Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Blues in the Night

Kiln Theatre, 31st July 2019

Right. I’ll cut to the chase. Blues in the Night isn’t really a work of drama. Or really musical theatre. It is a nostalgic revue purporting to tell the story of three women, the Lady (Sharon D Clarke), the Woman (Debbie Kurup) and the Girl (Gemma Sutton), who have been variously misused by men in their lives, holed up in a cheap, seedy hotel in pre-war Chicago. They are joined by the spivish Man (Clive Rowe), who they have all encountered, a couple of hustler/bartender types (Aston New and Joseph Poulton) and, surprise, surprise, an on-stage band. With minimal spoken narrative, barely any characterisation and no real story to speak of, these archetypes proceed to sing and dance their way, in various combinations, through 25 mostly torch, blues and jazz standards over the course of a couple of hours.

To be fair I doubt that African-American director Sheldon Epps intended any more than this when he first dreamt this up in 1980. This is a vehicle to showcase the music and, to a lesser extent, and less successfully, highlight the plight of the three women it portrays. It first appeared in London at the Donmar in 1987, to some acclaim, but this is its first revival for 30 years. 

So, providing you bear all that in mind, and don’t go expecting much in the way of interaction between the characters, or much insight into their inner lives beyond mooching about their lost “loves”, drowning their sorrows in whiskey and fags or boasting about their conquests, then you are in for a treat. Or you would have been if you had seen it before the run ended. The set design of Robert Jones, which foregrounds the “bedrooms” of the three women where many of the songs are performed (with a fully stocked bar at the back!), the on-stage band of Shaney Forbes (drums), Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Horace Cardew (sax, clarinet, flute), Rachel Espeute (double bass, led by Mark Dickman on piano, and the sprightly direction of Susie McKenna, are all excellent. Lotte Collett’s costumes also hit the mark. 

Gemma Sutton’s voice is a little underpowered compared to Debbie Kurup’s, though the tiresome stereotype of the Girl did her no favours. Clive Rowe though can swing and manages somehow to conjure up the bumptious cockiness of the Man from next to no material, with a fine voice especially in lower registers. 

But let’s be honest. The main (only?) reason to see this was Sharon D Clarke. She doesn’t have much opportunity to display her formidable acting skills but who cares given that voice. The stand out is when she gets to sing Wasted Life Blues. “Wonder what will become of poor me”. Close your eyes and Bessie Smith (above) could be in the house. OK so this isn’t really close to her extraordinary performance in Caroline, Or Change, or in the title role in NT’s revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or even as Linda Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman, (my theatrical highlight of this or any other year is hearing her rebuke Biff and Happy when they mock Willy), but it is still tremendous stuff. Go see her outshine the rest of the cast and blow the roof off in a West End musical potboiler or watch her define “hidden depths” on the telly for sure, but ideally catch her in something like the above, with a bit more dramatic heft, to see just how she commands the stage, singing or speaking. 

The other songs written by Ms Smith, Baby Doll, Blue, Blue, Dirty No-Gooder Blues, It Makes My Love Come Down, Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out and Reckless Blues, also outshine the contributions of the other composers but it’s still pretty hard not to enjoy the likes of Kitchen Man (Ms Clarke saucing it up), Harold Arden’s eponymous Blues in the Night or Lover Man. 

The SO, who is partial to both Ms Clarke and the Kiln, agreed. Looked good, sounded great, eminently forgettable. 

The American Clock at the Old Vic review ***

The American Clock

Old Vic Theatre, 11th February 2019

All the reviews will tell you the same thing. This was not one of Arthur Miller’s finest moments. Mind you his finest moments are amongst the greatest in theatrical history so the bar is set pretty high. A series of vignettes, with musical accompaniment, inspired by the oral histories of Studs Terkel, notably Hard Times, which intend to knit together to offer a dramatic critique, if you will, of the Wall Street Crash and The Great Depression. Almost bound by its form perhaps to fall short dramatically but could still fly as theatre.

It might have flopped on Broadway when it first appeared in 1980 but apparently the NT production from the mid 1980’s, (albeit under the guidance of master director Peter Wood, the man who breathed life into Stoppard’s comedies), was a great success. So I can see why Matthew Warchus entertained the idea of American musical director Rachel Chavkin having a crack at it on the Old Vic stage. Especially after the success of Conor McPherson’s Girl From the North Country, which to me, albeit with the powerful addition of the music of one B. Dylan, it somewhat resembles.

Miller himself termed it a vaudeville, a variety entertainment popular in the US before the Depression, and similar to music hall in good old Blighty. A long way from the original French precursor, (which I have just learned about – thanks teach), from the late C18 which was the lightest of comedies interspersed with songs and ballets. Comic opera with no intention of lecturing its audience. Unlike Mr Miller who leaves you in no doubt about what he is trying to say. It probably “helped”, at least artistically, that Miller’s own family like so many other well-to-do types were ruined by the Crash.

The American Clock is centred on the Baum family, an initially well to do Manhattan Jewish family, Moe, Rose and son Lee, who lose it all in the Crash and are forced to move in with family in Brooklyn, (Rose’s sister Fanny, her son Sidney and his wife Doris, and Grandpa). A narrator of sorts appears in the guise of sagacious money man, Theodore K. Quinn, who sells out ahead of the crash, in contrast to a bunch of his peers, who we meet, along with a whole host of other characters incidental to the Baum’s journey. In total there are some 26 named characters. Thus the whole of American society is represented. And, just to emphasise the timeless relevance, and thereby add more bodies to the stage, Rachel Chavkin has chosen to cast the Baum family with three different sets of actors, White Jewish, African American and Asian American. Actually it turns out this is less of an annoying conceit that in sounds.

Now I can see why uber critic Frank Rich archly observed that, “It is Mr. Miller’s notion, potentially a great one, that the Baums’ story can help tell the story of America itself during the traumatic era that gave birth to our own. As it happens, neither tale is told well in The American Clock: indeed, the Baums and history fight each other to a standoff.” That about sums it up though it is a little harsh. Each episode in the “story”, and there are many, sheds light on a slice of American life across those fateful few years, whilst still giving primacy to the journey of the Baums. But we never get to see enough of these characters to make any emotional connection to them and the narrative arc is too fragmentary to generate any real direction.

Having said that some of the scenes, individually are powerful, the dispossessed Mid-West farmers taking control of an auction on behalf of one of their number, the call to action from an oratorically gifted Communist agitator in the office for poor relief, the dance marathons, for example. And the play looks at sound fantastic. Chloe Lamford’s in-the-round set starts out as a commodities trading floor and, then, through constant evolution (and revolution,) becomes speakeasy, club, family home, diner, auction house and much much more. Rose Elnile’s costumes are similarly evocative. The combined talents of composer Justin Ellington, sound designer Darron L West, musical director Jim Henson and his on stage band made up of Shaney Forbes, James Mainwaring and Laurence Ungless create a rich, jazz based, aural tapestry. Top of the class though is surely choreographer Ann Yee, (and not for the first time in my experience, Caroline, or Change, the War Requiem at the ENO, and the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy are all recent examples of her work), who oversees some smashing dance routines..

There are also many committed performances notably from Clarke Peters, Clare Burt, Francesca Mills, Golda Rosheuvel, Ewan Wandrop and Abdul Salis.

So, if you are tempted, and there are plenty of reasonably priced tickets left, I wouldn’t stop you. Just don’t go expecting to get the emotional punch in the gut that classic Miller delivers. I have certainly endured worse history lessons.