Serves Us Right

WAITRESS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 28th June 2022

The last musical I saw that was based around pie-making was Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.  This show has a completely different flavour.  Based on a film from 2005, this hit musical is on the road at last.  It’s the story of Jenna (Chelsea Halfpenny) who is not only the titular waitress but also something of a master baker.  Her pie is the talk of the town and, this being small town America, when they talk of pie, they usually mean sweet dishes and desserts.

The scene is Joe’s Pie Diner and it’s populated with a host of eccentric characters.  Everyone we meet is clearly defined by their personal quirks.  Jenna’s co-workers are Becky, the sassy black one, and Dawn, the goofy, nerdish one.  Their boss is manager-cook Cal, who is irascible, and they are visited daily by the diner’s grumpy owner, Joe.  An ensemble makes up extras but also, with some nice touches of physical theatre, represent what’s going on in Jenna’s mind.

Jenna is at a turning point.  Her redneck husband Earl has put a bun in her oven, thwarting her dreams of leaving him, but then Joe tells her of a pie-baking contest where the prize money would be enough to set her up in a new life…  But then Jenna goes and falls for her gynaecologist.  Things are looking up, you might say.

Jenna’s the most grounded of the characters, and Chelsea Halfpenny plays her with heart and warmth, proving she can belt when required by the score.  You can’t help liking her.  David Hunter is hilarious as handsome Doctor Pomatter, socially awkward and gauche, making an unusual leading man.  Wendy Mae Brown lifts her Becky above the stereotype – her rich, chocolate voice a real treat when she finally gets a solo.  Evelyn Hoskins’s Dawn could quite easily be Hairspray’s Penny Pingleton, playing the comedy very broadly.  Again, we can’t help liking her.  Even sour-tempered Cal (Christopher D Hunt) has his moments.

Dawn’s dating-site suitor comes along and out-quirks everyone: George Crawford in a scene-stealing role as Ogie.  And there is more to Tamlyn Henderson’s Earl, Jenna’s controlling, redneck husband, the villain of the piece; we get to glimpse his vulnerability and why Jenna fell for him in the first place.  There is also some delicious sarcasm from Scarlet Gabriel’s Nurse Norma.  Michael Starke (yes, Sinbad off of Brookside!) channels Colonel Sanders for his turn as Joe, something of a father figure for Jenna.  His song, Take It From An Old Man touches even my jaded heart.

Music and lyrics are by Sara Bareilles, and it’s a jaunty, likeable score. beautifully played by the on-stage band, led by Ellen Campbell. Almost everything is sweet and upbeat – even a number about doing a pregnancy test.  Jessie Nelson’s book is peppered with good humour that the cast plays to the hilt.  Sometimes, the comedy feels a little forced and the resolution is a little too pat – but this is musical theatre, so we allow it.

All in all, Waitress serves a lot of feel-good fun, keeping on the right side of saccharine sickliness.

Flantastic.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Wendy Mae Brown, Chelsea Halfpenny and Evelyn Hoskins (Photo: Johan Persson)

Yes! And…

MIDLANDS IMPROV NIGHT

1000 Trades, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th June 2022

In a room above a bar in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, an audience assembles for a evening of improvised comedy.  There are three acts, each of them taking a different approach to the art form.  Some may see it as a licence to show off.  Others may see it as an opportunity to tap into a collective creativity and create ephemeral wonders.

First up is a group of youngsters from the University, styling themselves as Improvabunga.  In a preview of their Edinburgh Fringe show, ‘Watch This Improv!’, they solicit the usual things from the audience: a genre, a subgenre, a location… with the added interventions of buzzers distributed among audience members: one triggers a song, another a kiss or a slap… and so on.  The piece that emerges, ostensibly a ‘psychological thriller’ is dubbed ‘The Recurring Night at the Museum’, and it turns out to be rather good.  The cast collaborate like well-oiled cogs.  The support and the invention are equally important.  The action is underscored by improvised mood music provided by a guy called Reuben on a keyboard, which is highly effective at creating atmosphere.  An improvised song is a highlight, with spontaneous backing vocals.  Most impressively the story has an effective structure, and the spotlight is shared equally, as cast members slickly glide from scene to scene.  There is something intrinsically democratic about improv, collectively created and collectively experienced.  An impressive start.  They should do well at the festival.

Second is ‘Behind the Headlines’, which takes the form of a kind of panel show.  Our compere and adjudicator, JP Houghton, reads out news headlines from the past seven days and then casts two of the three participants, who are competing for a place in the final round, in a scene that discusses the story.  And so a story about a shortage of Cadbury’s Flakes gives rise to a scene about the two employees responsible for the shortage waiting to explain themselves to the big boss.  A story about the perfect recipe for gin, leads to a scene about two connoisseurs in a gin bar.  And so, while they’re not acting out the news events themselves, the comedy that ensues stems from side lines, using invented characters.  The scoring is perfectly arbitrary but the fun comes from seeing the three interact and create in different pairs.  Luckily, JP is nearby to blow a whistle to bring scenes to an end, but so skilled are all three, they come up with natural punchlines.  This is a preview of their longer show, which is about to take a short residency at the nearby Blue Orange Theatre.

Third and lastly is a group called ‘Breakfast of Champions’.   Again, their format is different.  Nick Hollingsworth (winner of tonight’s headlines show, by the way) is invited to speak at length about whatever occurs to him, triggered by a word yelled from the audience.  What follows is the group creating scenes riffing off his unstructured speech.  This gives rise to the most surreal and absurd scenes of the night, with some belly laughs.  They’re a quick-witted bunch and are clearly well accustomed to working together.

An evening of fun, and I marvel at the collaborative nature of proceedings and how well it all turns out, with barely a dead line between the whole lot of them.  There is something dazzling about improv done as well as this.  Trouble is, you can’t see the same show twice.  Different genres will be picked.  Other events will occur in next week’s news.  Nick will spout different drivel… So is improv the purest theatrical form, as ephemeral as you can get, with creation and performance happening simultaneously before disappearing forever?  I’m inclined to say yes.  And?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Tee Hee or Not Tee Hee

HAMLET: The Comedy

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 14th June 2022

Oddsocks Productions’ summer tour this year contains all the hallmarks that make their shows so funny: Shakespeare, music, puppets, daft wigs… but this time, there’s a twist.  The original text adapted by in-house genius Andy Barrow is the most famous tragedy ever penned, that of the Great Dane (and I don’t mean Scooby Doo.)   So, does it work? 

Barrow himself appears as Claudius, a Viking chieftain, looking like Henry VIII but with all the vocal intonations of our current unprincipled and criminal Prime Minister – instantly establishing himself as the villain of the piece.  Barrow’s political satire has never been more prevalent, more acerbic, or more necessary, in a play that deals with someone who is unsuitable to rule.  He’s also very funny, brimming with vapid Bo-Jo waffle, his motives thinly veiled.  Topical asides zing through the script, making us enjoy the villain’s demise all the more when it finally happens.

Barrow’s partner in greatness, the formidable Elli Mackenzie appears as Gertrude, with something of our Queen’s plummy tones but none of her emotional reserve.  Mackenzie also plays Hamlet’s BFF, Horatio as a sort of likeable oaf.

In the title role is Theo Toksvig-Stewart, an excellent addition to the team, expressing teenage moodiness through physicality and handling the text with clarity and ease.  His ‘To Be’ has him toying with the idea of casting himself from the battlements, and it’s enlightening: his death could come at any precarious second, rather than the Prince contemplating suicide as an abstract concept, as per usual.  Thus, Andy Barrow’s direction sheds new light on the well-known speech.  This Hamlet is instantly likeable and he’s more than capable of holding the stage on his own.

Amber Lickerish’s Ophelia is played straight, a foil for Hamlet’s capers.  When it comes to her mad scene, the jokes fall away.  There are moments when Shakespeare’s tragedy bubbles up through the surface silliness.  Clearly this troupe could pull off a straight version if they were that way inclined.  The result is a patchiness in tone and approach.  Luckily, we are not kept waiting long for the daftness to reassert itself over proceedings.

The marvellous Jack Herauville (Laertes, Polonius, etc) is consistently delightful.  The climactic fight between Laertes and Hamlet – here done with spears rather than swords – is thrilling and funny.  The show is at its best during its madcap moments: a hunting scene with glove puppets, the skirmish in Ophelia’s grave…

Barrow doesn’t send up the material but rather plays with it.  It’s a very playful play.  There are just a couple of pacing issues keeping it from comedic perfection.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Back and the Future

JINKX MONSOON & MAJOR SCALES – Together Again, Again!

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 8th June 2022

Winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race (Season 5) Jinkx Monsoon has carved out a career as a cabaret artiste, a self-styled ‘internationally tolerated chanteuse’.  This current tour sees her reunited with sidekick and accompanist, Major Scales.

But this time, there’s a twist…

We are rocketed forward to the year 2065.  Monsoon and Scales, bearing the ravages of old age, come together after decades apart.  They fill us in with global events since our day – well, as they point out, they’re reminding us of these events, because we’re with them, in the future, which is now…

It’s a gloriously silly conceit.  Our sun has exploded.  The Earth has been taken over by Reptilian alien overlords (so, nothing new there, then) and, more pertinently, we learn the fate of some of the other drag queens who have graced the runway.

An eclectic set gives us show tunes and torch songs.  There’s even a jazzy Gorillaz cover.  Monsoon is in superb voice, combining shades of Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and Lucille Ball.  She dodders around, forgetting where she is, reprising refrains, repeating jokes, but she still has a savage tongue for any audience member who gets out of line.

Scales is an excellent foil.  The bickering between the two is merciless, the timing immaculate.  They can drop in ad libs without breaking their stride.

No encore though, despite rapturous applause, as the age-withered pair shuffle off to be ‘redistributed’ (recycled, to you and me).

An extremely funny evening.  Monsoon is a major talent.  Off the scales, in fact.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Right as Rain

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 7th June 2022

I maintain that the 1952 Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds film is a pinnacle of cinematic endeavour, so any stage production seeking to emulate this piece of perfection has an impossible task ahead.  This large-scale touring production  originating from Chichester Festival Theatre comes pretty close!

A spoof of the advent of ‘talking pictures’, this story of Hollywood glamour is funny, romantic and spectacular.  This show doesn’t stint on the large production numbers.  Andrew Wright’s exuberant choreography delivers period, verve and character.

Sam Lips makes quite a splash as leading man Don Lockwood, cocksure and on the right side of cheesy.  A lovely crooner, Lips can also hoof it – the iconic title song which closes the somewhat lengthy first act is everything you want it to be.  As Don’s love interest, the sunny, funny Kathy Selden, Charlotte Gooch is practically perfect, while Jenny Gayner is hugely entertaining as villainous diva Lina Lamont – you can’t bring yourself to hate her.

Stealing the show, though, is the indefatigable Ross McLaren as Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown.  McLaren lights up the stage, combining terpsichorean talent with comedic flair.  His Make Em Laugh brings the house down, and his double act with Lips delivers some of the funniest moments of the show.  You can’t take your eyes off him.

Director Jonathan Church doesn’t miss a detail.  The filmed excerpts are a delight, and there’s a light touch to the comedy across the board.  The musical numbers are wonderful.  Some standouts include All I Do Is Dream Of You, Good Morning, and the extended, luxuriant Broadway Melody sequence, where the production values go through the roof. Simon Higlett’s costumes bring a rainbow after the downpour.

The infectious score is played by a tight-knit orchestra with Grant Walsh at the helm, the music so evocative of that bygone age.

An absolute joy, a celebration of showbiz, and  pure, unadulterated fun, the show’s message is to enjoy yourself whatever life chucks at you.  Sing in that rain!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Storming it: Sam Lips, Charlotte Gooch, and Ross McLaren (Photo: Johan Persson)

Bad at Spelling

MAGIC GOES WRONG

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 25th May 2022

The team behind The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and all the rest of them, join forces with master-magicians Penn & Teller to bring us this cavalcade of calamity.  The title says it all.  A hapless bunch of performers strive to raise funds for charity with a series of acts that each go awry in their own special way.

Our host is the increasingly desperate Sophisticato (Sam Hill) trying to preserve his late father’s memory.  Sam Hill’s eyes get wider as the situation around him unravels.  His act with doves is hilarious, and I’m assured no birds were harmed during making of this spectacle, although perhaps several humans were.

Rory Fairbairn as the Mind Mangler is hopeless, making wild stabs in the dark to guess our names and occupations.  The joy of it comes from seeing through his cod mysticism, of being smarter than he is.

Kiefer Moriarty is delightful as The Blade, a daredevil act, ripping off shirt after shirt, and attempting dangerous feats involving spikes, a water tank, mousetraps… and never giving up no matter how much pain he inflicts on himself.  It takes a lot of skill to do things ‘wrong’ – Think Les Dawson at the piano – and the timing across the board is flawless.  It has to be.

Jocelyn Prah and Chloe Tannenbaum are a hoot as Teutonic glamour girls Bar and Spitzmaus, serving as assistants to the others and also as an act in their own right, involving gymnastics, contortionism, and a ‘live’ bear…

Valerie Cutko brings elegance and charm as the ill-fated donor Eugenia.  Much use is made of a live video feed, and there’s the running joke of the woeful total of funds raised.  The ‘In Memoriam’ section brings tears to my eyes for all the wrong reasons.

Organised chaos is the order of the day, with surprises and slapstick galore.  Every now and then, the magic goes right, and this is just as surprising as the mishaps.

Relentlessly funny entertainment from a hugely talented team.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Disillusioned: Sam Hill as Sophisticato (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Privates’ Lives

PRIVATE PEACEFUL

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 17th May 2022

Michael ‘War Horse’ Morpurgo’s novel is brought to life in this effective adaptation by Simon Reade and Nottingham Playhouse.  It’s the story of the Peaceful brothers, Tommo and Charlie, and their nigh-on idyllic childhood in pre-war Devon.  Throughout the course of one night of sentry duty in the trenches, Private Tommo Peaceful narrates his life story up to this moment, the action slickly transitioning into flashbacks with the wave of an army blanket and a lighting change.  The story flows seamlessly and moves on a quite a lick, but there’s still plenty of time for us to engage with the characters and their tribulations.

War takes the brothers to France, where they encounter all the usual tropes of WWI drama: the trenches, the rats, the lice, the unreasonable officers, the futility, the waste of life… Everything except a war poet, in fact.  The scenes here contrast sharply with the comparative rosiness of life at home, delivered with a sense of urgency: Tommo must get his story told before morning comes.  We find out why in a devastating denouement.

As Tommo,  Daniel Rainford is splendid, never leaving the stage.  We see him grow up before our eyes, as he and Charlie fall for the same girl, disrespect the pompous lord of the manor, and generally form the fraternal bond that will see them through to the end.  Tom Kanji makes a strong impression as the older brother, while Liyah Summers is sweet and appealing as their shared love object.  Emma Manton is both tough and sympathetic as the mother, bringing up the boys on her own and striving to keep the roof over their heads.  Robert Evans as the older brother with learning difficulties shows us the prejudices of the age, but surely the hardest working and most versatile member of the cast is John Dougall, appearing in the widest range of roles from the ill-fated father, to the vicar, the great aunt, and various military men.

It’s an engaging story, if a little cliched.  Director Elle While keeps things flowing, with sudden changes of mood and location jarring us out of the present and into the past and back again.  It’s a children’s story so we are spared the worst excesses of conditions, with the horrors of war only hinted at rather than depicted.  What comes through very strongly is the injustice of the treatment of so-called ‘cowards’ and conscientious objectors.

Matt Haskins’s lighting and Dan Balfour’s sound design enhance the storytelling, which is played out on Lucy Sierra’s remarkable set that conveys both homeland and war zone at the same time – thin branches curling in the air are also the barbed wire of the battlefield; mounds of sandbags suggest the rolling landscape…

This is a high-quality production reminding us of the huge waste of the First World War, and sadly, there are parallels with the world today, as Ukrainian men are recruited to defend their country against invaders, and once again thousands of lives are being lost on European soil.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Daniel Rainford in a Peaceful moment (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Hooray! Henry!

HENRY VI: REBELLION

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 7th May 2022

Shakespeare’s history plays – dramatized and fictionalised versions of real events involving real monarchs – inevitably these days draw comparisons with Game of Thrones.  Here there be no dragons, but there’s pretty much everything you’d expect in terms of loyalty and betrayal, honour and dishonour, treachery and rivalry, and power grabs galore.  There’s violence and gore, and even a mystical scene in which a severed head on a pole is consulted about the future.

