Review – Goldilocks and the Three Bears *****

Golidlocks front curtain

The re-established tradition of a pantomime at the London Palladium goes from strength to strength with this fourth outing. Julian Clary is firmly in his element in the role of ring master at a circus which, for reasons I can’t remember but don’t really matter anyway, needs to secure the services of the three bears to provide a show-stopping act and save the circus from being taken over by the evil ringmaster, Paul O’Grady. Although on the night I saw it that role was admirably understudied by Christopher Howell who goes up in my estimation because his CV says he was in two of my favourite recent musicals – Betty Blue Eyes and Made in Dagenham.

The Barnum-esque setting gives legitimacy to a device often used on panto whereby various speciality acts get shoe-horned into the plot. With a circus as the set this technique is made easy. This is how we can legitimately end up with the truly spectacular motor cycle stunt work of Peter Pavlov and his team, who I last saw in Cirque Berserk.

The official story of Goldilocks and the three bears is largely dispensed with in the course of a single musical number. You could legitimately argue that this show has become so far removed from its origins that it’s not really a panto at all. It has become its own genre, in which the plot of whichever panto is largely irrelevant. What does remain, though, are some of the key panto ingredients. Notably the ‘tell him that’ routine, in which an increasingly complicated and potentially rude tongue twister is passed back and forth by a go-between.

The Palladium panto is also establishing its own traditions. Every year Nigel Havers is fighting for his right to be in the show at the cost of his dignity, a part he plays to absolute perfection. He’s like the guest star on a Morecambe and Wise show. And Gary Wilmot has an impressive line in patter songs. Last year it was one which included the names of every tube station. This year, a medley of snatches (sometimes just a single word) from numerous musical theatre standards. Outstanding.

Whilst it lovely to see the great Janine Duvitski, she is a little under used as mummy bear. Matt Baker is a revelation as Joey the clown, not only displaying a range of great circus skills but also having a warm and confident stage presence. Paul Zerdin’s vent act remains the benchmark for such things, the real brilliance being in the puppetry skills his uses to give expression to his characters.

Rising above it all, complete with outrageous double entendres, is Julian Clary. His costume budget alone must be more than that of most entire pantos, although he faces strong competition from the circus-style set which as glitzy and colourful as you could wish. His laid back style belies the skill he has in landing a line or a glance with devastating aplomb. As ever he comments on proceedings from outside the show, with waspish asides about contracts, the CVs of other cast members and getting his cab home. He is totally in his element and it is difficult to imagine a Palladium panto without him.

Review – Ghost Stories ***

Garry Cooper is the nigh watchman. Photo by Chris Payne.

Ghost Stories is back in the West End for Halloween. It’s been a huge success since it first appeared in 2010. Paying homage to a format seen in some classic British films it contains three separate stories, introduced by Professor Goodman (Simon Lipkin).

The professor tells us people like to see patterns to make sense of the unexplained. The episodic format gives a sense of structure to which we cling in the face of the genuinely uneasy atmosphere the show creates. Your brain is messed with from the moment you enter the building. Weird and creepy sounds are played through the PA system even in the bar. Inside the auditorium the house lights are not working, being replaced by strings of work lamps whose caged bulbs flicker erratically. Apparently random numbers are scrawled on the walls.

The first story, concerning a night watchman at an almost empty warehouse, sets the style. The setting is obviously spooky and the usual creepy elements are duly present: mysteriously unexpected sounds in the dark, odd voices on the radio and a weird child/doll. Children are a sure-fire ingredient in these kinds of tales if you want to be extra sure of chilling spines. I still think the scariest of the modern Dr Who stories was the one with the child in the gas mask asking, ‘Are you my mummy?’

The suspense and tension in the theatre build nicely. Partly that’s because of the expectations on us to be scared. This is not a subtle evening. The stories are very much of the ‘scary tales round the camp fire’ variety – those told with a torch shining up your face for added impact. And that torch device is actually deployed unashamedly here. The shape of the stories in each case is also similar, with each one building to a shock moment designed to make you jump – which it can’t help but succeed in doing. That’s because theatres are easy places to make dark – just turn out the lights. Then make a sudden loud noise in the silence (very loud in this case) and behold; the audience jumps. But my instinctive reaction to being made to jump, when all the authors have done is effectively shout ‘boo!’, is to feel manipulated and determined not to be caught out  again.

