Company – 2016 Edinburgh Fringe

As previously mentioned, I am a big fan of Sondheim's Company. It's about the relationships of Bobby, a single 35 year-old man in New York, with his three current girlfriends and the four married couples he's friends with.

Except that here, they've made the central character a 30 year-old woman, Bobbi. Two of the couples are same sex ones too. So I was curious as to how well it would work, especially when cut down to a run time of eighty minutes.

Obviously, there's no longer an interval, but at least a couple of songs have also gone (I don't remember hearing 'Have I got a girl for you' and the one with the women being rude about the air hostess girlfriend) as has the second visit to the divorcing couple with the balcony – no asking Bobbi about any same sex experiences here, because we already know she's bisexual! Personally, I would have made one of the other couples the 'two women' one too.

There are also some technical problems with the production/venue. The cast isn't mic'ed but the (probably recorded, as we don't see any musicians at the end) backing is amplified so the sound balance between the voices and the musicians isn't great. Sitting at the front is highly recommended, particularly as a couple of the cast aren't as good or audible as the rest. There's also a distinct mains hum on the speakers when more of the lights are on, so someone's not rigged things very well…

… but apart from all that (!) there is lots to like and the basic idea works very well indeed.

4/5

Into the Woods – 2015 Edinburgh Fringe

There are three productions of my favourite musical – Shockheaded Peter being an 'entertainment' according to the Olivier Awards – at this year's Fringe.

One's doing the full show from the 12th to the 15th; one looks to be doing the one act school's version from the 24th to the 29th; and this one by US high school Harker School’s Conservatory which is on until the 10th and is doing… well, I wasn't sure. The blurb talks about both acts, but the 90 minute run time strongly suggests that only one is done. The box office at the venue didn't know either.

It turns out that they've made the very brave / unusual / silly decision to do act one on Friday and Sunday, and act two on – at different times! – Saturday and Monday. I could only see act one, alas.

The actual performance was very good given who's doing it. Not all the notes are got perfectly, but this is a show where the lyrics are what matters and I didn't spot any non-deliberate mistakes (for some reason, The Witch has a problem with saying one word early on, but it's obviously a rare bit of odd direction).

If you see it, I recommend sitting at the front – it's not miked, and there's a definite volume drop whenever someone is at the back of the stage.

3.5/5

Savvy Secrets of Successful Mistresses – 2014 Edinburgh Fringe

Lisa Faith Philips paid for some of her education via stripping. That formed the basis of a previous show, and this one is about another form of using sexuality to make a living: being a mistress.

It's set up as a parody of self-help gurus – she's 'Dr Faith' with a one true way of doing things – but it grates, especially to a non-American ear. There are also far too many thwacks of a riding crop against the pop-up display too – it just gets boring.

The original songs, by the other person on the stage, Ellen Mandel, are fine enough but suffer in comparison to the classics that are also performed.

Interestingly, the 'savvy secrets' are very similar to the basic rules for sex work: "get your hands on the dough" is "get the money first" by another name. But while 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend' is a great song, it's rubbish financial advice – the resale value of diamonds is scandalously low.

On the evening I went, I won the 'Scotland's next top mistress' award but although I left with a badge (which I have been delightedly wearing ever since) and plastic rose, I also left feeling that the show could have been a lot, lot better given the basic material there.

It's not funny enough as a parody, and it's not personal enough. Her previous show was about her, and it worked a lot better than this one.

2/5

On at 10:15pm in the Paradise at Augustines (venue 152) until the 10th.

The Horror! The Horror! The Final Curtain – 2014 Edinburgh Fringe

This was an example of flyering working – one of the performers handing out the flyers convinced me to see it because of its overarching narrative. One of the quotes on the flyer calls it a 'A home-grown Little Shop of Horrors', but it's really closer to the film version of Cabaret in that what happens on the music hall stage setting reflects the characters' real lives.

To say much more would spoil it, but the songs by Jeffrey Mayhew (on stage playing the piano) are all good, and the jokes are either good or deliberately bad. What stops me rating this a bit higher is that, despite the way that it's staged, it's a bit too subtle. It would be good to see a longer version too.

3/5

On at 7:45pm at the Bedlam Theatre (venue 49) until the 24th August. (No show on the 17th.)

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street – 2014 Edinburgh Fringe

Quite a few of the shows I would have liked to see don't open until next week, and going for unknown material by unknown companies is a risk. So I started my time at the 2014 Fringe with something where I knew the material was better than 'good': Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The company is from a school in Hawai'i, would they be ok? I am delighted to say that the answer is that they're better, they're very good. There's a cast of 27 listed in the programme, which makes it just over 33p each for a £9 ticket.

The staging is very simple, and not everyone amongst the main characters is quite as audible as the others, but that's about the main criticism I have, and because the venue's seating is on three sides, they're sometimes singing while facing away from you (I'd recommend sitting in the middle section).

The 1h45m really did not seem anything like as long. Because of the emphasis on the lyrics, Sondheim can be a hard choice, but I only noticed one small slight fluff.

