Friday, 23 December 2016

The primrose pastiche… Her Aching Heart, The Hope Theatre, Islington

The love that binds... Photo Roy Tan
As I was leaving university someone left two bundles of Mills & Boon books in my pigeon hole both with professions of love. Who left them and for what reason I shall never know… I did once accuse my friend Noel but he looked at me with a mix of “what a great idea” and “damn, why didn’t I think of it?” Even then M&B were a cliché and if you were genuinely holding a candle for someone are those the books you’d leave? Perhaps…

Playwright Bryony Lavery is well aware of the fun to be had in digging between the pages of this passionate pulp – books for people in love with the idea of love - and wrote this musical comedy with a delicious twist that is not intended to undermine the genre’s enduring formalism but to enhance it: it’s all about the love. Well… that and glove puppets, bodices – ripped and otherwise - a little bit of swordplay and imaginary horses.

Our lovers are played by Naomi Todd – a mesmerising Molly - and Colette Eaton – a hypnotic Harriet – who show remarkable versatility in the playing of many roles always never forgetting to fall in love all over again in whatever magnificent costume or far-flung field they inhabit in the play’s intricately-woven narrative.
Naomi changes chapters. Photo Roy Tan
It's like an all-girl version of Enchanted with the two women both reading the same book and living out its florid passages as they struggle to connect in a real world in which “nice” is the best – the nicest – word their nervous interactions will allow.

In the world of the book – Her Aching Heart: A Lesbian Historical Romance – their characters find voice for excessive expression with Harriet mostly being Lady Harriet Hellstone of Hellstone Hall and Molly being a simple peasant lass with a Disney-esque way with nature: ‘taint a broken creature she can’t fix not even a disembowelled baby roe deer (don’t panic: it’s just a glove puppet… with guts!).
Colette sings and dreams. Photo Roy Tan
Throughout Ian Brandon’s songs are sung well and true – there’s nothing these women can’t do! – and all are West-End worthy: a rousing mix of the sweet and the sour. Harriet belts out the opener, Uninvited, as she drinks a broken heart a little better… “why aren’t you here?” and then, dropping from the roof: a book! She starts to read.

Meanwhile Molly has a dream – a nun in a nightmare - we don’t know who she is yet but she gradually emerges as a simple, in comically-complex ways, girl fond of signalling changes in direction with balletically-exaggerated armography.  Both performances are marked by great attention to such details and they effortlessly glide along the perilous path between slapstick and pitch-perfect pastiche.
Colette, Naomi and that glove puppet. Photo Roy Tan
Lady Hellstone is “an empty shell” missing a heart and rebelling against plans to marry her off to the foppish Lord Rothermere (no relation to the hate-mongering Daily Mail owner, maybe). She lives a life of noble detachment until “following the fox and trying to lose herself in the hunt”, she chances upon the lovely Molly. The peasant girl wants to save the fox but – no! – her dress gets snagged on some thorns and she and the puppet-prey are at the mercy of the hellish Lady Hellstone. But something sparks between the two and Harriet resolves to save the animal too.

But Reynard gets ripped and as blood-drenched hands stretch out in desperate apology, Molly resolves to really, really hate Harriet and the Lady reciprocates. These girls really, really hate each other. No, they really do. Really.

Harriet complains to her brassy blonde maid (a quickly-changed Naomi) whilst Molly vents to her bent-backed grandma (Colette). Every so often the dream-story is punctured by phone calls as the girls tentatively edge their relationship forward in the real world to which we often shift with a mood-puncturing “fuck it!”. The language of love is deeper in meaning no matter the words we use.
Harriet's maid counts the ways... Photo Roy Tan
All of this could go horribly wrong in the hands of less accomplished performers and both Todd and Eaton are so convincingly at ease they filled the intimate space of the Hope with a blissful glow. Working so close in with an audience occasionally pulled into the action – I sat next to a “powdered Lady” from a Hellstone dinner party (I went home with her too) – there’s no margin for error but the masks didn’t drop for a second.

Watch out for these two for they will go very far.

I loved these interactions and the ad-libs: but most of all I loved the love (to almost quote the great Tina Charles): no matter how cynical a time you’re having you’ll forget all about it in seconds in the Hope. Love is the drug (to exactly quote Bryan Ferry).

