As London hurtles towards Christmas, there’s been no let up at all for theatre critics; it’s a bit like March and April for New York critics, only that here in Britain critics have been faced with up to four openings a night to choose between. On December 14, for instance, there were four major openings to cover, including shows from two Tony-winning director/choreographers. At the Savoy, Casey Nicholaw directed and choreographed the London premiere of Dreamgirls, 35 years after its New York debut; and at Sadler’s Wells, Matthew Bourne opened his latest New Adventures dance show The Red Shoes. Meanwhile, pantomime—a beloved British seasonal favourite—returned to the London Palladium, once its annual home, for the first time in nearly 30 years, and regionally, a new production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun opened at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, whose Christmas musical last year, Show Boat, subsequently transferred to the West End’s New London Theatre.
Meanwhile the week also brought big openings on consecutive nights at the National Theatre: Ivo van Hove's production of Hedda Gabler on December 12; Alexander Zerdin’s new play Love on December 13; a 20th anniversary revival of Rent at the St. James, also December 13; and at the Almeida on December 14, Robert Icke directed Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart.
In this column, I round-up some of the reviews for all of these.
Most of the London critics were unanimous about one thing: that it has been worth the wait. As Demetrios Matheou put it for the Hollywood Reporter, “Dreamgirls has been a long time coming to the West End. But 35 years after its Broadway premiere and a decade after Bill Condon’s Oscar-winning movie whetted Brit appetites, the show proves that in the right hands it really is worth waiting for. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s zestful, spectacularly entertaining and at times overwhelmingly stirring production is irresistible.” He adds, “It’s easy to imagine that Broadway will get to share in the results... A transfer seems extremely likely. After all, aside from a brief return New York engagement in 1987, it’s been more than three decades since Michael Bennett’s legendary original production closed.”
The production stars Glee's Amber Riley as Effie White, and she wins a lot of raves. In the Guardian, Lyndsey Winship dubs the show, “a fantastically entertaining ride on the showbiz rollercoaster, accompanied by some brilliantly belting voices.” She singles out Riley, commenting she “is a real star in her first West End role, the voice huge and effortless.”
In the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts says she ups the volume, commenting that she “does not so much sing to an audience as sand-blast it. As a boy I was brought up near Fairford aerodrome when they were testing Concorde in the early 1970s. I swear it was never as loud as Miss Riley. A blast of dynamite would be mere rhubarbing compared to this lady’s larynx. She makes the late Whitney Houston sound pianissimo. I’m amazed the backstage staff have not gone stone deaf during previews.”
The sole note of discord is sounded by Ann Treneman in The Times, who declares, “This musical will be a hit but it doesn’t deserve to be.... The plot is far too skimpy, the script having way too much in common with a bikini, existing mainly in the form of a few often-clunky sentences to link an over-abundance of songs.”
A 20th anniversary revival of Rent has arrived at London’s St James Theatre as part of a national tour, and earned celebratory notices. In The Guardian, Lyn Gardner writes, “Jonathan Larson’s musical is 20 years young and still rocks effectively in this revival by Bruce Guthrie... This young cast work not just vocal magic, but make you care for the characters, and Lee Proud’s choreography provides momentum and energy as if they really are dancing for their lives. There is not a weak link in the casting, but the standout performance comes from the acrobatic Layton Williams as the doomed Angel, so desperately full of life and love.”
In my own review for The Stage, I commented, “The 20th anniversary of Rent offers a potent reminder that it was the Hamilton of its day; a show that became a genuine cultural phenomenon. Its portrait of mid-1990s Bohemian New York—based around characters living in an East Village squat and affected by homelessness, drugs and HIV—offered a powerful message about the importance of living in the here and now.... Some of the rough-edged rawness of its original Broadway staging (by Michael Greiff) has been smoothed out in Bruce Guthrie’s more glossy, less gritty production, but the stunningly well-cast company lend it serious vocal heft making Larson’s rich melodies soar and wound.”
Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady—both big TV stars here and best known for their risqué line in gay banter—are headlining the return of pantomime to the London Palladium, and the results are, not surprisingly, fairly filthy.
In The Guardian, Michael Billington suggests he could have done with “rather fewer jokes about a coach-bestriding Dandini being pulled off by a line of guards. As my sage 11-year-old companion who admittedly enjoyed the show, remarked: ‘It is a bit rude.’ That is the understatement of the year. This is a deeply knowing pantomime that suggests an unusual combination of radio’s Round the Horne and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.”
In the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts enjoys re-telling some of the off-color jokes: “‘I’m the Prince’s right-hand man,’ coos Dandini, and for some reason, boys and girls, the grown-ups in the audience gave a throaty laugh.“ But he judges it to be “a collector’s item: a judicious cocktail of spangled filth, fairytale innocence and celebrity horseplay.”
Reviews: The Red Shoes
Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company have become an annual Christmas fixture at Sadler’s Wells, and this year have returned with a brand-new production of The Red Shoes. In The Guardian, David Jays notes, “When Powell and Pressburger’s beloved film The Red Shoes appeared in 1948, it insisted on finding meaning in the disillusioned aftermath of the second world war. Matthew Bourne’s enthralling new stage version sweeps into our own age of austerity and despair. Its heroine commits to the art that sustains her, even as it devours her.”
