Category Archives: musical

Worth a Gander

HONK!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019

 

This musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling gives us the bird’s-eye view of life in a duck yard.  When the largest of four eggs hatches to duck-parents Drake (Chris Thomson) and Ida (Ellie Nunn), the poor soul to emerge from it faces mockery and rejection for being different.  “Ugly” sets off, inadvertently, on a journey until his true identity is revealed.  The message is simple and clear, and Anthony Drewe’s script is riddled with puns and animal-based idioms, ranging from corny to witty.  Aimed at a family audience, Drewe also includes the occasional risqué line to keep the grown-ups engaged.

Gregor Duncan is Ugly, a plucky and sympathetic figure, but it is Ellie Nunn as his mother who provides the emotional heart of the show.  Nunn is in great form – the songs are delivered with conviction and power.  In fact, the cast, whose choral singing is just lovely, do their utmost to sell the songs.  Some of George Stiles’s tunes are stronger and catchier than others but all of them are enriched by Anthony Drewe’s sophisticated lyrics.

It’s a small but hard-working cast.  Notable moments come from Peter Noden as a Black Country bullfrog and Emma Barclay’s haughty mandarin duck.  A highlight for me is a tango between two cats (Danni Payne and James Dangerfield).  Dangerfield in particular impresses with his villainous characterisation as the Cat, managing to be sinister and funny at the same time, using movement and physicality to enhance the role.  He also plays a mean violin, augmenting the band at the side of the stage, led by musical director Oli Rew.

It’s all well and good, amusing stuff, but I question some of the design choices.  The bird characters are totally anthropomorphised, with only orange stockings to signify their duck legs.  The Cat has ears poking through his hat.  But the three ducklings are puppets, with beaks, and umbrellas for bodies.  It’s a neat idea but seems to be at odds with everything else.  Similarly, the Bullfrog sports a spotted hoodie, but his Frog Chorus are goggle-eyed and green, and presented in a highly inventive way.  I think the production needs to decide which way it’s going to jump to give it a more coherent style.  I would have put beaks on the leads or flippers for their feet.  Or I would have done the puppets differently.  But that’s me.

There is much to admire and enjoy here.  Director Andy Room is not short of ideas: particularly effective is the swimming lesson that takes place on a couple of swivel chairs, and it’s great to hear a cast that can sing so well, with humour and emotion, elevating the rather slight tale into a piece that can be charming and delightful, if a little uneven.

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James Dangerfield as the Cat (in the hat) and Gregor Duncan as Ugly (Photo: Scott Rylander)

 

 

 

 

 

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Grail Trail

SPAMALOT

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 2nd June, 2019

 

Eric Idle’s musical parody of Arthurian legend speaks of a leader who will rise from chaos to unite a divided country… We couldn’t half do with King Arthur today!  I doubt such a leader will spring from the current Tory leadership contest.

This lavish production at the Crescent is directed by Keith Harris, bringing together all the technical elements of the production and marrying them to an outstanding cast, with the result being a hugely impressive, massively enjoyable visit to the theatre.  They really have pulled out all the stops with this one.  Colin Judges’s splendid set of castle walls, towers and trees has just the right amount of storybook illustration to it, while Stewart Snape’s costume designs remain true to the period (when they need to) and introduce glamorously anachronistic specimens (when they don’t): the Camelot presented here has more in common with Las Vegas than Medieval England!  There is also an appearance by a magnificent wooden rabbit.  Of course there is.

Joe Harper heads the cast as King Arthur, imperious, regal and daft in equal measures.  He has a fine singing voice too – in fact, when the knights all sing together, the quality enriches the material.  Idle’s songs are pastiches, sometimes simplistic in structure, but the chorus at the Crescent still delivers the goods.  The musicians, under the baton of Gary Spruce add pizzazz and texture to the score.   Beautiful.

The female lead is Tiffany Cawthorne’s Lady of the Lake, with a dazzling display of vocal fireworks that doesn’t take itself seriously, mocking the over-singers and belters of musical theatre and elsewhere.  Cawthorne is also a delightful comic player and doesn’t miss a trick.

