Tuesday, 28 February 2017

FOUR STAR REVIEW A Midsummer Night's Dream, Young Vic


Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been given a bit of a makeover in a daring and captivating new production at the Young Vic.
Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins, who was responsible for the Waterloo theatre’s dark take on Macbeth, itself an already dark tale, and equally sinister Edward II at the National a few years ago, it takes the audience through a nightmare rather than a fairy dream.
For in this production, it is much more of a nightmare. Played out with a mirror at the back of a stage made entirely of rough earth and mud Glastonbury style, the characters run, walk and stumble about getting caked in the stuff as they try and get out of the situations they find themselves in.
It is actually brilliantly done and a refreshing take on the play which is normally fun, full of light and very funny.
But while there is humour in this it is dark and forboding. Even the quartet of lovers don’t seem to enjoy the positive passions of love and Lysander is particularly and surprisingly violent in his advances towards Hermia when they are in the woods. Not only does he try and force himself on her he also then tells her vehemently after having been drugged by Puck that he hates her. Slowly we see her crushed so that by the end she is no longer the feisty woman she once was.
In fact, in this interpretation, Hill-Gibbins shows us that actually within the text there is danger, terror and violence in the play - even Titania is not without a violent and nasty streak to her - and that it is not sweetness and light.
The cast is top notch with some stand out performances most notably Anastasia Hille who takes on both Titania and Hippolyta and Lloyd Hutchinson who as Puck, is not a nimble sprite but a lumbering servant of Oberon who amuses us as he clearly can’t be bothered to do his master’s bidding.
The mechanicals get most of the laughs and Leo Bill is terrific as Bottom. In his grotesque transformation, and cavorting around the stage at full pelt before he too falls victim to the boggy nature of it, he also conveys the horror in which he finds himself.
At the end, the cast find the mirror at the back of the stage has been painted black making it impossible to escape the nightmare.
Shakespeare was right - the course of true love never did run smooth - and this production surely shows that.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on at the Young Vic until April 1. Tickets from £10. Visit www.youngvic.org or call the box office on 020 7922 2922 for full listings.


