An Interview with David Hunter

Seussical!

Originally published on Broadway Baby

Now in the final few days of rehearsals, how has Seussical been coming along?

It’s been a really cool process, really, it’s such a fun show and I think that’s true of any process where the aim is to have a good time. It’s been hard work and tiring, as it always is, but the material’s so beautiful it’s hard not to enjoy it. I feel like I’m sweating a lot when I’m onstage, there’s a lot of running around! It’s high energy that you can’t let drop at any point, but as the run goes on we can learn to have more fun with it. It’ll be great to get an audience in now and feel them responding to what works and what doesn’t.

So tell us a little about the show itself…

It’s written by a Tony award-winning group called Flaherty and Ahrns, who have written musicals like Ragtime, A Man of No Importance and Lucky Stiff which I’ve been in. They wrote Seussical with Eric Idle, one of the Monty Python gang, and so it’s fantastic. The plot ties a lot of Dr Seuss stories together, focusing around Horton Hears a Who. It’s mad, really, but it’s such an honest story and really relatable even though it’s about elephants or whatever else. Instead of caring about losing a loved one, the characters care about losing a tiny world on a speck of dust: it’s ridiculous things made important. If you can buy into the world of the play, invest in it; it’s a lovely truthful play. I’m just blown away by how the more you explore it, the more interesting it gets.

Do you think it appeals to all levels, not just children?

Yeah, absolutely – Seuss wrote Yertle the Turtle, which is about Adolf Hitler, and he wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas about commercialism at Christmas. You look at his stories, and his other work – he was a political cartoonist originally – and he has a lot to say. It would be easy to think Seussical is kids’ stuff, but you’re bringing them along as an excuse rather than a reason. There’s plenty here for everyone.

What kind of character is Horton?

The story follows this elephant and his attempt to protect this tiny world he finds on a speck of dust, full of “Whos”. He’s loyal, warm-hearted and passionate but he grows throughout the show to the point where he’s able to stick his neck out a bit more and he becomes quite steadfast towards the end.

How long have you been rehearsing for?

It’s only been three weeks – I think that’s why it’s felt like a long process in many ways, because we’re in grafting every day, making sure everything gets together in time. So it’s long days. I’d just finished Tommy which also had just three weeks rehearsal, and that was performed on the Monday night, and then I started [Seussical] first thing on the Tuesday morning! It was pretty strange going from a big bullying cousin to a warm-hearted elephant. It was quite a shift… The rest of the cast have been brilliant, phenomenally talented and really dedicated to making a great show. If you have a show where you have someone who doesn’t care as much then it makes it really difficult, but I think I’ve been lucky time and time again working with these incredible people.

How do you compare this with other work that you’ve done on the stage before?

I think the main thing that stands out for me is working on a piece that is so brilliantly written; it’s just all on the page for you. It’s great because sometimes you go into processes where you look at the script and you’re battling with it, but for this one you can read your lines on the first day and know how you’re going to do this. Also if you look at One Man Two Guv’nors [in which Hunter was involved in the West End production], there was an amazing all star cast – I was just watching from the sides an awful lot and doing my little bits. It’s great to be back playing a lead again, because you get to enjoy every scene, instead of watching all the fun things going on, you get to do them. If there’s going to be someone doing a backflip, you want to be that person!

Lots of people know you from the ITV Superstar series, was that a good experience, or has it helped you in any way – or would you rather blot it out from your memory completely?

No, not at all! It was an amazing experience. I went into it quite naively really, because it could have been awful, but that didn’t really cross my mind. We were very well taken care of, and I think it was unlike a lot of other reality TV shows. I remember turning up to see the final forty and there were a good handful of them who I’d seen in big shows, playing the lead in Rock of Ages or We Will Rock You – really established leading men. It was very highly pressured, and the competition was difficult because we all lived together for six weeks before the show started. It was all very speculative and you would drive yourself nuts thinking about every possible outcome. Now the stress is gone I can look back and see that it was just a brilliant adventure where we got to perform in front of millions of people every night, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Did you find that competitive element when you were at LIPA?

Yeah, I guess so, as soon as you said that I remembered conversations from the LIPA bar, when we were getting to the end of our third year and were about to get released into the big wide world of auditions. Conversations like “oh, he won’t do much”, or “hasn’t he got a funny shaped nose” – so much speculation and competition. The weird thing was, as soon as we left drama school and did the showcase and got agents, we realised that we were never really in competition with each other because you we all so different.

Your musical work took off when you were still at Liverpool, was that always the plan or did that come about by accident?

