Review – The Bodyguard, the musical *****

The Bodyguard company

This musical version of the hit film The Bodyguard has quite simply the best production values I’ve ever seen in a touring show. Combine this with a raft of hit songs and the star power of Alexandra Burke and you have a crowd pleasing hit.

The story concerns singing star Rachel Marron (Burke) who is bidding for an Oscar with a song co-written with her equally talented but less successful sister Nicki (Emmy Willow). Into the mix enters a mysterious and threatening stalker (a muscular Phil Atkinson) which in turn results in the hiring of the eponymous bodyguard Frank Farmer (Ben Lewis).

I’ve not seen the original Kevin Costner/Whitney Huston film, so the fairly straightforward development of the story was nevertheless quite gripping. Although the role of the baddie was under-written, Phil Atkinson made a striking impression because of some clever staging and his commanding physical presence. The requirements of the plot, though, do result in the slightly odd situation whereby no sooner has Rachel’s new bodyguard started than terrible incidents start befalling her and her family, which he is supposed to be there to prevent.

The score is packed with well-known hit songs from Whitney Houston and others. Emmy Willow as Rachel’s sister Nicki gets a crack at some in her role as a sometime nightclub performer and has a tremendously appealing voice. Ben Lewis in the title role, by contrast, has to murder I Will Always Love You at a Karaoke night and then never sing another note for the whole evening, despite having a CV that includes numerous musicals, not least playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. But he manages the changing relationship with his client and her son really well, bringing enormous credibility to the part.

At the centre of things, Alexandra Burke is perfectly cast as star/diva Rachel Marron. Her singing power is, of course, a given but she also has to be a sister, a mother and a lover. All of these she manages with apparent ease. And in the final moments her performance of I Will Always Love You is suitably brilliant.

Adding to the experience is the sheer quality of the production. The set is a slick and highly effective system of moving flats which both illuminate and frame the scenes. They also act to hide some striking scene changes, including the rehearsal room at Rachel Marron’s home and an entire log cabin, which appear magically and impressively. The whole thing is classy, stylish and just flashy enough to impress without overshadowing the performers. This is really a full-blown West End standard show with none of the cut-downs and compromises you sometimes see on a touring version.

The Bodyguard, the musical, is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 18 January 2020.

Peter Pan at the Orchard Theatre, Darford ****

Peter Pan always makes for a slightly different sort of panto, the story coming from J.M. Barrie’s stage play and requiring some fairly heavy lifting to turn it into the ‘he’s behind you’ kind of entertainment we expect.

Unlike last year’s Aladdin, which dealt with the plot as almost an afterthought, here the story telling is definitely to the fore. And at the start it moves at quite a pace. No sooner has the show started than Peter Pan himself is flying in and taking the Darling children off to Neverland. There’s not even time to have Wendy sew his shadow on or to meet her parents – so we don’t get the usual trick of the same actor playing Mr Darling and Captain Hook.

In this case our villain is the star attraction in the shape of Steve McFadden, (Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell) who does a fine job, swaggering about the stage in admirable fashion and really giving the character some presence. With no pantomime dame in Peter Pan, the comedy all falls to one person, in this case Andy Ford as Smee. I felt he was slightly at a disadvantage in the plot-heavy first half because the audience had not had enough chance to warm up to the comic tone he was injecting. Sure the jokes were mainly tried and tested panto fodder, but he is a skilled performer and they deserved bigger laughs. Perhaps a comedy set-piece earlier on would have helped. In the second part, though, we spend a lot of the plot waiting for Peter Pan to come and rescue the children from Hook’s Jolly Roger. Quite why he’s taking so long to get there is not clear, but it leaves much more breathing space for Andy Ford and he’s in his element with many opportunities to shine.

John and Michael Darling were great, kept in line by big sister Wendy, convincingly played by Jess Pritchard. Isobel Hathaway was charming on roller skates as Tinker Bell and Tania Newton had great impact as Mimi the Magical Mermaid. Keisha Atwell was delightful and full of smiles as Tiger Lily and Joe Sleight was sprightly and believable in the title role. I must also mention the ensemble who were carefully directed to be always moving, gently creating interesting shapes whenever they were in the background. A nice touch from director and choreographer Barbara Evans.

The stand-out theatrical moment is the arrival of the crocodile. Meanwhile the whole thing came to life thanks to the efforts of the fully rounded sound from the three piece band in the pit – so much better than relying only on a pre-recorded track. Great music and song choices, too.

