Friday, 30 December 2016

My Very Best of 2016

In a year that brought seismic political changes, alongside the tragic deaths of a huge number of talented artists, the showbiz talents of the world continued to turn out first class gigs.  

My favourite moments of the shows that I saw in 2016 are below and include performances from across the UK, together with the USA and also Europe. Theatre, cabaret, dance and concert performances are all included and there's no ranking - the list is entirely alphabetical. 

These shows were quite simply my (and with one exception a guest reviewer's too) highlights of the year. The links below each entry will take you to its original review on this site. 

Enjoy this look back on what was another year of stunning performances.


The Understudy - Ceili O'Connor

A newcomer to London's cabaret scene, Ceili's one night gig in the West End was as relaxed and chatty as it was perfectly rehearsed. With a set list that included some of the biggest numbers that this talented West End performer has understudied, through to an unexpected Billy Joel megamix...

Review link


Ennio Morricone at the O2

To be one of the few critics invited to review this one-off gig at the packed O2 was a privilege in itself - But in an era when good film scores can be the modern equivalent of symphonies, to see this 87 year old legend conducting orchestra in choir through some of the most evocative and globally recognisable compositions of the last 50 years will stay with me forever. 

Review link


The Red Shoes - Sadler's Wells

Matthew Bourne's newest work from his envisioned and inspirational New Adventures Company is a ballet inspired by a classic film that was all about a ballet inspired by a classic fairy tale. And all styled as a loving tribute to a Golden Age of cinema. A selection of Bernard Herrmann's film scores have been carefully stitched together to form Bourne's musical backdrop. Ashley Shaw leads the sold out run at Sadler's Wells before New Adventures tour the show around the country and with Lez Brotherston's mesmerising set, this ballet is unmissable.

Review link


The Father - Duke of York’s Theatre

Florian Zeller's play was an ingeniously agonising examination of the effects of dementia on an elderly man. Kenneth Cranham brought his heartbreakingly perceptive tour de force back to the West End, in a play (rare these days) that educated and informed its audience about the debilitating nature of the illness, as Cranham palpably shared the nightmare of dementia.

Review link

No Man’s Land - Wyndhams Theatre

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart made Pinter's deliciously absurdist take on Hampstead and Camden life a theatrical treat. No one can claim to understanding the definitive meaning of the play, but who cared?  In a production as unflinchingly 1970s as The Sweeney or Derek and Clive, these two starriest of knights shone brilliantly.

Review link

King Lear - The RSC at Stratford upon Avon and London's Barbican

Another play and quite possibly the first in the canon about the effects of ageing,  Greg Doran's time hopping take on the ageing pagan monarch was world class theatre from the RSC. Antony Sher revealed new layers of howling grief in what is perhaps the most timeless of Shakespeare's tragedies. 

Review link

The Railway Children - Kings Cross Theatre

I know its frowned upon for a critic to review his own efforts, but the opportunity to ACTUALLY DRIVE THE STEAM TRAIN (!!) in a performance of this enchanting production will stay with me forever. Appearing alongside a talented cast, and meeting the show's fabulous crew, my crash course (literally!) in becoming an engine driver might have been a Health and Safety nightmare, but to this big kid it was a five-star dream come true.

Review link


42nd Street - Theatre du Chatelet, Paris

The UK's Stephen Mear has shipped New York to Paris with his stunningly, lavishly, choreographed take on this most American of musicals. In a cast built around talents that Mear trusts implicitly Ria Jones, Dan Burton and Jennie Dale were magnificent alongside newcomer Monique Young. Big Broadway shows don’t come more lavishly staged than this.

42nd Street is still on for a few more days and well worth the Eurostar fare!

Review link

Burnt Part Boys - Park Theatre

Modestly staged with minimal design, director Matthew Iliffe and his MD Nick Barstow brought this off-Broadway gem to London. Moving and exciting, the production was one of the tightest pieces of ensemble acting.

Review link

Fiddler On The Roof - Broadway Theatre, New York

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick told me recently that he considered this production of his classic musical as the best revival since its 1964 Broadway opening. Hofesh Shechter's re-imagined choreography made for a glorious whirl of Chagall and Klezmer inspired magic, while Alexandra Silber and Adam Kantor's Tzeitel and Motel gave a youthful integrity to the young lovers that was as relevant to 21st century New York as it was to Tsarist Russia.

