Chess: in concert #TheatreReview

Thursday 14th of April 2016, I had the pleasure of watching Chess, in concert, a production by my favourite – I am very biased! – Amateur Dramatics Group, The Hitchin Thespians

Chess is a musical with music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, which is set in the cold war era and comments on the political status of USA and Russia during that time through the parallel of a chess tournament. Historically the musical was a huge success in the West End where it played for 3 years, opening on 1986. No major attempts at reviving the musical have been made, but it continues to be one of the most relevant musical placing 7th in BBC Radio 2’s “Number One Essential Musicals” list, demonstrating its strength as a piece.

The Thespians, an operatic amateur dramatics society that has been around for over 100 years and decided to tackle this incredible piece but in a concert version. I loved every second but have to be analytical of a few things that theatrically did not work.

The space at Woodside hall where the thespians perform is rectangular, usually the stage is located at one of the narrower ends of the stage but this time they decided to go for a long stage and long seating. This allowed them to add the members of choir either side of the central stage. However, this caused a huge unbalance in the sound where audiences on either side could only really hear the choir directly infront of them. Audience members sat in the central area were welcomed with a fantastic wall of sound however.

Performances were excellent from the main cast, as usual the pool of talent in the society oozes and they never cease to impress. The band again was incredible, giving the sound of a full orchestra and musical band with just two pianos and a drum set. Overall for an amateur production, with limited space and flexibility they tackled their issues head on and tried to make it work as best as possible. Still a completely enjoyable performance and I think that for any growing theatre producer, actor, practitioner, director etc it is important to see as many productions that can show you the type of challenges that you can encounter. However, it is s much fun to come up with alternatives to make it work. So if you don’t come and watch the Hitchin Thespians, go watch your own local theatre group, to watch some incredible untapped talent and to learn more about the basics of the beautiful thing that is theatre and live performance.

Gypsy – theatre review

Hello everyone, apologies for the absence, so much family and work stuff has happened in the last 4 weeks that DiscoveringDiana has just fallen by the waste side a bit. However, I have discovered many things! So hopefully lots of fresh content will be coming very often this month 🙂 Happy December, countdown to Christmas is officially on.

I love going to the theatre and watching things I would typically not choose to see. This was the case on Wednesday 21st of October.

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I know this is a bit weird to admit, but as a thespian you don’t always involve yourself in every piece of theatre or film based on theatre that you can. Gypsy was never a show that fascinated me, I didn’t even know what it was about or did I have any immediate desire to watch it. I knew of it, knew its most famous song ‘Everything is coming up roses’, I knew it was a thing that existed but really not much more. I knew for a fact that it was one of my best friends’ favourite musical, but for the life of me I did not know why. Attending Gypsy came around for two very simple reasons: Imelda Stauton – DUH! – and it was a present from me for a friend’s birthday. Needless to say we both were in for a complete surprise as we both came from the same Gypsy ignorant group – and we call ourselves thespians, shame on us!

So Gypsy is set in the late 50s and 60s, and is a musical that follows the memoirs of Burlesque performer Gypsy Rose. The plot, however, centres itself around Rose, Gypsy’s mother, and the lengths this woman went to to guarantee her daughters’ success, even to the point of ruining the family relationship. It is an incredibly American plot, with the stubborn desire for more leading the way for Rose’s incessant plotting and scheming of theatrical greatness in Vaudeville.

Imelda Stauton is A M A Z I N G! Can anyone deny this? I watched her a few year’s ago in another Sondheim piece, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, where she played Mrs Lovett. She is just joy in a box. Her vocal prowess and strength is incredible, and it is such a flexible tone. From Rose to Mrs Lovett she is able to embody a character so entirely that it extends to her voice. A lot of actors I have found revert back to one vocal line when singing and can only hold a character and make them standout in straight acting situations. Being able to differentiate character even in song is a great ability to master, and Stauton has it down to a T. She honestly sounds NOTHING alike in each of the pieces I have seen her act in let alone sing. It is truly humbling to be in the presence of such a rich talent, who has voiced puny yet terrifying Umbridge, to the lustful and desire ridden Mrs Lovett, to motherly determined Rose. I cannot extend the amount of shivers this woman caused me that evening, especially because she stood right next to me to make her first entrance on stage. I was in the same air bubble as Imelda, and myself and my friend shamelessly gasped and shrieked when we realised she was RIGHT THERE.

Aside from the incredible performance of the protagonist, the remainder of the cast was incredibly talented. From the children performers to the adult versions of Rose’s children, the entire cast held their role and their parts in the world of Rose very well. There is not much I can say, effortless singing and dancing, great comedic moments from some, but to be honest the entire cast, and indeed the entire piece, falls flat in the background of Imelda’s outstanding performance as well as Rose’s overzealous personality and way of living.

