Annie – Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

As even a casual viewer of Strictly Come Dancing cannot fail to have noticed, Craig Revel Horwood delights in playing women. His Morticia Addams on the show was particularly striking. Here he is back once again as Miss Hannigan, a part he has played many times over the years but which he seems to relish. He chews his way through vowels in his drawling New York accent, ringing comedy out of all sorts of moments and being thoroughly unpleasant in the most delightful way.

The story of little orphan Annie as told in the musical is probably familiar. There haven’t been many recent years without a production on tour or in the West End since the musical’s debut in 1977, as well as several film/TV adaptations. Essentially Annie lives in an orphanage run by Miss Hannigan, who drinks and exploits her young charges, until Annie is invited to spend two weeks at billionaire Oliver Warbucks’ home, where she finds new friends and begins the search for her parents. Although often thought of as softly sentimental, the story does in fact take dark turns, not least because (spoiler alert) Annie is never reunited with her parents.

The first thing to note about this production is that it looks great. The set, comprising aerial views of what I assume is New York City combined with giant jigsaw pieces, is put before us without a curtain and stays put throughout. But cleverly detailed key elements of scenery are wheeled on or flown in and seem to convert the whole stage into the place they are indicating. This also makes for some remarkably slick scene transitions.

The ensemble are outstanding. In Hooverville and N.Y.C. they show fantastic energy and precision. On top of that they all take on numerous roles from down-and-outs to Broadway show dancers to Warbucks’ household staff. It’s great to see such use of the chorus.

Our Annie on press night was Poppy Cunningham, who was suitably feisty but also charming. Needless to say she had the necessary singing chops to deal with the score, but she also held her own admirably when performing with the adult members of the company. And, not least, she avoided being upstaged – just – by either Darcy, Boris or Lily, who between them play the dog Sandy.

Alex Bourne as Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks has a commanding presence and a rich speaking and singing voice. He appears every inch the powerful billionaire but also a credible father figure for Annie.

The stand-out number is, I think, Easy Street. And the stand-out performer in it is Paul French as Miss Hannigan’s ne’er do well brother Rooster. With an oily charm and snake-like movements it’s hard to take your eyes off him.

I suppose the other thing to say is that, like Annie herself, it’s easy to underestimate Annie the musical. It’s packed with more great tunes than you realise (no, it’s not just ‘Tomorrow’ and nothing else), the story has genuine emotion and resonance and it’s so much more than just a show for children.

Annie is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 6 May 2023 and then continues on tour.

Sister Act – A Divine Musical Comedy **** Orchard Theatre, Dartford

I shouldn’t have been surprised at how good the score is for Sister Act as it’s from Alan Menken, who has brought us so many of the Disney classics such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Not to mention a personal favourite – Little Shop of Horrors.

In case you’re unaware the plot concerns wannabe singer Deloris who, after witnessing her mobster (and generally no-good) boyfriend gun down someone is forced to turn to police protection. They in turn decide her safest bet is to disguise herself as a nun in a local convent. Once inside her love of music transforms both the choir of nuns and, more importantly, their lives.

Lesley Joseph stars as the Mother Superior. Her performance manages to combine some classic comedy with genuine emotion. She really is remarkable and completely commands the stage in a very special way. Whilst the score is packed with upbeat numbers, for me she was the highlight with the delightfully tender Here Within These Walls. If you know and love her from Birds of a Feather then you’re in for a treat to see her bringing the magic that makes her a genuine West End star.

Sandra Marvin as Deloris doesn’t let a moment go to waste as the failing and slightly deluded nightlub singer who has convinced herself her life is going to plan. Needless to say from a former Waitress, Hairspray and Chicago star, her vocals are amazing. Her comic timing is also spot on. Most importantly she is convincing in the journey from soul music to spiritual music for the soul, taking her choir of nuns with her.

Clive Rowe is one of our great theatre performers. His turn as the cop who saves Deloris is a delight. He’s got the voice and the moves and, again, brings emotional depth to a role that could easily slip by as a comic aside. He’s also got a special surprise for us in his big number which was great to see. Let’s just say it’s not often the costumes bring on a round of applause in the middle of a number!

