Tag Archives: The Alexandra Theatre

Ocean of Emotion

SOUTH PACIFIC

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 28th August, 2022

The Chichester Festival Theatre production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic comes to town and it’s an absolute must-see.  The score reads like a Greatest Hits playlist.  So many great numbers, many of which have become standards.  Hearing them within the context of the drama renews their impact.

Set in World War II on an island outpost where the US Navy is itching for conflict with the Japanese, this is at heart a double love story, where both relationships are blighted by ingrained prejudice.  We have firecracker hick Nellie Forbush falling for the urbane and educated plantation owner Emile de Becque, and handsome young lieutenant Joe Cable having his head turned by Liat, the beautiful daughter of camp follower Bloody Mary.  Joe feels unable to marry the girl because of the way things are ‘back home’; Nellie is horrified to discover the late mother of Emile’s kids was, gulp, coloured.  The revelation of Nellie’s racism comes as a real kicker at the end of Act One.  This lively, perky girl, the life and soul of any gathering, who has entertained us and earned our affection is tainted by one of the most stupid attitudes going.  It’s a real blow, like finding out someone you otherwise admire votes Tory.

Sad to say, the show’s message is just as relevant today.  Cable’s song, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught gets to the root of a problem that still plagues society today.

As the suave Emile, Julian Ovenden oozes romance.  Some Enchanted Evening has never sounded lovelier or more seductive.  Gina Beck’s Nellie is irresistible, funny and perky, with her heart on her sleeve, her vocals both belting and nuanced.  Rob Houchen’s Cable is spot on: the handsome young officer, dutiful and yet in love.  Houchen’s voice is surely the finest working in musical theatre today.  Sublime.

Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary brings plenty of comic relief, as does Douggie McMeekin’s Luther Billis.  Ampil’s impassioned pleas to Cable to give her daughter a better life are heart-breaking, and her rendition of Bali Ha’i is bewitching.

The big chorus numbers are stirring: There is Nothing Like a Dame, by the men, and I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, by the women.  This production goes all out to deliver the goods.  Ann Yee’s choreography, especially for the marines, is energetic, hoe-down like without being camp, and there are plenty of exotic touches to evoke the island setting.

Romantic, thrilling and humorous, with a strong social comment, South Pacific reasserts itself as a pinnacle of musical theatre in this magnificent production that hits all the right notes, musically and emotionally.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Cable guy Rob Houchen and hair-washer Gina Beck (Photo: Johan Persson)


Back and the Future

JINKX MONSOON & MAJOR SCALES – Together Again, Again!

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 8th June 2022

Winner of Ru Paul’s Drag Race (Season 5) Jinkx Monsoon has carved out a career as a cabaret artiste, a self-styled ‘internationally tolerated chanteuse’.  This current tour sees her reunited with sidekick and accompanist, Major Scales.

But this time, there’s a twist…

We are rocketed forward to the year 2065.  Monsoon and Scales, bearing the ravages of old age, come together after decades apart.  They fill us in with global events since our day – well, as they point out, they’re reminding us of these events, because we’re with them, in the future, which is now…

It’s a gloriously silly conceit.  Our sun has exploded.  The Earth has been taken over by Reptilian alien overlords (so, nothing new there, then) and, more pertinently, we learn the fate of some of the other drag queens who have graced the runway.

An eclectic set gives us show tunes and torch songs.  There’s even a jazzy Gorillaz cover.  Monsoon is in superb voice, combining shades of Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and Lucille Ball.  She dodders around, forgetting where she is, reprising refrains, repeating jokes, but she still has a savage tongue for any audience member who gets out of line.

Scales is an excellent foil.  The bickering between the two is merciless, the timing immaculate.  They can drop in ad libs without breaking their stride.

No encore though, despite rapturous applause, as the age-withered pair shuffle off to be ‘redistributed’ (recycled, to you and me).

An extremely funny evening.  Monsoon is a major talent.  Off the scales, in fact.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


The Case of the Missing Mrs

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 25th April 2022

First Atlantis, then Dallas, and now Birmingham!  Patrick “Bobby Ewing” Duffy stars in this (to me) obscure comedy-thriller from 1965, which has been dug up by Bill Kenwright Productions.  Duffy plays Daniel Corban, a honeymooner whose wife has been missing for three days from the remote chalet they have borrowed from Daniel’s boss.  The local police are on the case but then a woman turns up.  Is she really the missing Mrs or, as Daniel insists, is she an imposter out to get him and, consequently, his life insurance?

