Review – Dial M for Murder ****

The set of Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder is a classic murder mystery, immortalised in Hitchcock’s film version starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. The plot concerns former tennis star Tony Wendice (Tom Chambers) who is secretly aware of the affair his wife Margot (Sally Breton) thinks she has successfully hidden from him for over a year. He blackmails an old school friend with a shady past (Christopher Harper in the first of two roles) into murdering his wife while he is out with her lover, giving him the perfect alibi. The cue for the murderer to strike is arranged to be when Tony phones his wife, luring from her bed to answer so the killer knows when to pounce. It’s at this critical point that the apparently flawless logic of Tony’s plan for the perfect murder collapses.

It’s also from this point the play really takes off. Unlike modern TV examples of the genre, where the body (usually the first of several) makes its appearance within minutes, here there is a long exposition establishing the nature of Tony and Margot’s relationship, the motive for Tony’s desire to murder his wife and the reason he chooses his old school friend to do the deed. So we find ourselves with a murder victim only just by the interval. At times this feels slow despite the cast all bringing great presence to their roles.

The gradual unravelling of Tony’s plan makes a far more interesting second half. It’s also helped enormously by Christopher Harper’s Inspector Hubbard, whom he makes just slightly off centre. This turns a workmanlike character from simply a device to explain what’s happening into a humorously effective commentator.

Tom Chambers is delightfully on the smarmy end of suave as the consummately deceptive and devious husband. And Sally Breton, who we are probably more used to seeing playing for laughs in Not Going Out is both feisty and vulnerable as his wife Margot. As her lover Max, Michael Salami is a strong stage presence.

The single room set is carefully positioned at an angle and comes complete with ceiling – unusual in a theatrical set. Its careful design plays with angles and perspectives to give a perfect view of every part. And moving the action from the 1950s, when the play was written and set, to 1963 allows some design flourishes which separate it from the dour post-war period which might otherwise have left us feeling too distant from it.

This is an effective re-imagining of what is for many a well-known piece thanks to the Hitchcock film. But it succeeds on its own terms, avoiding direct comparison by virtue of the slight time shift and performances which stand in their own right.

Dial M for Murder is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 1 February and then on tour.

Review – Aladdin at the Churchill Theatre Bromley ****

Aladdin front curtain

A marvelous Christmas present arrived at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley in the shape of Christopher Biggins. TV presenters and ex boy/girl band members are all very well, but a proper panto deserves a proper panto star, which is what Biggins undoubtedly is.

His is a twinkly presence as Widow Twankey, appearing in a series of costumes and wigs ranging from the extravagant to the bizarre. He is effortlessly at ease with the audience. Indeed his first ‘scene’ is not really part of the show, just an informal chat identifying school groups, brownies and those celebrating birthdays. Throughout the show he totters about the stage and is both hilarious and brings a little vulnerability to the part.

His comedy side kicks are Rikki Jay as Wishee and Max Fulham as Washee, taking what is usually a single part and giving us two comics. Rikki Jay is the official comic, perhaps a little old school, but armed with all the usual jokes and clearly a highly experienced performer who knows exactly how to land a line and control the audience. Max Fulham is a hugely talented ventriloquist, giving life to his monkey Gordon, a delightfully cute but knowing character and, even more impressively, a pedal bin (whose mum is a wheelie bin and whose dad is a skip!). The three leads seem to enjoy each others’ performances. And despite the tendency in panto to include carefully rehearsed fluffs and corpsing, I think we saw a couple of genuine moments, especially in the ‘short sleeved shirt, not a long sleeved shirt’ sketch.

As Aladdin, Yazdan Qafouri comes to us from a stint in the Take That musical The Band. He looks the part, moves well and is a great singer. He and Emily Hawgood as Princess Jasmine have perhaps the toughest job because as the main leads of the story they have to carry the plot but have little else to do apart from sing a few songs. But they both manage to convey some passion and spark, both for their characters and each other. Indeed both Hawgood and Emily Beth Harrington (Scheherazade) play strong women who know what they want and how to get it.

In terms of story, those more familiar with the Disney version, will find two problems. First, that it takes a long while to get going and second, when it does and the genie finally appears, he’s not the wise cracking bundle of charisma that Robin Williams invented, but an oversize puppet thrust from the wings on a big stick.

