Posts Tagged ‘Sasha Regan’

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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The 1953 film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell is much better known than this 1949 Jule Styne musical on which it was based. The Broadway show took 13 years to get to London and has only had one revival since then, at the Open Air Theatre 21 years ago, so a revival at the Union Theatre is to be welcomed.

I’ve lost track of how many Broadway shows are set on cruise liners or trains, but here’s another one. Follies dancers Lorelei Lee, from Little Rock Arkansas, and her best friend and chaperone Dorothy Shaw are heading for Paris, a trip funded by Lorelei’s betrothed, button king Gus Esmond Jr., who is planning to join them later. On the journey they meet Mrs Spofford, Philadelphia’s richest woman, who loves a drink, and her son Henry, zipper king Josephus Cage and British toffs Sir Francis and Lady Beekman. On the journey Lorelei flirts with Sir Francis and Henry and Dorothy with a group of Olympic athletes! Lorelei discovers Gus has gone to Little Rock with his dad to check out her background and worries they will uncover her secret. She gets Sir Francis to secretly fund the purchase of his wife’s tiara, makes a play for Josephus and fixes up Dorothy with Henry. When we get to Paris its all French stereotypes, dodgy accents and jokes at their expense. The Beekman’s arrive from London and Gus from Little Rock, later followed by his dad, and the story of buttons and zippers plays out in a night club, ending happily ever after, obviously, with two marriages.

It’s a big show that requires big resources, but the material doesn’t really deserve them. Jule Styne’s score comes to life occasionally (notably during its most famous number, Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend) but is mostly undistinguished. Anita Loos & Joseph Fields’ book, based on Loos novel, and Leo Robin’s lyrics are both weak, lacking the wit and sparkle a musical comedy requires. Though I saw the Open Air Theatre’s production, it only became clear this time why it is rarely revived. This production is at its best in the chorus numbers and in Zak Nemorin’s well choreographed set pieces. With just piano and drums it’s a bit underpowered musically, and I wondered if a solo piano might have been better if a bigger band wasn’t possible. Justin Williams and Penn O’Gara’s designs give it a great period look, well lit by Hector Murray. Eighteen is a big cast for the Union, including a handful of very welcome professional stage debuts, and they work hard and enthusiastically. Somewhat ironically, it sparkled most when the bar became the Paris club, as the interval transformed and transferred to the theatre for the second act; elsewhere Sasha Regan’s production lacked oomph, though this may have been partly due to first night nerves.

Good to catch it again, though, despite my reservations about the material.

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This WWI set musical was commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre and when I saw the London premiere of their production just over two years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/08/30/brass-nymt-at-hackney-empire) it had a cast twice the size, an 18-piece band doing what a solo pianist does here, in a theatre with a capacity twenty times the Union Theatre. Despite that, this very timely professional premiere packs as much, if not more, of an emotional punch.

It moves between Leeds and the Somme as a brass band enlist together and their loved ones at home manufacture the munitions they need. At the front we glimpse the horrors and hopelessness as one dies, an underage recruit is executed for desertion, two men supress their desire for one another and the troops are sent to their death on ‘the big push’ by officers knowing full well what their fate was likely to be. Back home, the girls health deteriorates as their bosses expose them to risk in the munitions factory, and they form their own brass band as a tribute to their men. Relationships are lived through letters.

Benjamin Till’s excellent score is quintessentially British, with folk and choral influences, very melodic. Sasha Regan’s staging has great pace and energy, handling moving moments sensitively, not least the chilling ending to the first half, though I did think some of the soldier’s choreography was a touch quirky. A couple of large tables help to created the trenches and the factory in a simple and uncluttered set. The talented young cast serve the play well; I particularly liked Sam Kipling and Emma Harrold as brother and sister Alf and Eliza, and Samantha Richards feisty Titty, whose brother Morrie is beautifully played by Lawrence Smith, a fine trumpeter too. Henry Brennan does a terrific job playing the whole score on piano.

A lovely, heartfelt musical that again proves British musical theatre is alive and thriving, and a fitting tribute during the centenary of the events and times it represents.

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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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This isn’t the 1996 Andrew Lloyd-Webber show, but an earlier 1989 musical by Russell Labey and Richard Taylor written for performance by young people, getting its London professional première. I never saw The Lord’s piece as I’d given up on his pompous mushiness by then, but this is a lovely, sweet chamber musical based on the same 1959 novel, filmed in 1961, given a fine production by Sasha Regan.

The three Bostock children stumble upon a man they believe to be Jesus when they’re looking for somewhere to hide the three kittens they have rescued from drowning by farm labourer Eddie. They can’t tell their widowed dad about either the kittens or The Man, but they do eventually introduce other children to him when they visit with food and other supplies. He is of course the well publicised convict on the run, but their belief makes them blind to that. It beautifully represents that blind faith that children have. Some may call it naivety or gullibility, but it’s really faith. The score has a very English feel, redolent of folk and choral traditions, with particularly fine choruses – think Goodall meets Britten, a touch operatic, with a nod to Sondheim!

