“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 master class in casting: without exception, each actor has total command over the text”
It is hard to believe that ‘Heartbreak House’ was written almost a century ago. First performed in 1920 on the English stage, George Bernard Shaw’s text is permanently relevant, which is what makes it a ‘classic’. It is just as entertaining and pertinent as we approach the ‘twenties’ of the new millennium.
This pitch-black comedy is the first of the Union Theatre’s 2018 Essential Classics series, presented by the Phil Willmott Company, dedicated to topical productions in which issues tackled by great playwrights and composers of the past reflect on today’s world. George Bernard Shaw subtitled his work ‘A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes’. Ostensibly he is paying homage to Chekhov, though there are more nods towards Wilde or Ibsen here. Yet, in my mind, it surpasses both with its intrinsic sense of danger, intrigue and fascination.
From the outset we realise we are in for something special. Justin Williams’ and Jonny Rust’s set is a masterpiece in its own right. As a result, expectations are indeed raised, though it is safe to say that, under Phil Willmott’s direction, they are well and truly sustained throughout. This is a master class in casting: without exception, each actor has total command over the text. They handle the rhythm of Shaw’s dialogue with the skill of virtuoso musicians.
Hesione Hushabye is gathering the outrageously eccentric family of Captain Shotover together in their country house to save her young protégé, Ellie Dunn, from a marriage of convenience to an ageing industrialist. But the bride to be is not as naïve as she appears. In fact, all the characters are not quite what they seem. A heartbroken adolescent can instantly become a cynic on the prowl, a maternal confidante can also be a seductive hostess and emasculating wife, a philanderer can become a hero. These turns and twists of character are what keep us on our toes. James Horne, as Captain Shotover, gives a star performance, appearing at first to live without rhyme or reason, yet behind his ‘Spike Milligan’ eyes he manages to convince us that he is all too aware of what is going on under his roof. Helen Anker’s Hesione utterly bewitches as the witchy lady of the house, a stark contrast to her estranged sister, Lady Utterwood, a high-society prig played by Francesca Burgoyne who deliciously delivers her put downs with a lacerating wit.
It seems unfair, though space dictates it, to single out individual cast members. The entire troupe deserves a mention. This is that rare piece of theatre where, during the whole two hours, not once does one think that we are watching actors playing their part on a stage. They are the characters. And one really does care for them. Behind the razor sharp wit, the biting aphorisms and the cynicism, it is clear that each character does have a heart. This is testament to the performances, not just to the writing. The audience inhabits their world, albeit a world drifting towards disaster.
Shaw depicts a cultured leisured Europe before the war; the deceptions and meaningless pursuits of England’s ruling class, and the divide between rich and poor. Throw in the talk and fear of pending war – it might have easily been written about today’s world: “Is this England or a mad house?” asks one of the characters. Yes – there is an underlying message, even a warning, that George Bernard Shaw is drumming home. But he was acutely aware of the notion that the best way to get your message across is to entertain.
And, boy, are we entertained.
If this is a taste of what is to come throughout the season at the Union we are in for a treat.