Mark Quartley is the young king Henry VI, something of a weakling and therefore ripe for plucking from the throne.  There is no shortage of wannabe kings.  Chief among them is a deliciously wicked York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and the dashing Suffolk (Ben Hall).  Quartley is effective as the meek monarch; you will him to stand up for himself and when it finally happens, Quartley shows us the toll it takes out of the frail king.  Alvin-Wilson is hugely enjoyable – all he needs is a moustache to twirl, while Hall’s Suffolk has more range as a character.  When he meets his violent end, it’s hard to watch.  Director Owen Horsley uses suggestion as much as blatant gore, making for some very unpleasant but irresistible moments.

Minnie Gale is tons of fun as Margaret, Henry’s unfaithful queen, a vivacious, unconventional young woman who brings a whole new meaning to getting head from one’s lover…

Lucy Benjamin is powerful as Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester.  Though she be but little, she is fierce.  Oops, sorry, wrong play.  Her fellow EastEnders alumnus, Aaron Sidwell, is a treat as rebel and rabble rouser Jack Cade, with a cocky/Cockney swagger and a twinkle in his eye.  You expect him to call someone ‘Treacle’ at any moment.  Something the play demonstrates all too clearly is how the public can be manipulated by empty promises and stirring rhetoric.  It’s a nice touch to have the mob speak lines in perfect unison, showing how they are of one mind/brain cell.

Richard Cant is in excellent form as Uncle Gloucester, matched by RSC stalwart Paola Dionisotti as Cardinal Winchester, whose death scene is the best of the lot.

The huge cast comes and goes but the action is never less than perfectly focussed.  The simple staging (rostra and a medieval throne) are all that’s needed; the action is augmented by judicious use of projections on the chainmail backdrop: huge faces looming, and there’s a sequence when Cade and his rabble are roaming the streets, represented here by the corridors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Add to this, splendid historical costumes (such a relief they didn’t set the play at the time of the Cod War or on Mars or somewhere) and Paul Englishby’s superlative music, all mournful horns and stirring strings played live, and we’ve got a marvellous three-hours traffic on the stage.

I can’t wait to see the companion play next week!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mark Quartley as Henry VI (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

WARS OF THE ROSES

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th May 2022

The excellent ensemble is back with the companion play, continuing the story of England’s feeblest king.  This time there is even more running around, with the severed heads of various characters tossed around like so many basketballs.  Director Owen Horsley brings out the black humour of the piece at every opportunity to offset the grisly deaths and the heartfelt grief.  Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s York is even more enjoyable, the character being more rounded this time around.  His speech of grief for his murdered son and fury for the bloodthirsty Margaret (Minnie Gale being phenomenal again) is the most powerful moment of the first half.

New characters come to the fore.  Arthur Hughes as York’s son Richard, who becomes the Duke of Gloucester, gives a show-stealing performance and I cannot bloody wait to see him continue the role in Richard III in just a few weeks’ time.  Conor Glean’s Young Clifford, full of righteous vengeance and a Merseyside accent, and Ashley D Gayle as York’s eldest son, Edward, both make strong impressions.  Ben Hall, playing middle son George (later Clarence) also does a heart-wrenching grief-stricken moment.

The live video footage not only allows for two locations to share the stage, but also artfully frames the action: clever use of a child’s crown in the foreground while the child that wore it is being butchered makes the violence cinematic and symbolic.  Indeed, the only piece of furniture in the entire show is the gothic throne, the thing everyone is fighting over, while the ground it stands on is increasing ruined.

Richard Cant appears in an amusing turn as King Lewis (sic) of France, not quite going the full Allo, Allo! but in the vicinity.  Sophia Papadopoulos’s portrayal of the young and valiant Prince Edward is assured, so we’re shocked by his inevitable murder.  Lots of killings in this play, and plenty of exciting swordplay, thanks to fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.

It’s a time when first names were in short supply.  Everyone is either a Henry, a Richard, or an Edward, it seems, so it’s something of a relief when they start referring to each other by place names instead.  Who would have guessed that a Duke of York could turn out to be so troublesome?

A thrilling, visceral, funny, and moving production, with Mark Quartley’s conflicted king at its heart.  The three-hour run time flies by.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Ooh, you are lawful…

LEGALLY BLONDE – The Musical

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 6th May 2022

Stratford Musical Theatre Company turn their talented hands to the musical adaptation of the well-known Reese Witherspoon comedy film, in a vibrant production at the Play House, a venue that is more suited to bands and stand-up comedians.  And so the staging tonight is minimal, leaving the floor free for the large chorus to occupy – director Georgie Wood has drilled her cast to maximum efficiency for getting things on and getting things off again, so the piece runs like clockwork.

It’s the story of Elle Woods who, dumped by her egotistic boyfriend, follows him to Harvard Law School in hot pink and hot pursuit, as though getting a law degree will win the chump back… Elle is faced with prejudice because of her looks and demeanour but she overcomes obstacles to prove she is top of the class, and hey, you don’t need a man to make you happy… The show’s message seems to be about not judging books by their covers and breaking down stereotypes, which is a pertinent point to make: to be one’s authentic self.  Why then, does writer Heather Hach tarnish the piece with homophobic representations of LGBTQ+ people, who don’t get a chance to demonstrate they are more than the effeminate, posing, skipping fairies we are subjected to here?  Signs, I think, of the material exceeding its show-by date.  I cringe throughout the song Gay Or European which goes against the positive stereotype-busting message of the rest of it.

Leading the cast as the titular blonde Elle Woods, Vanessa Gravestock delivers an engaging, impressive performance, balancing the dumb-blonde looks with Elle’s innate intelligence.  She’s an appealing presence with the star quality required by the role.

Other highlights (because she’s blonde!) include Christopher Dobson as the tough-talking Professor, effortlessly exuding his dominance and high status;  Casey McKernan amuses as Elle’s cocksure ex Warner; Ian Meikle endears himself as mild-mannered love interest Emmett; Katie Merrygold is stonkingly good as Elle’s new BFF, Paulette Buonufonte; and Oliver Payne makes a scene-stealing appearance as delivery man Kyle.

It doesn’t matter what the cast does though, because any time a dog is brought on, it immediately upstages everyone else!  And I can’t help wondering if the situation is stressful for the animals.

The chorus is great, filling the space with energy and performing Julie Bedlow-Howard’s lively choreography.  In particular, a cheerleading number is splendid.

The singing too is all the more impressive when you realise the singers can’t see musical director James Suckling and the band, who are walled up behind the backdrop!

Unfortunately, there are missed lighting and sound cues, and this is not opening night where you can excuse a few hitches.  Microphone coverage is patchy.  It feels like the show could have done with at least one more technical rehearsal to make these elements of the production as sharp as the rest of it.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

In the pink! Vanessa Gravestock front and centre as Elle Woods (Photo: David Fawbert Photography)

The Case of the Missing Mrs

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th April 2022

First Atlantis, then Dallas, and now Birmingham!  Patrick “Bobby Ewing” Duffy stars in this (to me) obscure comedy-thriller from 1965, which has been dug up by Bill Kenwright Productions.  Duffy plays Daniel Corban, a honeymooner whose wife has been missing for three days from the remote chalet they have borrowed from Daniel’s boss.  The local police are on the case but then a woman turns up.  Is she really the missing Mrs or, as Daniel insists, is she an imposter out to get him and, consequently, his life insurance?

On the surface, it’s standard genre fare, but its elevated by a dry and witty script by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert.  With more twists and turns than a corkscrew, the plot keeps you guessing in this hugely enjoyable, somewhat cosy murder-mystery.

Duffy is in fine form as the neurotic Corban, tightly wound and sarcastic, and of course, it’s a treat to see him live, for reals, and not just in Pam Ewing’s dream.  No shower scene tonight, alas, but Duffy has a laidback confidence, which makes Corban’s increasingly desperate state all the more of a contrast.

As the is-she-or-isn’t-she wife Elizabeth, the alluring Linda Purl is great fun, and she is aided and abetted by Ben Nealon’s not-to-be-trusted clergyman.  Gray O’Brien is excellent as the wise-cracking, jaded police inspector, and there is strong character support from the wonderfully named Hugh Futcher as Sidney from the sandwich shop.  Paul Lavers makes his mark as Corban’s brash boss, with Chloe Zeitounian makes a fleeting impression in her brief appearance as the bit-on-the-side, ‘Mrs Parker’.

The mystery is intriguing enough to keep us hooked, while the rich vein of humour keeps us amused as the story unfolds and surprises.  Bob Tomson’s direction paces the action well to create such an entertaining evening, we’re willing to overlook the occasional stretches of credibility.  A well-made production, nicely played by all concerned.  (There was an issue of patchy microphone coverage at the performance I saw.  I prescribe a thorough soundcheck before the curtain goes up again.)

All in all, it’s good fun.  Catch it while you can.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Gray O’Brien, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Purl (Photo: Jack Merriman)

Star Man

JARMAN

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Saturday 9th April 2022

Mark Farrelly is the write and star of this one-man piece about the life of filmmaker and gay rights activist, Derek Jarman.  From the off, we are immersed in the lyrical script as Derek describes the plants and flowers in his now-famous garden.  The descriptions are interrupted by short, sharp flashbacks from his childhood (You’ll go blind… etc) startling us out of the flowery idyll of his cottage.

Farrelly takes us through his subject’s life story sure enough but it quickly emerges that this show is about more than one man’s life.  It’s about all our lives, or rather our attitude to it.  Farrelly confronts us, albeit playfully, to confront what it is we’re doing with our allotted time.

It’s a small matinee audience.  Farrelly is sure to address us all as individuals, darting around, making eye contact here, asking a rhetorical question there.  Throughout the show, there’s a frisson of excitement and/or terror about being called upon to participate.  Farrelly is gentle with his volunteers and/or victims so there is no need to feel uneasy.  In fact, the message of the piece is to be unafraid to participate.  In our own lives!

We hear about sexual encounters, both real and fantasy.  We hear about Jarman’s repressive upbringing, his first jobs out of art college, before he launches into the film career that will make his name.

It’s all done in spartan fashion.  A single chair, a sheet, a roll of paper, and a multi-coloured flashlight are all Farrelly uses – as well as his considerable talent and presence as a performer.  He rides, not just a roller-coaster, but an entire theme park of emotions, sometimes snapping in and out of extremes at the flick of a lighting change.  What emerges is a portrait of the artist as a force to be reckoned with.  To see this vibrant, exuberant, rebellious figure reduced to a stooped and trembling shadow of himself, thanks to AIDS, is heart-breaking, and painfully portrayed.

Director Sarah-Louise Young keeps the contrasting moods and moments sharp, and Farrelly is friendly and fun, intense and, yes, a little intimidating. Confronted by his own mortality, Jarman confronts us with ours.

We come away with admiration for both Jarman and the actor who has channelled him so vividly.  At the end, Jarman admonishes us to ‘be astonishing’.

And that’s exactly what Mark Farrelly has been.

Fabulous, thought-provoking stuff.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆☆

Blue; Mark Farrelly IS Derek Jarman

Jacob’s Cracker

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 6th April 2022

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s first (and best) musical is on the road again in this refurbished production by director Laurence Connor.  There are a few interesting changes, most of which work brilliantly.  Firstly, the use of children.  Liberated from the usual choir corral, the kids come and go, singing and dancing along with the other performers.  Connor also uses kids in character roles: the younger brothers, for example, complete with comedy beards.  This serves as a reminder that the piece was originally conceived as a school play.

Another big change is the expansion of the role of the Narrator.  The mighty Alexandra Burke leads us through the story, with charm, good humour, and above all, that marvellous voice.   Connor also has her don a comedy beard to portray the patriarch Jacob.  Burke does a good job but I miss the old man.  At the show’s climactic point, the father-and-son reunion is therefore diluted, robbing the show of its emotional kicker.  Oh, well.  Burke also takes on the role of seductress Mrs Potiphar – surely there are guidelines about making a pregnant actor work so hard! – She is clearly having a lot of fun in this show, and she handles the crowd like a boss.

As Joseph, rising star Jac Yarrow is instantly appealing, with his boy-next-door good looks, powerful vocals, and broad shoulders.  His Close Every Door  stirs the blood.

Beardless, singleton Joseph is coded as different from his hirsute and married brothers, who soon tire of their father’s favouritism, Jacob’s encouragement of Joseph’s flamboyance —  he may as well wrap the kid in a Pride flag – so they plot to get rid.  This gives us the marvellous country-and-western number, One More Angel In Heaven, complete with a culture-clashing Hebrew hoedown.  The joy of this musical, for me, is Lloyd Webber’s shameless use of pastiche, cobbling different styles of popular music together in his richest, most fun score.

It’s a short show still, having been extended over the years from its school hall origins.  To give it a decent runtime, we get reprises and prolonged dance sequences.  I prefer a leaner version, where we don’t hear the same song twice.

Featuring as the Pharaoh is national treasure, former pop-and-soap star Jason Donovan.  Incredibly, it’s been thirty years since he donned a mullet and a loincloth to give us his pop-oriented Joseph (while Yarrow’s is more musical theatre) and it’s a treat to see him as the King, incorporating Elvisisms into his performance.  Donovan is golden, and there is much love for him in the room, a considerable amount of it coming from me.

The highlight of the second act is the brothers’ French song, Those Canaan Days, a wonderfully camp staging complete with a can-can.  All the dance routines bring a smile.  Joann M Hunter’s exuberant choreography and the cast’s tireless efforts give us much to enjoy, even if it’s chiefly to extend the running time.  The show has more padding than a drag queen’s bra, sacrificing dramatic impact in favour of fun.  But, hey, it IS fun, and fun seems to be this production’s watchword, and there’s nothing wrong with fun.

Yarrow is great, Donovan is marvellous, but if I’m being honest as coconuts, the show belongs to the indefatigable Alexandra Burke in a winning performance that demonstrates her comedic skills as much as her rich, tingle-inducing voice.

A bright and colourful, tuneful treat.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆☆

Musical Theatre gold: Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Fete Accompli

CONFUSIONS

The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 5th May 2022

This collection of five short pieces by the prolific Alan Ayckbourn was first produced in 1974 – a fact which informs Jacquie Campbell’s costume choices for tonight’s show, subtly suggesting the period, when the piece is suited to anywhen. 

We begin with four park benches on which random individuals are taking their ease — or trying to.  What develops is a string of monologues as each individual seeks to escape the stranger who insists on talking to them.  It’s funny, with each stranger having their own individual voice, but it underlines the main theme of the piece (indeed of all five pieces): desperation born of loneliness.  Ayckbourn can write a funny line sure enough, but he is also an acute observer of the human condition.

Of the strangers, a couple of standouts are Kevin Hand’s Arthur and Margot McCleary’s Doreen.  Director David Mears avoids things becoming static by keeping people moving from bench to bench (this also helps with the in-the-round staging).  It’s like musical chairs without the music.  The cast perform with a sort of heightened naturalism.  Every character however bizarre or mundane their situation – rings true.

Next up is Lucy, a woman left too much alone with her children.  She has lost the ability to converse with adults, so when the couple next door pop round to check up on her, hilarity ensues.  Zoe Mortimer is great as the steely-eyed, assertive mother, and she is matched by Charlotte Froud’s timid Rosemary, with Barry Purchase-Rathbone providing contrast as Rosemary’s bluff husband Terry – until he is put in his place!  It’s very funny to see the adults revert to childhood, but the piece touches on darkness based on psychological truth.

The director himself appears in the next one, as Harry, Lucy’s absentee husband, a boorish, sleazy sales rep who thinks he’s God’s gift, trying to cop off with Jemima Davis’s longsuffering Paula.  Mears gives a cringeworthy performance as the desperate lothario — one of Ayckbourn’s finest middle-class monsters — and we can only sympathise with Paula as she fails to get away.  Rescue arrives in the form of her best friend Bernice, in a coolly forthright portrayal by Kristiyana Petkova.

Next we’re in a restaurant where two separate couples have issues to discuss.  We eavesdrop on their conversations as the waiter goes from table to table, valiantly trying to do his job.  As the waiter, Elliot Gear is a delight, reacting, interjecting, and keeping busy, all with a strained professional demeanour.  A star turn.

