Review – Matilda the musical

Matilda the musical asks such a lot of its child cast. The opening number alone is enough to defeat many an adult chorus for its musical complexity alone. Add in some fiendishly precise choreography where no one can afford to put a foot wrong and you are left immediately in awe.

The new cast are just on board from September, combined with a new earlier start time of 7pm – the result of audience research which allows more time to meet friends after the show and removes worries about catching late trains for those travelling further afield.

The Roald Dahl story, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and book by Dennis Kelly, concerns the eponymous Matilda, a child genius whose dim-witted parents think she would be better off watching TV than reading books but whose teacher, Miss Honey, sees in her things she wishes she could have been herself. In addition to being abused by her parents her school days are over-shadowed by the looming presence of evil head teacher Miss Trunchbull.

On the night I saw the show it was Isobel Hubble in the title role. She rightly received a standing ovation for a remarkable performance. The whole show hinges on her and she’s rarely off stage. Amongst the brilliant child chorus Tom Brown made the most of a his stand-out moment as Bruce in the rousing song, Revolting Children, bringing the house down. Standing in as the, almost, indomitable Miss Trunchbull, Simon Shorten was just brilliant, exuding menace and insecurity in every element of a broad part filled with nuance. Amongst the supporting cast it was also a delight to see again Callum Train in the role of Matilda’s mum’s dance teacher, Rudolpho. Callum caught my eye in Half a Sixpence and is surely one to watch.

Tim Minchin’s score is interesting. It’s more complex than I expected with shades of Sondheim in its melodic and rhythmic structures. So not always a straightforward easy listen, but it rewards attention and delivers some great tunes in the process, such as When I Grow Up. Mention must also be made of the set design. Made of hundreds of letter tiles it erupts from the stage into the auditorium, making the whole theatre feel part of the show in a unique way. It also acts as a giant word search if you find yourself there in time before the show starts.

Matilda is at London’s Cambridge Theatre.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Review – Dracula, the bloody truth

Touring in time for Halloween, here is the true story of Dracula. Van Helsing welcomes us to this ‘public information seminar’ to warn us about the notorious vampire and explain how (or perhaps if) we can defeat him.

Staying remarkably true to the Bram Stoker book, Le Navet Bete theatre company bring Dracula to life, if that’s the appropriate term, using a combination of great energy, physical comedy, verbal games, theatrical trickery and a few genuine scares.

Make no mistake, the aim here is to provide maximum fun and entertainment by parodying the vampire movie cliches, whilst adding in a generous mix of ‘it shouldn’t happen in a theatre’ style comedy. Students of Mischief Theatre Company, who brought us The Play That Goes Wrong, will be familiar with this technique and, whilst there are some straight lifts from Mischief’s work, for the most part Le Navet Bete are delivering something which has a unique feel and is packed with original gags and humour. That they can do so whilst sticking to the original story from the novel shows both the power of Bram Stoker’s work and the brilliance of the performances in this version. The story and the comedy are both enhanced by the juxtaposition.

On top of this the show looks great, with some particularly atmospheric lighting design adding hugely to the overall effect of the piece. And there are some great theatrical tricks on show, delivering added pizzaz at moments of high drama and comedy.

This show has toured before to five star reviews and it’s easy to see why. As the night’s draw in, what could be better than a comedy about a vampire!

Dracula, the bloody truth tours until November.

Review – Little Shop of Horrors

One of my favourite musicals, Little Shop of Horrors, is brought vividly to life in the theatre which really is somewhere that’s green – the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park.

The Faustian story concerns Seymour (Marc Antolin), a hopeless and hapless assistant in a down-at-heel, failing florists on Skid Row. Both his and the shop’s fortunes take an upturn when he discovers a new breed of plant which he names Audrey 2 (Vicky Voxx), in honour of fellow shop assistant Audrey (Jemima Rooper) who, in turn, fails to realise Seymour’s amorous intentions as she is in a relationship with sadistic dentist Orin (Matt Willis).

