‘The Producers’ (The Festival Theatre: 23-28 March ‘15)

“David Bedella and Louie Spence brought a frivolity that couldn’t be outdone.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Outstanding

If there is one thing Mel Brooks never fails to do, it is to entertain. To the average person, on hearing the premise of a political satire including a failed Broadway producer, a musical homage to Adolf Hitler, nymphomaniac geriatrics and a cross-dressing director, it would be inconceivable to enjoy any show remotely related. But the average person would be wrong. Brooks created a genuine comedy masterpiece that is as absurd as it is entertaining, and as politically questionable as it is uplifting.

Director Matthew White has created something spectacular in his touring production of The Producers. His cast are well-shaped in their roles; the entire performance was slick and musically, under the direction of Andrew Hilton, they were faultless.

Set and costume designer Paul Farnsworth delivered a spectacle bedecked in glitz and glam worthy of a Broadway show. With touring productions it can often be the case that set is left too minimalistic to fit every venue, but Farnsworth created a masterpiece on wheels. Max Bialystock’s office was the most impressive set piece with Broadway memorabilia piled high without encroaching on the stage space available – a most impressive feet.

Cory English offered a stellar performance – his comic timing was slick and he completely owned the stage as his madness – driven in equal parts by a desperate need for money and success – led him down darker, murkier paths, dragging the fresh-faced, naïve Leo Bloom behind him.

Jason Manford’s role saw him shine in the spotlight. His portrayal of the nervous dreamer Leo Bloom was highly entertaining – his attachment to his blue blanket and quirks were hilarious and Manford really embraced the manic side of his character.

The blossoming love between Leo and Ulla that grew throughout the show was reminiscent of a pre-pubescent unsure footing on the ladder of love and it was brilliantly matched with Tiffany Graves’ unabashedly sexual Ulla who carried an air of innocence through her clumsy grasp of English which contrasted greatly with her side smirks and comfort in skimpy outfits. Graves’ vocal performance was incredible too – definitely an attribute to flaunt.

As if there wasn’t a strong enough comedy factor already; double act David Bedella and Louie Spence brought a frivolity that couldn’t be outdone – their overtly camp exuberance was aided by sequins, glitter and a troupe of openly gay production team members that left a definitive feel of

Mardi Gras in the air. Bedella’s outrageous portrayal of a gay, sequin-wearing Adolf Hitler in Springtime for Hitler was hysterical and increased the political satire tenfold. In fact, the entire number was fantastically put together. The choreography was sharp and clean, the costumes were as over the top as ever and the stage design was downright dazzling.

The Producers is, in my opinion, a massively underrated piece of musical theatre gold. It is crass without being crude, it is fast-paced without being dizzying and the musical numbers are big and bold but not ridiculous – despite the sparkly swastikas.

While there are very few morals to be learned from this story, there is still a beautiful friendship at the heart of it that can be seen blooming in the unlikeliest of places – they do say showbiz is cutthroat, but not in this case. There is a poetic symmetry between the teachings of Max to Leo and the camaraderie and chemistry shared between seasoned stage performer Cory English and rising star Jason Manford.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Amy King (Seen 24 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘Home for Christmas’ (The Studio: 3 December 2014)

  carol-ann-duffy

little machine

“some shakin’ metaphysics to die for”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

As Homecoming Scotland 2014 approaches its close we enter The Home Straits, a programme of poetry and music on the theme of … home. This show, first of three, finished with the sweet tones and bitter air of Byron’s We’ll Go No More A-Roving that deserved louder applause (& participation) than our few and faint hearts allowed.

Home for Christmas is Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s idea. She is up front for the first half, reading her poems, alongside musician and Edinburgh friend John Sampson, but after the interval she sits out and Little Machine, is on stage. The band sing their settings of six of Duffy’s Christmas poems and then eight further poems, from the 16th Century ballad Western Wind to Liz Lochhead’s fervid My Way. Mood and style vary from piece to piece, from loose and cool J.J Cale to a Rocksteady lilt for Advent and there’s some shakin’ metaphysics to die for in Thomas Carew’s Mediocritie. The music making is very good – I like distinct guitar work – and the high regard for the poetry is evident in the diction.

