Tag Archives: Gary Wilmot

Oh, What A Beautiful Show!

OKLAHOMA!

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 30th June, 2015

 

Having seen this production earlier in the tour, it was an absolute treat to be given the chance to see it again. I loved everything about it the first time and my love is renewed and redoubled to catch it a second time.

The material, of course, is sublime. Richard Rodgers’s melodic score, Oscar Hammerstein II’s witty book and lyrics, blend to create sumptuous entertainment, and this high quality production from Music & Lyrics and Northampton’s Derngate Theatre serves this classic supremely well.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh evokes both period and place, sending up, like Hammerstein does, the charmingly parochial attitudes (cf Kansas City) creating a community with its own moral values. She brings out the humour of the script and has her superlative company play it with heart as big as all outdoors.

Unofficial matriarch Aunt Eller rules the roost in a stonking performance by Belinda Lang, hard-boiled with a soft centre. Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is feisty and bold, with a sweet but powerful singing voice. From the off, Laurey bickers with cowboy Curly – in a homespun Beatrice and Benedick way – and we know they are made for each other. As for Curly – well – you fall in love with Ashley Day as soon as his voice announces, clear as bell, what kind of morning it is. Day has the matinee idol good looks, the irreverent attitude, heart-on-his-sleeve, good humour. He sings like an angel in a cowboy hat.

A rival for Laurey’s affections, although a non-starter, is live-in farm hand Jud Fry – a towering performance from Nic Greenshields. His operatic bass blends well with Curly’s tenor for the ironic duet, Pore Jud Is Daid.   He is a barely contained mass of menace, a dark presence in this otherwise idyllic land. Kavanaugh balances the comedy with tension: Pore Jud is volatile enough to explode at any second.

Gary Wilmot is in his element as itinerant peddler Ali Hakim, delivering more than ribbons and other fripperies on his rounds. Wilmot’s comic timing is flawless – the jokes and business still play fresh. Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie, a girl of distractable virtue, is a belter, in terms of selling her big number I Cain’t Say No, and in characterisation. It’s a dream of a cast, supported by an excellent chorus, including great character work from Kara Lane as Gertie Cummings and Simon Anthony, appearing in this performance as Will Parker.

During the interval I hear some purist complaining that the cylindrical hay bales with and on which the cowboys dance come from a later, mechanised age. “They should be haystacks!” he moans, balefully.  I think he’s looking for something to criticise and is clutching at straws.  I’d rather sacrifice agricultural accuracy for theatrical expediency: Drew McOnie’s spectacular and exuberant  choreography would miss those bales terribly.

If you can overlook the hay issue, and most people seem able to, this is a truly wonderful production of a masterpiece, the pinnacle of its genre. Sometimes humanity gets things right and produces a perfect classic. Mozart did it with Don Giovanni, Walt Disney did it with Pinocchio. And Rodgers and Hammerstein did it with Oklahoma! This is popular art that speaks to us on many levels, through solid storytelling and life-affirming values.

The tour has just six weeks left to run. I urge you to catch it if you can.

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Ashley Day as Curly (centre) and those controversial bales of hay (Photo: Pamela Raith)

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Better than OK!

OKLAHOMA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 4th March, 2015

 

This revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical is just about flawless. From the moment the overture begins, you know you’re in for a good time as we’re reminded of the wealth of good tunes that lies ahead. The curtain rises on Francis O’Connor’s rather monochromatic set, all horizontal planks like a big ol’ barn. In fact, instead of the great outdoors and wide open spaces, the set boxes the characters in. They have a restricted world view, out there in the sticks – as evidenced in the song “Kansas City” where even the most basic advancements in technology and infrastructure are greeted as marvels of the modern age. Colour is brought to the production by O’Connor’s evocative costumes and by some beautiful lighting design by Tim Mitchell.

Populating this set is an energetic and lively chorus just brimming with yee-hah spirit. Drew McOnie’s choreography is in keeping with the period (early 1900s), the place (the wild frontier) and seems fresh and original, all at once.

Belinda Lang is Aunt Eller, a crotchety matriarch (all the other females seem to be nubile young women) with a no-nonsense approach and a dry sense of humour. She embodies the pioneer spirit, hard-working, wise and willing to embrace change and challenge. Lang is magnificent in this less-than-glamorous role.

Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is sweet and spunky – her bickering scenes and duets with Curly are highlights – of a show that is almost all highlights! Lucy May Barker as the promiscuous Ado Annie delivers a flawless rendition of “I Cain’t Say No!” – her characterisation is both naïve and calculating. James O’Connell is her beau Will Parker, an appealing hunk and an excellent dancer. Their troubled romance is a counterpoint to the main plot, the relationship between Laurey, Curly and brooding farmhand Jud Fry.

As Fry, Nic Greenshields is all menace, using his stature and build to terrify us, keeping his outbursts of temper to a minimum. He also has a resounding baritone voice – a worthy villain! Scenes in Jud’s smoke house of porn are exceptionally creepy.

