Tag Archives: Wolverhampton

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)

Still Holding Up

HAIRSPRAY

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.

*****

Brenda Edwards sings the house down as Motormouth Maybelle (Photo: Mark Senior)

Don’t Cry For Eva

EVITA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 20th August, 2013

There are only three Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals I enjoy: the Joseph one, the Jesus one, and this one.  All three concern an individual who achieves greatness in one way or another, although only the first one ends happily.

Evita is the most ambivalent of the three.  Were it not for the cynical and sarcastic narration of Che, it would be easy to regard the central character as a kind of Lady Diana figure – I believe there are some people who see it as a Cinderella, rags-to-riches tale, but they are missing the point.

It begins in an Argentine cinema.  The screening is interrupted by the announcement of the death of the First Lady.  It’s a “Where were you when Kennedy died?” kind of moment.  (Or “What were you wearing when Versace was shot?”) Cut to the full pomp of a state funeral, complete with Latin incantations.  The blaring discord of Eva’s requiem mass gives us a hint: something is up!  Che steps forward for Oh, What A Circus! framing our perception of Eva from that point on. Marti Pellow looks good if a little gaunt in khaki.  He hits the notes and goes through the motions, but sings without conviction.  He doesn’t believe a word he is singing.  I found him a little too wet, wet, wet for Che’s dry, dry, dry humour.

We meet Eva Duarte in a parochial bar.  A fling with a travelling singer (an appropriately cheesy Nic Gibney) is her ticket to Buenos Aires.  She is a transparent Machiavel, beavering her way to the top. But what is also clear is that Madalena Alberto is a major talent.  Her performance is the engine of this production.  You want to applaud and cheer everything she does but don’t want it to seem like you are condoning Eva’s actions.  She meets Juan Peron and seduces him with I’d Be Surprising Good For You – the show really does have some of Lloyd Webber’s best tunes (even if Magaldi’s Night of a Thousand Stars is a direct rip-off of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom Wine…) As Peron, Mark Heenehan is very strong, keeping on the right side of operatic, bombastic in public and tender in private.  His election promises are attractive (Nationalisation of industries under foreign control, tackling poverty and social injustice) and you think, yes, please, we could do with some of that here.  Of course, it’s all empty talk.  Once in power, the Perons turn out to be like politicians everywhere.  Eva claims her jewels and finery are for everyone – the claims ring as hollow as Cameron’s “all in this together” bullshittery.

The staging is kept simple but is evocative of place and period.  Archways suggest power and permanence, but staircases also feature a great deal, suggesting the climb of Eva’s status.  The choreography supports the design aesthetic: the aristocracy and the military both have elements of the tango in their movements, although clipped and controlled.  There is a sort of musical chairs number in which the military are picked off one by one and led away with sacks over their heads that is especially chilling, reminding me of how much the piece has in common with Cabaret in its depiction of the rise of fascism.  It is Lloyd Webber’s most Brechtian show – but what are we meant to consider? This changes every time I see the show.  This one comes post-Thatcher’s funeral, and Eva’s number Rainbow High reminds me of the shaping and styling our first woman prime minister went through to create her media image.

Eva appears on balcony for Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, the show’s most iconic number, sparkling in a gown like a Disney princess.   In context, you realise it’s all spin and manipulation and I think this is the contemporary message of the show.  Don’t be seduced.  Don’t fall for the spin.  These people are corrupt and do not have your interests at heart.

Her come-uppance is not from political means.  Instead she is toppled from power by that great democrat, Death.  She grows visibly frailer – again a testament to the talent of Alberto – and we are reminded that beneath all the manipulations and machinations, she is a human being after all.  But, as with Thatcher, frailty at the end of life does not excuse the actions perpetrated in good health.  Since the film version, the show includes added song You Must Love Me – it’s a lovely tune but I think gilds the lily somewhat.  We only really need Eva’s Lament for the emotional twist of the knife at the end, in which she cries out to her unborn children to understand what she has done.

A high-quality production, with an excellent company, Evita is always worth seeing, and always provokes different thoughts.  It was gratifying to hear, when we were filing out of the auditorium that people were singing the praises of Madalena Alberto rather than the character she so powerfully portrays.

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Victorian Mellow Drama

THE WOMAN IN WHITE

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton.  Saturday 23rd July, 2011

 

Being all ignorant and shiz, I arrived at the theatre never having read the Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins.  I knew it existed and I know that Andrew Lloyd Webber made a musical based on it. Something involving Michael Crawford in a fat suit and some pet white mice, I seem to recall.

Turns out, in this instance, ignorance, if not bliss, was preferable. This stage adaptation is all about the plot, plot, plot, plot, plot so if you know what’s coming, there’s not much else to keep you interested.  Characterisations are skin deep – some are a little flat – and here I think the producers missed a trick.  They should have cranked up the melodrama, exaggerated the acting style to recapture the barnstorming, scenery-chewing declamatory stomping and posturing of the days before naturalism.  It would have been weird at first but we would have attuned to it before long, and the production could have been lifted from a passable piece of storytelling to an energetic and more overtly theatrical  event.

The sensational plot would bear a more outré presentation.  Its convoluted machinations, comings and goings and carryings-on bear all the hallmarks of Victorian melodrama, an early forerunner to the soap operas of today.  The long-suffering heroine is blonde.  The bad guy is dark with facial hair – he was played by Peter Amory, formerly Chris Tate off of Emmerdale Farm.  There were moments when I thought he was really going to snarl his way through half the furniture, but it never happened.  Everyone was playing it safe.   A previous incarnation of The Doctor, the mighty Colin Baker, only really got to grips with Count Fosco when his malevolence comes to the fore in the third act.  Yes, that’s right, there were three acts.  Someone should have told those members of the audience who didn’t buy a programme.  At the end of Act Two some of them left.  The woman next to me turned to me and said, “That was a bit different.”  Perhaps inured to artsy-fartsy, open-ended resolutions, these people thought that genuinely was the end.  If they knew their Victorian melodrama they would know there was more to come.  Virtue must win out and the blonde people must triumph.

I would have directed it differently is the sum of what I’m saying.