Review – Dial M for Murder ****

The set of Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder is a classic murder mystery, immortalised in Hitchcock’s film version starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. The plot concerns former tennis star Tony Wendice (Tom Chambers) who is secretly aware of the affair his wife Margot (Sally Breton) thinks she has successfully hidden from him for over a year. He blackmails an old school friend with a shady past (Christopher Harper in the first of two roles) into murdering his wife while he is out with her lover, giving him the perfect alibi. The cue for the murderer to strike is arranged to be when Tony phones his wife, luring from her bed to answer so the killer knows when to pounce. It’s at this critical point that the apparently flawless logic of Tony’s plan for the perfect murder collapses.

It’s also from this point the play really takes off. Unlike modern TV examples of the genre, where the body (usually the first of several) makes its appearance within minutes, here there is a long exposition establishing the nature of Tony and Margot’s relationship, the motive for Tony’s desire to murder his wife and the reason he chooses his old school friend to do the deed. So we find ourselves with a murder victim only just by the interval. At times this feels slow despite the cast all bringing great presence to their roles.

The gradual unravelling of Tony’s plan makes a far more interesting second half. It’s also helped enormously by Christopher Harper’s Inspector Hubbard, whom he makes just slightly off centre. This turns a workmanlike character from simply a device to explain what’s happening into a humorously effective commentator.

Tom Chambers is delightfully on the smarmy end of suave as the consummately deceptive and devious husband. And Sally Breton, who we are probably more used to seeing playing for laughs in Not Going Out is both feisty and vulnerable as his wife Margot. As her lover Max, Michael Salami is a strong stage presence.

The single room set is carefully positioned at an angle and comes complete with ceiling – unusual in a theatrical set. Its careful design plays with angles and perspectives to give a perfect view of every part. And moving the action from the 1950s, when the play was written and set, to 1963 allows some design flourishes which separate it from the dour post-war period which might otherwise have left us feeling too distant from it.

This is an effective re-imagining of what is for many a well-known piece thanks to the Hitchcock film. But it succeeds on its own terms, avoiding direct comparison by virtue of the slight time shift and performances which stand in their own right.

Dial M for Murder is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 1 February and then on tour.

Review – The Woman in Black *****

The Orchard Theatre in Dartford has shown perfect timing by booking The Woman in Black for Halloween week.

It’s genuinely spine tingling and properly frightening. But it’s also much more besides. It’s an object lesson in theatrical story telling making brilliant use of the theatre itself to become a key element in the play. At the same time it asks the audience to invest in the piece. Vital elements are there but have to be discovered and put together by us. Our imagination is explicitly called on to fill in the blanks left by a deceptively almost non-existent set. You would be forgiven for not realising this perfect piece of theatre was originally a book. Stephen Mallatrat was asked to adapt Susan Hill’s story to fit a very tight budget and this constraint inspired him to create a truly exceptional theatrical experience.

The pace is gentle to start with. And humorous. Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) begins to recount his ghostly tale in an empty theatre, rehearsing for when he is to perform it in front of friends and family. He is not, as is painfully apparent, a performer, so has employed the services of an actor (Daniel Easton) to coach him. Bumbling around and making many false starts, things suddenly drop into place when the actor decides to assume the role of the younger Kipps and has Kipps play all the other characters he meets on his journey to Eel Marsh House, where he is going to wind up the estate of the recently deceased owner, Alice Drablow.

We have train rides, a pony and trap, a graveyard, the fog enshrouded marshes, an eager and loyal dog. All created with a mixture of sound, lighting, a few props and, sometimes, with nothing more than our imagination.

Daniel Easton as the actor is warm and confident. We too feel confident in his presence, making it even more unnerving when he becomes frightened of what he is witnessing. As Arthur Kipps, Robert Goodale shows us a man whose confidence has been destroyed – a grim warning of what may become of our young, confident actor. But he also gets to play every other character Arthur meets, changing with a stoop here, a hat there, a walking stick or whatever. This helps establish that things are not necessarily what they seem and adds to the increasing and palpable tension in the theatre as the evening progresses. Yes, there are moments to make you jump, but there is much more as well. There’s a sense of foreboding and a feeling you’re seeing something genuinely spooky.

This is a remarkable piece of theatre. If you’re someone who’s not sure of straight plays and only thinks of seeing a big, sparkly musical, please do see this and find out just what brilliant theatre can do.

The Woman in Black is on tour and at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 2 November 2019.


Review – Spitfire Sisters *****

In Spitfire Sisters writers Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore tell the largely unknown story of the World War 2 women pilots of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary). Their role was to deliver aircraft from the manufacturers to the various airfields around the country, ready for combat. They had to be able to fly all the different aircraft types, from old fashioned Tiger Moths right up to the huge four-engined bombers. And to keep things simple they had to make these journeys without using the instruments – all they had was a compass. The powers-that-be considered women would find it too difficult to learn how to use all the different instruments in the various planes. So it seems they set forth almost literally on little more than a wing and a prayer.

