The Ocean at the end of the Lane
Alexandra Theatre Birmingham
Runs until Saturday 27th May
***** Five Stars “The 5-star lights are burning bright all down the lane.”
Imagination, magic, reality, and vivid memories all collide in the National Theatre’s mesmerising production of Neil Gaiman’s evocative tale for all ages. Joel Horwood adapts for the stage with grand style matched in the bravery and swagger stakes courtesy of the direction by Katy Rudd. It is a generous feast to the eyes and the ears, with the frequent physical theatre moments a real treat. The lighting, sound and illusions are clever and dexterous, and the puppetry is executed masterfully, all of which when you put it together you might think will overshadow the tale, but it doesn’t partly down to the adaption by Horwood, but in the main is down to some superbly crafted storytelling by the impressive cast. It is a theatrical event that sheds a spotlight on talent, both on and off the stage.
Boy (Kier Ogilvy) finds himself in the company of the Hempstock family, a simple trio of farmers, but not is all that it seems, which is evidently a running theme, the family are there to keep any darker forces at bay. Back home the boy’s father (Trevor Fox) is seeking to increase the family income by taking in a paying lodger. Boy has rightful suspicions about Ursula the new lodger played with an enticing and yet chilly charm by Charlie Brooks. Boy and the young Hempstock Lettie (Millie Hikasa) set about protecting our world from the persistent and rather sinister “fleas” of the other world. And in truth the acting and energy credits go to Ogilvy and Hikasa they produce brilliant, creative, and totally watchable performances. Finty Williams as Old Mrs H balances her humour and depth beautifully, a deftly crafted portrayal.
A magical night at the theatre doesn’t come around too often. There are several references to other children’s fantasies throughout the piece, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and CS Lewis’ Narnia stories. Gaiman can add his name to the impressive list, climb through the
window and experience the world at the end of the lane and be prepared to be captivated.
Heathers: The Musical
Alexandra Theatre Birmingham
Runs until Saturday 20th May
Four Stars **** “Straight to the top of the class.”
An acute and decisive teen movie of the 80’s is now for a certain generation a must-see musical for today. And it is easy to spot why, whether you catch it in London or during its current extensive national tour, you have until Saturday this week to grab a ticket in Birmingham. So, what is on the curriculum? Well not St Trinian’s that is for sure more of a rather outrageous snapshot of an American High School and the sharply defined communally accepted social strata that exists within it. Top of the pyramid are the Heathers themselves, Chandler, Duke, and McNamara, they may well dress in plaid and swing the odd croquet mallet but there is nothing “jolly hockey sticks” about them, together they form a rather unscrupulous trio. But it seems that to be in their exclusive club is the place to be and Veronica Sawyer doesn’t hesitate when given the opportunity. Sawyer is superbly crafted by Jenna Innes a characterisation that develops its believability even as the story creeps more into the realms of incredulity. And on top of that she belts out the ballads with considerable force.
And then courtesy of handy little open window Veronica climbs in and discovers the rather mysterious young man in black casually reading some intensive poetry…. meet Jason “JD” Dean. There is a tinge of the unknown about the man, but his unusual charm is attractive to Veronica and chemistry is very much on the timetable. JD is smoothly portrayed by Jacob Fowler he is never one to give much away and he builds the mystery of the character with great patience. As with Innes, he delivers his musical numbers with a vivid and sparkling finish. The friendship between the two quickly hots up and thanks to his steer the need for the Heathers dwindles. Veronica steps away from the girls, that doesn’t go down well with the sisterhood, and so a rather dark cycle of revenge and counter revenge must begin.
In at times a rather chaotic tandem the narrative and the songs canter along at quite a pace. The balance of high energy numbers and poignant ballad is just about right. For the most part it is animated and playful, paused occasionally with more thoughtful moments such as Kingsley Moreton as Martha who beautifully conveys her Kindergarten Boyfriend number transporting us briefly away from the non-stop high school energy.
It is in the end power and humour that push on the show relentlessly, Verity Thompson has both qualities in spades as Chandler a keenly observed performance blended with fun and menace in equal measure. Fun is also capable of being choregraphed via timing and sparking with each other, this is nicely on display thanks to Alex Woodward and Morgan Jackson as the “jocks,” Kurt and Ram.
The film of the 80’s is now a musical for today and is top of the class. There is a lot to get in and some of the musical numbers feel a little rushed and squeezed in, but it is no doubt soberingly relevant and despite the school’s flaws it’s an institution you strangely wish you could spend some more time at.
The Midlands Arts Magazine
Box Office Radio
Home I’m Darling
Alexandra Theatre Birmingham until Saturday, 29th April
**** “A modern-day classic, and a must-see”
A modern classic that will stand the test of time.
The booming years of the 1950’s with no mobile phones or the internet might seem appealing to some and is the actuality for our lead couple in Laura Wades show at The Alexandra, Home, I’m Darling.
The play explores the costs of living out a dream, and we see cracks appearing in Wade’s characters when persevering when their fantasy goes too far. It’s woven together with wit and whip-smart comedy, with the actors relishing Wade’s writing.
Tamara Harvey’s direction brought the nostalgia of the 1950’s in style, transitioning from one scene to the other with excellently articulated jives and jitterbug dancing.
The play was well cast, with Jessica Ransome taking the lead role playing the high-achieving housewife Judy. Around her were a strong and versatile cast, and Neil McDermott, playing Johnny, Judy’s adoring husband and Cassie Bradley playing their friend, Fran, was brilliant; their energy, and focus was a joy to watch.
