Tag Archives: New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham

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


Keeping up with the Joneses

TOM – A Story of Tom Jones: The Musical

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st June, 2016

 

Those expecting a jukebox musical of Jones’s many hits may be surprised to find there is more in the way of drama on offer here – in that way, it IS unusual.  This is the story of Tom from Pontypridd, a mining town in the ‘Land of Song’.  It’s the 1950s, and Teddy Boy Tom sings in a pub at weekends.  The rest of the time he devotes to his job at the mill, brawling in bars and getting himself chucked through chip shop windows.  He impregnates his girlfriend at an early age and they marry.  She – Linda – believes her husband is set for greater things and supports him every step of the way, even when the groupies start to get their hooks into him.  Eventually, a move to London is made to cut a demo for Decca… Unlike other stories of this type, fame and fortune don’t come easy, and certainly not before the interval.  Here we see the star going through his troubles before he hits the big time.

As Tom, Kit Orton plays a blinder.  His Tom-Jonesishness grows as the character develops as a performer.  With each song, he sounds more and more like that famous soulful voice, and all the moves including pelvic thrusts are there.  Elin Phillips is sweet and funny as the loyal and devoted Linda, while Richard Corgan makes a strong impression as manager and impresario Gordon Mills, gambling his finances on Tom’s potential.  Phylip Harries is a bright-eyed, enthusiastic narrator – it all ticks along steadily enough but it is a hilarious scene involving eccentric record producer Joe Meek that kick-starts the show.  Energy levels rise and the show becomes more energised and electrifying.  As Tom develops as an entertainer, the show develops as a piece of entertainment, and it turns out to be rather good indeed.

The action culminates in the release of It’s Not Unusual – the entire cast joins the band for a rousing rendition, including some searing trumpet playing from Nicola Bryan (who also delivers strong and funny character work as Tom’s mum).  Tom Jones is propelled into worldwide stardom and we have been shown glimpses of how he earned it.   A medley of early hits gets us on our feet – by the end it’s Kit Orton we’re cheering for, a star turn who carries off the musicality and the drama most effectively.

I refrained from throwing my knickers at the stage – just about.

tom jones ish

Kit Orton thrusts himself into the spotlight as Tom


Users and Losers

AMERICAN IDIOT

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 11th May, 2016

 

What sets this show apart from other jukebox musicals, like Mamma Mia or Save The Last Dance For Me, for example, is the fact that the songwriter (Billie Joe Armstrong) was actually involved in the writing of the show’s book.  This lends the project authenticity – to a point.

The story involves three friends leaving home to make something of themselves in a world immediately after the 9/11 attacks – the sight of George W Bush on a TV screen makes me think he must be the American idiot of the title!  Just as they set off, Will (Steve Rushton) learns his girlfriend is pregnant, so he stays behind to spend his days on the sofa.  Tunny (Alexis Gerred) is inspired to enlist in the army – the next we see him he is in a hospital bed, one leg short (him, not the bed).  Leading man Johnny (Newton Faulkner) is a Sideshow Bob lookalike.  He meets a girl.  He meets a boy who has drugs.  He uses the drugs and loses the girl.  The three lads reunite in their home town.  That’s it, really.  There may have been other things going on, but I couldn’t tell – lyrics get lost in the loud guitar-based music; I could have done with surtitles.  Except when Amelia Lily (Whatsername) is on – her singing is loud, clear and in keeping with the pop-punk genre.

If you’re a Green Day fan – and there’s plenty of them in the audience – you’ll know the songs and what they’re singing about.  Perhaps I should have Spotified the lot before I went in.

Johnny is an unappealing character, who readily admits he ‘forgot’ to shower – Faulkner is at his best with his acoustic guitar but I find it difficult to engage with Johnny or his situation.  Tunny at least has something to gripe about – a dream sequence is particularly striking: Director Racky Plews seems to approach the show as one continuous music video.  There are ‘cool’ moments and the chorus seem good-natured in their aggression.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to hook me and draw me in.  Green Day’s songs are melodious and give the vocalists chances to impress but there is not enough drama or plot to sustain my interest or make me care.  As a piece of musical theatre, it doesn’t satisfy.  As a concert, it’s pretty good.

