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Raining Supremes


Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th December, 2022

There are many shows that chart the highs and lows of the business we call show, detailing the rise and fall of musical artistes, often involving real-life dead singers.  This one focusses on a fictional Motown-style girl group and adheres pretty much to the same storytelling formula, touching upon white exploitation of black music, and male exploitation of female performers.

Three young women meet a manager/con artist who gets them a gig as backing singers to an established star.  Eventually, the group get to headline their own shows, make records, appear on television.  Conflict arises when the manager changes the line-up so the ‘best-looking’ girl gets to front the group, while the one with the strongest voice is relegated to backing vocals.  These machinations culminate in a blistering Act One closing number, delivered by Nicole Raquel Dennis as the side-lined Effie, whose rendition of And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going brings the house to its feet and is quite possibly the most impassioned performance you could ever hope to hear.

Dennis is a powerful presence throughout, exhibiting Effie’s diva behaviour and that searing, soaring voice.  Playing the other two girls are Natalie Kassanga as Deena (the pretty one) and Paige Peddie as Lorrell (the funny one).  They each get their moments to shine both musically and dramatically.

As the manipulative manager Curtis Taylor Jr, Matt Mills embodies the male attitudes of the time: the women are merely a product for him to package and sell.  With his rich singing voice, he is a pleasure to hate.  Brandon Lee Sears is a pleasure to like as womanising soul singer Jimmy Early; with all the moves and the vocal dynamics, Sears delivers a star turn.

Tim Hatley’s set evokes nightclubs, TV studios, Las Vegas, all through geometric patterns, while his costumes are glitzy and glamorous – especially the gowns worn by the girls.

The songs are credible pastiches, played live by a fantastic band under the baton of Simona Budd, but of course it’s the singers who command our attention.  You can’t fault the production values or the performances, but for me the material is a little too formulaic, containing no surprises to lift it beyond the run-of-the-mill showbiz story.

All in all though, it’s a hugely impressive, entertaining evening in the company of Supremely talented performers who work hard to deserve their ovations.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Diverting divas: Paige Peddie, Natalie Kassanga, and Nicole Raquel Dennis

Skip to the Louvre


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 8th March 2022

Dan Brown’s best-selling thriller, having already been a film starring Tom Hanks, now comes to the stage in this slick and stylised adaptation, with Nigel Harmon in the leading role as nerdy action hero and symbologist, Robert Langdon, who finds himself accused of murder when a body is found in the Louvre with the deceased’s handwriting naming Langdon, among a load of gobbledy-gook.  Langdon is an expert in gobbledy-gook and he teams up with the putatively French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu (Hannah Rose Caton).  With no further ado, we’re off on a treasure hunt, with puzzles to solve and codes to crack.

Luke Sheppard’s direction keeps the cast of ten on stage most of the time, involving them in the action, vocally and often physically, as well as making their individual appearances as characters Langdon and Neveu encounter along the way.  David Woodhead’s elegant set is dominated by Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man — you know the fellow, like Jim Morrison doing star jumps. Aided by Llyr Parri’s video and sound designs, the unfolding mystery is laid out before us.  There’s a lot to listen to, a lot to keep up with.

Nigel Harmon makes for a personable Robert Langdon: the geekish enthusiasm, the mansplaining, the claustrophobia, are all here, and he is ably supported by Hannah Rose Caton’s Sophie, who is also full to the brim with exposition.  Almost stealing the show is Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules as the eccentric Sir Leigh Teabing, clearly enjoying himself.

Alpha Kargbo’s Detective Fache charges around, shouting a lot, while Andrew Lewis is sympathetic as the murdered man, Sauniere (in flashbacks!).  Joshua Lacey is a decidedly menacing presence as the self-flagellating assassin Silas.

The plot cracks along at speed.  Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel’s script could do with a couple of breathing spaces so we can digest each revelation, but thinking time is sacrificed in favour of pace.  Otherwise, it’s a faithful adaptation that translates well into action, performed by a strong ensemble who work like a well-oiled machine.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Numbers up! Nigel Harmon as Robert Langdon. Photo:: Johan Persson

Working Perfectly


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.

out of order

Who’s The Daddy?


