Review – It’s beautiful over there ****

Stephanie Greenwood in her play It's Beautiful Over There

Stephanie Greenwood writes and performs this single hander at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre in which she recounts stories of death. That sounds morbid, even grim. But this play is neither. It’s a highly personal piece in which Greenwood has set out to tell us about the life and death by suicide of her dear friend Lindsay. The story is given dramatic energy by her unwillingness to confront this particular death which, despite not being of a relative, is much closer to her than any other. At every point when Lindsay’s story is looming in her rear view mirror, ready to overtake her, Greenwood is diverted off the road and backs up into her own past and sometimes that of her ancestors.

There is an extraordinary tale of her great great grandmother hosting magnificent and opulent balls. In another someone else seems to have been shot in Europe during the war for plotting to sabotage German trains. The first of the play’s stories concerns Greenwood confessing to the conflict she felt as a child when speaking at her grandparents’ funerals. How much was she speaking for them and how much was she doing it because she enjoyed the opportunity to perform?

This conflict does create a problem for the play. We know from the blurb it’s a true story, so Greenwood is genuinely baring her soul to us. At the same time we know it’s also a performance, the spontaneity is rehearsed. She’s a professional performer. How do we know what’s true and what’s just a performance?

Fortunately, though, Greenwood is a compelling stage presence and her nuanced performance is captivating. Hands are carefully placed, a tilt of the hip and she’s instantly a surly thirteen year old. This detail is telling and it shows the insight Greenwood brings to the play as, being the sole performer, she is obviously acutely aware of the scrutiny every part of her will be under. All this is given added impact by thoughtfully effective lighting and sound design which neatly and economically signal where we are in Steph’s life.

Gradually the flashbacks take her to more recent times and then we find out we’re all guests at a party  to celebrate Lindsay. We’re all invited to don party hats and enjoy mini muffins and champagne. But this is all too much for our host. She’s not ready to pretend that we can all carry on as normal and breaks down. We are left feeling awkward wearing our silly hats and holding a plastic champagne glasses.

Ultimately it’s Steph and ourselves we learn about from this piece. The person we learn least about is Lindsay, whose suicide is the catalyst for the play. But what we do learn is that there is something different about the impact of her death compared with others in Steph’s life. The subjects of her other stories are in some way heroic but remote. Lindsay, though, is more real, more current but at the same time more unknown to us.



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 – Benidorm Live ****

Benidorm Live is a truly unique theatrical experience. To anyone unfamiliar with at least some of the 10 years of TV episodes it must seem baffling. But for fans of the show – and this seemed to include the entire opening night audience at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre, where the tour makes its latest stop – it makes the transition from small screen to big stage with all the key elements intact.

Benidorm was always very broad. It’s a Carry On for the 21st century. And the theatre version has gone even broader – not in terms of the story but in terms of the style and the performances. This is all to the good.

The set itself is a delight. It somehow brings a smile to your face and efficiently captures all the main hotel locations, from the pool bar to reception, swiftly turning from one to the other in some niftily choreographed scene changes.

The plot has our favourite Benidorm hotel, the Solana, being eyed-up for take over by a rival group. They’ve sent in a hotel inspector to report back on how the Solana is run. This leaves the staff in a tizz as they identify the inspectors and try and persuade/bribe them into allowing them to keep their jobs. Needless to say, as in the Fawlty Towers  hotel inspector episode, the identity of the spy in the camp is guessed  incorrectly.

But, like the Carry On films, Benidorm is not driven as much by the plot as by the characters. It’s really a series of episodes where they each get their own moment. This is where Benidorm Live is such a treat. We have six of the main cast played by the original actors. Each of them gets their own entrance and each gets their own ovation from the audience when they do.  It’s like watching an old-style American sitcom when a special guest comes on. They all give full-on versions of their on-screen personas. This is saying something, because subtlety was never a Benidorm trait on screen but they go gloriously over the top, none more so than the brilliant Janine Duvitski (as the swinger Jacqueline). Adam Gillen as Liam runs her a close second, along with fellow Blow and Go-er Tony Maudsley as Kenneth. Jake Canuso as Mateo gets to show off his dance skills in some of the many musical interludes which pepper act one, readying us for act two being set for its entirety in Neptune’s, famous for its Karaoke. Presiding over the chaos (or perhaps more accurately being swept along by it) is Sherrie Hewson’s Joyce Temple-Savage.

