Change will happen
When the English language version of Pygmalion (Old Vic) premiered in April 1914 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, women could not vote and it would be another fourteen years when the majority of them were granted that right as a result of the Equal Franchise Act 1928. This historical context – described by some today as the “tyranny of the patriarchy” – should be borne in mind when watching this playful production. Director Richard Jones goes for an approach that may be interpreted as demeaning to the male characters – who are eager to keep women in their place – and that the only sense comes from the women. Actually, what he has done is penetrate to the core of Shavian thinking who obviously believed that masculine bravado and ego was their downfall and that in the transformation of Eliza Dolittle he would be able to humorously expose their weakness and fallibility. She goes from scraggy Covent Garden flower girl to an independent and thoughtful young woman.
The backdrop of World War II looms large and yet Henry Higgins is far more concerned with winning a bet with Colonel Pickering to change the scruffy lass whom he describes as a “squashed cabbage leaf” into a lady who could pass muster as a duchess. The two men have a mutual interest in phonetics and so the anthropological test begins. The set design by Stewart Laing amplifies the feel of this being an experiment creating what is a classroom cum laboratory where Higgins puts Eliza through her paces. The relationship between Bertie Carvel’s sententious Higgins and Patsy Ferran’s initially imprudent Eliza is wonderful to watch. He a loquacious man of linguistic eloquence spat out like a machine gun which is belied by his buffoonery and crass, abject chauvinism. Undoubtedly a toff of his times. Ferran is equally agitated and animated at the outset, full of innocence and impetuosity who slowly grows into a woman of substance. When she emerges as the silent belle of the ball, having previously been on her best behaviour when put in the same room as Higgins’ mother and visitors given strict instructions to only talk about the weather – an incredibly funny scene – it is a poignant moment and one that represents something much more in the context of both 1930’s Britain and the continuous changes society is being faced with today.
Lending excellent support are Michael Gould as the phonetic fanatic Pickering, Sylvestra Le Touzel’s voice of reason and common sense as Mrs Higgins and a really nice cameo by Taheen Modak as the smitten Freddy. Jones keeps the production moving along at quite a pace and although Shavian purists may not approve this feels like an interpretation pertinent to Britain today. The patriarchy continues to thrive, but those experiments are over and change is definitely coming.
Meanwhile down in Thamesmead, a working-class area of South East London, it’s all kicking off. On a 1990’s run down council estate, teenager Jamie lives with single mum Sandra who has ambitions to run her own pub though her promiscuity (her latest lover is bohemian type Tony) is hindering both that and her parenting skills. On one side of their shared balcony lives Leah, a feisty teenager who has been expelled from school, does lots of drugs and is obsessed with the music of Mama Cass. Sandra can’t stand her. On the other side is Ste who lives with his abusive, alcoholic dad. Leah fancies sporty Ste as does Jamie. One night Ste is badly battered and bruised by his dad. Sandra allows him to sleep over, ‘top to toe’ with Jamie…
Watching Jonathan Harvey’s landmark play, Beautiful Thing, about teenage sexual awakening at the Theatre Royal Stratford East feels almost like a site-specific event. An area of London that has undergone a huge amount of urban regeneration but still has parts which remain rooted in deprivation and pockets of real poverty. Harvey’s play rarely references the politics of the time (the aftereffects of Thatcherism) but the underlying message of its impact is there throughout. It also remains a landmark play about young coming-out and coming-of-age gay love at a time when equal rights for the LGBT community were still years away. Anthony Simpson-Pike’s production is a slow burn with some of the interplay between the colourful characters a little off kilter in the opening couple of scenes. It warms up and by the time we reach a happy and touching ending we have been entertained and won over. The writing is witty and perceptive, and the various balcony episode play out as hilarious parodies of dysfunctionality contrasted with the gentle blossoming of young love.
Raphael Akuwudike (Ste) and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran (Jamie) gel beautifully together. As the relationship develops each display the characteristics you would expect of young teenage boys on a tough estate. Akuwudike vacillates between unease and angry outbursts as he comes to terms with his sexual orientation while Owokoniran is far more genteel and accepting and little vignettes of his sensitive side are tenderly portrayed. Shivorne Marks brings a gutsy realism to Sandra, outwardly strong but emotionally scarred, while on the bonkers spectrum we have Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge’s deluded Tony and Scarlett Rayner’s delusional Leah. Quite a quintet navigating their way through this life thing and Harvey’s play remains a poignant, (sadly) topical and beautiful thing.