As much as I enjoyed Gypsy, there are a lot of aspects of it that I have to analyse. For me, at many points this story has no need to be shared as a musical. I find most successful musicals the musical numbers actually drive the plot forward and seem to influence the story. I felt the musical numbers in gypsy existed to simply make the play a musical. Aside from some numbers most of them were unnecessary. I understand that the piece has to demonstrate Rose’s failed attempts to grant her daughters’ success by constantly re-hashing dead and exhausted performance numbers, but this is in itself becomes tiring for the audience. From one perspective this makes Sondheim’s musical very static, very unmovable. It seems the show never truly evolves because Rose – the lead character – is constantly on the same page. However it shows that in the background the world and her daughters are evolving and growing up. If this was used as a device, then Sondheim wrote the static music perfectly. The numbers therefore become a true aid to the play to continuously show the cyclical never changing nature of Rose’s path. Stuck with tunnel vision her life is reflected in the repetitive nature of the song numbers. Now thinking about it, that would be what Sondheim did, as he is obviously a genius.

However, from an audience view point, Sondheim loses the interest precisely because of this technique. Then again, if you were offered a front seat to the saga of Rose’s life that’s exactly what you would have felt. The pivotal numbers ‘Everything is coming up roses’ and ‘Rose’s Turn’ demonstrate the true determination of the woman in succeeding. Once for her children and once finally for her. We know that really her projection of her desires towards her children’s lives stem from her own wish to be accepted and loved which make Rose a very human character – although incredibly demanding and driven. By the end of the show, just in time for ‘Rose’s turn’ everything seems to take a sudden halt, as Rose has been abandoned by the daughter she coddled and pushed to success, and abandoned by the daughter who once wanted to please her the most. At this point she is able to analyse her own life in reflection of what she had done to her daughter and family, how she has driven them away by wanting to drive them to a success written entirely in her own rules. She cracks, and Sondheim’s lyrics here beautifully portray the break down and thought process of the character, who in the end is somewhat redeemed as we are given a shred of hope that everything will be alright when Louise seemingly suggests that she will forgive her mother.

Complete highlight of the performance for me was a very well written and staged introduction to the world of burlesque! With Anita Louise Combe, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand taking the roles of Tessie Tura, Mazzeppa and Electra respectively, they introduced and seduced Louise into entering the world of Burlesque. It is very fun number that steals all the comedic thunder of the musical, with phenomenal shabby choreography, great inventive and interactive costumes and three incredible actresses that have no fear in looking, acting and sounding like fools, it really did brighten my day in the middle of an otherwise incredibly intense play.

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I feel that Gypsy is a very entertaining musical, incredibly American in its ambition and characters. It is flamboyant but also somewhat understated musically. With very little original large musical numbers, and very repetitive music that add to the overall feel of the piece, it is a musical I was more than happy to have the pleasure of watching before closing in November. I feel it was a great choice of revival for 2014/15 when younger generations and even my current one is struggling to achieve immediate success in many industries and we are all being pressured from every direction. It is a learning lesson for parents and children alike, it is fun and lively, but also quite emotionally consuming. The performances delivered were absolutely captivating and incredible. I for one, as someone who always wants the music to be the driving force of the musical, felt a bit robbed of that pleasure when I saw it, but upon thinking about it I find it very refreshing and intelligent to show the music reflecting the entire mind of one particular character, Rose the true driving force of the piece.

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Please watch it if it ever returns! Or get your hands on one of the recordings which will be kept in the archives of the Drama and Theatre Department of the V&A – Victoria Albert Museum – and you will be able to watch it for a very small fee.

Let me know what you have been watching at the theatre lately!

Miss Saigon – theatre review

Miss Saigon has only earlier this year returned to the West End and has taken the box office by storm and it is already set to shut by February 2016. As the production costs and maintenance are huge and the venue is not enjoying full houses all the time it is only natural to see it go away as fast as it appeared. So before it shut, I had the pleasure of watching it on the 19th of September 2015.

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Miss Saigon is the story of a Vietnamese girl, Kim, who is working in a brothel in Saigon. She falls in love with an American soldier, Chris, they quickly get married and try to move to the USA as the troops are vacating Vietnam, but she stays behind and unbeknownst to him, she is pregnant. The musical then follows the plot to their reunion and everything that happens in the mean time, politically in Saigon, now Ho Chi Min, and to the characters’ romantic entanglements in their own countries.