Cast of American Idiot, The Arts Theatre

What’s her name? Amelia Lily (Photo: Darren Bell)

 

 


Public Laughs

PRIVATE LIVES

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 8th February, 2016

 

Noel Coward’s comedy comes to town in this new touring production and yet again passes the test of time.   Yes, certain words have changed, and so have some attitudes, but the play’s underlying humanity remains the key to its longevity. On the surface, it’s a conventional, drawing-room comedy, of the well-to-do, living the high life, with only romantic complications to contend with. Coward subverts the genre by having two of those characters, Elyot and Amanda, behaving despicably. Divorced from each other for five years, they are both on honeymoons with brand new spouses. But as soon as they meet, the sparks fly, rekindling their former, decidedly destructive passion. They run off together and this is when we get to see them behind closed doors. Moments of intimacy are interrupted by outbursts of violence. The couple sling barbed comments, brickbats and objets d’art at each other. They’re like Japanese fighting carp, unable to co-exist in the same space without conflict and yet needing each other in order to exist at all.

Laura Rogers is spot on as Amanda, combining cool elegance with hot-headed passion, often in the same epigram. Tom Chambers’s Elyot may not be able to match her in managing the plummy language but his physical comedy and his double-take reactions are superb. Of course, his Strictly background comes out: the couple dance a loose Charleston in their Paris flat, a lovely moment in contrast with all the verbal bombardments. Director Tom Attenborough allows Chambers to play to his strengths, giving him plenty of larger-than-life comic business.

Richard Teverson gives strong support as Amanda’s fuddy-duddy second husband, Victor, while Charlotte Ritchie’s Sybil, Elyot’s second wife, encapsulates the innocence of the era – that is until she loses her rag with the infuriating Victor in a tremendous loss of temper, enabling the show to finish on a moment of high comedy. A magnificent performance – you wouldn’t think Sybil would have it in her.

Lucy Osborne’s set hints at the glamour of the south of France, with its art deco hotel balconies and also grounds us in the cosy chic of the stylish apartment, contrasting the airy public spaces with the solid, private rooms. It is behind closed doors that we reveal who we really are.

Of course, it is Coward’s audacious script that is the star of the show. The wit effervesces like champagne while the undercurrents of the characters’ true natures bubble to the surface in shocking glimpses. Elyot and Amanda deserve each other but Coward is also showing us that behind the public façade, even the most rarefied creatures have hidden depths.

A thoroughly enjoyable production of an absolute classic.

'Private Lives' Play on Tour

Strictly entre nous. Laura Rogers and Tom Chambers (Photo: Alastair Muir)

 

 

 


Another Outing

PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT – The Musical

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 20th October, 2015

 

The big pink bus is back on the road and it’s better than ever. This tour has been touched up, so to speak, re-vamped for extra glitz and glamour. Based on the cult film, it’s the kind of show to which people keep returning. Why?

Basically, you know you’re in for a good time. The score is comprised of pop and disco hits, the script is packed with funny one-liners, and the message is still relevant, still life-affirming even though no one is forcing anything down anyone’s throat. It’s an explosion of light, colour and humanity, a clarion call for tolerance in the face of brutal homophobia. What struck me this time is the relationship between Tick (who, shockingly, is married to a woman!) and his estranged son. Tick worries the boy will reject him but Benji (Toby Gretton) turns out to be the most accepting, tolerant and loving person in the whole show. You see, folks: if you don’t teach your kids to be homophobic (or racist, sexist, or what-have-you) they won’t grow up to espouse those attitudes.

Jason Donovan returns to the role of Tick and is just about perfect. While he was lip-synching I’ve Never Been To Me I reflected on just how many years he has been around. I don’t know when it happened exactly but the mulleted soap star turned pop star pin-up has developed into one of our most popular, respected and skilful performers. He receives a warm hand on his entrance and an ovation at his curtain call. In between, he is superb: sassy but sensitive, sardonic but sweet. When he sings, his rich tones give you shivers. In this context Say A Little Prayer takes on a whole new meaning when it’s about a drag queen singing to the son he’s never met.

