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Thursday, 13 April 2023

REVIEW: Titanic the Musical at the Mayflower, Southampton

It is 111 years since the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton and sank a few days later on the morning of 15th April 1912 with the loss of over 1500 people. Many families in the City were affected by the event although it often remained an unspoken story in those families for years after. It is therefore very special that this musical based on the event should return to the City to start a new tour in the anniversary week of the tragedy. The emotional connection to the Southampton crew families is drawn out so clearly in the closing scenes as the rescued passengers face the list of names that lost their lives before singing a powerful reprise of the best number in the show "Godspeed Titanic". It provides a climatic conclusion to a production that in this restaging connects with the audience through its storytelling and well-acted characterisations.

The musical was written by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone and won Tony's on Broadway in 1997 but was not staged in the UK until 2013. This production started to great acclaim in the intimate venue of the Southwark Playhouse under the direction Thom Southerland and has grown in this remounting. The Mayflower stage is one of the largest outside the West End, and the sheets of metal and rivets that back the stage and proscenium arch echo the ship and frame the scenes which are mainly depicted by the lighting and some authentic-looking props and furniture. It means the scenes flow seamlessly from one to another and maintain an even pace, or perhaps even speeding up as the ship's speed is increased from 19 knots to 23 knots despite the ice warnings.

REVIEW: The SpongeBob Musical at the Mayflower, Southampton

The Mayflower in Southampton must be the number one venue for Regional Touring musicals and over the last year we have enjoyed Fisherman’s Friend, Les Misérables, Dreamgirls, The Osmonds, Six, and My Fair Lady all of which have visited the huge south coast venue. They must have been very pleased to secure the UK Premiere of The Spongebob Musical which played there last week before a regional tour of seventeen more venues through to September. However, there is only one word to sum up the experience of seeing this show, disappointing.

If you are a fan of the 1999 TV cartoon, as some of the adult bookers must be, you will be disappointed. If you expected to see a show that gathered Tony Awards on its 2018 Broadway premiere of over 300 performances, you might be disappointed by the low production values which look so cheap on the massive Mayflower stage. If it is the writing credits that make you book such as David Bowie and Brian Eno’s “No Control” or Cyndi Lauper’s “Hero is my middle name” or “Bikini Bottom Boogie” credited to Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, you will be disappointed that so few of the songs are memorable or notable. It is only at the very end do we get the iconic SpongeBob SquarePants theme tune. If you are looking for some strong message of an eco-friendly saviour against climate change and pollution of the seas you will be disappointed although there are hints about this in the set of plastic bottles to represent Mount Humongous, the volcano that threatens Bikini Bottom.

Saturday, 18 February 2023

REVIEW: Fishermen’s Friends at the Mayflower Southampton

The story of Fishermen’s Friend singers from Port Isaac in Cornwall began in 1995 but sprung to wider recognition with the release of their album in April 2010 which charted at number 9 on UK album charts and then became a charming film in 2019 with a sequel in 2022. It became a stage musical in October 2021 and after a trip to Toronto, the tour continues until 2023 May around the UK. If you are a fan of their sea shanties or looking for a feel-good night out it is worth catching the tour but don’t expect anything new or groundbreaking. It is simply a fun night out.

It is a large cast to tour with 24 performers on stage and a large grand set designed by Lucy Osbourne of the Port Isaac Harbour which is cleverly adapted for other interior scenes in the Golden Lion Pub and later In Compton Street London. At the heart of the story, and the characters that give the show an emotional connection, are three generations of a family. Maggie (played with a strong Cornish accent and a lot of charm by Susan Penhaligon) and Jago, her husband and elderly fisherman (played by Cornishman Robert Duncan) are parents to Jim who seems to act as spokesman for the band and carries the scars of his wife leaving him (a gruff James Gaddas) and grandparents to Alywyn (a strong performance from Parisa Shamir with a delightful haunting delivery of several folk ballads).

Friday, 30 December 2022

REVIEW: Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

When you produce a show built around star names and their past performances to attract the crowd, you are left with some difficulty when that star is indisposed and can’t appear leaving a gaping void that is hard for even the best understudy to fill. So, when the Count Ramsey of Erinsborough walked on stage in the opening scene to speak his opening lines in an Australian accent there was a gasp of disappointment as 2000 people immediately realised that Jason Donovan had succumbed to the cold, he had highlighted on a recent TV interview. James-Lee Harris filled those shows well but without Donavan’s stage presence and interaction with the rest of the cast it did feel a bit flat. To make matters worse this title is short on story, as the Dame remarked when another bit of pantomime business was over, “get back to the plot, thin as it is”. 

