Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Snow White - New Wimbledon

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: by Peter Denyer & Eric Potts
New Wimbledon Theatre : 11
th Dec-20th Jan -08
Directed by Peter Denyer

Choreography by Gerry Zuccarello

Review by Francesca Elliott

Not usually a fan of the dreaded pantomime, I was told to take my cynical hat off, stop being so miserable and get down to The New Wimbledon Theatre’s production of Snow White. As expected it was heaving with excitable children and I battled through the crowds, mentally preparing myself for the cheesy, glittering onslaught that was surely coming my way.

Sure enough, Ross ‘on gangs’ Kemp himself strutted out, and gave a surprisingly entertaining performance as the wicked Queen’s evil henchman. He minced and swaggered round the stage like there was no tomorrow, upstaged only by Rae Baker, as the glamorous, blood thirsty Queen who showed more then enough leg to keep the dads in the audience happy.

Bobby Davro was a pantomime natural as the court jester, and injected some much needed energy into scenes with Snow White (Aimie Atkinson) and Prince Charming, who gave disappointingly dull performances. But maybe that’s the curse of the pantomime goodie, forever overshadowed by the far more entertaining baddies.

The real stars of the show however were the seven real life dwarfs, led by Harry Potter star Warwick Davis, who tried in vain to keep his motley crew in order. The scenes in the sparkling mines were some of the best in the show and put some real magic into the performance.

The singing was OK and there were some talented dancers who could have been made more of.
The children seemed pleased thou and there were enough ‘grown-up’ jokes to keep the adults happy, so if you’re looking for Christmas family entertainment, Snow White might be a pretty good bet.

Photos: Top – Rae Baker (Queen). Middle – Bobby Davro (Jester) Ross Kemp (Henchman) Arvid Larsen (Muddles). Bottom: Warwick Davies (Prof)

Friday, 14 December 2007

Dick Whittington - Lowry Theatre

Dick Whittington
Lowry Theatre - Dec 7th - 6th Jan
Directed by Paul Mills
Reviewed by The McNamara Family

Men dressed as women, audience participation, a plethora of corny jokes and oddly chosen pop songs awkwardly shoehorned into a paper thin plot – it can only be the great British tradition that is pantomime. That said, when panto is done well all of these factors are not only forgiven but accepted and cherished. And Dick Whittington at The Lowry Theatre in Salford was well done indeed.

The cast included known celebrities such as one-hit wonder Chesney Hawkes (and yes, he did manage to get his song in the production), Darren Day and Emmerdale’s Frazer Hines alongside slightly lesser known names. However, in this instance the so called stars did not outshine their lower-billed colleagues. In fact, the performances by John Bishop as Captain Cuttle (albeit reminiscent of Bez from the Happy Mondays on one of his less coherent days) and Jamie Greer as Sarah the Cook with strong Little Britain influences were quite often outstanding.

The stage sets were glitzy and lavish and well designed and even included an impressive, moving sailing ship large enough to hold several cast members.

The performance was punctuated throughout by a good mix of jokes, many of which worked on two levels giving the adults as well as the children something to laugh about. By far the best received comedy moment of the night was a pastiche of the current Marks and Spencer’s TV adverts, where the audience’s applause started before the sketch was even half way through.

Darren Day as King Rat reverted to his earlier career as an impressionist and inserted many well executed comedy impressions. Chesney Hawkes seemed a little wooden at times and almost appeared uncomfortable in trying to get the children to participate. However, this was more than compensated for by his dashing good looks and his ability to the make young girls (and a couple of older one’s sat behind us) giggle and scream with excitement.

Although the modern pop songs seemed to clash with the traditional story line at times, all the songs were well performed. In fact, the duet between Dick Whittington (Hawkes) and Alice (Tara Wells) was particularly well done. Panto, however, is really aimed at children, and seeing as we were accompanied by Emily (aged 11) and Eleanor (aged 9) it is important to get their opinions of the show.

Emily’s View:
I enjoyed the pantomime very much. I particularly liked Alice because she wore a lot of pretty dresses. The Rat King did a lot of good impressions that made me laugh.

The show had some good effects. I liked the sparkles that appeared every time Fairy Bowbells came on stage. But I wasn’t too keen on the mirror ball or the flashing strobe lights because they made me feel dizzy.

