People Like Us, Union Theatre

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by Amy Toledano

When the results of the referendum came through in 2016, a big percentage of Londoners were shocked. Many people who had grown up here and made the UK their home suddenly felt unwelcome, and those feelings have only grown in the years since the announcement of Brexit.

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Blondel, Union Theatre

I am often impressed with theatre’s ability to transform the most serious of topics into bouncy, chirpy musicals. Tim Rice and Tom Williams looked to the Crusades for their comedic tale of Richard I’s court musician, Blondel, but discarded much of the history. This 1983 show has some great numbers, but its frivolity and insubstantial book focusing on a personal journey rather than the larger political landscape is diminutive rather than powerfully sweeping. This is no Les Mis or Miss Saigon; it is instead an under-developed documentation of a rise to fame – but it still has its moments of fun.

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Three Sisters, Union Theatre

“Nothing turns out the way we planned.”

Though 2016 has been riddled with despair, 2017 looks worse. With the fascist post-truth movement on the rise and Trump taking office in a matter of days, there is little to look forward to. Far-off lands look like alluring utopias, and it’s easy to fall prey to the lingering question of what the point is of carrying on in the face of all this societal disintegration. With existentialism one of the cruxes of the story, this Three Sisters is a bleak echo of present day narcissism and hopelessness. Phil Willmott’s staging of a new, pared back translation doesn’t stagnate, though. Combined with a strong cast, this is production uncannily suits our times.

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Gatsby, Union Theatre

Gatsby (c) Roy Tan (4)

Jay Gatsby’s distinctive yellow car is an iconic image in The Great Gatsby. Power, wealth and charisma emanate from its shimmering, custom paint job as it rolls between Long Island and Manhattan in the decadent 1920s. It’s eye catching and demands attention, like the enigmatic man who owns it. Adaptations of The Great Gatsby are plentiful, but good ones need the same characteristics as Gatsby’s car, along with a generous, heady mix of self-indulgence and extravaganza. Linnie Reedman and Joe Evans’ musical incarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel manages to avoid incorporating any these. Bland music, lazy performances and design and a book with numerous shortcomings makes Gatsby a stuttering, third-hand Ford Fiesta rather than a customized, purring Rolls Royce.

Reality TV celeb Ferne McCann makes her theatre debut in this production, bringing a lot of negative publicity with her as consequence. She’s also incredibly surprising – alone in a theatre-trained cast, she is the only one consistently able to be heard over the live actor-musos with her Amy Winehouse-influenced performance. Of the 13-strong cast, most are weak, some terribly so. They are either grotesquely overacted cartoons, or underplayed so much that their performances are flat. There’s no sense of danger or excitement, or EVERYTHING IS EXCITING ALL THE TIME FOR OVER TWO HOURS. It’s exhausting to take in. In either case, the characters are no more than stereotypes; this is more of an issue with Reedman’s book as it certainly doesn’t give the actors much depth to work with. Accents drift around the 50 states and then some, with the only consistent one coming from an actual American.

Reedman also directs, with little comprehension of the narrative arc she constructed from the novel. Other than the Plaza hotel scene late in the play when Daisy and Jay confess all to Tom, there is a pronounced lack of tension. Myrtle’s tragic end is anticlimactic and rushed, as is her husband George’s retaliation. She neglects characterization and seems to focus solely on staging. If that.

There are 21 musical numbers (including a couple of reprises), but none of Joe Evans’ tunes stands out from the rest. Even with a mix of smaller and larger numbers, there is little  musical variation. Transitions from book to song are often abrupt and forced for the sake of fitting in another tune rather than naturally reaching a point in the story where music is necessary to accentuate a plot point or emotion. Nick Pack’s choreography, without much to work with, is similarly unvaried with a bit of a Charleston every now and then.

There are few positives to pull from this production. Reedman and Evans’ interpretation is a choppy hatchet job of Fitzgerald’s work and few, if any, features deem it a worthy adaptation. If Gatsby’s goal is for the audience to “feel…the heat, sweat and life” of the euphoric, post-war American decade, it barely comes close. Tepid, cool and laconic is what actually comes across, in a wheezy motorcar threatening to cut out at any moment.