By accident. I went to LIPA on the acting course and I still consider myself an actor before anything else, that’s how I work when I’m given a song or a bit of text. I always come at it from an actor’s point of view and look at it that way, because that’s how I was trained. I got into musicals because I could sing so I kind of combined music and theatre together. I trained and then I went off and I was in a band [Reemer] for a long time, and I got to marry those two things together. Superstar as well was acting and pop-rock added together so that was also a great opportunity. I love acting through song, it’s a great medium.

When you were singing with the band what was it like? Was that a different period of your life or does it all tie in together?

It does tie in together, I joined the band when I was still at LIPA – we were gigging at the weekends. I really felt that the singing was giving me confidence and helping me to stand out from the crowd. My acting training was really helping with the gigs as well; it was another part I was playing. That’s what my mum always used to say, anyway, she used to say, “When you go on stage, you go all funny and you act the rockstar!” It was kind of a four-year job. It was great to come back to acting at the end of it; it’s a much kinder world even if it is tough and competitive. You don’t have to lug your gear about and gig in tiny, dungeon-like venues with dripping walls and sticky floors. As I’ve got a bit older, I’m enjoying this environment a bit more.

Do you think that children are the harshest critics?

Haha, I guess so yes, because if they don’t like it they’ll just talk over it. That’s the thing with kids; they don’t have to be polite about something, if they don’t like something they’ll tell you. Maybe they’re not the harshest critics, but at least the most honest. It’s hard to get such honest feedback – even shows I know haven’t been very good, afterwards people aren’t going to say, “God, that was awful, what were you thinking?” because it would be rude. Whereas kids would have left, given the choice – they’d have walked out, saying, “I’m bored of this, I’m going to go and do something else.”

Do you think that feedback after shows is a contentious issue? With the current BAC dialogue on star ratings and whether they are useful or that theatre should be free of them – do you have an opinion on this?

I don’t see reviews as very helpful at all, really. You’re kind of in a position where nine times out of ten, reviews don’t offer a constructive criticism, they just offer a point of view. The difficulty is that not everyone’s point of view is the same. I understand that reviews and five-star ratings are important because it helps shows to sell tickets, and that’s where stars are useful: when you get a lot of them. I have total faith in this show, but I’m still really scared about reviews, because there have been occasions when critics have been harsh or cutting because they want to make a point, or they want to be that reviewer. There are times when I’ve read reviews where something’s been absolutely slammed, and I’ve thought it was absolutely brilliant. It’s particularly hard when it’s your baby, or it’s your work. Reviews are useful for producers, but I try and avoid them and just do work that I believe in. Reviews aren’t going to change much, they can just make you doubt. And the star rating is a very brief way of saying what you think, I can totally relate to that.

Well, part of me says that reducing something that has been made, something that has been created by a group of people, and has had this much time put into it, and ultimately is a work of art, shouldn’t just be reduced to a number just to sell tickets.

Yeah – and you wouldn’t go to an art gallery and rate a painting out of five, would you, like you say.

It’s coming up to Christmas, so what are you doing?

We’ve got shows the day before Christmas Eve, and then I’m actually getting a plane – I’ve been bumped up! I’ve been working over Christmas for the past three years, and the first time I drove home for Christmas; the second time I got the train; and this time I’m getting a plane, so I think I’m going up in the world! I’m going up to Warrington, where I’m from, to sit with my family and drink lots of cups of tea and have mince pies and look at the river that we live by. Just veg out for two or three days, and then come back and get back into the shows.

You can follow David Hunter on twitter@TheDavidHunter or @Seussical_LDN

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The Bodyguard Musical

The Bodyguard Musical: Glitteringly Indulgent

*** Please note, the production reviewed was a preview. ***

One of the most recent musicals to come to London, The Bodyguard Musical is a sure fire hit, starting to sell out even in its previews. Attracting every Whitney Houston fan under the sun, the show doesn’t disappoint its audience, generating gasps of horror and wonder and having the whole audience dancing on its feet by the end of the evening.

This is a phenomenon I’ve only experienced once before, at Mamma Mia! where ABBA fans and musical lovers alike sung their way through the production. The Bodyguard Musical goes one step further, in that it appeals not just to Whitney fans, but also engages the audience in its thrilling plot and demonstrates extremely high production values in its clever set.

Lloyd Owen – of Monarch of the Glen and Catherine Cookson fame – gives a classily understated performance as Frank Farmer, and Heather Headley’s vocals soar over the audience’s heads, giving the late Whitney Houston (may she rest in peace) a run for her money.

Comparison with the film is inescapable, but avid fans are kept interested by some interesting adaptions to the original plot-line. There is some clever but slightly jarring use of projection that nods to the origins of the production, but these are eclipsed by the sequences that are rooted in the theatrical. There are several occasions when we become part of the production as audiences at a karaoke, at various gigs and of course at the Academy Awards: we are involved every step of the way.