Sarah the Cook wore some very bright clothes and I liked the dress with the pictures of fruit and veg on.

Eleanor’s View:
I enjoyed visiting the Lowry Theatre very much, it was very entertaining. The pantomime, Dick Whittington, was very funny because at the beginning of the show Dick was playing the electric guitar to some rock music.

The Rat King was my favourite because he did very good impressions of famous people. I think the best impression was Paul O’Grady.

Sarah who was the cook on the ship had some fabulous costumes that she changed in every scene. The costumes were very colourful and some were outrageous. Sarah was a real flirt with the men.

Using the tennis racquet to hit the sweets high into the audience was a good idea but they didn’t go high enough.

Overall a fabulous fun show for all the family.

Photos by Mike Slade Top: Darren Day (King Rat), Middle: Chesney Hawkes (Dick) & Tara Wells (Alice), Bottom: Karen West (Tommy), Nick Nebould (Idle Jack) & Jamie Greer (Sarah)

Dads Army - Lowry Theatre

Dads Army by Jimmy Perry & David Croft
The Lowry Theatre
: 11th Dec - 5th Jan 08
Directed by James Robert Carson
Reviewed by Mal Wallace

For those of you wanting something a little different this Christmas, ‘Dad’s Army’ at the Lowry is the ideal alternative to the usual array of fairytale plays, pantomimes and Dickens inspired musicals.

The show succeeds on every level offering die hard fans a satisfying nostalgic trip down memory lane, whilst also catering for the uninitiated to this classic television sitcom. Billed as ‘the lost episodes’, the show unites three rare episodes with one enduringly popular one, originally transmitted in 1969, and it’s astonishing that the scripts written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft are, after all these years, still found to be slick, sharp and incredibly funny. Particularly comical is the final episode, ‘The Deadly Attachment’ which, as an ensemble piece of theatre, borders on farcical genius.

The cast are uniformly excellent and pay a respectful homage to the classic characterisations whilst never crossing the fine boundary into caricature. Special mention must, however, be given to Kern Falconer who, as Private Frazer, nearly steals the show with his wicked remarks and outrageous facial expressions. Also strong is the supporting cast who play a variety of roles showing what a diverse and talented group of actors this production can boast.

Director James Robert Carson makes full use of the simple but effective set by Nancy Surman, which provides the perfect backing to this character led show. This ensures that there is never any confusion over where the setting is for each scene. Some shrewd lighting designs attributable to Bob Bustance serve to enhance this clarity and credit to Glen Hadley who, as Sound Designer, makes appropriate use of the famous theme song and other incidental music. Continuing into January, Dad’s Army looks set to be a well deserved sell out. The audience at press night had a scream and obviously thoroughly appreciated the quality writing, performing and overall theatre experience. One not to be missed!

Photos by Robert Workman

Cinderella - Richmond Theatre

Cinderella – by Peter Denyer
Richmond Theatre 7
th Dec – 20th Jan 08
Review by Diane Higgins

The smooth tones of Nigel Havers' disembodied voice heralded the start of the Tuesday evening performance of Cinderella with an entreaty for us to behave and not be naughty, and we would enjoy a magical evening. But as parents and children were in equal parts making a hell of a noise, it mostly fell on deaf ears. A flash and a bang announced the fairy godmother - Lynette McMorrough, with a startling blue wig and she set the scene. The curtain rose on the villagers with Cinderella in the vocal lead in a very loud pop-style number which soon drowned out the audience. Lucy Newton was a good Cinderella with a strong voice.

Baron Hardup, Nigel Havers', made his first entrance to great applause which he obviously relished. His performance went downhill after this with his jokes falling very flat and aside to Buttons that he didn't write it did not make us laugh any louder. Maybe the intention was to play it this way, if so he was very unconvincing and he looked like a fish out of water. He was the weakest performer of the cast.

The character who really made this panto work was Buttons, played by Paul Zerdin, with his little puppet Sam he got the audience working and responding and kept it going with exactly the right mix of topical asides for the adults and interaction with the children. Prince Charming (George Wood) and Dandini (Simon Lipkin) worked well together, giving a strong and humorous performance. Su Douglas was a convincing wicked stepmother and elicited deafening boos. The ugly sisters Griselda (Ian Good) and Mona (John Barr) were just too ugly and played without any subtlety. The 'Ba-boom' smutty joke bit was overdone with a lot of hitching up of 'balloons' - very reminiscent of Les Dawson, but not very funny. But the children loved the ghost routine.

