The Lady Or The Tiger


The Orange Tree Theatre, 30 January 2010

Review by Emma Shane

© 3 February 2010


This show is a legendary part of The Orange Tree’s history. Nearly thirty five years ago it played a significant part in putting our “pocket national theatre” on the map. To see the show once again back at The Orange Tree, one needs to approach it not as a contemporary blockbuster, but with the sort of mindset we have when seeing one of Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Discovering Lost Musicals Charitable Trust shows, or one of Stewart Nicholls’s,  much missed Theatre Museum shows. In a way the latter is more relevant, as Stewart’s crowd dealt with British shows, and sometimes had costumes, where’s Ian’s group are always in evening dress.

The show is a small one, a cast of six, only four actors plus two musicians. First on the Court Musicians get things going with There Was A King.... This is one of those shows where the musicians have to be in character as part of the action (shows ranging from Anything Goes to By Jeeves have required this). First actor on stage Andrew C Wadsworth as Facotum (the Prime Minister). There is one line here which seems to be added for this production (maybe it changes depending on the actor playing the part), here it is something about “four years at Manchester poly”. Andrew informs us a little as to who he is playing and that he will also be shifting scenery and playing other bit parts. Though there is only one major piece of scenery, a wooden chest. Riona O’Connor playing the Princess enters for Ours Is The Kingdom. Both Riona and Andrew not only have fine singing voices, they also have a great deal of stage presence. In the course of their respectively careers both have proven themselves to have enough presence and personality to stand up to one of the most charismatic of performers of recent times to grace British theatre; and in Riona’s case on this very stage, for Andrew that occurred at Regent’s Park. So they are very well matched to perform a duet with each other. Howard Samuels as the King has somewhat less presence. Nothing fundamentally wrong with his performance though, he’s clearly a reasonably accomplished musical theatre actor, up to West End standard. But initially at least not quite as commanding as one might hope. The three go into The Bow Song. Howard certainly moves well, and handles his prop of a staff cleverly, to the standard one might expect from an Arts Educational trained performer. The strange thing here is that Arts Ed performers often have an abundance of presence. The slight lack of that is further accentuated during a duet with Riona Daddy’s Little Girl, a lovely song, with something of a counterpoint to it. Where it is Riona who clearly shines. Howard sings well, but Riona holds the audience’s attention. Alone on the stage for Lady Evadene, Riona proves she is more than capable of holding the audience all by herself, without the need of any supporting players, though I thought her diction on this song a little bit unclear. Mind you there are people even among first rate West End actresses whose diction can sometimes be appalling if they are tired. Tonight Riona’s diction is only a little off on just this one song, that’s no great crime. Besides which she makes the most of the song with her graceful movement and command of the stage. It was a hard act for Eke Chukwu as Hero to follow with Money In My Hat, which is probably why this song did not come across too well, for Eke’s performances later in this show seemed to be entirely satisfactory.

Back to the frequent triumvirate of Factotum, Princess, and King. The King explains his new arena with the aid of the Princess’s toys (Fido, Dolly, and, Teddy). The trio launch into the title song. The Lady Or The Tiger. Initially on it’s first airing this song does not particularly impress, at least not as much as later reprises. There follows a reprise of Daddy’s Little Girl, with Riona once again dominating the scene, and continuing to do so with a moving heartfelt solo Childish Things. This song is a lovely one, expressing a fondness for childhood toys, but knowing it is more than time to put them away, and wanting very much to grow up and move on. This number made such an impact that once again Hero had a hard job getting Everything Around Me across. Eke is a reasonable singer, and proves he can accompany himself on the guitar, yet the number is still not that memorable. Or perhaps it was just eclipsed by a reprise of Daddy’s Little Girl, this time by the Court Musicians, though I think Riona (with a slight costume change) joined in at one point, with some different lyrics, and an aside about those lyrics). Sophistication at last finds Howard Samuels coming into his own. His singing is of course entirely satisfactory, but he really shines with his movement, acting out the lyrics. You can just tell that he can clearly dance decently, like any good Arts Ed trained performer. The number is still a little lacking in stage presence. But maybe one is getting used to him, for it is basically a good well performed number. Andrew carries a whistle, which is used to freeze the action, to allow him to explains points to the audience, or move scenery. It reminded me a little Fughetta Faffner “stopping time” in ‘The Ghost Of Faffner Hall”. Coincidentally, Andrew once (in 1986) had an infamously painful encounter with Fughetta’s puppeteer, in a theatre bar in Oldham. Anyway, tonight Andrew continues his “scene shifting” activities, by bringing a green grass-matt rug on stage, which Riona and Eke end up entangled in, while they Sing It Along.