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd May, 2016


Florian Zeller’s hit play comes to Brum in this sharp translation by Christopher Hampton.  It begins as a seemingly naturalistic portrayal of forgetful old man Andre (Kenneth Cranham) being visited by his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew).  But then, disjoints appear.  Contradictions arise.  Who is the man who appears?  Anne’s husband?  Someone else?  And that woman?  Is she a new nurse?  Or Andre’s other daughter?  Lines of dialogue repeat and reoccur in different scenes.  Meanwhile, subtly, the set is becoming barer – items of furniture, and Andre’s possessions, are disappearing, as his mind submits to encroaching dementia.  The transitions add to the sense of confusion, plunging us into blackouts while disrupted music blares.  Like Andre, we very soon don’t know who is who and what’s going on.

Of course, it’s only a glimpse into what it might be like to experience Andre’s confusion, terror and grief.  As audience, we can piece together what is happening in a way that the ailing Andre cannot.  It leads us to a devastating, heart-breaking final scene, powerfully played by Cranham, who is utterly convincing as the good-natured charmer, trying to keep his grip and fearing what is happening to him.  A stunning portrayal.

He is supported by a striking cast, who show us the effects of dementia on others and also the sometimes shocking treatment of sufferers.  Amanda Drew delivers a monologue about strangling her father, to give them both some sense of peace.  It is emotive stuff, to be sure, but there is humour, due to the surviving remnants of Andre’s fading personality.

Director James Macdonald keeps us on our toes as we try to sift through the changing situations and Andre’s deterioration – sometimes the scenes are very short and we are soon plunging into darkness again.  Miriam Buether’s design – Andre’s increasingly impersonal surroundings – and Guy Hoare’s cool (in the sense of cold) lighting add to the starkness.

Gripping, moving and, ultimately, bleak, The Father could well be the most powerful piece of theatre to be seen this year.

2_Kenneth Cranham in The Father_c Simon Annand

Pyjamas but no party: Kenneth Cranham (Photo: Simon Annand)

Boxing Clever


The DOOR, The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th May, 2015


This one-man piece written by Geoff Thompson concerns a former boxer, now a trainer, with a message to send. He sets up a camcorder on a tripod and this becomes the focus of his attention and delivery throughout the piece. It as though we are eavesdropping, rather than being addressed directly. He says he wanted to write a letter, an important letter, and so he went to a shop to buy the best paper and the best pen but was advised by the shop assistant that he’d be better off putting his feelings on camera – unlikely, unless she was also selling camcorders, but I’ll let that go – His face, she told him, says more than words.

That face is the familiar and famous face of Christopher Fairbank, known for countless appearances on the big and little screen. You may not know his name but you will have seen him in many things. He delivers a charismatic and captivating performance in what turns out to be a very wordy and complex piece. I find his eloquence does not match his professed inability to put his words on paper – he sounds more like a writer than a boxer (no reason, of course, why he can’t be both) and he seems too at ease with the camera, as if he’s recording the latest in a long line of vlogs rather than attempting to deliver the message that has been burning inside him for years. Better, I think, to see him awkward and fumble initially before finding his voice, rather than pontificating about the nobility of the sport he made his profession. It comes across as storytelling rather than a character revealing himself.

Gradually, it emerges who he’s talking to and what he has to say (I’m trying not to spoil it) and, by the end, when we learn why the play has the title it has, Fairbank is packing quite an emotional punch, a roundhouse right to the heart.

Thompson’s script is well-structured and has lyrical qualities but I think it’s a little over-written and a little too clever. Director Michael Vale somehow manages to avoid the ‘action’ being stilted and static (it is, after all, a bloke on a stool addressing a camera) by keeping our focus on Fairbank and his haggard, human face. You leave the studio moved but it’s been a bit of a slog to get there rather than a knockout punch.


Mountin’ Lions

COUGAR – The Musical

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 21st May, 2015


Donna Moore’s musical receives its UK premiere in the Belgrade Theatre’s super B2 studio, transformed here to a swish bar run by one of the characters. Mary-Marie (Suanne Braun) is in her forties and embracing it – along with any young stud she can get her claws into. Lily (Pippa Winslow) is a newly divorced empty-nester, at a loss, who wanders in. Dawn Hope is Clarity, an academic exploring the ‘phenomenon’ of cougars – predatory women on the hunt for younger men. The trio are complemented by a fourth – the only male member of the cast, so to speak: Barnaby Hughes who plays everyone else.

They’re a likeable bunch and they put the numbers across well but rather than a plot, we get a series of scenes that are like sketches, showing different aspects of the women’s lives. Any conflict that arises is easily resolved or glossed over and they move on to their next cocktail and their next cock.