Finally, we move to the tea tent at a dreadful village fete.  Trouble with the p.a. system leads to an inadvertent broadcast that destroys a relationship.  With hilarious consequences.  David Mears appears again as Gosforth, the busybody organising the event, showing his versatility with another of Ayckbourn’s monsters.  Lily Skinner’s Milly is tightly wound, becoming increasingly frantic as the situation deteriorates.  Jane Grafton brings a strong whiff of Christine Hamilton to her portrayal of Councillor Emily Pearce, making her eventual humiliation all the more delicious.  Justin Osborne is a hoot as the emotionally immature boy scout leader whose life comes crashing down, and David Gresham adds value as a stock character comedy vicar.  Events descend into organised chaos, with the cast working superbly to convey the urgent desperation and the slapstick of the moment.  I would prefer a bigger bang with the electrics go awry, but that’s just me.

All in all, a splendid evening of entertainment and almost non-stop laughter.  Mears gets the tone just right and his talented cast (wish I had room to mention them all) deliver the goods in this showcase of their abilities.  If the Bear Pit is to stage any more Ayckbourn, I would like to see them tackle one of his later, more experimental shows.  Shows like Confusions are bread-and-butter to them.  I want cake!

☆☆☆☆☆

More tea, Vicar? David Gresham. David Mears, Lily Skinner, Justin Osborne. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Go with the Flo

COMING TO ENGLAND

The Rep, Birmingham, Monday 4th April 2022

Much-loved TV presenter and now baroness Floella Benjamin wrote a book about her early life, telling how she and her family came to this country and what happened when they got here.  That book has now been dramatized by prolific children’s playwright David Wood in this musical retelling, taking us back to Trinidad where it all began.  There’s an idyllic tone to these early scenes, in a poor-but-happy kind of way, as Floella and her siblings learn British history at school and sing songs of the empire.  They consider themselves British.  They have a rude awakening coming…

Leading the ensemble cast is Paula Kay as Floella, our narrator, in a captivating performance.  Kay carries the show with an irrepressible portrayal of the presenter as a young girl, and she is ably supported by Yazmin Belo as big sister Sandra, Tarik Frimpong, Jay Marsh, and Dale Mathurin as brothers Roy, Ellington, and Lester.   Kojo Kamara’s Dardie, Floella’s father, plays a lovely saxophone (Mr Benjamin harboured ambitions to be a musician); and Bree Smith exudes warm-heartedness and wisdom as Marmie, the mother – the show is very much a tribute to Floella’s mum, and all those brave women like her.

Upon arrival, the family finds the streets of London are paved with bigots, but despite the harsh reception, they put down roots and begin to make something of themselves.  There is a strong message running throughout: keep smiling, winners smile.

The show touches on Benjamin’s experiences but strangely absent is a scene tackling how she got into television.  The second act opens with an a capella rendition of the theme to Play School and Paula Kay cajoles us into participating in If You’re Happy and You Know It.  And we do, because it’s fun.  But the show keeps something of this patronising tone to the end, exhorting us to shout out and clap, as if we are still young viewers.

Many of the songs you will have heard before.  Island in the Sun, Brown Girl in the Ring… the reggae/calypso flavours of the music provide an irresistible carnival atmosphere, matched by the colourful costumes and giant butterfly props.  Kay treats us to a beautiful rendition of Smile.  Throughout, the ensemble singing is lovely, and there is energetic choreography by director Omar F Okai.

It all breezes along pleasantly, with only passing clouds to mar the experience: the ugly face of racial hatred and prejudice rears up now and then, but Floella learns to smile through it and is indeed an excellent role model.

This colourful, exuberant production is more than the biography of a remarkable public figure.  It is also a lesson in social history, with a message of hope and empowerment for the future.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Paula Kay IS Floella Benjamin. Photo: Geraint Lewis

A Bridgerton Too Far?

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd April 2022

Michael Barry sets his Much Ado in the Regency period, like the popular series on Netflix.  For the most part, it’s an excellent fit, with the exterior manners and elegance a suitable setting for Shakespeare’s wittiest rom-com. This is Bridgerton in looks and feel, but with an infinitely better script! Barry’s set design has two plastered columns framing the upstage area, the bases of which have cracked to reveal the brickwork beneath, representing the truth beneath the surface.  It’s a clever detail.

The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis gives us his Benedick, complete with mutton-chops and poufy hair.  He is Mr Darcy, an upright romantic hero with a quick wit and a big heart.  Hobbis does an admirable job and you can’t help falling for him.  Naomi Jacobs’s Beatrice has the acid tongue and merry wit down pat, but she’s a little too loud for the studio setting, delivering all her lines at full volume – sometimes going up to 11.  A bit more variance and she’d be perfect.

Andrew Elkington makes for a posing, preening Claudio, all righteous indignation in the pivotal church scene, and thoroughly detestable afterwards, until his redemption, of course; a pretty face masking his petulance and objectionable self-righteousness.  Spot on!  Also great is Papa Yentumi as Don Pedro, the fun-loving prince, at ease with his high status and game for a laugh.  As his bastard brother, Tom Lowde gives us a volatile Don John, but he needs not to race through some of his lines so we can enjoy his evil nature all the more. 

Man of the match for my money is Mark Payne as Leonato, effortlessly convincing throughout, and electrifyingly emotional in that church scene.

Suzie King’s Hero contrasts sweetly with the acerbic Beatrice, and there is solid support from Skye Witney as Antonia, Jessica Terry as Margaret, Colette Nooney as Ursula, and James Browning as the villainous Borachio.

I’m afraid though the Dogberry scenes don’t quite come off.  Ben Pugh could make more of the constable’s bombast, building him up more so he can deflate further.   There are more laughs to be gained here. The Watch scenes seem clumsily staged.  Perhaps there were council tax cutbacks in Messina at the time, but surely they could stretch to at least a third Watchman.

There is lovely music, all piano and strings, by Salwan Cartwright-Shamoon, but there at times when it is intrusive, detracting from the action rather than supporting it.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the phenomenal Costume Department at the Crescent goes all out to create beautiful and accurate clothes to suit the world of the production.  Designer Jennet Marshall has excelled herself here, and credit is due to her team: Carolyn Bourne, Anne Hignell, Stewart Snape, Rose Snape, and Pat Brown, for the stunning array of uniforms, posh frocks and tailored coats on display.

A great-looking production that hits most of its marks, featuring some excellent performances by its leads.

☆ ☆ ☆ ½

Andrew Elkington and Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Bloody Great

MACBETH

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th March 2022

This production by Tread The Boards takes a traditional approach, with splendid medieval costumes conveying the historical period, although with the Northern English accents, it’s less Glamis Castle and more Winterfell.  But at least there’s consistency, creating the world-of-the-play most effectively.  The action plays out against a huge map of Scotland, which has been torn —  symbolising the political climate of the story.

Judicious use of sound design (courtesy of the brilliant Elliott Wallis) makes the intimate Attic Theatre space feel larger.  The sounds of hurly-burly surround us.  Cast members running around and fighting put us right in the action.  Enter Three Witches… This ragtag trio engender an otherworldliness, even though they could pass for mortal women – their eye-of-newt scene later on is horrible, as they place the disgusting ingredients in their cauldron.  The Witches also double as other characters: servants, messengers, giving them a direct hand in the unfolding doom of their victim.  Witch 2 (Sally Hyde Lomax) doubles as the Porter, bringing much-needed comic relief to the tense scenes surrounding the murder of Duncan.  Witch 3 (Clara Lane) makes a sympathetic Lady Macduff, while Sarah Feltham’s Witch 1, the twitchy one, offers support in a string of minor roles.  The impression is given that the Witches are more directly involved in Macbeth’s downfall than we might have thought.

Speak of the devil.  Daniel Wilby’s Macbeth is a credible warrior (some Macbeths I’ve seen aren’t!) and his conversion to the dark side, while a little speedy, is also believable.  Wilby is at his strongest in the scenes where Macbeth unravels – the banqueting scene is especially powerful – and his portrayal of a man under immense stress, with violent outbursts, is captivating.

He is more than matched by Alexandra Whitworth, who is quite simply the best Lady Macbeth I have seen.  The steely-eyed wickedness, the growing sense of isolation, the mental breakdown… all played to perfection.  Whitworth brings out the character’s humanity.  She is so much more than a wicked woman who can’t cope with the consequences of her actions.

Honestly, this is a truly excellent cast.  Phil Leach’s King Duncan exudes kindness without losing any of his regal status; Ben Armitage’s Malcolm is superb – like Macduff, we take him at his word.  Armitage gives the boy king assuredness; he is definitely this Duncan’s son.  Pete Meredith’s Banquo goes from brave and noble best mate to terrifying apparition.  A versatile actor, Meredith later appears as the doctor – the contrast couldn’t be greater.  John-Robert Partridge’s forthright Macduff is thoroughly righteous and decent.  Partridge’s rich speaking voice is a pleasure to hear, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

There is strong support from the likes of Tom Lane’s Lennox, Edward Manning’s Ross, and Patrick Large as Seyton.  Everyone handles the language with clarity and understanding.  John-Robert Partridge’s direction gets everything right, the supernatural bits are unnerving, the action scenes are exciting – the climactic swordfight between Macs Duff and Beth is thrilling – making the confines of the performance space seem large enough to contain this story of a nation in upheaval, while yet intimate enough to chart the decline of our tragic hero.  Partridge doesn’t clutter the stage (there’s no room) but lets Shakespeare’s text do the donkey work, ensuring that this superlative cast deliver the time-worn words with truth, ease and freshness.

Bloody marvellous.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mr and Mrs: Daniel Wilby and Alexandra Whitworth as the Macbeths (Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)

Cherry On Top

CHERRY JEZEBEL

Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, Saturday 26th March 2022

Jonathan Larkin’s new play snaps, crackles and pops with Scouse humour, in the best show set in the toilets of a Liverpool nightclub since Willy Russell’s Stags & Hens.  We meet drag queen Cherry Brandy (Mickey Jones) as she receives an award for being an icon on Merseyside.  This matinee audience takes a bit of warming up but Jones soon wins us over.  Cherry is joined by her bezzie mate, Helen Handjob (Mariah Louca), and their acerbic sniping is overheard by curly-haired twink Pearl Reckless (Stefan Race) and so queers across the generations meet and bicker, and it’s glorious, the one-liners zinging and stinging, and the vocabulary enough to make the editor of Viz magazine blush.

But the darkness of reality soon impinges, as young Pearl returns bearing injuries from a homophobic attack.  As Heidi observes, “it’s their world, we’re just unwelcome guests in it”.   Humour is both a weapon and a shield but there can’t be a queer person in existence who hasn’t suffered to some extent abuse at the hands of straight people, and we carry with us everywhere the fear that we could be set upon at any given moment.  Will the rowdy group of lads on the train turn their attention to us?  Will we get yelled at by a passing motorist?  And even if the attack doesn’t come on this occasion, the fear remains.  We got lucky. This time.  And all the rainbow flags in the world and corporate sponsorship of Pride won’t take the fear away.

The second act takes place in Cherry’s home and we enter farcical sitcom territory.  Cherry has brought home some trade, in the lovely shape of Mo, played by George Jones (nice arse!).  While Mo sleeps it off face down on the sofa, Pearl arrives, direct from a second homophobic assault.  At first, Cherry is as scathing as ever but gradually the pair come to an understanding, while Cherry’s lifelong friendship with Helen runs aground.  Mo meanwhile wakes up and panics that his straight friends, his girlfriend and his family will find out about his secret proclivities.  Cherry, of course, puts him in his place.

Mickey Jones does a bang-up job as the bitter drag queen with an acidic tongue.  Mariah Louca makes an excellent fist of Helen Handjob, coming across as more grounded than Cherry.  Stefan Race is an absolute gem as Pearl, brazen yet vulnerable, and there is excellent support from George Jones’s Mo and other roles.

Stefan Race and George Jones (Photo: Marc Brenner)

James Baker’s direction navigates the mood swings and sharp about-faces of the script with aplomb, getting the laughs in all the right places while allowing the dramatic tension to emerge and to breathe.

The play covers a lot of ground in its long, dark night of the arsehole, and while it is indelibly Liverpool-based, threaded with local references and the natural wit of the natives, the issues easily translate to anywhere and everywhere.  Ultimately it’s uplifting and a bracing reminder that we need to ditch the in-fighting and stick together in the face of rising opposition from dickheads within the straight community.

Fabulous!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Cherry meets banana. Mickey Jones (Photo: Marc Brenner)


Oldies and Goodies

DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS – Bringing On Back The Good Times

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st March 2022

The third instalment of the trilogy but it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the other two.  It really doesn’t.  This one is set vaguely in the 1960s, beginning in St Mungo’s Youth Club in Essex and travelling as far afield as Butlin’s in Bognor Regis, before taking in a selection contest for the Eurovision Song Contest, complete with Kenneth Williams hosting.  Well, a cast member doing a cracking impersonation!

Norman and the Conquests get their big break – summer season in a holiday camp, but guitarist Bobby is more concerned about his girlfriend Laura doing a stint in Torquay.  Norman’s womanising causes friction, so to speak, with his wife Sue.  And Laura momentarily thinks Bobby is at it with Donna, the fitness tutor.  But this is a jukebox musical.  Plot and character development are sacrificed in favour of bunging in as many songs as possible.  Any hint of conflict is soon overcome, and any throwaway line could lead to a full-on production number.  Some of the cues are less tenuous than others, but I do find myself wondering from time to time, ‘why are they singing this now?’

The songs that work best are the ones the characters perform, rather than those that are meant to express their emotional state.  There are quite a few standout numbers: Hang On Sloopy (featuring some killer guitar by Joe Sterling); an a capella rendition of Blue Moon; Laura’s You Don’t Own Me; Mony Mony

David Ribi and Elizabeth Carter make an appealing couple as Bobby and Laura, their harmonising in duets is lovely.  Alastair Hill is suitably predatory as the womanising Norman.  Lauren Anderson-Oakley as his neglected Mrs performs a couple of good numbers but like Ray, band manager and hair dresser (David Luke, also a fine vocalist), has very little to do in this plot that’s thinner than a wafer’s ghost.

Veteran artiste Mark Wynter plays Laura’s manager, later appearing as himself to do a medley of hits including Venus in Blue Jeans, proving he can still carry a tune and move it with the youngsters in the company.  There is supporting character work from Mike Lloyd as holiday club manager and authority figure  Percy Churchill, who also plays a mean trombone, and David Benson as Bobby’s dad, keen to land him a job in the motor trade.    Benson is also responsible for the wonderful Kenneth Williams scene – it’s great to hear the old Crepe Suzette song again.

The script by Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran has a sprinkling of good jokes, bordering on the seaside postcard, but they know we know the dialogue is just an excuse to cue up the next song.  The set, by designer Sean Cavanagh consists of posters and advertisements from popular culture, with illuminated signage denoting changes of location.  The costumes and Carole Todd’s lively choreography serve up the period, while Bill Kenwright’s direction keeps the performers at the forefront.  The cast sing and play instruments live and sound great.

This kind of thing is not really my cup of Horlicks, but it’s cosy, feel-good stuff that’s not going to tax anyone’s intellect, and it’s a fine way to spend an evening in the company of a talented cast, being reminded of some absolute bangers.

Foot-tapping, hand-clapping fun that delivers exactly what it promises without pretension or posturing.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

David Ribi and Elizabeth Carter

Band of Brothers

THE OSMONDS – A New Musical

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 15th March 2022

Some bands find their back catalogues turned into jukebox musicals.  Others have their life stories dramatized with their own music forming the score to the show.  This new musical about The Osmond Brothers falls into the latter category.  The rags-to-riches storyline is well and truly in place, and you know that sooner or later, the wheels are going to come off.  But will it be drink, drugs, sickness, or even a plane crash that will take the shine off world-wide fame and put the strain on the artists’ personal lives?

Jay Osmond himself has provided the story, formalised into the show’s book by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison.  Onstage Jay (Alex Lodge) narrates the story, from early childhood success as a barbershop quartet on The Andy Williams Show to global acclaim, and the multitudes of screaming fans not seen since The Beatles split up.  Alex Lodge is personable and good-humoured; as Jay he is said to be the ‘glue’ in the family, and he also keeps the show together, in an excellent performance.  We see events unfold through Jay’s eyes, giving the show a ring of authenticity, and a more personal feel.

