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Sunday, 11 December 2022

REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty at The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

There are a lot of lines to learn in Sleeping Beauty – and that’s just for the audience! In addition to those which you have to call out for the entrance of various characters, there’s a whole range of bits of business which are traditional to the Marlowe theatre panto season itself. As they say – it's the law. As a Marlowe novice, there were moments where it felt like you’ve been invited to a friend’s house at Christmas and are suddenly expected to fall in with peculiar family traditions which everyone else finds completely normal.

Fortunately, the cast are warm and welcoming, so you don’t feel like an outsider for long. The production also has a refreshing quality which, as a veteran of many, many pantos, was a delight to discover. The quality in question is the way in which the show works for both adults and children but does so with almost no hint of a double-entendre. Now I’m not averse to these and have enjoyed many of Julian Clary’s innuendo-laced Palladium pantos, but this show is pitched perfectly so you don’t notice how carefully it’s been crafted, meaning such easy laughs are not needed and not missed.

Sunday, 13 November 2022

REVIEW: Thursford Christmas Spectacular 2022

The Thursford Christmas Spectacular really is a one-of-a-kind show. The nearest comparison is to the Andre Rieu concerts, except Thursford makes Rieu look dull by comparison. And if you’ve ever seen a Rieu concert you’ll know that takes some doing! Some may find the somewhat enforced jollity of a Rieu concert cloying, but at Thursford the whole show is wrapped up in such a sparkling experience right from the moment you enter the site – music playing through the fairy-lit trees and Dickensian-dressed characters offering a warm welcome – that you’d be hard pushed to maintain any Scrooge-like sensibilities by the time the show itself begins.

It’s their 45th anniversary season so all the stops have been pulled out – and not just on the Thursford Wurlitzer organ, the capabilities of which are memorably showcased by Phil Kelsall. The on-stage company is the biggest you’re ever likely to see, and by some margin. Nearly everyone involved gets a photo and biography in the programme, which is nice to see. From this, we learn that these are highly professional and experienced performers across the board, with CVs including opera and the West End.

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

REVIEW: Hairspray at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

With this tour and last summer’s residency of a different production at the London Coliseum, it seems we’re never far away from a squirt of Hairspray. The story concerns Tracy Turnblad’s desire to become a star on the local TV dance show in her home town of Baltimore in 1962 and how she encounters and deals with racism and body shaming along the way. The serious underlying issues combine with great tunes and a frothy, comic topping to make this an enduring classic. 

If you’ve not seen it before you’ll find Marc Shaiman’s tunes are instantly appealing and energetically delivered by the on-set band. By the way, the sound was great. Loud but not over-bearing and great balance between vocals and band, which sounds obvious not all shows get this right. 

Thursday, 18 November 2021

REVIEW: Thursford Christmas Spectacular

“If you really love Christmas, come on and let it snow!” So sings Billy Mack in seasonal favourite Love Actually. But having seen the Thursford Christmas Spectacular for the first time I can say that for anyone who really, really loves Christmas, this must be an essential pilgrimage. And don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just a three-hour (including interval) variety show with added tinsel. There’s a shopping village, food outlets and, not least, the Enchanted Journey of Light – a walk-through journey of Christmas trees, elves and much more, culminating in a huge outdoor light exhibition (chargeable in addition to your show ticket). To really get the feel of Thursford you need to treat it as a complete Christmas experience. In fact, once you’ve had this experience, you probably don’t need to do anything else for Christmas. You’ll feel completely stuffed full!

With Disneyland-like attention to detail, Thursford delivers its enchantment through every aspect of your visit – from the background music playing on the grounds to the costumed and attentive staff, everything is aimed at giving you a magical Christmas experience. If you’re more inclined to the bah, humbug view of the season, this may all be a little cloying. But take it for what it is and you should be charmed.