American women pilots joined forces with our own ATA and the play centres on the moment this happens. It serves as a springboard to bring out a series of contrasts and challenges as the various characters reveal more about themselves as they adjust to their new colleagues. As well as a beautifully clear introduction to their differing working styles, delivered by the two senior officers to the audience as though we were in a briefing session, more personal issues surface. So we have alcoholism, sexual attraction, cultural difference and class divide all neatly brought to life through genuine and convincing characters going about their unusually intense working lives.

There is a downside to all this, which is that the story feels at times a little unfocussed. It seems for a long time it’s going to be a purely ensemble piece. Clues to any sort of plot are hard to come by. Then we begin to see that British senior officer Phyllis Griggs (Faye Maughan) is fighting several battles. There’s the one with the American senior officer, Jackie Hawkins (Alessandra Perotto), about the best way to lead and discipline their pilots. There’s another battle with her own fear of flying. And finally, the battle for equality with the male pilots of the ATA, who are paid more than the women for doing the same job. This focus is lost a short way into the second act where the pace seemed to slacken a little. At the same time it also delivered some powerfully emotional moments, such as when they all turn to salute the mission board after one of their number is killed.

Alessandra Perotto as American senior officer Jackie Hawkins dominates the stage and provides a wonderfully outspoken contrast to Faye Maughan’s uptight Phyllis. Jackie arrives in a mink coat demanding fresh coffee (to be reminded that there is a war on, you know). Phyllis, meanwhile, is so posh it almost hurts. Even her hair is uptight! In contrast Jackie’s hairstyle is a far more freewheeling affair, depending on what hat she’s wearing and whether she’s just got out of a cockpit!

Faye Maughan’s Phyllis shows great conviction and sincerity. Phyllis is not, on the face of it, a person to warm to. She’s deliberately aloof, partly because she sees it as her duty as leader, partly because she’s clearly not comfortable with letting herself get emotionally close to people. But Maughan carefully shows the humanity within as the play progresses and deftly lets the audience in on what this person is really about. She was particularly affecting during a stilted but powerfully charged phone call with her MP father as she attempts to get him to help her in her mission to get equality for women pilots .

I must also mention the staging. Before the play even started the ceiling was lit blue to suggest the skies the pilots would soon by flying through. I loved seeing the pilot, up in the gallery with a brilliantly simple lighting effect to show they were flying. Added to this the sound effects were spot-on. An air raid had you cowering along with the cast as some huge explosions detonated around the room.

The pilots were played by a young cast and each one managed two things. First, they looked too young to be flying planes in the war – which then reminded us that we did in indeed rely on 19 year old women to do this back then. Secondly they all demonstrated their absolute passion for flying. Not just because they were doing their duty for King and country, but because they just had to fly.

Director Adam Hemming really made great use of what The Space has to offer. This was a wonderul play, both a fascinating history lesson and a powerful evocation of time and place.

[Spoiler alert (although this is a matter of historic record): In a first for the British government, women pilots were awarded equal pay in 1943. Secondly, the American Jackie Hawkins in the play is so inspired by Phyllis she returns to the US to form a US equivalent to the ATA called WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). This really happened and was achieved in fact by Jackie Cochran, who also went on to become the first woman to break the sound barrier.]

Spitfire Sisters is at The Space until Saturday 6 July.



Review – Post Mortem *****

You’ve got to admire a play that begins with a discussion about vacuum cleaners and ends with Shakespeare. Post Mortem is written by Iskandar R. Sharazuddin and he performs it in a two-hander with Essie Barrow.

With just two chairs and a white stage down the middle of the room, like a fashion show runway, you have to invest in the clues given by Nancy and Alex to work out that what we’re seeing is two simultaneous perspectives on their story so far. They look back on their relationship when they find themselves locked in the disabled toilet at their friends’ wedding 10 years on from their early teenage infatuation.

Through this both they and we uncover truths about the events that have shaped their relationship – including an apparent teenage pregnancy and abortion. But don’t let those elements give the impression this is by any means a heavy-going piece. It’s a deft mix of light and shade as well as making intelligent use of physical theatre to bring out both character and story.  For instance the physical intimacy of The Space is matched by the intimacy between the two performers in a carefully choreographed scene which is representational of their first love-making. In a humorous twist these moves are re-played later on as the Macarena dance, when they are locked in the toilet and hear the music being played at the wedding reception.

