Review – Club Swizzle

Club Swizzle is a contemporary take on the cabaret of the Weimar Republic, about which we’ve recently learned so much thanks to Barry Humphries’ recent show at the Barbican.

This isn’t a piece of theatre to come and just watch. It’s a party with added entertainment. Get their early (the cast do) and enjoy a drink or two at the bar, which later becomes the stage. Then enjoy another drink or two in the interval, as you’re encouraged to do by the outrageously camp MC Rueben Kaye. Part Sally Bowles, part Julian Clary and nearly all sequins, this, he says, is what you get if your parents say you can be whatever you want to be!

His introduction sets the tone for what is to follow – daring, dangerous, raunchy, funny and rude (a bit too sweary for my taste at times, I admit). The evening consists of a series of ‘turns’ provided by a talented and energetic troupe, accompanied by a punchy and lively four-piece band – although you’d think there were more from the impressive sound they make.

The Swizzle Boys are acrobats, literally jumping through hoops to entertain you. Laurie Hagen does a brilliantly funny turn as a drunk stripper who stumbles onto the stage, chaotically tripping herself up and ending up almost accidentally removing parts of her outfit, for example getting her stiletto heel caught in her stocking. Yamnel Rodriguez exudes style and class in her aerial act. And Dandy Wellington – a band leader from Harlem – recreates the jazz age with his super-energetic singing and dancing.

The only number I recognised in the evening was sung by our MC Reuben at the end (One for My Baby) and I’d loved to have heard his take on another standard or two.

All the acts are at the top of their field, demonstrating technical excellence, precision, humour and great stagecraft. It’s a great night out which I imagine would work well for groups – as long as they’re fairly broad minded! And you can get in for as little as a tenner to see world class performers at the top of their game.

Club Swizzle is at London’s Roundhouse until 26 August 2018. Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Review – Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret

Barry Humphries shares his childhood discovery of a stack of sheet music in a Melbourne second-hand book store, music which revealed a largely forgotten flowering of creative, original and experimental music from Germany in the 1920s.

The time in history is crucial to an appreciation of this music and this show. The music is extravagant, free and daring – all things which ended in Germany with rise of Hitler and the Nazis. And with few, if any, recordings this art form, unlike say paintings, effectively ceased to exist the moment it stopped being written and performed.

Here it is brought joyously to life. And although in some ways this is a history lesson, the music feels fresh and new. Every item is stimulating and hugely entertaining. And there are also a few stunning moments. The Geographical Fugue (composed by Ernst Toch with the English version performed here written by John Cage and Henry Cowell) is a virtuoso piece performed by the entire Aurora Orchestra entirely a cappella, which surprises both in its originality and in the skill needed to perform it. Assistant Musical Director Ben Dawson at the piano seems to have music effortlessly flowing from his fingers, never more so than in Jezek’s Bugatti Step – a thrilling piece requiring outstanding virtuosity.

The songs are performed by cabaret artist Meow Meow – who is a performance force to be reckoned with. Equally at home in English or German, sad or seductive, she is a marvellous performer and actor. Barry Humphries – sans Dame Edna et al – is our guide through this treasure trove, sharing his obvious admiration and enthusiasm infectiously. He also provides great entertainment in his own right. After joining Meow Meow, who guides the 84 year-old Humphries through some carefully crafted trepidatious choreography in one of the numbers, he quips at the end, “Is there a cardiologist in the house…or a choreographer?”

Barry Humphries is of course the draw to attend this show. And it is a rare pleasure to enjoy his company, as he puts it, “heavily disguised as myself.” And whilst there are generous amounts of his time in the evening, the other elements are equally enthralling. The 17 piece Aurora Orchestra is amazing (and credit to sound designer Phil Wright for his subtle blending of the instruments to make it sound wonderful), as is the musical director Satu Vanska, who also takes on singing duties in a couple of numbers.

If you think you know 1920s Berlin form the musical Cabaret then you do – but only up to a point. Take this opportunity to let the estimable Barry Humphries open your ears and mind at this truly special evening.

Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret is at The Barbican throughout July 2018. 