All in all, it is one of those productions that is going to be in the West End for a very long time – Headley is likely to experience another long-running musical (she was in the original cast of The Lion King as Nala) and the chance of sell-out shows is very high. The show has not been reviewed by the press yet, and so the hype hasn’t quite kicked off – so this is the time to get your tickets! 

If you want to see a musical where a single mother overcomes her demons, sings like a superstar, falls in love with a man who is off-limits and, importantly, includes some of the best songs in recent history, then I urge you to get your tickets to The Bodyguard Musical now. It might not be for everyone – but it comes pretty close to ticking all those boxes.

Other theatre news this week:

– The Evening Standard Awards took place this week, and included awards to Judi Dench, Simon Russell Beale and Nick Payne 

– Cinderella opened at the Lyric Hammersmith – the pantomime for adults and children alike (hot tickets!)

Truly Ad-Mire-Able

Swamp Juice

Underbelly

Bunk Puppets and Scamp Theatre

(Originally published here)

*****

The award-winning Swamp Juice – from Bunk Puppets and Scamp Theatre – dazzles and entertains audiences of all ages. A story for children yet made with stagecraft for all, the puppeteering in this gloriously silly but astonishingly fun show is incomparable; the 3D sequence, in particular, must be seen to be believed.

Jeff Achtem performs his own devised piece to a three-person band, which provide a modest and technically astute backdrop to the otherwise solo show. The story is that of a swamp and the man who wants to dominate the animals in it. The only bit of discernible narrative is between the man and Birdy, an apparently nondescript chicken that flies, swims, and is extremely over-protective. We meet snails, worms, and monsters – and Achtem isn’t afraid to be scary, although he warns us of when he will be with the most charming of smiles – and travel on and through water.

However, the story doesn’t really matter. It is the brilliant and almost filmic sequences of shadow puppetry that delight the entire audience. The moments of audience interaction are not overplayed and there is never any sense of being patronised by Achtem, even when he is handing out inexplicably wobbly props to unsuspecting (but nonetheless willing) members of the audience. The equipment onstage is simple – mostly made of recognisable household objects – but has the power to astound. We can zoom in, cut between scenes, show two things at once, be in the dark but still see, and have fish fly in our faces.

The 3D sequence deserves a special mention as one of the most astounding visual effects that I have ever seen in a theatre. Although you don’t think it will be successful, the outstanding innovation behind this piece of work had grown men ducking in their seats to avoid being hit by a jellyfish – or rather, the shadow of a jellyfish, most likely made out of something as simple as tissue paper.

This is family entertainment at its best – adults will be as interested in Swamp Juice as children. It’s sure to be a hot ticket and will sell out quickly – there were people standing in the aisles on its first night – so book early to watch this remarkable performance.

Ups and Downs

Duality

ZOO Southside

Pair Dance / Colchester Arts Centre / Escalator East to Edinburgh

(Originally published here)

**

Pair Dance’s piece aims to combine movement with other technology, and to create a work that embodies “multimedia” by showing that dance and projection (specifically in 3D) can co-exist. The show that has been produced is, in reality, a somewhat stilted production, which although having some shining moments feels flat and borders on uninteresting.

Harriet Macauley, co-founder of the company and director, choreographer and a dancer in this piece, attempts to map a modern-day lifestyle by demonstrating sterility, repetition and the machine-like workings of everyday life. In the first part (“Interview”) the dancers are intimidated by the audience’s judging eye, cleverly alternating between graceful floor sequences and brutal – and occasionally ungainly – falls. The second part, “Machine”, is a section that fails to be memorable and after a while feels unnecessarily long, the point about repetition made quite early on and less powerful in its continued extrapolation.

‘Battle’, however, is the weakest section. A predictable and fairly conventional pas de deux, this sequence involved a lot of circling and running, interspersed with stilted and lack-lustre fight sections. The additional speech that was inserted did not help to illuminate this section or assuage the slightly cringe-worthy atmosphere around it. This subsequent ‘Scientific’ section, billed as one of the show’s selling points with its inclusion of 3D imagery, was underwhelming in terms of content and technically flawed. In fact, that the inclusion of 3D imagery – images of the same dancers in the piece – seems an odd decision to make. Even if the 3D had been perfect, why watch mediated projections of dancers instead of the dancers themselves? Any content in the choreography of this section was overlooked because of its gimmicky form.

The piece’s saving grace comes in the final section, which was the most powerful despite the notable lack of conventional choreography. A combination of particularly good scoring (by Richard Leonard), and a simple but meaningful use of the dancers at this point made this moment powerful and thought-provoking. Sadly, this revelation comes too late for most, and one is left with the thought that the forms with which the piece experiments work better alone: perhaps not a conclusion the company was aiming for.

