La Soirée, Aldwych Theatre

La Soiree 2017/2018

LJ Marles, La Soirée. Photo credit: Brinkhoff / Mogenburg

An international cabaret phenomenon, La Soirée has been seen for the last few years in places like the Spiegeltent at London Wonderground, but it makes the leap across the river to the West End and nails the landing.

For those unfamiliar, La Soirée (formerly known as La Clique) has been on the go for around a decade, and is a variety night, with no shortage of variety.  The sheer array of global talent on display is its main strength. For their West End run, the show covers bases from puppetry to acrobatics to comedy to cabaret-style musical numbers. And with each act nailing it, it’s hard not to find something to love.

Wisely reconfiguring the front third of the Aldwych Theatre stalls section into a more intimate thrust surround, and making use of the on-stage space for ‘posh’ seats (where audience interaction is practically guaranteed), the show nails its colours to the mast early on by stressing that the bar is open throughout and audience members are free to come and go as they please.

This light-hearted atmosphere extends to the show at large. Cabaret veteran Amy G makes multiple appearances, ranging from a rollerskating flamenco dancer looking for her guapo (hint: it could be you) to a kazoo number that’s as patriotic as it is anatomically impossible. Daredevil Chicken do things with a banana that have the audience gasping, then groaning and then just outright screaming.

As well as the comedy, there are physical acts on display, ranging from the skillful to the death-defying, with particular highlights including Michele Clark’s hula hoop display and The Chilly Brothers’ Russian Cradle set.

With an evening as varied as this, there is almost certainly something for everyone to enjoy here. While there may be a saturation point of the amount of times it’s possible to watch someone twirl in the air and be fully in awe of it in so short a time, the show is cleverly structured to just stay its welcome and no more. It may be a different prospect to the usual West End fare, but that is no bad thing. After all, you don’t make it to La Soirée without daring to be different.

La Casa de Bernarda Alba, Cervantes Theatre

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Photo: Elena Molina

NOTE: The House of Bernarda Alba is staged bilingually at the Cervantes Theatre in Southwark, with an alternating cast for the English and Spanish performances. This is a review of a Spanish-language performance.

Lorca’s enduring tragedy, The House of Bernarda Alba, is both one of the playwright’s best-known pieces and one of Spanish drama’s most famous works. The Cervantes Theatre’s current staging, alternating between English and Spanish, is a powerful and deeply humane examination of the effects of ruling through oppression, as well as how unspent desire swiftly festers and toxifies.

Written in 1936, a year into the Francoist dictatorship in Spain, Lorca’s play unfolds in the aftermath of a house filled with woman, thrown into mourning by the death of the patriarch. The mother, the titular Bernarda Alba, imposes a strict eight-year mourning period on the already-oppressed daughters, further diminishing their chances of making meaningful contact with the outside world.

Jorge de Juan’s production succinctly captures the sense of oppression at the heart of the play. The air in the house is believably thick with heat and the pealing of funerary bells, and when Amparo Climent’s sonorous Bernarda Alba is on-stage, she somehow seems to physically swell to dominate the space.

But while it is Bernarda Alba’s house, it’s not necessarily her play. Lorca uses her presence sparingly, choosing instead to show us the effects of oppression through Bernarda’s five daughters. Tortured by the lack of stimulation, they turn inward and fight among themselves, vying for potential scraps of male attention. De Juan’s direction aptly captures the daughters’ suffering – divided by jealousy but unified by misery.

Among these, the standout is Maite Jauregui’s Adela, a role she plays in both the Spanish and English stagings. The youngest daughter, Adela represents the most willing resistance to Bernarda’s tyranny, but her unmarshalled passion threatens to spin out of control. Jauregui plays her as a woman on the cusp of an awakening to the injustices of the world – curious, sensitive, blazing. It’s a performance I will remember.

The remainder of the (all-female) cast provide able support, in particular Pia Laborde and Mayca Estevez, as a daughter lashed to a sewing machine and a servant crushed under the yoke of Bernarda Alba’s rampant classism, respectively.

This play is not a play that I wish resonated more strongly than ever, but unfortunately it does. As oppression seems to become the status quo in many ways around us, La Casa de Bernarda Alba serves as a potent metaphor for the crushing, dehumanising effects of fascist leadership, as well as a sincere reminder that when freed, the human heart may risk getting broken, but when held captive, it will surely turn to dust.

The Fall, Royal Court Theatre

The Fall

Cast of The Fall (l-r Oarabile Ditsele, Ameera Conrad, Sizwesandisile Mnisi, Tankiso
Mamabolo, Cleo Raatus, Sihle
Mnqwazana). Photograph: Oscar O’Ryan

In 2015, in response to the lack of transformation in South Africa following colonialism and apartheid, a group of students at the University of Cape Town began a protest, the focal point of which was initially an on-campus statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a symbol of colonialism.

Written and performed by students from the University of Cape Town’s drama department who found themselves at the centre of the #RhodesMustFall protest on campus, The Fall chronicles the experiences of a group of students awakening to the injustice of colonialism, a Euro-centric curriculum and racial inequality across students and staff.

