See What The Boys In The Backroom Will Sing: The West End Men, Vaudeville Theatre


Un-suit-able: David Thaxton, Matt Willis, Lee Mead and Glenn Carter in 'The West End Men' Photo: Alastair Muir
Un-suit-able: David Thaxton, Matt Willis, Lee Mead and Glenn Carter in ‘The West End Men’ Photo: Alastair Muir

This needn’t detain us long.  Four guys, not named Moe, not named anything you’ll remember from recent West End appearances as a matter of fact, have been scraped together to croon a battery of show tunes while pretending to be more rock band than romantic lead.

The kindest thing to say about it is it’s occasionally more musically accomplished and less self-indulgent than you might think from the posters.  But not much.

Clearly someone in a production company thought – ‘who shall we get for this?  Who’s not working?’

The lineup may vary but on opening they had salvaged: the curly crooner from the Portsmouth-Bilbao ferry who won a 2007 TV competition to be Joseph in that musical Andrew Lloyd Webber scored so simply schoolchildren could sing it, someone from a disbanded boyband uncertain where his career’s headed now his balls have dropped and he’s been in the Celebrity jungle, a capable ginger Welshman who may have served time in Phantom and Les Mis but escaped any actual stardom in the process, and a slightly older guy with a Matt Monroe haircut who’s trying too hard …

What they’re required to do is throw macho bromantic glances at each other across an unpainted plywood set seemingly assembled from offcuts skip-dived behind B&Q, act all jazzy and cool and pretend to be groovin’ to the sick beats which is about as convincing as Elaine Paige doing scat.  Just as Ms Paige is musically accomplished but not in the same vein as Dame Cleo Laine, these boys are not rock gods and no amount of lip-biting air guitar is going to turn Lee Mead into Led Zep.

This stale formula has been hauled round the provinces and even to Singapore and back, so it’s unclear why there were so many cracked notes and dodgy entries.  The genuinely charming Mead was visibly struggling with a throat problem, and surprisingly for faux-groovers no-one had a bottle of anything on stage, not even water, so he croaked a fair bit.

The first half seems equally underlit and undersung, with moody predictable solos and shared-out mash-ups from PhantomAspects and the musical equivalent of rising damp, Love Never Dies.  Forty-seven key changes later, the chaps parade in suits crafted by a menswear sponsor who won’t be selling many on the strength of their catwalk modelling.

It all ratchets up a gear after the interval, despite the fact the quartet are now dressed for a Hoxton barbecue in low-rise jeans and pec-squeezing shirts, mainly because the excellent 5-piece band led by terrific pianist Will Stuart is given its head and the singers also rise to the occasion if not always quite to the tune.  Still plenty of irritations, though, particularly from Matt Willis (from Busted) whose crotch-thrusting and tattooed forearm jiving are so not going to serve him well in musical theatre when it’s his turn for Baron von Trapp.

As though aware they cannot carry the evening unaided, the boys are abetted by Kerry Ellis, late of Wicked, who shotblasts the plasterwork on the front of the balcony with a scarifyingly powerful Defying Gravity.  After this, the production has nowhere to go as the leads are joined onstage by a motley choir and, rather like some provincial Choral Society riven with internecine feuding and unable to agree whether One Day More or Bohemian Rhapsody should be its climactic finale, does both.

West End Men. Directed by Mitch Sebastian. Vaudeville Theatre, London WC2R 0NH. Until 22 June. Mon-Sat 20:00, Saturday matinee 3pm. £20-75.



Review: The Apocalypse Gameshow

The Apocalypse Gameshow: a fun night of chaos and nihilistic pleasure?
The Apocalypse Gameshow: a fun night of chaos and nihilistic pleasure?

When you were young, did you ever get duped into attending one of those after-school activities with circus skills and parachute games only to discover it was a secret Christian indoctrination programme? The BIGBIN club had a lot to answer for (it stands for Believe In God, Believe It Now – but how is a seven year old supposed to know that).

