Although this newsletter is officially on hiatus and will resume publication on Monday September 20 (as I’m on holiday in Barbados!), I’m interrupting my time on the beach to deliver this bulletin with the reviews of FROZEN that opened officially at the West End’s refurbished Theatre Royal, Drury Lane last night.
I am also using this opportunity to raise the subject of (lack of) mask wearing in the West End, which as COVID infections and death rates rise all over Britain, is a particularly egregious failure of leadership and policy at SOLT and UK THEATRE.
If/when theatres are forced to close again, as well they might, will Andrew Lloyd Webber once again blame government policy? Or the failure of his own theatres to properly insist on safety protocols being followed?
- The Guardian (5*, by Arifa Akbar): “The production takes a few scenes to come into its own and the opening appears like a too-exact replica of the animation… Gradually, however, it grows to become its own magical thing, with some charming inventions and a few new songs (the best of which is an audacious comic number, appearing out of nowhere to satirise the Nordic notion of hygge as naked characters conga out of a sauna). What is more surprising than the uniformly storming singing voices and the theatrical razzmatazz is the sense of a real, beating heart in the relationship between the two tortured sisters.”
- Daily Mail (5*, by Patrick Marmion): “Frozen was the Disney movie that launched a thousand earworms – as parents around the world will attest Let It Go, Do You Want To Build A Snowman and other anthems ran on a continuous loop in the heads of hapless mums and dads, sometimes for years, depending on the size of your brood. But whatever we grown-ups may think of those songs, you’ve got to take your bobble hat off to Michael Grandage’s amazing blizzard of a staging – which finally made its West End debut last night. It’s an ice storm of a show featuring (literally) breathtaking magic and mesmerising meteorological effects in Christopher Oram’s stunning stage design that rivals the animation of the film and adds a whole new wow of its own. The production is as much a replica of the movie as gravity and other laws of physics will allow. But its defining features are its magic and its spectacle.”
- The Times (4*, by Clive Davis): “Yes, tradiitonalists do have a point about the Disneyfication of the West End, and they’re right to worry that msuical theatre risks becoming just another way of repackaging hit films. Still, the latest import — a spin-off of the animated tale that broke box-office records — turns out to be an honourable addition to the genre. The first thinig to say about Michael Grandage’s elegant production, in fact, is that it has a tad more emotional depth than the film, which was a bland, Barbie Doll-liek confection with little of the verve of the Toy Story franchise. Grandage’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen hasn’t forgotten how to target its core demographic.”
- WhatsOnStage (4*, by Sarah Crompton): “It’s not often that I realise I am entirely the wrong demographic for a theatre outing. I thought Frozen, with its girl power story of two sisters uniting to save the world through love and sisterhood, would suit me and my friend down to the ground. But as we walked into the sumptuously remodelled Drury Lane Theatre, I wasn’t quite so sure. We seemed to be the only people in the audience who weren’t dressed in blue satin dresses or purple cloaks – or their parents…. Michael Grandage’s stage production consequently can’t stray too far from the original without alienating the people it seeks to attract. On Broadway, this proved a problem. The show opened to slightly chilly reviews, and closed permanently when lockdown came, after only 850 performances. But the US doesn’t have the British tradition of panto – and if you regard Frozen as an unseasonal Christmas treat, then it is the most enormous fun.”
- The Stage (4*, by Tim Bano): “Samantha Barks [pictured above] is ideal as Elsa, bringing a sense of interiority and inner conflict to the unhappy princess; she’s all grace and poise in her regal gowns and remains very still, as if by allowing herself to move at all she would buckle under the weight of her icy curse and her duty to the throne. As Anna, in contrast, Stephanie McKeon never settles for a moment. She adopts the restlessness of an Arctic explorer, striding around the stage, but adding plenty of goofy splashes and facial expressions to lighten things up. They’re supported brilliantly by Oliver Ormson, as darkly dashing Prince Hans, and Obioma Ugoala as a smiley Kristoff. Barks dominates things with her reserved authority, McKeon simply by taking up space, but despite their polar opposite approaches their voices are wonderful complements to one another.”
- Time Out (4*, by Andzrej Lukowski): “Michael Grandage’s musical version of Disney’s animated enormo-smash is almost identical to the film in terms of plot beats. But he dials down the wilder fantasy, steering the show – within obvious constraints – to something a little closer in tone to ‘The Snow Queen’, the Hans Christian Andersen tale that it’s based upon. It’s still a dazzling spectacle that the film’s legions of kiddie fans will love. But adults will note that it’s more serious, sadder and wiser than the film.”