Scenery and costumes were good, with Cinderella's little white ponies giving the 'ah' factor. At the end of the panto, all the cast made their final entrances to great applause with Buttons and Sam stealing the show. It closed with the whole cast singing and dancing, at which point Nigel Havers disappeared only to return onstage and mumble a bit as he obviously didn't know the words. On the whole an enjoyable performance with perhaps a bit more rehearsal for Mr Havers.

Photos by Tristram Kenton – Top: Nigel Havers ( Baron Hardup) Lucy Newton (Cinderella) Bottom: Paul Zerdin (Buttons)

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Honk - Watermill Theatre

Honk by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Watermill Theatre 28th Nov - 5th Jan
Directed by Steven Dexter
Musical arrangements bySarah Travis
Musical Staging by Sam Spencer-Lane
Reviewed by
Damian Sandys

I have a confession to make…I’ve loved this show for a long time, ever since I saw Julia McKenzie’s magnificent production at the National Theatre in 2000; a production that secured the Olivier for Best New Musical over The Lion King. Therefore, in theory, half the battle had already been won with this review already. But familiarity with a piece brings new dangers, particularly when it is something that brought so much enjoyment originally. It is a sad truth but almost always the second production has to work extra hard to impress, in order to avoid the inevitable comparisons, however subconscious they may be. Theoretically. Yet The Watermill’s sparkling new production was so close to perfection that I was offered no choice but to transcend all thoughts of previous incarnations. Within seconds of the glorious “A Poultry Tale” it was quickly established that this was going to be an evening of fun, energy and skill, combined into one.

Stiles and Drewe’s show is a beautiful piece of theatre. It is so carefully constructed, filled with every animal pun you could possibly imagine, and some cracking one-liners. It follows the classic story of The Ugly Duckling: duckling hatches, discovers he is “different” from everyone else, ends up on the run from a sleazy cat, and finds himself travelling through a squadron of geese, a domesticated partnership, a Tommy Cooper-style Bullfrog and a beautiful swan, leading to his own transformation and a reunion with his family.

Under a lesser duo, the result would have been a simplistic children’s show. With these two at the helm, pure theatrical magic is created. The animals are not all furry and cuddly, but rather dressed as human counterpoints, and the characters are so cleverly drawn that you cannot help but recognise human society in everything they do.

This new production continues the work of The Watermill in presenting actor-musician combos to tell the story. I have never seen any of these works before and, I couldn’t quite get my head around how this could work, particularly if any empathy was to be achieved with the characters. I needn’t have worried. The musical arrangements by Sarah Travis are ingenious and it is breathtaking to watch the actors playing instruments one second, removing them to sing a line at the top of their lungs, and then immediately returning to the accompaniment. Assorted instruments are hung all around the set and the characters use them and replace them with great confidence, often bringing extra comedy to a scene: the Cat wields an electric guitar as part of his wooing technique; toy banjos materialise out of the duckpond over a morning’s gossip; a bugle doubles up as a television camera.

All of this requires highly skilled performers, and there is not a weak link amongst this tremendous ensemble cast. Mark Anderson gives an endearing and heartbreaking performance as Ugly. His bewilderment at the bullying he receives is remarkably poignant, and only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be moved when he sings, “Different isn’t scary, different isn’t bad, so why does being different make me sad?” Anderson resists slipping entirely into the role of a victim, giving Ugly a nice sense of feistiness at times, which paves the way for his transformation; a moment which had the audience cheering along on Press Night.

He is matched by Verity Quade as his mother, Ida. With exquisite lungs of steel and a beady stare, she offers a fierce protection to Ugly against the fury of the duckyard, and superbly portrays her anguish at losing Ugly and her relentless determination to find him again. Combining anger with tenderness, it is a truly memorable performance, made even more so by the huge variety of instruments played by Verity during the performance.

Philip Reed is a suitably sinister Cat, and found a great pairing with the delightful Claire Storey (Queenie); Simon Slater had tremendous style and panache as the Bullfrog (particularly with some clever ad-lbs); and Allison Harding’s gruff Lowbutt is worthy of the ticket alone.

