Sunday, 4 December 2016

Her Aching Heart - Review

Hope Theatre, London


Written by Bryony Lavery
Music by Ian Brandon
Directed by Matthew Parker

Colette Eaton and Naomi Todd

It might be more of a 'play with songs' than a full blown musical but Bryony Lavery's Her Aching Heart now playing at the Hope Theatre, is one of those rarely performed gems that displays just the sort of quirky wit in its writing that many of today's new musical offerings could do well to emulate.

The time-hopping two-hander sees Colette Eaton and Naomi Todd play contemporary women Harriet and Molly who are both reading the faux bodice-ripper Her Aching Heart and who fall in love as the evening pans out. What gives the show such glorious heart however, is how Eaton and Todd drop in an out of a range of characters in the novel they are engrossed in, as lesbian passions smoulder both on and off the page. The fiction within a fiction is wonderfully pastiched and amongst the Mills and Boon clich├ęs of its Gothic romance there are nosings of Austen, D H Lawrence and even a hint of Oscar Wilde. The songs are well pitched too, with Ian Brandon having written new melodies for Lavery's now 25 year old text and lyrics.

Both performers are beautifully voiced and equally matched, with Harriett's solo Good Manners along with the duetted It's Spring - Hearts Mend being perhaps the musical highlights. Producer Andrea Leoncini has invested thought into his creative team. Anthony Whiteman's modest choreography enhances the work, Rachael Ryan's designs are amusingly kitsch and imaginative, while Alex Payne's fight direction of a full blown sword fight is as wonderfully overplayed as it is thrilling!

Unpretentious and never taking itself too seriously, Her Aching Heart represents much of what makes London's fringe theatre scene so rich and wonderful.

Runs to 23rd December
Photo credit: Roy Tan

Sleeping Beauty - Review

Hackney Empire, London


Written and directed by Susie McKenna

The cast of Sleeping Beauty

Hackney Empire's award-winning Susie McKenna has created a brand new take on the fairy-tale story of Sleeping Beauty, bringing the classic yarn up to date for this year's pantomime.

Set in the enchanted land of Hackneytonia, the kingdom is celebrating the birth of their King and Queen's new child, Princess Tahlia. However, the evil fairy Carabosse is to cast an evil spell over the Princess that will change her life forever. The show's set design (great work from Lottie Collett) is vibrantly colourful, almost resembling a children’s picture book and compliments this high energy performance every step of the way. 

Sharon D Clarke's Carabosse is devilishly brilliant as she plays the part with a wonderful Caribbean feel, her voice dripping with soul. Clarke brings a sassy fire to the performance and despite playing the classic panto villain, she cannot help but be entirely loved. The smooth velvety tones of Prince Gabriel (Wayne Perrey) are a joy to listen to as he plays the role with an appropriate and princely intensity.

Unsurprisingly, Alexia Khadime’s performance as Princess Tahlia is, much like her voice, powerful and soaring. Khadime brings a lovely balance between the generic ‘Princessiness’ of the genre, and the tomboyish nature of her reinvented character. Flipping some of the traditional panto expectations, Thalia desperately wants to be a warrior. She challenges her gender stereotype, showing that there is more than enough room in a traditional panto for an all ‘Girl Power’ Damsel waiting to unleash her inner hero.

The show is stolen however by Gavin Spokes' Dame Nanny Nora. From the moment he first enters, on a mobility scooter and singing A Spoonful Of Sugar, Spokes has the audience eating from the palm of his hand. Just rude enough, clever, funny and a hell of a voice. There were a fair few topical jokes in the show, a highlight being the duet between Spokes and Tony Whittle's King entitled Never Ask The People What They Think .... nuff said!

Carl Paris' choreography is tight, with a well drilled ensemble as is Mark Dickman's musical handling of Steve Edis' score, as yet again McKenna and her team at Hackney give London a festive feast of a panto with all the trimmings. Oh yes they do!

Runs until 8th January 2017
Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Bob Workman

Friday, 25 November 2016

Soho Cinders - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by George Stiles
Lyrics by Anthony Drewe
Book by Anthony Drewe and Elliot Davis
Directed by Will Keith

Shifting London's Old Compton Street south of the river, the run up to Xmas sees the Union present Stiles & Drewe's newish Soho Cinders, their Cinderella for the 21st Century, as a festive offering.

Elliot Davis co-writes the book with Drewe and together they offer a bold attempt at re-defining the classic fairy tale. Cinderella is now Robbie, a young gay boy who as the story unfolds, finds himself unwittingly caught in a Keith Vaz style sleazy maelstrom between James Prince (geddit?) the handsome London Mayoral candidate who loves him (and who Robbie loves in return) and Chris Coleman's dastardly Tory, Lord Bellingham. Matters are made worse by Prince also being engaged to Marilyn, his sweetheart from university days and if things weren't bad enough for the County Hall hopeful, his devious campaign manager William (great work from Samuel Haughton) is a bit of a bastard too.

