Jumping the Shark – Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

Set in a bland and anonymous hotel the story finds five characters arriving for a weekend course on writing a sitcom, to be taken by one-time hugely successful writer Frank (David Schaal). Anyone who has ever attended a training course will instantly recognise the depressing effect a flip chart can have on any room. Also the awkward first introductions to your fellow course members. The five characters here all have different reasons for being on the course and as they arrive this provides a neat and efficient way of setting them up. In fact much of the first part is structured and played so exactly like a training course that you begin to feel part of it yourself. Tutor Frank’s opening introduction to his class also effectively includes the audience as, in a tour de force monologue, he references numerous classic moments from sitcoms and describes the key rules of writing them. This includes the meaning of the phrase ‘Jumping the Shark’. While it’s helpful to have this explained (it refers to the point when a once successful show has run out of ideas so introduces a totally fantastical situation – with the Fonz in Happy Days literally jumping, on water skies, over a shark as the apotheosis of the theory) it does worry me that using this as the play’s title may put some people off buying a ticket if they’re not already aware of its meaning.

With the numbing training course atmosphere being so meticulously created and a lot of character groundwork being laid for, as we subsequently discover, payoffs in Act Two, this does leave Act One struggling for laughs. As the students are sent off with an assignment to write their own sitcom scene we are sent off to the bar to contemplate whether analysing comedy in this way can also result in comedy being created.

Fortunately Act Two swiftly demonstrates that it can. It’s as tightly structured as the first half, with each delegate’s own sitcom acted out, using their fellow course members as the cast. This allows us the luxury of effectively meeting a whole new cast of characters as the play-within-a-play motif takes off. At one point one of the sitcoms even begins with an actor reading through his lines with his landlady – so a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. Best not go too far down that rabbit hole! The delegates obviously do what all new writers are told they should and write what they know. So by referencing things we’ve learned about them and their lives in Act One the payoffs I mentioned come thick and fast in Act Two. This is properly funny stuff with the laughs coming from character in a genuine way. And also from terrific performances by the versatile company of Jack Truman, Jasmine Armfield, Harry Visinoni, Robin Sebastian and Sarah Moyle. It does seems to me, though, that if the delegates can come up with such clever writing overnight, they probably don’t need to be on a course about writing comedy. But the play is written by experienced comedy writers David Cantor and Michael Kingsbury (with such credits as My Family and Two Pints of Lager & a Packet of Crisps). Are they using their play to pitch a series of ideas for a new sitcom, hoping one may get picked up for a pilot? Who knows, but all the sketches have legs and laughs a-plenty.

At first I thought the more serious first half felt in need of more humour and pace. But taken as a whole, I think it’s the right thing for it to be more serious and credible. Comedy surely works best when it’s grounded in reality. The first half gives us that reality. That is what allows the writers to take us off in bizarre and outlandish situations – because whatever they subsequently do or say, we believe the reality of the world their characters inhabit.

This is not a play only for sitcom nerds, although if you are one you will enjoy the theme tunes played before the play begins. It’s a play about comedy which shows how the semi-tragic or poignant reality of people’s lives can, with the slightest of tweaks, become a potential sitcom.

Jumping the Shark is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford util Saturday 25 February 2023 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.

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 – Jack and the Beanstalk, Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

Christopher Biggins arrives on stage on a mobility scooter. Is he to be confined to this transport following his knee operation earlier in the year? Oh no he isn’t! He is soon tottering about the stage in a succession of outrageous frocks and wigs as Dame Trot, mother to our hero Jack (Pearce Barron – showing formidable energy and skill in some big song and dance numbers) and comic Rikki Jay’s Silly Simon. Jay has to both warm the audience up and keep them there, whilst others deal with such mundane issues as the plot. This is he does with consumate skill born of considerable experience. His shopping trolley and lip sync routines are a highlight.

Biggins (the ‘Christopher’ seems hardly necessary anymore) needs almost no introduction of course, having long been elevated from lovable comic actor to full-blown national treasure. He plainly loves theatre and loves a panto audience, which ensures he gets a super warm reception. There was a trend in panto to cast presenters from children’s TV in leading roles. Many of them, of course, have theatre school training so could perform well enough, but having seasoned professionals in charge like Biggins and Jay, makes such a difference. That’s not to criticise Channel 5 presenter Kiera-Nicole who plays Princess Aprricot. She does a fine job, but it’s good to have the old pros on board as well!

The first character we meet, in traditional green light and follow-spot, is Fleshcreep, the giant’s henchman. David O’Mahony combines the required sneering and snarling with just enough evidence of humanity for the part to work. His biog also makes the programme worth paying for on its own!

A bonus with the Orchard pantos is they always seem to like to include some spectacular sets or effects, courtesy of The Twins FX who specialise in amazing visual effects. This time we get a huge giant walking about the stage and the most terrifying giant rat. I’m sure there will be some nightmares about that amongst the younger children in the audience.