Simon Green is spot on as aging transsexual Bernadette, delivering elegance and barbed put-downs in equal measure. The charm and grace hide an inner strength and resilience most ‘real men’ lack. Adam Bailey is adorably annoying as young Adam, out for fun and ending up in hot water. More than eye candy, Bailey is an electrifying performer. Hot Stuff indeed.

There is strong support from a hard-working and versatile ensemble. Naomi Slights is appealing as Tick’s wife Marion – the only female not caricatured in the entire piece – while Catherine Mort’s redneck barmaid Shirley is hilarious in her repulsiveness. Julie Yammanee’s Cynthia is outrageously funny – her speciality act is eye-popping, shall we say?

Callum Macdonald Tina-Turners it up as drag artiste Miss Understanding, warming us up for the main event. By contrast, Philip Childs’s Bob is a down-to-earth Aussie bloke who finds himself enchanted by the considerable charms of Bernadette.

It’s a party as much as a musical. The feel-good factor is undeniable but there is more to the show than that. Beneath all the feathers and sequins (Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner’s Oscar-winning costumes are a cavalcade of comic invention) run the emotions we all share. The show reminds us we’re all human. In a time when homophobia still blights the lives of millions in unenlightened corners of the world, Priscilla’s latest outing may be preaching to the converted but it’s an important affirmation of human rights, an irresistible blast of light and boost to the soul.

Jason Donovan as Tick (Photo: Paul Coltas)

Jason Donovan as Tick (Photo: Paul Coltas)


Prison Visit

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 28th September, 2015

 

Stephen King’s novella gave rise to one of the most popular films of all time. For this new touring production, Owen O’Neill and Dave Johns return to the film’s source material and adapt it for the stage. Film fans will notice differences – inevitable, given the differing natures of the art forms. That said, O’Neill and Johns do a bang up job with this story of prison life.

Red (Patrick Robinson) is our part-time narrator in this sparsely populated penitentiary (over-crowding is no problem in Shawshank!) introducing us to a lively bunch of characters, not all of them pleasant. There is Leigh Jones’s Rooster who laughs like a maniacal drain every chance he gets. Rooster is teamed with Bogs (Kevin Mathurin) to form a pair who stop at nothing to assert their dominance among the men. We met Brooksie (Ian Barritt) an old lag completely institutionalised by his lengthy sentence, and Lady Chatterley fan Rico (Declan Perring).   Then newcomer Andy Dufresne arrives, wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover. Dufresne stands out – Ian Kelsey gives him a stillness and steadiness, making him a quietly compelling figure among the other, larger-than-life inmates.

Adaptor Owen O’Neill himself plays the slimy Warden Stammas, backed up by brutal guard Hadley (Joe Reisig). It’s an excellent ensemble, with Robinson and Kelsey as very strong leads. Also making an impression is George Evans as young convict Tommy Williams.

The story is episodic in nature, building up a picture of prison life and charting Andy Dufresne’s growing stature among the inmates, the guards (for whom he files tax returns) and the Warden (for whom he cooks the accounts).   Unless the characters mention it, we don’t really get a sense of the passage of time but nevertheless the story builds to an emotional climax that still brings moistness to the eye.

Director David Esbjornson mixes naturalistic staging with symbolic – Andy’s escape (oops, spoiler) is beautifully represented and, supported by Chris Davey’s lighting, which marks out cells in sharp rectangles, and Dan Samson’s sound, which hints at hordes of prisoners somewhere off-stage, hits all the right notes.

Shawshank Prison is well worth a visit.

Andy Dufresne (Ian Kelsey) makes his move. (Photo: Mark Yeoman)

Andy Dufresne (Ian Kelsey) makes his move. (Photo: Mark Yeoman)


A Bar is Born

PIANO BAR LAUNCH

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st September, 2015

 

It’s not all reviews in this game, you know. Sometimes you get invited to other events in theatres – the pull of the complimentary drinks always proves irresistible, I find!