The best ghost stories have more going on than this, though, and this is true of Ghost Stories itself. It’s in part an exploration of guilt and how our mind copes (or fails to cope) with it. There are hints of what’s really going on in the professor’s lecture. And the fact it’s written by Jeremy Dyson and Any Nyman is enough to tell us to be alert to another layer beyond the story within a story which the professor is telling us. I won’t say more because it’s clearly best to enjoy this sort of experience without spoilers.

Finally I  must say that the skills of cast, stage crew, sound and lighting are deployed with brilliant timing to deliver the stand-out thrills. However immune you consider yourself to this sort of thing I defy you not to be, at least for a second, genuinely scared!

Ghost Stories is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 January 2020.

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 – Man of La Mancha ****

Man of La Mancha hasn’t been produced in London’s West End since 1968. I must confess that, ahead of seeing this new production staring Kelsey Grammer, I was worried I was going to find out why!

Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote and writer Dale Wasserman’s own television play of the novel, the musical version frames the stories of Don Quixote (the man of La Mancha in the title) by having us first encounter the author Cervantes (Kelsey Gammer) and his servant (Peter Polycarpou) as they are thrown into prison in what is apparently a totalitarian state where the inmates only ever leave to face execution. Cervantes finds himself on trial by the other inmates with all his possessions at stake if they find him guilty. He decides to plead his case by putting on a play, casting himself as elderly author Alonso Quijano who has written much on chivalry. So much, in fact, that he loses his grip on reality, believing himself to be a chivalrous knight called Don Quixote.

So within five minutes of the opening we’ve got Kelsey Grammer playing Cervantes playing Alonso Quijano playing Don Quixote! But I think my description makes it seem harder to follow than it is. In fact the whole edifice hangs together rather well and we move easily from the prison to the play within a play which is where (and when – Cervantes ‘play’ is set in the sixteenth century even though his prison is decidedly futuristic – do keep up)  most of the action takes place.

The framing device does two things. It allows Cervantes to comment on Don Quixote’s and Quijano’s journeys. And because the frame is set in the near future it also provides a degree of currency to the discussion on truth, facts and fantasy which are at the core of the story.

In Cervantes’ play within a play his Don Quixote sees things as he wants them to be, not as they are. So a windmill is a giant with whirling arms, an inn is a castle and a prostitute is Dulcinea, the love of his life. In playing this multi-layered role Kelsey Grammer has a huge task. On top of playing the three interlinked characters he also has to shake off images of Frasier and muster enough singing chops to be convincing in the vastness of the Coliseum. In terms character delineation and stage presence he’s a great success. With Frasier appearing daily on Channel 4 comparisons are inevitable. But only those Frasier tropes which fit the part of allowed in. So Don Quixote’s delusions of grandeur are a good fit, as is his use of floral language (on more than one occasion things are described as a ‘boon’ –  a favourite Frasier descriptor). As for the singing this is always at least fine throughout and often very good indeed – notably in the stand-out ‘Impossible Dream’.

Co-starring we have Danielle de Niece who is a captivating presence as the prostitute at the inn Aldonza (but who Don Quixote sees as Dulcinea). Nicholas Lyndhurst works hard as both the hard faced prisoner running Cervantes impromptu ‘trial’ and the dipsomaniac innkeeper at Don Quixote’s ‘castle’. He is a delight in the scene where he has to knight Don Quixote. Peter Polycarpou is Cervantes’ servant and Sancho Panza – keeping both of them grounded in simple adoration of the man, which provides him with the funny and touching solo ‘I really like him’.

The show overall has an epic feel to it. The set is huge as is the sweep of the story. But its unique qualities may also be what has seen it resisted in London for so long. The distance between the futuristic prison and the 16th century story can be alienating at times. The play within a play device is perhaps over stretched. And the story takes a dark turn in Act 2. Having Aldonza brutally attacked is one thing, but setting it as a dance number sits uneasily. It stays sombre, if ultimately uplifting, to the end – reminiscent in tone of Carousel.

This was, for me, a revelation. A musical unlike any other I’ve seen and which exceeded my expectations across the board. And, of course, we’ve got to keep Kelsey Grammer coming back to London (this is his second visit, having been brilliant in Big Fish at the end of 2017). More please!

Man of La Mancha is at the London Coliseum until 8 June 2019.

She in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office

Review – The House on Cold Hill ****

The House on Cold Hill is, in many ways, a good old fashioned haunted house story. But we’re in the 21st century and curiously enough the spookiest presence on stage turns out to be a voice activated Alexa device.