In 2009, almost 20 million people cheered the then 18-year-old Joe McElderry on to win the sixth series of ITV’s The X Factor. 
Following his win, Joe’s debut single The Climb went to the top of the charts and hot on its heels came his debut album. Since then he’s released three further Top 20 albums, sold more than 2 million records worldwide, toured extensively and has taken part in and won reality shows The Jump and Pop Star to Opera Star.
He cemented his place in the nation’s hearts by making a successful transition from pop music into musical theatre when he took on the lead role in a touring production of Tommy - The Rock Opera.
And for six months of last year he played Joseph in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s iconic hit musical Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat to celebrate its 50th anniversary, receiving glowing reviews in the process.
After a break for Christmas and a stint in panto, Joe’s putting the coat of many colours back on and reprising the role for a further six months in a nationwide tour which hits The New Wimbledon Theatre this week. And chatting during a break from performances he tells me he’s hugely excited about it.
“It’s a dream role,” he laughs. “For ages I had been told by family and friends that I would be good at musical theatre and this role in particular so I’d been thinking about it for a while. I was approached by producer Bill Kenwright on numerous occasions, but it never quite worked out because I was doing other things so the timing just wasn’t right. It was a shame because I am a huge fan of the music and knew I’d love to do it.
“However, last year I was asked if I could do it, had a meeting with Bill and luckily it all fell into place. It was like a natural joining up of everything.
“We were very lucky because everyone said wonderful things about it. It created such a positive vibe that it’s been an absolute dream, hard work but an amazing experience, and I have loved every minute of it - so here I am again for the second leg!”
The story, for those who don’t know, is based on the Biblical tale of Joseph and his 11 brothers. Joseph is the favoured son and one day, after he is given a glorious coat of many colours by his father, Joseph’s brothers decide they have had enough of being second best. 
They kidnap him, sell him as a slave and he gets taken away. But this leads to a series of adventures for Joseph and a reversal in his fortunes thanks to his ability to interpret dreams.
It was the inspiration for the musical, penned and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice 50 years ago, and has been staged in theatres and schools all over the world.
“It’s just such an iconic musical and a real family show,” says Joe. “What I love about it is that we get such a mix of ages in the audience - everyone loves it and sings along, it’s a real family show. 
“The songs are just incredible and really beautiful - I love them all although I suppose one of my favourites is Close Every Door. It’s quite emotional as it comes at a stage in the story where Joseph has been beaten up, kidnapped, he’s battered and bruised and sold as a slave.
“Of course the colours song is great and the audiences love to sing along to that one. It took a while for me to learn the colours in the right order,” he adds laughing. “I was trying to learn them and make sure they were in the right order and a friend of mine filmed me trying and failing to do it and having a full on tantrum and then it went on social media. It was tricky but once you know them that’s it, you never forget them!
“But the songs are all beautifully written - I think that’s why as a musical it’s stood the test of time. It’s a story that people can relate to in many ways, there is a moral to it and the music is just incredible. It’s got all the magic ingredients so it’s lovely to be part of it.
“I think it’s also why almost every school does a production of it at some point,” he adds cheefully.
“For many children it’s their first experience of live theatre as it seems to be the production most schools do.
“They did it at both my junior and senior school but I was never brave enough to audition to be in it let alone go on stage.
“Although I loved going to see shows, pantos and films, at the time I had no thoughts about being an actor or singer - I was really shy. In fact I wanted to be a doctor but I was hopeless at maths. Then I had an idea about being a paramedic but came up against the same issue so that was never going to happen!” he adds laughing.
“It was only when I was about 14 that something clicked and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Fortunately for his legions of fans he gave up the idea of being a doctor and when he was 18 he auditioned for X Factor. The rest as they say is history. 
He admits that taking the role of Joseph comes with the knowledge that other well known actors and singers have gone before, and that to begin with there was a certain amount of extra pressure. But now that he has six months under his belt he says he’s more relaxed about it.
“When we started out last year there was a weight on my shoulders as so many famous people have played him,” he says.
“They had each done a great job and become so well known for doing it so it was an extra pressure for me - you have to deliver something really special as it’s all on your shoulders. Also it’s such an iconic show and everyone has an idea of how it should be staged. Of course I’d never done it before so I was very nervous! But it made me really focus and took me out of my comfort zone which is a good thing. 
“Now I’m still nervous but it’s an excited feeling as well because I’ve got used to it, know the character and am just really enjoying it all.”
Full of enthusiasm and good humour, Joe is warm and chatty throughout our conversation and says he’s grateful for the way his career has evolved.
“I don’t have a bucket list of things I want to do, I just take things as they come,” he says. “I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that have come my way. Doing The X Factor was incredible and has opened up so many doors - in fact it’s very much part of why I’m still here seven years later and has given me a platform - you can’t buy that kind of exposure so I will always be grateful for that and appreciate very much what that show gave me.
“However I have worked really hard since then and used it as a stepping stone to take on projects that excite me and I know I’ll enjoy. What I love now is that I’ve had a chance to do pop music and theatre. I love playing a character such as Joseph as it requires a different mindset but equally I love going out on stage and singing my songs.”
And he says he’s looking forward to coming to Wimbledon and getting to know the area.
“I have seen a couple of shows there and love the theatre but I’ve never performed there,” he says. “I’m hoping I will get a chance to have a look round when I have a bit of time off in between shows.
“I’m also looking forward to the audiences there and seeing their reactions. 
“When the band starts playing it always takes my breath away every time!”

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre between January 31 and February 4. Visit www.atgtickets.com/wimbledon or call the box office on 0844 871 7646 for full listings.

