Tag Archives: New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

For the Record

SON OF A PREACHER MAN

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 13th September, 2017

 

The words ‘jukebox musical’ are enough to send a shiver down this reviewer’s spine.  Stephen King should write one.  Perhaps Pet Sematary using the music of The Animals.   Mr King, however, would endow his show with a plot worth following.  Here, sadly, writer Warner Brown does not.

Paul (Michael Howe) yearns to reignite his crush on a boy from his youth spent in a Soho record shop; Alison (Debra Stephenson), newly widowed but reeling from an attraction to one of her students, has a hankering to visit the Soho record shop her mum was always banging on about; Kat (Diana Vickers), following the death of the grandmother who brought her up, finds her way to the Soho record shop in which her gran had so many happy times…  Three strangers with the same record shop in common – sort of – meet at the corner of Old Compton Street only to find that record shop is now a coffee franchise, called Double Shot (although the cup motif on the sign could represent a different vowel).  Here’s where the shoehorn comes in: the record shop’s name was Preacher Man.  The proprietor was some kind of community guru, also called the Preacher Man.  They are both long gone, but living above the coffee shop and working there as manager is Simon (Ian Reddington) who, all together now, is the Son of – well, you can see where it is going.  Simon embarks on a quest to solve the problems of the three strangers but, frankly, I couldn’t care less.

I think it’s the overall tone that stops me from engaging.  The story is tosh but they carry on as if it’s somehow mystical and significant.  A bit of tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink to say, Look, we know it’s tosh, but come along with us, would have made the show more fun.  This means the songs, each one a belter of a track from Dusty Springfield’s oeuvre, are made ridiculous: at a bereavement group, the members sing mournfully ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, dancing with empty plastic chairs.

The performers range from competent to excellent, many of them playing instruments with flair and panache.  Of the lot, Diana Vickers has by far the best voice and it’s a treat to hear her – but, of course, no one can match Ms Springfield.  Mercifully, they don’t try to.   A stand-out number for me is ‘Spooky’ performed by Sandra (Ellie-Jane Goddard) accompanied by Michael Howe.

There is a trio of backing singers, the Capuccino Sisters, who like the girls in Little Shop of Horrors add harmony and humour to proceedings.  Vocally, Michelle Long, Kate Hardisty and Cassiopeia Berekely-Agyepong are great but in this po-faced world, their sassiness comes across as cynical and mean-spirited.  Or perhaps I’m just projecting my responses onto them!  There is Madge, the cleaner, a ‘comic’ role (played by Jon Bonner) which is a throwback to the era of the fictitious record shop of the time.  One word: cringe.

Director Craig Revel Horwood needs to loosen things up and not try to sell this lightweight fare as something we should take seriously.  Horwood also choreographs and, while the dancing is tight, sometimes balletic even, the moves are often inappropriate, needlessly suggestive – as though he has remembered this is a show adults will go and see and perhaps will swallow the juvenile plot if he spices things up a bit.  The Capuccino Sisters virtually humping the tables they’re serving is at odds with the heartfelt/bubblegum stylings of Springfield’s exemplary pop.

Banal twaddle though this may be, it is performed well by a talented cast who work their socks off, making me wish they would dispense with the story and just give us a concert instead.

Ah well.  I’m off to write a show about a woman who loses a scratchcard at the seaside, using the back catalogue of, I don’t know, Alma Cogan or somebody.

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Diana Vickers putting Mike (Liam Vincent-Kilbride) in his place

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Half-Decent Proposal

THE WEDDING SINGER

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd May, 2017

 

There is a trend among theatre-makers to turn a mediocre film into a stage musical (eg Legally Blonde) and this show sits firmly in that genre.  Adam Sandler was the go-to guy for film comedy decades ago, mixing gross-out gags with sentiment.  Without his forceful personality, the material struggles.  Even with the show’s book written by Sandler collaborator Tim Herlihy (along with lyricist Chad Beguelin) the result is a mismatch of tones that don’t quite gel.

Jon Robyns appears as the cheese-for-hire performer of the title, compering weddings at the helm of his band, Simply Wed (best joke in the piece).   Where Robyns comes into his own is when, jilted at the altar, he becomes embittered and viciously savages the happy couple at his next gig, in a heartfelt and funny outburst, a public indulgence of emotion – which is what weddings are, I suppose!  Robyns also shines in duets with Cassie Compton who plays Julie, a waitress who crops up at the same weddings.  Compton is in great form, blending pop vocals with musical theatre expressiveness.