Congratulations to everyone involved: this is one of the best school productions I have ever seen, and there are going to be a lot of 'professional' companies doing shows that are not nearly as good as this at the Fringe. Very definitely recommended.

4/5

It's on at theSpace on Niddry St (Venue 9) at 11:10 until the 7th August 2014. See it.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Gielgud Theatre

Kneehigh, the company behind this production, go from the utterly wonderful (their adaptation of Angela Carter's seemingly unadaptable Nights at the Circus), to the popular (their adaptation of Brief Encounter), to the brave but bad (Don John, the misguided updating and adaptation of Don Giovanni).

Fortunately, this is nearer the first. Unfortunately, it turns out to be far from another.

Umbrellas.. is, of course*, an adaptation of a French film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Made in the 1960s, it won the Palme d'Or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, and had five Academy Award nominations including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Song, Best Original Score, and Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Phew. It's also deemed sufficiently famous to have a recreation of the umbrella shop in Disneyland Paris' Walt Disney Studios Park – one of very few non-Disney films referenced there.

OK, first the disclaimer – I saw this before the official opening. However, they still charged to get in and, from reading other reviews, nothing significant has changed in the production. The one problem on the night I saw it was some dodgy sound engineering, particularly towards the start. As that hasn't been mentioned by anyone else, I assume it's been sorted.

It starts with Meow Meow setting the scene and giving French lessons as a Maîtresse ('teacher, not mattress!') Now, my French is very, very bad (I failed my French O-level so badly that it's not even marked as a fail on my certificate) but even I found this funny. Some reviews have reckoned she's a new character, but given that she gets to be sexual with the hero, it's clear that she's the prostitute in the original, and is indeed 'something to lie on between you and the bed'.

All wonderful so far, and then we get to one of the points where you either love it or hate it. Like the original, this is operetta: everything is sung. This is not a problem in Don Giovanni, but Mozart barely stopped writing memorable tunes from about the time he started walking until his death. Here, there's one. Now, as mentioned, it was nominated for some serious awards, but the contrast with the rest of the score is striking. Fortunately the change from an full orchestra to a dozen or so musicians is an artistic success as well as financial necessity and the arrangements work very well.

Another big change is the visual look. The original which was one of those films where people talk of the colours glowing, making what we're told is the French equivalent of Hull look beautiful. Here the set is functional and occasionally fun, but it's more or less monochrome.

Fortunately, they haven't tampered significantly with the story which remains as powerful as ever – believable endings trump happy ones – and the rest of the cast carry it off, if not with the same style as Meow Meow.

So what we're left with is an excellent book, some good performances and one tune. Wicked has run for years on this formula (and survived dodgy sound engineering to boot), but on leaving the theatre, I said that I thought it will be nominated for at least one award, but won't be running this time next year.

At that point, it was due to close in October. Sadly, that date has been moved forward to May. It was never going to be everyone's cup of tea glass of wine, but 'ouch'. Surely this has a bigger market than that?

Good shows have closed too early before, but here I think the publicity reflects the show accurately (unlike, say, that for The Drowsy Chaperone) and while they've been mixed (just see the comments to one blog that correctly points out this is a Marmite show: you'll love it or hate it), many reviews have been the sort producers happily quote in full.

Is it 'cos ils sont français?

* As they say when they've had to look it up to make sure 🙂

4/5

Company – Southwark Playhouse

Ah, the real Sondheim. For my money, this is one of his five best musicals, and thus better than anything most composers will ever do.

I've seen two professional productions before. The first was the Donmar Warehouse's excellent 1995 revival, starring Adrian Lester. The second was two years ago in the tiny Union Theatre, also excellent. So this one had something to live up to.

The setting is minimalist and it's not clear when its set. Bobby has a Mac laptop and an iPhone (including snorting off it at one point) and the music on the radio or at the disco is modern, but the camera used in one scene is a 1970s/80s 35mm one and the costumes – bearing in mind that I think that, with clothes, fashion is something that happens to someone else – look to be from the same period.

Despite the programme apparently claiming 'present day', I'm guessing it's still supposed to be the earlier period, because there is a scene where one character smokes – indoors! – despite being banned in New York clubs since 2003. I had forgotten that bit, but there was a warning on the auditorium door about this. I groaned to myself, then sat as low down as possible. Fortunately, the character's partner failed to get their lighter to work! Yes! It even works better that way in terms of the scene: he's failing to provide what she wants and she's too drunk to do it herself. Make this an official change to the piece!

Two problems do remain. All of Bobby's girlfriends are noticeably not as good singing as the wives he is friends with, but again, you can say this enhances the piece. One of those showing them how it should be done is Siobhan McCarthy's Joanne (albeit the youngest Joanne I've seen outside student productions) who I saw last year in a fringe revival of the tragically badly promoted Drowsy Chaperone.