Bryony Lavery – who had flown in to see this performance - is best known for her hard-hitting drama’s such as Frozen – but here she shows a comic touch that, in my limited experience, I’ve only seen from the likes of Mr Sondheim.
Promotional shot from Roy Tan
Her Aching Heart plays until 23rd December, it is exceptional theatre and the perfect way to help end an otherwise miserable 2016 with songs lifting your step and love warming your heart.

Expertly directed by Hope Theatre boss Matthew Parker, this is not just the best period lesbian musical in London but one of the best musicals full stop! After watching Molly and Harriet follow their pastiched pathway to each other’s hearts I think I’ve fallen too…

Book now at the Hope’s website: it’s only a few minutes from Highbury Tube and there’s a marvellous pub crawl in prospect if you walk along from The Angel!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: *****
Such fun!

Primal queen… Gertrude – The Cry, Theatre N16, Balham

“The cry isn’t in you; it’s outside you…” exclaims Claudius who earlier on had talked of the religion of his lover’s sexuality. Gertrude is a force of nature and this richly-textured play is in raptures about the language and the act of sex, love and bloody life.

This is a revival of Howard Barker’s extraordinary play which had its world premiere in the great hall of Elsinore Castle, a building Barker’s Hamlet wants to rebuild in glass so that there are no hidden corners for secrets or smuggled meanings.
Here Gertrude’s loyal servant, Cancan (Stephen Oswald) talks of walking the maze – a maze of meaning? This is one where I need to write carefully: I’m out of my depth and to paraphrase this Hamlet: “there are things in this World I don’t understand but others understand them entirely…” I think this is a play you need to see twice: the first time to allow the full visceral force of the ferocious performance and the second to pick the bones from Barker’s labyrinthine word-play.
In this respect, there are similarities with Tom Stoppard’s expansion of two characters from the same play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Stoppard looked for meaning in the lives of two plot devices who are stuck in an existential spiral as helpless as the coins they toss to alter the course of their lives whilst Barker has a freer approach in seeking out the motivations of Gertrude: the mother who so bewildered her son in marrying his father’s brother so soon after his father’s untimely death. But his approach is more counter-factual: what if…?
No time is lost in the revelation of the nature of Hamlet senior’s death and his widow-to-be’s role in it...I had always read it that Claudius was the ambition and the cruel drive but here it is not so: he is in thrall to a higher power and that is Gertrude herself.
Theatre N16 is an intimate space and the audience was left reeling by the opening moves as the sexually-charged coupling of Gertrude (Izabella Urbanowitz) and Claudius (Alexander Hulme) indulge in murder as erotic sport, poisoning their man before stripping off and consecrating their transgressive love on his dying body. A few hours before I’d been stuck in a particularly dull spreadsheet, but all thoughts of budgeting were blown away never to return for the rest of the evening: nothing was held back – this was a crime of passion in every sense.
A new look at the King and his stolen Queen...
The relationship between Gertrude and Claudius explodes the original characterisation to present a couple deeply in lust and driven by a primal urge to succeed, to live and to rule: their bond based on boundless sexual fascination.                                
The body of his father springs up to be revealed as Hamlet (Jamie Hutchins) who declared himself surprised at not feeling “it” more… he imagines he will grieve later; his mind a maze and his speech always obfuscating meaning, this Hamlet is  already playing the fool – a figure of unknown capacity and uncertain threat to the royal couple. People always give the Prince a hard time for his hesitations but in this psychotic environment how else could he survive?
Cascan and Isola
Other players emerge, Claudius’s mother Isola (Liza Keast) who begs Gertrude to leave her one son, knowing how destructive such a woman can be, having perhaps been one herself. She is Gertrude in thirty years having survived the ravages of rule with delicate cunning and feminine power of her own.
She chides Gertrude’s mourning skirt as being too short whilst admiring her long legs – she is always dueling with meaning and careful feminine challenge. But this is Gertrude’s hour and, power coursing through her; she encourages Claudius to perform another transgressive, and very public, display of affection at the funeral.
Ragusa's controlled tie-backs are replaced by a tousled rage of red hair by the end
Hamlet’s sort-of girlfriend, Ragusa (LJ Reeves, whose red hair becomes almost a character in itself as her narrative develops…) is surprised at how this family speaks so forcefully true – there is little time for mourning and even love and always they act impulsively, even Hamlet, shockingly in the end… his soliloquies more circular and to the point than in Shakespeare: in musical terms this is not pastoral-progressive- folk but punk – a cry of truth with no bushes beaten...
Hamlet not worrying about the sleep of death
Cascan provides a commentary on proceedings and Stephen Oswald’s Scottish burr grounds the words in sinister reality – Elsinore is a harsh place much like our own. He is fiercely loyal to his Queen bound to her as much as any man by his own form of love.
Claudius seeks his counsel, struggling to understand how, so soon after their exultant victory, he no longer hears Gertrude’s “cry”… has her passion out-matched his? He is blown away by the force of her and kindly love is not what she needs.
Hamlet’s friend, Albert of Mecklenburgh (David Zachary) attracts Gertrude's attention and is willing to reciprocate as deeply as physicality will allow. His is still a youth and she is now pregnant but they find an erotic approach that feels like more like a negotiation than sex.
The younger man stakes his claim to passion
Perhaos the cry is for survival as much as for the affirmation of life (and sex) and in such a febrile environment survival is in flux and characters die in the matter-of-fact ways of a war – animals in the grip of forces they hardly comprehend.
It’s a wildly-thought-provoking ride and one of the most audience-challenging productions I’ve seen: no one feels safe in this space and you cannot fail to be engaged as you respond to the emotional exposure and devastating betrayals in close-proximity.
Has Albert the power to match Gertrude's desire?
Chris Hislop directs with chilling assurance and brings out the best of his extraordinary players. Izabella Urbanowitz gives her all as a regally-raunchy Gertrude for whom Nature no doubt is her goddess whilst Alexander Hulme’s Claudius is her equal and yet, held back by his own manhood, he cannot, finally, keep pace.
You have to see it. I doubt there’s a more incendiary play anywhere in London.
The show was produced by Andrea Leoncini and Jamie Eastlake for LWL Investments & Entertainment Ltd and Theatre N16 as part of Shakespeare 400. A richly-rewarding evening just three stops down from Victoria at the famous Bedford public house - historical home of alternative comedy and the darker elements of South London entertainments... 
IThankyou Rating: ****

