The same show 34 years on – and Michael Ball blows us away all over again: PATRICK MARMION reviews Aspects of Love
Aspects of Love (Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue)
Verdict: Great moments, long half hours
How time goes by. Thirty-four years ago, a coltish, 26-year-old Michael Ball was the smouldering young English lover in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical about a love pentagon between sybaritic artistes in post-war France.
Now, at the tender age of 60, the nicest guy in showbiz is playing George — a rich, old walrus of love (with a dodgy ticker) in Jonathan Kent’s revival of the self-same show.
His character laments drooping jowls and a midriff in need of a buttress.
The truth is, though, that the years have been kinder to Ball than they have been to Aspects.
It’s a show that grapples with a mid-life crisis all of its own.
Michael Ball and Laura Pitt-Pullford in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love
For starters, the plot: the story’s bed-hopping and cradle-snatching might make even Alan Clark, Lothario of legend, wince.
At the start, the 18-year-old English youth, Alex (Jamie Bogyo), scores with French actress Rose (Laura Pitt-Pulford), who’s seven years his senior.
Much more uncomfortable, after the interval, is when a greying Alex (still played by Bogyo, after a quick trip to hair and make-up) turns his eye on Rose’s 18-year-old daughter Jenny (Anna Unwin).
This is not a relationship about which we, the audience, feel too well-disposed.
Forming the fifth point of this star-shaped love tangle is Danielle De Niese’s sexually omnivorous Italian sculptor, who toys with both men and (momentarily) Rose as well.
Affairs of the heart are punctuated by comic melodrama, including Rose’s fainting fit in Venice.
And the inconclusive ending is both anti-climactic and void. And yet the show throbs with some of Baron Lloyd-Webber’s finest tunes.
The blushing innocence of Seeing Is Believing, the enchantment of Chanson d’enfance, and the big spine-tingling show-stopper, Love Changes Everything.
In between, we’re abandoned to the musical doldrums, with some of Lloyd Webber’s weakest links, which tease us with the whisper of a reprise.
In what seems like a star-crossed attempt to emulate the sung-through chit-chat of Stephen Sondheim, Don Black and Charles Hart’s lyrics are too often too turgid.
In one line, the unsingable combines with the unspeakable: ‘George used to say you can have more than one emotion at the same time.’
And yet, in Ball they have a one-man rescue operation. His big, furry, faintly camp, six-gigawatt stage presence warms the audience like a sun lamp — while his honeyed voice blows us to sunnier climes.
And in his more thoughtful moments alone, he is tender, garlanding his performance with the grace notes of an impish glance, rueful smile and a moistened eye.
Pitt-Pulford, as his fiery and needy muse, has a voice like homemade lemonade, that bursts into vintage champagne here and there — fortified with brandy in later life.
Bogyo is a ripped, manly Alex, tormented by conscience, who is rescued, eventually, by De Niese. And Anna Unwin infuses Jenny’s vulnerable youth with verve.
Alas, though, too much hinges on John Macfarlane’s stunning, ever shifting scenery: whisking us from a Parisian bar, via a railway carriage, to a sunkissed terrace in Provence — beyond which lie mountains painted in the style of Cezanne. And let’s not forget views of Venice’s Grand Canal.
Much love has been poured into this Aspects by all involved, and thankfully its sweetest moments make it worth the effort.
The Card (New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Verdict: Where there’s muck there’s brass
Adapted from Arnold Bennett’s Edwardian novel, The Card is a period caper set in the fictional Staffordshire town of Bursley.
It’s about the never-ending good fortune of a Norman Wisdom-ish cheeky-chappie who works his way up from office clerk to become the town’s much-loved mayor.
After getting fired for faking an invite to a posh ball, the irrepressible Edward Henry (named ‘Denry’ by his Mam, to save time), quickly diversifies into financial services.
He sets up first as a payday lender, becomes a low-level property magnate, turns to tourism, survives a credit bubble, and seals his legacy by bailing out the local football club.
Played as a happy-go-lucky clown by rubber faced Gareth Cassidy, Denry’s amusing good fortune is secured by unlikely interventions from a succession of women of wealth and status, including the local countess (Molly Roberts).
But he’s also a good boy who’s careful to look after his thickly bearded mam (Howard Chadwick) and deliver her from a leaky tied cottage.
Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation is comedy with such a light touch it’s at times almost imperceptible, and Conrad Nelson’s production could jog along faster.
Still, it’s first and foremost a hearty community yarn, graced with lines such as Denry’s ‘Phew, dancing makes you hot, don’t it?’, and local idioms like ‘lobby’ (a North Staffordshire beef stew, M’lud).
The show’s greatest feature, however is its unfortunately named brass band, ‘Acceler8’.
Shaped and sized much like their trumpets, trombones and tubas, the musicians swell the air with warm nostalgia.
Donning caps, straw hats and visors to fit the location, they treat us to tunes ranging from the Blue Peter theme and Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter, to a very cosy hearth-side rendition of No Place Like Home.
The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare’s Globe)
Verdict: Twin Peaks
Shakespeare’s first — and shortest — comedy can, in the wrong hands, sometimes feel misnamed. But Sean Holmes’s new production more than lives up to its title.
The play begins sombrely with Egeon (the commanding Paul Rider), a merchant from Syracuse, facing death as he is unable to pay a fine.
Begging for mercy, he tells his sad story to the Duke (Philip Cumbus).
Many years ago, Egeon was separated from his wife in a shipwreck; their baby twins and twin servants were also separated, each parent escaping with a son.
Egeon is now searching for Antipholus (Michael Elcock), who left Syracuse seven years earlier to find his missing brother and mother.
Jordan Metcalfe as Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors
Unbeknown to Egeon, that son and his servant, Dromio, have arrived at Ephesus and are mistaken for their twins, who are also named Antipholus and Dromio.
Will the family be reunited? Of course it will — but not before we’ve had some double takes, a lot of double entendres — and wall-to-wall doublets and hose, in this traditional costume production.
The four leads are captivating: Mr Elcock becomes ever more exasperated as people previously unknown to him accost him; Matthew Broome is terrific as the full-of-himself Antipholus of Ephesus; while Jordan Metcalfe and George Fouracres steal the show as the two Dromios.
Great support is given by Laura Hanna as Adriana, who is married to Antipholus of Ephesus (oh, do keep up!) and is much taken with his nicer twin.
Claire Benedict as the compassionate Abbess, and Phoebe Naughton as the wronged Courtesan, are also terrific.
The play’s themes — twins, mistaken identity and separation — come through clearly, even as Mr Holmes mines all its laughs. But what is essentially a one-joke effort never feels repetitive, and the moment when the two Dromios are reunited at the end is deeply poignant.
The only misstep is the lengthy slapstick fight scene cum stage chase, which feels as though it has arrived from another production altogether.
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