The main event of your visit is the show itself. At heart, it’s old-fashioned variety theatre with a chorus, dancers, speciality acts, humorous monologues and a comic, who also acts as our compere. For avid cruisers, in terms of content, it’s quite like a compendium of all the cruise shows you’ve ever seen at sea. The difference is in scale and quality. In terms of scale, the on-stage cast is about 120 people. The choir alone is about 48-strong. There’s a troupe of highly disciplined and precisely choreographed dancers. And centre-stage is a living, breathing Wurlitzer cinema organ which provides one of the stand-out moments of the evening. All the music and singing is performed live and when combined with the numerous costumes and thousands of fairy lights on the set, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears. I also liked that the amount of purely Christmas material was quite limited. Many of the big numbers, for instance, were from well-known shows like Anything Goes, Me and My Girl and Chicago.

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

REVIEW: Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Three drag queens travel across Australia to a casino in Alice Springs on their unreliable bus, Priscilla, so one of them can meet his six-year-old son for the first time. On the way they encounter prejudice of various sorts from the locals in some remote outback watering holes. This they diffuse, with varying degrees of success, by performing their act, which consists of miming to disco classics in outlandish costumes.

Priscilla, originally a film then in 2006 a musical, was ground-breaking in its previous incarnations, featuring gay and transgender characters as its protagonists. It probably opened the door to shows like Kinky Boots and Everyone’s Talking About Jamie. It arrives now in a different time, with the world of drag queens now more open and visible to general audiences through those shows and on TV the likes of Ru Paul’s Drag Race. But it still retains its original intention of proclaiming the rights of gay and transgender people and this is still, sadly, a necessary message. 

In this aim the show is often successful, with the leading lady Bernadette (Miles Western) dealing with transphobia and homophobia via waspish put-downs or, in one case, swift physical violence. The overall light-hearted tone, set largely by the impressively staged musical numbers, also creates a warmth around the three leads who, in most conventional settings, would seem out of place and outlandish. 

Sunday, 5 September 2021

REVIEW: Breaking Into Song – Why you shouldn’t hate Musicals by Adam Lenson

Adam Lenson is a Theatre Director and Producer who specialises in musical theatre. As such he has showcased the work of hundreds of writers in his attempts to broaden the mix of what musicals can be. So this book, which seeks to challenge our expectations of musical theatre and demand more from those who write, produce and go to see it, comes from someone who is not an armchair critic, but who is doing something practical to address what he sees as the challenges and opportunities facing the medium.

The book is really an extended essay, pleading the case for musicals to be allowed the same artistic status as other forms of theatre, whilst also stating how musical theatre itself needs to change for this to happen. As an essay, though, it lacks supporting evidence. Lenson makes a lot of assertions. For example about ‘those’ musicals (without stating which ones), about writers, about producing theatres, and about audiences. 

A key element in his argument is that a significant proportion of people hate musical theatre in a way which they would not claim to hate paintings or hate films. So the subtitle (‘Why you shouldn’t hate musicals’) is an appealing tease, but ultimately perhaps misleading. Because this book isn’t aimed at people who hate musicals but rather more, it seems, at those who produce, write and enjoy them. It’s a stern ticking-off for years of complacency and repetition – as Lenson puts it re-papering the same room rather than inventing something new.

Friday, 6 August 2021

REVIEW: Singin' in the Rain at Sadler's Wells

At university, a friend improved my life in two important ways. Being part American, they showed me the correct amount of ice to put in a glass of Coke (basically it’s all ice). More significantly, they insisted one afternoon we should go to a screening of Singin’ in the Rain, which I’d never seen.

If that’s you, then whatever else you do, don’t think that this show is a nostalgia-fest for people who love the film. It’s fresh, bright, tuneful and funny. If you’re new to the party, this tale set in a Hollywood studio at the start of the talkies in 1927, will welcome you with open arms. 

