Review – Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again ****

Revolt set at The Space

Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again feels like it was inspired by the Me Too movement. But it pre-dates that, having been a hit for the RSC in 2014. It is telling that the subject matter is still relevant.

This is an angry and uncompromising play. It’s comprised of a series of episodes with different characters in each. We are teased to find patterns and connections by references to bluebells and watermelons throughout, but they are, like the bunches of flowers, left to wilt. And when I hear watermelons my mind goes to Dirty Dancing. But perhaps not putting baby in the corner has some distant, if muted, connection to this piece

If there is a common thread it’s the dissection of language to expose how it undermines or ignores the female perspective in an alarmingly casual way. The sketches begin in comic mode as a couple, we assume returning from a date, engage in verbal foreplay. His attempts at seduction are each deconstructed by her forensic analysis of his choice of words. Such as objecting to having her dress ‘peeled’ off: ‘I’m not a potato!’

The second scene has a woman asking not to work Monday’s because she wants to sleep more. The man (someone from HR, her boss?) offers ever more tempting inducements like free cake or exercise classes or happy hour at the roof-top bar on top of the office to keep her at work. As with the previous scene, he fails to understand what he’s being asked. Offering more bribes for someone so they don’t have to leave the office even to eat or sleep or exercise is not a solution for someone who wants to spend less of their life at work.

As the scenes progress they become darker, the characters less connected to each other. The structure becomes more vague until eventually even language itself collapses as characters talk across each other and at the audience, leaving us no chance to follow a thread, but just catching key words. This makes the later scenes somewhat less effective. You find yourself stepping out of the moment and thinking about how hard you are working to keep tuned in to the story.

The play is uncompromising in its message that, despite what we may experience ourselves and what legislation says ought to happen, there are deep-rooted societal barriers to women having an equal voice.

The large cast assembled for this production by Blue Stocking Effigy is impressive. The Space never allows any actor to get away with anything except the most committed of performances. It’s altogether too intimate for that. Fortunately this group are all completely on top of their game, clearly supporting and engaging with each other in focused and passionate playing. This is just the kind of piece which is so well suited to The Space.

Whatever your personal position on the issues raised here, you’ll find this an arresting and rewarding piece of theatre which boldly challenges established norms and leaves you with no choice but to think about your own approach, language and behaviour.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is at The Space until 2 February 2020.


Review – Dial M for Murder ****

The set of Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder is a classic murder mystery, immortalised in Hitchcock’s film version starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. The plot concerns former tennis star Tony Wendice (Tom Chambers) who is secretly aware of the affair his wife Margot (Sally Breton) thinks she has successfully hidden from him for over a year. He blackmails an old school friend with a shady past (Christopher Harper in the first of two roles) into murdering his wife while he is out with her lover, giving him the perfect alibi. The cue for the murderer to strike is arranged to be when Tony phones his wife, luring from her bed to answer so the killer knows when to pounce. It’s at this critical point that the apparently flawless logic of Tony’s plan for the perfect murder collapses.

It’s also from this point the play really takes off. Unlike modern TV examples of the genre, where the body (usually the first of several) makes its appearance within minutes, here there is a long exposition establishing the nature of Tony and Margot’s relationship, the motive for Tony’s desire to murder his wife and the reason he chooses his old school friend to do the deed. So we find ourselves with a murder victim only just by the interval. At times this feels slow despite the cast all bringing great presence to their roles.

The gradual unravelling of Tony’s plan makes a far more interesting second half. It’s also helped enormously by Christopher Harper’s Inspector Hubbard, whom he makes just slightly off centre. This turns a workmanlike character from simply a device to explain what’s happening into a humorously effective commentator.

Tom Chambers is delightfully on the smarmy end of suave as the consummately deceptive and devious husband. And Sally Breton, who we are probably more used to seeing playing for laughs in Not Going Out is both feisty and vulnerable as his wife Margot. As her lover Max, Michael Salami is a strong stage presence.

