Rent at St James Theatre 4*

I had never seen this show, either on stage or the film, although I knew a few of the songs, mainly from singing along with Idina Menzel at her concerts, so I jumped at the chance to see this production which celebrates the 20 year anniversary of the musical.

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Overall, we enjoyed it and were glad we took the opportunity to see it, but we came out thinking that we wouldn’t necessarily be desperate to see it again.  I can see how it would have had significant impact 20 years ago, being  groundbreaking at the time it was first shown, depicting men and women with AIDS, gay people, drag queens etc.

At the end the standing ovation was well deserved by all the cast.  Lucie Jones as Maureen was good, not that I’d heard of her until the night before when she was voted to represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest this year! 

See it if you can.  We saw it on its last day at the St James, but it’s now on a UK tour.

Stars: 4

Date of visit: 28th January 2017

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Promises, Promises at Southwark Playhouse 3.5*

As we stood in a cold corridor for half an hour before they opened the auditorium doors, we remembered why we haven’t been back to this theatre in years: no seating in the bar area, cramped, freezing toilets and no cloakroom to leave our bulky winter coats.

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However, we thoroughly enjoyed the show once it started (ten minutes late).  It’s a sweet story (you might know the film The Apartment) although not very good morally and we did wonder how the parents of the ten year old in the audience would explain what the married men needed to borrow the apartment for!

As the songs are by Burt Bacharach many of them are great and classics everyone knows – I Say a Little Prayer, Never Fall in Love Again, A House is Not a Home.  The ones I didn’t recognise, however, were not particularly memorable, including the title song.

The set is simple… just a square space that they bring tables and chairs into.  There is a screen at the back above the stage but it didn’t really add anything to the production most of the time, just telling you where the location was or in whose office they were.  The shots of New York were nice to look at though, as in the recent Anything Goes.  I think I’ve said before that productions increasingly seem to be going digital to keep up with the world generally, although a simple stage production has always worked for me!

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The actors were great, especially the leads, who did actually remind us of Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.. probably why they were cast, of course.  Gabrile Vick plays Chuck and Daisy Maywood plays Fran.

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All in all an enjoyable afternoon although we will still keep to our policy of only trekking to Borough if we really want to see something.  Probably in another five years then…

Stars: 3.5*

Date of visit: Saturday 14th January 2017

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Anything Goes at Upstairs at the Gatehouse 3.5*

I enjoyed this show but it didn’t “wow” me like previous productions here have.  The trouble with this show is that there is not really much of a story, but luckily the excellent Cole Porter songs make up for this.

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As always, they make the best use of the small staging area, with each end looking like a doorway on a ship and one end having stairs up to a balcony area.  Above this there was also a screen showing footage to illustrate where they were in their journey from New York to London.

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During the interval, a stagehand came over to my Mum and asked her to hold a prop.  She said it would be taken off her by an actor during the second half.  This is what it was:

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The cast were good and all worked really hard, but maybe I just wasn’t in the mood on a cold and dark Sunday afternoon!

Stars: 3.5*

Date of visit: Sunday 8th January 2017

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The rest of 2016

Happy New Year to you all.   I seem to have lost the impetus for writing reviews during the last half of 2016, so here’s a roundup of those other shows and plays I saw that never made it to the blog, so that I can start fresh in 2017.  They are based on my tweets, notes I made after seeing them, my Mum’s memory and my not-so-great memory.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe

This was one production where not reading about it beforehand definitely impeded my enjoyment. Earlier that day I had read my niece’s fictionalised story of the play to reacquaint myself with it, but it beared little resemblance to what I saw on stage. I wish I’d read about how different it was and how they had had a dramaturg re-write it as then I may have been expecting what we saw. Our seats were to the side of the stage as well, so some of the action was obscured by columns.

I’m sure many people hailed the production as great, but it just left me confused. The premise was that people who work behind the scenes at the Globe are putting on a play and go into the woods to rehearse. After that it’s not clear what is ‘real’ and what’s not.

