The Chichester Festival is staging an onslaught on London’s West End.
Along with the hit Chichester productions already now in London, “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” two more have just arrived. “Kiss Me, Kate” is at the Old Vic, and “Goodnight Mister Tom” is at the Phoenix.
Both of them fly the flag for the 50-year-old festival, founded by Laurence Olivier, which is based near the south coast of England.
The Cole Porter backstage musical “Kiss Me, Kate” comes to the Old Vic boards with a lively dose of hoofer energy from director Trevor Nunn. Based on “The Taming of the Shrew,” it tells of a sparring couple of actors, recently divorced, who are trying to perform a musical version of Shakespeare’s play.
The hit numbers keep coming. “Always True to You in My Fashion,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” and “So in Love” are all standards of the Great American Songbook.
Nunn doesn’t tinker too much with it. He preserves the 1948 backstage setting, keeps a clear focus on the narrative, and lets choreographer Stephen Mear go to town on the dance numbers, which all crackle with energy.
A bit of tinkering and snipping might still have helped in a few places. One of the early dialogue scenes lacks snap, and there are a few too many encores in some of the songs. Even with tunes and lyrics this great, you can occasionally have too much of a good thing.
It’s a minor gripe. The cast all have superb voices and deliver bags of pep when it counts. Hannah Waddingham sizzles as the outspoken and vampish leading lady Lilli Vanessi, and Alex Bourne shows off his ringing warm baritone as her ex-husband Fred.
Holly Dale Spencer is amusing as the airhead sexpot Lois, and Clive Rowe and David Burt give laugh-out-loud turns as a couple of gangsters who inadvertently find themselves onstage in the production.
There’s excellent work from star musical director Gareth Valentine too, and the band sounds tip-top.
Olivier, a great champion of musical theater, would have been proud. Rating: ****.
The other Chichester production to arrive is the family show “Goodnight Mister Tom,” based on the book of the same name by Michelle Magorian.
Set during the early days of World War II, it tells of William, an awkward little London boy who is evacuated to rural Devon. He’s billeted on a grumpy old misanthrope called Tom Oakley.
No prizes for guessing the outcome. They change each other’s lives for the better, of course. Fortunately the manner in which it happens, involving a disturbing rescue sequence from William’s mentally ill mother, is neither sentimental nor predictable. There’s darkness and grief along with healing.
Angus Jackson’s inventive minimalist staging thunders along like an express train. A door frame conjures up a whole room. Birdsong indicates spring. A little heap of golden leaves means autumn. A quick lighting change creates a busy railway platform.
Tom’s sheepdog Sammy (a puppet operated by Elisa de Grey) comes close to stealing the show. Every twitch of the head, every sniff, every little whimper, is beautifully observed. That he, or rather she, doesn’t upstage everyone, is a tribute to Oliver Ford Davies’s beautifully restrained performance as old Tom.
In a triple-cast-performance, I saw 11-year-old Ewan Harris as William. Though he had a touching frailty, I didn’t quite believe in him as a deprived and scarred waif. He’s got plenty of time to find more meat in the role, and I hope he does.
With its message of the power of hope, it’s a fine option for a family outing this Christmas. Rating: ****.
There’s not much hope to be found in the plot of “The Changeling” (1622), an enjoyably grisly Jacobean tragedy now playing at the Young Vic.
In order to get an unwanted fiance out of the way, Beatrice-Joanna asks her hideous servant De Flores to murder him. De Flores then requests sexual favors as the price of his silence, and the violence spins out of control.
Director Joe Hill-Gibbons uses contemporary costumes, cuts the play to a zippy couple of hours (without interval), and employs a carnivalesque style in which everything is exaggerated for comic effect. A scientist is portrayed as a mad professor. His creepy assistant appears in a misshapen fat suit. A lusty wife appears in a skin-tight dress with fake breasts.
If some depth and darkness is lost, the gain is a show full of blood-curdling laughter, quick action, and ferocious energy.
The one mistake is the final suggestion that everything we’ve been watching has taken place in a madhouse. It’s a rather tired and unhelpful trope in modern stagings of Jacobean drama.
Sinead Matthews (Beatrice-Joanna) and Zubin Varla (De Flores) hold it all together beautifully, and their descent into violent co-dependency gives some real substance to the jokey tone of the production. The rest of the cast throw themselves into the gory goings-on with relish. Rating: ****.
“Goodnight Mister Tom” is at the Phoenix Theatre, 110 Charing Cross Road, London, London, WC2H 0JP. Information: http://www.phoenixtheatrelondon.co.uk/ and +44-844-871-7615 or http://www.goodnightmistertom.co.uk.
“The Changeling” is at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, London, SE1 8LZ. Information: http://www.youngvic.org, +44-20-7922-2922.
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)