Review link

The Fix - Union Theatre

The Union Theatre moved across the road, and to mark its reopening Michael Strassen reprised his take on Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey's musical swipe at the all-American political scene, with a pre Presidential Election run of The Fix. The cast was as excellent as the show's timing, with Lucy Williamson and Ken Christiansen being masterfully Machiavellian - and beautifully voiced too.

Review link

Funny Girl - Natasha J Barnes on for Sheridan Smith

Funny Girl was recognised last year as one of my best shows - But this year, when Natasha J Barnes came on to play Fanny Brice whilst Sheridan Smith was indisposed, she became another of this year's jaw-dropping sensations.

Review link

Grey Gardens - Southwark Playhouse

With a fabulous cast headed by Jenna Russell and the inimitable Sheila Hancock, this quirky Tony-winner made its European premier. Thom Southerland worked his genius over the piece and the queues stretched down to Elephant and Castle - proving yet again that London's fringe can provide a brave and quality platform for the widest range of shows.

Review link

Jesus Christ Superstar - Open Air Theatre

Timothy Sheader in conjunction with Drew McOnie's excruciatingly brilliant choreography gave London an unforgettable take on this early Rice and Lloyd Webber collaboration. Declan Bennett may well have been outstanding in the title role, but it was Tyrone Huntley's Judas, hands dripping silver blood, that lives on. The show returns to Regents Park this year. Don't miss it! 

Review link

Oliver - Curve Leicester

I caught up late to the Curve's Oliver, deliberately, to see Laura Pitt-Pulford take over the role of Nancy and of course she was marvellous. Played out against takis' glorious designs that were as dark as they were colourful, Laura's Nancy was amongst the best I've seen and proved a great way to start the year!

Review link

Parade - Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Parade is one of the best modern musicals written. A tough and ultimately devastating story - but one in which Jason Robert Brown has painted a picture of the Southern USA at the turn of the 20th century using a flamboyance of musical styles. Parade is a tough show to do well and up in Manchester James Baker did just that. Spines were tingling from the opening chords of The Old Red Hills Of Home and it was gratifying to see that top notch fringe theatre can exist outside of both London and August in Edinburgh.

Review link

It was also a privilege to be invited to write the programme notes for Parade, a musical that I love. You can read them here: Review link

Sunset Boulevard - Coliseum

Life imitated art at the Coliseum as a real mega movie star (Glenn Close) trod the boards as Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond. Close's stunning solos, a top notch supporting cast including Michael Xavier and Siobhan Dillon and Stephen Mear's clever choreography made for a phenomenal concert staging.

The show heads to Broadway next year for a limited run and New Yorkers are in for a treat!

Review link

Sunset Boulevard - Ria Jones on for Glenn Close

I didn’t see Ria Jones step up to this most magnificent of plates myself - but luckily that most versatile of theatre PRs Kevin Wilson was there, who reviewed the performance for me.

Review link

Waitress - Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York

Jessie Mueller leads a top notch cast in this intelligent and stylish screen to stage translation. Sara Bareilles has offered a veritable dessert buffet of delectable tunes. A modern tale that's as all-American as apple pie, the cliche-free story is an uplifting tale of discovery and strong women.

Review link

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Million Dollar Quartet - Review

Royal Festival Hall, London


Co-authored by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Directed by  Ian Talbot

The cast of Million Dollar Quartet

At the Royal Festival Hall over the Christmas season and then on tour, Million Dollar Quartet offers up some of the finest cuts of vintage rockabilly and rock n roll procured from some of the most legendary names in the history of music.

Inspired by the true story of the famed 1956 recording session where Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, brought together icons Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, the show peels back the pages of the calendar. This was a time when the airwaves went from strictly black and white to Technicolor in a musical fusion ignited by some white guys playing black music in a way that had never been heard before. And it set the world in motion.

Phillips is played by Martin Kemp (of the 1980’s Spandau Ballet fame) who heads a remarkably talented cast. Martin Kaye’s reprisal of Jerry Lee Lewis is brilliant in both performance and music, oozing a charming yet hilarious southern charisma that brings a comedic element to the show alongside an electrifying piano ability.

