Review – Hancock’s Half Hour *****

I first encountered the Apollo Theatre Company at the launch event for their Goon Show tour last year, at which Spike Milligan’s agent Norma Farnes spoke. Sadly her death at the age of 83 has just been announced, but it was a real highlight and privilege to meet such a special person who was so instrumental in the development of comedy.

Now Apollo return with another classic, bringing to life three episodes from the lad himself, Tony Hancock. Apollo aims to give you the experience of being at the original radio recordings and as such they are faithful to the Galton and Simpson scripts, the live sound effects, the BBC announcer and the brilliant Wally Stott theme music.

Along with the scripts the key element in the shows was, of course, Tony Hancock’s genius performance. There probably never will be another like him, but in James Hurn Apollo have found someone who truly brings the Hancock character to life. It’s more than a simple impersonation. Tom Capper is promoted from the role of Goon Show announcer Wallace Greenslade to Aussie Bill Kerr – capturing not just the accent but his naivety. Laura Crowhurst meanwhile looks stunning as a young Hattie Jacques. She has obviously studied the original performances well and really holds her own in the shows, despite being faced with the jokey references to her weight – which always seemed curious and slightly unfortunate when, back in the 1950s, most of the listening audience would have no clue as to her appearance. Colin Elmer is Kenneth Williams and so like him it seems completely effortless, capturing his manner not just delivering the script but also in the odd unscripted moments throughout the evening. Clive Greenwood has announcing and sound effects duties this time, so important in creating the mood of being at a BBC recording. I must say, though, having seen him first in last year’s Goon Show tour, he will always be Neddy Seagoon for me! Finally the part so crucial to the show but one which I thought would be impossible to bring to life – Sid James. But I was just completely amazed by Ben Craze in the role. Beautifully under played and as if Sid James himself was in the room. Outstanding.

I do wonder, though, if these shows work for those not already familiar with the originals. Also, with those originals now broadcast every week on Radio 4 Extra, what function they provide. They are, of course, written to be heard and not seen, with some bizarre flights of surreal fantasy in them. But there is something about being part of the live performance that makes you feel you are in the presence of true comedy greatness. We can’t see Hancock and the others anymore, but somehow there is something special about seeing them brought to life which more than matches the experience of listening to the originals on Radio 4 Extra.

Hancock’s Half Hour was at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre and is on tour until April.

Review – Benidorm Live ****

Benidorm Live is a truly unique theatrical experience. To anyone unfamiliar with at least some of the 10 years of TV episodes it must seem baffling. But for fans of the show – and this seemed to include the entire opening night audience at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre, where the tour makes its latest stop – it makes the transition from small screen to big stage with all the key elements intact.

Benidorm was always very broad. It’s a Carry On for the 21st century. And the theatre version has gone even broader – not in terms of the story but in terms of the style and the performances. This is all to the good.

The set itself is a delight. It somehow brings a smile to your face and efficiently captures all the main hotel locations, from the pool bar to reception, swiftly turning from one to the other in some niftily choreographed scene changes.

The plot has our favourite Benidorm hotel, the Solana, being eyed-up for take over by a rival group. They’ve sent in a hotel inspector to report back on how the Solana is run. This leaves the staff in a tizz as they identify the inspectors and try and persuade/bribe them into allowing them to keep their jobs. Needless to say, as in the Fawlty Towers  hotel inspector episode, the identity of the spy in the camp is guessed  incorrectly.

But, like the Carry On films, Benidorm is not driven as much by the plot as by the characters. It’s really a series of episodes where they each get their own moment. This is where Benidorm Live is such a treat. We have six of the main cast played by the original actors. Each of them gets their own entrance and each gets their own ovation from the audience when they do.  It’s like watching an old-style American sitcom when a special guest comes on. They all give full-on versions of their on-screen personas. This is saying something, because subtlety was never a Benidorm trait on screen but they go gloriously over the top, none more so than the brilliant Janine Duvitski (as the swinger Jacqueline). Adam Gillen as Liam runs her a close second, along with fellow Blow and Go-er Tony Maudsley as Kenneth. Jake Canuso as Mateo gets to show off his dance skills in some of the many musical interludes which pepper act one, readying us for act two being set for its entirety in Neptune’s, famous for its Karaoke. Presiding over the chaos (or perhaps more accurately being swept along by it) is Sherrie Hewson’s Joyce Temple-Savage.

It’s all huge fun. The theme music strikes up at the beginning and instantly you realise how you’ve missed having Benidorm in your life. So when the familiar characters appear live in front of you, they’ve already won you over.

Writer Derren Litten has looked after his baby and does himself and us proud in the process. He’s taken care of his characters and his audience. He even teases us as Joyce Temple-Savage makes us promise we’ll all be back at the Solana next year. So is there more Benidorm to come?

Benidorm Live is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 16 February and then continues on tour.


Review – The Band *****

Filled with Take That’s numerous hits over the last almost three decades, The Band  can all but guarantee its audience an enjoyable trip down memory lane. However, with some particularly ingenious and imaginative staging, impressive projection effects and an emotional plot, The Band offers more than just warm nostalgia. This is a serious piece of work with a great story, great script (Tim Firth), and great performances, all presented in a slick West End quality production.

The stage is set from the moment you walk in to the auditorium, with a ceefax screen displaying the latest up to the minute news from October 1993. We follow five young women, and their teenage lust for a boyband and more importantly, their unwavering love and support for each other. Once inseparable, circumstances arise resulting in a reunion after 25 years apart, once again brought together by the music of the boyband they so loved as teens.
Young Rachel (Faye Christall) guides us through the first part of the show, she masters the art of being bubbly yet sensitive. All of the young cast (Lauren Jacobs, Sarah Kate Howarth, Rachelle Diedricks and Katy Clayton as well) deliver strong, believable performances which made the audience audibly gasp and giggle along with them. Their older counterparts, (Alice Fitzjohn, Emily Joyce, Rachel Lumberg and Jayne McKenna) have a slightly more difficult task, treading that fine line of once close, now distant friends. However, what comes across through all the women is a sense of warmth.
Winners of the BBC’s Let It Shine, AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Curtis T Johns, Sario Soloman and Yazdan Qafouri play the titular ‘Band’ and find themselves appearing from the most unlikely of places throughout the show. They have to jump (many times literally) from emotive, moving performances to over enthusiastic 90s dance moves within the space of seconds and do so with ease and style.
The show uses Take That’s vast catalogue of music well, showing off Barlow’s impressive songwriting skills. ‘The Band’ perform the majority of the numbers, with gorgeous harmony and some dance moves fans will definitely be familiar with.
Overall the show has a surprising amount of heart in it, alongside all the classic pop tunes audiences turn up for. Don’t be surprised if you leave with a tear in your eye and a song in your heart!