Julie is engaged to yuppie go-getter Glen (Ray Quinn, enjoying himself as the selfish and soulless financier/fiance) but from the start it’s clear (it would be clear to a blind man on a galloping horse) that she and the wedding singer are meant to be together.  There are stumbling blocks along the way, like the reappearance of runaway bride Linda (an energetic Hannah Jay-Allen) an unlikely leather-clad rock chick-cum-Donna Summer to Robyns’s clean-cut Huey Lewis persona.

Maplins escapee Ruth Madoc appears as Rosie, the wedding singer’s grandmother, for some of the broader comic moments, and there is decent support from Tara Verloop as Holly, Ashley Emerson as Sammy, and Samuel Holmes makes the most of the marginalised role of token gay George, who doesn’t get a subplot of his own.

The tunes, by Matthew Sklar, are serviceable if not memorable, with Chad Beguelin’s lyrics snappier than the dialogue.  Director Nick Winston’s choreography evokes the 1980s, and is performed by a lively chorus.  The show attempts to arouse nostalgia in its look and with its pop culture references; I would have liked to see more mullets and bigger hair though among Francis O’Connor’s costume designs.

A run-of-the-mill love story with no surprises is the underwhelming heart of this bright and colourful production.  There is something of a reminder that materialism is not the way to go – but then you knew that already, I hope – but I don’t get engaged (ha!) with the characters or care about their lives.  This is no reflection on the cast or the production values.  I think the script needs to decide which way it’s going to go: larger-than-life laughs or sweetly sentimental rom-com.  I feel as though it tries to deliver both but ends up delivering neither.  An unhappy marriage of tones.

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Wedding tackle: Jon Robyns, trashing a wedding as Robbie Hart (Photo: Darren Bell)

 

 

 


Dreamy and Petty

DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 2nd May, 2017

 

This new production of the hit show injects life into the tired jukebox musical genre simply by taking the increasingly common approach of having the cast be their own on-stage band.  Scenery is stripped to the basics on a set adorned with posters, advertisements and photographs of the early 1960s – it’s as though we’re watching a scrapbook.

Of course, the paper-thin plot is an excuse to shoehorn in as many songs from the era as possible, but the bare bones staging gives the show something of a revue feel – scenes play like a series of sketches; the dialogue is snappy and amusing, and all though the entire thing is shallower than a frying pan, it is relentless fun.

The story is framed by a grandfather reminiscing to his granddaughter in an attic.  He finds his old guitar and we’re off, back to 1961 and the forming of a band…

Naïve and innocent Bobby (Alastair Higgins) is our protagonist – his solos are standouts.  Roy Orbison’s ‘Only The Lonely’ is a particular favourite.   Higgins is an appealing lead, while around him larger-than-life characters populate his world.  Alastair Hill is great fun as the egotistic Norman, the sleazy vocalist – an authentic delivery, he is matched in vocal skills by Bobby’s best mate Ray (David Luke).  Among the girls, there is stellar support from Gracie Johnson’s Donna and Laura Darton’s ‘runaround’ Sue.  Elizabeth Carter’s Laura is our female lead, a schoolgirl songwriter with her eye on Bobby – perhaps the most ‘musical theatre’ delivery of the night.

Jimmy Johnston more than holds his own among the younger players as Bobby’s dad, able to knock out a tune with the best of them, and it falls to Mike Lloyd to provide most of the broadest comedy in a range of minor roles.  A slow-motion boxing match comes over well, and a duet blending ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ and ‘Runaway’ adds a touch of musical sophistication.  Also, a couple of a capella renditions show off the singing talents of the ensemble – as if their musical ability was in any doubt.  Special mention to Chloe Edwards-Wood on the saxophone!

The hit songs keep coming – the audience is more vocal after the interval trip to the bar – and the nostalgia is laid on with an industrial-sized trowel in lieu of social commentary.  Every other line is a pop culture reference to films, magazines and products of the time – it’s cosy and comforting and a hugely enjoyable, uncomplicated night at the theatre.   It’s nice to dip your toe in the warm water of rose-tinted nostalgia but I wouldn’t want to immerse myself in it completely.

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Sax appeal: Chloe Edwards-Wood and Alastair Hill (Photo: Pamela Raith)


Working Perfectly

OUT OF ORDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Friday 14th April, 2017

 

Ray Cooney directs this new production of his 1990 farce, complete with bang up-to-date topical references.  These give the play the illusion of happening right now but the structure and genre of the piece root it firmly in the past.  And this is no bad thing – we don’t sneer at those who can still crank out a perfect sonnet; likewise, the well-made farce is an art form that few can pull off.  Cooney is a master.

