Review – Hairspray (UK tour at Churchill Theatre, Bromley AND Orchard Theatre, Dartford) *****

Hairspray is one of my favourite musicals. I came to it without having seen the original film so for me having Edna rather more butch than John Travolta’s is always something that takes a little getting used to. Here it’s Alex Bourne doing the honours. His credits include Lex Hogan in Eugenius, another of my favourites, so he starts off scoring highly in my estimation for that!

The story is about Tracy Turnblad’s desire to become a star on the local TV dance show in her home town of Baltimore. It’s 1962 and she encounters and deals with racism and body shaming along the way to getting into the arms of the show’s heart-throb, Link Larkin. The serious underlying issues are served up with seriously great songs and light comedy, which combine to make this an enduring classic. 

Newcomers will find Marc Shaiman’s tunes instantly appealing and the on-set band are terrific.

I saw the original London production with Michael Ball and its Coliseum incarnation (where it was a little lost in that cavernous space last summer). I thoroughly enjoyed them both but this production is absolutely the best of all. The simple staging puts the focus on the performers. And this works brilliantly because the cast give performances of such high quality. Director Paul Kerryson has clearly worked hard on every moment from every character on the stage. The result is a show crammed with great reactions and expressions alongside the core dialogue and musical numbers.

Katie Brace makes her professional debut in the role of Tracy Turnblad. As well as being a good singer and dancer, Brace brings a whole other dimension to her performance, showing Tracy to be the free thinker and breath of fresh air she’s described as in the script. She’s even brilliantly entertaining when just watching the dance show on TV or standing to one side during heartthrob Link Larkin’s big number.

Brenda Edwards is Motormouth Maybelle. She has great stage presence and delivers two outstanding bring-the-house-down numbers, full-on, front and centre. You could watch her all night. 

Alex Bourne plays Tracy’s mother who towers over her doting husband and Tracy’s father Wilbur, played by Norman Pace. The required ‘corpsing’ and rehearsed ad libs are there in their duet and Pace’s version of joke shop owner Wilbur is heart warming, showing us that Tracy’s heart too will always be in the right place . Rebecca Thornhill as the producer the of TV dance show, Velma Von Tussle, has a diffcult role because Velma is such an unsympathetic character. But she brings something extra to the part which makes her completely watchable. Rebecca Jayne-Davies is Tracy’s slightly dim sidekick Penny. She has a much better part than in the film version and really makes the most of it. Her partner Seaweed is played by Reece Richards who looks so right and dances so well. First class in supporting roles we have Richard Meek as TV host Corny Collins and Ross Clifton as Link Larkin.  

Hairspray is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 26 March 2022 and then continues on tour.

Review – Pantoland at the London Palladium ****

The Palladium panto was re-established as a Christmas tradition in 2016. Since then the few remaining elements of plot or character have been gradually removed each year so we’re now left with a kind variety show. This is not a criticism. Clearly the producers have realised that they will get best value from the likes of Julian Clary by giving them as much time as possible to do what they’re best at, without burdening them (and us) with mundane things like a story.

This year we are treated for the first time to the star being an international icon – Donny Osmond. No time is wasted in getting him on stage as he opens the show. There’s no doubt there is something quite magical about being in the beloved and world famous Palladium and hearing the name Donny Osmond announced as the curtains open to reveal the man himself.

The rest of the cast is comprised of what has become in effect the Palladium Panto Repertory Company. Gary Wilmot is the dame and his patter song naming all London’s tube stations (yes – including the new ones on the Elizabeth line) is spectacular. You feel you are witnessing something really special as well as amazing. Nigel Havers is the butt of jokes about his age and not really having a part in the show. Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin is a class act who delivers not only some great laughs but also a range of impressive set pieces including a brilliant moment when his puppet Sam is left in the hands (literally) of Donny Osmond. Cue carefully rehearsed mistakes and corpsing with resultant crowd pleasing hilarity.

Song and dance numbers are left in the more than capable hands of Sophie Issacs and Jac Yarrow, with support from the famous Tiller Girls.

There is, of course, one more person to mention. Julian Clary can, and does, turn the most apparently innocent phrases into complete filth. For example, “I’ve never done Aladdin” and “Put your hand up (pause). In the air!” In the most extravagant costumes he parades about the stage picking on either members of the audience or the cast with waspish remarks and put-downs which in turn bring the house down.

