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Musical theatre: Is fringe theatre the new West End?

Posted on 15 November 2011 by Catherine Love

Alastair Brookshaw and Laura Pitt-Pulford star in Parade at the Southwark Playhouse

Is it curtains for the British musical? Judging by the critical response to Rock of Ages, the latest jukebox musical to set up shop in the West End with a reliable back catalogue of sing-along hits, this was the ringing of the death knell for this country’s musical theatre. Joining a gaggle of film adaptations and shows crafted around well know songs, Rock of Ages is the latest in a growing West End trend that seems to have left originality and innovation behind.

But this isn’t quite the full story. While the West End is considered by many to be the ultimate destination for musical theatre lovers, the more intriguing and original work is currently thriving on the peripheries of London’s theatre scene. For those who can resist being dazzled by the West End’s big names and familiar tunes, fringe musicals can be a cheaper, smaller scale and far more interesting alternative to the often prohibitively expensive mainstream offerings.

Miniature musicals have long thrived at the Menier Chocolate Factory, with many making welcome transfers to the heart of theatreland, but this is not the only home that musical theatre has found away from the bright lights and derivative fluff of the West End. The Union Theatre, which is currently staging a new production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, has gained a solid reputation for quality musical revivals, while the likes of the Landor Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre are fast catching up.

What fringe theatres lack in budget and spectacle they make up for in other ways. Intimacy is often a hallmark of these cosy pub venues, giving the audience access to the actors’ every flicker of the eyes and laying bare each vocal nuance in the performances. Fringe musicals need not lack ambition either, as the Landor recently demonstrated with the extraordinary feat of squeezing the huge scope of Broadway belter Ragtime onto its modest stage.

If one production this year epitomised the rise of the fringe musical, however, it was Thom Southerland’s revival of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade at the Southwark Playhouse. Inspired by the true story of a Jewish factory owner accused of murdering a 13-year-old employee, the gritty subject matter typifies some of the riskier musicals getting staged in these sorts of venues. This lauded show also proved that high-quality musical theatre can thrive on the fringe and the snowballing critical buzz that surrounded it began to draw greater attention towards other musicals being produced beyond the West End.

Although shows such as Ragtime and Parade have now come to the end of their runs, there are positive signs for the future of musical theatre on the London fringe. In much the same way as theatres such as the Royal Court and the newly relocated Bush have pledged support to new writing, Theatre Royal Stratford East has singled out musical theatre as a key priority in its artistic vision, dedicating time and resources to nurturing new talent and producing musicals that bring freshness and innovation to the genre. Meanwhile, at the Soho Theatre, another home of new writing, new British musical Ex is currently receiving its world premiere.

“There is life for the British musical,” theatre critic Mark Shenton confidently declared at this year’s recent Empty Space Peter Brook Awards, which boasted the musical-nurturing Southwark Playhouse, Landor Theatre and Jermyn Street Theatre among the nominees. This optimism is reflected in the daring and exciting productions that are finding a voice on the fringe, as well as in the glimmer of hope for the West End coming from new shows such as the RSC’s acclaimed Matilda. Musical theatre is still very much alive and, in the words of Shenton, “the fringe is a wonderful seed bed for its future”.

To read more of Catherine Love’s theatre-based musings, visit her website.

Catherine Love

Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist, editor and copywriter. She is one of the editors of Exeunt and has written for publications such as The Guardian, The Stage, Time Out and IdeasTap, as well as working with organisations including Fuel.

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Review: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Posted on 24 October 2011 by Jack Thomas

Never shy of housing resurrections of long forgotten shows and ever committed to bringing large cast numbers into the small intimate space under the arches, the Union Theatre is now home to a whore house.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a peculiar musical. It was a hit movie in the 1980s, starring Dolly Parton as the whorehouse mother-figure, Miss Mona. The show hangs round a theme of women helping men out in numerous ways. The plot sets up several directions, yet does not go any further in allowing the audience to actually make any connection to the characters. Angel and Shy begin the show by making the grave decision to join Miss Mona and the girls. There is a song, but then we gain nothing more from this storyline till a few short lines of reflection at the very end of the performance. Loosely, the plot delves into a community which is aware of the establishment but keeps it quiet, until do-gooder Melvin P Thorpe and his lively television supporters preach to expose the house and get it shut down. This creates a difficult situation for the Sheriff as, having once had a fling with Miss Mona, he tries everything to keep it open until words from above put the last nail in the coffin.

This production at the Union, which has some 24 performers, has an energetic young cast who perform ambitious choreography by Richard Jones in this tight space. Credit has to be given to the ensemble of boys who really raise the bar in their routine, pushing themselves and showcasing the fast-aced tap of Dayle Hodge in a rousing number just before the interval.

Leon Craig takes on the role of Melvin P Thorpe, hellbent on ousting the whorehouse from the community. Clad in a silver and purple frilled cowboy uniform, Craig fully commits to this alternative interpretation of the role. Shrieking his lines and greeting audience members, you cannot deny that he has a boundless energy, but I feel that for this role it is all pushed a little too far.

The star is Sarah Lark, taking the role played by Dolly Parton. She steps out on to the stage to round up her “chickens”, and you cannot help but be drawn to her. With a fantastic array of costumes Lark entices the audience with a wonderfully clear vocal talent that is a treat to listen to with the trains rattling above the theatre. She also oozes maternal instinct and was one of the few to master the Texan accent while allowing every word to be clear and understood. Lark is playing a role much older than her years, but she proves that it can be interpreted at a younger age, so much so that I would suggest the wig is not required to make her look older.

Whorehouse is a bizarre show which doesn’t give any time to developing relationships with any characters but does present some rousing numbers with an attractive cast… it has something for everyone.


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