Throw in Robbie's best friend Velcro, along with Clodagh and Dana, his gloriously horrible step-sisters and it all begins to get rather confusing. The Fix, which played recently at The Union, sent up the politics shtick far more convincingly. For all its noble intentions, this musical melee of modern day metro-sexuality is perhaps just a little too tangled

That being said.... the strengths of this production lie in the marvellous work that Will Keith has coaxed from his company. Lewis Asquith is every inch the confused and handsome Prince, torn between his emotional commitment to Lorri Walton's (beautifully voiced) Marilyn and his burning desire for Robbie. Asquith nails his character's moral turmoil, delivering a vocal presence that comfortably rises above Sarah Morrison's well balanced 3-piece band. While Prince’s character may have been originally written as a caricature, Asquith's perfectly weighted nuance imbues it with a carefully crafted complexity.

Joshua Lewindon captures Robbie's vulnerability, portraying a young man who's just on the right side of straying into a world of vice. Vocally however Lewindon needs to do more - he's great on the big numbers, but needs to sing the softer stuff stronger if it is to be fully appreciated above the music.

As Velcro, Emily Deamer sings powerfully, with Wishing For The Normal being one of Stiles & Drewe's more enchanting ballads of recent years. Deamer is the essence of feisty sensitivity and she tackles an unconventional character with a classy style.

Natalie Harman and Michaela Stern as Dana and Clodagh are without question the evening's guilty pleasure. Costumed in the cheapest leopard skin getups and with their commanding presence and immaculate comic timing, they are a contemporary definition of pantomime's ugly sisters. They're also given the evening's funniest numbers I'm So Over Men and Fifteen Minutes, with their magnificent soprano voices smashing both songs out of the park.

The Christmas cracker at the heart of this show however is Joanne McShane's stunning choreography. There is clearly a synergy between Keith and McShane for yet again in one of his shows she displays an inspired ingenuity in arranging stunning routines within the space available. Her ensemble work in particular proving evidence of well drilled, imaginative movement.

Much work has gone into the production and it shows. Soho Cinders is a fun night at the theatre - go see it, you won’t be disappointed!

Runs until 22nd December

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

An Inspector Calls - Review

Playhouse Theatre, London


Written by J.B.Priestley
Directed by Stephen Daldry

Liam Brennan

Timeless and yet innovative, Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls is a treat as the director reprises his bold take on J.B.Priestley’s famed work.

Ian MacNeil’s dynamic and innovative set acts as much more than a mere backdrop, becoming an active and evolving canvas that both reflects and enhances the changing moods of the Birling’s dinner party that plays out through the evening.

Liam Brennan’s Inspector is rough, aggressive and progressively confronting in his stance and it works perfectly, contrasting the angry and righteous Scotsman with the bumbling English Birlings in their perceived arrogance and detachment from reality. Brennan breathes a new life and a wonderful difference into a familiar character. 

Too often, An Inspector Calls can fall into the trap of preaching to its audience. Not here however, with all the pieces coming together to create a stand-out production. 

Other notables are Clive Francis and Barbara Marten as Arthur and Sybil, the two senior members of the Birling family. Hitting just the right note, they capture the moments of humour and drama perfectly. The pair are at their best throughout, highlighting the Birling’s arrogance and the hypocrisy in an incredibly human way that makes the play only more harrowing in its relevance and message.

Today’s GCSE English Literature students can count their lucky stars that this production is running while the story is on their syllabus. A version of a classic that defies convention, with a breathtaking set and excellent performances from a stellar cast.

Runs until 25th March 2017
Reviewed by Josh Kemp
Photo credit: Mark Douet

The Unmarried - Review

Camden People’s Theatre


Written by Lauren Gauge
Directed by Niall Phillips

Lauren Gauge

On for one night only, The Unmarried is an originally styled production that attempts to break down barriers and cross into a more modern, urban side of musical theatre.

Touching on issues such as club culture, 90’s garage music, teen pregnancy and unfulfilling relationships, Lauren Gauge’s story in this 50 minute comedy is much more relatable to the younger, modern audience. The writing is sharp, comedic and poetic, laced with explosive musical beats. This is gig theatre. 

Gauge’s character, Luna, is a bold a brass late teens “chav”, on the prowl for wild times whilst in a 7 year long relationship with an inner city banker. Her performance, while witty and bright is deep and the truth behind the humour is very evident in her portrayal. This is a subject that clearly means a lot.

Rhythmically underscored by a live mix of beat boxing by Kate Donnachie and Nate Forderstaple of the Battersea Arts Centre’s Beatbox Academy, Luna explores the life of a young powerful feminist determined to defy the legacy of a patriarchal society that has attempted to narrate her life and guide her story. At times however, the beatboxing is a distraction, with Kate and Nate’s impressive vocal abilities, particularly  as they perform a few old school favourites, taking the attention away from Gauge’s narrative.

