Could it be magic…

…or just an illusion. Darren Brown is described as an “English entertainer, mentalist, illusionist and writer” [Wikipedia] and many of you will have experienced his TV shows or live events. His latest venture, Unbelievable (Criterion Theatre), spoiler alert, does not include Mr Brown. He calls it “…the magic show I’ve always wanted to see”. An interesting quote considering the publicity poster which portrays him as the grand master puppeteer manipulating the performers dangled from his fingers. So is it all just an illusion pandering to an outstanding talent and equally enormous ego or one helluva con trick luring us there under false pretences. Last time I saw him on stage I was astonished by what he did (it included him predicting the hidden name inside a chained metallic box would be “bapou”), but this is an altogether different experience. None of the company of seven are magicians or illusionists, they are all actors.
Created by Brown and Michael Vine and co-produced by The Mercury Theatre in Colchester, where the show originally premiered, it is more like a trip through the history of magic, throwing out old tropes and expectations, playing around with classic tricks and then coming up with something that will delight and frustrate in equal measure. The main purpose being to show what magic might, could, look like when performed by a different type of entertainer. There are no glamorous assistants but there is MC Simon Lipkin who delivers a Brown like monologue about how we are basically all tricksters, doing it twenty-four seven wherever we are. Inspired by Freud, Jung or Houdini who knows but it was undoubtedly written by Brown. It all sounds very clever and plausible but at that point I was singing in my head “Let’s get on with show”, and thankfully they did.
This is a Las Vegas style cabaret show and the theatricality and music bring an American dimension and style to those that have gone before it in the UK. Thankfully it’s not too smarmy and over the top, a combination that can grate. The cup and ball routine, which I loved as a child, is turned into en masse participation, all carefully synchronised to the pulsating percussive rhythm of the company. A Prohibition era spectacle takes the Jesus story head on turning water into wine and in what appears to be extraordinary mind reading one of the troupe predicts the song that individual audience members have in their head and proceeds to play it on the piano. My sceptical companion immediate cast doubt on that by saying “they could have been planted”. Bkios iskeri? What I can confirm is that although it lacks the Brown magic touch and doesn’t have an unbelievable astonishment about it there is much here to be admired and enjoyed. Now where did I put my wand…
[Editor’s note: All press reviewers were sworn to secrecy about the final trick]
Meanwhile here’s a question, 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 civilising 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 Brian Rivera and Annalene Beechey the show has two charismatic leads with a natural appeal and chemistry that is charmingly captured 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 Julie Andrews. Rivera’s vocals are also excellent, 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 and precocious 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 which will continue to delight audiences for many years to come. Woking loved it, next stops include Oxford, Nottingham and Leeds…
Watch any production, TV programme, listen to the radio and before you can say Bangkok you’ll hear some kind of reference to a minority group that is demeaning, derogatory and worse. The problem is any discussions, wanting to do the right thing and challenging those who commit these prejudicial sins we remain in a world full of stereotypes and narratives that are idly repeated by all of us. Kim is having a crap day and decides she wants to smash through a hundred years of those bloody narratives.
Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play (Young Vic), written by Kimber Lee and directed by Roy Alexander Weise is a fantastic play. The journey through the ages and seeing how the stereotypes repeat again and again make you understand how damaging road strokes can be when talking about individual people. The way “Kim” and a small cast break down the barriers to challenge those stereotypes is gut wrenching and powerful, stirring feelings of anger at the injustice yet also bringing moments of jubilation when she stands up for herself and carves out her own path. Parts are hilarious when looking at the use of the “handsome American hero” showing how ignorant he was with use of random words from my languages translated by the narrator into proper sentences. Patriarchy, toxic masculinity, she is fearless in how she challenges what has remained the norm for so long. Go check it out; listen, learn and enjoy.
Finally, Sotira Kyriakides enjoys two contrasting yet complimentary shows…
Despite his repertoire including more lofty classical and Hollywood roles, (Sir) Ian McKellen for me is best when he plays characters who appear to be more ‘ordinary’ and who share some of what one imagines may be the actor’s traits, This was true of his deliciously sarcastic and hilarious gay character in that wonderful TV sitcom called Vicious as the partner of the character played by the equally wonderful Derek Jacobi. It is also true of Frank and Percy (The Other Palace), which too is centred on a gay relationship. Older gay men is a part McKellen and his co-star Roger Allam wear well, and they are both lucky to have a wonderful script by relative newcomer Ben Wetherill. The humour, chemistry and repartee between the two protagonists is both joyful and poignant in its honesty and wit, and it is lovely to see both actors portray gay love and the ups and downs of two shared lives with such warmth.
The play has justifiably proved very popular and has just had its run extended to 17th December. In addition to a great night out, you will also get the satisfaction of supporting new talent, as the play sees the launch of a new writing development fund at The Other Palace, with 50p from each ticket sold on all future productions allocated towards nurturing new writing and emerging playwrights
McKellen was no fan of Margaret Thatcher but he would love Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho (Wilton’s ) All hail Maggie in this terrific camptastic romp. Ding Dong the witch is back! Queen of Soho tells the unlikely story of how Maggie went from the divisive PM to a world-renowned cabaret star. It’s 1988. Britain is in turmoil. After 9 years in power, the Tory government is running out of people to victimise. With the people, the press and the party turning against her, Maggie needs ideas to return to popularity. A moral panic is required. With leftie councils trying to indoctrinate children, Section 28 should do the trick. But after a trip to Soho will Maggie have a change of heart?…
This production is a heady mix of play, sing-a-long and pantomime. Starring its co-creator, Matt Tedford, it’s a super-fast paced comedic masterclass. Tedford delivers jokes like precision-guided missiles with seemingly effortless aplomb. In his hands, pathos and farce have never worked so well together. Using a minimal set and a pumping soundtrack, it plays with the audience in the best traditions of the music hall. Such is his ab lib talent, even a minor technical issue just provides another opportunity to land extra jokes. Gloriously irreverent, irresistibly fun.

