Southwark Playhouse

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.

This is a religious war, Catholic versus Protestant in a bloody conflagration where the likes of Courage must be quick on their feet to change sides and hoist the right flag when the advantage shifts from one side to the other.

Right up front Brecht/Kushner play devil’s advocate to make a case for the business of war, putting the arguments in the mouths of army recruiting officers, notably that of striking Celeste de Veazey in Chissick’s gender-blind cast. Women make a strong impression throughout, from Laura Checkley’s blowsy woman-in-red Yvette to Phoebe Vigor, mesmerising then heart-breaking as Courage’s dumb, disfigured daughter Kattrin.

There’s useful support from Julian Moore-Cook and Jake Phillips Head as Courage’s sons, honest, simple Swiss Cheese and tougher, less scrupulous Eilif (a chip off the old block). The production’s main drawback is Barney George’s set. The traverse staging looks promising as you enter the auditorium, but when you realise that there is a theatre-long platform behind one half of the seating, which means half the audience has to turn round and risk neck injuries to see action set there (or simply give up and treat it as radio, as I was reduced to doing), the play becomes alienating in a way that Brecht would not have appreciated. It’s especially galling when the cast sing and play Duke Special’s evocative folk music behind you.

Chissick’s direction also proves surprisingly static, Courage’s wagon, adorned with makeshift awnings and barrels, occasionally gets lugged across the floor. When she moves it at the climax though, Lawrence herself is genuinely moving, recruiting audience assistance. I've survived some thrilling epic productions (notably another meditation on war, Peter Brook's unforgettable nine-hour Mahabharata). But here, with a running time of three hours (the programme, presumably printed earlier, has two hours thirty), the war has rather taken its toll by then.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Mother Courage and Her Children runs until Saturday 9 December. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3pm (Tue & Sat only). £12-£20. Southwark Playhouse, SE1 6BD. 020 7407 0234.

Review: Promises, Promises ★★★ - The swinging 60s live up to their name in a musical with pedigree  

With its stellar writing team – music and lyrics Burt Bacharach and Hal David, book Neil Simon (based on Billy Wilder’s screenplay for hit comedy The Apartment) – this musical set in early 60s New York is as lovable and eager to be loved as any pedigree pup. It boasts a hero of self-deprecating charm in Chuck Baxter, insurance company junior and wannabe executive dining room key holder. Happily for Chuck, he already holds the keys to a Manhattan studio apartment, discreet walking distance from the office. Jaded middle-aged senior executives aspire to these keys to happiness in their turn for the odd hour’s dalliance with their very personal assistants before they go home to their wives. Chuck seems to hold the keys to his own advancement – the promises are the promotion his superiors offer in return.

Chuck’s problem is Fran, the girl of his dreams (dreams shared with the audience in ‘confidential’ asides) who waits in that dining room. She turns out to be the long-term squeeze of the all-important personnel director Sheldrake, who wants exclusive use of Chuck's apartment in return for promotion.

In Gabriel Vick, director Bronagh Lagan has found the perfect Chuck, as appealing as he is talented. But there’s a potential problem with this period piece. The show is self-knowing, necessarily considering its central premise to be droll, whereas to dissenters (post-feminist perhaps) it is, frankly, seedy. Given that back in the aptly-named swinging 60s everyone was apparently at it – think Mad Men – why the problem? I think it’s because the girls have so little voice here. Definitely not on top (except possibly in bed), they are secretaries teetering smartly on their heels in the wake of their bosses, taking letters, keeping diaries, exchanging favours (presumably also for advancement) – and backing songs. At first most numbers are sung by the guys – often by Chuck himself. Happily, you do eventually get to hear from Daisy Maywood’s Fran, who manages to combine fragility and vulnerability with a voice of glorious power and subtlety. It almost justifies the interpolated hit, A House is not a Home, which doesn't quite fit into the action, but who cares when you get to hear Maywood’s rendition.