Review – 42nd Street

42nd Street reminds us, should we have ever forgotten, what a great performer Lulu is. Returning to a West End musical for the first time since she was Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls (1984 – I was there!) she is ideal casting as the imperious Dorothy Brock, a Broadway diva who’s long-in-the-tooth career depends on the success of just one more hit show. Her general stroppiness is ignored by the crew and cast of Pretty Lady because the financial backing for the show is coming from her sugar daddy, Abner Dillon (Bruce Montague in cowboy hat, drawling and drooling over his prize star, just the right side of sleazy).

Fresh off the bus into the Big Apple from the sticks comes wannabe star Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse – a stunningly brilliant dancer who also sings and acts!) who stumbles her way into the chorus and then, when she accidentally causes Ms Brock to fall and break her ankle, into the leading role. We, of course, never doubt she’ll make it from the moment she steps onto the stage complete with large suitcase. We’ve seen this before in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Cathy Seldon in Singin’ in the Rain. Because although 42nd Street nominally pre-dates both those shows – it’s set in depression era 1933, when the original film was made – it only first saw life as a stage musical in 1980.

The original film had just five songs (music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin) but the stage version adds numbers the pair wrote for other 1930s films as well as one by Warren and Johnny Mercer – the brilliantly witty ‘There’s a Sunny Side to Every Situation.’ But that’s not all they’ve added. This show is the most glittering, spectacular cliché of a Broadway musical you’ll ever see. If you like to get value for money for your West End pound then this show delivers. Theatre Royal Drury Lane has the biggest stage in London and this show uses every bit of it, with the biggest cast you’ll ever see. The costumes are colourful and designed on the basis that there isn’t anything that can’t be improved by adding more sequins. And it’s the chorus that’s the real star here. From the iconic opening moment when the curtain lifts just enough to reveal a row of tap dancing feet to the spectacle of the finale when a suddenly unfolding staircase has hordes of dancers tapping their way down it, they deliver jaw-dropping moments repeatedly and on a grand scale.

The tough director of the show within a show is Julian Marsh, played by Tom Lister. His previous claim to fame is having been in Emmerdale, which is not a bad thing but doesn’t necessarily provide transferable skills for this kind of lynch-pin part. I have to say, though, that he is first class. He has a lovely singing voice and he deftly handles the difficult nature of his part (is he exploiting the young Peggy when he pushes her into the lead role, or does he really have feelings?).

Of course the problem with these shows about show business is that we’re invited to sympathise with the problems of people whose entire lives are founded upon make believe and their desire to be loved by people they don’t know (us!). Goodness knows there were people in the 1930s with real problems more deserving of our sympathy. The weak point in 42nd Street is that we don’t really worry about our heroine because it’s clear from the opening moment she’ll end up a star. There’s no real mystery or suspense created. The production overcomes this by throwing every musical theatre trick at you, but done bigger and better than you’ve ever seen before.

42nd Street is at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Lulu appears as Dorothy Brock until 7 July 2018.

Review – 20th Century Boy – The Musical

Pop stars burn bright and briefly. Often we only see them at their brightest but this musical story of Marc Bolan sheds light into his life before fame – although even as a child he dreamed of becoming ‘bigger than Elvis’ we are told.

It’s a form that has worked well since ‘Buddy’ told the story of a similarly young, short-lived and influential star. We begin after Bolan’s untimely death in a car crash at just 29, with George Maguire as Bolan pondering his own legacy. This device enables a quick flash-back to school boy Marc and his adoring mum. From here on we’re on a ride through his life with generous helpings of his greatest hits.  Early on the simple but effective set unfolds to reveal the (excellent) real live band, who crop-up later as T. Rex. For the most part the songs appear only as natural performances at gigs, concerts, recording studios and so on. Occasionally they are placed into the narrative Mamma Mia style to illustrate the story and character. But Bolan’s music is simple in its form and lacks the variety to work effectively as an illustrator of emotion and plot so is wisely not used in this way often.

The Bolan we meet in this version of his life is cocky but charming as a youngster. When his mum complains about the noise he comes back with, “It’s rock and roll, mum. It only comes in loud.” His heroes have a habit of dying young in car crashes, most notably James Dean. Only when he latches on to Cliff Richard does he find someone who he thinks “might live forever.”

This supreme self confidence leads to his marriage when he meets his future wife, who is it seems some sort of receptionist or clerk at a record company, and plays his demo song to her. “It’s left a strange buzzing in my head,” she says. “That’ll be me, then,” he replies and proposes almost on the spot.