However, once the statue is torn down, with the loss of a common goal, the students’ grievances turn inward and dissension appears in the ranks. Rather than treating the removal of the statue of a victory, The Fall wisely chooses to show us that the issues driving its removal are not as comfortably binary as many would like, and that for true equality to arrive, we have to confront ourselves as willingly as each other.

Clocking in at 1h20, the show is a blazing mix of monologues, efficient choreography and thrillingly-sung music. The ensemble is uniformly excellent, though particular praise goes to Zandile Madliwa, Cleo Raatus and Ameera Conrad, whose characters each get to show the toll that the constant fight for equality can take.

 

Ink, Almeida

Bertie Carvel (Rupert Murdoch) and Richard Coyle (Larry Lamb)_credit Marc Brenner

Bertie Carvel (Rupert Murdoch) and Richard Coyle (Larry Lamb) Photograph: Marc Brenner

 

In the world of journalism, the story is everything. This lesson is drilled into us time and time again over the course of Ink, James Graham’s latest play, which charts Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 acquisition and rebranding of The Sun, which would permanently change the landscape of British journalism.

Graham wisely chooses not to moralise, but lets the story do the talking. In the first act we see Murdoch bring aboard Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle), who assembles his crack team in a stylised sequence straight out of a Guy Ritchie heist movie. From there it’s a frantic scramble to get the paper ready for its first edition and become a credible threat to The Mirror, their main rivals. As they slowly decide to adopt the audacious approach to journalism that would be their hallmark, they drill down to work out exactly what populism is, and how to show it on their pages.

All of this is presided over by Bertie Carvel’s quietly intense Murdoch. Carvel portrays him as a man who knows how to command attention, but doesn’t like to be the focus of it. In scenes with Lamb or when challenged by a TV interviewer about the morals of journalism, he passionately defends the press’ right to flout authority and seek out truth.

Things take a darker turn in the second act as the real-life abduction of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy chairman, plays out both in the offices and on the front pages of The Sun, and raises serious questions about the impact of journalism on the outside world. In their bid to outshine The Mirror, nothing is sacred, and we see the birth of Page 3 as well as the genuine shockwaves it causes, even to Murdoch himself.

As a slice of history, it makes for fascinating viewing, and it’s deftly presented. The action takes place in the shadow of Bunny Christie’s enormous tower of desks and ink-splattered filing cabinets, driving home the message that tabloid journalism is akin to war. Rupert Goold directs the action with a fast pace that feels appropriate to Fleet Street.

Graham has seemingly chosen to exercise a lighter touch here, presenting the sequence of events as they unfolded, with added dramatic flourish. This gives the play the feel of a biopic or a documentary, which serves its fascinating source material well, but at the cost of minimising its author’s voice. Perhaps it’s for the best. The story, after all, is everything.

Dreamgirls, Savoy Theatre

 

 

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35 years in the waiting, Dreamgirls has finally arrived in the West End. Charting the rise of the Dreamettes, (later the Dreams) an American R&B girl group in the 1960s, Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen’s (book & lyrics) story bears more than a passing similarity to the real-life story of The Supremes. The group’s lead singer, Effie (Amber Riley) is relegated to backing vocals to make way for Deena (Liisi LaFontaine) her softer voice and lighter skintone being more palatable to the lucrative white audience the band is chasing.

Much has, and will, be written about Riley’s performance, specifically her vocals, and rightly so. But this is no one-woman show. Director Casey Nicholaw has assembled a supremely (geddit) talented cast showcasing some of our best actors of colour. Liisi LaFontaine and Ibinabo Jack more than hold their own as the other two Dreams, Joe Aaron Reid oozes charm as the scheming Curtis, and Adam J Bernard delights in the role of Jimmy Early, managing to channel James Brown so well you’d think there was a Ouija board in his dressing room.

But above all this is Effie’s story, and Amber Riley knocks it out of the park with a superhuman vocal. Part musical instrument, part nuclear weapon, it turns on a dime from softly melismatic to soaringly defiant. Her Act One closer, And I Am Telling You, blazes a shockwave into every corner of the auditorium. Simply put, it could not be better sung.

Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Credit Brinkhoff-Mögenburg.jpg

Amber Riley as Effie

If the rest of the score fails to match the memorable heights of And I Am Telling You, it still manages to conjure up the era with bullseye accuracy. As does the set, a set of lighting towers which evoke all of the show’s setpieces surprisingly well. The costumes are a river of Swarovski-studded splendour. And you could tell the whole story using the wigs alone.

Where the show falls short is in the telling. The storyline is roughly sketched and told too sparely, hurtling through most of the plot without enough breathing room. There’s also little on display in the way of nuance or depth, but in many ways it doesn’t matter. The big draw here is Riley. Dreamgirls is ultimately a testament to the power of the human voice. For all the glitz and glamour on offer, the defining image in the show is a single woman, refusing to go quietly.