A Christmas Carol review – Jermyn Street Theatre / Guildford Shakespeare Company

Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Christmas Present

If you’ve spent too much of 2020 in Zoom meetings, here’s a delightful opportunity to have the irrepressible Brian Blessed booming out of your video conferencing software for a change.

Blessed plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in this inventively staged online production that uses technology to bring Dickens’ festive tale live to your laptop.

Adapted by Naylah Ahmed, this Christmas Carol stays pretty faithful to the original story but slips in topical references to the “sinister sickness” and the “rule of six” during a conversation about inviting Scrooge round for dinner.

As Scrooge, Jim Findley is suitably grouchy before his haunted night of time travel, and there’s more star casting in the form of Penelope Keith (yes, Penelope Keith), as a fabulously regal Ghost of Christmas Past.

Penelope Keith as the Ghost of Christmas Past

Three more actors (Paula James, Robin Morrissey and Lucy Pearson) play all of the other roles alongside three young ensembles as the various children. 

With each actor boxed up in their individual screens, director Natasha Rickman has the daunting job of keeping it all flowing – something she does with aplomb. The interplay between the characters in the Cratchit household works particularly well.

There’s even some Zoom audience participation in the Fezziwig dance scene, which adds to the sense of fun.

As you’d expect, Brian Blessed’s larger-than-life performance steals the show – at one point it seems like he’s trying to clamber out of the screen. He also sings a beautiful We Three Kings. Meanwhile, Robin Morrissey is particularly good in the multiple roles of Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley and Mr Fezziwig, amongst others.

Beth Mann’s virtual backgrounds and visual effects add plenty of visual pop to the proceedings, and help make this one of the season’s more unusual and innovative offerings.

A Christmas Carol is online until 27 December

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A Christmas Carol review – Dominion Theatre

Brian Conley as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Even the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Be didn’t foresee this…

Just a few hours before the opening night of this staged concert version of Dickens’ festive favourite it was announced that London would be going into Tier 3.

By the time this review is published the show will be in the bizarre situation of being about to close.

That’s a shame – because this uplifting production, directed by Shaun Kerrison, with vibrant musical accompaniment by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra led by Freddie Tapner, fills the Dominion’s giant auditorium full of Christmas cheer (and some snow if you’re lucky). 

After the Bridge Theatre’s excellent – and somewhat darker – stripped back three-hander version, this Christmas Carol feels like a widescreen epic with a cast of thousands.

Brian Conley’s miserly Scrooge has a wonderfully rich delivery (I’d love to see him as Jean Valjean in Les Mis.) While it’s very much Conley’s show, there’s excellent vocal support from Jacqueline Jossa as Scrooge’s old flame Emily (and the silent Ghost of Christmas Future) and Sam Oladeinde as the young Scrooge.

I also really liked Lucie Jones’ fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Past and Cedric Neal’s fun-loving, dancing spirit of the Present.

The show really warms up in Act Two with memorable ensemble pieces like the energetic Abundance and Charity and the spooky chant of Dancing on your Grave.

At the end, an emotional Conley paid tribute to the hard work of the cast, orchestra and production team. “This is the weirdest, weirdest opening night I’ve ever had – it’s bizarre,” he said.

“Tonight is like a shining star in the darkness. It proves that we can do it. It’s not just about us, it’s about every show.”

“We will be back,” Conley promised, like a theatrical version of The Terminator.

Let’s hope it won’t be too long.

A Christmas Carol began previews at the Dominion Theatre on 7 December, opened on 14 December and closed on 15 December due to Covid restrictions.

A Christmas Carol review – Bridge Theatre

After another theatrical hiatus due to Lockdown #2 it felt good to get back to the Bridge for this dark, delicious serving of festive Dickens.

My previous visit here was three months ago to see Ralph Fiennes flying solo. This time we are treated to a cast of three.

And what a cast: Simon Russell Beale (worth the ticket price alone), who plays Scrooge, along with the ever-wonderful Patsy Ferran and the vocally versatile Eben Figueiredo.

The last time I saw Simon Russell Beale on stage was in the sublime The Lehman Trilogy. This version of A Christmas Carol shares much of the same DNA. Three actors narrate the story while taking on multiple roles, often with simple swish of a scarf or the donning of a hat.

Nicholas Hytner’s production makes use of a few simple props, puppets, back projections and geysers of fog to conjure up an atmospheric, and often scary, Dickensian London.

Suspended above Bunny Christie and Rose Revitt’s set is a spaghetti of chains which clanks into action with each ghostly visit. Gareth Fry’s sound design – alive with whispering voices – is superb.

This may not be on the lavish scale of, say, the Old Vic’s annual crowd-pleaser, but it’s well worth putting on your Christmas list.

A Christmas Carol is at the Bridge Theatre until 16 January 2021.

Beat the Devil review – Bridge Theatre

My first indoor theatre experience after lockdown was, perhaps inevitably, this Covid-19 monologue written by David Hare about his own experience of having the virus.

