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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

School of Rock, Orchard Theatre, Dartford ***

Fans of the movie will be pleased to know that this musical version is a pretty faithful adaptation which stays true to the original not only in terms of story but also to Jack Black’s performance as Dewey Finn. For new readers, Dewey Finn is a failed wanna-be rock musician who finds his way into the role of substitute teacher at a New York private school. Here he discovers his class of young students actually have musical talent which he decides to nurture into a rock band, while ignoring subjects on the curriculum that aren’t rock related – meaning all of them!

Music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has clearly used his own early works (notably Jesus Christ Superstar and, I think, Variations) as an influence on this score. We had perhaps forgotten that Lloyd Webber has a rock pedigree, having invented the rock opera as a musical theatre form along with Tim Rice in the 1970s. Here he is on fine form with catchy and powerful numbers like You’re in the Band, Stick it to the Man and Time to Play. We also get the title number from the film, written not by Lloyd Webber but Sammy James Jr. and the film’s screenwriter Mike White. Other numbers are less successful. Yes they move the story forward and effectively introduce both characters and the school the children attend. But they don’t really set pulses racing or deliver any standout moments, which begins to be a concern during the early part of the show.

The book is by Julian Fellowes, a world away from Downton Abbey. He claims in the programme to have given us more back story on each child in the band. I’m not sure his scene with several of the children confronting their parents at home with the ‘rock homework’ delivers the goods as effectively as the original film. In that, such insights are shown in the classroom as the reticent and up-tight pupils discover their true selves whilst they gradually open-up to the emotional power of the rock music being introduced to them by Dewey Finn. In this stage musical that journey takes place in the course of a single number, so the children go from Hogwarts to School of Rock in five minutes, which leaves plot and character development with less to do in the remainder of the show. This means much sense of dramatic tension about the ability or willingness of the children to become a rock band is missing. We go straight from them not being a band, to being a band – so we can see pretty much the rest of the plot from this point on, which is quite early in act one.

Jake Sharp as Dewey Finn has enough energy to power every light on the set. It’s almost a one-man show. Finn’s enthusiasm has to be supremely contagious, and Sharp absolutely makes sure it is. He drives the show along and this, combined with the bouncy commitment of the children in his class, soon wins you over and carries you along through any of the less thrilling musical moments. It really is a tour de force. His relationship with head teacher Miss Mullins has added depth thanks to Rebecca Lock’s strong vocals and a great number she gets to herself revealing her own history with rock music (Where did the Rock Go?).

The children are also great. They sing and move with joy and gusto, while some display prodigious talent on guitar, keyboard and drums. We have come to expect children in musicals to be amazing, with a number of shows over the years, like this one, really relying for their success on their young performers. For instance Matilda, Annie, and Oliver! But this large group (twelve of them) really bring the theatre alive with their energy and commitment, backed-up by what the programme calls the ‘grown up band’ – who do a terrific job, whilst allowing themselves to be overshadowed by the on-stage talent.

A word, too, about the set which is satisfyingly grand and moves about swiftly and slickly to effect the scene changes.

School of Rock is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 28 May 2022 and then continues on tour.

Review – Chicago, Orchard Theatre, Dartford *****

Chicago is, unbelievably, based on a true story. Originally a stage play in 1926, Kander and Ebb (the team behind the current West End smash hit revival, Cabaret) turned it into a musical in 1975. It tells the story of Roxie Hart, awaiting trial for the murder of her lover, and her rivalry with fellow prisoner Velma Kelly for the attentions of super slick lawyer Billy Flynn and, most importantly, a fickle public eager for salacious gossip.

Chicago has been around for a long time. The original Broadway production transferred to the West End in 1979, but it is the 1996 Broadway revival version which has given the show such tremendous staying power. It opened in London in 1997 where it stayed for 15 years and has been touring almost continuously ever since. And it’s still an unusual and striking way to stage a musical. For a start the band (a hugely impressive 10 piece plus MD) takes centre stage in a set reminiscent of a court room. There is hardly any other set and performers sit around the edges on chairs watching the action when they are not involved themselves, as if, I suppose, in the public gallery of the courtroom.

Despite it being, effectively, almost a concert performance, the enormous strength of the score and the stylish production numbers make it a memorable and captivating show.

Djalenga Scott gets a great entrance in the opening number, rising up through the band to perform All That Jazz. She is a slick and elegant dancer with a powerful voice. She also showed great comic timing as her Velma is constantly out-witted by Roxie’s media manipulation skills. Faye Brookes, perhaps best known as Kate Connor in Coronation Street, is Roxie. Sparkly, sassy and with complete command of all the moves and tunes, she makes a terrifically watchable star. I would have to say though, that Scott has the slight edge in the dancing, but the difference only shows in the final number when the pair get to perform together.

This production has a particularly strong cast. Over the years various non-singers and even non-actors have been cast as both Mama Morton and hot-shot lawyer Billy Flynn. But here we are treated to the great original Three Degree Sheila Ferguson as Morton and proper singer Russell Watson as Flynn. Ferguson has the easy authority and cynical world view to carry off Mama Morton with aplomb. Watson’s accent may have wandered a little and he’s not a natural mover (not that he’s really required to dance), but he’s convincing as a lawyer with money rather than justice as his driving focus and, of course, he sure can sing!

