Five Reasons To See Dreamgirls

The wait is finally over as Broadway smash Dreamgirls brings its glitz and glamour to London’s West End 35 years after this story of a 60s girl group first wowed New York audiences.  Here are five reasons why you need to get your ticket today.

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  1. Amber Riley

Glee fans will already be familiar with Amber’s knockout voice and those who never heard her as sweet-natured Mercedes Jones are in for a spine-tingling treat. Amber plays Effie White in the show, the lead singer in The Dreamettes alongside her best friends Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson, who soon discover that the path to fame is as strewn with heartbreak as it is dreams. For a sneaky listen to Amber’s power to set hearts racing and tears flowing, check out this preview of her singing ‘I Am Changing’.

2. The Songs

From heart-wrenching big ballads to Motown-style stompers, the Dreamgirls musical numbers will have you dancing in the aisles, sobbing into your popcorn – and humming them for days. Audience favourites includes ‘I Am Changing’, ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ and ‘Listen’ – originally made famous by Beyoncé in the 2009 film and now a part of the stage production.

 3. The Costumes

The spangly frocks, the wigs, the sparkly shoes – Dreamgirls is almost as famous for its fabulous costumes as it is for its killer tunes. And the costume changes are as frequent as a Diana Ross tantrum – the 2009 US touring production of Dreamgirls had over 460 costumes and 205 wigs. The London production’s wardrobe has been designed by renowned, Tony Award winning costume designer Gregg Barnes.

4. The Story

It’s not all singing and dancing, Dreamgirls is an engrossing and emotional story. The plot follows the fortunes – and failures – of Chicago-based trio The Dreamettes – Deena Jones, Lorrell Robinson and Effie White after they are discovered by ambitious agent Curtis Taylor, Jr. The girls’ career takes off under Taylor, but at a cost as it’s not long before he’s controlling their every move. Under the stress of success, cracks begin to show in the group as the beautiful Deena emerges as the star of the group over the gifted Effie. 

5. Be Part Of History

Dreamgirls first hit Broadway in 1981 directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. The show won six Tony Awards and has toured the United States and the world. The show finally arrives in London in a highly anticipated new production directed and choreographed by the hugely successful, Tony and Olivier award-winning Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Something Rotten!). One of the reasons why the show took so long to arrive in the West End was because producers couldn’t find the perfect Effie – until they discovered Amber. And who wouldn’t want to miss out on perfection?

Dreamgirls | Savoy Theatre | Booking from 23 November 2016 | Click Here For Tickets

Theatre Review: Seminar, Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Roger Allam in Seminar at Hampstead Theatre

Seminar follows that well worn dramatic set piece that takes a group of unlikeable people and puts them in a situation that will push buttons to the point that hard truths will emerge and, bingo! Drama!

In this case, the situation is a weekly writing seminar led by a once successful novelist turned  legendary editor, Leonard (Roger Allam). The group meet once a week at Kate’s (rent controlled) Upper West Side apartment. Kate is a rich, white girl with a bitter and ultra-sensitive streak that Leonard identifies and picks at with a brutality that leaves her stunned and the rest of the group cowering.

Leonard is one of those aggressively male, charismatic old school American writers (Jack Kerouac gets referenced more than once, so take your cue from that). He’s bullish to the point of being a bully, but, hey, the ladies love him. He rips the soul of out of the stories his students have written, but while they may be peeved, they’re still desperate for his approval.

Finishing the mismatched quintet is Douglas (Oliver Hembrough) who is a privileged young man. We know this because of his socks (bright pink then baby blue) paired with deck shoes and his off-stage uncle, who rubs shoulders with the great and not so good. He opens the show with a brilliantly stupid monologue, but then rather fizzles away, subdued by Leonard. Hembrough’s face during Leonard’s take down of his ‘whorish’ work would have been heartbreaking if he wasn’t wearing bright pink socks. Joining them is Izzy (Rebecca Grant), a hyper sensualised woman whose motivations are unclear other than that she loves sex and the male gaze. Happy to both look and touch her is Bryan Dick’s grungey Martin who could be the nice guy of the group if he wasn’t such an insensitive drip.

