Tag Archives: Claire Sweeney

Some You Gershwin…


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th May, 2018


The songs of George and Ira Gershwin provide the music in this musical comedy – and there are some timeless classics here: Someone To Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away From Me to name but two.   There are also a few lesser known ditties and, hearing them tonight, you can see why.  But the super-talented company do their best with these bland numbers – the cast play instruments live on stage, without sheet music, and play flawlessly.  It seems in musical theatre, being a triple threat is no longer sufficient.  As well as singing, dancing and acting, you now have to be a musical virtuoso!

The plot is sheer musical comedy froth.  Chap is sent West to foreclose on a theatre but decides to save the building by putting on a show because, wouldn’t you know it, he happens to fall for the daughter of the theatre owner and, because nothing is straightforward, has to adopt disguise and subterfuge in order to secure the girl’s affections…  You can tell where it’s going but Ken Ludwig’s lively script with some zinging one-liners keeps the laughs coming.

Claire Sweeney is every curvaceous inch the glamorous vamp, Irene, strutting around, shooting her smart mouth off.  It’s a shame we have to wait until well into the second act before she gets a big production number.  Kate Milner-Evans matches Irene barb for barb as domineering matriarch Lottie Child, but it is Charlotte Wakefield’s Polly who takes the crown.  Her singing voice is sweet, even when she’s belting, and her solos are standout moments: But Not For Me is shiver-inducingly good.

Ned Rudkins-Stowe is quietly dashing as nominal baddie of the piece, saloon-owner Lank, and Neil Ditt amuses as Ziegfeld-like impresario Bela Zangler.

Heading the bill is Strictly alumnus Tom Chambers, who is hardly ever off, and hardly seems to stop dancing.  His tap skills are impressive, especially when he’s leaping around the set, from balcony to piano, or scaling the proscenium arch without use of a safety net.  It’s a star turn, to be sure, but unfortunately I fail to warm to his characterisation.  Bobby Child is a child by name and also by nature.  He’s a full-on ‘funny guy’ show-off who becomes annoying very quickly, and Chambers plays him to the hilt.  What he gains in over-the-top goofiness, he loses in truth and charm.  I think he should be less Jerry Lewis and more Bob Hope.

This is light-hearted stuff that needs a light touch.  Escapist fluff that, due to the impressive display of talent from the entire cast, does its job, taking us out of ourselves for a couple of hours and allowing us to visit a fantasy world where problems aren’t all that serious and can be overcome with a positive attitude and a spirit of cooperation.  There is a fundamental goodness in people, the show reminds us, even if real people don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Crazy For You UK TourPhoto Credit : The Other Richard

Happy hoofers: Tom Chambers and Charlotte Wakefield

Hair Tonic


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 14th December, 2015


The irrepressibly feel-good musical comes to Brum for the festive season – an alternative to panto but the story has a lot in common with fairy tales.  Our heroine Tracy Turnblad longs to go to the ball (in this case, become a dancer on The Corny Collins TV Show), there’s a wicked witch (racist TV producer Velma) and a handsome Prince Charming (Link Larkin).  Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book captures the essence of the John Waters original film, while composer Mark Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s lyrics are clever, complex and witty.  Shaiman’s tunes are all memorable, drawing on the styles of the era.  It’s 1962 in Baltimore and society is segregated.  Until Tracy Turnblad comes along…

As the ever-optimistic, single-minded idealist, Freya Sutton knocks your socks off.  Her Tracy is an unstoppable force and instantly likeable, as she waves hello to rats, drunkards and flashers on her way to school.  Her mother, Edna (Tony Maudsley) has self-esteem issues – Maudsley is spot on as a gruff-speaking Edna, gradually coming out of her shell and learning to love herself for who she is.  Partnered by a sprightly Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur, the pair stop the show with their duet, You’re Timeless To Me.  Duncan’s Wilbur is a mass of energy himself (much is made of the disparity in size between wife and husband) making the role his own – Tracy must get her vivaciousness and sense of social justice from somewhere.  Duncan’s characterisation shows us exactly where.

Brenda Edwards brings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle with the soulful anthem I Know Where I’ve Been, in the show’s goosebumps moment; while Claire Sweeney’s elegantly vile and villainous Velma is a lot of fun – daughter Amber (Lauren Stroud) is the petulant, immature version.  Monique Young gets laughs as Tracy’s awkward friend Penny.  She embarks on an interracial relationship with dynamic Seaweed (an excellent Dex Lee) bringing the political thrust of the show to a personal level.  Jon Tsouras is cheesily good as TV host Corny Collins and Ashley Gilmour makes an appealing Link.  They are all supported by a superb ensemble of vibrant youngsters – although special mention must go to Adam Price and Tracey Penn who reappear in a range of ‘authority figure’ roles, from school teacher to prison guard.