The story is told in the usual efficient way of these things. Characters are well played by the hard working and enthusiastic cast. George Maguire, though, shines. He makes us fall for Bolan as we would an over enthusiastic puppy. He may be badly behaved but he’s so cute and charming we can’t be cross with him.

Then there’s the music. Clearly many in the audience were serious devotees of T. Rex. Someone brought along a white swan (a toy one, obviously!). Another had an original Marc Bolan/T. Rex scarf from the 70s. That’s before you get to the feather boas. Their devotion was well-rewarded with outstanding renditions of all the classics both throughout the show and in the obligatory encore. And even if your knowledge of T. Rex extends only to ‘I want to boogie’ as featured in Billy Elliot, you’ll soon discover that you know much more than you think. His music is so straightforward in its construction, but the sound is something he worked on. Hearing it now 40 years on sounding so fresh and original it’s clear there is something genuinely unique and special about it. The simplicity really works, as does this musical.

20th Century Boy is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 13 June 2018 and on tour until the end of the month.


Review – Peter Pan

Setting the 1904 play Peter Pan in a First World War military hospital in France both defines this production and redefines the play. A prologue establishes the setting, the trauma of which is laid bare as wounded soldiers are brought in from the trenches. A nurse (Wendy) discovers one of them has a copy of Peter Pan and begins to read from it. Only at this point does the familiar story begin. And despite the bleak setting, all the well-known elements are there – although Nana the dog only gets a name-check but doesn’t appear.

Wendy’s narrative soon takes flight and the story unfolds pretty conventionally in terms of the plot, story and character. But the setting and the presence of soldiers in the trenches that surround the stage brings us back to the war at every turn. Mrs Darling has lost her children to Never Land where they face unknown perils, just as countless other mothers have lost their children to the fields of war. Not all will return and those that do will be changed by their experiences.

For sheer theatrical inventiveness this show takes some beating. A house for Wendy is quickly assembled from apparently arbitrary items of junk lying around. Hospital beds transform by turns into a poppy field, the interior walls of a house and Skull Island. Tinkerbell and the infamous crocodile are two highlights, the former being a hand-held puppet based around a hurricane lamp and prone to robust expressions of her feelings to Wendy, who she sees her as a threat to her friendship with Peter.

Then, of course, there’s the flying. There are no delicate invisible wires here. Peter and the Darling children zoom about the vast space afforded by the open air venue on sturdy ropes with bungee chords giving extra bounce – whilst other members of the cast operate their aerobatics by acting as counter-weights on the other end of the ropes. The effect is exhilarating.

Some may find the First World War parallels are laid on somewhat heavily and that the messages about that war in particular have been well-trodden theatrically, not least in Oh What a Lovely War! which also, like this show, takes a popular entertainment and songs of the era and turns them into a social commentary. But the overall effect is to provide a context for the play which gives it depth and resonance to an audience comprised largely of children who did grow up.

Thanks to  for the opportunity to see this production which is at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park until 15 June. By the way, a tip for any first timers at the venue – take a blanket!

Review – George

‘George’ is an exciting and often funny devised piece of physical theatre, charting the progress of George to an important meeting with the mysterious J. The cast of three are 2016 graduates from East 15 Acting School.

The supporting blurb tells us the piece magnifies and ridicules normal situations. We begin with performer Barbara Blanka taking to the single chair on the stage, picking out individuals in the audience and giving them the game show treatment – What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? This already upsets the natural order of things in the theatre. Are we being challenged to try and make sense of a life when it’s defined only by these three things? It’s further undermined by the next question she asks: “How much do you earn?” This attempt at breaking a massive cultural taboo so early on in the piece is swiftly followed by the information that Blanka’s character is in fact the eponymous George.

Max Percy, whose concept the piece is, and Igor Smith start the physical side of things soon after their appearance, becoming part of the fabric of George’s life as he prepares to go to bed, dreams and then is woken to find a letter inviting him to a potentially life-changing meeting with ‘J’. A pre-meeting trip to the hairdressers cleverly expresses the anxiety we often feel in having such an intimate encounter with a relative stranger, culminating in George being more anxious to please the hairdresser than admit the obvious anguish his haircut is causing him. All this told through a mixture of movement, dance, music and occasional dialogue – in this scene consisting of the repeated phrase “small talk, small talk, small talk.”