So, it is left to Richard Cadell to entertain the audience in his own variety show dressed as Joey the clown. He is a curious mixture of “handler” of the glove puppets Sooty, Sweep and Soo, Magician and illusionist with his assistant Sarah Jane Lowe and old-fashioned comedy stooge. His Trunk of truth and Chapel Bell's routines that focus attention on his private parts would have embarrassed Soo if she had appeared. His routines with Sooty and Sweep (who of course don’t speak) are a little lost on the enormous Mayflower stage but at least the good old water pistols were used to comic effect by Sweep as he cried all over the front rows! He interacted well with the audience and the Dame, Adam Strong, in the chat-up routine but was at his best with two young children in the songsheet treading brilliantly the balance between getting laughs and upsetting the young kids. When he asked the young boy the easy question “What do you find in a CHEESE sandwich” and the lad replied “Pickle” it deservedly got the biggest laugh of the night.

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

REVIEW: Bugsy Malone at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton

The 1976 Alan Parker Film Bugsy Malone caught the attention and passed into movie folklore with its very young cast and splurge guns in creating a spoof musical based around the gangster wars of the American prohibition era and starred the wonderful Jodie Foster as the speakeasy singer Tallulah and Bonnie Langford as Lena. There was a charm and humour in the combination of the young performers and light touch delivery of such a grim and violent period of American history. It is a somewhat bold move from producers, Kenny Wax and Theatre Royal Bath, to revive the Lyric Hammersmith 2015 production with a cast of young leads (aged from 9 to 15) with a team of chaperones, and an ensemble of young adults, many making their musical debuts for an extensive UK tour of the larger regional theatres which began in Bath Theatre Royal in August. 

When we caught up with the tour at the huge Mayflower Theatre in Southampton in a one-third full stalls auditorium, there was no denying the production values invested in the touring show. The false back wall portrayed the entrance to the basement Speakeasy with a beautifully coloured bar truck and flown tables taking us inside the venue with elegant ease. The car chase was also wonderfully brought to the stage with a pedal car and strobe effect lights. Indeed, there was an appropriate air of theatricality by Director Sean Holmes setting many of the show's numbers as staged performances and with the occasional breaking of the fourth wall. When a character is shot with the splurge guns a photographer appears to capture the death and in the flash of light, the character rises and walks off. It captures the charm of the original for the stage. The practicalities of staging mean however the splurge guns are reduced to splatter guns and then finally shoot out which was a glorious slapstick scene in the film is somewhat muted. The show is very well lit by Philip Gladwell with neon signs and good use of spotlights and strobes to highlight the action.

Friday, 31 December 2021

REVIEW: Cinderella at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

The Mayflower Southampton posters have Craig Revel Horwood and Debbie McGee as the headliners, but it is Richard Cadell as Buttons with his co-star Sooty that makes this show stand out from the crowd this Christmas with a high energy magical performance that supports the narrative but equally entertains with some spectacular illusions and charming comedy with his puppets. Horwood as the aloof villainess stepmother Baroness Demonica and McGee as the Fairy Godmother look the part as they elegantly sashay on and off but only occasionally get a chance to take centre stage. Indeed, when they finally get to look for Cinderella to try on the slipper it is Sooty’s magic rather than the Fairy Godmother that locates her.

The Mayflower stage is wide and deep with plenty of wing space, and this enables the production to include a lot of large props to support the cast. Horwood arrives on a golf buggy, Cadell arrives on a motorbike in a brilliant illusion, Sooty enters on a mini camper van and Cinderella departs for the Ball on a flying coach and horses over the audience (although unusually the lights cues were late and revealed the lifting mechanism as it took off). Cadell also includes a delightfully cute illusion where cast members appear under cloths from an apparently empty cubicle and a spectacular escape from a hanging box chopped up by a set of chain saws. He completes his magic performances with a comedy routine with Sooty under three buckets bringing a fresh twist to the ball and cups street magic. They are all shoehorned into the narrative but are executed with such skill and energy that we simply sit back and enjoy the presentation. 

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

REVIEW: Hairspray at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre

The audiences at The Mayflower Southampton love a musical and you could feel the warmth and excitement in the auditorium this week as Hairspray arrived on its UK tour that runs until April 2022. It is slightly curious to find another production at the Coliseum in London with Michael Ball and Les Dennis in the roles of Edna and Wilbur opening around the same time with plenty of publicity for Ball returning to a role he clearly loves. Hopefully, both shows will benefit from the publicity and serve different audiences, but it is a testament to the quality of the musical written by O’Donnell, Meehan, Shaiman and Wittman that producers believe it can sell so many tickets and its upbeat message of hope and change will resonate as audiences return post-pandemic.