The Apocalypse Gameshow owes something to that heritage, but with left-wing conspiracy theorists instead of god-botherers. On paper it’s a fun, interactive romp through apocalyptic scenarios which audience members are asked to re-enact in an attempt to build the perfect end-times society. It’s beautifully set aboard the intimidatingly warlike ship, the MS Stubnitz. This floating arts-hub, probably the highlight of the evening, has been sailing the seas for 20 years and housed many intercultural performances, but is now moored in Canary Wharf, bastion of big business and “the man”.

As gamers arrive, they’re hassled by bouncers and put through their paces by a selection process to determine how likely they are to get involved with the show. It’s a reasonably entertaining, if horribly lengthy pre-amble (two hours) to the main event, but also means the same showy people get dragged up, rather than the oddly surprising hidden gem of an audience member you sometimes find at butt-clenchingly tense interactive cabaret.

Once a victim is selected, they are brought on stage and spin a wheel to determine which game will be played. The games included a guy pretending to sneeze over alien invaders, someone trying to unwrap a sellotaped bomb and a sort of blind-date style breeding program where the hapless selectees were made to gyrate for a few minutes. The performers didn’t really do much but the Winehouse-lookalikes amongst their number maintained their wobbly characters quite well.

The promise of a fun night of chaos and nihilistic pleasure is gradually steamrollered by the realisation that this whole night is a mask for preachy hippy-crap: corporations are bad, CCTV is bad, pollution is bad and so forth. Pseudo-facts are thrown around by the host in a bid to turn us all into revolutionaries, but the audience aren’t that stupid and soon lose interest.

If you’re fortunate enough to remember to bring cash, you can exchange it for their own currency, which you have to use to get much needed drinks. Except the exchange rate alters throughout the night to screw you over more and more – leading to a pricey interval. The message is obviously that banks are evil, but the effect is: “you’re all dicks, give me back my real money, we need booze because this show is so awful”.

As a gameshow, it lacks any element of skill. As a piece of cabaret, it lacks talent. As a sign that the end is near, after four hours of watching a man “host” a show by reading hyperbole off bits of paper, we couldn’t care less.

The Apocalypse Gameshow. MS Stubnitz, moored at Canary Wharf near Montgomery Street. 10, 12 May, 19:00. £10-£12.

Review: What Happens In The Winter

A show about two performers telling stories from the good old days, What Happens In The Winter offers only occasional glimmers of hope and insight into the narrators’ lives.

What Happens In The Winter
What Happens In The Winter

At its core, Upswing’s What Happens In The Winter gives two women, one a dancer and the other an aerialist, the chance to tell stories from their lives. We hear about love and loss, the exciting events they were part of, and how they feel now they are starting to slow down. A kind of joint autobiography, the show indulges their experiences which come across as slightly boastful in places. The delivery seems forced, as if the pair are attempting to act out the anecdotes instead of just relaxing into the dialogue.

Aerialist Lindsey Butcher retains a sense of novelty, displaying a range of climbing skills on an impressive rope setup. She displays some clear experience with the equipment and tells us stories of performers she admires. She does all this working with the equipment. Dancer Ann Dickie attempts to do the same, mixing her art of dance with her stories.

Unfortunately, Dickie holds nowhere near as much as much of the attention as her stage partner’s segments. Likewise, the stage setup is completely unbalanced as a huge rig of ropes holds all the focus centre stage while the barres are resigned to the back and side of the space lack presence.

There is some audience interaction but it is generally limited to the occasional closed question asked by the women. Instead. the most engaging aspects of the show are a few of their humorous tales of yesteryear. Graham, their counterweight and equipment assistant suddenly and without warning becomes part of the show and occasionally pitches in with equally awkward, forced lines.

At one point, we see Dickie’s failed attempts to climb the aerial equipment, despite the encouragement of Lindsey. Dickie shows defiant bravery here, albeit briefly, but it all seems a little too self-indulgent, edging towards forced pathos for these aging performers.