Never mind New Street Station! What’s put the New in the New Alexandra Theatre? The extra word was added to the name when there was a change of management a couple of years ago and the theatre became part of the ATG group of theatres. The new bosses have spent big money on bringing the building up-to-date and the purpose of this evening was to show off what has been achieved so far and to trail what is to come, with the event centred around the impressive new piano bar. Formerly “Gershwin’s” and another nameless bar/foyer area, the space has been unified into a coherent whole and very classy it is too. The floor is dark wood, the walls dark grey, set off by mirrors in gilt frames, with upholstered seats in a range of colours. If you know what it looked like before, it’s like someone’s been in from Changing Rooms, only this time the transformation is stunning in all the right ways. It’s upmarket but inclusive, stately but welcoming. It’s a very pleasant place to be. The crowning glory, of course, is the baby grand piano, which gets its ivory tickled before shows and during intervals. We have been upgraded!

General Manager, Andrew Lister welcomes us all. There is more to come, he says. The stalls and dress circle have all been refurbished with new carpet and seating – which uses something called ProBax technology, a sort of memory foam I suppose for added comfort and, more importantly, improved leg-room! The upper circle is to follow suit in the near future. There’s the Ambassadors’ Lounge, a 30-capacity bar tucked under the dress circle, for an exclusive hospitality passage: it’s like something out of the Orient Express (without the murders). Very swish.

We are treated to a performance of Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat by Gavin Spokes, who sings Nicely Nicely very nicely. The theatre has pulled off something of a coup: Guys And Dolls is coming to Birmingham prior to its West End run.  Programme Director Stuart Griffiths is keen to bring more drama in. The New Alex is better suited to some touring productions than other venues (likewise, some productions are better suited elsewhere) but, he says, there are enough people to keep Birmingham’s range of theatre going. “We’re not in competition,” he states, “but we complement each other.”

For me, the most striking moment of the tour of the building, is the chance to stand on the stage where a range of performers have stood over the past century. Mae West has performed here. Morecambe and Wise… Ant and Dec…

It’s a treat to see this historical auditorium from another perspective and appreciate the surprising intimacy of the place. What’s also great is to know the old place is in safe hands and unequivocally a major player in Birmingham’s cultural scene.

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Death Does Them Part

THE PERFECT MURDER

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 10th November, 2014

All the love has gone from the marriage of Victor and Joan Smiley.  She is having an affair with a bit of rough and he is a regular client to a Polish prostitute who happens to be psychic (she can see you coming). Victor is plotting to murder his wife and run off with Kamila, who in the mean time is using her psychometric abilities to help the police find murder victims.  Add in a likeable but inexperienced young detective inspector and the stage is set for a lively evening of laughter, thrills and suspense.

Shaun McKenna’s adaptation of Peter James’s novel is very funny – the bickering between the central couple is acerbic and sometimes cruel – and it’s played to the hilt by Robert Daws and Dawn Steele, who both drip with bitter sarcasm.  Gray O’Brien is energetic as Joan’s bit of stuff, while Simona Armstrong’s Kamila pulls off some potentially awkward scenes of psychic flashes.  Thomas Howes teases out the tension as D.C. Grace.  It’s not so much a whodunit but a will-they-get-away-with-it, and there are shocks and twists along the way.

Michael Holt’s split level set gives us four rooms all at once so the action can keep flowing without any pesky scene changes, (keeping a chest freezer centre stage…) Mark Howett’s lighting and Martin Hodgson’s sound enhance the suspense and bring a touch of the supernatural to the proceedings. Director Ian Talbot places emphasis on the fun – we enjoy the performers even if we find the characters deplorable.

With its many references to popular crime fiction, the play is a refreshing change from the country house, drawing room, murder mysteries that usually do the rounds.  Not only is there a discussion of which Sherlock Holmes has the best bum, there is a knowingness that informs the plot: the characters have all ‘seen it on the telly’ and so has the audience, but The Perfect Murder is fresh and engaging.  You are guaranteed a good night out with this entertaining black comedy chiller.

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Wilde at Heart

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 21st October, 2014

A glance at the cast list for this touring production leads one to think, ungallantly, that they’re all a bit, well, long in the tooth for Oscar Wilde’s comedy about a pair of young Lotharios.  The company is evidently aware of how they will be perceived and so the Wilde play is framed within another play about a bunch of middle class amateur thesps gathering for a rehearsal of The Importance in somebody’s house.  I remember Hinge and Bracket doing something similar yonks ago.