The production faithfully represents both the period and Lancashire village life thanks to Nik Corralll’s simple but evocative design. I loved the instrumentation – piano, violin and horn – of David Griffiths’a small ensemble. The young adults playing the children completely capture the world of a child in the 50’s (and I should know!). Grace Osborn, Imelda Warren-Green and Alex James Ellison (who I admired in Apartment 40c last month) are all completely believable as the Bostock children and  Chris Coleman and Callum McArdle are excellent as Dad and The Man respectively. They are supported with a fine ensemble, as we’ve become accustomed to at the Union.

Three more weeks. You know what to do!

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I was lucky to be working in the North-West in the summer of 1986 when this show had it’s world premiere. With the music of Howard Goodall’s first show The Hired Man still ringing in my ears, off I went to Oldham Coliseum. The cast were a bunch of then unknowns, many of who went on to become musical theatre royalty – Maria Friedman, Jenna Russell, Clare Burt, Andrew C Wadsworth….. I loved the show and the following year I was on the Olivier Awards panel when it re-opened the Playhouse Theatre in London, substantially re-cast. I was expecting to lead the campaign to nominate it as Best Musical, but it was a different show and for some reason had nothing like the impact it had in Oldham. I’ve never entirely understood why.

It was 24 years before its second London outing, this time at Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre (in a room above a pub in Walthamstow), and it proved to be a delightful chamber piece. So here we are another three years on and it’s the third in the Union Theatre’s Howard Goodall Season, with a production whose musical standards may well be the best. It sounds gorgeous.

Set in the the second world war in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ten ‘girlfriends’ are carrying out admin duties, parachute packing and tea making. We have just two airmen representing the RAF and one of them is caught in a love triangle with best friends Amy and Louise (the other one is trying hard to get laid). The former is toff Guy and the latter Welsh boy Gareth (co-incidence). Everything is told in song – there’s next to no dialogue – which often makes it feel more of a song cycle than a musical. The lack of a good book is its flaw (according to Goodall, Richard Curtis no less added to his research notes with ‘a rambling inventive script’) but the music is glorious.

The vocals here really are beautiful, in solos and ensembles with overlapping melodies. You don’t often here ten women’s voices in harmony and it’s a lovely sound, but the mens contributions, equally good vocals, provide some necessary colour and contrast. The accompaniment of two keyboards, winds and double bass under MD Freddie Tapner ( a professional debut!) is also excellent. The singers and players all do full justice to Goodall’s score and they look like they are having the time of their lives. Bronagh Lagan’s simple staging, with inventive movement and choreography by Iona Holland, suits the piece well. Nik Corall’s design focuses more on costumes than set and you know you’re in the forties by the girls hairdos alone!

It’s great to see this year’s Sondheim Student Performer Award winner Corrine Priest, who made an excellent contribution to the society’s ‘God’ revue, making such a terrific impression in the leading role like Amy, and Perry Lambert is an equally impressive the other leading lady Lou. Both of the boys, Tom Sterling and Michael Ress (a real Welshman, thankfully!), have exceptional voices and act brilliantly. There isn’t a weak link in this young, hugely talented cast.

Though I missed the first show because of my travels, this has been a fabulous Howard Goodall season, so I will end by placing my order for 2015…….Dear Sasha & Howard, the London premiere of Two Cities, please. Thank you. Love, Gareth.

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I haven’t read Erich Segal’s book and I never saw the film, but I fell in love with this Howard Goodall / Stephen Clark musical adaptation when I first saw it at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester and then invested in its West End transfer. This first London revival proves that a show as good as this only needs fine performers and musicians, which is exactly what director Sasha Regan has for her simple, delicate and moving production.

We follow Oliver & Jenny’s relationship from their first meeting (confrontation!) through his hockey games, her piano recitals, meeting the respective parents, their wedding and first apartment. Jenny’s widowed dad worships and supports her; in contrast, Oliver becomes estranged from his dad. Her diagnosis with leukaemia tears their world apart and we watch her die in his arms. It’s beautifully framed by scenes at her funeral.

Victoria Serra is wonderful as the spiky, feisty, fiercely independent Jenny and David Albury is equally good as stubborn but loving Oliver, besotted with her. They have great chemistry together, like Emma Williams & Michael Xavier in the original production, which is so crucial in this story. It’s a faultless supporting cast, with Neil Stewart giving a particularly moving performance as Jenny’s dad Phil. The band seems to have lost its violin, but the score sounds great from the trio of piano, guitar & cello under MD Inga Davis-Rutter. It really is beautifully sung. No room for, and no need of, anything but a few props and excellent lighting to provide the perfect intimate setting for this most intimate of shows.