Three’s a charm… Three Sisters (2014), Southwark Playhouse

Moscow… London… why do we always feel we’ll be happier somewhere else?

I last saw Chekhov’s Three Sisters with an all-Redgrave cast at the Royal Court in the early nineties when it impressed as a deeply-theatrical, “classic” drama in every sense.

This new version has been given a potentially controversial updating by Anya Reiss which shifts the action from disintegrating Tsarist Russia to a British family marooned in an un-named middle eastern state (somewhere like Yemen). The family are the son and daughters of a diplomat who has died leaving them having to fend for themselves whilst all around is in turmoil. They dream of returning to London but there are few glimpses that their struggle to survive and stay happy in this once-familiar and now alienating world will end.
Holliday Grainger, Olivia Hallinan and Emily Taafe
The play retains its powerful existential questioning and whilst the language has changed, it still feels very Russian: passionate, intelligent and more than a little sad. The sisters compromise their lives and love in order to survive whilst their brother marries cheaply, drinks in self-absorption and gambles their money away online (how decadent do you want).

The brother Andrei is well-played by Thom Tuck – smothered by the expectations of leading his family and realising his own potential he ducks and only succeeds in becoming ashamed in a marriage of inconvenience with the domineering Natasha (Emily Dobbs). His sisters are braver, Olga, superbly played by Olivia Hallinan, is their compass, coaching them in hope and encouraging pragmatism: what else would you do? She makes ends meet by teaching, ultimately taking on the role of headmistress at the local school – trapped in a career poverty cycle.

Middle sister Masha (Emily Taaffe) is unhappily married to the willing but hopeless husband who’s cringe-worthy attempts to compensate for their lost intimacy are to no avail as she has an intense affair with old family friend, the extremely married Captain Vershinin (a marvellous Paul McGann).
Masha and her dashing Captain
The youngest, Irina (Holliday Grainger), dreams of finding true love back in London and is, heart-breakingly, not yet ground down by tragedy and disappointment… not yet. Olga encourages her to marry a man she likes but doesn’t love as he offers her the chance of escape. We’re almost won over by her logic and smiling warmth but is this really the way forward?

In the intimate space of the Southwark Theatre, the action is amplified with actors mere feet away from the audience – especially if, like us, you’re brave enough to sit in the front row. It was very moving to see the performances at such close quarters and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one moved to tears by the emoting of the three leads.

