Posts Tagged ‘Pimlico Opera’

I love seeing Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons because the rehabilitative power is palpable and the effect uplifting. This is my second visit to women’s prison HMP Bronzefield, the last for Hairspray just before the first lockdown. It was meant to be for Little Shop of Horrors, but the Ministry of Justice decided a show about a man-eating plant featuring a sado-masochistic dentist was unsuitable. Betty Blue Eyes was the substitute, a show about local authority corruption and the theft of a pig, with more than a hint of bestiality. Good to see at least one government department fully focused on protecting the citizens of this fine country.

I loved Stiles & Drewe’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s film A Private Function when it first hit the West End in 2011, I saw the first revival in Colchester three years later and saw it again at Mountview, also just before lockdown. Set in 1947 in a northern town, with rationing still in place, the dodgy local councillors are breeding an unlicensed pig for the royal wedding banquet, whilst they are scuppering Gilbert Chilvers’ attempt to lease a unit on The Parade for his chiropody practice, but his wife Joyce is having none of it. They steal the pig, now named Betty, in revenge, The trouble is, Chilvers and one of the councillors are rather fond of Betty.

Even though it’s a substitute, it’s in many ways a good choice of show, not least because it affords parts for 18 prisoners in addition to the 6 professionals. Charlotte Fleming is outstanding as Joyce, in a hugely impressive professional debut. There are some excellent performances from the prisoners too, some of whom you only realise reside here if you read the programme. Ashley Jacobs’ band of professional musicians play the score extremely well, and the production values are excellent. This is director Sasha Regan’s debut in prison and she does a great job.

If you are in any doubt of the positive impact these initiatives have, Bronzefield’s Deputy Director Vicky Robinson’s passionate and moving curtain call speech will dispel them. She also lays out little known facts about prisoner numbers, typical crimes and sentences and possible outcomes. The co-operation and determination of both the institution and their creative partners is obvious and deserves our support, but it’s also a great show and a lot of fun.

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I can’t think of a better way of marking International Women’s Day than visiting a women’s prison to see sixteen of their residents perform in Hairspray, with musical theatre professionals as creatives, musicians and in some of the lead roes. This is the sixth time I’ve witnessed Pimlico Opera’s therapeutic, rehabilitative work, in five different prisons, and each time the standard gets higher. I’ve had a soft spot for this particular show since I saw the original production in preview on Broadway eighteen years ago. I saw it in the West End three times and a new production in Leicester six years ago, but I can honestly say none were as uplifting as Sunday in HMP Bronzefield.

As the prison director reminded us, this year’s International Women’s Day theme is equality, so what better than a show about a feisty teenage girl fighting fat shaming, racism and segregation. Tracy Turnblad is obsessed with the Corney Collins Show, a TV dance programme featuring local teenagers, and infatuated with its lead dancer Link Larkin. When a vacancy arises for the show ensemble, she’s turned down because of her size. She meets up with Seaweed J Stubbs, a black boy whose mom runs a record shop, and becomes friends with his. Black kids aren’t allowed on the show, but are given an occasional ‘negro day’. Tracy is determined to get on the show, to get it integrated, and to get Link, a journey that involves protest and prison.

It’s such a feel-good show, its tongue firmly in its cheek, often hilarious, with great moral messages and so many catchy tunes and clever lyrics and lines, you hardly stop grinning. Nikki Woollaston’s terrific production has bags of energy and a superb sense of fun; her nifty choreography is a particular high. Alex Parker is as fine an MD as you can get and his 12-piece band sounds fantastic. Alex Doige-Green’s set makes great use of the space, on two levels, and Bek Palmer’s costumes are a period delight. Chloe Hart played Tracy in the West End for the last part of its run, before she’d even graduated, and she shines again here with particularly gorgeous vocals. Christopher Howell as mom Edna and Darren Bennett as dad Wilbur are pitch perfect and make a superb double-act. Amongst the rest of the professionals, Andre Fabien Francis and Sam Murphy impress as Seaweed and Corney respectively.

There is much talent amongst the sixteen resident performers. Dhonna Campbell-Grant brought the house down with I Know Where I’ve Been; if she’d been on The Voice, all four chairs would have turned! Mandy Webb played baddie Velma Van Tussle with great confidence, Christine Callaghan was very assured and appropriately bitchy as her daughter Amber and Tiffany Smart was so good as Tracy’s friend Penny I thought she was one of the pros. These are big roles and these women rose to the occasion with great aplomb. If this were a fully professional show, we’d have still been standing and cheering; by any standards, a joyous and uplifting evening.

