Review – The Dip ***

Milk and Blood’s production The Dip arrives at The Space for its first London run. We meet Al (writer Eifion Ap Cadno) and Nic (Max Young) and discover that Al (“I’m not gay. I have a girlfriend!”) really wants to kiss Nic. Although he comes tantalisingly close, before he can do so chaos erupts in the form of the Baba Ganoush Gestapo, who whisk him away for questioning by Nicole (looking remarkably like Nic, but in a skirt, cardigan and earring ensemble). Somehow Al is then the groom at a sort of arranged marriage to Nicole. Cue copious eruptions of confetti. Al’s resistance to going through with the ceremony brings on officer Flatfish (Nick Mauldin in a remarkable six foot halibut costume), from whose interrogation he emerges to find himself back in the room with Nic. Following his trippy experience he now finds he has the emotional courage to go with his desires and they kiss.

This has the feel of a piece developed by some sort of workshop process with the cast. They are credited as writing the original music but they also seem highly invested in their characters and the physicality of the performance. It’s the kind of thing that suits The Space admirably with its intimate and distinctly avant garde atmosphere. The company use this in the performance when the audience is invited to stand for the arrival of the bridal party at the wedding ceremony – which we all duly did!

But is there anything sufficiently new or original in the message about being confident in your own sexuality and not being afraid of your feelings? I’m not sure. Whilst the workshop style gives a feeling of spontaneity, empathy with the characters suffers as they don’t seem real enough. But perhaps those in the audience more familiar with the hallucinogenic experiences depicted found it more engaging. Certainly there were plenty who found it not only amusing but outright hilarious.

Theatre like this that’s doing and saying things differently is to be applauded. It creates a space for stories that conventional theatre finds harder to tell. And at just about an hour it’s the perfect length, especially if you feel to some extent you’re not quite in the target group!

The Dip is at The Space Arts Centre until 2 February 2019.

Review – The House on Cold Hill ****

The House on Cold Hill is, in many ways, a good old fashioned haunted house story. But we’re in the 21st century and curiously enough the spookiest presence on stage turns out to be a voice activated Alexa device.

Ollie (Joe McFadden), Caro (Rita Simons) and their daughter Jade (Persephone Swales-Dawson) are just moving into their new country house home. He’s a former ad executive starting his own web design business, she’s a solicitor and Jade studies at a local college. It soon transpires the house they’ve purchased has a macabre history, most recently with the death of the previous owner (which we’ve seen in a prelude to the main action) but also going back to its medieval roots as a monastery. Does a similar fate await its latest occupants and can they learn from its history?

Joining them are Ollie’s new colleague Chris (Charlie Clements) who’s a wizard with all things techie; Annie (Tricia Deighton), his friend who senses the spirit world and wangles herself a job as Ollie and Caro’s cleaner (but why is she so keen to do this?); and the local vicar the Rev. Fortinbras (Padraig Lynch), who proves to be less helpful in a spiritual crisis than you’d hope.

It’s a long time since I’ve been to a proper theatrical ghost story. Handling this kind of thing with a live audience requires a careful touch, both from the cast and the director. Underplay it and you miss the thrills. Overplay it and the audience soon gives up suspending its collective disbelief and the whole thing becomes unintentionally funny.

Fortunately we’re in safe hands here with director Ian Talbot who is experienced with Peter James’ work (and most recently directed the completely different but completely brilliant Eugenius!). He lays on the thrills and apparitions subtly at first (you might even miss the first one or two). The tension builds palpably. Ollie’s conversion from someone looking for a rational explanation to a firm believer in the ghostly is perhaps a little under developed, but Joe McFadden does a convincing job. And if we’re talking convincing then Persephone Swales-Dawson is every inch the irritated and irritating hormonal teenager, although she overcomes this to become more likeable and endearing in the second act. At the centre of all this is Rita Simons as Caro who is utterly believable and watchable throughout. She really makes you feel this is her family and her home.

You have to be ready to go with it to enjoy a ghost story, especially on stage, no matter what your personal beliefs are when it comes to such things. If you’re at all sceptical then the fragile distinction between finding it thrilling or finding it ridiculous will come crumbling down. The House on Cold Hill treads the line just about right and has the distinct innovation of having some voice activated computer software as one of the characters.

The House on Cold Hill is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 26 January 2019 and then on tour.