Matthew Wycliffe embodies guitar virtuoso Carl Perkins both in performance and an uncanny visual resemblance, delivering tenfold with his solo riffs on the guitar.

Robbie Durham does a great job as the Man in Black, bringing some sweet signature guitar mannerisms and playing styles, as Ross William Wild takes on the hefty task of playing the King. Making all the right moves, Wild also takes time to offer a touch of vulnerability, showing a side to Elvis that is not often portrayed.  

The show includes more than 20 legendary rock ‘n’ roll hits, including Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog, I Walk The Line and Great Balls of Fire. Whilst celebrating the talents of the on stage characters Million Dollar Quartet also respectfully tips its hat to their fellow southern musicians and African American contemporaries including Little Walter and Chuck Berry who were recording north of the Mason Dixon line at Chicago’s Chess Records. 

A juke box musical maybe – but Million Dollar Quartet is quite simply a stunningly performed tribute to a pivotal episode in the history of rock n roll.

See it before Elvis leaves the building!

Runs until 2nd January 2017, then tours. Tour dates here.
Reviewed by Josh Kemp (no relation...)

Anything Goes - Review

Upstairs At The Gatehouse, London


Music and lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Guy Bolton, PG Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Directed by John Plews

The cast of Anything Goes

In quite possibly the finest musical to have been staged at The Gatehouse in recent years, John Plews and his cracking company deliver musical theatre magic in their ambitious staging of Cole Porter's most famous show.

Emily Bestow's design is imaginative. Ocean-liner themed throughout, including railings around the two traverse banks of seats with the neat touch of cruise-ship views and movies discreetly projected above the compact performance space that only enhances the illusion.

Of course the show is adorned with toe-tapping classic numbers and Plews has cast his company magnificently - with each song done to a turn. Making her UK debut (though with an impressive southern hemisphere CV) Taryn Erickson sizzles as Reno Sweeney. Capturing the essence of Sweeney's ballsy chanteuse Erickson makes the timeless solos her own. Jack McCann’s Billy Crocker captures the madcap requirements of his character with a perfect voice and presence.

Samantha Dorsey’s Hope Harcourt truly is de-lightful. Her character is one of the few roles that is to be played consistently straight and humour-free. Dorsey brings flawless acting and vocals to capture Hopes complex, lapsed chastity.

Where this production really shines however is in the performing detail that Plews has coaxed from the entire cast. Cole Porter’s wit is acerbic and finely honed, ranging from bawdiness and sarcasm, through to the driest of droll put-downs and his words demand to be spoken or sung with carefully weighted wit. This Highgate company deliver them to perfection, notably Jack Keane’s Sir Evelyn Oakleigh who captures the idiotic buffoonery of an aristocratic English twit (his garters, a fantastic touch) with pinpoint perfection. A good comedy performance is one of the toughest challenges on stage and Keane plays his man to a tee. My only regret in Plews’ show is that he has chosen the 1962 off-Broadway revival which omits Sir Evelyn singing The Gypsy In Me – perhaps one of the funniest songs in the canon. Alongside Keane, David Pendlebury’s Moonface Martin is another comic treat.

Dan Glover’s 6 piece band are polished, while Chris Whittaker’s imaginative and energetic choreography again squeezes breathtaking routines (including some awesome tap) into the venue’s traverse space.

This is unquestionably the best off West End musical around this Christmas – and at around £18 a pop when it comes to value for money, Anything Goes is the best show in town!

Runs to 29th January 2017
Photo credit: Darren Bell

Sunday, 18 December 2016

The Red Shoes - Review

Sadler's Wells, London


Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne

Ashley Shaw

The influences of cinema on Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes are everywhere. Walking into Sadler's Wells one sees that the stage is hidden behind an old style cinema curtain. The impression is both enchanting and effective, for Bourne’s latest offering is, in its elements, a ballet about a movie, about a ballet.

In the way that, back in 1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created the Oscar winning movie that itself had been inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale - so too, nearly 70 years later has Bourne taken that movie and re-imagined it onto the dance stage. 

