School of Rock, Orchard Theatre, Dartford ***

Fans of the movie will be pleased to know that this musical version is a pretty faithful adaptation which stays true to the original not only in terms of story but also to Jack Black’s performance as Dewey Finn. For new readers, Dewey Finn is a failed wanna-be rock musician who finds his way into the role of substitute teacher at a New York private school. Here he discovers his class of young students actually have musical talent which he decides to nurture into a rock band, while ignoring subjects on the curriculum that aren’t rock related – meaning all of them!

Music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has clearly used his own early works (notably Jesus Christ Superstar and, I think, Variations) as an influence on this score. We had perhaps forgotten that Lloyd Webber has a rock pedigree, having invented the rock opera as a musical theatre form along with Tim Rice in the 1970s. Here he is on fine form with catchy and powerful numbers like You’re in the Band, Stick it to the Man and Time to Play. We also get the title number from the film, written not by Lloyd Webber but Sammy James Jr. and the film’s screenwriter Mike White. Other numbers are less successful. Yes they move the story forward and effectively introduce both characters and the school the children attend. But they don’t really set pulses racing or deliver any standout moments, which begins to be a concern during the early part of the show.

The book is by Julian Fellowes, a world away from Downton Abbey. He claims in the programme to have given us more back story on each child in the band. I’m not sure his scene with several of the children confronting their parents at home with the ‘rock homework’ delivers the goods as effectively as the original film. In that, such insights are shown in the classroom as the reticent and up-tight pupils discover their true selves whilst they gradually open-up to the emotional power of the rock music being introduced to them by Dewey Finn. In this stage musical that journey takes place in the course of a single number, so the children go from Hogwarts to School of Rock in five minutes, which leaves plot and character development with less to do in the remainder of the show. This means much sense of dramatic tension about the ability or willingness of the children to become a rock band is missing. We go straight from them not being a band, to being a band – so we can see pretty much the rest of the plot from this point on, which is quite early in act one.

Jake Sharp as Dewey Finn has enough energy to power every light on the set. It’s almost a one-man show. Finn’s enthusiasm has to be supremely contagious, and Sharp absolutely makes sure it is. He drives the show along and this, combined with the bouncy commitment of the children in his class, soon wins you over and carries you along through any of the less thrilling musical moments. It really is a tour de force. His relationship with head teacher Miss Mullins has added depth thanks to Rebecca Lock’s strong vocals and a great number she gets to herself revealing her own history with rock music (Where did the Rock Go?).

The children are also great. They sing and move with joy and gusto, while some display prodigious talent on guitar, keyboard and drums. We have come to expect children in musicals to be amazing, with a number of shows over the years, like this one, really relying for their success on their young performers. For instance Matilda, Annie, and Oliver! But this large group (twelve of them) really bring the theatre alive with their energy and commitment, backed-up by what the programme calls the ‘grown up band’ – who do a terrific job, whilst allowing themselves to be overshadowed by the on-stage talent.

A word, too, about the set which is satisfyingly grand and moves about swiftly and slickly to effect the scene changes.

School of Rock is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 28 May 2022 and then continues on tour.

Review – Chicago, Orchard Theatre, Dartford *****

Chicago is, unbelievably, based on a true story. Originally a stage play in 1926, Kander and Ebb (the team behind the current West End smash hit revival, Cabaret) turned it into a musical in 1975. It tells the story of Roxie Hart, awaiting trial for the murder of her lover, and her rivalry with fellow prisoner Velma Kelly for the attentions of super slick lawyer Billy Flynn and, most importantly, a fickle public eager for salacious gossip.

Chicago has been around for a long time. The original Broadway production transferred to the West End in 1979, but it is the 1996 Broadway revival version which has given the show such tremendous staying power. It opened in London in 1997 where it stayed for 15 years and has been touring almost continuously ever since. And it’s still an unusual and striking way to stage a musical. For a start the band (a hugely impressive 10 piece plus MD) takes centre stage in a set reminiscent of a court room. There is hardly any other set and performers sit around the edges on chairs watching the action when they are not involved themselves, as if, I suppose, in the public gallery of the courtroom.

Despite it being, effectively, almost a concert performance, the enormous strength of the score and the stylish production numbers make it a memorable and captivating show.

