Review: Let It Be, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

My brilliant dad brought me up on a sound diet of Beatles, Beatles, Monkeys and more Beatles. I know and love their happy vibe and ability to get a room full of people singing along right from the opening chords. My parents also set me up to adore musical theatre, which has become a life-long passion. For me, musical theatre at its best conjures a spectacle of storytelling wizardry, full of song and (often) dance, that sends your emotions spiralling and leaves you wishing you were up onstage revelling in the fun. When it comes to honouring the musical theatre label, I am in the Michael Billington camp, wanting more from a night at the theatre than the performance of ‘Let It Be – the Beatles Musical‘ had to offer. However, putting the ‘musical theatre’ label aside and accepting the concert for what it is – a journey ‘back to the magical sixties’ and forwards through the decades – made this ‘museum’ experience a foot-tapping and fun family night out for Dad’s birthday treat: and there was a really great sense of the feel-good factor in hearing and seeing favourite songs performed live.

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Act 1 builds gradually through a series of sets addressing the different eras in the rise of Beatlemania. The humble beginnings are shown under the simply lit black box stage of the 1963 Royal Variety performance, where ‘the loveable mopheads’ had graduated from the Cavern. Here the tribute band presented popular but understated classics including ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘She Loves You’ (link to original footage of the Beatles Live in 1964). After a brief interlude where the set is changed and we are treated to era-marking advertising and historical references on the four (large) box televisions surrounding the pros arch, we are reintroduced to the band in their notorious beige tunic uniforms at the Shea Stadium in the USA. Help! is accompanied by footage of fans screaming, crying and fainting to show the growing wave of hysteria in the Beatles fandom. It became distracting to see these short clips looped so often throughout the song (the multimedia side of the production was much better developed by Act 2) as the 1960s crowd reaction served only to highlight the contrast to the quiet and polite behaviour of the Cheltenham audience. We were beginning to wonder whether we were allowed to clap along. Nevertheless, at the opening strains of ‘Twist and Shout‘, excitement rose and we were called to our feet to dance our hearts out and the Everyman audience responded willingly.

Another interlude made way for bigger and better things and the band returned en spectacle. The redressing of the stage and cast saw dry ice with vibrant and colourful lighting arriving alongside the first appearance of the cast’s nouveau moustaches and Lennon’s iconic glasses.  The trademark kitsch Sergeant Pepper uniforms and flower filled set (complete with palm tree) were illuminated in front of psychedelic projections revealing the incoming 70s and reflecting the band’s monetary success and growing flamboyance.

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Although dialogue is minimal, compering is provided, as it would have been, by the ever-polite Paul McCartney, played by Emanuele Angeletti, and the charismatic Michael Gagliano as John Lennon. Both performers nail the accents for their speaking and singing appearances and have clearly devoted many years to studying the idiosyncrasies of their individual characters’ speech patterns and mannerisms. Angeletti (who began working in Beatles’ tribute bands in Italy in 2000) has honed the look and pout of Paul McCartney. He sports the high cheekbones and drooping eyelids, playing coy and bashful to the nth degree. He is spot on with the accent and makes full use of the sideways head bob, all while playing the guitar left handed. Gagliano exudes the Lennon ‘It factor’ and charismatic persona that lights up the stage between songs when he is seen to be goofing around and chiming in with infamous phrases – ‘if you’re in the cheap seats, stamp your feet; everybody else, rattle your jewellery‘- to much delight.

In the second act we are asked to ‘Imagine the reunion that never was‘ and scoot forwards to John Lennon’s birthday in 1980. The lighting turns on the audience. Technology is rocketing forward and the crowd are as much a part of the act as the band. ‘Penny Lane‘ was a crowd favourite accompanied by colourful graphics that were as bonkers and random as the original music videos and lyrics. The only thing missing was the horse montage… even the yellow submarine was there in technicolor.