Head baddie is Ryan O’Gorman as ‘have a banana’ Abanazar. He’s just frightening enough for the younger children in the packed audience and wins my vote for a great opening to the second act with his performance of You Know My Name, the Bond song from Casino Royale.

A special mention to The Twins FX who provide the special effect of the flying carpet, which is just captivating. And to the children from Laura Bruce Dance Academy who make a lovely addition to the big dance numbers and provide great support to the talented adult ensemble. Also to the band in the pit. Although with some exceptions I wasn’t wowed by the song choices, it really makes a difference to have a live band and they sound just great.


Review – Gasping at The Space ****

Ben Elton’s first play is a deconstruction of capitalism and consumerism centred on the idea of a yuppie-style company hot shot that air can be turned into an aspirational consumer good. We have designer water so why not designer air?

Like all good satire the leaping-off point for this increasingly outrageous story is close enough to be within touching distance of reality. In fact, it already happens to some extent. When I was in Las Vegas some casinos would leave their doors open, wafting cool, refreshing, air-conditioned air into the street to lure you in from the 117-degrees-in-the-shade Nevada heat.

The story develops as Sir Michael Chiffley Lockheart, head of the Lionheart company, asks his over-eager underling Philip to come up with a ‘Pot Noodle’. That is, to create a market where none existed before. Generating money where there was none. The idea becomes Suck and Blow, a device to generate purified air in your home or business. The downside is in doing so it sucks oxygen out of the surrounding atmosphere to the point that it’s runaway success results in a shortage of normal, breathable air – unless you can afford to pay for it.

This is early ‘little bit of politics’ Ben Elton and he lands his punches at corporate greed, management speak and class distinctions with delightful and subtlety-free abandon. It appears there’s no point he thinks can’t be improved by a good joke and the script is packed with great laughs throughout.

The bright-eyed but naive yuppy leading the Suck and Blow project is Philip, played by William de Coverly. At first I was concerned he was playing the part as Rik Mayall in full Alan B’stard mode. At times it seems the lines must have been written with him in mind, although in fact the part was originally played by Hugh Laurie. Mayall’s force-of-nature performance style is, though, unique and un-matchable. Reminding us of him can’t invite favourable comparison and de Coverly is at his best when he leaves that behind and let’s his own take on the ridiculous and sexually naive Philip come through. He has loads of energy, which always works well in the intimate setting offered by The Space. And he gets some great laughs purely from his body language and facial expressions.

Michael Jayes plays head honcho Lockheart, who steers Philip to exploit the commercial opportunities of his idea for selling fresh air.. Lockheart is quick to see commercial opportunity at every turn. Whenever Philip’s project encounters a problem he instantly spots a way to exploit it to his advantage. Jayes does this with an easy charm combined with an underlying ruthlessness. You can totally see why he got to the top.

Philip’s junior sidekick, Sandy, is the real brains of the operation and in the part Gabriel Thomson wisely plays him completely straight, providing a great contrast to the over-the-top Philip. You may know Thomson from his eleven years playing Michael Harper in the BBC sitcom My Family. He certainly has comedy skills, shown at their best here in a brilliant scene where he finds himself juggling, I think, five different mobile phones, at one stage even passing one to an audience member to hold.

Skevy Stylia is Kirsten, the steely advertising genius who helps Lockheart and co bring Suck and Blow to the market. She has all the right lines and anyone who’s ever dealt with an advertising agency will recognise the type. The cast is rounded out by Emily Beach in various supporting roles, enjoying herself particularly as a weather forecaster.

Co-directors Gavin Dent and Neil Sheppeck have used the confines of The Space well, with minimal props bringing the scenes to life and keeping the pace up. They conclude the play with a post script in the form of a video of Greta Thunberg telling us the world has got to change. I know production company Rising Tides has an environmental agenda and there are obviously environmental aspects to a play about the air we breath. But I think this is perhaps stretching Ben Elton’s targets into areas not originally the focus of the play. Unusually, also, after this the cast did not reappear to take their bows. I guess the reasoning was to leave us thinking about Ms Thunberg’s message rather than massaging the actors’ egos, but it would have been nice to be able to show appreciation for their work.

Gasping is at The Space in rep until 16 November 2019.