INTERVIEW Frances Ruffelle

WHEN it comes to a career in entertainment, it’s fair to say that Frances Ruffelle has had a go at most things. Perhaps best known for her portrayal as Eponine in the smash hit musical Les MisĂ©rables, for which she won a Tony Award, her glittering career has seen her make a name for herself on the West End stage playing the leads in a variety of musicals including Chicago and Starlight Express.
She’s also made a successful transition to TV and in film with roles in The Bill and Bird’s Of A Feather, has released albums of her own music and has even taken part in the Eurovision Song Contest.
But now she is back on the stage playing the lead in Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party.
Directed and choreographed by 2016 Olivier Award winner Drew McOnie, it is the debut production at The Other Palace, formerly St James Theatre.
Set against a backdrop of Manhattan decadence and 1920's excess, The Wild Party tells the story of Queenie (Frances) and Burrs, a Vaudeville showgirl and a Vaudeville clown whose relationship is marked by vicious behaviour and recklessness. 
In an attempt to salvage their toxic union, they decide to throw a party to end all parties. The guests are a vivid collection of the unruly and the undone - a cocaine-sniffing bisexual playboy, a washed-up boxer, a diva of indeterminate age, a fresh-faced ingĂ©nue, and a handsome Valentino who catches Queenie's roving eye. 
The jazz and gin soaked party rages to a mounting sense of threat, as artifice and illusion are stripped away. But when midnight debauchery turns into tragedy, the revellers must sober up and face reality. After all, no party lasts forever.
Chatting to Frances in a break from rehearsals I tell her it sounds like a riot.
“It really is,” she laughs. “It’s based on Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem that was banned in many countries as it was so raunchy!
“It is set in 1929 at a time when people couldn't drink as it was illegal and so they held these parties, many of which were pretty wild.
“The people in this story are pretty crazy characters and most of them are Vaudeville performers, so you can imagine what would go on back stage! You might arrive with one person but you’d probably go home with another. It’s quite dark, incredibly emotional, but a lot of fun.”
And it seems that Frances has had her eye on this show for a number of years so when it came along she couldn’t say no.
“About 12 years ago I heard the soundtrack to the piece,” she says. “I was really excited by it as it’s utterly brilliant and beautifully written. I describe it as more of a jazz opera in style and I absolutely loved it when I heard it.
“I know that a lot of West End producers had wanted to get the rights to put it on but hadn’t managed to. However at one of my solo shows composer Michael John LaChuisa was in the audience and we were introduced after the show and we talked about The Wild Party.
“We were chatting away about it and he just said I was his Queenie and I was thrilled. So to be here now, it really is a dream come true.”
Fortunately, Frances, whose mother Sylvia Young founded the famous theatre school at which she trained, and whose daughter is singer songwriter Eliza Doolittle, is nothing like her alter ego in character. What they do have in common is a love of the stage and singing, but Frances insists that’s as far as the comparison goes.
“Queenie is wild and crazy, a girl who wanted to make it big but it didn’t happen to her,” she laughs. “She got in to Vaudeville rather than Broadway, has hardly any money and mixes with people who drink and do drugs, have sex and anything that can make them happy so they don’t have to face up to reality.
“None of them have got what they want out of life and for Queenie she didn’t get to be the theatre girl she always wanted to be, so they are a bit of a sad crew. I’m sure there will be people who come and see it who will understand what that feels like in some way.
“But you get to see Queenie go on a journey of discovery, realising that she needs to be happy and see the light in her life rather than the drugs or alcohol.”
Despite it being a dream role, Frances says it’s not without its challenges. Portraying someone with many elements and layers to their character she says has stretched her as has getting the music’s rhythm right. But she says it’s been “great fun” to get her teeth into such a role.
“It’s been demanding and tough at times in rehearsal,” she admits. “There are so many elements to Queenie to get across. She is a survivor, wants to look gorgeous and look like she’s happy but she’s also of course incredibly vulnerable and completely unfaithful to her lover.
“It’s because she is so insecure though. She realises she has to come through and that life can be OK.
“So it’s a challenge to get that across and hopefully get the audience on her side.
“But it’s been an incredible experience for me, there is a lot of dancing and movement to get right as well as the music, elements of ballet too - the music has an unusual rhythm in it - Michael doesn’t write things that are easy to learn so it’s quite difficult but then I like doing things that aren’t easy and that stretch me.
“I have sung a lot of jazz in my time and love that odd rhythm but don’t find that it comes easy. One of my albums had more of a jazz focus to it. However this is something else! We are rehearsing one number now which is so tricky it’s a real killer!” she says cheerfully.
“But that’s what is so interesting - he writes like no one else and when you come and see it you will see what I mean. I’ve never been in a piece like it.
“The cast and creative team are also a joy to work with, there is so much energy and such a good feeling in the room which is very rare. So it is a joy, it’s fresh and exciting and we are loving it.”
Frances says she is also looking forward to coming back to the theatre in which she stared her career so many years ago.
“It used to be the St James Theatre which was where I had my first West End job when I was just 16,” she recalls. “I hadn’t thought about it till today but it’s like it’s come full circle.
“I always knew this was the career for me and at the time I got my first job I was 16 and thought I was earning a fortune! I’ve been a very lucky girl since then.”
And so she has with roles in several West End shows including the famous Eponine in Les Miserables.
She acknowledges its place in her history with a genuine warmth and affection saying it opened up many doors for her. But it’s clear she’s just as proud of the rest of her extensive body of work.
“Les Miserables changed my life,” she says. “I’m lucky to have had such an incredible role that was so successful and opened doors. 
“There are times when I think ‘oh God just go away’ because it was 30 years ago and I’ve had 30 years of it but then I realise what it gave me and embrace it and am grateful to have had that experience and chance. I can’t ask for more.
“In fact it’s lovely when I hear people talk with such warmth and affection for Eponine and the show in general. I still get such lovely letters and emails - it’s so nice!
“But now I’m doing something else that I hope will excite people just as much - so see you at the party!”