The last half hour was the ‘Globe workers’ putting on their play – Pyramus and Thisbe, which I didn’t know – and which, although most of the audience were in hysterics, I’m not really one really silly humour so it didn’t really sit well with me – especially when I’d been expecting to see Shakespeare!

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Date of visit: 5th July 2016 2*

Groundhog Day at the Old Vic

We hated this for many reasons. Firstly, we bought cheap seats in the balcony to the side of the stage as the reviews had been so good and, although they were called restricted view, they really should not be sold at all – we could literally only see the lefthand side of the stage so missed any action on the right.

Secondly, it’s clear the story is just not strong enough for a two and a half hour show.  The first 30 minutes is just the Bill Murray character being depressed.  I wasn’t taken with the songs either and the set was quite simple.

In the future, I’ll just be watching the film again.. and again… and again…

Date of visit: 29th August 2016 2* 

The MGM Story at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

This was a really fun show at our hidden gem of a theatre, with a talented cast as usual. Entertaining but a more amateurish than many of their productions. mgm

The show depicts ‘the history of the golden age of song and dance and tells the tale of how the studio fostered the talent of stars including Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and composers such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and many more. The songs were great, including classics from musicals such as The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris.

Date of visit: 4th September 2016 3*

The Entertainer at the Garrick Theatre

Part of Kenneth Branagh’s season, we had bought our tickets 18 months before so couldn’t really believe it had come around!

Kenneth Branagh was fabulous as always, but the play itself I thought was too long and drawn out. I didn’t really care about the play when KB himself wasn’t on stage as he really livened it up and I would have liked to see more singing and dancing.  The actress who played his daughter squeaked and my Mum, who notices these things, says that in the second act KB was wearing a beautiful Saville Row suit that in reality was too smart and expensive for the character.

The theatre was very hot and we were at the back of the stalls. Unfortunately the voices didn’t carry to us properly when the actors were speaking and not raising their voices for the part.  To top it all, we came out desperate for a G&T as onstage there were drinking and talking about it the entire first half!

Date of visit: 7th September 2016 3*

Ragtime at the Charing Cross Theatre

This is one of our favourite musicals. We love it so much that the last time we saw it was in Regent’s Park and we got absolutely drenched watching it!  We enjoyed the themed menu beforehand – NY immigrant food!

It is a sad and powerful story. As usual, the set and production quality at the Charing Cross Theatre was outstanding and all the cast were fabulous, getting a standing ovation.

Date of visit: 21st November 5*

Tosca at the ENO

As we expected, a great production with good acting and singing.

Date of visit: 3rd October 2016 4*

Pearl Fishers at the ENO

My thoughts on this can be summed up by my tweet during the interval which reads “Beautiful production of Pearl Fishers. Absolutely love the diving scene at the beginning, so realistic.”    And it was… it did actually look as though they were swimming on stage.

Date of visit: 19th October 5*

An Audience with Michael Douglas

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I’m often tempted by the “An Audience with…” evenings but this was one we just couldn’t resist. One of our favourite actors, my Mum and I enjoyed seeing him in person and hearing tales about him making some of his best films.  Evening Jonathan Ross wasn’t too annoying for once, realising the evening was about Michael not him.

Date of visit: 30th October 5*

Legally Blonde at Watford Palace Theatre

This was an amateur production that I went to see because one of my colleagues is in it and because it is one of my favourite shows. Not up to the level of the productions I saw in the West End and Upstairs at the Gatehouse, it was still very enjoyable.

Date of visit: 10th November 3*

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Showboat 4*

This is a great show so I was determined to see it and almost ran out of time as they announced it is closing early at the end of August.  I was, however, very pleased to find tickets for £19.75.

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I got to the New London Theatre early and whilst taking photos outside, two girls stopped a woman walking by and said “you’re in the show aren’t you, can we have a photo?” so I snapped one of her too!  Looking in the programme I noted it is Linda John-Pierre who is billed as Old Lady/Ensemble, and indeed looks a lot older when made up for the show.

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Yes you heard correctly, I bought a programme for once!  My mum is taking my niece to see the show next week so we thought if I got one we could all share it.  It was £6 but the articles about the show were interesting and there are some good photos in it and, of course, I now have all the information I need without having to scrabble around on the Internet for it.

