Dein Perry's Tap Dogs, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

 
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Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs was first performed twenty three years ago in Sydney and has been constantly touring the world since then. The reason for its success is that, in the words of a DIY product advertisement, “it does what it says on the tin”. The workman analogy is apt here. The dancers in this show are at pains to demonstrate that they are workmen, in work clothes and work boots, tap dancing on various parts of a construction site. They are rugged, rough and laddish as well as very talented tap dancers.

This show has much in common with a rock concert and that is only partly because of how loud it is. Most of the show they operate as a group but each routine has the opportunity for one of them to show off their skills in a solo performance. It has the energy and individual showmanship of a rock show.

The set is a construction site, with ladders and scaffolding, that they build and dismantle as they work through their routines. The show is high energy throughout, there is hardly a moment in the hour and a half when there is not at least one of them dancing at full tilt. They manage to keep the routines different and interesting with humour, competition and clever props. Torches, blowtorches, basketballs and water trays are all used to great effect and I would be surprised if the front rows don’t leave a lot damper than when they arrived.

There are two drummers who perform for part of the show but mostly the percussion is provided by the tap dancing. A particularly clever routine is one where they dance on drum machines, with each making a different percussive resonance. The dancers are all very talented and all of the routines are either very fast or technically difficult. Both their skill and their stamina is admirable, they do not let up for a minute during the entire show.

You won’t be surprised to hear that this show is loud. I think it is the loudest performance that I have ever seen – and I saw Status Quo and Simple Minds in the 1980s. If you like tap dancing, you will be hard pushed to find a show with a better demonstration of the skill. Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs has a winning formula and I would not be surprised to see it still touring in another twenty three years.

 

Taj Express, The Peacock Theatre, London WC2

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Taj Express is a jukebox musical with a Bollywood movie theme. About half the music comes from hits of the Indian film industry, half is written by musical director Abhijit Vaghani, who has composed the background score to over 50 films himself. My knowledge of this area is scant, to say the least, so I only recognised a couple of the songs, but this took nothing away from my enjoyment of the show.

This show is basically a set of twenty four dance routines with short breaks in between for the dancers to change costume and regain their breath. None of the dancers have spoken lines, there is a kind of narrator whose job it is to join the dances together, to propel the story forward and to inject some comedy into the proceedings.

There is a tradition in jukebox musicals for the storyline to be thin. It is basically a hook on which to hang the songs and dance routines. Here the story practically transparent, although cleverly they make this into a joke, so we can laugh at how unlikely a tale it is, and to be fair, the story is not what the audience have come to see.

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The dancing is spectacular. This show is an exhilarating riot of colour and energy. The variety in the music is surprising, there are elements of tango, salsa, mixed up with bhangra and rock. The opening of the second act even had a techno rave feel with its ultra-violet lights and dayglo costumes and props. Hiten Shah and Tanvi Patil play Arjun and Kareena, the shows romantic leads, their job is to relate the narrator’s story through their dance routines, a job they accomplish with considerable charm and allure. The ensemble as a whole are dazzling, full of acrobatic tumbling, gymnastic break dancing and twisting somersaults, their dynamic vigour is infectious and the audience is clapping along enthusiastically towards the end of may of the routines.

The set is simple but effective, a white backdrop leaves the stage completely clear for the main event, and pictures projected onto it provide the various settings in which the dancing is taking place. Bipin Tanna deserves special mention as the costume designer. They are a highlight of the show. To say they are bright and glittering is an understatement, they flow and shimmer with the dance moves, enhancing the movement of the dancers. They are vibrant and vivid, yet elegant and graceful when this is called for in the dance.

Taj Express is a show that you have to allow yourself to enjoy. It has elements of pantomime, don’t overthink – just let the pageant that unfolds onstage envelop you and  become swept up in the spectacle. By the end of the show much of the audience was up dancing in the aisles, a testament to the appeal of a most enjoyable evening.

 

Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Alan Bennett has consistently been one of England’s best playwrights over the course of the past fifty years. His last couple of plays have been well written and funny, but were a little too cosy to be among my personal favourites of his work. Having said that, everything he writes is at least very good and nicely droll.