The single room set is carefully positioned at an angle and comes complete with ceiling – unusual in a theatrical set. Its careful design plays with angles and perspectives to give a perfect view of every part. And moving the action from the 1950s, when the play was written and set, to 1963 allows some design flourishes which separate it from the dour post-war period which might otherwise have left us feeling too distant from it.

This is an effective re-imagining of what is for many a well-known piece thanks to the Hitchcock film. But it succeeds on its own terms, avoiding direct comparison by virtue of the slight time shift and performances which stand in their own right.

Dial M for Murder is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 1 February and then on tour.

Review – The Bodyguard, the musical *****

The Bodyguard company

This musical version of the hit film The Bodyguard has quite simply the best production values I’ve ever seen in a touring show. Combine this with a raft of hit songs and the star power of Alexandra Burke and you have a crowd pleasing hit.

The story concerns singing star Rachel Marron (Burke) who is bidding for an Oscar with a song co-written with her equally talented but less successful sister Nicki (Emmy Willow). Into the mix enters a mysterious and threatening stalker (a muscular Phil Atkinson) which in turn results in the hiring of the eponymous bodyguard Frank Farmer (Ben Lewis).

I’ve not seen the original Kevin Costner/Whitney Huston film, so the fairly straightforward development of the story was nevertheless quite gripping. Although the role of the baddie was under-written, Phil Atkinson made a striking impression because of some clever staging and his commanding physical presence. The requirements of the plot, though, do result in the slightly odd situation whereby no sooner has Rachel’s new bodyguard started than terrible incidents start befalling her and her family, which he is supposed to be there to prevent.

The score is packed with well-known hit songs from Whitney Houston and others. Emmy Willow as Rachel’s sister Nicki gets a crack at some in her role as a sometime nightclub performer and has a tremendously appealing voice. Ben Lewis in the title role, by contrast, has to murder I Will Always Love You at a Karaoke night and then never sing another note for the whole evening, despite having a CV that includes numerous musicals, not least playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. But he manages the changing relationship with his client and her son really well, bringing enormous credibility to the part.

At the centre of things, Alexandra Burke is perfectly cast as star/diva Rachel Marron. Her singing power is, of course, a given but she also has to be a sister, a mother and a lover. All of these she manages with apparent ease. And in the final moments her performance of I Will Always Love You is suitably brilliant.

Adding to the experience is the sheer quality of the production. The set is a slick and highly effective system of moving flats which both illuminate and frame the scenes. They also act to hide some striking scene changes, including the rehearsal room at Rachel Marron’s home and an entire log cabin, which appear magically and impressively. The whole thing is classy, stylish and just flashy enough to impress without overshadowing the performers. This is really a full-blown West End standard show with none of the cut-downs and compromises you sometimes see on a touring version.

The Bodyguard, the musical, is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 18 January 2020.

Review – Aladdin at the Churchill Theatre Bromley ****

Aladdin front curtain

A marvelous Christmas present arrived at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley in the shape of Christopher Biggins. TV presenters and ex boy/girl band members are all very well, but a proper panto deserves a proper panto star, which is what Biggins undoubtedly is.

His is a twinkly presence as Widow Twankey, appearing in a series of costumes and wigs ranging from the extravagant to the bizarre. He is effortlessly at ease with the audience. Indeed his first ‘scene’ is not really part of the show, just an informal chat identifying school groups, brownies and those celebrating birthdays. Throughout the show he totters about the stage and is both hilarious and brings a little vulnerability to the part.

His comedy side kicks are Rikki Jay as Wishee and Max Fulham as Washee, taking what is usually a single part and giving us two comics. Rikki Jay is the official comic, perhaps a little old school, but armed with all the usual jokes and clearly a highly experienced performer who knows exactly how to land a line and control the audience. Max Fulham is a hugely talented ventriloquist, giving life to his monkey Gordon, a delightfully cute but knowing character and, even more impressively, a pedal bin (whose mum is a wheelie bin and whose dad is a skip!). The three leads seem to enjoy each others’ performances. And despite the tendency in panto to include carefully rehearsed fluffs and corpsing, I think we saw a couple of genuine moments, especially in the ‘short sleeved shirt, not a long sleeved shirt’ sketch.

