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WHAT'S NEW IN THE WEST END by Tim Connor
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1st August, 2001

GAME OVER

As I had rumoured two months back, ‘The Beautiful Game’ is going to close in September. Lloyd Webber is undoubtedly a terrific composer, but here he really delivered second rate material. As for Elton, I hear that he’s going to be working in collaboration with Sir Andrew on a couple of new songs for the much-anticipated film of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. Both Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart could teach him a thing or two, and I dread to think what he’ll come up with. I can safely say that his lyrics for ‘Game’ are the worst that I have ever encountered in musical theatre. However, that’s just my opinion!

BEATLES SHOW TO CLOSE

‘All You Need Is Love’ is set to close on the 1st September, on the same night at ‘The Beautiful Game’. After setting an extended booking period into 2002, it soon after posted closure. Apparently it isn’t half as bad as the critics made out, but then they have the power to make or break a show.

CYMBELINE GETS THE THUMBS UP

The Globe production of Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’, has been enthusiastically greeted by the critics. Its not one of the regular Shakespeare plays you see about, e.g. ‘Macbeth’ and ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’, but judging by the reviews is every bit as good a piece of theatre. For all fans of the Bard, catch it while you can!

NEW WITCHES

The re-housed, re-written, re-designed and re-cast ‘Witches of Eastwick’ has opened to generally good notices. Charles Spencer of ‘The Daily Telegraph’ gave a dream review, and the Evening Standard was also notably positive. The Independent on the other hand, gave a most hurtful write-up, unnecessarily harsh in my view. The score is superb, and though I feel that the book lacks wit, I don’t feel that the show deserved such a nasty response. Despite the overall encouraging comments from the press, I’m still not sure if that will be enough to save ‘Eastwick’. There is already talk of the possibility that ‘Contact’ will be coming into the Prince of Wales before the year is out.

LIGHT FUN WITH ‘SONG OF SINGAPORE’

One of London’s finest female vocalists, Issy Van Randwyck has opened in the cabaret-styled show ‘Song Of Singapore’. Reviews were mixed to favourable. It sounds like a night of brainless fun, with plenty of toe tapping jazz music. Randwyck herself had great praises all round, so if you like her style, go and see it!

BEALE’S MAGNIFICENT HAMLET

Returning to the South Bank after a successful tour, the National’s production of Hamlet received great notices on its original opening last year. Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of the Prince of Denmark won him the Evening Standard Award for Best Actor, and it proved to be a fabulous production.

This is a really excellent interpretation of a super play, well acted and brilliantly designed. What makes it truly unmissable is Beale’s performance. I became an instant fan of his when he played Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss in ‘Candide’ at the National. It was a huge role for which he was deservedly awarded an Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical. Here he tackles an equally mammoth part, which requires him to pull out all the stops. He gives a multi-layered performance. His mood, tone of voice and method of movement alters in different scenes. His is an intelligent Hamlet, a noble and likeable one who merely seeks just revenge on Claudius, admirably played by Peter McEnery, for the death of his father. Beale has also mastered the dramatic pause, using it to great effect frequently.

Cathryn Bradshaw’s Ophelia was most impressive. Her eventual madness was cleverly directed by John Caird, as she sang to herself whilst hitting the long, hanging candle chandeliers that formed Tim Hately’s set. Peter Blythe (understudy for Denis Quilley), provided light relief with moments of comedy using clever word-play as Polonius and equally as entertaining as a delightfully dirty and rough-sounding Gravedigger. This was a strong company, but sadly there was one weak link. Sara Kestleman’s Queen was a flat, cardboard performance. She spoke practically in monotone and has a very sharp, deep voice which doesn’t seem to convey any emotion. When she did try to do so, it ended up sounding hammed up, for example in her death scene. Thankfully though, the Queen is not a particularly large role, but next to the quality of someone like Beale her weakness was very obvious.

John Caird’s direction drew some great acting from his cast and he was very imaginative in his use of the set, which had the stage littered with trunks and boxes of various shapes and sizes, reminiscent of John Napier’s design for ‘Candide’. All in all, this was a hugely enjoyable night at the theatre, and I greatly doubt that I will see a better Hamlet than that of Simon Russell Beale.

LAUGHTER AT THE PICCADILLY WITH ‘NOISES OFF’

After a sluggish, slow and disappointingly unfunny first act, ‘Noises Off’ became a simply brilliant play, where chaos prevailed, executed with brilliant comic timing by a talented cast who were highly skilled in the art of comedy acting.

For those unfamiliar with Michael Frayn’s celebrated farce, ‘Noises Off’ follows the rehearsal of a poor farce entitled ‘Nothing On’, charting the backstage madness as well as the hilarious mess-ups that occur once the play is in performance. In effect, it’s a farce about a farce and as a concept is highly inventive and alone proves a stimulating idea to see take shape on stage. However, the first act takes us through a run of this painfully poor farce ‘Nothing On’. Apart from a few quips from Peter Egan’s suitably stressed and sarcastic director, I left for the interval wondering what all the critics have been raving about. However, this first act, slow though it may be, is very necessary for without it the second and third acts would not be half as amusing as they are, for we later see how everything goes wrong.