However, it is sombre and plaintive to start with. “It’ll be over soon; home by Christmas” was the fond, forsaken hope. John Sampson’s trumpet opens with the Last Post, and then there’s Duffy’s own poem Last Post, where ‘If poetry could truly tell it backwards, then it would …. And all those thousands dead … Are queuing up for home … Freshly alive.’ Christmas Truce follows, when ‘beneath the yawn of history’ a miraculous peace broke out. The subsequent pairing of Wilfred Owen’s The Send-off with her response, An Unseen, is dreadfully poignant.

Just as sharp is the keen, deadpan, humour of three monologues from the celebrated The World’s Wife: Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias, and (Duffy’s favourite) Faust; and then four later poems of percipient, careful intent: Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, The Counties, The Human Bee, and Liverpool. They are all in the public domain – and not just on The Guardian’s pages – so go find them, realise their quality and why Duffy wrote them.

Little Machine had been on Radio Scotland’s ‘Culture Studio’ with Janice Forsyth that same afternoon. The trio anticipated an evening of banter and wit. Well, not really. I enjoyed their music, admired John Sampson’s playing the two halves of the recorder at the same time (do not try this at home, he cautioned) and heard really good poems, tellingly read by the poet herself, but it proved a subdued occasion, with little ‘give’ from our side of the stage. That’s what happens when the Last Post sounds. It all goes still and not in a stille nacht, glad tidings, kind of way.

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 December)

Visit ‘Little Machine’ here

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

‘Top Hat’ (Festival Theatre: 7 – 18 October ’14)

“Hayward is Wodehousian perfection – the only actor who might do justice as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Michael Clarke Duncan, as death row inmate John Coffey in The Green Mile (1999), got it about right. The night before he becomes a dead man walking, Coffey is granted a clandestine glimpse of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing cheek to cheek in Irving Berlin’s Hollywood classic Top Hat (1935). “They’s just like angels” he declares, utterly awestruck.

Expectations couldn’t be higher as we take our seats for the stage adaptation. “I wish Monty was here!” laments Companion A to Companion B, “he loves Strictly.” Monty-The-Dog’s inclusion in the lasses’ Saturday night ritual might suggest he’s more Withnail and I than WWII general. But like millions of contemporary Brits, Monty is a sucker for a sequin dress spinning at a bajillion miles an hour. If he were here, he’d be wanting dance, laughs, toe-tappin’, and above all, glamour… with a capital BLING! He would not be disappointed.

The plot is as subtle as a Shakespeare comedy, mistaken identity taking true love on a harebrained, helter-skelter ride. Boy annoys girl by dancing night and day in the hotel room above hers at an hour when even the coal porter is asleep. When she complains, he falls in love. She doesn’t and, much to the vexation of the theatrical producer of the West End show this boy is meant to be focused on, boy pursues girl from Hyde Park to Lido di Venezia.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is a triumph, it’s how you want the 1930s to look. Art Deco, modernist, functional, and not a hint of a black shirt sneaking across il Ponte della Libertà. It’s not flawless – how come the parkscape scenery doesn’t move when the carriage does, and why is there a gap above the dressing table? But if you measure a set by how much you want to sit down in it- maybe sipping a Jack Rose while watching Katherine Hepburn mud wrestle Lucy Mercer – then Bechtler’s done alright.

The chemistry between Alan Burkitt (Jerry Travers) and Charlotte Gooch (Dale Tremont), never entirely ignites. Burkitt, former All England Tap Dancer of the Year and a Strictly Come Dancing favourite is superb, interstellar even. Gooch is both sultry and supercharged, staying cheek to cheek and toe to toe with Burkitt. They’re individually strong performances, worth the entry price alone, however they don’t seem to mesh. The double-edged lyrics of Wild About You fall disappointingly flat, while the inclusion of Rogers’ oft-quoted trusim, “I did everything he did, backwards … and in high heels,” is delivered more like a professional rebuke than a playful remark.

