ShentonSTAGE Daily for FRIDAY JULY 29

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily, being sent just before I head off for Boston and then on to Cape Cod later today for two weeks. I may do a mid-holiday edition of this newsletter, but if not, I will be back here on Wednesday August 17.

I’ve just had two nights in London again on Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday was forced upon me — in order to be in town for Wednesday, I had to come up a night early so I could avoid Wednesday’s train strike.

But it did mean I could pay a return to BAD JEWS that was itself returning to the Arts Theatre that night, before I (finally!) caught Jamie Lloyd’s production of THE SEAGULL on Wednesday afternoon that had just gone into previews at the Playhouse in 2020 when the pandemic shut it — and every other theatre — down; it is now back, partially re-cast, at the Harold Pinter, since the Playhouse has, of course, become the Kit Kat Klub for the immersive revival of CABARET for the foreseeable future.

On Wednesday evening, I saw the opening of SISTER ACT at the Eventim Apollo, which was likewise first announced to open there in the summer of 2020, after a run at Curve in Leicester, but was shut down just as it went into rehearsal then; and has now finally managed to reach the stage, again partially re-cast.

It is now part of an extensive national tour, that didn’t originate at Leicester as previously planned, but played Manchester ahead of London, and will now tour extensively from September 20 (originating at Dublin, then playing Birmingham and Leicester, with many other dates to follow; but without its expensive London headliners, Jennifer Saunders and Beverley Knight; their roles are being taken on tour by Lesley Joseph and Sandra Marvin respectively).

The original “star” attraction in 2020 was going to be Whoopi Goldberg, returning to the role she created in the original 1992 (non-musical) film; she is no longer available to do it now, hence Beverley Knight (above left) stepping in. That turns out to be an immensely lucky break — she’s one of our greatest musical theatre vocalists and has come direct from The Drifters’ Girl in the West End to play Dolores with stunning vocal power, as ever.

She also spreads a glow of instant goodwill over the show, as does Jennifer Saunders as the Mother Superior (though Saunders, of course, can’t begin to compete in the vocal musical stakes, she supplies plenty of great comedy timing for free).

But the production is luxuriously cast through the entire ranks, with star turns in comparatively small featured roles from Jeremy Secomb (who played Javert in the West End and Sweeney Todd in a production that transferred from a pie shop in Tooting all the way to Shaftesbury Avenue and Off-Broadway), Clive Rowe, The Greatest Showman star Keala Settle, and Lizzie Bea (star of last year’s Hairspray, who has another scene-stealing turn here). Lesley Joseph, ahead of playing the Mother Superior after Saunders, meanwhile has some delightful comedy business as one of the other nuns.

There isn’t a weak link in the immensely likeable company. And a show that I previously regarded as merely mediocre when it originally received its British premiere at the London Palladium in 2009 (and then saw again on Broadway in 2011), provides plenty of joy in this punchy new production under the stewardship of a new director Bill Buckhurst.

Hammersmith may be London’s biggest theatrical barns — it’s even bigger than the Dominion — which does mean that it can’t exactly play to, or reveal, any subtlety, but it’s actually the best show I’ve ever seen here: a warm, glowing blast of summer comic pleasure.  

BAD JEWS (Arts Theatre)

From London’s biggest indoor auditorium to one of the West End’s smallest: the grubby Arts, off Leicester Square, hardly has more charm than Hammersmith’s wide open spaces, but it helps to concentrate the fierce, angry comedy of Joshua Harmon’s BAD JEWS.

Originally premiered off-Broadway in 2012 before receiving its UK premiere at Bath’s Ustinov Theatre in 2014 in a new production directed by Michael Longhurst that subsequently transferred first to the St James (now The Other Palace), then the Arts, its return there is very welcome.

It is now re-directed by Jon Pashley, who fields a superb young cast as two brothers and their awful female cousin fighting over the legacy and inheritance from their Holocaust survivor grandfather who has only just been buried, joined by the non-Jewish girlfriend of one of the brothers.