Review – Saturday Night Fever ****

This version of Saturday Night Fever is very much a faithful interpretation of the film. And although we might now look back on the film as simply a vehicle for a series of classic disco hits and a beacon of questionable 70s style, in its day it wasn’t attempting to be either of those things. Now it’s a period piece but it was created as a contemporary tale of Brooklyn kids struggling to make something of their lives and avoiding their dead-end jobs and lack of ambition by living out their fantasies at the 2001 club on a Saturday Night. Add in teenage pregnancy, child abuse, unemployment, sexism, racism, gang culture and suicide and you can see this is a serious and, at times, seriously dark piece.

The cast bring this all to life with admirable conviction. It’s a tribute to them that the serious aspects of the drama are woven so well into the musical context provided by the Bee Gees. The production resists the temptation to just give-in and become a juke box musical of their hits. The drama is allowed room to unfold and characters reveal themselves to us. Richard Winsor as Tony Manero has the biggest challenge. The part requires outstanding dancing talent, which he has (his CV includes the Central School of Ballet and numerous roles for Matthew Bourne). It also needs a certain naiveness and twinkle to soften his chauvinistic bravado. That comes across as the evening progresses, but early on it’s hampered by his delivery. The Brooklyn accent he has to affect makes it hard to follow all the dialogue in some of the early scenes, which are famous for their quick delivery featuring the bickering members of his Italian-American family at their most argumentative. But he certainly grows on you and we feel for him as he has to make difficult choices. I must also mention Raphael Pace who has a big journey to make with his character and handles it with convincing sensitivity.

All this is not to meant to play down the impact of the music. From the off it’s clear we are in safe hands. The Bee Gees hits – including some from other parts of their catalogue besides Saturday Night Fever – are brought gloriously to life. And unlike the film we have the three Bee Gees on stage , along with the brilliant six-piece band, to perform the numbers.

There’s an undeniable challenge with the piece, though. It’s not really a musical and the disco numbers are not constructed like typical musical theatre songs. They don’t build. They’re written as dance floor fillers and so they launch straight into the meat of the song from the beginning and stay their for three minutes. And this lack of a build denies us the big, applause generating finish. At the same time it’s clear the audience really enjoys the music and dance moments purely for what they are, regardless of the somewhat gritty story in which they find themselves.

Ultimately I think this production is treading a careful balance between celebrating the Bee Gees disco era and telling the story of Tony Manero and his life on the wrong side of the Brooklyn Bridge. If on seeing the show you invest in the latter you’ll enjoy the former all the more.


Review – Snow White at The London Palladium *****

The Palladium panto is establishing itself as a highlight on the theatrical calendar, with 2017’s Dick Whittington earning an Olivier award. The cast has become something of an institution in the process with Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and West End (and now Broadway) star Charlie Stemp returning. They are joined this year by Danielle Hope in the title role and Strictly Come Dancing stars Vincent and Flavia as a speciality act.

The show itself is routine panto stuff, with jokes and routines very like those to be seen, for example, at the Orchard Theatre’s Aladdin. This is partly because a proper panto requires a certain adherence to tradition (even when it comes to the jokes!). Also because the shows share the same production company – including many of the creatives.

But the Palladium panto is head and shoulders above the rest because of the cast. Dawn French is beloved by the nation and this warmth transcends the booing she obviously gets as the wicked queen. Nigel Havers once again allows himself to be ribbed mercilessly as he tries (in vain) to secure a decent part for himself in the show, this year hoping to be allowed on as Julian Clary’s understudy. Gary Wilmot has effortless stage presence and brilliant technique, showing off his patter skills with a fiendish G&S song with the words being the names of almost every star to have performed at the Palladium. Paul Zerdin and his puppet Sam bring fresh energy and fun to the standard ventriloquist act, brilliantly engaging the audience. Danielle Hope is back on home ground where she first found fame playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and becomes a delightfully enchanting Snow White.

Charlie Stemp, meanwhile, plays along gamely as the but of jokes about his inability to remember lines and his up-coming role as Bert in the West End revival of Mary Poppins. But his star quality shines through in the musical numbers where his athletic dancing ability is outstanding. He even bravely joins in with the  speciality gymnastic act as they hurl themselves around the stage and over a wooden horse. I assume someone paid-up the extra insurance premium!

The undoubted star though, is Julian Clary, still mining comedy gold from withering put-downs and near the knuckle double entendres. In his task of out-shining everyone on stage he is considerably aided by his outstanding and outrageous costumes which are like pieces of scenery in their own right.

We are also privileged to have a line-up of seven dwarves played by actors, not children as in some versions, a large ensemble and a great band in the pit who somehow this year seemed to have escaped Mr Clary’s attentions.

Snow White is at The London Palladium until 13 January 2019.