Gatsby runs through 30th April.

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The White Feather, Union Theatre

During WWI, men considered too afraid to enlist were given white feathers by those disapproving of their cowardice. Also common were boys too young to join up lying about their ages so they could experience the excitement of battle. Then there were the hundreds who were killed for desertion and cowardice in the face of the enemy. These young men suffered from PTSD, an ailment not understood or acknowledged until well after the war was over.

A cast of nine tells the story of 16-year-old Harry Briggs, who cheerfully joins up to escape humdrum village life, and his sister Georgina’s search for the truth of what really happened to her kid brother out on the front. Whilst trying to clear his name, she discovers hidden secrets of her fellow Suffolk villagers, learning more than she bargained for. Spanning several decades and touching on a wide range of issues including homosexuality, shellshock, the class system and the reality of life in the trenches, The White Feather is an intimate, provincial musical with a sturdy first act and excellent music, that reflects the close-knit and often overbearing aspect of life in a small place during wartime. The second act, shorter but covering a much longer period of time, is rather choppy and introduces an interesting subplot but too late to for much development.

Abigail Matthews flawlessly leads as the kind but tenacious Georgina Briggs, supported by wonderfully mouthy best friend, Edith (Katie Brennan). It’s not all about the girls though; David Flynn as the conflicted lord of the manor Adam Davey is the most complex character of the lot and deserves more focus than the script gives him. Edward Brown, played by Zac Hamilton, has a couple of great scenes showcasing his emotional range. This is a great cast size for a musical: enough voices to give the larger numbers a punch, but not so large that some characters are relegated to the ensemble.

A piano, violin and cello trio give the music richness but an acoustic, rural tone that beautifully suits the world of the musical. The book and music are well integrated and transitions from one to the other are mostly smooth. The act finales could stand to be a bit longer, but otherwise the music feels developed, albeit quite gentle. The book follows an evenly paced narrative arc for the first half, but several jumps feel choppy and disruptive after the interval. The programme helps with indicating the time leaps, but more could be added to the script and design to clarify them so the audience doesn’t have to regularly refer to the programme. The Adam Davey subplot could do with more than a single, brief reference in the first half in order to have greater plot integration later, but this could potentially detract from the main thread of Georgina’s quest for justice. Though the title can represent Harry’s perceived cowardice, there is little mention of the feather as a convention of the time. All of the focus points are worthy of presentation and add to the overall story, but perhaps the show is trying to do too much. Without lengthening it quite a lot, some aspects of the plot will remain under-developed.

With an engrossing first act, detailed and complimentary characters, The White Feather writers clearly Ross Clark and Andrew Keates have a gift for telling great stories. New musicals often disappear after their initial run, but this one is a mostly polished affair that deserves more development and larger houses. In the Union Theatre, it’s an emotionally charged, intimate experience not to be missed, even with its shortcomings.

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Henry V, Union Theatre

I’ve known Lazarus THTP-037-4heatre Company and artistic director Ricky Dukes’ work for a long time. We first met back in 2010 sharing a venue at Camden Fringe when I was a fledgling producer. Since then, I’ve seen several of their shows and reviewed others, including The Spanish Tragedy (my first review for everything theatre) and last summer’s Troilus & Cressida. Dukes is visually inventive, with a solid grasp on the challenges of classical theatre. He boldly reconceptualises plays, honouring the language but ensuring productions are energetic and a feast for the eyes and ears. I expect Lazarus shows to provide a creative, unique perspective on the play, with high quality performances. Until this Henry V at The Union Theatre, they have always fulfilled these expectations.

