An archive of our reviews 2017 (Part Two)
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A concert by the Ensemble I Disinvolti 
in the Church of Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy. 
What was it? Under the title L’Eredita’ Di Monteverdi (the legacy of Monteverdi), this was a performance of sacred vocal and instrumental music by Claudio of that name (1567 – 1643) and by less-well-known composers of the same era who worked with him or were in other ways influenced by him. 
What did it have going for it? With the post-referendum £ virtually at par with the €, a free concert, however esoteric, was irresistible. The additional temptation was the venue – the church of the former Dominican convent is (internally) a gleaming pink and cream confection barely to be distinguished from a luxury gelato of some scale. Its gothic vaults rise high above the marble floor and its rich assemblage of side altars, paintings (Giovanni Bellini for example), monuments and other decorative signs of its long history create a striking impact. It was in this church that Andrea Palladio (d. 1580) whose architectural achievements can be seen in so many places in Vicenza (including part of the Teatro Olimpico) was initially buried. 
Did We Enjoy it? The prospect of a programme of no fewer than 17 items with no indication of an interval was a tad daunting, as were the bare wooden benches with no sight of a cushion. In the event, however, there was no suffering, even though there was indeed no interval. All the pieces were of modest length, so even the addition of an encore did not keep us long from the supper table. For all its limited forces (two tenors and a bass plus portative organ and theorbo), the Ensemble – whose title, itself a musical term, seems to translate as “easy” or even “breezy” – filled the echoing spaces with bubbling  energy and dramatic intensity. All the voices, heard sometimes together, sometimes as pairs, sometimes solo, were supple, expressive and polished. On occasion, their vocal passion was cooled with delicate fluting by the organ in a canzona by Gabrieli (1557- 1612) and with soft filigree by the theorbo in toccatas by Kapsburger (1580 – 1651). 
To the untutored ear, the vocal items - motets in varied formats - by various hands – Rovetta (1536 – 1668), Rigatti (1613 – 1648), Grandi (1586 – 1630) et al – were not easy to distinguish one from another (I stand to be corrected and enlightened). That seemed true too of Claudio Monteverdi and of his younger brother Guilio Cesare (1573 – 1630). This may be understandable, given the political and cultural dominance of Venice in the region at this period. The common characteristics were highly ornamented lines and highly passionate invocations and adorations. The line between “sacred” and “secular” was indeed fine – as witness contemporary paintings where the depiction of religious ecstasy is often not very far from more fleshly passions. And this was the moment, verging on the baroque, when “opera” as now commonly understood achieved its particular identity. 
Those of us from the land once condemned as being “without music” could not help but reflect that solid protestant metrical psalm-singing may have been good for the souls of our early 17th century church-going forebears but it cannot have been as exhilarating and delightful as our evening with the Easy Ensemble. 
Our Rating: 3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Sorry, Vicenza is just a bit too out of reach for us to organise a visit. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? For our Theatre Group, this would need to be filed under 
Collectable: Misc. 
Group Appeal: ?/5 
Desire under the Elms by Eugene O’Neill, 
at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield 
What's it about? We're down on the farm. Eben believes that the farm belongs to him, as his mother earned it from his father Ephraim before she died. Ephraim returns home with a new wife, Abby. There is a powerful sexual attraction between Abby and Eben, and she has his child. It’s Phaedra in the mid-West, blended with other borrowings from Greek tragedy. 
What did it have going for it? This early work by one of the great dramatists is rarely performed, and therefore it’s highly collectible. This was a chance to see it staged by rising star director Sam Yates.  
Did we enjoy it? It was a handsome production, and visually very striking. Sam Yates seemed to catch the appropriate mood of the play, and to understand O’Neill’s intentions. Matthew Kelly was suitably patriarchal, and Michael Shea as Eben is clearly an actor to keep an eye on. However, Aoife Duffin was too young for the role of Abby, and lacked an essential earthiness. Overall, I’m glad we collected it. 
Our Rating: Not quite 4 stars, but so close…3.8/5 
Would the Group have booked? We aren’t running trips to Sheffield yet! 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Anyone who likes intense drama would have liked it. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Beginning by David Eldridge 
at the National: Dorfman Theatre 
What's it about? The party's over but Laura is not ready to call it a day. Her biological clock is ticking and the last guest, Danny, lingering to finish his beer, may prove reproductive. Can chalk and cheese be a romantic squeeze? Is this the beginning of something more?  
What did it have going for it? A new play by David Eldridge; the subject was enticing too; it received enthusiastic reviews.  