Jeremy Secomb is Deloris’ no-good boyfriend in a no-good suit to match. He really comes into his own with the singing, combined with a delightful Jersey Boys pastiche from his henchmen.

This is unashamedly a feel good show with great pace and great tunes. But thanks in part to the lead performances it also has genuine heart and emotion.

Sister Act The Musical is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 11 February then continues on tour.

Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show – Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

Despite being originally conceived and produced in the early 1970s, The Rocky Horror Show looks, sounds and feels brand spanking new. And I choose my words carefully.

The plot concerns newly engaged Brad and Janet who arrive at Frank N Furter’s rather spooky house needing to make a phone call after their car breaks down. Once they’re in the house they meet the inmates in various ways – most famously in The Time Warp – before Frank N Furter himself arrives and announces he is about to bring his latest creation, Rocky, to life. With cross-dressing, all sorts of sexuality and much more, the show has a clear message about equality and inclusivity. But, as Kenny Everett’s Cupid Stunt said so memorably, it’s all done in the best possible taste – meaning with almost no taste at all! It’s not about the message and subtle is not what they’re going for. As creator Richard O’Brien admits, at heart it’s ‘a bit of fun.’

Philip Franks is experienced in the role of narrator. I saw him doing it back in 2019. His oily charm is perfect for the role and he’s clearly heard every possible talk-back line that audience members throw at him. Added to that he’s also worked in a few meta and topical jokes (a poem about a boy called Harry, example). It’s one of those performances that leaves little or no room to imagine anyone else in the role. He’s joined here by fellow alumni from 2019 including Stephen Webb as Frank N Furter and Kristian Lavercombe as Riff Raff. Both commit the full-on energy and excesses required to give the show life. Because, let’s face it, the plot is not the thing here. Neither do we become particularly emotionally invested in any of the characters. Like Frankenstein’s monster, what breathes life into this creation is pure energy.

The production design captures all the elements of classics of the horror film genre, from spooky entrance doors and corridors to weird science labs. And the whole set is wrapped in a giant swirl of celluloid film – appropriate not just because of the show’s homage to Hammer films, but also calling back to its early performances in disused cinemas. The lighting is a key ingredient here. Colourful and atmospheric, it also achieves a remarkable rocket launch effect. The latter is helped significantly by the sound design, which results in you feeling the show as well as hearing it. Praise too for the band. Perched high up at the back of the set they are the engine of the show, which is mostly sung through.

The Rocky Horror Show delivers great entertainment, polished production values and, still, an evening at the theatre unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced. It’s a remarkable thing. If you’ve never seen it, go with an open mind and just let it happen. It feels weird at first, but let it grow on you!

Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until Saturday 14 January and then continues on tour.

Sleeping Beauty – Marlowe theatre, Canterbury *****

The Marlowe has delivered that rare thing – a panto that’s great entertainment for adults and children alike.

With Marlowe stalwart Ben Roddy firmly in charge as Nurse Nellie, this is very much his show, despite the presence of West End star Carrie Hope Fletcher in her panto debut as wicked fairy Carrie-bosse. That’s not to belittle her presence. She delivers a fully rounded performance, packed with details and flashing with star power. And she seems to be having a ball. Roddy provides a powerhouse performance that ticks all the pano dame boxes, some of them several times over. There are jokes a-plenty (and not all of them re-hashed from previous years) and tremendous physical comedy. I was particularly pleased to see a full-on slapstick routine which provided much mess on stage and many laughs.

Jennie Dale is a feisty Fairy Moonbeam who gets some good lines and moments, which is not always the case for the good fairy. Our comedy host is Jangles, played by Max Fulham. A winning presence and a talented and original ventriloquist, he provides effective audience interaction and demonstrates experience beyond his youthful appearance.

The two romantic leads are Ore Oduba as Prince Michael, on a mission to save Ellie Kingdon’s Princess Aurora. These are always tough parts to make anything of in a panto, but Oduba gets star billing so he’s used a lot and acquits himself well in the comedy scenes with Roddy and Fulhamn. Ellie Kingdon as his princess gets some great song and dance numbers and has a super voice too.