The Wild Party is on at The Other Palace in Palace Street, until Saturday, April 1. Tickets cost from £10. Visit www.theotherpalace.co.uk or call the box office on 0844 264 2121 for full listings.

FOUR STAR REVIEW Twelfth Night, National Theatre

There seems to be a bit of a thing about gender bending in theatre at the moment. And for the record, it’s no bad thing. Especially when you see a production as strong as the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night.
In this glorious staging by director Simon Godwin, the wonder of love and how we should grasp it with both hands is very much the focus.
But there is also the wonderful mixing up of characters so we have a female Malvolio - here it’s Tamsin Greig as Malvolia - and Doon Mackichan as Feste the clown sporting some rather fabulous sparkly boots.
There is also more than a suggestion of same sex pairings with Daniel Rigby’s hipsterish Sir Andrew clearly in love with Sir Toby and Antonio enamoured of Sebastian. Even the Duke Orsino is not averse to kissing Cesario and, when confronted with the truth at the end, gives Sebastian a tender kiss.
The story is played out on the Olivier’s revolve stage which features a pyramid shape that splits during the opening storm scene in which the twins, Viola and Sebastian, get separated. It then opens out to reveal staircases, rooms and plenty of water - from a fountain at which Malvolia reads the letter supposedly from her mistress Olivia to the plunge pool in which Olivia tries unsuccessfully to seduce Cesario. 
The revolving set also allows for the characters to spy on each other, peeping through the holes, and cavort freely not to mention letting Olivia, supposedly in mourning for her dead brother but now totally in love with Cesario, to climb the stairs and rock out to her favourite music when she thinks no one is looking.
The cast is excellent, from the dapper and rather louche Sir Toby played with swagger by Tim McMullan who is thankfully not so completely drunk he falls over all the time and loses our respect, to Greig’s Malvolia with her straight and severe bobbed hair cut and black attire. She also manages to interact beautifully with the audience and her transformation with the yellow stockings cross gartered is a sight to behold. Wearing a pierrot frilly white jacket she rips it off as part of a strip tease complete with twirling nipple tassels as she descends the stairs to the bewilderment of Olivia. Her ridiculing and subsequent humiliation are painful to watch.
But for me it was Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew who stole the show. With his long hair fashioned in a top knot and his hipster attire he transformed the part brilliantly and made it his own.
Bonkers and wonderful in equal measure, this production is a real tonic and made me chuckle all the way home.

Twelfth Night is on at the National Theatre until Saturday May 13. Tickets from £15. Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or call the box office on 020 7452 3000 for full listings.