Aspects of Love (Lyric Theater, Shaftesbury Avenue)
Verdict: Great moments, long half hours
How time passes. Thirty-four years ago, a young 26-year-old Michael Ball was the smoldering young English lover in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical about a love pentagon between sybaritic performers in post-war France.
Now, at the tender age of 60, the nicest guy in showbiz plays George – a rich, old walrus of love (with an unreliable ticker) in Jonathan Kent’s revival of the same show.
His character complains of hanging jaws and a diaphragm that needs support.
However, the truth is that the years have been better for Ball than for Aspects.
It’s a show grappling with a midlife crisis all its own.
Michael Ball and Laura Pitt-Pullford in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love
For starters, the plot: the story’s bed-hopping and swaying might make even Alan Clark, Lothario of legend, shudder.
At the start, the 18-year-old English youth player Alex (Jamie Bogyo) scores with the seven-year older French actress Rose (Laura Pitt-Pulford).
Much more awkward, after the break, is when a graying Alex (still played by Bogyo, after a short hair and makeup trip) sets his eye on Rose’s 18-year-old daughter Jenny (Anna Unwin).
This is not a relationship that we, the public, feel overly benevolent about.
The fifth point of this star-shaped love knot is formed by Danielle De Niese’s sexually omnivorous Italian sculptor, who plays with both men and (temporarily) also with Rose.
Matters of the Heart are punctuated by comedic melodrama, including Rose’s fainting spell in Venice.
And the unclear ending is both anticlimactic and emptiness. And yet the show brims with some of Baron Lloyd-Webber’s best tunes.
The blushing innocence of Seeing Is Believing, the enchantment of Chanson d’enfance and the hair-raising showstopper Love Changes Everything.
In between, we’re left to the musical doldrums, with some of Lloyd Webber’s weakest links teasing us with whispers of a reprise.
In what seems like a star-crossed attempt to emulate Stephen Sondheim’s sung-through patter, Don Black and Charles Hart’s lyrics are too often too bloated.
In one line, the unsingable combines with the unspeakable: “George used to say you can have more than one emotion at a time.”
And yet in Ball they have a one-man rescue operation. His big, hairy, fuzzy camp, six gigawatt stage presence warms the audience like a sunlamp – while his honeyed voice blows us to sunnier climes.
And only in his more thoughtful moments is he tender, wrapping his performance in the graceful notes of a mischievous look, a mournful smile, and a moist eye.
Pitt-Pulford, as his fiery and needy muse, has a voice like homemade lemonade, bursting out here and there in vintage champagne – enhanced with cognac in later life.
Bogyo is a torn male Alex, haunted by conscience, who is eventually rescued by De Niese. And Anna Unwin animates Jenny’s fragile childhood with verve.
Unfortunately, too much depends on John Macfarlane’s stunning, ever-changing landscape: taking us from a Parisian bar, through a train carriage, to a sun-drenched terrace in Provence – behind which lie mountains painted in the style of Cézanne. And let’s not forget the view of Venice’s Grand Canal.
A lot of love has gone into these aspects by everyone involved, and luckily the best moments make it worth it.
The Card (New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Judgment: Where there is mud, there is copper
An adaptation of the Edwardian novel by Arnold Bennett, The Card is a historical caper set in the fictional town of Bursley in Staffordshire.
It’s about the infinite happiness of a Norman Wisdom-like sassy dude who works his way up from an office clerk to become the city’s beloved mayor.
After being fired for forging an invitation to a genteel prom, irrepressible Edward Henry (dubbed ‘Denry’ by his mother to save time) quickly diversifies into financial services.
He first establishes himself as a moneylender, becomes a low-level real estate magnate, turns to tourism, survives a credit bubble and seals his legacy by saving the local football club.
Played as a merry clown by rubber-faced Gareth Cassidy, Denry’s amusing good fortune is ensured by improbable interventions from a succession of women of wealth and status, including the local countess (Molly Roberts).
But he’s also a good boy who carefully cares for his bearded mother (Howard Chadwick) and rescues her from a leaky tied-up cottage.
Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation is a comedy with such a light touch that it’s almost unnoticeable at times, and Conrad Nelson’s production could be faster.
Still, it’s primarily a warm-hearted community yarn, graced with lines like Denry’s “Phew, dancing makes you hot, doesn’t it?”, and local phrases like “lobby” (a North Staffordshire beef stew, M’lud).
However, the biggest feature of the show is the sadly named ‘Acceler8’ brass band.
Shaped and sized like their trumpets, trombones and tubas, the musicians swell the air with warm nostalgia.
They don caps, straw hats and visors to match the venue and treat us to tunes ranging from the Blue Peter theme and Leroy Anderson’s Typewriter to a very cozy fireside rendition of No Place Like Home.
The Comedy of Mistakes (Shakespeare’s Globe)
Verdict: Twin Peaks
Shakespeare’s first – and shortest – comedy, in the wrong hands, can sometimes be misnamed. But Sean Holmes’ new production more than lives up to its title.
The play opens gloomily with Egeon (the commanding Paul Rider), a merchant from Syracuse, facing death because he cannot pay a fine.
Begging for mercy, he tells his sad story to the duke (Philip Cumbus).
Many years ago Egeon was separated from his wife in a shipwreck; their infant twins and twin servants were also separated, each parent escaping with a son.
Egeon is now looking for Antipholus (Michael Elcock), who left Syracuse seven years earlier to find his missing brother and mother.
Jordan Metcalfe as Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Error
Unbeknownst to Egeon, that son and his servant, Dromio, have arrived in Ephesus and are mistaken for their twins, also named Antipholus and Dromio.
Will the family be reunited? Of course it will – but not before we’ve had some double entendres, lots of double entendres – and wall-to-wall doublets and snakes, in this traditional costume production.
The four protagonists are captivating: Mr. Elcock becomes increasingly agitated when people previously unknown to him address him; Matthew Broome is great as the full-of-himself Antipholus of Ephesus; while Jordan Metcalfe and George Fouracres steal the show as the two Dromios.
Great support is provided by Laura Hanna as Adriana, who is married to Antipholus of Ephesus (oh, keep it up!) and is very taken with his prettier twin brother.
Claire Benedict as the merciful abbess and Phoebe Naughton as the unjust courtesan are also great.
The play’s themes—twins, mistaken identity, and divorce—are clearly evident, even as Mr. Holmes busts out all his laughs. But what is essentially a one-joke joke never feels repetitive, and the moment when the two Dromios are reunited at the end is very poignant.
The only misstep is the long slapstick fight scene cum stage chase, which feels like it’s from another production.