Ultimately, the show has three key failings, namely a distinct lack of direction, substance and (worst of all) clear statement. The first of these is epitomised by a cacophonous denouement which sees the cast in stereotypical clown outfits running around to no particular purpose.

The body of the show comes across as little more than a collection of tales and thoughts from Butcher and Dickie and, even then, the stories are jumbled and sometimes mixed up, segmented and told simultaneously. This stylistic approach to storytelling quickly becomes confusing, as if the performers are consciously attempting to create an art piece rather a true exploration of their history and feelings. The following section slips back into straight storytelling and goes no way towards creating an experimental structure.

In short, What Happens In The Winter‘s structure. content and brief playing time of 55 minutes allow only for a casual insight into the women’s lives and nothing more.

What Happens In The Winter. Produced by Upswing. The Albany, London, SE8 4AG. 26 April. £12.

Review: The Arrival

A new collaboration between Tamasha and Circus Space is a strange multi-layered story of journeys and migrations.

The Arrival makes uneven use of circus and theatre.
The Arrival makes uneven use of circus and theatre.

The Arrival is a reworking of Shaun Tan’s graphic novel of the same name in a collaboration between Tamasha and Circus Space. Four and a half years in the making, it’s a strange multi-layered story of journeys and migrations, pertinent to a city that is one of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet, where the word multiculturalism has many meanings. It’s also a good subject for Tamasha who have been working to bring Asian culture into the British mainstream now for twenty-three years with some notable successes.

There is a lot of suspense in moving to a new place, a new country and a new continent – utterly unimaginable to a migrant who has come from a small town on the other side of the world and this is brought out in quite a literal sense by suspending performers in the air using various pieces of apparatus. Projections, recorded voices, snippets of conversation are woven together to bring together people of different backgrounds across time into something cohesive in the shared experience of disembarking and not knowing what the world will bring you next.

The Arrival works through it’s effective staging and changing tempo and the verbatim passages of experiences of immigrants to this country, which makes it genuinely moving in places. One passage about seeing snow for the first time strikes true to me as it recalls an almost identical conversation I had with a man from Zambia in Manchester once. The words are in of themselves quite wonderful, and it’s effective because it forces us to empathise with people who are all too often marginalised without in any way being didactic.

The production as a whole is successful and shows the skill in Kristine Landon-Smith’s direction. The pace is particularly good and the energy of the piece ebbs and flows, heightening the tension to draw the audience in only to let it go in a comic moment. However, though this is a marriage of two parties it is not an equal one, for while the circus serves to highlight thematic resonances within the drama, the drama does not serve to highlight the circus elements in their own right.

During the question and answer session following the piece I asked why this story was told through circus and the answer was simply that there had been the possibility of a collaboration. A marriage of convenience then! When directing performers, anything resembling “a trick” was discarded; this has left the circus so underplayed that at many points it simply disappears. These are graduates of Circus Space who have spent years training and The Arrival does not fully utilise their skills.

The aerial hoop performance lasts less than a minute and the rope routine is similarly short. The silks are not used save to make a sort of cocoon and may as well have been a hammock: the slack line is hidden as a string of lights and the straps is used only for a comic moment.

While circus productions often use scenery to give their apparatus a flavour, here it seems like the circus is forced to apologise for itself – and only the chinese pole comes close to being developed. Tamasha have missed a trick here by not letting the performers do what they are trained for. The thick accents and broken speech that punctuates the production are indicative of people who have the same vastly complex emotional landscapes as all humans have, yet are unable to express it to their full potential, what better way to show this inner world non-linguistically than via the artistry of physical circus movement?

Those who like drama told in interesting new ways should like this piece. Those who enjoy circus may well be left wanting more.

The Arrival. By Tamasha & Circus Space. Jacksons Lane, London. Until 13 April.

Who are the latest bright talents to emerge from Circus Space? We were there to see the latest batch of students graduate.