Finally from me a quick reminder that the razzmatazz musical, a humdinger of entertainment, 42nd Street, is now on the next leg of it’s UK tour having recently thrilled the crowds in Woking. Song, dance, spectacle it’s a feel-good show well worth catching. Next stops include Newcastle and Manchester. Full review in online news section.
Meanwhile Christinou Koulias refuses to remain seated…
“Are you having a giraffe?” I asked the exasperated usher being harassed by agitated punters. There we were at The Adelphi Theatre for Legend – The Music of Bob Marley, the latest one-off special by The Entertainers’ production company, whose publicity states it will leave “audiences on a natural high”. Too right it did and people the world over know that sitting still while listening to Marley’s music is almost impossible. Could You Be Loved, Exodus, Jammin, Buffalo Soldier, the songs are iconic in the reggae discography and man did this band and singers do a good job. Lead vocalist Michael Phillips was bang on the money with his rendition of the songs, so good in fact I thought his singing bettered the lead in last years’ Get Up Stand Up, The Bob Marley Musical, which earned rave reviews. He had a great feel for the music and the rhythm and when he led us all in a singalong to No Woman No Cry the audience stood and sang their heart out.
Lead guitar Alphonso Renford was also very impressive playing those riffs and solos with precision and moments of fantastic improvisation. Unfortunately, the I Threes were reduced to the I Twos but both Eleanor Ajani and Elaine Rose did very well in the circumstance. This two hours of irie entertainment enhanced the legacy of the Marley legend. Yes Stir It Up, because I don’t want to be Waiting in Vain for Three Little Birds. Now you’ll understand why me and my companion ended up dancing in the aisles. Sorry usher but this was our Redemption Song.
A royal charm
When was the golden age of musicals? I would venture that most were written before many of us were born. Trying to compare The Sound of Music and Evita is pretty futile, though I know which I prefer. Those hills will always be alive…That said it can sometimes be problematic watching musicals that were created in the fifties and sixties with twenty first century eyes and sensibilities. The King and I (New Victoria Theatre, Woking) is currently on a UK tour having thrilled audiences at The London Palladium. Delve into the detail of its subject matter and you soon become embroiled in arguments about colonialism, misogyny, racism, the educating of natives and much more. My position is we should indeed take a holistic view of history – ask yourself what did you ever learn about your cultural heritage at school? – but I am definitely not a musical revisionist and prefer to watch them as they were written understanding the context. Any student of these musicals will also know that writers Rodgers and Hammerstein had a strong stance on racism, as seen in South Pacific and for Hammerstein even earlier in 1927 with Showboat (music by Jerome Kern) where race inequalities were integral to the story.
From the gorgeous opening overture Bartlett Sher’s production will have you completely distracted from such thoughts telling the story of Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam (Thailand today) with style and panache. A technicolour feast for the senses that looks and sounds ravishing. She is there to teach his children and before you know it the two are at loggerheads, each believing their way to be the right way. The clash of cultures is eloquently encapsulated by music and lyrics and when she sings Getting to Know You to the children she also has the King in mind. In Darren Lee and Annalene Beechey the show has two charismatic leads with a natural charm and chemistry that is captured beautifully in the song Shall We Dance. Her singing is crystal clear with a gorgeous mellifluous tone which when I closed my eyes made me think of both Julie Andrews and Karen Carpenter, an accolade she deserves. Lee’s vocals are also excellent, effortless and tuneful, though it is his characterisation which impresses most, a portrayal that is understated but strong switching slowly from dominant ruler and strict father to a man willing to succumb to new ways of thinking and being.
The supporting cast are a delightful mix of very cute children (aren’t they always) and excellent performers who bring additional vocal quality and passion to the show. Particularly strong is Marienella Phillips as Tuptim who is head over heels in love with Dean John-Wilson’s Lun Tha. Her singing is a delight throughout. With ostentatious set pieces, a pitch perfect live orchestra and choreography that is both witty and eye-catching you have top-drawer entertainment that cement this Rodgers and Hammerstein gem as a timeless classic that will continue to delight audiences for many years to come. Woking loved it, next stops include Oxford, Nottingham and Leeds…
Pygmalion – www.oldvictheatre.com
Beautiful Thing – www.stratfordeast.com
42nd Street – on tour – www.42ndstreettour.com
Entertainers – www.entertainers.co.uk