The energy coming off the stage is infectious, thanks in no small part to the exuberant choreography by Drew McOnie.  Director Paul Kerryson lets the social issues emerge without browbeating us, although when Motormouth sings she prays to her god and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr appears on the TV screen, it’s a little on the nose.  My favourite number, I Can Hear The Bells, is splendidly staged, charting Tracy and Link’s entire relationship even though she has only just met him, in a swirl of teenage naivety and romanticism.

The show’s message about tolerance of others and acceptance of self still rings true.  Hairspray will have you laughing and clapping along but it will also prick your conscience and remind you that the struggle goes on.  You only have to look from Velma to Donald Trump to realise we are still plagued by blondes with ridiculous hairdos spouting hateful and divisive nonsense.

The cast of Hairspray. Credit Ellie Kurttz (1).jpg

Freya Sutton takes centre stage as Tracy (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Hairspray – Launch


New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 6th October, 2015


Hairspray first saw the light of day – or the darkness of auditorium – in 1988 as a film by legendary director and Pope of Trash John Waters. It remains his only PG-rated material to date and launched Ricki Lake to stardom as overweight teen and wannabe TV star, Tracey Turnblad. Waters cast friend and long-time collaborator Divine as Tracey’s mother Edna and so, when the film was adapted as a musical for the Broadway stage, a theatrical tradition was established: Edna is now a plum role for men, with such luminaries as Michael Ball and John Travolta picking up her iron. In the current touring production, which arrives in Birmingham in time for Christmas, the role is played by Benidorm favourite Tony Maudsley who confesses he is getting used to the heels and the spanx. Teamed up with Blue Peter favourite Peter Duncan as husband Wilbur, the physical difference between the two maximises the comic effect. They treat us to a rendition of their duet You’re Timeless To Me, which is as charming as it is funny – although references to Geritol and Ripple may be lost on the casual audience member.

The event is hosted by Brookside favourite (I know, I keep saying favourite) Claire Sweeney who shows herself to be a natural at this kind of thing, with an easy-going, down-to-earth manner. Sadly, we don’t get to hear her sing on this occasion but she is keen to point out that the show is more than the pink and fluffy bit of fun its own publicity material might lead us to believe. The show is about tolerance, of accepting your own individuality, says Sweeney. With its backdrop of racial segregation in 1960s Baltimore, the show has an undercurrent of something more serious going on and, producer Matthew Gale points out, this production emphasises some of those darker aspects that previous versions may have glossed over.

We are treated to Without Love, reminding me of how vibrant Mark Shaiman’s score is and how funny the lyrics are (Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The highlight of the afternoon though is Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle belting out I Know Where I’ve Been, sending shivers down your spine. Even take out of context, this is a soulful crowd-pleaser, delivered flawlessly by one of the most powerful vocalists in the business.

My appetite is well and truly whetted for a return visit to the New Alexandra Theatre in December.


Hairspray runs from Monday 14th December 2015 until Saturday 2nd January 2016.

Highly recommended.

Promenade Performance


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 11th September, 2013

Of late, John Godber’s output has been dominated by two-handers about married couples on the rocks and indulging in some kind of activity that serves to foment their troubles and bring about some kind of resolution.  They go on booze cruises, trips to Paris, or cycle around Amsterdam, translating their midlife crises elsewhere.  This 1983 piece however, while it is a two-hander about a married coupl.e is a variation of Godber’s own genre and is all the more satisfying for it.

Liz and Jack are the married couple, well past midlife, visiting their favourite holiday haunt, Blackpool.  They shuffle on, headscarf for her, flat cap for him; she launches into a chirpy, Scouse, dramatic monologue that introduces them, and he offers monosyllabic responses in his gruff Yorkshire manner.  They take us back in time to other, earlier holidays.  Off come the scarf and the cap and instantly they are their younger selves again.  This is where it all becomes more interesting theatrically.  Using narrative theatre and very few props, they mime re-enactments, populating their anecdotes with a range of comic characters; it’s an approach that allows the skills of the actors to come to the fore.