Ollie (Joe McFadden), Caro (Rita Simons) and their daughter Jade (Persephone Swales-Dawson) are just moving into their new country house home. He’s a former ad executive starting his own web design business, she’s a solicitor and Jade studies at a local college. It soon transpires the house they’ve purchased has a macabre history, most recently with the death of the previous owner (which we’ve seen in a prelude to the main action) but also going back to its medieval roots as a monastery. Does a similar fate await its latest occupants and can they learn from its history?

Joining them are Ollie’s new colleague Chris (Charlie Clements) who’s a wizard with all things techie; Annie (Tricia Deighton), his friend who senses the spirit world and wangles herself a job as Ollie and Caro’s cleaner (but why is she so keen to do this?); and the local vicar the Rev. Fortinbras (Padraig Lynch), who proves to be less helpful in a spiritual crisis than you’d hope.

It’s a long time since I’ve been to a proper theatrical ghost story. Handling this kind of thing with a live audience requires a careful touch, both from the cast and the director. Underplay it and you miss the thrills. Overplay it and the audience soon gives up suspending its collective disbelief and the whole thing becomes unintentionally funny.

Fortunately we’re in safe hands here with director Ian Talbot who is experienced with Peter James’ work (and most recently directed the completely different but completely brilliant Eugenius!). He lays on the thrills and apparitions subtly at first (you might even miss the first one or two). The tension builds palpably. Ollie’s conversion from someone looking for a rational explanation to a firm believer in the ghostly is perhaps a little under developed, but Joe McFadden does a convincing job. And if we’re talking convincing then Persephone Swales-Dawson is every inch the irritated and irritating hormonal teenager, although she overcomes this to become more likeable and endearing in the second act. At the centre of all this is Rita Simons as Caro who is utterly believable and watchable throughout. She really makes you feel this is her family and her home.

You have to be ready to go with it to enjoy a ghost story, especially on stage, no matter what your personal beliefs are when it comes to such things. If you’re at all sceptical then the fragile distinction between finding it thrilling or finding it ridiculous will come crumbling down. The House on Cold Hill treads the line just about right and has the distinct innovation of having some voice activated computer software as one of the characters.

The House on Cold Hill is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 26 January 2019 and then on tour.

Review – Saturday Night Fever ****

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

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

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

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

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


Review – Pinter Five

Pinter Five, part of the Pinter at the Pinter season, brings us Harold Pinter’s first play, The Room, from 1957. In it Jane Horrocks plays Rose Hudd. We find her preparing a meal for her taciturn husband Burt (Rupert Graves) in their one-room flat. In a scene reminiscent of Shirley Valentine, where Shirley prepares a meal for her absent husband and talks to her kitchen wall whilst doing so, Rose is busy talking about the coldness of the weather, the possibility of someone living in the basement flat, the dangers of going out driving in the cold. She goes on at some length but reveals very little of herself. Her husband says nothing and then goes out. The landlord (Nicholas Woodeson) then turns up. He seems unsure why he’s there, unaware even of how many floors there are in his own house. Potential tenants Mr and Mrs Sands (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) also find themselves in Rose’s flat. Things become more bizarre as the landlord then introduces Riley, a blind man, (Colin McFarlane) who has a message from Rose’s father. When Burt returns things take a serious turn for the worse for Riley.

It’s all a bit ‘Inside number 9′, but with the one act plays in this Pinter season I’ve learned it’s not always rewarding to attempt to solve the apparent puzzle. In the end too many questions are left with ambiguous or no answers. Is Jane Horrocks’ character a ghost? Her husband seems not to be aware of her and she claims never to go outside the room. What is the secret that Riley’s arrival threatens to expose, a secret so potent that Burt reacts to it with extreme violence? Jane Horrocks does the heavy lifting in this piece, her expressions showing incomprehension and fear brilliantly, as the outside world breaks into her safe, cosy one-room existence. Nicholas Woodeson’s Mr Kidd is just off-centre with the world. His manner is carefully peculiar but not so much you put your guard up.

Victoria Station is not really a one act play. Lasting just 10 minutes it’s almost an extended sketch. Colin McFarlane is in the cab office trying to get a sensible answer from one of his drivers (Rupert Graves in his second taciturn, dishevelled role of the evening). He becomes more and more frustrated at his driver’s inability to answer even simple questions, like ‘where are you?’ It follows what I’m coming to learn is the Pinter signature format with many of these short items. Things start in an almost boringly ordinary situation which gradually, by often comic turns, becomes more and more surreal until a tipping point is reached when things turn either bleak or tragic or both. Colin McFarlane plays exasperation well, whilst also showing his dawning realisation that all is not well in the cab in question. What has actually occurred is not made explicit so you can apply your own solution. The degree to which you find this satisfying will govern the amount of pleasure you get from these plays.

