Saturday, 26 February 2011

Great Expectations

Watford Palace Theatre

25 February 2011

Expectations fulfilled

Charles Dickens is such a fabulous storyteller that the less an adapter does to his work the better so I was pleased that Tanika Gupta kept to the same basic story in her version of Great Expectations - just put it somewhere else.

In Dickens' novel, Pip has an encounter with a convict and is then given the chance to better himself when asked to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham.

He begins to dream of being more than the working class boy that he is and when he is told he has an anonymous benefactor he begins to pursue his dream of becoming a gentleman, because he thinks that this will win him the heart of Miss Havisham's adopted daughter, the heartless Estella.

In her stage adaptation, Gupta has picked up this story and put it down in India during the time of the British Raj of 1861 and in doing so imparts a more specific message than just a critique of the British justice system that Dickens original work is often thought to be.

Instead of being a poor English boy, Pip is now a poor Indian boy - except with a Northern accent!

Magwitch is now a black convict instead of a white one, Miss Haversham is the same but represents colonial harshness and the haughty Estelle is mixed race.

It is the same tale but the emphasis is on Pip becoming an English gentleman, rather than merely a gentleman. Therefore the message at the end is pretty clear. In his desire to move up a class, improve his status and therefore become more socially acceptable, he has left his heritage and cultural identity behind and not been true to himself.

Nikolai Foster’s production for the English Touring Theatre is well-performed and moves on a pace from scene to scene although I did feel that the energy dipped at the beginning of the second half - or maybe that was just mine!

Tariq Jordan handled the role of Pip with great care, skillfully maturing from 12-year-old to young adult, to young adult with a posh English accent! He was rarely off the stage but his performance never flagged.

He was supported by a strong ensemble cast. Jude Akuwudike’s Magwitch commanded the stage in every scene he was in while Tony Jayawardena's lovely, caring Joe Gargery and Giles Cooper’s very posh Herbert Pocket also stood out for me.

Lynn Farleigh’s Miss Havisham was the epitomy of faded glamour and Simone James was suitably irritating in her coldness towards Pip, but still not half as annoying as Becca in EastEnders, a role for which, at the moment, she is chiefly known.

This really is a very interesting and enjoyable version of the tale which also highlights how many of its themes are universal and can be relevant to any place and time. Gupta has also brought out the comedy of the story which is always a winner in my book!

It makes for a very entertaining evening but, as with all stage adaptations of great works of literature, it doesn't come close to the enriching experience of reading the original prose.

Read my interview with Tariq Jordan:

Legally Blonde

Savoy Theatre

24 February 2011 (Mat)

Pretty in pink!

Omigod! Legally Blonde is camp and preposterous but purely and simply a lot of fun! And it's also a vast improvement on the film - and MUCH funnier!

Somehow you can get away with what is basically a fairly ludicrous story if you sing and dance your way through it with boundless enthusiasm while keeping your tongue firmly planted in your cheek! And use LOTS of pink. Everywhere!

"Blonde" Elle (Nicola Brazil) is heartbroken when her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Simon Thomas) is accepted by Harvard to read law. So she gets accepted there too by doing a bit of work but mostly, it seems, by doing a cheerleader routine! She then goes about trying to win him back, befriending older student Emmet (Alex Gaumond) and Paulette (Sorelle Marsh), a hairdresser obssessed with the Irish, along the way! Even the final case is decided after a lesson in hair care rather than precedent!

The tunes are chirpy, the lyrics genuinely funny, the terrific dance routines embrace a number of styles from a skipping rope number to spoof Riverdance and there are two very cute dogs who do what they're told, much to the delight of an audience who seemed to have never seen an obedient dog before!

Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell makes sure it's pacy and frothy. As far as the music, by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, is concerned, there isn't a big anthem that you remember and I couldn't sing any of the tunes now but they are all really enjoyable and fit the story well. And I can remember what I enjoyed - "Gay or European?" was a particular fave!