Elsewhere Alex Young suggests she is destined for stardom with a delicious turn as Marge – up for Christmas cheer with Chuck, whom she picks up in a bar. Plus all those sassy secretaries turn in great performances with archly exaggerated body language in Cressida Carré’s spot-on choreography and designer Simon Wells’s matching period frocks. Given the unusual chorus of middle-aged lotharios and Paul Robinson’s excellently unappealing and unfeeling Sheldrake, Lagan at any rate is aware of the story’s ambiguity, as indeed is that writing team.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Claire Bilyard

Promises, Promises runs until Saturday 18 February, 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3pm (Sat & some weekdays), £25, £20 concs, at Southwark Playhouse, SE1 6BD. 020 7407 0234.

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Review: Allegro ★★★★ – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s story of a small-town hero lives up to the ‘quick tempo’ of its name

ALLEGRO 1 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander Allegro is a curious musical. Released between 1945’s Carousel and South Pacific (1949), it goes some way to form the missing link in the canon of work by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's ground-breaking partnership. Theatrical ideas and innovative storytelling make Allegro a teasing and engaging watch, though it was ahead of its time; employing a Greek chorus to pass comment and an unfussy set to ensure the fluidity of its scenes.

Now a dream team gives Allegro its European premiere. Director Thom Southerland (Grand Hotel, Titanic) works seamlessly with choreographer Lee Proud and musical director Dean Austin to create a sophisticated production on designer Anthony Lamble’s moveable feast of levels, from what might appear at first to be simplistic, folksy subject matter.

Allegro tells the story of Joseph Taylor Junior, an everyday ‘Joe Blow’, from birth to mid-life crisis (originally until death, but revised down). Gary Tushaw’s attractively awkward Joe is the town doctor's son and inherits his father's calling, which seems too special a career for an everyman, but his story arc calls for the temptation of status and wealth.

ALLEGRO 3 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) and company Photo Scott Rylander

The musical opens with the townsfolk's extravagant celebration of Joe’s birth. As he grows they tenderly manipulate a puppet 'playing' Joe as a toddler taking his first steps. The intense delight of the town’s scrutiny, paired with the greys and tans of their ginghams contrasting with the splashes of colour worn by Joe and his parents (thanks to costume designer Jonathan Lipman), puts you wise. These smiling small-town men and women aren’t just wonderfully matched singers and perfectly-drilled dancers, but also the all-seeing chorus, mediating between audience and protagonists. In the original Broadway production there were over 100 dancers alone. Here, less is more, especially given Proud’s eloquent choreography.

This is a tale of challenge, disappointment and compromise, where boy might get girl, but they might not live happily ever after. The first half features Joe’s youth: at college with fellow medical freshman Charlie (wickedly charming Dylan Turner), who has all the confidence around girls Joe lacks; marriage to childhood sweetheart Jennie (Emily Bull), after an on/off courtship and despite parental misgivings (which his deceased mother (Julia J Nagle) gets to voice after death too).

ALLEGRO 4 Gary Tushaw (Joseph Taylor Jr.) Emily Bull (Jennie Brinker) and company Photo Scott Rylander

The second (shorter) half moves with the 'allegro' of the title, emulating the fast pace of life in the big city. Jennie pushes Joe to accept a society medic’s job in Chicago to escape poverty when the Depression hits town. But Joe is uncomfortable ministering to wealthy hypochondriacs and Jennie is playing away again. Will he return to his roots, especially now that he's working alongside Katie Bernstein’s clear-eyed nurse Emily?

Bernstein is terrific in the show’s most memorable number, The Gentleman is a Dope. Hers is a late standout performance in perfect counterpoint to Bull’s full-blooded anti-heroine.

