Review – The Addams Family **** Orchard Theatre, Dartford and on tour

The Addams Family has one of the strongest opening numbers, briefly referencing the iconic ‘click, click’ of the theme from the TV series before surging on into a history of the family with the lively When You’re An Addams.

All the numbers in this show work brilliantly to deliver character and plot development. They have witty lyrics and great tunes, supported here by a strong eight-piece band which, for a touring show, is a really good size. Andrew Lippa (who also wrote Big Fish) does the job of writing both music and lyrics for the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, whose other big hit is Jersey Boys.

Surprisingly the show has never had a West End run, but this production has such polish and style that it would fit right in there. Diego Pitarch has designed a set so meticulously detailed that everywhere is working to create the spooky Addams atmosphere. This isn’t one of those shows where a stage hand wheels on a sofa and an occasional table and asks you to believe it’s a palatial drawing room.

The story centres on Morticia and Gomez Addams’ daughter Wednesday and her love for a ‘normal’ boy, Lucas. The action is based on the clash between Lucas’s family from Ohio as they encounter the weird world inside the Addams mansion. In truth the plot of true love conquering all does struggle to sustain a whole show and at times lacks pace. But it seems this show is trying to do something different in that the focus is very much on the emotional lives of the characters as they each encounter different world views that challenge their own perceptions of themselves and each other.

Cameron Blakely has been in this production since it started and gives a delightfully suave performance as Gomez with assured comic timing. Joanne Clifton’s Morticia dances a mean tango as you would expect and delivers the songs beautifully. I would, though, have liked her ‘Morticia walk’ to have been more of a glide as if she were on wheels – which would make more of Gomez’s reaction when he discovers ‘she has legs!’.

Kingsley Morton as daughter Wednesday Addams gets two of my favourite numbers – Pulled and Crazier Than You and has a powerhouse voice to deliver them. Meanwhile Scott Paige (like Cameron Blakely an alumni from the musical Eugenius, which I take any excuse to mention!) is outstanding as Uncle Fester, getting his first laugh from a very unusual head wobble before he even has a line to deliver. Paige has great comic instincts combined with vocal strength and a winning stage persona which made him an audience favourite.

Director Matthew White and choreographer Alistair David provide so much to enjoy in this meticulously detailed show. There are moves and looks and nuances everywhere which bring out the comedy whilst being true to the characters and atmosphere of the piece.

The Addams Family is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until Saturday 26 February 2022 and then continues on tour.

Review – 3 Steps to Heaven, Orchard Theatre, Dartford and on tour ****

Buddy Holly’s enduringly popular songs practically invented the modern so-called juke box musical, with the often revived Buddy Holly Story. That’s a great show, but in 3 Steps to Heaven the concept is taken to its ultimate: shorn of any pretence of telling a story this concert lets the music do the talking. Alongside Holly the producers have chosen another writer and star whose life and career was cut tragically short (in a car accident travelling from a UK concert), Eddie Cochran. His posthumous hit provides the title for the show. Completing the trio we have Roy Orbison. He was stylistically quite different from Holly or Cochran. But then his style was uniquely his own and doesn’t neatly fit with anyone else’s. He also has influences from the 60s to the 80s in his catalogue as he lived until 1988, even then dying relatively young at only 52.

The concert is an invention as the three never performed together. It does, though, bring together a huge catalogue of huge hits. We are reminded that Holly wrote and recorded eight hit records in just two years. These are songs that are still well known today. What’s more they are well known in their original versions, not from re-worked and re-imagined covers. Quite an achievement for someone who died in 1959 aged just 22. Cochran also had hits which live on, such as C’mon Everybody and Summertime Blues. And whilst most people in the audience would either not have been born or at best have been children when Holly and Cochran had hits, many more remember Orbison, whose You Got It chartered immediately after his death in 1988.

