Tag Archives: Birmingham Hippodrome

Finger-Clickin’ Good

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 6th June, 2017

 

Charles Addams’s characters first appeared in single-panel cartoons in the New Yorker – delicious gems offering snapshots of a dark psyche at work.  When the 1960s TV series appeared, it gave Addams’s family voices and movement, stories that flipped the conventional like a negative photograph.  The show also rendered the characters likeable and appealed to queer sensibilities at a time when there was no other mainstream representation.  We wallow in the Addamses’ morbidity – it is the ‘normal’ that is held up to be ‘other’.

This new musical (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) gives the characters songs, many of them good ones, while providing plenty of laughs in the expected vein.

Cameron Blakely is the excitable head of the household, Gomez Addams, an energetic father figure with a Hispanic flavour.  Last seen drowned in a pool in EastEnders, Samantha Womack kills it as his wife Morticia – her deadpan delivery is impeccably timed.  She is impressively dour and supremely elegant; her song ‘Death is Just Around the Corner’ is a definite highlight.

Wednesday Addams is presented as older here than she usually is, losing her little girl creepiness – this is so that she is interested in boys and thereby giving the show its plot.  Carrie Hope Fletcher is undeniably strong in the role but I would have scored Wednesday’s numbers a little less conventionally to make her sound more like a Lene Lovich or Kate Bush type.   It is the lyrics alone that subvert from the norm.  This Wednesday is a musical theatre student who couldn’t decide for Halloween between Wednesday Addams and Katniss Everdene.

Conversely, Grant McIntyre’s Puggsley, the creepy little brother with a penchant for explosives, actually sounds weird when he’s singing his solo.

Valda Aviks is good fun as the vulgar Grandma, while TV’s Les Dennis is in excellent form as Uncle Fester.  Dickon Gough’s cadaverous butler Lurch almost steals the show with his comic timing.

The ‘normals’ who come to dinner are Dale Rapley as boorish father Mal, Oliver Ormson as Wednesday’s main squeeze, Lucas, and Charlotte Page as mum Alice – the most developed of the three – in a belter of a performance.

Diego Pitarch’s set is beautifully derelict and gothic, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting paints the set in spots and shadows, maintaining an overall darkness with characters in pools of light, just like Addams’s original cartoons.  A baroque chorus of Addams ancestors haunts the stage for added spookiness.

Director Matthew White keeps the thin plot moving along; there is an emphasis on snappy one-liners rather than character development, but everything about this production is exquisite.  We enjoy the time we spend with these people in a show that amuses and delights at every turn.

Addams Matt martin

Creepy and kooky, Cameron Blakely and Samantha Womack (Photo: Matt Martin)

 

 

 


Party Piece

GREASE

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 29th May, 2017

 

When it was first staged in the 1970s, the show was a nostalgic look-back at supposedly simpler times.  The film version, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as positively geriatric teenagers, became a phenomenal global hit, still highly popular, and giving the stage show a new lease of life that shows no signs of failing.  Inevitably, with the film so fixed in the popular consciousness, there are audience expectations that director David Gilmore must meet.  We know how Grease should be done.  Or we think we do.  Some of the songs don’t appear at the same points in the story as they do in the screenplay.  Other numbers, only background music in the film, are given centre stage here.  Conversely, what appears in the film but not in the show, has been interpolated here: chiefly, the opening number by songwriter supremo, Barry Gibb.

Plotwise, it couldn’t be simpler.  Boy meets girl but they’re in different groups at high school, where peer pressure is irresistible… Who will change to overcome the cultural divide?

Frankly, the T-Birds, all leather jackets and DA haircuts, come across as a bunch of twats.  Danny (Tom Parker) feels obliged to deny his feelings for Sandy (Danielle Hope) in order to keep in with his laddish mates.  For her part, Sandy is too straitlaced to be fully integrated into the girls’ gang, the Pink Ladies.  Parker, former member of boyband The Wanted, sings competently; his real strength is in the physical comedy of his portrayal.  Hope is suitably prim as Sandy, her singing voice rich and with a more mature sound than her girlfriends.

Louisa Lytton is a brassy Rizzo.  She gets the ‘dramatic’ moments when a pregnancy scare allows her to belt out There Are Worse Things I Could Do.  Like Danny, she is hampered by her public image.  Revealing her true self would be a sign of weakness.  And so, the show is about the pressures on teens to conform – with whatever group they wish to be part of.   Also, Frenchy (a vivacious Rhiannon Chesterman) feels she can’t tell her friends she has flunked out of beauty school, while her would-be suitor Doody (Ryan Heenan) is physically incapable of stringing the words together to ask her to the dance.

