Review – It’s beautiful over there ****

Stephanie Greenwood in her play It's Beautiful Over There

Stephanie Greenwood writes and performs this single hander at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre in which she recounts stories of death. That sounds morbid, even grim. But this play is neither. It’s a highly personal piece in which Greenwood has set out to tell us about the life and death by suicide of her dear friend Lindsay. The story is given dramatic energy by her unwillingness to confront this particular death which, despite not being of a relative, is much closer to her than any other. At every point when Lindsay’s story is looming in her rear view mirror, ready to overtake her, Greenwood is diverted off the road and backs up into her own past and sometimes that of her ancestors.

There is an extraordinary tale of her great great grandmother hosting magnificent and opulent balls. In another someone else seems to have been shot in Europe during the war for plotting to sabotage German trains. The first of the play’s stories concerns Greenwood confessing to the conflict she felt as a child when speaking at her grandparents’ funerals. How much was she speaking for them and how much was she doing it because she enjoyed the opportunity to perform?

This conflict does create a problem for the play. We know from the blurb it’s a true story, so Greenwood is genuinely baring her soul to us. At the same time we know it’s also a performance, the spontaneity is rehearsed. She’s a professional performer. How do we know what’s true and what’s just a performance?

Fortunately, though, Greenwood is a compelling stage presence and her nuanced performance is captivating. Hands are carefully placed, a tilt of the hip and she’s instantly a surly thirteen year old. This detail is telling and it shows the insight Greenwood brings to the play as, being the sole performer, she is obviously acutely aware of the scrutiny every part of her will be under. All this is given added impact by thoughtfully effective lighting and sound design which neatly and economically signal where we are in Steph’s life.

Gradually the flashbacks take her to more recent times and then we find out we’re all guests at a party  to celebrate Lindsay. We’re all invited to don party hats and enjoy mini muffins and champagne. But this is all too much for our host. She’s not ready to pretend that we can all carry on as normal and breaks down. We are left feeling awkward wearing our silly hats and holding a plastic champagne glasses.

Ultimately it’s Steph and ourselves we learn about from this piece. The person we learn least about is Lindsay, whose suicide is the catalyst for the play. But what we do learn is that there is something different about the impact of her death compared with others in Steph’s life. The subjects of her other stories are in some way heroic but remote. Lindsay, though, is more real, more current but at the same time more unknown to us.



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 – & Juliet ***

Starting where Romeo and Juliet ends, & Juliet is a light hearted imagining of what Juliet (Miriam-Teak Lee) might have done next if she hadn’t killed herself when she thought Romeo was dead at the end of Shakespeare’s play.

It’s essentially about female empowerment. Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) powers her way into husband Will’s work, suggesting ‘improvements’! Will, meanwhile (Oliver Tompsett) quickly knows when he’s been beaten and so allows Juliet her second chance. At Romeo’s funeral a host of previous girlfriends turn up, much to Juliet’s surprise, who had been led to believe she was his first love. From this point on messages about female empowerment are landed with a conspicuous absence of subtlety or finesse, eliciting rousing cheers from the enthusiastic audience.

Also pleasing the crowd were the musical numbers from the back catalogue of writer Max Martin whose lyrics were oh so carefully selected and edited to produce knowing laughs of recognition as they fitted into the plot from those who were familiar with his work. Songs included Baby One More Time, Oops!…I did it again, Everybody and Roar. Other than those titles, I was clearly in a minority who failed to recognise much of the music. But this is clearly my loss as Martin is the third most prolific writer of US chart singles, behind only Paul McCarntey and John Lennon. I felt I was missing out at the party and that the songs I did spot didn’t have the resonance or strength of those in some similar juke box musicals. But perhaps it’s an age thing.

That said, the music is, even for those ignorant of it, accessible if in many cases unremarkable. And the performances of it are without exception powerful and energetic. Cassidy Janson and Oliver Tompsett are bright, breezey and funny. It would be hard to wish for two more appealing leads. As Juliet, Miriam-Teak Lee comes to us from the original London cast of the hugely influential Hamilton – a rare and significant pedigree for such a young performer. She is simply stunning. Powerhouse vocals combine with a performance which is both knowing and naïve in equal measure.

In supporting roles Tim Mahendran as Francois really shines as he discovers his true self and true feelings, making the most of a part which could easily be over shadowed, not least by David Badella as his father, a womaniser with the tongue-in-cheek name of Lance. Badella is, as ever, a compellingly watchable performer who chews through lines without restraint and is rewarded with easily the best gag in the whole show.

