“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.
“The lovelorn numbers may be predominantly in the minor keys, but the show is a major triumph”
It is a popular genre at the moment: the list is vast, and still growing, of movies turned into musical stage shows. They are greeted with varying degrees of commercial and critical success, but once in a while a show stands out from the crowd. “Once” is one of those shows and it is simultaneously easy and hard to see why. Dispensing with the razzamatazz and big budget bombast it quietly charms with a simplicity that aims straight for the heart.
Based on John Carney’s film of the same name it features the music and lyrics of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Carney and Hansard were both members of Irish band, The Frames, and the autobiographical slant (Hansard also spent many years busking on the streets of Dublin) lends an unforced authenticity to the evening. The unwavering quality of detail extends to all aspects of the production. From the outset Libby Watson’s brilliantly effective design draws us into a pub, somewhere in Dublin and somewhere in the last two decades of the twentieth century. It’s seemingly a lock-in and a ceilidh is in full swing. In a seamless shift from pre-show to show we find ourselves back out on the streets where Guy, a busker, stands alone with just a guitar and an emotionally charged, cracked voice. You’ve seen him, every hundred yards, along Grafton Street, in rain or shine, pouring more of his heart into his battered case than passers-by drop coins. A Czech woman (known simply as ‘Girl’) is captivated. She rescues him from his torpor and the ensuing ‘will-they-won’t-they’ romance is a delight. We have fallen in love with them way before we discover whether they will fall in love with each other.
Enda Walsh’s book shows him on top form, mixing quick-fire comic patois with pathos. Often in the same line. “Love is all very well but in the hands of people it turns to soup”. We laugh but we know it’s true. And the truth is there right up to the unsentimental unpredictability of the outcome. It is as human as you can get, matched by the performances. Daniel Healy’s ‘Guy’ is a beautifully studied portrayal of the wary, diffident troubadour who can really only belt out his true self in song. Emma Lucia beguiles as ‘Girl’; brutally honest and teasing yet vulnerable and tender. The equally magnificent supporting cast take on a variety of roles, in between which they pick up a variety of musical instruments to startling effect.
And this is where the show comes into the fore. The musicianship is faultless and under Peter Rowe’s stylised direction and Francesca Jaynes’ choreography the staging is beautifully crafted. The ensemble move as one with metronomic precision. Often such technical virtuosity can soften the emotional punch, but it is the music that ultimately leads us to the standing ovation this show deservedly receives. Rooted in Celtic folk and Irish culture it has a very contemporary feel, be it Indie-Folk, Indie-Rock, Folk-Rock or another combination. It wears its influences openly but there is no denying the heart-melting effect of the close harmonies and keening melodies. Lucia’s gorgeous solo rendition of ‘The Hill’, the ensemble, a Capella ‘Gold’, Healey’s tender, melancholic ‘Leave’ are but a few of the numbers that pave the way to the climactic, Oscar-winning ‘Falling Slowly’ which, once again, hits the jackpot.
‘Once’ is a musical that is anthemic and intimate. The lovelorn numbers may be predominantly in the minor keys, but the show is a major triumph.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Mark Senior
Fairfield Halls until 11th January then UK tour continues