Heenan stands out among the T-Birds as the likeable, little one.  He gets a couple of solo moments, showcasing his talents.

Greased Lightning is a big production number with Tom Senior’s Kenickie cranked up to 11.  It’s loud and brash, laddism writ large.  It’s like being beaten up by a song.

Treat of the night comes from a cameo appearance by ‘Little’ Jimmy Osmond himself as a somewhat superannuated Teen Angel.  Pure showbiz royalty, Osmond knows when to milk it, knows when to be cheesy – how dairy!  His song brings the house down and such is his charisma and the fact that IT’S JIMMY OSMOND, we hardly notice the showgirls swanning around in true Las Vegas style.

The energetic ensemble generates a lot of heat.  Arlene Phillips’s choreography is flashy and fun, adding to the infectious quality of the show.  People are here to have a good time.  This audience doesn’t need warming up.  It’s a party of a show, a guaranteed good time and a chance to escape from whatever it is you might want to escape from.  Cosy and safe, Grease is a reliable crowd-pleaser – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

grease

You’re the one from The Wanted, oo-oo ooh. Tom Parker and Danielle Hope

 


Diversity Uncaged

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 16th May, 2017

 

This touring production could not be timelier.  With anti-gay sentiments (aka idiocy) on the rise globally, the show reminds us that people are people and love is love.

In St Tropez, a nightclub has gained notoriety for its drag queens, foremost among whom is the delectable Zaza, or Albin when he’s at home, partner to the club’s owner, Georges.  When Georges’s son, Jean-Michele announces his engagement to the daughter of bigot-in-chief Dindon, an old-school politician, Albin finds himself edged out of the picture – and he’s not the kind to go sit in the corner…

It’s a conventional musical about alternative lifestyles, with its heart on its sleeve and its message loud, proud and clear.

John Partridge is in his element as Albin/Zaza, capturing the character’s brittleness as well as the camp mannerisms, and boy, can he hold a note!  It takes a while for Albin’s warmth to come out but when it does, it is beautifully understated in the show’s most touching moments.  Partridge’s Albin is a Northerner, coming across not so much as French Riviera as Canal Street, Manchester.  Adrian Zmed is more grounded as the charming Georges, while Dougie Carter sings like a dream as Jean-Michele – clearly a young man with a glittering future ahead.  Samson Ajewole is a scream as Jacob the flamboyant housemaid, showing us that families come in all sorts of configurations.   Alexandra Robinson is sweet as fiancée Anne, just as Paul F Monaghan is blustering as bigot-to-be-pilloried Dindon.  At his side, Su Douglas is Madame Renaud, with a couple of surprises of her own.

The extra-special treat of the night is Marti Webb as restaurant owner Jacqueline.  She’s still got it, that clear, strong voice, that poise, that presence.  Marvellous.

Harvey Fierstein’s book is funny and moving.  Jerry Herman’s score contains some iconic numbers (I Am What I Am, The Best of Times, Look Over There…) and the lyrics are witty and poignant.

A troupe of chorines fills out the musical numbers with more feathers than an ostrich sanctuary and more sequins than ten years of Strictly Come DancingLa Cage may offer colourful escapism but in truth it tells us that there are more ways of living in the real world than conservatives and prigs would have us believe.  This could well be one of the most important musicals ever written, especially since there are people and movements around who think we gays are somehow less than human.

la cage

Adrian Zmed and John Partridge being fabulous


Striking

BILLY ELLIOT

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 8th March, 2017

 

Familiar from the much-loved film, the musical version, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, comes to Birmingham as part of its first national tour, and the Hippodrome is a good fit for this West End-quality show.

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, this is the story of a young boy whose interest in ballet is kindled when he wanders into a class in favour of the boxing lessons his dad would prefer he attend.  The dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson spots real talent in the boy and arranges an audition with the Royal Ballet school, opening a can of worms that include cultural expectation, gender roles, male sexuality… There is more to the story than a boy’s struggles to achieve his dream.  Billy faces prejudices like a wall of riot shields – the police presence and the bellicose spirit of the miners shows us that such attitudes are of the past, but the spectre of Margaret Thatcher is very much still with us as the country continues to be shafted (that’s a mining joke) by the Tories.

Annette McLaughlin is superb as the tough-talking, chain-smoking Mrs Wilkinson, able to face up to the stubborn, prideful figure of Billy’s Dad (a highly credible Martin Walsh) and Billy’s brother Tony (a passionate Scott Garnham).  The supporting players are second-to-none and there is much to enjoy in the troupe of girls who are nowhere near Billy’s level of skill and prowess.  Daniel Page’s Mr Braithwaite puts in a surprisingly athletic turn in a very funny dance routine, and there is heart-warming character work from Andrea Miller as Billy’s Grandma. Elliot Stiff stops the show with his portrayal of Billy’s best friend Michael – the two of them perform a number with some oversized frocks that brings the house down.

