Wednesday, 23 February 2011


There’s a whiff of mothballs at Richmond, and it’s not all coming from the audience in this starry but stolid revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit

A glossy 2009 Broadway production showcased Angela Lansbury in cracking and crackpot form as clairvoyant Madam Arcati and Rupert Everett in a role he was born to play, the suave and languid author Charles Condomine.

At Richmond on the last leg of its 'immediately prior to West End' tour, a new British production heads for the Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue next week and features Alison Steadman as the medium, Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris reprising their Cold Feet pairing as the novelist and his wife, and Ruthie Henshall as the ghostly ex accidentally manifested during a séance.

From the same Triumph/Theatre Royal Bath production stable as the Kim Cattrall Private Lives and helmed by Thea Sharrock who directed the brilliant Daniel Radcliffe Equus, it has all the ingredients of a surefire hit, and yet it doesn’t quite come off.

Even the indulgent Richmond audience wasn’t lapping it up, although they seemed to appreciate the physical comedy better than the dialogue which is only partially explained by the ruckus at the desk in the foyer when several complained their hearing-impaired headsets weren’t working.

It’s smartly costumed with authentic late 1930s gowns, but both script and setting feel stale: a childless and fustian middle class marriage afloat on a wash of cocktails and coffee fetched by servants is all about to be swept away by the war, and whilst there’s no spectre of the coming realities in Coward’s script, this production doesn’t sustain a constant barrage of bright and brittle banter either.

Coward wrote (and Margaret Rutherford made flesh) Madame Arcati as a tweedy countrywoman with an almost professorial interest in the occult – Steadman makes her much more strident which might be effective if it weren’t all on one note, and misses both the charming battiness and the sensitive vulnerability of the character.  Perhaps she’s spent too long in easy sitcoms like Gavin and Stacey and Fat Friends but this isn’t her best work and doesn’t compare with the excellence of her last West End outing in Alan Bennett’s Enjoy.

Where Lansbury was balletic and hummed to herself as she danced about the stage, Steadman grunts and feints hand jives that look as though she’s pioneering hip-hop fifty years ahead of its time.

Norris is the most successful in the thankless role of Ruth, the domestically-rooted second wife, but she plays it with less petulance and more elegant authority than the part usually receives and so is more fairly matched with the impishness of Ruthie Henshall’s shoeless and footloose Elvira.

The set, by the usually laudable Hildegard Bechtler has predictable art deco touches but looks cheap with a tackily painted piano and centerpiece terrible green sofa with rigid polyurethane foam cushions which weren’t around till the 50’s.

This review written for Londonist

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Phone rings, door chimes, pretend you're out ...

Poor Steve Sondheim. During his 80th birthday year in 2010 his works were exhaustively produced and his dramatic entrails more pored over than in any autopsy. There’ll be less of a retrospective when he’s dead. In London, the revivals ranged from a lumpen ‘Follies’ atop a Walthamstow boozer to a puppyishly adoring all-star Albert Hall Prom which was the theatrical equivalent of humping the Great Man’s leg.

As the dustcart follows the Lord Mayor’s show, here comes Southwark Playhouse’s production. Company contains some of Sondheim’s best lyrics, is most autobiographically representative of his own views on relationships, but it’s not the best ‘book’ musical in the canon. Indeed, the script by George Furth is so inconsequential that the show works largely as a song cycle wherein married friends revolve round bachelor Bobby in a carousel of exhortation to find a wife. Updating it with iPhones and MacBooks robs it of a certain 70’s ‘Mad Men’ style and contemporaneous conventions about relationships, but does bring some fresh perspectives.

In his first fully-fledged directorship, Joe Fredericks allows too much unevenness: Siobhan McCarthy’s uncannily accurate impersonation of Bette Davis doing Margo Channing is funny but can undermine the power and pathos in her bravura rendition of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’, Mark Curry’s archly dated portrayal of husband Larry clings more to Mr Clifford in Acorn Antiques than to Broadway, and for a musical so deeply rooted in Manhattan the accents wander widely and the singing projects some very English vowels.

Cassidy Janson as Amy scores highly for her comic timing and vocal precision in ‘Not Getting Married Today’ in which she’s partnered by the strong and charming voice of Greg Castiglioni as Paul. Two of Bobby’s single girlfriends also stand out: Katie Brayben as April the air hostess manages to find the comedy in the script, her dumb blonde resistance to Bobby’s chat-up lines were one of the few laugh-out-loud moments, and Michelle Bishop as spunky punk Marta takes command of ‘Another Hundred People’ with genuine panache.

Bobby is meant to be an enigma, often portrayed as a coolly suave playboy who degenerates into a self-pitying mess, but Rupert Young‘s performance showed less of an arc since his Bobby is a greasy sweaty cokehead from the outset, perpetually dishevelled and disoriented. It’s a more modern reading of the part and emotionally distanced from the audience, but improves in the second act when ‘Being Alive’ was thoughtfully phrased and strongly delivered.

The singing is mostly very fine indeed, but the production lacks pace - you could see the audience’s attention wander - entrances need more immediacy and less clunking over the underlit Bridge-of-Sighs-made-from-scaffolding set - and for the dialogue to crackle authentically, cues need to be picked up much more smartly.

This review written for