London

REVIEW: Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre

Blithe Spirit, written over the course of five days, boldly addresses death and afterlife at a time when Britain was desperate for closure and reassurance in the midst of World War II. Coward explored the nature of long term relationships whilst injecting much needed humour; comforting audiences with the notion that the dead live on, play delightful games of backgammon and sign up for return visits to Earth to haunt their loved ones. Blithe Spiritpremiered in London in 1941; intrigued audiences braved bomb craters and wreckage to catch a glimpse of Coward’s ghostly light comedy. Over 70 years later, the show has returned to the West End and continues to delight audiences with its tale of love, life, death and deception.

One name dominates the Gielgud Theatre. One name is consistently mentioned in all reviews and advertisements. One name is on everyone’s lips as the lights dim and the show begins. That name is, of course, Angela Lansbury and what can be said of her performance that has not already been said? She bopped, she jerked, she pranced. She regarded Serena Evans’ Mrs Bradman with a dry disinterest and warmly embraced her character’s spiritualism with such enthusiasm that forces me to echo the many critics who have stated that Lansbury embodied Madame Arcati in every way, essentially becoming her character and gathering nightly standing ovations for her performance. But taking a step back and viewing the larger picture, it seems incredibly unfair that – to some extent – Blithe Spirit has become an attraction due to the 88 year old woman who is playing the supporting role.

Today very few people can rightfully claim that they saw the original London production ofBlithe Spirit but reference to the original script and to the 1945 film closely based on the play, it is clear that the current West End production can draw many close comparisons. From the pale doors that stretch along the back of the set to Lansbury’s shadow eerily dwarfing the rest of the cast during the seance, Michael Blakemore’s production often alludes to the play’s roots. Characterisations firmly echo those in the original script with unquiet ghosts throwing themselves from the arm of a chair in over dramatic flourishes, reminding audiences that Coward’s play was intended to be nothing more than an “improbable farce.” Charles Edwards is outstanding as Charles Condomine, comfortable in his second marriage until Jemima Rooper’s ghostly Elvira hurls herself out of the curtains and monotonously lets her negligee slip from its place in order to remind Charles of the highs of his first marriage. Janie Dee’s embattled Ruth must struggle against the ghostly apparition of Elvira, her calm poise dissolving into despairing sobs as she contemplates the severity of her situation.

With Lansbury, Edwards and Dee all capable of making the entire house roar with laughter at the mere raise of an eyebrow or turn of the head, audiences are in for a supernatural treat at the Gielgud Theatre. 

REVIEW: The Mousetrap, St Martin’s Theatre

In 1947 Queen Mary requested that a special radio broadcast of “an Agatha Christie play” could mark her impending 80th birthday. With the event in mind, Christie wrote a thirty-minute play titled Three Blind Mice. By 1952 these thirty minutes had grown into a fully staged play and The Mousetrap was born. Even the Queen of Crime herself could not have predicted the lasting impact of her play. 62 years later, The Mousetrap is the world’s longest running production, drawing London tourists to St Martin’s theatre for an evening of murder, mystery and a record breaking performance.

Before the curtain rises, the audience hears the murder of a woman in London. The killer, as later overheard on a radio, was wearing a dark overcoat, light scarf and soft felt hat. Meanwhile, young couple Mollie and Giles Ralston are opening their new guest house, Monkswell Manor. As each guest arrives, conveniently dressed in overcoats, scarves and hats, Mollie notes that each guest is “either unpleasant or odd.” With a mysterious foreigner, a grumbling elderly lady and an over excited young man amongst the guests, things take a turn for the worse when all seven guest house inhabitants find themselves snowed in. A Detective Sargent arrives on skis to warn that the darkly clad murderer may be on his way to Monkswell Manor… but will the killer make it to the Manor? More importantly, has the killer already arrived?

Christie’s plot is laced with intricate details that are slowly placed together to reveal the back stories and motivations within the play. Its extensive run aside, The Mousetrap is known for its plot twisting ending and shocking revelation. It is credited to contain “nerve-shredding moments” and “an atmosphere of shuddering suspense” yet as the murderer was revealed, one could not help but feel slightly unfulfilled. Perhaps this is due to my successfully predicting the murderer during the play’s twenty-minute interval or perhaps this is because the previous Christie play I saw (And Then There Were None, Dundee Rep Theatre) contained a much more shocking twist and scenes of a higher intensity. Regardless of The Mousetrap‘s disappointing twist, it must be acknowledged that no individual could possibly piece together the entire story prior to the on-stage revelations and for this, Christie must be credited for creating such complex and unpredictable plots.

Many have questioned the secret behind The Mousetrap‘s longevity and as the show propels itself towards its 62nd anniversary, I must do the same. With the London production playing to midweek audiences of (sometimes) only half of St Martin’s maximum capacity and a UK tour stopping at more than forty venues, will The Mousetrap live on for another ten, twenty, thirty years? Curiosity will continue to bring audiences to The Mousetrap yet I cannot help but wonder if my disappointment reflects the demanding desires of a younger generation of theatre fans.

REVIEW: Jersey Boys, Piccadilly Theatre

The Jersey Boys. It’s a title the British have grown to acknowledge, mostly due to the prominence of four men in matching red tailored jackets who often appear on our television screens and perform familiar songs from the sixties and seventies. Surprisingly, regardless of this television exposure, many people are still unsure of what Jersey Boys has to offer. Is it merely a tribute act? Is Jersey Boys a concert of Frankie Valli hits? Of course, the answer is no. Whilst Jersey Boys is teeming with hits by The Four Seasons, it also tells the story of the original Four Seasons: Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli. The musical premiered at director Des McAnuff’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2005; the London production opened in 2008 and continuously enjoys positive responses from critics and public alike.

Jersey Boys details the journey of The Four Seasons from “four guys under a street lamp” to entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their story is told through the alternating narratives of each member of The Four Seasons echoing Tommy’s early statement: “You ask four guys, you get four different versions.” The personal nature of the narratives mean that band members’ personal achievements and struggles are portrayed in parallel to that of The Four Seasons.

The pre-show set up is a West Side Story affair of open stairs, bridge balconies and cages. Scene changes are consistently slick and effective: a single street lamp; a television studio; a bowling alley complete with girls bowling into the wings. Most scenery alterations are made by cast members pushing items to and from the stage, similar to the set up recently employed in the UK tour of Nine to Five. Although Nine to Five received criticism for such conduct, Jersey Boys‘ changes are executed with such precision that demands respect.

Michael Watson, the alternative Frankie Valli, is a strong performer, delivering with a contagious energy and enthusiasm. His vocals consistently hit the mark. The cast continues with admirable performances from Jon Boydon, Matt Nalton and Edd Post as Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio respectively, the latter’s performance standing out as the most effective. The supporting roles give ensemble members plenty of opportunities to shine – which they do.

Jersey Boys may fall under the often shunned category of ‘jukebox musical’ however no aspect of this show should be ignored. Jersey Boys is a night of history with plenty of great songs that keep your toes tapping and refuse to leave your brain even after you’ve left the theatre.