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Prance Charming

CINDERELLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th November, 2021

It’s great to be back at the beautiful Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, after a year with no pantomime.  This year’s offering hits all the right notes, living up to our expectations of the famous story while delivering a few surprises along the way.

Writer-director Will Brenton tinkers with the conventional approach in a number of ways.  First up, the Wicked Sisters aren’t dames!  Gasp!  They’re two young ladies played by female actors!  Gasp!  While initially I feel cheated out of a couple of drag queens, this spoilt rotten pair soon win me over.  As Tess and Claudia (there’s a Strictly theme here) Ella Biddlecombe and Britt Lenting make a strong impression.  Their nastiness is purely on the inside.

Don’t worry, the show still has a dame, in the form of seasoned old pro Ian Adams, making a welcome return to the Grand as Penny Pockets, something of an extraneous character in terms of the plot, but a safe pair of hands if you’re looking for fun.

Brenton adds an evil stepmother to the mix, Baroness Hardup, played with relish by Julie Stark, who makes Cruella look like a pussycat.   She is an excellent contrast to Evie Pickerill’s appealing Cinderella, who is sweet and lively, but can also sing like an angel.  Every female performer in this show has a superb singing voice, it appears, none more so than the mighty Denise Pearson (of 5-Star fame) as the Fairy Godmother, sending shivers spinewards.  Pearson gets a few good numbers – a wise move!

Among the fellas, Tam Ryan’s Buttons has real star quality.  Despite the pangs of his unrequited love, Buttons brings the funny, and Ryan never flags for a second.

Topping the bill are the Pritchard brothers, AJ and Curtis.  Formerly a pro-dancer on Strictly, AJ is, of course, Prince Charming, twirling, prancing and sparkling around, as handsome as a Disney Prince action figure.  The choreography by Racky Plews plays to AJ’s strengths, affording him plenty of opportunities to show what he can do, and he is, it has to be said, a lovely little mover.  Curtis, as Dandini, perhaps has more to prove, and he does it, and then some!  He is an accomplished dancer too, can sing well and even juggle, in a winning performance that cements his reputation as a star in his own right.

On the whole, Brenton’s changes work.  Importantly, he preserves the key moments and executes them very well: The breaking of Buttons’s heart, for example, and arguably the cruellest scene in all panto, the tearing up of Cinderella’s invitation to the ball.  Mark Walters’s set comprises video images as a changing backdrop, which are all very well, but I miss the old-school gauzes and cloths flying in and out.  The videos are too slick, robbing the show of some of its traditional theatricality.

There is much to enjoy here, well-worn routines, groanworthy gags, and plenty of audience participation—from a COVID-safe distance, of course.  It all adds up to a grand night out with something for all the family.  AJ dancing and Denise Pearson singing?  There’s your money’s worth right there.

☆☆☆☆

AJ Pritchard as Prince Charming, with Curtis Pritchard as Dandini (Photo: Tim Thursfield)

Wise Guys

THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 6th December, 2021

In years gone by, the Morecambe & Wise special was a staple and indeed highlight of Christmas telly, replete with sketches, songs, dressing-up, attempts at high drama, and surprise celebrity guests.  Therefore, the 20th anniversary production of this play is an excellent choice for the Rep’s seasonal show this year.

All the elements you expect are in play.  Our hosts are a double act, with one taller than the other, but Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck aren’t impersonating Morecambe & Wise, although they inhabit a very Morecambe & Wise world.  Herdman is loose and lanky, born for physical comedy, while Tuck’s pompous outbursts make him an ideal straight man—well, they’re both really funny in their own right.  They are supported by a hardworking Mitesh Soni, as Arthur (yes, he of the harmonica) who plays most of the other parts, including a hilarious turn as Scarlett Johannsen.   So, it’s more of a triple than a double act.  The first half is full of quickfire sketches, silliness and tearing around.  There is some excuse of a plot, with Tuck refusing to do a Morecambe & Wise show, preferring instead to stage a play what he wrote.  Of course, by the interval, he capitulates, and the second half is pure M&W.

The show is famous for having a secret surprise celebrity guest every night.  I remember yonks ago being tickled to see Dennis Waterman join in the fun, but tonight we are treated to none other than the God of Mischief himself, Tom Hiddleston!  It’s a genuine thrill to see him walk on, in his French aristocrat costume ready for the high drama, and to take Herdman’s Eric-like abuse on the chin.  Hiddleston goes on to further prove what a good sport he is, throwing himself whole-heartedly into Tuck’s Scarlet Pimpernel play, bringing gravitas to the execrable dialogue and joining in the singing and dancing and dressing-up with gusto.  Hiddleston brings pure delight to the proceedings, playing it exactly right, and I think just about everyone in the auditorium fell in love with him.  I know I did.