Allelujah! is set in the geriatric ward of a hospital that is at risk of closure, and for most of the first act we are lulled into a gentle musical comedy about the hardships and indignities of growing old. However, towards the end of the act, things take an unexpected and darker direction and we realise that, during the first third of the play, the scene was being set for a biting political satire. Alan Bennett is cross, and this irritation has led to some of his best writing in years.

This is a play about how poorly we treat the aged in our society and it examines the reasons why this is the case, while entertaining us with smart one liners and whimsical song and dance routines. Nicholas Hynter directs the play, he is a long time collaborator with Bennett and he complements him well. The cast is big and there are many good performances. I particularly liked Sacha Dhawan as Valentine, diffident at first, but bristling with restrained anger by the end. Samuel Barnett is good too, he has an unlikable character to play, yet he manages to have us understand his motivation.

The play has so many scene changes that it might have been written for television. The ingenious set design prevents us feeling that the stage is in a constant state of flux. Arlene Phillips is the choreographer and she has a fine line to tread between keeping the routines tight and having us remember that these people are too old and unwell to be released from hospital – she does a fine job.

The real star of the show is the writing. I love Alan Bennett’s balance, he always presents both sides of an argument. Even when he is presenting a personal point of view, I admire his fairness in giving the other side a voice. He does this particularly well here, he writes some characters with quite unsavoury personality traits in this play, yet they are unapologetic and we understand that they feel justified in their actions, even if we cannot condone them ourselves.

I hope that I haven’t made the play seem too dark and political, because it is a truly funny and entertaining show, made all the better by the fact that it makes you think about the way the old and infirm are treated in our society. I think this is possibly my favourite Alan Bennett play yet.

 
 

Kiss Me Kate, Opera North, London Coliseum, London WC2

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Cole Porter’s 1948 musical, Kiss Me Kate is a complex show, some of its numbers are  classic Broadway showtunes, while others have a light opera edge. It has complicated, full company dance routines as well as individual virtuoso displays. It also has a couple of good comedy roles that require great timing and delivery. On top of this, the Coliseum itself, has a big stage that needs a large company to fill. All in all, this is a show, in a venue, which will test every part of the company putting it on, to the fullest degree. I have to say that Opera North have passed this test with honours.

The two operatic leads, Quirijn de Lang and Stephanie Corley, as Fred/Petruchio and Lilli/Kate both have splendid voices, suited to their roles.  Zoe Rainey and Alan Burkitt, as Lois and Billy, carry the more standard musical numbers perfectly. Each of the four of them has at least one great song to show of their respective talent. Lois has possibly the most famous songs in “Always true to you in my fashion” and “Tom, Dick or Harry” but Kate’s “I hate men” and Petruchio’s “Where is the life that I led” are really great songs that show of their vocal abilities. The show’s biggest song, of course, “Too Darn Hot” is sung by the chorus, and the dancers, particularly Aiesha Pease and Stephane Anelli, deliver a truly show stopping performance to this number.

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Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin play the comedy roles of first and second Gunman. They work very well together, their interaction is excellent and they make the most of their comedy duet “Brush up your Shakespeare” – a song more full of puns than I had previously realised. The company as a whole is excellent and you realise that this is going to be a show full of movement and vigour, right from the first song of “Another Op’nin’, Another Show”.

Kiss Me Kate is a big show, and this is a big full-on production of it. The costumes are bright and lavish.  The choreographer has a tough job, with so many people on stage at once, however the dance routines are vivacious and have lovely shape. The set design needs ingenuity too, and is very clever at swapping from front of stage to back of house in seconds.

The director, Jo Davies, has taken the bold decision not to update the show in any obvious way. At times, it felt like you were actually watching a show made in the 1940s, giving the show an interesting post-war period feel. The tap routine, in particular, had a dated, black and white movie quality, which suited the production very nicely. This is a lush and exuberant production of a distinguished show and it fully deserved the love it received from the packed audience at curtain down.

 

Ruthless! The Musical, Arts Theatre, London.

