Top Hat – Aldwych Theatre – Review

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Another touch of class comes to London’s West End this week with the opening of Top Hat. I was there for the opening preview performance, but as this had toured earlier in 2011 with most of the original cast back in London now,  it’s not quite the brand new preview some are (and the ticket prices reflected that too!).

I’ve pondered hard for 24hrs on how to tackle this review, regular readers know that I love a feel-good musical, that I love this era of history and this style of music. (see my review of Crazy for You for an example) So surely I should have been in for a treat with Top Hat? In fact I was so keen to see it I booked tickets for this rather than Singin in the Rain (which I’m seeing later in the year). However something about this show didn’t work for me, let me try to explain why….

Let me just say though, there was a GREAT deal I loved about this show – Firstly Summer Strallen is a perfect leading lady for this production, sassy, sultry and sexy. She can sing, dance and act, the definition of the “Triple Threat”. She was magnificent and every time she was on stage she was fabulous. She glided effortlessly around the stage, filled it with her voice and got great laughs with her comic turns. Part of my reason for choosing to see Top Hat was her being cast as the lead after seeing her in Love Never Dies, I’m glad to say she didn’t disappoint at all. Bravo!

Hello, can you put me through to Theatre Thoughts dot com please??

The ensemble was energetic, slick and timed to perfection in their numbers of which I was glad to see there were many, the theatre positively glowed during these numbers as we were all transfixed by their quick tapping toes.

Alan Burkitt and Kay Murphey opened Act 2 with a superb Argentine tango, and it was great to see them getting a chance in the limelight as they deserved it.

The brilliant cast opening Act 2.

Stephen Boswell as Bates gave a great comic performance, playing this part up superbly he added a sublime and absurd comic touch to the show, his varying disguises got sillier and sillier much to the enjoyment of us all.

Vivien Parry as wealthy match maker Madge Hardwick was a real boost to the show, a shame she was only in Act 2, but her presence during that Act was certainly a reason I felt it went up a gear from Act 1. Martin Ball was the affable Horace Hardwick, his repartee with Vivien was another highlight of Act 2 for me.

Act 2 (possibly the show?) was stolen by Ricardo Afonso the outrageous and flamboyant Italian Alberto Beddini especially his number “Latin Knows How”. He pranced and strutted around the stage, and got a huge response, justifiably.

Martin Ball and Ricardo Afonso

So I hear you wondering, “this all sounds great, what on earth makes you feel this show didn’t work for you??” Here we go…

Firstly, I’m all for paper-thin plots in musicals, but this is so predictable, and over the top it is just incredulous, secondly most of the jokes write themselves and much of the humour is lost as the jokes are so obvious too.

I also actually think it’s in the wrong theatre, as the cast swamp the stage and it looks too cramped for them on numerous occasions, the cast should be cut by 4 or moved to bigger theatre to make most of the choreography which was very good.

Tom Chambers putting on his Top Hat, White Tie and Tails

The real reason this did not work for me is actually the lead, Tom Chambers ( an actor unknown to me as I don’t watch Holby City) I said Summer Strallen epitomizes the “Triple Threat”, he does the opposite, wooden acting, dancing that was good but nothing special ( and YES I do appreciate he only learnt to dance back in 2008 on Strictly Come Dancing but I go to amateur theatre to support people developing new skills, professional theatre is not the venue for that) and unfortunately his singing was flat and powerless throughout. He has the weirdest facial expressions that he made continually that just became irritating. The effortlessness of the cast doesn’t make its way to him, rather than lead, it looks like he’s following. I’m going to sound like Craig Revel Horwood on Strictly now, but “thumbs and hands DAAAARRRRLING”,he desperately needs to sort those out, as his lack of finesse showed up compared to rest of cast. The fact that he’s a former Strictly contestant is evident throughout unfortunately.

There also didn’t seem to be a tangible chemistry between him and Summer Strallen which I think is so key to this show.

I can hear the backlash beginning already that I’m being too harsh BUT this is a WEST END SHOW, up the road we have numerous other leading men that are EXCEPTIONAL (Sean Palmers, Adam Cooper immediately come to mind), Tom Chambers was good, however for a West End show I expect (and I’d argue I’m paying) for the best. I’m a firm believer that “the good is the enemy of the best” and the casting of Tom Chambers is an example of that.

So there is much to commend this show to you, stunning costumes that literally make the audience gasp on occasions. great song and dance numbers, some fabulous solo moments, but (and it’s a BIG but), this can’t make up for the leading man not being up to it really. A real shame I so wanted this show to work, but the poor plot, cramped stage and less than ideal leading man make this a good show, but a way off the best.

STARS : * * * (and a half)

Olivier Awards 2012

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This years awards were another glittering event promoting all that is good about London theatre. The event is growing and growing and well done to SOLT for raising the profile of this event even more than it did last year. The Royal Opera House was a suitably grand venue, hosted amiably by Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton.

I was pleased to see the following as winners:

  • Sheridan Smith wins for a second year in a row, this time for Flare Path.
  • Crazy for You’s  Peter McKintosh got the award for Best Costume design deservedly.
  • Matthew Warchus winning Best Director for Matilda.
  • Dame Monica Mason getting the SOLT Special Award for her 54 years of work with the Royal Ballet.
  • Nigel Harman I think deserves his just for the fact he performs his role on his knees in Shrek.
  • Derren Brown winning his for Svengali which is returning to London in June.
  • Crazy for You I was chuffed to see won Best Musical Revival.
  • Collaborators was a pleasant surprise for Best Play (I’m off to see that later in the year)
  • Seeing Tim Rice’s contribution recognised with a Special Award was also good to see.