The set-up is Tory MP (of course) Richard Willey (tonight played by stand-in Geoff Harmer) has rented a suite at the Westminster Hotel in which to entertain the secretary of the Leader of the Opposition.  The couple’s illicit fun is interrupted before it can begin by the discovery of a dead body trapped by a faulty sash window.  Willey enlists his PPS, George Pigden (Shaun Williamson) to assist.  Add to the mix the secretary’s enraged husband, a snooty hotel manager who tends to walk in at the least opportune moments, and an opportunistic waiter and the stage is set for fast-moving action and an increasingly complicated situation.  The laughs keep coming via verbal humour, physical comedy and dramatic irony – we delight in the misunderstandings and their convoluted consequences.

The energised ensemble play the comedy to the hilt.  Susie Amy, mostly in a state of undress, plays panic to perfection.  Arthur Bostrom simmers haughtily as the manager; James Holmes relishes his role as the colluding, mercenary waiter; Jules Brown brings menace and howling vulnerability as the rampaging husband; Elizabeth Elvin amuses as Nurse Foster; Sue Holderness brings a touch of class as Willey’s wife.  The entire cast proves its skills – the pace doesn’t let down for a second – but it is Williamson who is the biggest jewel in this star-studded crown.  His pained expression and increasing confusion and exasperation are expertly portrayed.  The timing is spot on – his desperate puppetry with the corpse (David Warwick being dead good!) is a scream.

The mechanics of the plot and the performance are in perfect working order.  The funniest couple of hours I’ve spent at the theatre for a long time, the play reminds us of the lengths MPs will go to, the lies they will spin, to cover their own tracks.  It made me long for simpler times when all we had to worry about from that lot was their sleazy, personal affairs.  Now, what Willey hoped to do to Ms Worthington is what the government is doing to the whole country – and that isn’t funny.

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No Wonder

WONDERLAND

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 6th February, 2017

 

This musical already has a chequered history and now its latest version is on the road, hoping to garner the love of fans of shows like Wicked, perhaps, giving adults fantasy-based plots with grown-up versions of characters we all remember from childhood.   Unlike Wicked, which has strong source material in the books by Gregory Maguire, this Alice is purely the invention of writers Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy.  Their spin on Lewis Carroll is to give us a contemporary setting.  Alice is in her 40s, a divorcee and former teacher, living in a tower block – all well and good until you realise how emotionally immature she is, yearning for a knight to rescue her, desperate to escape into fantasy.

The mighty Kelly Ellis plays Alice, throwing herself into the nonsense of Wonderland as soon as she gets there.  Ellis is an impeccable performer but I can’t take to Alice, no matter how well sung and spiritedly acted she is.  Alice has a daughter, a starchy, matronly teen called Ellie (Naomi Morris) who reminds me of Saffy from Ab Fab – until she goes through the looking glass and then turns into a sassy, sulky child.  Also along for the ride is their neighbour from the tower block, Jack (Stephen Webb) a shy, tongue-tied admirer of Alice who goes through the looking glass and comes out as George Michael, complete with cheesy boy band – the highlight of the first act for me.

The score by Frank Wildhorn is serviceable and the lyrics by Jack Murphy are often witty – when you can hear them.  What brings this show crashing down is the book.  There are half-baked attempts at being profound, asking us to reflect (ha) on the ‘real’ us we see in the mirror.  There are half-arsed attempts at delivering a political message: the Mad Hatter (Natalie McQueen) comes through the looking glass as a power-crazed industrialist, distracted from her quest to overthrow the tyrannical queen.  “That’s how power works” is a constant refrain.  Spoiler: the residents of Wonderland decide they’d rather have a monarchy, with its constant threat of irrational capital punishment.

Wendi Peters is a revelation as the Queen of Hearts, belting out show tunes.  She makes an impression in the first act but then is absent for so long, I forget she’s in it.  Give this woman a tour of Gypsy, for pity’s sake.  I also like Ben Kerr’s March Hare and look forward to seeing him in something else.

Musical theatre veteran Dave Willetts is the White Rabbit – at least the writers have the sense to give him chance to demonstrate his mellifluous tones.  He’s still in great voice but navel-gazing songs about finding yourself and being your own invention always make me want to vomit, whatever the context.  Self-identity is also a theme here, from the Caterpillar’s repeated asking of ‘Who are you?’ (Kayi Ushe is good fun in this role) to Alice’s desire to regress into childhood, rather than face up to grown-up responsibilities and give up on the husband who crushed her emotionally.  Frankly, I couldn’t give a monkey’s.

The entire company works hard to sell us this curate’s egg.  Lucie Pankhurst’s quirky choreography, Grace Smart’s clever costumes, and Andrew Riley’s striking set, all support the likeable performers in the flogging of this dead horse of a story.  Carroll’s Alice is a child trying to make sense of the nonsensical adult world.  This Alice embraces the nonsense as a refuge from reality, but too many of the characters (like Tweedles Dum and Dee) are marginalised as chorus members to have any impact on her journey.

