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Theatre Tip July 2017

Unfortunately owing to illness and a car accident we are sorry that this month's TOFF TIPS is late appearing.

INK (Almeida Theatre, Islington, London (until 5 August 2017. Box office: 020-7359 4404. Then at the Duke of York's Theatre from 19 September to 6 January 2018, with previews from 9 September. Box Office: 0844 871 7623)

While many may scoff at the Sun newspaper, nobody will ridicule INK which shows how the newspaper was purchased and then completely revived by Rupert Murdoch in the 1960s. Appointing Larry Lamb as his founding editor for his new paper was Murdoch's first stroke of genius. Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) creates a new style of newspaper. Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) recruits journalists from anywhere he can, giving good salaries and promising a successful career. With Mudoch's encouragement Lamb transforms the Sun into a popular paper full of silly stories and lots of pictures.

Well-written by James Graham, the play moves on to examine the circulation war between papers, with the Mirror, the most popular until the Sun came along. We get a really good idea of the bitter rivalry between the two papers and the journalists involved. There is much to amuse here and thankfully the play doesn't moralise. It just presents the setting up of the paper and leaves us to consider what is going on. It is only when we get to the introduction of Page 3 and its scantily clothed girls that we begin to see exactly what Rupert Murdoch had initiated.

Very well acted by the whole cast, Bertie Carvel as Murdoch shows us the energy of the man while Larry Lamb is caught beautifully by Richard Coyle.

A set built of files and layers to give it height with journalists rushing around gives the audience a feeling of Fleet Street in the late 60s and early 1970s. The play speeds along under the direction of Rupert Goold.

Book quickly for the Almeida or pick a later date for when the play transfers to the West End.

Rating ****

BODIES (Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, London until 12 August 2017. Box office: 020-7565 5000)

Approaching a difficult subject from an unusual angle, Vivienne Franzmann's latest play shows us a woman so desperate to conceive that she can't be around families with children. She and her husband have now taken the decision to use a surrogate womb. Even that is not straightforward as, because the couple wish the baby to look like them, they are using the eggs of a white Russian woman, but the husband's sperm, which have been implanted into the womb of a woman in India.

Salma Hoque and Justine Mitchell in 'Bodies'

Not really enquiring too much into the background of the woman carrying her eggs, Clem (Justine Mitchell) is only made to face the reality of the situation of the Indian woman when her father questions her. The father, David (Philip Goldacre) who, as a socialist, is concerned about the woman's plight. David, who is very ill and spends his time in a wheelchair, has a Carer (Lorna Brown), who joins in the discussions about what is right for the couple and right for the surrogate mother, Lakshmi (movingly portrayed by Salma Hoque). From time to time an imaginary daughter (Hannah Rae) talks to Clem.

Owing to illness the husband, Josh, was played by Jonathan McGuiness, who stood in at the last minute to play the part - reading from the book off and on throughout the play. He was absolutely fine and the whole cast acted very well and put across the various dilemmas arising from the situation both movingly and most intelligently.

LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL (Wyndham's Theatre, London booking until 9 September. Box office: 0844-482 5120) stars Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in a late period of her life. In fact it is 1959, just a few months before her death and Billie is performing at a small bar in Philadelphia. She is high on drugs and alcohol. Her accompanist (Shelton Becton) tries to help her but can't really control her.

Audra McDonald can not only sing with a powerful voice but acts the part of the great singer going downhill at the end of her life. When she leaves the stage at one point and comes back a bit sniffy, we know that she has had a heroin injection. The stage is set so that part of the audience sits at small tables actually on the stage and the whole staging gives a flavour of the intimacy of the bar. Backed by a small group of musicians, McDonald's voice is fruity and mellow and her interpretation of Holidays songs is near perfect.

Rating ****

YANK! (Charing Cross Theatre, London until 19 August . Box Office 08444 930 650) tells the story of some gay American servicemen in WW11. Watching this as celebrations take place around the UK to acknowledge the time when homosexual sex was permitted between consenting men in private, this musical reminds us of a very different world. It works as a love story, and also as a political piece showing the hardship suffered by those who chose to be different.

In a very masculine environment Stu (Scott Hunter) and Mitch (Andy Coxon) discover their love for each other. Bringing in music from the 1940s, the cast sing strongly and are well-drilled in their movement. It's well-staged with minimum disruption between scenes and we get a real feeling for the period and also the awful war going on around the men as well as delving into their personal lives.

Rating ****

I saw a version of this play when it was at the RSC in Stratford in December 2015. Now QUEEN ANNE comes to the Theatre Royal Haymarket (until 30 September. Box office: 020 7930 8800). There have been a few changes of cast; the main one being Romola Garai who now plays Sarah Churchhill instead of Natascha McElhone. The play, which is written by Helen Edmundson and directed by Natalie Abrahami (and good to see two women in these prominent positions) looks closely at the relationship between Princess Anne (Emma Cunliffe), who became Queen in 1702, and Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai), wife of the war hero John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Anne is extremely close to Sarah, not only personally but also because she looks to Sarah to advise her on political matters. When this relationship is interfered with - mainly through the machinations of the Tory, Robert Harley (a strong performance here by James Garnon) and her close relationship with a new servant Abigail Hill (shown initially as deceptively nave in a good performance by Beth Park) - Sarah is unhappy to lose her position of power over the Queen.