Having said that, the second act still didn’t have me in stitches as the critics had promised I would be. I was, however, in awe of the perfect comedy timing displayed by the company as they ran on and off stage, accidentally sitting on props, actors disappearing, missing cues, making wrong entrances - the silliness went on and on. Frayn’s ideas here are so brilliant, that on just one viewing you miss half the humour. As an audience member, you don’t have a second to rest for the moments of comedy just keep coming. Thus, I really felt I could have benefited from a repeat viewing for though I was greatly entertained I was not quite rocking in my seat with laughter.

However, then came the third act where we get to see the played through from the audience's view in performance. At this point the evening became hilarious. Everything that could go wrong does, with actors desperately trying to trip each other up by placing props in unexpected places, and the whole Piccadilly auditorium was in stitches. This act alone was worth the price of the ticket and I must confess, tears of laughter did come to my eyes during this the third and finest part of Frayn’s play.

Though I can’t praise Frayn’s writing highly enough, what makes the farce is the cast, and Jeremy Sam’s has brought together a super company. Though ‘Noises Off’ was largely an ensemble piece with each character having their moment to shine, special mention must be given to Lynn Redgrave’s delightfully dotty Dotty, Christopher Benjamin’s bumbling criminal and Jeff Rawle as the constantly fainting Frederick Fellowes. Director Jeremy Sams is, in my view, one of the most talented and versatile men working in London theatre today and I’m sure that Michael Frayn must have been delighted with his brilliantly directed production.

MY FAIR LADY – 2001 LONDON CAST RECORDING

On first listen, I wasn’t too sure about this recording. Lerner and Loewe’s hugely popular work has been given a complete makeover, most noticeably in the music department due to William D. Brohn’s new orchestrations. Being used to the film soundtrack, it took a bit of listening to adjust to an altogether different interpretation. After hearing the CD several times, I am now delighted to report that Cameron Mackintosh’s new recording has successfully re-invented the whole sound of ‘My Fair Lady’.

The biggest achievement is that though I am extremely well acquainted with both the music and lyrics, I felt like I was listening to a completely new score for the first time. Brohn’s orchestrations are wonderful, blending typical instrumentation of the period with more modern touches. Nick Davies conducts at a slightly slower tempo than one might be used to and this is most welcome, placing greater emphasis on Lerner’s ingenious lyrics. Loewe’s music is also served well by the orchestra, particularly in the string and brass sections.

The singing is also excellent. Jonathan Pryce is a perfect Higgins and Martine McCutcheon a sweet sounding Eliza. She doesn’t struggle with the high notes at all, and I actually like all her tracks the most. Mark Umbers romantically renders ‘On The Street Where You Live’ and Nicholas Le Prevost is the best sung Pickering I have come across, showing his ability in ‘You Did It’. I’m afraid that Dennis Waterman doesn’t do quite as well as Doolittle. He’s not all that strong a vocalist and I kept hankering back to the sound of the far more gruff and cheeky Stanley Holloway. Still, the boisterous ‘With A Little Bit Of Luck’ and ‘Get Me To The Church On Time’ are good fun, and the chorus work is very strong in both these and other numbers involving the whole company.

Despite my slight reservation about Dennis Waterman (and it is a very minor gripe), this recording is of the outstanding standard that can be found on all the previous National Theatre albums. Definitely one to add to the collection!

WHAT’S THE BUZZ?

Well, as far as gossip goes, an announcement that has caused a great deal of talk amongst some London theatre-goers is Martine McCutcheon's decision to only do six performances a week in ‘My Fair Lady’ at Drury Lane. Considering that her understudy ,Alexandra Jay, did (apparently) nearly 50% of the run at the Lyttelton, she deserves to come out of this better off. Remember her name – I reckon that she will one day become quite big, following in the footsteps of the likes of Ruthie Henshall who started out as a chorus member and is currently heading the cast of ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’.

On the matter of ‘Peggy Sue’, the musical is currently on an out of town try out. Reactions are encouraging though many say that it needs work. Whatever needs trimming, I hope that when it does finally arrive at the Shaftesbury it is in good shape. We need a new musical hit – this part of the theatre season, thus far, has been very drab!

ROBIN FOR CHITTY?

It sounds too far-fetched to be true, but apparently Robin Williams has been signed up to do ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. It is expected to replace ‘The King and I’ at the Palladium which is predicted to close before the year is out (however, there has been no official announcement as of yet). I will be very interested if this happens, but judging by the behaviour of current "stars" in West End shows, one can only wait and see how long he stays if he does chose to take up the role. Julie Alanah-Brighten has also been signed up for the female lead. I couldn’t think of a better piece of casting, and she is an amazing talent. I’ve also heard on the grapevine that Brent Barrett will be in the cast of the ‘Kiss Me Kate’ revival opening later this year at the Victoria Palace. He too is a great artist, and I look forward to seeing him on the London boards!

Tim Connor, London

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Additional information on London's current theatre scene is available at Albemarle of London.



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