It’s all huge fun. The theme music strikes up at the beginning and instantly you realise how you’ve missed having Benidorm in your life. So when the familiar characters appear live in front of you, they’ve already won you over.

Writer Derren Litten has looked after his baby and does himself and us proud in the process. He’s taken care of his characters and his audience. He even teases us as Joyce Temple-Savage makes us promise we’ll all be back at the Solana next year. So is there more Benidorm to come?

Benidorm Live is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 16 February and then continues on tour.


Review – Aladdin at the Orchard Theatre

The panto at Dartford Orchard Theatre starts with a bang. Literally. No gradual dimming of the lights and gentle mentions to turn off your mobile phone! Having got our attention it proceeds to hold it across the whole show with a succession of spectacular moments and perfectly executed comedy routines.

The big name is Marti Pellow who plays the baddie, Abanazar, nemesis to our hero Aladdin. He exudes menace and plays the part dead straight, as it should be, despite the sometimes chaotic comic scenes going on around him. He looks the part, he moves like a snake and sounds devilish.

Comedy is provided by Ricky K as Wishee Washee and David Robbins as Widow Twankey. Ricky K is a bundle of boundless energy and enthusiasm who delivers the requisite panto jokes with enough of a twinkle to sell even the oldest of them with conviction. David Robbins is a brilliant Dame, making every entrance in a different costume (all of which he designs) and wig (all of which he makes), each more outrageous than the last. I should mention at this point that all the comedy is very family friendly with only a couple of double entendres and some mild innuendo, so this a proper, traditional family panto and great way to introduce children to the magical qualities of theatre.

It was a pleasure to see again Landi Oshinowo as the glamorous Empress of China, having seen her this time last year in the musical Big Fish with Kelsey Grammer. Alexis Gerred does a fine job as Aladdin, with an extremely likeable stage presence in a part which can so easily be bland but which he makes entertaining and watchable. Stephanie Elstob is a beautiful Princess Jasmine, the subject of Aladdin’s desires, but struggles to inject much personality into an under written part. Where she comes into her own, though, is in the big dance routine in Act Two. Lucy Van Gasse, however, as Scheherazade (effectively Aladdin’s fairy godmother) shows what can be done with a small part, bringing her own sparkle to the sparkly effects which greet her entrances.

It is slightly disappointing that the music is pre-recorded as, although it sounds great, the presence of a live band is always better. But the money saved in the pit appears to have ended up on the stage. The show is a visual spectacle. The sets are beautiful and there are some amazing moments, such as a stage-filling King Kong (don’t ask why or how he ends up in Aladdin!), a breathtaking magic carpet ride, a stunning 3D flight and a giant serpent. All of which contribute to this being quite the most spectacular pantomime.

Review – Let It Be

Let It Be brings The Beatles to life presented as a series of excerpts from iconic performances in their career. We meet them as John invites wealthy patrons at the 1963 Royal Command Performance to rattle their jewellery. Not, perhaps, the greatest joke ever told at such a show, but certainly the most famous. But this isn’t musical theatre. It’s not like Jersey Boys or Buddy. It is essentially a concert. We move on through Shea Stadium and Sergeant Pepper to Abbey Road and the roof of the Apple Building for their last ever public performance. And that’s just the first half!

For each mini concert the Fab Four appear in appropriate clothes and with the required hair styles – including facial hair as necessary. Combined with some nifty set dressing and lighting, in appearance alone it is already clear this is way more ambitious than your average tribute band concert. The opening scene is effectively in black and white, as if we’re watching the original live broadcast of the Royal Command Performance. The psychedelic Sergeant Pepper segment is a joyous riot of colour.

Then there’s the music. I guess most people at The Orchard Theatre in Dartford had not ever seen The Beatles live. But this re-creation of those songs which are now part of our national heritage is truly outstanding. As the show progresses the feeling you’re actually watching The Beatles creeps up on you. An early highlight is Emanuele Angeletti playing acoustic guitar and singing Yesterday as Paul. The simple brilliance of the song shone through in a gentle and un-showy performance. I was just thinking how magic it must have been to have been in a world where Yesterday hadn’t been written and then hear it for the first time. This was only slightly spoiled for me when Emanuele/Paul invited the audience to join in. What this show also highlights is the fantastic contribution of Ringo Starr, with Ben Cullingworth driving some complex rhythms from his podium position centre stage.

