Tag Archives: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Beanz Meanz Lolz

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th December, 2017

 

Apart from a couple of changes, the main cast from last year’s rollicking Aladdin returns to Wolverhampton for this generous bean feast of fun, and they seem to work more as a team this time.  Lisa Riley is in the good fairy role, as Mother Nature, glamorous yet down-to-earth – in fact, despite the lofty heights of the beanstalk, this is a very down-to-earth show!  Ian Adams is Dame Trot in an array of gorgeously over-the-top outfits.  Adams is an excellent dame, whose mannerisms never descend into caricature or lampoon.  He is supported by Adam C Booth as Simple Simon, an energised funny man who can work the audience seemingly effortlessly.  Local star Doreen Tipton is also back to augment the comic capers, bringing local jokes for local people – the Black Country dialect is instantly funny, and Doreen’s deadpan presence is a hoot.

Graham Cole is enjoying himself as the giant’s henchman, Fleshcreep – he even has a go at singing to open the second act.  Bless.

But leading man and star of the show is Gareth Gates, looking rugged and sounding smooth.  His pop star vocals are as sweet as ever, and he treats us to a rendition of Unchained Melody that gives me shivers.  He looks great in panto costume and handles the action well, leaving the broad comedy to the others.  His voice blends well with Sarah Vaughan’s Jill, and a traditional routine on a wall with interference from Simple Simon offers one of this funny shows funniest moments.  There is a chaotic version of The 12 Days of Christmas, complete with water pistols, and a delightful moment with youngsters brought up from the audience.

Everything you expect to see is here, well presented and pleasingly performed, from the troupe of dancers and the chorus of kids, to the corny jokes and some hilarious bawdy humour.  When the giant finally puts in an appearance, it is an impressive piece of large-scale puppetry, and there is the added bonus of a cameo from Julie Paton, singing gorgeously as his golden harp.  Paton also choreographs and so is responsible for a lot of the show’s pizzazz.

Production values are high and the fun levels higher.  This is a solid and reliable pantomime that delivers on all fronts.  Hugely enjoyable and full of good cheer, this production demonstrates why I think pantomime is the best thing about the festive season.

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack in Jack And The Beanstalk - Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Lisa Riley as Mother Nature and Gareth Gates as Jack (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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Inexplicable Elephant

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 21st November, 2017

 

First version of the classic seasonal tale I’m seeing this year, this version’s staged by Bilston Operatic Company.  Oddly, the programme doesn’t credit any writers or composers, not even Charles Dickens.  A bit of research reveals the score is by the great Alan Menken.  I would never have guessed – it’s hardly his best work.

It’s a rather sanitised, musical version with samey songs and everything happening at the same pace, but the show is not without its merits.  There is a strong central performance from Nicholas Sullivan as the miserly Scrooge; reminiscent at first of the Child Catcher, he becomes more expressive and lively as the story unfolds.  After a seemingly interminable opening number, things ironically come to life with the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley (Tim Jones in a spirited performance, flying high over a chorus of zombies…)

Lydia Tidmarsh sings well as the Ghost of Christmas Past – she deserves a more supernatural entrance rather than just strolling out from behind Scrooge’s bed.  After the impressive Marley, the arrival of the other three ghosts is underplayed.

Jacob Kohli is in excellent voice as the Ghost of Christmas Present but his song becomes a weird production number in which the Victorian aesthetic is elbowed in favour of sequins, shorter skirts and tap shoes.  It is here we see an inexplicable elephant, also in a skirt.  WHY?  I can’t think for the life of me.  There is a nod to Dickens’s socialist agenda with an appearance by Ignorance and Want – sadly still rife in Tory Britain.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be transforms from a blind beggar in a hooded cloak to a kind of exotic, acrobatic performer, all veils and sequins, like a belly dancer getting married.  Again I ask WHY?  Imogen Hall is undoubtedly a lovely mover but this interpretation robs the role of the terror it must strike into Scrooge’s withered heart.