As the play wrestles with the simmering family and cultural tensions between them, it proves to be both scalding and provocative.

I have, in the last week, revealed the extent of my father’s toxic rejection of me (when I wrote about BILLY ELLIOT here at Leicester, whose father embraces and supports his son), as well as about sex addiction (when I wrote about CLOSER here at the Lyric Hammersmith). BAD JEWS provides another opportunity to get personal: though I was raised as an Anglican, it wasn’t until I was nearly 40 that I discovered that I’m, in fact, Jewish, as my mother, born in Nazi-occupied Poland, had a Jewish mother.

So I, too, am a bad Jew: one who hasn’t formally embraced his own cultural heritage (no, I’m not even circumcised). Though I was actually delighted by the discovery: I’d once attended a Passover Seder in New York, and as we went around the table doing readings, I remember keenly feeling how wonderful it would be to have these kinds of traditions in my life. And many of my New York Jewish friends have long wondered if I had Jewish blood; in fact, when I told Nick Hytner once at the National Theatre, he replied, “I never thought you WEREN’T Jewish!”

So this play’s conflict between Jews who keenly embrace their culture, as the cousin does, or assimilate (the brother’s girlfriend is a Shiksa — i.e. non-Jew, dating one), struck a personal chord with me about a family legacy I very nearly missed.

THE SEAGULL (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Using a similar aesthetic to his wildly acclaimed adaptation of CYRANO DE BERGERAC that played at the Playhouse in 2019 with James McAvoy in the title role (and was revived for a run in New York earlier this year), director Jamie Lloyd’s bare staged, static and stripped back production of THE SEAGULL has the barefooted actors seated throughout on plastic chairs and heavily amplified.

As such, it sometimes feels more akin to a live radio recording than the play as we usually know it, but it also feels bold and bracing. You are seeing and hearing the play through fresh ears and eyes, both yours and those of Lloyd, his actors and creative team. They are (self?) consciously creating something different and surprising.

There are some outstanding performances from a fully-committed cast, including a languid Arkadina from Indira Varma (second from left above, often sounding like Tamsin Greig), with Daniel Monks (third from left above) as her sweet aspiring playwright son Konstantin, who wants to change theatre. So, clearly, does director Jamie Lloyd.

The star draw, of course, is GAME OF THRONES star Emilia Clarke (above extreme left), tiny of physical stature but who makes a big impression as Nina. So does Tom Rhys Harries as Trigorin (above, extreme right) and Robert Glenister as Sorin.

SING YER HEART OUT FOR THE LADS (Chichester’s Minerva Theatre)

After two nights in London, I returned to West Sussex yesterday, and last night caught Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of its 2019 production of Roy Willams’ 2002 play SING HER HEART OUT FOR THE LADS, originally premiered at the National Theatre.

This production was due to transfer back there in director Nicole Charles’ staging prior to the pandemic, but that got cancelled; instead, Chichester artistic director Daniel Evans has brought it back to the Minerva (where it is now revived by director Joanna Bowman), transformed inside and out into a South London pub called the King George, on the day of the finale of the England v Germany Euro 2000 football playoff, being screened live to the pub’s customers that include us.

Joanna Scotcher’s immersive set begins at the theatre doors, with signage above it and into the bar, where period music plays over the speakers. The theatre itself has been transformed into a fully working bar, with a pool table and table football game, with some of the audience perched on bar stools around the stage.

If the setting feels fully authentic, it is also utterly inhabited by a superb ensemble cast that brings it to life with wonderful humanity. Williams’s play brutally lays out the everyday racism, even between characters who easily co-exist, that would lead so directly to Brexit, while the knife crime that has become such a sad and recurring feature of London life is also poignantly illustrated.

This play is utterly essential viewing. While Chichester fields a sell-out production of the happiest show now playing anywhere, CRAZY FOR YOU, in its main house, the Minerva studio has one of the most important. But business is currently slow; if there is any justice, it should be entirely sold out.

FUTURE SHOWS

My regularly updated list of new productions in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-july-25-onwards/

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