Review – Buddy ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – 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 – Parenthood ***

I’ve seen quite a few things at The Space but never a musical and this flexible venue proves typically adept in accommodating the form. This original show from Fluffy Top Production’s husband wife team Emily and Pete Moody details various stages of parenthood in the lives of a mixed group from conception until their little ones leave the nest. And there’s a flash forward at the end to a final scene on the joys of being a grandparent.

There’s a large cast of nine and it’s packed with all original songs and bills itself as a review, with an episodic structure based around key moments such as birth, first school report, graduation and so on. Sometimes all the parents are involved, sometimes we experience a particular moment from just one perspective. This makes for a fast-paced evening with the cleverly written songs doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of content.

The cast all sing very well, performing to a track, giving a polished and professional feel to proceedings. The numerous songs are all tuneful and adopt a variety of styles giving real variety. It does lack a real stand-out number, but some come close. For me the mum’s night out routine was a favourite, as the group we met at the start reading their pregnancy tests attempt to organise a get-together. Clever, funny and brilliantly delievered.

The downside is that overall the show is perhaps just a little too fluffy. The linear structure which follows parenting from conception onwards is a little predictable. The insights into parenthood are not original enough and, given the usual way of things at The Space, I was expecting a little more bite. This wasn’t an original take on the ups and downs of parenthood and, for me, would have benefited from some more surprising angles and challenging situations.

But it is a warm and winning show which draws you in and has a life-affirming quality both in the writing and the performances.

Parenthood is at The Space until Saturday 27 July.

Review – Annie ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Post Mortem *****

You’ve got to admire a play that begins with a discussion about vacuum cleaners and ends with Shakespeare. Post Mortem is written by Iskandar R. Sharazuddin and he performs it in a two-hander with Essie Barrow.

With just two chairs and a white stage down the middle of the room, like a fashion show runway, you have to invest in the clues given by Nancy and Alex to work out that what we’re seeing is two simultaneous perspectives on their story so far. They look back on their relationship when they find themselves locked in the disabled toilet at their friends’ wedding 10 years on from their early teenage infatuation.

Through this both they and we uncover truths about the events that have shaped their relationship – including an apparent teenage pregnancy and abortion. But don’t let those elements give the impression this is by any means a heavy-going piece. It’s a deft mix of light and shade as well as making intelligent use of physical theatre to bring out both character and story.  For instance the physical intimacy of The Space is matched by the intimacy between the two performers in a carefully choreographed scene which is representational of their first love-making. In a humorous twist these moves are re-played later on as the Macarena dance, when they are locked in the toilet and hear the music being played at the wedding reception.

As ever The Space brings its own special atmosphere to this sort of intimate work. Director Jessica Rose McVay has used the room well, making good use of lighting to move us swiftly from place to place whilst also allowing the physical moments the time they need to play out fully. Iskandar R. Sharazuddin has a strong presence as Alex but shows vulnerability and trepidation in his re-connection with Nancy. Essie Barrow is, I learn, a dancer as well as an actor. This skill-set serves her well but she is equally strong on dialogue and, in particular, in her various monologues addressing the audience directly, as they both do.

This is a refreshingly original piece that’s also accessible. Don’t let the forecast warmer Spring weather my put you off spending some time inside the theatre for this. Sure you might want to enjoy a leisurely drink outside in the first of the warm evenings. But at The Space you can do that courtesy of their Hubbub bar/restaurant. And Post Mortem, at just an hour, allows time for the play and the pint (and get’s an extra star for this admirable compactness).

Post Mortem is at The Space Arts Centre until Saturday 20 April 2019.

Review – Abigail’s Party ****

There can be few, if any, plays more closely associated with the performance by the original actor than Abigail’s Party. This new touring production embraces that performance with Jodie Prenger’s Beverly adopting the famous voice. Director Sarah Esdaile reminds us in the programme that as Mike Leigh’s plays are created in a collaborative process involving the actors, it is fair and reasonable to say that Alison’s Steadman’s performance is as much a part of the character as the words she says.

Abilgail’s Party is about social aspirations of the middle class. It is set at Beverly and Tony’s, who have invited the neighbours round for drinks whilst the unseen Abigail hosts her teenage party nearby. As the evening progresses our initial views of these people are challenged as they reveal unexpected traits in response to unfolding events.