As Aladdin, Yazdan Qafouri comes to us from a stint in the Take That musical The Band. He looks the part, moves well and is a great singer. He and Emily Hawgood as Princess Jasmine have perhaps the toughest job because as the main leads of the story they have to carry the plot but have little else to do apart from sing a few songs. But they both manage to convey some passion and spark, both for their characters and each other. Indeed both Hawgood and Emily Beth Harrington (Scheherazade) play strong women who know what they want and how to get it.

In terms of story, those more familiar with the Disney version, will find two problems. First, that it takes a long while to get going and second, when it does and the genie finally appears, he’s not the wise cracking bundle of charisma that Robin Williams invented, but an oversize puppet thrust from the wings on a big stick.

Head baddie is Ryan O’Gorman as ‘have a banana’ Abanazar. He’s just frightening enough for the younger children in the packed audience and wins my vote for a great opening to the second act with his performance of You Know My Name, the Bond song from Casino Royale.

A special mention to The Twins FX who provide the special effect of the flying carpet, which is just captivating. And to the children from Laura Bruce Dance Academy who make a lovely addition to the big dance numbers and provide great support to the talented adult ensemble. Also to the band in the pit. Although with some exceptions I wasn’t wowed by the song choices, it really makes a difference to have a live band and they sound just great.


Review – Goldilocks and the Three Bears *****

Golidlocks front curtain

The re-established tradition of a pantomime at the London Palladium goes from strength to strength with this fourth outing. Julian Clary is firmly in his element in the role of ring master at a circus which, for reasons I can’t remember but don’t really matter anyway, needs to secure the services of the three bears to provide a show-stopping act and save the circus from being taken over by the evil ringmaster, Paul O’Grady. Although on the night I saw it that role was admirably understudied by Christopher Howell who goes up in my estimation because his CV says he was in two of my favourite recent musicals – Betty Blue Eyes and Made in Dagenham.

The Barnum-esque setting gives legitimacy to a device often used on panto whereby various speciality acts get shoe-horned into the plot. With a circus as the set this technique is made easy. This is how we can legitimately end up with the truly spectacular motor cycle stunt work of Peter Pavlov and his team, who I last saw in Cirque Berserk.

The official story of Goldilocks and the three bears is largely dispensed with in the course of a single musical number. You could legitimately argue that this show has become so far removed from its origins that it’s not really a panto at all. It has become its own genre, in which the plot of whichever panto is largely irrelevant. What does remain, though, are some of the key panto ingredients. Notably the ‘tell him that’ routine, in which an increasingly complicated and potentially rude tongue twister is passed back and forth by a go-between.

The Palladium panto is also establishing its own traditions. Every year Nigel Havers is fighting for his right to be in the show at the cost of his dignity, a part he plays to absolute perfection. He’s like the guest star on a Morecambe and Wise show. And Gary Wilmot has an impressive line in patter songs. Last year it was one which included the names of every tube station. This year, a medley of snatches (sometimes just a single word) from numerous musical theatre standards. Outstanding.

Whilst it lovely to see the great Janine Duvitski, she is a little under used as mummy bear. Matt Baker is a revelation as Joey the clown, not only displaying a range of great circus skills but also having a warm and confident stage presence. Paul Zerdin’s vent act remains the benchmark for such things, the real brilliance being in the puppetry skills his uses to give expression to his characters.

Rising above it all, complete with outrageous double entendres, is Julian Clary. His costume budget alone must be more than that of most entire pantos, although he faces strong competition from the circus-style set which as glitzy and colourful as you could wish. His laid back style belies the skill he has in landing a line or a glance with devastating aplomb. As ever he comments on proceedings from outside the show, with waspish asides about contracts, the CVs of other cast members and getting his cab home. He is totally in his element and it is difficult to imagine a Palladium panto without him.