The band are now very much a distinguishable collection of individuals. Paul McCartney’s smooth locks, sparkling shoulders and shiny black sweatpants are only outshone by Angeletti’s polished two-tone shoes; Gagliano’s Lennon looks younger in double denim and shades to replace his specs; John Brosnan’s, George Harrison – ‘the quiet one’ – side-steps his way to the foreground having cleaned up his hairy act with a white suit; and Ben Cullingworth evolves from being the cute one into superstar drummer as Ringo Starr nods to evolving fashion trends by accessorising his new look with a fashion-over-function scarf and slicked back hair. It is great to see Brosnan and Cullingworth come into their own in this act. We get to hear each owning the lead vocals and the evolving musical styles of songs penned by each of the Beatles’ guitarists: including Angeletti’s solo rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s ‘Blackbird‘, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun and My Sweet Lord, and Lennon’s seminal ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘, which also showcased Gagliano’s talents on the pianoBrosnan’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (originally performed with Eric Clapton) was a touching and impressive tribute whereashearts raced along with the Bond theme Live and Let Die’, written by Paul and Linda McCartney and originally performed by Wings.

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Thankfully the songs had not been forced into a trite storyline for this showcase of the past masters; the unequivocal tribute concert celebrates the evolution of the style and music of one of Britain’s most popular bands – and to that we can twist, shout and throw our hands up in favour. Ultimately, the company provide a great evening out for any Beatles fans wanting to ‘come together’ with a like-minded crowd to enjoy 40 of their favourite tracks played live by performers with a real knack for looking, sounding and behaving like the real thing.

The Let It Be tour continues to Liverpool, Nottingham, Hull, Edinburgh, Dartford and Manchester over the coming weeks.

 

 

Review: Sardines, The Drayton Arms, London

You can tell when a person is having a conversation in their head because of the movement in their hands. Creative people are prone to gesticulating a great deal, even when thinking. I know because I do it too.

What other habits have you noticed when observing people on the tube? We all do it. Watch people. Have you ever leaned closer to read an article in someone else’s magazine? Or tried to see what book they are reading or what bit they’ve got to because you’ve read that book too? How about listening in on conversations? Perhaps the choice wasn’t yours because that public display of affection was a bit too in your face. Or that boastful description was a bit too loud and a bit T.M.I.

Rumble Theatre have clearly spent a lot of time commuting to prepare for their performance based in the underground ‘tin can’ observatory. Their recreation in the black box studio above the Drayton Arms offers the audience a prompt to look at the theatre in everyday life and see ourselves as both performer and audience on the public transport stage.

Jenna Kamal’s conversational montage dips in and out of interactions giving us the briefest snapshot of each character’s life as they pass us by. Some return like regular commuters and others are seen and gone almost unnoticed, as they would be in life. The dialogue is coupled with well choreographed staging from directors, Alice Wordsworth and Erin Blackmore, whose cast manipulate the three trucked tube seats of the set with thoughtful precision, shifting between episodes and characters as quickly as the journey between stations.

The pace is well maintained and the dialogue is delivered with humour in mind, although the actors could rein in for a more natural delivery where the comedy could speak for itself. Or perhaps that is just my claustrophobic-self speaking as I dread meeting some of these larger than life characters on the tube.

Moments of physical comedy add to the entertainment between scenes when the passengers find themselves in ever decreasing spaces, dealing with the unavoidable invasion of personal space in rush hour journeys. There are some wonderful facial expressions in these moments and the audience squirm with empathy; they’ve been there.

But Sardines is not simply an observational muse, entertaining the audience with the hilarity of situations they know and recognise. It also reaches out into the realm of ‘what if’ and we are asked to consider how we might react if someone stepped into our carriage ride and challenged convention. What if someone offered you a hug on your way to work? What if a stranger asked you a deep and personal question? What if we suspended the ‘don’t take sweets from strangers rule’ and accepted the offer of a piece of cake as just an act of kindness? ‘Would the world be a less lonely place as a result?asks Rumble.

In Sardines, the company present us with a host of questions to consider on our own journeys, prompting us to look beyond our sun-orbited little lives to consider the multi-dimensional thought processes of the seemingly inert stranger in the seat opposite or the sophisticated and together, girl-about-town who must be so careless and fancy-free that she has no worries in the world. Rumble even suggest (by the proxy of one character’s suggestion to another) that we “feel and not judge” our emotions. That is, recognising how we feel as a statement of fact and not wasting thought on how we should or could be feeling, fostering negative self-criticism. By giving ourselves more headspace, we could actually open our eyes to our fellow passengers. Or are we too nosey already?