A bright spectacle well-performed but ultimately, I find it’s unsatisfying to take what passes through a rabbit’s hole and roll it in glitter.

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Kerry Ellis as Alice (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 

 


Old Flames

GASLIGHT

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 10th January, 2017

 

Written in 1938, Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is a pastiche of Victorian melodrama: an innocent girl is persecuted by an evil man but the intervention of a hero saves her from doom and thwarts the evil-doer’s plot…

Kara Tointon is a picture of innocence as the vulnerable Bella, believing herself to be going around the twist.  She is child-like, infantilised by her hubby who manipulates her every mood.  Tointon endears herself to us, keeping on the right side of pathetic and making the heightened dialogue sound natural.  As her bullying husband, Jack, Rupert Young domineers, exuding evil.  What begins as a study in mental cruelty swiftly becomes something even darker as the true nature of the man Bella married is brought to light.

It’s not all darkness: the unexpected arrival of Bella’s saviour in the form of former detective Rough (Keith Allen) brings humour and more than a touch of levity to proceedings.  Of course, this accentuates the moments of tension and suspense by contrast. Rough is a breath of fresh air to Bella’s stuffy, shut-in existence, and Allen plays him with relish in a funny and yet compelling portrayal.  There is also humour in the roles of the maidservants.  Charlotte Blackledge’s Nancy is cheeky to the point of impudence, while Helen Anderson’s Elizabeth is a masterclass in comic playing, doing so much with a simple “Yes, Miss” or “No, Miss”.  Wonderful stuff.

David Woodhead’s set design is to be savoured, capturing the oppression of Bella’s existence with a looming ceiling and dark panelling.  The set is enhanced by Howard Hudson’s lighting, which renders the action almost sepia at times, like the fading portraits on the walls, and, of course, the all-important gaslight that is so crucial to the plot. The sound design, by Ben and Max Ringham, augments the tension with dissonance, while Anthony Banks’s direction winds up the suspense like a watch spring.  Banks reins in the melodramatic excesses to keep the behaviour credible for a modern audience and this high-quality production proves this creaky old drama still has power to thrill.

You can tell it’s working when the villain is booed during his curtain call!

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Kara Tointon (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Wheel Meet Again

GHOST

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 19th September, 2016

 

The musical by Bruce Joel Rubin, Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard gets a new lease of life from Bill Kenwright in this new touring production.  Gone are the gliding TV screens I found a distraction in the show’s previous incarnation; instead the action is stripped down.  It’s low-tech and old-school and to my mind the story benefits from this approach immensely, allowing the actors to come to the fore.  Scenes like Sam’s death and the subway ghost’s anger are simply but effectively handled by director Bob Tomson.  In fact, Tomson handles every aspect of the tale well, be it comedy, drama, thriller, supernatural, or just plain romantic.

Former Hollyoaks heartthrob Andy Moss is no stranger to coming back from the dead (his TV character Rhys reappeared as a ghostly figure in the soap, a symptom of another character’s psychosis.  Don’t ask!)  He is the perfect fit for the male lead.  Handsome, funny, charming and sweet, Sam is the boyfriend you wouldn’t want to have gunned down in a bungled mugging.  Moss proves he is leading man material, from Sam’s effortless humour to his confusion and anguish as a powerless ghost.  The singing is powerful, emotional and strong.  Moss carries us with him on Sam’s journey and we are in very safe hands.

Sarah Harding (Girls Aloud) plays bereaved girlfriend Molly – it’s a bit of stunt casting, perhaps, but Harding acquits herself more than adequately.  I find her pop voice suits the rather poppy score.  Her rendition of the heart-breaking With You is sweetly stirring.  If anything, it’s the acting that’s a bit one-note, but her accent is strong and consistent and, let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a thankless role, all grief and vulnerable victim.  Her voice blends well with Moss’s, and she does a good job.

If Moss is the beating heart of the show, Jacqui Dubois as psychic charlatan Oda Mae Brown is the life and soul of the party.  Hilarious in each of her scenes, Dubois really lifts the piece, steering us away from mawkishness.  The comic timing is spot on and the singing to die for.

A slick and smart ensemble supports, with a neat cameo appearance from James Earl Adair as the Hospital Ghost, and Garry Lee Netley as the aggressive, bad-ass Subway Ghost.

Of course, Unchained Melody features, along with the most famous potter’s wheel since the Interlude (ask your gran).  It all adds up to an engaging evening’s entertainment, sweet, touching and at turns hilarious.  It makes me glad this Ghost has been resurrected.

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Andy Moss and Sarah Harding