Did we enjoy it?  Looking beyond the first kiss, if it ever comes, proves absorbing, suspenseful and surprisingly amusing in this romantic two-hander. These two lonely characters, as played by Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton, may not look ideal partners but their body language, their hesitancy and suspicion of each others' motives, contribute as much to the believability of their situation as does the all too natural dialogue. She is affluent yet needy, he is lost yet needy too, and as they warily try to understand each other, we soon warm to their slowly revealed plights and will them to hit it off. Justine Mitchell is maybe cast a little too posh but Sam Troughton (why is he directed to play so much with his back towards us?) makes this unassuming Everyman just endearing enough for the encounter to be both original and believable. It's a cautious dance of desire and is a joy to see. We loved it.  
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? The names involved are not widely known so it might be a difficult sell. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Oh yes, they would join the cheering at the end. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
Albion by Mike Bartlett 
at the Almeida Theatre 
What's it about? An English Country Garden as a symbol for...(insert title) 
What did it have going for it ? It's a new play by Mike Bartlett, writer of King Charles III and tv's 
Doctor Foster; it's directed by theatre's eternal wunderkind Rupert Goold and has the wonderful Victoria Hamilton in the lead role. Oh yes, the reviews were enthusiastic too. 
Did we enjoy it? I did, but my companions did not. Move over Jerusalem, this English Country Garden is another 'state of the nation' play, or at least a stand-in for the Playing Fields of England – read into it everything from 20th century malaise, war grief and class animosity, right through to today's nostalgia for a golden past, the disillusion of the young and of course Brexit. But beware –  too much symbolism and it all becomes a bit silly. Audrey has inherited a decrepit garden (plus adjacent house which is not yet a home); she decides to have it restored to its former glory, bossing everyone around her into supporting her pet project, but alienating them all at the same time, destroying family and friends as the garden grows. The impressive in-the-round grassy garden set with central tree gives the whole cast an added task of planting the beds between scenes and then clearing them again as things turn out for the worst. This rather impressed me but irritated others. The wilful Audrey, as played majestically by Victoria Hamilton with a haughty air of self-righteousness, grabs our attention and never lets it go, but those around her are less engaging. Act one rounds up the woes and aspirations so we wonder where 'the nation' is going, but Act 2 changes its mind too often and soapily deflates – all rather like Brexit. But it entertained me despite its irritants and implausibilities. 
Our Rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? The writer and plot would have raised interest, as they did ours. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Like the plants, some would blossom and some wilt. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Life is for Living: Conversations with Coward  
written and compiled by David Shrubsole, sung by Simon Green 
at the Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel 
What's it about? Songs, letters and extracts from Noel Coward’s diaries, interspersed with songs from his contemporaries, presented and sung by Simon Green. 
What did it have going for it? We were guests of our friends Jan & Michael. Simon Green reminded us that Noel Coward is the Master, but this 70 minute tour of his life and work made me feel that perhaps he was Jack of all trades, but Master of none. Certainly several songs didn’t stand up well against the Berlin and Gershwin examples included in the programme. And charming entertainer though he is, Simon Green really only introduced some variety into his presentation towards the end of the programme, with affecting interpretations of Marvellous Party, LondonPride, I Travel Alone and Sail Away. Full credit to him for not relying on the more familiar (and better) material, though some of that might have represented Coward’s achievements more convincingly. 
Did we enjoy it? I couldn’t have liked it more! Oh, that was being with Jan and Michael. Yes, Simon Green was appealing, but I think the act needs to be sharper, with more light and shade. 
Our Rating:  3/5 
Would the Group have booked? It’s a small room, not appropriate for a group. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? If you’re a Coward addict, yes. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Saint George and the Dragon by Rory Mullarkey 
at the National Theatre: Olivier 
What's it about? Saint George slays dragons through the Ages. 
What did it have going for it? A new play in the Olivier with John Heffernan in the lead and directed by the ever inventive Lyndsey Turner. Another dud after Salome and Common? We wanted to find out.... 
Did we enjoy it? The Nation is in a state again! This is becoming a common theme this year (see some previous reviews). Here the titular saint is fighting symbolic dragons through the Ages (three Ages, of course). To start us off it's rather disappointing to discover the dragons sometimes take on human form, to talk if not to fight. The first, an ogre suppressing villagers, is reassuringly slain in an unseen battle which nevertheless has 2 of the dragon's 3 heads flying amusingly over the heads of the audience. George's bloodied robe becomes the St. George flag. After that we move forward centuries and the next dragon, symbolically, is the Industrial Age exploiting workers. The third Age seems to be Society itself, or Capitalism, or football fans...yes, the focus strays uncertainly here so we can make up our own minds about today's dragon(s). The tone of the piece seems to be aimed at teenagers – nothing wrong with that – and there's much to entertain in the presentation on the Olivier's vast revolving stage. Model houses sprout smoking chimneys for the rise of industry, and mini tower-blocks rise for today's landscape. A large cast of largely unknown faces is lead by John Heffernan in sackcloth and a Spamalot wig - his innocence and enthusiasm charm the populace, even supporting a romance of sorts with an ageless damsel, and we happily wish him well with each quest. More of a success than Salome and Common, decidedly less tedious and irritating than both and with more laughs I would suggest, and why some friends left at the interval I cannot guess. 
