Beatles. The critics thought that the new musical arrangements, created especially for the production, completely ruined the songs, and was just an excuse for a staged concert of Beatles material. I have to say, the musical arranger must have done something pretty spectacular to mess up the work of such a terrific pop group! The audience reaction to this show doesn't seem all that grand either. It may have a short run whilst the die-hard Beatles fans are interested, but the power of the critics may keep even them away. Whatever happens, in the not too distant future I predict that the Queens, where it is currently playing, will be an available theatre.

On the subject of closures, the Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Secret Garden by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman recently closed at the Aldwych Theatre. It appears that I am alone in finding this a rather weak specimen of musical theatre. I thought the tunes were unmemorable and the book was dull. Though the cast gave it there all, especially the velvet-voiced Linzi Hateley as the Maid, I felt that the gate to this garden should have remained tightly shut. However, the rest of the theatre community loved it, so it's obviously just me!

STAR PROBLEMS

London is suffering with "star names" in shows at the moment. Ian McShane has left The Witches Of Eastwick due to illness (his brilliant understudy, Earl Carpenter, has played practically all the performances since the show's transfer to the Prince Of Wales). Martine McCutcheon, the leading lady of Cameron Mackintosh's smash hit revival of My Fair Lady, has hardly stepped onto the Lyttleton stage since opening night also due to illness, and 'Brookside' actress Anna Friel had a foot injury close to the opening of the play Lulu at the Almeida Theatre, which forced the show to delay its press night.

The lack of appearances by these big names has upset many of the theatre-going public. Though big names may mean that the Box Office is booming, in nearly all cases they have also brought with them plenty of bad publicity in the national and local press. Of course, I am by no means doubting that in some cases these artists have been extremely unwell, I have found that you rarely get such problems from the lesser known West End performers when they're given the chance to shine. I am truly thrilled that 18 year old Alexandra Jay has received great notices (she is Martine McCutcheon's understudy), and a lot of people are actually hoping to see her rather than Miss McCutcheon!

COMEDY TONIGHT

In time for the General Election, Alistair Beaton's Feelgood has opened at the Garrick Theatre, replacing the National Theatre's long-running production of An Inspector Calls. Feelgood is a political farce that focuses on the spin doctoring that goes on behind the scenes, involving a political party leader played by Henry Goodman, who always produces a superb performance. Speaking of farces, the National Theatre production of Michael Frayn's Noises Off has opened at the Piccadilly Theatre with glowing reviews from critics and audiences alike.

Previously occupying the Piccadilly, was the popular Shockheaded Peter, a junk opera based on the gruesome children's stories of Heinrich Hoffnung, which returned to the capital for another short stint. I approached this show expecting something wacky and weird and it was certainly that. It was a fascinating experience and visually extremely imaginative, but the humour was in what some might think bad taste. However, there was excellent use of giant puppets and large, abstract costumes. Every move and gesture had some kind of visual effect attached to it. These ranged from the witty (e.g. the company walking on stage pretending to be pieces of furniture) to the sinister (a man placing his hand in the gap of wall and suddenly having giant, long fingernails). Julian Bleach played the Master of Ceremonies and captured the snobbishness of the typical "classically trained actor", who clearly was in the wrong show! The rest of the company were similarly impressive, though I would say that visual images took preference over acting skills here. The evening went at a slightly slow pace and ended rather abruptly with no really clear conclusion. It was filled to the brim with clever tricks and dark humour which the majority of the audience clearly enjoyed immensely. Personally, despite its first class visuals, I left feeling more puzzled than entertained.

AN IRISH PAIR

If you want to see some real acting, I suggest you book immediately to see Marie Johnson's new Irish play, Stones In His Pockets, packing them in at the Duke Of York's Theatre. The play itself has a bundle of different characters which two terrifically talented Irish actors play, doing wonderful facial expressions and funny accents. It works so well because it is so simple. With very little set and just a few props, it relies on skilful actors and of course a cracking script. Stones In His Pockets has both, and is a truly brilliant piece of theatre.