Various other scenes follow, up to and including George’s off-stage meeting with the ever unseen J, with at times the music becoming (I assume deliberately) painfully loud. This involved most of the audience putting their fingers in their ears – not a usual reaction to theatre! The climax involves a pillow fight with feathers flying – something the front row will be picking out of their clothes for the next week!

This was a different theatrical experience from any other I’ve had, and I really enjoyed it. It was only a little over 30 minutes long but felt less and left me ready for more. The young cast in their colourful outfits are appealing and professional, obviously taking their craft seriously whilst remembering to keep it light and often funny for their audience. The only critical observation I’d make is that they might consider the branding implications of having a company name (CTNGCY) that requires spelling out if it’s spoken and an explanation in parenthesis (it’s pronounced contingency) when it’s written.


Review – Spamalot

Some people must think Monty Python IS Spamalot. This show has a life of its own which surely puts it in danger of outlasting the flying circus from which it was born. It always seems to be on tour and, as King Arthur himself sings, “Spamalot is done by Am Dram a lot.” Doing the cunning thing and making it a period piece avoids any obvious signs of ageing. But Spamalot remains fresh and funny anyway.

This production is not lavish – just four in the band and a cast of 11. But somehow that’s, at least partly, the point. The Python film on which it is based (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was famously made on a shoestring. The tight budget is the reason we now have the iconic coconuts instead of actual horses. But the cast more than make up for any scrimping on the set, with huge and energy-filled performances. Whether recreating some classic scenes such as The Knights Who Like to Say Ni (greeted with cheers of recognition by many in the audience) or powering through some of the numerous and catchy new musical numbers, they all give their all.

There are, of course, plenty of famous Python lines to enjoy. Particularly effective was the scene when Arthur is insulted by the French guards (“I fart in your general direction!”). But there are also enough musical theatre in-jokes to shake a stick at, with Andrew Lloyd Webber coming in for most of the lampooning.

Director Daniel Buckroyd has really done a great job, packing in all the Python references whilst mining all the physical comedy he can. Bob Harms’s King Arthur is delightfully by turns bemused and wearied by the characters he encounters during his quest for the Holy Grail. Sarah Harlington has the required musical chops to do a knockout job with the big sing of The Lady of the Lake. Rhys Owen is Patsy, probably the only character who really knows what’s going on. He also gets the magic moment of ‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life’ – although with the entire audience joining in from the first line it’s hard for him to claim his moment! Jonathan Tweedie is a charismatic Sir Lancelot…but I can’t list all the cast here. All I can say again is that they bring huge energy and enthusiasm to the show and win the audience over in the process.

I was worried that, having enjoyed and perhaps revered Python in its original forms, Spamalot would somehow be a simple cash-in. Rest assured it’s not. This is a proper musical that’s also seriously funny.

On until Saturday 28 April 2018 at Dartford Orchard Theatre.


Review – The Addams Family

The audience at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, were really impressively attired for this Halloween performance of the UK premier tour of The Addams Family musical. The plot is pretty basic (daughter Wednesday brings home a ‘normal’ boyfriend)  but what really brings the show to life – if that’s the right word in this context – is Andrew Lippa’s score (by the way, his musical Big Fish, starring the incomparable Kelsey Grammer, opens for a limited London run this month at The Other Palace).

The imaginative set with roaming staircases (as seen in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Flashdance recently at The Orchard) gives variety without adding delays for scene changes. Samantha Womak (you know  – her from EastEnders who died in the swimming pool) seems effortless in creating Morticia’s gothic allure whilst Cameron Blakely as Gomez works his spats off throughout as a surprisingly loveable head of the peculiar Addams family household. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable. Carrie Hope Fletcher is on top form as Wednesday with a beautiful and powerful voice. The number ‘Pulled’ really showed off her talents. Fester, played by Scott Paige understudying for Les Dennis, carried off a bizarre part of the plot with charming sincerity.

There is a highly versatile band and hard working chorus, which, even with very little to do at times, committed to their deathly characters with a stoic professionalism. The show was a Broadway hit with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in the lead roles, so surely we need to give it a West End run as well?

It’s been on tour since the Spring but is now at its most seasonally topical, so catch it in its last UK incarnation at The Orchard Theatre in Dartford – unless you fancy making the trip to the tour’s final destination of Singapore from 15 November 2017!