The show is elegantly rounded off with a reprise of One Foot Other Foot, the number that described Joe as a puppet toddler, serving as a metaphor for his philosophy of life. Mark Cumberland has artfully arranged the score for just eight musicians, mainly woodwind and brass. At times it can be over-the-top-upbeat and wholesome, but it’s cleverly done and no doubt Allegro’s late creators would be gratified by its realisation of their vision and intent, if they too, as ghosts, could comment on the action. Perhaps we’ll find out what their gopher on that first production thinks of it if he gets to see it, for young Stephen Sondheim also grew up to fulfil his destiny.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

Allegro runs until Saturday 10 September, 7.30pm & 3pm, £25, £20 concs, at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD; 020 7407 0234.

JR OutLoud: Judi Herman speaks to the brains behind the musical retelling of the real-life riches to rags story, Grey Gardens

Photo © Scott Rylander

In the mid-1970s Albert and David Maysles – first-generation sons of Jewish immigrants to the US from Eastern Europe – made Grey Gardens, one of their most famous films. The documentary told the story of a mother and daughter from the highest echelons of US Society, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, who were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two Bouvier Beale women were discovered living as reclusive social outcasts in Grey Gardens, a dilapidated mansion overrun by cats that was so squalid the Health Department deemed it “unfit for human habitation”.

Now another creative Jewish pair, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, together with book writer Doug Wright, have brought their multi-award-winning musical based on the film to London. JR’s arts editor Judi Herman, who saw Thom Southerland’s European premiere starring Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell, was enchanted by this riches to rags story, as you’ll hear in her interview with the three writers.

Grey Gardens runs until Saturday 6 February, 7.30pm & 3pm, £25, £20 concs, at Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD; 020 7407 0234.

Watch the cult documentary Grey Gardens in full below:

See Jenna Russell sing Another Winter in a Summer Town from the musical:

Review – Grand Hotel ★★★★★ – Judi Herman recommends a stay at the five-star Grand Hotel as 1920s Berlin comes to Southwark

Grand Hotel 2 Victoria Serra (Flaemmchen) with rest of the cast Photo Aviv Ron ★★★★★

Many musicals have varied fortunes but Grand Hotel might have the longest history. It started in 1929 as a novel and then evolved into a play by Austrian-Jewish writer Vicki Baum as Menschen im Hotel (People in the Hotel), exploring the extraordinary stories of guests and staff over one weekend in the best hotel in Berlin. It then became an academy award winning film in 1932 and in 1958, fresh from the success of Kismet, Luther Davis (who authored the accompanying book), as well as George Forrest and Robert Wright (both on lyrics duty) relocated the setting to Rome for their musical version starring Paul Muni. It opened on the West Coast to mixed reviews, straying quite a way from the original storyline, but Muni was ill and the punters wanted to see a closer version of the film so everyone decided against a Broadway opening.

Decades later, in 1989, the trio tried again, returning the show to its original setting of 1928 Berlin. Director/choreographer Tommy Tune insisted on calling in Maury Yeston (who had enjoyed huge success with the musical Nine) to add new songs and some fresh lyrics and the ensuing non-stop production of overlapping dialogue, musical numbers and dance routines encapsulated the mood of a bustling hotel. This, combined with the intersecting stories – of a fading ballerina, a debt-laden but handsome young Baron, a desperate businessman, a war-hardened doctor, a typist with Hollywood dreams and a dying Jewish bookkeeper who wants to spend his life's savings to live his final days at the hotel in the lap of luxury – propelled the show to over 1000 performances on Broadway. Yet it was a flop in London just a few years later, though it had better fortune when it was revived as a lost musical at central London's Donmar theatre in 2004.

Thom Southerland has a great track record directing big musicals in intimate spaces (think Parade, The Grand Tour and Mack and Mabel – all boasting Jewish creative involvement). Here he’s back at the Southwark Playhouse he knows so well, working seamlessly with choreographer Lee Proud to create all the bustle and elegance of a 1920s grand hotel on designer Lee Newby’s cleverly traverse set. With just a faux marble floor and a few chairs, the cast suggest the opulence of Berlin’s top hotel; and their movement quality, at the same time breathless and purposeful, works wonderfully with the soundscape of their voices raised in a musical hubbub to suggest the lives of guests and staff that intersect there.