This is a quality production with a tight script and charismatic performers. Definitely one of the best pantos I’ve scene and highly recommended.

Sleeping Beauty is at The Marlowe Theatre until 8 January 2023.

Thursford Christmas Spectacular 2022 ****

Despite it being their 45th anniversary season, this was only my second visit to Thursford’s Christmas Spectacular. But having been once I was at least prepared for the festive overload that comes with this experience! The Thursford Christmas Spectacular really is a one-of-a-kind show. Some may find the somewhat enforced jollity is not to their tatse, but at Thursford the whole show is wrapped up in such a sparkling experience right from the moment you enter the site – music playing through the fairy-lit trees and Dickensian-dressed characters offering a warm welcome – that you’d be hard pushed to maintain any Scrooge-like sensibilities by the time the show itself begins. 

Being their 45th birthday all the stops have been pulled out – and not just on the Thursford Wurlitzer organ, the capabilities of which are memorably showcased by Phil Kelsall. The on-stage company is the biggest you’re ever likely to see, and by some margin. Nearly everyone involved gets a photo and biography in the programme, which is nice to see. From this we learn that these are highly professional and experienced performers across the board, with CVs including opera and the West End.  

The quality is evident in every aspect of the show. It’s essentially a good old fashioned variety show. Tiller girl-style high kicking dance routines, precision marching to ’76 trombones’, West End showstoppers from Half a Sixpence, Mary Poppins and Hairspray and much more besides. Compared with last year – my only point of reference as a relative newbie – I thought there was more seasonal content in this year’s production. Nevertheless I am always pleased to see the musical theatre classics given the Thursford treatment even when they are not Christmassy.

Returning as host is Kev Orkian, performing that rare trick of being funny for an audience that, mostly, haven’t come to see him. He’s also a gifted musical talent, doing some clever and witty musical parodies. 

The orchestra/band is large and versatile. Their Dixieland-style version of Maria Carey’s All I Want for Christmas was inspired. Whilst Hairspray’s You Can’t Stop the Beat was powerful and vibrant.

Amidst all the spectacle there’s a delightfully witty and wonderfully English comedy song complaining about the Church Of England. I’d somehow missed out on the gem that is Mrs Beamish and on checking (there’s no programme credit for any composers or lyricists – a shame) I see it’s by Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern. Joyous. 

Having seen last year’s show I was particularly impressed that, a few traditional elements aside, it seemed to me an entirely new production. Yes, the essence and the format remain the same, but costumes, choreography, music – even Ken Orkian’s jokes – were all new for this year. The only thing is I think I’m all Christmassed-out now! 

The Thursford Christmas Spectacular runs until 23 December 2022.

The Osmonds – Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

On first hearing there’s a musical about the Osmonds you’d be forgiven for thinking that, surely, it’s already been done. But despite many examples of the genre from Buddy (Holly) to Jersey Boys, and others too numerous to mention, somehow the Osmonds escaped attention.

What we learn from this show is how they went to great lengths to control their own careers, albeit not always successfully. It seems likely, then, the reason their story hasn’t been translated into a musical until now is because they didn’t allow it. And prominent in the publicity for the show (and even on the front cloth) is the byline ‘Story by Jay Osmond’. So we know from the off that we’re seeing a version of history through the lens of someone who has spent most of their life building and defending the Osmond brand.

There is, possibly, another reason why the Osmond story hasn’t been seized upon for the musical treatment. Putting it bluntly, despite their prodigious output, their back catalogue is not exactly over-stuffed with crowd pleasing classic hits that are lodged in the minds of anyone other than ardent fans. Obviously we get Love Me for a Reason, Puppy Love and the dubious charms of Long Haired Lover from Liverpool. But we also have Traffic in My Mind, Utah and Rainin’ – which for me don’t provoke the same response. And in a show which pretty much marches chronologically forward through their story, their biggest hit is glossed over with just a mention and doesn’t make itself heard until the bows.