Director Sean Foley is clearly an aficionado of the source material, putting the cast through all the comic business with an expert eye for timing and silliness.  Nothing feels strained or overwrought, even though the performances are big and daft.  The evening is tinged with nostalgia as we are reminded about the genius of the great pair, and of course it’s all rounded off with a rendition of Bring Me Sunshine and the signature skipping off into the wings.

A proper laugh-out-loud evening of unadulterated joy.

Exhilarating and not ‘ruggish’ at all.

☆☆☆☆☆

Dennis Herdman, Tom Hiddleston, and Thom Tuck (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

Horribly Hysterical

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: BARMY BRITAIN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st December, 2021

Terry Deary’s bestselling books have spawned a hit television series, a film or two, and this, the latest in a succession of stage shows based on his work.

A cast of two, namely Jack Ballard and Morgan Philpott, take us on a whistle-stop tour of two thousand years of British history, from the Roman invasion to the Victorian age.  On-stage costumes enable very quick changes, so the pair can play all the parts without stopping the flow of the action.

Ballard and Philpott work very well together, and they work very hard to keep energy levels high and the audience engaged.  There are songs to singalong with, complete with simple actions, but above all there is plenty to laugh at.  The action is augmented by a video backdrop, which becomes 3-D in the second act (glasses are provided) and the dialogue is punctuated throughout by comical sound effects (courtesy of Nick Sagar’s sound design) but it’s the efforts of the seemingly tireless actors that have the most impact.

Highlights include Richard the Lionheart, with an hilarious running joke about roaring after his name is spoken, a scene about the Black Death (which has Pythonesque overtones) and in particular, an extended sequence about Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn.  There are strokes of genius: Elizabeth the First in an episode of Undercover Boss, Guy Fawkes on a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Pastiche; and the most horrible story, that of body-snatchers Burke and Hare.  This sequence is presented in the most stylised way, so we get the horrible history without the graphic violence. The Postman Pat theme song will never be the same.  Finally, a rap duet between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is delightfully irreverent.

The script is packed with information, but the delivery is so entertaining, you’re learning as a side effect.  Neal Foster’s direction keeps the actors busy with comic business, and there are at least as many laugh-out-loud moments as a pantomime.  So, if you’re looking for an alternative Christmas entertainment for the family, you won’t go horribly wrong with this little cracker.

★★★★


Beautifully Beastly

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 26th November 2021

Forget the Coca-Cola trucks!  You know when Christmas is definitely coming when the Belgrade opens its pantomime.

Back again for the umpteenth year are writer-director-dame Iain Lauchlan and his partner in crime, Craig Hollingsworth.  Separately and as a double act, these two embody the spirit of panto in Coventry, and it’s an absolute treat to see them back live on stage.

Appearing as Dame Dolly Mixture, Lauchlan is tirelessly funny, sporting a range of outfits based on sweets and chocolates, each one a delightful confection.  Lauchlan’s dame always has a twinkle in her eye and something saucy to say.  Paired with Hollingsworth’s Silly Billy, this is a dream team, bringing all the well-worn, well-loved and well funny panto elements to the stage, including a mandatory slosh scene involving mops, and the traditional word play, audience engagement…Lauclan’s script fizzles with jokes old and new.  Clearly, Hollingsworth is in his element, getting annoyed with the audience and complaining about being made to look silly.  A fast-paced song about alternative career paths for the cast is an hilarious highlight.

Another joy to watch is Peter Watts as bombastic narcissist Maurice, in a larger-than-life performance that comes close to stealing the show.  He is teamed with sidekick Grub, played by the excellent Miriam Grace Edwards—it’s great to see her return to the Belgrade stage.

Katy Anna Southgate’s Enchantress is a striking figure in a beautiful purple gown; it’s a pity we don’t get to hear her sing until the finale.

The panto fun is interspersed with the darker plot line of the fairy tale.  It begins with a Prince (Samuel Lake) being beastly to a peasant (Louie Wood).  As punishment for his lack of compassion, the Enchantress turns the Prince into a hideous beast for five hundred years.  The Beast is played with gusto by Sion Lloyd, whose scary speaking voice is offset by his beautiful, powerful singing.  Ruby Eva’s Beauty is as pretty and sweet as you’d expect, while David Gilbrook as her bewildered father Harold dodders around endearingly.  But, let’s face it, you don’t go to the panto for the plot!  The tonal gear change between anarchic silliness and emotional drama is sometimes too sharp.  It’s almost as though we’re switching between two different shows. 