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Ruthless! The Musical, first opened off Broadway 26 years ago. It is the almost archetypal off-Broadway show. It makes the fact that it is a low budget show in a small theatre part of its appeal. So, I was worried that the Arts Theatre, although it is the smallest theatre in the West End, would be too big for it.
Having said that, Ruthless is a great show, with a wonderful part for an aspiring young actress as  the 8 year old, Tina.  Given the importance of understudies in the storyline, there is a wonderful irony in the fact that the first two understudies for Tina when the show opened in 1992 were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. This being the UK, with child protection laws, we have 4 Tinas and no understudies. Anya Evans played Tina on the night I attended and she was very good, great dancing and a frighteningly bright smile.
It has become usual for the role of Sylvia St Croix to be played by a man and Jason Gardiner makes a good job of it here, his movement is excellent and he can certainly dance in heels. Kim Maresca is fantastic as Tina’s mother, very Stepford Wife in the first act and very Liza Minnelli in the second. In fact,  all the acting in this production is top notch, Tracie Bennett and Harriet Thorpe are both pantomime villain good as theatre critic Lita and drama teacher Myrna.
The musical numbers are mostly good, two standout songs are “I hate musicals” sung, with many funny reprises, by Lita and the title song, Ruthless! by the whole company. The set and costumes are both “fabulous dahling”, 1950’s crinoline petticoats in a 1960’s Formica living room.
The real stand out thing about this show is the references, Shirley Temple, All about Eve, Bob Fosse, interpretive dance, Judy Garland – far too many to list – all get a mention in some way. It’s enjoyable trying to spot them and there’s no way that you will get them all.  Everything about this show is kitsch, but if you didn’t know that before you arrived, you should have done more research before buying the ticket. The humour is camp and low brow, but still great fun. This is good production of a good show, perhaps it could have been even better in a more intimate theatre.
 

Shoreditch Takeover, Shoreditch Town Hall, London

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Shoreditch is the centre of cool in London at the moment, so you would expect its contribution to the Dance Umbrella Festival 2017 to be cutting edge and innovative. On both these counts it certainly delivers. Shoreditch Takeover is made up of four very different pieces, happening in separate spaces within the beautiful old building that is Shoreditch Town Hall. Twenty first century art within nineteenth century architecture.

First is Rays, Sparks and Beating Glows. This is choreographed by Julie Cunningham and is an intense piece, about gender and feminism, for four dancers. It is performed without music, although there is some spoken word towards the end.

Next is Vanessa Kinsuule, who is a wonderful poet. She is, witty, insightful, nostalgic and honest. She has a winning personality, who can really involve an audience and the introductions to the poems are almost as good as the poems themselves.  Her whole set is great and the poem about an evening, dancing at a nightclub, is a highlight.

The third set is Lizbeth Gruwez dances Bob Dylan, a personal interpretation, exploring the edges of dance. For “Knockin’ on Heavens Door”, Lizbeth stands with her back to the audience at the front of the stage and walks, slowly and beautifully, to the back. You haven’t seen minimalism in dance until you have watched this. The Bob Dylan tracks are played on vinyl and are quite scratchy at times, invoking images of drunk and stoned nights in 70’s bedsits.

The final work is a film, The Shadow Drone Project, cleverly filmed from above, where the actual bodies of the dancers can hardly be seen, but instead we watch their shadows interact with each other. Some of this appears choreographed and some not, blurring the line between formal dance and how our brains make patterns.

All in all, a varied and interesting night in a lovely venue, a good addition to the Dance Umbrella Festival 2017.

Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1

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Rich Mix is a flexible, interesting venue, very handily located less than 100metres from Shoreditch High Street Overground Station. It has a theatre space and a bar on the 4th floor, holding around 100 people comfortably. The ground floor has a licensed bar in a space suitable for theatre, dance or live music and this area can accommodate many more. The first floor is a mezzanine, looking down over the stage. There are three cinema screens on the floors in between and there is also an Indian restaurant/café on the premises.

What really makes this venue, is the variety and diversity of the cultural events that are put on here. If you look at the programme for the coming month alone, there is theatre, dance, live bands, open mic nights, story-telling evenings, political events, family events, not to mention the films showing in the cinema, where it is one of the venues hosting the London Film Festival. It is also a venue for London Dance Umbrella Festival.

