Review: ‘Shrek: The Musical’ @ Theatre Royal

On 17th September, I did two things: saw a brilliant musical, and finally saw one while it still had its original leading lady in it. And on both counts, this was a fantastic production.

The plot and dialogue followed the film quite closely, but this was not unwelcome. Too much of a change would have harmed what

people already enjoyed about ‘Shrek’, and a carbon copy would have simply made people wonder why they spent good money when they could watch the film at home. No, it was a really good balance, bar one or two of the jokes being a little lacklustre compared to the film (but then, I’m not entirely sure anyone could echo the brilliance of Eddie Murphy), that allowed the musical to flourish in its own right.

What I particularly enjoyed was how the musical was tied together: to combat the limitations of stage, Lord Farquad’s back story (which I won’t give away!) was a perfect substitute for the dragon’s role in the fiery finale, putting Shrek on top and Farquad…down low (see what I did there?).

Talking of Farquad, Nigel Harman…just wow. He was absolutely the star of the show, his voice is incredible and his performance was absolutely hilarious. I did wonder how they would deal with the height issue, and the poor guy’s knees must have been in agony by the end of the performance, but I absolutely adored that they mocked their own theatricality: some of the highlights involved Nigel Harman swinging his fake legs about, it was borderline slapstick and absolutely hilarious.

The theatrical techniques were not all based on laughs: the dragon was stunning. It was another question at the back of my mind: how on earth will a dragon feature on stage?! But my oh my, did it feature, and it was spectacular. At one point, the monstrous piece of craftwork came out from the ceiling right above our heads without us noticing, flying about the place and keeping the audience in raptures. This was one production that had considered every detail and you could see every effort had been put into ensuring the audience had a magical evening. And the voice of the dragon…she was definitely the best singer of the night. The set of lungs on that woman deserved a central role, not a smaller part, and I really hope that happens for her someday.

In fact, all of the supporting roles were fabulous, as proved in the song led by Pinocchio and co. They clearly put their heart and soul into their characters, and it made the story come alive in a truly unique way.

Now, onto the leading lady herself: I don’t know what I really expected from Amanda Holden. I certainly didn’t realise she was that pregnant, although I’m sure it helped for the ogre scenes! In all seriousness, I had never pegged Miss Holden as that funny, that talented and that loveable. I loved her before and I think she’s a bigger star now. Sure, it’s not the best voice in musical showbusiness, but it was pretty damn good, and her Fiona definitely sparkled. She was kickass, and able to draw a tear at the same time. Her accent was consistent as well, which was a major positive: nothing is worse than a badly implemented accent, it brings so much attention to it being a constructed piece of theatre. As it was, Holden and her co-stars made the story thoroughly absorbing by being committed to their roles, and ensuring that they gave every moment one-hundred-and-ten percent.

Shrek himself, Nigel Lindsay, was good: not overly amazing, but he played a good role, and was thoroughly loveable in his development from angry ogre to unlikely prince. With the Scottish accent, I didn’t expect amazing singing, but Lindsay was surprisingly fabulous; the only thing that hindered him was not living up to some of the precedent laid down by Mike Myers in ‘Shrek’. I felt this was the same for Richard Blackwood as Donkey: he was great to watch, but at the same time he didn’t quite live up to Eddie Murphy, but then I think these were the areas where more script changes should have happened to prevent an over-reliance on the film precedent. However, I definitely cannot criticise their overall performances, because without these two being amazing the musical would have fallen out of the sky and onto its face…much like Donkey’s entrance!

It must have been so difficult to translate a film to the stage, but ‘Shrek: The Musical’ definitely did it well: the attention to detail, the sheer enjoyment shown by the cast, and the willingness to poke fun at its own theatricality meant ‘Shrek’ was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Also good to note: the view from the cheap seats is pretty panoramic, so I definitely wouldn’t knock them, unlike some other theatres! The evening was absolutely Shrek-tacular, and I would definitely go green again in the future!

Review: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

A royal performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre

On Saturday 22nd January 2011, I saw one of the most stunning theatre productions I am ever likely to witness, beyond anything that modern technology can dream of producing: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.