Overall the tone of the show is very family friendly. There are, of course, a few ‘over the head’ moments for the grown-ups, but what you get here is great story telling for children and a properly theatrical experience which should get them back for more.

Review – & Juliet ***

Starting where Romeo and Juliet ends, & Juliet is a light hearted imagining of what Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) might have done next if she hadn’t killed herself when she thought Romeo was dead at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

It’s essentially about female empowerment. Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) powers her way into husband Will’s work, suggesting ‘improvements’! Will, meanwhile (Oliver Tompsett) quickly knows when he’s been beaten and so allows Juliet her second chance. At Romeo’s funeral a host of previous girlfriends turn up, much to Juliet’s surprise, who had been led to believe she was his first love. From this point on messages about female empowerment are landed with a conspicuous absence of subtlety or finesse, eliciting rousing cheers from the enthusiastic audience.

Also pleasing the crowd were the musical numbers from the back catalogue of writer Max Martin whose lyrics were oh so carefully selected and edited to produce knowing laughs of recognition as they fitted into the plot from those who were familiar with his work. Songs included Baby One More Time, Oops!…I did it again, Everybody and Roar. Other than those titles, I was clearly in a minority who failed to recognise much of the music. But this is clearly my loss as Martin is the third most prolific writer of US chart singles, behind only Paul McCarntey and John Lennon. I felt I was missing out at the party and that the songs I did spot didn’t have the resonance or strength of those in some similar juke box musicals. But perhaps it’s an age thing.

That said, the music is, even for those ignorant of it, accessible if in many cases unremarkable. And the performances of it are without exception powerful and energetic. Cassidy Janson and Oliver Tompsett are bright, breezey and funny. It would be hard to wish for two more appealing leads. As Juliet, Miriam-Teak Lee comes to us from the original London cast of the hugely influential Hamilton – a rare and significant pedigree for such a young performer. She is simply stunning. Powerhouse vocals combine with a performance which is both knowing and naïve in equal measure.

In supporting roles Tim Mahendran as Francois really shines as he discovers his true self and true feelings, making the most of a part which could easily be over shadowed, not least by David Badella as his father, a womaniser with the tongue-in-cheek name of Lance. Badella is, as ever, a compellingly watchable performer who chews through lines without restraint and is rewarded with easily the best gag in the whole show.

The production design is a joy to the eye. Clever costumes are both contemporary and Elizabethan at the same time. We’re watching a play within a play and the set is gloriously theatrical, although the presence of a double revolve which is also a lift seems somewhat extravagant. But I guess the producers thought it was worth the money! It’s certainly a highly polished and professional show. There’s no mistaking this deserves to be in the West End and reminds you of what our London theatres can do. At the same time it’s delightfully young, fresh and original. My only caveat is that the industrial quantities of confetti showered on cast and audience alike at the end would have more impact if there hadn’t been advance warning of its arrival from before the show even started, as little pieces of paper floated down throughout the evening.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Review – Buddy ****

Buddy is an early example of a juke box musical. It was first performed in 1989. From my recollection of seeing it many years ago on a previous tour, this latest version seems to have more of the music and less of the story. There is, for example, an extended concert sequence at the end of Act 1 set at the Apollo theatre in Harlem. But I may be mis-remembering. It’s been a long time and there have been many more juke box musicals since!

There is a problem with telling the Buddy Holly story, which is that his career as a performer and song writer of any note lasted less than two years before his untimely death in a plane crash in February 1959. And that offers precious little time for the kind of conflict or drama that attaches itself to other artists with longer careers and, therefore, marriages, divorces and children. So the Buddy Holly story is mainly about the music. It’s striking how many tunes performed by him and in many cases written by him are still well-known standards. No wonder his death at the age of just 22 along with the J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) aged 28 and Ritchie Valens aged 17 (the pilot was also in his twenties) is known as the day the music died.

It is the knowledge we have of this brilliant promise so tragically cut short that colours everything about Buddy Holly’s story. And it is the music which is best served by this latest tour. As a musical Buddy makes exceptional demands of its young cast. Not only must they act and sing, but also play instruments. So they are in effect their own band. And unlike a conventional pit-based band they don’t have the luxury of sheet music from which to play.  Their dynamism and energy is enough to make you forgive the rather perfunctory attention paid to exploring the characters and stories other than through the songs.