As the brothers, Ryan Anderson imbues Merrill Osmond with vulnerability; Jamie Chatterton gets across Alan Osmond’s stern leadership; Joseph Peacock’s Donny Osmond, complete with purple cap, sings like an angel about Puppy Love; and Danny Nattrass’s Wayne Osmond also gets his moment to shine in a later, more poignant scene.  Georgia Lennon channels Marie Osmond (the girl one) to perfection; and Austin Riley’s turn as Little Jimmy is absolutely spot on. The young boys who portray the brothers early on are also phenomenal and bring the house down.

Ruling the roost is Charlie Allen as strict disciplinarian father, George Osmond, while Nicole Bryan’s mother Olive brings a warmer style of parenting.  Allen is superb, making George more than a barking bully, a strong man, motivated by love, albeit in a militaristic fashion!

The entire family group go flat out to recreate the spirit of the era, the hit songs, the singing… aided in no small way by Bill Deamer’s 1970s-informed choreography.  Shaun Kerrison’s direction puts the performances at the forefront.  By the time we get to the drama of the second act (the wheels coming off the family business) we have come to love these incarnations of the characters. 

Lucy Osborne’s colourful costume designs evoke the spirit of the age: those white suits, the colours ascribed to each brother… while her set economically evokes tv studios, concert stages, and the family home.

The hits keep coming: One Bad Apple, Let Me In, Going Home, Love Me For A Reason… and, of course, Crazy Horses.  People of a certain age are awash with the nostalgia of it all, but even if you’ve come along and never heard of The Osmonds (how?) you will be swept along by the sheer energy of the staging, the perfection of the harmonies, the irresistible melodies of songs that have stood the test of time, performed here by a flawless cast and a top-notch live band.

There is a lot of humour too, and some touching moments of drama as tensions within the family reach breaking point.  There’s a glorious moment where Jay is introduced to a fan who wrote endless letters thirty years ago, which sums up our experience of the show.  Well, mine anyway.  I was fortunate enough to meet the real Jay Osmond during the interval, and I did my level best not to keel over in a faint.

A joyous, exuberant and heart-warming show, chronicling a moment of popular culture – well, fifty years in the business, and then some!   Ultimately, it’s a testament to what The Osmonds did best, and that’s entertainment. Musical theatre has got a second show about Mormons, and this one’s a party!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Photo: Pamela Raith

Clueless!

CLUEDO

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 14th March 2022

Based on the film Clue, which of course was based on the board game of the same name, this hilarious adaptation reworks Jonathan Lynn’s screenplay for the stage.  Sandy Rustin’s script anglicises the screenplay, retaining Lynn’s wit, wordplay, and snappy dialogue, adhering to the ludicrous plot and adding inventive theatricality to suit the new medium.  Director Mark Bell ensures the cast is kept busy with comic business and general running around – the grotesque tableaux around the dining table, for example, or the slow-motion when a chandelier comes down…

A disparate bunch of strangers assembles at a country house on a stormy night.  Events are orchestrated by Wadsworth, the butler, in a gem of a performance by Jean-Luc Worrel, who is cheerfully ominous, moving in measured strides.  Never mind murder, he steals the show.

At this performance, the role of the maid Yvette, who keeps forgetting she’s supposed to be French, is played by Georgia Bradley, who is also consistently funny.

Leading the company is Michelle Collins in a drop-dead red dress as Miss Scarlet, but truly this is an ensemble piece, with everyone given the chance to shine.  Wesley Griffith is a hoot as the nice-but-dim Colonel Mustard; Etisyai Phillips is great value as a strident Mrs White; Judith Amsenga is hugely enjoyable as the haughty but hypocritical Mrs Peacock;  Daniel Casey makes a strong impression as the posturing Professor Plum; and I must make special mention of Tom Babbage in the role of Reverend Green for his physical comedy and general falling over.

David Farley’s ingenious set opens up to reveal the various rooms we expect to see from the board game.  As the guests tear from room to room, they have to take the furniture with them, adding to the frenzy of activity.  Thunder, lightning and musical stings punctuate the action, adding to the silliness.

It’s all completely daft and very, very funny, and it’s a joy to watch broad comedy so well performed, with exquisite timing from all and sundry.  Not so much a murder-mystery as a well-oiled farce, Cluedo is a real scream.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Lady in red, Michelle Collins leads the way.

Beauty and More Beauty

Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 9th March 2022

Disney’s best musical is back, touring stages across the country in this revamped production that pulls out all the stops to impress.  New sets and costumes dazzle and delight while remaining faithful to the original animated film, and all in service of the story.  For example, the wolf attacks are represented here by some rather scary animations, rather than the dancers in furry headpieces and leg warmers of yesteryear!  This is a production that uses bang up-to-date theatrical technology to deliver the goods, and boy, does it deliver!

Leading the cast in this performance is Grace Swaby-Moore as bookish, beautiful Belle, whose voice soars with clarity and purity befitting her character.  She is more than matched by Shaq Taylor as the Beast, who manages to be intimidating, funny, and sympathetic all at once.  He too has a rich singing voice, and his solo to close the first act is stirring stuff.  It’s genuinely heart-warming to watch these two fall in love.  I might be a little in love with Shaq Taylor, I freely admit.

A superb supporting cast keep the entertainment levels consistently at ten.  Tom Senior’s vain and posturing Gaston is a hoot, forming a hilarious double-act with diminutive sidekick Le Fou, played by Louis Stockil, who is like a living cartoon character with energetic physical comedy and facial expressions that are purely delightful.

Gavin Lee’s louche Lumiere with his deadpan French accent is perfect — no one can hold a candle to him! — while Nigel Richards’s tightly wound Cogsworth is as charming as he is overwrought.  Samantha Bagley’s Madame, half-woman, half-armoire, is a marvellously funny piece of character work.  Sam Bailey’s gorblimey Mrs Potts the teapot, is sweet; her rendition of the title song while the title characters dance is a goosebumps moment I will never forget.

There are massive production numbers:  Be Our Guest is a Busby Berkeley fever dream that brings the house down.  Gaston is exhilarating.  And the solo numbers are to die for.  And you never feel as though the songs are getting in the way of the story.  In fact, everything you see and hear is in service of the storytelling, which is what Disney does best. It’s fantastic to have a sizeable live orchestra playing the melodious, atmospheric score, under the baton of MD Jonathan Gill. It’s not every production that can afford such extravagance.

You can be as cynical as you like about the Disney money-making machine throwing money at the stage to make more money, but it’s the material that makes the show a classic.  Chiefly the score by Alan Menken and the lyrics by the late Howard Ashman.  This pair also created Little Shop Of Horrors, and brought their musical theatre sensibilities to the animated film.  Therefore it’s a good fit for a stage adaptation, rather than being a story with some songs bunged in.  There is a message about not judging by appearances but this is never forced or overemphasised.

The fairy tale magic is in full-force tonight, and it still gets me right in the feels no matter how many times I see it and it’s a real treat to fall under its upgraded spell.  This funny, beautiful, exciting, romantic, spectacular and uplifting production is just what we need.  Like Belle’s beloved books, the show takes us away from our present woes.  I’m afraid it’s a case where five stars don’t seem like nearly enough.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The clock, the pot, and the candlestick: Nigel Richards, Sam Bailey, and Gavin Lee (Photo: Johan Persson © Disney

Skip to the Louvre

THE DA VINCI CODE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th March 2022

Dan Brown’s best-selling thriller, having already been a film starring Tom Hanks, now comes to the stage in this slick and stylised adaptation, with Nigel Harmon in the leading role as nerdy action hero and symbologist, Robert Langdon, who finds himself accused of murder when a body is found in the Louvre with the deceased’s handwriting naming Langdon, among a load of gobbledy-gook.  Langdon is an expert in gobbledy-gook and he teams up with the putatively French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu (Hannah Rose Caton).  With no further ado, we’re off on a treasure hunt, with puzzles to solve and codes to crack.

Luke Sheppard’s direction keeps the cast of ten on stage most of the time, involving them in the action, vocally and often physically, as well as making their individual appearances as characters Langdon and Neveu encounter along the way.  David Woodhead’s elegant set is dominated by Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man — you know the fellow, like Jim Morrison doing star jumps. Aided by Llyr Parri’s video and sound designs, the unfolding mystery is laid out before us.  There’s a lot to listen to, a lot to keep up with.

Nigel Harmon makes for a personable Robert Langdon: the geekish enthusiasm, the mansplaining, the claustrophobia, are all here, and he is ably supported by Hannah Rose Caton’s Sophie, who is also full to the brim with exposition.  Almost stealing the show is Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules as the eccentric Sir Leigh Teabing, clearly enjoying himself.

Alpha Kargbo’s Detective Fache charges around, shouting a lot, while Andrew Lewis is sympathetic as the murdered man, Sauniere (in flashbacks!).  Joshua Lacey is a decidedly menacing presence as the self-flagellating assassin Silas.

The plot cracks along at speed.  Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s script could do with a couple of breathing spaces so we can digest each revelation, but thinking time is sacrificed in favour of pace.  Otherwise, it’s a faithful adaptation that translates well into action, performed by a strong ensemble who work like a well-oiled machine.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Numbers up! Nigel Harmon as Robert Langdon. Photo:: Johan Persson

DeadEnders

LOOKING GOOD DEAD

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 7th March 2022

Sean McKenna’s adaptation of Peter James’s novel is doing the rounds.  It’s a Reader’s Digest version of the book, rattling through the plot at a rate of knots.  There is no time for nuance and the dialogue is limited to only that which moves things forwards.  But then you don’t come to these things for subtlety.  What we do get is a cracking, fast-moving thriller that keeps us guessing and offers up a few surprises.

With Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt) and his most recent on-screen Mrs (Laurie Brett) leading the cast as Tom and Kellie Brice, the play looks and sounds like a cranked-up episode of EastEnders, and indeed the acting style is not far removed from the world of soap.  Woodyatt/Beale is exactly as you would expect, and he does a good job of alternating between sarcasm and desperation.  Brett has more of a stretch, as the compulsive cleaner, reformed alcoholic Kellie.  Completing the household is Luke Ward-Wilkinson as their 17 year old son, Max, who manages to come across as younger and younger as the action hots up.

The plot kicks off with Ian Beale bringing home a USB stick he found on a train.  He recruits Max to help him access the content, with a view to returning it to the owner.  They stumble across very dark material indeed, namely a live feed of a young woman being killed.  Is it a fake?  Is it special effects?  Meanwhile, poor Ian is struggling to find clients for his business, and Jonas Kent (Ian Houghton) happens along and it looks like the Beale-Brices are out of the woods.  But then Max receives a warning from the online killers…

If you switch your brain off and go along for the ride, this is a hugely enjoyable ride.  Director Jonathan O’Boyle serves up suspense by the bucketful, and there’s a lot of fun to be had by trying to second-guess the plot (which I succeed in doing, if I may brag for a second!)

Recurring character Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (played this time by Harry Long) indulges in a lot of banter with his subordinates, Leon Stewart and Gemma Stroyan, adding humour to the mix as well as police-procedural jargon for authenticity.  Mylo McDonald brings an air of menace as online killer Mick, who is Oirish so of course he’s called Mick.

Michael Holt’s set effectively separates the action from the on-screen and the off, while Max Pappenheim’s sound design underscores the action, although some of the ‘stings’ are a bit on the nose, veering us into the realms of melodrama.

This fast-paced roller-coaster doesn’t allow time to mull over the convenience of some of the plot points, but this isn’t True Crime, it’s crime as entertainment and as such, it fills its remit admirably.  Super fun!

☆☆☆☆

Making a Beale of it: Adam Woodyatt and Laurie Brett

Alpha Mail

YOURS SINCERELY

The Door, Birmingham Rep, Wednesday 2nd March 2022

Will Jackson has ‘acquired’ three hundred second-class stamps.  He decides to use them to write letters to family, friends, anyone and everyone.  The result is this one-man show, where he reads out the letters he writes and also the responses.  He gets in touch with a former flatmate, while engaging in a post-it war with his current one.  Purporting to be a nine-year-old boy, he complains to Cadbury’s and is rewarded with freebies (which he shares with the audience).  He catches up with an old crush, and there’s an ominous letter from the NHS…

Jackson’s expressive performance is instantly likeable and engaging.  Don’t be fooled by the apparent chaos of the set, strewn with envelopes and boxes – he knows exactly what he’s doing, with perfect timing.  There is some killer lip-syncing and, for a plus-size guy, he’s certainly got smooth moves.  The story is underscored by an eclectic soundtrack of power ballads, disco hits, and Willy Wonka.

There is poignancy too as he deals with the contents of the NHS letter, but Jackson is a man you can’t keep down for long. The show touches on a couple of negative experiences of gay men in the UK but, as Will demonstrates, we can always bounce back, with our sense of humour as armour.

Exuberantly executed, laugh-out-loud funny, and redolent with humanity and warmth, the 60-minute run time flies by, and we leave, inspired to put pen to paper ourselves and reconnect with someone we haven’t heard from – but perhaps without nicking the postage stamp.

A lovely piece of theatre. Writer-performer Will Jackson and Quick Duck Theatre certainly deliver first-class entertainment. He gets my stamp of approval. I’ll stop now.

☆☆☆☆☆

Man of letters: Willi Jackson (Photo: Elafris Photography)

Morality Play

FATAL ATTRACTION

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 1st March 2022

Adrian Lyne’s hit film from 1987 is brought to the stage by screenwriter James Deardon, updating the setting to include mobile phones and emails, but basically staying true to the story.  The film gave us the term ‘bunny boiler’ to denote an obsessive ex – the merest mention of the rabbit elicits titters of delighted expectation…

In the role of the ‘temptress’ Alex Forrest is Kym Marsh who is, pure and simple, excellent.  Marsh brings vulnerability and fragility to Alex’s extreme behaviour.  Society has moved on (a little bit) since the film and we tend to be more compassionate toward mental illness and to look more favourably at independent women who work, rather than seeing them as the 80s threat to men’s roles.

It’s easy to regard the protagonist Dan Gallagher as the villain of the piece.  He is easily tempted off the straight and narrow while his wife is away for the weekend.  Oliver Farnworth has the unenviable task of keeping us engaged with Dan’s tribulations.  There is a lot of ‘serves him right’ going on here.  Farnworth hardly ever leaves the stage and is our narrator, so we get to hear how Dan justifies his actions to himself, even if we’re not buying it.  As a leading man, Farnworth navigates murky waters – the play throws up moral questions on all sides – and he shows us why Alex would be attracted to Dan, the good looks, the charm, even though we don’t agree with his choices.

As wronged wife Beth, Susie Amy shows fire and righteous fury.  I understand she is soon to take over the role of Alex; it’s easy to imagine her as an excellent fit for the part.  John Macaulay brings humour as Dan’s friend Jimmy, and there is strong support from Anita Booth as mother-in-law Joan.

In the second act, the action comes to the boil – like a rabbit in a pot of water – and the sound and video designs become more expressionistic.  Loveday Ingram’s direction maintains tension levels, even when we know what’s coming.  Dearden reverts to an early draft of the screenplay to restore his original ending, which capitalises on Alex’s love of Madam Butterfly.  This is thematically satisfying but denies Beth the chance to stand up and fight for her family unit.

This is a stylish and classy adaptation of the well-loved film.  I’m so glad it isn’t a musical!

☆☆☆☆

Strange bedfellows: Oliver Farnworth and Kym Marsh (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Merry Wives of Wakanda

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th February 2022

This new production of theatre’s greatest rom-com boasts an ‘afro-futuristic’ setting – obviously influenced by Marvel’s Black Panther film!  As a world unto itself, this ‘Messina’ works very well.  Jemima Robinson’s set design is simple but exotic, futuristic and  yet retro.  I especially like the little illuminated bulbous plants that border the stage, and the geometric shapes that predominate the setting.  This Messina is a bright and colourful place – which is supported by Melissa Simon-Hartman’s glorious costumes with their strong, solid hues and striking silhouettes, marrying African elements with sci-fi kitsch, in an eye-popping cavalcade of outfits.  This is a great-looking show.