Finding hope in solitude “For what I’m about to tell you, you’ll believe in god…” Piscine Mollitor “Pi” Patel

 Two nights ago I got to see a show that has been on my to see list for some time, which can be a dangerous thing if expectations are not met. The UK touring production The Life of Pi (New Victoria Theatre, Woking) is an incredible visual experience with deep emotional tension throughout. On the surface we get the story of a teenage boy surviving at sea for 227 days, a tale filled with great beasts and challenging obstacles. It is a story we can enjoy; it is the story that Pi (Divesh Subaskaran) knows we want. However, as the play proceeds we see Pi become more agitated as he relives his trauma and at the end we get the harrowing truth. It also makes you challenge how far you would go to survive; can you judge others in that position?

In the first act we see an innocent Pi, the boy who attends Temple and Church and Mosque to see what they can teach him about God and faith. He is curious about the world and nature, if naive about his own mortality and safety. It is quite a journey and there are moments when the writing and presentation feel more like a book reading than a theatrical event. But those temporary blips are soon forgotten when the ship he is on gets battered by a storm, the family are tossed overboard and he finds himself on a lifeboat – which should be named Pi’s Ark – an orangutan, hyena, zebra and a fierce Bengal tiger, aka Richard Parker. Writer Yann Martel has quite an imagination. The teams of people working incredibly hard to bring the menagerie of beasts to life do an incredible job, masterfully moving the puppets, bringing them to life with expressive and realistic movement. The value they add to this performance is immeasurable, they set an incredibly solid foundation for the other actors to stand on. One of the puppeteers, Romina Hytten, even won an Olivier award for best supporting actor.

For the second act we see Richard Parker acting as an adversary to Pi. Opposite in morals and actions. As the act progresses, we see them becoming closer, their choices starting to mirror each other. This progression culminates when they share a turtle that Pi catches, after that they work in tandem to ensure their survival. This sequence of events has you on the edge of your seat, fearing for the safety of Pi, watching as the duality of a person plays out. Overall, I would recommend anyone who has either read the original book or seen the film to watch this performance. It is a well-rounded piece with fantastic acting and puppetry. It evokes a sense of hope even when all seems lost. The tour continues around England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Unbelievable –

The King and I –

Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play –

Frank and Percy –

Margaret Thatcher’s – run complete

The Life of Pi



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