On the surface, it’s standard genre fare, but its elevated by a dry and witty script by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert.  With more twists and turns than a corkscrew, the plot keeps you guessing in this hugely enjoyable, somewhat cosy murder-mystery.

Duffy is in fine form as the neurotic Corban, tightly wound and sarcastic, and of course, it’s a treat to see him live, for reals, and not just in Pam Ewing’s dream.  No shower scene tonight, alas, but Duffy has a laidback confidence, which makes Corban’s increasingly desperate state all the more of a contrast.

As the is-she-or-isn’t-she wife Elizabeth, the alluring Linda Purl is great fun, and she is aided and abetted by Ben Nealon’s not-to-be-trusted clergyman.  Gray O’Brien is excellent as the wise-cracking, jaded police inspector, and there is strong character support from the wonderfully named Hugh Futcher as Sidney from the sandwich shop.  Paul Lavers makes his mark as Corban’s brash boss, with Chloe Zeitounian makes a fleeting impression in her brief appearance as the bit-on-the-side, ‘Mrs Parker’.

The mystery is intriguing enough to keep us hooked, while the rich vein of humour keeps us amused as the story unfolds and surprises.  Bob Tomson’s direction paces the action well to create such an entertaining evening, we’re willing to overlook the occasional stretches of credibility.  A well-made production, nicely played by all concerned.  (There was an issue of patchy microphone coverage at the performance I saw.  I prescribe a thorough soundcheck before the curtain goes up again.)

All in all, it’s good fun.  Catch it while you can.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Gray O’Brien, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Purl (Photo: Jack Merriman)

Oldies and Goodies

DREAMBOATS AND PETTICOATS – Bringing On Back The Good Times

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 21st March 2022

The third instalment of the trilogy but it doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the other two.  It really doesn’t.  This one is set vaguely in the 1960s, beginning in St Mungo’s Youth Club in Essex and travelling as far afield as Butlin’s in Bognor Regis, before taking in a selection contest for the Eurovision Song Contest, complete with Kenneth Williams hosting.  Well, a cast member doing a cracking impersonation!

Norman and the Conquests get their big break – summer season in a holiday camp, but guitarist Bobby is more concerned about his girlfriend Laura doing a stint in Torquay.  Norman’s womanising causes friction, so to speak, with his wife Sue.  And Laura momentarily thinks Bobby is at it with Donna, the fitness tutor.  But this is a jukebox musical.  Plot and character development are sacrificed in favour of bunging in as many songs as possible.  Any hint of conflict is soon overcome, and any throwaway line could lead to a full-on production number.  Some of the cues are less tenuous than others, but I do find myself wondering from time to time, ‘why are they singing this now?’

The songs that work best are the ones the characters perform, rather than those that are meant to express their emotional state.  There are quite a few standout numbers: Hang On Sloopy (featuring some killer guitar by Joe Sterling); an a capella rendition of Blue Moon; Laura’s You Don’t Own Me; Mony Mony

David Ribi and Elizabeth Carter make an appealing couple as Bobby and Laura, their harmonising in duets is lovely.  Alastair Hill is suitably predatory as the womanising Norman.  Lauren Anderson-Oakley as his neglected Mrs performs a couple of good numbers but like Ray, band manager and hair dresser (David Luke, also a fine vocalist), has very little to do in this plot that’s thinner than a wafer’s ghost.

Veteran artiste Mark Wynter plays Laura’s manager, later appearing as himself to do a medley of hits including Venus in Blue Jeans, proving he can still carry a tune and move it with the youngsters in the company.  There is supporting character work from Mike Lloyd as holiday club manager and authority figure  Percy Churchill, who also plays a mean trombone, and David Benson as Bobby’s dad, keen to land him a job in the motor trade.    Benson is also responsible for the wonderful Kenneth Williams scene – it’s great to hear the old Crepe Suzette song again.

The script by Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran has a sprinkling of good jokes, bordering on the seaside postcard, but they know we know the dialogue is just an excuse to cue up the next song.  The set, by designer Sean Cavanagh consists of posters and advertisements from popular culture, with illuminated signage denoting changes of location.  The costumes and Carole Todd’s lively choreography serve up the period, while Bill Kenwright’s direction keeps the performers at the forefront.  The cast sing and play instruments live and sound great.