Big name casting for this tour is veteran star Gary Wilmot who is ideally cast as itinerant pedlar Ali Hakim. Wilmot has Hakim’s sardonic humour down pat and, of course, can deliver a show tune apparently effortlessly. Value for money, indeed.

But for me, the show is all about Curly. Here, Ashley Day is perfect. Tall, handsome, with a voice to make you swoon, he balances Curly’s cocky humour and his all-out decency. You can’t help falling for him.  In fact, I’d better change the subject or people will say I’m in love.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh delivers comedy and drama, allowing the tones of Rodgers’s score to inform the show’s moods and Hammerstein’s delightful lyrics to come to the fore. There is genuine tension in the climactic knife fight (directed by Christopher D Hunt) – even if you know the outcome already.

This top-quality show has it all, and you can’t help leaving the theatre with a grin on your face and warmth in your heart. This touring production reminds us why the show is a classic – staged and performed by exuberant, irresistible talent.

Short and Curly - Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Short and Curly – Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)


On the Up

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Monday 22nd December, 2014

 

You can rely on the Hippodrome pantomime for spectacle – that’s a given – but what this year’s festive production has that some of the more recent offerings have lacked is a strong storyline, the tree on which to hang the glittering baubles.   This year we are firmly back in trad panto territory as opposed to the variety-show-in-fairytale-clothing of last year’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or, before that, Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates.

It’s not just the plot that is familiar and I have to remember that for many members of the audience it is the first time they are encountering these well-worn, tried and tested routines. Much is repeated from last year – with a couple of prominent cast members playing a return engagement, this is to be expected, but know what? Even the oldest, corniest moments still have the power to charm when executed by skilled hands such as these.  The humour is puerile and lavatorial: bum, poo, fart, willy… I laughed a lot.

The irrepressible Matt Slack (imagine a bald Brian Conley) is back as the titular Jack’s silly-billy brother. Slack is a natural for pantomime and a sublime physical comedian. Jack also has another, perhaps unnecessary brother, Simple Simon – ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, also back for a second year. Not so much a double act as an alternating pair of entertainers, these two provide much of the comic thrust of the evening. Zerdin performs the “Who’s in the first house?” routine superbly – by himself!

Also back is Gary Wilmot, a consummate panto dame. Wilmot doesn’t exaggerate or caricature, making his Dame Trot a likeable, cheeky character rather than a grotesque.

Duncan James proves a good sport as our dashing hero Jack, finally succumbing to our exhortations to take his shirt off. He and Princess Apricot (a sweet Robyn Mellor) belt out a bit of an aimless ballad together – their voices deserve better. Not that it matters: their number is sabotaged by Matt Slack doing something remarkable with a large red balloon.

In fact, probably the only criticism I’d level is where some of the song choices are concerned. Evil Fleshcreep opens the second act with an instantly forgettable song – Chris Gascoyne (Peter Barlow off of Corrie) is clearly enjoying himself as the Giant’s henchman but there must be better songs out there.

Enchantress Jane McDonald gives a rousing rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough as Jack scales the beanstalk – it suits her vocal stylings better than the pompous stuff she is given earlier on. With her Northern camp, she fits in with the comedians – it’s still early in the show’s long run (“We’re here until Easter,” jokes Slack) so the comic timing is a little loose in parts. I expect this will tighten up with every performance.

There is plenty to enjoy. A prolonged 3D sequence is scary, in a funfair kind of way, and the Giant appears in an animated version and ‘live’ on stage. A pantomime cow does a moonwalk.  The obligatory 12 Days of Christmas routine is cleverly undermined in a kind of Play That Goes Wrong way and, almost literally, brings the house down.   Again I have to bear in mind that normal people don’t go to see several pantomimes in the same season, as we clap along to yet another rendition of Pharrell Williams’s Happy

It’s great to see the Hippodrome panto back on track, letting the form and not the stars shape the content.

jackand the beanstalk


Snow White Drifts

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Saturday 21st December, 2013

 

You can depend on the Birmingham Hippodrome to provide a Christmas show that is opulent, extravagant, spectacular, dripping with glitter and with big-name stars.  This year is no exception but what sets this production above some of the recent offerings is its sheer entertainment value.  This is an extremely funny show indeed.

All eight of the title characters, however, are hardly in it.  Danielle Hope’s Snow White gets a couple of opportunities to belt out ballads (which she does very well) but doesn’t get to interact with the seven little men in whose cottage she takes refuge.  As for those seven little men, here we don’t get actors who are dwarfs; we get actors in novelty costumes scuttling around, lip-synching to a pre-recorded track, it seems to me.  It’s a fun moment when they first appear but the joke wears thin – then again, they have so little to do on stage, it hardly matters how they are presented*.

This production is not so much a pantomime as a variety show with a pantomime twist and – it turns out – there is nothing wrong with this approach.  Where do we get to see old-school variety anymore?