The production design is a joy to the eye. Clever costumes are both contemporary and Elizabethan at the same time. We’re watching a play within a play and the set is gloriously theatrical, although the presence of a double revolve which is also a lift seems somewhat extravagant. But I guess the producers thought it was worth the money! It’s certainly a highly polished and professional show. There’s no mistaking this deserves to be in the West End and reminds you of what our London theatres can do. At the same time it’s delightfully young, fresh and original. My only caveat is that the industrial quantities of confetti showered on cast and audience alike at the end would have more impact if there hadn’t been advance warning of its arrival from before the show even started, as little pieces of paper floated down throughout the evening.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

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 – Waitress ****

Waitress is a musical with two competing styles. The central character has a serious plot line concerning an abusive husband, an illicit affair, an unplanned pregnancy and unfulfilled ambitions. Not all things easily made light of, despite the promise of sweet fun implied by the setting being a pie-based diner offering all manner of, mainly sweet, delights. On the other hand, everyone else is out to make the most of every comic opportunity, be it in dialogue or physical comedy.

Somehow, though, this overall odd mix comes out right – like the blueberry and bacon pie which is one of the daily specials.

The story centres on Jenna (Sarah O’Connor, making her debut in the role as understudy), seeking a way out of her marriage and dead-end job as waitress and chief pie maker in Joe’s Pie Diner. O’Connor is convincing in her pain and frustration and a powerful singer, although I would have liked her to moderate her southern drawl to improve clarity of the lyrics. Her two waitress partners in crime are Becky (Marisha Wallace), who is all big, brash and full of attitude, and Dawn (Laura Baldwin) – nerdy, timid, slightly weird. These somewhat one dimensional sidekicks are nonetheless efficiently drawn and expertly played. Marisha Wallace knows just how to time a line. Laura Baldwin, reliably excellent as ever, has a riot with her part. This is only compounded by the arrival of her would-be sweetheart in the shape of the completely camp and over-the-top Jack McBrayer as Ogie. Between them they just about stop the show.

Jenna’s world is turned upside down by her pregnancy and, with it, the arrival of her hot doctor, Dr Pomatter. It turns out he is, frankly, a bit of a cad, but this is glossed over and we forgive him, largely thanks to David Hunter’s winning and humorous portrayal. Her husband, Earl, meanwhile, is brutish but we see him struggling to find a way to cope with his wife’s dreams and so Peter Hannah in the part avoids becoming a pantomime villain.

The music is in the folk-rock idiom with useful variety in the songs. This gives it a fresh and original sound – not your typical Broadway musical style at all. Combined with an outstanding backdrop and efficient set this all contributes to the homely, slightly remote feeling of a diner in the American south, untouched by 21st century values but warmed by home cooking and homely values. Ultimately it won me over completely!


Review – Tina, the Tina Turner musical ****

I have a general awareness of some of the more iconic Tina Turner songs. But I’m not really into her music to the extent I could name more than a handful at best. As for her back story – not a clue! That said, the pairing of ‘Ike and Tina Turner’ has a pleasing and memorable ring to it, even though, as it transpires, she would rather forget the Ike bit!

Tina – the Tina Turner Musical recently celebrated its first year in London with a cast change. Taking the lead is Nkeki Obi-Melekwe in her West End Debut after graduating in 2018 from Michigan University. She is remarkable. A hugely powerful performance, as physically energetic as it is vocally, she takes on a massive role and carries it off magnificently. As Ike Turner Ashley Zhangazha tackles a part which could easily become the pantomime villain but shows him as talented, passionate, flawed and weak. We pity him but we don’t hate him.

The show opens with the nine year old Tina (Athea Andi was just great, by the way), then simply Anna Mae Bullock, singing her heart out at church before witnessing the brutal treatment her preacher father delivers on his family when away from the congregation’s gaze. This scene is richly evocative and a most unusual and serious opening for a musical. It’s more like a play. This sombre tone pervades most of the show. Hers is a tough story and her career not an easy one.

But as the show progresses it reverts more to type, that type being the standard juke box musical. The pattern of a scene in a dressing room or hotel room followed by a song, followed by another scene, becomes a little worn across the evening. Clever use is made of the songs, though. Some are incorporated into the story and used as they would be in a conventional musical to develop plot and character. Others are treated as straightforward performance opportunities at a concert or in a recording studio. My only slight disappointment with the song selection was the omission of her Bond theme for Goldeneye – but I can see why it wouldn’t fit the show, even if they could have got the rights for it!

The show looks just great. There’s a slick, moving set, stunning video projection and the lighting is just spectacular. Crisp, subtle and atmospheric it sustains and improves not just the musical numbers but the dramatic scenes as well.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Tina – the Tina Turner musical is at the Aldwych theatre, London.