Hallinan, Taaffe and Grainger rip through their roles with intelligence and grace. Sometimes you feel you’re intruding on their private thoughts so convinced are you by their skill. It’s a very human response to the proximity….
Paul McGann, Olivia Hallinan, Emily Taaffe (chair) and Holliday Grainger'(floor)
Mr McGann also graced the stage with his unique energy, he even crouched like a soldier at one point: poised for action, focusing himself on every situation his Vershinin is described by Reiss as the only truly honest one along with Masha, but you can see how subtle changes in inflection could reveal a more disingenuous streak seen in other productions. But we want him to be heroic and proof that deep love exists in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Whatever you make of the re-mixed play, it still asks difficult questions and leaves you thinking for days… theatre on the ground and in the raw, feet away from people genuinely feeling their way through a play: you can’t fail to respond, to empathise… you act and you react. You won’t get this up in the gods on Shaftsbury Avenue!

Thank you cast and crew!

IThankyou Rating *****

Henry VIII (Part 1)… Wolf Hall (2014), Aldwych Theatre

I must admit to having reservations about fictionalised biographies: there can only be so much that is known about a person’s motivations and any attempt to dig deeper into personality can only really be supposition. They’re not biographies but they are certainly fictionally about as close to the real thing as a tribute band to the original artists: same tunes, same clothes: different people.

That said, there’s no denying the fascination of knowing more about influential people past and present but so many biographies go wrong when the subject is from modern times, how about those concerning people who last drew breath in 1540?

Hilary Mantell has specialised in thoroughly-researched historical fiction and knows her subjects in obsessive detail and yet what she presents is no more than a guestimate of who they actually were. I’m sure she would claim no different and what she does provide are well-crafted and highly entertaining lessons in history… and that can only be a good thing!

Ben Miles
Mantell has been greatly involved in the development of her two novels for the stage, originally for the RSC in Stratford and now transferred to the West End amidst much clamour and rightly so.

Against a brutal grey concrete setting, the cast take us through the events surrounding the rise of Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII’s first divorce and second marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Ben Miles’ Cromwell is a mixture of guile, ready wit and tactical nouse, a common man who has absorbed everything from a diverse life spent fighting and trading in Europe. A self-taught polymath who mastered the law, and pretty much everything he turned his hand to, this Cromwell is from that age when a man’s innate ability could take him far, if he were exceptionally gifted and lucky.
Here Cromwell is the hero but the Tudor mind-set was perhaps less modern than his easy charm might suggest – this was survival of the fittest, a full century before Thomas Hobbs described man’s life as being “nasty, brutal and short…”
Thomas Cromwell
Certainly wife number one Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) had such a cutting edge with Cromwell describing her as the most ruthless of the lot: “if she were a man…” Similarly Anne Boleyn (a marvellously expressive Lydia Leonard) knows what she wants and plans to get it and remove all obstacles including Henry’s only daughter.
Lydia Leonard
For Anne the relationship she wants with the King is almost more business than anything else and she has set her sights high: she is clever and as much of a schemer as any of the court.

Nathaniel Parker makes for a wonderful King Henry VIII, slightly uncertain at the start but growing in power and confidence as Cromwell facilitates his separation from Roman Catholic constraints as rule of all England as well as its church.
Nathaniel Parker
What these hugely successful people had in common is intelligence, decisiveness and a willingness to act as fortune might dictate.

Against them are those more driven by programmes or strict unbending philosophies chief of which is the self-flagellating Thomas Moore (John Ramm) who dooms himself rather than accept a change in the church’s relationship with the state.

The play works very well and is a thoroughly entertaining history not without a laugh here or there. I’m not sure how close to the actuality it might get but it gives a flavour of the kind of motivations that drove the Tudor world.

The cast are uniformly excellent with Miles the stand out, holding centre stage with assurance and pitch perfect timing. His Cromwell has a very modern political cunning… maybe that’s why we like him so much.

Wolf Hall and its companion Bring up the Bodies played at the Aldwych Theatre way back in 2014  and were unmissable if you appreciate slightly more challenging West End fare. But, if you like the plays, don’t forget that many excellent history texts are also available if you want to find out more about what actually happened.

IThankyou Rating ****

The generation game… Fathers and Sons (2014), Donmar Warehouse

Seth Numrich (Bazarov)
Seth Numrich (Bazarov)
The programme notes highlighted a connection between Ireland and Russia that I’d not previously been aware of. Irish play-write Brian Friel, clearly saw parallels between Ivan Turgenev’s 1863 novel and the turmoil in Ireland decades after partition and the famine: just as Tsarist Russia was well into the long gestation of its revolutions so too were the Irish starting to organise their thoughts around the ideas of alternatives to authoritarian rule from afar.