Gok Wan gets things off to a flying start as the Man in the Mirror, swinging above the stage in a frame like a glittered toilet seat.  This is Wan’s first outing of this type and proves himself game for a laugh even if his production number is a bit of a stretch too far.  Eastenders’s John Partridge is the dashing Prince, a Royal song-and-dance man, reminding us of his roots in dance and musical theatre, and works as a warm-up act at the start of both halves.   He also struts and poses in proper panto style – he is an all-round entertainer and easy on the eye too.

Another consummate performer, Gary Wilmot, is the Dame.  He is underused, I feel.  Yes, he sings a comic song about baltis in Birmingham and another of mawkish sentiment about being a mother, but on the whole he is very much relegated to a supporting role for the comedic antics of the others.  The Dame has two sons, you see, and we see a lot of them.  There is Muddles – ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, who gets a lot of stage time to give us his act, including pulling a couple from the audience and using them as life-size dummies – and there is Oddjob, played by the energetic Matt Slack, who openly acknowledges his Brian-Conleyesque approach.  They are both very entertaining and bring a lot of energy and laughter – at the expense of the drama of the fairytale.

It falls to the fabulous Stephanie Beacham to keep the story going as the Wicked Queen “Sadista”.  Miss Beacham makes an elegant villain with claws and spikes and a voice that drips evil.  It is she above all who anchors the show in pantomime rather than let it fly off into full-blown music hall.

Producer/director Michael Harrison goes for glamour and glitz rather than drama and danger.  It’s a show about surface rather than what’s underneath and, in this instance, it’s none the poorer for it.  There is one sequence, a silly song about alternative jobs the comic characters could do instead of working for the Queen that gets the biggest reaction of the night.  It involves a frying pan, a feather duster, a cricket bat and a policeman’s truncheon and a breathtaking display of comic timing, demonstrating the delight that can be derived from watching skilled performers live on stage.

This Snow White may have drifted from a purist’s view of pantomime but it’s a hell of an enjoyable night out.

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*Cheeky plug: The dwarfs reminded me of a crime novel what I wrote


A Gay Old Time

RADIO TIMES
Derby Theatre, Tuesday 2nd October, 2012


It’s the height of World War II. In a London beset by air raids, comedian Sammy Shaw (Gary Wilmot) is doing his bit to keep the nation’s morale high with his radio show, broadcast live from a West End theatre. He is supported by a company of talented singers, dancers and musicians – including his long-suffering girlfriend, Olive (Sara Crowe). The show is under threat, not only from the Nazis but also from the BBC. The corporation’s rules about what is acceptable and what is not are a headache for Sammy; he is forever having to cut items and find new material. Add Olive’s ex, matinee idol Gary Strong (Michael Hobbs) to the mix and Sammy’s already strained relationship with Olive is brought to breaking point.

The cast all sing, dance and play a range of instruments – the triple threat of musical theatre. It is unfair to single any of them out for special mention; they form too tight an ensemble for that.

As cheeky chappie, Sammy, Gary Wilmot is well within his comfort zone, in his Max Miller suit, wise-cracking his way into and out of trouble. Sara Crowe is touching as the neglected Olive, with a ‘show must go on’ mentality, and a tolerance level that keeps her hanging on long after most people would have shown Sammy the door.

Christian Edwards as sound engineer Jeeps is superb. He sings, he dances, he plays a mean trombone, as well as carrying the romantic subplot and becoming a hero. Amy, the object of his affection is played with elegance by Vivien Carter, who – like everyone else – is a dazzlingly versatile performer.

I particularly liked John Conroy as stuffy producer Heathcliffe Bultitude – a stock figure from comedy: the killjoy. He shows he is full of surprises and contributes many of the comedic highlights of the piece.

In a show where there is never a dull moment, highlights for me include “Hey Little Hen” which involves an outbreak of ukuleles, and the a capella rendition of “Run Rabbit Run” encapsulates the charm of the whole show. Sammy’s heartfelt declaration to Olive, via song, is the emotional punch of the piece, proving Wilmot is not just a cheeky face.

The book is by Abi Grant and Alex Armitage, drawing on the traditions of British comedy. The script is relentlessly funny, dripping with innuendo and silliness. I wonder how much the BBC’s restrictions fostered this type of comedy, where the filthiest things can be mentioned and alluded to through coded references and euphemism. Round the Horne probably wouldn’t have existed without the constraints imposed by that little green rule book. The characters punctuate their corniest lines with an Arthur Askey-esque “I thang ew” – it is the equivalent of writing LOL at the end of your text messages or status updates, except here it is charming.

The score is purely the work of one composer from the era, the marvellous Noel Gay, whose name sums up his best work (from a time when ‘gay’ meant bright and cheerful). The show is a testament to his talent for writing catchy tunes. Like the wisecracks, the hits keep coming. Caroline Leslie’s direction keeps proceedings cracking along at a fair old pace. The show is slick, wildly funny, surprisingly touching andman unadulterated delight. Much as the Light Programme boosted spirits and cheered the nation up during the war, this production is a much-needed tonic in these grim and austere times.