Our Rating:   3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Not a lot to tempt us in advance, nor in subsequent reviews. Did the NT really think this would fill the Olivier? 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Probably yes, if expectations were not high. 
Group Appeal:   3/5 
Kathie adds: The critics have not been overly thrilled by this production but we found a lot to enjoy and it satisfied on entertainment value (dragon fighting, music et al) and John Heffernan was delightful as the naïve but optimistic George. On a deeper and more general level it also provoked thoughts about how far an insular and nationalistic focus can be both satisfying and terrifying. It also had added relevance on Armistice Day.  
Marnie, an opera in two acts, 
Music by Nico Muhly, Libretto by Nicholas Wright, based on the novel by Winston Graham 
What's it about? Adapted from Winston Grahams 1961 novel, and subsequently filmed by Hitchcock, it is the story of a troubled young woman - a thief and a liar, who moves on by assuming new identities. Eventually we learn about her early life and the root of her troubles. 
What did it have going for it?   A world premiere with music by Nico Muhly and libretto by Nicholas Wright; a cast lled by Sasha Cooke as Marnie, with Daniel Okulitch as her husband and James Laing as his devious brother.    
Did I enjoy it? Overall, yes, I did. A splendid production that moved its filmic script adroitly from office to kitchen to bedroom to cemetery etc; music that is always effective and at times quite beautiful; a cast of excellent singers, and a pleasure to see Lesley Garrett as the fearsome mother-in-law. Conducting was in the safe hands of Martyn Brabbins, and the chorus was on excellent form. The first act was the less interesting but after the interval the piece gathered momentum - maybe not the thriller I had been expecting, but I was gripped. I was somewhat puzzled by Marnie having four vocal lookalikes (maybe reflecting her state of mind?) and the presence of ten anonymous trilby hatted besuited male dancers who moved in and out of the action. I could imagine a few alterations before it moves to the New York Metropolitan but it is already a piece that deserves attention. 
Our Rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? I doubt it, though some fans of 'new' opera or the Hitchcock film might. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Moderately, as a collectible, if collecting operas is on your Wish List. 
Group Appeal: 2.5/5 
The Twilight Zone adapted by Anne Washburn 
(based on stories by Rod Sterling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson) at the Almeida 
What’s it about? Various stories where the unusual and unlikely often happens, brought to the stage and borrowing heavily from the look and time of the original TV series (1959-1964).  
What did it have going for it? While none of us had been faithful viewers of the original series, or its subsequent revivals, it was going to be interesting to see how the concept could be staged.  
Did we enjoy it? The relatively small cast of 10 were well used to play various roles through some recurring storylines and some stand-alone. Their depiction of real, unreal, human and non-human characters was entertaining and just a little tongue-in-cheek at times. There were alien visitors from space, figures of the imagination, a creepy ventriloquist's puppet, screams in the night, and lit cigarettes which appeared from nowhere, all set in a starry black void with highly choreographed scene changes and a monochrome dress code - very impressive and overall it delivered on its promise of mystery and threat with a mixture of uneasy smiles and a few shivers. The second half did drag a little though and some storylines didn’t work as well as others. A bit of pruning and a bit more “I didn’t expect that” would have helped. With a fair number of youngsters in the audience it added to the slightly festive nature of the experience. 
Our rating: 3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Fans with memories of the orginal tv series might be tempted. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Some would, if in the mood for tv nostalgia. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Network, adapted by Lee Hall, based on the Paddy Chayefsky film, 
at the National -Lyttelton Theatre 
What's it about? Based on the 1976 film, it is best remembered for a tv newsreader threatening to kill himself on live tv. But what happens next? 
What did it have going for it? What happens next is what we wanted to know. And with Bryan Cranston in the lead and Ivo van Hove directing, there was quite a lot going for it. 