As Buddy A J Jenks was on sparkling form and convinced us of Buddy Holly’s genuine passion to do something different musically. Miguel Angel provided a much needed boost of energy in Act 1 as Tyrone Jones, host at the Harlem Apollo, with a brilliant performance of Reet Petite. Harry Boyd, meanwhile, turned in a bravura set of performances as various producers, managers and other industry figures crossing Buddy’s path. He was great in them all, although I found I was losing some if his words when he was being the narrator, largely because of the lilting style of the southern drawl he used in that role.

Since this production first appeared the biographical juke box musical has come a long way. More recent shows like Jersey Boys and Tina have more edge. But they still follow a form that was largely invented here. It may seem less fresh now, but Buddy Holly’s astounding and all-too brief contribution to modern popular music is enough to sustain this show on its own.

Buddy is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Saturday 12 October 2019.

Review – Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical ****

Priscilla Queen of the Desert sets out to make you love her. She’s done this in her previous incarnations as a film and West End musical. So how does this new touring production fare, having just kicked off on her new road trip at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre?

The score is, of course, bullet proof, this being a juke box musical featuring the cheesiest and most sparkly pop tunes you can think of – Boogie Wonderland, Don’t Leave Me This Way, Hot Stuff. But Priscilla has always had more depth. It’s a show about acceptance and tolerance. Sure, it wears its heart on its sleeve – unapologetically. But the message, whilst crystal clear, is handled with just the right touch so it doesn’t feel as though it’s being rammed down your throat.

The story concerns three drag queens who find themselves on a journey across Australia on their tour bus named Priscilla, as one of them – Tick, played by Joe McFadden –  sets out to see his young son. On their way they discover more about themselves, what other people think of them and what really matters in their three different worlds.

Along with McFadden the other leads, Miles Western as Bernadette and Nick Hayes as Adam, have a complete ball. They seemed a little nervous at the start but soon warmed up. Nick Hayes in particular is bright, breezy and loveable. The story is punctuated by a trio of Divas in a sort of Greek chorus and they were outstanding – a real highlight whenever they appeared.

The eponymous star of the show, Priscilla the bus, is used inventively as she is transformed into various bits of scenery throughout the journey. My only wish was that she had a little more sparkle about her.

The dancing was excellent and the whole show was brought to life by a brilliant band. Add in numerous references to Kylie in this Jason Donovan co-produced production and you have a real crowd pleaser. The audience on the night I saw it were enthused and applauding from the start and left, as the show intends, uplifted and having had a little joy passed to them.

Review – Les Miserables, the all star staged concert ****

Michael Ball as Javert in Les Miserables, the all star staged concert

It says something for the quality of Les Miserables that this concert version packs all the emotional power of the fully staged version that fans expect. The added attraction is, of course, the star power of the cast.

Alfie Boe reprises the role of Jean Valjean which first brought him to widespread attention when he performed it at the 25thanniversary concert. Then he was, for most people watching – me included – an unknown, so that added to the effectiveness of his performance. Uncluttered by any image of his own, he was then a pure channel for the character as written by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer. Now he is, of course, a star and brings that to the stage along with his interpretation of the part. The good news is that the power of his performance is undiminished. If anything it works even better in the intimate setting of the Gielgud Theatre rather than the vastness of the O2 arena.

Michael Ball, an original cast member, returns to the show in a new role for him – Valjean’s nemesis Javert. Delighting in playing against type as the baddie, Ball pushes his twinkly and charming public persona way out of sight as he relishes the hunt for prisoner 24601.

Joining them, another graduate from the 25thanniversary concert, is Matt Lucas as innkeeper Thenardier. His comedy chops are in no doubt and he fully exploits the comic potential of this much loved role.

The whole show feels like an event. There was a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. The age range was wide and it was obvious many were devoted fans. But the great thing about Les Miserables is its ability to survive these different incarnations. For its 25thanniversary concert at the O2 it was bigger than ever before, with a vast chorus and orchestra, the likes of which would never be seen in a theatre. And yet that massive increase in scale felt absolutely right. Likewise this concert in the much smaller setting of the Geilgud also feels absolutely right.

So what these versions are showing us is that Les Miserables is a show whose power comes almost solely from the writing. It is not so intimately bound-up in its staging as, say, Phantom of the Opera. This bodes well for its continued success when a new staging (well, a version of the current touring production) takes over back at the refurbished Queens Theatre later in the year.

In the meantime this is a bold and brilliant way to keep the Les Mis flag flying on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Review – On Your Feet ****

With that title this is a musical making a big promise. But with Gloria Estefan’s infectious rhythms delivered by a powerhouse on stage band it’s clear from the off that we’re heading in the right direction.