At Christmas time there is an abundance of shows to go and see, with pantos cropping up all over the place. Put this at the top of your list. At the performance I attended, the age range went from 5-90 (with a big fair dollop in the middle!) and laughter could be heard from every corner, yet, at the stillest moments, you could hear a pin drop.

I started this review by stating that second productions have to work extra-hard to make it succeed for an audience member. This production would delight if it’s the first, second, fifth, hundredth time you were seeing the show, and I left the theatre already planning when I could come to see it again. For a truly heart-warming tale at Christmas, head down to Newbury for this delightful, magical Poultry Tale.

The Flint Street Nativity - Liverpool Playhouse

The Flint Street Nativity by Tim Firth
Liverpool Playhouse 29
th Nov -12th Jan 2008
Directed by Matthew Lloyd

Reviewed by Stephanie Rowe

The Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatre's have struck gold this Christmas with two stunning productions, and it was the playhouse’s offering with which I had the delight of reviewing. The Flint Street Nativity is back for the second year running after its sell out run in 2006.

This production takes on the device of adults playing kids and other shows that have used this such as Blood Brothers and Blue Remembered Hills have been great theatrical successes, and this production is no different.

As a mother of two now fully grown children and also a nan I have spent so many mornings sat in a school hall at Christmas watching, wincing and enjoying what the children have to offer with their Nativity. Sitting in the auditorium of the playhouse watching this production was like going back in a time machine, not only remembering what my children had done but what I had done when I was in nativity plays as a child myself, I saw so many of the children who I had been at school with re created before my very eyes.

The cast were sublime and each took the role of playing a child very seriously which only added to the humour of Tim Firths first class script. It’s hard to pin point any actor that stood out as there really wasn’t a weak performance but Neil Caple’s Joseph being struck down with stage fright really was enchanting as was Gavin Kaufman’s musical direction of the Carols.

Matthew Lloyd's fantastic direction makes sure that this show is pacey and the laughs keep coming, and this is helped along the way by Robin Dons classroom set, it’s clear to see why this designer has recently won the critics circle designer of the Year, and to add to the typical makeshift feel Marie Jones’ costumes come full of cotton sheet robes, cardboard wings and even a baby Jesus Doll to woo us all.

The Flint Street Nativity truly was a magical fun evening and if panto really isn’t your thing and you are looking for something different to go and see with your family this Christmas time then I will be the first to recommend this Shining Star of a production, I enjoyed it so much I am already planning my return visit.

Photos top: Cast ff Flint St. Bottom:-Neil Capole (Herod) & Kate McGregor (Mary)

Friday, 7 December 2007

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe - WYP

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis
Dramatised by Adrian Mitchell
West Yorkshire Playhouse 24 November – 26th January

Directed by Ian Brown
Music
composed by Shaun
Davey
Review by Karen Naylor

The programme states that the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a revival of the original production first presented in 2004, but th
e performance that boasts a new cast, a new musical director, new arrangements for the songs and a completely different orchestration, was fresh and excelled from the very beginning.

When the audience first sees Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy about to depart by train for their evacuation to the country, dressed in perfect period costumes this, coupled with the war images projected upon moon-like spheres and on the inside of two open packing crates, creates an immediate immersion into the British war era. Joseph Pitcher as Peter and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Susan, are perfectly cast as the sensible older siblings. Unfortunately, Joseph tripped on the first step early on in the performance, taking off the front of an upper step and the skin of his knee at the same time but continued without a pause. Stefan Butler, as a believably sulky Edmund and Amy Brown’s thoroughly innocent and child-like Lucy, both turn in a captivating performance throughout- Lucy was particularly haunting when she sings outside the wardrobe after Edmund denounces her as a liar.

The set design was effective and worked extremely well. The moving stairs and tiny offset cave of Mr Tumnus were outstanding, as was the over-large, ethereal white-coated entrance to Narnia - when Lucy first enters Narnia and stands next to the lamppost and it begins to snow, it was particularly entrancing. It was, however, disappointing to lose the iconic image of the lamppost after this first appearance and not glimpse it again until right at the end when the adult Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, come upon it whilst chasing the wish-granting white stag.