As the lead, Nicola Brazil was perky and had bags of vitality and warmth. Sometimes I don't think that understudies get the recognition they deserve. They are not second best, they are often just "not a name" - yet! The same goes for Lincoln Stone as Professor Callaghan who was just the right combination of suave yet harsh.

Sorelle Marsh was the "alternate" Paulette, (I don't know why they don't just say understudy to be honest - I'm sure Denise VO isn't off that much!) and she was fun and sassy. Her falling for UPS man (Chris Ellis-Stanton) was one of the highlights of the show, even if he did steal every scene he was in!

The rest of the main characters also didn't disappoint. Who couldn't have failed to fall for the slightly dishevelled, kind and caring Alex Gaumond? Simon Thomas as Warner as suitably self-centred although I would have fallen for his singing voice every time.

They were all ably suported by a well-drilled and talented ensemble who all looked as though they were having the time of their lives and believe me, this DOES make a difference!

It was also good to see a lot of young people in the audience - even if they were mostly girls! Although I did wonder why two of them spent ages before curtain up, in their seats in front of me, carefully doing each other's make-up. Oh to be that age again, when you make the effort to look good even when the lights are about to go out!

It's funny, feel good and fizzes pink like once of those pink bomb things that you put in the bath! In short, a brilliant pick me up for this day and age!

But the message at the end of "To thine own self be true" is one that couldn't fail to touch me. Elle may have originally followed the path to Harvard because of a man but she followed her heart, and what can be more truthful than that?!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella

Milton Keynes Theatre

22 February 2011

Cinders sets stage alight!

I love Matthew Bourne.

He is probably most famous for subverting the traditional and making dance accessible to those who might think it too high-brow. In his Cinderella, he does all this again in great style.

so, forget Pumpkin coaches, Ugly Sisters, little ponies, and, in my view a rather petulant and shallow heroine who spurns the warm-hearted Buttons for the riches and looks of Prince Charming, Matthew Bourne has set his Cinderella during the London Blitz and in doing so has, unlike pantomime, got a story firmly planted in realism with characters that you care about.

In this production, a grey and dowdy Cinders (Kerry Biggin) is downtrodden not by just two ugly sisters but a plethora of stepbrothers and stepsisters, one of whom seems to be doing a very passable impression of David Walliams as he rather unsettlingly pursues her with his strange obsession with sparkly shoes!

The dysfunctional family are led by Michela Meazza's vampish stepmother. She is made temporarily glamorous by a "fairy godfather" or guardian angel (Christopher Marney) and falls for an RAF pilot (Sam Archer) who gets wounded.

It all takes place on another amazing Lez Brotherstone set full of bombed, skeletal buildings. The scene where the bombing of the Cafe de Paris happens in reverse so that the smoking ruins become, once again, an elegant, glittering dance hall is just brilliant - a little reminiscent of the opening scene of Titanic.

In that hall, the ensemble dance almost as if their lives depend on it, high kicking and falling in wild abandonment.

This evocative setting works brilliantly with the sombre score - which was actually written during the war - and if you think that you can't jive and lindy hop to Prokofiev, then you'd be wrong! The sounds of bombs falling and anti-aircraft fire all add to the atmos.

In the lead roles, Kerry Biggin is touching and vulnerable in glasses and a cardy and Sam Archer is full of both tenderness and panache. Angel Marney is just terrific and joy to watch.

Their post-coital love duet was a new one on me because they hadn't "done the business" in any version that I'd seen before! But it really captures the heightened emotional feeling of a time where people knew that life was precarious and so acted on impulse.

Also, in a new twist, after the ball, instead of wandering the land trying to find a foot that fits the shoe, the airman wanders through a world of women of the night and ne'er do wells searching for his lost love before they are reunited in a hospital.

All in all the magical elements of a familiar story are stripped away, leaving a more believable story that still has that fairytale feel.

Bourne says that the show is a tribute to his dad who survived the Blitz but died in 2010. I like to think it's also a fitting tribute to all those who sat through the nightly assaults in their homes across the UK.