Thursford Christmas Spectacular 2022 ****

Despite it being their 45th anniversary season, this was only my second visit to Thursford’s Christmas Spectacular. But having been once I was at least prepared for the festive overload that comes with this experience! The Thursford Christmas Spectacular really is a one-of-a-kind show. Some may find the somewhat enforced jollity is not to their tatse, but at Thursford the whole show is wrapped up in such a sparkling experience right from the moment you enter the site – music playing through the fairy-lit trees and Dickensian-dressed characters offering a warm welcome – that you’d be hard pushed to maintain any Scrooge-like sensibilities by the time the show itself begins. 

Being their 45th birthday all the stops have been pulled out – and not just on the Thursford Wurlitzer organ, the capabilities of which are memorably showcased by Phil Kelsall. The on-stage company is the biggest you’re ever likely to see, and by some margin. Nearly everyone involved gets a photo and biography in the programme, which is nice to see. From this we learn that these are highly professional and experienced performers across the board, with CVs including opera and the West End.  

The quality is evident in every aspect of the show. It’s essentially a good old fashioned variety show. Tiller girl-style high kicking dance routines, precision marching to ’76 trombones’, West End showstoppers from Half a Sixpence, Mary Poppins and Hairspray and much more besides. Compared with last year – my only point of reference as a relative newbie – I thought there was more seasonal content in this year’s production. Nevertheless I am always pleased to see the musical theatre classics given the Thursford treatment even when they are not Christmassy.

Returning as host is Kev Orkian, performing that rare trick of being funny for an audience that, mostly, haven’t come to see him. He’s also a gifted musical talent, doing some clever and witty musical parodies. 

The orchestra/band is large and versatile. Their Dixieland-style version of Maria Carey’s All I Want for Christmas was inspired. Whilst Hairspray’s You Can’t Stop the Beat was powerful and vibrant.

Amidst all the spectacle there’s a delightfully witty and wonderfully English comedy song complaining about the Church Of England. I’d somehow missed out on the gem that is Mrs Beamish and on checking (there’s no programme credit for any composers or lyricists – a shame) I see it’s by Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern. Joyous. 

Having seen last year’s show I was particularly impressed that, a few traditional elements aside, it seemed to me an entirely new production. Yes, the essence and the format remain the same, but costumes, choreography, music – even Ken Orkian’s jokes – were all new for this year. The only thing is I think I’m all Christmassed-out now! 

The Thursford Christmas Spectacular runs until 23 December 2022.

The Osmonds – Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

On first hearing there’s a musical about the Osmonds you’d be forgiven for thinking that, surely, it’s already been done. But despite many examples of the genre from Buddy (Holly) to Jersey Boys, and others too numerous to mention, somehow the Osmonds escaped attention.

What we learn from this show is how they went to great lengths to control their own careers, albeit not always successfully. It seems likely, then, the reason their story hasn’t been translated into a musical until now is because they didn’t allow it. And prominent in the publicity for the show (and even on the front cloth) is the byline ‘Story by Jay Osmond’. So we know from the off that we’re seeing a version of history through the lens of someone who has spent most of their life building and defending the Osmond brand.

There is, possibly, another reason why the Osmond story hasn’t been seized upon for the musical treatment. Putting it bluntly, despite their prodigious output, their back catalogue is not exactly over-stuffed with crowd pleasing classic hits that are lodged in the minds of anyone other than ardent fans. Obviously we get Love Me for a Reason, Puppy Love and the dubious charms of Long Haired Lover from Liverpool. But we also have Traffic in My Mind, Utah and Rainin’ – which for me don’t provoke the same response. And in a show which pretty much marches chronologically forward through their story, their biggest hit is glossed over with just a mention and doesn’t make itself heard until the bows.

Despite this, though, the show has great charm, warmth and, above all, pace. The story is told simply and without gimmicks. Jay Osmond (Alex Lodge) is our reliable narrator and, with a few exceptions, it’s ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ as Jay conveys the family’s progress from singing for their deaf older brothers, via a meeting with Walt Disney to their big break with regular appearances on the Andy Williams Show. Eschewing dramatisation of incidents, the show illustrates career milestones with song after song. Ryan Anderson, Jamie Chatterton, Danny Nattrass and Joseph Peacock do a terrific job as Merrill, Alan, Wayne and Donny alongside Alex Lodge’s Jay. Nattrass may have been a source of useful Osmond insight as I see from his programme biog that he appeared in last year’s Palladium panto, which starred one Donny Osmond.

