Review – Annie

Annie must be a sure-fire thing for amateur societies. As in the story, the children do all the work! They perform most of the big numbers and, significantly, by dint of having two casts, they sell most of the tickets to doting parents and other relatives. This certainly seemed to be the case for Petts Wood Operatic Society’s production at The Stag theatre in Sevenoaks, which was pretty-well sold out for most of its short run.

With a child in the lead role you always worry, especially in an amateur production, that they’re going to be up to it. In this case Olivia Samuels most certainly was. She seemed right at home from the first note and, as a result, so did the audience. She delivered a convincing American accent (although it did fade back to something more local by the end of the evening!), and did a stunning job on the big numbers. Notably she delivered a heartfelt ‘Tomorrow’ whilst at the same time wrangling ‘Sandy’ and keeping him under control (a scene-stealing turn by Otis).

There was solid support from the adult cast, with the redoubtable Elizabeth O’Donnell coming into her own as Miss Hannigan. Playing to the slightly more mature age of the cast there was an inspired comedy moment from director James Mullin who cast the Boylan sisters (Susan Mann, Christine Mabbott and Caroline Bunker) as three doddery old-time musical stars who still think they’ve got it, although they’re obviously no longer sure what ‘it’ is! Ben Southworth wisely eschewed the traditional bald pate of Oliver Warbucks and brought huge warmth and tenderness to the part, especially in his scenes with Annie. And Josef Paris and Vicky Kenway were hilarious as Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis.

Overall a smooth production with spare but efficient staging and quick scene changes keeping things moving nicely and leaving you wanting more.

Review – Aladdin

Disney's Aladdin

Disney has done its best over the years to expunge memories of British Pantomime with its slick Broadway-style musical versions of panto-season staples such as Cinderella, Peter Pan and Aladdin.

So one comes to the Prince Edward theatre in London with high expectations of this Broadway transfer of one of Disney’s biggest hits. And, of course, it also begs the question, can it match the hugely imaginative and powerful re-invention of The Lion King as a stage musical?

Well, the answer is – to some extent. In the flesh this interpretation of the story feels, at least to a UK audience, closer to our own dear panto than it does to a magical musical reinvention like The Lion King. But it’s not without its brilliance and sparkle. Outstanding in the central role, the part of the Genie is brought gloriously to life by Trevor Dion Nicholas making his West End debut having played the part on Broadway. Also making his West End debut at this performance was Anthony Hewitt in the title role, standing-in for regular Aladdin Dean John-Wilson and listed as usually being ‘Ensemble’. So a big step-up and handled brilliantly. Also outstanding was the magic carpet, flying effortlessly around as the stand-out special effect. Fitting, actually, as the carpet in the movie was claimed to be Disney’s first fully computer animated character.

The sets have a ridiculous amount of sparkle and general bling to them. And Alan Menken’s score has been added to with some new numbers by the man himself. The original film always sounded like a Broadway musical and now it’s here in the West End. Does it earn its place? Yes – its tuneful, huge fun and spectacular. But at the same time, we all know what it is really. Although others, having seen it, may say “Oh no it isn’t!”

Review – Half a Sixpence

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kips. Photo by Manual Harlan
Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kips. Photo by Manual Harlan

There’s one guarantee when seeing a Cameron Mackintosh show and that’s an attention to detail unparalleled in the West End today. With a stage comprising multiple revolves, a Singing in the Rain-style streetlamp and a spectacular chandelier Half a Sixpence is no exception. The elaborate stage is just one part of a whole list of things that bring new life into this fifty year old musical.

Stiles and Drewe join Julian Fellowes to revamp the lyrics and book of Half A Sixpence, keeping the essence of the show, whilst adding new twists to familiar tunes and providing some spectacular new ones. The classic Flash Bang Wallop proves to be just the showstopper you may remember it to be, and if you haven’t seen the show or film before then prepare to be blown  away. Pick Out A Simple Tune is another stand out number of the show, showcasing the brilliant dancing and singing talents of the entire cast.

Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps, a draper’s assistant who inherits a huge fortune, displays an incomprehensible level of stamina as he sings, acts and dances his way through every number and barely leaves the stage throughout. His energy is the true star of Half A Sixpence, and this is surely the start of a great career!

Five on Friday – musicals in a conflict setting

As Remembrance Sunday approaches I am minded to consider those musicals that set themselves either directly in wars or, if not, then in the context of recent or impending conflict.

Imagine This

Imagine This
West End production. Photo by Linda Nylind

Even in 2008 a West End musical about the Holocaust caused eyebrows to be raised and ran briefly.


Marguerite is the beautiful and notorious mistress of a high ranking German officer. Despite Michele Legrand’s music and with book by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Jonathan Kent, it also closed early.