It is a huge credit to Ms Prenger that her presence in the role brings Beverly fully and awfully to life with complete credibility, leaving you with no longing for the original, brilliant though it was. Dressed in a colourful maxi dress she is a formidable figure even in her own living room. She girates and sweeps around the space which, in all its 70s gaucheness, is like an extension of her.

Daniel Casey plays her estate agent husband Laurence who, after just three years of marriage, has clearly had his fill of Beverly but has also, so far, successfully kept a lid on it. We sympathise with him as comes apart in fits and starts, but in his own way he is just as awful as Beverly. Calum Callaghan plays taciturn guest Tony who, with his wife Angela (Vicky Binns), has been invited to spend the evening at Beverly’s to welcome them to the neighbourhood. In fact Beverly is simply using the opportunity to make sure she is safe in feeling superior to her new neighbours. Fortunately Angela is either smart enough or stupid enough not to notice this (which of these she is becomes clear towards the end). Calum Callaghan brings enough warmth to Tony for us to see his appeal whilst Vicky Binns is bubbly and fun in a role which combines naivety with a certain steeliness.

The other guest is Sue, who has come round so she can leave her 15 year old daughter Abigail to have a party at her house. Rose Keegan was, for me, outstanding in the role. Such a beautifully observed character who has been clearly too timid throughout her life ever to say what she really thinks or wants. This was a role with something new and different about it and it was hilarious and charming.

A word about the set, which is a masterpiece of 70s interior design. Of course the play was originally produced in 1977 and was not a period piece. Now this look brings a whole new dimension to the evening, where 70s attitudes, music, drinks and fashion add both depth and humour to the experience.

Abigail’s Party is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until 6 April 2019 and then continues on tour.

Review – Benidorm Live ****

Benidorm Live is a truly unique theatrical experience. To anyone unfamiliar with at least some of the 10 years of TV episodes it must seem baffling. But for fans of the show – and this seemed to include the entire opening night audience at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre, where the tour makes its latest stop – it makes the transition from small screen to big stage with all the key elements intact.

Benidorm was always very broad. It’s a Carry On for the 21st century. And the theatre version has gone even broader – not in terms of the story but in terms of the style and the performances. This is all to the good.

The set itself is a delight. It somehow brings a smile to your face and efficiently captures all the main hotel locations, from the pool bar to reception, swiftly turning from one to the other in some niftily choreographed scene changes.

The plot has our favourite Benidorm hotel, the Solana, being eyed-up for take over by a rival group. They’ve sent in a hotel inspector to report back on how the Solana is run. This leaves the staff in a tizz as they identify the inspectors and try and persuade/bribe them into allowing them to keep their jobs. Needless to say, as in the Fawlty Towers  hotel inspector episode, the identity of the spy in the camp is guessed  incorrectly.

But, like the Carry On films, Benidorm is not driven as much by the plot as by the characters. It’s really a series of episodes where they each get their own moment. This is where Benidorm Live is such a treat. We have six of the main cast played by the original actors. Each of them gets their own entrance and each gets their own ovation from the audience when they do.  It’s like watching an old-style American sitcom when a special guest comes on. They all give full-on versions of their on-screen personas. This is saying something, because subtlety was never a Benidorm trait on screen but they go gloriously over the top, none more so than the brilliant Janine Duvitski (as the swinger Jacqueline). Adam Gillen as Liam runs her a close second, along with fellow Blow and Go-er Tony Maudsley as Kenneth. Jake Canuso as Mateo gets to show off his dance skills in some of the many musical interludes which pepper act one, readying us for act two being set for its entirety in Neptune’s, famous for its Karaoke. Presiding over the chaos (or perhaps more accurately being swept along by it) is Sherrie Hewson’s Joyce Temple-Savage.

It’s all huge fun. The theme music strikes up at the beginning and instantly you realise how you’ve missed having Benidorm in your life. So when the familiar characters appear live in front of you, they’ve already won you over.

Writer Derren Litten has looked after his baby and does himself and us proud in the process. He’s taken care of his characters and his audience. He even teases us as Joyce Temple-Savage makes us promise we’ll all be back at the Solana next year. So is there more Benidorm to come?

Benidorm Live is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 16 February and then continues on tour.