Theatre: Big fish in small musical pond

Written By: William Russell
Published: November 30, 2017 Last modified: December 4, 2017

Big Fish
The Other Palace, London

Mother Courage and her Children
Southwark Playhouse, London

The House Of Benarda Alba
Cervantes Theatre, London

A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down but the entire contents of the sugar bowl, which is what is provided by Big Fish, a harmless musical with book by John August and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, is ­pushing it.

The saving grace, although to be fair the rest of the cast are talented and perform with skill, is Kelsey Grammer (pictured), making his West End debut. He shows he is every bit as impressive on stage as on television, which is not always the case with American stars.

As for the cast, it is their material that lets them down. The plot is the one about the son who does not understand his dying father but finds out just in time for the final curtain that Dad was a good bloke, the sort of thing Americans go for in a big way.

Edward Bloom (Kelsey Grammer) is a travelling salesman who told his little boy fantastic tales about his adventures. He collapses at his son’s wedding, and ends up in hospital with the said offspring, a tedious prig nicely done by Matthew Seadon-Young, wishing he could understand whether Dad was genuine or not.

We duly find out through song and dance, most of which would sound good at the end of the pier in a summer show, but all the numbers are executed very nicely.

Claire Burt is Edward’s wife and sings sweetly. Jamie Muscato plays his younger self very well in the stories we see illustrated, although there is no way he could have grown up to be Kelsey Grammer, while the ensemble dancers are energetic throughout as sailors swabbing decks, Andrews Sisters lookalikes warbling, hospital orderlies running about, a mermaid and a gentle giant – all characters from Edward’s tales.

Forbes Masson does a rather impressive crooked circus owner, Jamie Muscato gets fired out of a canon and the former Dr Frasier Crane, as befits his years, looks on, smiles and cracks some good jokes. He is so good that he even gets away with opening the show with one of the oldest jokes in the comedian’s joke book – older even than Ken Dodd.

The lyrics are forgettable, the tunes more or less go in one ear and then haven’t the energy to go out the other, but there is always Kelsey Grammer. It is all bit like a Frank Capra movie on an off day.

Josie Lawrence, best known as a funny woman on television, flexes her dramatic muscles as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, the woman who trundles her cart laden with things to sell around the battlefields of the Thirty Years War. She is affecting and ­captivating, and director Hannah Chissick has assembled a really good cast.

The decision to stage the play in traverse fashion – the audience sits on opposite sides of the acting area which is in effect a corridor – is in itself fine. It requires a lot of looking both ways from the actors, but that does not necessarily harm the action. However, to stage some of that action on a walk way above the heads of the audience on one side has sometimes uncomfortable and unhelpful results. Disembodied voices from players half the audience cannot see destroys the tension and it takes all the skills of the cast to keep things moving.

That said, Josie Lawrence gets all the contradictions of Mother Courage’s character beautifully. She is obstinate, stupid, brave, devoted to her children, callous and above all a survivor in a time of war which she exploits for all it is worth.

As her naïve son Swiss Cheese, Julian Moore-Cook is very affecting as he does what he thinks is best – it is, of course, the worst thing he could do and brings disaster – and Pheobe Vigor is touching as her mute, abused daughter Kattrin. There are also barnstorming turns from Ben Fox as a randy cook and Laura Checkley as Yvette, who survives by selling sex rather than goods. But it is Josie Lawrence who carries the show.

Mother Courage and her Children can have its longeurs – that cart trundling around
the battlefields can become wearisome in some productions. But the play remains a masterpiece and this is a decent and very well-acted ­revival.

Afine performance by Mary Conlon as the despotic widow controlling the lives of her daughters as she tries to find suitable husbands ensures the success of this revival of Frederico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. Directed by Jorge de Juan this much-staged play is still topical. It is being performed by two casts, one in Spanish, one in English, which is the policy of the enterprising Cervantes Theatre in London’s Southwark.

Lorca’s play is a study in desire, oppression, vanity and snobbery set in a small Spanish town. Wealthy widow Bernarda has a daughter by her first marriage, who she wants to marry off to Pepe, a young man who never appears. He is after her money – the daughter is 39 – and is also busily pursuing the youngest of Bernarda’s daughters by her second marriage.

The seduction is done by talking through the bars on the windows of her house. The daughters, forced to mourn their father, sew and quarrel and long for freedom – and more than one longs for Pepe – while Bernarda refuses any freedom. The result is a simmering stew of sexual frustration, with the also unseen stallion in Bernarda’s stables going crazy with lust for the mares in her paddock adding to the already overheated atmosphere.

The Cervantes Theatre, which has only been opening its doors for a year in Southwark for a year, is a splendid intimate acting space, while Mary Conlon is backed by an excellent ensemble of supporting actors.