The cast appear to be having a really good time. In less skilled hands this could leave the audience feeling left out of the joke. Not here. The casual mayhem and supposed mistakes only work because this is a slick and hugely professional show that knows exactly what it’s doing and mines every comic opportunity to maximum effect through deft technique and spot-on timing.

My review is missing the fifth star only because, as a Palladium panto fan, I have seen most of this before. Don’t get me wrong, I love the company and wouldn’t want to lose any of them. But the addition of Donny Osmond created the opening for some fresh content and more of this would be welcome. Who knows which international superstar will be joining in the fun next year?

Pantoland is at the London Palladium until 9 January 2022.

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.

Disney’s Frozen The Musical ****

Despite attending a matinee where the average age of most audience members was probably about three, I can still say this is a show that works pretty well for adults. It’s no Lion King, but has some great, even spectacular, moments – hence four, not five, stars.

The musical captures the feeling of the film admirably. It also adds something to the characters of the two sisters, Elsa and Anna. They are, perhaps inevitably, more real and relatable as played in the flesh by Samantha Barks and Stephanie McKeon than in the film. This in turn brings even greater emphasis on their relationship as the driver for the story, making other characters such as Olaf the snowman (Craig Gallivan) and Kristoff the ice salesman (Obioma Ugoala) into cameos. Even the latter’s reindeer Sven (Mikayla Jade and Ashley Birchall alternate in the physically demanding role), although stunningly realised, has little to do.

The highlight is, as it should be, Let it Go, moved along in the story so it comes as the closer to Act One. Samantha Barks is terrific and really does let go as the song builds. She transforms in front of us in an instant from wearing a dull cape to a sparkling white dress – a true coup de theatre which drew gasps and cheers from everyone in the audience (not just the three year olds!).

Olaf is a delight, with the puppet operated and voiced in-view by Craig Gallivan in suitable winter togs. He captures the charm of the character using basic puppetry skills but little other obvious trickery, and has a remarkably close vocal likeness to the film version.

There are, though, a couple of peculiar choices. As Anna travels to find her sister with Kristoff she crosses a huge, icy bridge (shown in the photo above). This comes on from stage right and travels across the stage, at one point only the centre section is on stage before, eventually, the steps down at the other side come into view. It’s the largest single piece of moving scenery I’ve ever seen. It must have cost a fortune and been a nightmare to fit in the wings even at Drury Lane. But I couldn’t see why it was needed. Yes, it showed Anna had to make a journey, but surely there were either simpler ways to do it. Or they could have done more with the bridge than simply walk across it and dump it in the wings! The other similar moment comes at the very last bars. For anyone other than those in the stalls it was obvious there was a revolve and a centre circular platform cut into the stage. Unless I missed it they were never used until the final 30 seconds of the show. Again, an extravagance which added little to the story and created only minimal impact.

Review – Singin’ in the Rain

Don’t think that this show is a nostalgia fest for people who love the film. It’s fresh, bright, tuneful and funny. If you’re new to the party, this tale set in a Hollywood studio at the start of the talkies in 1927, will welcome you with open arms. 

Silent film stars Don Lockwood (Adam Cooper) and Lina Lamont (Faye Tozer) have problems with converting their latest movie to sound. Lena’s vowel chewing accent doesn’t match her romantic heroine look. With help from Lockwood’s sidekick Cosmo Brown (Kevin Clifton) they decided to add music as well, at which point we discover she’s also tone deaf, can’t act and can’t dance. As Cosmo says – a triple threat! Fortunately Lockwood’s new girlfriend Cathy Selden (Charlotte Gooch) saves the movie by dubbing Lina’s voice. But Lina is not amused and plots her downfall.

All this translates well enough to the stage. But I saw the original stage version at the London Palladium with the great Tommy Steele and Roy Castle, where it ran for over two years and was their longest running musical to that point. This version lacks much of the spectacle of that lavish production. Its grey set is largely un-moving, representing, I suppose, the monochrome world of silent movies. It is also more practical for a touring production, which this is. The area to collect and recycle the water from the rain scene is part of the set throughout, rather than a separate moving part. Adam Cooper takes delight in breaking the fourth wall during the title song, so the front stalls are most definitely in the splash zone. The grey scheme does, though, serve to show off the colours of the costumes in the musical mumbers (set and costumes designed by Simon Higlett).