Somehow, Lauchlan manages to marry all the elements to bring the story to its happy ending, complete with a rousing rendition of S Club 7’s Reach For The Stars, which you’ll be singing all the way home.

On the whole, it’s a joyous experience and production values are high, courtesy of the Belgrade’s in-house workshop, from the glow-in-the-dark dancing skeletons to the lavish costumes and fairytale scenery.

A feast of festive family fun.

☆☆☆☆

Caning it: Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth (Photo: Nicola Young)

Slay Belles

DEATH DROP

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd November, 2021

This raucous whodunit bears the hallmarks of a classic country house murder mystery.  It’s 1991, and a group of strangers assembles in the remote Shantay Manor on a stormy night.  The bodies start piling up, the fingers get pointing and accusations fly… But it’s almost as though the plot is unimportant in Holly Stars’s anarchic script.  Part-parody, part showcase, the show provides opportunities for its cast of drag queens and kings to shine. 

Lady of the house, Rosebud von Fistenburg (Vinegar Strokes) opens the show with a Bassey-esque number, before her guests start to arrive.  Vinegar Strokes impresses throughout, never falling short of absolutely hilarious, in a high camp portrayal of the upper-class hostess.  The performance is the backbone of the show, setting the tone (albeit a low one!).

Drag Race legend, Willam dazzles as pretty pop starlet ‘Shazza’, knowing when to turn up the melodrama and when to throw lines away for maximum comic impact. Willam has star quality oozing out of him—I think that’s what it is, anyway. Ra’Jah O’Hara combines stunning beauty with comedic skills in a hugely enjoyable turn as weather girl, Summer Rains.  Karen From Finance brings an antipodean twang to proceedings, power-dressed to the nines as gutter journalist Morgan Pierce, of The World of the News—subtlety is not on the menu tonight.

The Queens are more than ably supported by Georgia Frost as sexist film-maker, Phil Maker, and by Richard Energy, as Tory MP Rich Whiteman.  Male stereotypes are sent up mercilessly—and quite right, too!

Holly Stars herself appears as the Bottomley Triplets, who are catering the do, in a sublime display of camp comedy.  All the cast are served well by Stars’s script, and she is not shy of writing some juicy parts for herself.  One scene in particular has dialogue consisting almost entirely of tongue-twisters!  The rest is just daft, laced with pantomime fun and nostalgia for crispy pancakes and arctic rolls.

Director Jesse Jones fills every moment with comic business, heightened reactions, stylised movement and silliness.  The result is once you start laughing out loud, you don’t stop.  This is far and away the funniest show I have seen in a long time.

Camp, salacious, silly, and ludicrous, Death Drop is a real joy-bringer, proving what I’ve always suspected to be true: drag artists really do make the world a better place.

★★★★★

Pointing fingers at Vinegar Strokes are Willam, Holly Stars and Karen From Finance (Photo: Matt Crockett)

Piece of Work

9 To 5

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 16th November, 2021

Colin Higgins’s 1980 film came out when the world of work was very different.  The story of three secretaries who take on their sexist boss and change working conditions within a corporation now plays out like a period piece.  One of the film’s stars, Dolly Parton, provides the songs for this stage musical adaptation, introduces the action and gives a bit of narration via video.  Video Dolly even sings the opening number, the famous title song, with the entire company joining in.  It’s a rousing start and the best song in it.

Things soon slow down as characters are introduced.  And they each must get their solo, slowing down the action.  The women’s revenge fantasies about their sleazy boss become reality and what should be fast-paced farce is hampered by more songs and soul-searching.

Leading the cast is Louise Redknapp, flexing her comedy chops as Violet, the most straight-laced of the trio.  Redknapp is in good voice and gives an assured performance while Stephanie Chandos’s Doralee Rhodes inevitably channels Dolly P, to amusing effect.  Funniest of the three is Vivian Panka as new girl Judy, whose sweetness and naivete are swept aside when events get out of control.  When all three sing together, the harmonies are wonderful.  It sounds like Redknapp has found herself another girl band!