Vital Watching

Vitamin

ZOO

Carlo Jacucci

(Originally published here)

*****

It’s pretty hard to describe this one-man show without either sounding obtuse, ignorant or both. What “Vitamin” entails is fifty-five minutes of inexplicably wonderful comic theatre that gets you to laugh uproariously, pretty much continuously, for reasons that are either beyond my faculties or remain totally mystical.

Carlo Jacucci (Ecole Phillippe Gaulier) is our guide – or rather, our entertainer – for the evening, taking us through completely unrelated but consistently brilliant sketches that range from the bizarre – ‘The Saddest Song in the World’, played on the accordion accompanied by various vocal wailings – to the sublime: I have never seen a caterpillar impersonated so accurately and with such charm. We wander, apparently randomly, through a series of technically brilliant and madcap sequences that are ‘about life’, a claim on the programme that is both met and destroyed in this production.

Jacucci is a master clown, always deadpan and always in control of the increasingly hysterical audience, throwing out his opening gambit (a nod, and a suave ‘goood…’) at precise intervals, inviting them to continue reeling in their seats. He uses nonsense to confound us and truth to win us over, never taking himself too seriously, nor ever being fazed by anything the audience does. An example of his steady confidence: he summarised the first few minutes of the play to latecomers in physical form – twice – and still managed to keep us on his side.

There is no doubt that this is a clown act that you want to succeed. It doesn’t make sense, there is no narrative and there is no political message, but if you want to laugh and laugh this is the show for you. Jaccuci has struck gold with his secure, knowledgeable and charming style, and he will leave you laughing uncontrollably at what could only be described as pure physical comedy.

Great Rambling, Wrong Room

Rambling in an Empty Room

Sweet Grassmarket

Chien Tzu-Ting, Huang Ching-Yu / The Key Physical Theatre

(Originally published here)

***

This dance project from Taiwan is entirely improvised by its two performers in a style similar to Western contemporary dance. What results depends on their interpretation of the music, lights, interaction with each other and blind sense. This is a great idea in theory, but the extent to which it works for an entire show is limited: there are moments when the dancing stops completely, or one of the dancers’ otherwise faultless attention drops off and something doesn’t work as well in execution as in theory. The constant switches in lighting also do not help; you feel occasionally as though the dancers are trying to keep up with a slightly over-excited technician wreaking havoc with the footlights.

The dancers, however, are masters at what they do. There are endless contact improvisations that almost appear rehearsed in their synchronisation; duet-like sequences with the two performers effortlessly coordinating their movement; and stunning solo amalgamations that demonstrate high levels of creativity and fitness.

The show is worth a watch for the grace of the performers, but you can’t help but think that it has been staged in the wrong place. A stint of dance improvisation would perhaps work better where observers were less pressured into accepting the movement provided: “rambling” elsewhere, outdoors perhaps, or in a live gallery. This said, the dancers are skilled enough to just about get away with it in its current format, and what they produce makes for forty minutes of high-octane, cheerful and skilled performance.

Beautifully Woven

Thread

Assembly St Mark’s

Nutshell

(Originally published here)

Three actors take to the unconventional stage space at the Assembly St. Marks – a basement room that looks uncannily like a village hall – in which the audience sit behind tables, playing games and watching a well-written and captivating piece of theatre.

Nutshell Theatre take us through the lives of a husband (William), his wife (Joan) and her somewhat clingy best friend (Izzy), characters old in youth and youthful in old age. The play starts in the current day as the eighty-year old man introduces a committee-style game of Beetle Drive (my team didn’t win, in case you’re interested), his wife Joan notably absent. We then spin back through time almost unnoticeably, and follow their collective story back from the 1950s to the present day.

Inspired by a collection of memories of the over-65s of Fife, this piece is touching and stylishly made – the props are minimal and the objects that are used always have resounding significance, the acting is excellent, and despite the inclusion of some themes in the work that have been explored in other theatrical work, we always feel in safe hands and away from cliché.

Stephen Docherty as William displays marvellous comic timing as well as being completely sure of his character, never rushing or fumbling; the two actresses not far behind him in their adept control of body, voice and interaction with the audience. The writing, however, is the star of this show – not accredited to anyone in particular on the programme – with the manipulation of time deftly managed and the incorporation of era-particular language throughout the play subtle and well-placed.

The overall feeling you come away with is one of satisfaction that, at a Fringe so obsessed with form over narrative, you have finally been provided with a story. Of course, it is also cleverly told, and despite the lack of any political or overtly obvious message about old age, the play is effortlessly entertaining and well worth a watch.