But this ballet is so much more than a glorious re-imagining of a classic film - for where Powell and Pressburger invited Brian Easdale to score the movie, Bourne has actually shifted his musical focus to Easdale's contemporary (and fellow Academy Award winner) Bernard Herrmann - and assisted by Terry Davies' magnificent orchestrations, a new musical composition for the ballet has been carefully stitched together, drawn entirely from Hermann's scores. The choice of music is inspired - and as cigarette smoke hangs in the air of nearly every scene, whilst the shoes may be red, the very essence of this production is noir.

The story revolves around Victoria Page, prima ballerina in the Ballet Lermontov and her role within "The Red Shoes" ballet within a ballet. The first half spills across locations in London and Monte Carlo and as Page moves closer to the first half's closing routine of the Red Shoes ballet itself, a doomed love triangle emerges. Boris Lermontov burns with an unrequited jealous desire for his star. Page however only has eyes for Julian Craster (Lermontov's orchestra conductor) and it is clear that both she and Craster are madly in love with each other.

Act Two tracks the trio across Europe and as much as Bourne's visionary choreography relates the narrative, so too does Lez Brotherston's stage design, with curves of balustrade immediately evoking the French Riviera. Brotherston draws upon the simplest concepts of design, married to 21st century technology. Suspended from a gantry, that itself moves across the stage in a way that the Starlight Express designers could only have dreamed of, the aforementioned cinema curtains evolve into the proscenium arches of opera houses, before melding into tugged back glimpses of the triangle's respective boudoirs as passions smoulder. Elsewhere, Brotherston’s evocation of a Monte Carlo steam engine is every bit as effective as his creation of a Mississippi steamboat for Sheffield's Showboat last Christmas.

But the beauty of a Bourne ballet is the visionary dance. As Victoria Page, Ashley Shaw drives the show, a mixture of poised passion and pathos. Bourne coaxes so much expression from her, both facial and in her movement, that the story flows effortlessly. Sam Archer and Dominic North as Lermontov and Craster respectively offer equally poised and perfectly weighted support to Page's arc. 

The Red Shoes Ballet sequence itself is of course enchanting. Duncan McLean’s projections providing a eerily ethereal backdrop to Bourne’s interpretation of the fairy tale. Alongside Shaw, Michela Meazza, Liam Mower and Glenn Graham as key dancers in the Ballet Lermontov provide a perfect complement to the story's detail. 

Sold out at Sadler's Wells for the rest of the run, a continued bravo to Sir Matthew and his New Adventures company for spending the next six gruelling months on the road, touring The Red Shoes around the UK. Whether one is a lifelong ballet devotee, or completely new to the genre, the show is unmissable. Kill to get a ticket!

Runs until 29th January 2017 - Then on tour. Tour details here
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Rent - Review

St James Theatre, London


Music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Bruce Guthrie

The cast of Rent

This 20th anniversary production of Rent is a heart wrenching piece of theatre that beautifully touches on the key themes of love, loss, addiction and the fear of living as HIV positive. It is engaging, touching and thought provoking.

Performed countless times across the globe, Rent can often descend into a self-indulgent performers’ showcase. Bruce Guthrie's take on the show however is heavy on integrity, with the director exploring the psyche of each character, making the performances both believable and relatable. Alongside, Lee Proud's mesmerizing choreography fits perfectly with both style and era.

Amidst a stark and rough scaffolding-based set and with the full orchestra on display, Anna Fleischle's designs create an edgy feel that is aesthetically challenging, leaving one to focus on the drama.

Mark Cohen as played by Billy Cullen is beautifully watchable, embodying his character's drive to succeed in his work but also constantly sending out the signals of his desperate need to be accepted by his friends. Ross Hunter's silky, effortless vocals as Rodger Davies are a joy. His performance engages throughout, convincing in the chemistry that sparkles between him and Philippa Stefani's Mimi. Stefani may have just transferred over from In the Heights but here she's a completely different woman, displaying a stunning depth and emotional range. Her unravelling on stage is almost elegant, depicting her character's agonising flaws as she struggles with her addiction and its dangers.

Lucie Jones' Maureen is an unconventional gem. Her cooky, charismatic and confident charm is so suited to the character that she doesn't struggle once to deliver on Maureen's obvious sexuality and allure. As always, Take Me Or Leave Me brings the house down with stunning vocals from both Jones and Shanay Holmes as Joanne. Their delivery is entirely narrative driven rather than just being the shouting match that the number can so often suggest, as they make the song an intimate and passionate breakdown of a relationship between two fiery women.