Did we enjoy it? We were practically part of it, not one of the on-stage diners (yes, really!), but up front (£15 seats) we felt inside the immersive production. Television is the villain here, just as much now as it was back in the film's day. Channels will stoop low and lower to be top of the ratings so threat of a live suicide really is top of the pops. But this is about more than tv -  viewers believe just what they see on their screens (fake news!) which is manipulated by commercial and political concerns, kills off competition and in turn undermines democracy. And truth. The production leads us from studio to control-room to restaurant to home and even outside the theatre, with cameras following the players, and screens and mics attending to every word and detail. The adapted script (3 stars) is somewhat overblown (two hours, no interval) but, thanks to charismatic performances from Brian Cranston and Douglas Henshall and a slick involving production, the play builds up a robust charge and gains an extra star for that. 
Our Rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Cranston has fans from tv's Breaking Bad and some may remember the powerful film, so it is a box office hit, but there was no chance of making a group booking. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? I guess a mixed response. 
Group Appeal:  3/5 
Pinocchio by Dennis Kelly, with songs from the Walt Disney film, 
at the National: Lyttelton Theatre 
What's it about? A wooden puppet wants to be real, as we all know from the 1940 Disney film, whether or not we were around then. 
What did it have going for it? I remember Pinocchio's nose growing if he tells a lie, but what's the rest of the story? This version uses the Disney songs but goes back to the darker original story for it's moral tone, and with NT resources at its disposal it was worth a viewing. 
Did we enjoy it? With some tiny tots in the audience, we wondered if this NT Christmas show would be suitable – it kept them quiet but there may have been some  parents worrying that this version was not exactly a panto for kids. It had magic and wonder (how did they make that nose grow, and get a blue flame to swoop and hover above the stage?); it had a cast of 20+ who brought colour and verve to the black-box set; and it had an intriguing concept which grabbed our attention from the start – the puppet boy was a live actor and real people were played by oversize puppets. The songs were given attractive production numbers, and the moral (you must be brave, truthful and unselfish, and can't have love without pain) takes us through ever darker situations and threats to a delightfully tearful and emotional finale. Character actors including Mark Hadfield, David Langham and Annette McLaughin were well used but the star was undoubtedly Joe Idris-Roberts as Pinocchio who carried the story with charm and gusto. This may not have been a Pinocchio for all tastes and ages at Christmastime, but it pleased us. 
Our Rating:   4/5 
Would the Group have booked? With kids in tow (age 6+ I suggest), quite possibly. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Again, quite possibly. 
Group Appeal:   3.5/5 
John by Annie Baker, at the National: Dorfman Theatre 
What's it about? “Everybody knows a John,” declares the blind Genevieve crushingly to Jenny. Genevieve has just recounted her feeling of possession by her ex-husband John and her subsequent madness; we are yet to discover the signifance of another John in Jenny’s life.  
Who is John? He seems to stand for some buried memory, a transgression, a trauma in our past, like an original sin that overshadows our lives. This influence is reflected in the setting of the play: we’re in Gettysburg, where the bloodiest battle of the American Civil war raged for days, and in a guesthouse stuffed with dolls and knick-knacks. Mertis, the owner, hasn’t visited the battle-field, but Elias, Jenny’s boyfriend wants to see it all, including the graveyard ghost tour. Upstairs, the Jackson room is mysteriously off-limits. At a measured pace, we are allowed to observe the disintegration of the relationship between Jenny and Elias, under the slightly sinister scrutiny of the older women. Let the ghosts of the past rest among the carnage. 
What did it have going for it? We enjoyed Annie Baker’s long previous play The Flick and she is definitely a distinctive new voice in contemporary American drama. It’s possibly a bit premature to hail her as a genius, but keep an eye on her. 
Did we enjoy it? Very much. James Macdonald’s direction seemed to serve the play perfectly, allowing the action to unfold as slowly and naturalistically as the playwright demanded. The actors gave pitch-perfect performances, especially visiting American, the impish Marylouise Burke.  
Our Rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? I think the running-time of 3 hours 20 minutes might have scared some people off. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Much as we enjoyed it, the play is an enigma, and I think that certain aspects of the production – the slow pace, Mertis opening and closing the theatre curtains and fixing the time on the clock, and Genevieve’s strange monologue at the second interval (commandingly delivered by June Watson) – might have irritated some of the audience. 
Group Appeal: 2/5 
Julian Ovenden at the Crazy Coqs 
What's it about?  It’s about escaping from everyday life into the more glamorous world of cabaret, and losing yourself in great songs sung well by a good singer. 
What did it have going for it?  It was an anniversary celebration, and we’ve always liked Julian Ovenden since his first appearance in Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar. He’s built up a following with subsequent appearances in shows and concerts, and this was our first chance to see him in cabaret. 