The highlight has always been the ever-growing plant, Audrey 2, usually played by an on-stage puppet with an off-stage actor doing the voice. The Audrey 2 increases in size at every appearance following the consumption of another member of the cast. The distinctive feature of this production is that Audrey 2 is made manifest on stage in the shape of drag queen Vicky Voxx. I was wary of this but she triumphs in the role for two reasons. Firstly, Ms Voxx is no shrinking violet and attacks the part and each song with vehemence and gusto. Secondly the combination of make-up, costume and set design brings the carnivorous plant to life with a style and charisma which more than matches the giant puppets we’ve been used to.

March Antolin’s Seymour is suitably nerdy and the ever delightful Forbes Masson is great as florist shop owner Mr Mushnik. Jemima Rooper really captures the pain Audrey feels at her apparently hopeless life and lack of prospects in a truly touching moment in the song Somewhere That’s Green.

I’d like to have seen more made of the open air setting. True the surrounding trees were lit green and swayed menacingly in a stiff breeze, but I felt there was a missed opportunity at the end when it would have been fun to have the vegetation invade the auditorium during Don’t Feed the Plants. I’ll still be happy to see the Jim Henson inspired puppet version of Audrey 2 again, but Vicky Voxx’s powerhouse performance really makes this production unique. A great version of a great musical, packed with fantastic songs.

Little Shop of Horrors is at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park until 21 September 2018.

Review – The Goon Show

In Spike Milligan’s centenary year Apollo Theatre Company set-out to create the experience of attending a recording of the Goon Shows with their latest production. Despite never having been to such a recording, it seems to me they have succeeded admirably.

Three Goon Shows are recreated, with live sound effects, musical interludes and announcer Wallace Greenslade all in-tow. The vocal stylings of the various characters in the shows are well-known to many and are still to be heard now on Radio 4 Extra each week. So inevitably with shoes like Peter Sellers’ to fill it’s a big ask to re-create these. But for the most part the cast do so hugely successfully. We have Bluebottle, Throat, Willium ‘Mate’ Cobblers, Eccles, Neddy Seagoon and more. Particularly effective are Major Bloodnock and Henry Crun and Miss Minnie Bannister. Henry and Minnie in fact provide the highlight of the evening in their argument about whether Henry has ever really seen a man with a hairy bald head. Their escalating and childish argument is brilliantly played with great comic timing.

Anchoring the original programmes with some sense of narrative direction was the character of Neddy Seagoon, portrayed by Harry Seacombe. Here Seagoon has, if anything, an even more significant role across the evening and is brought to life with almost uncanny accuracy.

Numerous flights of surreal fancy combined with some classic Milliganesque jokes are played to perfection by a cast who are clearly at home both with each other and the characters they are playing. Rounding off the evening there is an extra treat in the shape of the Ying Tong Song, a top 10 hit on its original release in the 1950s and again in 1973.

Funny for newcomers and fans alike, The Goon Show is on tour until November 2018.

Review – Eugenius!

Audiences really, really love this new home-grown musical. When, if ever, do you go to a new musical with original songs and find the audience not just clapping along but singing along and even joining in the choreography? Not surprisingly this all concludes with a genuinely spontaneous standing ovation.

Eugenius! tells the story of teenage geek Eugene (Rob Houchen) who devotes most of his time to avoiding facing the death of his mother by creating a comic in which Tough Man (Simon Thomas – catchphrase: tough, but fair), seeks to rid the universe of his evil twin (Lord Hector -Neil McDermott). Janey (Laura Baldwin), his would-be girlfriend, and best mate Ferris (Daniel Buckley) stand-up for Eugene in the face of bullying from school mates and go with him to Hollywood to see his characters brought to life in a movie when he wins a competition. Seedy producer Lex Hogan (Alex Bourne) is all set to exploit and spoil Eugene’s creation until the real Evil Lord Hector arrives on set and causes mayhem by not realising he’s in a movie.