If I had to pick a standout moment, I’d plump for when Billy dances with his older self (Luke Cinque-White), an exhilaratingly beautiful pas de deux.

Inevitably, the night belongs to Billy – on this occasion performed by the remarkable, phenomenal Lewis Smallman (who hails from nearby West Bromwich!).  Hardly off-stage, he sings, he dances, he acts and – perhaps most difficult: pulls off a credible North-East accent!  It’s a breath-taking display of talent and skill, humour and emotion.  Exceptional.

Astounding, life-affirming and joyous, Billy’s story is eclipsed only by the talent on show by the performers.  The indomitable human spirit triumphing in the face of adversity and setbacks is a universal theme, but you will rarely see the message so eye-poppingly presented.

billy elliot

Lewis Smallman and Luke Cinque-White

 


What a Dick!

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2016

 

The Hippodrome’s pantomime is invariably the biggest and boldest and this year marks the triumphant return of John Barrowman to the theatre after an absence of eight years.  And it was certainly worth the wait.  Barrowman is the consummate entertainer, singing, dancing, joking, working the crowd, all with his trademark boundless energy and enthusiasm.  Star quality is written all over him – and with such a big star, the production values rise to meet him.  From start to finish, the extravagant staging, with many a Wow moment, impresses your socks off, including the now-obligatory 3D sequence.

It begins with EastEnders’ Steve McFadden as King Rat – we quickly learn even he is not the biggest rat in London.  McFadden clearly enjoys himself playing the villain and he handles King Rat’s doggerel verse with aplomb.  He also shows himself to be a good sport, as straight man to Idle Jack’s mockery.  Idle Jack is played by Hippodrome panto favourite Matt Slack (he’s already booked to play Buttons next year!) and the warm welcome he receives when he first appears almost takes the roof off.   Slack is a talented clown and mimic, relentlessly funny and highly skilled.

Andrew Ryan returns to play the dame, Sarah the Cook, delivering the goods – I feel he could be given more – a slapstick or ‘slosh’ scene, which is the only sixpence missing from this Christmas pudding.

Much laughter is to be had because of veteran double-act the Krankies, whose humour and routines slot right into the panto format.  The act still works and their adlibs are sharp and hilarious.  It’s only disturbing if you think about it…

Jodie Prenger makes a sprightly Fairy Bow Bells – her voice blending sweetly with Barrowman’s for a duet.  Danielle Hope is a charming Alice and Kage Douglas’s good-looking Sultan is a pleasant surprise.  Taofique Folarin’s Brummie Cat is also a treat – again, I would like to see him being given more to do.

The cast is supported by a tireless company of dancers (choreographed by Alan Harding) and a hard-working band under the baton of Robert Willis.  Ben Cracknell’s lighting enhances the special effects (courtesy of The Twins FX) while remaining in keeping with traditional panto conventions.

There’s more of an adult tinge to the humour than other shows in the region, making this a panto that caters to all tastes.  All in all, this Dick is a breath-taking spectacle to make you laugh-out-loud and ooh and aah.  Once again, the Hippodrome pulls out all the stops and provides a highlight of the season.

dick-whittington-2016


Comic Strip

THE FULL MONTY

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 14th November, 2016

 

The stage adaptation of the hit film is doing the rounds again and while we may feel familiar with it, we perhaps forget how brilliant it is.  Ostensibly – and undeniably – a comedy, Simon Beaufoy’s remarkable script is also a study of masculinity in an adverse economic climate.  The play is set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain but guess what, many of the themes are all too pertinent today.  The emasculating effects of long-term unemployment, redundancy of the male, with women bringing home the bacon and, in a hilarious scene, even pissing standing up, makes the male characters feel obsolete – redundant personally as well as economically.  Relationships inevitably come under strain – one man can’t even bring himself to tell his wife he has lost his job, another faces losing access to his son… And Beaufoy also manages to mix in issues of body image and objectification – the men don’t like it now the roles are reversed.

Above all, the play remains very, very funny.  The audience is certainly up for it, whooping and cheering when lead actor Gary Lucy (Gaz) makes his first appearance.  Perhaps they have mistaken it for a Chippendales-type cabaret show but, thankfully, they immediately settle down to listen to the unfolding drama.  Yes, there are whoops and cheers still but these feel in support of the characters and their journey rather than plain old-fashioned catcalling of the actors.