Did we enjoy it?  Cabaret isn’t just a chance for the artist to show off their skills. It gives the audience a chance to see how the performer can interact with them, and this intimacy is part of its appeal. On this showing, Julian Ovenden is a confident performer with a relaxed style, and not afraid of sharing a risqué witticism. His choice of material was good: standards from Cole Porter (It’s All right with Me) and Lerner & Loewe (I Could Have Danced All Night) blended in with Dolly Parton (Here You Go Again) and Willie Nelson (Always On My Mind). I might have questioned one or two arrangements, but these were minor blemishes on a evening that flew by. 
Our Rating:  4/5 
Would the Group have booked?  Sadly, not really suitable for a group booking. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?  Without a doubt. 
Group Appeal:  4/5 
Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams, 
at the Almeida Theatre 
What's it about? Alma Winemiller, the repressed daughter of a vicar, and her relationship with an unruly young doctor who grew up next door. 
What did it have going for it? A rare opportunity to see a major Tennessee Williams play that was last seen in London in 2006 (starring Rosamund Pike) and which was taken off 10 weeks short of its projected 16 week run. 
Did we enjoy it?  We certainly did. It is the third of Williams' major plays, following The Glass Menagerie and Street Car. The central character is Alma whose painful shyness and self-consciousness causes her to be fearful in the face of advances from the very physical young doctor who lived next door. She is further inhibited and diminished by an all-controlling father and a disturbed mother, who she also has to help take care of. Alma, whose name is Spanish for "soul", is a kindred spirit of Laura from The Glass Menagerie and there are many other echoes of Williams' plays both previous and future. But here the director Rebecca Frecknall achieves a huge success - she sets the play on a stage whose curved brick walls hug 9 upright pianos. Their crashing chords and plangent single notes (lighting them up like lightning)  provide an intriguing sound score. There is no hint of Southern Gothic to be found, but unlike some other recent deconstructions of classic plays, this production brings the play heartbreakingly to life, and at the centre is the unforgettable performance of Patsy Ferran whose every utterance one is glued to, beautifully dealing with Williams' poetic language. Frecknall has achieved a fluent visual style which accords with Williams' views that the  physical stage was a limited space for his needs. The excellent Matthew Needham as the young doctor, John, is also impressive, as are the other actors, doing multiple casting. Let's hope this will transfer to the West End - it should do, given the rave reviews - in which case we  must hope that Our Boys organise a trip.   
Our Rating: 4.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? If there had been the opportunity they should have, but perhaps in the future.... 
Would the group have enjoyed it? If not, I would be very shocked.  
Group Appeal: 4/5 
John R
Girls & Boys by Dennis Kelly 
at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs 
What's it about? (NO SPOILER) Growing up, life, marriage and after, and the girls v. boys disconnection. 
What did it have going for it? Carey Mulligan giving the performance of her life, a 90 minute monologue leading from stand-up comedy routine about life's chance meetings, sex, jobs, children and daily 'stuff', to her lifetime's unexpected and unimaginable trauma. 
Did we enjoy it? We were stunned. This is a slow-burner which jokes us into a relaxed state of rapport with Carey Mulligan's young mother as she plays with the kids and confides in us the details of her normal everyday life. But there are subtle shifts of gear, the audience's laughter fades as we listen, holding onto her every word yet not wanting to know, not wanting to believe what happens next. But we must and we do, totally. The Royal Court issues a Trigger Warning (critics take note) that they don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment by giving away too much info on a play - "Its often the unexpected shared moments and plot twists that capture the audience and create the debate and conversation beyond the performance." But even more importantly "these moments can be particularly distressing for some individuals" and could "cause you extreme distress...". We now appreciate how audiences could be distressed, deeply so, (some have to leave; we heard of a man fainting) but we were highly impressed - by the writing and the performance and the original minimalist production which raise this short piece (like the Young Vic's recent Yerma) into the realm of 'notable theatrical event'. It's one to discuss, to share, to understand. It's all in the words, it's storytelling with an emotional depth-charge.   
Extra note - There are two details which I particularly relish. There is always the performance convention that we know we are in a theatre watching actors pretending this is real life, don't we? But there's a double-bluff moment here when Carey Mulligan suddenly tells us all along she has just been pretending, and at that moment (deep breath) we are told the dreadful reality of her character's situation. 
And the set, it's a bleached-white living room, every detail and prop is white creating a clinical unreality. Carey Mulligan and some items she touches are real, colourful among the white-out, but with a switch of the light the whole room can return to natural colours. How did they do that? 
Our Rating:   4.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? Would you book after reading the above? 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Some would; some would be very upset. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Pippin Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, 
at the Southwark Playhouse 
What's it about? Pippin, son of Charlemagne, searches for fulfillment in war, sex and politics, and finally discovers happiness in true love. 