The massive silver coats in the entrance to the Castle were magnificent whilst keeping the wardrobe theme.
Karen Mann turns in an entertaining performance in her double guise as Mrs Macready and Mrs Beaver, as does Neil Salvage as Professor Kirk/Father Christmas. Howard Coggins is remarkable as Mr Beaver with his inventive one-liners and the Beavers song with the children is particularly hilarious. Clare Foster as the White Witch turns in an admirable performance which is more regal than evil as does Ben Sewell as Grumpskin, but David McGranaghan as Maugrim almost stole the show with his superb stage presence and it was almost a shame that Peter dispensed with him so soon.

The White Witch spell effects were well-timed and executed and she was thoroughly convincing when the excellent Louis Decosta Johnson as Aslan strangles her. His magical disappearance from the cracked stone table and reappearance at the back of the theatre amazed adults and children alike.
This is a wonderful show for every age in which all are left with the feeling that they have lived through the performance right along with the actors and are left with a lingering appreciation of a job well done.

Photos by Robert Workman - Top: Amy Brown (Lucy) & Danny Seldon (Mr Tumnus) Bottom: Clare Foster (White Witch) & Louis Decosta Johnson (Aslan) with Ensemble

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Peter Pan - Nuffield Theatre Southampton

Peter Pan by JM Barrie
Music by Simon Slater
Lyrics by JM Barrie & Patrick Sandford
Nuffield Theatre 29th Nov - 12th Jan
Directed by Patrick Sandford
Review by Becky Middleton

Peter Pan at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton is a lively adaptation of the popular children’s classic novel. The production was professionally and impressively staged on a modest financial budget, but not a penny was spared on ensuring that the show was a magical experience for youngsters and adults alike.

The well-loved characters were brought alive by a sterling cast who demonstrated boundless energy and enthusiasm, as well as excellent audience interaction. Both Peter Pan, (James Daley) and Wendy (Dana Ferguson) were captivating and memorable as the young protagonists. Daley leapt about the stage, relishing his role as the boy who never grew up, and with a sprinkling of fairy dust and a few happy thoughts, Wendy, Michael and John Darling followed closely behind.

True to form, the predominantly youthful audience booed and cheered in all the right places, expertly encouraged by David Rubin in his captivating double guise as both a mischievous Mr Darling and the treacherous Captain Hook. Hook was of course stalked throughout by a giant ticking crocodile. Cue shouts of ‘it’s behind you’ until he was eventually swallowed up.

Audience participation was paramount, so much so that giant super soakers were produced in the second half to drench surprised onlookers with jets of water. Two bewildered young girls from the audience aged seven and three, were brought onto the stage to participate in the action as a pirate; learning dance moves and words to graduate from pirate school, encouraged by the brilliant Bristolian Smee played by Andy Spiegel. ‘The Smee Special’ dance, which involved a precarious wiggling of the hips and shoulders to an upbeat tune, was a highlight of the pirate comedy ensemble, which also consisted of Starkey, (Paul Benzing) Mullins, (Michael Cole) and Cecco, (Sean Wildey)

The lost boys were enchanting and certainly deserved the big cheers they received at the play’s close.

The stage entrance and exits were cleverly used to full effect, especially so when the mermaid ‘swam’ below the waves; an unexpected exit from the brief and largely motionless character. The set was colourful and versatile, with clever use of different levels to draw the audience’s attention away from centre stage all of the time.

In keeping with the light-hearted theme, the use of song punctuated the narrative effectively, but perhaps a little too much so. The lyrics were often flat and obviously intended to rhyme at the end of each line, with the barely disguised percussionists at the back of the stage providing the predominant musical accompaniment.

This truly is a show for both parents and children, with enough swashbuckling action and humour to keep both parties entertained until the final bows.

Peter Pan - Birmingham Rep Theatre

Peter Pan by JM Barrie adapted by Willis Hall
Music & Lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drew
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh
Reviewed by Robert Yates

Peter Pan, A Musical Adventure at the Rep Theatre in Birmingham is a success story for musicals designed for both children and adults excellently written by Stiles & Drew. Before the musical had even begun ripples of laughter could be heard from the children and adults alike in the audience as Captain Hook, with his clever wit requested phones to be turned off. The musical opened with an atmospheric number featuring the company as members of the public on a cold wintry night setting the scene well for the first time we meet the Darling family. The storyteller, Gay Soper was brilliant as a guide through the story with a strong voice and a presence that meant she could dominate a scene while not looking out of place in all the different sets.