In the early days, though, we are treated to young versions of the boys who were just great, with some particularly effective close harmony work from the press night team of Herbie Byers, Jayden Harris, brothers Austin and Miles Redwood and Dexter Seaton. The icing on the junior cake was Austin Riley’s totally convincing rendition of Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover hit.

I also liked Georgia Lennon as Marie Osmond, who has a beautiful voice. The one fictional device employed in telling the story is the use of a lifelong fan who signs herself ‘Wendy from Manchester’, when she writes regular fan letters to Jay. This results in an unexpectedly poignant moment near the end of the show thanks in large part to Sophie Hirst’s sympathetic portrayal of what could easily have been a forgettable part.

The staging is effective with a flexible single-set design minimising the need for cast or crew to move bits of furniture or scenery about. The rainbow of colours stretching from the backdrop and running across the stage could have looked a little too swinging sixties, but somehow works throughout the show. Perhaps it’s also deliberately reminding us of Donny’s time playing the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat!

The Osmonds is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 19 November 2022 and then continues on tour.

Deathdrop – back in the habit *** Orchard Theatre, Dartford

At points in Deathdrop – Back in the Habit it was clear some of the moments were aimed at an audience more familiar with RuPaul’s Drag Race than I. But to its credit these were few and far between and overall the feeling was one of warmth and inclusiveness, whatever your previous knowledge of either the Deathdrop franchise or the performers in it.

The show (I’m going with show, rather than play, which just feels a little too staid for this experience!) attempts to pull off that notoriously difficult combination of the comedy thriller. Usually the thrills succumb to the comedy or, occasionally, vice versa. Here, though, sometimes, they pull it off. The setting in Saint Bab’s nunnery is beautifully created with a convincing ecclesiastical vibe. Indeed, by having the set effectively playing it straight it allows more room for the comedy, whilst also providing the necessary dark corners for the thrills.

The stand-out performance for me was Louis Cyfer as Father Alfie Romeo, who has been sent by Rome to Saint Bab’s to discover what happened to one Father Spanky on a previous visit. Not all is as it should be at Saint Bab’s, with spooky corridors, zombies and the distant sound of children playing. Louis Cyfer delivered a performance which brought the character to life and allowed the comedy and thrills to flow naturally around them. It was in many ways a very generous performance, allowing others to show off and resisting, mostly, going for the easy laugh.

Decidedly in charge of proceedings was Mother Superior, played by Victoria Scone.With an on-stage presence which commands your attention, Mother Superior’s confidence and assurance helps the show through some otherwise weaker moments. River Medway as Sister Julie Andrews was suitably empathetic. Cheryl Hole was fine as Sister Mary Berry but lacked conviction for me, whilst Willam as Sis Titis clearly had some great one liner put downs, but these were too often lost in the delivery. I must also mention Corrina Buchan as (amongst other things) Inner Voice, who was very funny in a cleverly meta scene involving Father Alfie Romeo in a waking nightmare.

There are problems, though. The opening plot exposition is too long and, more importantly, doesn’t have enough laughs. It goes to great lengths in that opening to establish the set-up, but fails completely to set the tone. Once things got underway, the overall style felt a little vague, as though any idea that might get a laugh had been allowed into the script. The humour is decidedly Carry On Convent and, mostly, no more filthy than a Carry On film would be if they made it today. At some points it felt like it should be a musical, with the characters doing a Priscilla on us. But that didn’t happen. Curiously, though, near the end of Act One Sister Mary Julie Andrews gets to deliver a parody version of My Favourite Things. Having established by then that this isn’t a musical, this felt odd. On top of that, being the only number it had a lot of pressure on it. But it failed to provide a moment of spectacle and wasn’t a strong enough parody to be really funny – either musically or lyrically.

There’s a lot to like in the show. They have some good ideas and effective theatrical moments which bring surprise, scares and laughs. At the moment, though, it lacks cohesiveness. The storyline needs more momentum. With that, we might begin to care more about the fate of the sisters at Saint Bab’s. As it is, they’re fun to be with, have a great line in comedy names (I particularly liked Our Lady of Gaga!) and pick up the pace nicely in Act Two to provide a satisfying conclusion to proceedings. But there’s potential here for something better.