Charing Cross Theatre
Reviewed – 8th May 2019
“there is a joy in seeking out the satirical bites beneath the whimsical coating”
Michel Legrand, who sadly passed away at the beginning of the year, was a prolific composer who, having written over two hundred film and television scores, only made his theatre debut in his late sixties with his musical fantasy, “Amour”, as it has come to be called. Bearing all the hall marks of a labour of love, it started life as a bijou musical based on the short story, “Le Passe Muraille”, by Marcel Aymé. A hit in Paris, it unfortunately didn’t travel well when it was given the Broadway treatment. Despite Jeremy Sams’ reshaping of the operetta, its modesty and style couldn’t really cope on Broadway and it closed after two weeks. It is essentially a chamber piece, and still remains so, which is why its Gallic charm fits perfectly under the arches of Charing Cross Station.
It is beautifully staged here by director Hannah Chissick and it certainly recaptures the show’s original dreamlike and wistful atmosphere. Sung through entirely, we rely on Sams’ libretto for the story, in which an unassuming office worker becomes a modern day ‘Robin Hood’ folk hero. Arriving home after work one evening, Dusoleil (Gary Tushaw) discovers he can walk through walls. Although initially seeking a cure for this from his doctor, he decides to use his powers to his advantage; stealing bread and jewels to give to the whores and street vendors of the town, but ultimately to win the heart of his beloved Isabelle (Anna O’Byrne).
The surreal and fairy-tale atmosphere is matched by Legrand’s hypnotic melodies while Sams’ lyrics are crafted to perfection; bristling with internal and external rhymes. But just when you think you are getting too much tongue-twisting cleverness, we are soothed by the legato of a love song. Tushaw leads the show with a presence that has hints of Chaplin and Tati, yet his voice has its own character entirely, simultaneously clear as cut-glass but smooth as an oak-cask single malt. Similarly, O’Byrne’s soprano is the perfect accompaniment. Although essentially the story of the man who walks through walls, Tushaw generously doesn’t pull focus, and the ensemble nature of the show lets us have a taste of each character; from Claire Machin’s tart-with-a-heart through to Alasdair Harvey’s chief prosecutor with a shady past; Jack Reitman’s dodgy doctor and, of course, the Gendarmes. Like the story that, thankfully, avoids a predictable ending, the medley of stock characters avoid caricature – testament to the uniformly strong and nuanced performances.
On the surface this could appear overly lightweight, yet there is more to it than meets the eye and there is a joy in seeking out the satirical bites beneath the whimsical coating. It is an engrossing production, with definite surreal touches, enhanced by Adrian Gee’s set and costume design that befittingly evokes a Magritte painting. Yet as witty and thought provoking as it is, the underlying love story doesn’t quite pull at the heart strings quite as it should, although the endearing qualities of this mad cap musical certainly warm the heart.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Scott Rylander
Charing Cross Theatre until 20th July
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Queen of the Mist
Jack Studio Theatre
Reviewed – 11th April 2019
“its rushed retelling of Taylor’s ambitious stunt does not make the splash that it perhaps intends”
On 24th October 1901, Annie Edson Taylor, a 63-year-old woman from Auburn, New York, became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Down on her luck, Edson had hoped that achieving such a feat would make her rich and famous, but soon discovers the fickle nature of showbusiness.
Dominic O’Hanlon’s adaption of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Queen of the Mist follows Taylor’s (Trudi Camilleri) incredible story from rags to riches to, well, rags as she employs the smooth-talking drunkard Frank Russell (Will Arundell) to be her manager and shuns the concerns of her conservative sister Jane (Emily Juler). The cast is completed by four supporting actors who do well to play several different roles from shopkeepers to presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz.
Camilleri does well to lead the show and spends little time offstage. The boisterous and selfish character of Taylor makes her hard to sympathise with, but Camilleri is successful in getting the audience on her side in more tender moments. The chemistry between her and Arundell is also apparent, and their last scene together is incredibly touching.
The cast make excellent use of the small stage, effortlessly transitioning between scenes set at the Falls to those in domestic spaces. The use of chairs, boxes and raised platforms (Tara Usher) effectively transforms the stage, and a brief bout of shadow puppetry in the first half is an amusing way of adding variety to the musical’s visuals. The small band of keys, strings, bass and woodwind instruments led by musical director Jordan Li-Smith sit prominently on tiered platforms to the right of the actors, but they do not detract from the action. Coloured lighting is used well to reflect and communicate the mood on stage and is impressively well-timed with the music.
The musical accompaniment deserves special commendation and is particularly atmospheric when Taylor plunges over the Falls. The music is strong in less dramatic moments too, with light flute and heavy brass cleverly accompanying different people as they walk and talk on stage.
The entire cast has strong vocals and Camilleri impressively navigates several successive solos. The strongest songs are The Fall (Act Two finale) and There Is Greatness In Me, the latter of which is threaded throughout the show which makes for nice continuity. Many of the songs are however lacklustre and the desire to cram in as many as possible often prevents both plot and character development.
The plot at times seems rushed and key relationships like that between Taylor and Russell are not given proper attention and make it unclear to the audience what to expect from their next interaction. The first half has a wonderfully dramatic climax but speeding through Taylor’s story to make this the case means that the second half unfortunately lacks much plot at all.
Queen of the Mist shines an important spotlight on a forgotten tale of greatness, but its rushed retelling of Taylor’s ambitious stunt does not make the splash that it perhaps intends.
Reviewed by Flora Doble
Photography by Stephen James Russell
Queen of the Mist
Jack Studio Theatre until 27th April
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: