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The Green Room

Michael Hasted brings you News, Views and Interviews from the Everyman Theatre

Musicals come in all shapes and sizes, from the very small, like “Avenue Q” where the band outnumbers the actors, to the classic American mega-musicals of the forties and fifties. No doubt encouraged by the success of British musicals over the past four decades, in recent years there has a big upsurge in revivals like the National’s “Carousel” and “Oklahoma” and the current adaptations of “Singing in the Rain” and “Top Hat”. They just don’t write ‘em like they used to.

Up until Nicholas Hytner’s brave National Theatre revival of “Carousel” twenty years ago, these shows were generally considered at best old fashion and at worst, kitsch. You do have to admit, looking at the old films of “South Pacific” or “Kiss Me Kate” that the bright Technicolor scenes and dated hairstyles did look rather garish.

But that all changed when many of the best loved Broadway shows were revamped and the great music was allowed to shine through without the dazzling distractions. One of the most glittery was the 1951 film of Rogers and Hammerstein “The King and I” starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. The film dripped gold, overthetop sets and the great songs like “Hello Young Lovers”, “Getting To Know You”, “Shall We Dance”, “Whistle A Happy Tune” and “The March of the Siamese Children” were almost upstaged by the enormous production numbers.

Well, the good news is that a new revival of “The King and I” is heading this way and although it promises to be a lavish, grand scale spectacle with giant gold Buddhas, sumptuous costumes, a chorus of adorable children, acrobatic dancers and live music, hopefully it will be the songs that shine through. The reason we don’t see many of the very big musicals at the Everyman is its size. The really spectacular touring shows cost a fortune with their huge casts, sets and orchestras and dozens of technicians. They need to sell over 1000 tickets for each performance just to break even and as the Everyman only holds just over 600 seats … well, you can see the problem.

This new production from The Curve Theatre, Leicester is directed by Paul Kerryson and stars Ramon Tikaram who first came to the attention of the public in the cult ‘90s TV series “This Life”. He has also starred in “Wired, Silent Witness” and “The “Mighty Boosh” on television and his numerous West End credits include “Bombay Dreams”, Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Ramayana at the National Theatre. British governess Anna Leonowens who is brought to the court of Siam to tutor the King’s many children, is played by Josefina Gabrielle whose credits include “The Witches of Eastwick” and playing the lead in “Oklahoma” at the National Theatre.

If you are in the mood for still more good, old fashioned songs and dances, a great new show, “Top Hat”, based on the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical is at the Hippodrome Bristol from 21st. March prior to opening in London in April. The reason I mention it, apart from it being a fab show is that the cast includes Stephen Boswell who was born and raised in Cheltenham and whose mother, Margaret Davies, was the driving force behind the creation of the Everyman Theatre back in 1960.

The oriental musical theme continues on 19th March with a return visit of Ellen Kent’s “Madame Butterfly” along with “La Bohème”. The company was at the Everyman as recently as November and their repertoire of mainstream, accessible operas is always popular. “La Traviata”, which they did here in last year was not fantastic but “Butterfly” was perfectly acceptable.

Ellen Kent’s company, although competent, is certainly not the best touring opera company. That accolade, I think, must go to English Touring Opera who were here last spring with outstanding presentations of “La Clemenza di Tito” “Fantastic Mr Fox” and two of the Puccini trilogy. They will be playing the Everyman again in May. ETO is in a completely different league to Ellen Kent. Their productions, though by necessity small, would not look out of place on the stage of any opera house in the world. The sets, lighting and costumes are outstanding and it is difficult to detect any weak links in the singing, something that cannot be said for Ellen Kent - although in fairness, the Korean soprano Elena Dee is excellent as Cio-Cio San.

The difference between the two companies, apart from quality, is essentially repertoire. Ellen Kent presents the popular crowd pullers - not that there’s anything wrong with that, while ETO concentrate on slightly less well known pieces aimed at the more discerning opera goer. Nothing wrong with that either. They will be presenting “The Barber of Seville” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”.

I know which company I prefer, but I shall very happily be going to see both. The opportunity to see four professionally presented operas in Cheltenham in the space of ten weeks should not be missed.

February at the Everyman was a mixed month. Some of the productions were excellent, some less so. I was a little disappointed by Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls”. I had never seen it but knew that it was considered a top play in its day. And I think this was the problem; “its day” was a very different time and place from now. In 1982, when the play was first performed, Mrs Thatcher, was on the throne and the effects of her policies were already cutting deep into the fabric of British society. Feminism was a significant and valid force but found itself in the awkward position of advocating female power while despising a woman who had gained the ultimate high ground. Britain in those days was the only country in the world whose heads of state and government were woman and one sometimes felt the feminists were shouting into the wind. And I think this unenviable position is where “Top Girls” found itself though possibly in twenty years time it may have some historical interest. In 1982 it had a legitimate and interesting premise, but now it doesn’t.

I like to pride myself that I’m not a bad judge of what a play or show’s going to be like. Sometimes I have high(ish) expectations of a play and, as with “Top Girls”, am disappointed. Other times I know nothing about a show but there is something about it that appeals and I am pleasantly surprised. Other times I just don’t fancy a show; it just doesn’t seem to be my sort of thing. Although I like a good laugh and a song as much as the next man, on the brow meter my tastes would be at the high end. I know as your trusted reviewer I should be objective, but everyone’s a little bit prejudiced sometimes.

Into the category of ‘don’t fancy at all’ fell “Avenue Q”. I was thinking Muppets, Sesame Street - in fact anything that involved a good deal of brightly coloured felt, a lot of lumpy stuffing and almost certainly some denim dungarees. I wasn’t interested. Then suddenly I got these niggling little thoughts and a few people said it was good fun and I should see it. So, I checked what was on television and deciding that anything was going to be better than “An Island Parish” and something about giving dinner parties in Essex, I got some tickets.

Fab! Totally bloody fab. I loved it. Yes, it was the Muppets and yes, it was Sesame Street and yes, there were dungarees. But, and it’s a big but, although puppets were doing things to each other that are only normally done in private and that issues were discussed that would make your granny blush, to say “Avenue Q” was an ‘adult’ (nudge-nudge) version of the aforementioned would be doing it a grave injustice. It was just a very good musical.

There were lots of good songs, lots of excellent singing, a good story line and some good jokes. One way that it differed from the Muppets was that the actors working the puppets were in full view and were acting rather than just operating. It took some getting used to but I think most of the time everyone was watching the puppets. If you missed it, be sure to see it next time. If you can’t wait there are several clips on YouTube.