In contrast, the magnetic attraction of Clive Hayward (as producer Horace Hardwick) and Rebecca Thornhill (Madge, his socialite spouse) provides a true dose of human interest and drama. Hayward is Wodehousian perfection. He’s so good in fact that he may be the only actor who could do justice as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge.

Sebastien Torkia, as Tremont’s flamboyant BFF, and John Conroy, as Hardwick’s laconic gentleman’s personal gentleman, tap out Top Hat’s theatrical high notes. Torkia takes it to the edge and over, defying gravity to reach a level of lunacy that must be seen to be believed. Conroy is no less ambitious and equally brilliant, delivering each put down, as well as the story’s clever resolution, with a knowing confidence that never slips into arrogance.

Accompanying vignettes by the cast add to the seamless sparkle. I especially like the interplay between Lucy Ashenden and Edinburgh’s own John McManus in the hotel scenes which add depth and contrast. The great success of this great production is that amid all the careful choreography is a joyous piece of live theatre that will score with huffy hubby as assuredly as any bevy of sassy Strictly seekers.

Come for the dancing but stay for the theatricals. Bravo!

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 9 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN SUBEDITED

‘Takin’ Over The Asylum’ (Studio at the Festival: 15 – 17 May ’14)

Takin' over the Asylum

‘Mike Paton, as the schizophrenic computer wizard, provides a deeply moving performance, rather lost in all that excess material like a thong in a duvet.’

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

Eddie’s dreams of becoming a celebrated DJ have not exactly worked out. He’s not on Radio 1. Nor is he headlining at Radio Clyde. Instead he’s eking out a living as a double-glazing salesmen. When the opportunity to run St. Jude’s hospital radio comes about, Eddie seizes the chance to share his love of Soul music with a captive audience.

His in-patient listeners are an assortment of characters, each struggling with mental health issues serious enough for them to require round-the-clock supervision. With no other agenda than playing his records, the tables are turned. In Eddie the patients, especially the frenergetic young radio enthusiast Campbell, find a sympathetic ear into which they can pour their frustrations and confidences.

Donna Francechild’s script is partly the product of her own battle with the effects of bi-polar. Softly spoken Eddie (Alan Richardson) is its focus. He’s an ideal sounding board, reflecting the inner and outer turmoils of the patients. Richardson’s reactions in each of his onstage relationships help to reveal something far more intricate than the traditional stereotype of those with mental health problems.

Richardson is fortunate to be playing along with a highly capable cast who set their individual portraits into a greater whole. The effect is not unlike John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence. As with the painting there is a sense of inclusion, a painstaking accuracy and attention detail but also a starchiness. It doesn’t help that Francechild’s canvas is too big; untrimmed material unstretched.

Takin’ Over The Asylum is a reimagining of a 20 year old BBC TV script (originally starring Ken Stott and David Tennant). But 1994 is not 2014. If you don’t agree then compare John Simm in the all but forgotten sitcom Men of the World with what he’s got up to more recently in Prey. Already something of a hybrid, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest spliced with Good Morning Vietnam, the uping-to-dating of Takin’ (references to podcasting and internet radio) fails to address how private an act listening to music is in the age of MP3. Why the reimaging? What was wrong with 1994 as a time and place?

What has been preserved is the episodic feel of the TV series. The sense of a single overarching narrative, one focused on a particular set of key events, is dimmed to the point of obscurity. Relationships progress suddenly out of no where. Confidences are exchanged when the scene before the characters were strangers to one another.

None of this detracts from the essential point that the onstage work in this production is of a very high order. For all that there is a lack of theatrical devices and the scene changes are painfully slow, there is some fantastic character work on offer. Calum Barbour as Campbell never flags or falters. He’s so good I even find myself warming to the twerpish Campbell. Pacy and racy, Lynsey Crawford as Francine is superb, revealing her scars with a tender emotion that presents a person as well as a victim – and I’m not just saying that because she lists kickboxing as a hobby.