Among the knights there is plenty to relish: Mark Horne’s camp Sir Robin, Paul Forrest’s heroic Lancelot (who has a surprise for us later on that is deliciously realised), and Nick Owenford’s Marxist-peasant-turned-loyal-knight Dennis Galahad.  I always have a soft spot for the faithful manservant Patsy, and here Brendan Stanley does not disappoint in a masterclass of a portrayal that demonstrates how supporting roles can make a mark.  Brilliant.

There are so many highlights, so many hilarious throwaway moments, I can’t mention them all, but I have to bring attention to Katie Goldhawk’s defiant posturing as the stubborn Black Knight, Jack Kirby’s Hibernian enchanter, Tim, Luke Plimmer’s Not Dead Fred, and Dave Rodgers as a taunting French soldier.

For me, the funniest scene is between Herbert (Nick Doran) and his father (Toby Davis), with a couple of dim-witted guards and a daring rescue by Lancelot.  Doran plays the gayness of the role without mockery or stereotype and his Herbert is all the more endearing because of it.

You don’t have to be a Monty Python aficionado to be royally entertained.  For those of us that are, it’s fun to identify where Eric Idle nicked the ideas from.  Only the other day I was bemoaning the fad for adapting every bloody film into stage musicals – this is one of the best ones, not least because it makes fun of the theatrical form as much as sending up the content.

Director Keith Harris gets the tone spot on and for almost all of it, the required energy levels are there to carry it off.  This is a real tonic of a production, joyous, silly and glorious – now, if only I could stop whistling THAT SONG from The Life Of Brian…

spamalot

Brendan Stanley and Joe Harper (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Naked Ambition

CALENDAR GIRLS – The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 28th May, 2019

 

First came the calendar, then the film, then the play, and now this musical version.  Original writer Tim Firth has teamed up with Gary ‘Take That’ Barlow to rehash the true story of a group of women whose charity calendar turned heads and raked in the dosh thirty years ago.

If this piece is anything to go by, the Yorkshire village of Knapley is inhabited by a homogenous bunch of deadpan Northern charmers, the women are almost uniformly blonde and the cuddly men are interchangeable.  It’s a bit Stepford Wives, but funny.  There are so many characters it takes a while to get a handle on who they all are.

When Annie’s husband’s cancer treatment fails to save him from the disease, her mates at the local Women’s Institute rally in support.  Best mate Chris (Rebecca Storm) comes up with the idea of a nude calendar – in the best possible taste, of course – and some of the women require more persuasion than others.  It’s a long time coming but the best scene of the night is the taking of the photographs, posed with some carefully placed props: plates of cakes, balls of knitting, all the accoutrements of the WI.  While other scenes are mildly amusing, the photo-shoot is the highlight and brings the house down.  It’s a moment of rejoicing, as the women celebrate body positivity and have a reet good laugh while they do it.  It’s like The Full Monty without the social commentary or the economic imperative.

Sarah Jane Buckley heads the ensemble as the eventually-widowed Annie, a more staid counterpart to her best mate Ruth.  Single parent Sue Devaney has the best singing voice but the Christmas Carol medley she has to belt out is a let-down: it’s just unfunny.  Lesley Joseph is in her element as retired schoolteacher Jessie, supposedly respectable but game for a laugh when the crunch comes.  Lisa Maxwell is suitably cocksure as the surgically enhanced Celia, and Danny Howker has some very funny moments as inexperienced teenager Danny – it’s a strong cast without exception but all the while I’m thinking they would be better served in the straight play version.

Barlow’s songs are serviceable but hardly memorable.  Rather than adding depth to the piece, what they bring is length.  Firth’s script aspires to but doesn’t quite reach the genius of the late, lamented Victoria Wood, using the bathos of domestic details to bring out the emotions of particular moments.  Contemplating her husband’s death, Annie wonders who’ll take her to Tesco and argue about margarines with her.

The heart-warming story survives this treatment, and is still a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but (producers, take note) not every bloody film needs to be turned into a musical.

Calender Girls Tour

The Cast

 


Dropping the Soap

SUMMER STREET

The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, Friday 10th May, 2019

 

Four actors from a defunct Australian soap opera are reunited for a commemorative special in which they are to play all the parts (“Nobody will notice”).  Their week of rehearsals will culminate in a live broadcast.  There is a lot at stake.