As ever The Space brings its own special atmosphere to this sort of intimate work. Director Jessica Rose McVay has used the room well, making good use of lighting to move us swiftly from place to place whilst also allowing the physical moments the time they need to play out fully. Iskandar R. Sharazuddin has a strong presence as Alex but shows vulnerability and trepidation in his re-connection with Nancy. Essie Barrow is, I learn, a dancer as well as an actor. This skill-set serves her well but she is equally strong on dialogue and, in particular, in her various monologues addressing the audience directly, as they both do.

This is a refreshingly original piece that’s also accessible. Don’t let the forecast warmer Spring weather my put you off spending some time inside the theatre for this. Sure you might want to enjoy a leisurely drink outside in the first of the warm evenings. But at The Space you can do that courtesy of their Hubbub bar/restaurant. And Post Mortem, at just an hour, allows time for the play and the pint (and get’s an extra star for this admirable compactness).

Post Mortem is at The Space Arts Centre until Saturday 20 April 2019.

Review – We know now snowmen exist ****

We know now snowman exist has a great tag line – Five girls. One tent. No survivors. How can you resist?

Based on a true incident in Russia in 1959 which is still unexplained and which includes the final journal entry from the dead girls – “We know now snowmen exist” – this play brings the story up to date and sets it on a Scottish mountain. The women in this case are on a charity hike but are having trouble getting in touch with mountain rescue, with whom they are meant to check-in every day by radio.

Their isolation pushes them ever closer and exposes fractures in their relationships, revealed as different stories about their backgrounds are told. Strange numbers then start coming over the radio which increase the tension. Is someone sending them messages or just messing with them? Don’t expect a neat resolution or explanation of what’s happening or how the women come to meet their ends. That’s the context for the play, but not its driver.

The dialogue is real, honest and funny. They talk about going out in the snow for a wee, wonder how it would be to have a penis and be able to write their names in the snow – and that’s just for starters. The emotional ground touched on, if not covered in depth, is huge. There’s self harm, alcoholism, religious repression and suicide. That’s not to say it’s a difficult piece to enjoy. It’s not – because these people are great company. We soon feel as though we’re out on the mountainside with them. We’re invested in their situation and their lives.

This is helped considerably by the staging in The Space. Already an intimate venue, it’s played in the round and there are no wings. When anyone leaves the tent they step between the front rows and lurk in the dark corners before returning. Seeing performances in close up like this is meat and drink for The Space. And once you’ve experienced it, somehow peering at a distant stage through a proscenium arch is never as satisfying. Being this close requires intense and committed performances from the actors, and that’s what you get here. That, and a plot worthy of Inside No. 9, ensures a chilling, funny and revealing evening.

We now know snowmen exist is at The Space until Saturday 23 March 2019.


Review – Hancock’s Half Hour *****

I first encountered the Apollo Theatre Company at the launch event for their Goon Show tour last year, at which Spike Milligan’s agent Norma Farnes spoke. Sadly her death at the age of 83 has just been announced, but it was a real highlight and privilege to meet such a special person who was so instrumental in the development of comedy.

Now Apollo return with another classic, bringing to life three episodes from the lad himself, Tony Hancock. Apollo aims to give you the experience of being at the original radio recordings and as such they are faithful to the Galton and Simpson scripts, the live sound effects, the BBC announcer and the brilliant Wally Stott theme music.

Along with the scripts the key element in the shows was, of course, Tony Hancock’s genius performance. There probably never will be another like him, but in James Hurn Apollo have found someone who truly brings the Hancock character to life. It’s more than a simple impersonation. Tom Capper is promoted from the role of Goon Show announcer Wallace Greenslade to Aussie Bill Kerr – capturing not just the accent but his naivety. Laura Crowhurst meanwhile looks stunning as a young Hattie Jacques. She has obviously studied the original performances well and really holds her own in the shows, despite being faced with the jokey references to her weight – which always seemed curious and slightly unfortunate when, back in the 1950s, most of the listening audience would have no clue as to her appearance. Colin Elmer is Kenneth Williams and so like him it seems completely effortless, capturing his manner not just delivering the script but also in the odd unscripted moments throughout the evening. Clive Greenwood has announcing and sound effects duties this time, so important in creating the mood of being at a BBC recording. I must say, though, having seen him first in last year’s Goon Show tour, he will always be Neddy Seagoon for me! Finally the part so crucial to the show but one which I thought would be impossible to bring to life – Sid James. But I was just completely amazed by Ben Craze in the role. Beautifully under played and as if Sid James himself was in the room. Outstanding.

I do wonder, though, if these shows work for those not already familiar with the originals. Also, with those originals now broadcast every week on Radio 4 Extra, what function they provide. They are, of course, written to be heard and not seen, with some bizarre flights of surreal fantasy in them. But there is something about being part of the live performance that makes you feel you are in the presence of true comedy greatness. We can’t see Hancock and the others anymore, but somehow there is something special about seeing them brought to life which more than matches the experience of listening to the originals on Radio 4 Extra.