Despite this, though, the show has great charm, warmth and, above all, pace. The story is told simply and without gimmicks. Jay Osmond (Alex Lodge) is our reliable narrator and, with a few exceptions, it’s ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ as Jay conveys the family’s progress from singing for their deaf older brothers, via a meeting with Walt Disney to their big break with regular appearances on the Andy Williams Show. Eschewing dramatisation of incidents, the show illustrates career milestones with song after song. Ryan Anderson, Jamie Chatterton, Danny Nattrass and Joseph Peacock do a terrific job as Merrill, Alan, Wayne and Donny alongside Alex Lodge’s Jay. Nattrass may have been a source of useful Osmond insight as I see from his programme biog that he appeared in last year’s Palladium panto, which starred one Donny Osmond.

In the early days, though, we are treated to young versions of the boys who were just great, with some particularly effective close harmony work from the press night team of Herbie Byers, Jayden Harris, brothers Austin and Miles Redwood and Dexter Seaton. The icing on the junior cake was Austin Riley’s totally convincing rendition of Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover hit.

I also liked Georgia Lennon as Marie Osmond, who has a beautiful voice. The one fictional device employed in telling the story is the use of a lifelong fan who signs herself ‘Wendy from Manchester’, when she writes regular fan letters to Jay. This results in an unexpectedly poignant moment near the end of the show thanks in large part to Sophie Hirst’s sympathetic portrayal of what could easily have been a forgettable part.

The staging is effective with a flexible single-set design minimising the need for cast or crew to move bits of furniture or scenery about. The rainbow of colours stretching from the backdrop and running across the stage could have looked a little too swinging sixties, but somehow works throughout the show. Perhaps it’s also deliberately reminding us of Donny’s time playing the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat!

The Osmonds is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 19 November 2022 and then continues on tour.

Deathdrop – back in the habit *** Orchard Theatre, Dartford

At points in Deathdrop – Back in the Habit it was clear some of the moments were aimed at an audience more familiar with RuPaul’s Drag Race than I. But to its credit these were few and far between and overall the feeling was one of warmth and inclusiveness, whatever your previous knowledge of either the Deathdrop franchise or the performers in it.

The show (I’m going with show, rather than play, which just feels a little too staid for this experience!) attempts to pull off that notoriously difficult combination of the comedy thriller. Usually the thrills succumb to the comedy or, occasionally, vice versa. Here, though, sometimes, they pull it off. The setting in Saint Bab’s nunnery is beautifully created with a convincing ecclesiastical vibe. Indeed, by having the set effectively playing it straight it allows more room for the comedy, whilst also providing the necessary dark corners for the thrills.

The stand-out performance for me was Louis Cyfer as Father Alfie Romeo, who has been sent by Rome to Saint Bab’s to discover what happened to one Father Spanky on a previous visit. Not all is as it should be at Saint Bab’s, with spooky corridors, zombies and the distant sound of children playing. Louis Cyfer delivered a performance which brought the character to life and allowed the comedy and thrills to flow naturally around them. It was in many ways a very generous performance, allowing others to show off and resisting, mostly, going for the easy laugh.

Decidedly in charge of proceedings was Mother Superior, played by Victoria Scone.With an on-stage presence which commands your attention, Mother Superior’s confidence and assurance helps the show through some otherwise weaker moments. River Medway as Sister Julie Andrews was suitably empathetic. Cheryl Hole was fine as Sister Mary Berry but lacked conviction for me, whilst Willam as Sis Titis clearly had some great one liner put downs, but these were too often lost in the delivery. I must also mention Corrina Buchan as (amongst other things) Inner Voice, who was very funny in a cleverly meta scene involving Father Alfie Romeo in a waking nightmare.

There are problems, though. The opening plot exposition is too long and, more importantly, doesn’t have enough laughs. It goes to great lengths in that opening to establish the set-up, but fails completely to set the tone. Once things got underway, the overall style felt a little vague, as though any idea that might get a laugh had been allowed into the script. The humour is decidedly Carry On Convent and, mostly, no more filthy than a Carry On film would be if they made it today. At some points it felt like it should be a musical, with the characters doing a Priscilla on us. But that didn’t happen. Curiously, though, near the end of Act One Sister Mary Julie Andrews gets to deliver a parody version of My Favourite Things. Having established by then that this isn’t a musical, this felt odd. On top of that, being the only number it had a lot of pressure on it. But it failed to provide a moment of spectacle and wasn’t a strong enough parody to be really funny – either musically or lyrically.