So that’s the history and the context; what about the show? Our three leads perform as Cochran, Holly and Orbison without breaking character. As Cochrane, Jonny Labey has a rich voice and a winning stage presence. Edward Handoll has history playing Holly and dons the famous specs with ease. His set contains probably the most well known songs and he re-creates the Holly sound perfectly. Peter Howarth stands rock solid still as the man in black, the big O, (complete with black wig and sunglasses) allowing his soaring voice and huge range to complete the transformation.

The three stars are backed by a supremely professional band headed by musical director Pierce Tee on keyboards. He skilfully enables us to hear live the Holly songs recorded with string backing, something I imagine Holly himself could never do in concert. And whilst the stars are in character from the 50s and 60s, the backing musicians are just themselves. Indeed, the quality of the sound and the stylish lighting design make this concert, I suspect, technically superior to anything either Cochran or Holly would have been able to aspire to in the 1950s.

The whole thing comes together brilliantly to recreate live versions of songs most people know so well from the original records. Being so well known gives the musicians a challenge because every note, every pause, every detail of the arrangements has to be spot-on. And it is (or at least it seemed so to me). They could have sat back and assumed that the audience would be happy just to hear such well known songs again. In effect just letting the songs to do all the work. But these musicians provide highly polished and professional performances which honour the music they are playing and provide more hits in one evening than you’re likely to find in any other show.

3 Steps to Heaven is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 12 February 2022 and then continues on tour.

Review – Hairspray (UK tour at Churchill Theatre, Bromley AND Orchard Theatre, Dartford) *****

Hairspray is one of my favourite musicals. I came to it without having seen the original film so for me having Edna rather more butch than John Travolta’s is always something that takes a little getting used to. Here it’s Alex Bourne doing the honours. His credits include Lex Hogan in Eugenius, another of my favourites, so he starts off scoring highly in my estimation for that!

The story is about Tracy Turnblad’s desire to become a star on the local TV dance show in her home town of Baltimore. It’s 1962 and she encounters and deals with racism and body shaming along the way to getting into the arms of the show’s heart-throb, Link Larkin. The serious underlying issues are served up with seriously great songs and light comedy, which combine to make this an enduring classic. 

Newcomers will find Marc Shaiman’s tunes instantly appealing and the on-set band are terrific.

I saw the original London production with Michael Ball and its Coliseum incarnation (where it was a little lost in that cavernous space last summer). I thoroughly enjoyed them both but this production is absolutely the best of all. The simple staging puts the focus on the performers. And this works brilliantly because the cast give performances of such high quality. Director Paul Kerryson has clearly worked hard on every moment from every character on the stage. The result is a show crammed with great reactions and expressions alongside the core dialogue and musical numbers.

Katie Brace makes her professional debut in the role of Tracy Turnblad. As well as being a good singer and dancer, Brace brings a whole other dimension to her performance, showing Tracy to be the free thinker and breath of fresh air she’s described as in the script. She’s even brilliantly entertaining when just watching the dance show on TV or standing to one side during heartthrob Link Larkin’s big number.

Brenda Edwards is Motormouth Maybelle. She has great stage presence and delivers two outstanding bring-the-house-down numbers, full-on, front and centre. You could watch her all night. 

Alex Bourne plays Tracy’s mother who towers over her doting husband and Tracy’s father Wilbur, played by Norman Pace. The required ‘corpsing’ and rehearsed ad libs are there in their duet and Pace’s version of joke shop owner Wilbur is heart warming, showing us that Tracy’s heart too will always be in the right place . Rebecca Thornhill as the producer the of TV dance show, Velma Von Tussle, has a diffcult role because Velma is such an unsympathetic character. But she brings something extra to the part which makes her completely watchable. Rebecca Jayne-Davies is Tracy’s slightly dim sidekick Penny. She has a much better part than in the film version and really makes the most of it. Her partner Seaweed is played by Reece Richards who looks so right and dances so well. First class in supporting roles we have Richard Meek as TV host Corny Collins and Ross Clifton as Link Larkin.  

Hairspray is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 26 March 2022 and then continues on tour.