Knowing the history and background of the musical, I have to give the biggest praise to the creative team! Choreography and set played with each other beautifully. One of the most phenomenal numbers The Fall of Saigon is set with a set of moveable fences that rotate and change positions as we to and fro between Kim outside the fence and Chris stuck inside. With dancers flinging themselves fearlessly at the fence to truly demonstrate the desperation and desire to escape as well as the fear of those who wanted to keep the gates shut. It was beautifully created and truly showed that not only are the cast extremely talented, but are supported by a creative dream team. From Bob Avian, musical staging, Geoffrey Garratt, additional choreography, Totie Driver, Matt Kinley and Adrian Vaux, set design; this incredible group of people enable the cast to perform in a stage that not only supports the narrative and contextualises it. they are truly able to embellish the performance and add to the brilliant production of this musical. This also shows why the production is having to shut early, as cost wise I can only imagine the rotating sets and the live helicopter must cost a fortune to uphold. Regardless, for this alone, the sheer detail, flexibility and creativity of the set, the entire production was worth watching. In my opinion, one of the best uses of space in theatre I have seen in a while in terms of stage, set and choreography design. Bravo!

Let me talk about Jon Jon Briones. Jon Jon took upon perhaps the most iconic, comedic and full character of the entire show, The Engineer. A character that does not have a name per say, but leads and drives majority of the plot by his sheer cunning and desire and belief that he will go to the USA and pursue the American dream – fantastic number by the way. He is, in my opinion, the true star of the entire cast. The small nuances that made the character and he maintained throughout the show, from small hand gestures, quick flicks of the wrist and a nasal pronunciation of only certain words.He kept the character true to his sleazy self, but always with a flair of superiority and class. Jon Jon completely captured the Engineer, his slimy, self centered egotistical ways, his way of pretending and demonstrating himself as superior but then cowering at the first sign of fear. A true talent, with an amazing set of pipes to add the mix, I am proud to say he held his own to show the performing excellence that comes from the Philippines.

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Eva Noblezada was fantastic as Kim. Kim was a character that started off for me as truly irritating. I cannot stand women that are lead entirely by men in their lives, from the Engineer, to her father, ex husband Thuy and even driven only by potentially being with Chris, the entire first act of Miss Saigon truly makes Kim for me a very difficult character to like. That being said, political context and all she was very well written and developed. In the second half, as she has grown as a mother and we are introduced to her son Tam, we begin to see that not only out of love for a man who left her, but mostly an ideal of that, it is truly the love for her son that drives her forward. This for me is incredible. There are many people, feminists, that will say she should not need this incentive to move forward, but being a mother is the one thing that truly distinguishes us from men, it is a capacity only we have and a connection that only we can have with our children. As the presence of this boy nearly brought me to tears, I was interrupted from my potential crying by my mother and sister seated either side of me sobbing and sniffling relentlessly for Tam. Noblezada, accompanied by her phenomenal, awe provoking and goosepump causing voice, took on this challenging, powerful and multi dimensional character beautifully. She embodied Kim entirely, and I had the pleasure of seeing her transform from a quiet, shy but filled with morals young innocent girl to a woman with a purpose in 2 hours. It killed me to watch Kim’s end, but it was very much where the story was leading and Noblezada showed us a fighter and warrior the entire way. Truly fantastic.

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Disappointingly, her leading man left much to desire. And I LOVE THIS! I love that this man was a failure to his first love and child, I love that this man isn’t even man enough for his current partner. I love that he is torn apart and has no clue what to do with himself, and that even in war, he was weakened by his emotions, weakened by his desire to leave and love. I think this is a TRUE character. In that this person actually lives amongst us. A man with difficulty to accept and remember the troubled past of war, and that struggles with something that was ripped out of him. I am just saddened that they cast Chris Peluso to portray the fantastically real and failed character of Chris. A nasal voice, not much in terms of delivery of character development, it is a shame that he was not left in the background as an all swinging and singing chorus member. I feel this was not the role for him because he perhaps did not understand the complexity and wonderfulness of playing a character that is so completely damaged, a MAN in theatre that is so devastatingly broken. A man who was not capable of being the hero.

I had not come across Miss Saigon in film or stage before, and although I had some idea of the type of music and setting I was so overwhelmed by how well constructed it is. It was a true delight to watch it and be able to now share with you my views. It is an outstanding piece of theatre and music and I can see why it returns to the West End regularly, in spite of how costly it is to run. A genuine tear jerker, set in the woes of war we know devastated and destroyed a lot of families, people and countries, and that today we still see remnants of it. Overall one of the most phenomenal pieces I have seen, but do not think I could go through that much emotion again on stage. Give me 5 years to recover.