Even if all you know of Ms Estefan are the hits from her and Miami Sound Machine, you’ll find this juke box musical telling the story of her life treads often familiar ground. A musical child, she fights against the wishes of her family to pursue her dream. Record company bosses want to confine her to the Spanish speaking audience and fail to spot the hit potential of the recording they are hawking around. Then a few airplays later on local US radio stations and they have a hit. We’ve seen all this before and the staging, with a couple of small sets wheeled on either side of the stage to represent a kitchen, a hotel room, a dressing room, or whatever, is effective but functional.

But the show is lifted from the bland and predictable by a number of things. For starters, Ms Estefan’s story of an immigrant family coming to America hits topical notes in this Trump era that probably weren’t intended when the show was originally conceived (it ran in the US in 2015). Added to this there’s the re-telling of the serious tour bus crash which threatened not only her career but her life. Then there’s the ensemble. A riot of colourful costumes and energy, they bring the stage alive with precise and lively choreography by Sergio Trujillo. Christie Prades is brilliant as Gloria, commanding the stage having played the role on Broadway. Out shining her, for me, was Madalena Alberto as her mother. A flashback scene shows how she used to be a performer in her own right and Alberto was just superb. I really wanted more of her. Finally there’s the aforementioned band, who slide into and out of the action as required on a moving platform. Even if you’re not (or weren’t previously) into her music, hearing it live and lively makes it hard to resist.

The stage is framed by a rig of motorised lights which also play their part in bringing the whole venue alight. They play a useful role in the Coliseum which is a challenging venue for musical theatre, I find. It’s a cavernous and spectacular space even before the curtain rises. The room itself is always in danger of overwhelming the show playing in it. Any intimate and dramatic moments are hard to bring off, but the big musical numbers fare much better.

This colourful and high energy show seems designed for summer. It runs at the London Coliseum until 31 August, capturing the heat and light of a bright summer’s day, whatever our summer turns out to offer this year.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.


Review – Annie ****

Is there ever a time when there isn’t a production of Annie somewhere in the country? This particular version has been on the go for a few years, including a stint in the West End. Various stars have taken the leading role of Miss Hannigan but at the Orchard we were treated to Craig Revel Horwood, who is perhaps the most experienced in the part and commits to it fully.

Being such a well known show and with such a strong score, any production has to deliver something extra to stand out. I’m pleased to say this one does. From the start you’re greeted by an open stage with the dorm room of the children’s home ready and waiting in front of you. The set, strongly influenced by that of Matilda, is striking, with a jigsaw theme running all round, including the floor. Great lighting really brings it to life. Only one note of concern with the latter, and it was the follow spots. At the Orchard they’re positioned in the balcony very close to the stage and it seemed this close angle was giving them difficulty in following the actors without them occasionally slipping from the light or having a shadow cast across them.

The young cast of orphans are well drilled, powerful singers and excellent movers. They all delivered individual characters and impressively confident performances. I have to say, though, that the lyrics were not always clear. I can’t put my finger on exactly why but it seemed to me the sound balance between their young, high voices and the band didn’t work quite as well as it did for the adult ensemble. Speaking of whom, they were terrific. They sounded great and delivered crisp, tightly choreographed dance routines.

Annie at this performance was played by Ava Smith, making her professional debut. She was everything you could wish for in the role. The great thing about the part is that it’s written for a child and requires the actor to perform as one. I don’t like young performers, however talented, to sing adult songs about adult themes when they are required to generate emotions of which they can have no experience. In this part Ava was able to show her considerable singing power (she held some impressively long notes and phrases), combined with sure-footed dancing and a winning way with the dialogue. Her main co-star as Oliver Warbucks was Alex Bourne who was perfect for the part. A great presence and rich voice. I was also pleased to see his programme bio started with a reference to his part in Eugenius! – one of my recent favourites! Both of them narrowly avoided being out-shone by Amber the labradoodle in the key role of Sandy.

Richard Meek and Jenny Gayner are Miss Hannigan’s dodgy brother Rooster and his latest girlfriend, Lily St Regis. ‘I was named after the hotel,’ she says, giving Craig Revel Horwood the great comeback, ‘Which floor?’ The three of them get the stand-out number Easy Street, delivered with great panache.