Review: Spymonkey’s Cooped

A Spaniard, a German and two Brits walk into a theatre. Whatever the joke is, it can’t be as funny as Spymonkey’s Cooped.

Spymonkey's Cooped runs until this Saturday at the Leicester Square Theatre
Spymonkey’s Cooped runs until this Saturday at the Leicester Square Theatre

There is no doubt that Spymonkey are a national treasure. Given that the quartet includes a Spaniard and a German amongst its number, maybe that should be an international treasure. Either way, Cooped, a revival of their first major hit, proves exactly why.

Essentially a knockabout comedy wrapped in a farce wrapped in what the cast call “a demented pulp gothic romance”, the storyline often takes a backseat to the genuinely hilarious antics. There are many reasons why this show was a blazing success when it debuted in 2001, not least the badinage, the set design and clever touches from beginning to the very end. Some of this can be attributed to director Cal McCrystal who has also served as the award-winning One Man, Two Guvnors‘s comedy director.

The physical comedy veers from Three Stooges-like slapstick to mini-episodes like the nude ballet dream sequence which ends the first half. Ladies: if you’ve never seen a man hold and strum his tackle like a ukelele, now’s your chance. The back and forth repartee, especially between Stephan Kreiss’ and Aitor Basauri’s multiple characters, is the heartbeat of this show, never letting the pace drop.

A joke-within-a-joke sees both Kreiss and Basauri, as well as co-star Petra Massey, acting the parts of performers acting in Cooped. Kreiss plays the crazed Expressionist actor Udo Keller whose chief role as the manor’s butler sees him aggressively rubbing up against Aitor Bassuri’s soap-opera heart-throb Alfredo Gravés (famous to millions, albeit only in Spain and Paraguay) who plays a solicitor and a bishop with a Mediterranean accent thick enough to use as a doorstop. Massey joins in the fun as Mandy Bandy, the wannabe popstrel playing new-girl-in-town Laura du Lay.

The plot – such as it is – sees du Lay arriving to take up a new position as secretary to Toby Park’s Marsden, the lord of the manor and a handsome devil with hidden depths. No-one is all that they seem and half the fun is seeing each actor taking on new roles. The balanced script allows each of the quartet to shine and connect with the audience in their own way. Kreiss is all pantomime villein aiming sly winks, tongue-pokes and even gunshots at the punters while Bassuri seeks pity by constantly touching up his toupee or playing episodes from his telenovela past.

The set design is a marvel in itself. Cheap props, from the hobby horses standing in for the real thing to “stairs” with only two steps, bring some of the biggest laughs of the show. Kreiss’ utterly superfluous concerto using combined pings from empty bottles and the nearby lift button is wonderful and highlights just how many crazy ideas are in this madcap marvel of a show.

Read our exclusive interview with Petra Massey.

Spymonkey’s Cooped. Directed by Cal McCrystal. Leicester Square Theatre, London, WC2H 7BX. 18-23 March. £18-22.

Photo credits: Bernhard Fuchs, main image. Sean Dennis, gallery images.

Review: Moralgorithm

A keystone of cabaret, audience interaction is being adopted more and more by fringe theatre. A new production from Stamp Collective puts the focus on the audience leading to a potentially different show each time.

Moralgorithm challenges the audience in more ways than one.
Moralgorithm challenges the audience in more ways than one.

In a sense, this is an interactive theatre piece about capitalism. We, the audience, are new recruits at a large firm called Moralgorithm, and it is our job to come up with new ideas and products, until we’ve earned enough “cookies” to take the holiday of a lifetime…literally.

We’re ushered around an office building where we’re chastised repeatedly by the scary boss, reassured by the assistant, and probed for ideas by mechanically minded drone-women. Anything you say gets regurgitated back to you in a future product demo, which is a little unnerving when you first realise it. But fear not, because there’s a revolution brewing, and it’s down to you, the new recruits, to make it a success.