In a manner not dissimilar to Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Follies, or for that matter Jason Carr and Bryony Lavery’s A Christmas Carol, the second act begins more or less where the first left off; with Hero and the Court Musicians reprising Sing It Along. Howard brings us the one more or less familiar song from the score (well it has been included in the odd Orange Tree musicals compilation fundraising event), as the King reminisces about the time he got all his subjects to Light A Convenient Candle. Familiarity makes this song memorable. Howard sings decently, of course, yet I still can’t help feeling there is a slight lack of presence, but well it’s alright. Minstrel Music sung by the triumvrate (or Andrew, Riona, and, Howard) proves to be one of the most ingenious songs of the evening. For each verse Andrew or Riona alternately sing of a reason why the kingdom could benefit from minstrel music, only for Howard to dispatch the argument. Eventually, however they do find an acceptable reason. By which time I was enjoying the song so much I can’t remember what the reason actually was. It was going to be a hard act to follow. Fortunately the next number was both a follow on and something completely different. Chariot Wheels is supposed to be an example of the said Minstrel Music, it also involves the whole company and the entire audience in a sing-a-long. This seems fairly successful. Although I think some of the audience may have got a little lost in places. Another complete contrast, Angelo finds Riona alone commanding the stage, with both her stage presence and a poweful belt voice. Unmiked she proves that she really does know how to belt decently. She’s as powerful as Jessica Martin at least! So impressive was Riona in that solo, that A Good Goodbye rather pales by comparison. A perfectly decent little song. However, it also gets completely overshadowed by the next number. Here’s Gold finds Andrew C Wadsworth on top versatile form, with a sterling supporting performance from Riona. In fact Riona stands up very well. She already proved in Next Door’s Baby that she had the capability to not get too overshadowed by anyone (no matter how much stage presence they’ve got). Now she cements that. Andrew is just amazing in this number. I had no idea he was quite so versatile an actor, playing several quite different characters, one for each verse of the song. Since all his characters, have a broadly similar journey, it’s a testimony to his skills as an actor that he makes them all so distinctly different, and manages to change between them so efficiently and convincingly. Also because this is fringe theatre, we are so wonderfully close to the action, we can appreciate all the little subtleties of facial expression in his performance. Andrew’s tour de force was going to be a hard act to follow. Surprisingly Eke actually contrives a noticeable reprise of the title song, and indeed makes it quite moving. There’s one more new solo for Riona, a song which has the same title as a Kander And Ebb classic, though it is a completely different song, What Would You Do. Riona is of course impressive, and then the Princess falls asleep and the number goes into her dream. Here we find Andrew and Howard in the most amazing costumes. With Andrew this kind of fits in with him being the show’s dogsbody. Playing most of the bit parts and shifting the scenery. However it is unclear as to whether Howard’s character is meant to be a distinctly different character, he is just playing because there isn’t anyone else to play it, or whether it is supposed to be the King incognito? There remains the finale scene, to tie up the plot, end the piece, and a reprise of a song or two, of course.