The arrival of Peter is a triumph for the cable guys back stage as his flights across the stage are a chance for them to show off. Peter Caulfield is confident in the flying scenes in contrast to Darling children, which fits with the story as Peter has flown an awful lot more than the Darling children.

The lost boys bring a youthful exuberance to the stage, full of fun and games, with boundless energy. They are a delight to watch. The pirates also bring a lot of character to the stage, each with a different accent bringing numerous comedy moments to the stage. Not least the musical number ‘It’s a Curse to be a Pirate with a Conscience’. Led by Smee, played by Gerard Carey, who excelled in the role and had a voice that had great character, the song and dance is brilliantly choreographed. The comedy even gets to Captain Hook, played by David Birrell, who is exceptional in the dichotomy of roles of tortured Captain and funny pirate. This musical number was definitely a personal highlight, and gained one of the largest applauses from the audience.
The final act of the show back in the Darling’s household brought the story back round full circle and allowed the storyteller to slip seamlessly into the role of old Wendy. Also with the final act comes Peter’s defiance to growing up. The final chorus with all the cast on stage provides a fitting end to an enjoyable show mainly for children but with just enough humour to appeal to the adults, especially those wishing they too had never grown up

Photos by Robert day - Top; Peter Caulfield (Peter) & Gina Beck (wendy), Middle; Lost Boys. Bottom; David Birrell (Hook) & Pirate Ensemble

Monday, 3 December 2007

Aladdin - Liverpool Everyman Theatre



Aladdin by Sarah Ann Nixon & Mark Chatterton
Liverpool Everyman Theatre
23rd Nov – 12th Jan
Directed by Mark Chatterton
Composer: Tayo Akinbode
Choreography: Beverley Edmonds
Review by The O’Toole Family

As press nights go, I am guessing a 10 minute delay on curtain up isn’t going to impress the hoards of reviewers coming to see this year’s festive offering at the Liverpool Everyman, all I can say is thank goodness that they have cooked up a first class show.

Everything about this show was of the highest quality and writers Mark Chatterton (also the director) & Sally Ann Nixon have created a fast flowing script full of humour for both children and adults alike. Chatterton has used the colourful and well designed set by Jocelyn Meall to its full extent, with traps and hidden entrances being used to full effect, even the props were so spectacular that you can’t help being enticed in this theatrical tour de force, he has wok’d up a festive delight that has great comic moments and is visual and aural candy, even the costumes looked good enough to eat (candy floss wig anyone?) This production never feels tired or shows a lack of energy, it is full of surprises and Christmas show magic that has seemed to have been lost by the big cold and lifeless panto’s full of z list celebrities, where value for money and entertainment don’t seem to be the highest on their list.

The casting of this show was amazing, it’s rare to find a panto where the cast aren’t trying to out do another, this really is ensemble performance at its best. Although the kids do want to point out that Francis Tuckers ‘Dottie Twanky’ was their favorite and had them laughing from beginning to end ‘especially the water pistol scene.’ For us adults watching Steve Simmonds’ genie is ‘Genie-us’ (see what I did there?) for our money he is the best genie in pantoland.

As a family that live in the Merseyside area we have seen lots of Christmas shows, and with the Gateway Theatre in Chester now closed we look to Liverpool to see a homegrown show that will delight our family. All I can say is Liverpool you have done it. In all my 38 years this has been the best Christmas production I have seen and I will now only be taking my family to the festive offerings of The Everyman Theatre

Girls Behind - Tour

Girls Behind by Louise Roche
New Wimbledon Theatre – Tour
Directed by Jack Randle
Review by Ann Bawtree

Can anything good come out of Milton Keynes? Answer A Certainly. The Milton Keynes Theatre Productions musical Girls Behind (no apostrophe) is delightful entertainment. Louise Roche has created three loveable young girls trying their luck as a singing group whose first gig is at the local Star Club. Over ten years they develop from gingham clad innocents into savvy women who eventually find their places in life, which are not what they imagined or aimed for. Lois, Sadie and Serena have in common their friendship and their music but also none too happy childhoods.

Sadie had dysfunctional parents, Lois is the poor little rich girl while Serena, was put into care at the age of seven for no discernable reason. Louise Roche also cleverly gives us at least nine other characters implied through the girls’ conversations.