To make this play possible, the Bridge Theatre has had the majority of its seats removed, enabling a masked audience to sit in socially isolated clusters. And it works. It feels safe. One hopes it will prove a viable model for other theatres to follow suit.

Hare’s rage-filled, and often very funny, script is brought to life by Ralph Fiennes on a simple set that consists of little more than a desk and chair. In a blue shirt and jeans, often with his hands on his hips, Fiennes is an engaging and likable narrator for this pandemic diary packed with politics and polemic.

Unsurprisingly, Hare directs much of his anger at the government’s handling of the crisis, and makes some fascinating points about the ministerial use of language; but what struck me most about this play was that it was the first time – despite all the blanket media coverage and survivors’ stories – that I had a genuine sense of what it must be like to have the virus invading your body.

Hare doesn’t skimp on the detail, and Fiennes gets to deliver delicious lines about food tasting like “sewage” and his skin turning the “colour of Bela Lugosi”. There are touching, intimate descriptions too – such as the moment when Hare’s wife Nicole places herself on top of him like a duvet in an attempt to cool his fever.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, and running for just under an hour, this is a simple, beautifully written piece, that really helped me take stock of the extraordinary events of the last few months.

Unlike the pandemic, I didn’t want it to end.

Beat the Devil is at the Bridge Theatre in London on assorted dates until 31 October

Monologues review – Oxford Castle

It’s been six months since The Man in the Grand Circle has sat in a grand circle, or indeed any kind of theatre seating. Happily, that period of enforced abstinence came to an end tonight in the beautiful, floodlit courtyard of Oxford Castle.

Starting with Richard III’s “Winter of our discontent” and ending with Puck’s epilogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Monologues offers 16 of Shakespeare’s best-loved speeches in quick succession, presented with few frills but plenty of gusto by actors from Oxford’s BMH Productions and Siege Theatre.

It’s an evening brimming with powerhouse performances – including Kieran Donnelly’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” from Julius Caesar, Craig Finlay and Martha Ibbotson’s “Get thee to a nunnery” scene from Hamlet, and Alex Lushington and Amber-Anne Allen’s sizzling pre-murder pep talk from Macbeth.

I also enjoyed Rachel Wilmshurst’s feminist take on Henry V’s “Once more into the breach” speech, which she performs amid scattered #MeToo placards.

Crucially, each segment left me wanting more – and I’d love to see some of these performances in a complete version of the play. Hopefully that’s all to come.

The whole socially-distanced show was engagingly hosted by Ed Blagrove, who put each scene into context and even managed to include a timely quarantine joke about the Greek islands in his introduction to The Comedy of Errors.

Frankly, I couldn’t have wished for a better reintroduction to live theatre than this.

Monologues is at Oxford Castle & Prison until 5 September

Coriolanus review

Watching theatre on YouTube is obviously no replacement for the real thing, but I’ve found it hard going of late. I miss the experience of live theatre so much.

Just when I was getting to the point of giving these reviews a rest, along comes this Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus from 2013/14, starring Tom Hiddleston in the title role, to put me back on track.

Josie Rourke’s production of Shakespeare’s Roman drama about family, power and politics is, to put it frankly, bloody exhilarating. From the noisy mob protests at the start (“Grain at our own price” is the graffitied message from the plebs) to the devastating final scene, the play never loses its grip.

Hiddleston is brilliant, his eyes sparking with anger (and tears) and he projects a tremendous physical presence throughout. Early on, he’s so smothered with gore that he has to literally wipe the blood out of his eyes so he can see where he’s going.

Away from the muscular fight scenes, even the intimate exchanges between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay – superb as ever) and wife Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) pack a punch.

There are so many strong performances to enjoy, including Mark Gatiss as Coriolanus’s friend and adviser Menenius, and antagonists Brutus (Elliot Levey) and
Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) – “a pair of strange ones” as Menenius describes them – as well as Hadley Fraser’s fearsome army general Aufidius.

The camerawork perfectly captures the in-your-face intimacy of the Donmar space. And it makes me miss it all the more. Don’t miss this.

Coriolanus is on the National Theatre at Home YouTube channel until 11 June.

Treasure Island review

Patsy Ferran as Jim Hawkins and Arthur Darvill as Long John Silver

Aaaa-haaaaaaahhh! As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of Patsy Ferran. So I was delighted when Treasure Island appeared this week on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel, having missed it on the Olivier stage back in 2014.

“Girls need adventures too,” says Alexandra Maher’s Dr Livesey early on in Bryony Lavery’s adaptation which casts Ferran as Jim Hawkins but thankfully stops short of giving us a Long Jane Silver.

Arthur Darvill’s “one legged nightmare” LJS (complete with a metal limb that looks like it was stolen off a Terminator) makes an immensely likable villain, but it’s Ferran’s wide-eyed young adventurer who steals the show. No wonder she won awards for this.