This is a great show which the audience absolutely loved. There’s a decent amount of story to drive things along, combined with quite delightful and sometimes spectacular sets, in particular the front cloth and the staircase for the final ‘walk-down’ curtain call scene.

Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, 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.

Review – The Mousetrap ****

The cast of The Mousetrap

I was a little surprised to find the touring version of this West End war horse turning up so close to town. But maybe the producers think the London production sells well enough to tourists so a little local competition won’t do any harm.

Whatever the reason, it turned out to be an unexpected joy to revisit this play, which I have seen only once before, many years ago, in its London home.

Over the years it has become, of course, a period piece. Set in the days before mobile phones and when people could still use their ration book as a form of identification, these features are lovingly retained. As are the somewhat clipped oh-so-British accents of the owners of Monkswell Manor where the action takes place. That aside I found the script to be surprisingly fresh and the characters accessible and relatable.

The story concerns the new owners of Monkswell Manor, Giles and Mollie Ralston, who, on their very first day in business, find themselves snowed-in with an assortment of apparently random guests and a news story of a murderer on the loose. Fortunately Sgt Trotter is sent along from the local police to help keep them all safe. Needless to say it transpires that one of those at Monkswell Manor is also the murderer.

That’s really all you need to know going in.  The story is efficiently told, the characters clear and quirky enough to each bring suspicion on themselves. There are some humorous moments, a little frisson of tension but, it has to be said, no obvious hook to make the play stand out. It’s continued success now is largely fuelled by its longevity. You just have to see it to find out what it is that’s kept it going since 1952. But there has to be something else going on as well.

What you find is a warmly welcoming set with a snowy gale blowing all the various guests in to warm themselves by the glow of the open fire. It really does look like the kind of place you want to be on a cold winter’s night. The star billing goes to Susan Penhaligon as Mrs Boyle, the guest who finds nothing to her liking (a prototype, surely, for Joan Sanderson’s hotel guest from hell in Fawlty Towers). She chews up the other characters like Margaret Rutherford in bad mood! But it’s really a proper ensemble piece. Understudy Edith Kirkwood played Mollie Ralston delightfully. David Alcock was in equal parts charming, irritating and sinister as the only unexpected guest, Mr Paravicini. Lewis Chandler was as camp as he could be playing Christopher Wren whilst still making the character real.

So Monkswell Manor turns out to be a thoroughly lovely and delightful place to spend the evening. But despite this it still leaves you unable to put your finger on what has made the play such a unique phenomenon.

The Mousetrap tour is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 21 September 2019.

Review – The Case of the Frightened Lady

The curtain opens to reveal an imposing baronial hall. It’s reassuringly solid and large. It also tells us we’re firmly in classic murder mystery territory, with the lady of the manor (Deborah Grant as Lady Lebanon) urging staff, guests and family members on to play their part in the running of a large party. This sees us swiftly introduced to most of the large cast and creates a genuine impression that there is a ‘rest of the house’ attached to the bit we can see.

The plot concerns Lady Lebanon’s attempts to see her son and heir (Matt Barber as Lord Lebanon)safely married-off to Isla Crane (played by Scarlett Archer). Meanwhile a possible love triangle involving the housekeeper, her husband the gamekeeper and his lordship’s chauffeur provides  diversion and red herrings.

Before too long there is the inevitable (first)murder, which in turn introduces us to our leading man – John Partridge as Chief Superintendent Tanner (‘Sounds like he should be running a spa,’ quips Lady Lebanon) accompanied by Matt Lacey as his assistant, Detective Sergeant Totti. By this stage you’re wondering if these were regarded as perfectly normal names back in the 1930s or whether Edgar Wallace had his tongue firmly in his cheek. I suspect the latter because, particularly in the second act, there are delightfully bizarre moments as a running gag about two servants always suspected of listening in the wings (Angus Brown as Brook and Simon Desborough as Gilder) is increasingly played up.

That’s not to say this is a comedy. A cast of well known TV faces including Robert Duncan as Dr Amersham ensures that everything is played with conviction, each distinct character being believable in their own right. Rosie Thomson as housekeeper Mrs Tilling is particularly good.

There’s something inevitably a little pedestrian about these kind of plays, but that’s no reason to dismiss them. The Classic Thriller Theatre Company know how to handle the material. They don’t attempt to make it relevant to a modern audience or sensationalise the story. Instead, their approach is to provide a sumptuous set, a cast of well known faces and a few screams along the way.

The Case of the Frightened Lady is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 10 December and then on tour for one more week at The Richmond Theatre.

Review – Little Shop of Horrors

One of my favourite musicals, Little Shop of Horrors, is brought vividly to life in the theatre which really is somewhere that’s green – the Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park.

The Faustian story concerns Seymour (Marc Antolin), a hopeless and hapless assistant in a down-at-heel, failing florists on Skid Row. Both his and the shop’s fortunes take an upturn when he discovers a new breed of plant which he names Audrey 2 (Vicky Voxx), in honour of fellow shop assistant Audrey (Jemima Rooper) who, in turn, fails to realise Seymour’s amorous intentions as she is in a relationship with sadistic dentist Orin (Matt Willis).