There’s a lot to like in the show. They have some good ideas and effective theatrical moments which bring surprise, scares and laughs. At the moment, though, it lacks cohesiveness. The storyline needs more momentum. With that, we might begin to care more about the fate of the sisters at Saint Bab’s. As it is, they’re fun to be with, have a great line in comedy names (I particularly liked Our Lady of Gaga!) and pick up the pace nicely in Act Two to provide a satisfying conclusion to proceedings. But there’s potential here for something better.

Waitress – Orchard Theatre, Dartford *****

I saw Waitress in its West End incarnation and I must say seeing it again it’s grown on me hugely since then. The songs don’t have that instant appeal of an Oilver! score, but they have depth and heart and emotional impact which really rewards a second visit.

Cheslea Halfpenny stars as Jenna, a waitress and expert pie-maker who dreams of some happiness in her life. When a hot new doctor arrives in town, life gets complicated. With the support of her workmates Becky and Dawn, Jenna overcomes the challenges she faces and finds that laughter, love and friendship can provide the perfect recipe for happiness.

As Jenna, Chelsea Halfpenny is the emotional heart of the show. She deals with an abusive father, an abusive husband, and un-wanted pregnancy. It’s not an obviously showy part and has to remain serious and credible, leaving the humour to other characters, such as fellow waitresses at Joe’s Pie Cafe Becky (Wendy Mae Brown) and Dawn (Evelyn Hoskins) and Dr Pomatter (David Hunter). Halfpenny has terrific vocal range and power and we see the world through her eyes. When she opens up to us in ‘She Used to Be Mine’ the whole stage opens up too – with the narrow world of her home with the absusive Carl going widescreen in front of us.

The set is a joy in itself. With the band in place to one side, we see a beautiful yet desolate landscape through the windows of a classic American diner. It’s at once a homely and a lonely place. Clever use of flats and lighting brings the focus down from the wide open spaces into the most intimate of places.

There’s a great supporting cast. Wendy Mae Brown is suitably sassy as Becky, dealing with her own troubles at home with a sick husband. Evelyn Hoskins (an alumni of the second West End cast) is cute and funny as Dawn, an oddball character with no one else in her life until the arrival of Ogie, understudy Liam McHugh stepping in and stepping up in a comic triumph.

David Hunter is outstanding as Jenna’s love interest Dr Pomatter. His is an endearing and hilarious performance, full of great physical detail. He played the role in the original West End cast and his knowledge of what works for him and his character really shows.

The thankless role of Jenna’s no-good husband Earl goes convincingly to Tamlyn Henderson – another alumni from the West End cast. You may also not spot, as I initially didn’t, Michael Starke (you’ll know him best as Sinbad from Brookside) as diner owner Jo who also gets a delightful duet with Jenna.

Yet again this is a full-on West End musical right on the doorstep. High production values, slick stage management and to top it all, a clever and original score which results in an original and musical.

Waitress is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 9 July 2022 and then continues on tour.

Anything Goes, Barbican Theatre, London ****

The nautical blues and whites of Anything Goes, along with sparkling costumes, music and dialogue, prove the perfect antidote to an ever more sombre world. The effect is heightened by its contrast to the all pervasive brown of its home at the Barbican Centre. It’s the second summer the SS America has set sail from here and key members of last year’s company are on board along with four new top-billing stars in the shape of Kerry Ellis, Denis Lawson, Simon Callow and Bonnie Langford (although Bonnie is off for the first full week of the run, returning from 5 July, with Anna McGarahan ably stepping in until then).