Now virtually sold out in London, the production is soon to tour and for both Rent-heads and newbies it's a treat. The entire company are outstanding - vocally, choreographically and emotionally.

Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy
Runs until 28th January 2017 - Then on tour. Tour details here
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Hamlet - Review

Cockpit Theatre, London


Directed by Emma Blacklay-Piech

Predating the UK's entry into the EEC/EU (and quite possibly outlasting it too!) the Cambridge University European Theatre Group has over the years amassed a fine degree of cross-Channel cultural integration. To some extent, this year is no exception and having just completed a Swiss tour via Belgium the group bring their 2016 production of Hamlet to the Cockpit Theatre for one day only.

The play has clearly been an ambitious project as director and adapter Emma Blacklay-Piech (herself a Third Year student of Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic no less) has seen fit to trim out much of Shakespeare's original word count and, setting her show on board a boat, replace the chopped out prose with musical numbers under the dubious pretext of calling them sea shanties. By such a decision has the whole ear of Switzerland been rankly abused. But students will be students and to be fair, it can take time to learn that it is nigh-on impossible to improve on Shakespeare's verse.

But while Blacklay-Piech may have erred in her decisions of style and theme, she’s cast the play magnificently. Sam Knights (Third Year, studying English - and it shows) plays Hamlet, making a fine job of it. The role is vast and the speeches (even truncated) are long and unwieldy. Whilst Knights may not have uncovered anything new in the part, he displays impressive potential. Likewise Tim Atkin's Claudius. A PhD student and noticeably that bit older than most of the company, Atkin brings a plausible contemptibility to the scheming King.

Some of the casting has been gender-blind and again, credit to Blacklay-Piech for her impressive choices of Amy Malone as Horatio and Lucy Dickson and Ashleigh Weir as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively. Malone creates a wise and sensitive friend to Hamlet - while Dickson and Weir live up to the incongruous staging, by not only convincing as Hamlet's bungling (ex) buddies, but also putting in a fine shift on some of the song and dance numbers. The pair have impressive biographies in musical theatre – it’s not often that such experience comes in useful in Hamlet

Colin Rothwell makes fine work of the comic potential of both Polonius and the First Gravedigger, as Bethan Davidson offers an elegant Gertrude alongside Ed Limb's energetic Laertes a mention too to Benedict Flett who pops up well as both the Ghost and Fortinbras.

Perhaps the key moment in Hamlet where tuneful melody is called for, is in Ophelia's mental decline and despair following her father's murder and in this, one of Shakespeare's most complex, fragile roles Matilda Wickham is remarkable. Bringing a beauteous youthful wisdom to the part, with a heartbreaking interpretation of Ophelia’s drowning, Wickham underlines the classic story's tragedy.

The Gruffalo - Review

Lyric Theatre, London


Adapted from the picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

The Cast

Returning to the West End for a remarkable fifteenth year, the Tall Stories Theatre Company again bring Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's tale of delightfully scary goings on in the deep dark wood, to London's Lyric Theatre.

The stage is vividly set with trees and logs as we meet Ellie Bell's Mouse who bravely and imaginatively scares off all her would-be foes with tales of the terrifying Gruffalo. Charlie Guest puts in three deliciously deplorable appearances as a fox, an owl and a snake in turn - with the kids in the audience being whipped into frenzies of participatory delight as the story unfolded.

Making up the cast of the three, Steve McCourt metamorphoses delightfully into The Gruffalo for the story's thrilling conclusion. It all makes for great seasonal children's theatre, with Rachel, my 5yo assistant for the visit, being thrilled throughout, declaring the Gruffalo her favourite character of them all!

If there's one criticism it's that the current casting carries just a hint of gender stereotyping with not one but four predatory males out to consume Bell's female mouse. Even so, at just under an hour's length The Gruffalo makes for perfect entertainment for the little ones, with Tall Stories promising a sequel of The Gruffalo's Child for next year!