Suanne Braun is the funniest of the three as the sassy bar owner trying to keep in shape with some half-assed exercises. Dawn Hope has the strongest singing voice and Pippa Winslow comes across as the most rounded character, as vulnerable Lily finds her way in this new world. Their voices blend well and the score glitters with wit and some not-bad tunes. A pit stop at a nail bar (with Barnaby Hughes appearing as manicurist Eve!) is perhaps the catchiest number, although a song about a vibrator called Julio goes down well. The three women are very good but the piece amounts to a showcase for the talents (and yes, the physique) of Barnaby Hughes.

It’s a lot of fun, a little saucy and a little touching but more of a cabaret-style entertainment than a piece of musical theatre. It’s a more thoughtful piece than a raunchy girls’ night out. Imagine Cole Porter does Sex & The City.

Why should there be an age limit on love, the show asks? It’s a fair question but falls shy of another question: Can’t these women just be out for the sex? Why does love have to enter into it?

It’s definitely, irrefutably American with its outlook, its navel-gazing, its affirmations, and its ‘finding oneself’ philosophy.

On-stage musicians Neil MacDonald and Joe Pickering on keyboard and drums respectively bring the spirited score to irresistible life in this classy, slick production that purrs rather than roars.

Suanne Braun snags Barnaby Hughes

Suanne Braun snags Barnaby Hughes

October in Coventry


Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 8th October, 2014


I have mentioned before my preference for John Godber’s earlier works: plays like Teechers and Bouncers, which combine theatrical brio with pertinent social commentary – so what brings me to Coventry to this touring revival of his 1992 piece, which is characteristic of his later works: plays invariably preoccupied with lower middle-class couples going through marital strife while indulging in pursuits like city breaks, booze cruises or cable car rides?

Frankly, I’ve come for the cast. The play is a two-hander, featuring Shobna Gulati (Corrie, dinnerladies) and one of the clan McGann (Joe, this time).   From the off, this pair engage me and it’s also pleasing to note that Godber (who also directs) has updated or refreshed the script: it works a lot better than a production I saw years ago. It’s funny – in a sit-com kind of way but there is a political undercurrent, there if you look for it. If you don’t, it’s a very funny study of married life.

Al (McGann) and Bet (Gulati) could bicker for England. Gulati shows a nice line in deadpan Northern camp, supplemented by some hilarious physical comedy (her disco-dancing is a sight to behold!) while McGann is spikey and sarky, embittered by his lot in life.  They form quite a double act.

When Bet wins a magazine competition, the couple travel to Paris, arguing all the way. The sniping can turn quite savage and acerbic but what also begins to emerge is how much these two love each other. Bickering is how they communicate and there are moments when they allow each other to be happy that are rather touching. Nestled within the barbed attacks is a lot of truth. Al’s pride is injured: he can’t afford to treat his wife to foreign holidays and so will not let himself enjoy the freebie trip because he feels he hasn’t ‘earned’ it. Godber nails this working-class attitude perfectly: you only deserve what you have earned – this contrasts nicely with Al’s tightness about spending money on what he regards as fripperies: magazines and scarves.

There is a complexity to the characters and their relationship that enriches the piece beyond its sit-com set-up, a complexity brought to life by an excellent brace of actors. There is also commentary on the state of the nation, with its boarded-up high streets and Godber hints that staying in the European Union is to the nation’s benefit. It’s subtly done; the emphasis is on the central relationship. There is plenty to get me laughing out loud.

Pip Leckenby’s set symbolises the smallness of Al and Bet’s world, opening out when they get to Paris. Travel broadens their outlook and instils them with a greater appreciation for what they have at home.

And now I find myself looking forward to any future refreshed versions of Godber’s stuff. With this production, he has won me round.


Fenced In


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 10th April, 2013

Troy Maxson, sanitation worker, husband, father, bully and raconteur likes to hold court in the yard of his Pittsburgh home.  It is 1957 and he wins a minor victory at work, becoming the first black man to be promoted from loading garbage onto the back of a truck to driving the truck himself.  This is the ‘civil rights’ element of August Wilson’s plot, but the remarkable thing, historically, is the playwright’s body of work itself.  Blue collar black folks airing their grievances, revealing their personal lives, laughing, loving, fighting – all of that is here in a powerful drama to rival Arthur Miller.

Now a period piece, the play still chimes with the present.  Wife Rose bemoans the lack of aspiration she sees in the community, people never realising their lot in life could and should be improved.  Troy’s fatal flaw (he is ‘one for the ladies’) is not a rare trait and, more generally, we can all identify with that destructive impulse, when we go ahead and do what we oughtn’t, just to shake things up.  Troy seems unable to settle for what he has: at work this is to his credit; at home it is nothing but detrimental.