Djalenga Scott gets a great entrance in the opening number, rising up through the band to perform All That Jazz. She is a slick and elegant dancer with a powerful voice. She also showed great comic timing as her Velma is constantly out-witted by Roxie’s media manipulation skills. Faye Brookes, perhaps best known as Kate Connor in Coronation Street, is Roxie. Sparkly, sassy and with complete command of all the moves and tunes, she makes a terrifically watchable star. I would have to say though, that Scott has the slight edge in the dancing, but the difference only shows in the final number when the pair get to perform together.

This production has a particularly strong cast. Over the years various non-singers and even non-actors have been cast as both Mama Morton and hot-shot lawyer Billy Flynn. But here we are treated to the great original Three Degree Sheila Ferguson as Morton and proper singer Russell Watson as Flynn. Ferguson has the easy authority and cynical world view to carry off Mama Morton with aplomb. Watson’s accent may have wandered a little and he’s not a natural mover (not that he’s really required to dance), but he’s convincing as a lawyer with money rather than justice as his driving focus and, of course, he sure can sing!

Ultimately the key to any musical’s success is its score, and Chicago is packed with numbers you probably know even if you’ve never seen the show – All That Jazz and Razzle Dazzle, to name just two. Thanks to the aforementioned on-stage band, they are given all the panache and power they need. It’s not that unusual to have the band on stage, but to give them centre stage throughout and have an MD who conducts without also having to play the keyboards, creates a whole new dynamic.

Chicago brings a true West End experience to the theatre with no compromises on quality in any department.

Chicago is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Saturday 23 April 2022 and then continues on tour.

Review – Looking Good Dead, Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

Peter James’ Brighton-based detective Roy Grace has recently found life on screen. In this stage version, though, the focus is on the subject of the crime Tom Bryce, played by Adam Woodyatt. He returns home having found a memory stick left by a fellow train passenger and decides to look at it and identify its owner in order to return it.

As ever, this apparent good dead results in all kinds of trouble for Tom, his spendthrift and alcoholic wife Kellie (played by Woodyatt’s former EastEnders ons-screen wife Laurie Brett) and their teenage son Max. This is because on viewing the contents of the stick they discover it leads them into a dark world of sadistic live-streamed videos.

Woodyatt and Brett are great together, brilliantly conveying the ups and downs of a sometimes fraught marriage. And Luke Ward-Wilkinson does a superb job of the classic teenager but who has his own secrets which are gradually revealed. The story unfolds in a such a way that we are fairly sure we know where things are headed for quite a long time. This is a combination of the writing and the clever playing of Tom by Woodyatt, whose character we perhaps think we know better than we really do because of our long experience of Woodyatt’s other character of Ian Beale. In the second act things take some very unexpected turns so all I would say is, beware of making any assumptions.

The staging is novel in that the scenes in the live streaming video appear on a raised stage at the back of the set, only revealed by lighting changes but cleverly dominating the smart Bryce home in the foreground. The police action is somewhat sidelined and certainly would not lead you to think of Roy Grace as the next Hercule Poirot.

The combination, though, of assured performances from Woodyatt and Brett and a thoroughly captivating plot result in a crowd-pleasing evening which I am sure wrong-footed most of those in the audience who thought they’d got it all worked out.

Looking Good Dead is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 5 March 2022 and then continues on tour.

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.

Review – Pantoland at the London Palladium ****

The Palladium panto was re-established as a Christmas tradition in 2016. Since then the few remaining elements of plot or character have been gradually removed each year so we’re now left with a kind variety show. This is not a criticism. Clearly the producers have realised that they will get best value from the likes of Julian Clary by giving them as much time as possible to do what they’re best at, without burdening them (and us) with mundane things like a story.

This year we are treated for the first time to the star being an international icon – Donny Osmond. No time is wasted in getting him on stage as he opens the show. There’s no doubt there is something quite magical about being in the beloved and world famous Palladium and hearing the name Donny Osmond announced as the curtains open to reveal the man himself.