Runs until 8th January 2017
Photo credit: Tall Stories

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Peter Pan - Review

New Theatre, Cardiff


Adapted from the original story by J.M. Barrie by Jonathan Kiley and Alan McHugh
Directed by Tudor Davies

Matthew Chase and David Hasselhoff

Peter Pan at Cardiff's New Theatre is a fabulously traditional panto. J.M.Barrie's original work has been helpfully truncated (no Mr and Mrs Darling in this gig, though the canine Nana has been reprieved) and the fun and games kick off with the eponymous Peter flying in to the Darling nursery. Pixie dust duly sprinkled, Peter Pan is leading the kids across the skies to Neverland.

Matthew Chase puts in a sweetly assured turn as Peter, though the production is heavy on young women in the featured supporting roles - Emma Prosser's Tinker Bell, Julie Cullen's Wendy, Natalie Winsor's Tiger Lily and last year's The Voice performer Stephanie Webber as Mimi The Mermaid all vie for Peter's attention. The four are a delight in the story's telling, however they make for just a hint of eye-candy sexism in this Cardiff narrative that marks a distinctive contrast from London's more metro-sexual offerings. Likewise, the banter in Wales is nothing stronger than knocking local city rivals Swansea and Newport. There's not a reference to Trump or Brexit to be found and you know what? In this most turbulent of years, it actually makes for a refreshing change to enjoy a politics-free panto. 

Mike Doyle's dame, Mrs Smee, is a polished delight. A local talent, Doyle's masterful comic presence is a saucy treat that keeps just to the right side of acceptability. His gags are as corny as they come but he works the crowd wonderfully - and as a big feller, spoofing himself as a Bond movie title-song singer named Burley Chassis (another local hero, think about it) truly tickled.

Of course a good Peter Pan is all about the star-billed talent playing the dastardly Captain Hook – and to be fair, they don’t come much bigger or more dastardly than David Hasselhoff. 'The Hoff', as he is known, has featured on the UK's pantomime scene for some years now and his involvement is remarkable. He certainly doesn’t need the money - and my word a panto season is hard work too - but for an American (former mega) star to immerse himself in this most quintessentially British of theatrical traditions, along with the self-deprecation that accompanies the part, is just brilliant. Baywatch (referenced by Doyle in a Pamela Anderson, bikini sporting, fat suit) and Knight Rider both get a mention and even if those shows' appeal is to the parents rather than kids in the crowd, Hasselhoff clearly revels in the boos - which briefly turn to cheers as along with Doyle he corpses his way through a tongue twisting routine about pleasant peasant pheasant pluckers.

And as Hasselhoff is flown off stage (spoiler alert) to be fed to the crocodile, he sings My Way. The cheesy, guilty, ridiculous pleasure of the moment is quite simply off the scale!

It's a Qdos Production, so as expected the flying, the scenery and the dance routines are all top notch. Veteran director Tudor Davies helms the affair with a profound understanding of both the material and his provincial audience.

It all makes for fine fabulous family entertainment and if you’re in Cardiff over the festive season, it’s unmissable too!

Runs until 8th January 2017
Photo credit: Brian Tarr

Monday, 12 December 2016

Potted Panto - Review

Garrick Theatre, London


Written by Daniel Clarkson, Jefferson Turner and Richard Hurst
Directed by Richard Hurst

Jefferson Turner and Daniel Clarkson

Potted Panto, the Olivier nominated offering from Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, the pair behind Potted Potter that was acclaimed on both sides of the pond, returns for a fourth seasonal West End run at the Garrick Theatre

As the title suggests, Clarkson and Turner bring together all that's fun in the traditional Xmas pantos currently playing up and down the land, condensing the mayhem into a fun-packed 80 minutes (plus interval).

The pair spoof classic yarns that include Jack And The Beanstalk, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, filletting the stories down to the bare bones and between them, donning a variety of costumes as they double-handedly tackle all the show's key characters. Clarkson's dumb but handsome Prince Charming makes for recurring chuckles as Turner valiantly tackles the title roles of the various tales. Memorable moments include Clarkson's take on a pantomime cow, as well as his remarkable interpretation of (both of) Cinderella's ugly sisters.

It's all bonkers and rather brilliant, as the pinpoint comic timing and moments of ridiculous slapstick have the kids (and a few of grown ups too) in the audience in hysterics. Guest reviewer Layla (5yo) thought the whole show was "really good" and couldn't stop laughing throughout - while her brother Arthur (3) was held rapt from start to finish.