On until Sunday 15th March. Catch it if you can.

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This is the third year The Mill at Sonning have put a big musical on their small stage, striking gold yet again. It’s amazing how quickly traditions can be established and these shows are already firm seasonal favourites; I now can’t imagine a Christmas without them.

I’ve got a very soft spot for this tale of gamblers, showgirls and the Salvation Army on the streets of 50’s New York City, with a brief visit to the playground that was pre-Castro Cuba. My love of it started at Bristol Old Vic in the 70’s, confirmed by three visits to the iconic NT production in 1982, 1990 & 1996, two to the 2005 Donmar West End revival, the 2015 Chichester production both there and in London, a fine production on the fringe Upstairs at the Gatehouse, in GSMD & LAMDA drama schools and at Wandsworth Prison! It always brings me joy.

The strengths of Joseph Pitcher’s production are the outstanding cast, exceptional musical standards and thrillingly staged scenes in Havana and the sewers of New York. In the opening scene it struggles to conjure the street-life of New York City, but it quickly grows and draws you in to the world of lovable rogues, earnest missionaries and seemingly hopeless relationships. Showstoppers like Luck Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat sit alongside comic gems A Bushel and a Peck and Take Back Your Mink and romantic ballads I’ll Know and I’ve Never Been in Love Before. I loved the curtain call with the entire cast dressed in Salvation Army uniform with tambourines.

Stephane Anelli makes a great commitment-phobic Nathan, desperate for a venue for his game, bullied by Big Jule from Chicago when he gets one. Natalie Hope is outstanding as Adelaide, capturing her indefatigable devotion to Nathan, great at both the comedy and the naivety, with a spot-on accent. Victoria Serra excels at the earnestness, drunken dancing and helpless infatuation of Sarah, singing beautifully. Richard Carson has a commanding presence as expert gambler Sky and genuine passion in his pursuit of Sarah. Four fine leads and an excellent supporting cast.

I’m now looking forward to what they dish up in Sonning next year, and to my next Guys & Dolls, wherever that might be.

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I’ve been a big supporter of Pimlico Opera’s work in prisons. Before this, there was West Side Story, Guys & Dolls and Carmen in Wandsworth, Sugar in Send and Our House in Belmarsh. I’m drawn by the extraordinary contribution they make to rehabilitation, but the quality of the work is extraordinary too. This one, at HMP High Down, was particularly thrilling.

They use the shortened ‘schools edition’ (which I saw in a school a few years back!). There are fourteen professional actors, two officers and eighteen prisoners, with a full orchestra under MD Dan Jackson (something the current partly synthesised West End production can’t boast!). Lest you think the professionals are anything other than premiere league, Javert has performed the role in the West End production and Fantine won an Olivier Award earlier this year!

Having a cast of 34 and a full orchestra makes the choruses thrilling. Robin Bailey’s Javert, Jeff Nicholson’s Valjean and Rebecca Trehearn’s Fantine are as good as any I’ve seen in the West End (Bailey has played it there and Cameron Mackintosh’s people would do well to sign up the other two!). The prisoners are not confined to the chorus, with roles like Marius being taken by some. Amongst the amateurs, PE instructor / officer Mat Baxter made a fine Enjolras and Irish prisoner Pearce Murray a suitably cheeky Thenardier.

You would expect such a production to be a touch ragged at the edges, but this is more than made up for in Nikki Woollaston’s staging by the sheer spirit and energy of it all, giving people the opportunity to get something positive out of a negative period of their lives. Hopeful and uplifting.

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Best New Play – Violence & Son / Iphigenia in Splott