The plot concerns silent film stars Don Lockwood (Adam Cooper) and Lina Lamont (Faye Tozer), whose problems begin when it’s clear Lina’s vowel chewing accent doesn’t match her romantic heroine look. They decide to convert their latest silent movie into a sound musical, with help from Lockwood’s sidekick Cosmo Brown (Kevin Clifton), at which point we discover she’s also tone-deaf, can’t act and can’t dance. As Cosmo says – a triple threat! Cue Lockwood’s new voice-of-an-angel girlfriend Kathy Seldon (Charlotte Gooch) to save the movie by dubbing Lina’s voice. But Lina is not amused and plots her downfall.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

REVIEW: Blonde - the Musical by the Kristian Thomas Company

Blonde is a thoroughly captivating biography of Marilyn Monroe, detailing her background and career with admirable clarity. The show both opens and closes with a drum roll and an announcement by an MC. These shades of Cabaret invite us to compare Marilyn with another gifted but vulnerable star, the fictional Sally Bowles.

Verity Power is set a big challenge by having to come on cold and sing Happy Birthday Mr President. It’s such a well-known moment, but she carries it off superbly and we immediately feel confident in her version of Marilyn.

The many other famous names in Marilyn’s story are heftily signposted (“Joe DiMaggio – the greatest baseball player in the world!”), so we’re never left guessing who is who.

REVIEW: Key Change – A musical memoir by Denis King

I know of Denis King for two things. I first came across him as a much put-upon accompanist and sometimes actor in Hello Cheeky, the Radio 2 comedy sketch show which starred John Junkin, Barry Cryer and Time Brooke-Taylor. I was also aware of him as the composer of, as he puts it himself, the world’s favourite equestrian TV theme, Black Beauty.

This delightful and hilarious memoir also reveals something which escaped my attention, which is his earlier career as a member of The King Brothers, a very early boy band that achieved notable successes in the 1950s and 60s, even appearing on the same bill as Frank Sinatra.

What I also didn’t know was that Denis King is not only a gifted musician but has a sly, self-deprecating and utterly British sense of humour about both himself and others, which shines through every sentence in the marvellous book. You hope you’re in for a good read when the endorsement on the back cover from the aforementioned Barry Cryer says, “I’ve known Denis King for many years but in spite of that I would strongly recommend this book.”

Monday, 22 February 2021

REVIEW: Outside, live streamed from The Space, Isle of Dogs, London

At the moment the title ‘Outside’ is in itself enough to catch your eye. But this is not an early entry in what will surely be a wave of Covid-related dramas in the coming months. In this case, it concerns Willa, who hasn’t ever left her house until now. For 30 years, each moment of her life has been controlled, and she’s spent every night locked in her room. Now, she finds herself in a witness questioning suite, searching for evidence of her existence. 

The monologue is both written and performed by Gabrielle MacPherson. We discover her in a room full of books and papers on which she draws in an attempt to make some sort of sense of her existence. She is looking for clues about her here and now as well as her personal history. What has brought her to this room at this time? The visible disorder of its contents leaves little hope that this mess can be sorted out during our brief visit to her world. 

Thursday, 6 February 2020

REVIEW: An Evening of Marvin Gaye at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Wayne Hernandez heads a 10 person line-up (seven in the band and two backing singers) in this Marvin Gaye tribute concert which is strong on musicality.

Wayne Hernandez’s claim to fame is being a member of the Kingdom Choir which sang at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. He’s certainly an impressive singer. I don’t make any claims to be anything other than casually aware of Marvin Gaye’s work, but judging him against the songs I was most familiar with I would say he is not attempting to recreate the exact sound, either vocally or in terms of the band. But this is not to criticise. He and his band take the familiar and make it fresh, with an energetic drive from having both drums and percussion combining with Hernandez’s rich vocals.

Even for the casual listener there are enough familiar songs to keep them coming at regular intervals - How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You), Ain’t That Peculiar, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On and many more.

Monday, 20 January 2020

REVIEW: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

Beautiful the musical starts its new national tour at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. Riding on the back of an Olivier award winning West End run. It’s a straightforward biographical juke box musical telling the little known story of Carole King who, with her partner/husband Gerry Goffin, wrote dozens of chart hits which have become the sound of popular music – Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, The Locomotion, Up on the Roof, You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman and heaps more. She then went on to become a star performer in her own right. Those coming late to the party may also know of her as the writer and performer of the theme tune to the TV series Gilmore Girls, in which she also appeared.