The reason this is only a play “in a sense” is because if that were entirely true, it wouldn’t be impactful enough. What you have instead is the opportunity to play for an hour. The performers allow plenty of wiggle room to let all participants show their personality, which isn’t always welcome in some other immersive shows. You could imagine that if you were to do it again, it would be quite different.

The hardwired workers, such as Trellis, who looks after the nature section where we got to do some finger painting (and incidentally invented “Monet-stagram”), are great fun to banter with, and manage to get something out of everyone. The problem is, the audience are really getting into the revolution when the denouement comes suddenly and all too soon. It could easily have run for another half-hour or so, just to allow the audience to try the toys at every station.

But still, it’s perhaps better to leave wanting more than feeling drained – like you’ve just spent the day in an office from hell – which as it turns out, is actually rather fun.

Moralgorithm by Stamp Collective. Theatre Delicatessen (35 Marylebone High Street, London, W1U 4QA). Wed 13 Mar – Sat 23 Mar, 19:30. £10 (£8 concessions). http://www.stampcoll

Review: Black Pudding

Based on a finalist piece at the Roundhouse Show Slam 2012, Windup Collective have extended it to a full show. How has the transition fared?

Windup Collective's Black Pudding runs until 9 March.
Windup Collective’s Black Pudding runs until 9 March.

If it were allowable to sum this show up in one word, it would be: no.

Wind-Up Collective present a musical fairytale mix-up, part cabaret, part panto. Childhood characters like Goldilocks and the Big Bad Wolf wail and thrust their way through a nonsensical plot about uxoricide and an old man’s party. Lip-syncing, a terrifyingly bland imitation of Victor/Victoria, and some guy in a big blue beard are the “talents” on offer.

Aside from the bad script, awkward atmosphere and inability to actually interact with the audience despite sitting on them about 40 times, the most insulting part of being asked to pay for this is that none of them can sing, and yet insist on doing so. One bad tune can be comical, if done right, but not two hours. Most of the time it’s flat, but sometimes the actors give up altogether and just start speaking…out of rhythm.

Time for an interval from this sad hate-filled rant – what did the rest of the audience think? What began with furtive glances which whispered “did you realise this was just an extended student skit gone wrong” later turned into nervous laughter, then second-half shots of tequila to numb the pain. Apologies are muttered between partners, and a few people move to the back of the room to try and escape or be closer to the bar.

It takes some self-examination of a critic to tear apart a show like this. After all, are they not just sweet kids who wanted a bit of fun and probably shouldn’t have asked an honest reviewer to come along? Perhaps, but they also charge the public to see it and appear to think, according to the press they put out, that they’re doing something quite fresh and groundbreaking. It’s not, it’s dreadful.

In a real cabaret environment they’d be booed off, but it’s so school-play we can’t bring ourselves to do it – despite the fact we’ve just been culturally molested.

Advice for the company: don’t take it to heart, you’re learning and you either get better or give up. But don’t expect sympathy, this isn’t the platform for it.

Black Pudding. Bussey Building (133 Rye Lane, London, SE15 4ST). Thu 7 Mar – Sat 9 Mar, 21:45. £15.00-20.00 (£12.50-17.50 concessions).


Review: Little Big World

Sebastian Toma has fused circus and theatre for his latest production Little Big World. Featuring London-based contortionist Leilani Franco (aka Lucky Franco) among a diverse and talented cast, the show has only played in Germany and Austria thus far. No matter: TIC special correspondent Gabi Keast was front and centre to bring us her thoughts on this fascinating show.

Leilani Franco (aka Lucky Franco) is part of Little Big World's diverse and talented cast. (c) Alfredo Mena
Leilani Franco (aka Lucky Franco) is part of Little Big World’s diverse and talented cast. (c) Alfredo Mena

Having worked with anarchic musicians The Tiger Lillies and on circus shows The Time Between and Balagan, director Sebastiano Toma has already provided ample proof that – when presented in a new guise on the theatrical stage, beyond the confines of traditional circus – physical arts can reach and inspire a wide audience. In his shows the three distinct elements of music, physical arts and stage design carry equal importance, interacting with each other to form a harmonious whole.

