Tag Archives: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Finger-Prickin’ Good

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2018

 

Second panto of the season for me and my second Sleeping Beauty.  This extravaganza in Wolverhampton’s beautiful Grand Theatre hits all the high notes, with their most consistently excellent pantomime production in years.

Debbie McGee kicks things off with a Grand entrance as the Lovely Fairy Crystal.  It’s not long before she’s demonstrating her hoofing skills.  Strictly between us, she’s still a fantastic mover, even if she is prone to a spot of corpsing in her dialogue scenes – actually, this adds to the fun.  As her evil counterpart, the wicked fairy Carabosse, Julie Paton is hugely enjoyable; it’s not until the second act that we get her finest moment, a lyrically-adapted rendition of  I Will Survive.  Paton also choreographs the show, the customary blend of fairy-tale costumes and contemporary dance.

Ian Adams returns to Wolverhampton on double duty, as director and as a deliciously camp dame, Queen Wilhelmina (Call me Willy!)  Adams is clearly in his element here, bringing drag queen elegance.  The innuendo levels sky-rocket whenever he is on.  Also back is Doreen Tipton, as hilariously dreary Nurse Doreen, bringing a very local flavour to proceedings and also some of the rudest remarks.

Bethan-Wyn Davies is an appealing Princess Beauty, looking like she’s dropped out of a Disney movie, and singing like a pop princess.  Her love interest is Prince Harry, played by the delightful Oliver Ormson, handsome, funny and with the voice of an angel, he is the perfect panto prince.

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Oliver Ormson and Bethan-Wyn Davies as Harry and Meghan – sorry, Beauty (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

The big draw for me though is the casting of Sooty.  As himself.  There is so much love for the little golden bear with black ears, and I’m pleased to see it’s not just me.  The older members of the audience revel in the nostalgia while the younger ones are delighted by his mischievous antics perhaps for the first time.  Of course, you can’t have Sooty without Sweep, who treats us to a rendition of Nessun Dorma like no other.  It’s a surreal moment.  Part of you knows it’s a hand in a glove squeezing a squeaker, but another part of you overrules it and you find yourself urging him on.  Go on, Sweep, give it some welly!

Accompanying the puppets is Richard Cadell.  More than Sooty’s handler, he is a splendid comic performer in his own right and also a fine stage magician.  The show has some amazing set pieces, magic tricks on the small and the large scale.  Cadell is irrepressibly funny, a true showman.

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Richard Cadell as Muddles and Sooty as himself (Photo; Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

With musical director Kelvin Towse in charge of a tight ensemble, a troupe of talented dancers (who are perhaps a little underused) and a smattering of ‘babes’ from the Classic Academy of Dance, this is a high-quality show that really does have something for everyone.  Production values are impressive (apart from a naff helicopter) and while the kids revel in the slapstick, the grown-ups are tickled by the risqué jokes.  There are traditional routines, spectacular effects, and above all a whole lot of fun.

Magic.

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Sucks to be you

DRACULA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 20th November, 2018

 

The Halloween spirit lingers at Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre with a visit from this new touring production.  The first thing that strikes you is Sean Cavanagh’s set of towering Gothic arches that glide around and reconfigure the space, giving us the grandeur of Castle Dracula and the imposing claustrophobia of Dr Seward’s lunatic asylum, among other locations.  Paul Ewing’s sound design provides jump shocks and, in combination with Ben Cracknell’s lightning-like lighting, keeps us on edge: we don’t know when the next loud noise might come, or what might be glimpsed in the next eyeball-searing flash.  In fact, Cracknell’s lighting is effective for what it doesn’t show as well as what it illuminates.  Atmosphere is only part of it.  Add to this, special effects from illusionist Ben Hart and the stage is set for Bram Stoker’s classic and familiar tale.

As you can probably gauge, the technical aspects of this production are important and impressive.  They are matched by a strong ensemble, a cast that seems to be comprised entirely of handsome-looking actors!   Andrew Horton’s Jonathan Harker, for example; he goes through the mill a bit, suffers PTSD, before regaining his strength for some heroics.  Evan Milton’s Dr Seward is a man of action and convention, but the object of his affections, the feisty Lucy (Jessica Webber) is more open about sexuality.  Webber brings an amazing physicality to the role as she transforms into a bloodsucker.  Contrasting with Lucy is the staider and more dependable Mina, Jonathan’s fiancée, (an appealing Olivia Swann) who, in this version by Jenny King, finally becomes an assertive force in the action.