Romola Garai and Emma Cunniffe star in Queen Anne

In some ways I preferred Natascha McElhone as Sarah. Both she and Romola Garai are beautiful but Garai is more on one note than McElhone. However, Garai manages Sarah Churchill's mixture of sweetness and hard determination. Ambition pours out of every pore. She is much stronger and more ambitious than her husband. Emma Cunliffe remains as the Queen and is a real revelation: her Anne is frail yet morally upright with a quiet determination to always do right and perform her duties with honesty. She adores her husband.

Most of us don't know much about Queen Anne at the beginning of the play. Do we know more by the end? Certainly we are aware of her personal relationships with her political advisers and her illnesses but not a lot more about the world outside. The play has, I suppose of necessity, a lot of dialogue which explains rather than shows what is happening in the outside world, so is not always fully engrossing. Because of the excellent performance of Emma Cunliffe, which has even improved since Stratford, the play gains an extra star!

Rating ****

Also recommended:

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS (London Palladium booking until 9 September. Box office: 0844 871 7623) is a lively show but doesn't show a great deal of originality or enough humour. The musical is based on the novel by Kenneth Grahame with book by Julian Fellows and music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe. The best thing about it is the performance of Rufus Hound who at least injects Mr Toad with a lively, bouncy characterisation.

SUPERHERO (Just closed at the Southwark Playhouse, London). With a little bit of luck this fine musical will return to this or another theatre in the not too distant future. Although it is only one character., the show conjures a whole story. It is based on the fathers - as part of the Fathers 4 Justice group - who protested at the mothers of their children being given all the rights for bringing up the family. Here we meet Colin (Michael Rouse) who fights to keep his daughter from moving to America with her mother. Mainly taking place in a courtroom, we learn how Colin, dressed as Superman, scaled Big Ben to protest. Some good songs and a stand-out performance by Rouse makes one long to see the musical again.

Also just finished is BOYS CLUB which had short run at Jacksons Lane in North London. Two men come on and give a short chat to the audience with a lot of sexy thrusting of their bodies. It turns out that the men are women who can't find jobs as females so have taken to dressing as men. I have to say that many of the audience members seemed to find it hilarious but I was not amused. Some miming to songs by the two women are well-performed, but talking about sex doesn't make a performance sexy.

Only on for a few days the very amusing BREXODUS was well performed by Mike Duran, Scott Jones, James Sanderson, Paul Croft and Airlie Scott, all of whom play multiple roles with highlights from the Brexit negotiations. Sanderson is especially fine as a bumptious Boris Johnson and Scott is a very funny Angela Merkel. There are some hilarious songs and the whole show is so up-to date that an item in the newspapers on the day I saw the show was referred to. It was on at the Other Palace, London, but will come back probably somewhere different. Watch out for it and book as soon as it returns in another updated version.

With its run just completed DESSERT (Southwark Theatre, London), is a play about class differences and extreme wealth and the vicissitudes of living on the poverty line. The issues are initially well presented. On a beautifully designed set, two couples are having dinner together. Not yet having reached the dessert stage, they are interrupted by Eddie (Stephen Hagan), a soldier who lost a leg in Afghanistan. Eddie has come to demand money from Sir Hugh (Michael Simkins), the host, who he blames for the loss of his dad's savings and subsequent poverty. As Hugh is a billionaire, he can more than afford to pay but doesn't want to in spite of pleas from his wife, Gill (Alexander Gilbreath) and guests - another billionaire, American Wesley (Stuart Milligan) and wife Meredith (Teresa Banham). The dinner party is completely ruined as a number of incidents take place before a kind of resolution at the end. Starting off well, events become rather improbable as the play progresses. But it is an interesting story which could have been developed in an easier manner. A super cast do they best they can with it!

THE MENTOR (Vaudeville Theatre, London booking until 2 September. Box office: 0330 333 4814) stars the charismatic F Murray Abraham as the titular Mentor in this well-written play by the German playwright Daniel Kehlmann translated by Christopher Hampton.

Benjamn Rubin (F. Murray Abraham) is employed to run mentoring sessions with a young writer Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman), who has also been paid to come to the arts centre run by an unsuccessful painter (Jonathan Cullen). Rubin is seemingly past his best while the young modern writer is not yet famous. Thrown into the mix is Gina (Naomi Frederick) , Martin's wife who, against her will, is attracted to Rubin. The play jogs along in a not very exciting manner, but is made more watchable by F. Murray Abraham's engaging portrayal of a writer in his decline and Daniel Weyman as a writer about to climb to the top.

