The Other Palace

Review: La Strada ★★★★ - Fellini’s bleak and beautiful road movie makes for a haunting musical journey on stage

Kenny Wax is an eclectic producer, responsible for the spectacular award-winning Top Hat, Hollywood musical turned West End show; enchanting children’s shows, including Olivier- nominated Room on the Broom; and now Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada. All are musical adaptations, reimagined with originality and sensitivity, each by the right team for the job.

Director Sally Cookson’s vision for La Strada is as collective as the circus in its story travelling the bleak roads of post-war Italy. As well as composer/lyricist Benji Bowers and ‘Writer in the Room’ Mike Akers, she has gathered a 13-strong team of actor/musicians to tell the story of simple little Gelsomina, the waif sold by her mother to the sinister strongman Zampano to be his gofer, replacing her sister who has mysteriously died. Canadian Audrey Brisson, the enchanting Bella Chagall in The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk last year and a singer/musician and circus performer brought up in Cirque du Soleil, holds the centre as this obstinate innocent, around whom life swirls bewilderingly out of her control. Diminutive, graceful, acrobatic and supremely expressive, with huge eyes that dominate even this steep auditorium and haunting voice singing the wordless refrain that is her theme, hers is a compelling presence.

True there is first one and then a second (male) constant in her life in the abusive Zampano (Stuart Goodwin, a magnificently convincing strongman with a heart as hard and unyielding as its enclosing chest muscles that break an iron chain in his act) and kind and gentle Il Matto, the fool and tightrope walker whose mission is to liberate Gelsomina (Canadian Bart Soroczynski, proving he is equally at home in the circus and at the RSC with a performance as tender as it is spectacularly physical).

But it’s the ensemble work from the multi-talented ensemble representing many nations that creates the road, the run-down cities, seedy bars and circus gigs out of thin air with just a few props, sharing the narrative and the atmospheric music. Italy, Finland, Corsica, Vietnam, Canada and Israel are all represented, the last by the wonderfully versatile Niv Petel, so effective in his own solo show Knock, Knock about bereavement in Israel’s conscript army. To him go the honours of opening the show – and providing that most evocative of musical accompaniments, the harmonica. He is extraordinarily watchable, but of course he never pulls focus.

See it for the eerie beauty of Katie Sykes’s set, dominated by a single telegraph pole and brought to colourful life by this extraordinary company. Watch as they conjure a motorbike with a few tyres and find out whether Gelsomina can make her escape and take control of her life. An evening of sad and wondrous collective storytelling.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Robert Day

La Strada runs until Saturday 8 July. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat only), 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). £20-£39.50. The Other Palace, SW1 E 5JA. 08442 642 121.

Knock, Knock, Niv Petel’s solo show, runs Wednesday 2 – Monday 28 August. 7.30pm (daily; except 14 Aug). £6.50-£10.50. Edinburgh Fringe, Venue 41, C Primo, EH2 3JP.

Read our review of Knock, Knock or listen to Niv Petel on JR OutLoud.

Review: The Wild Party ★★★★ - Loud, lively and lovely, The Wild Party lives up to its name

What better way to open The Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre) than with a wild party? Michael John LaChiusa’s musical takes on Joseph Moncure March’s 1920s poem and paints an unglamorous picture of the dissolute decade with a cast of unsympathetic and pitiless characters. Guys and Dolls it ain’t!

The story follows vaudeville dancer Queenie (aka Frances Ruffelle, the magnificent Jewish musical theatre star, the original Eponine in Les Mis) and her tempestuous relationship with vaudeville clown Burrs (mighty-voiced John Owen-Jones, who has played Jean Valjean more than anyone else in Les Mis’s history). One Sunday, after a fight, Burrs suggests they throw a party and invite "all the old gang". Eagerly they prepare for a wild party fortified by bathtub gin, cocaine and sex.

Director/choreographer Drew McOnie’s winning formula is his powerful casting of a parade of wild guests, led by Chorus Line legend Donna McKechnie as fading star Dolores and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s scary alpha female Kate, Queenie's best friend and rival, with Simon Thomas, striking as her arm candy, Black, who is eyeing up Queenie – you get the picture.

There are two eye-catching double acts. Oscar and Phil D'Armano, a gay couple/brother act are actually played by two terrific women, Genesis Lynea and Gloria Obianyo, playing hookie with their sexuality. The Jewish interest lies in a matching pair of wannabe Broadway-bound theatre producers, Gold and Goldberg. That’s also the title of their number, which has Sebastian Torkia’s jaunty Gold working on Goldberg (an assertive Steven Serlin, the Rabbi from The Infidel) to change his name to Golden, hoping that playing down their Jewishness will help them strike, well, gold. They’re no match for predatory Dolores who plays the pair like a snake when she realises they could be her ticket to Moving Uptown (a deliciously witty, sexy number).

Moncure March’s poem has a driving repetitive rhythm, great for narrative but impossible to sustain in lyric and libretto. LaChiusa translates that into the show’s equally relentless freneticism, especially in the longer, louder first half, with most of the show’s almost 40 numbers following in quick succession.

Happily McOnie moves his nattily–dressed (designer Soutra Gilmour) party animals to create sophisticated stage pictures on Gilmour’s glitzy levels, dominated by MD Theo Jamieson’s fine eight-strong orchestra, on show on high, doing justice to LaChiusa’s challenging mix of 20s pastiche, vaudeville, jazz and more contemporary musical style.

The shorter second half comes as a relief, slowing the pace to allow for plot, pathos and some more intense numbers as melodrama takes over.

It makes a promising start to this new venture from Andrew Lloyd Webber and artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills offering a central London home and breeding ground for musicals in development.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Scott Rylander

The Wild Party runs until Saturday 1 April. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Sat only). £10-£65. The Other Palace, SW1E 5JA. 084 4264 2121.

Click here to read more theatre reviews