There is clearly no money in the Cratchit household for Tiny Tim to have singing lessons but Harry Lewis performs the role with such gusto, he wins us over.  Confidence is half the battle.

There is some nice character work from Stephen Burton-Pye and Alison Inns as the Fezziwigs and an underused Sarah Houghton as Mrs Mops.

Everyone seems to be putting in a lot of effort but the crowd scenes lack focus – all the more important when your chorus is so populous.  On the whole though, the germ of Dickens’s perennial morality tale comes through and events reach their sentimental but satisfying conclusion in a production that tries hard, means well and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

bilston carol

 


Blonde Ambition

LEGALLY BLONDE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Friday 10th November, 2017

 

I have seen this show before, years ago, but if you put a gun to my head I would be able to tell you very little about it.  Now it’s doing the rounds again, I put a gun to my own head and settle into my seat – and it’s like coming to the show completely fresh.

Basically, it’s a fairy tale with protagonist Elle Woods our Disney princess, with her pink wardrobe and her long blonde locks.  She is of the view that ‘love’ (seen here as landing a husband) is the be-all and end-all and, to that end, follows her boyfriend to Harvard Law School, right after he dumps her for not being ‘serious’.  She is willing to change herself to get her man.  She even visits hairdresser Paulette to become a brunette.  So far, so Little Mermaid.

Heather Hach’s book for the show, based on Amanda Brown’s novel and the tepid film, adds a spin to the fairy story, more girl power than out-and-out feminism, as Elle develops and becomes her own woman.   It’s not her ex’s new squeeze Vivienne who is the enemy, Elle learns, but the patriarchy!  Who knew?

In the lead role, Lucie Jones (who did us proud at Eurovision this year) is stonkingly good as the beautiful, not-so-ditzy Elle.  Her performance is central to the energy of the whole and she is very, very funny.   Bill Ward has washed off the mud of farm life in Emmerdale and scrubs up well to become the suave Professor Callahan – in a highly topical turn of events, this powerful man makes a move on his intern.  Things do not end well for him.  Ward is strong, channelling Billy Flynn from Chicago with his own brand of hard-nosed razzle dazzle.

Rita Simons has shaken off the misery of Albert Square and is almost unrecognisable beneath a towering straggly wig as blue-collar hairdresser Paulette, bringing humour and energy to the part.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile before.

Liam Doyle is suitably handsome as the caddish boyfriend Warner Huntington III, contrasting with David Barrett’s sweetly bookish Emmett, and Laura Harrison is in great voice as the glamorous Vivienne.  There is super support from ensemble members: I particularly enjoy Felipe Bejarano’s Nikos and Lucyelle Cliffe in a range of female roles including a Judge and Elle’s mother.  Helen Petrovna’s fitness guru Brooke does wonders with a skipping rope – here the choreography of director Anthony Williams and Dean Street is at its most impressive.

Elle’s sorority sisters serve as a kind of Greek chorus in her mind.  They come and go in a range of outfits and are fit to bursting with energy.  After a while though, I begin to find them a bit too shrill, a bit too bouncy, and I wish I had some Ritalin to throw at the stage. And why is it that whenever live dogs appear on stage, people ooh and ahh as if they’ve never seen such a creature?  A live dog will always upstage the action – tonight ‘Rufus’ – a ‘local star canine’ – almost mounts Rita Simons’s leg in a showstopping, hilarious moment.

And so this time round, I enjoyed it a lot.  The book is good, the lyrics are witty (especially in the rhyming triplets) and the whole thing is engagingly presented.  What keeps the show from being a great musical is, unfortunately, the score.  The songs are instantly forgettable, no matter how well sung.  And there is an entirely unnecessary ‘mega-mix’ at the end to remind me of the score’s shortcomings before I go home.  It really needs a showstopper and a couple of hits that would become standards to cement the show’s place in the musical theatre firmament.  You might say it needs more highlights.

