Charing Cross Theatre

Review: The Knowledge ★★★★ – A funny heart-warming ride through pre-Uber London

Chief examiner Mr Burgess, played with thrilling comic cruelty by Steven Pacey, sets his latest cohort of four would-be London Taxi drivers the task of committing to memory all 320 routes, 15,842 streets and all places of interest on the way within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. “No taxi driver in no other city in no other country in the world has to know a fraction of what you have to know. And not many brain surgeons neither.” The late Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 play for TV exploring the impact of this almost impossible challenge (70% drop-out rate then and some 25,000 streets now) is adapted for the stage by Simon Block and directed with comic verve by Rosenthal’s wife for 30 years Maureen Lipman, who appeared in the TV drama.

It’s a challenge that takes over every aspect of the aspiring cabbies’ lives as well as those of wives and girlfriends. The sacrifices provide the dramatic tension and much of the comedy. Simon Block channels Jack Rosenthal’s ability to imbue what might otherwise be comic stereotypes with genuine warmth and humour by homing in on the self-knowledge his characters acquire along the way. Wisely he does not attempt to deal with the television version’s affectionate paean to the streets of London or to update it. The parallels with today’s struggles for the man on the street are evident.

Ex-Eastender James Alexandrou invests Jack-the-Lad Gordon with a swagger and cockiness that doesn’t get entirely beaten out of him, even by his long-suffering wife Brenda (Celine Abrahams, abrasively assertive). Ben Caplan’s funny, heartbreaking Ted, with his photographic memory and desire to keep up the family tradition of go-to droshky drivers, is the sure cert to get his Green Badge, encouraged by his loving, supportive wife Val, whom excellent Jenna Augen invests with touching eagerness. The ‘one most likely to fail but you know he won’t’ is Fabian Frankel’s engaging nebbich teenage Chris, who physically and metaphorically undergoes the greatest personal transformations, egged on by girlfriend Janet. Alice Felgate invests her with a wonderfully sympathetic no-nonsense briskness that warms the stage.

Louise Callaghan brings a defiant laddishness to chain-smoking Miss Stavely, the sole female candidate. She feels a tad underwritten, perhaps because as a proudly independent young woman in a man’s world, she has no partner, supportive or otherwise.

Mr Burgess’s torture chamber/office dominates Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s split-level stage as his efforts to force his examinees off the road by questioning them with inhalers stuck up his nostrils or doing press-ups dominate the action. “Compared to people, The Knowledge is a piece of marzipan. They mumble. They can’t hear you. They don’t know where they want to go. They get up both your nostrils”.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

The Knowledge runs until Saturday 11 November 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed only), 3pm (Sat only). £17.50-£42.50. Charing Cross Theatre, WC2N 6NL. 084 4493 0650.

Review: Death Takes a Holiday ★★★ - Magic realism in 1920s Italy makes for a haunting musical

Lush romantic stories are bread and butter to composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, and he writes scores to match. His elegiac music conjures time and place and whether the place is the doomed Titanic ocean liner or Grand Hotel Berlin 1928, the first half of the 20th century seems to be his preferred time.

Yeston and Peter Stone, who wrote the book for Titanic, next turned to Italian playwright Alberto Casella’s 1924 romance, Death Takes a Holiday, with its glamorous setting – an aristocrat’s villa on Lake Garda. This fanciful story has Death falling for Grazia, a beautiful newly-engaged young aristocrat so that he allows her to escape unscathed from a catastrophic car crash; and taking the guise of a handsome young Russian Prince to gatecrash her father’s weekend house party, courts her himself. In a programme note Yeston points to what’s behind Casella’s story – a preoccupation with death in the survivors of the Great War and the ensuing deadly influenza pandemic which between them claimed 60 million lives. So there’s a thematic link with Yeston’s earlier work. It’s a sad irony that Stone’s death in 2003 meant that Thomas Meehan had to take over.

The strange dreamlike chamber musical gets its dream production, thanks to director Thom Southerland’s fine cast and creative team and MD Dean Austin’s 10-piece band. Set designer Morgan Large belies his name, creating on a pocket-sized stage terraces and colonnades of an Italian lakeside villa as convincing as any in an Ivory/Merchant film. And Jonathan Lipman’s stunning take on period costumes complements perfectly, for Southerland cleverly makes his 14-strong cast part of the set, for example standing on chairs to suggest the doomed car.