Of course, these five near-strangers rub each other up the wrong way (although actually many of the problems arise from them rubbing each up the right way), igniting a smouldering cauldron of egos, sexual tension, envy and bitterness until it boils over.

Still in its preview stage, there was a little stiffness to the production that will no doubt ease into itself as the actors inhabit their roles and the script’s sticky parts come unstuck. Not that the performances weren’t very good in what must be a tricky play to get the tone of right. Kate is very White Company, all cashmere cardies and Sauvignon Blanc. She could be one of those irritating stage women that playwrights seem to love – shrill, humourless, super sensitive – who stomps about on plush carpets brandishing a wine glass like a weapon. Full credit then to Charity Wakefield who brings a natural vulnerability to what could be an abrasive role and makes Kate, and her cashmere wardrobe, relatable.

I’m a Roger Allam fan, he is the production’s big draw and he was an engaging Leonard, although I think he needed a bit more force behind him. He wasn’t quite ferocious enough, the cracks in Leonard’s character were a bit too transparent from the beginning.

Written by Pulitzer Prize nominee, Theresa Rebeck, Seminar is witty and wry with some sound observations on writing  and writers and, overall, it’s an astute study of the jealousies, the slog, the tedium of being a human as well as a writer.

For tickets and more information visit www.hampsteadtheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire. Pic: Johan Persson

Blanche DuBois is a dramatic character vivid enough to have walked off the pages of Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire and take on a life of her own. She’s become a by-world for the archetypical southern belle who doesn’t chime as clearly as she once did.

The role requires filling some big feather-adorned high-heel slippers, from Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production to Vivien Leigh in the Olivier directed UK debut and, of course, the film. Since July, Gillian Anderson has more than filled these shoes, winning rapturous praise from the critics and audience for her performance in Benedict Andrew’s Young Vic reprisal.

Finally able to get hold of one of the golden tickets after the run extended into mid-September my expectations were high, so the first 15-minutes were a little deflating as the production spluttered to life ; some of the southern drawls seemed wonky, their words muffled in the revolving stage, the actors, now in their final week seemed a little distance.

But after this bumpy start, the production sparked into life and heated up like a New Orleans afternoon in July, revealing Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in all its glory. She really is phenomenal as Blanche, a woman so easy to play as a caricature. For Streetcar to be successful, you have to, if not like her, then sympathise and empathise with this self-obsessed woman, and Anderson instils her with an unaffected fragility, and even uncovers a certain amount of common sense behind her ramblings.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the tale of Blanche DuBois whose life has unravelled to a point where her only sanctuary is with her sister Stella Kowalski,  and her husband Stanley in their two-room apartment in New Orleans. Blanche’s presence in the tiny flat with a volatile couple who love and hate with a passion, lights the fuse paper of her ultimate end.

What could be a very static play, set only in two rooms, pulsates with life in this production. Anderson’s Blanche is never still, twitchy and restless, floating her hands like a geisha performing a dance.  Blanche’s Japanese-influenced dressing gown is perhaps another link that, Blanche’s heightened femininity, like a geisha’s, is an act and her livelihood. Blanches oxygen is the male gaze, a gaze so intense she is ultimately destroyed by it. It’s fitting that at one point she is dressed as a Jim Beam soaked Barbie doll.

Benedict Andrews moves the story from 1947 to the modern day, stripping the play of any southern whimsy. The set is Ikea minimal, the costumes, bar the odd eighties style prom dress, sleek designer dresses and high heels (highlighting the influence the play had on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine; when Gillian Anderson first walked on, I thought Cate Blanchett was understudying for the evening).

But the production is still southern in its soul. Anderson, when she hits her stride is mesmerising, the poetry of Williams southern dialogue lilting and lyrical in her delivery. Even in a stark white cube in a theatre in Waterloo you can imagine the sweat trickling down your back, the stickiness of your legs on a plastic chair.

Andrews’ dispenses with the jazz for an electrifying rock and dance soundtrack, including PJ Harvey’s scuzzy ‘To Bring My Love’ and Cat Powers’ haunting cover of ‘Troubled Waters’ (“You must be one of the devil’s daughters they look at me with scorn”) and it hugely affecting and powerful.