For Little Big World, the stage set is not just a static backdrop but very much a part of the action. On a table next to the main stage is a microcosmic “side-stage” where the performers continually change a miniature version of the set. Their actions are videoed and projected onto a neutral backdrop for the audience to see, often while performers are on the main stage.

The audience can see what’s happening on the table, and yet they are still amazed at the effects created by the blow-up projection. Fantastic images appear, small objects suddenly create a whole new world. It’s like visiting a museum: you walk from picture to picture, losing yourself in observation, allowing your own imagination to roam. In one scene, we see a ship crossing the sea and putting ashore at a port city. As we walk through the city, new rows of buildings continually come into view. Mobile phones are placed in the windows of the houses, and the videos running on the screens of the phones allow us to see what is going on in the apartments. Curtain tassels being drawn through water are filmed with an upside-down camera to make them appear like sea anemones on the screen. Later, the same technique is used to make wine flow upwards into glasses.

Violinist Mark Cheat’s compositions, a fusion ranging from classical music to gypsy jazz with shades of world music, weave a consistent yet varied tapestry of sound throughout the show. Even if the six musicians had been performing alone, it would have been a wonderful concert, but the music, scenery and physical performance complement and support each other so marvellously that their interplay creates a whole new dimension. The performers bring the pictures to life, interact with them and move within them.

Little Big World (c) Alfredo Mena
Little Big World (c) Alfredo Mena

The associations created by the stage design and the music give meaning to the actions of the artists. They are no longer presenting an “act”, but rather are behaving in a perfectly natural way – for people living in a dream world like this. Stefan Sing’s solo juggling and his “pas-de-deux” with Cristiana Casadio rise to a new level of beauty in this setting. In her solo, Casadio dances to escape from giant scissors that are wildly chopping the air at the scenery table. In their hand-to-hand acrobalance, Philipp Thimm and Katrin Hauf glide serenely and harmoniously from one move to the next, as if there were no need for muscular effort.

We are quite willing to believe that Leilani Franco, the fantastic London-based contortionist, rarely moves in any other way than rolling backwards over her stomach, and that when she drinks coffee she always holds the cup in her toes and brings it to her lips over the back of her head. She presents all the elements of classical contortion, but not as poses on a pedestal; on the contrary, she explores the whole stage. Her eccentric, slightly bored character produces some exciting and some comical moments, both live and in the backdrop film.

In addition to their “acts”, the performers all participate in Sofia Spyratou-designed choreographies in which the live music or the singing of Momo Kohlschmidt are in the foreground. At the beginning, the show is still fast-paced and hectic, like a big city. But little by little, the images become calmer, more dreamlike, more fantastic. A high point is the “Sanddorn Balance” by Japanese artiste Miyoko Shida. She positions the dried twigs so slowly and with such concentration that time seems to stand still and the bustle of life outside the walls of the theatre is completely forgotten.

As they receive the final applause, all the members of the ensemble appear with suitcases, already on their way to the next venue, the next dream-world. They put down their suitcases, turn them around – and we see that they are now houses with brightly lit windows. Perhaps they are telling us: “even after you return home, the dream can continue.”

Little Big World is a natural remedy for burnout syndrome. Active ingredients: imagination, space for dreaming, colours, music, human encounters, dance and circus arts. Recommended dosage: one performance brings immediate relief of stress symptoms; to experience the full beneficial effects, repeated application is recommended. Known side-effects: appetite for more.

If Little Big World really were a natural medicine, that sentence might be included in the information leaflet as a recommendation for enhancing its therapeutic impact.

More information on this show can be found on Sebastian Toma’s website. Meanwhile, here is a tasty trailer of what to expect should the show come to London.