As a production The Unmarried is very much one of a kind, holding an individuality that gives it both an edge as well as a platform that allows Gauge’s commendable writing and performing abilities to stand out from the crowd. A niche production that not all will “get” maybe, but despite this the material on stage is enjoyable. 

Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Photo credit: Tim Stubbs-Hughes

Monday, 21 November 2016

What's the Matter With Slithers? - Review


Written by Barbara Michaels

This first book from Barbara Michaels is a delightful story pitched squarely at kids aged 3 to 6. Slithers is the name of a pet corn snake who discovers one day that his scaly skin is unusually itchy. Why could this be?

Owned and cared for by a little boy called Matt, one day Slithers overhears that Matt is off on a school trip to the zoo and spying a gap in the door of his tank, quickly works out that a sneaky trip to the Reptile House could answer all his questions. Grabbing the opportunity, he slithers his way, unnoticed, into Matt's school bag and is off on an adventure to the zoo.

What follows is a tale of thrills and spills all beautifully described by Michaels and delightfully illustrated by Sian Bowman. There's excitement and danger and even a hint of romance as Slithers pursues his quest. What's more, there's a wonderfully happy ending too.

With Christmas just around the corner, What's the Matter With Slithers? is a perfectly priced gift that will have kids' imaginations running wild!

To purchase online directly from Candy Jar Books - click here

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Half A Sixpence - Review

Noel Coward Theatre, London


Book by Julian Fellowes
New Music & Songs by George Stiles & Anthony Drew
Original Songs by David Heneker
Book by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Rachel Kavanaugh

Devon-Elise Johnson and Charlie Stemp

The musical Half a Sixpence bounds into the West End from Chichester, newly adapted by Julian Fellows, with a spring in its step and an infectious grin. The story of Arthur Kipps, a lowly haberdashers' assistant who comes into money but ultimately questions what happiness it brings, is brought to life in a visually beautiful production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh.

The well known 1967 film of the musical (after the original 1963 stage production) was based on the HG Wells novel Kipps, A Simple Soul. In an Edwardian seaside town, Kipps, coming into an inheritance, has his head turned by upper class Helen Walsingham while his heart lies with his childhood sweetheart, scullery maid, Ann Pornick. Kipps & Helen are engaged to be married yet the Walsingham family, the epitome of Edwardian snobbery, only wish to use Kipps for his fortune. Helen tries to "make a gentleman" of her commoner beau but Kipps realises his happiness lies "within his own kind". The script, though full of punchy one liners, is light on heart and emotion.

Fortunately, the staging and choreography is top-notch with an exceptionally talented ensemble singing and dancing faultlessly. Andrew Wright's choreography is full of inventive mannerisms and the energy created is infectious. Flash Bang Wallop at the end of the show is a tour de force bringing the audience collectively to its feet.

Paul Brown's set design, concentric circles of revolving stage, creates a fluidity to the production with seamless scene changes that makes the stage seem vast. From a seaside pier to the ballroom of a mansion, each scene is placed perfectly with artistry, while using the minimum of props.

As Arthur Kipps, Charlie Stemp is glorious. A dancer to the tips of his fingers, he looks totally at ease taking the lead in nearly every number. Charming, committed and cocky, Stemp makes Kipps incredibly likeable. It would be good to see more emotion when in turmoil (this Kipps shows more love for a banjo than any woman) but Stemp commands the stage and was a joy to watch.

Emma Williams is spot-on as the rather unsympathetically written Helen, with perfectly clipped speech, elegant manner and singing that plucks at the heart strings. Devon-Elise Johnson is a delightful Ann, not only singing from the heart but imbuing every line of dialogue meaning. As Ann's friend Flo, Bethany Huckle adds depth and warmth to her supporting female character and her skittish duet with Johnson, A Little Touch Of Happiness is the act one highlight.

Julian Fellowes' script offers more than a nod to his juggernaut TV success of Downton Abbey with his dowagers Mrs Walsingham (Vivien Parry) and Lady Punnet (Jane How). Both actresses relish their scenes, How particularly eliciting howls of laughter with every hilarious line. Perfect for the role, she gives a master class in taking the stage and working an audience.

George Stiles & Anthony Drew's new and additional songs work, for the most part. In the overly long first act, Just a Few Little Things is brilliant, however, some of their new material feels unnecessary. The second half motors along with Pick Out A Simple Tune becoming a modern day classic - it is absolutely the best number seen in this or any show for quite some time.

This is a show that will make you smile. It will make you tap your feet. It will probably make you go home singing on the tube. And that can't be a bad thing.

Booking until 11th Februuary 2017
Reviewed by Andy Bee
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan