Tag Archives: Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Who’s The Daddy?

MAMMA MIA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 7th February, 2018

 

The mother (the Mamma) of all jukebox musicals arrives in Wolverhampton as part of its bid for world domination.  Regular readers will know my views on jukebox musicals but where this one has an advantage is the back catalogue it raids for its score is one of the richest seams of pop music ever written.  Songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are one of the greatest partnerships of all time and their work is part of the fabric of popular culture.

It’s a double-edged sword.  On the one hand it’s great to hear the songs again; on the other, the songs are so familiar it is difficult to appreciate the context into which they have been thrust.  And so, some songs are shown in a new light (The Name of the Game) while others are rendered meaningless.  Some songs are simply too ‘big’ – most are stories in themselves and feel diminished, shoehorned into the storyline.

Ah, the storyline.  It reminds me of Shirley Conran’s blockbuster, Lace, (Which one of you four bitches is my mother?) but here a young girl seeks a father from three candidates.  She invites them to her wedding in the hope of recognising her dad right away.  It’s this little mystery that motivates the return of the three men, now middle-aged, and their reunion with their former flame, the girl’s mother Donna, who used to sing in some kind of glam rock vocal group.  Spoiler: the identity of the dad isn’t revealed, in a wishy-washy copout.  Now, if one of the guys had been a complete and utter shit, then we would have had some tension.  There would have been some stakes in the unfolding drama.

But everyone’s nice.  Everyone’s an extrovert.  Everyone’s funny.  Everyone is basically the same character.  And it all takes place on a Greek island, flooded with sunshine, and so the Scandinavian introspection and melancholy of the lyrics is mostly swamped.

Lucy May Barker is an appealing Sophie, Donna’s bastard daughter, while Helen Hobson’s Donna (who looks better when she gets out of her Rod, Jane & Freddie dungarees) has the big sings.  She can’t quite pull off the full Agnetha, opting to sing-speak some lines.  As her old chums and backing singers, Rebecca Seale is a lot of fun as Rosie and the elegant, leggy Emma Clifford makes a striking impression as Tanya – a kind of Patsy Stone figure, without the nihilism.

Catherine Johnson’s book keeps things frothy.  We are amused by the antics of these people rather than touched by their plight (such as it is).  Other than as a spectacle, and a chance to sing and clap along, the whole thing is emotionally uninvolving.  Only Slipping Through My Fingers tugs at the heartstrings.

Perhaps I’m missing the point.  It is more fun than I’m perhaps suggesting, and I especially enjoy the staging of the earlier numbers, where choreographer Anthony Van Laast adds a touch of humour (their heads appearing in doorways, for example).  Curiously, the chorus disappear to be replaced by disembodied back-up vocals.

If you want undemanding, feel-good fun, and a chance to revisit some fantastic songs, this is for you.  After all, “Without a song or a dance, what are we?”

mamma mia

Helen Hobson and Lucy May Barker (Photo: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

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Taking a Hedda

HEDDA GABLER

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 23rd January, 2018

 

The National Theatre’s celebrated production is doing the rounds, and it’s a real treat to have such prestigious work on one’s doorstep.  It’s a new version of the Henrik Ibsen masterpiece translating the action into a contemporary setting or, I should say, a kind of timeless setting: the play still has people writing letters to convey important plot points, even though there’s an electronic visitor cam and door buzzer…

Jan Versweyveid’s set is an empty box, ostensibly the yet-to-be-decorated apartment of the newlywed Tesmans.  Sparsely furnished, often its only light source is the huge side window.  It makes for a stark landscape, suitable for any urbane Nordic noir drama… Hedda’s piano feels out of place – just as she does – and her late father’s brace of pistols, already in their own little display cabinet, lend foreboding.  Hedda shoots both them and her mouth off to express her boredom and frustrations.  We realise that the apartment is not so much Hedda’s space as her headspace, and the action takes a more symbolic turn.  By the final act when the other characters are actively boarding up the only window to the world she has, we are beyond the realms of the literal.  Director Ivo van Hove makes bold choices, most of which I approve of, in his presentation of a classic text in a new light.  Ibsen’s (via a Patrick Marber reworking) naturalistic chitchat is underscored by a slowly pulsating, throbbing sound that is disconcerting and ominous, coming to a sudden halt at the moments of high drama – it’s its absence we notice, as Hedda is starkly confronted with turns of events.

Lizzy Watts heads a strong ensemble in the title role.  Her Hedda is headstrong, coldly sarcastic and manipulative.  Having surrendered her own power, her own identity by becoming Mrs Tesman, she seeks to have power over someone else.  We enjoy her barbed outbursts and see her cruelty for what it is.  What I don’t really get is the source of her dissatisfaction: Abhin Galeya’s Tesman is an affable chap, enthusiastic and lively – yes, Tesman’s area of expertise (medieval trug makers) is esoteric and, frankly, dull as ditch water, but that doesn’t make him a basket case.  If, through Hedda’s eyes, we were shown a Tesman more annoying, more gauche, more bookish, we might appreciate more her frustration at having settled for this nerd.  Similarly, Richard Pyros’s Lovborg, doesn’t have, for me, the irresistibly sleazy charisma, the sense of brooding, romantic danger, that gets the ladies’ heads turning.   Annabel Bates is an appealing Mrs Elvsted – even though she’s already left her unsuitable husband (a course of action Hedda doesn’t even consider) – she’s very much the victim role, an innocent caught in Hedda’s web.  Adam Best swaggers and strides as Judge Brack, the male authority role and the villain of the piece.  Seen through the prism of Hedda’s mind, the physical liberties he takes with her become symbolic – he wouldn’t get away with such excesses in their literal sense, one would hope.  Best is enjoyably hateful, tightening his hold on Hedda – no woman can escape the patriarchy, after all…  Christine Kavanagh makes an impression as Tesman’s stylish, interfering Aunt, and Madlena Nedeva’s Berte the maid is a constant presence – a bit like a museum attendant on her seat at the intercom, but also as a kind of familiar to Hedda, silently conjuring props and messages, often unbidden.

It’s a thought-provoking staging that illuminates the Ibsen in such a way we appreciate the richness of the original.  For me, the sense of being trapped doesn’t quite come off at the end.  Perhaps I would have had the walls closing in, almost imperceptibly; Hedda’s vast empty box of an apartment is simply too vast.

A bold production that engages our intelligence rather than packing an emotional punch, it’s certainly worth seeing and, get this: if you’re one of those young people (26 or even younger) you can see the show on tour for merely a fiver!  Definitely worth it.  All you have to do is quote IBSEN5 when you book.

HEDDA GABLERUK Tour 2017/2018
Royal National Theatre London

Keeping a cool Hedda: Lizzy Watts (Photo: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)


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)


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.

Legally-Blonde-The-Musical-2017-18-Lucie-Jones-Elle-Woods

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