Cheryl Campbell is in fine form as a gender-swapped Renfield, masticating flies and rambling – whatever the gender, the zoophagous Renfield is a plum of a part.  Philip Bretherton is an affable Van Helsing, showing that foreign visitors to our shores are not all Eastern Europeans, coming over here, taking our blood…

Speaking of whom, it seems we’re waiting quite a while for the Count himself to make an appearance but, in the shape of Glen Fox, Dracula is worth waiting for.  Tall and aristocratic, Fox imbues the character with an ironic humour in the scenes in which he plays host to Jonathan Harker, and a cold menace in his attacks.  He can park his coffin in my cellar any time.

Full of loud noises, bright lights and deep shadows, and pounding, stirring music, this elegant production doesn’t lack bite.  The adaptation is fairly faithful to Stoker’s novel, but there are enough surprises along the way to infuse the familiar story with freshness, to give it new blood, you might say.  I’m going to stick my neck out as say I loved this piece of Victorian Gothic, which makes the most of modern-day tech to thrill and to excite.

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Evan Milton, Philip Bretherton, Glen Fox, Olivia Swann, and Andrew Horton battle in the rain (Photo: Nobby Clark)


Boot Camp

KINKY BOOTS

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 17th October, 2018

 

Based on the film of the same name, the hit musical with book by Harvey Fierstein and songs by Cyndi Lauper hits the road for its first national tour.  Having enjoyed the movie and being well aware of the show’s West End reputation, I take my seat with eager anticipation.

It’s the story of Charlie, a young man who feels trapped into taking over his father’s shoe factory after the old man pops his clogs.  Times are hard and it seems that lay-offs and a shutdown are inevitable.  Staff are facing the boot.  Unless, a new kind of product can be found…

At first, it seems a bit humdrum and run-of-the-mill.  Like a new pair of shoes, it takes a while to wear in.  By the time queen of the drag queens Lola appears, things lift and stay lifted.  Lola (played exquisitely in this performance by Kayi Ushe) gets all the best tunes and all the best lines.  Ushe is utterly captivating, dignified, strong and vulnerable, and sassy to perfection.

The factory shifts production to the manufacture of boots for drag queens, designed by Lola, and the plot shifts from saving the factory to include the growing friendship between the two leads, Charlie and Lola (most definitely NOT the Cbeebies pair!)

As Charlie, Joel Harper Jackson is not without intensity but tends to get a bit shouty in his big musical moments.  Other than that, though, he and Ushe are a great match, their voices blending beautifully in the searing ballad, Not My Father’s Son.  Among the factory workers, there is strong support from Paula Lane as the smitten Lauren, and Demitri Lampra as Don, the embodiment of outdated toxic attitudes – a crowd favourite here in Wolverhampton.  Adam Price is also a lot of fun as middle-aged George.

The chorus of ‘Angels’ – Lola’s drag queen friends – is stunningly glamorous and camp – and agile too.  Jerry Mitchell’s choreography shows off their assets in the best possible light.  Mitchell also directs, balancing a down-to-earth, East Midlands flavour with showbiz glitz.  There are plenty of laughs here and a lesson in acceptance to boot, a recognition of the humanity behind the falsies or indeed the attitudes the characters present to the world.  You can’t help leaving the theatre feeling six inches taller.

If you’re looking for the best musical set in Northampton, this one’s a shoe-in.  A real feelgood show which, dare I say it, has heeling properties.  And the music has sole… I’ll stop now.

k boots


Nasty and Niece

AWFUL AUNTIE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 26th September, 2018

 

Birmingham Stage Company is back, following up the success of Gangsta Granny with a second alliterative title from comic actor-turned-children’s-author, David Walliams.  Walliams appears to have appointed himself the successor to Roald Dahl and his work bears many similarities to Dahl’s classic novels for children.  Chiefly, Walliams doesn’t sugar coat any aspect of his stories, populates the tales with grotesques, and places a wise child at the heart of them.  Adaptor-director Neal Foster captures the Walliams spirit superbly well, rendering the action in imaginative, theatrical ways.

This one is a grim (Grimm) melodrama that is positively Victorian in its sensationalism.  The titular aunt – Agatha Saxby – is monstrously cruel to her recently orphaned niece.  The title deeds of rambling manor Saxby Hall are at stake.  Richard James is enormous fun as this squawking villain, stomping around in plus fours and a ginger wig.  His sidekick, Wagner, is an imposing owl – and a beautiful piece of puppetry performed by Roberta Bellekom.

Georgina Leonidas instantly gains our sympathy as plucky, long-suffering heroine, 12-year-old Stella, who finds an ally in the form of friendly ghost, Soot (the likeable Ashley Cousins) a chimney sweep’s boy who came to a sticky end on the job.  The pair uncover the true extent of Auntie’s abominable activities as they clamber up and over Jacqueline Trousdale’s revolving set pieces.  The gothic events are offset by the humorous appearances of dotty retainer, Gibbon, in a hilarious turn by Harry Sutherland.

Jak Poore’s original score adds to the urgency of the action and the melodramatic atmosphere of the whole.  It may lack the warmth of Gangsta Granny, but there is plenty here to enjoy as Stella endures tribulation and trials, and Auntie gets her comeuppance in a satisfactory turn of events.

Darkly delicious with a generous helping of toilet humour and gross-out moments, Awful Auntie is awesome entertainment for the whole family.

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Georgina Leonidas and Ashley Cousins try to twoc their way out of trouble (Photo: Mark Douet)


A Grand Day Out

LADIES’ DAY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 17th July, 2018

 

Following an excellent Brassed Off last summer, the Grand has produced its second in-house show, Amanda Whittington’s comedy about four women from a fish-packing factory who have a day at the races to celebrate the retirement of one of their group.  As a Vegan, I have issues with the setting, of course, but they’re not real fish and there is neither hide nor hair of a horse, so I put my sensibilities aside.  The job and the destination are immaterial; they are devices to get characters together – at heart, this is a play about the race that matters: the human race.

Emmerdale’s Deena Payne is a safe pair of hands as Pearl, the retiree, strong and sensible – yet she has a secret, and it’s the nature of plays of this kind that secrets will come to light.  Payne’s Wolverhampton accent is decent and her comic timing impeccable.  Hollyoaks’s Emma Rigby is glamorous good-time girl Shelly, taken in by a sleazy TV presenter – Rigby definitely looks the part, and gives us the fragility behind Shelly’s public façade.  Roisin O’Neill is sweet as the young and innocent Linda – it is Linda’s obsession with Tony Christie that provides the soundtrack for the show and, in a coup, this is the first production of the play that features the man himself, live on stage.  But stealing our hearts and almost the entire show is Cheryl Fergison (formerly ‘Hevver’ off of EastEnders) giving a comedic tour de force as Jan.  Fergison is hilarious throughout and her drunken scene is particularly well-observed.

Playing the male roles is Sean McKenzie.  Slick and slimy as the TV presenter, he acknowledges it’s a bit of a stretch when he later appears as an eight-and-a-half stone jockey – but we willingly suspend our disbelief, as the jockey and Linda bond in one of Whittington’s best-written scenes.

The script is largely very funny, but it is somewhat patchy.  It is the energy and likeability of the quartet of women that keep us engaged.  There are moments that touch on the flip side of horse-racing: we are reminded that horses are shot if they break a leg; Sean McKenzie appears as a gambling addict, his life in tatters…

A lot of fun, a feel-good piece with plenty of laughs and a heart-warming denouement, Ladies’ Day is definitely worth an evening of your time and is a production with a strong local flavour and is a show of which the Grand can be justifiably proud.