Director Jack Ryder manages all the diverse elements of the script perfectly, timing the gags and surprises to maximum effect while giving the issues time to breathe.  The more sentimental moments, for example between Dave and his wife Jean, are handled with a light touch and are all the sweeter and more poignant for it.  Gary Lucy makes an affably laddish lead, even if his accent roams around the North West at times, while Kai Owen’s ever-dieting Dave is an excellent, down-to-earth foil for Gaz’s dreams and schemes.  Louis Emerick’s Horse balances physical humour (his audition piece is a scream) with quiet desperation – he has no alternative but to take part in the get-rich-quick project (In case you don’t know – where have you been? – the men get together to stage a strip show in order to make cash).  It’s not just the working class affected by unemployment: middle-class Gerald (the excellent Andrew Dunn) is co-opted to bring his Conservative Club choreography to the troupe.   And it’s not just straights, either.  Hard times affect all walks of society.  Chris Fountain ups the tottie factor as out-and-proud Guy, another facet of maleness Beaufoy holds up – Guy is neither camp nor delicate and his burgeoning relationship with shy, slow-witted Lomper (Anthony Lewis, in a layered characterisation) is underplayed to touching effect.  Yet one of the strongest performances of the night comes from the remarkable Felix Yates as Gaz’s nine-year-old son Nathan, clearly the grown-up in their relationship!  It’s not just the breadwinner that suffers when there is no bread to be won.

The strip-show finale is an exhilarating climax.  The characters ‘go the full monty’ as if to say, We are men and here we are.  Stripped of everything else, it’s a moment of self-assertion and defiance.  There is a lot of man-flesh on show but more than that, the show exhibits a lot of heart.  Uplifting in a time of recession, the play, like the film before it, remains life-affirming and a great deal of fun.

(The tour is proving extremely popular – if you want to see it in Birmingham, an extra matinee has been added on Thursday 17th)

ltor-louis-emerick-andrew-dunn-kai-owen-gary-lucy-anthony-lewis-chris-fountain-kneeling-in-the-full-monty-credit-matt-crockett

Under a vest: L to R: Louis Emerick, Andrew Dunn, Kai Owen, Gary Lucy, Anthony Lewis. Front: Chris Fountain. (Photo: Matt Crockett)


Worth Every Cent

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 24th October, 2016

 

“On December 4, 1956, one man brought Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to play together for the first and only time.  His name was Sam Phillips… the place was Sun Records…  That night they made rock ‘n’ roll history.”

The above caption sets the scene for a dramatic reconstruction of that historic meeting and an excuse to play a lot of old songs!  Set in the recording studio in which the aforementioned artistes cut their first hits, the play is a jukebox musical of sorts, as well as a biography.  Above all, it’s a tribute concert to four icons of American popular music.

Jason Donovan is Phillips, our narrator – since when is pop heartthrob Donovan the senior member of any cast?!  Where does the time go?! – and as he welcomes the men back to Sun Records, he shows us, in brief flashback scenes how he first encountered each one.  Donovan’s Dukes of Hazzard accent is in keeping with the setting and he still looks great.  He doesn’t get to sing, though.

We meet Jerry Lee Lewis, a young and talented piano player and something of a loudmouth.  Martin Kaye dazzles with his piano-playing and amuses with his irrepressible characterisation.  Lewis rubs Carl Perkins (Matthew Wycliffe) up the wrong way, giving rise to most of the tension of the piece – and also a good deal of the humour in the form of some ‘banterous’ put-downs from both parties.  Wycliffe is absolutely excellent as Perkins, and he can’t half play a mean gee-tah.   Robbie Durham’s Johnny Cash brings a deeper voice to the ensemble and Ross William Wild’s Elvis Presley is vocally outstanding.  The hits keep coming: Blue Suede Shoes, Great Balls of Fire – but a standout moment for me is when Elvis’s girlfriend of the time, Dyanne (Katie Ray) treats us to a rendition of Peggy Lee’s Fever.

The plot is wafer-thin and the script, riddled with funny lines, is peppered with nostalgic references (back when gas was 25 cents) and dramatic irony (we know Elvis will return to Vegas).  It’s also rather poignant when the foursome pose for the famous snapshot – we know what’s ahead for them, the tragedies that await them as well as their successes.

Supported by James Swinnerton on bass and Ben Cullingworth on drums, the cast, playing and singing live, generate a lot of energy that proves irresistible.  It’s a feel-good show that gets your toes tapping from the get-go and dancing along before the finish.  Each of the four stars is superbly represented by this talented cast, who create an authentic sound and remind us why rock ‘n’ roll was such a revolutionary sound when it first emerged.

Breath-taking.

 

carl-perkins-million-dollar-quartet

Keep your feet off his footwear: Matthew Wycliffe as Carl ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ Perkins