It also sounds phenomenal, with original music by Femi Temowo, played live by an octet of musicians, including some luscious brass.  The jazz/funk/soul/old school R&B-infused score is irresistible and, mercifully, no one raps.  Which makes a refreshing change.  Album release, please!!

Director Roy Alexander Weise makes the script more accessible to a modern audience by updating some of the more archaic vocabulary.  Most of the substitutions hit their mark and get the point across, although uptight purists might squirm.

A strong ensemble cast populates the story of deception and fake news, but any Much Ado is only as good as its Beatrice and Benedick.  In the role of Beatrice, the witty wise-cracker, is Akiya Henry, giving a star turn in comedic acting.  Her word play is razor sharp and it’s matched by her physical comedy.  Henry’s energy is equalled by Luke Wilson as witty wise-cracker Benedick.  Wilson exudes warmth in his portrayal; this Benedick is not only a funny man but a good man too, someone you’d like to know and drink with,

Don Pedro is presented here as Don Pedra, a princess.  The pedant in me wants to scream ‘Shouldn’t that be Donna Pedra?’ but I don’t, because I don’t want to be ejected.  The gender swap allows for a bit of LGBTQ+ inclusivity, which works very well, and Ann Ogbomo is marvellous in the role, embodying a spirit of fun and of (misguided) indignation.

Mohammed Mansaray’s Claudio really comes to life in the church scene, rising to his big moment.  It’s hard not to dislike Claudio in subsequent scenes but Mansaray wins us back when he shows Claudio’s devastation upon hearing the consequences of his actions.

Which brings me to Hero, played by Taya Ming, who invests the role with feistiness and fire, reminding us that Hero is a close relative of Beatrice and not the simpering good girl that she is sometimes shown to be.

Kevin N Golding’s Leonato is just about perfect.  Golding calls at all the stops on the character’s emotional journey and nails every one.  Even though he looks like a Time Lord in a disco wig, he has tears springing to my cynical old eyes more than once.

Also enjoyable are Karen Henthorn’s pompous, Northern Dogberry and the Watch, whose bumbling and malapropisms contrast nicely with the erudite banter of their social ‘betters’.  Here the costumes are their most sci-fi comic book, adding to the fun.

As the villain of the piece, Don John the Bastard, Micah Balfour is deliciously anti-social in this party atmosphere.  Balfour relishes the nastiness and vindictiveness, and therefore so do we.  If only his snazzy boots didn’t squeak so much when he walks!

This is an exuberant, heart-warming, rib-tickling, tear-jerking production of a play that demonstrates that the writer bloody knew what he was doing.  Moments of high (and sometimes low) comedy flip and become intense scenes of powerful drama and, like the plotters in the story, Shakespeare makes us fall in love with Beatrice and Benedick.  Weise’s direction does a bang-up job of delivering these tonal changes effectively, to create a supremely entertaining piece that packs an emotional wallop or two.

One of the reasons I love Much Ado so much is because it reveals something about the playwright’s character, the unknowable Mr Shakespeare who is absent from his other works.  The play shows that without doubt Old Bill was a very witty fellow.  You can’t write Beatrice and Benedick if you don’t possess their sense of humour.  He must have a been a right hoot at parties.

☆☆☆☆☆

Much Afro About Nothing: Mohammed Mansaray, Kevin N Golding, and Taya Ming.
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Something to Crow About

Motionhouse: NOBODY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Friday 4th February 2022

This latest piece from dance company Motionhouse seeks to externalise the internal.  Our inner voices, represented here by crows, are what keep us apart from others.  Our inner doubts, fears and concerns prevent us from achieving our potential as individuals and as a society.  The show begins with the performers moving like crows, settling on the rooftops of tall buildings in a cityscape projected on the backdrop and on the set.  Then we meet human characters, each of them caught up with their own crow, holding them back, keeping them distracted, and so on.

Above all, the show is a visual feast, as the performers move around an ever-shifting set.  A huge cube frame, when covered in fabric, becomes a building emerging from the background.  The cast physically move this structure around – putting the motion house in Motionhouse, you might say.  Stripped of its fabric, the cube becomes a room, a cage.  The way the performers move and manipulate the frame while they move in, on, and through it, is spellbinding.

The second act begins with swimmers in a stylised ocean, heads, arms, and torsos rising from the cloth, thrashing and flailing around, until one figure rises up, impossibly tall.  This is a turning point.  From now on, the crows are no longer around.  The humans move together, supporting and helping each other to get over obstacles  in the landscape (the cube frame) and creating a sense of shared purpose, harmony and cooperation.  If we don’t listen to our inner voice, the piece appears to say, then we will really get somewhere as a species.  It’s a back-to-basics approach.  The performers are like a tribe of prehistoric humans, and also a giant, multi-headed organism.  The individuals have become parts of the whole, a mass of limbs and heads and trousers.

Of course, one’s inner voice isn’t necessarily negative.  Quite the contrary.  Perhaps the crows could turn into doves or something.

Brimming with ideas, the show doesn’t give you time to absorb and reflect; it’s constantly shifting and changing, presenting each next idea, expressing the next concept, so you get an overall impression of the experience with some moments and images that stick in your mind’s eye – a man drowning in a water tank, for example.  What impresses, perhaps more than the content of the piece, is the proficiency of the performers.  Their circus skills blend in seamlessly with contemporary dance, extending the range of the performers and what is achievable in their storytelling.

Captivating and breath-taking, Nobody has something for everybody.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

See the source image
A murder of crows!

Mediums at Large

THE HAUNTING OF BLAINE MANOR

Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford, Friday 28th January 2022

This chiller from writer-director Joe O’Byrne covers a lot of familiar territory.  A motley assortment of characters assembles in a remote country house.  There’s a storm.  There’s a séance in the offing – until events get in the way, as debunker of the paranormal Dr Roy Earle pours scorn and bourbon on the outlandish claims made by the likes of Adolphus Scarabus (medium) and the Great Cairo (extra large).  Also present is journalist Vivian Rutledge, and Vincent De Lambre, to provide other points of view and to enliven the evening with stories…It has the feel of an old movie.  You can quite easily imagine Bob Hope playing the sardonic, wise-cracking American Dr Earle.  Tonight with Bob Hope presumably unavailable, we get Peter Slater, who does a bang-up job.  It’s through his eyes that we view the other characters.  Like him, we don’t take them seriously.

As Vivien, Jo Haydock brings femininity and elegance to an otherwise all-male cast.  No shrinking violet, her Vivien asserts her views and adds considerably to the overall atmosphere.  Andrew Yates’s Cairo is a larger-than-life, comic characterisation; as Act One goes on, you think there’s more ham and cheese here than in your average toasted sandwich – but, as with all the great ghost stories, things are not necessarily as they seem…  

Joe O’Byrne himself appears as Grady, the butler, bringing a gentle humour to proceedings.  And there’s more to Grady than meets the eye…  James Allen’s wild-haired, theatrical psychic Scarabus is effective, but perhaps a little underused.  And as for Vincent De Lambre, well, I could listen to Ed Barry’s velvet voice reading a telephone directory.

Much use is made of silences broken by sudden loud noises.  A lot of information is presented, about the house, about the characters’ pasts, but O’Grady, directing, prevents things from becoming too static or bogged down by exposition.  One of the most difficult things to achieve on stage is to frighten the audience.  This piece has some highly atmospheric moments and a few good jumps.

What begins as a pastiche of creaky old movies really takes off in Act Two.  The characters up the hokey talk, banging on about demons and ‘alternative parallel dimensions’ (whatever they are) and the lighting and sound effects, used sparingly in Act One, are really brought on board… But again, things aren’t necessarily as they seem.  It all culminates in a clever denouement I don’t see coming, even though all the clues are laid out for us throughout.  Clever stuff.

★★★★

May be an image of 6 scallywags an' Ye' yabberin'

Neverland Side Story

BAT OUT OF HELL

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th January, 2022

The mighty Jim Steinman’s contribution to the jukebox musical genre strings together songs made famous by Meat Loaf, Steinman himself, and even Celine Dion.  Each number is a mini rock opera in itself, but Steinman’s plot borrows heavily from Romeo & Juliet and also Peter Pan & Wendy, I kid you not.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where chemical warfare has mutated some of the population into eternal 18-year-olds, (The ‘Lost’) who are very much the have-nots in this society, and the haves, represented by bigwig Falco and his family, their building towering over the landscape.  Lost boy Strat falls for Falco’s daughter, Raven, and their relationship gives rise to conflict.  There’s a nurse character too – Joelle Moses’s Zahara – and there’s also a Tink(erbell) whose jealousy of Strat/Peter and Raven/Wendy’s relationship leads to a betrayal, with Falco/Capulet/Captain Hook bent on destruction of the Lost (Boys).  Curiously, Steinman’s song, Lost Boys and Golden Girls is absent from the score…

As leading man Strat, Glenn Adamson is a firecracker of energy with a powerful rock voice.  He has a tendency to take his top off, Iggy Pop-style (something which Meat Loaf never did).  Also strong is Martha Kirby’s Raven.  Her rendition of Heaven Can Wait is superb.  Unfortunately, the staging dilutes its impact.  Much of the action is performed to camera and projected onto screens built into the set, and so, rather than having Kirby singing directly to the audience, she stands in an interior portion of the set facing away; yes, we can see her clearly on the screen, but the device serves to keep us at a remove from the emotional power of the song.

The live camera feed sometimes lends a rock video aspect to proceedings.  At others, it’s a bit like reality TV.  Mostly though, it’s intrusive and distracting, an example of the production getting in its own way, which happens now and then.

That apart, there is a lot to enjoy.  The singing is top notch from everyone in this exuberant ensemble.  Highlights for me include Joelle Moses and James Chisholm’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  Later, their Dead Ringer For Love generates a party atmosphere.  Martha Kirby’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now is impressively emotive.  This power ballad becomes a delicate quartet when Adamson joins in, along with Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as Raven’s parents. Fowler and Sexton deliver the disillusionment and bitterness of the failing marriage of Falco and Sloane.  Fowler is hugely enjoyable as the villainous patriarch, and he too is prone to getting his top off.  Iggy Pop has a lot to answer for.  Sexton’s Sloane starts off amusingly sloshed, but the characterisation is not without vulnerabilities and depths.

The absolute pinnacle of the show is the title track, which brings the first act to a stunning climax.  Staged and sung to perfection, this is quintessential Steinman, big and brash, and heartfelt and overblown, and just sensational.

The dialogue is melodramatic and is declaimed in a heightened style.  It could do with more laughs, but Steinman’s anthemic tunes and the gothic poetry of his lyrics prove irresistible and more than compensate for the shortcomings of the script.  It’s rousing stuff and the cast sing their heads off, with energy that’s more infectious than a covid variant.  Steinman was a genius as a songwriter and this searing, soaring show reminds us unequivocally of that.

☆☆☆☆

Glenn Adamson as Strat and Martha Kirby as Raven (Photo: Chris Davis)

Snow White’s All Right

SNOW WHITE

Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, Thursday 30th December, 2021

As the pantomime season draws to a close, I am pleased to be able to fit one more in before the end of its run.  And what a cracker it turns out to be!

Headlining the cast as the Wicked Queen, Maureen Nolan is a striking, commanding figure, darkly glamourous, oozing evil and delivering some wicked one-liners.  Her big number, Alice Cooper’s Poison, as she cooks up the apple and her old woman disguise, is a definite highlight.  Nolan is still in great voice and the dancers, choreographed by Phillip Joel, add vigour and atmosphere to proceedings.

In the title role, Rebecca Keatley from Children’s television, makes for a vivacious, instantly likeable and upbeat leading lady, exuding friendliness.  She also reveals herself to be an excellent singer—this panto is riddled with well-known songs, from the charts and from West End shows.  Keatley’s vocals go extremely well with those of the mighty Keith Jack, in the role of the Prince.  Their duet is stunning.

Keith Jack is an ideal Prince, with his rugged good looks, soft Scottish burr and powerful singing voice.  As an extra treat, he gets his kit off (for plot reasons) and, in chains, belts out Close Every Door, because it would be a waste of one of the best Josephs in the business not to! 

Much of the comedy comes from Sean McKenzie’s naughty Dame Nellie Furlough, and Mike Newman as everybody’s friend, Muddles.  Together and separately, these two are easy to laugh at, and they work the crowd expertly.

The good fairy (Wendy Abrahams) gets plenty to do.  Being a stickler where panto is concerned, I am pleased to report she speaks in rhyming couplets.  Not only is she our narrator and the story’s supernatural influence, Fairy Wendy also forms a double act with Theo The Mouse, an incorrigible puppet who gets the younger members of the audience squealing with delight.

Appearing as Igor, the Queen’s henchman, is Wink Taylor, clearly enjoying himself in this larger-than-life character.  It turns out that Taylor also wrote the script.  Clearly he is someone who loves the traditional elements of pantomime as much as I do.  He gets the tone and balance exactly right.  The story is strong and every element exists to serve the plot.  Even the mischievous mouse puppet!  I suspect Taylor has a hand in that as well…

The show delivers enjoyment from curtain up to finale.  Act One closes with a rousing rendition of You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hanson!  And it works superbly.  Moments of drama (e.g. Igor meeting Snow White in the forest to kill her!) are offset with silliness, and it all fits together wonderfully well.  Director Richard Cheshire ensures the pace never flags while giving scenes room to breathe.

Absent from the title are the seven dwarfs.  In the show they are referred to as ‘kind little men’ and they’re played by children in oversized cartoon heads, performing dumb-show to pre-recorded voices with a Dad’s Army theme, which is a clever idea but probably over the normal-sized heads of the kids in the audience.  Also, I think sometimes the kids in the big heads can’t see where they’re going, as the blocking of these scenes can suffer.  Given their limitations, it’s no wonder they are not given any fun stuff to do.

A traditional, well-made panto with most of the elements you could hope for (what, no slosh scene?). The Gatehouse has a hit on its hands, and its great to see this newly refurbished regional venue so well supported.  I’ll definitely be back next year to see if they can top this one.

☆☆☆☆

Sean McKenzie, Rebecca Keatley and Mike Newman

Return of the Slack

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 21st December, 2021

After two years, pantomime is back in Birmingham, with the Hippodrome pulling out all the stops as usual to provide the glitteriest, spangliest, sparkliest show imaginable.  The story of Goldilocks is well-known but too slight to fill a full-length show—the events of the tale are covered here in the time it takes to perform the Donna Summer classic, Hot Stuff!  The rest of the time is largely padding, hung loosely around a scrap of plot about rival circuses.  It is a variety show, when all’s said and done, yet the circus theme allows the inclusion of magicians, tightrope walkers, even stunt motorcycles in the ‘Globe of Speed’, performing feats even more death-defying than the audience members who are not wearing masks.

The show is packed with entertainment, but it takes a while to get going with not one, two, or three but FOUR opening numbers in a row.  Two of these should be cut.  The villain gets a song, setting out his stall, and that’s fair enough, but when the dame’s first appearance is a po-faced ballad about dreams and believing, you long for something funny to happen.

King of Birmingham panto, Matt Slack makes a welcome and overdue return, giving us exactly what we’ve come to expect and what he’s so good at.  He’s Ringo the Ringmaster (although it’s left to Goldilocks to introduce most of the acts!) but really he’s the clown.  His audience-handling is second-to-none, and his physical comedy is hilarious.  There is a sequence of impressions that impresses, and you can see why the Hippodrome gets him back year after year after year, because of the fun and the level of skill he brings.  Bring on next Christmas, when he’ll be giving us his Dick (Whittington, that is).

Top of the bill is superstar and heartthrob, Jason Donovan, making his panto debut as the villainous Count Ramsay of Erinsborough.  Donovan is deliciously evil in the role, dressed like the Child-Catcher, and he’s in great voice.  He proves himself a great sport and clearly has a strong rapport with Slack on and off-stage.  I can’t bring myself to boo him.

Also back is Doreen Tipton, appearing this time as a lazy lion tamer.  Doreen’s deadpan delivery is a hoot, and she has fun in spite of herself.  One of the best dames in the business, Andrew Ryan is Betty Barnum, in a range of outfits of increasing extravagance.  Ryan shines brightest in the comedy moments, displaying perfect timing.  It’s the earnest musical numbers that don’t seem to fit.  Even Be A Clown is a bit dour.