Noel Coward commented after seeing the Lionel Bart show that it was louder than the real thing!


There have been many excellent productions (in recent times both Julian Clary and Will Young have received plaudits for their performances in West End productions). But, perhaps unfortunately for every subsequent version, it’s the Liza Minelli film that defines how this should be done.

Oh! What a Lovely War

The Northern Stage production of Oh! What a Lovely War
The Northern Stage production of Oh! What a Lovely War

Richard Attenborough’s film is such an achievement in its own right that it’s somewhat overshadowed Joan Littlewood’s original stage version which saw early performances from Brian Murphy, Victor Spinetti and and Barbara Windsor.

Lazarus – review

This is unlike anything else you’ve ever seen in musical theatre. The promise of a sequel to the Bowie/Nicholas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth (based on Walter Tevis’ book) is tempting. But I guess anyone who knows any work by Bowie or Roeg in particular would also know that you will be expected to bring some intellectual effort to the proceedings to make any kind of sense of what’s going on. The alternative approach is not to worry and just enjoy the experience. Both will work!

Michael C Hall as Thomas Newton

We find ourselves in Thomas Newton’s New York apartment some 40 years after the action of the film. An alien still trapped on earth he has apparently not aged physically but is in destructive mode (he drinks gin straight from the fridge at 9.30 in the morning and seems never to leave the flat). He encounters various people, most significantly a girl (and identified only as such) who reminds him of his wife. At a later point a murderous character called Valentine appears. But if there is a story going on it was not apparent.

But there are three stand-out elements in the production which, even if you find the impossible narrative too much of a stretch, will captivate and enthral. First there is the strikingly stark lighting of the set, sitting crisply against the blackness of the new theatre space at Kings Cross. Onto this bland backdrop are projected various video images. Sometimes these are of the action on the stage, and it’s not clear if the fact they were not always in sync with the live action was deliberate or a technical mishap. Secondly there is the band. Standing across the back of the stage they bring new life to a range of Bowie’s classic songs, in the process creating some new definitive versions. Finally there are the two stunning musical performances from Michael C Hall in the lead – Bowie to the life in the songs – and, hitting some hugely powerful notes, Sophia Anne Caruso as Girl. According to Wikipedia she is just 15 – so remember, you saw her here first!

Finally, a warning. There are I am told 900 seats in this new theatre (effectively an industrial size tent), all on one level on a gentle rake. And there’s the problem. Make sure you get a seat near the front. Towards the back much of the stage is blocked if there’s someone of even modest height in front of you. And the floor of the stage is impossible to see – a problem as the director has set much the action with the cast sitting or lying on the floor and therefore completely out of sight.

Lazarus is at the Kings Cross Theatre, London

Review: Dead Funny

With a handful of contemporary comedy stars at the helm, Dead Funny was the perfect play to see during Halloween week. Centred around a society celebrating the works of dead comedians, Dead Funny throws in old school comedy gags alongside witty, dark humour.

Despite first being performed in 1994, Terry Johnson’s script doesn’t feel tired or dated but rather a loving homage not only to comedians such as Benny Hill and Morecambe and Wise but also to the comedy geeks that keep the laughs of the historic greats alive.  We are transported back to 1992 with the help of a CRT TV, a relationship therapist on VHS and some retro M&S shopping bags.


The Dead Funny Society recount and re-enact old sketches, and celebrate their favourite jokes under the chairmanship of Richard (Rufus Jones), whilst his wife Eleanor (Katherine Parkinson) desperately tries to keep their marriage afloat, and gently persuade her distant husband to have a child, whilst he dismisses her as humourless. When Benny Hill dies we are introduced to the other members of the society as they all appear in Eleanor and Richard’s living room; Steve Pemberton as the bumbling anorak Brian delivers the news brimming with thrill as well as sadness and new parents played by Ralf Little and Emily Berrington arrive to join in.

Johnson’s script pushes the two marriages to the brink of collapse, and hints at various comedy tropes in doing so. The witty back and forth, word play, slapstick and elements of farce are all delivered to perfection by a cast well versed in comedy. The stand out performances come from the two characters offered the most emotional vulnerability within the play; Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor and Steve Pemberton as Brian deliver tragedy and comedy in equal measure and despite all the laughs in this genuinely hilarious show, I found myself fighting back a tear at a tender moment between the two.

Hilarious, moving and full of morbid humour, Dead Funny is not to be missed and is a fantastic opportunity to see some of the best comedy performers of this generation live on stage. Be warned, if you’re seated in the front couple of rows could be in the splash zone!

Dead Funny is booking until 4 February at the Vaudeville Theatre, London