Tonight however was Matilda’s night winning a staggering seven of the awards.

Only thing that spoiled the event for me was Ronan Keating and Kimberley Walsh butchering ALW’s “No Matter What”, as one person commented on Twitter, Laurence Olivier was revolving in his grave at that point.

I loved the chance to see the cast for numerous shows performing their numbers and the Lion King finale was a fitting end to the night. A great evening and a splendid advertisement to the world of what the West End offers.

The Tempest – RSC – Royal Shakespeare Theatre – Review

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Jonathan Slinger – Prospero

I finally made the obligatory pilgrimage to Stratford Upon Avon this week, to see a few of the Shakespeare sites and to visit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre / Company. I saw the RSC do the Histories Cycle at the Roundhouse way back in 2006, and I was excited to see the new theatre and my favourite play of Shakespeare’s, The Tempest. Even more so as Jonathan Slinger was playing Prospero. His performance as Richard II back in 2006, is one of my all time most memorable pieces of acting I’ve seen.

The new Royal Shakespeare Theatre
(picture courtesy of http://margatesands.wordpress.com/2011/01/16/i-like-this-place/)

The new RST is a wonderful venue. We dined in the Rooftop Restaurant which was a wonderful venue with delicious food. I only have two gripes about the theatre – firstly the bookshop leaves a lot to be desired, a really poor selection I thought. Send one of your team to the National Theatre’s bookshop to see how to do it! Secondly, the seats in the theatre are also pretty uncomfortable. The Tempest is “only” two and a bit hours long, I dread to think what it’d be like sitting on those seats for Hamlet! It seems a shame that in all the effort and money that’s been spent on the theatre in the upgrade something as basic as seating was ignored.

Anyway “The Play’s the Thing”…

As I’ve said The Tempest is my favourite play of Shakespeare’s the magical Prospero, the comedy trio of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano, the mystical Ariel, the lovers of Miranda and Ferdinand and the obligatory baddies of Sebastian (here played by a female) and Antonio, make for a dramatic play. It also contains some of Shakespeare’s finest lines, along with my all time favourite:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

No one does Shakespeare like the RSC and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t let down last night. I especially liked how Ariel was a mirror image of Prospero. Sandy Grierson, gave Ariel a nymph like poise and presence. Looking exactly like Prospero gave their relationship much more tension I thought. They both desire freedom, and that freedom is linked by what each can do for each other.

Jonathan Slinger gave his Prospero a complex range of emotions, not averse to snapping into a rage, we saw the confusion of the conjuror trying to manipulate the world via his magic to try to bring about the restoration he so strongly desires. Prospero is a hero, but with faults aplenty. Especially his treatment of the native Caliban. Prospero is a reflection of us all, trying to make our way through this life I feel, we all make mistakes, are blinded by our prejudices, but we are caught up in our own goals sometimes that we forget others around us.

The comedy was provided perfectly by Amer Hlehel as Caliban, Bruce Mackinnon as the drunk Stephano and Felix Hayes as Trinculo. Their physical and verbal comedy provided a great relief to the serious nature of this dark and melancholy comedy.

Emily Taaffe was a beautiful and fragile Miranda, whose love for Ferdinand was tangible. Solomon Israel played him with suitable amounts of dashing and desire. Their otherworldly wedding with conjured up spirits was a highlight for me.

I loved the haunting use of music throughout  as Ariel put some of the characters under his spell.

I came away with a greater appreciation for this mysterious and sublime play. Many of the words and images are still floating round my head, 24hrs later. I’ve come under Prospero’s spell once more and feel I shall always be so.

STARS : * * * *

Vera Vera Vera by Hayley Squires – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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The play opens with a torrent of foul language from the character Sammy, from there it descends into a brief look at varying characters lives, that are linked in a somewhat tenuous way to Bobby, a British soldier killed on a recent tour of Afghanistan.

This is Hayley Squires first play, and to be honest it shows. It feels clunky and the reliance on foul language makes it a shallow piece (cutting the bad language would make the play about a third shorter, there’s that much). Towards the end, probably the last 15 mins of the play we start to see signs of depth and we begin to see that Hayley Squires certainly can write with care and attention it was a shame it took so long for that to emerge.

Daniel Kendrick’s performance as Lee was a highlight, as he dealt with the bullying of Danny and his feelings for Emily. The rest of the cast did well with the script they’d been given.

Daniel Kendrick as Lee

I’m not trying to be overly harsh, for someone’s first play this was a good attempt. It just wasn’t good enough. Yes it may be “realistic” or show us a picture of “urban teenage angst”, or it could just be a portrayal of potty mouthed, violent thugs, druggies and a whore, with an over reliance on the F word as a way of filling time and space. I’ve seen some engaging plays featuring characters with the above foibles, but this one left me feeling distanced and gave me no reason to want to connect or care about them.

I’m sure she’ll learn from this and I hope her next work shows that and I’ll be interested to see it, because there were moments in this that I thought worked well, her sense of humour came across and the final two scenes certainly engaged me, it was just too little, too late.

STARS : * * (and a half)