I wish I could have said the same for Port Authority, another Irish play written by Conor McPherson who made his name with The Weir. Playing for a limited run at the Ambassadors, for some bizarre reason it got plenty of great reviews from the press. I was bored stiff. Three men sat on a bare stage and at the sound of a bell would speak monologues out to the audience, one after the other. This carried on and on in a continuous cycle, each saying a little then passing on to the next. What they were saying was not all that fascinating either: descriptions of ordinary situations, with smatterings of Irish humour and the occasional swear word for good measure. The most exciting moment of my evening was when a gentleman behind me rather loudly expressed his boredom (which rather upset the actor on stage), and swiftly left. I wish I had done the same.

UK CDs - Fred Astaire: His Daughter's Tribute
(Available from Dress Circle, Leicester Square)

In February, 'Musical Stages', the hugely popular magazine covering musicals in the UK, produced a one-off concert celebrating the life and work of Fred Astaire, hosted by his daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie. It was a star-studded event, with some of the West End's finest artists paying tribute to one of the greatest dancers of our time. Amongst the company were Tim Flavin, Bonnie Langford, Clive Rowe and Graham Bickley, and the likes of Anne Miller and Cyd Charisse came over especially to be interviewed for the occasion. First Night Records recorded the event, and the double CD is terrific. The songs are all classics, by the likes of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, but they are given new life by Richard Balcombe and Mike Townend's orchestrations, played by the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of Nick Davies. The singing is of course first rate, my personal favourites being Clive Rowe's beautiful rendition of 'A Foggy Day', Graham Bickley's stylish 'Something's Gotta Give' and Charles Shirvell and Alison Jiear having a ball with the witty 'Stereophonic Sound'. For a live event, the quality of the recording is first rate and I strongly recommend it to anyone who has a soft spot for the more old fashioned musical melodies.

It was this CD that brought my attention to the artist Alison Jiear, an American now living in London. She just released her second solo album entitled 'Forgiveness' Embrace' and it is a lovely collection of touching songs, from the famous to the not so well known. Highlights are 'Trust The Wind', 'I Haven't Changed The Room' and the hilarious final track 'Diva'. Written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, one of my favourite writing partnerships, it boasts excellent lyrics and a tune to match. Miss Jiear possesses a wonderful voice which sounds great in both comedy numbers and ballads. All I can say is, when is the next album coming out?

ROUNDUP AND GOSSIP

If I'm honest, I don't think the season has been all that spectacular so far. Nothing hugely exciting has appeared, although My Fair Lady is meant to be fabulous and tickets are impossible to get hold of. I'm saddened by Sir Cameron's decision to only produce revivals of the classic shows because the most pleasure I have had out of theatre-going has been seeing new writing. He plans to produce South Pacific in 2002, once again in collaboration with the National Theatre, who are gradually working their way through the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue after their successful revivals of Carousel and Oklahoma!.

The Witches Of Eastwick has had lots of problems. As I mentioned earlier, Ian McShane has left, and the show has been completely redesigned in its transfer to a small theatre and had a new song added entitled 'The Glory Of Me'. I wasn't all that impressed by the changes and the box office is apparently not doing all that well. However, in July there will be a new cast, headed by Clarke Peters (creator of Five Guys Named Moe), as Darryl Van Horne. Peters is a super actor with a smooth, crooning singing voice. I'm sure that he will fit the role perfectly, and he may help keep the production going. Lloyd Webber's The Beautiful Game is rumoured to be closing sometime in the future due to poor audience numbers and rumoured losses of 3 million. The Broadway production of Kiss Me Kate is confirmed to open here at the vast Victoria Palace Theatre in October, with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie reprising their roles. Kiss Me Kate is a great show, and judging by the reactions over your side of the pond, this is one gem of a production. We eagerly await its arrival!

It is predicted that the London Palladium will play home to a stage version of the popular film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang directed by RSC director Adrian Noble (responsible for The Secret Garden). Currently playing at the Palladium is The King and I starring Josie Lawrence which will probably close to make way for Chitty sometime in the Autumn. Also on the cards are UK productions of The Full Monty, The Producers (I can't wait!) and Aida, so us Brits have got plenty to look forward to in the forthcoming months!

Tim Connor, London



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