Tag Archives: Matthew Swithinbank

CAN-CAN!

Can-Can!
★★★★

Union Theatre

CAN-CAN!

Can-Can!

Union Theatre

Reviewed – 13th February 2019

★★★★

 

“we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits”

 

This year, in the fourth of the Union Theatre’s ‘Essential Classics’ seasons, director Phil Willmott has turned to the theme of ‘Enemies of the People’, highlighting the process by which a ruling elite can attempt to silence not just opposition but also more benign threats that come in the shape of a ‘free spirit’. History has often taught us that the privileged class does not always know what is best for the common good; an argument that comes to the fore in the new musical, “Can-Can!”.

Not to be confused with Cole Porter’s fifties musical of the same name, also set in 1890s Paris, “Can-Can!” takes us into the heart of La Belle Époque, when Paris, formally scandalised by its artistic community, began to celebrate these former outcasts. Willmott’s production, directed by Phil Setren, is brazen and brave, capturing the very exuberance of the period. A real kaleidoscope of a show, it wears its influences openly. Taking as its starting point Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, which introduced the Can-Can dance to the world, it fuses operetta with music hall and transplants it into a plot loosely based on Arthurs Wing Pinero’s ‘Trelawny of the Wells’. Onto this already rich backdrop are added the real-life cabaret characters from the Moulin Rouge (in particular Jane Avril and ‘La Goulue’) made famous by Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings (the artist himself is also painted into the scenario).

The concept is fascinating, and inspired decisions are made. But like the assortment of source material, the show itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It takes until the second act to find its true tempo. For a musical comedy the timing sometimes slips and misses the pulse, while the rhythm of the dialogue suffers from palpitations. But the choreography does not miss a beat. Adam Haigh’s routines are simply stunning, thrillingly performed by the all-dancing cast whose energy threatens to burn a hole in Justin Williams’ and Jonny Rust’s evocative rotating set. Further aided by Penn O’Gara’s authentically flamboyant costumes, we can almost smell the absinthe wafting through the high kicks, cartwheels and splits.

The script, however, occasionally threatens to douse the fuse that is leading to the explosive finale. But luckily the spark manages to stay alight thanks to a story that bears all the hall marks of a well-structured, crowd-pleasing yarn. Jane Avril (the subtly operatic Kathy Peacock) gives up the stage when she decides to marry her well-healed sweetheart, Christian Bontoux (Damjan Mrackovich) only to find life unbearably dull, trapped in her fiancé’s austere household that detests her unrestrained personality. Escaping back to the theatre, she breaks her own heart as well as that of her beloved, who has also defied his tyrannical father in order to pursue the troubadour life.

If the action occasionally lags it is soon buoyed along by some stand out moments: the dream-like ballet sequence between Peacock and Mrackovich; or the final scenes of reconciliation during which Phil Willmott’s authoritarian character finally secures the audience’s sympathy. Secrets are revealed in some heartfelt revelations to the famous Cabaret Queen ‘La Goulue’ (a marvellously camped up performance from PK Taylor) that give us a surprising back story.

Despite a few splutterings on the way, “Can-Can!” ends with a bang and reminds us of the true intention of the piece. Which ultimately is to entertain. That it succeeds is confirmed by the exuberant hand-clapping from the audience along to the closing number.

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Scott Rylander

 


Can-Can!

Union Theatre until 9th March

 

Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Carmen 1808 | ★★★★★ | February 2018
The Cherry Orchard | ★★★★ | March 2018
Twang!! | ★★★★ | April 2018
H.R.Haitch | ★★★★ | May 2018
It’s Only Life | ★★★★ | June 2018
Around the World in Eighty Days | ★★★ | August 2018
Midnight | ★★★★★ | September 2018
Brass | ★★★★ | November 2018
Striking 12 | ★★★★ | December 2018
An Enemy of the People | ★★ | January 2019

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com

 

Brass – 4 Stars

Brass

Brass

Union Theatre

Reviewed – 6th November 2018

★★★★

“this moving piece about love and solidarity, humanises history and brings the forgotten to the foreground”

 

As Remembrance Sunday is coming up this weekend, with particular poignancy, as it will mark a hundred years since the armistice, Brass seems the most appropriate piece of theatre to watch this week in the capital. Originally commissioned by National Youth Music Theatre in 2014, Benjamin Till’s World War One musical now makes its professional premiere at the Union Theatre. Dramatising real life stories and people from the time, this moving piece about love and solidarity, humanises history and brings the forgotten to the foreground.

The war has been raging on France’s frontlines for a year. Alf, conductor of one of Leeds amateur brass bands, has decided it’s time for him to enlist. With not much encouragement, the rest of the band also agree to sign up, no man wanting to be left behind. After some very basic training, they are packed off across the English Channel, with spirits high, ready to fight the Krauts and become heroes. It doesn’t take long before the true horrors of war reveal themselves. The cheery days in the band seeming like a distant memory.

Back on home soil, the wives, girlfriends, and sisters of the men are left in Leeds to pick up the pieces, everyday, fearful of receiving the dreaded telegram reporting their loved one’s death. But these women aren’t sitting in wait; they bravely do their bit for the war effort, working at the Barnbow munitions factory. Through the correspondence sent between the men and women, the audience are transported back and forth between home and the ravaged front, proving the power of words in sharing love, encouragement, and reassurance.

The most refreshing part of this production is having a story that evenly tells of both men and women’s trials and tribulations during The Great War. As incomprehensibly horrific as being in the trenches must have been, seeing your friends killed right before your eyes, it is just as hard-hitting hearing about those treacherous times through the female perspective. With sensitive sophistication, Brass is a multi-faceted exploration of the devastation war brings to every member of the family.

Benjamin Till’s music ranges from haunting lamentations to raucous morale-boosting ditties, which help to bring light and shade into the show. Most songs are rather unmemorable, yet still excel at moving the story onward, offering the emotional clout needed. The power of the cast’s voices is exemplary, creating gorgeous harmonies that can be spine tingling. With just the Musical Director, Henry Brennan, on the piano, this basic set up gives space for the singing to take centre stage.

Highly moving and heartfelt, Brass compels you to reflect, and make sure that the lives lost to the war are not forgotten.

 

Reviewed by Phoebe Cole

Photography by Mark Senior

 


Brass

Union Theatre until 24th November

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
Heartbreak House | ★★★★ | January 2018
Carmen 1808 | ★★★★★ | February 2018
The Cherry Orchard | ★★★★ | March 2018
Twang!! | ★★★★ | April 2018
H.R.Haitch | ★★★★ | May 2018
It’s Only Life | ★★★★ | June 2018
Around the World in Eighty Days | ★★★ | August 2018
Midnight | ★★★★★ | September 2018

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com