All the usual panto routines are all there (oh yes they are) and with plenty of audience participation and sweets (and super soakers) being sprayed from the stage, the whole gig makes for fabulous family fun. Note that many dates over the holiday season are already sold out, so book now.

Runs until 15th January 2017
Photo credit: Geraint Lewis

Saturday, 10 December 2016

King Lear - Review

Barbican Theatre, London


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran

Antony Sher and David Troughton

Transferring in to London from Stratford, Antony Sher's Lear is a Shakespearean masterclass. With no headline-grabbing casting to this, one of Shakespeare's greatest works, the production is a company-driven gem that is led by the RSC's seasoned bill-topper who's more than earned the right to make the role his own.

Doran plays it just a little bit fast and loose with his time zones. There's a pre-Christian paganism to the whole affair, that's punctuated only by a disconcerting (even if rather wonderful) grindhouse-inspired, fluorescently lit glass box for Gloucester’s glorious blinding scene.

There's also a disappointingly politically correct approach to some of the text. Lear tells us on Cordelia's death that her voice was indeed ever "soft, gentle and low", however the Bard's next line, declaring such qualities "an excellent thing in woman” has been shamefully chopped by Doran. Likewise the Fool (fine work from Graham Turner), who typically bows out with an enigmatic reference to his bedtime, is here imbued with an additional dozen or so lines that wistfully lead the audience into the interval.

That juxtaposition means of course that the second half kicks off with act three's final scene and as mentioned above, it's an absolute blinder. There's nothing quite like arcs of blood and smeared vile jelly to truly make one appreciate that interval G&T or vanilla tub!

But enough of the rip-roaring violence (and Bret Yount’s swordfight direction is excellent too), what makes this Lear one of the greats is the sheer beauty of the actors' craft. Sher is clad in majestic robes of thick animal skin, truly looking every inch the king – making the sight of him reduced to a vest and long johns in the latter scenes of his decline, all the more pitiful.

More than just the visuals though, Sher's mastery of the prose is unsurpassed. For years he has been honing his craft on the greatest works in English literature and there is a palpable sense of a pinnacle being attained in his performance. Rarely does one see Lear's molten act one anger, flow so believably into the heartbroken loving tragedy of the final scenes. And when Sher pleads with his daughters to be allowed his retinue of knights, the speech has rarely been spoken with such moving passion.

Sher's excellence permeates the company. David Troughton’s Gloucester truly stumbles when he saw, with the pathos that develops between him and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, perfectly nuanced. Not long out of Hamlet's inky cloak Paapa Essiedu's Edmund is a believingly irresistible bastard and in what with this being the panto season 'n all, it’s hard to resist the temptation to boo his delicious devilry. Antony Byrne's Kent is beautifully weighted too.

Continuing her debut RSC season, Natalie Simpson brings a youthful and honest credibility to Cordelia. Lear's youngest daughter has always been a woman ahead of her time with Simpson's interpretation defining the role for the 21st century. Alongside her and continuing the panto analogy, Kelly Williams and Nina Gwynne's Regan and Goneril are wonderfully monstrous sisters (oh yes they are!). Gwynne in particular touching our hearts as she reels at Lear's barbaric curse upon her of sterility.

This being the RSC, no expense is spared and the 6 piece band high above the stage deliver Ilona Sekacz's compositions with a tender elegance that only complements Niki Turners evocative stage design.

Only on for two more weeks and unmissable too. Reason not the need - just get to the Barbican before Christmas. 

Runs until 23rd December
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz

Muted - Review

The Bunker, London


Music and Lyrics by Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin
Book by Sarah Henley
Directed by Jamie Jackson

Tori Allen-Martin

It’s a brave ask that has any composers title their show Muted - a name that by its very nature suppresses aural beauty. In this new musical that has been a long time in development, we meet Michael a former rock singer, who has been left mute following the traumatic death of his mother. Lauren is his childhood sweetheart with a secret and the show seeks to explore the unlocking of Michael from his emotional devastation.

David Leopold plays the Michael of today, mute but expressive throughout while Edd Campbell Bird is the Teenage (and sweetly voiced) Michael, with both men convincing in challenging roles.