The story is almost pure froth, concerning the romantic misadventures of a mixed band of criminals, entertainers and socialites as they set sail for England from New York. It’s what Gilbert and Sullivan would have been writing if they’d been around in the 1930s, although it largely lacks their satirical edge. Cole Porter’s songs are just perfect and you’ll know most of them as they’ve become standards in their own right – something that’s easier to happen with musicals of this era where people burst into song in ways which don’t necessarily move the action or characters forward – they just stop the show for the pure joy if it!

Kerry Ellis as Reno Sweeney is stunning. She’s delivers a role packed with songs and huge dance numbers with apparently effortless ease. The title number ends the first act and has one of the longest sustained dance breaks you’ll ever see. She’s in the whole number, singing and dancing and looking like she’s having a ball. This love and enthusiasm pervades the whole company and reaches out into the audience. A word, too, about the ensemble dancers, particularly the men who do some energetic posing during Blow Gabriel Blow.

Our hero is Billy Crocker, hopelessly in love (as he sees it) with debutant Hope Harcourt. Samuel Edwards as Billy is a delight. Great singing voice, naive charm and smooth dance moves. But for me the real star of the show is Denis Lawson as gangster Moonface Martin (public enemy number 13 and struggling to get into the top 10). He’s an actor who clearly knows how to showcase his charm and humour and really does so to great comic effect.

As an avid cruiser I can vouch for the authentic atmosphere of the cabin sets, with their cosy lighting and elegant fittings. And to top it off we have a superb band in the pit which plays a significant part in injecting pace into the proceedings.

As an aside, the Barbican has lovely spacious seats with plenty of leg-room. But as an infrequent visitor I must say it’s not well sign-posted from the tube (in fact as far as I could see there is no reference anywhere to the Barbican ‘theatre’) and the walk along an underground dual carriageway to the venue was enough to put you off ever going again! Thank goodness the show itself couldn’t have been more of a contrast.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office:

Review – Some Mothers Do ‘Av ‘Em, Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

I must confess to approaching this with some trepidation. Even if you can rise to the challenge of taking something so well-suited to the small screen and making it work as a stage play, can you really do it without Michael Crawford’s central performance as Frank Spencer?

Fortunately the answer is a resounding yes, on both counts. Writer/director Guy Unsworth shows a sure touch with the material, crafting an impressively satisfying plot to explain the chaos whilst being true to the spirit of Raymond Allen’s original. He also adds an element of word play which I don’t recall being a feature of the TV show, but which suits proceedings admirably. He clearly loves the material and doesn’t do anything too clever to reinvent it or give it a post-modern twist. It remains set in the 1970s (that wallpaper! Well done designer Simon Higlett) but wears this lightly so you still feel you are watching something fresh and current (as it was when first broadcast) rather than a self consciously period piece.

Joe Pasquale has the dubious privilege of following in Michael Crawford’s footsteps. He turns out to be a brilliant choice. Having only previously seen him on television my concern was that his own comedy persona would be too much to allow Frank Spencer a look-in. But Pasquale has an innocent and naive quality. This not only suits the role, but brings it to new life in a way which honours the huge contribution of Crawford to the character’s creation while at the same time enabling you to put aside any memories of the original almost immediately he is on stage. He becomes our Frank Spencer and brings warmth and humanity to the role as well as many, many laughs.

Unsworth’s script also gives other characters more room to breath. Sarah Earnshaw is effortlessly Betty, ever supportive of her exasperating husband, and shows us how their marriage works. And Susie Blake (pictured) as her mother gets to show off shamelessly throughout with a richly comic and crowd pleasing performance. The three innocents who experience the Spencer mayhem are Moray Treadwell as the bank manager who almost gets cajoled into funding Frank’s latest venture, James Paterson as the family priest Father O’Hara and Ben Watson as a BBC cameraman and police constable. They wisely play it straight for the most part. Like the many serious actors who sparred with Spencer in the original TV show, the only thing to do it is behave as you would if you actually encountered a character like him in real life.

On top of all this there is the physical comedy and chaos. It’s not unlike The Play That Goes Wrong in some ways, although here the physical elements are just part of the comedy mix and don’t dominate.

Some Mother’s Do ‘Av ‘Em is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 11 June 2022 and then continues on tour.