Grand Hotel 1 Victoria Serra (Flaemmchen) with rest of the cast Photo Aviv Ron

Musical Director Michael Bradley and orchestration adaptor and musical supervisor Simn Lee fully exploit a sound that is at once big, but dominated as it is by strings (two violins, a viola, cello and contrabass, plus drums and keyboards), not brassy – so it is again evocative of those grand hotels. Although the sound quality is good, it does not, of course, come from the singers, but from the amplifiers, which is a shame. But sacrificing audibility would be so much worse.

Like the narratives of the guests, the songs from Yeston and his co-creators intersect too with a powerful drive, so that at times the musical is through song, and of course they carry both narrative and characterisation. What is so impressive about the performances is the physicality of the cast and I don’t just mean their terrific dancing. Making her UK debut, Italian star Christine Grimandi plays Grushinskaya with all the lithe grace of a dancer – and just a little stiffness to betray the dancer’s age. She’s well matched by ramrod straight, whippet-slim Valerie Cutko as Raffaela, her adoring aide, hinting at her unrequited love with touching subtlety. Cutko took over the role on Broadway but her interpretation is fresh as a daisy here.

It’s easy to see why Southerland and other musical theatres love to cast Victoria Serra in roles as vivid as Flaemmchen, the typist and wannabe star who has already chosen that stage name and is prepared to do almost anything to get to Hollywood. Serra gives Flaemmchen a lovely mixture of naïve vulnerability and a hard-boiled determination to get what she wants, even if it means offering distasteful sexual favours. Plus there are lovely subtleties to her voice.

The male guests and staff also give strong performances that match the strength and urgency of their stories. At the epicentre of the play is that handsome Baron, up to his ears in gambling debts and prepared to take as many risks as Raffles the gentleman burglar to stay afloat and live the high life. Scott Garnham plays him with charm and panache – and real tenderness when he falls for the intended victim of a jewellery heist, the ageing Grushinskaya. There are some lovely plot twists that enable him to do more than one good turn, despite his dishonesty, which Garnham clearly relishes. Among the recipients of his kindness are assistant concierge Erik, who spends the entire musical in anguish at being unable to attend his wife’s protracted labour and Otto Kringelein, that terminally ill young Jew determined to make the most of his last days. It would be so easy for these characters to spill over into mawkishness, but instead Jonathan Stewart as Erik and George Rae as Otto give perfomances that are both are rounded and sympathetic.

Grand Hotel 2  Scott Garnham Photo Aviv Ron

Jacob Chapman is not afraid to be unsympathetic as failing businessman Hermann Preysing. But you see him at breaking point as his failing company drives him to ever more desperate measures and of course he is caught up in the start of the financial collapse that is about to lead to the Great Depression.

The stories are held together by a narrator figure, Colonel-Doctor Otternschlag, fighting the pain of a First World War wound with self-injected morphine. It's hard to believe David Delve took over the role of this all-knowing figure at short notice, so authoritative and assured is his performance. There's not a weak link in any of the supporting cast. On the contrary, their dancing in particular is breathtaking, especially in a joyfully sophisticated Charleston number. And Jammy Kasongo and Durone Stokes are jawdroppingly thrilling in their tap dancing and other duets.

If the story looks back to the First World War and takes place on the eve of the Great Depression, in this production at any rate, there is a powerful closing tableau – each of the cast deposits a suitcase on a growing pile centre stage as the lights fade around it. Could this be a presage of the coming displacement of millions in World War Two and of the Holocaust that will overtake so many in Berlin and so many of the guests at the Grand Hotel?

But meanwhile, if you get a chance to check in to this five-star hotel your pleasure is assured!

By Judi Herman

Photography by Aviv Ron

Grand Hotel runs until Saturday 5 September. 7.30pm & 3pm. £12-£22. Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD; 020 7407 0234. 


★★★★★ From now on JR will be giving star-ratings to shows – and appropriately Grand Hotel gets five stars!