There are uniformly elegant performances too. Chris Peluso’s Death and Zoë Doano’s Grazia look perfect in each other’s arms and have soaring voices to match the music Yeston gives them. Peluso is both appealingly ardent and as sinister as his real identity demands and Doano is so alive and fresh that you fear for her as she falls for him, even as she recognizes him.  Mark Inscoe commands as the Count, her worried father, and among his guests, Samuel Thomas stands out as Major Eric Fenton, closest friend of his son, Roberto, killed in the Great War, with one of the show’s best numbers, Roberto’s Eyes. Scarlett Courtney as Eric’s sister and Helen Turner as Roberto’s widow Alice are touching representatives of girls without husbands post-war. Gay Soper and Anthony Cable are touching and funny as the vintage couple rediscovering youthful vigour while Death has taken time out. There are though perhaps too many musical numbers and it’s just a shame that Yeston’s pot pourri of styles doesn’t quite make for a killer musical.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Death Takes a Holiday runs until Saturday 4 March, 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Wed only), 3pm (Sat only), £17.50-£39.50, at Charing Cross Theatre, WC2N 6NL.

Read more theatre reviews

Review: Ragtime ★★★★ – A timely revival for a musical about immigration, aspiration and discrimination

ragtime At this time of post-Brexit xenophobia and with refugees in crisis, Ragtime’s dramatic account of the hardships and hatred faced by early 20th-century immigrants to America is all too timely.

Terrence McNally’s book works seamlessly with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics to bring EL Doctorow's 1975 novel to the stage. The story revolves around the interaction of three families: well-established WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) Mother, Father and their Little Boy, with Grandfather and Mother's Younger Brother; ragtime piano-playing African American Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, the mother of his baby son; and Tateh (Yiddish for daddy), a young Jewish widower newly-arrived from Latvia with his daughter, as well as his hopes. “A Shtetl iz Amereke,” sings Gary Tushaw’s starry-eyed, sympathetic Tateh.

When Father leaves for a polar expedition, compassionate, resourceful Mother proves she can think for herself, rescuing the new-born abandoned by troubled Sarah, taking her in too and effecting reconciliation between Sarah and Coalhouse. There is an immediate connection when she meets Tateh, in danger of having his aspirations crushed by grinding poverty. But the racial hatred faced by Coalhouse leads to violence that threatens to engulf them all.


Famous personalities of the era play a part, the Jews represented by escapologist Harry Houdini (played by winning Christopher Dickins, his accordion part of his personality) and fiery anarchist activist Emma Goldman (the splendid Valerie Cutko), inspiring and advising alongside civil rights pioneer Booker T Washington (impressive Nolan Frederick channelling Obama). The car Coalhouse buys from Henry Ford (Tom Giles) provokes the hatred and envy that drives the story. And as professional femme fatale Evelyn Nesbit, Joanna Hickman, funny and ravishing, perches on a piano, her cello-playing part of the allure that mesmerises Jonathan Stewart’s likeable, hot-headed Younger Brother.

Thom Southerland’s production fills the Charing Cross’s tiny stage with ‘teeming masses’ - his cast of 24 actors, mostly musicians, dynamically choreographed along with their instruments, by Ewan Jones on a versatile set (designers Tom Rogers and Toots Butcher). Their twin balconies swing across stage to double as ocean liners and twin pianos make vehicles, platforms, and magnificent music thanks to dynamite onstage MD Jordan Li Smith and the nimble fingers of Ako Mitchell’s Coalhouse.

The rhythms of Stephen Flaherty’s score, ranging from the syncopation of ragtime itself to the klezmer brought by Jewish immigrants, wrap the auditorium with powerful sound, thanks to Mark Aspinall’s orchestrations. When the cast sing in chorus it is breathtaking, sometimes overwhelming. There are glorious individual voices. Anita Louise Combe’s Mother has rich warm tones to match her generous personality. Jennifer Saayeng’s Sarah moves to tears with the quiet vehemence of Your Daddy’s Son and soars in a duet with Mitchell’s virile, passionate Coalhouse, and Seyi Omooba’s voice is heart-stopping in this often spellbinding evening.

by Judi Herman

Photos by Annabel Vere and Scott Rylander

Ragtime runs until Saturday 10 December, 7.30pm, 2.30pm & 3pm, £17.50-£29.50, at Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers St, WC2N 6NL; 08444 930650.