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I don’t remember ever coming to this theatre and, looking at the list of their productions, I’m not surprised as I had no interest in War Horse or Cats (I don’t do animals!).  It’s a bit of a trek from the tube which has unfortunately probably contributed to it closing early, being off the beaten track for both Londoners and tourists.  The theatre has been modernised inside with air conditioning and ample leg room and the seating is in a u shape around the stage. I was in row E at the side of the stalls. There were a few empty seats in the stalls but the small circle was about 90% empty.  Even for a Wednesday night that’s not good.

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I really enjoyed the first half.  The set is very clever, with a walkway around the stage made to look like a wharf and the front of a steamboat that can move towards the audience.  You can just see it in this sneaky pic I took at the end of the interval.

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The show has one of my favourite show songs in it – Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.  Ol’ Man River is obviously the classic song from the show and the actor who sang it had an amazing voice and again, because I had the programme, I knew that it wasn’t even the main actor (Emmanuel Kojo) but the understudy Tosh Wanogho-Maud.  The actress playing Julie, Rebecca Trehearn, really reminded me of Sandra Bullock (look her up, you’ll see!) and Gina Beck as Magnolia is fantastic with a great singing voice.

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Based on a novel by Edna Ferber and adapted for the stage by Hammerstein and Kern, the subject matter is still fascinating and relevant and musical lovers should note that it’s cited as the first musical as we know them today – with a storyline and the songs providing narrative, rather than just shows that were more like cabarets.

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I preferred the first half to the second.  I’m not sure if this is because I was tired and started to get uncomfortable in my seat or because the storyline gets even more downbeat. I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending either, when Gaylord, a gambler and drinker, comes back 20 years after having abandoned his wife and daughter and is welcomed with open arms.  Chris Peluso plays this very weak man effectively and I noticed he has also played Chris in Miss Saigon, another somewhat weak male character.  He does it very well!

Overall I enjoyed Showboat.  The production is directed well by Daniel Evans and has a lot of energy with a simple but great set.  I’ve given it 4* not 5* because I wasn’t buzzing as I came out, which is a reflection on the show itself rather than the production.

Date of visit: Wednesday 10th August 2016

Stars: 4*

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Titanic 5*

I saw this production at the Southwark Playhouse in 2013 and loved it so much I just had to see it again when it came to the Charing Cross Theatre.

We went early to eat dinner first in the Player’s bar and were delighted to find it Titanic themed with ‘iceberg’ cocktails and a menu based on food that was actually served on the Titanic, with the dates they were served during the voyage.

 

The staging was different at this theatre because of the layout: Southwark Playhouse had the audience on three sides with the actors performing on the floor whereas Charing Cross has a stage, albeit a small one, but they made good use of the space by having a mezzanine level as well as the main stage.

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The first half tells the stories of some of the passengers, setting it up for when the ship hits the iceberg just before the interval. The stories provide a good cross section of characters from the crew and 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes, with the actors often having to make quick costume changes to play more than one person.  The first half went so quickly I couldn’t believe it when it was already approaching the interval. With some great tunes, fantastic actors and obviously a moving story, I still loved this show just as much, if not more, than the last time I saw it.

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The second half is a lot more downbeat and this production was so effective I had tears in my eyes a couple of times, first during the scene when they are putting the women into the lifeboat as they are saying goodbye to their husbands, and then again at the end when they hang down a memorial with all the names of all 1503 people lost that night.  They then flashback to the first scene when everyone arrives at the boat excited and hopeful which again brings home the extent of the tragedy.

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As this theatre is right next to Charing Cross station you can frequently hear tube trains and this is probably the only production I’ve seen there that not only does it not matter, it might even add to the production, especially in the second half when Titanic is sinking.

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I purposefully hadn’t read my review of the previous production before writing this and when I went to do so discovered that it features in the round up of my first blog from 2013 so isn’t a full review, but I did love it then too.

The show has just been extended until 13th August so please go see it while you still can.