Miss Saigon is set to be removed from the Prince Edward Theatre in February 2016. It would be a true shame if you did not spend 2 hours of your time going to watch this. Click here for info and ticket details.

Memphis! – theatre review

Memphis! is one of the musicals that has taken the West End by storm in the last year, and I am so glad I had the pleasure of watching it on Saturday the 5th of September.

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Going into London is always an adventure these days, remembering the old paths I used to walk regularly and trying to recall where every west end theatre is positioned. Heading to the Shaftesbury Theatre was definitely an experience, stepping into the USA and feeling like I belonged in a true musical revolution.

Memphis takes place in a time we all know as the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. In the 1950s when one radio DJ dared to feature black music in his show and changed the face of music in America and the world beyond.

Beverly Knight embodies the character of Felicia Farrell and does she do her justice. Knight, known as the British queen of soul hits every note without hesitation and provokes vibrations and goose bumps in all audience members. Delivering that southern american twang simply beautifully, she delved into her inner soul sister and rendered a flawless performance of the character she is given, not to mention the songs. However, I do have a slight problem with Felicia Farrell.

I waited a whole 2 hours to watch this woman do something about her life! As a complete sucker for strong female characters, when we are first introduced to Felicia Farrell I was convinced she would be the driving force of the entire show, the one that would dictate the action and in a certain way she is, but only by the men that veered her career. Felicia is the gift of the whole story, she has the incredible voice and the true talent to become a star, but under the constant mis-management from both her lover Huey and brother Delray, it takes her until the end of the show to achieve the recording dream. Furthermore, she only gets there because the one time she was given a choice by her brother to stay and fight for her relationship and love life or leave and get a recording contract and escape the difficulties, she fled. It is a difficult character to reason with for me, because although all these things seem shallow – yes we all have big dreams of love and romance, I do too! – when presented with the opportunity to possibly escape the scrutiny of a race haters, Felicia chose well and in her REAL LIFE position, we would have all done the same. But she is suppose to be a theatre heroine, a strong example of power and correctness, and she even fails in protecting her own friends. I feel the writers here didn’t do Felicia justice, and could have really given her a strong role to play a revolutionary role even. Still, as I said, Knight does the absolute best with the character she is given within the limiting dimensions of a damsel in distress, much more, a damsel in distress and under racist attacks.

Moving on! Matt Cardle, an X Factor winner, and born to be a musical actor not a recording artist. Where did all that sass, american-ness and performance skills come from? From a boy who at auditions only sang in his eyes closed and looked like he was going to cry every five seconds? Hell, he made the nation shed a tear every high note! A truly talented singer proves to be much more than just a kid with a voice, he is a man with a true skill.

Aside from a truly remarkable performance, what have we got in terms of the character Huey Callhoun? After some time getting over his truly irritating habits, everyone is able to see that he is a very loveable, caring and open minded man, and in all his ignorance he is the beauty of the play. Yes, through the trudges of trying to expose the world to true rock ‘n’ roll he makes some mistakes, but he is the driving force of the entire play. Making a small change in Memphis which leads to a national outbreak of music, Huey Callhoun lost his status and love to protect his friends and make sure their voices were heard.

And this is why Felicia really gets on my nerves, is that the writers had the AUDACITY of making her say such a thing as ‘You think you’re more black than me?!’ no Felicia, this is not the case at all. The problem is, as much as the white man instigated the movement, writer should have been able to demonstrate that the community didn’t just sit and wait for it to happen either. I understand that at the time, yes it is very correct that the movement had to be supported and pushed forward with white people supporting it. However, this is theatre, give your truly important and potentially great characters a chance to live with history would not have permitted them to. So take a page from Hairspray! As much as Tracey did what she did, Mamma Morton was the true driving force and leading lady of the whole thing. Give Felicia a chance to prove she is the next Mamma Morton! She has the pipes for goodness sake!

I have to say though, the writing in general, regardless of ill creation of characters, cannot be flawed. The lyrics and book are beautifully written, with puns WRNB being my absolute favourite one – watch the show and you will know! – you could not have asked for a better written script in terms of the words itself. It is elegant and down right dirty when it needs to, it is filled with delicacies and colloquialisms, it is simply inspirational for us aspiring writers especially.

A true feel good musical at its core, it is not about the love succeeding but the music and movement itself! And it does, so mightily succeed. As much as I flaw a few aspects of it, do bear in mind I am only one voice in THOUSANDS if not millions who have watched Memphis. I would watch it again, because I left the Shaftesbury Theatre, on a Saturday afternoon, feeling that whatever ill is thrown in our direction in this World, no matter how long it takes it will be overcome by what is correct.