The rest of the cast is comprised of what has become in effect the Palladium Panto Repertory Company. Gary Wilmot is the dame and his patter song naming all London’s tube stations (yes – including the new ones on the Elizabeth line) is spectacular. You feel you are witnessing something really special as well as amazing. Nigel Havers is the butt of jokes about his age and not really having a part in the show. Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin is a class act who delivers not only some great laughs but also a range of impressive set pieces including a brilliant moment when his puppet Sam is left in the hands (literally) of Donny Osmond. Cue carefully rehearsed mistakes and corpsing with resultant crowd pleasing hilarity.

Song and dance numbers are left in the more than capable hands of Sophie Issacs and Jac Yarrow, with support from the famous Tiller Girls.

There is, of course, one more person to mention. Julian Clary can, and does, turn the most apparently innocent phrases into complete filth. For example, “I’ve never done Aladdin” and “Put your hand up (pause). In the air!” In the most extravagant costumes he parades about the stage picking on either members of the audience or the cast with waspish remarks and put-downs which in turn bring the house down.

The cast appear to be having a really good time. In less skilled hands this could leave the audience feeling left out of the joke. Not here. The casual mayhem and supposed mistakes only work because this is a slick and hugely professional show that knows exactly what it’s doing and mines every comic opportunity to maximum effect through deft technique and spot-on timing.

My review is missing the fifth star only because, as a Palladium panto fan, I have seen most of this before. Don’t get me wrong, I love the company and wouldn’t want to lose any of them. But the addition of Donny Osmond created the opening for some fresh content and more of this would be welcome. Who knows which international superstar will be joining in the fun next year?

Pantoland is at the London Palladium until 9 January 2022.

Review – Sleeping Beauty, Churchill Theatre, Bromley *****

We’ve got a couple of proper names at the Churchill this year. There’s the always good value Bonnie Langford and eveyone’s favourite Joseph, Lee Mead. Along with Myra Dubois as the wicked fairy, Lloyd Hollett as Muddles, the Court Jester, Claudillea Holloway as the princess and Joelle Moses as the Queen, this combination proves to be an outstanding overall cast and certainly the best I can recall.

Claudillea Holloway has a beaming smile and happy face. She looks so genuinely happy to be the princess and her voice is quite beautiful, which she gets to show off well. As her mum, Queen Voluptua, Joelle Moses exudes a regal authority and knocks out some terrific notes of her own. She’s been Motormouth Maybelle in a production of Hairspray and I can totally see her owning that part.

Lloyd Hollett as Muddles is our comic guide to proceedings. I’ve heard a lot of panto jokes over the years, but he really made me laugh. He also quickly built a rapport with the audience, slipping in a few jokes for the grown-ups along the way. But the clever thing about this production is that it worked so effortlessly on both adult and child levels. Hollett also has a quite outstanding line in patter songs which are not only funny but amazing feats of memory and brilliant performance technique. In the first of these he list the names of all the comics who have inspired him, to the tune of the Can Can. Almost everyone gets a mention, from Jo Brand to Tony Hancock. I’d have loved it even more if he could have squeezed in a name check for Bromley’s own Tom Allen!

Lee Mead has the toughest job of the night.  – as do all romantic male leads in pantos. All that’s required of a panto prince is to be in love with the princess. He does, though, manage to have fun with his history of playing Joseph and delivers some great song and dance numbers.

Myra Dubois is the baddie in this production, as Carabosse, the wicked fairy who causes the princess to fall into her deep sleep from which our prince must awaken her. Dubois makes the best panto baddie I’ve seen, in a succession of frocks, gowns and put-downs. Pantos love to stick in carefully rehearsed ‘mistakes’ and consequent corpsing by the cast, but there was a instant with Dubois when I’m not sure if we didn’t see a real moment. Either way, it brought the house down.

As the good fairy Lilac Bonnie Langford goes well beyond the usual restrictions of the role (typically panto fairies come on in a flash and are off thirty seconds later having delivered a plot update). Bonnie is so twinkly and sparkly that I swear she would twinkle and sparkle just as much even if her costume wasn’t covered in spangles and sequins. She also gets to dance and sing – which is where she excels. When Bonnie is on the stage there’s no doubt she’s the star.

Thank goodness we also get a real live band in the pit. There’s just three of them but they fill the place with sound. Their balance with the singers was a little off at times, making the vocals hard to hear, but that maybe just me as it improved during the show, which is probably just me becoming attuned to the sound.