And so to Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hanningan. Living up to his name he absolutely does revel in the excesses of the part. Her drink problem clearly threatens to overwhelm her. He chews through the dialogue with relish. He looks frightful in shades of orange, but at the same time you can see there was once a woman of a certain appeal there before the ravages of time, drink and orphans took their toll.

This is a glossy show with high production values. As well as the previously mentioned set and lighting there is an eight piece band which really fills out the score wonderfully. It’s a West End quality production through and through.

Review – Waitress ****

Waitress is a musical with two competing styles. The central character has a serious plot line concerning an abusive husband, an illicit affair, an unplanned pregnancy and unfulfilled ambitions. Not all things easily made light of, despite the promise of sweet fun implied by the setting being a pie-based diner offering all manner of, mainly sweet, delights. On the other hand, everyone else is out to make the most of every comic opportunity, be it in dialogue or physical comedy.

Somehow, though, this overall odd mix comes out right – like the blueberry and bacon pie which is one of the daily specials.

The story centres on Jenna (Sarah O’Connor, making her debut in the role as understudy), seeking a way out of her marriage and dead-end job as waitress and chief pie maker in Joe’s Pie Diner. O’Connor is convincing in her pain and frustration and a powerful singer, although I would have liked her to moderate her southern drawl to improve clarity of the lyrics. Her two waitress partners in crime are Becky (Marisha Wallace), who is all big, brash and full of attitude, and Dawn (Laura Baldwin) – nerdy, timid, slightly weird. These somewhat one dimensional sidekicks are nonetheless efficiently drawn and expertly played. Marisha Wallace knows just how to time a line. Laura Baldwin, reliably excellent as ever, has a riot with her part. This is only compounded by the arrival of her would-be sweetheart in the shape of the completely camp and over-the-top Jack McBrayer as Ogie. Between them they just about stop the show.

Jenna’s world is turned upside down by her pregnancy and, with it, the arrival of her hot doctor, Dr Pomatter. It turns out he is, frankly, a bit of a cad, but this is glossed over and we forgive him, largely thanks to David Hunter’s winning and humorous portrayal. Her husband, Earl, meanwhile, is brutish but we see him struggling to find a way to cope with his wife’s dreams and so Peter Hannah in the part avoids becoming a pantomime villain.

The music is in the folk-rock idiom with useful variety in the songs. This gives it a fresh and original sound – not your typical Broadway musical style at all. Combined with an outstanding backdrop and efficient set this all contributes to the homely, slightly remote feeling of a diner in the American south, untouched by 21st century values but warmed by home cooking and homely values. Ultimately it won me over completely!


Review – Hair *****

Hair is a musical designed to court controversy. Its famous nudity (which features only briefly) was only possible when the show originally played in London because of the removal of theatre censorship the day before opening night in 1968.

It tells the story of a tribe of hippies in New York who try to live a life of freedom and self expression. The backdrop is the Vietnam war and the looming threat of the draft. The apparent leader of the tribe, Berger (Jake Quickenden) sets the scene. Various characters then introduce both themselves and the tribe’s attitudes to sex, war, race, drugs – everything you shouldn’t discuss at a polite dinner party – in some of the numerous songs. Gradually a sort of narrative appears in which Claude (Paul Wilkins) has received his draft card to go to Vietnam. The tribe urge him to burn it but ultimately he feels duty-bound to accept his fate.

The show still has the power to shock and it’s important for the power of the piece that it does. Being drafted into the Vietnam war is not a real and live possibility as it was for audiences in 1968. To achieve that same effect 50 years later this production opens with what is to modern eyes the most daring thing you can do on stage – smoking! The entire cast line-up downstage and simultaneously light their cigarettes (or perhaps more likely spliffs). Shortly afterwards Berger is down to a G string and running into the audience. Having unsettled us we now know we are in the company not of a bunch of hippie throw-backs but daring, care free and individual people who know their own minds and bodies.

For all this, the music is where it’s really at. It’s packed with songs. Many you’ll know – The Age of Aquarius, I Got Life, Let the Sun Shine, Good Morning Starshine. The cast sound great individually and simply stunning together. The band is on stage, dotted about in various places and apparently playing without sheet music – heightening the sense of this being a spontaneous happening. And they are also terrific.

The colourful set is both atmospheric and effective, with brilliant lighting transforming the mood from song to song. This was my first ever experience of Hair and I was completely blown away by the music and the energy. It could so easily have been a period piece, but this feels modern, daring and relevant even 50 years on.

Hair is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 18 May 2019.