Tag Archives: Chichester Festival Theatre

Ocean of Emotion


The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 28th August, 2022

The Chichester Festival Theatre production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic comes to town and it’s an absolute must-see.  The score reads like a Greatest Hits playlist.  So many great numbers, many of which have become standards.  Hearing them within the context of the drama renews their impact.

Set in World War II on an island outpost where the US Navy is itching for conflict with the Japanese, this is at heart a double love story, where both relationships are blighted by ingrained prejudice.  We have firecracker hick Nellie Forbush falling for the urbane and educated plantation owner Emile de Becque, and handsome young lieutenant Joe Cable having his head turned by Liat, the beautiful daughter of camp follower Bloody Mary.  Joe feels unable to marry the girl because of the way things are ‘back home’; Nellie is horrified to discover the late mother of Emile’s kids was, gulp, coloured.  The revelation of Nellie’s racism comes as a real kicker at the end of Act One.  This lively, perky girl, the life and soul of any gathering, who has entertained us and earned our affection is tainted by one of the most stupid attitudes going.  It’s a real blow, like finding out someone you otherwise admire votes Tory.

Sad to say, the show’s message is just as relevant today.  Cable’s song, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught gets to the root of a problem that still plagues society today.

As the suave Emile, Julian Ovenden oozes romance.  Some Enchanted Evening has never sounded lovelier or more seductive.  Gina Beck’s Nellie is irresistible, funny and perky, with her heart on her sleeve, her vocals both belting and nuanced.  Rob Houchen’s Cable is spot on: the handsome young officer, dutiful and yet in love.  Houchen’s voice is surely the finest working in musical theatre today.  Sublime.

Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary brings plenty of comic relief, as does Douggie McMeekin’s Luther Billis.  Ampil’s impassioned pleas to Cable to give her daughter a better life are heart-breaking, and her rendition of Bali Ha’i is bewitching.

The big chorus numbers are stirring: There is Nothing Like a Dame, by the men, and I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, by the women.  This production goes all out to deliver the goods.  Ann Yee’s choreography, especially for the marines, is energetic, hoe-down like without being camp, and there are plenty of exotic touches to evoke the island setting.

Romantic, thrilling and humorous, with a strong social comment, South Pacific reasserts itself as a pinnacle of musical theatre in this magnificent production that hits all the right notes, musically and emotionally.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Cable guy Rob Houchen and hair-washer Gina Beck (Photo: Johan Persson)

Labour in Vain


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th April, 2018


This hit production from the National Theatre/Chichester Festival Theatre/Headlong comes to this town and reminds this reviewer of its brilliance.  James Graham’s script, dealing with the behind-the-scenes, Machiavellian machinations of the Chief Whips of both main parties, mines a rich seam of humour.  It is the 1970s and Labour has a minority government.  All the stops have to be pulled out to win over the ‘odds and sods’ to vote on the government’s side.

It’s a macho – or rather, blokeish world of hard drinking, hard swearing immaturity, where tradition is held in awe but nothing more so than the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’.  The opposing sides wind each other up, one-upmanship is king and fair play hardly gets a look-in.  It’s a chess game on a massive scale, with the Chief Whips sniping at each other like rival head prefects.

Martin Marquez is excellent as tough-talking Labour whip, Bob Mellish, with William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins as the perfect sneering foil over on the Tory side.  Graham characterises both sides in broad terms: the Labour lot are beer-swilling, down-to-earth working class men with ‘real jobs’ in their backgrounds; the Tories are privileged, entitled snobs.  Tony Turner’s Michael Cox remains decent in his desperation, while on the other side, Harry Kershaw’s member for Chelmsford makes a prissy and hilarious impression.  There is a running joke about apologising for swearing in front of that rare creature, a female MP – Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor soon proves she can give as good as she gets, and there is a delicious turn from Louise Ludgate as the member for Coventry South West, silently doling out the cash to pay a fine.