In the title role, Samantha Dorrance is a knockout as a sweet and perky Goldilocks.  The Three Bears I find a little disturbing, with their full-body costumes and human faces.  Considering the quality of the rest of the animals in the show (a marvellous gorilla, and an astonishing elephant…) and the sky-high production values of the rest of it, the Three Bears seem a little short-changed, but they’re performed with verve by Ewan Goddard, Georgia Anderson, and Jessica Daugirda, as Daddy, Mummy, and Baby Bear respectively.  There is also a star turn from Alexia McIntosh as Candy Floss, whose rich vocal stylings lift the musical numbers into something special.

The story, such as it is, is broken-up by circus acts.  Pierre Marchand amazes with his diabolo; The Gemini Sisters on their tightrope; and Phil Hitchcock as the Magical Mysterioso — all are gobsmackingly good, although in a piece that touches on cruelty to animals, I’m dismayed to see live birds used as props.

On the whole, the show provides welcome respite from the grimness of life in Britain at the moment.  There is much to marvel at and more to laugh at.  It’s a crowd-pleasing piece of fun brimming with sauciness and silliness.  You don’t need ten good reasons to see it—Jason Donovan is reason enough for me, and yes, it’s great to have Matt Slack back and at the top of his game.

★★★★

Matt Slack and Jason Donovan (Photo; Birmingham Hippodrome)

Seasoned Performers

JERSEY BOYS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th December, 2021

There are lots of biographical shows charting the rise of music stars, rags-to-riches tales of incredible talents and the subsequent ravages of fame.  What sets Jersey Boys a cut above is the handling of the material.  Telling the story of Frankie Valli and the group that was to become The Four Seasons, the show is divided into four acts, each narrated by a member of the group.  The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice doesn’t gloss over the murkier aspects of the boys’ lives—the criminal activity, the womanising, the links to organised crime—nor does it shy away from gritty language.  Tough guys talking tough.  The group could just as easily be called The Four-Letter Words.

We begin in Spring, narrated by Dalton Wood as Tommy DeVito, the character who brings the group together (and will ultimately pull them apart).  Wood is great in the part, with a likeable quality that offsets Tommy’s questionable behaviour.  We meet young Frankie Valli, an innocent in a den of thieves, played by the exceptional Michael Pickering, who really hits the high notes.  My Eyes Adored You is just lovely.

Summer shows the band achieving chart success.  The guys recreate the distinctive sounds and the hits keep coming.  Sherry Baby, Big Girls Don’t Cry…and we’re reminded of just how great these songs are, and how they have become part of the fabric of popular culture.  This act is narrated by Blair Gibson as songwriter Bob Gaudio, an innocent misfit among the hard-nosed boys from Jersey, whose presence gives rise to friction.  Gaudio’s talent is undeniable and Gibson gets his social awkwardness across as well as his genius.

Unfortunately, we return after the interval to hear that Michael Pickering is unable to continue; the role of Frankie will be played by Luke Suri, with whom Pickering shares the part.  And while it’s a shame not to get to see Pickering’s Frankie mature and complete his arc (Get well soon, Mike!) it means we get to see both actors’ versions.  Curiously, it works.  Like in The Crown when they swap actors to play the Queen getting older! 

Autumn shows Frankie as older and more careworn.  Played by someone else, it’s more striking how the music business has changed him!!  This act is narrated by Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths), deep-voiced and laconic with a fixation on hotel towels—There is a rich vein of humour amid the drama and Griffiths is the funniest.  The cracks are starting to appear, with Tommy’s exorbitant debts putting everyone in jeopardy.

Finally, Winter, narrated by Frankie, depicting Valli’s greatest personal tragedy.  The hits never stop coming.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You brings the house down.  Luke Suri is phenomenal.

At the very end, the original group members reunite to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a kind of rebirth to follow Winter.  And of course, we’re all up on our feet and loving it.

An uplifting show with a dark underbelly, this is a proper grown-up musical, intelligently structured, superbly written, and executed to perfection by a top-notch cast. 

☆☆☆☆☆

Blair Gibson, Dalton Wood, Michael Pickering, and Lewis Griffiths (Photo: Birgit & Ralf Brinkoff)

Prance Charming

CINDERELLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th November, 2021

It’s great to be back at the beautiful Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, after a year with no pantomime.  This year’s offering hits all the right notes, living up to our expectations of the famous story while delivering a few surprises along the way.

Writer-director Will Brenton tinkers with the conventional approach in a number of ways.  First up, the Wicked Sisters aren’t dames!  Gasp!  They’re two young ladies played by female actors!  Gasp!  While initially I feel cheated out of a couple of drag queens, this spoilt rotten pair soon win me over.  As Tess and Claudia (there’s a Strictly theme here) Ella Biddlecombe and Britt Lenting make a strong impression.  Their nastiness is purely on the inside.

Don’t worry, the show still has a dame, in the form of seasoned old pro Ian Adams, making a welcome return to the Grand as Penny Pockets, something of an extraneous character in terms of the plot, but a safe pair of hands if you’re looking for fun.

Brenton adds an evil stepmother to the mix, Baroness Hardup, played with relish by Julie Stark, who makes Cruella look like a pussycat.   She is an excellent contrast to Evie Pickerill’s appealing Cinderella, who is sweet and lively, but can also sing like an angel.  Every female performer in this show has a superb singing voice, it appears, none more so than the mighty Denise Pearson (of 5-Star fame) as the Fairy Godmother, sending shivers spinewards.  Pearson gets a few good numbers – a wise move!

Among the fellas, Tam Ryan’s Buttons has real star quality.  Despite the pangs of his unrequited love, Buttons brings the funny, and Ryan never flags for a second.

Topping the bill are the Pritchard brothers, AJ and Curtis.  Formerly a pro-dancer on Strictly, AJ is, of course, Prince Charming, twirling, prancing and sparkling around, as handsome as a Disney Prince action figure.  The choreography by Racky Plews plays to AJ’s strengths, affording him plenty of opportunities to show what he can do, and he is, it has to be said, a lovely little mover.  Curtis, as Dandini, perhaps has more to prove, and he does it, and then some!  He is an accomplished dancer too, can sing well and even juggle, in a winning performance that cements his reputation as a star in his own right.

On the whole, Brenton’s changes work.  Importantly, he preserves the key moments and executes them very well: The breaking of Buttons’s heart, for example, and arguably the cruellest scene in all panto, the tearing up of Cinderella’s invitation to the ball.  Mark Walters’s set comprises video images as a changing backdrop, which are all very well, but I miss the old-school gauzes and cloths flying in and out.  The videos are too slick, robbing the show of some of its traditional theatricality.

There is much to enjoy here, well-worn routines, groanworthy gags, and plenty of audience participation—from a COVID-safe distance, of course.  It all adds up to a grand night out with something for all the family.  AJ dancing and Denise Pearson singing?  There’s your money’s worth right there.

☆☆☆☆

AJ Pritchard as Prince Charming, with Curtis Pritchard as Dandini (Photo: Tim Thursfield)

Wise Guys

THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 6th December, 2021

In years gone by, the Morecambe & Wise special was a staple and indeed highlight of Christmas telly, replete with sketches, songs, dressing-up, attempts at high drama, and surprise celebrity guests.  Therefore, the 20th anniversary production of this play is an excellent choice for the Rep’s seasonal show this year.

All the elements you expect are in play.  Our hosts are a double act, with one taller than the other, but Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck aren’t impersonating Morecambe & Wise, although they inhabit a very Morecambe & Wise world.  Herdman is loose and lanky, born for physical comedy, while Tuck’s pompous outbursts make him an ideal straight man—well, they’re both really funny in their own right.  They are supported by a hardworking Mitesh Soni, as Arthur (yes, he of the harmonica) who plays most of the other parts, including a hilarious turn as Scarlett Johannsen.   So, it’s more of a triple than a double act.  The first half is full of quickfire sketches, silliness and tearing around.  There is some excuse of a plot, with Tuck refusing to do a Morecambe & Wise show, preferring instead to stage a play what he wrote.  Of course, by the interval, he capitulates, and the second half is pure M&W.

The show is famous for having a secret surprise celebrity guest every night.  I remember yonks ago being tickled to see Dennis Waterman join in the fun, but tonight we are treated to none other than the God of Mischief himself, Tom Hiddleston!  It’s a genuine thrill to see him walk on, in his French aristocrat costume ready for the high drama, and to take Herdman’s Eric-like abuse on the chin.  Hiddleston goes on to further prove what a good sport he is, throwing himself whole-heartedly into Tuck’s Scarlet Pimpernel play, bringing gravitas to the execrable dialogue and joining in the singing and dancing and dressing-up with gusto.  Hiddleston brings pure delight to the proceedings, playing it exactly right, and I think just about everyone in the auditorium fell in love with him.  I know I did.

Director Sean Foley is clearly an aficionado of the source material, putting the cast through all the comic business with an expert eye for timing and silliness.  Nothing feels strained or overwrought, even though the performances are big and daft.  The evening is tinged with nostalgia as we are reminded about the genius of the great pair, and of course it’s all rounded off with a rendition of Bring Me Sunshine and the signature skipping off into the wings.

A proper laugh-out-loud evening of unadulterated joy.

Exhilarating and not ‘ruggish’ at all.

☆☆☆☆☆

Dennis Herdman, Tom Hiddleston, and Thom Tuck (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

Horribly Hysterical

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: BARMY BRITAIN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st December, 2021

Terry Deary’s bestselling books have spawned a hit television series, a film or two, and this, the latest in a succession of stage shows based on his work.

A cast of two, namely Jack Ballard and Morgan Philpott, take us on a whistle-stop tour of two thousand years of British history, from the Roman invasion to the Victorian age.  On-stage costumes enable very quick changes, so the pair can play all the parts without stopping the flow of the action.

Ballard and Philpott work very well together, and they work very hard to keep energy levels high and the audience engaged.  There are songs to singalong with, complete with simple actions, but above all there is plenty to laugh at.  The action is augmented by a video backdrop, which becomes 3-D in the second act (glasses are provided) and the dialogue is punctuated throughout by comical sound effects (courtesy of Nick Sagar’s sound design) but it’s the efforts of the seemingly tireless actors that have the most impact.

Highlights include Richard the Lionheart, with an hilarious running joke about roaring after his name is spoken, a scene about the Black Death (which has Pythonesque overtones) and in particular, an extended sequence about Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn.  There are strokes of genius: Elizabeth the First in an episode of Undercover Boss, Guy Fawkes on a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Pastiche; and the most horrible story, that of body-snatchers Burke and Hare.  This sequence is presented in the most stylised way, so we get the horrible history without the graphic violence. The Postman Pat theme song will never be the same.  Finally, a rap duet between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is delightfully irreverent.

The script is packed with information, but the delivery is so entertaining, you’re learning as a side effect.  Neal Foster’s direction keeps the actors busy with comic business, and there are at least as many laugh-out-loud moments as a pantomime.  So, if you’re looking for an alternative Christmas entertainment for the family, you won’t go horribly wrong with this little cracker.

★★★★


Beautifully Beastly

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 26th November 2021

Forget the Coca-Cola trucks!  You know when Christmas is definitely coming when the Belgrade opens its pantomime.

Back again for the umpteenth year are writer-director-dame Iain Lauchlan and his partner in crime, Craig Hollingsworth.  Separately and as a double act, these two embody the spirit of panto in Coventry, and it’s an absolute treat to see them back live on stage.

Appearing as Dame Dolly Mixture, Lauchlan is tirelessly funny, sporting a range of outfits based on sweets and chocolates, each one a delightful confection.  Lauchlan’s dame always has a twinkle in her eye and something saucy to say.  Paired with Hollingsworth’s Silly Billy, this is a dream team, bringing all the well-worn, well-loved and well funny panto elements to the stage, including a mandatory slosh scene involving mops, and the traditional word play, audience engagement…Lauclan’s script fizzles with jokes old and new.  Clearly, Hollingsworth is in his element, getting annoyed with the audience and complaining about being made to look silly.  A fast-paced song about alternative career paths for the cast is an hilarious highlight.

Another joy to watch is Peter Watts as bombastic narcissist Maurice, in a larger-than-life performance that comes close to stealing the show.  He is teamed with sidekick Grub, played by the excellent Miriam Grace Edwards—it’s great to see her return to the Belgrade stage.

Katy Anna Southgate’s Enchantress is a striking figure in a beautiful purple gown; it’s a pity we don’t get to hear her sing until the finale.

The panto fun is interspersed with the darker plot line of the fairy tale.  It begins with a Prince (Samuel Lake) being beastly to a peasant (Louie Wood).  As punishment for his lack of compassion, the Enchantress turns the Prince into a hideous beast for five hundred years.  The Beast is played with gusto by Sion Lloyd, whose scary speaking voice is offset by his beautiful, powerful singing.  Ruby Eva’s Beauty is as pretty and sweet as you’d expect, while David Gilbrook as her bewildered father Harold dodders around endearingly.  But, let’s face it, you don’t go to the panto for the plot!  The tonal gear change between anarchic silliness and emotional drama is sometimes too sharp.  It’s almost as though we’re switching between two different shows. 

Somehow, Lauchlan manages to marry all the elements to bring the story to its happy ending, complete with a rousing rendition of S Club 7’s Reach For The Stars, which you’ll be singing all the way home.

On the whole, it’s a joyous experience and production values are high, courtesy of the Belgrade’s in-house workshop, from the glow-in-the-dark dancing skeletons to the lavish costumes and fairytale scenery.

A feast of festive family fun.

☆☆☆☆

Caning it: Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth (Photo: Nicola Young)

Slay Belles

DEATH DROP

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd November, 2021

This raucous whodunit bears the hallmarks of a classic country house murder mystery.  It’s 1991, and a group of strangers assembles in the remote Shantay Manor on a stormy night.  The bodies start piling up, the fingers get pointing and accusations fly… But it’s almost as though the plot is unimportant in Holly Stars’s anarchic script.  Part-parody, part showcase, the show provides opportunities for its cast of drag queens and kings to shine. 

Lady of the house, Rosebud von Fistenburg (Vinegar Strokes) opens the show with a Bassey-esque number, before her guests start to arrive.  Vinegar Strokes impresses throughout, never falling short of absolutely hilarious, in a high camp portrayal of the upper-class hostess.  The performance is the backbone of the show, setting the tone (albeit a low one!).

Drag Race legend, Willam dazzles as pretty pop starlet ‘Shazza’, knowing when to turn up the melodrama and when to throw lines away for maximum comic impact. Willam has star quality oozing out of him—I think that’s what it is, anyway. Ra’Jah O’Hara combines stunning beauty with comedic skills in a hugely enjoyable turn as weather girl, Summer Rains.  Karen From Finance brings an antipodean twang to proceedings, power-dressed to the nines as gutter journalist Morgan Pierce, of The World of the News—subtlety is not on the menu tonight.

The Queens are more than ably supported by Georgia Frost as sexist film-maker, Phil Maker, and by Richard Energy, as Tory MP Rich Whiteman.  Male stereotypes are sent up mercilessly—and quite right, too!

Holly Stars herself appears as the Bottomley Triplets, who are catering the do, in a sublime display of camp comedy.  All the cast are served well by Stars’s script, and she is not shy of writing some juicy parts for herself.  One scene in particular has dialogue consisting almost entirely of tongue-twisters!  The rest is just daft, laced with pantomime fun and nostalgia for crispy pancakes and arctic rolls.

Director Jesse Jones fills every moment with comic business, heightened reactions, stylised movement and silliness.  The result is once you start laughing out loud, you don’t stop.  This is far and away the funniest show I have seen in a long time.

Camp, salacious, silly, and ludicrous, Death Drop is a real joy-bringer, proving what I’ve always suspected to be true: drag artists really do make the world a better place.

★★★★★

Pointing fingers at Vinegar Strokes are Willam, Holly Stars and Karen From Finance (Photo: Matt Crockett)

Piece of Work

9 To 5

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th November, 2021

Colin Higgins’s 1980 film came out when the world of work was very different.  The story of three secretaries who take on their sexist boss and change working conditions within a corporation now plays out like a period piece.  One of the film’s stars, Dolly Parton, provides the songs for this stage musical adaptation, introduces the action and gives a bit of narration via video.  Video Dolly even sings the opening number, the famous title song, with the entire company joining in.  It’s a rousing start and the best song in it.