This kind of thing is not really my cup of Horlicks, but it’s cosy, feel-good stuff that’s not going to tax anyone’s intellect, and it’s a fine way to spend an evening in the company of a talented cast, being reminded of some absolute bangers.

Foot-tapping, hand-clapping fun that delivers exactly what it promises without pretension or posturing.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

David Ribi and Elizabeth Carter

Morality Play

FATAL ATTRACTION

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 1st March 2022

Adrian Lyne’s hit film from 1987 is brought to the stage by screenwriter James Deardon, updating the setting to include mobile phones and emails, but basically staying true to the story.  The film gave us the term ‘bunny boiler’ to denote an obsessive ex – the merest mention of the rabbit elicits titters of delighted expectation…

In the role of the ‘temptress’ Alex Forrest is Kym Marsh who is, pure and simple, excellent.  Marsh brings vulnerability and fragility to Alex’s extreme behaviour.  Society has moved on (a little bit) since the film and we tend to be more compassionate toward mental illness and to look more favourably at independent women who work, rather than seeing them as the 80s threat to men’s roles.

It’s easy to regard the protagonist Dan Gallagher as the villain of the piece.  He is easily tempted off the straight and narrow while his wife is away for the weekend.  Oliver Farnworth has the unenviable task of keeping us engaged with Dan’s tribulations.  There is a lot of ‘serves him right’ going on here.  Farnworth hardly ever leaves the stage and is our narrator, so we get to hear how Dan justifies his actions to himself, even if we’re not buying it.  As a leading man, Farnworth navigates murky waters – the play throws up moral questions on all sides – and he shows us why Alex would be attracted to Dan, the good looks, the charm, even though we don’t agree with his choices.

As wronged wife Beth, Susie Amy shows fire and righteous fury.  I understand she is soon to take over the role of Alex; it’s easy to imagine her as an excellent fit for the part.  John Macaulay brings humour as Dan’s friend Jimmy, and there is strong support from Anita Booth as mother-in-law Joan.

In the second act, the action comes to the boil – like a rabbit in a pot of water – and the sound and video designs become more expressionistic.  Loveday Ingram’s direction maintains tension levels, even when we know what’s coming.  Dearden reverts to an early draft of the screenplay to restore his original ending, which capitalises on Alex’s love of Madam Butterfly.  This is thematically satisfying but denies Beth the chance to stand up and fight for her family unit.

This is a stylish and classy adaptation of the well-loved film.  I’m so glad it isn’t a musical!

☆☆☆☆

Strange bedfellows: Oliver Farnworth and Kym Marsh (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Neverland Side Story

BAT OUT OF HELL

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th January, 2022

The mighty Jim Steinman’s contribution to the jukebox musical genre strings together songs made famous by Meat Loaf, Steinman himself, and even Celine Dion.  Each number is a mini rock opera in itself, but Steinman’s plot borrows heavily from Romeo & Juliet and also Peter Pan & Wendy, I kid you not.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where chemical warfare has mutated some of the population into eternal 18-year-olds, (The ‘Lost’) who are very much the have-nots in this society, and the haves, represented by bigwig Falco and his family, their building towering over the landscape.  Lost boy Strat falls for Falco’s daughter, Raven, and their relationship gives rise to conflict.  There’s a nurse character too – Joelle Moses’s Zahara – and there’s also a Tink(erbell) whose jealousy of Strat/Peter and Raven/Wendy’s relationship leads to a betrayal, with Falco/Capulet/Captain Hook bent on destruction of the Lost (Boys).  Curiously, Steinman’s song, Lost Boys and Golden Girls is absent from the score…

As leading man Strat, Glenn Adamson is a firecracker of energy with a powerful rock voice.  He has a tendency to take his top off, Iggy Pop-style (something which Meat Loaf never did).  Also strong is Martha Kirby’s Raven.  Her rendition of Heaven Can Wait is superb.  Unfortunately, the staging dilutes its impact.  Much of the action is performed to camera and projected onto screens built into the set, and so, rather than having Kirby singing directly to the audience, she stands in an interior portion of the set facing away; yes, we can see her clearly on the screen, but the device serves to keep us at a remove from the emotional power of the song.

The live camera feed sometimes lends a rock video aspect to proceedings.  At others, it’s a bit like reality TV.  Mostly though, it’s intrusive and distracting, an example of the production getting in its own way, which happens now and then.