Thanks to Covid we have no children in the cast. Neither are any dragged up on stage from the audience in the final front-of-cloth scene. For me these are plus points. It also means we get more stage time from the principals, which with this cast is all to the good.

Sleeping Beauty is that the Churchill Theatre Bromley until 2 January 2022.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical ***

This latest version of the ground breaking show, about three drag queens on a road trip across Australia to Alice Springs, so one of them can finally meet his six-year-old son, retains the sense of fun and exuberance of the original, but seems somehow coarser and cruder than I remember.

Of course, times have changed since the musical first appeared. Topics and issues in the show have become more mainstream with shows like Everyone’s Talking About Jamie and, on TV, Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I’m not sure, though, that crudity is the right response. In addition, the production has attracted criticism for casting a cisgender male actor in the lead role of a transgender woman. We wouldn’t expect or tolerate a white actor blacked-up to play a black character and neither should we expect this kind of casting anymore. This was reinforced when, in the bows, Miles Western (who plays transgender Bernadette) comes on holding his wig to reveal he’s really a man – undermining the whole point of Bernadette’s story.

Those, though, are production decisions and the performances themselves are fun, lively and sensitive. They bring these extreme and often over the top characters to life. Some of the jokes and one liners land a little flat in the early part of the show. My reading of this is partly because of the unexpectedly crude tone. It seemed not all of the audience were comfortable with this. But things warmed up significantly once the bus trip was properly underway. A standout performance for me was by Daniel Fletcher as the trio’s unlikely saviour, Bob the mechanic. A completely understated and believable performance but also with great comic timing.

The staging was efficient but unremarkable, with imaginative use of parts of Priscilla as sets for various other scenes, even though the competed bus lacked the magic needed. I did, though, prefer the way the trio chorus of divas was deployed in this version than in the original West End production.

The real highlights came courtesy of some brilliantly staged and executed dance numbers and the outstanding work of the band in recreating such a wide variety of classic disco hits. There’s a lot of music in this show and it does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating the right atmosphere.

Disney’s Frozen The Musical ****

Despite attending a matinee where the average age of most audience members was probably about three, I can still say this is a show that works pretty well for adults. It’s no Lion King, but has some great, even spectacular, moments – hence four, not five, stars.

The musical captures the feeling of the film admirably. It also adds something to the characters of the two sisters, Elsa and Anna. They are, perhaps inevitably, more real and relatable as played in the flesh by Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon than in the film. This in turn brings even greater emphasis on their relationship as the driver for the story, making other characters such as Olaf the snowman (Craig Gallivan) and Kristoff the ice salesman (Obioma Ugoala) into cameos. Even the latter’s reindeer Sven (Mikayla Jade and Ashley Birchall alternate in the physically demanding role), although stunningly realised, has little to do.

The highlight is, as it should be, Let it Go, moved along in the story so it comes as the closer to Act One. Samantha Barks is terrific and really does let go as the song builds. She transforms in front of us in an instant from wearing a dull cape to a sparkling white dress – a true coup de theatre which drew gasps and cheers from everyone in the audience (not just the three year olds!).

Olaf is a delight, with the puppet operated and voiced in-view by Craig Gallivan in suitable winter togs. He captures the charm of the character using basic puppetry skills but little other obvious trickery, and has a remarkably close vocal likeness to the film version.

There are, though, a couple of peculiar choices. As Anna travels to find her sister with Kristoff she crosses a huge, icy bridge (shown in the photo above). This comes on from stage right and travels across the stage, at one point only the centre section is on stage before, eventually, the steps down at the other side come into view. It’s the largest single piece of moving scenery I’ve ever seen. It must have cost a fortune and been a nightmare to fit in the wings even at Drury Lane. But I couldn’t see why it was needed. Yes, it showed Anna had to make a journey, but surely there were either simpler ways to do it. Or they could have done more with the bridge than simply walk across it and dump it in the wings! The other similar moment comes at the very last bars. For anyone other than those in the stalls it was obvious there was a revolve and a centre circular platform cut into the stage. Unless I missed it they were never used until the final 30 seconds of the show. Again, an extravagance which added little to the story and created only minimal impact.