In both countries there was a disconnection between the intellectuals and the masses they wished to help. This was evidenced by the well-intentioned To the People movement in Russia which singularly failed to politicise the peasants…
Joshua James (Arkady) and (Bazorov)
So it is that the two young men at the heart of the play fail to engage their friends and relatives in their thoughts of nihilism: complete re-invention of every facet of a society they see as almost entirely pointless.
Arkady (Joshua James) is the more easy-going of the two but is in the thrall of his powerfully intelligent pal Bazarov (Seth Numrich), winner of the university oratory prize for two years running. They have been in St Petersburg for their studies and are now returning to Arkady’s home after their graduation.
They find the country estate little changed, gently run down by Arkady’s likeable but bumbling father Nikolai (Anthony Calf) but the old man does have one rather substantial surprise: he has had a new baby son with one of the servants Fenichka (Caoilfhionn Dunne).  If that’s a hint of some change in gentile society, the discourse between the graduates and those in the house soon shows the broader polarisation.
Anthony Calf (Nicolai)
Arkady accepts his father’s situation and is delighted for him, smiling explaining that he has become a Nihilist but, whereas, he might be all for a rational restructuring of society, Bazarov wants to tear things apart. He is fiercely intelligent and provocative, instantly making an enemy out of retired soldier and former dandy Pavel (Tim McMullan): “The Clothes Horse” who’s lazy middle-brow intellectualisms he rudely punctures.
Susan Engel (Princess Olga)
The quiet life of the estate is disturbed still further by the arrival of new neighbours, wealthy widow Anna (Elaine Cassidy) with her younger sister Katya (Phoebe Sparrow) and their inherited relative    Princess Olga (Susan Engel) – a marvellously disconnected example of Grand-mother Russia.
Elaine Cassidy (Anna)
Anna is a strong character in her own right and forces Bazarov to raise his game in defending his politics. He doesn’t believe in love, just free will and has already coerced his more reticent pal in to drawing up a list of fanciable women which soon includes Anna’s sister.

Sexual tension pervades the whole play from the earthy desires of the maid Dunyasha (Siobhan McSweeney ) through Fenichka’s repression – is Nikolai a compromise for safety’s sake? – and on to Anna herself. Much of this tension focuses on the rakish Bazarov but there are a number of triangles in play…

The scene shifts as the young men visit Bazarov’s humbler home. His father Vassily (Karl Johnson) is a care-worn, sparky but scatty doctor whilst his mother Arina (Lindy Whiteford) has the wearied eyes and concerned stillness of someone who has watched one man burn out and expects more of the same from his son. Bazarov too has trained as a doctor and, whilst he loves his parents deeply, he can hardly bear to be in the same room as their expectations. 

He goes to see one of his father’s patients and whilst he’s away they learn from Arkady of his successes and can hardly contain their pride. But they know they cannot share this seemingly innocent joy and when Vassily offers to invite Anna around and asks Arkady to stay for the Summer, their son says he must leave the next day: he hasn’t seen them in all the time of his study and even this one day is almost too much.
Karl Johnson (Vassily)
So, the characters are all in place but what future is there to be for this supremely gifted man who does not even believe in love? The second half of the play shows Bazarov’s passions running deep as he does indeed fall… for Anna. Anna reveals a background far more humble than Bazarov and that she had married well to a man she respected: more compromise out of necessity. Will she and Bazarov be able to break free of their self-imposed emotional isolation? And what will Bazarov actually do when the time comes to show courage…?

I won’t give too much of the story away: just go see it and/or read Turgenev’s novel (which I’ll have to now I’ve said it!).

Lyndsey Turner directs with surety what is a highly-charge and disparate narrative and marshals her substantial cast of characters very well giving each the room to reveal themselves from the leads to great supporting turns such as Piotr the selectively-deaf young hip coach boy (Jack McMullen – recently in Jimmy McGovern’s excellent Common) to David Fielder who succeeds in playing the Old Retainer roles for both houses – he’s marvellously grumpy as Prokofyich in particular.