And so, in fits and starts the “Bunbury Players” present the opening act.  In sub-Noises Off fashion things go wrong on and off stage, only here instead of sardines it’s cucumber sandwiches that go astray.  I appreciate why this framing story (written by Simon Brett) might be necessary but it’s excruciating and gets in the way of dear old Oscar’s genius.   Where this production comes alive is when they let Wilde have his head and scenes are performed with vim and gusto uninterrupted by contrived ‘mistakes’.

Nigel Havers is at home in either play as the womanising Dicky who plays Algernon.  It’s the kind of smarm and charm that has become his trademark and there is even a hint of sending himself up.  With Martin Jarvis as a white-haired but nevertheless energetic Jack Worthing (supposedly 29 years old) there is some very funny verbal sparring.  We overlook their advanced years and enjoy the play for itself.

Sian Phillips makes a formidable Lady Bracknell, while Cherie Lunghi convinces as young Gwendolen, up against Christine Kavanagh’s spirited Cecily.  Some of the comic business director Lucy Bailey has them do is a little heavy-handed.  Wilde should be kept frothy but barbed.

Niall Buggy is a treat as Reverend Chasuble to Rosalind Ayres’s neurotic Miss Prism.

After the interval, the ‘interruptions’ no longer trouble us but there remains an abiding sense of tension that at any minute, something ‘hilarious’ will ‘go wrong’ and deflate the delicious soufflé the actors are working hard to create.

Mercifully, it doesn’t and every member of the cast proves there is not only life but talent and ability in this pack of old dogs.  The result is an amusing evening with the biggest laughs going to Wilde’s dazzling epigrams, but I would prefer it if they hadn’t pandered to ageism and just played it ‘straight’.

Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis

Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis


Flat Pop

The latest jukebox musical on the block is a real nostalgia fest for fans of 1970s pop.  It strings together songs by hitmakers Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman who wrote classic tracks for the likes of Suzi Quatro, Mud, and The Sweet.  With shows of this type you expect the links to songs to be tenuous at best and the plot to be contrived in such a way as to maximise the potential to include as much of the back catalogue as possible.  The problem with this particular piece of inconsequential fluff is it takes itself too seriously.  An injection of camp would make it more engaging.

The story, such as it is, tells of busker Mickey Block (‘my friends call me Buster’) who, fleeing from creditors, takes refuge in a mysterious museum of rock and roll, run by Crazy Max (Paul Nicholas in a cowboy hat).  Max sends Mickey back in time to 1972 in order to perform ‘two good deeds’, via a record booth that doubles as a portal through the fourth dimension.  Of course.  In 1972, Mickey falls in love – the implications and potential consequences of time-travel do not feature.  Apart from a stray reference to Facebook and Twitter, Mickey fits right in.  No one bats an eyelid.

Mickey (Aaron Sidwell) is a likeable sort who plays a mean guitar but the show really lifts when Carol (Suzanne Shaw) belts out Devilgate Drive.  Shaw’s voice is perfectly suited to this type of music; all of her numbers are a treat but for me the musical highlight is when Jodie (Micha Richardson) performs Better Be Good To Me with depth and emotional truth.

David Soames’s script is lazy.  When Alice (Louise English) tells neighbour Paul Nicholas (sans cowboy hat) that she is moving house because she cannot afford the mortgage, he launches into a rather dour rendition of Living Next Door To Alice, which includes the line “I don’t know why she’s leaving” as part of the refrain.  (Weren’t you listening, man? I would have shouted but I was too busy singing the Chubby Brown version: Alice?  Who the f— is Alice?)  Nicholas’s voice is deeper and richer than it was during his own pop heyday but, like the show as a whole (which he also directs) he needs to lighten up a bit.

The mostly youthful cast is a talented bunch who perform some excellent Flick Colby-style choreography by Rebecca Howell.  The Young Generation and Pan’s People spring to mind.  Too often the plot comes to a halt for yet another number – unlike ‘straight’ musicals (if I can call them that!) where songs develop story or reveal character, here the songs and the plot get in the way of each other.  There’s a completely unnecessary version of Lonely This Christmas played on a shoehorn.

Blockbuster is just not as much fun as it ought to be.  This pop musical has too few bubbles to keep it fizzy.

blockbuster