The choice of songs is so appropriate that the story could have been written around them. Under the musical direction of Brendan McCormack they are not ear splittingly loud, despite the wardrobe sized amplifiers. Alex Eales simple set of the girl’s dressing room with the club’s stage denoted by the fall of a curtain of silver streamers is enhanced by Tony Simpson=s cruelly flat lighting which instantly changes to glamourous spots for the songs. The changes of costume speak volumes not only about the progress of the girls’ careers but also of their real lives. Look out particularly for the footwear!

The characters are portrayed clearly but subtly. We rejoice with Donna Hazelton’s Lois when she performs her happiest number with apparently uncontrolled leaping, worthy of Dawn French at her most exuberant. Yet we are sorry for her when her fortunes change and she tries to become hard. No wonder she did so well in Channel 4's Musicality. If, as the programme says, Maureen Nolan supported Sinatra in 1975 it was either as a babe in arms or she is the spirit of youth. If anyone believes that only Lulu can sing Shout they should think again. Sue Devaney’s depiction of Serena, the pint sized peacemaker, unsentimentally shows her character making a happy life out of emotional deprivation.

Jack Randle (director) keeps the show well paced and can move us on a week or five years by one character going off stage and coming back on again. With the simple but effective choreography of Debbie Young, this production would be less expensive than most to put on. All you would need is three very talented performers.

This is not necessarily a show for everyone, but is one you could take anybody to, however young or old. How refreshing to find a modern author whose rudest word is s**t and whose blasphemy is mild, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Anyone who enjoyed Mama Mia would enjoy Girls Behind and we sat though the whole evening with happy grins on our faces with only the occasional feeling of how sad... but true.

The Turn of the Screw - ENO

Turn of the Screw by Britten
Eno @ The Colliseum

26th November – 6th December
Directed by David McVicar
Conductor Gary Walker
Review by Mark Valencia

Britten is English National Opera’s lucky composer, with ne’er a flop in their recent history. The St Martin’s Lane house is able to summon up benchmark productions of Grimes, Budd, Lucretia and the Dream, all joined mere months ago by an inspired Death in Venice from Deborah Warner. And here comes Suffolk’s favourite son once again to lift the company’s flagging fortunes with another winner. David McVicar’s atmospheric and troubling staging of The Turn of the Screw started life at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersberg, so it arrives tried, tested and a safe bet. The powers that be at Fortress Coliseum must be relieved to see something this classy on their beleaguered stage.

In fact their earlier Screw was already pretty good, but McVicar’s wholly tangible vision of Bly inhabits a different world from Jonathan Miller’s screens and projections (last seen in 1993). A strong sense of period underpins Tanya McCallin’s semi-abstract setting, and a rocking horse – that potent symbol of Edwardian childhood – is prominent throughout. Only two misjudgements break the spell: some distractingly noisy sliding screens and, crucially, McVicar’s use of six supernumeraries who spend the evening pottering around Bly relocating the furniture, all clad in period costume and all indistinguishable on the dimly lit stage from Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. As a result, when the ghosts do appear they could just as easily have popped onstage to shift a piano or desk into position. We lose all sense of surprise or menace, and the problem is compounded by the fact that the four (living) principal characters really ought to exist in a huis clos of desolation borne of isolation. How else to explain the Governess’s fear of living far removed from her 'own kind'?

The cast is mostly terrific. Timothy Robinson brings a mood of incantation to the Prologue, while his Quint is appallingly seductive. Cheryl Barker ensures that the underwritten role of Miss Jessel makes a strong impression; Ann Murray’s housekeeper has an unaccustomed but wholly appropriate sternness, and Rebecca Evans interprets the Governess as a damaged soul to match her charges, in particular the superbly sung and acted Miles of George Longworth (a role he shares with Jacob Moriarty). Only Nazan Fikret disappoints, in a role she has now outgrown. I was more impressed when I saw her as Flora in Luc Bondy’s production a few years ago, but of course she was a real child then. Now approaching twenty, she should be given time to nurture her vocal development in private; as it is, she alone had me reaching for the surtitles.