- Daily Telegraph (3*, by Dominic Cavendish): “Flinging open its mighty doors after a £60m refurbishment and relaunching with the UK premiere of Disney’s Frozen, ‘the Lane’ deserves five stars for inspirational palatial grandeur. It is the peffect fairytale spot for Frozen? Yes, and no. The romance of the place, from the jaw-dropping vistas on arrival to the opulence of the re-configured auditorium, builds incredible audience excitement. But while the ambience is faultless, that finesse points up how cursory Frozen sometimes feels. The venue is a sensation; the show, despite flurries of potency nad a brance of songs you go in humming, is serviceable. Beside Disneys’ theatrical masterstroke, The Lion King, it looks a lot like a poor relation.”
- The Independent (3*, by Ava Wong Davies): “For the most part,, this stage adaptation of Frozen is intended to feel as comforting and familiar as one of Olaf’s warm hugs. It wants to maintain what it is that made its source material so wildly successful in the first place, and the best way to do that is, essentially, a 1:1 recreation of the film, down to Elsa’s iconic sparkling blue dress (revealed in a sleight of hand so good that the stage managers should receive a raise for pulling it off every night). You can see it even in the way in which Craig Gallivan’s Olaf, though blessed with an impeccable sense of comic timing and some excellent puppeteering skills, seems to have been directed to mimic Josh Gad’s delivery from the film, presumably in an effort to not alienate the snowman’s hordes of young fans. You could call it fan service, but it’s also clearly a case of protecting a multimillion-dollar brand. Frozen is pure product by this point, if you couldn’t tell by the soft toys being touted by the ushers in the interval: immaculately executed, yes, but with the undeniable air of a well-oiled theme park ride.”
- Evening Standard (3*, by Nick Curtis): “Fans of the hit 2013 Disney film will doubtless love it, but this musical stage adaptation of Frozen left me cold. On the plus side it’s full of dazzle and wit, with powerhouse central performances by sharp-edged Samantha Barks and winningly goofy Stephanie McKeon as sisters Elsa and Anna.Puppet snowman Olaf – operated and voiced by Craig Gallivan – is a joy, and the refurbished Drury Lane looks ravishing.The themes of empowerment and acceptance remain strong but the story was always weak. And despite several new songs, Michael Grandage’s production strives to emulate the film without adding substantial theatrical oomph. Choreographer Rob Ashford contributes witty dances for couples but generically whirling Ruritanian crowds. Let it go? I probably could.”
- The i Paper (3*, by Sam Marlowe): “”There’s little scope for the cast – led by Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon as royal sisters Elsa and Anna – to bring fresh dimension to the cartoon characters. Still, they’re eminently watchable, McKeon’s warm, relatably klutzy Anna contrasting nicely with Barks’s coolly elegant Elsa, whose ability to control the wintry weather sees her estranged from her family and exiled from her home. Barks has a beautiful, crystalline voice, and she’s forced to compete, in the make-or-break ‘Let It Go’, with a blizzard of special effects, including an astonishing mid-song costume change: it’s impressive, but it undercuts the song’s emotional impact…. Grandage’s direction and Rob Ashford’s choreography never achieve the swirling euphoria we crave. And when the show cuts loose from the original, it sparks into life: the cheeky, sauna-set number ‘Hygge’ is a riot, all bare bottoms and bobble hats.”
AN (OFTEN) MASK-LESS WEST END
A week ago today, I flew to Barbados. As I wrote in my column here, “For starters, vaccination certificates and a current PCR test are required before boarding a flight — and these are checked BEFORE check-in (see below). So everyone who boards the flight is already known to be recently negative.
And once on board, you are reminded that it is a condition of carriage to wear your mask through the flight. Anyone who doesn’t may be denied future travel on the airline.
Finally, on arrival in Barbados, notwithstanding the negative tests we had before we left, the authorities re-tested EVERYONE; we were then despatched our hotels, to await the results in our rooms. During this time, we are NOT allowed to leave them at all. Food can be ordered via room service, which is delivered to your door (by someone wearing a mask, of course).”
If only UK theatres were doing the same…. It strikes me that there has been a major failure of leadership here: SOLT have failed to take the lead and Equity have failed, too. What’s been sacrificed in the process is the safety of everyone — cast, crew and audiences alike.”
Yesterday, I received the following unsolicited email from a reader:
I shared this letter with SOLT/UK Theatre joint CEO Julian Bird, SOLT President Eleanor Lloyd and UK Theatre President Fiona Allan. None have responded.
Yet on Broadway, masking is COMPULSORY and only fully vaccinated people are ALLOWED to attend Broadway productions. If there are religious or other heatlh reasons for not having had a vaccination, proof of a current negative test must be provided.
The same protocols need to be implemented in London and across Britain immediately.
SEE YOU NEXT HERE ON SEPTEMBER 14…
I plan to do another ‘special’ edition of this newsletter on September 14, to cover the reviews of BACK TO THE FUTURE that opens on September 13.But if you can’t wait that long, you may find me on Twitter (intermittently, I hope) between now and then: Twitter.com/ShentonStage