Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Marshall’

Tim Rice is destined to be forever linked to Andrew Lloyd Webber, but only five of his sixteen shows were with him, and of these two didn’t get major productions and one (The Wizard of Oz) was just additional lyrics for additional songs. He wrote with seven other composers, including three each with Disney’s Alan Menken and Elton John, but this 1983 show, with the late Stephen Oliver, was the first post-ALW. It had a decent run in two theatres in the West End, but never made Broadway and has only been revived once, eleven years ago at the Pleasance. It’s a comic romp that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for, and this revival confirms that.

Blondel is an unsuccessful troubadour, with a feminist socialist girlfriend Fiona. This is the late 12th century, with Richard I on the throne, his disloyal brother John in the wings and the third crusade about to begin. Blondel manages to get his new song, I’m A Monarchist, heard by the king before he departs on the crusade. The king insists on taking Fiona as a skivvy, but Blondel stays behind. While Richard is away, John plots against him, intent on becoming king himself. The crusade ends in a draw (!), but the king is abducted by Duke Leopold of Austria on the way home. Blondel tours Europe’s castles singing his song until it is heard in Austria and results in Richard’s release, Blondel’s appointment as court musician and marriage to Fiona.

In an inspired move, there’s a quartet of monks as a chorus / narrators who sing (mostly) a Capella – their introduction is one of the best openings of any musical. Mathew Pritchard has added six songs, and changed two others, to Oliver’s original score, packed full of catchy tunes. Rice’s lyrics are superbly witty, as you might expect from a premiere league lyricist. I was surprised by how many tunes and words I remembered and I’ve been humming them continually since I left the theatre. It’s all a bit daft, but it’s great fun, with European and Middle East references taking on new meaning today.

Sasha Regan’s revival is very well cast, with the quartet of monks – David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Melville – simply superb, and Neil Moors shining as Richard the Lionheart, with particularly fine vocals. Connor Arnold oozes naïve charm as Blondel and Jessie May is delightfully feisty as Fiona, and there’s an excellent comic turn, again with good vocals, from Michael Burgen as the assassin who John hires. Simon Holt’s band was restrained enough to ensure the unamplified lyrics could be heard except for some in the quieter solos by less robust singers. I liked the map of Europe which formed the backdrop in Ryan Dawson Light’s design and Sasha Regan’s excellent staging has some chirpy choreography by Chris Whittaker.

Great to see such a good revival of a much neglected show.



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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!


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