What a bumper year for new plays. I saw more than 80 and almost half of these made it onto the long list. The final cut saw a very diverse bunch competing. At the NT, a brilliant adaptation of Jane Eyre and a stunning ‘mash-up’ of three D H Lawrence plays as Husbands and Sons, a very radical adaptation of Everyman, the somewhat harrowing People Place & Things, the highly original Rules for Living and the expletive-loaded Mother*****r With the Hat. Two ‘minimalist’ Mike Bartlett contributions – Bull at the Young Vic and Game at the Almeida, both original and hugely impressive. The Young Vic also staged Ivo van Hove’s stunning Songs From Far Away. The Royal Court gave us Martin McDonough’s black comedy Hangman, Debbie Tucker Green’s distressing hang and a play about the NHS, Who Cares?, which took place all over the theatre. At The Donmar, Temple was a more conservative but beautifully written piece about the impact of Occupy outside St. Pauls on those inside. The Bush surprised with The Royale, a play about boxing, my least favourite sport, and The Arcola hosted one about rugby, the deeply moving NTW / Out of Joint verbatim collaboration, Crouch Touch Pause Engage as well as the lovely Eventide and Clarion. Jessica Swale graced the Globe with another superb historical play, Nell Gwynn, with the lovely Farinelli & the King next door in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I was much more positive than most about Future Conditional, a topical analysis of our broken education system, which kicked off the new regime at the Old Vic. Elsewhere in the West End only Photograph 51, Taken at Midnight (from Chichester), Oppenheimer (from Stratford) and Bad Jews made the cut. The Park continued to make itself indispensable with The Gathered Leaves and Theatre 503 punched above its weight with Rotterdam, a sensitive and very funny exploration of transgender issues. Southwark Playhouse found one of the best Tennessee Williams’s rarities, One Arm. Earlier in the year, Hampstead gave us the very underrated Luna Gale and topped this with Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg, and even the late Arthur Miller was a candidate with the belated world premiere of his first play No Villain, but it was Gary Owen’s contributions that pipped everyone else at the post – Violence & Son, a striking modern family drama at the Royal Court Upstairs, and Iphigene in Splott, a Greek adaptation (but radical enough to be considered a new play) which packed more punch than most in a year abundant with Greek adaptations, which started in Cardiff and toured via the Edinburgh fringe ending up at the NT’s temporary space.

Best Revival – Les Liasons Dangereuses

I saw half as many revivals as new plays, and only a quarter of them made the long list. The best Shakespeare’s were both at the Young Vic – a shockingly modern Measure for Measure and a dance-drama Macbeth. The best of the Greeks were the Almeida’s Orestia and Stratford East’s Antigone, which out-shone the high profile Barbican-Van Hove-Binoche one. The Donmar pitched in with Patrick Marber’s Closer, embarrassingly better than his NT contributions this year, though the NT did shine with both Our Country’s Good The Beaux Stratagem, with particularly good use of music. The Globe gave us a very quick revival of Heresy of Love and the Open Air Theatre’s adaptation of Peter Pan was a triumph, but it was the long-overdue revival of Christopher Hampton’s masterpiece that ended the year with a theatrical feast.

Best New Musical – Bend It Like Beckham

Of the 50 musicals I saw in London, only 40% qualify as New Musicals and only seven made the final cut. I very much enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia of both Carole King’s biographical Beautiful and the brilliantly staged Bert Bacharach compilation What’s It All About? (renamed Close to You for the West End). Xanadu was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse, which also hosted the very original Teddy, and the ever reliable Union pitched in with Spitfire Grill and The White Feather, a winner in any other year I suspect. Kinky Boots was great fun, but it was Howard Goodall’s brilliant Bend It Like Beckham, the a feel-good triumph which I’m about to see for the third time, that brought a breath of fresh air and a new audience to the West End.

Best Musical Revival – Grand Hotel

A better hit rate for musical revivals, with half of the 30 I saw in contention. The year started with a stunning revival of City of Angels which benefitted from the intimacy of the Donmar and ended with a very rare revival of Funny Girl which didn’t benefit from the intimacy of the Menier (but was still a highlight, and which I expect to be better at the Savoy, which hosted Gypsy which is also on on the list). It took two attempts to see the Open Air’s thrilling Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but well worth the return on a dry evening. Ye Olde Rose & Crowne in Walthamstow gave us notable revivals of both Face the Music and Bye Bye Birdie and the Landor chipped in with Thoroughly Modern Millie. A rare treat at the Royal Academy was Michel Legrand’s Amour and a unique experience at Belmarsh Young Offenders Institute where Pimlico Opera staged Our House with the residents and Suggs himself. I missed the same show at the Union, but did make three other revivals there – Whistle Down the Wind, Loserville and most especially Spend Spend Spend, my runner up. However, Thom Sutherland’s production of Grand Hotel at Southwark Playhouse was as close to perfection as you can get and made me look again at a show I had hitherto been underwhelmed by, and that’s what makes it the winner.

