Posts Tagged ‘Ben Elton’

This was one of my first covid cancellations when its run was curtailed after five or six weeks in March 2020, and the last for me to catch up with some 2.5 years later. Not a stage adaptation of Ben Elton’s hit TV comedy series, but a new play based on the same premise and characters, well some of them.

Shakespeare is struggling to find inspiration for a new play. It needs to be a hit after the lukewarm reception given to Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Ideas come from his London landlady’s daughter Kate, firstly King Lear, then Othello. There’s a sprinkling of references to other plays, like Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night and A Winter’s Tale. The humour is in the juxtaposition of the period and contemporary issues like colour blind casting, gender representation and transport woes. so up-to-date I felt there might have been very recent additions. I thought it was a bit slow to take off but when it got going the laughs came quick and fast in a plot where life and plays converge. It’s humour is broad and bawdy, with it’s own charming euphemisms for private parts and sexual acts. I thought it was clever and a lot of fun.

Sean Foley’s speedy staging contains some lovely performances, chief amongst them Gemma Whelan as Shakespeare’s muse Kate, Rob Rouse as his servant bottom and Stewart Wright as larger-than-life 17th Century luvvie Burbage. It appears to be David Mitchel’s professional debut in a play, though he created the character and brings him alive on stage as he did on TV. The economics of live theatre is presumably the reason for fewer characters than on screen and I felt it missed them, most importantly Mrs Shakespeare, brilliantly characterised by Lisa Tarbuck on the small screen.

Good fun.

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Well, that’s a turn up for the books – an Andrew Lloyd Webber show I rather enjoyed. I’d convinced myself he only produced pompous pop operas with mushy scores after Starlight Express, but I hadn’t seen this when it was first produced fourteen years ago. It probably helps seeing it on a small scale and in an imaginative production with a fine young cast.

Set in the late 60’s in Northern Ireland, it follows a catholic soccer team and the fate of its players and their partners during ‘the troubles’. Thomas joins the IRA. John gets married. Ginger is the victim of protestant paramilitaries. Daniel turns to crime. Though only Thomas becomes a terrorist, the others are dragged in. It does a good job showing how the troubles affected peoples lives and has more edginess and less sentimentality than I was expecting.

It’s traverse staging is effective (well, unless you get a pillar to partially block your view, like me) with particularly good presentation of the football games, with spectators behind the audience. David Shields’ simple but evocative design puts the band behind barricades, political slogans painted on doors & walls and four benches creating dressing rooms, churches and coffins. The musical standards are exceptional, with both band and vocals consistently hitting the mark. It’s a fine young cast with uniformly good acting, movement & singing.

The Irish influenced music is surprisingly good, but its let down by Ben Elton’s weak book and lyrics, which delivers some excruciating moments. That said, this is the kind of high quality intimate staging that can paper over the cracks in the show itself. Director Lotte Wakeham and choreographer Tim Jackson have done a fine job.

A surprise hit for me, which made me wonder if there are other ALW shows which would benefit from more intimate and less overblown productions.

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Well you have to, don’t you? Go and see something that divides people. Make your own mind up.

Well, I’m not with the phans and I’m not with the whingers. I actually don’t regret going (though I didn’t pay, so I might have felt differently if I’d coughed up the £67.50 my seat cost) though I wouldn’t go again. The show’s the problem; the production is the reason to go.

The truth is there isn’t much of a story – SPOILER WATCH – Phantom goes to NYC and sets up a freak show – anonymously invites Christine over to sing  (she needs the money as she’s now married to a drunken aristocrat) – her son turns out to be the Phantom’s – she dies. It’s spun out for 2.5 hours with another one of Ben Elton’s pathetic books, undistinguished lyrics from Glenn Slater and another dose of ALW’s mushy pop-opera music.

BUT the production and performances really are good, so there’s stuff to look and wonder at and singing and acting to admire. I wasn’t impressed by Sierra Boggess (the title song was the lowspot of the evening for me) but was hugely impressed by the Phantom’s understudy, Tam Mutu. The boy – Harry Child at the performance I saw – was terrific. Summer Strallen almost steals the show with her quick-change-almost-strip number. A big talent like Joseph Milsom is rather wasted in the rather underwritten role of Raoul.

The orchestrations are great and the 27-piece orchestra really does sound good. There is some nice music, though not enough – but it’s a lot better than Woman In White. Bob Crowley’s design with Jon Driscoll’s projections, Scott Penrose’s special effects and Paule Constable’s lighting are highly effective. The sound is amongst the best I’ve experienced in a musical. Director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell do their best with the material they’re given.

In the end, it proves yet again that ALW really does need a collaborator as good as Tim Rice; chairing a committee with Elton, Slater and Frederick Forsyth (!) just doesn’t produce a good show. So, a great production in search of a good show. You’re left to admire the talent on and off stage and in the orchestra pit.

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