While Anderson is the standout star, she’s not alone in her galaxy. Ben Foster as the brutally masculine Stanley Kolwolski gives a performance as powerful as his biceps. Vanessa Kirby’s imbues Stella with a steely confidence, and Corey Johnson is quietly captivating as the hapless, sweaty Mitch, Blanche’s would-be saviour.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: The Crucible, Old Vic

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic's The Crucible

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic’s The Crucible

Arthur Miller is having a bit of a moment on The Cut. Just as the gut-wrenching A View from the Bridge bows out in bloody fashion at The Young Vic, at the other end of the street, its more stately elder, The Old Vic reprises The Crucible, Miller’s tale of the Salem witch hunt.

The Crucible may just be my favourite Arthur Miller play. It’s a gem of a piece of drama – a cracking story with plenty of boo-hiss villains and honest country folk being merrily trampled by utterly nuts authority figures all told in Miller’s stylish dialogue. It’s dark and sinister, packed full of suffering, hypocrisy, bonnets and archaic speech (‘sit ye down’!).

A drama this good deserves a fantastic reprisal and this Old Vic Yaël Farber-directed production draws out the angst and the madness to deliver a play of brutal intensity.

The Crucible is, of course, Miller’s allegory for the McCarthy communist witch hunt in 1950s America, but even discounting this second layer the plot is a cracker. Nine months before the curtain rises to find Mary Warren rolling around on a bed, in the grips of a fever (which the locals have – easily – confused with being possessed by the devil) farmer John Proctor had an unfortunate rumble in the haybales with the family’s maid, Abigail Williams. While John and Abigail keep watch over the sick girl – not exactly the most romantic of situations – Abigail attempts to rekindle their former fling. Hurt by John’s rebuttal, Abigail, encouraged by her elders talk of the devil, seeks a revenge so deadly that it decimates the whole town of Salem. The rumours she starts legitimise the authorities to murder and these moralistic men are sent into increasing spirals of madness and power lust until the town of Salem lies derelict and smeared with the blood of its innocent population.

Incidentally, Salem in this production lies nearer to Manchester England than Massachusetts (a link to Lancashire’s own witch hunts?), which is probably more accurate considering it’s unlikely that these early settlers had already perfected an American accent in 1692.

John Proctor must be a fantastic role for an actor, he’s up there with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, crippled by a fatal flaw and only realising what he’s about to lose when it’s too late. Filling Proctor’s big clopping boots for this production is Spooks and Hobbit star Richard Armitage who is the big star draw here. Armitage has made a career of playing brooding, angst ridden men that never fall neatly on the side of either good or bad, and as Proctor he is called on to crank up the angst factor far beyond dwarf-range. If I were Yaël Farber I’d have him reign it in a little, especially towards the spine-tingling climax where the emotion gets a little lost in the shouting, but he gives a huge, powerful performance in what must be a taxing role both physically and emotionally.

As big a punch as Armitage gives, this is very much an ensemble piece with many fine performances. Fresh out stage school, Samantha Colley hugely impresses as Abigail Williams, Proctor and Salem’s downfall and one of literature’s great villains. Gosh Abigails’ bad – and so unrepentant! – and Colley plays her with that deflt innocence and malice that the part demands. In a cast of great depth, other standouts include Harry Attwell as Thomas Putnam, Anna Madeley as John’s long suffering wife Elizabeth and Jack Ellis as the ruthless Deputy Governor Danforth who could probably project his crystal clear diction across the river.

A few niggles: the Round (handily crucible shaped) may have many advantages, especially I should imagine if you’re on (in?) it, but the bowl-like shape of it means actors’ words can get a little lost in the stew of dialogue when you’re up in the Lilian Baylis. This was a preview I saw and I wouldn’t be surprise if they tightened the production up at little – at 3 hours 40 minutes you could fit two and a half performances of A View from the Bridge into it – and there were a few flabby scene-setting moments that look pretty but delivered little. That said, this is too good a production for you to notice how long you’ve been sat there (your knees may tell you otherwise).