Hancock’s Half Hour was at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre and is on tour until April.

Review – Saturday Night Fever ****

This version of Saturday Night Fever is very much a faithful interpretation of the film. And although we might now look back on the film as simply a vehicle for a series of classic disco hits and a beacon of questionable 70s style, in its day it wasn’t attempting to be either of those things. Now it’s a period piece but it was created as a contemporary tale of Brooklyn kids struggling to make something of their lives and avoiding their dead-end jobs and lack of ambition by living out their fantasies at the 2001 club on a Saturday Night. Add in teenage pregnancy, child abuse, unemployment, sexism, racism, gang culture and suicide and you can see this is a serious and, at times, seriously dark piece.

The cast bring this all to life with admirable conviction. It’s a tribute to them that the serious aspects of the drama are woven so well into the musical context provided by the Bee Gees. The production resists the temptation to just give-in and become a juke box musical of their hits. The drama is allowed room to unfold and characters reveal themselves to us. Richard Winsor as Tony Manero has the biggest challenge. The part requires outstanding dancing talent, which he has (his CV includes the Central School of Ballet and numerous roles for Matthew Bourne). It also needs a certain naiveness and twinkle to soften his chauvinistic bravado. That comes across as the evening progresses, but early on it’s hampered by his delivery. The Brooklyn accent he has to affect makes it hard to follow all the dialogue in some of the early scenes, which are famous for their quick delivery featuring the bickering members of his Italian-American family at their most argumentative. But he certainly grows on you and we feel for him as he has to make difficult choices. I must also mention Raphael Pace who has a big journey to make with his character and handles it with convincing sensitivity.

All this is not to meant to play down the impact of the music. From the off it’s clear we are in safe hands. The Bee Gees hits – including some from other parts of their catalogue besides Saturday Night Fever – are brought gloriously to life. And unlike the film we have the three Bee Gees on stage , along with the brilliant six-piece band, to perform the numbers.

There’s an undeniable challenge with the piece, though. It’s not really a musical and the disco numbers are not constructed like typical musical theatre songs. They don’t build. They’re written as dance floor fillers and so they launch straight into the meat of the song from the beginning and stay their for three minutes. And this lack of a build denies us the big, applause generating finish. At the same time it’s clear the audience really enjoys the music and dance moments purely for what they are, regardless of the somewhat gritty story in which they find themselves.

Ultimately I think this production is treading a careful balance between celebrating the Bee Gees disco era and telling the story of Tony Manero and his life on the wrong side of the Brooklyn Bridge. If on seeing the show you invest in the latter you’ll enjoy the former all the more.


Review – The Band

Filled with Take That’s numerous hits over the last almost three decades, The Band  can all but guarantee its audience an enjoyable trip down memory lane. However, with some ingenious staging, impressive projection effects and an emotional plot, The Band offers warm nostalgia coated in a slick West End production.

The stage is set from the moment you walk in to the auditorium, with a ceefax screen displaying the latest up to the minute news from October 1993. We follow five young women, and their teenage lust for a boyband and more importantly, their unwavering love and support for each other. Once inseparable, circumstances arise resulting in a reunion after 25 years apart, once again brought together by the music of the boyband they so loved as teens.
Young Rachel (Faye Christall) guides us through the first part of the show, she masters the art of being bubbly yet sensitive. All of the young cast (Lauren Jacobs, Sarah Kate Howarth, Rachelle Diedricks and Katy Clayton as well) deliver strong, believable performances which made the audience audibly gasp and giggle along with them. Their older counterparts, (Alice Fitzjohn, Emily Joyce, Rachel Lumberg and Jayne McKenna) have a slightly more difficult task, treading that fine line of once close, now distant friends. However, what comes across through all the women is a sense of warmth.
Winners of the BBC’s Let It Shine, AJ Bentley, Nick Carsberg, Curtis T Johns, Sario Soloman and Yazdan Qafouri play the titular ‘Band’ and find themselves appearing from the most unlikely of places throughout the show. They have to jump (many times literally) from emotive, moving performances to over enthusiastic 90s dance moves within the space of seconds and do so with ease and style.
The show uses Take That’s vast catalogue of music well, showing off Barlow’s impressive songwriting skills. ‘The Band’ perform the majority of the numbers, with gorgeous harmony and some dance moves fans will definitely be familiar with.
Overall the show has a surprising amount of heart in it, alongside all the classic pop tunes audiences turn up for, don’t be surprised if you leave with a tear in your eye and a song in your heart!
Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

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.

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.