“Anderson’s soprano voice, in particular, is a true joy to hear and resonates beautifully in the intimate space”
Phil Willmott returns to the Union Theatre for the fourth year of his Essential Classics Season which casts an educated eye through annuls of theatre history and provide context to our times. 2020’s season takes the 75th anniversary of VE Day as the impetus for a triplet of Second World War plays.
Ballooning grandly in the middle is Blitz!, Lionel Bart’s extravagant musical (once the most expensive ever produced) based on Bart’s own experience growing up as an East-End Jewish lad during the Blitz. The plot revolves around the feuding Blitztein and Locke families – one Jewish, one Cockney – who each own a stall in Petticoat Lane market. Mrs Blitztein (Jessica Martin), worries about her errant son Harry (Robbie McArtney) while deflecting the antisemitic barbs from her antagonist Mr Locke (Michael Martin). Meanwhile, the Locke son Georgie (Connor Carson) is in love with the Blitztein daughter Carol (Caitlin Anderson) – creating an intricate family drama set amidst the most harrowing of London times.
Given the Union Theatre’s reputation for staging musicals, the cosy setting provides a real challenge to squeeze such a huge ensemble into a chamber production and director Phil Willmott’s parring of the original script doesn’t always live up to this challenge. The first act – billowing as it does with musical numbers played by a huge ensemble – becomes a little hard to follow and, wrapped as they are in all that glitz, some of the emotional resonance between the characters’ plotlines gets slightly lost. Willmott also appears to have made some strange choices with his re-working. ‘Opposites Attract’, a number that provides playful hints towards the true feelings between the warring Locke and Blitztein family heads is moved to the second act leaving a set up too close to its eventual punch-line which strips the production of an important relational nuance.
In the second act, however, the pacing is much improved, and the resolve of the various plot arcs begin to land well. Caitlin Anderson and Connor Carson both deliver outstanding performances as the love-struck duo in the centre. While Anderson’s soprano voice, in particular, is a true joy to hear and resonates beautifully in the intimate space. Reuben Speed’s set design is also impressive and brings to life the wartime surroundings of various parts of the East End while moving between the grand and the intimate effortlessly.
The spirit of revival that Willmott takes to each Essential Classics Season and his cataloguing of theatre history is an impressive and worthwhile endeavour. With Blitz! he has set himself a true challenge, which he sadly doesn’t always overcome. However – given the paucity of opportunities to see Blitz! staged in all its glory again – fans of musical theatre must go see this show.
“a floundering production that simply doesn’t know what it is”
Tom Brown’s School Days is a semi-autobiographical novel by Thomas Hughes, first published in 1857. This production is the latest in a long line of adaptations, and director Phil Wilmott has chosen to set it in WWII, presumably to shoehorn it into the Essential Classics season at the Union, which this year takes this war as its theme. The idea of the season, to quote the programme notes, is to present work ‘in which great writers of the past reflect on the issues we face today’. This seems a stretch for this particular piece. For starters, Hughes can in no way be described as a great writer, and secondly, the script that has been put together by the company (there is no accredited playwright) is thin and uninspiring; devoid of any intellectual or emotional gravitas. At its best it is well-worn pastiche, and at its worst a paeon to all that is wrong with British public school culture.
The plot (such as it is) is a simple one. A new boy – Tom Brown – joins Rugby School at a time when many of the masters are absent, serving in the war, and the old Head has come back from retirement. This Head – Dr. Arnold – wants to eradicate bullying in the school and produce boys who are fit to be the new generation of leaders of the country. Tom and his fellows face down the bullies, and many of them go on to serve in the same squadron, under their former Head Boy. Lest we forget, the programme notes helpfully remind us that these are the ‘upper class young men who’d go on to lead the armed forces to victory’. There is one woman in the play, the resourceful working class cook, who cheerfully helps our boys out when they use their fathers’ money to fund black market feasts for one another, and takes being called a ‘stupid woman’ by our hero on the chin. In Britain 2020, after the most divisive election there has been in decades, and one in which ‘the vast majority of the British people bewilderingly voted to continue to be governed by upper class millionaires’ (programme notes again), the uncritical way in which this story is presented leaves a deeply unpleasant taste in the mouth.
This is a floundering production that simply doesn’t know what it is. The staging – endless and bizarre use of direct address, and plenty of choreographed stage pictures – is pure musical theatre, but it isn’t a musical. And yet…. There are hymns of course, fitting the Rugby setting, but then there are two extraordinary and ill-judged bursts of song which tie in with neither plot nor period: a Jerry Lee Lewis style piano number, and a plaintive guitar solo. There are also jarring moments of melodramatic piano underscore throughout. Reuben Speed’s set looks good, and is well-designed for the space and Penn O’Gara’s period costumes also fit the bill. Unfortunately, the performances are uniformly flat and disconnected. Press Night stumbles aside, which are to be expected and are in no way problematic, this was a production in which not a single actor shone. In the rare high-stakes moments, there was simply no emotional connection in the performances. The words never took flight, and as such, the audience had no investment in the characters whatsoever. This was a thoroughly forgettable evening. Would that the stewardship of Boris and his chums could be similarly consigned to history’s wastepaper basket without consequence.