Review – A Judgement in Stone (tour)

To the always buzzing Orchard Theatre at Dartford for this new adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s book by Simon Brett with Antony Lampard; and Mr Brett’s comedy credentials (notably After Henry) show in some judiciously placed deadpan lines.

The curtain opens on a classic country house murder mystery set, beautifully realised by designer Julie Godfrey. But straight away we know we’re at a crime scene because of the police tape across a doorway. More unsettling is that the police are on the scene (The Bill’s Chris Ellison and Ben Nealon) and it’s several weeks after a multiple murder. But in the next moment the victims are on the stage and we’re instantly and efficiently transported back nine months to when they first appoint their new housekeeper Eunice Parchment (Sophie Ward playing a nervy social misfit but still commanding the stage). From this point on we are easily introduced to the narrative structure, with the police progressing their investigation in the present and the flashbacks inching ever closer to the moment of the crime we all know is coming.

This structure is, in a way, the essence of the appeal of the play. We know what the crime is and that its eventual execution will reveal the perpetrators to us. But we’re also treated to some effectively drawn characters, each with distinctive characteristics effectively realised by a big name cast. The murdered Coverdale family is headed by Robert Duncan – to me best known for Drop the Dead Donkey. And dour maid Eva Baalham is played by Shirley Anne Field – who starred in the new wave of British films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Entertainer. Also giving what we may call a bravura turn as peroxide blond nosey parker post mistress Joan Smith is Deborah Grant, a TV stalwart having recently been in Not Going Out and first coming to notice in Bergerac.

Roy Marsden  directs this engrossing evening with plenty to reward an attentive theatre goer. If you thought the current BBC series Rellik was being novel in its backwards narrative structure, think again and enjoy this neat and convincing murder mystery from end to beginning.

Until 30 September at Dartford Orchard Theatre and on tour.

Review – Elixir

To the always intriguing The Space theatre in London’s Docklands for this tale of two English magicians – Dr John Dee and Edward Kelley – who find themselves employed in Prague in 1583 by Emperor Rudolph II with instructions to make/discover the elixir of youth. They are assisted, somewhat, by the doctor’s wife Jane and servant Eliska. Their rivals at court, who set out to undermine them in the eyes of the Emperor, are an astronomer and a Rabbi who have convinced the Emperor that they’ve made a Golem – by the simple subterfuge of disguising their servant Rachel.

The whole thing starts ominously enough with imposing Alex Robertson as Dr John Dee chanting incantations by the light of a single candle. He is interrupted by noises off, the lights come up and we are then introduced to a succession of ever more bizarre and outlandish characters. Whilst Dr Dee firmly believes in magic his alchemist assistant is far more open to playing on peoples’ credulity if the magic doesn’t appear to be working. Their two rivals at court (Christie Hawkins – who also wrote the piece – as the astronomer and Jamie Huxley as the rabbi) have long since decided that it’s best to impress the Emperor rather than risk upsetting him (and end up being executed) so always ensure a favourable outcome to their experiments by faking the results.

At this point we meet the Emperor himself, introduced by his fool who is played with great style by Johnny Orr who, the programme tells us, has only just completed his A-levels. The Emperor allows for  a wildly eccentric and physical performance by Oliver Gully, a cross between Richard III and Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby – and we change up a gear. From now on anything goes as the Emperor loses his patience and gives our two heroes until the next day to come up with the promised elixir of youth. The elixir is duly produced using some, shall we say highly personal ingredients, produced by the Doctor’s assistant, alchemist Edward Kelley – a hugely impressive professional debut by Daniel Richardson who looks good and acts and reacts with precision and confidence.

The whole thing becomes like a lost episode of Blackadder II – with Doctor Dee and his cohorts having to impress their monarch in order to avoid execution. A word too, at this point, about the costumes, (costume designer Lukas Smid) which really contribute to the sense of character and time.

My only minor gripe is that the various accents deployed can at times make it a little hard to hear every word clearly until you’re properly tuned in. But it’s real laugh out loud stuff with everyone giving their all, whether playing it straight or going where no actor has gone before. I still think Nigel Harman’s turn as Lord Farquar in Shrek the Musical is the funniest thing I’ve seen on stage, but Oliver Gully’s Emperor runs him a close second.

Elixir is at The Space until 26 August.