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Blonde ambition: Lucie Jones as Elle Woods


Muck and Brass

BRASSED OFF

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 24th August, 2017

 

It’s been forty years since Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre produced a show of its own but now comes this new production of a time-honoured crowd-pleaser, Mark Herman’s stage adaptation of the much-loved British film.  Set in 1994, ten years after the miners’ strike and the pits are still under threat.  With closure in the air, the men are offered ‘bribes’ in the form of what might seem like generous redundancy pay-outs.  While the women of the community continue to protest and fight, the men fill their non-working hours with drinking and band practice.

Ash Matthews is Shane, our young, part-time narrator, guiding us back to those times.  Matthews, playing much younger than he is, is a likeable presence, capturing Shane’s ebullience and childish preoccupations.  Shane is an innocent trying to make sense of what the grown-ups are up to.

Ash Matthews (Shane) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Ash Matthews as Shane (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Christopher Connel is Shane’s dad, Phil, who is really struggling to make ends meet.  It’s difficult to put bread on the table when the bailiffs have taken the table.  Connel and Miriam Grace Edwards as wife Sandra, provide most of the emotional content of the show, as their marriage comes under strain, and Phil’s mental health declines.  In a moving and desperate speech, he spits out bitter jokes as he tightens a noose around his neck.  Connel is absolutely compelling.  It’s a dark moment in what is for the most part a story leavened with a lot of down-to-earth Northern humour – most of which comes from Jim and Harry (Greg Yates and Tim Jones) and their wives Rita and Vera (Donna Heaslip and Susie Wilcox).  It’s the womenfolk who talk sense in this piece.

Shane’s grandfather and Phil’s dad, Danny, is also the leader of the colliery band, striving to keep things going and get the band through heats of various competitions.  Jeffrey Holland (from Hi-de-Hi on the telly, and countless pantomime appearances as an exemplary Dame) is a revelation in this dramatic role, balancing the dry humour with passion.  Danny may have coal dust in his lungs but he also has fire in his belly.  A dying man, he is a metaphor for the coal industry, with capitalism as the disease that will kill him.

Eddy Massarella makes a strong impression as the directionless Andy, whose interest is aroused by the return of old flame Gloria (an excellent Clara Darcy) who blows a mean flugelhorn but has a hidden agenda.  Their thwarted love story falls second, however, to scenes that show the blight on the communities by Tory ideology – and it is here that the play retains its relevance.  It is people that matter, Danny declares in an impassioned speech, not making a bob or two – despite the way the Tories carry on to this day.

Director Gareth Tudor Price handles the tonal changes as assuredly as conductor Danny steers the music.  And what music it is!  From the bouncy Floral Dance to the searing Concerto d’Aranjuez and a stirring William Tell Overture, the brass band sound is gorgeous.  The cast is augmented by the City of Wolverhampton Brass Band and it’s a real treat for the ears.

I hope this show heralds a new era of in-house productions for the Grand.  This foul-mouthed but heart-warming story is a superb way to start.

Jeffrey Holland (Danny) in Brassed Off_Wolverhampton Grand Theatre_Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Jeffrey Holland as Danny (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


The Brice is Right

FUNNY GIRL

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 24th July, 2017

 

Barbra Streisand indelibly stamped herself on this role fifty years ago so it’s a tough job for anyone to follow in her Oscar-winning footsteps.  Natasha J Barnes steps up to the plate to give us her version of Jewish entertainer, Fanny Brice – and she knocks it out of the park.  Barnes’s Fanny is magnificent, sucking us into her world, with an energised, extrovert performance – Brice as a performer was larger-than-life and hardly ever ‘off’.  Her humour is a defence mechanism and a shield for situations when she feels uncertain or nervous, cracking jokes and pulling faces to mask her fears or her heartbreak.  Barnes can also sing, with subtlety and with full belt.  Her ‘People’ is almost understated in its tenderness and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ brings the house down.  Rising through the ranks of showbiz, Brice’s instincts are to undermine the sexist tosh that is ‘His Love Makes You Beautiful’ – mainly because of her looks, which she is told repeatedly, ain’t pretty.  I take issue with this and this alone: Barnes is rather pretty indeed, lacking the distinctive features of La Streisand or La Brice.