The play is so full of potentially rich characters that I’m not sure it entirely succeeds in revealing them all. Bazarov’s leap to love happens suddenly and, it has to be said, predictably but his subsequent actions are entirely in keeping with the man of courage we hoped him to be.
Perhaps Arkady’s character is the key: a decent man who cannot quite escape his background but who is desperate to do the right thing? His way is evolution and not revolution… which solution could work better for Russia or for Eire?

The cast are excellent all round and it’s a privilege to see them working at the close quarters afforded by the Donmar stalls. I expect that we’ll be seeing a lot more of young Seth Numrich and Joshua James in particular. Plaudits also to the stage design of Rob Howell who manages to make the most of the Donmar’s confined space with economy and stylish invention. The music from Alex Baranowski also underpins the narrative very well with impressive drive and tonal variety.

IThankyou Rating ***

Visions of Angels… City of Angels, Donmar Warehouse

Rosalie Craig as Gabby/Bobby

From the very start City of Angels picks you up and takes you on a visceral journey of sex and ‘tecs to the heart of film noir.  I loved it from start to finish, and so did the people surrounding me. Superlatives like “beautiful”, “fantastic”, and “gorgeous” where muttered around me by an audience only just containing it’s enthusiasm: a near riot of approval!
Samantha Barks
It was a class act from tip to toe with an edgy energy that didn’t flag at any point!  Jazz song and dance, ‘smack!’, the writers letters dynamically added to the scene as he wrote, ‘biff!!’ and to cap it all ‘XXXXXX’ rewrites - actually - acted backwards by the cast whenever the writer did an edit.  “The best backward acting in the West End” as my wife ventured…

The writing by David Zippel was slick and pacey performing a difficult balancing act between two inter-twined narratives: both dependent on each other. Director Josie Rourke showed ingenuity and restraint in mastering the challenge of these parallel worlds, in which most of her cast had to perform two roles each. 
Tam Mutu & Hadley Fraser

The set design of Robert Jones showed once again how the limitations of the Donmar space can actually bring out the very best – his set had more hidden doors than a haunted house and was used as part of the narrative.
Robert Jones amazing set
Needless to say, the music of Cy Coleman was also positively beautiful – from uplifting jazz to stage-standards in the same league as his score for Sweet Charity. Add to that a cast of top draw actors who can also sing and dance and you are starting to get the picture: this was a production I’m sure Cy, David and Larry Gilbert would have been proud of.

The premise of the show is that the Writer is not only writing a Film Noir but crosses over the fiction, reality divide and interacts with the lead character within his own film.  Their relationship and how this impacts on the writers real life leads to both funny and poignant scenes and to the show’s conclusion.  

Rebecca Trehearn & Rosalie Graig

It seems unfair to single out any of this superb cast for special mention but Hadley Fraser as the conflicted writer Stine and Tam Mutu as his heroic alter-ego Stone were especially impressive whilst Rosalie Craig was a knockout as the writer’s long-suffering, wise-cracking wife and then the detective’s lost love; slinky singer Bobbi.
Katherine Kelly as Aluara/Clara
Katherine Kelly was an alluring Aluara/conniving Carla - a classy, classic noir blonde - whilst young Samantha Barks has talent to burn with looks and presence that seem sure to set her on course for a very long career. Nor should I neglect Rebecca Trehearn who alternated between Stone’s secretary and Stine’s studio assistant/bit on the side – another great voice with an, almost intimidating, stage presence… so much energy!
The Angel City Four: Kadiff Kirwan, Sandra Marvin, Jo Servi and Jennifer Saayeng
The Angel City Four also provided superb vocalisations throughout so a special tip of my new Liberty Hat to Kadiff Kirwan, Sandra Marvin, Jo Servi and Jennifer Saayeng: if you guys are planning any gigs at Ronnie Scotts… we’ll be there!
City of Angels is an emotionally clever, witty, stylish and a thoroughly uplifting theatrical experience. If you can get a ticket don’t hesitate and I really hope it gets the West End transfer it deserves! I feel privileged to have seen so much class in the intimacy of the Donmar but this show deserves a wider audience.

IThankyou Rating *****

We all did... I Loved Lucy, Above The Arts Theatre, London

Lucille Desíree Ball

"No goodbyes Doll, we never say goodbye..."

Lucille Ball starred in I Love Lucy from 1951 to 1960 and in two more successful long-running sitcoms for CBS: The Lucy Show (1962–68) and Here's Lucy (1968–74) - an unparalleled dynasty of sit-com success.