I was devastated to be out of the country for the whole run of The Dreaming, but delighted to see this and now excited to see the forthcoming (and very underrated) Girlfriends. Britain’s greatest living composer of musicals getting a long deserved season of three revivals. Yippee!


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Well I’m pleased to report that the Union Theatre’s all-male Gilbert & Sullivan initiative still has legs. This is the fifth and it’s very well staged & performed and above all huge fun.

This was an early G&S, 135 years old, now but amongst the most popular of the ten or so still in the repertoire (there were c.15). It’s a navy setting for a satire on class and an illustration of how you could climb to the top of government without an iota of talent (nothing changes). Convention requires the captain’s daughter to marry the obsequious head of the navy rather than sailor Ralph who she loves. In true Shakespearean fashion, nothing is what it seems and it all ends happily (for some).

What struck me most about this production was the combined inventiveness of Sasha Regan’s staging, Lizzi Gee’s choreography and Ryan Dawson-Laight’s design. The action takes place aboard ship and the sailor’s quarters are created with a few metal bunks and the ship’s deck with a rope. The boys become girls with lifejackets transforming into costumes, a net used as a shawl and a shirt collar a headdress. The space is used brilliantly, with characters popping up all over the place (I jumped as one started singing behind me!).

The musical standards, under MD Chris Mundy on the piano, are as ever high, with diction particularly clear (important, given the story is told almost entirely in songs, which themselves contain so much wit) and the switches from low to high registers virtually seamless. This is a new crop of G&S boys and impressive they are too, with a handful of professional and London debuts.

The Union may have peaked with Patience, but this is fresh and clever and fully justifies the continuation of the five year project.

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It’s beginning to look like the Union Theatre’s all-male Gilbert & Sullivan’s are going to become as permanent a feature as Propeller’s all-male Shakespeare’s. This one is the fourth and the best!

The material itself is even more suited to the concept than it’s predecessors The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe. A satire on 19th century aestheticism featuring the rivalry between Grosvenor and Bunthorne for the heart of milkmaid Patience, whilst  a bunch of infatuated Lady’s and maiden’s swoon, pout and sigh, ignoring the attentions of a bunch of dragoons seeking to court and marry them!

Stiofan O’Doherty and Dominic Brewer are perfect as the vain effete aesthetes wrapped up in a world of poetry and beauty. Edward Charles Bernstone is a delight as (s)he moves back and forth between her two suitors. The dragoons are cartoon soldiers, clumsy & naive but lovable, in their tweed jackets, bowler hats, black boots and big belts. The Lady’s Jane, Angela, Saphir and Ella are all brilliantly played by Sean Quigley, James Lacey, Mark Gillon and Matthew Marwick, each a different personality, and the maidens (some doubling up as dragoons) glide along the stage in flower print frocks and cardies, brilliantly choreographed by Drew McOnie.

The musical standards are extraordinary (how do you find that many men who can sing that high?!) and the performances beyond charming. Kingsley Hall’s design is inspired. Even MD Richard Bates, who plays the whole score heroically on a solo piano, dons a frock! I smiled from beginning to end of this faultless production by Sasha Regan – and I’m not even a G&S fan! 

If you like musical theatre and you don’t like this, you’ll need therapy. GO!

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You might think the all-male Gilbert & Sullivan idea might run out of steam after a wonderful Mikado and terrific Pirate of Penzance, but no they’ve come up with another treat with Iolanthe.

In truth, the starting point – book, lyrics and music – aren’t as good, though the silly scenario – fairies meet peers! – thoroughly suits the concept and the frequent references to Tories and Liberals, though not directly referencing coalition, added a delicious contemporary twist. Stewart Charlesworth’s low-budget design ideas are superb – the fairies are dressed in assorted underwear with home-made wings and individual touches like shuttlecocks in the hair and the peers are in dressing gowns with assorted headgear and individual touches like ties. Each group seems to move as if a pack of cute animals sticking together in Mark Smith’s excellent choreography.

I’m not going to single out individual performances as this really is an ensemble piece. Quite how you find 16 men who can sing both falsetto and tenor / baritone is beyond me, but suffice to say the standard of singing is outstanding, five of them ‘with form’ in one or both of the previous two all-male G&S’s. Chris Mundy heroically plays the entire score on an upright piano, adding to the thrown together feel of the whole production.

I’m not sure I got the  point of the business with torches during the overture, it is a bit slow to get going & the first half is a bit long and I felt the campness was pushed just a little too far, but it’s still an irresistible cocktail and a whole lot of fun. Another triumph for director Sasha Regan and another feather in the Union’s now feather-heavy cap!

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