Darius Campbell is a towering romantic lead as inveterate gambler Nick Arnstein, with his basso profundo delivery and inexhaustible supply of smarm and charm.  Nigel Barber is the long-suffering impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and Nova Skipp makes an endearing impression as Fanny’s mum.  Joshua Lay is excellent as Fanny’s friend and fellow hoofer, Eddie, while Martin Callaghan is good fun as Mr Keeney, the man who (reluctantly) gives Fanny her first break.  The entire company is on great form as an amusing bunch of characters supporting the powerful and, yes, funny central performance from Barnes. Lynne Page’s quirky period choreography also brings the Ziegfeld glamour to the production.  Michael Pavelka’s elegantly sparse set: a proscenium arch askew, mirrored wings, serves as every location for this stripped-down staging.  Harvey Fierstein may have reworked Isobel Lennart’s original book for the show but the show remains an undeniably old-school, old fashioned musical. It’s A Star is Born with a lot of heart and a lot of fun.

There are many, many peaks; the only troughs are shallow ones, whenever Fanny isn’t on stage and a couple of the numbers feel like fillers, however superbly presented.   Barnes is irresistible, almost an attention vortex, giving us the vulnerability and pain of Fanny behind the gurning and the glitz.  If you’re only going to give one standing ovation this year, this is the one who deserves it.

fuuny girl

The greatest star… Natasha J Barnes gives us her breathtaking Fanny

 


Comedy/Tragedy Tonight!

ROMEO & JULIET/TWELFTH NIGHT

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th July, 2017

 

The Watermill Theatre’s tour of a Shakespeare double bill arrives in Wolverhampton and gets off to a stirring start with a contemporary setting for Romeo & Juliet.  Aimed at a YA audience, it appears, this is Verona Hollyoaks-style, where a chorus of hoodie-sporting youths narrate and provide some of the show’s most effective non-naturalistic sequences.  A young cast overall, they are headed by Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva as the star-cross’d lovers.  What really comes across is the youth of the characters, their exuberance, gaucheness and headlong surrender to violent emotions.  This makes the balcony scene awkwardly funny but nonetheless sincere in its outbursts and declarations of love.

Victoria Blunt makes a bold, tomboyish Benvolio while Offue Okegbe is an endearing Mercutio – although I think he could ditch the wetsuit and flippers and still be funny.  Peter Dukes is a beefy Tybalt and Rebecca Lee a sympathetic Friar Laurence but it is Lauryn Redding as the Nurse (and also as the Prince who uses a rubber ball as a gavel to punctuate his pronouncements) who shows us how it’s done.  Among a strong ensemble, she stands out in terms of conviction and delivery.  I also admire Capulet (Jamie Satterthwaite) and his cheesy dad speech.

Director Paul Hart interlaces scenes with up-to-date musical numbers performed live by the cast.  This is at its most effective as a soundtrack underscoring key moments, e.g. a Movement sequence at R and J’s wedding brings the first half to a close with a preview of what is to come.  The style is very much influenced by Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh – and this is in no way a bad thing, making the action accessible and the emotions plain.  On the whole, the cast handle the verse expertly – apart from the off moments when they’re rushing it.  A sophisticated and engaging production, brimming with youthful energy.