As the sleazeball Mr Hart for this performance, Richard Taylor Woods is deliciously abhorrent, although perhaps he’s too fit for the role. Give Hart a beer belly and a combover to make him thoroughly repugnant, I say! This would certainly heighten the contrast between Hart and Violet’s handsome love interest, Joe (Russell Dickson).

Julia J Nagle is in excellent form in a show-stealing portrayal of the sexually frustrated office snitch Roz, with a hilarious song about her lust for the boss.  It’s a pity Roz is exiled for most of the second act. 

But no matter how expertly the musical numbers are staged and how energetically they are performed by the hugely talented cast, what we get is a stop-start farce with some very funny scenes, interrupted by introspective songs that are tonally at odds with the comedy.  What it has to say about sexual equality and harassment in the workplace has been, largely, overtaken by the real world, so the piece is no longer a clarion call.  The women resort to kidnap to get their way, reminding us that many of our rights have been fought for by direct, often criminal, action.  Think of the Suffragettes.  And Stonewall.

Not every film has to be adapted into a musical.  This one would work just as well, if not better, as a play.

★★★

On the job: Sean Needham and Stephanie Chandos (Photo: Pamela Raith Photography)

Magic with Knobs On

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th November, 2021

Fifty years after its release, the Disney film gets a stage adaptation, and I approach it curious to see how certain key scenes will be performed (the underwater scene, the football match, the flying bed…)  From the off, you can see we are in safe and creative hands.  The show opens with an extended dumbshow sequence, detailing the wartime experience of the Rawlins children and their evacuation to the countryside… Hold on a minute: orphans evacuated to go and live with an eccentric, and end up having magical adventures….  Isn’t that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

In this case, the eccentric who takes in the children is apprentice witch, Eglantine Price, who has learned her spells from a correspondence course.  Price is played by a superb Dianne Pilkington, who makes the role her own — there’s not a trace of Angela Lansbury to her portrayal.  An early scene when she attempts to fly on her mail-order broomstick while singing is especially funny.  Pilkington is excellent throughout.

Members of the chorus bring on and take off pieces of scenery, items of furniture and props.  The action is constantly flowing, with physical theatre helping to create effects like the bobbing along under the beautiful briny.  Cinematic effects are translated to stage magic, with illusions and puppetry coming to the fore, so that characters can be turned into rabbits and so on.  Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison really flex their creative muscles to deliver the magic, in this inventive and delightful piece of storytelling.

Most of the songs from the film are here; ‘The Age of Not Believing’ remains one of the Sherman Brothers’ loveliest songs, and there are new songs by Neil Bartram which have a strong Sherman Brothers feel to them.  Brian Hill’s book gives us the key plot points, with only a few alterations.  On the whole, it works brilliantly, but I find it begins to sag in the second act.  An example is Professor Browne (a splendid Charles Brunton) singing new number, ‘It’s Now’ in which he steels himself to take action, but only succeeds in slowing the action down!   Hill also gives the story a different ending.  I won’t say what it is but if you’ve seen the film version of another Sherman Brothers musical (the one about the flying car) you’ll know how this one pans out.

The underwater scene is there, tick box.  Obviously, the football match doesn’t happen, but I would like more animals populating the island.  And the bed is a marvel.  There are many moments when you think ‘That’s clever’ and ask, ‘How are they doing that?’ — the show is as much about the magic of theatre as anything else (like turning to your imagination to get you through the tough times).

A hard-working chorus keeps things moving, including the wonderful puppets, And there is also some amusing character work from Susannah Van Den Berg as Mrs Mason and Jacqui Dubois as Mrs Hobday.  Conor O’Hara, as eldest child Charlie, has a gorblimey accent but it’s not as strong as the one in the film so don’t worry.  O’Hara has a powerful singing voice and delivers the emotional punch Brian Hill gives him.  Charlie’s siblings (played, I think, by Isabella Bucknell and Haydn Court at this performance.  Correct me if I’m incorrect!) also give assured performances.

It’s a magical night out for the family even if it does run a bit long, past younger ones’ bedtimes.   It’s high-quality fun that will engage your imagination and touch your heartstrings, but not pluck them out!