Mike Paton, as the schizophrenic computer wizard, Fergus (who was an electrical engineer in the TV series), provides a deeply moving performance, rather lost in all that excess material like a thong in a duvet. Jane Black as the OCD Rosalie was truly sensational. I feel in love with her. Cared about her. And can’t bear to think about what she will have to face on the outside when she leaves St Jude’s.

Derek Blackwood’s set design is spot on and elegantly lit. This was my first venture into the Studio at the Festival (entrance via Potterrow) and it was great to see the space being used so well.

I’m not sure why they decided on assigned seating. Octopussing over the back rows, enjoying all the space that I was not sharing with the tightly packed rows below. I couldn’t help but feel that we might all have relaxed into Francechild’s razor sharp comedy if everyone else had been less constrained. But then as Matthew Thomson, as Stuart the nurse shows, asylums do tend to be more fun if you aren’t the one in the straitjacket.

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 15 May)

Visit Takin’ Over the Asylum‘s homepage here.

‘Wendy Hoose’ (Studio at the Festival Theatre: 29 March ’14)

Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick

Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick

‘a comedy of lack of manners, or of mannered people’s cringe-worthy attempts to misbehave’

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

Wendy Hoose is by Johnny McKnight and is A Birds of Paradise Theatre Company and Random Accomplice production. Directed by Robert Softley Gale & Johnny McKnight.

If you’re the sort of person who reads the small-print of theatre programmes, you’ll know all about audio description. Sitting at the back of selected performances, audio describers explain – for the benefit of those who can’t see the action themselves – exactly what’s happening on stage. lt’s normally done using headphones. But Julie Brown, Wendy Hoouse’s audio describer, wants to share her thoughts with all of us … so they’ve ditched the technology, and just let her speak over the PA.

Which, put like that, sounds suspiciously right-on. But Wendy Hoose is all about messing with expectations – and this particular subversion proves truly inspired. Like the opinionated narrator of a Victorian novel, Brown seemingly can’t keep her thoughts to herself, and colours her commentary with a hilarious blend of upper-crust unshockability and deadpan disdain. ”Jake touches Laura’s breasts. She doesn’t seem to mind,” Brown’s disembodied voice observes primly. And then, a moment later: “Which I guess is what makes her different from me.”

Wendy Hoose has been called a “comedy of manners”, but it’s more a comedy of lack of manners, or of mannered people’s cringe-worthy attempts to misbehave. Paisley man Jake meets the confident, sassy Laura on the internet, and turns up at her flat in Cumbernauld with casual sex on both their minds. But neither of them’s particularly good at it — and Jake, in particular, proves comically bad at actually getting the job done. You’ll have gathered that this isn’t a play for the easily-offended, but the whole thing’s played with a crucial measure of restraint; it’s explicit enough to draw squeals of shock from the audience, yet it somehow never quite lapses into being crude.

James Young is sweetly engaging as the nervous, restless Jake, deftly capturing a veneer of confidence disguising insecurity and confusion. Amy Canachan, playing the bold-as-brass Laura, mocks Jake’s Paisley tones – as do the captions above the stage, which also feature cheery cartoons and other unexpected visual flourishes. The two actors share a deft comic timing, and they carry the audience effortlessly into the few more serious scenes.

The story takes a thought-provoking turn part-way through, but it’s only at the end that it hints at its true message – a comment on isolation in our seemingly connected world, with resonance even for those completely unlike Jake or Laura. Perhaps there’s more to draw from that concept; the ending feels distinctly abrupt. And the pace drops a little around the twenty-minute mark, though the gasps of laughter soon start coming again.

When all’s said and done, though, the plot of Wendy Hoose was always going to be upstaged by its design. lt takes the tools of accessibility — the narration, the surtitles, the sign-language interpreter — and rather than letting them divide the audience, turns them into an entertaining treat which everyone in the room can enjoy. So you should try to see Wendy Hoose; not because it’s commendable or inclusive (though it’s surely those things), but just because it’s clever, and tremedously good fun.

 

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Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 29 March)

Visit Wendy Hoose homepage here.