Sean McKenzie, Deena Payne, Cheryl Fergison - Ladies Day at Wolverhampton Grand - Photo by Graeme Braidwood

Sean McKenzie, Deena Payne and Cheryl Fergison (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Music à la King

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th June, 2018

 

This biographical musical, telling of the rise to prominence of songwriter Carole King, feels different from other shows of its type.  Yes, it’s a rags-to-riches tale but the young King seems to have had a smooth ride to the top, from 1950s Brooklyn to 1970s Los Angeles.  Pressure from her mother to give up ‘sawng-wriding’ and become a teacher is easily overcome.  Resistance within the industry is deftly swept aside.  She sells her first hit, meets a handsome chap, forms a writing partnership with him, becomes his wife, mother to his daughters… It’s almost the interval when the first cloud appears, and dramatic tension at last enters the piece.  The second act is rife with marital stress, but King comes through, using the break-up of her marriage to lyricist Gerry Goffin as the basis for material for her phenomenal album, Tapestry.

As King, Bronté Barbé‏ is magnificent, delivering the self-deprecating Jewish humour along with the goods when it comes to singing à la King, that distinctive reedy voice combining vulnerability with power.  At this performance, Grant McConvey steps up as the charming but troubled Gerry Goffin and there is some excellent character work from Carol Royle as Carole’s mum.  Amy Ellen Richardson is also fabulous as Cynthia Weil, Carole’s best friend and songwriting rival, while Matthew Gonsalves’s Barry Mann is humorously hypochondriac and wildly talented.

The hits keep coming – it’s a real nostalgia fest of songs that were old when I was a nipper, but somehow they have entered my consciousness.  Up On The Roof, Some Kind of Wonderful, Will You Love Me Tomorrow… These are performed by members of the ensemble as ‘The Drifters’ and ‘The Shirelles’, recreating the authentic sound of those iconic acts, complete with doo-wop choreography, but it’s Little Eva (Esme Laudat) and The Locomotion that really raises the roof.  The remarkable breadth of King’s influence on popular music emerges, all the more astonishing for the era when ‘women didn’t write music’.

Beautiful is a fantastic piece of entertainment, slick and classy, heart-warming – and funny, due to a wryly witty book by Douglas McGrath.  You don’t have to be a Carole King aficionado to enjoy it, but by the end, you will be.

Beautiful.

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Bronté Barbé as Carole King (Photo: Craig Sugden)

 

 


Heart to Heart

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 30th May, 2018

 

In the 1950s, Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York, contacts a bookshop at the eponymous address, in search of an out of print book.  So begins a correspondence that lasts a couple of decades.  The ever-demanding customer and the stuffy but efficient bookseller establish a friendship over the years, and there is always the promise that one day they might meet in person.

Cambridge Arts Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse bring us this new adaptation by James Roose-Evans, in which all the dialogue is taken from the letters.  The passage of time is signalled by the other members of the bookshop staff, coming and going and playing incidental music and traditional songs – This is a nice touch, rather than having Rebecca Applin’s original and wistful compositions on tape.  By keeping the bookshop staff busy, director Richard Beecham goes a long way to prevent this wordy show from becoming too static in presentation.

Hollywood and Broadway deity, Stefanie Powers doffs her usual glamour for the comfortable slacks and woolly pullies of the pernickety writer.  Hanff’s humour is delivered with a wry twinkle and Powers brings warmth even to the most demanding of her book orders.  She looks and sounds great, even in this dishevelled state.  Of course, these days, Hanff would trawl the internet for her books and that would be the end of it, but we can appreciate, in our ‘enlightened’ times of social media, the friendships one can strike up with people across the world that you may never meet.  Powers commands the portion of the stage that represents Hanff’s apartment – Norman Coates’s detailed, cluttered set evokes the frozen-in-time aspects of all good bookshops.

Clive Francis also excels as bookseller Frank Doel, gradually thawing and loosening up.  Even the act of listening to Powers narrate Hanff’s latest missive is imbued with emotion.  Of course, being British, Doel is never going to be effusive, but the chipping away at his reserve is sweetly handled, and there is a real sense of affection between the two.  Other members of staff chip in with their own letters to Hanff – details of social history are alluded to and the play delivers a strong impression of the way people come and go through life as well as the changing face of life in post-war Britain.

Charming and amusing, this gentle piece turns poignant as it reaches the end, with a final scene that is irresistibly moving.  It’s about closeness across distance, and it’s also about anticipation and disappointment, and friendship and loss, and I loved every minute.

A classy production that deserves a larger audience.

stefanie powers pic by Richard Hubert Smith

The Powers that be. Stefanie Powers as Helene Hanff (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)