★★★★

Giving it some stick: Dianne Pilkington as Eglantine Price. Photo Credit: Johan Persson/


Elephant in the Room

THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th November, 2021

It’s fantastic to be back in the RST, as it reopens with this year’s big family show, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. Young Peter Duchene visits a fortune teller who intrigues him with a reading involving his presumed-dead sister and an elephant. Next thing you know, an elephant is dropping through the roof of the opera house in a conjuring trick gone wrong—don’t you just hate it when that happens? Peter sees this event as a sign that his entire life has been a lie and sets out to face the elephant and learn the truth…

Holding things together is Amy Booth-Steel as an affable Narrator, breaking the fourth wall with such charm we don’t want to sue her for the damage.  A strong ensemble includes delightful turns from Forbes Masson as a tightly wound, paranoid Police Chief, his underlings tumbling around him like Keystone Kops; Marc Antolin and Melissa James evoke empathy as childless couple Leo and Gloria; Sam Harrison’s fruity Count; Alastair Parker’s bumbling magician; Miriam Nyarko’s energetic orphan Adele; and Mark Meadows as Peter’s guardian, former soldier Vilna Lutz whose PTSD is startling, to say the least.

Villain of the piece is the mighty Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet, who gets the most outlandish costumes.  Strallen channels Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II and Cruella de Vil, with shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in her decorative vocal work.  It’s a stonking characterisation.

The Elephant itself is from the War Horse school of puppetry, with three operators bringing life to the pachyderm.  The scale of the beast is impressive but more so is the way it ‘lives’; there is grace to this animal and sorrow.  There is undeniably an elephant in the room with us.  It’s a captivating creation, skilfully performed by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi, and Suzanne Nixon.

Giving a phenomenal performance as protagonist Peter is the elfin-featured Jack Wolfe, giving the role a quirky youthful energy, who is nothing short of perfection.  Instantly endearing, Wolfe is a true knockout when he sings, demonstrating beautiful vocal control and an impressive range.  You get the feeling you’re watching someone who is going to become a massive star.

With book and lyrics by Nancy Harris, and music and lyrics by Marc Teller, the show captures the tone of DiCamillo’s wonderful book. Colin Richmond’s design work delivers the grim, grey city of Baltese, with atmospheric lighting by Oliver Fenwick. It’s Sarah Tipple’s direction that makes us identify with, laugh at, and feel for the cast of offbeat characters, playing the humorous notes broadly and the emotional points deftly. The score is reminiscent of Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan and is performed by a tight band under the musical direction of Tom Brady.

It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece, that speaks to us of people in strange times looking for answers (and not always in the right places), of hope, of the things that unite us rather than those that divide.

Beautiful.

★★★★★

Trunk Call: Peter (Jack Wolfe) visits the Elephant. Photo: Manuel Harlan © RSC

Sound as a Hound

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 30th October, 2021

This is my second production of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story in two weeks.  From what I understand, there’s at least a third one doing the rounds.  There’s definitely something in the air, given the current popularity of this tale.  And what’s not to like?  An intriguing mystery, Holmes and Watson in great form, and the prospect of a supernatural beast!  Bring it on.

Heading the cast as the world’s most famous consulting detective is Robert Moore, who is quite possibly the best-looking Holmes I’ve ever seen.  Moore’s Holmes is a little imperious and condescending, but there’s humour there too, and the portrayal is nuanced so at times you can see the cogs working, and at others know when Holmes is withholding something.  This Holmes brims with pent-up energy, mental and physical and there’s never any indication of him not being in charge.

Adapter-director John-Robert Partridge appears as Doctor Watson — this case elevates Watson from the role of mere sidekick to the great man; he is permitted to investigate on his own.  Partridge’s Watson is no fool.  Somewhat lugubrious and implacable, he has a rich speaking voice and an understated authority, as though he is Holmes’s star pupil rather than just a sounding board for Holmes’s thoughts.

This excellent pairing is supported by a fine quartet of actors in all the other parts.  Ben Armitage’s Sir Henry Baskerville is laidback and easy-going, a fine contrast to the clipped tones and reserved demeanour of the detective duo.  Armitage’s Henry breezes through the action until the potential consequences dawn on him and he becomes sober and stunned.

Andrew Woolley’s Barrymore the butler is imposing and sinister —more so than his naturist Stapleton, a man prone to terrifying outbursts.  I think something more could be done to emphasise his position as a naturist; an undersized butterfly net alone doesn’t cut it.  Kate Gee Finch doubles as an underused, long-suffering Mrs Hudson, and as the tightly wound Beryl Stapleton in an effectively emotional performance.  Sarah Feltham proves invaluable as a tearful Mrs Barrymore, a guarded Laura Lyons, and a coolly professional Doctor Mortimer.