Tori Allen-Martin, who to her credit both co-writes and co-produces the show, is Lauren singing with a vocal magnificence that brings a rich texture to her character's pain. Likewise, Helen Hobson's Amanda, Michael's mum, is another excellent turn reminding us of Hobson's remarkable body of work.

The imagination behind the story is impressive and with a striking denouement too, but as an evening's entertainment, there's something missing. Back in the 1970s The Who visited a similar scenario of a boy profoundly damaged by trauma in their rock opera Tommy. That show's songs however were massive and more than filled the storyline's ambitious canvas. While Muted's onstage emotions are clearly huge, its songs fail to swoop and soar, leaving one witnessing what seems more like the staged version of a ballad-heavy concept album rather than a full blown musical. For reasons not clearly explained, Sarah Beaton has designed the whole affair around a sunken paddling pool. Whilst this no doubt has thematic intentions of deep significance, ultimately the shallow waters prove a distraction. Good actors should be able to show their emotions through voice and body, rather than petulant splashing. 

It is early days for the show and some of the sound needs balancing - likewise the lighting is at times too introspective, reducing the cast to barely visible silhouettes. Musically though Adam Gerber's band put in a fine shift throughout, including some gorgeous guitar work from Gus Isidore.

New writing is to be encouraged and for that, bravo to the trio of writers. But as a fully fleshed out musical, Muted has yet to find its voice.

Runs until 7th January 2017
Photo credit: Savannah Photographic

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Clockmaker's Daughter - Review

Trinity Laban, London


Written by Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn
Directed by Michael Howcroft

Spindlewood, like most towns, has its time old traditions. But no tale is so firmly adhered to as ‘The Turning of the Key’. Every year, on the last night of winter, as the first day of spring unfolds, the Northern townsfolk gather to take part in a strange ritual to honour its oldest legend.

Spindlewood was once home to a clockmaker, Abraham Reed. A tormented genius who, stricken with grief over the loss of his beloved wife and through methods hidden even to himself, created something much, much more than a machine. Every year the Townsfolk now meet in the centre of the town square, where a statue bearing the likeness of a young girl stands, poised and still. This is Constance and she has stood in the square for as long as any can remember.

With direction from Michael Howcroft and a minimalist but highly effective set design from Amy Yardley this epic new musical has been visually scaled down and made more simplistic, though this does not deter from the stunning score, story line or performances given by the students of Trinity Laban. What it may lack aesthetically has been more than made up for with intricate costume, creative staging and the sheer blossoming talent on stage.

The ensemble did a phenomenal job in creating the feel of the ‘stuck in its ways’ town, Set in the North of England as opposed to its original setting in Ireland, it gave the townsfolk more of a working class feel that helped differentiate the class divide. Note must be given to Jenny Arnold for her stunning choreography, her use of movement in the final number of act one, Raise A Glass, was a joy to watch and showed true vision.

Alexandra Davies gives a hilarious performance as the vicious and wholly self-centred Ma Riley. Her delivery and comic timing of the witty dialogue shows the makings of a truly fabulous actress. Despite her negative attitude to her work life, her employees and even her own son Will, Davies’ delivery makes this a character that you cannot help but love to hate and hate that you love.

Similarly, Leo Rowell in his performance of The Clockmaker showed a maturity beyond his years with an emotional delivery of the tragic storyline and a rich, beautiful voice that suited the dramatic composition.

Two specific mentions must of course, go to the key characters Constance and Will, played by Christy Bellis and Jack McNeill. The writings of Webborn and Finn are not simple, but with a powerhouse voice and a stunning, emotionally involved display of acting, Bellis shows real intelligence in her depth of character. She hits all the marks, not missing a beat, whether it be comedy, heartbreak or sheer elation. Her final number in Act 2 was suspense-filled and mesmerizing. 

Likewise McNeill is definitely one to watch. Easily embodying the charm and playfulness of Will, he is desperate to escape the mundane nothingness of Spindlewood and you do not doubt for a second his adoration for Constance. He is a constant presence on stage and is a joy, not only to watch as a clearly skilled dancer, but to listen to. His clear quality of voice makes him a stunning tenor whose overall performance was faultless.

The future looks bright for Trinity Laban’s graduating year!

Reviewed by Charlotte Darcy