Author Archives: Judi Herman

Review: The Melting Pot ★★★★ – Israel Zangwill’s clear-eyed 1908 vision proves urgently topical

Israel Zangwill, a ferociously intelligent, passionate champion of multiculturalism, escaped poverty in London’s East End thanks in part to his education at the Jews’ Free School, where he also subsequently taught for a time. He went on to become a writer, political thinker and activist. He was the first to use the phrase ‘the melting pot’ to describe what he also calls ‘God’s crucible’ – America – in this play, endorsed enthusiastically and vocally by then US president Theodore Roosevelt at its 1908 premiere in New York. Now Bitter Pill Theatre produces the first UK revival of The Melting Pot since 1938.

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Review: Young Frankenstein ★★★★ – Mel Brooks doesn’t let good taste get in the way of great stage business

Mel Brooks’ The Producers was a legendarily successful translation from film to stage, but Young Frankenstein, his classic 1974 horror spoof film of Mary Shelley’s gothic tale, proved more problematic on Broadway in 2007. The sprightly 91-year-old Brooks personally oversaw this London revival, along with original director and choreographer Susan Stroman. This lower-budget production in a more intimate space makes the most of a relatively simple set of backdrops by designer Beowulf Boritt, showcasing Brooks’ inventive lyrics and music. The question is, can music hall innuendo survive not just political correctness, but more problematically, the recent outing of sexual exploitation? Laughing out loud through the dazzling – often smutty – lyrics Brooks wrote in his 80s (”Though your genitalia have been known to fail ya”) for me the answer is a giggling yes. And judging from audience laughter from both sexes, I’m not alone.

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Review: The Secret Theatre ★★★★ – Two Elizabethan ages meet at Shakespeare’s Globe in a witty, bloodthirsty game of politics

In the Wanamaker Playhouse’s candlelit space Jon Bausor’s clever set divulges sinister built-in drawers of files. Conspirators plotting treason discover the hard way that a mole is privy to their plans. Religious refugees fleeing to England in the wake of massacres on the continent find themselves unwelcome in isolationist Britain. Late 16th-century London feels a lot like a John le Carré thriller set right now. And indeed playwright Anders Lustgarten owes his title to le Carré, who wrote “espionage is the secret theatre of our society”.

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Review: Mother Courage and Her Children ★★★ – The mother of all anti-war plays proves a survivor thanks to Josie Lawrence’s damaged Mother

Brecht’s meditation on war usually gets the loud, raucous in-yer-face treatment from directors. Hannah Chissick’s production of Tony Kushner’s urgent translation, which has an all too contemporary resonance as refugees flee wars across continents, is no exception. Yet Josie Lawrence’s Courage finds moments of quiet – albeit quiet desperation – which are much needed breathers on the gruelling journey through 30 years of war across a ravaged Europe. The desperation is for her children’s plight. She is always the conflicted mother as well as the often unscrupulous wheeler dealer – forced to pay a terrible price to survive, even thrive in the theatre of war. And though she is palpably grungy, Lawrence’s Courage is also younger and sexier than I have seen before, an attractive catch for the Chaplain and the Cook (convincing David Shelley and Ben Fox), who hitch lifts on her supply wagon across those battlefields.

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Review: Imagine This ★★★ – Brave revival of a musical celebrating courage in the face of persecution across two millennia

Imagine yourself imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1942, facing the dilemma of whether or not to stand up to your Nazi persecutors. You are one of a company of Jewish actors confined there, determined to stage a play about the siege of Masada in 66BC. The siege ended in the mass suicide of the Jews defending the mountain fortress as the Roman besiegers stormed it, so it has long been a symbol of valiant Jewish resistance to persecution. A poem telling this story is said to have inspired the Warsaw uprising, and it’s upon this premise that Shuki Levy (music), David Goldsmith (lyrics) and Glenn Berenbeim (book) based this valiant musical attempt to bring the two uprisings together. Sasha Regan’s award-winning Union Theatre has a fine track record of small-scale musical revivals and it certainly succeeds better than the full-blown 2008 New London Theatre premiere.

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Review: Pinocchio ★★★★ – Israeli-born choreographer Jasmin Vardimon and her company create breath-taking stage pictures to enchant

© Ben Harries

If you want to introduce your child to the magic of live theatre, then the captivating combination of physical dance theatre and brilliantly imaginative staging with which Yasmin Vardimon and her company weave the story of Pinocchio should leave any theatregoer, new or experienced, eager for more.

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Review: Young Marx ★★★★ – On your Marx for an exhilarating chase through 19th-century Soho (in 21st-century comfort)

Welcome to 1850 – a genuine welcome to political refugees from Europe, including 32-year-old Karl Marx. But is he in danger of outstaying his welcome as he goes on the razzle through Soho, funding his pub crawls by trying to pawn the family silver? His wife’s family that is, for Jenny von Westphalen is of aristocratic German stock, her relatives scandalised by her marriage to the penniless Jewish revolutionary. As young Marx himself puts it “at our wedding I was only invited to the reception”.

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Review: The Toxic Avenger the Musical ★★★★ – This grungy green giant is on message loud and clear

Producer Katy Lipson (Aria Entertainment) has a sure eye – and ear – for a hit musical. Between a summer of new musical theatre at The Other Palace, including Some Lovers, Burt Bacharach’s first for years, and the imminent autumn transfer of a sell-out immersive version of tribal rock musical Hair arriving at London’s Vaults from Manchester’s Hope Mills Theatre, comes this West End transfer of a musical that had a hugely successful first outing at Southwark Playhouse.

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Review: Oslo ★★★★ – Travelling hopefully towards Middle East peace proves an exhilarating journey

You almost certainly know the venture ends in failure and tragedy but what a gloriously exhilarating and entertaining evening JT Rogers makes of the journey. It’s 1991 and the US-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference is going nowhere, with the excluded PLO still ensconced in Tunis. Norwegian power couple Mona Juul, a diplomat posted to Cairo, and Terje Rod-Larsen, her foundation-running sociologist husband, get a chance to see first hand the conflict in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

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Review: Grand Finale ★★★★★ – Apocalyptic vision in Shechter’s triumphant total dance theatre

If that title sounds ominous, Shechter told me in interview: “I wanted to capture a sense of our time…that out-of-control feeling that things are coming to an end. And how can this have a happy ending?” * Plus, in a programme note on what he does – or does not – expect of his audience: “It’s about what is happening to them in their head, how they feel, [not about getting] it right in some way.”

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