What did it have going for it? This was once the hottest ticket on Broadway where it ran for nearly 2,000 performances under the direction of Bob Fosse. Based on a novella by John Steinbeck and with words and music by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and performed at the ambitious Southwark Playhouse, it all looked very promising. We were guests of our friend Jan. 
Did we enjoy it? At the interval, it was Jan who delivered the deadly verdict: “Derivative.” It certainly comes across as Candide-lite, and that’s just the start of the problems. The score is sub-Jerry Herman, though less migraine-inducing than Wicked, and the vaudeville presentation encourages the performers to go over the top. What the show needs is charm; what it got was relentless, ingratiating hyperactivity. If only they’d taken it down a notch (or ten).  
Our Rating: 2/5 
Would the Group have booked? Possibly. We’ve done well at Southwark in the past and tickets are cheap. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? In fairness, the audience was enthusiastic, and another friend, Paul, said he would give it 4 stars. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig, 
in a new version by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker, 
at the Menier Chocolate Factory. This was a preview performance. 
What's it about? Molina and Valentin share a Buenos Aires prison cell, one accused of indecency and the other a political prisoner. They 'escape' from their incarceration by imagining the glamorous escapist plots of old movies. 
What did it have going for it? More famous for the Kander and Ebb musical, this is a new version of the original play, well cast with Samuel Barnett (many NT roles) and Declan Bennett (Once, EastEnders, etc.), and worth checking if the original twists and emotions stand the test of time, now song-less. 
Did we enjoy it? The Menier has been transformed yet again, somehow with an even larger acting space with just as many seats for the packed audience. A prison corridor surrounds us with a prison soundscape providing atmosphere, the central space being the tiny cell interior. Small is large in this set-up, with plenty of surrounding space for projected movie imaginings while the horrors of imprisonment are kept claustrophobically central. It's a hard task for the actors to hold our attention with so much to draw our eyes and ears away from their lonesome suffering (beatings, hallucinations, diarrhoea) but they do, and their close relationship gradually builds our emotional concern. Exotic movie plots with femmes fatales distract us, then grim reality brings us back to the central friendship-in-adversity. There has to be escape, real or imagined or unexpected, and eventually it comes with a satisfying flourish. Running straight through in 105 minutes, the play still feels a little overlong but this was a preview and it will be tightened. The songs are not missed, the intimacy is increased, the power survives. 
A further note - An implausible role of a female guard has been added to this version of the play. She is poorly cast and weakly played as some sort of kindly nurse. She seems to exist purely to employ a female actor. Is this why we have 'a new version' of the play? Women deserve better. 
Our Rating: 3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked? The casting as well as memories of the musical might sell tickets. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Possibly a mixed response given the subject and some intimate scenes, but the humanity of the characters wins us over. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
The York Realist by Peter Gill, 
the Donmar production at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield 
What's it about? The developing relationship between a Yorkshire farmer and a visiting assistant theatre director from London. Can two men from contrasting backgrounds find a kind of loving that will hold them together? 
What did it have going for it? We had seen this production twice at the Donmar; we had taken the Group to see it; but now we wanted to see how a local Yorkshire audience would respond to it. 
Did we enjoy it? We liked this so much at the Donmar that I can think of nothing that would lessen our appreciation unless it just did not work in the much larger Crucible Theatre. We need not have worried. The set had been brought forward on the thrust stage, the back 6 or so rows of the stadium-type auditorium were not being sold, and two extra rows had been placed at the front, making it once again an intimate experience. We already knew every detail, but seeing the play a third time made it more intense, more heart-breaking, and made us appreciate the detailed and perfectly nuanced performances which, if possible, had settled into an even more natural truth. The audience loved it, laughed at the affectionate humour, fell silent at the erotic tension and I think truly understood the characters and their situation. The large crowd (possibly three or four times bigger than a full-house Donmar audience) applauded with a huge affection and many stood to cheer. A play about a very local gay love from the not so distant past, had hit the mark with total acceptance. The run of this spot-on production finished on 7 April, no doubt with great regret from the perfect team that gave it to us. It would be nice to hope the production will be revived again somewhere but that seems unlikely. We sincerely hope the especially impressive Ben Batt will move on to greater prominence and acclaim, as well as director Rob Hastie.  It has to have been the most affecting and talked about play of the year.  
Our Rating:   5/5 
Would the Group have booked? You did! 
Would the group have enjoyed it? You did! 
Group Appeal:   5/5 
Pressure by David Haig, at the Park Theatre 
What’s it about? The D-day landings in June 1944 and the influence of the weather, and the forecasting thereof, in the run up to the big day. A window of a few dates in early June had been decided to coincide with a full moon and optimum tides but the weather would affect visibility for the Air Force and sea conditions for the Navy in support of landing the troops and the resultant action on the ground.  