Claire Sweeney is in superb form as Liz, chipper, garrulous Liz, quick to get a nark on and escalate tiffs into full-on spats.  Sweeney drops in and out of various characters seamlessly – including a bow-legged, male lorry driver.  She is matched by John Thomson as Jack, misanthropic, grumpy Jack, who has had a hard life in the mines but harbours a soft heart beneath the surface.  The pair recount various events and incidents and the emphasis is very firmly on comedy, but a picture emerges of a life together in all sorts of weather, and the story is ultimately a touching one.

Godber directs his own piece, making the most of his excellent cast, resulting in a very funny performance of a lively script.  The humour sparkles and ignites in a way that doesn’t really happen with his later, more middle-class output.  Pip Leckenby’s set, deckchairs and lampposts along the promenade with the Tower and town as a backdrop, evokes the place but gives the cast room to manoeuvre and perform some moments of hilarious physical comedy.

There are more highlights than you could fit on the back of a picture postcard: a ride on a rollercoaster, a trip to see The Student Prince, the obligatory climb of the Tower… The play evokes nostalgia for a bygone age of seaside holidays, Blackpool rock, donkey rides, bingo, and fish and chips in the rain, but it also depicts a loving relationship that can weather all storms in an affectionate portrait of shared lives.

It is the most enjoyable Godber I’ve seen in a while, making me nostalgic for his early works.


Disquiet on the front: John Thomson and Claire Sweeney.

Lessons from the Past

Malvern Theatres, Malvern, Monday 14th May, 2012

This revival of Willy Russell’s first big hit, starring Matthew Kelly as boozy lecturer Frank and Claire Sweeney as wannabe intellectual hairdresser Rita, is like going back in time to the early 1980s. Some lines have been updated by Russell – Rita makes a joke about ‘fusion’ cuisine, for example – but on the whole, this is now largely a period piece.

Matthew Kelly warms to his portrayal of the alcoholic Frank, in much the same way that Frank warms to Rita as the illicit stash of Scotch warms his personality. The play opens with him speaking to himself, searching his bookcases for a hidden bottle, and it’s a theatrical moment that goes against the naturalistic flavour of the rest of the piece. But, as I said, he settles into the role and we can’t help liking him. This I feel has more to do with Kelly’s presence as an actor than the writing of this jaded and cantankerous booze hound. Frank is a figure in decline. Not so much a has-been as a never-was. His enthusiasm is reignited by the arrival of scatty but bright hairdresser Rita, who yearns to better herself via the Open University.

At first, I thought Claire Sweeney was playing it too hard-faced (an uncharitable gentleman seated behind me complained that she is too old; Rita is thirty-one) but on reflection, her entrance and her demeanour are entirely appropriate. Rita comes from the mean streets where money is tight, aspirations don’t exist and drink and drugs abound. That would age a person, make them harder. All the more effective then is her transformation as the course in Literary Criticism progresses. By the end, she is a confident, erudite and sophisticated woman, retaining her natural wit and warmth.

Not having seen the play for decades, I was struck by how bitty it is. Scenes are short – some of them only a few seconds – Claire Sweeney has several very quick changes to perform while onstage, Matthew Kelly merely changes his cardigan. Having seen more of Willy Russell’s output in the meantime, I could recognise his signature theme: how the working class holds itself back, how it is down to the individual to struggle against peer pressure and break out of the confines of the class structure. Rita, having trained as a hairdresser, wants more than her lot. She intimates that this disaffection is more widespread – her own mother has lapses and mourns the poor quality of life – but Rita has the will to do something about it.

Of course, what she becomes is questionable too. Frank realises his Pygmalion figure has become Frankenstein’s monster. Rita has progressed beyond his tutelage. Her star is in the ascendancy; his is in retrograde. She passes her exam; he is shipped off on a sabbatical to Australia as penance for his booze-fuelled misdemeanours. The play ends with a clumsy bit of innuendo. She is going to take ‘ten years off him’. She kneels in front of him… then takes her professional scissors from her back and holds them up. The way this was staged looked like she was about to castrate him – although perhaps she already has.

I was surprised that it was the performances that kept me engaged rather than any argument in the play. Some of the quips are a little too forced, in that sardonic Carla Lane kind of way. Tamara Harvey’s direction brings out the affection the characters develop for each other in a friendship that transcends the barriers of class and education. Perhaps this is the strongest point made by the play: the common humanity of people whatever their background. It was pleasant to revisit Rita and Frank after all these years but their story has lost some of its impact, in a way that an earlier Russell work, Stags & Hens, has not.