Family Voices began life as a radio play. It’s a series of letters between Luke Thallon as a son living away from home writing to his mother (Jane Horrocks) and the mother writing to him. I say the letters are between them. In fact it’s clear none of the son’s letters are reaching the mother who becomes by turns worried, distressed and angry. The boy’s father then joins the conversation even though we’ve been told he’s dead. Once again we find ourselves in a typical and relatable environment but where the action takes a turn for the just plain odd.

There are fewer laughs here than in Pinter 6 which is also running until 26 January, but once again it’s a joy to be able to see such a fine cast excelling on stage right in front of you.

Pinter 5 runs at the Pinter Theatre until 26 January.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.


Review – Little Women

The estimable Space Arts Centre brings us this new production of Rachael Claye’s take on the classic Little Women. Set in contemporary London the transition from the original’s backdrop of the American Civil War is highly successful. The story focusses on these four strong and individual women and their mother as they deal with the ups and downs of relationships and careers in a family without a father.

As we arrive the March sisters Meg (Isabel Crowe), Jo (Amy Gough), Beth (Miranda Horn) and Amy (Stephanie Dickson) are preparing Christmas decorations in the living room of their home. Neatly set, with the audience down either side, there’s a real sense of being in the room with them, even if at times it requires a sort of Wimbledon-style head turning to follow the action from one end to the other. But there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work to engage fully with the piece.

As the sister’s develop both their work and their relationships we get to know them better and understand their wants and desires.

The men in the play are Laurie (Sean Stevenson) and his tutor, John Brooke (Joshua Stretton) and Professor Bhaer played by Jonathan Hawkins. They appear only in relation to the women but often bring tenderness and humour to proceedings in their various attempts to impress the sisters.

The direction by Sepy Baghaei is fluid and pacey. The play’s short scenes keep things moving, helped by quick and efficient placing of props by the cast. The limited lighting rig in the Space is well used by designer Andy Straw, not only highlighting the location of the action but bringing in turns warmth and chill to scenes.

The strength of both the performances and the writing is evidenced by the fact that at the time of a family tragedy the trauma and sense of loss was palpable amongst the audience in a way I’ve rarely, if ever, experienced in any theatre. We have become unexpectedly close to these people, helped significantly by being physically close to them in a way which The Space venue seems always to achieve so effortlessly. So at the end when everyone gathers round for another Christmas, the emotional impact is huge.

A real Christmas treat.

Little Women is at The Space until 15 December.

Review – The Case of the Frightened Lady

The curtain opens to reveal an imposing baronial hall. It’s reassuringly solid and large. It also tells us we’re firmly in classic murder mystery territory, with the lady of the manor (Deborah Grant as Lady Lebanon) urging staff, guests and family members on to play their part in the running of a large party. This sees us swiftly introduced to most of the large cast and creates a genuine impression that there is a ‘rest of the house’ attached to the bit we can see.

The plot concerns Lady Lebanon’s attempts to see her son and heir (Matt Barber as Lord Lebanon)safely married-off to Isla Crane (played by Scarlett Archer). Meanwhile a possible love triangle involving the housekeeper, her husband the gamekeeper and his lordship’s chauffeur provides  diversion and red herrings.

Before too long there is the inevitable (first)murder, which in turn introduces us to our leading man – John Partridge as Chief Superintendent Tanner (‘Sounds like he should be running a spa,’ quips Lady Lebanon) accompanied by Matt Lacey as his assistant, Detective Sergeant Totti. By this stage you’re wondering if these were regarded as perfectly normal names back in the 1930s or whether Edgar Wallace had his tongue firmly in his cheek. I suspect the latter because, particularly in the second act, there are delightfully bizarre moments as a running gag about two servants always suspected of listening in the wings (Angus Brown as Brook and Simon Desborough as Gilder) is increasingly played up.

That’s not to say this is a comedy. A cast of well known TV faces including Robert Duncan as Dr Amersham ensures that everything is played with conviction, each distinct character being believable in their own right. Rosie Thomson as housekeeper Mrs Tilling is particularly good.

There’s something inevitably a little pedestrian about these kind of plays, but that’s no reason to dismiss them. The Classic Thriller Theatre Company know how to handle the material. They don’t attempt to make it relevant to a modern audience or sensationalise the story. Instead, their approach is to provide a sumptuous set, a cast of well known faces and a few screams along the way.

The Case of the Frightened Lady is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 10 December and then on tour for one more week at The Richmond Theatre.