Date of visit: 15th July 2016

Star rating: 5*

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The Bodyguard 4*

The Bodyguard

This was a belated birthday outing which I was treated to by my aunt and we were at only the second performance in the run on its return to London.

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Our seats in were Z 1 & 2 but it was nice to find that they were not actually in the back row (there were 5 more rows behind us).2

I noticed that the atmosphere was very different in this theatre to most performances I go to, probably because it’s one of those shows that appeals to people who aren’t regular theatregoers.  Of course, that also means that there was a lot of talking, rustling of food bags and people getting up to go to the toilet throughout.

I hadn’t seen the film in years but the story quickly came back to me, as it’s not a complicated one.  The actors were all fantastic.  Beverley Knight was great in the lead as Rachel Marron, with a fantastic and powerful voice, and it made me realise that this isn’t one of those shows that can run and run with just anyone taking over –  to pull off Whitney Houston songs you really have to have someone in the role who can sing and belt out these great songs.  Beverley Knight and Ben Richards, as the bodygard Frank Farmer, had perfect chemistry, which made it all the more believable, and Rachel John as Rachel’s sister Nicki also has an amazing voice.

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I’m a fan of Whitney Houston, particularly her older stuff, so it was nice that so many of her songs were in the show – a lot more than are in the film.  I don’t particularly like those shows that make a story around one artist’s songs so this worked well for me, as it was a proper storyline intermingled with the songs.  A lot of the classic songs were used in scenes when Rachel is performing, but there were some which had relevant lyrics to the story and were inserted effectively at appropriate times in the show to move the story along, in particular Run to You, I have Nothing and All the Man that I Need.

My favourite scene in the film – when Frank saves Rachel’s son from the boat – has been replaced, but I’m sure that would be a bit difficult to do on stage!  They use a bit of film in the background at times, most notably to show the baddie preparing to stalk/attack Rachel.

The show is quite fast paced, with the first half being just an hour and the whole show being 2¼ hours in total including the interval.   There are a few jumps and bangs in it, which had many people in the audience shrieking out loud and when the baddie (Matthew Stathers) took his bow some of the audience booed, which I guess is a compliment to him and to the show.

At the end of the show the entire audience jumped to their feet a good 30 seconds before Beverley Knight reached the end of I Will Always Love You.  As with most musicals these days, following the curtain call the cast stayed on stage and started singing and dancing for the audience to join in with, but we decided to hotfoot it out to the tube before the crowds.  I’d highly recommend this fun show with lots of great songs in, as long as you don’t mind them all being Whitney Houston’s!

Stars: 4*

Date of visit: 16th July 2016

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In the bar of Hotel Tokyo 3*

This is a play by Tennessee Williams but not a well-known one. We got an offer of cheap tickets and on taking our seats we saw why: there were about 100 people in the audience and it was about two thirds empty. A shame, even for a Monday night.

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The set is simple – as the title says, it is set in the bar of a Tokyo hotel and that is where all the action takes place. It has a small cast of five, and it is Linda Marlowe as Miriam who carries the play and is on stage constantly.

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Miriam is a loud obnoxious American annoying the barman by complaining and fondling him. Her husband Mark (David Whitworth), a painter, comes down – covered in paint – and they row. He clearly has something wrong with him and annoys his wife a great deal as she says she doesn’t recognise him anymore. She wires his friend and agent Leonard to come over. He does, and I loved the stage presence of the Alan Turkington, who had to insert himself into the action when we were already used to the heated exchanges between Miriam and Mark.

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The upshot of the play is that Mark keels over in the bar and dies and Miriam thinks she is “released” but soon realises that she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. She is a strong character but I think perhaps these days a bit dated and I’d like to think that if it was written today she would take charge of her life again at the end.

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The best thing was how short the play is. It started at 7:30, the interval was at 8:00 and we were on a tube home at 9:00! If they used that as a selling point, surely more people would have gone?!

At the end the cast got the biggest applause that an audience of about 100 people could possibly give but when each actor took their bow it wasn’t physically possible for us to clap any louder.