The second half of the show is an imagined Beatles reunion taking place on John Lennon’s 40th birthday in 1980. This allows for each of the four to have their own moment in the spotlight as their respective solo hits are reprised. John Brosnan as George, having been somewhat overshadowed in the first half, really comes into his own with some simply brilliant solo guitar work, especially in While My Guitar Gently Weeps, channelling the original soloist on the track, Eric Clapton. And of course there’s John Lennon, a charismatic performance from Michael Gagliano, at the piano for Imagine. Another highlight was Paul McCartney and Wings’ Live and Let Die, truly one of the greatest of all the Bond themes. I’d never heard it live and this was loud, rousing and stylish. Augmenting the brilliant musicianship of the four leads is the show’s musical director Michael Bramwell on keyboards, who brings the added dimension of strings and brass to the later songs.

I’m a big fan of musical theatre and really like a great story and engaging characters to be at the heart of a show. But in this case, just letting the music speak for itself was clearly the right decision. All you need to do with the music of The Beatles is let it be.

Let It Be is at The Orchard Theatre Dartford until Saturday 20 October and on tour.


Review – Summer Holiday the musical

I guess Summer Holiday the musical aspires to be Britain’s answer to Grease. Like Grease its plot centres on the affairs of a group of young people whose collective charm and energy overcome any weaknesses inherent in the piece to win you over and leave you with a smile on your face and a generally better feeling about the world.

The story concerns Ray Quinn’s Don and his three London Transport engineer co-workers (Billy Roberts, Rory Maguire and Joe Goldie – all great fun), who embark on a road trip in a London bus. On the way they rescue a girl trio singing group (Gabby Antrobus, Alice Baker and Laura Marie) whose car has broken down. Later they find a famous singer (Sophie Matthew) has stowed away on board in an attempt to escape her domineering mother – played by Taryn Studding in fine Miranda Priestly form – and obnoxious agent (Wayne Smith getting the best laughs of the night).

A packed audience at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre enjoyed themselves enormously. That said, even for this apparently partisan crowd, a lot of the jokes fell flat in what is a pretty pedestrian script. That this does not derail the production is a tribute to three things: the enduring appeal of brilliantly simple and tuneful hits like Bachelor Boy, the energy and commitment of the cast and the brilliance of star Ray Quinn.

He’s a performer of whom I’m aware (X factor runner-up, Dirty Dancing, Grease, Legally Blonde) but had not seen on stage. And on the basis of this show, he’s someone I would definitely make a point of seeing again. He has a beautifully resonant singing voice and a delightfully precise, deft way with choreography. Unusually in musical theatre he is often asked to combine the two in a more than perfunctory way, tackling serious high energy dance numbers whilst singing – something he carries off apparently effortlessly.

This production tops up the musical numbers form the film with several other hits. It’s in the musical set-pieces that everything really comes together. Director and choreographer Racky Plews has made sure the ensemble dance moves are tight and effective. And the small band excel. Then of course, there’s the bus. Both it and the title song make a gratifyingly early appearance and neither disappoint.

Summer Holiday the musical is on tour and at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre until Saturday 8 September 2018.


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 – Ghost About the House

How exciting to be at the press night of a brand new play and to discover something that straight away feels like a classic! Matthew Campling brings us a delightfully deft and satisfying comedy set in two distinct periods with the eponymous ghost being the one character who appears in both narratives. As the neat plot is revealed we gradually discover the connections between the ghost, the characters in the past and the characters of today.

Well I say today. The contemporary action takes place as the EU referendum looms in 2016. The setting is the same grand Islington house, in 1936 and 2016. The 1936 story sees Ian, the young master, in love with the butler, Leonard, but also seduced by Eddie, a handsome friend of the family, who is also wooing Ian’s mother Lady Millicent. Henry, Millicent’s jealous and too young suitor, plays a desperate hand. In 2016 Ian is the ghost whose mischievous haunting antics have split the relationship of new owners Edward (a respected MP in the midst of the Remain campaign) and Alex. Edward brings to the house Leonard, a young man he’s picked up – much to the annoyance of his former partner Alex. The ghostly Ian, meanwhile, perceives a great likeness between Leonard and his long gone love, so does his best to keep Leonard at the house whilst putting Alex off . Nita, Alex’s sister, is a manic yummy mummy adding her own anarchy.