What did it have going for it? First performed in 2014 in Edinburgh and Chichester, this revival has been touring and getting very positive reviews. A West End transfer, to the Ambassadors Theatre for a run from 6 June to 1 September, has already been announced. The always reliable David Haig wrote the play and takes the leading role 
Did we enjoy it? A suitably atmospheric set, purporting to be a room at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, Portsmouth, saw a lot of action as the tension mounted. David Haig played Group Captain James Stagg, the chief meteorological officer for Operation Overlord, and his principal co-stars were Malcolm Sinclair as General Dwight Eisenhower and Laura Rogers as Lt Kay Summersby. These and the other members of the cast portrayed mostly real-life characters and made this beautifully constructed play about the vagaries of the British weather wonderfully gripping, all the more commendable as we already knew the outcome but not the tense preparation. 
Our rating: 4/5 
Would the Group have booked? Most probably. David Haig seldom disappoints and the reviews would add to the appeal. 
Would the Group have enjoyed it? Perhaps the Group will find out! 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez, at the Young Vic 
What's it about? In a plot inspired by and loosely based on Howard’s End by E M Forster, a group of gay men try to come to terms with their ambitions and desires in post-AIDS New York. 
What did it have going for it?  It’s an epic: a play in two parts lasting in total more than 7 hours. And it’s directed by Stephen Daldry, and has a rare stage appearance by Vanessa Redgrave. 
Did we enjoy it? This is what “bravura” means. The structure of the play, and every line of dialogue, indicates that Matthew Lopez is a dramatist in total command of his craft. His imagination ranges across three interweaving stories, cleverly manipulated narrative techniques, and a probing and challenging investigation into received ideas on sexuality, morals, politics and ethics. No, don’t switch off! It’s engaging, entertaining, full of humour, and you’d have a heart of stone not to wipe away a tear at certain points in the story. 
Set on two raised platforms, one within the other, with few props, the cast come and go, interact with fluidity and conviction, talk us through their epic saga stretching from pre-AIDS days in their youth, right through their highs and lows, their hook-ups and break-ups, to their very affecting destinies. It doesn't flinch from telling and showing the specific facts of these varied lives, and there's a climatic coup-de-theatre of such emotional magnitude you can hardly believe the apparent ease with which it grips your heart. 
The cast is flawless, but particular praise has to go to Kyle Soller in the long and demanding leading role; to Andrew Burnap who brings wit and charisma to a potentially unsympathetic character; and to Samuel H Levene, in two similar but opposed characterisations. There's excellent support from Broadway star John Benjamin Hickey, and Paul Hilton does extraordinary work as well. 
This is orchestrated by Stephen Daldry, whose fingerprints are all over the performance. The immaculate staging, the grouping of the actors, their delivery of the dialogue can all be traced back to his directoral control of the material. It’s a triumph. 
Our Rating: 5/5 
Would the Group have booked?  At more than 7 hours, it ould take some persuasion. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?  Yes, more than they might expect to. The audience gave it a total standing ovation, and we were glad to join in. 
Group Appeal: 3/5 
Chicago with Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb; Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse.  
At the Phoenix Theatre. We were guests of Delfont Mackintosh 
What's it about? Two notorious murderesses seek the headlines, a Not Guilty verdict, and a vaudeville career from their prison exploits. 
What did it have going for it? Longevity, and a new starry cast of Josephina Gabrielle, Ruthie Henshall, and Sarah Soetaert with Cuba Gooding Jr topping the bill. 
Did we enjoy it?  We did enjoy it many years ago on several occasions, but maybe we have seen it too many times and are now over-familiar with this production. It's been touring the country and this seemed too quick a return for the show to the West End – it only left the Garrick in 2012 and nothing has changed except the cast. This production dates from 20 years ago and what looked pizazzy and cutting edge then, now just looks over familiar. The songs and routines are standards, but now just look standard. Having been underwhelmed by the experience this time, I must be fair and say the audience loved it and cheered like it was still ground-breaking. The cast had its fans there – Sarah Soetaert as Roxie deserved her cheers; Josephina Gabrielle as Velma is reliably cast; I liked Ruthie Henshall's Mama Morton more than Fredo did; but we both agreed Cuba Gooding Jr lacked the voice and charisma to make any impression. Razzle Dazzle us, it didn't. 
Our Rating: 3/5 
Would the Group have booked? Most likely, given the show's reputation. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? Provided they could overcome the deja vu, it would be a safe bet. 
Group Appeal: 4/5 
The Phlebotomist by Ella Road, at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs 
What's it about?  It takes place a little way in the future, when everyone is rated by their genome levels. Bea is a phlebotomist who carries out the tests, and her findings have an impact on her relationships, and on her own plans for the future. 