With fantastic staging effects, astounding actors and a sensational musical score, ‘Phantom’ was a hauntingly beautiful production. The music blew me away: I wanted the opening score to keep going, I wanted to be able to close my eyes and just listen to it forever. Enough can never be said in praising a fantastic orchestra, and this one was no exception. Add to that the cast’s voices, trained to perfection, and the combination was bound to send chills running through you. The biggest cheer of the night went to John Owen Jones, who played the Phantom, a man whose Phantom could have reduced anyone to tears. Needless to say, Sofia Escobar’s Christine Daae and Will Barrat’s Raoul were both fantastic: the passion they maintained throughout the performance was so intense and well-maintained that it was hard not to fall in love with all of them.

The storyline itself is simple yet allows a large amount of room for artistic creativity: the Phantom’s obsessive love for Christine replacing her father’s companionship, the theatre within the theatre, and the love triangle framing the plot all enable various interpretations, as well as showing what stagecraft is really about. The best bits were the chandelier falling, the Phantom’s hiding place during ‘All I Ask of You’ and the river that takes the Phantom and Christine to his lair. Whilst everything was clearly a spectacle, it was so well-timed and executed that it felt real, not like something that had been done for effect. I’ve said repeatedly since leaving the theatre, that with all the wonders of film technology, the theatre version triumphed against the film adaptation, I was nowhere near as mesmerised and enthralled as I was in the production. The chandelier falling was absolutely amazing: it was clearly a defining moment in every section of the play, showing the changes throughout the plot, as the theatre went from riches to ruins during the operatic war. And the river was just beautifully set up, despite the limits of the stage it really did look and appear as though they were gliding gracefully towards the Phantom’s domain.

The acting, as I’ve already said, was superb. The Phantom’s clear inability to deal with his own passion was heartbreaking, and made it impossible to blame him for what he did, even though he was obviously losing his control over the theatre and Christine within his desperate acts. Likewise, it was hard to see fault in Christine’s love for both the Phantom and Raoul, when the Phantom clearly gave her the protection she craved in the absence of her father, whilst Raoul was able to show her a safe and secure way of life after the music ends. And Raoul…well, yum. He was everything the gallant hero should be: suave, passionate for the love of his life, and absolutely gorgeous. They all combined to show how the love triangle had no definitive right or wrong outcome: Raoul would die for love, the Phantom would kill for it, while Christine is left with a heart-wrenching choice that led her to show the Phantom he didn’t have to be alone, but that he couldn’t control love. The supporting cast was stellar: Carlotta (Wendy Ferguson) and Monsieur’s Firmin (Barry James) and Andre (Gareth Snook) provided the comic relief to remove tension, before it was built back up again to monumental heights! Equally, Madame Giry (Cheryl McAvoy) was a stern influence to show how the Phantom affects everyone, not just those vulnerable to his influences.

My favourite song had to be the titular ‘Phantom of the Opera’, as well as ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘Masquerade’, although I don’t think there was a single song that I didn’t love to be honest! They’re a credit to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s genius, and I have to say that I respect him so much more after seeing ‘Phantom’ than I ever did before, he really is an artistic star, which makes me incredibly excited to hopefully see the sequel, ‘Love Never Dies’.

To end on the biggest cliche possible, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is definitely inside my mind; with its gorgeous display of musical creativity, superb acting and fabulous scenery, I don’t think there’s a way to avoid being intoxicated with the ‘Phantom’ and its twisted and chillingly beautiful love story.

Review: ‘Blood Brothers’ @ Birmingham Hippodrome

Blood Brothers @ the Hippodrome.

One incredibly heartbreaking performance later, and I can’t wait for the next time I get to witness the immensely superb piece of theatre that is ‘Blood Brothers’.

The story is laid out before you by the Narrator (Robbie Scotcher), whose presence is a railing to control your experience, and build tension until the bitter end. Despite knowing the outcome before the origins, it didn’t stop every moment taunting you with its inevitability: it only heightened the climax to a point where you were crying just from knowing that the debt had to paid, and that walking on the cracks in the pavement would cost you more dearly than you could imagine. It sent shivers down my spine when he sang of hell knocking at the door, bringing the conclusion ever-closer by constantly quickening the pace.