From left, Daniel Weyman, Jonathan Cullen, Naomi Frederick & F Murray Abraham.
 

Probably the most off-putting title around, but THE PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE TAKES ORAL EVEIDENCE ON WHITEHALL'S RELATIONSGHP WITH KIDS COMPANY is one of the most fascinating plays currently showing in the West End. On at the Donmar Theatre, London (until 12 August. Box Office: 0844 871 7624) it is virtually a transcript of what transpired during the hearings into the collapse of Kids Company. That it is a musical is even more amazing. With actors playing the parts of members of the Panel and the leading lights of Kids Company, it is always riveting. Omar Ebrahim as Alan Yentob, a somewhat self-satisfied Chairman of the Board and Sandra Marvin dressed as Camila Batmanghelidjh are particularly impressive. Catch it while you can.

THE HIRED MAN (Union Theatre until 12 August. Box office: 020 7261 9876) is, to my mind, a much underrated musical. I first saw this some 25 years ago and it has remained with me, with the title song often bouncing around in my head . With book by Melvin Bragg and lyrics and music by Howard Goodall it is a show which has something to say and a story to match. Set in Cumbria at the end of the 19th century it shows working class life in the north. John Tallentire ( Ifan Gwilym-Jones) seeks work as a hired man and is forced to settle for less than he is worth. He and his wife Emily (Rebecca Gilliland) struggle to make a life for themselves. Emily falls for handsome Jackson (Luke Kelly) and is heartbroken when her husband finds out The tough life becomes even harder when the men go off to fight in WW1.

The music is glorious and songs are well-served by the cast. The only difficulty is that with the air conditioning on, the noise from that combined with an over loud band made the actors hard to hear at times. But it is a lovely musical, delightful to watch.

TWILIGHT SONG (Park Theatre, London until 12 August . Box Office: 020 7870 6876) by Kevin Elyot. Contrasting events in the 1960s with today, we see what happens to one family. The difference in being gay in the early and late 60s and the present day is well brought out. We see the young Isabella as a wife then a mother to Barry and in the present day as an old woman. There is a gay uncle and his lover who goes back to his family and Barry Isabella's son who is a quiet gay man. A good set of the house in North London where Isabella and son live has subtle alterations in each scene to depict the different years.

The dialogue is not funny and not always sparkling. It is not one of Elyot's best plays. However, the performances are top rate with Bryony Hannah excellent as Isabella while Paul Higgins portrays both the son, Barry and his father. Hugh Ross is particularly moving as uncle Charles pleading with his married lover (Philip Bretherton) to return his favours. Adam Garcia has a small part as the mysterious gardener.

The British musical has returned in all its glory! And it has taken a young boy to make it happen. THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRAN MOLE AGED 13 (Menier Chocolate Factory, London until 9 September. Box Office: 020 7378 1713) is absolutely delightful. Book and lyrics by Jake Brunger and music and lyrics by Pippa Cleary, it is based closely on Sue Townsend's 1982 book. Set in the 80s we see the teenage Adrian coping with school and the bully who confronts him there, the growing antagonism between his parents and his getting together with his first real girlfriend Pandora.

I wondered if there was too much about the adults in this musical, but 12 and 13 year-olds in the audience really enjoyed it as did their parents. Some great songs which are excellently put across by the cast so that the meaning as well as their place in the story is fully conveyed. Of course, it would be nothing without a special Adrian. And we not only have the very cute, lovely Benjamin Lewis as the star but also great performances from Asha Banks as Pandora and Connor Davies as Barry the bully (there are alternative child casts). The choreography is good too and even the furniture seems to dance as it is moved around to become something different in the following scene. Forget Matilda, take the family to see this. I have already bought tickets to bring visiting relatives with two 13 year-olds to see it.

I didn't see the original production but the present ROAD at the Royal Court theatre (until 9 September. Box office: 020 7565 5000) is terrific. In a series of short scenes - mainly monologues or dialogues we see people who live in a Northern street preparing for, then going out for a night of drinking and jollity. It is the time of Thatcher in power so much unemployment and little money to spend. Scullery (a lively ball of fun played by Lemn Sissay) is our guide as we meet the young girls in their finery, mothers with little or no money to spend and layabout lads. Most of the actors play multiple roles and they are all spot on in the delivery of their various characters. I particularly liked Michelle Fairley as Helen coping with a soldier who is so drunk that she had to just pull him around with no response from the man.

The play uses 80s music as illustration. Written by Jim Cartwright and directed by John Tiffany, the play is full of moments which remain with one long after leaving the theatre. One lyrical scene has Scullery dancing around the stage with a shopping trolley to the music of Swan Lake And there is a beautiful final song where the whole cast move to a song which shows them wanting a new kind of life.

     
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Carlie Newman

   
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