That’s the premise of Andrew Norris’s bonzer new musical, which satirises the sunny optimism of the shows that dominated television in the 1990s.  The rehearsal scenes are hilarious, sending up the exposition-heavy dialogue, the public service information, and the outlandish plots.  But Norris intersperses them with glimpses into the actors’ lives.  We see the effects of being killed off and being unable to escape your typecasting.  The show is much more than silly satire; there is substance here in the melodrama of the actors’ real lives.

The songs are stonkers.  Disillusioned Angie, now working at a fish counter, sings the searing ‘Take the Knife’ bringing the show’s first dark moment.  Brock and Marlene belt out a smashing duet, ”Don’t Give Up” – the soap was a musical serial, a genius idea, ripe with comic potential.  There’s a brilliantly catchy parody, “Lucky Plucky Me” that infects my mind for the rest of the evening.  The highlight though is “Chains Around My Heart” in which Bobbi (the amazing Sarah-Louise Young) treats us to a dazzling display of vocal dexterity while parodying pretentious pop videos and earnest oversinging.  The number, quite rightly, brings the house down.

Young is hilarious as budding lesbian-mechanic Bobbi, and she is matched by Myke Cotton’s Brock (with mullet attached to his cap!).   Simon Snashall plays the father figures and the doctor – a deathbed scene is painfully funny – while Julie Clare is practically perfect as veteran soap actress Steph, who plays the soap’s busybody Mrs Mingle, and star-crossed lover Marlene.

Special mention goes to Pogo, the soap’s canine superstar, who makes a vital contribution to the plot!

The laughs keep coming but I get the sense of an underlying affection for the material that inspired the mockery.  There is also commentary here about the changes in televisual fare reflecting a loss of innocence and optimism in society, as the sunshine soaps have been usurped by so-called reality TV.

Thoroughly exhilarating, this show, like the serials it sends up, ought to run and run indefinitely!  With book, music, lyrics and direction all coming from the same man, Andrew Norris is some kind of genius, I reckon.

I loved it.

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Mullet over: Myke Cotton as Brock

 


Street Life

AVENUE Q

The Alexandra, Birmingham, Tuesday 12th February, 2019

 

The brainchild of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (who wrote the book) Avenue Q is one of those shows I never tire of going back to.  It always feels like a treat, and this new tour is no exception.  For those that don’t know, it is modelled on Sesame Street, but here the lessons are most definitely for grown-ups, lessons that contain a few uncomfortable truths we need reminding of every now and then.

Unlike the TV classic, and The Muppet Show, here the puppeteers are clearly visible.  On the one hand, you sort of turn a blind eye to them and focus on the characters they operate; on the other, you pay direct attention to them and you are blown away by the skills on display.  You want multi-tasking, this is the musical theatre equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your tummy while emoting and belting out songs.

The excellent Lawrence Smith is newly graduated Princeton, seeking his purpose in life.  Through Princeton we are introduced to the other inhabitants of this thoroughfare.  He falls for Kate Monster (the astonishing Cecily Redman) and they go out – leading to some harsh life lessons for both of them.  He meets Nicky ( the brilliant Tom Steedon) who is thrown out by room-mate Rod (also Lawrence Smith) who can’t bring himself to come out of the closet, leading to a life lesson for us all about helping others, the homeless in particular.  Steedon also performs as the hilarious Trekkie Monster who has an addiction to the internet – Cookies don’t come into it!  Redman also operates sleazy nightclub singer Lucy The Slut (subtle, isn’t it?) and when Lucy and Kate have to appear together, she has to converse with herself, slipping from one voice to the other with apparent ease.  It’s a wonder to behold.

Among the puppets live human characters.  Oliver Stanley makes a likeable Brian, Nicholas McLean is a mass of energy as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman) but it is Saori Oda’s fierce and feisty Christmas Eve whose larger-than-life characterisation almost steals the show.

The songs are great, the book is funny, and in the hands of director Cressida Carre, this production shows that the material has lost none of its edge, none of its relevance, and none of its power to educate and amuse.

I enjoy my trip down Memory Lane but if it’s your first time in this neighbourhood, I envy you the surprises you’re going to have.  You might also learn something about life you don’t know you need to know.

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Christmas Eve (Saori Oda) offers advice to uptight Rod (Lawrence Smith) Photo: Matt Martin