No review can really describe this musical. To understand it one has to see it performed. For that reason it is a show which needs to be brought back to life every once in a while, for the benefit of those who haven’t yet seen it. However, it is probably not blockbuster material, for I can’t really imagine anyone particularly wanting to see it a second or third time, the way some big shows (and sometimes some not so big ones) are worth seeing more than once. Except it might possibly be interesting to see it some years later with a different cast, to see how well they can perform the piece. I have no idea what either the 1975 nor the 1989 casts were like. However, this 2009/2010 production seems pretty well cast. Eke Chukwu is entirely satisfactory as Hero. There are occasions when he doesn’t quite manage to make his presence felt, but then Riona and Andrew both have such strong personalities. Where Eke does score highly is in bringing a tenderness to his character, he also does well in portraying an outsider, one who questions the laws and customs of this semi-barbaric kingdom. Generally I don’t think any other actor would necessarily play the part better, and some might not play it so well. Among the four actors, I think the only week spot is Howard Samuels. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with his acting, or his performance. It’s just a feeling that perhaps the part could be done even better. Certainly he sings excellently, and moves very well indeed. However he does seem to be slightly lacking in presence, which since he is playing a King, the tyrant ruling this semi-barbaric kingdom, one might perhaps expect a little more in terms of majestic imperious presence. Of course the character is described in the programme as “a loveable tyrant”, and this seems to be very much how Howard portrays him. Yet my perception from the plot is that this character would be more convincing if he were characterised as a psychotic despot. I’d have like to have seen him portrayed as psychotic, the trouble is it would be hard in general to find an actor who could do that and fulfil all the other demands of the role, and in fringe theatre even more difficult. In an ideal casting one would want an actor who could: Move as majestically as Christopher Saunders  (playing King Florestan in Sleeping Beauty, ROH in 2007 ); Act psychotic as powerfully as Max Gold (playing Doug Briggs in Eastenders, BBC in 1994), and sing as stunningly as Philip Quast (playing Miles Gloriosus in A Funny Thing Happened An The Way To The Forum, The National Theatre in 2004). Obviously that is asking the impossible, I think Henry Goodman is just about the only actor who could possibly achieve all of that. So, bearing in mind what is actually practical, yes Howard Samuels’s performance was entirely satisfactory. He certainly sings and dances very well. His acting is alright, but, He was a little outshone by Riona and Andrew, at least as far a stage presence goes. Riona seems to be something of a rising star for The Orange Tree. She did very well in Next Door’s Baby (co starring and standing up to Louise Gold) a couple of years ago. But here she’s even better, having gained more confidence and greater stage authority. Yet still quite capable of making the audience feel sympathy for her character. She holds her own on the stage, makes a splendid double act with Andrew, and generally proves herself to be fairly versatile, with a good singing range, and a pretty powerful voice. An even greater surprise is the shear versatility of Andrew C Wadsworth. He has an impressive resume that includes Mozart Opera as well as musicals (and his musicals range from Cole Porter to Howard Goodall) He had already demonstrated his pleasant baritone in Kiss Me Kate and Zipp; the former had also shown that he has a pretty strong stage presence, well able to battle it out with the best of them for command, even when that involves hoisting a five foot nine inch shrew onto his shoulder to carry off stage! Nothing quite so strenuous this time. However he does an amazing job of playing many different characters. He connects rather well with the audience, whatever their age. A decade or so ago he was tending to Howard Keel sort of roles (Fred/Petruchio in Kiss Me Kate, and the recurrent Man Of La Mancha in Zipp). Yet tonight, especially in Chariot Wheels, he comes across with a style that suggests he might have the potential to be a television successor to Brian Cant, if a suitable opportunity arose.  One thing that does stand out about all four performers, but especially Andrew, is that they play the whole piece with complete serious sincerity, as though they absolutely believe in the characters they are portraying. That’s very important, because it would be all too easy to play for laughs or camp things up, but fortunately they never falter.

Greg Last and Tom Sellwood provide excellent accompaniment, they prove to be as versatile as any musicians in The Jack Parnell Orchestra, I was really rather impressed. The programme credits Keith Strachen, who originally played one of their parts, with supervising them, and I think they’ve done him proud. The music itself by Nola York is a mixed bunch. Four tunes stand out as catchy: Our’s Is The Kingdom, The Lady Or The Tiger, Light A Convenient Candle, and, Here’s Gold. The latter being particularly catchy, because it manages to make a memorable impression despite having no reprises. In any case, as the programme makes a point of mentioning, Nola really should be remembered as a part of theatre history, the first woman West End composer, and this is the score she achieved that with back in 1975! As for Michael Richmond’s lyrics, among the best of them is surely Here’s Gold. Other jolly good ones include: Light A Convenient Candle, Childish Things, Daddy’s Little Girl, Minstral Music, and, Sophistication. Carole Todd’s staging of the musical numbers particularly enhances Riona’s performance of Lady Evadne, and brings out Howard’s strengths in Sophistication. While her staging of Chariot Wheels proves to be hilarious, with Andrew in particular getting very enthusiastically into the action. However, perhaps the most important thing of all about this production, is that this show itself is a little piece of fringe theatre history, and more importantly The Orange Tree’s history, that’s why it is so fitting to have it brought to life again here, under the skilled direction of Sam Walters, who has been running this theatre for so long. To be given an opportunity of seeing this musical performed by The Orange Tree now, is a bit like watching The Royal Ballet company perform in the Royal Opera House one or other of the classic Frederick Ashton or Ninette De Valois ballets originally created for the Vic-Wells (The Old Vic  and Sadlers Wells stages), such as Ashton’s Rendezvous. The sense of history of a significant performing arts company performing a piece that helped to make them what they are. So I for one am very glad to have had this opportunity to see The Lady Or The Tiger at The Orange Tree.




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