Labour’s Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) and his oppo Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) share a mutual if grudging respect for each other and each other’s methods in a relationship that encapsulates the cut-and-thrust of party politics at that time.  Meanwhile, off-stage, rises the spectre of evil that will poison politics for decades, like Voldemort gradually taking physical form, as the member for Finchley, unseen, climbs the ranks to Tory party leader, ultimately becoming prime minister.  As the lights fade, an extract from Thatcher’s inaugural speech brings the fun and games to a chilling end…

Director Jeremy Herrin maintains a cracking pace, keeping the barbed remarks and the fur flying, eliciting energetic performances from his ensemble.  A live band keeps the energy levels up, with short and long bursts to cover transitions or to underscore the more stylised sequences depicting the arcane rituals of the House.

It’s a hilarious piece, a satirical cartoon of a show recounting a remarkable time in British politics, but be aware: the current mob who occupy This House for real are not playing for laughs.


Best of frenemies: James Gaddas and Matthew Pidgeon (Photo: Johan Persson)

A Safe Bet


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th November, 2015


Frank Loesser’s classic musical comes to Birmingham prior to its residency in the West End in this new production by Chichester Festival Theatre. And it’s a safe bet for high quality entertainment. Based on the stories of Damon Runyon (think PG Wodehouse of the New York underworld) it’s a slight, light-hearted tale in which the protagonists are on the wrong side of the law, workshy, inveterate gamblers – perhaps that’s why we like them so much. Nathan Detroit (David Haig) is desperately seeking a venue for a craps game, meanwhile fending off the ire of his long-term fiancée, showgirl Adelaide (Sophie Thompson). To raise capital, he bets gambler par excellence Sky Masterson (Jamie Parker) that he can’t persuade Salvation Army-type Sarah Brown (Siubhan Harrison) out on a date… And so the scene is set for a charming story, peppered with great songs – the tunes keep coming: some have become standards.

As Nathan, David Haig perhaps surprises with the lightness of his comic touch – we are more accustomed to him in dramatic roles, but he captures Detroit’s twinkle. Jamie Parker’s Sky is brash but seductive; we see the gambler struggle with unfamiliar emotions as he finds himself falling for the staid Sarah Brown – appealingly played by Siubhan Harrison. Their night-out in a Havana club descends into a drunken brawl. The journey of these characters is subtly but clearly portrayed, giving them credibility in this rarefied musical theatre world. But the night belongs to Sophie Thompson’s Adelaide, in a powerhouse performance in which she channels a little of Marilyn Monroe and a lot of Lucille Ball to present us with a rounded characterisation that is comic, touching and endearing at the drop of a mink stole.

The four leads are supported by an excellent chorus and ensemble, fleshed out by a wealth of minor characters. The comic timing is spot on. Stand-outs are Ian Hughes as Benny Sidestreet and Nic Greenshields towering over proceedings as cheating heavy Big Jule.   Gavin Spokes stops the show with his Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat – his Nicely-Nicely Johnson is both detailed and broad, epitomising the production as a whole. With deft strokes, director Gordon Greenberg creates the world of the show, using Peter McKintosh’s emblematic set to keep the action fluid and scene transitions slick, allowing the cast to flesh out the characters who populate the story – they wear their humanity as obvious as the checks on their colourful suits. Carlos Acosta and Andrew Wright fill the space with energetic choreography, evoking period without being clichéd – the Havana sequence, including the brawl, is a definite highlight.

It’s a feel-good musical, seemingly effortless in its execution; Detroit and Masterson mend their ways in order to please their ‘dolls’ but the wry humour of the book (by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) suggests that Detroit, at least, is not completely rehabilitated. It’s a show that celebrates human flaws and foibles in a production that delivers the highest standards of the performing arts.

Often, booking a ticket to see live theatre can be something of a gamble. Not in this case. A great night out is guaranteed. It’s as though the dice are loaded in the audience’s favour.

Jamie Parker (Sky Masterson) in Guys and Dolls - photo by  Johan Persson

Reach for the Sky: Jamie Parker (Photo: Johan Persson)