Alice’s Adventures Underground – The Vaults Theatre

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is widely considered a remarkable piece of British literature; in modern times it has constantly been a mainstay of the pop culture zeitgeist. The book has been reinterpreted for various film adaptations, most notably: Walt Disney’s famous 1951 animated feature film, Jan Svankmajer’s surrealist 1988 film and the most recent but critically-maligned 2010 film adaptation by Tim Burton. The current revival of The Vaults’ immersive Alice’s Adventures Underground which was a sell-out success in 2015, gives audiences a chance to explore the psychedelic and nonsensical world of Carroll. True to the spirit of the book, you are given a choice at the start: Drink Me or Eat Me, choosing either means one experience will end up remarkably different than the other. For the most part, it is dependent on the card number and symbol you are given. You could end up taking part in an espionage plot to steal the Queen of Hearts’ tarts, hear a story from the wise old caterpillar, be a witness to the nonsensical ramblings of The Mad Hatter and even hear the musical lament of The Mock Turtle. The possibilities are endless in this production.

I have become very fond of immersive theatre having seen The Guild of Misrule’s The Great Gatsby, in which the concept of audiences being part of the story and contributing to the action adds a new layer to the theatrical experience. This new aesthetic allows people to be part of the production and even gain empathy with the psychology and individual dilemmas of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters. It can come as somewhat of a surprise to some of Carroll’s literary devotees that Alice is more of a minor character in this production making it all the more easy for the Audience to essentially to fill in the post. This thankfully plays into the climatic trial scene, as a plot twist regarding the eponymous Alice is unraveled. Samuel Wyer’s production design which traverses The Vaults’ underground tunnels, is both intricate and enrapturing which balances well with the self-assured direction of both Oliver Lansley and James Seager. The cast of ensemble actors go toe to toe on both guiding and creating mischief amongst the audience, and the use of puppetry and improvisation is spot on.

It was deservedly nominated for an Olivier award in 2016 for Best Family Entertainment, which is evidential on the strength of the production itself. For the much younger theatre goers, there is a softer sister show titled “Adventures in Wonderland” that exists alongside this production for ages 5-10. Which has a much tamer approach for those who could potentially be unsettled by aspects of the main show. Running until possibly the last and final time in London on 23rd September, Alice’s Adventure’s Underground is an important date that you don’t want to miss. Rarely will there ever be an immersive show (apart from Gatsby) that can truly rival the current wave of West End shows.

Alice’s Adventures Underground runs at The Vaults until 23 September

Adventures in Wonderland runs at The Vaults until 3 September

Starlight Express to return to the West End…in workshop form

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Starlight Express, the roller-skating musical fantasy by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was announced on 11th August to be making a comeback at The Other Palace Theatre in the form of workshop performances. A workshop is a process in theatre, where a creative team constantly tweaks and makes changes to a show in development based on audience input. These workshops which will run from 14th to 16th of September are involving “members of the original creative team” of whom will be re-exploring the classic musical. Which takes place in a child’s dream where a group of anthropomorphic trains are racing to become the fastest engine. In 1984, the idea of a musical involving roller-skating trains despite Lloyd Webber writing it for his then-young children, seemed very farfetched and heading for failure. Surprisingly, the musical through word of mouth, managed to run at the Apollo Victoria Theatre for 7,408 performances, before closing in 2002. In the time since its premiere, it has undergone a lot of revisions to the songs, musical score, story and even two to three minor characters have been cut. Yet in spite of not being critically praised as: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera or Evita, the musical has retained a strong cult fanbase. It is still playing in a purpose-built theatre in Bochum, Germany since 1988.

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Electra, the flamboyant electric train makes his show-stopping entrance with his song AC/DC.

With that fanbase in mind, as well as the fact that Starlight has not been performed in a full-scale London production since 2002, could the workshops be evidential that the musical could potentially be revived for a new generation of West End audiences? There is acknowledgement that the market for nostalgia is high even in the medium of theatre. Revivals are and have been business-driven ventures for theatre producers, while they never last long, they resonate with audiences. Although Cats played two limited 2014-15 season revivals in the West End, the audience demand for it was so strong to the point where a return to Broadway came swiftly the following year. There is also timing and the years that have passed since a musical originally came to a close. For example, having finished its famous 2012 revival at the Adelphi Theatre, no one expected Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd to make a return in the form of an immersive production that happened to be set in a local Tooting pie shop in South London. The success of this production created by the Tooting Arts Club, prompted Cameron Mackintosh to arranged a limited season transfer to Shaftesbury Avenue, recreating the pie-shop in the process. This year, the production has since transferred to the Barrow Street theatre Off-Broadway.

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John Napier with his model of the original West End production of Starlight Express ©John Napier – 1984

Also technology has advanced since 1984, and what the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of The Tempest has proved despite being a work in progress, was that the use of technology through motion-capture effects could enhance a stage production. With consideration to the fact, that John Napier‘s original scenic design for Starlight cost a breathtaking £2.25 million, the argument would be that attempting to convert another theatre into an immersive roller derby like the Apollo Victoria would seem unlikely, considering the risks that were taken in overhauling the original venue. Though I imagine there would be compromise, involved on staging the musical’s spectacular race sequences, as the thrill of being a witness to the live performers skate around the auditorium, was what made audiences come out in droves. Potentially and inevitably, the motion capture special effects could take precedence in the possible revival. It is too early to tell at this juncture, whether or not these workshops will signal the return of Starlight to the West End.