Things soon slow down as characters are introduced.  And they each must get their solo, slowing down the action.  The women’s revenge fantasies about their sleazy boss become reality and what should be fast-paced farce is hampered by more songs and soul-searching.

Leading the cast is Louise Redknapp, flexing her comedy chops as Violet, the most straight-laced of the trio.  Redknapp is in good voice and gives an assured performance while Stephanie Chandos’s Doralee Rhodes inevitably channels Dolly P, to amusing effect.  Funniest of the three is Vivian Panka as new girl Judy, whose sweetness and naivete are swept aside when events get out of control.  When all three sing together, the harmonies are wonderful.  It sounds like Redknapp has found herself another girl band!

As the sleazeball Mr Hart for this performance, Richard Taylor Woods is deliciously abhorrent, although perhaps he’s too fit for the role. Give Hart a beer belly and a combover to make him thoroughly repugnant, I say! This would certainly heighten the contrast between Hart and Violet’s handsome love interest, Joe (Russell Dickson).

Julia J Nagle is in excellent form in a show-stealing portrayal of the sexually frustrated office snitch Roz, with a hilarious song about her lust for the boss.  It’s a pity Roz is exiled for most of the second act. 

But no matter how expertly the musical numbers are staged and how energetically they are performed by the hugely talented cast, what we get is a stop-start farce with some very funny scenes, interrupted by introspective songs that are tonally at odds with the comedy.  What it has to say about sexual equality and harassment in the workplace has been, largely, overtaken by the real world, so the piece is no longer a clarion call.  The women resort to kidnap to get their way, reminding us that many of our rights have been fought for by direct, often criminal, action.  Think of the Suffragettes.  And Stonewall.

Not every film has to be adapted into a musical.  This one would work just as well, if not better, as a play.

★★★

On the job: Sean Needham and Stephanie Chandos (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)

Magic with Knobs On

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th November, 2021

Fifty years after its release, the Disney film gets a stage adaptation, and I approach it curious to see how certain key scenes will be performed (the underwater scene, the football match, the flying bed…)  From the off, you can see we are in safe and creative hands.  The show opens with an extended dumbshow sequence, detailing the wartime experience of the Rawlins children and their evacuation to the countryside… Hold on a minute: orphans evacuated to go and live with an eccentric, and end up having magical adventures….  Isn’t that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

In this case, the eccentric who takes in the children is apprentice witch, Eglantine Price, who has learned her spells from a correspondence course.  Price is played by a superb Dianne Pilkington, who makes the role her own — there’s not a trace of Angela Lansbury to her portrayal.  An early scene when she attempts to fly on her mail-order broomstick while singing is especially funny.  Pilkington is excellent throughout.

Members of the chorus bring on and take off pieces of scenery, items of furniture and props.  The action is constantly flowing, with physical theatre helping to create effects like the bobbing along under the beautiful briny.  Cinematic effects are translated to stage magic, with illusions and puppetry coming to the fore, so that characters can be turned into rabbits and so on.  Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison really flex their creative muscles to deliver the magic, in this inventive and delightful piece of storytelling.

Most of the songs from the film are here; ‘The Age of Not Believing’ remains one of the Sherman Brothers’ loveliest songs, and there are new songs by Neil Bartram which have a strong Sherman Brothers feel to them.  Brian Hill’s book gives us the key plot points, with only a few alterations.  On the whole, it works brilliantly, but I find it begins to sag in the second act.  An example is Professor Browne (a splendid Charles Brunton) singing new number, ‘It’s Now’ in which he steels himself to take action, but only succeeds in slowing the action down!   Hill also gives the story a different ending.  I won’t say what it is but if you’ve seen the film version of another Sherman Brothers musical (the one about the flying car) you’ll know how this one pans out.

The underwater scene is there, tick box.  Obviously, the football match doesn’t happen, but I would like more animals populating the island.  And the bed is a marvel.  There are many moments when you think ‘That’s clever’ and ask, ‘How are they doing that?’ — the show is as much about the magic of theatre as anything else (like turning to your imagination to get you through the tough times).

A hard-working chorus keeps things moving, including the wonderful puppets, And there is also some amusing character work from Susannah Van Den Berg as Mrs Mason and Jacqui Dubois as Mrs Hobday.  Conor O’Hara, as eldest child Charlie, has a gorblimey accent but it’s not as strong as the one in the film so don’t worry.  O’Hara has a powerful singing voice and delivers the emotional punch Brian Hill gives him.  Charlie’s siblings (played, I think, by Isabella Bucknell and Haydn Court at this performance.  Correct me if I’m incorrect!) also give assured performances.

It’s a magical night out for the family even if it does run a bit long, past younger ones’ bedtimes.   It’s high-quality fun that will engage your imagination and touch your heartstrings, but not pluck them out!

★★★★

Giving it some stick: Dianne Pilkington as Eglantine Price. Photo Credit: Johan Persson/


Elephant in the Room

THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th November, 2021

It’s fantastic to be back in the RST, as it reopens with this year’s big family show, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. Young Peter Duchene visits a fortune teller who intrigues him with a reading involving his presumed-dead sister and an elephant. Next thing you know, an elephant is dropping through the roof of the opera house in a conjuring trick gone wrong—don’t you just hate it when that happens? Peter sees this event as a sign that his entire life has been a lie and sets out to face the elephant and learn the truth…

Holding things together is Amy Booth-Steel as an affable Narrator, breaking the fourth wall with such charm we don’t want to sue her for the damage.  A strong ensemble includes delightful turns from Forbes Masson as a tightly wound, paranoid Police Chief, his underlings tumbling around him like Keystone Kops; Marc Antolin and Melissa James evoke empathy as childless couple Leo and Gloria; Sam Harrison’s fruity Count; Alastair Parker’s bumbling magician; Miriam Nyarko’s energetic orphan Adele; and Mark Meadows as Peter’s guardian, former soldier Vilna Lutz whose PTSD is startling, to say the least.

Villain of the piece is the mighty Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet, who gets the most outlandish costumes.  Strallen channels Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II and Cruella de Vil, with shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in her decorative vocal work.  It’s a stonking characterisation.

The Elephant itself is from the War Horse school of puppetry, with three operators bringing life to the pachyderm.  The scale of the beast is impressive but more so is the way it ‘lives’; there is grace to this animal and sorrow.  There is undeniably an elephant in the room with us.  It’s a captivating creation, skilfully performed by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi, and Suzanne Nixon.

Giving a phenomenal performance as protagonist Peter is the elfin-featured Jack Wolfe, giving the role a quirky youthful energy, who is nothing short of perfection.  Instantly endearing, Wolfe is a true knockout when he sings, demonstrating beautiful vocal control and an impressive range.  You get the feeling you’re watching someone who is going to become a massive star.

With book and lyrics by Nancy Harris, and music and lyrics by Marc Teller, the show captures the tone of DiCamillo’s wonderful book. Colin Richmond’s design work delivers the grim, grey city of Baltese, with atmospheric lighting by Oliver Fenwick. It’s Sarah Tipple’s direction that makes us identify with, laugh at, and feel for the cast of offbeat characters, playing the humorous notes broadly and the emotional points deftly. The score is reminiscent of Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan and is performed by a tight band under the musical direction of Tom Brady.

It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece, that speaks to us of people in strange times looking for answers (and not always in the right places), of hope, of the things that unite us rather than those that divide.

Beautiful.

★★★★★

Trunk Call: Peter (Jack Wolfe) visits the Elephant. Photo: Manuel Harlan © RSC

Sound as a Hound

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 30th October, 2021

This is my second production of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story in two weeks.  From what I understand, there’s at least a third one doing the rounds.  There’s definitely something in the air, given the current popularity of this tale.  And what’s not to like?  An intriguing mystery, Holmes and Watson in great form, and the prospect of a supernatural beast!  Bring it on.

Heading the cast as the world’s most famous consulting detective is Robert Moore, who is quite possibly the best-looking Holmes I’ve ever seen.  Moore’s Holmes is a little imperious and condescending, but there’s humour there too, and the portrayal is nuanced so at times you can see the cogs working, and at others know when Holmes is withholding something.  This Holmes brims with pent-up energy, mental and physical and there’s never any indication of him not being in charge.

Adapter-director John-Robert Partridge appears as Doctor Watson — this case elevates Watson from the role of mere sidekick to the great man; he is permitted to investigate on his own.  Partridge’s Watson is no fool.  Somewhat lugubrious and implacable, he has a rich speaking voice and an understated authority, as though he is Holmes’s star pupil rather than just a sounding board for Holmes’s thoughts.

This excellent pairing is supported by a fine quartet of actors in all the other parts.  Ben Armitage’s Sir Henry Baskerville is laidback and easy-going, a fine contrast to the clipped tones and reserved demeanour of the detective duo.  Armitage’s Henry breezes through the action until the potential consequences dawn on him and he becomes sober and stunned.

Andrew Woolley’s Barrymore the butler is imposing and sinister —more so than his naturist Stapleton, a man prone to terrifying outbursts.  I think something more could be done to emphasise his position as a naturist; an undersized butterfly net alone doesn’t cut it.  Kate Gee Finch doubles as an underused, long-suffering Mrs Hudson, and as the tightly wound Beryl Stapleton in an effectively emotional performance.  Sarah Feltham proves invaluable as a tearful Mrs Barrymore, a guarded Laura Lyons, and a coolly professional Doctor Mortimer.

The intimate performance space of the Attic puts us right in the Baker Street apartment, with other locations suggested by dust sheets on the furniture, or through the use of lighting and sound effects.  The music and sound design by Elliott Wallis go a long way to creating an unsettling atmosphere, underscoring the action and cranking up the tension during the transitions, not least for the climactic confrontation between hound and man.  Onyx Redwood’s lighting adds to the chilling aspects of the story, with director John-Robert Partridge making superb use of complete darkness to put us on edge, as unseen figures weep, laugh, and startle us.  There’s even a kind of Woman In Black gliding around.

An atmospheric and engaging staging of a solid adaptation.  Now, with all this interest in the Hound, perhaps I should dig out the musical comedy version I wrote twenty years ago and see if anyone’s interested…

****

Robert Moore on the case as Sherlock Holmes


Feline Groovy

WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT?

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 29th October, 2021

A jukebox musical?  A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones?  A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones with a plot inspired by Henry Fielding’s novel of 1749?

Oh, go on then.

It turns out to be a consummate example of the jukebox musical genre.  Writer Joe DiPietro takes the bare bones of Fielding’s book, transposing the action to 1960s London — the show’s aesthetic blends elements from both periods, and it works beautifully, to create a vibrant, post-modern experience that is a whole lot of fun.

In the lead as Tom Jones (the hero from the book, not the singer) is the snake-hipped, angel-voiced Dominic Andersen, who is absolutely perfect. Those rich vocals soar and his charisma never wanes. At one point, due to plot reasons, he is stripped down to his underwear (but he keeps his hat on) and I am reminded of his turn as Rocky Horror a few years back. Kudos to the casting director! Andersen seems born for this role. His ‘It’s Not Unusual’ gets the heart racing, and ‘I Who Have Nothing’ is stunning.

Dominic Andersen (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Tom’s love interest, Mary Western, is played by Bronté Barbé — don’t let her diminutive frame fool you; she possesses a belter of a voice, ideally suited to the melodramatic ballads of Tom Jones (the singer not the hero of the book).   Mary is an independent young woman,

There’s a comic subplot (even though the main plot is comic enough) involving Tom’s former teacher, Mr Partridge (Ashley Campbell) and ‘The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress’ (Rebekah Hinds), both of whom are delightful.  There is a touch of conflict stirred up by Tom’s rival for Mary, William Blifil (a supremely snobby Harry Kershaw), while Melanie Walters’s Mrs Western is good value as the acquisitive matchmaker.  These characters epitomise the clash of cultures in the world of this show: marriage as a transaction/sex as a pastime. Julius D’Silva’s kindly Lord Allworthy speaks up for love as the guiding factor. D’Silva imbues his two-dimensional part with warmth, and is not without his surprises.

Bringing the glamour is the fabulous Kelly Price as Lady Bellaston, a kind of Kim Cattrall cougar figure with designs on Tom.  Price gets to wear all the best outfits, including a plastic wedding dress that has to be seen to be believed.  Janet Bird’s costumes go all out to evoke the period settings, and her budget must have been generous.  The iconic fashions keep coming!

Special mention of Lemuel Knights as Big Mickey.  His ‘Delilah’ brings the house down in a show-stopping moment when the song is staged as a psychotic prison ballet.  Which seems like an appropriate time to mention the choreography by Arlene Phillips, no less.  She works the cast hard — the dancing hardly seems to stop, and its slick, of the period, and a delight.  The energy pours off the stage throughout this incredible production.

Luke Sheppard directs with brio, emphasising the staginess of the enterprise.  At one point, he has a couple of ‘stagehands’ come on to help create special effects for a train journey — I would have liked to see more of this kind of thing throughout.  Similarly, the chorus of three girls (think Little Shop of Horrors) come and go, fading from the forefront (but always fabulously dressed!)  The proposal scene is a riot of overblown kitsch; I can barely drink it all in.

It all builds to Fielding’s resolution of laughably convenient revelations, and while some might accuse the show of being a victory of style over substance, I think the meatiness of the songs adds depth to the stock characters, and the sexual politics are handled in a fun way.

An uplifting, energising piece of feelgood fun, this show deserves a long run in the West End.  The songs don’t feel shoehorned in, the design is gorgeous, and the exuberant, talented ensemble impresses. The nine-piece band, under the musical direction of Josh Sood, is absolutely phenomenal.

The next jukebox musical to come down the pike has a tough act to follow.

*****

Dominic Andersen and Rebekah Hinds, with Ashley Campbell (centre) Photo: Pamela Raith


Tricks and Treats

DERREN BROWN: SHOWMAN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th October, 2021

I am presented with the almost impossible task of reviewing a show about which I may reveal no details.  Yes, Derren Brown is back on the road with this latest production of mind-boggling tricks.  I will say he gives us plenty to think about.

You can expect commonplace elements of a magician’s art: playing cards, coins, dice, but Brown uses them in original ways…

Written by Brown, Andrew O’Connor and the mastermind that is Andy Nyman, the show has a through-line on which everything else hangs — but I can’t say what that is. 

If you’ve been to a Derren Brown show before, you’ll know the pains he goes to in order to select participants from the audience at random, or by whittling us down to the willing and most susceptible.  You’ll know a camera operator will stalk the stage, so that close magic is thrown large, projected onto the backdrop so we can all see (and marvel).

You can’t help trying to suss out what he’s doing, how he reads people, their body language, their ‘tells’… But you won’t see what’s coming, no matter how clever you think you are.  Brown is always the cleverest person in the room (unless the aforementioned Mr Nyman is present!).

All in all, the show is intriguing, puzzling, amusing, amazing, surprising, and surprisingly moving.  I well up at one point, even though what’s going on is nothing to do with me.

Brown and his team aim to unite us in a shared experience, and remind us of our common humanity, and yet the man himself comes off as something ‘other’, something apart from the rest of ‘us’, largely because of his special skill set, and that’s rather sad.

But you come away, marvelling at his brilliance, revelling in the thrill of his manipulations, and perhaps just a little more appreciative of what you have and whom you love.

Genius.

*****

The Showman himself, Derren Brown (Photo: Lawrence Hyne)

Heir of the Dog

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 22nd October, 2021

This stage adaptation by ‘Mark W’ of the most famous case of the Baker Street detective is doggedly faithful to the Arthur Conan Doyle original, down to the chapter titles that separate the action into sections.  As in the book, our narrator is Doctor Watson (Alex Nikitas), recounting the tale while the rest of the cast of four play multiple roles to populate the stage.  James Nicholas’s Holmes is spirited and arrogant, brimming with verve.  He has the barefaced boldness to portray Barrymore the butler without the beard for which he is noted, but I find this doesn’t irk me as much as it might—the characterisations are so different, so vivid. 

Becoming a fixture at the Blue Orange, Richard Buck returns again to portray Sir Henry, heir to the Baskerville fortune and the cursed hound, along with others like a coach driver and old Mr Franklin.  Buck makes a tall and handsome Henry.  Indeed, this production is a chance for this trio of actors to showcase their versatility – none more so than its only female member, Emma Cooper, who along with all the female parts, gives us a Doctor Mortimer that is probably the strongest characterisation of the lot.  Nikitas’s Watson remains a constant throughout, our touchstone amid the comings and goings; his Watson is a man of intelligence, a true apprentice to Holmes, and not the bumbling sidekick he is sometimes portrayed to be. 