The difference between the two shows, apart from the lead casting, is the staging of the show with the touring show necessarily stripped back for ease of its weekly move but the result is a show that at times feels more like a staged concert than a full-blown Musical Theatre. In the TV studio scenes, the usual cameras have been dispensed with and we are left with an open stage with the band behind on a raised platform. Other scenes are backed by black cloth although when they do project scenes on backcloth, they are effective especially in “Welcome to the sixties” where the record discs images are gradually replaced by Black and White Images from the Civil Rights Movement at the time. The two small downstage trucks are regularly used for interior scenes such a the Turnblad sitting room or Wilbur’s joke shop but for those seated in the side aisles, it is less than perfect staging.

REVIEW: The Rocky Horror Show at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre

The Rocky Horror Show has returned for another UK Tour as it approaches in 50th birthday in 2023, starting in Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre. This extraordinary show which began at the Royal Court Theatre in June 1973 and became a movie that has defined cult status in 1975, has a dedicated and loyal following who have now become part of the show. Indeed, it is the audiences and their interaction with the cast that make this a unique experience and as many productions seek to add immersive elements to their production, Rocky Horror leads the way with the audiences’ reactions and shout out now built into the script. There are two very good reasons to return to see this production as many returning casts are led by a perfectly cast Philip Franks as the narrator and the very likeable Ore Oduba as Brad.

Philip Franks, now perhaps better known as a very good director is a brilliant narrator, a master of the comic pauses and reaction to the audience call-outs, he brings a freshness to the familiar script with his updated references to the last eighteen months. His delivery is perfectly judged and very well-timed and at every entrance, the audience prepares to respond. Oduba who has become a familiar and popular face since his Strictly Come Dancing win in 2016 gets a chance to show his comic talents too as the innocent and hapless hero Brad who stumbles into Frank N Furter’s castle.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty at the Mayflower in Southampton

Michael Harrison and QDOS’s bold plan to stage 10 pantomimes in a Covid safe way around the country this Christmas largely underwritten by the National Lottery was thrown into despairing disarray by tier 3 announcements as they prepared to open. Three opened one of which was closed shortly afterwards so only Plymouth (see earlier review) and Sleeping Beauty at the Mayflower in Southampton will run their planned course. But if you live in a Tier 2 area along the south coast you should make every effort to get along to see Sleeping Beauty. It is a joyous timely reminder of the Christmas family festive outing that Pantomime provides, and, on the day, the South East went into Tier 4 lockdown provides as welcome glimmer of hope for 2021 that theatres can and will reopen.  

Sleeping Beauty is often one of the weaker titles in the Pantomime season, but this stripped-down 90-minute version devised by Harrison himself suits the format perfectly and provides a linking narrative to some brilliantly executed traditional pantomime routines full of silly, madcap entertainment that had the socially distanced audience giggling away almost constantly. It helps that its stars have strong cabaret routines that they effortlessly fitted into the story as well as a lot of pantomime experience between them and are supported by a hard-working strong ensemble cast.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

The Past, Present & Future of Pantomime

Pantomime is often a child's first experience of live theatre and therefore it plays a critical role in establishing a young person’s love of live entertainment. It is also a unique shared experience as the whole family go together and the genre is built on audience interactions and traditional calls and shout outs. Sadly, this year there will not be the usual hundreds of venues staging a pantomime, and thousands of actors and technical staff will be unemployed. Only a few have survived the Pandemic and even then, in an abbreviated form, led by Qdos with Lottery funded shows in large venues to ensure they are Covid safe.

Qdos has established itself as the leading Pantomime production company usually has 35 productions each year including the two leading venues of the London Palladium and Birmingham Hippodrome but there are many other companies who usually produce multiple productions (UK productions, Imagine, PHA, Jordan and Evolution) and lots of “in house” productions. All of them are built on the same traditional elements that have made the genre so established over the last two hundred years.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

REVIEW: Titanic at the Mayflower Southampton

It is 106 years since the Titanic set sail from Southampton and sank a few days later on the morning of 15th April 1912 with the loss of over 1500 people. Many families in the City were affected by the event although it often remained an unspoken story in those families for years after. It is therefore very special that this musical based on the event should open its tour in the City and that emotional connection is drawn out so clearly in the closing scenes as the rescued passengers face the list of names who lost their lives before singing a powerful reprise of the best number in the show "Godspeed Titanic". It provides a climatic conclusion to a production which sadly fails to reach this level in the proceeding two hours.

The musical was written by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone and won Tony's on Broadway in 1997 but was not staged in the UK until 2013 . This production started in 2016 to great acclaim in the intimate venue of Charing Cross Theatre under the direction of its artistic director, Thom Southerland and much of the design and many of the cast has been transferred into this touring show. However the Mayflower stage is one of the largest outside the West End, and deserves a bigger vision and production to fill the stage . The sheets of metal and rivets that back the stage and proscenium arch echo the ship but don't create a real sense of the ship various locations.The first class lounge and state rooms look like the outside decks and the multi purpose steps are overused to try and create the lookout and various staircases and gangways.
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