Niki Evans was outstanding as Mrs Johnstone: she was able to go from Marilyn Monroe to aging mother in a matter of seconds, yet never lost her evident zeal for the performance. She never faltered and had a superb voice that was clearly wasted on the ‘X Factor’ – she was meant to be Mrs Johnstone. I was also amazed by Mickey (Sean Jones) and Eddie (Paul Davies) – both men convinced me I was watching them grow up, and not that I was watching two adults pretending to be children. They were absolutely perfectly in tune with one another, which broke your heart even more, because we could see their bond beyond was it was, yet they could never name this link as true brotherhood. Mickey in particular kept me on the edge of my seat, particularly the prison scene where his descent began, and alongside the Narrator kept you wondering about the ‘what if’s’ and ‘if only’s’ that frame Mickey’s final moments.

What I particularly liked about the storyline was that it didn’t entirely revolve around the unknown brothers fighting over Linda (Kelly-Anne Gower): it was entirely about love, and what both had lost and received, but Linda was more of a catalyst to the finale as opposed to the sole cause, highlighting the gulf over which the twins friendship lay through their tragic beginning. While Eddie is allowed to grow up in one direction, Mickey is pushed and pulled everywhere, by Sammy (Danny Taylor) and unemployment and his upbringing. Yet Eddie is sheltered through fear of him discovering the truth, and as Mrs Lyons (Tracy Spencer) rightly points out, this means he’s never been hers, and you don’t see the same loving relationship between those two develop as you do with Mrs Johnstone and the son she raised. Both want the life they couldn’t have, which should have been a life they could have shared.

The music was breathtaking – it was both lyrical and expanded on the story, as opposed to singing for the sake of it, and it all worked towards an end goal, as well as lulling us into the belief that life could still be fixed, until the Narrator’s ominous hellish repertoire broke the comfort you nearly felt. In this way, the music never allows you to sit in comfort, you are constantly battling your emotions and desperate to see how the blood brothers will discover the truth before the superstition becomes reality.

The only thing I would have like to have seen, but that was definitely not a minus on the story, was Mr Lyons coping with losing his son twice – once to a tragic accident, and once again when he discovered the truth behind his lineage. It would have been fascinating to see Mr Lyons devastation as well as Mrs Johnstones, but equally this could have detracted from the simple sentimentality that ruled her final embrace of both her sons. The final scene truly captured the entire devastation of the play, as the revelations and questions that go unanswered through the gunfire keep the audience reminiscing throughout the finale song. The haunting “tell me it isn’t true” genuinely makes you wish you could, that you could rewind and tell Mrs Johnstone that superstitions are only made real by the superstitious. Mickey’s final question of why it wasn’t him brings the play to a full circle, proving that the beginning was a genius means of reaching the end, which has only made me want to go back for more. The standing ovation was well-deserved, and if I could have applauded for longer I really would have.

Review: ‘Wicked’ by Gregory Macguire

After seeing the musical ‘Wicked’, I felt I owed it to Gregory Macguire to read his prequel to ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, and asked my friend to lend me his copy. He seemed reluctant to give me it, and now I know why: ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’ is one of the hardest things I’ve ever slogged through.

Credit where credit is due, I kept with it in a desperate attempt to see where Macguire’s story would take flight. Unfortunately this was never to be, and his version of Oz’ remained as unsteady as Elphaba’s own escapades on her broom. Gone were the powerful women who showed that good and evil were choices encountered by all. These strong characters were replaced with an absolute characature of good, doing so only for her own public benefits, and an awkward girls whose animal (sorry, Animal) activism led to the apparent demise of an empire. While the musical ties everything up in a neat bow, the randomness of the story is too much to bear when considering it’s origins: where was the threatening wicked witch when Dorothy’s gale blew her into Kansas? And just how did the wizard bring the Grimmerie to Oz’ when he wasn’t magical, but just mortal? The only promising section was Madam Morrible’s declaration that the young Glinda, Nessarose and Elphaba’s could be assigned geographically opposing posts, but even the promising beginnings at Shiz failed to grow into a fully developed storyline. The lack of depth left the tale two dimensional, and thus unable to resonate with readers.