They could be just another in a long line of planned revisions for the long running Bochum production, however as I have said before nostalgia is often a big trend amongst audiences. With Hair soon to be making a big London comeback at The Vaults this year in October, it’s safe to say and to quote one of the songs from Starlight: “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Starlight Express workshop runs from 14-16 September at The Other Palace

Original scenic design by John Napier courtesy of johnnapierstages.com

 

The Pet Shop Boys saved Dusty Springfield’s career

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There are often unlikely collaborations, involving artists and bands from different generations, backgrounds or genres. These collaborations can range from brilliant to bad, to downright bizarre. One of the best that I can think of, is the entirety of the 2007 album Raising Sand which featured the unusual pairing of Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin) and bluegrass icon Allison Kraus. On paper this shouldn’t work, but the chemistry between the two artists shone through on the songs, greatly complemented by the lush music production by T Bone Burnett and the album skyrocketed to #2 in the UK and US, and earned a Grammy Award in 2009. The worst, no doubt, is the misguided coupling of Metallica and Lou Reed on the album Lulu, which was incomprehensible, directionless and did nothing at the time to propel the group or even re-introduce Lou Reed (who died the following year) to a new generation of music listeners. The less said about it the better.

This particular collaboration however, is from 30 years ago and produced not only one of the most enduring songs of the 1980s, but further boosted the careers of artists who were two decades apart. It is impossible however, to talk about the particular song: What Have I Done To Deserve This? without delving into one of the most famous singers of the 1960s, Dusty Springfield. Dusty (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien) built up a career as a singer throughout the late 1950s, singing with the short-lived pop group The Lana Sisters and her group The Springfields. Around the time of Beatlemania in the sixties, she was gaining success as a solo artist through her collaborations with Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Pino Donaggio and Vito Pallavicini. Her most notable songs were The Look of Love, Wishin’ and Hopin’, Goin’ Back, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.

Her big US breakthrough arrived in 1968 with the album Dusty in Memphis, where she worked with producer Jerry Wexler who had worked with some of the big names in R&B and Soul such as Ray Charles, The Allman Brothers and Aretha Franklin. The lead single from the album, Son Of A Preacher Man became a huge trans-atlantic radio hit. Despite being a native of West Hampstead, Springfield’s singing voice felt rooted in the traditions of American soul. She admitted that she was: “a great admirer of artists from Motown, particularly Mavis Staples and what they shared in common was a kind of strength I didn’t hear on English radio.” Following up from the success of Dusty in Memphis proved inconsistent, unfortunately her life was onset by personal struggles stemming from her difficult childhood and drug issues. While she still continued to record, her moments of success became isolated and she failed to re-capture the stardom that she had once enjoyed. The early to mid 1980s seemed bleak for Dusty’s career prospects until a chance meeting with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe paved the way for new career heights.

The Pet Shop Boys had a major hit with the 1985 song, West End Girls and were recording their second album Actually upon being connected to Springfield. Tennant had wanted to collaborate with Springfield from the get-go, but her management only became interested after the success of their debut album Please. The resulting song “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”, co-written with Allee Willis (who also wrote songs with The Rembrandts, Earth, Wind and Fire and The Pointer Sisters), gave Dusty a new generation of fans and charted at #2 in both the UK and US. The song lyrically entails a tempestuous love affair between a man and a woman. Willis spoke of the relationship in the song as: “a dysfunctional one and the couple don’t have the strength to get out, ” as evidenced in the famous closing lyrics:

We don’t have to fall apart, we don’t have to fight 
We don’t need to go to hell and back every night 

The contrasting vocal stylings of Tennant and Springfield complement the song and the production by Stephen Hague, which bridged the gaps between their two distinct musical eras. The song’s success ensured a new lease of life for Springfield’s career, and three years later she released her first album in eight years Reputation, which received songwriting and production input from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe on songs such as “In Private” and “Nothing Has Been Proved”. “Son of A Preacher Man” in 1994, also had revived interest upon being featured on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Sadly the resurgence wasn’t to last, in 1995 after recording what would be her final album, Dusty Springfield was diagnosed with breast cancer and tragically four years later, passed away on 2nd March 1999 at the age of only 59.

Years after her death, Dusty Springfield is still widely recognized as a key figure in British soul music. Beginning eight years after her death, a second short-lived revival in the UK would follow, producing the likes of Amy Winehouse, Estelle, Duffy, Paloma Faith and, for better or worse, Adele. In 2009, the Pet Shop Boys performed the song live at the 02 Arena with Dusty Springfield projected on the screens of the stage, giving confirmation that some musical collaborations can stand the test of time and still have an impact with listeners.

 

The Pet Shop Boys are courtesy of EMI and Parlophone

Dusty Springfield is courtesy of Atlantic and Parlophone

 

Articles Cited:

      1.”Dusty Springfield.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.

      2. Holden, Stephen. “Dusty Springfield, 59, Pop Star of the 60’s, Dies.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Mar. 1999. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.

      3. “What Have I Done To Deserve This? by The Pet Shop Boys With Dusty      Springfield.” Song Meanings at Songfacts. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.

      4.   “Dusty Springfield – New Songs, Playlists & Latest News – BBC Music.” BBC News. BBC, 27 June 2017. Web. 04 Aug. 2017.