‘Under the Mulberry Tree’ (Studio at the Festival Theatre: 3 – 12 April’14)

Vincent van Gogh, Mulberry Tree. 1889. Post-Impressionism. Oil on canvas. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA, USA.

‘There are wrap-around melodies for solo voice and piano. Cicadas are heard’

Editorial Rating: Unrated

Writer Timothy Jones’s first stage play bears the bruised fruit of sadness. Vincent van Gogh’s painting of ‘The Mulberry Tree’ is the cause; its vigorous combination of colours prompting a testing story of entangled character and circumstance.

This mulberry is in the garden of a small hotel – a guest house really – just outside Eze, on the Mediterranean coast, between Nice and Monaco. The Daily Telegraph describes Eze as the ‘perfect Springtime break’.

Only, Not.

Certainly not after you have seen Under the Mulberry Tree. Yes, we’re in the 1950s, when 95,000 old francs could buy you a villa a few minutes’ drive from the beach; but this is not Private Lives modestly revisited and downsized. No, this play broods with concern.

 

Clockwise: Joanna Bending, Jeremy Todd, Adam Slynn, Roger Ringrose.

Clockwise: Joanna Bending, Jeremy Todd, Adam Slynn, Roger Ringrose.

 

Jack and Connie Boothroyd, married 20 years, hot and bothered, happen upon Monsieur Guillaume’s hotel. Connie is vulnerable, sensitive, and has a lot of pills in her bag to help her cope. Joanna Bending is in this demanding part and – to her considerable credit – has to act her stockings off. She, at least, is looking for a good holiday. Husband, Jack, did not enjoy the long drive down to the Côte d’Azur. He did not speak for the four hours between Paris and Lyons. More of a Scarborough man is Jack. Solid Jeremy Todd does North Yorkshire in no-nonsense, ill-tempered spades, but you nevertheless feel his discomfort – and pain at the end.

Jack complains of endless warning signs of ‘Chaussée déformée’ and to speak plainly, as he does, Under the Mulberry Tree feels like that. The script is pot holed (made for Edinburgh!). It is uneven, fraught with jarring and uncomfortable issues, but at the same time you just wonder why the characters are not on a different and easier road.

Pretty scenery though. A broad terrace with a couple of café tables and chairs, a comfortable chaise longue, an upright piano with gramophone on top, and drinks to hand. Light wood blinds in (shaky) arched doorways. The bare mulberry tree, of course. The stage suffused, it seemed, with shuttered evening light. There are wrap-around mélodies for solo voice and piano from Poulenc. Cicadas are heard but not for long. The tree is in bud at the end of the play but that’s Miracle-Gro playing false.

Jack is hard on Connie and rude to just about everyone else. Connie, bravely, wants more than a husband. She particularly wants to be a mother. Enter obliging virile Julian, 21-ish, in bathing shorts, who has a thing for the older woman because his mother corrupted him. He is also Guillaume’s lover. Adam Slynn, as Julian, has to be both parasite and lost boy, which is not easy. There’s Guillaume’s rich sister, elegant and rather silly Gilberte (Annabel Capper) to stroke his vanity as well.

Roger Ringrose plays Guillaume. It is a sympathetic, mellow, part and Ringrose does perceptive insouciance very well. He has, as he puts it (with a nod to the writer’s fondness for Apollinaire) ‘found his lost time’ and will not give it up lightly, especially to the neurotic English. He could be funny but is careful to stick to kind and amusing.

Director Hannah Eidinow may have been drawn to Under the Mulberry Tree because it is – at a stretch – not too dissimilar from the four-hander Playing with Grown Ups by Hannah Patterson that she directed with Theatre 503 last year. Unfortunately Timothy Jones’ play is more of a strain.

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 April)

Visit Festival Theatres Trust, Under the Mulberry Tree homepage here.

‘White Christmas’ (Festival Theatre: 19 Nov ’13 – 4 Jan ’14)

White Chtistmas

“Steven Houghton and Paul Robinson as Bob and Phil capture the essential bromance shared by their characters. Their banter is spontaneous and like any good couple, they are fun to be around.”

