Review – Bluebird

Being shown into The Space at the start of Bluebird one is immediately unsettled. For a start we’re coming in through a side door, not the usual main entrance. Then the house is in almost complete darkness. Given the flexible nature of the seating at The Space it’s hard to work out where the seats are and then to get to an empty one without stepping on people or stumbling into the stage!

Simon Stephen’s early play (he went on to write the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time)  concerns Jimmy, a mini cab driver. In the first half he picks up various passengers or ‘fares’ in what is essentially a series of sketches. From each we learn something of the story of the ‘fare’ and their world view, whilst also gleaning a little more each time about Jimmy. He, it seems, is trying to get in touch with his wife, from whom he’s been estranged for five years. In the second half – a two-hander between him and his wife – we learn what happened five years ago and the effect this has had on them both.

The play could easily translate to radio with almost no editing. But director Adam Hemming has cleverly staged things not only to add visual variety but to contribute another layer to our understanding of the story. The stage is two runways crossing each other. A literal crossroads in Jimmy’s life. The different sketches are set at various ends of the arms of the cross. In each case the minicab is made of just a few chairs, supplemented by one or two car elements to create Jimmy’s beloved Nissan Bluebird: a steering wheel in one case, a gear lever in another; mirrors, lights, radiator grill. We are being asked to see the sketches as a puzzle from which we can assemble not only a car, but Jimmy’s life. And indeed, at the climax of the play all the car’s parts of there on the stage.

Jonathan Keane’s performance as Jimmy is key to the success of the piece. He is beautifully understated. With little to say in the early part of the play his reactions to the revelations of his passengers are all we have to go on. As the sketches progress we have in truth probably learned enough to see where the plot is heading, but he lays the clues in front of us gently and thanks to Keane’s performance we soon find ourselves really invested in his world.

Others in the first half are passengers in his cab. All convincingly performed with a particularly touching scene from Mike Duran as a grieving father. The play is not without humour. Nathan Hughes in his acting debut gets a good laugh at his incredulity on discovering there’s more than one branch of Marks and Spencer. And a short sketch in which a couple in the back seat are seething over some previous argument and then make up is economically told using just cleverly nuanced expressions and only seven words of dialogue.

The second half sees Jimmy and his wife meeting for the first time in five years. Anna Doolan as Clare has been affected by what Jimmy did and the pain is writ large in her performance. We live this pain with her and she carries much of the emotional weight of the second half on her shoulders.

The framing device of the minicab may for some feel a little contrived, but it creates a particular sense of confinement and pressure which suits the piece and is only enhanced by the physical confines and heat of The Space auditorium itself. References in the script to the heat of the summer (the play was written in 1998) are apt!

Bluebird is at The Space theatre in London’s docklands until 4 August 2018.

Review – Mamma Mia!

The promise of freebies at Mamma Mia’s performance on 20 July 2018, to celebrate the opening night of the new movie, Mamma Mia, Here We Go Again, was enough to tempt me along for a second visit to this, still hugely popular, musical.

A free glass of Prosecco as part of the movie-related celebrations ensured the audience was in a lively mood from the off. And for anyone left cold, or at best bemused, by the insistent chirpiness of the movie version it is reassuring to re-discover that on stage there is charm, warmth, humour and sheer good fun in spades. Although in this latest cast, Ricky Butt as Donna’s friend Rosie, does seem to have been asked to ‘do a Julie Walters’ with the part.

Perhaps the escapist nature of the piece sits better in the obviously artificial surroundings of a theatre than it does in the, albeit glossy, reality demanded by film. Either way, it works just as well now as it did when it opened in April 1999 – on that occasion the date was chosen to coincide with anniversary of Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo in 1974.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Sophie lives with her mum Donna, helping her run a small hotel and taverna on a Greek island. Sophie is getting married and has invited to the wedding the three men who, according to her mum’s diary, could be her father. Her mum is unaware of this and much mayhem and hilarity ensues  as she discovers their presence and Sophie attempts to discover which one is her father.

It’s a juke box musical, of course, and to be fair some of the songs are there just for their entertainment value. But the later, more thoughtful hits – notably The Winner Take it All and One of Us,  have the emotional depth to really work as numbers in a musical which take us further on both in terms of plot and understanding the characters.

Let’s not forget, also, that this is a piece driven by strong female characters. It is their decisions that drive the action and to whom the male characters react. And, unusually in musical theatre, the three leading ladies are all mature.

I don’t know whether it was just the Prosecco, or if they’re is like this every night, but this show had the audience cheering, clapping along and laughing as if it was the newest, brightest hit of the season rather than one of the West End’s longest running shows ever.  Still heartily recommended.

Mamma Mia is at London’s Novello Theatre, currently booking until March 2019.

Review – Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret

Barry Humphries shares his childhood discovery of a stack of sheet music in a Melbourne second-hand book store, music which revealed a largely forgotten flowering of creative, original and experimental music from Germany in the 1920s.

The time in history is crucial to an appreciation of this music and this show. The music is extravagant, free and daring – all things which ended in Germany with rise of Hitler and the Nazis. And with few, if any, recordings this art form, unlike say paintings, effectively ceased to exist the moment it stopped being written and performed.

Here it is brought joyously to life. And although in some ways this is a history lesson, the music feels fresh and new. Every item is stimulating and hugely entertaining. And there are also a few stunning moments. The Geographical Fugue (composed by Ernst Toch with the English version performed here written by John Cage and Henry Cowell) is a virtuoso piece performed by the entire Aurora Orchestra entirely a cappella, which surprises both in its originality and in the skill needed to perform it. Assistant Musical Director Ben Dawson at the piano seems to have music effortlessly flowing from his fingers, never more so than in Jezek’s Bugatti Step – a thrilling piece requiring outstanding virtuosity.

The songs are performed by cabaret artist Meow Meow – who is a performance force to be reckoned with. Equally at home in English or German, sad or seductive, she is a marvellous performer and actor. Barry Humphries – sans Dame Edna et al – is our guide through this treasure trove, sharing his obvious admiration and enthusiasm infectiously. He also provides great entertainment in his own right. After joining Meow Meow, who guides the 84 year-old Humphries through some carefully crafted trepidatious choreography in one of the numbers, he quips at the end, “Is there a cardiologist in the house…or a choreographer?”

Barry Humphries is of course the draw to attend this show. And it is a rare pleasure to enjoy his company, as he puts it, “heavily disguised as myself.” And whilst there are generous amounts of his time in the evening, the other elements are equally enthralling. The 17 piece Aurora Orchestra is amazing (and credit to sound designer Phil Wright for his subtle blending of the instruments to make it sound wonderful), as is the musical director Satu Vanska, who also takes on singing duties in a couple of numbers.

If you think you know 1920s Berlin form the musical Cabaret then you do – but only up to a point. Take this opportunity to let the estimable Barry Humphries open your ears and mind at this truly special evening.

Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret is at The Barbican throughout July 2018.