Among the episodic, quirky encounters are little gems hinting at solutions to the battle of isolation that many feel in the densely packed underground carriages. Kamal’s characters offer riddles, debates, intimate and intellectual conversations. Is communal living the answer? poses one of the passengers.

The questions, like life, are left unresolved and although a through-line to the play might have boosted the structure, so much is packed into the hour that the audience have plenty to think as they depart the ride. If Rumble have done their job right, the audience will get talking about these thoughts and break down at least a little of the silence in the ranks. Or are we already victims of a world that has no privacy of thought? Are we, in fact, too consumed with sharing on our introverted social media platforms that we are left longing for real contact in the underground tunnels that deny us this faux world of connectivity? Or can we find contentment in the quiet solitude of a train journey away from the even faster pace of the world above ground? The questions go on…

Rumble is a fresh, fringe group from Exeter. Led by a talented creative team provoking thought through theatre, they are definitely one to watch out for.

Sardines runs until Saturday 7th July at The Drayton Arms Theatre.

Review: Miss Littlewood, RSC, Stratford

How apt that the culmination of the first day of the RSC’s Big Director’s weekend should end with a preview of Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman’s Miss Littlewood. And what a treat it was.

Performed on the beautifully intimate thrust at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford Upon Avon, where a mock platform slides back and forth from behind the pros arch to become the meta-stage for Littlewood’s story. The evening tiptoes down the path behind theatrical pioneer, Joan Littlewood, dabbling in the highlights of her working and personal life and drawing on autobiographical material, with a suitable touch of bias that is not permitted to go unnoticed.

The set is not lavish but deceptive in its seeming simplicity and put to good use through the incredible number of transitions that Whyman has wrestled into refinement. Whyman’s direction is thorough and impressive. The cast are kept busy and are endlessly resourceful. Actor-musicianship and multi-rolling are showcased with a superb sense of tongue-in-cheek, not least by the talented supporting cast including Amanda Hadingue, who takes on a number of male and female cameos, while adding musical accompaniment on her violin. There is more than a touch of Brechtian influence and an honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style. Having said this, the attention to authenticity in the time-appropriate costumes was a real credit to the Wardrobe department and I can’t begin to imagine how many shoes were used in this production, not least by the delightful Emily Johnstone in her ever-changing roles.

An honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style.

Littlewood is played by seven actresses in total. Each superb in their own right and supported by a small but well-versed ensemble company. True to Kenyon’s script note, the seven Joans ‘should be diverse in a number of ways – age, ethnicity, appearance, accent -and no one should be concerned about doing an impersonation’. Each assumes the role through the gestic application of a hat (‘a costume. Or a weapon.’) and delivers their character as directed by the real Joan (played by Claire Burt with tenacity, scrutiny and a naughty twinkle in her eye) who presents her life as she wants to see it, even attempting to avoid the moments she wants to forget. Each Joan represented a different era and was charmingly replaced with the same careless attitude that the real Miss Littlewood adopted in recasting her plays at the last moment. Their harmonious co-existence was a lesson in depth of character as each actress presented so much more than just one of the multi-facets of Joan and served to remind us that Joan Littlewood was a representative of the people, an anybody, with a desire for theatre to be seen by and represent every man and woman.

Kenyon, no doubt, had a battle selecting what to keep and lose from Littlewood’s dense biography. While some audience members felt aspects were missing, the teacher in me was delighted to see this inspirational figure immortalised in a production that reflected her own working style. A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

Although dubbed ‘a new musical’, I fear that musical theatre fans would be disappointed. The songs are poignant but not moving and some of the individual singing voices are full of character but not finesse. This is not a criticism – style over substance fits the bill here and, like the era-influenced dance routines, the audience can enjoy the lightness of touch rather than an over-choreographed showcase. Littlewood was a fabled communist after all: ‘Profligacy is in bad taste’, offers Joan 2, flirting with language.

My heart sang with gratitude as I smiled my way through so much of this utterly fun production. A lesson about a director and, indeed, a meta-lesson in directing itself. Whether it will extend to enchant beyond those in the industry is the question. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but as Joan says to her first appointed actress ‘don’t like what you see? Do something better.’

Miss Littlewood runs until 4th August 2018 at The Other Place, RSC, Stratford.