Date of visit: 25/04/16
Stars: 3
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The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe 4*

My friend received membership to the Globe as a Christmas present so we booked to see The Taming of the Shrew in May (and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in July). At the end of a lovely warm May week the temperature had dropped and we were a bit concerned as we made our way into the theatre.  Thankfully there is an indoor bar where we bought wine and an assortment of snacks to keep us going.

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I didn’t know the story of The Taming of the Shrew that well but had read the synopsis beforehand and I had also previously enjoyed the musical Kiss Me Kate, which is based on this play. As usual for the Globe the set is minimalistic but good use is made of the various doorways and two different levels at the back of the stage.

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Productions at the Globe are always fun with great acting and this one, directed by Caroline Byrne, was no exception. However, what we were not expecting were the Irish accents, Irish music and dancing throughout! Having not read anything about it beforehand (and refusing to buy a programme anymore that will be read once and discarded) we hadn’t know that they had set it in Ireland.

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I had read that this play is of its time and comes across as misogynistic and this is totally true. This production needs credit that rather than trying to play down this aspect of the play, it was done extremely well and in a very dark way.  It actually made me feel quite uncomfortable, which I think in the 21st century watching or reading this play you should.

This production really brought out how the independent, confident and forthright Kate (Kathy Rose O’Brien) is subdued against her will. Having been forced to marry Petruchio (played effectively by Edward MacLiam), he takes her to his rundown house where he does not let her eat or drink and forces her to.. well, one can only imagine. During the first act he is quite funny and handsome, interacting amusingly with the audience, but as the second half progresses you start sympathising with Kate a lot more and really start to dislike her husband and feel sorry for her.

I became very intrigued about this aspect of the story.  Luckily, my niece has a boxset of Shakespeare plays written as stories aimed at children and at the back of The Taming of the Shrew book there is the following disclaimer, which made me feel better about my feelings towards the play:

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We hadn’t known it was the first preview and at the end of our row was a man with a torch and the script in a big red folder who we assume was a member of the crew.  All the acting was great, which makes this a 4 star review.

Be warned – if you’re going to the Globe, unless it’s 70 degrees I’d recommend taking something warm to put on. The temperature really dropped and I wished I’d brought my winter coat to put on! Luckily I had taken scarf and gloves and many people made use of the bright red blankets available to hire.

Date of visit: 13th May 2016

Stars: 4

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Madame Butterfly at the ENO 5*

We really really enjoyed this production of Madame Butterfly, which was directed by Anthony Minghella and conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong. It is just beautiful – the lighting, the costumes – everything. We got totally caught up in it and my Mum was crying by the end!

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I particularly loved act two, with the use of a (quite realistic) puppet as Madame Butterfly’s son operated by three people. The use of light at the back of the stage to signify the slow passing of time from day to night to morning, when they were futilely waiting for Pinkerton to turn up, was incredible.  Anyone who knows the story will know that it is extremely sad and tragic but somehow this production made it seem all the more poignant.

The cast were all great. As well as Rena Harms as Madame Butterfly and David Butt Philip as F.B. Pinkerton, I particularly enjoyed Stephanie Windsor-Lewis as Suzuki and George von Bergen as Sharpless.

The only negative was that my from my seat in row H of the dress circle I could only read the surtitles if I leant forward with my elbows on my knees. This was just about doable but there were several rows behind me who wouldn’t have been able to see them at all, so be careful if you’re booking seats here.

Since I saw this on Monday I’ve seen a lot of 2 and 3 star reviews which is quite sad. I think they are viewing it from a different perspective than the general audience, comparing it to previous productions. I do agree with some of their points – for example, that the orchestra rather drowned out the singers at various points – but I enjoyed it so much I don’t really see that as a negative, as they could still be heard but were just a bit quiet. They also point out that you shouldn’t need surtitles when they are singing in English, but you can’t always make out what every singer is singing (whether opera, pop, musical theatre) and so personally I appreciate the surtitles being there (as long as I can read them), whatever language they may be singing in.

Date of visit: 16th May 2016

Stars: 5

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