reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 29 January
This tour of Nikolai Foster’s Curve production of what is arguably the darkest of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals has the advantage of a script and lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton which combine the important merits of fitting the characters as well as the story and its situations.
It is based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film about a former star of the silent screen who cannot come to terms with an industry where the visual element shares – and often yields – importance with spoken dialogue. Ria Jones gives a convincing performance as Norma Desmond, mewed up with her memories in the decaying splendour of her mansion on Sunset Boulevard like Dickens’ Miss Havisham.
Jones has the stage presence as well as the vocal strength to make us understand why Norma as turned in (and on) herself. Her equally formidable co-stars are Adam Pearce as Max von Meyerling, the factotum who we learn is so much more, and Danny Mac as the penniless hack script-writer who lets himself be sucked into their twilight world.
Around these three a 12-strong ensemble peoples the stage with characters as colourful as the studio world they inhabit at so many levels. Molly Lynch has the voice and personality for Betty, the girl who wants to write screenplays and who offers Joe a possible route back into the studios.
Adrian Kirk conducts a 12-person orchestra, reinforcing this as something much nearer to one of those diva-led 19th century operas which (with the right cast and production) still command our attention. The design team – Colin Richmond (set and costumes), Ben Cracknell (lighting) and Douglas O’Connell (video and projection) – swirl us through the different locations with the aid of staircases and the shimmer rather than the concrete of furnishings.
“In my end is my beginning” is a motto attributed to Mary Queen of Scots. This bitter-sweet tragedy has the same trajectory. Unlike so many straight films given the staged musical treatment, this one works from its first notes through a succession of arias and choral set pieces to its savage climax. What’ more, the audience knows it.
Four and a half-star rating.
Sunset Boulevard runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 3 February wth matinées on 31 January and 3 February. I also plays at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 5 and 10 March.
(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 13 June)
Patrick Marber’s play title could be read in two ways. It’s a version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with the location and period changed to England just after the Second World War. So, in the sense that’s it’s a variation on a theme, it is indeed “after”. It is also “after” in the sense that we learn more about the possible future for the two characters other than the titular one than the original allows.
Marber is well served by his designer (Colin Richmond), choreographer (Alastair Marriott) and sound designers (Max and Ben Ringham). We are in the white-tiled basement kitchen of a large country house. The realm above is indicated by an upper stage on which we can see Miss Julie (Helen George) and her father’s chauffeur-cum-valet John (Richard Flood) dancing and from which later the estate workers’ celebration of Labour’s election victory takes on something of the peasant warning rumbles of the 1789 French revolution.
The kitchen is also the domain of Christine (Amy Cudden) who one senses is almost the last of the prewar house staff. In Marber’s script and Anthony Banks’ production, Christine becomes a much more important character and Cudden gives full weight and rounded representation this approach demands. Flood is also impressive as a young man who has built on his wartime service experiences as well as what he has picked up during his work for the landowner. Banked fires always threatening to break through.
But any production, any version of Miss Julie stands or falls by Julie herself. George is magnificent in the role, a spoilt child twisting into an equally spoilt but fr more dangerous womanhood, knowing too much of her own mind and body but without even a glimmer of the maturity – let alone morality – which should underpin it. George uses her eyes to fine effect; we are drawn into her world by their gaze as though led by some mythical enchantress. Spells can be broken, but they can break their victims just as surely as their perpetrators.
After Miss Julie runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 18 June with mainées on 16 and 18 June.
(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 3 August)
Little orphan Annie is not a newcomer to UK stages, though this production by Nikolai Foster for Michael Harrison and David Ian is something of a radical re-think. Yes, it’s still a razzamatazz of a musical, set in Depression-era New York with a cameo roll-on part for President Roosevelt, but Foster has injected just a touch of grit into the syrup.
Our heroine, at the performance which I saw, is Madeleine Haynes, all ginger pigtails and attitude. Balancing the sound system at the first date in a new theatre is always slightly problematic, and her words didn’t come into proper focus until the second half. The eight-piece band under George Dyer make the most of the score and there is real dymamisim in Nick Winston’s choreography, with its cheeky salute to Jerome Robbins and Gene Kelly.
Annie’s would be nemesis is the trio of Miss Hannigan (Craig Revel Horwood), her brother Rooster (Jonny Fines) and his moll Lily (Daljenga Scott). Horwood’s drag-act is as accomplished as ever, though never quite show-stopping. “Easy street” shows them at their best, that is to say worst. “Daddy” Warbucks, the billionaire who discovers that he has a heart as well as a fortune, and his secretary Grace Farrell come over as thoroughly believable people in Alex Borne’s and Holly Dale Spencer’s characterisations.
Callum McArdle is the wheel-chaired president who tries to find Annie’s parents and somehow in the process thaws Warbucks’ stalwartly Republican convictions. Colin Richmond has designed an effective all-purpose set, based on jigsaw puzzle pieces with just the odd piece of necessary furniture – a desk, orphanage beds, a table, sofa or art déco doorway – signalling a change of location.Ben Cracknell’s lighting is equally clever.
Annie runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 8 August and at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 17 and 22 August.