The intimate performance space of the Attic puts us right in the Baker Street apartment, with other locations suggested by dust sheets on the furniture, or through the use of lighting and sound effects.  The music and sound design by Elliott Wallis go a long way to creating an unsettling atmosphere, underscoring the action and cranking up the tension during the transitions, not least for the climactic confrontation between hound and man.  Onyx Redwood’s lighting adds to the chilling aspects of the story, with director John-Robert Partridge making superb use of complete darkness to put us on edge, as unseen figures weep, laugh, and startle us.  There’s even a kind of Woman In Black gliding around.

An atmospheric and engaging staging of a solid adaptation.  Now, with all this interest in the Hound, perhaps I should dig out the musical comedy version I wrote twenty years ago and see if anyone’s interested…

****

Robert Moore on the case as Sherlock Holmes


Feline Groovy

WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT?

The REP, Birmingham, Friday 29th October, 2021

A jukebox musical?  A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones?  A jukebox musical based on the back catalogue of Welsh superstar Tom Jones with a plot inspired by Henry Fielding’s novel of 1749?

Oh, go on then.

It turns out to be a consummate example of the jukebox musical genre.  Writer Joe DiPietro takes the bare bones of Fielding’s book, transposing the action to 1960s London — the show’s aesthetic blends elements from both periods, and it works beautifully, to create a vibrant, post-modern experience that is a whole lot of fun.

In the lead as Tom Jones (the hero from the book, not the singer) is the snake-hipped, angel-voiced Dominic Andersen, who is absolutely perfect. Those rich vocals soar and his charisma never wanes. At one point, due to plot reasons, he is stripped down to his underwear (but he keeps his hat on) and I am reminded of his turn as Rocky Horror a few years back. Kudos to the casting director! Andersen seems born for this role. His ‘It’s Not Unusual’ gets the heart racing, and ‘I Who Have Nothing’ is stunning.

Dominic Andersen (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Tom’s love interest, Mary Western, is played by Bronté Barbé — don’t let her diminutive frame fool you; she possesses a belter of a voice, ideally suited to the melodramatic ballads of Tom Jones (the singer not the hero of the book).   Mary is an independent young woman,

There’s a comic subplot (even though the main plot is comic enough) involving Tom’s former teacher, Mr Partridge (Ashley Campbell) and ‘The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress’ (Rebekah Hinds), both of whom are delightful.  There is a touch of conflict stirred up by Tom’s rival for Mary, William Blifil (a supremely snobby Harry Kershaw), while Melanie Walters’s Mrs Western is good value as the acquisitive matchmaker.  These characters epitomise the clash of cultures in the world of this show: marriage as a transaction/sex as a pastime. Julius D’Silva’s kindly Lord Allworthy speaks up for love as the guiding factor. D’Silva imbues his two-dimensional part with warmth, and is not without his surprises.

Bringing the glamour is the fabulous Kelly Price as Lady Bellaston, a kind of Kim Cattrall cougar figure with designs on Tom.  Price gets to wear all the best outfits, including a plastic wedding dress that has to be seen to be believed.  Janet Bird’s costumes go all out to evoke the period settings, and her budget must have been generous.  The iconic fashions keep coming!

Special mention of Lemuel Knights as Big Mickey.  His ‘Delilah’ brings the house down in a show-stopping moment when the song is staged as a psychotic prison ballet.  Which seems like an appropriate time to mention the choreography by Arlene Phillips, no less.  She works the cast hard — the dancing hardly seems to stop, and its slick, of the period, and a delight.  The energy pours off the stage throughout this incredible production.

Luke Sheppard directs with brio, emphasising the staginess of the enterprise.  At one point, he has a couple of ‘stagehands’ come on to help create special effects for a train journey — I would have liked to see more of this kind of thing throughout.  Similarly, the chorus of three girls (think Little Shop of Horrors) come and go, fading from the forefront (but always fabulously dressed!)  The proposal scene is a riot of overblown kitsch; I can barely drink it all in.

It all builds to Fielding’s resolution of laughably convenient revelations, and while some might accuse the show of being a victory of style over substance, I think the meatiness of the songs adds depth to the stock characters, and the sexual politics are handled in a fun way.

An uplifting, energising piece of feelgood fun, this show deserves a long run in the West End.  The songs don’t feel shoehorned in, the design is gorgeous, and the exuberant, talented ensemble impresses. The nine-piece band, under the musical direction of Josh Sood, is absolutely phenomenal.

The next jukebox musical to come down the pike has a tough act to follow.

*****

Dominic Andersen and Rebekah Hinds, with Ashley Campbell (centre) Photo: Pamela Raith