Think that September is just the damp end of summer? Think again. It's still warm enough to enjoy some of outdoor London, pop-ups continue to provide food, booze and fun, and there are tons of great autumn events to enjoy.
There's also the month-long Totally Thames festival to dip into and the annual London Design Festival. Plus, anyone desperate to get indoors can check the excellent Open House London weekend, when over 800 London buildings are opened to the public.
Our September 2018 highlights
The Totally Thames festival, an annual celebration of the River Thames, usually graces the banks of our much-loved waterway in September. Dive into a month-long party full of arts festivals, community events, regattas, river races, foreshore archaeology and environmental activities.
They don’t really have pantomimes in the US, which may explain why the creatives behind this hit Broadway adaptation of Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ made a pantomime, probably without realising. There’s no Widow Twankey or Wishee Washee, but Alan Menken’s musical gives you the same things as a decent British panto ‘Aladdin’: lavish set pieces (designer Bob Crowley has done some impressive things); campy, knowing, fourth wall-breaking humour; songs (obvs); a magic carpet sequence; a dull hero (Dean John-Wilson’s prominent man-cleavage is the most memorable bit of his performance); a ludicrously OTT villain (Don Gallagher’s Jafar laps up the boos at curtain call); and a scene-stealing dame (more later). It’s well done, but talk about selling coals to Newcastle: the humour hits the spot with Howard Ashman’s dry lyrics, but it lacks the inspired madness of, say, the Hackney Empire panto. Alongside the other big West End Disney musical, Julie Taymor’s ‘The Lion King’, it struggles to establish a distinct, theatrical identity. And my mind boggled at how the diverse, largely British cast has had bland American accents foisted upon them to play Middle Eastern characters. One decision producers won’t be regretting is importing star of the Broadway show Trevor Dion Nicholas as Genie. The role could have been something of a poisoned, er, lamp, given Robin Williams’s iconic turn in the 1992 film. But glitter-doused Nicholas makes it his own with a kinetic mix of fabulousness and physicality. He
'Bat Out of Hell' returns for 2018; this review is from its run at the London Coliseum in 2017 ‘Bat Out of Hell’, a musical based on the multi-platinum songs of Jim Steinman – as popularised by the man known as Meat Loaf – is a preposterous, lumbering behemoth of a show. There is absolutely nothing I could possibly say here to dent its popularity. It’s only calling into the Coliseum for a limited season, and it’s very hard to imagine that ticket-holding fans of Steinman and Meat Loaf’s ‘Wagnerian rock’ will be arsed about the fact that it’s not exactly ‘Hamlet’ in the plot department. If you are interested, then Steinman’s book is basically a sort of half-arsed stab at dystopia that follows privileged, gothy teen Raven (a spirited Christina Bennington) in her stupendously inept attempts to escape the building owned by her father Falco (Rob Fowler, camp) in order to hook up with crazy-eyed love interest Strat (Andrew Polec, genuinely excellent), who hangs out in the street outside and is apparently immortal. (Presumably he signifies the timeless power of rock ’n’ roll, though on the whole the fact that he has apparently ceased to age since 18 feels weirdly underexplored.) Obviously everybody sings a lot of Meat Loaf tunes. Steinman’s quasi-operatic ballads have their moments, and at best they’re a histrionic joy. At worst they kind of sound like your local Dungeons & Dragons club trying to write a Bruce Springsteen song: certainly if you only know the big singles there’ll
Motown’s girl groups sang about needing love, love. But behind all the sappy stuff there was cold hard cash. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s 1981 musical is built on sharp insights into pop’s economic realities. And this slick belated UK première, fronted by ‘Glee’ star Amber Riley and dripping in more Swarovski than a banker’s chandelier, doesn’t let you forget it. The plot’s not-so-loosely inspired by the story of The Supremes. The Dreams are three African-American teenage girls who sing gorgeous close harmonies in talent contests, until a gig singing back-up for sex symbol Jimmy Early (a cartoonishly hip-rolling Adam J Bernard) brings them closer to the big time. But they’re not quite there. Their music is ghettoised on separate charts, and their hits are stolen by milk-white matinee idols. Director Casey Nicholaw’s fast-paced production plunges us right into these backstage frustrations. The Dreams’ machiavellian manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Joe Aaron Reid) is waiting in the wings with a plan to get the dough rolling in. It’s none-too-subtly implied that leader Effie, played by an astonishingly good Amber Riley, doesn’t have the face for stardom – she’s relegated to the background, in favour of picture-perfect Deena (Liisi LaFontaine). In ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’, Riley proves what a mistake that is with a stupefying solo – her huge, wracked voice seems to swallow up the room (and blows away all memories of Jennifer Hudson’s version in the 2006 movie).
‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ is a burst of joy in the heart of the West End. This new British musical, transferring from the Sheffield Crucible, is the real deal. Watch out, tired revivals: there’s a new kid in town. Inspired by a 2011 BBC documentary about a teenager who wanted to be a drag queen, the show follows 16-year-old Jamie on his journey to be himself – out of a classroom in a working-class part of Sheffield, away from the bigotry of a deadbeat dad, and into high heels. Director Jonathan Butterell’s production is a high-impact blaze of colour, combining video projections with seamless scene changes and a live band above the stage. It captures the frenetic energy of being a teenager. Every element of this show works beautifully together. The music, by The Feeling frontman Dan Gillespie Sells, is a deft mix of irresistibly catchy, pop-honed foot-tappers – try not to hum ‘And You Don’t Even Know It’, I dare you – and truthful, heart-wrenching numbers. This is Sells’s first foray into writing for musicals, but he’s always excelled at telling stories in song. He is matched by the show’s writer and lyricist Tom MacRae. Apart from notable exceptions like Punchdrunk’s ‘Doctor Who’-themed kids’ show ‘The Crash of Elysium’, he’s largely written for TV, but this works well here. His dialogue is punchy, funny and often lands with a sting. While most of the characters exist to orbit Jamie, they still have their own stories and these are crisply told. As Pritti, Jamie’
Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. ‘Hamilton’ is stupendously good. Yes, it’s kind of a drag that there’s so much hype around it. But there was a lot of hype around penicillin. And that worked out pretty well. If anything – and I’m truly sorry to say this – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the US Treasury, is actually better than the hype suggests. That’s because lost in some of the more waffly discourse around its diverse casting and sociological import is the fact that ‘Hamilton’ is, first and foremost, a ferociously enjoyable show. You probably already know that it’s a hip hop musical, something that’s been tried before with limited success. Here it works brilliantly, because Miranda – who wrote everything – understands what mainstream audiences like about hip hop, what mainstream audiences like about musical theatre, and how to craft a brilliant hybrid. Put simply, it’s big emotions and big melodies from the former, and thrilling, funny, technically virtuosic storytelling from the latter. ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the opening tune, exemplifies everything that’s great about the show. It’s got a relentlessly catchy build and momentum, a crackling, edge-of-seat sense of drama, and is absolutely chockablock with information, as the key players stride on to bring us up to speed with the eventful life that Hamilton – the ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ – led before he emigrated to America in 1772 as a teenager
If the second longest running show in the West End was looking a little tired, a rejuvenating orchestral facelift was just what the doctor ordered. Cameron Mackintosh's 'little girl' has shaken off that 1980s synth vibe and finally woken up to the organic noughties. This is a new, richer sound with strong operatic undertones and even the faint echoes of chamber music. Led by compelling ex-'Phantom…' Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean, this dynamic cast blows a whirlwind through the Queen's Theatre, hurtling along Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's famous melodrama. Aided by a swirling revolve and John Napier's stunning constructivist set, we follow Jean Valjean's journey across France as he attempts to escape his criminal past and make amends. Hadley Fraser as Javert, Valjean's fated pursuer, matches Karimloo's booming vocals and moody stares step for step (at one point rather sweetly causing a premature ovation). Craig Mather and Lisa-Anne Wood do very prettily as lovelorn young leads Marius and Cosette. But it is Alexia Khadime's soaring 'On My Own' that storms the barricades; her plucky and faithful Eponine genuinely pulls at the heartstrings. For all its legions of fans, there are many who would sniff at this revived 'Les Miserables', branding it 'opera lite'. In a sense they would be right: all this histrionic bombast is only really making soap opera respectable. But so what. This updated and improved production is a real rabble-rouser and while it may be tosh, i
I literally can’t think of any reason beyond being a massive racist (or actually hating music) that would cause anybody to regard the output of Motown Records – aka the greatest and most culturally significant pop label in history – with anything other than rapture. So it goes without saying that ‘Motown the Musical’ is unimpeachable from a music perspective. Can a show be musically unimpeachable and also not very good? Yes. Yes it can. Ironically this Broadway import’s Achilles heel starts with the embarrassment of riches that is its set list. It packs in about 60 songs – most musicals average less than half that – which is such a vast number that even accepting the frequent medleys, you’d think it might be wisest to dispense with a plot (a la ‘Thriller Live!’, the cheerfully story-free musical about Motown’s most famous son, Michael Jackson). Instead it’s Motown founder Berry Gordy’s own adaptation of his autobiography, tracing the label from mad gamble, to monolithic success, to fractious implosion. Given the author, the worry is that Charles Randolph-Wright’s production would come across as a hagiography, but to be honest there’s not even time for that. The show is effectively one enormous montage sequence in which Gordy (Cedric Neil) and his dopey sidekick Smokey Robinson (Charl Brown) spout a bit of exposition, audition a band, write a hit for them, spout a bit more exposition, audition another band, write another hit for them, etcetera etcetera. In the background t