In The Daily Telegraph, Mark Monahan notes, “Bourne’s production provides something that Powell and Pressburger by definition couldn’t: the immediacy of flesh-and-blood dancers, right before you eyes. While there’s no way it can match the all-time-great star power of the original cast (Moira Shearer, former Ballets Russes choreographer Léonide Massine, the Royal Ballet’s founder principal Robert Helpmann), there are first-rate performances all round, from many of Bourne’s regular stars.... Bourne gives both them and us plenty to get the teeth into.”
Reviews: Hedda Gabler
Ivo van Hove, who previously staged Hedda Gabler at New York Theatre Workshop in 2004, has returned to direct the play in a new production at the National Theatre that marks his directing debut there (though he's previously originated a new production in London of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic that subsequently transferred to Broadway). In New York, Hedda was Elizabeth Marvel; now its the turn of Ruth Wilson (Broadway’s Constellations).
In The Guardian, Michael Billington records his contradictory reactions: “The extraordinary Ruth Wilson stars in Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress production of Ibsen’s classic. After so many years of seeing Heddas in whalebone corsets, there is an inevitable frisson about the sight of Wilson roaming a vast, bare-walled room clad in little more than a Freudian slip. Using a brisk, cobweb-free, new version by Patrick Marber, Van Hove also presents us with a set of recognisable human beings. But, much as I admired the production, I found myself drawing up a mental balance-sheet recording its pluses and minuses.... But, in the end, the credits outweigh the debits. Wilson is especially good at conveying the desolation of a Hedda confined in a meaningless marriage.”
In the Evening Standard, Henry Hitchings, reports, that van Hove “sets out to make this frequently performed play seem unfamiliar. Instead of locating it in a readily recognisable setting, the arrestingly lit design conjures an impression of institutional coldness.” He complains, “Some of van Hove's choices are heavy-handed,“ but then says, “Yet, crucially, there are rich performances throughout.” Of Wilson, he writes, “She can be ferociously dynamic, punching the air after a moment of extreme destructiveness. But often there’s a remarkable stillness in this performance, a chilling precision that confirms our sense that Hedda, while a victim of social convention, is a monstrously skilful manipulator.”
Also at the National, Alexander Zeldin’s new play, Love, is deemed best play of the year in a five-star review by Times critic Dominic Maxwell. “This is both the least dramatic and the most dramatic show of the year. It’s certainly my favourite. Alexander Zeldin’s play is about two homeless families forced to live together in temporary accommodation. He has blurred the line between audience and playing area, bathing us all in strip lighting and having his characters make one or two incursions into the seating just as they sometimes invade each other’s space.”
In another five star review in the Financial Times, Sarah Hemming writes, (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/theatre-love-at-the-dorfman-se1-vgcs85nm8), “Of course there is an irony in watching a depiction of poverty in the National Theatre. But the National is doing exactly what it should do: turning a national spotlight, at Christmas, on the dehumanising reality of being homeless. And above all, and most movingly, it is a piece about love at its hardest: the tenderness with which Colin washes his old mum’s hair in the sink would make a stone weep.”
Reviews: Mary Stuart
At the Almeida, Robert Icke is directing Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in Schiller’s play about a royal power struggle, with each actress alternating as England’s Elizabeth I and Scotland’s Mary Stuart. In Variety, Matt Trueman notes, “A nation divided with history hanging in the balance: Robert Icke’s new version of Frederich Schiller’s Mary Stuart reflects this runaway year. With a coin toss each night determining which roles actresses Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams will play—one England’s Queen Elizabeth I, the other Scotland’s doomed Mary Stuart—it’s not so much the mirror image that strikes you as the contingency of it all. Everything might so easily have been otherwise and, in times of great churn, when history loses its head, the future is governed by chance—and by chancers.... These women are, in a very real way, two sides of the same coin... The coin toss makes that duality abundantly clear. Since either casting’s a possibility, each actress seems to contain the other somehow.”
In the Evening Standard, Henry Hitchings calls it “a disturbingly topical exploration of the haphazardness of politics... Icke’s approach combines cerebral rigour with moments of both magical lightness and throbbing intensity. This is an absorbing, dense and resonant three hours of theatre.”
Reviews: Annie Get Your Gun
At Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, Anna-Jane Casey is playing the title role in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun.
In the Daily Telegraph, Claire Allfree notes, “You have to go some distance this Christmas to find a show that isn't decked with holly or stuffed with fairies, and doesn't feature a man in a dress. So hats off—or should that be stetsons?—to Sheffield for heading to the plains of the American Midwest for their annual Christmas musical with this Irving Berlin classic which, instead of snowflakes and wicked stepmothers, features guns. Lots of them.... Anna-Jane Casey is so fabulous as the Oklahoma backwoods urchin who becomes a global superstar in Paul Foster's exuberant, big hearted production that you almost forget the plot isn't one of the musical's strong points.”
And in my own review for The Stage I declared, “The show bursts with the vigour of regular Sheffield choreographer Alistair David's exhilarating period dances. And as Anna-Jane Casey and Ben Lewis square off for one of the best ‘list’ songs in the business with “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” I realised there’s no one who could do this show better than Sheffield has done.”
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