Farber’s Crucible is pumped full of heart and passion (perhaps, at times, it cup runneth over with emotion) – and Miller’s great story is given a rapturous reprisal that’s almost matched in intensity by the ecstatic applause at the curtain call.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Good People, Noël Coward Theatre

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Matthew Barker, Imelda Staunton, Lorraine Ashbourne and June Watson in Good People

There’s been some mutterings in the press in recent weeks about new US playwrights and actors staging some kind of theatrical coup in London.

Of the past six plays I’ve seen, three have been American (and I’m lined up to see Kathleen Turner in the latest production from across the pond in Bakersfield Mist this week). Now call me bad at math(s), but I’m not sure this percentage constitutes a takeover; I don’t think we’ll have to call on some stage hands to erect an MDF wall around Shaftesbury Avenue just yet.

And at least we have national treasure Imelda Staunton flying the flag for British talent as the lead in one of these plays from those New World upstarts, a play that deals with that very English problem – class – in a very un-English way.

After a sold-out, critically acclaimed run at Hampstead Theatre, Good People has transferred to the Noël Coward theatre to fill the bare stage following the early demise of The Full Monty. You could draw plenty of comparisons between Good People and The Full Monty; both are about blue-collar workers facing an uphill struggle against constant disappointment and bad luck. But David Lindsay-Abaire’s play – loosely based on his own upbringing in South Boston’s tough neighbourhood known as “Southie” – is sharper, savvier and doesn’t flinch from issues of class and race. Plus there’s no Donna Summer and everyone keeps their clothes on.

We first meet Margie (Staunton) as she’s being sacked by her boss (a former friend’s son) from her dead-end job in a dollar store after he tires of her chronic lateness. She’s only late, she pleads, because her babysitter (her upstairs neighbour and landlady) never turns up on time to mind Margie’s grown-up, disabled daughter.

Her plight is obvious, but while she’s clearly a woman with some tough obstacles, she’s not presented as a virtuous person, there’s a hint of malice and dishonesty in her that tarnishes her situation, or rather our sympathies for her situation.

Right from beginning, Margie is an ambiguous figure and your sympathies for her oscillate throughout the play. On the whole,  thanks to the terrific warmth and humour that Staunton instils in her,  I was largely on her side, and when it looked like I’d been duped, I felt betrayed, only for Lindsay-Abaire  to nimbly challenge what we thought was happening.

At rock bottom and facing eviction, Margie’s gobby friend Jean (played with relish by Lorraine Ashbourne) mentions how she’s recently bumped into a an old school friend Mike (Lloyd Owen) who has escaped the mean streets of “Southie” for posh Chestnut Hill – which we will see later is all White Company beige and creams – and how he may have a job for her. He got out thanks to his big brain, pushy dad, and we learn, protection from the harsher realities of life .

The awkward meeting in his fancy office (he’s now a successful fertility doctor) unearths more of Margie’s simmering anger at the injustice of life and rattles Mike enough for his smooth Chestnut Hill veneer to slip to reveal some Southie tough talking. Angered by Margie’s comment that he’s become “lace-curtain Irish” he invites her to his party at the weekend. When he later phones to tell her the party has been cancelled, Margie doesn’t believe him and turns up at his house anyway.

Here we meet Mike’s young, beautiful, middle class wife and Lindsay-Abaire’s funny, punchy script and some fine acting from the three main players (Merlin’s Angel Coulby is superb as Mike’s overly fastidious wife Kate) makes for some compelling face-offs as truth, choice and what constitutes nice get debated with little finesse over cheese and wine.

Good People is  about class and race, nature versus nurture; an examination of the American Dream where you can – so they say – aspire to be anything as long as you work at it. It challenges the idea that we get where we are because we deserve to be – an idea (lie) that is still pedalled furiously by those who can afford to, forgetting that even being born with the drive to succeed is fortunate.

For all its messages, Good People is a play you can enjoy on its own merits; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and the past provides enough intrigue to keep you gripped to the end. And despite its dark edges, there’s warmth and tenderness, played without a hint of sentimentality.

Good People runs until 14 June at the Noël Coward theatre. For more information and tickets visit www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.

by Suzanne Elliott