Garry Walker makes his ENO d├ębut at the head of a variable instrumental ensemble (great strings but some sour double reeds) and chooses audacious tempi that rightly emphasise the unfulfilled voluptuousness of Britten’s score. Has there ever been a more expansive reading of the Governess’s letter scene? It was a glorious piece of romanticisation that Tchaikovsky himself would have envied, and all of a piece with McVicar’s staging. This fine production deserves to come back and haunt us for years to come.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

42nd Street - on tour

42nd Street
On Tour
Directed by Mark Bramble
Choreographey by Graeme Henderson
Review by Adam Sheldon

This show demonstrates that if you can deliver to a high enough standard, there is no harm in the old adage: “Give the public what it wants”. From a musical, audience have traditionally hoped for a mix of romance, comedy, sentimental numbers and show-stoppers. What they get here is something simpler.

Adapted from the 1933 film of the same name, “42nd Street” nominally tells the story of Peggy Sawyer, an understudy who hits it big when the leading lady breaks her leg – but story and characterisation are very secondary concerns. What in fact it offers, in the main successfully, is an almost non-stop series of familiar Hollywood hits, presented with gusto and conviction by a large and very well-drilled cast. “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Dames”, “We’re in the Money” and, naturally, the title number: they’re all there, and mostly shining out in commendably lush orchestrations (the nine-strong pit band works very hard).

The general standard of singing is no better than acceptable, marred by some wayward amplification on the opening night; but the be-all and end-all of this show will always be the dancing, and here, choreographer Graeme Henderson, who also fills the role in the fictional show, has excelled in keeping his team focused. The basic moves are standard – or look so now, when Busby Berkeley’s work is well absorbed into our collective memory – yet they are executed with precision, commitment and only a little of the glazed grimacing so typical of massed-ranks chorus lines. Lullaby of Broadway, in a neatly-set railway station concourse, is a real highlight at the top of Act Two. Strangely, among the weaker and less sharp of the dancers is Jessica Punch, playing Peggy; rather like the original diva in the show-within-the-show, though, she is surrounded by sufficiently good chorines for the overall effect to seem very smooth. In the big tap numbers, particularly the finale, with a satisfying walk-down on a glittering staircase, it seems that – literally – nobody puts a foot wrong. The synchronisation of the beat is virtually flawless, which is a real achievement.

So what is less good about an evening which clearly won over a determinedly uncritical audience right from the first, slightly underwhelming ensemble number (an utterly bland toes and teeth effort called Audition, which could hardly have been further from even the cynical emotionalism of “A Chorus Line”)? The first half is overcrowded, and needs to lose two numbers. The book is scarcely more sophisticated than a pantomime, and makes comparably low demands on the dramatic abilities of the cast: there is no emotional truth whatever in the various very fleeting attachments between characters (“a dame/ is just a temporary flame”, as one of the songs has it), the juveniles are all interchangeable, and Bruce Montague will be hoping none of his legit theatre colleagues catches him gargling vowels in the most creative Mid-West accent to be heard on the British stage. The few extended stretches of dialogue are marked through efficiently, with a metronomic regularity, and no great feeling: we are left in no doubt they are merely filler before the next outburst from the band. When, for example, the choreographer announces that Peggy is the best hoofer in the show (not true), there is no whisper of a reaction from the girls she has displaced.

Elsewhere, the sets are variable. Some of the backdrops, although charmingly of the period, look cheaply painted, and the stage occasionally looks yawningly bare: as when the cast of “Pretty Lady” repair to a fashionable nightclub - with no tables. When the show returns to New York after shifting to Philadelphia (a structural flaw in the original) the designer has already shot his bolt, and Broadway is indicated by three ill-assorted electric bulb signs, including, oddly, “Katherine Hepburn”. The lighting does its job unshowily: the one attempt at flamboyance, a shoehorned-in version of The Shadow Waltz featuring dancing silhouettes against a bare, off-white curtain, is a mistake.

Minor cavils aside, by the end of the 150 minute running time, it is hard to argue with the enthusiastic verdict of a virtually full house. While the show is now a creamy and homogenised entertainment, without any of the underlying sourness of the original (losing thirty dollars a week was no laughing matter then), it does what it says on the packaging. It is designed to provide value for the increasingly high seat prices charged on number one tours, and the energy and exuberance of the cast at this stage of the tour (the opening night) are undeniably impressive. How things will look after several months of three matinees a week is, of course, another matter.
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