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There mezzanine doubles as an art gallery and currently hosts a multimedia exhibition: Black Pride.  Among upcoming exhibitions are “Hard to Read” bringing together art and poetry, and another depicting illustrations of Syrian refugees. There are weekend markets with different themes, one in December is specifically for independent potters and ceramicists.

An adaptable venue, embracing the local community, accommodating the art scene and enhancing London’s rich cultural diversity.

Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet, Sadler's Wells, Islington, London

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Trois Grandes Fugues is a simple but clever idea. Three different choreographers take the same piece of music, in this case Beethoven’s “Die Grosse Fuge”, and bring their interpretation of it, to the stage. I came to the show not knowing the music and uninformed with regard to the language of dance.

The three dances are all completely different. The first is the most traditionally classical in its form. Lucinda Childs has six couples investigate the geometric patterns in the music. The dancers are dressed in simple grey figure hugging body suits, the dance is graceful, formal, mathematical and balletic.

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The next, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, has her 8 dancers, 6 men and 2 women, in dark suits with open necked white shirts. Formally dressed at first the jackets are removed and some of the shirts are opened as the dance moves on. Each dancer appears to be linked to different sections of the orchestra and they move across the stage, together or apart, each seemingly linked to their own particular instrument.

The final piece by Maguy Marin, has her dancers less formally dressed, in shades of red, and her interpretation is wilder, more emotional, and the four dancers emphasise the dramatic and canonical motifs. They follow each other round the stage in more staccato movements, showing the fierce energy and strife in Beethoven’s work.

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I like Beethoven, usually his pastoral pieces are more to my taste, having heard this 20 minute work three times, each time I enjoyed it more, and I will look out for it, to listen to at home. I had a fantastic evening and I felt like I had been given an introductory lesson into both classical music and dance.

Out of the System, Rich Mix, Shoreditch, London

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Out of the System, part of a three year project from London’s Dance Umbrella Festival, is curated by Freddie Opoku-Addaie and runs at Rich Mix 16-17 October.
Made up of three very different dance pieces, there is something here for all tastes. The first piece “Clay” is a flamenco based collaboration between two dancers and a guitarist, the dancing is fantastic, filled with action and humour. I loved the way the two dancers played off each other and the way they slowly drew the guitarist in.
The second is a more interpretive piece, evocative, using symbolist props and occasional filmed backdrop. I have to admit that some of the symbolism went over my head, but the dancing is eloquent and emotional.
The third “Ven” is a double hander, with two harmonious dancers intertwining to dance almost as one person, clever and moving. The trust that the couple show in each other is beautiful, a truly symbiotic relationship.
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The evening is finished off with a live band,  The Afrobeat rhythms of Yaaba Funk had the whole audience dancing. All in all we had a very interesting evening in a great venue. The London Dance Umbrella Festival is running at different venues until the 28th of October and with the standard this high, I am looking forward to the other nights I have booked.

Soho, Peacock Theatre, London, 2017

 

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Soho is a great adrenalin rush of a show, packed full with good dance routines, brilliant tumbling, thrilling trapeze work and gravity defying aerobatics. One can’t help but be amazed at the body strength and vigour of the performers. This show is an entertaining mixture of dance show and circus skills. There are aerial silk works, hand balancing, pole climbing, and martial arts all the while telling a story in dance. There is a great dance routine, of everyone getting ready to go out; set in the bathroom of a posh hotel.
The soundtrack is fabulous, it has a real London feel, it varies from Daft Punk, through Mozart, to Bowie, Donovan and Peggy Lee. The sets are simple but clever and it all takes place against a moving backdrop of videos of Soho and its environs. If you are from London, you will enjoy seeing places and characters that you recognise from your time here. There are all the landmarks that you know and love, with scenes set in Brewer Street, Chinatown, and Madam Jojo’s. There are punks, Big Issue sellers, orange clad Hare Krishna followers, loved up ravers, drunken hen parties, lots of London life is here somewhere.
From the moment the curtain opens, there is so much happening on the stage, that you will have difficulty taking it all in. It is a maelstrom of movement, colour and humour right until the final the final bows. Often there are three or four scenes going on simultaneously. Soho is funny, sexy, knowing and, clever, but above all it is exciting.
This show is only here for two weeks, so if you want to see it – get your skates on!