Although the juke box/biography form is used in a completely conventional way, what sets this show apart from others is the sheer quality, quantity and variety of songs written by King and her friends cum rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who wrote You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, the most played song of the 20th century).

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

REVIEW: Aladdin at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

A marvelous Christmas present has arrived at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley in the shape of Christopher Biggins. As panto stars, TV presenters and ex boy/girl band members are all very well, but a proper panto deserves a proper panto star, which is what Biggins undoubtedly is.

His is a twinkly presence as Widow Twankey, appearing in a series of costumes and wigs ranging from the extravagant to the bizarre. He is effortlessly at ease with the audience. Indeed his first ‘scene’ is not really part of the show, just an informal chat identifying school groups, brownies and those celebrating birthdays. Throughout the show he totters about the stage and is both hilarious and a little vulnerable.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

REVIEW: The Girl on the Train at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

The Girl on the Train gives as its source both the Paula Hawkins novel and the Dreamworks film. The latter, I suspect, is almost purely a financial credit as this is very much an English-set telling of the story. The only American element being the atmospheric but out-of-place train horn sound effect which, sadly, you will not hear on your commute on Southeastern.

The plot concerns alcoholic commuter Rachel (Samantha Womack) who becomes a key person of interest in a murder enquiry. Her observations of some of the suspects from her train window and her unreliable memory of what happened on the night of the murder prove vital. This is all tangled-up in the marriage of her previous husband and the murdered woman’s relationship with him and her analyst.

Like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Girl on the Train, in both film and novel versions, builds the tension because our protagonist is removed from the action. We have to guess along with them what’s really going on, based on the distant and fragmented glimpses into events in other people’s lives. 

Thursday, 10 October 2019

REVIEW: Ghost Stories at the Ambassadors

Ghost Stories takes care to manipulate you from the moment you step into the theatre. Ghostly sounds are piped into the bar so the pressure is being applied even here. Once in the auditorium it appears as though there is some sort of building work going on. None of the house lights are working, the space instead being illuminated by strings of caged bulbs, flickering ominously.

The evening begins with the rather sudden arrival of Professor Goodman (Simon Lipkin) who starts a lecture about his study of people who claim to have had super natural experiences. It’s all getting rather dull (“Stay with me,” he urges at one point). Then we are taken into the next level of the story as the first of the people he has interviewed about their experiences is brought to life on stage. So we have an episodic approach, with the Professor as our anchor. As he says, people like to look for patterns. And it seems there is one emerging here, with the professor telling us about a case, then the curtain lifting to reveal that story in front of us. And he tells us there will be three such stories. But we also know enough about writers Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman to suspect that there will be more to this pattern than there appears.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

REVIEW: Oklahoma! – 2019 Broadway Cast Recording

For those of us not lucky enough to make it over to Broadway, our best insight into the delights on stage across the pond are the cast recordings released. This year, the hottest show in town happens to be a show written in 1943 and reborn in 2019, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!which has been entirely reimagined to great acclaim. Let’s not forget that in its day, the show’s original production was considered groundbreaking, so it seems fitting that some 76 or so years later, Daniel Fish’s revival is being seen so as well. With the whole show re orchestrated to exploit the country and western root of the plot, it brings a refreshing new atmosphere to the show - and just you wait for the Dream Ballet!

So we sat down and listened to the cast album, imagining ourselves in the Circle in the Square Theater, NYC. 

Almost everyone is familiar with the opening of Oklahoma!, whether by choice or not, we all know Curly’s famous first words of “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning” and we have come to expect them accompanied by lush traditional orchestration but Daniel Fish’s production eschews tradition wherever possible whilst still maintaining the glorious essence of Oklahoma!. Damon Daunno’s Curly is accompanied by a simple cowboy’s guitar and this simplicity in the orchestration (in terms of number of instruments at least) is continued throughout much of the show. “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” has rarely sounded more like a love song, and the overall impact of it finds a perfect balance between a 2019 country number and a classic musical theatre tune. 

