Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 19th October, 2021
Based on the 1988 film by self-proclaimed Pope of Trash, John Waters, this exuberant musical is doing the rounds again. Admittedly, the source material is Waters’s most mainstream movie, but writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan retain much of the flavour of the original, especially the outlandish cast of characters. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the show now but each time I’m struck by how brilliant it all is.
It’s 1962 and teenager Tracy Turnblad, whose heart is even bigger than her dress size, auditions to be on the local hip TV show. She witnesses the injustice of segregation in her hometown of Baltimore and unlike most people, goes all out to do something about it. Making her professional debut in the role is Katie Brace and she’s absolutely phenomenal. An irresistible stage presence, Brace brims with talent and humanity. Tracy is the closest John Waters gets to a Disney heroine.
Continuing the tradition of casting a man in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna (in honour of Divine who originated the character) we are treated to the comedic stylings of Alex Bourne, a big fella whose Edna is full of sass and vulnerability. The show is not only about the fight for civil rights. With the Turnblad girls, it has a lot to say about self-acceptance and body positivity. Bourne is marvellous and he’s partnered with Norman Pace as Tracy’s dad Wilbur. Pace’s comic business befits joke-shop proprietor Wilbur. His duet with Edna brings the house down.
The emotional core of the show belongs to Brenda Edwards as Motormouth Maybelle. The song I Know Where I’ve Been is a searing civil rights anthem, lifting the show beyond its comedic shenanigans. It’s a blistering moment in a score that is bursting with great songs, from the opening number to the rousing, joyous finale, You Can’t Stop The Beat. Marc Shaiman’s melodies are infectious, and his lyrics (co-written with Scott Whittman) are witty and knowing. Excellent as the villains of the piece are Rebecca Thornhill as the bigoted Velma Von Tussle and Jessica Croll as her shrill daughter, Amber.
Making strong impressions among a hugely talented cast are Charlotte St Croix as Little Ines, Akeem Ellis-Hyman as the sinuous Seaweed, Richard Meek as the cheesy TV host Corny Collins, and Rebecca Jayne-Davis as Tracy’s eccentric best friend Penny Pingleton. Ross Clifton’s Link Larkin, Tracy’s love interest, is suitably swoonsome, and there is strong support from Paul Hutton and Ceris Hine as a range of authority figures (teachers, prison guards etc). But truly, the entire cast is magnificent, in great voice and expending vast amounts of energy executing Drew McOnie’s period-inspired choreography.
Of all the musicals currently doing the rounds, this is the one to see. It’s a perfect show, funny and relevant, with an important message about inclusivity that it delivers with wit and style.
This is powerful, life-affirming stuff and no matter how many times I see it, Hairspray still holds up.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s most successful production ever comes to Birmingham for the summer, making itself at home in the Hippodrome, just 20-odd miles from its point of origin in Stratford upon Avon. It’s been a few years since I last saw it and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to be reminded of its brilliance.
Based on one of Roald Dahl’s novels for children, it contains a host of grotesque characters – gifts for any actor! – monstrous, unreasonable adults in contrast with our clear-thinking, upright young heroine. Matilda’s parents (Sebastian Torkia and Rebecca Thornhill) are cruel in their selfishness and neglect of the little girl they don’t know how to handle; Torkia comes into his own with a paeon to television to open the second act, while Thornhill gets to demonstrate her moves with some wild ballroom dancing, accompanied by a snake-hipped Matt Gillett as Rudolpho, her instructor – it’s like Strictly on too much sugar. The most grotesque of them all is, of course, sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull, in a show-stealing performance by Craige Els. It’s a delicious role, and Els makes a meal of it.
They’re not all horrible. Matilda finds succour from her friendly neighbourhood librarian, the attentive Mrs Phelps (Michelle Chantelle Hopewell) and especially from her teacher, Miss Honey (Carly Thoms). Thoms brings the right amount of mousiness to the part as Miss Honey develops a backbone, without being insipid or overly sentimental.
But the night belongs to the children. No one elicits quality performances from young actors like the RSC, and this current troupe keep the bar held high. Among the class, some stand out (although they are all disciplined, committed, and talented!): Dylan Hughes’s cake-guzzling Bruce, Madeline Gilby’s spirited Lavender… And, above all, a breathtakingly commanding performance from Lara Cohen in the title role, often holding the stage on her own. It’s incredible – with Cohen’s skills almost matching her character’s superpowers (Matilda is a kind of benevolent Carrie!)
Dennis Kelly’s book is redolent with Roald Dahl fun and nastiness, while Tim Minchin’s score is charming and clever, with plenty of good tunes – my favourite being the wistfully bittersweet When I Grow Up, joyfully presented on playground swings. Director Matthew Warchus elicits broad playing from his colourful cast. This is larger-than-life stuff, the stuff, indeed, of storybooks, but Matilda has no problem working her magic on young and old audience members alike.