Polly Findlay’s production is simultaneously menacing and funny and almost every line is delivered with a rum-sozzled shout. Lizzie Clachan’s immense multi-levelled set morphs impressively from inn to ship to island quicker than it takes to knock out a sea shanty on a fiddle.

The supporting cast is full of memorable characters such as the terrifyingly tattooed Bill Bones (Aidan Kelly) and Joshua James’ scrawny former cabin boy Ben Gunn, driven mad with solitude and obsessed by cheese.

The verdict? This land lubber loved it: Pieces of 8 out of 10.

Treasure Island is on the National Theatre at Home YouTube channel until 23 April

Jesus Christ Superstar review

As the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar take their bows at the end of the show at London’s O2, Andrew Lloyd Webber strides on stage with a microphone to say what a joy it to see his musical being performed in a proper rock venue.

This 2012 production, streaming on YouTube over the Easter weekend, doesn’t stint on the spectacle, but it does sometime feel like it’s trying too hard to justify its place in such a vast arena. Despite a giant screen showing close-ups, flashing social media messages, and even lashings of blood, I do wonder how engaging it would have felt sitting at the back. At least this version puts the audience right there on stage.

Director Laurence Connor gives the story a present-day twist inspired by the Occupy protest movement, which allows for an impressive opening scene involving riot police and pop-up tents. And the decision to put Jesus on trial by TV with Chris Moyles’s Herod as a red-suited game show host (“TEXT Lord or Fraud”!) works bizarrely well.

While I enjoyed Ben Forster’s emotional portrayal of Jesus, and Mel C as Mary Magdalene, it is Tim Minchin’s dreadlocked Judas who is the real star of the show.  He snarls and smoulders like a proper villain. But what a heavenly voice.

Jesus Christ Superstar can be watched here until 7pm on Easter Sunday. 

One Man, Two Guvnors review

Sadly it looks like there won’t be any live theatre for a few weeks yet, so (like many other frustrated theatre bloggers) I thought I’d write about a few of the plays that are appearing online during the lockdown.

Where better to start than with Richard Bean’s much-garlanded adaptation of The Servant of Two Masters by the C18th Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni.

I was lucky enough to see this National Theatre production twice: with James Corden (2011), and later Owain Arthur (2012), in the lead role of Francis Henshall, a gluttonous minder who ends up juggling jobs for a gangster and a toff in 1963 Brighton.

At the time, I thought this was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in a theatre. Yes, even more mirth-inducing than Noises Off or The Chuckle Brothers’ Doctor What and the Return of the Garlics.

So did it still make me laugh when I streamed the Corden version off YouTube onto my bedroom telly? The answer is yes, but not as much as I expected. It felt half an hour too long, and I longed for the raucous experience of seeing it with a live audience.

That said, Corden’s slapstick performance is sublime, the audience participation sequences are superb and the musical interludes are, er, infectious.

The play also contains what – in my uncultured opinion – is one of the greatest lines ever written for the English stage:

“Love passes through marriage faster than shit through a small dog.”

Richard Bean’s new play Jack Absolute Flies Again (written with Guvnor cast member Oliver Chris) was due to have opened at the National Theatre this month. Let’s hope we get to see it soon.

One Man, Two Guvnors can be watched on YouTube until 9 April

 

Blithe Spirit review – Duke of York’s Theatre

4 star review

Like that saying about never being more than six feet from a rat in London, there should probably be a theatrical adage that in the West End you are never more than six years from a production of Blithe Spirit.

This latest invocation of Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy stars Jennifer Saunders as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. (Back in 2014 the role was played by the legendary Angela Lansbury – here’s the interview I did with her at the time).

From the moment she enters, removing her cycling cloak to reveal enormous sweat patches around her armpits, Saunders owns every scene she’s in.  Yet it’s a cleverly nuanced performance that counterbalances the play’s more farcical elements. Despite Arcati’s idiosyncrasies, Saunders never loses sight of the fact that the oddball occultist takes her work extremely seriously.

The story takes place in the living room of Charles and Ruth Condomine’s country pile in Kent. The home’s rural setting is made even more obvious with the sound of mooing as the curtain rises. The upper floor of Anthony Ward’s impressive set is dominated by an immense bookcase that rises up like a cathedral.

Author Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has invited Madame Arcati over to hold a seance so he can secretly gather material for his next novel. However, the medium inadvertently raises the ghost of Charles’s former wife, the beautiful and mischievous Elvira (Emma Naomi), whom only her former husband can see and hear.

The supernatural special effects are kept simple, but the seance scenes conjure a genuinely eerie atmosphere.

As Ruth Condomine, Lisa Dillon is a joy to watch as she quietly seethes with jealousy that Charles is still under the spell of his first wife. She also gets the biggest laugh of the night with a sparkling one-liner in the second act.

Rose Wardlaw deserves a special mention for her energetic and amusing turn as the Condomines’ hyperactive maid, Edith.

In short, Richard Eyre’s lavish production ticks all the boxes you’d want in this Coward classic. And Saunders is ab fab.

Blithe Spirit is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 11 April