The highlight has always been the ever-growing plant, Audrey 2, usually played by an on-stage puppet with an off-stage actor doing the voice. The Audrey 2 increases in size at every appearance following the consumption of another member of the cast. The distinctive feature of this production is that Audrey 2 is made manifest on stage in the shape of drag queen Vicky Voxx. I was wary of this but she triumphs in the role for two reasons. Firstly, Ms Voxx is no shrinking violet and attacks the part and each song with vehemence and gusto. Secondly the combination of make-up, costume and set design brings the carnivorous plant to life with a style and charisma which more than matches the giant puppets we’ve been used to.

March Antolin’s Seymour is suitably nerdy and the ever delightful Forbes Masson is great as florist shop owner Mr Mushnik. Jemima Rooper really captures the pain Audrey feels at her apparently hopeless life and lack of prospects in a truly touching moment in the song Somewhere That’s Green.

I’d like to have seen more made of the open air setting. True the surrounding trees were lit green and swayed menacingly in a stiff breeze, but I felt there was a missed opportunity at the end when it would have been fun to have the vegetation invade the auditorium during Don’t Feed the Plants. I’ll still be happy to see the Jim Henson inspired puppet version of Audrey 2 again, but Vicky Voxx’s powerhouse performance really makes this production unique. A great version of a great musical, packed with fantastic songs.

Little Shop of Horrors is at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park until 21 September 2018.

Review – The Goon Show

In Spike Milligan’s centenary year Apollo Theatre Company set-out to create the experience of attending a recording of the Goon Shows with their latest production. Despite never having been to such a recording, it seems to me they have succeeded admirably.

Three Goon Shows are recreated, with live sound effects, musical interludes and announcer Wallace Greenslade all in-tow. The vocal stylings of the various characters in the shows are well-known to many and are still to be heard now on Radio 4 Extra each week. So inevitably with shoes like Peter Sellers’ to fill it’s a big ask to re-create these. But for the most part the cast do so hugely successfully. We have Bluebottle, Throat, Willium ‘Mate’ Cobblers, Eccles, Neddy Seagoon and more. Particularly effective are Major Bloodnock and Henry Crun and Miss Minnie Bannister. Henry and Minnie in fact provide the highlight of the evening in their argument about whether Henry has ever really seen a man with a hairy bald head. Their escalating and childish argument is brilliantly played with great comic timing.

Anchoring the original programmes with some sense of narrative direction was the character of Neddy Seagoon, portrayed by Harry Seacombe. Here Seagoon has, if anything, an even more significant role across the evening and is brought to life with almost uncanny accuracy.

Numerous flights of surreal fancy combined with some classic Milliganesque jokes are played to perfection by a cast who are clearly at home both with each other and the characters they are playing. Rounding off the evening there is an extra treat in the shape of the Ying Tong Song, a top 10 hit on its original release in the 1950s and again in 1973.

Funny for newcomers and fans alike, The Goon Show is on tour until November 2018.

Preview – The Goon Show tour

The Apollo Theatre Company is bringing to life The Goon Show, coinciding with the 100thanniversary of its creator and main writer’s birth, Spike Milligan.

Tim Astley, artistic director, promises it will be like being in the audience for an original recording of the show, which ran from 1951-1960. This is a tantalising offer for those of us who discovered the magic of the Goons only after they were all but over. I say ‘all but’ as there was one last hurrah in 1972 when the BBC produced The Last Goon Show of All as part of its 50thanniversary celebrations. And even that is too distant for many people today to remember.

Milligan effectively invented alternative comedy with the surreal, hilarious and anarchic world of the Goons. It was like nothing that had gone before and it owned its take on the world throughout its run, the nearest thing to it not coming until Monty Python in 1969.

But analysis is often the death of comedy so it was a joy to see from the extracts presented at the press launch that we can expect nothing more or less than a faithful capturing of the Goon Show as we know it from the recordings. The talented cast have the unenviable task of taking on roles created by comedy giants Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe but it looks like they are more than up to the job with the show coming as it does from the same stable that brought to life Round the Horne, which played to critical acclaim a couple of years ago. At the launch I particularly enjoyed hearing Neddie Seagoon, Minnie Bannister and the famous Eccles, amongst others. In conversation with some of the cast afterwards it was clear they share a passion for classic comedy, and this underpins their performances.

The Goon Show is still broadcast every week on Radio 4 Extra. Try one and you’ll find they have stood the test of time remarkably well. Partly this is because their starting point is the classic comedy theme of a healthy disrespect for all types of establishment – especially parliament, army officers and the BBC itself. Biting the hand that feeds you was not something that worried Milligan and it is a credit to the Beeb that it allowed the Goon Show to flourish even within the confines of ostensibly a light entertainment/variety format.

I must also mention what a privilege it was at the launch to hear from Norma Farnes, Spike Milligan’s agent, and so a rare direct link with a true comedy genius.

This new production tours from September 2018.