Tag Archives: David Birrell

Miss Atomic Bomb at St. James Theatre – 12th March 2016

14 Mar

I usually don’t review a preview. On this occasion I will make an exception but I will concentrate on all the positive aspects of the show because I feel that those bits that appeared a bit flawed just need a bit more time to be ironed out.

Miss Atomic Bomb is a musical comedy set in 1950s Las Vegas centering around the vast amount of nuclear tests that took place in the Nevada desert around that time. In an attempt to profit from the always present atomic blasts (and threatened at gun point) Lou Lubowitz sets up a beauty contest to find Miss Atomic Bomb.

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At the center of the story we find Candy Johnson (Florence Andrews), a (sheep) farm girl desperate to raise funds to settle her late grandmother’s debt. She runs into Joey Lubowitz (Dean John-Wilson) who has just deserted the army after witnessing the horrific power of the atomic bomb. In an attempt to escape he flees to Las Vegas where his brother Lou Lubowith (Simon Lipkin) has just been appointed general manager of the Golden Goose Hotel. Due to extraordinary circumstances Lou and Joey set up the Miss Atomic Bomb beauty contest which might just be Candy’s only chance to escape the grip of the bank – represented by Mr. Potts (Daniel Boys) – that is threatening to repossess the trailer her grandmother left her.

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There is no denying that Miss Atomic Bomb has huge potential. The show has a great score and some wonderful comedy moments. And while the story is predictable it manages to keep the audience entertained nonetheless. Add a talented cast and you have an enjoyable evening at the theatre. Simon Lipkin shines as Lou Lubowitz and his duet with Catherine Tate in act two (Sugar Daddy) is a true showstopper. Catherine Tate has been praised for her comic timing before and she doesn’t disappoint here. Dean John-Wilson is perfectly cast as Joey Lubowitz – the romantic hero who also gets the chance to show off his funny side. He has great on stage chemistry with Florence Andrews who delivers a stand out performance as Candy Johnson. A special mention has to go to Stephane Anelli who is not only hilariously funny as Professor Alvin Schmul but also once again shows that he is a hugely talented dancer and singer. David Birrell has joined the cast on short notice to star as General Westcott / Mr. Rosenhunt and does a great job.

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It is obvious how much effort has been put into this new musical and the result is a light-hearted show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Miss Atomic Bomb is proof that new original musicals can be innovative, entertaining, funny, clever and catchy all in one and so appeal to a broader audience.

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Here’s hoping this show gets the chance to be seen by a wide range of people not just during its short run at the St. James theatre.

Miss Atomic Bomb is playing at the St. James Theatre until 9th April 2016. For more info and to book tickets click here.

Sweeney Todd at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – 9th November 2013

12 Nov

Sweeney Todd – without a doubt one of Sondheim’s most gruesome musicals – tells the story of Benjamin Barker, the so-called demon barber of Fleet Street. It is one of those shows that requires perfect casting especially for the part of Sweeney to make me enjoy it.

The Royal Exchange Theatre is a unique performing space located in the middle of the Royal Exchange building and configured in the round. This production of Sweeney Todd had its first run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds on a regular stage. To fit the production into the Royal Exchange Theatre the staging had to be changed completely. Since I haven’t seen the show in Leeds I can’t compare the two versions but for me the staging in the round worked perfectly. The setting of the different levels (pie show downstairs, barber shop upstairs for example) is well done in a theatre that due to its nature only offers one stage level.

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David Birrell gives what one might consider to call the performance of a lifetime as Sweeney Todd. Vocally strong he displays layers and layers of emotions – from anger to rage, sadness to despair, moments of joy to madness. His Sweeney is a maniac but he is not a one-dimensional killer. He has his motives – however crazy and out of proportion they may seem – and in order to connect with the character the audience needs to understand these motives. David Birrell manages to draw the audience in and make them actually care for Sweeney Todd. This is exactly how the character needs to be played – I was and still am in awe of David Birrell’s mesmerising performance.

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Gillian Bevan’s Mrs. Lovett is the perfect counterpart for David Birrell’s Sweeney. She plays the character with just the right amount of humour while not losing sight of Mrs. Lovett’s manipulative nature.

I’m impressed by Sebastien Torkia as Adolfo Pirelli. The part involves some tough singing and he manages this effortlessly (or at least he makes it look like that). I’m not sure it is necessary to transform him into a Sasha Baron Cohen / Borat lookalike but it doesn’t hurt the show either.

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Ben Stott is wonderful als Tobias and Michael Peavoy does one of my favourite Sondheim songs of all time justice (Johanna). Speaking of Johanna, I admit I’m not convinced by Niamh Perry in the part of Sweeney’s daughter but that might have to do with the fact that it is by far my least favourite part in the show anyway. I just think her voice seems a bit shrill at times and she doesn’t come across as really innocent and slightly naive which I think is crucial for the part.

Don Gallagher is wonderfully repellent as Judge Turpin – to say I was relieved of being spared of facing him in a certain scene involving a whip is an understatement.

