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 – 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.

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 – Dirty Dancing

What is it about Dirty Dancing that gives it its appeal? A modest film with a non-star cast and yet its power is undeniable. The bigger question is, can that power and appeal be captured and translated into a stage version? That question was answered back in 2004 when the first stage production, written by original screen writer Eleanor Bergstein, premiered in Australia. It seems to have been on stage somewhere in the world ever since and that somewhere currently is The Orchard Theatre, Dartford – second stop on a new UK tour that runs until August 2019.

The story concerns the Houseman family on holiday at Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills and how their youngest daughter ‘Baby’ (Kira Malou) falls for charismatic bad-boy dancer Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly), much to her father’s concern.

As a stage show it’s a curious thing – it’s not a proper musical, in that although there’s plenty of music it’s not really featured as ‘numbers’ but is there on records, radios or performed by the house band at Kellerman’s. But it’s not really a straight play either. What it is is an almost a scene-for-scene translation of the film onto the stage. The main problem with this approach is that there are too many scenes that are too short, resulting in a regular parade of scenery and props being brought on and off (by the way – the curtain stage right at the rear from where much of the scenery is brought on needs to be kept in place better to stop it gapping to reveal the backstage area).

But the show overcomes this, partly because the audience knows the film so well and has come to see it brought to life as accurately as possible. And partly because of the strength of the performances of the two leads. Michael O’Reilly is making his professional debut as Johnny. Early on in the show I was concerned his gruff, deep-voiced macho dancer was going to be hard to like – being on stage he doesn’t have the persuasive power of the close-up to show a gentler side as afforded to Patrick Swayze in the movie. But he softens across the evening and shows growth and maturity as he learns about life and how to deal with it from Baby’s more grown-up approach. He is also a powerful physical presence and impressive dancer. Kira Malou as Baby is credible as a young girl on the brink of maturity. Her early, clumsy attempts at learning the dance numbers from Johnny are completely convincing and she gradually learns the steps and improves. For my money she’s at least as good in the part as Jennifer Grey in the film. Together they make a great couple and seem to be enjoying themselves.

The set is high quality and flexible – as it needs to be. Key scenes from the film are the dancing on the log and trying out the famous lift in the lake. These are effectively re-created using front projection. I was also delighted with Lizzie Ottley’s performance of Lisa’s Hula – one of my favourite moments in the film and given a great comic outing here. And of course the required moments (“I carried a watermelon” and “Nobody puts baby in the corner” among them) are all present and correct.

It’s difficult to know what someone who’d never seen the film would make of this show. But then it’s really meant for people who have seen the film… and who probably know most of the lines as well! Based on the reaction from the packed house at The Orchard Theatre, everyone had the time of their lives.

Dirty Dancing is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until Saturday 6 October and on tour until August 2019.

Review – Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom centres on Scott Hastings, played by Jonny Labey, a talented ballroom dancer who wants to break free of the rules of Australian ballroom dance competitions and dance his own steps. His dance partner knows that if he persists in breaking the rules they can’t win the competition, so he finds himself partnerless. Into the void steps mousey and insecure Fran (‘just Fran’) – the estimable Zizi Strallen – who, not so gradually, turns from an unnoticed wallflower at the dance studio where he trains into a stunningly talented dancer, as they storm their way through the competition finale and into each others’ hearts.

Just joining the show this week as the MC is Matt Cardle. He’s previously starred in the musical Memphis and will be known to many for winning the X factor (in 2010). He brought an easy and winning charm to his role as the narrator with, to my ears, a convincing Aussie accent. He also sings beautifully. And as this is a juke box musical he gets to test himself against a variety of song styles because, unusually, the cast don’t get to sing much themselves. Songs generally appear to accompany dance lessons or competition rounds, so the main cast do the dancing and Mr Cardle does the singing.

Jonny Labey as Scott is serious and convincing in his desire to dance. Not only that, his dancing skills are first class. Zizi Strallen is just so watchable and handles the transformation from inelegant ducking to dancing swan with style.

Performances from the supporting cast a generally broad and played for laughs whenever possible. Anna Francolini as Shirley, Scott’s mum, in particular has a ball. And Gerard Horan (who you may recognise from the brilliant TV comedy The Detectorists) dons a magnificent blonde wig to play the king of Aussie ballroom, keeper of the rules and Scott’s nemesis, Barry Fife, as if to the manor born.

Whilst the show has elements of Dirty Dancing in its story, it seems to be going all-out for a Mamma Mia vibe. And in my view, succeeding magnificently. It is huge fun and because it’s centred on dancing there is little need to shoe-horn songs in that tell the story or illuminate the characters – although some succeed in doing both.

The finale to Act One is a brilliant dance number and my only complaint is that I was expecting something to top that at the end of the show and felt short-changed by a conclusion that seemed a little hurried. But this is a small issue in a good-hearted and fun-filled show.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office. Strictly Ballroom is at London’s Piccadilly theatre, booking until October 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 – 20th Century Boy – The Musical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review – 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: Dead Funny

With a handful of contemporary comedy stars at the helm, Dead Funny was the perfect play to see during Halloween week. Centred around a society celebrating the works of dead comedians, Dead Funny throws in old school comedy gags alongside witty, dark humour.

Despite first being performed in 1994, Terry Johnson’s script doesn’t feel tired or dated but rather a loving homage not only to comedians such as Benny Hill and Morecambe and Wise but also to the comedy geeks that keep the laughs of the historic greats alive.  We are transported back to 1992 with the help of a CRT TV, a relationship therapist on VHS and some retro M&S shopping bags.


The Dead Funny Society recount and re-enact old sketches, and celebrate their favourite jokes under the chairmanship of Richard (Rufus Jones), whilst his wife Eleanor (Katherine Parkinson) desperately tries to keep their marriage afloat, and gently persuade her distant husband to have a child, whilst he dismisses her as humourless. When Benny Hill dies we are introduced to the other members of the society as they all appear in Eleanor and Richard’s living room; Steve Pemberton as the bumbling anorak Brian delivers the news brimming with thrill as well as sadness and new parents played by Ralf Little and Emily Berrington arrive to join in.

Johnson’s script pushes the two marriages to the brink of collapse, and hints at various comedy tropes in doing so. The witty back and forth, word play, slapstick and elements of farce are all delivered to perfection by a cast well versed in comedy. The stand out performances come from the two characters offered the most emotional vulnerability within the play; Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor and Steve Pemberton as Brian deliver tragedy and comedy in equal measure and despite all the laughs in this genuinely hilarious show, I found myself fighting back a tear at a tender moment between the two.

Hilarious, moving and full of morbid humour, Dead Funny is not to be missed and is a fantastic opportunity to see some of the best comedy performers of this generation live on stage. Be warned, if you’re seated in the front couple of rows could be in the splash zone!

Dead Funny is booking until 4 February at the Vaudeville Theatre, London