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The name Pimlico Opera is deceptive, because the company now devotes itself to working in prisons, mostly in musical theatre, with a newer project in primary schools. They’ve worked in 11 different institutions over 22 years, choosing shows that enable as many as possible to get involved, and this is their 11th different show, with a cast of 24 prisoners and 9 professionals, including Madness’ lead singer Suggs himself, who has made a big commitment to the project. There are even more than that in the band, backstage, staging and designing. This is no amateur production. It’s amateurs participating in a professional production.

Though I wouldn’t call myself a Madness fan, I much enjoyed this show in the West End 12 or so years ago. It was one of the first of the much maligned jukebox musical genre, but what makes it stand out from most of the others is the integration of songs into a heart-warming morality play which tells the story of Camden boy Joe who, on his 16th birthday, makes a mistake which changes the course of his life. At this point, he divides into two Joe’s – good and bad – and we see their parallel but very different lives unfold, with the ghost of Joe’s dad (Suggs) never far away. One Joe starts his in a correctional institute and this, plus a later period of imprisonment, is what makes this such an appropriate show to be staged here.

The seven ladies are of course professionals, but the only male professional (apart from Suggs) is Tom Child, a recent Mountview graduate, as both Joe’s – a challenge beyond the most talented of amateurs – and he is excellent. There is a lot of talent on show, with particularly good performances from Jordan Hancox and Hakeem Jacobs as Joe’s friends Emmo and Lewis and Ray Chowdhury and Joseph Williams as bad guys Reecey and Pressman. The production values are extraordinary, with a giant monopoly board set with ‘Juliet balconies’ on both sides, terrific costumes and great lighting and sound.

This is the fourth such show I’ve seen and it was even more inspirational than the others, because of the suitability of the show, the young ages of the participants and the obvious rehabilitative potential of this work. The unfortunately named ISIS Young Offenders Institute at Belmarsh isn’t the easiest place to get to and the security procedures are thorough, but the opportunity to be entertained by something this good in a place which is clearly focused on doing good more than makes up for it. As the governor said at the end, over seven weeks they are working hard, developing teamwork skills, confidence and pride. An uplifting experience.


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Sugar is the 1972 stage musical adaptation of the 1959 film ‘Some Like It Hot’ – if you haven’t seen the film, your life is incomplete so you’d better get the DVD sharpish! It didn’t get its UK stage premiere until 1992 and I don’t think it has been seen since. It takes the enterprising and unfunded Pimlico Opera, whose work with prisoners is now in its 11th year, to present us with the opportunity to see what its like on stage.

This was my fifth time in prison – twice before with Pimlico opera in Wandsworth prison for Guys & Dolls and Carmen – but the first in a women’s prison. On this occasion, the chorus of c.20 and some of the backstage staff are prisoners; the four leads and two male dancers are professionals. Reading the self-written biographies breaks your heart and the prisoner thank you speech at the end brings you to tears. This is much more than a worthy project, it shines a light into broken lives, bringing just a glimmer of hope for a few weeks.

Peter Stone’s book, based on Billy Wilder & I.A.L Diamond’s screenplay, is faithful to the film and very funny. Jules Styne’s score and Bob Merrill’s lyrics aren’t great, which is presumably why it isn’t often revived, but its good enough. The story of course is of a couple of musicians who innocently witness a Chicago gangster crime and go on the run to escape their elimination. Disguised as women, they join an all-girl big band on tour. One falls for the singer and one bags a millionaire and it all ends happily (if somewhat bizarrely). Delightfully preposterous! The traverse staging has the band at one end and the beach at the other with other scenes played in-between.

It must be hard to step into the shoes of Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon, but Victoria Ward, Duncan Patrick and Rob Gildon do it very well indeed. Deryck Hamon is also good as Sir Osgood Fielding. The prisoners play all of the other roles – male and female – and do so with considerable enthusiasm and energy; I was particularly impressed by the confidence and stage presence of Gaillene Young (AKA Ella!) as band-leader Sweet Sue, who stood in at short notice when the original Sweet Sue was released! The 17-piece professional big band under Toby Purser make a glorious sound.

Any thought that you were in a real theatre was dispelled at the curtain call with the announcement ‘please stay in your seats whilst we check we’ve got all the cast back’!

It’s running again next weekend if you fancy a spell in prison (and if there are tickets left – http://www.grangeparkopera.co.uk) – go on, it’s fun!

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