Ultimately the key to any musical’s success is its score, and Chicago is packed with numbers you probably know even if you’ve never seen the show – All That Jazz and Razzle Dazzle, to name just two. Thanks to the aforementioned on-stage band, they are given all the panache and power they need. It’s not that unusual to have the band on stage, but to give them centre stage throughout and have an MD who conducts without also having to play the keyboards, creates a whole new dynamic.

Chicago brings a true West End experience to the theatre with no compromises on quality in any department.

Chicago is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Saturday 23 April 2022 and then continues on tour.

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

Christopher Biggins arrives on stage on a mobility scooter. Is he to be confined to this transport following his knee operation earlier in the year? Oh no he isn’t! He is soon tottering about the stage in a succession of outrageous frocks and wigs as Dame Trot, mother to our hero Jack (Pearce Barron – showing formidable energy and skill in some big song and dance numbers) and comic Rikki Jay’s Silly Simon. Jay has to both warm the audience up and keep them there, whilst others deal with such mundane issues as the plot. This is he does with consumate skill born of considerable experience. His shopping trolley and lip sync routines are a highlight.

Biggins (the ‘Christopher’ seems hardly necessary anymore) needs almost no introduction of course, having long been elevated from lovable comic actor to full-blown national treasure. He plainly loves theatre and loves a panto audience, which ensures he gets a super warm reception. There was a trend in panto to cast presenters from children’s TV in leading roles. Many of them, of course, have theatre school training so could perform well enough, but having seasoned professionals in charge like Biggins and Jay, makes such a difference. That’s not to criticise Channel 5 presenter Kiera-Nicole who plays Princess Aprricot. She does a fine job, but it’s good to have the old pros on board as well!

The first character we meet, in traditional green light and follow-spot, is Fleshcreep, the giant’s henchman. David O’Mahony combines the required sneering and snarling with just enough evidence of humanity for the part to work. His biog also makes the programme worth paying for on its own!

A bonus with the Orchard pantos is they always seem to like to include some spectacular sets or effects, courtesy of The Twins FX who specialise in amazing visual effects. This time we get a huge giant walking about the stage and the most terrifying giant rat. I’m sure there will be some nightmares about that amongst the younger children in the audience.

This is a great show which the audience absolutely loved. There’s a decent amount of story to drive things along, combined with quite delightful and sometimes spectacular sets, in particular the front cloth and the staircase for the final ‘walk-down’ curtain call scene.

Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 2 January 2022.

Review – Sleeping Beauty, Churchill Theatre, Bromley *****

We’ve got a couple of proper names at the Churchill this year. There’s the always good value Bonnie Langford and eveyone’s favourite Joseph, Lee Mead. Along with Myra Dubois as the wicked fairy, Lloyd Hollett as Muddles, the Court Jester, Claudillea Holloway as the princess and Joelle Moses as the Queen, this combination proves to be an outstanding overall cast and certainly the best I can recall.

Claudillea Holloway has a beaming smile and happy face. She looks so genuinely happy to be the princess and her voice is quite beautiful, which she gets to show off well. As her mum, Queen Voluptua, Joelle Moses exudes a regal authority and knocks out some terrific notes of her own. She’s been Motormouth Maybelle in a production of Hairspray and I can totally see her owning that part.

Lloyd Hollett as Muddles is our comic guide to proceedings. I’ve heard a lot of panto jokes over the years, but he really made me laugh. He also quickly built a rapport with the audience, slipping in a few jokes for the grown-ups along the way. But the clever thing about this production is that it worked so effortlessly on both adult and child levels. Hollett also has a quite outstanding line in patter songs which are not only funny but amazing feats of memory and brilliant performance technique. In the first of these he list the names of all the comics who have inspired him, to the tune of the Can Can. Almost everyone gets a mention, from Jo Brand to Tony Hancock. I’d have loved it even more if he could have squeezed in a name check for Bromley’s own Tom Allen!

Lee Mead has the toughest job of the night.  – as do all romantic male leads in pantos. All that’s required of a panto prince is to be in love with the princess. He does, though, manage to have fun with his history of playing Joseph and delivers some great song and dance numbers.

Myra Dubois is the baddie in this production, as Carabosse, the wicked fairy who causes the princess to fall into her deep sleep from which our prince must awaken her. Dubois makes the best panto baddie I’ve seen, in a succession of frocks, gowns and put-downs. Pantos love to stick in carefully rehearsed ‘mistakes’ and consequent corpsing by the cast, but there was a instant with Dubois when I’m not sure if we didn’t see a real moment. Either way, it brought the house down.

As the good fairy Lilac Bonnie Langford goes well beyond the usual restrictions of the role (typically panto fairies come on in a flash and are off thirty seconds later having delivered a plot update). Bonnie is so twinkly and sparkly that I swear she would twinkle and sparkle just as much even if her costume wasn’t covered in spangles and sequins. She also gets to dance and sing – which is where she excels. When Bonnie is on the stage there’s no doubt she’s the star.

Thank goodness we also get a real live band in the pit. There’s just three of them but they fill the place with sound. Their balance with the singers was a little off at times, making the vocals hard to hear, but that maybe just me as it improved during the show, which is probably just me becoming attuned to the sound.

Thanks to Covid we have no children in the cast. Neither are any dragged up on stage from the audience in the final front-of-cloth scene. For me these are plus points. It also means we get more stage time from the principals, which with this cast is all to the good.

Sleeping Beauty is that the Churchill Theatre Bromley until 2 January 2022.