The show opens with a rather too lengthy plot exposition from Hollywood gossip columnist Dora Bailey, made to work thanks to the sparkly presence of Sandra Dickinson in the role. But it consists simply of members of the ensemble walking onto the stage. The first proper number is the comedy duet Fit as a Fiddle, but in a theatre musical I’m looking for something to set the tone rather more emphatically. Things really only came alive when we got to Moses Supposes, which is more than half way through the first act.

Kevin Clifton is vocally and, in the theatre at least, visually very passable as a latter day Gene Kelly, although obviously it’s Adam Cooper who has Kelly’s role. Cooper is effortlessly charming and nimble on his feet. Clifton, though, displays a surprising gift for the comedy required in his role. I suspect, though I may be wrong, that in the iconic Make ‘Em Laugh routine he mimed to his own track, though, this being a super energetic physical number requiring precision moves and timing. If he does all that and sings live he can have a bonus!

The revelation was Faye Tozer as the awful Lina Lamont. She was just hilarious with great timing, even getting some extra laughs above and beyond those in the original film both from her verbal delivery and physical performance. 

Jonathan Church directs with a sharp eye on the humour as well as the musical and dance elements. This means the show works equally well as a comedy, a musical and a dance spectacular. It’s not breaking any new ground, but the reaction of the audience to the classic jokes in the script showed how well they’ve stood the test of time and how much better they work with a live audience to share the experience.

Singin’ in the Rain is at Sadlers’ Wells Theatre, London until September 2021 and then on tour.

Review – Ploutos, an Aristophanic comedy ****

Ploutos is the Greek god of wealth. In the play he is personified as a blind man. Our hero, a farmer called Chremylos, and his servant stumble upon him and, after a little light bullying, take him home. Wealth is blind so he can’t discriminate between the deserving and undeserving. But our farmer has other ideas and a visit to a shrine sees Wealth’s sight restored. This occasions a visit from the god of poverty, who advises against Wealth and in favour of learning from hardship. Nevertheless, the miraculous restoration of Wealth’s sight results in a transformation amongst all those visiting the farmer, with good people rewarded and others ridiculed.

This new production by Thiasos theatre company in a new translation by David Wiles is bouncy, energetic and huge fun. The stylised costumes and make up are a real treat, adding humour and a touch of warmth to the characters. And how wonderful to be in a theatre again and hear the band tuning up! Yes, we have real live musicians (many of whom double up as members of the large cast of characters) playing delightful ‘Greek’ music from musical director Manuel Jimenez. For those of us denied our annual pilgrimage to a Greek island this summer, this added another layer of wistful enjoyment to the piece. On top of that there are musical numbers and even some Greek dancing (although no broken plates!).

The performances are big and bold like the costumes and make up. Our narrator is Chremylos’s servant Carion, played by Salv Scarpa. He has an appealing stage presence and brilliant clarity and power in his voice, immediately getting us into the play. Like all the other performers, he uses movement a great deal. This keeps the whole thing feeling alive, vibrant and intimate, despite the cast having to keep back further from the audience than they otherwise might have. Oengus Mac Namara plays both Wealth and Poverty which great gravitas, which Charles Sobryy as Chremylos plays against delightfully, reminiscent of Percy’s relationship with Blackadder.

This large company has made a serious investment in this play and the quality and love they have for the material shines through in the performance. How they make it work financially for a small, socially distanced audience I don’t know, but thanks go to The Space for making this happen and for looking after us so well.

Ploutos is at The Space until Saturday 3rd October, after which you can catch it in Poland!



Review – Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again ****

Revolt set at The Space

Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again feels like it was inspired by the Me Too movement. But it pre-dates that, having been a hit for the RSC in 2014. It is telling that the subject matter is still relevant.