The character changes are handled swiftly and economically, with the addition of a hat and a coat and a change of stance.  I know if it were me, I’d put the wrong voice to the wrong hat, my accents all blending into one.  Director Oliver Hume demands a lot of his cast, never letting them leave the stage for a second.  He also works hard to keep the piece from becoming static; it is rather wordy as no detail from the Doyle is omitted.

The action is supported by Michael Harris and Nathan Bower’s work on lighting and sound, with well-placed effects to add to the atmosphere. I think the show could withstand more of this, more music and atmospheric sound effects. The set, by Mark Webster, strongly suggests Holmes’s Baker Street residence, with the props and furnishings utilised to represent the other locations; we never lose sight of this being a story Watson is telling in Holmes’s flat. Like all good pieces of narrative theatre, it engages the audience’s imagination to fill in what cannot be staged.

There are a couple of moments when the energy and pace flag a little during this first night performance, but on the whole this is an engaging piece of storytelling, servicing the mystery well.  The titular Hound is left to our imaginations, which is probably the best way to handle it on this occasion.  To use any other method, they’d be barking.

****

Caning it: Doctor Watson (Alex Nikitas) and Sherlock Holmes (James Nicholas)

Still Holding Up

HAIRSPRAY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 19th October, 2021

Based on the 1988 film by self-proclaimed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this exuberant musical is doing the rounds again.  Admittedly, the source material is Waters’s most mainstream movie, but writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan retain much of the flavour of the original, especially the outlandish cast of characters.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the show now but each time I’m struck by how brilliant it all is.

It’s 1962 and teenager Tracy Turnblad, whose heart is even bigger than her dress size, auditions to be on the local hip TV show.  She witnesses the injustice of segregation in her hometown of Baltimore and unlike most people, goes all out to do something about it.  Making her professional debut in the role is Katie Brace and she’s absolutely phenomenal.  An irresistible stage presence, Brace brims with talent and humanity.  Tracy is the closest John Waters gets to a Disney heroine.

Continuing the tradition of casting a man in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna (in honour of Divine who originated the character) we are treated to the comedic stylings of Alex Bourne, a big fella whose Edna is full of sass and vulnerability.  The show is not only about the fight for civil rights.  With the Turnblad girls, it has a lot to say about self-acceptance and body positivity.  Bourne is marvellous and he’s partnered with Norman Pace as Tracy’s dad Wilbur.  Pace’s comic business befits joke-shop proprietor Wilbur.  His duet with Edna brings the house down.

The emotional core of the show belongs to Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle.  The song I Know Where I’ve Been is a searing civil rights anthem, lifting the show beyond its comedic shenanigans.  It’s a blistering moment in a score that is bursting with great songs, from the opening number to the rousing, joyous finale, You Can’t Stop The Beat.  Marc Shaiman’s melodies are infectious, and his lyrics (co-written with Scott Whittman) are witty and knowing. Excellent as the villains of the piece are Rebecca Thornhill as the bigoted Velma Von Tussle and Jessica Croll as her shrill daughter, Amber.

Making strong impressions among a hugely talented cast are Charlotte St Croix as Little Ines, Akeem Ellis-Hyman as the sinuous Seaweed, Richard Meek as the cheesy TV host Corny Collins, and Rebecca Jayne-Davis as Tracy’s eccentric best friend Penny Pingleton.  Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin, Tracy’s love interest, is suitably swoonsome, and there is strong support from Paul Hutton and Ceris Hine as a range of authority figures (teachers, prison guards etc).  But truly, the entire cast is magnificent, in great voice and expending vast amounts of energy executing Drew McOnie’s period-inspired choreography.

Of all the musicals currently doing the rounds, this is the one to see.  It’s a perfect show, funny and relevant, with an important message about inclusivity that it delivers with wit and style.

This is powerful, life-affirming stuff and no matter how many times I see it, Hairspray still holds up.

*****

Brenda Edwards sings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle (Photo: Mark Senior)

A Squat You Can Do For Your Country

THE RUFF TUFF CREAM PUFF ESTATE AGENCY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th October, 2021

It begins with a disclaimer.  What we are about to see bears little or no resemblance to real events, people or anything.  We take this with a pinch of salt.

It’s 1977 and two young women arrive in London from Coventry for a new start.  They find their way to the eponymous agency, an underground organisation that finds squats for anyone who needs one.  I say ‘organisation’, it’s more of a free-for-all, a post-hippy ‘take what you need, the rest is greed’ collective. It’s the optimistic, can-do attitude socialism missing from politics today.

The trouble is the play is a bit of a mess, sprawling across the stage like its set, a conglomeration of furniture and throw pillows.  Brechtian techniques abound, in a bid to get us thinking about the issues raised rather than engaging with the characters: projections and playback of contemporary news reports set the scene, but only sometimes.  As characters rattle off facts and figures about the people they have homed, it is left to us to wonder if things have improved since then.  (They haven’t).  A missed opportunity to complement the action with facts and figures from today.

It’s not just homelessness.  Domestic violence also features.  The dangers women face by walking out at night… All of which are maddeningly relevant today.  The play touches on them but doesn’t develop them.

One of its problems is there are too many characters, and these are mainly mouthpieces.  The ensemble is lead by Joseph Tweedale as John, whose endeavours lead him to hit the bottle in a big way.  John is a flamboyant character, defiant in the face of authority, and Tweedale certainly has charisma.  An anti-hero.  Antagonistic characters are presented in two-dimensional, satirical ways: a couple of plain clothes coppers provide their own comedy sound effects; a landlord sports a silly bald wig and a huge belly, in true agit-prop style, while those to whom we are supposed to relate speak in arguments, in unconvincing dialogue.

Escaping her abusive boyfriend is Lu (Daisy Ann Fletcher); what lifts her storyline above soap opera cliché is the belter of a song she knocks out—the music in this show is rather splendid, courtesy of composer Boff Whalley, with the versatile cast playing live.  The score is infused with reggae and ska beats and its irresistible.  The cast is augmented by “The Choir With No Name” in the auditorium’s boxes, adding depth and harmonies to the vocals.

The second act is tighter than the first, beginning with projected photographs of the real residents of the new nation the squatters establish, the short-lived ‘Frestonia’.  We only hear about it by report.  It might have been interesting to hear from characters living there, what their experience was like, how it all worked, or didn’t…

What we get is agit-prop that doesn’t agitate us.  What gets under our skin is not the inequalities built into our society but the music, performed by this hard-working and talented cast.  The play needs to pick one of its battles and focus on that in order to have a clearer vision and a greater impact.

***

Daisy Ann Fletcher (Lu) and Hannah Azuonye (Ally) Photo: Robert Day


Well Wicked

THE WICKED LADY

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th October, 2021

“Fear and laughter sit right next to each other,” observes one of the characters in this two-hander.  He’s not wrong.  It is notoriously difficult to frighten people in the theatre.  What is intended to scare can come across as risible but pitch the elements right and you can really put your audience through the mill.

Writer-director James Williams gets just about everything spot on in this taut chiller, loosely based on historical figure, Katherine Ferrers, who has already inspired films and plays: the noblewoman turned highway robber, defying conventions and morality.  Williams sets his piece very firmly in the present day, so the eponymous Wicked Lady is long dead, although maybe not gone.  Assisting the police in their investigation into a missing child, ghostbuster Alice Beaumont winds up in the Wicked Lady’s decaying mansion and the scene is set for a series of shocks and surprises.

As Alice, Nicki Davy is superb and utterly convincing as her “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts” mindset is besieged by the unexplained and the downright terrifying.  She is matched by Saul Bache as persistent Detective Sergeant Sean Fenton, who has his own reasons to be invested in the outcome of the investigation.

The Blue Orange may be short on space, but it is definitely not short on atmosphere.  The team pull out all the stops to engender a suspenseful atmosphere.  Alex Johnson lights the impressive set he has designed to highlight key moments and to pull our focus away with a bit of misdirection.  Dan Clarkson’s excellent sound design surrounds and chases around us, with eerie breathing, childlike singsong, and sudden loud noises that keep us on edge.  There are also original music compositions by Tomas Wolstenholme to augment the tension and underscore the action.  Production values are sky high; this is easily the most lavish production I’ve seen here.

Well-written and superbly executed, this is a gripping piece of theatre, a sublime example of what smaller, independent venues can do and why they deserve your support.

Woman in Black – who?

*****


Where There’s A Will…

THE CAT AND THE CANARY

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th October, 2021

The Classic Thriller Company is back on the road with this new version of the creaky old play by John Willard from 1922, with an adapted script by Kneehigh’s Carl Grose.  Grose moves the action forward to post-WW2, post-independence of India.  The language has been juiced up to include words like ‘bugger’ and ‘shit’—while I suppose people used such vocabulary back in the day in the real world, it seems at odds in the cosy period piece milieu of the stage thriller.

The premise is delicious.  A lonely mansion on a moor on a stormy night, a group of people gathering for the reading of a will, an escaped lunatic on the prowl…

Leading the troupe is international star Britt Ekland, playing against type as dowdy housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant.  Ekland is marvellous, at times creepy, at others funny—much like the play as a whole, in fact.  She is joined by a strong cast, including Marti Webb as a strait-laced matronly type who loosens up when she gives up being teetotal; Gary Webster as the brash jack-the-lad boxer Harry; Ben Nealon as Charlie, an overbearing actor sporting the highest-waisted trousers this side of Simon Cowell; Eric Carte credibly authoritative as Crosby the lawyer; Tracy Shaw as Annabelle, the heroine, combining strength and vulnerability; and Priyasasha Kumari as an appealing Indian princess.  They’re a pretty tight ensemble, breathing life into what could be little more than stock characters, and I’m particularly impressed by Antony Costa as the bumbling Paul Jones.  Costa warms to his role; in fact, the play takes a while to bed in, but once all the elements are in place, suspense and humour vie for dominance in this effective, old-school thriller.

Roy Marsden’s direction teases us with suspense, gives us a couple of good jump scares, contrasting the play’s lighter moments with its darker aspects and tensions.  Themes emerge of the past affecting the present: the old man’s will from twenty years ago is the catalyst for the action; a trauma in Annabelle’s childhood threatens to unsettle her; the desire to restore what was plundered from a previously colonised country; and most strongly, the PTSD suffered by those who fought in the War.  Only the escaped lunatic, it seems, has no back story to explain his excessive behaviour!

The substantial set (designed by takis) adds to the oppressive atmosphere, and I especially like the framed pictures of single eyes that cover the walls of Annabelle’s bedroom.  Chris Davey’s lighting design adds to the tension, while Dan Sansom’s sound design can be a little intrusive, it does provide a couple of startling moments.  And they need to go easy on the dry ice at curtain up!

On the whole, this is a gripping, old-fashioned evening at the theatre, proving that a play originally produced almost a century ago still has the power to thrill and entertain, and it makes a refreshing change from the back-to-back musicals on offer at the moment!

****

Mrs Not-so Pleasant (Britt Ekland) Photo: Paul Koltas


“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure”

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 27th September, 2021

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this show over the decades, but each time I go back I am reminded why I love it and why it’s a complete and utter cult.  Audience participation has calmed down considerably, as venues frown upon people hurling slices of toast and other missiles to punctuate lines of dialogue, but there is still plenty to keep the fans occupied, and we have some expert hecklers in the auditorium tonight.

Richard O’Brien’s show has become highly ritualised.  Some of us chant responses like a litany, gleefully denouncing the hero Brad as an arsehole, and his girlfriend Janet as a slut, every time their names are mentioned—to the bemusement of those who’ve never seen the show before.  The taking part is a massive part of the experience, and you can feel free to shout as much or as little as you like, and indeed to dress up to whatever extent you like.

The show opens with a belter, Science Fiction Double Feature, beautifully sung by Suzie McAdam’s usherette, full of references to very old sci-fi movies and names of bygone actors.  It occurs to me that perhaps some of the younger audience members will only know Michael Rennie and Fay Wray et al from this libretto.  O’Brien’s show is a homage to those creaky old flicks of yesteryear.

Ore Oduba, TV presenter turned Strictly star, plays the nerdish Brad (arsehole!) and acquits himself rather well, with a strong singing voice, and the movement skills you’d expect.  He is supported by Haley Flaherty as Janet (slut!) who perfectly depicts Janet’s journey from wide-eyed virgin to wide-legged, experienced woman.  Her sexual awakening leads to actualisation; Brad’s leads only to confusion.

At this performance, Riff Raff is played by Danny Knott, lumbering around, encumbered by his hunchback, and singing some of the score’s most searing lines. Goosebump territory.  For all the fun and shouting out rude words, this is a beautiful show, musically and lyrically speaking.  There is something sophisticated underpinning everything, and this is just as crucial to the show’s longevity as the opportunity to dress up and shout things (but not throwing them!)

Lauren Ingram’s Columbia is spot on, with an extended moment in the spotlight, after she has been zapped by a device.  Columbia is the heart of the show, adding emotional depth to the glitzy, glamorous goings on. Ben Westhead is an appealing Rocky, and Joe Allens makes his mark doubling as the unfortunate Eddie and as Dr Scott.

Stephen Webb absolutely rules as evil scientist Frank N Furter, combining camp posturing with a macho demeanour.  The iconic Tim Curry is perhaps indelible, but Webb both delivers audience expectations and brings something new to his interpretation.  His Frank is masterful, and brittle, and predatory, and outrageous.  It’s a remarkable performance.

But for me, the evening belongs to Philip Franks’s narrator.  Often a role that is sidelined, sometimes drowned out by cries of ‘Boring!’ from the crowd, Franks handles the verbiage of the lines he has to get out, adding in bang up-to-date topical jokes—thereby keeping the material fresh.  He is also a skilful handler of the crowd, shooting down hecklers with savage wit, and clearly enjoying himself as much as we are.

Yes, it’s a load of fun, but I’m always struck by the rather downbeat resolution.  It’s one of the most poignant endings in musical theatre, all the shenanigans reduced to a couplet of nihilistic existentialism.  It’s a good job the cast is resurrected to get us to do the Time Warp again.  We need to go home on a high.

A fabulous night out with hidden depths.

*****

Sweet transvestite: Stephen Webb as Frank N Furter

A Taste of Hannay

THE 39 STEPS

Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th September, 2021

John Buchan’s novel has been adapted several times, each incarnation having precious little in common with the source material.  Patrick Barlow’s joyful stage version borrows heavily from the Alfred Hitchcock film of the 1930s but delivers a purely theatrical rather than cinematic experience. The script is peppered with reference to Hitchcock’s films for those in the know.

The whole thing is enacted by a cast of four, led by Richard Buck, who does a great job of bringing the dashing Richard Hannay to life, dashing around the stage/Scottish Highlands, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and trying to break up a spy ring in order to clear his name.  Buck’s wide-eyed perplexity and skilful physical comedy make him a worthy focus for the action.

Richard Buck

Playing the female parts is Kimberley Bradshaw, mangling the English language as German agent Arabella Schmidt, looking winsome in a red wig as crofter’s wife, Margaret, and, best of all, as the romantic interest Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay and falling for him despite herself.  Bradshaw’s long-suffering looks to the audience as she negotiates the tortuous corridors of a Highland hotel are a delight.

Appearing as everyone else are two consummate comedic players, James Nicholas and Darren Haywood.  They both prove their versatility beyond question, often switching between characters at the drop, or the picking up, of a hat.  Nicholas is great value as the treacherous Professor and Scottish hotelier Willy, as well as a host of other roles, but it is Haywood who gives the virtuoso performance, depicting characters with an arch look here, a purse of the lips there in the most consistently hilarious display I’ve seen in a long time.  Together, they are a dream of a double act.

Director Simon Ravenhill doesn’t let the close confines of the Blue Orange stage get in the way of his chase scenes and his punch-ups.  The action is deftly handled.  This is a show that is so silly it’s actually very clever.

It does run a bit long though, due mainly to the time it can take to change scenes.  While the set is almost as versatile as the actors, it can take a while to reconfigure, presenting opportunities for energy levels to flag.  Luckily, the enthusiasm and brio of the players prove irresistible, and we revel in the fun of it all.

A real tonic.

****

Darren Haywood