The all-female, barefoot cast is rendered androgynous by identical navy blue boiler suits, emphasising Lazarus’ dedicated ensemble approach. Whilst this easily allows for multi-rolling, there is no visual distinction between characters. This hinders understanding of the story, particularly with the sweeping cuts to the text. The dark colour is a striking contrast to the dominating white table in the middle of the thrust stage, covered in religiously symbolic items, all white or light coloured: candles, an ornate bible, an alter cloth, a bowl of water for ritualistic washing, and Henry’s crown. These objects justify Henry’s contentious claim to France. A stack of self-referential Arden scripts is tucked under the table. There is no other set, save for black metal chairs ringing the playing space for actors to sit when not performing. The cast are on stage the entire time, a Brechtian technique used to emphasise the narrative aspect of theatre. Additional visuals include a creepily masked French herald, bright pink gift bags filled with the Dauphin’s luminous green tennis balls and a single pink helium balloon. These remain on stage for the duration, as well as the balls, which are thrown about the space upon delivery, causing the actors to tread warily. The overall look of the production harks back to the 1960’s.

The colour combinations and excellent lighting design looks fantastic. Dukes and the actors use the stage effectively, playing to all sides of the audience. Any individual moment could be photographed and it would make a striking image. The issue is that none of these visual choices supports the production concept. Dukes wants the audience to question whether Henry really has the right to invade France. Clutching at straws, I connected the boiler suits to mechanics, or builders – perhaps these characters are tearing down England and rebuilding it to be bigger, faster and stronger? This is tenuous, at best.

I really want this production to be as good as Lazarus’ past productions I’ve seen. Adaptations of Shakespeare should give the audience new insight into the play and provide a clear level of understanding, but this time Lazarus did not succeed in doing so. Other than it looking great, the reason behind the design choices remains unclear and they do not support the production concept.

The ensemble has some excellent performances. Colette O’Rourke is a feisty Northern Henry that holds attention throughout her lengthy trademark speeches. She is grounded, but with a volatile, pent up aggression. Her performance is reminiscent of Clare Dunn’s Hal in Phyllida Lloyd’s Henry IV at the Donmar last year. Just as watchable is RJ Seeley as Fluellen, who has some great scenes with Emily Owens’ Pistol. Nuala McGowan is vibrant and dynamic as the disturbing French herald and Captain MacMorris. The rest of the cast struggle to distinguish themselves from each other, delivering the text with nearly identical rhythm and pace.

Other devices that add distinctive features but no further clarification to the production concept include a loud hailer through which Henry rallies his troops, but it flattens delivery. Some speeches are delivered in prayer, emphasising the driving force of religion in Henry’s mission. Direct address is used copiously as it should be, but not excessively so. The St. Crispin’s speech is a wonderfully intimate interpretation. Pistol adds in some “fuck you’s”, which although gratuitous, suit the character. The diverse female cast, whilst laudable for diversity reasons, also provides no unique insight into the play, as their costume and performance style does not pander to any particular gender identity.

This Henry V is certainly not a bad production, but it is not up to Lazarus’ usual standard of excellence. A great performance from the title role and striking visuals help hold audience interest to some extent, but the lack of concept and design unity prevent total audience engagement.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

The Beautiful Game, everything theatre

“As someone who is not a huge Andrew Lloyd Webber fan and has a dislike of football, I did not have high expectations for this production. I was, delightfully, proven wrong for the most part. Creative direction, fantastically tight ensemble work, endearing characters and some beautiful ballads were some of the highlights of the show…

“Lotte Wakeham uses the intimate Union Theatre space brilliantly. Traverse staging creates both a joyful football pitch and the dangerous streets of 1970s Belfast. During the football matches, the characters watching the game stand behind the audience so we are part of the experience…A few benches are versatile set pieces; they become church pews, locker room benches and a coffin.

“Niamh Perry leads the young but skilled ensemble as the charming, feisty Mary who falls in love with 18-year-old footballer John, played by a skillful Ben Kerr…Joanna O’Hare is the other shining star... Here, the audience sees the root of the conflict: both sides have unwavering belief that Ireland is theirs…

“…The second half starts with John and Mary’s wedding, but the plot deteriorates from this point. Suddenly, the characters have aged and are going their different ways. Whilst this is a sad fact of growing up, it is the undoing of a musical that relies too heavily on the misadventures and celebrations of youth…The story abruptly ends with a short, quiet number, with little resolution…

“Overall, this show is certainly worth seeing for the novelty factor of its rarity and the excellent performances by a cast with impressive credits…”

Intention: ☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆

Originally posted here on everything theatre.