What did it have going for it?  It’s a first play by the writer at the enterprising Hampstead Theatre Downstairs. Jade Anouka is in the leading role, and she’s a dynamic actress. We’d been impressed by director Sam Yates’s production of Desire under the Elms in Sheffield. 
Did we enjoy it?  I don’t normally enjoy dystopian works, but this had an intriguing premise, matchmaking by genome comparison (not as complex nor unlikely as you may think) and Ella Roadunfolded her story very carefully. At the end of the first act, I wondered if she’d exhausted the seam, but there were unexpected (to me) twists and turns in the second act, when the tension mounted. This was very simply and effectively performed on a traverse stage with discarded props gradually accumulating as lives became cluttered with deceit  and complications. The characters convinced and gripped us from the start, and in this age of developing tests for DNA and every biological possibility, the play opens up a wide area of discussion. (We were guests of Sam Yates, but that in no way influenced our opinion of the play.) 
Our Rating:   3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked?  A difficult sell, I think. 
Would the group have enjoyed it?  Yes, I think they’d have been absorbed by the story. 
Group Appeal:   3/5 
Bat Out Of Hell, musical staged by Jay Schleb, based on the album by Meat Loaf 
,with songs composed by Jim Steinman, at the Dominion Theatre. 
We were guests of Cameron Mackintosh. 
What's it about? Who knows? Ok, I must try...teenage rebellion, teenage love, teenage angst, embarrassingly oversexed and strict parents...and of course it's about putting on a stage spectacular for the album's fans. 
What did it have going for it? A huge fan base, a reputation for it's iconic rocksongs of the 1970s, and (says Wikipedia) "Steinman's appreciation of Richard Wagner, Phil Specter, Bruce 
Springsteen and The Who".  Phew! 
Did we enjoy it? Firstly, an admission – this is right out of my comfort zone, not my scene at all. But we were invited and I was happy to give it a try. The cast work with great energy and dedication; the vast set is a tacky towering mess, the choreography references tacky tv gym-routines; and the sound is amplified to destruction. Some of the action is almost out of sight (and out of mind?) so is caught by hand-held cameras and projected onto screens. There's an iconic motorbike and iconic car – both are blown up on stage with showers of sparks and silver paper. This is the shrine to “All Revved Up And Nowhere To Go”, “Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad” and “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. There's even a bat that flies across the Stalls! It's all done with tongue partly in cheek, and even the hard fans know this is trash, but it's part of recreating their teenage history of listening to LPs on Dansette record-players, volume on full blast, it's pop nostalgia given the 21st century big-sell with big sound.
 I smiled often in disbelief at what I was almost seeing and partly hearing; I stood at the end, with the crowds cheering and the smiling cast waving back. This was a communal event of almost religious intensity, good humoured and frankly more than a bit rubbish. I'm sure many will want to return and seeit again and again but, sorry, not me! 
Our Rating:  2/5 
Would the Group have booked? There must be some fans in our Group so they would be keen to go. 
Would the group have enjoyed it? The die-hard Meat Loafers would be ecstatic.... 
Group Appeal: (for Loafers) 4/5 
Absolute Hell by Rodney Ackland, at the National: Lyttelton Theatre 
What's it about?  The war is over, a Labour government is about to be elected, and a group of social outcasts and misfits enjoy the uneasy intimacy of the La Vie en Rose Club. Enormous quantities of alcohol are consumed as lives and relationships fall apart over the course of three long acts. 
What did it have going for it?  Only the National Theatre has the resources to revive this play with its huge cast: I counted 29 actors on stage at the end! That’s why it’s seldom seen, and that’s why it’s collectible. It’s closely based on the shenanigans in the bohemian   Colony Club in Soho, which gives it an added interest, if you admire the art and literature of that period. 
Did we enjoy it?  Crowd-control is very important in this play, and by and large, director Joe Hill-Gibbons manages to keep the action flowing across the Lyttelton stage (there were a couple of near collisions the night we were there). He orchestrates the interweaving sub-plots very well, and all the actors give vivid, slightly caricatured performances. Charles Edwards holds our sympathy as a gay would-be author, and Kate Fleetwood manages the quick-silver changes of mood of the club-owner/hostess convincingly. The eccentric group of subsidiary characters hold our interest and adds to the entertaining down-beat mix. A cavernous set rather detracts from the intimacy of the tales but is given added atmosphere by a host of colourful lampshades as you can see above. 
Our Rating: 3.5/5 
Would the Group have booked?Yes, I think so 
Would the group have enjoyed it?Some more than others, I suspect 
Group Appeal: 3/5