Lenny Henry is blisteringly good as Troy.  His experience as a stand-up brings life to Troy’s tall stories.  The comic timing is perfect.  Henry also brings depth to the character, in a multi-faceted performance that is touching and powerful.

Tanya Moodie is excellent as wife Rose, able to stand her ground.  We feel Troy’s tragic fall but it is Rose who gets our sympathy.  There is a shift in the power structure of the relationship as she finds a way to accommodate disaster, while Troy shuns his youngest son out of little more than stubborn pride.

Ashley Zhangazha is son Cory, whose dreams of professional (American) football are trampled by his dad because Troy’s own ambitions of baseball were never realised.  ‘Swinging for the fences’ is no longer encouraged.   He and Henry share some tense moments.  Colin McFarlane brings out Troy’s more waggish aspects as best friend Jim Bono – their eventual alienation, understated, is also touching.  Troy’s fence around the yard is complete, shutting some people out and keeping some people in.

Paulette Randall’s direction is unfussy, giving the characters room to live.  Shifts between humour and tension are handled extremely well.  The play ends with a non-naturalistic moment as brother Gabriel puffs ineffectually into his trumpet, as a warning to St Peter that the time of Judgment is at hand.  We are suddenly plunged into the broken mind of this mentally impaired war veteran with a metal plate in his head.  The lighting changes. Drums pound.  He dances.  It’s an incongruous finish, and a little jarring.  Perhaps a more downbeat ending would be more in keeping; I don’t know.   It’s what people were buzzing about as we filed out of the auditorium.

This quirky bit aside, Fences is a rewarding piece, a convincing portrayal of a strong man brought low by his own actions – and that is the essence of tragedy.

 lenny henry

Pitting Their Wits


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 25th March, 2013


Lee Hall’s play gets off to a conventional start with a group of men turning up for an adult education class on Art Appreciation.  They’re miners – apart from a Marxist dental engineer and a young lad who is unemployed – and their down-to-Earth plain-speaking and Geordie humour put their posh tutor in his place.   It’s familiar territory, bringing to mind Educating Rita (the tutor shows them a slide, “A Titian!” Bless you! – that kind of thing), The History Boys, and also Art by Yasmina Reza.  The characters – a comical bunch of contrasting types – have heated discussions about the nature and purpose of education and of art.  It’s all very amusing and the comic timing is impeccable.

It’s all based on truth, a real group of working class painters from Ashington who achieved success during the 1930s and 40s.  Their images are projected on screens and discussed.  The pretensions of the art world are pricked and punctured, and it’s all rather engaging and enjoyable.

But, in the second act, things really get going…

Philip Correia is excellent as naive (in more ways than one) painter Oliver Kilbourn, who blossoms under Mr Lyon’s tutelage.   This performance is the heart of the piece as Oliver struggles with an offer that seems too good to pass up, held back by notions of his humble origins and loyalty to his class.  Correia brings sensitivity and passion to the role; his growing confidence and ability to articulate his ideas, his regret, anger and frustration at an opportunity missed.  It’s entirely gripping to see and Correia is more than ably supported by Louis Hilyer as Lyon and Suzy Cooper as Lady Sutherland, Oliver’s would-be patron.

Riley Jones impresses as the young unemployed lad, on the fringes of the group.  He also doubles as famous artist Ben Nicholson in a dazzling display of his versatility.

Nicholas Lumley is funny as stickler-for-rules George although most of the out-and-out funny lines go to Donald McBride’s Jimmy. Joe Caffrey brings intensity and humour to his role as the Marx-spouting dental engineer, and Catherine Dryden gets them all in a tizzy when she turns up as a life-model.  Later we hear that she has abandoned her artistic pursuits – the all-too common story of opportunities forsaken.  It’s a tight ensemble but for me Philip Correia is the stand-out performance.

Most of the characters survive the War and here the play becomes starkly relevant to us today in 2013.  The post-war optimism of the working class in Britain has been obliterated by the likes of Thatcher and successive rotten governments (including “New” Labour).  The play ends with the men looking forward to a better life for everyone after the massive sacrifices of the war, to the brand new NHS, to better aspirations for all, to nationalisation and shared ownership of the means of production… And I just sat there feeling sick and disgusted at what we had in this country and what has been taken from us and sold off, and how the people of this country have been hoodwinked and betrayed.  An opportunity lost.

It’s a real kick in the teeth, perfectly delivered by director Max Roberts and Lee Hall’s script in a show that brims with warmth and humanity.