Saturday, 21 September 2019

REVIEW: The Life I Lead at Wyndham’s Theatre

Mary Poppins was the first cinema film I ever saw. I realise now what a high bar this set for everything else that followed! And although Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke are known for so much else besides and as stars in their own right, David Tomlinson basically isMr Banks. So finding out something of the man behind that character was at least part of the attraction of The Life I Lead.

And what an extraordinary life. A pilot who survived two plane crashes, who had a tragic first marriage, whose own father lead a double life - and much more. Any one of these major features would be enough to give any of us pause to reflect if not to shut ourselves away from life. But Tomlinson hung on to the good things in his life and nurtured their memory so they in turn nurtured him. 

Friday, 30 August 2019

REVIEW: Cabaret at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley

To say this production of Cabaret doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the era in which it is set is an understatement. It positively embraces it. In doing so the awful rise of the Nazis is made more real and the resonances with our 21stcentury world more powerful.

Rufus Norris’s direction sets out to unsettle us. Despite the jolly banjos and honky-tonk piano in the band playing Kander and Ebb’s oh-so accessible tunes, the setting in a Berlin ‘Kabaret’, the Kit Kat Club, is unnerving from the start. John Partridge as Emcee establishes the tone as he welcomes us, peering eerily from an out-sized camera iris (a reference to I Am a Camera, the play on which the show is based). Throughout he gives a hugely committed performance, becoming more weird and perverse with each number. Like the stories about frogs gradually boiled to death by slowly heating water, we too are gradually seduced by the apparent glamour and sparkle of the entertainment he presents for us, only too late realising the awful truth about the story we are being told.

Oblivious to what’s going on around her is Sally Bowles. She blithely ignores the news and the evidence of her own eyes, simply seeing the Kit Kat club where she performs as a vehicle for her own talents. Played by Kara Lily Hayworth, we see Sally grow through her songs. Her multi-layered interpretation shows us Sally Bowles as performer, as naïve, as vulnerable and, in the title number towards the end of the show, as awakening to what the world is really like.

Monday, 12 August 2019

REVIEW: Showtune at the Union Theatre

Showtune celebrates the words and music of Jerry Herman. For musical theatre fans his work is legendary. But the whole world knows his work. If nothing else that’s thanks to Hello Dolly – both the title song and, for a younger generation, from the Disney film Wall-E, Put On Your Sunday Clothes. There’s also I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles and the title song from Mame.

Showtune is a musical revue with no dialogue. The songs and lyrics are allowed to do all the work. They are grouped together thematically so some extra sense of structure is added to what would otherwise be effectively a concert. That it is so much more than this is thanks in large part to the brilliance of Herman’s songs. As the show progresses you find yourself increasingly in awe of the talent that can produce so much high quality material, writing both music and lyrics.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

REVIEW: The Simon & Garfunkel Story at the Lyric Theatre

The Simon & Garfunkel Story is exactly that. But although it’s simply a telling of their career through narrative and (mostly) their songs, this is way beyond being a mere tribute act. 

The performers vary throughout the tour but for this outing in the West End Adam Dickinson was Paul Simon and Kingsley Judd played Art Garfunkel. Wisely, though, they appear as themselves, each taking their turn to tell the story of Simon and Garfunkel from their earliest encounter in their school play, Alice in Wonderland, right through to global success. These snippets of narrative are generously illustrated with performances of the songs. And it is only in the music that our two stars become their alter egos. 

The songs are neatly placed into context, not only by the scene setting from the two leads, but also some well-chosen video material played on a screen behind them. Their career essentially spans the 60s so this is an era ripe with incident and news footage, which has been carefully curated to capture the key moments and issues of that heady decade. This means JFK, hippies, the Vietnam war and the moon landing to name a few. At some points I felt the videos were a little too interesting, their content distracting from the music. But this, I think, is better than having them as an irrelevant backdrop whose only role is decorative.
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