Joshua Glenister is the only actor playing just one character, albeit he’s very much alive as Ian in 1936 but appearing as Ian’s ghost in 2016. Other members of the cast have two characters each – one in each time setting. As well as being a showcase for the cast’s talents it must also keep them mentally and physically on their toes as the story switches scene by scene between 1936 and 2016, resulting in quick changes in the cosy confines of the Kings Head Theatre, Islington. Even Mr Glenister doesn’t escape the quick changes as the convention is immediately established that the ghost Ian appears naked apart from a distinctly sturdy pair of white Y fronts, despite which this ensures he is possibly more attractive dead than alive!

Each other actor’s pairs of characters are distinctly drawn by Campling’s script and further enhanced by clever character work from the cast which avoid lazy stereotypes and present fully rounded characters which are all by turns attractive and flawed.

There are elements of farce but the big laughs come from the brilliant creation of a grande dame/matriarch in the Wildean tradition in the shape of Lady Millicent, played with aplomb and a sure-fire comic sense by the wonderful Sioned Jones. She has or is the subject of some brilliant killer lines. There are also some touching moments. When 2016 Leonard senses the presence of the ghost Ian the scene culminates in a moment where Leonard and the ghost reach out and touch hands. Sincere performances from Joshua Glenister’s ghost and Joe Wiltshire Smith as Leonard mean this simple moment catches you out with its sudden power.

Matthew Gibbs is suitably aloof as remain campaigning MP Richard, worried about being caught out having picked up another young man. But despite having constructed a fool-proof speech on the evidence for remaining in the EU he fails to see the evidence of the ghost’s existence. His 1936 alternate is Eddie, an Australian of similarly doubtful morals engaging in an upstairs/downstairs romance. The presence of Brexit in the piece brings a different tone to things that doesn’t always sit comfortably with the subtle drawing of human relationships or the sophisticated language and clever plotting.

Working hardest in the two character game is Timothy Blore who’s 1936 Henry is desperate for the affections of Lady Millicent. In 2016 he is Alex (MP Richard’s ex boyfriend), struggling with the presence of his usurper and the irritating attentions of the ghostly Ian, the upshot of which being he finds himself on stage in just a towel and covering his modesty as even that is taken away by the ghost.  Full marks for a brilliant in-character ad lib during this scene on press night.

Director Scott Le Crass brings the physical and emotional elements together with super pace and brings out the best from his cast and the sparkling and witty script.

This is exactly what writer Matthew Campling promised – a hilarious, sexy, haunting gay comedy!

Ghost About the House is At The Kings Head, Islington until 30 June 2018. 

Review – Annie

Annie must be a sure-fire thing for amateur societies. As in the story, the children do all the work! They perform most of the big numbers and, significantly, by dint of having two casts, they sell most of the tickets to doting parents and other relatives. This certainly seemed to be the case for Petts Wood Operatic Society’s production at The Stag theatre in Sevenoaks, which was pretty-well sold out for most of its short run.

With a child in the lead role you always worry, especially in an amateur production, that they’re going to be up to it. In this case Olivia Samuels most certainly was. She seemed right at home from the first note and, as a result, so did the audience. She delivered a convincing American accent (although it did fade back to something more local by the end of the evening!), and did a stunning job on the big numbers. Notably she delivered a heartfelt ‘Tomorrow’ whilst at the same time wrangling ‘Sandy’ and keeping him under control (a scene-stealing turn by Otis).

There was solid support from the adult cast, with the redoubtable Elizabeth O’Donnell coming into her own as Miss Hannigan. Playing to the slightly more mature age of the cast there was an inspired comedy moment from director James Mullin who cast the Boylan sisters (Susan Mann, Christine Mabbott and Caroline Bunker) as three doddery old-time musical stars who still think they’ve got it, although they’re obviously no longer sure what ‘it’ is! Ben Southworth wisely eschewed the traditional bald pate of Oliver Warbucks and brought huge warmth and tenderness to the part, especially in his scenes with Annie. And Josef Paris and Vicky Kenway were hilarious as Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis.

Overall a smooth production with spare but efficient staging and quick scene changes keeping things moving nicely and leaving you wanting more.