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad

My companion finds me in Captain’s on South College Street. The outside world can bustle about all it wants in the brisk mid-winter air, in here is a cocoon of tranquillity. Looking up I see that someone has managed to deposit a Christmas-themed fruit machine on the stool next to mine. It has several strips of flashing LEDs whizzing around a scene depicting reindeer having a snowball fight while a large man, dressed in red, taps an impatient foot beside a huge roasted bird. “They can’t be making fruit machines out of wool,” I think, and they aren’t. It’s my companion fishing for a compliment on her Christmas jumper and red santa hat. I’m starting to understand just how excited she is about seeing Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical round the corner at the Festival Theatre. Secretly, I am too.

We enter the dress circle to the harmoniously discordant sound of the orchestra warming up. It brings on a tingle of anticipation, like the smell of like gently mulling cider. Their conductor is rising star, Andrew Corcoran. In the decade since he graduated, Corcoran has been involved with many of the best loved shows in the West End and beyond. Corcoran and his big band knock out the auld favourites at just the right tempo to hold things together while things move along swiftly. It’s going to matter that the music is kept pacey in this production.

Since leaving the US Army, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis have made it big. When the song and dance team are not delighting audiences of The Ed Sullivan Show, they are double dating two sisters in the same line. When a planned winter wonderland-style spectacular in Vermont is put on ice for want of snow, the duo determine to save the day for the sake of their former commanding general whose inn is imperilled by the lack of paying punters.

Steven Houghton and Paul Robinson as Bob and Phil capture the essential bromance shared by their characters. Their banter is spontaneous and like any good couple, they are fun to be around. Graham Cole, as General Waverly, is billed as one of the recognisable men in uniform on UK TV from his 25 years as PC Tony Stamp on The Bill. Cole was a particular favourite of my Aunty Elsie and I would have loved to have told her just how great he was.

Cole delivers a brilliantly rounded, emotive performance. He has a balancing act to perform, eliciting sympathy for a chap down on his luck whilst never letting us forget that his character once stood at the head of hundreds of fighting men. For the plot to make sense, the audience must comprehend the depth of Bob and Phil’s hero-worship for their former commander and why they are going at to such lengths to help him out. Cole’s appearance in the prologue, so much like George C. Scott at the start of Paton, made me want to see him slap one of the lads for cowardice in the face of the orchestra or fire a pair of pearl handled pistols into a low flying chorus line – Wendi Peters as the laconic Martha Watson might have been game.

Cole heads a lively company delivering a high standard of character work, Phil Cole as Ezekiel all but stole the show. Producers need to find a vehicle for Cole and Peters, the script gave only a taste of what they can achieve together. They are supported by a clever, downright witty, set design courtesy of the Tony-nominated Anna Louizos. The train scene is compact but expansive. The barn is expansive but intimate. The dressing rooms are just plain compact.

The problem was that the scenery had been fitted badly onto the large Festival Theatre stage. We were looking down into a lot of unused blank space. The stage floor was even more drably coloured than the dull orange pastells of the auditorium. The theatre’s interior, beyond the smashing glass front, has a rather calvinist approach to opulence. The impression is similar to that achieved in the better sort of Tex Mex outlet. When the men appeared in desperately dull suits of forest and olives greens I wondered if they would take an order for seafood enchiladas.

If the Santa on my companion’s jumper was ever minded to rename his team of reindeer after the essential elements of music theatre, he’d call them dance, music, set design, acting and script. The last of these would be the one in front with the red nose guiding the rest.

White Christmas is a fluffy, jolly script – a very funny script – but one which touches on deeper themes and meanings. It’s about America’s greatest generation growing old. Michael Curtiz was no less able to film a script capturing contemporary concerns in the 1954 movie than he had done with Everyone Goes to Rick’s twelve years earlier. In this production of White Christmas, the script’s tradgi-comic insight has been lost along the way.

Strong performances carried this production a long way but it still had far to go in fully releasing the magic from a script set at the most wonderful time of the year.

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Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 17 December)

Visit White Christmas homepage here.