The second will be cured if and when this gets a transfer. For some reason, despite this being a small space, everyone is miked. Sometimes, as with Bobby, this is stupidly apparent visually – it looks like he's got a pendant on his forehead! Similarly, you hear the band over a speaker system. But combine the sound design with the 'underneath the arches' shape of the space, and it sounds painful at times, especially with loud or high pitched sounds. I don't know if the sound balance should be better or if the whole thing is just a bad decision, but in a different space, it will sound better.

Apart from that, it's wonderful from beginning to end. Not necessarily better than the other two productions, but still one to be highly recommended.

5/5

Drive Ride Walk – Greenwich Theatre

A 'world premiere', but it doesn't feel quite finished yet. The piece has its origin in two songs at one of the Bridewell's experimental slots. It's been expanded into a 55 minute piece here, but there's scope for more.

The theme is journeys in London. One person has just passed their driving test, another cycles, and a third commutes by tube, walks, and also falls over. Around that, the main cast of nine sing a variety of songs, usually a cappella, sometimes backed by a young (college?) choir, or a double bass and… erm, I can't remember what the other instrument is.

I also can't remember any of the tunes: this is Sondheim-light, with an ensemble doing lyric-based stuff. What's missing is a book substantially longer than the sentence above. There's a bit more, but not enough.

But while it's happening, it's good stuff, particularly the 'Don't you cut me up' song from the young drivers. I was fearing they'd end up hitting the cyclist (how to put people off cycling) but it doesn't happen and she sings happily about some of the joys of cycling in London.

Overall, I'm glad I've seen it, but I was also glad I got the ticket for half price on lastminute.com.

After the week at Greenwich Theatre, it goes on a short London tour.

3/5

Cinderella – Greenwich Theatre

There are people who rave about the Hackney Empire pantos, and endless 'with the star of (fill in TV programme)' ones exist, but for the past few years my favourites have been the ones at the Greenwich Theatre, with the final performance of the run a particular highlight. (You've missed it, in other words.)

Written as ever by the regular dame, Andrew Pollard, the script is very much 'of Greenwich, for Greenwich' rather than an off-the peg one, and the theatre itself is just the right size. I've sat in the balcony at Hackney and you might as well be watching on TV – you're far away from the action and the cast ignore you. Not here. The combination is a real community event: users and staff of the area's toy libraries were out in force in the front rows.

Pollard is as delightful as ever (I particularly liked the opening Lady Gaga-inspired PVC costume) and this one featured another Greenwich panto regular, Paul Critoph, more usually in the 'Baron' or father role, as the other ugly sister. With – in this telling – the step-mother dead, it's just them being cruel to Ella (Hannah Wilding, cast both for her beauty and talented singing) while her father bemoans losing his Housing Benefit and Buttons is in unrequited love with her. Meanwhile, Greenwich Park sees Prince Charlemagne from Bohemia trying to match his with-it companion's urban cool. And failing. But swapping clothes allows him to actually talk to Ella, out collecting firewood. When his servant returns, she wanders off (giving away her firewood to someone in need – say, who was that hooded woman?) and so he needs a way to find her again. What about holding a ball, no servants allowed… ?

The best Cinderella I can remember was the part-improvised, part-staggeringly good puppetry one by Improbable at the Lyric Hammersmith a few years ago. This wasn't quite as good, but I cannot imagine there were many better pantos this year. The cast clearly had as much fun as the audience, both feeding off each other, making a real advert for the appeal of live theatre. Let's hope the younger members of the audience get the bug: they were certainly getting involved.

3/5

Get Santa! – Royal Court

A deliciously dark view of Christmas

I need to thank a friend for her pointer to this one (and the code to see it cheaply!)

Ten year old Holly thinks, unlike the rest of her family, that Christmas is rubbish because she never gets what she wants: to see her real father. Her mother has re-married a dog whose idea of decorating is to put meat – the subject of the shortest song ever – on the Christmas tree. So she concocts a plan to trap Santa and make him deliver for once. The real Santa is, of course too experienced to fall for the traps (crisps on the floor to make a noise, glue on the mantelpiece, whisky to make him drunk etc) but it's not just Santa on the sleigh this Christmas Eve… and her favourite toy, the bear she believes to be from her real father, ends up being brought to life. Now, as Santa's beard's magic only works on Christmas Day, what's a bear who wants to stay alive forever to do?

I'm not entirely sure how much children appreciated it (how many plays for kids feature bestiality as unremarkable?) but for the adults, this was wonderfully dark stuff (how many plays for adults…) about the disappointments of Christmas and the closest to creating its own world where everything makes sense, no matter how mad, since the incomparable Shockheaded Peter.

Imogen Doel channels Morwenna Banks's 'YES! I do know..' character in Absolutely (TV) / Bodgers, Banks and Sparkes (radio) in her portrayal of Holly, no bad thing, and the rest of the cast are fine, particularly Robert Stocks's doggy step-dad and everyone involved in the performance of the bear.

A delight, if you've got a warped sense of humour.

4/5