To start with, the red curtain rises just a foot off the stage. And it artfully reveals the star attraction of this mind-blowingly lavish revival of a classic Broadway musical: 40-odd pairs of tap-dancing feet, hammering the boards in perfect unison. Helmed by Broadway director Mark Bramble, ‘42nd Street’ is as American as a McDonald’s apple pie, a steaming, golden spectacle of showbiz glamour. Fittingly, the plot’s strictly vanilla. The guys are putting on a show. But its temperamental star Dorothy Brock (a wondrously voiced Sheena Easton) is a nightmare to work with, and director Julian Marsh (a rather out of his depth Tom Lister) is going spare. Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse), a wet-behind-the-ears young hoofer (that’s Broadway slang for tap dancer, obviously), turns up, gets in the way, then gets to be a star. But, like Peggy, this show has a few talents that help it rise above the mundane. Firstly, the wise-cracking book, which is full of bitter, sharp-eyed one liners. Like the bit where a crowd of broke chorus girls turn up at a diner and order ‘Five cups of boiling water, one teabag’. Or still more brutal, the director’s bitter announcement, as he rehearses the living daylights out of Peggy, that ‘I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl’. And then, between the jokes, there are songs, songs, songs. Harry Warren and Al Dubin might not be the best-known musical theatre team on the block, but they light up ‘42nd Street’ with an electrifying hoard of hits.
At the end of this elegant Agatha Christie thriller, the newly uncovered homicidal maniac steps into a sinister spotlight and warns everyone never to reveal his or her identity. The production recently celebrated its 60th birthday and although Wikipedia and Stephen Fry have both blown the murderer's cover, there is a remarkable conspiracy of silence over 'The Moustrap'. The real mystery of the world's longest-running theatre show is not whodunit but, in its currently mediocre state, whydoit at all? 'The Mousetrap's ticket prices are the only element of this show that isn't stuck fast in the 1950s – although the actors' strained RP does make the odd break for the twenty-first century. Otherwise, this is a walking, talking piece of theatre history and – at £39 for a full-price stalls seat – the most expensive museum exhibit in London. Christie's neat puzzler of a plot is easier to defend. It has defied the inevitably mummifying process of more than 25,000 performances and still possesses an uncanny precision worthy of the mistress of murder's chilling geriatric creation, Miss Marple. In the 60 years since it premiered, its premise, in which six Cluedo-like middle-class stereotypes are imprisoned by snow in a country house while they try to fathom which of them is a raving murderer, has become a cliché, just as the authorities' response to adverse weather conditions (skiing coppers? In Berkshire?) have become a nostalgic memory. It's fascinating to glimpse the ghost of Peter
I’m not sure any show ‘deserves’ to be the most successful entertainment event of all time, but I’ll hand it current holder of that title, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – it still works hard for its audience. Sure, chunks of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s opus have never left 1986. But whereas describing a musical as ‘stuck in the ’80s’ is usually shorthand for cheap, thin synth orchestration, nothing could be further from the truth here: the portentously swirling keyboards and crunch of hair metal guitar that powers ‘Phantom’s title song have a black hole-like immensity, sucking you in with sheer juggernaut bombast. Mostly, though, ‘Phantom…’ remains strong because its high production values haven’t been allowed to sag. The late Maria Björnson’s design is a heady barrage of ravishing costumes and lavish sets that change frequently, working in everything from pastoral jollity to an ancient Carthaginian theme on the way to the Phantom’s stunning underground lair. It’s totally OTT – in one scene the Phantom zaps at his nemesis Raul with a staff that fires actual fireballs – and anybody who describes the plot (homicidal lunatic grooms girl) as romantic should probably be put on some sort of register. But its blazingly earnest ridiculousness and campy Grand Guignol story are entirely thrilling when realised with the show’s enormous budget. And while Hal Prince’s production may have been hailed as rather gauche back in the day, in 2013 it all comes across as rather more tasteful than the a