Even a character like Elphaba, who could have been a major connection to readers, fell short of expectations. She never gained any power, she killed a near-dead woman maliciously yet without actually adding to the ‘wicked’ premise or serving the greater cause we’re vaguely aware of, and essentially became a weak woman in the face of male characters. With the haunting presence of a lacklustre Fiyero and essentially driven by a lack of paternal affection, Elphaba failed to be radical enough to capture our hearts as part of her cause, instead thinking but never doing, making the supposed death of her an absolute joke. Similarly, using Dorothy as a pawn instead of a saviour reduced her from an unaware yet dominating individual to an unknown entity incapable of resisting a lovely tea with an apparently murderous witch. None of it adds up, and subsequently our image feels tainted.

The biggest irritant, though, was the absolutely unneccessary and utterly disgusting sexualised imagery used throughout. Associating Dorothy, who is only supposed to be a young teen, with the notion of being kidnapped by the Gale Force for ‘sport’ was revolting, and while I see that this was hoped to provide the darker and more grown up imagery, all it really left was a vile taste in the mouth. It wasn’t needed to enhance the story or move the plot, it was just a shock factor ploy, with no meaning beyond brutality, and while the politics of the novel may demand darker tones, it could have been subtle nuances instead of in-your-face brashness.

You know what? In short, go and see the musical. It provides the undertones of a disparate political climate without compromising Baum’s original and wonderful world of Oz’.

Review: ‘Wicked’ @ the London Apollo Victoria Theatre

Well, who hasn’t got an opinion on ‘Wicked’? And more importantly, who hasn’t raved about it?

So we might have been up high enough to get a nosebleed, but our view was still pretty spectacular, and meant we could see the entire stage without too many head turns whenever the action changed place. The acoustics weren’t fantastic, but the principle actors made up for this in their pure ability (disincluding Fiyero’s slight slip on a high note in ‘Dancing Through Life’).  This was particularly seen in Rachel Tucker’s (Elphaba) spectacular vocals in ‘Defying Gravity’, which essentially had me in tears because it was so brilliantly done. Tucker was definitely the strongest vocal performance in the show in my opinion, but the chemistry between her and Louise Dearman (Glinda) and Lewis Bradley (standing in for Lee Mead as Fiyero) made the show come alive.

The storyline itself, as my friend commented during the interval, would not be as spectacular without the right cast and musical numbers to make it sparkle. Indeed, who would be able to see past Glinda’s initial self-absorbed nature without ‘Popular’ showing her to want to bring out the best in people? And the reprise of  ‘No One Mourns the Wicked’ at the end after we’ve seen Elpheba’s tragic story unfold ensures we realise the extent of the misunderstanding Madame Morrible (Julie Legrand) imposes upon the Oz-ians. Likewise, the stagecraft enabled the story to become more spectacular, particularly the beautiful Emerald City and the terrifying outer mask of the Wizard.

The most fascinating part of the story, undoubtedly, was the development of the origins for the characters from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and I personally thought the Lion’s back-story was by far the cleverest invention, and the only one I didn’t see coming. The only thing that bothered me was that, in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Elpheba sets the Scarecrow on fire – why on earth would she do that to the man she loved?

By far, the best songs for me were ‘What is this Feeling?’ and the infamous ‘Defying Gravity’, which allowed the female leads to combine their powerful voices to build upon the melody and produce an overwhelming emotional response. Tucker gave a slightly husky quality to the high notes in ‘Defying Gravity’ which contrasted immensely with the gentle tones she used in ‘The Wizard and I’, and later on in ‘As Long As You’re Mine’, showing both her range and vocal abilities at their finest.

The supporting cast, as in any production, were crucial in ensuring the performance was wholly wonderful, and Boq (George Ure) was especially notable in his heartfelt performance, and his anger at his metallic fate was critical in understanding why Elpheba continued to be misunderstood and why the situation was outside Glinda’s control.

Wicked was an entirely fabulous experience, and one I would definitely repeat. The cast were stunning, the sets and costumes were beautifully designed, and the venue meant that even the cheaper seats didn’t miss out on the action. I hope to have a wicked time again in the near future.