The rest of the cast does a brilliant job. Special mention for Barbara Drennan as Beggar Woman – crazed and manic but not offensive, a perfect portrayal of this small but vital character.

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I like the modern-day setting and think the pre show is a great idea to get people in the mood for this production – I won’t spoil anything by adding more details! Sweeney Todd is not the most melodic show in parts (but then which Sondheim show is?) but it consists of some wonderful harmonies and hearing the score sung by such a talented cast is a real joy.

If you think you have already seen the best production of Sweeney Todd – think again. Sadly this is a strictly limited run but if you want to see how Sweeney Todd should be performed then go and watch the show at the Royal Exchange Theatre. The run finishes on 30th November so you better be quick.

For more info and to book tickets go here.

Ragtime at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – July 14th 2012 (evening)

18 Jul

A visit to the Open Air Theatre in the middle of July. It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time of booking – a lovely summer evening and maybe a picnic before the show. In the end I spend about 3/4 of the performance sitting in the pouring rain (my wallet took 2 days to dry completely!).
But that’s the risk with performance spaces like Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. I’ll just call this a challenge completed because yes, I did sit through the whole performance despite the weather.

But on to the show: Ragtime (based on E L Doctorow’s novel from 1975). This musical is all about life in Amerika at the beginning of the 20th century focusing on three different groups. There’s an upper-middle class family, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter and a black musician and his girlfriend. The lives of these people intertwine as they deal with issues such as immigration, politics, racism and social challenges of the time. The story is quite complicated but really interesting and well told. In case you want to take a closer look at it I recommend you read through the plot summary here: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ragtime/summary.html

This production has quite a modern feel to it with the big banner of President Obama in the background of the stage. I’m not too convinced by the set I have to admit. It looks a lot like a random garbage dump and reminds me of a set one would use for Cats. There’s a piano on one side of the stage where the house of Mother and her family is set and various scenes take place on a slight elevation on the left side of the stage. I know a set doesn’t have to be detailed or naturalistic but I just didn’t see the point in letting the characters walk around in a dump. That might be just my lack of understanding for a new and modern approach to this show though.

The cast is the real stand out in this production (with few exceptions). First of all there is the wonderful Rosalie Craig as Mother. She is without a doubt the star of the show and brings such a warmth to her character that is it impossible not to be impressed by her performance. Plus her voice is nothing but beautiful and suits the songs perfectly. Rolan Bell plays Coalhouse Walker (father of Sarah’s child and leader of the black group). He seems to struggle with the songs now and then and in my opinion his portrayal of the character is slightly too angry and imature which makes it hard to be on his side no matter what injustice he experiences.
Claudia Kariuki on the other hand brings a tear to the audience’s eye with her moving portrayal of Sarah, the black woman who first abandons her newborn child and is then invited to stay with Mother and her family.
John Marquez plays Tateh, the Jewish immigrant who comes to America with his little daughter in search for a better life, with a twinkle in the eye while never losing sight of the struggle the character goes through.
David Birrell gives a fabulous performance as Father and manages to give the audience a great insight into the inner turmoil of the character. His singing is spot on and I particularly enjoyed seeing him and Rosalie act together.
Both Harry Hepple and Jo Servi do a good job as Brother and Grandfather. I would have loved to hear Harry sing more as I loved his voice when I saw him in Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
I would like to give a special mention to Stephane Anelli (Harry Houdini) who never fails to make me smile with his amazing dancing and his great facial expressions (which can be hilarious if the part allows a funny interpretation). Special kudos for dancing like this on a wet and slippery stage and for performing those Houdini tricks (or rather stunts!) in the rain.

My one major criticism regarding the casting is the mixing up of gender and race. I have nothing against colour-blind casting, don’t get me wrong! But having a black guy play the white grandfather and a woman the male Booker T Washington just makes this already quite complicated piece even harder to understand. If Ragtime was a well-known musical it probably wouldn’t matter but most visitors will most likely never have seen the show and the different storylines are difficult enough to follow without adding cross-race and cross-gender casting.

As the title of the show suggests the score is very much influenced by the ragtime era so it has a jazzy and partly gospel feel to it and makes good use of the piano. The title song “Ragtime” is definitely a catchy tune and big ensemble numbers like “Till we reach that day” are quite spectacular to listen to. I probably wouldn’t listen to a lot of the songs at home but I really enjoyed them in context with the story.

Ragtime is certainly not an easy musical and I highly doubt it will please theatregoers that are focused on feel-good shows and who want to spent a relaxing evening at the theatre without having to think too hard (and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do it as well to get away from the busy and hectic everyday life now and then). However, if you want to see a show that intertwines history and fiction to tell a story of personal drama, change and everyday problems of people in America in the early 20th century this is the piece for you. This production is by no means perfect but the stellar cast alone is worth braving the British “summer” and spending an evening at the Open Air Theatre.

Ragtime is showing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until September 8th. For more info and to book tickets go to http://www.openairtheatre.com/production/ragtime-the-musical.