One for the books: Lara Cohen as Matilda (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 23rd October, 2014
Adapted from the old Fred Astaire film by Matthew White and Howard Jacques, this Top Hat is refreshingly upbeat. The material is presented at face value – there are no ‘knowing’ looks, or nods to today’s more cynical age. We are allowed to enjoy it for what it is. TImes have changed: smoking is no longer socially acceptable or seen as glamorous – but what remains the same is our love of a song-and-dance number expertly performed.
The story is paper-thin. Broadway star Jerry Travers (Alan Burkitt) comes to London to star in a revue. At his hotel he meets beautiful American Dale Tremont (Charlotte Gooch) and sets out to woo and win her over. She mistakes him for her best friend’s husband and complications arise, culminating in farcical misunderstandings in Venice…
It’s lightweight froth but hugely enjoyable. The script is peppered with corny one-liners – as familiar as the Irving Berlin songs – most of them delivered by Clive Hayward as Horace Hardwick. Broader comedy comes from Sebastien Torkia’s portrayal of hotheaded Italian dress designer Alberto Beddini and there is some amusing character work from John Conroy as Hardwick’s sarcastic valet Bates. Rebecca Thornhill is good value as the sardonic Mrs Hardwick
Supported by an excellent troupe, Burkitt and Gooch hoof around in a dazzling display of tap and high kicks. Burkitt is exceptional as the showbiz star who can’t keep still. His vocal stylings suit the 1930s numbers perfectly. One can imagine John Barrowman playing this role (he does, most of the time anyway!). Gooch is more than a match for Burkitt’s abilities. The show is worth the ticket price for the exquisite beauty of Cheek To Cheek alone.
It’s old-school spectacle. Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant set is a monument to Art Deco – there are a lot of scenes and there is humour and charm in the staging: the horse-drawn cab, for example, and the aeroplane arriving in Venice.
But it’s the dance numbers that hold us enthralled. There is something about a stage-full of people tap-dancing in synch that is spellbinding. Bill Deamer’s choreography goes all out to capture the style and brilliance of the classic film. Energy pours off the stage as the impressive cast and chorus delight us with this visit to another world, a better world of song and dance and happy endings. Just like in the Depression, we need quality escapism to take us out of these dark times of austerity. Top Hat is a toe-tapping tonic. It’s uplifting, unadulterated fun.
Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Tuesday 6th March, 2012
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1949 musical is currently doing the rounds and retains much of its progressive nature. We may have grown accustomed to the use of swearwords on stage and screen – since Jerry Springer: the Opera, nothing surprises me anymore – but here Bloody Mary’s repetition of “stingy bastards” is at once funny and revealing. The language of the “SeaBees” – tame by today’s standards – gives the script an authenticity; I won’t say “realism” because it’s a musical, for gawd’s sake.
The score is the star. So many of the songs have leached into popular consciousness: “Going To Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair”, “There is Nothing Like a Dame”, “Happy Talk” and the sublime “Bali Hai” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” Romantic, dramatic and funny, the score lifts the story of American naval forces stationed on a tiny island during World War Two into something to which we can all relate. There is a bit of plot about a behind-enemy-lines mission and a love story between a nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush and a French planter (a man not a flowerbed). The twist is she has a wobble when she discovers he has two kids from his first marriage, and when she realises the deceased first wife was a native of the islands and had dark skin, our sympathies towards her are tested. The show challenges the idea of racism as something innate. The song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” could easily be the anthem for anti-hatred campaigns today. This is a musical with sweeping romance, peril and real depth, much like the eponymous ocean.
As Nellie Forbush, Rebecca Thornhill sings well and presents a likeable character – until her prejudices are revealed. She becomes a more abashed figure as she tries to make amends, befriending the mixed race children when it is presumed their father has been killed. Matthew Cammelle’s Emile De Becque has a rich, deep voice that is like being drowned in dark chocolate. His “Some Enchanted Evening” was a highlight for me. I also took to Loretta Ables Sayre plodding around the stage as Tonkinese opportunist Bloody Mary. She provides most of the comic relief yet her bewilderment at her daughter’s abandonment by the American lieutenant is surprisingly touching. Stand-out in my view is Alex Fearns as irrepressibly cocky wide boy Luther Billis, an energetic and endearing performance: his gravelly voice and brassy demeanour mask his genuine affection for Nellie Forbush.
The final moments of reunion and reconciliation between Nellie and Emile were a little too understated, I found. Tacit acceptance and domesticity didn’t sweep me away in a wave of romance.