This is an angry and uncompromising play. It’s comprised of a series of episodes with different characters in each. We are teased to find patterns and connections by references to bluebells and watermelons throughout, but they are, like the bunches of flowers, left to wilt. And when I hear watermelons my mind goes to Dirty Dancing. But perhaps not putting baby in the corner has some distant, if muted, connection to this piece

If there is a common thread it’s the dissection of language to expose how it undermines or ignores the female perspective in an alarmingly casual way. The sketches begin in comic mode as a couple, we assume returning from a date, engage in verbal foreplay. His attempts at seduction are each deconstructed by her forensic analysis of his choice of words. Such as objecting to having her dress ‘peeled’ off: ‘I’m not a potato!’

The second scene has a woman asking not to work Monday’s because she wants to sleep more. The man (someone from HR, her boss?) offers ever more tempting inducements like free cake or exercise classes or happy hour at the roof-top bar on top of the office to keep her at work. As with the previous scene, he fails to understand what he’s being asked. Offering more bribes for someone so they don’t have to leave the office even to eat or sleep or exercise is not a solution for someone who wants to spend less of their life at work.

As the scenes progress they become darker, the characters less connected to each other. The structure becomes more vague until eventually even language itself collapses as characters talk across each other and at the audience, leaving us no chance to follow a thread, but just catching key words. This makes the later scenes somewhat less effective. You find yourself stepping out of the moment and thinking about how hard you are working to keep tuned in to the story.

The play is uncompromising in its message that, despite what we may experience ourselves and what legislation says ought to happen, there are deep-rooted societal barriers to women having an equal voice.

The large cast assembled for this production by Blue Stocking Effigy is impressive. The Space never allows any actor to get away with anything except the most committed of performances. It’s altogether too intimate for that. Fortunately this group are all completely on top of their game, clearly supporting and engaging with each other in focused and passionate playing. This is just the kind of piece which is so well suited to The Space.

Whatever your personal position on the issues raised here, you’ll find this an arresting and rewarding piece of theatre which boldly challenges established norms and leaves you with no choice but to think about your own approach, language and behaviour.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is at The Space until 2 February 2020.


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 – The Bodyguard, the musical *****

The Bodyguard company

This musical version of the hit film The Bodyguard has quite simply the best production values I’ve ever seen in a touring show. Combine this with a raft of hit songs and the star power of Alexandra Burke and you have a crowd pleasing hit.

The story concerns singing star Rachel Marron (Burke) who is bidding for an Oscar with a song co-written with her equally talented but less successful sister Nicki (Emmy Willow). Into the mix enters a mysterious and threatening stalker (a muscular Phil Atkinson) which in turn results in the hiring of the eponymous bodyguard Frank Farmer (Ben Lewis).

I’ve not seen the original Kevin Costner/Whitney Huston film, so the fairly straightforward development of the story was nevertheless quite gripping. Although the role of the baddie was under-written, Phil Atkinson made a striking impression because of some clever staging and his commanding physical presence. The requirements of the plot, though, do result in the slightly odd situation whereby no sooner has Rachel’s new bodyguard started than terrible incidents start befalling her and her family, which he is supposed to be there to prevent.

The score is packed with well-known hit songs from Whitney Houston and others. Emmy Willow as Rachel’s sister Nicki gets a crack at some in her role as a sometime nightclub performer and has a tremendously appealing voice. Ben Lewis in the title role, by contrast, has to murder I Will Always Love You at a Karaoke night and then never sing another note for the whole evening, despite having a CV that includes numerous musicals, not least playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. But he manages the changing relationship with his client and her son really well, bringing enormous credibility to the part.

At the centre of things, Alexandra Burke is perfectly cast as star/diva Rachel Marron. Her singing power is, of course, a given but she also has to be a sister, a mother and a lover. All of these she manages with apparent ease. And in the final moments her performance of I Will Always Love You is suitably brilliant.

Adding to the experience is the sheer quality of the production. The set is a slick and highly effective system of moving flats which both illuminate and frame the scenes. They also act to hide some striking scene changes, including the rehearsal room at Rachel Marron’s home and an entire log cabin, which appear magically and impressively. The whole thing is classy, stylish and just flashy enough to impress without overshadowing the performers. This is really a full-blown West End standard show with none of the cut-downs and compromises you sometimes see on a touring version.

The Bodyguard, the musical, is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 18 January 2020.