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 – Witness for the Prosecution *****

Witness for the Prosecution has just announced an extension to March 2020, and having seen it you can tell why. The grip of this taught drama is hugely enhanced by the setting in the main council chamber of the County Hall building on London’s Southbank. Even the front of house staff are dressed as court ushers. Although not a courtroom, this stunning and imposing space has gravitas and ambience in spades. The play is not entirely set in a court but those scenes that are become truly engrossing to the point that one’s disbelief is suspended fully and willingly. For other scenes – for example in lawyers’ offices or a dark street – props are brought on by company members in neatly choreographed moves. This is necessary because there are no wings or flies so it’s quite a walk to the stage area from the various entrances, but the necessity results in an inventive and effective solution.

Making his West End stage debut in the leading role of the accused is Daniel Solbe as Leonard Vole. He has exactly the right mix of charm, insecurity, naivety and good looks for the part. And it’s essential he does for reasons which will become apparent if you go, but which I’m not about to give away here! His defence barrister, Sir Wilfrid Roberts QC, is suavely played with striking theatricality by Jasper Britton. He’s hugely credible in the part and really owns the room – both the fictional courtroom and the actual playing space. Batting against him is Mr Myers QC, played ferociously by William Chubb. The duel between these two lawyers becomes the centre of the play and they wheel around the stage in fast-paced and exciting scenes, pouncing on each other whenever even a pause for breath is threatened.

As Vole’s wife Romaine, the holder of his alibi, Emma Rigby is excellent. She looks and sounds the part and embraces the ambiguity of the role entirely. Of the other witnesses Joanne Brookes as the victim’s housekeeper Mrs Mackenzie has a great time on the witness stand, delightfully (for us) unwittingly digging her own holes with relish.

There is an undercurrent of outdated attitudes which jar with a contemporary audience. Women make tea and fall for charm and flattery. ‘Foreigners’ are not to be trusted on any account. But it is a period piece and these views are to be expected as a result. And in the end the plot itself in some ways undercuts them.

Courtroom dramas are always entertaining, as real-life courtroom proceedings bring their own inherent theatricality to the play, only serving to enhance the tensions. By combining that with a unique venue, Witness for the Prosecution successfully manages to punch above its weight and deliver an exciting and engrossing entertainment.

Sue in the Stalls attended courtesy of London Box Office.

Witness for the Prosecution is currently booking until March 2020.

Review – Snow White at The London Palladium *****

The Palladium panto is establishing itself as a highlight on the theatrical calendar, with 2017’s Dick Whittington earning an Olivier award. The cast has become something of an institution in the process with Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and West End (and now Broadway) star Charlie Stemp returning. They are joined this year by Danielle Hope in the title role and Strictly Come Dancing stars Vincent and Flavia as a speciality act.

The show itself is routine panto stuff, with jokes and routines very like those to be seen, for example, at the Orchard Theatre’s Aladdin. This is partly because a proper panto requires a certain adherence to tradition (even when it comes to the jokes!). Also because the shows share the same production company – including many of the creatives.

But the Palladium panto is head and shoulders above the rest because of the cast. Dawn French is beloved by the nation and this warmth transcends the booing she obviously gets as the wicked queen. Nigel Havers once again allows himself to be ribbed mercilessly as he tries (in vain) to secure a decent part for himself in the show, this year hoping to be allowed on as Julian Clary’s understudy. Gary Wilmot has effortless stage presence and brilliant technique, showing off his patter skills with a fiendish G&S song with the words being the names of almost every star to have performed at the Palladium. Paul Zerdin and his puppet Sam bring fresh energy and fun to the standard ventriloquist act, brilliantly engaging the audience. Danielle Hope is back on home ground where she first found fame playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and becomes a delightfully enchanting Snow White.

Charlie Stemp, meanwhile, plays along gamely as the but of jokes about his inability to remember lines and his up-coming role as Bert in the West End revival of Mary Poppins. But his star quality shines through in the musical numbers where his athletic dancing ability is outstanding. He even bravely joins in with the  speciality gymnastic act as they hurl themselves around the stage and over a wooden horse. I assume someone paid-up the extra insurance premium!

The undoubted star though, is Julian Clary, still mining comedy gold from withering put-downs and near the knuckle double entendres. In his task of out-shining everyone on stage he is considerably aided by his outstanding and outrageous costumes which are like pieces of scenery in their own right.

We are also privileged to have a line-up of seven dwarves played by actors, not children as in some versions, a large ensemble and a great band in the pit who somehow this year seemed to have escaped Mr Clary’s attentions.

Snow White is at The London Palladium until 13 January 2019.