watermill romeo

Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva on the balcony

Back again the following evening for the bittersweet rom-com, Twelfth Night.  This Illyria has a 1920s vibes to it and the music is vibrant and jazzy – some of the songs used are anachronistic but this doesn’t matter in the slightest.  Effective use of Tears For Fears’ Mad World, for example, and again I am struck by the musical and vocal abilities of the cast.  Rebecca Lee is the cross-dressing Viola – this is a world in which genders are bent and no one bats an eye: Sir Toby Belch (Lauryn Redding being marvellous again) is such a figure, referred to as a ‘she’ but dressed like a man (with conduct to match) and the honorific ‘Sir’.  No wonder Viola is able to get away with it.  Jamie Satterthwaite is a suitably self-indulgent Orsino, while Aruhan Galieva’s regal Olivia soon shows us the love-struck young lady behind the veil.   Offue Okegbe’ s easy-going Feste and Mike Slader’s prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek add to the pervading comic mood; Victoria Blunt’s cunning Maria and Emma McDonald’s earnest Antonia keep the plot moving with conviction.  There is always a melancholic air to this play, as though people are trying to distract themselves with practical jokes, music, and the folly of love (and, of course, drink!).  Paul Hart’s direction keeps the party atmosphere going without neglecting the undercurrent – people are hurt by these ‘distractions’, none less than Peter Dukes’s show-stealing Malvolio who transforms from a stuffy butler type to a kind of ‘sweet transvestite’ in yellow stockings and feather boa, to a broken, humiliated man, bent on revenge.  It’s a delight of a show, like bitter chocolate, reminding us that Shakespeare can still push our buttons to make us laugh and to make us empathise with our fellow humans.  The downbeat happy ending is here enlivened by a jazzed-up rendition of Hey-ho, the Wind and the Rain.   In fact, Ned Rudkins-Stow’s arrangement of the play’s songs are all well done, from O, Mistress Mine to Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave.  Shakespeare wasn’t half bad as a lyricist either, it turns out!

A thoroughly enjoyable pairing – you should catch at least one if you can.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander-029

Rebecca Lee and Offue Okegbe (Photos: Scott Rylander)

 


Back in Black

THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Monday 22nd May, 2017

 

It’s unusual to have a long-running show in the West End (27 years and counting!)  that isn’t yet another musical or The Mousetrap.  The longevity of The Woman In Black is testament to its brilliance – everyone should go and see it at least once. Even when you know what’s coming, the show is still a suspenseful thrill-ride.  And now, with this touring production, you have your chance.

Ostensibly, a two-hander, Stephen Mallatratt’s masterly adaptation of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story keeps its theatricality to the fore.  Arthur Kipps (David Acton) has recruited an actor (Matthew Spencer) to rehearse the telling of his own experiences with the eponymous apparition.  Using only basic furniture to represent every location, along with recorded sound effects and well-placed lighting, their narrative works on our imagination – and this is what makes the stage version infinitely superior to the film.  Nothing can scare us more than our own minds.  It begins with humour as the performance style is established and between scenes from Kipps’s story, the men drop in and out of the framing device – there is an ongoing story here that will also come to a chilling conclusion… Gradually, Kipps’s story takes over and the atmosphere grips, the action surprises, makes us jump.

It’s a real showcase for the two performers.  Matthew Spencer is excellent as the effusive ‘actor’ taking on the role of the younger Kipps – it is his reactions that create much of the terror – while David Acton demonstrates his range, first as the nervous, ineffectual orator Kipps and then as everyone else in the story.  Such is the skill of the two that we are made to care about a little dog, Spider, that isn’t even there!

Robin Herford’s direction pushes all the right buttons in all the right places.  Especially effective are the silences, keeping us on edge.  Michael Holt’s deceptively simple design sits well within the Grand’s ornate proscenium.  Similarly, Kevin Sleep’s straightforward lighting proves you don’t need realism to ignite the imagination.  The whole enterprise is decidedly spooky and fills us with dread.  And delight.  Scaring audiences at the theatre is difficult to pull off, with all the coughing and fidgeting and the nervous laughter, but The Woman In Black continues to put the willies up us (if that’s not a contradiction!) and long may she continue!

Go and see her before she comes to see you!!

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Give him a big hand! Matthew Spencer exploring the haunted house…