That apart, there is a lot to enjoy.  The singing is top notch from everyone in this exuberant ensemble.  Highlights for me include Joelle Moses and James Chisholm’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  Later, their Dead Ringer For Love generates a party atmosphere.  Martha Kirby’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now is impressively emotive.  This power ballad becomes a delicate quartet when Adamson joins in, along with Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as Raven’s parents. Fowler and Sexton deliver the disillusionment and bitterness of the failing marriage of Falco and Sloane.  Fowler is hugely enjoyable as the villainous patriarch, and he too is prone to getting his top off.  Iggy Pop has a lot to answer for.  Sexton’s Sloane starts off amusingly sloshed, but the characterisation is not without vulnerabilities and depths.

The absolute pinnacle of the show is the title track, which brings the first act to a stunning climax.  Staged and sung to perfection, this is quintessential Steinman, big and brash, and heartfelt and overblown, and just sensational.

The dialogue is melodramatic and is declaimed in a heightened style.  It could do with more laughs, but Steinman’s anthemic tunes and the gothic poetry of his lyrics prove irresistible and more than compensate for the shortcomings of the script.  It’s rousing stuff and the cast sing their heads off, with energy that’s more infectious than a covid variant.  Steinman was a genius as a songwriter and this searing, soaring show reminds us unequivocally of that.

☆☆☆☆

Glenn Adamson as Strat and Martha Kirby as Raven (Photo: Chris Davis)

Seasoned Performers

JERSEY BOYS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th December, 2021

There are lots of biographical shows charting the rise of music stars, rags-to-riches tales of incredible talents and the subsequent ravages of fame.  What sets Jersey Boys a cut above is the handling of the material.  Telling the story of Frankie Valli and the group that was to become The Four Seasons, the show is divided into four acts, each narrated by a member of the group.  The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice doesn’t gloss over the murkier aspects of the boys’ lives—the criminal activity, the womanising, the links to organised crime—nor does it shy away from gritty language.  Tough guys talking tough.  The group could just as easily be called The Four-Letter Words.

We begin in Spring, narrated by Dalton Wood as Tommy DeVito, the character who brings the group together (and will ultimately pull them apart).  Wood is great in the part, with a likeable quality that offsets Tommy’s questionable behaviour.  We meet young Frankie Valli, an innocent in a den of thieves, played by the exceptional Michael Pickering, who really hits the high notes.  My Eyes Adored You is just lovely.

Summer shows the band achieving chart success.  The guys recreate the distinctive sounds and the hits keep coming.  Sherry Baby, Big Girls Don’t Cry…and we’re reminded of just how great these songs are, and how they have become part of the fabric of popular culture.  This act is narrated by Blair Gibson as songwriter Bob Gaudio, an innocent misfit among the hard-nosed boys from Jersey, whose presence gives rise to friction.  Gaudio’s talent is undeniable and Gibson gets his social awkwardness across as well as his genius.

Unfortunately, we return after the interval to hear that Michael Pickering is unable to continue; the role of Frankie will be played by Luke Suri, with whom Pickering shares the part.  And while it’s a shame not to get to see Pickering’s Frankie mature and complete his arc (Get well soon, Mike!) it means we get to see both actors’ versions.  Curiously, it works.  Like in The Crown when they swap actors to play the Queen getting older! 

Autumn shows Frankie as older and more careworn.  Played by someone else, it’s more striking how the music business has changed him!!  This act is narrated by Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths), deep-voiced and laconic with a fixation on hotel towels—There is a rich vein of humour amid the drama and Griffiths is the funniest.  The cracks are starting to appear, with Tommy’s exorbitant debts putting everyone in jeopardy.

Finally, Winter, narrated by Frankie, depicting Valli’s greatest personal tragedy.  The hits never stop coming.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You brings the house down.  Luke Suri is phenomenal.

At the very end, the original group members reunite to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a kind of rebirth to follow Winter.  And of course, we’re all up on our feet and loving it.

An uplifting show with a dark underbelly, this is a proper grown-up musical, intelligently structured, superbly written, and executed to perfection by a top-notch cast. 

☆☆☆☆☆

Blair Gibson, Dalton Wood, Michael Pickering, and Lewis Griffiths (Photo: Birgit & Ralf Brinkoff)

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.

★★★★


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)