Eugenius! doesn’t have a particularly strong message relevant to our times, other than a very simple one about believing in one’s dreams and accepting people for who they are (see also Kinky Boots, School of Rock, Jamie, Billy Elliot etc. etc.), but this simplicity and honesty are at least part of the key to its charm. Equally significant in its winning way with audiences are some fantastically catchy songs and a cast which throws itself into everything with energy, enthusiasm and skill.

Daniel Buckley as our hero’s best friend Ferris successfully steals every scene he’s in. It’s how a young Tom Cruise could have been if he wasn’t cool. Laura Baldwin as Janey captures the angst of being in the ‘friend zone’ when she wants so much more from Eugene, whilst also being allowed to display some serious singing chops. Scott Paige, as the assistant to Hollywood producer Lex Hogan who spots Eugene’s potential, is as camp as it gets, but in the process gives a masterclass in how to get the most laughs out of a part through the clever use of subtle looks, glances and gestures. At this point I must admit to having seen the previous version of Eugenuis! earlier in the year and the nuances of Scott’s performance have really come through in this latest version. New to the cast this time is Neil McDermott as Evil Lord Hector. He becomes increasingly manic as the story progresses and in doing so brings increased hilarity and it must be said a sense of danger to proceedings. Alex Bourne as seedy Hollywood mogul Lex Hogan is just great – and since the Harvey Weinstein  revelations his comeuppance is only to be expected.

Eugenius! is nothing more or less than it appears to be – a fun story with winning characters and really great tunes. What else do you need from a musical? It deserves to be more than the cult success it undoubtedly is (the run at The Other Palace has been extended to 20 October) so I heartily recommend this brilliant, tuneful and winning musical. Let’s make it a hit!

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of

Eugenius! is at The Other Palace until 20 October 2018.

Review – Summer Holiday the musical

I guess Summer Holiday the musical aspires to be Britain’s answer to Grease. Like Grease its plot centres on the affairs of a group of young people whose collective charm and energy overcome any weaknesses inherent in the piece to win you over and leave you with a smile on your face and a generally better feeling about the world.

The story concerns Ray Quinn’s Don and his three London Transport engineer co-workers (Billy Roberts, Rory Maguire and Joe Goldie – all great fun), who embark on a road trip in a London bus. On the way they rescue a girl trio singing group (Gabby Antrobus, Alice Baker and Laura Marie) whose car has broken down. Later they find a famous singer (Sophie Matthew) has stowed away on board in an attempt to escape her domineering mother – played by Taryn Studding in fine Miranda Priestly form – and obnoxious agent (Wayne Smith getting the best laughs of the night).

A packed audience at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre enjoyed themselves enormously. That said, even for this apparently partisan crowd, a lot of the jokes fell flat in what is a pretty pedestrian script. That this does not derail the production is a tribute to three things: the enduring appeal of brilliantly simple and tuneful hits like Bachelor Boy, the energy and commitment of the cast and the brilliance of star Ray Quinn.

He’s a performer of whom I’m aware (X factor runner-up, Dirty Dancing, Grease, Legally Blonde) but had not seen on stage. And on the basis of this show, he’s someone I would definitely make a point of seeing again. He has a beautifully resonant singing voice and a delightfully precise, deft way with choreography. Unusually in musical theatre he is often asked to combine the two in a more than perfunctory way, tackling serious high energy dance numbers whilst singing – something he carries off apparently effortlessly.

This production tops up the musical numbers form the film with several other hits. It’s in the musical set-pieces that everything really comes together. Director and choreographer Racky Plews has made sure the ensemble dance moves are tight and effective. And the small band excel. Then of course, there’s the bus. Both it and the title song make a gratifyingly early appearance and neither disappoint.

Summer Holiday the musical is on tour and at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre until Saturday 8 September 2018.