At one point it was calculated that 99% of Americans would recognise her face and that she was bigger than John Lennon (and whoever he was bigger than...). We all not only know Lucy but probably love her too and I can't remember I time when I didn't know who she was.

Lucy in full flow
All stars fade from themselves as much of the rest of us and not even "Lucy" could maintain her level of success - an Aaaron Spelling-produced eighties revival finally proving that point.

For the last decade of her life, Lucy kept company with a distant cousin of her second husband,  Lee Tannen upon who's book and play this production was based. Mr Tannen was on hand to introduce proceedings and, whilst you couldn't judge his backgammon skills, you could see how his wit and good humour would have been welcomed.

Directed by Claudio Macor (The Tailor Made Man and In The Dead of Night reviewed elsewhere on this blog) this was a workshop presentation which as Tannen pointed out, had taken less time ot rehearse than his journey time from the USA.

Sandra Dickinson and Christopher Tester
This sprint to performance was barely noticeable as the two leads Sandra Dickinson and Christopher Tester gave highly-impressive performances especially the former who, let us not forget was playing an icon. Those of us with memories of Ms Dickinson's Trillian in Hitchhiker's Guide and her other goofy Monroe-moments were astonished at her mastery of the Ball growl; a gravelly rasp that delivered hot gossip and incendiary one-liners with equal zest.

That's not to say that Mr Tester doesn't also give a fine performance and,judging from the photographs Tannen shared after the performance he bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. A boy who knew every single episode of I Love Lucy almost by heart, he first met Lucille aged nine when she married that cousin Gary Morton and was only to meet her again many years later in 1981 when he was working as in theatrical promotion.

Mr and Mrs Arnaz
The pair very quickly bonded as Lucy encouraged him to be as honest and open as possible - accepting his sexual preference without a beat and regaling him with delicious gossip as they began a decade of Backgammon... "if you didn't play with Lucy, you didn't stay with Lucy.."

Soon Lee is part time pal and part time PA, booking hotels in New York - anywhere but the Upper West Side - "it's too Lauren Bacall!". He is rewarded with stories of Thelma Todd having an affair with CG (not Clarke but Cary...possibly) and how the former never really recovered from the death of Carol Lombard - "the most beautiful dame I ever saw."

Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers and Lucy in Stage Door
Amongst the fly-through of Ball's cinematic history she claims to have discovered Anne Miller who seemed to have thought she was the re-incarnation of Cleopatra (not another one!) and with whom she starred in Stage Door (1937). Then there was the near affair with Henry Fonda in The Big Street (1942) - "the best film I ever made" - Jane Fonda later told her that no marriage would have been possible as they would have had to call the company Fonda-Lu.

Lucy and Henry in The Big Street
As it turned out, of course, the company she did form was Desilu with Desi Arnaz after marriage to the Cuban percussionist and after they had fought so hard to get the TV show featuring this "mixed" marriage made and then made on their terms - what a force they must have been.

The play's trick is that it manages to move through the years without sounding like a catalogue and much of this is down to the interplay between the characters as played by Dickinson and  Tester as well as the snappy dialogue they have been gifted.

Bob Hope and Lucy: King and Queen
Everything is stripped down in this workshop format with only two additional voices heard - Lee Tannen himself and Sally Ann Triplett as US journalist Diane Sawyer.

But, if the play is this good after only three working day's rehearsals... it's going to be great in full performance. A well-written play about one of the most important cultural figures of the Twentieth Century told with intimacy, style and more than a few laughs.

Who knew, for example,that Shirley MacLaine always referred to Lucille as "Mum" - "maybe in another of her lives?" mused Lucy and, that their attendance at a premier was delayed by Michael Jackson's inconveniently combustible hair: how long does it take to put out a fire on his head pondered Lucy impatiently?

Lucille in 1988
In his introduction Lee Tannen said he had been advised by British friends of the vast difference in meaning between a British "quite good " and an American one... well, just to make it clear, this Brit thought I Loved Lucy was very, very, good! I look forward to seeing it again next year!

Further details of the project are available on Twitter @ILovedLucyUK and Facebook: watch this space...

Key take-away: "Never cut funny".

Silent PS: For various reasons, the I Love Lucy TV show was shot on film and the great German cinematographer Karl Freund worked on episodes from 1951-6 developing processes that would ensure that the lighting would be even over each aspect of the set (and that wouldn't be the only silent film connection from Lucy's life).

IThankyou Rating ****