It’s a must see. The talent is abounding. Laura Wade won an Olivier for her script, and director Tamara Harvey is soon to take up her appointment as Co-Artistic Director at the RSC.
It’s runs at The Alexandra from 26 – 29 April.
By Jonathan Loren
Titanic: The Musical
Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday, 22nd April
**** Four Stars “A first-class journey”
It is a musical with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston a book by Peter Stone and a story known universally, the tragic maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. A liner that sank in the Atlantic on a still cold night in April 1912. That voyage from eager anticipation and warmth to the inevitable icy cold conclusion is steered with care, poignancy, and passion courtesy of a first-class cast. Indeed, the whole journey is first class. The tragedy unfolds amongst the touring classes as well as the gallant crew and representatives of the White Star Line. Their dream is a fast and smooth crossing to New York City, for the unfortunate 1,500 of them their destination was the freezing depths of the ocean.
The story is huge and has waves of drama throughout, and yet is a brave choice for a musical, but they dared, and they achieved. David Woodhead’s set and costumes take us to the decadence and white star luxury synonymous with the time and the liner, building up to the moment of disastrous impact and the following slide to the watery grave. The dream for a new life drowned for ever.
Yeston’s music and lyrics are not an easy whistle, but they are full of vigour and clever narrative with real heart and delivered with care and precision and no little affection.
It’s a big musical with it seems little room for deep characterizations but in time, we come to care with some depth for the crew, the passengers, and the ship. All go full steam ahead for the bright horizon, up on the deck, sat around the dining table or gathered in the radio room.
Mr. Ismay the White Star official, is keen for an early arrival and pushes for step up in steam from the captain. Martin Allanson carves out a smooth operator as the pushy executive and Graham Bickley is a solid and worthy Captain Smith. And then to the classes, Ida and Isidor Straus are an elderly couple of socialites devoted to one another and determined to be with each other whatever the future has in store; separation was never an option. Valda Aviks and David Delve serve a beautiful double act and their rendition of “Still” is heartrending and touching highlight. And then in the engine room Frederick Barrett is working his crossing and endeavouring to earn money to support the love of his life. A brilliant scene unfolds in the radio room as operator Harold Bride assists Barrett in sending a message home. Adam Filipe and Alastair Hill as Barrett and Bride are superb and hugely watchable.
Power and poignancy in equal measure. A journey to the Hippodrome before Saturday is well worth the trip.
Grab yourself a first-class ticket.
Of Mice and Men
Birmingham Rep runs until Saturday 8th April
Three and a half stars “Uneasy and unconventional.”
John Steinbeck’s novella is never far from a school reading list, a classic that has become a little incongruous within today’s contemporary society. A relatively swift read which has been impressively stretched to over two hours plus in this new production at the Birmingham Rep directed with utmost care and detail by Iqbal Khan. That desire for reality is palpable, the dust, the thirst, the toil the struggle is all there to breathe in. All aided by Ciaran Bagnall’s set of wooden slats and flexible bunk beds. It’s a tough old life on the land, and field workers George and Lennie set off for new work and to fulfil their dream of owning a 10-acre plot of their own. George is tasked with a duty of closely caring for his friend. That relationship underpins the plot throughout, it’s a simple friendship and no matter the difficulties on the road ahead they strive to keep in step with each other, wide-eyed and at times lost in a world of ruggedness and masculine farm work.
One must cheer the efforts of The Rep for utilising actors who live with experiences of disability. It is a remarkable piece of casting particularly regarding William Young and his volatile and yet timid portrayal of Lennie.
Tom McCall as George presses on with the pace when allowed and produces a believable and compelling and at times pleasantly avuncular figure. That pace that he pushes is a little lacking at times, and in the early scenes feels a bit uphill and slow. As with many things on the land we must wait and be patient for cultivation and life. A little more variety in pace would be a welcome consideration.
Due to cast sickness, there were some late changes required on the night I attended. Which allows for another Rep cheer for James Clyde and Jake Benson who had to cope with covering roles they had not prepared for and delivered admirably. Maddy Hill as Curley’s wife was like so much of this production unconventional and a touch radical, Reece Pantry is engaging and watchable as Crooks.
There are moments that are far too pedestrian, but also at times it is a piece of praiseworthy theatre that soars evocatively and movingly.
RSC ………Stratford upon Avon
Runs until Saturday, 8th April, then on tour.
3 and a half stars “A bold interpretation for today.”
Appropriately just sneaking into March is the latest in the power shift programme…. Julius Caesar. Atri Banerjee’s production is set in that ancient political melting pot of ancient Rome. Although the setting is somewhat obscure and could indeed for all we know be anywhere. But perhaps the intrigues and conspiring moments could also settle anywhere. And indeed, they could equally settle with numerous well known power grabbers of today and not just those wishing to dislodge the crown from the ancient head of Julius Caesar. In stating that there is little ancient about Rosanna Vize’s set and conversely is in more ways than one squarely modern. The choices throughout are of today and challenging with a big pot of ideas thrown vigorously at it, some pay off, some fall disappointingly and confusingly short of the target. The cast are like the set somewhat boxed in and give a frustrated flavour of being unable to fly.
It is a production that is likely to divide, there are notable highlights, the splattering of the black blood and the clever knifing of the main man himself, and indeed many other bodies all of whom end up with a free ride on the revolving box.
Thalissa Teixeira’s Brutus is elegant poised and grapples for the power with belief and a heightened credibility. Kelly Gough’s Cassius clashes with most of her neighbours but digs out a formidable performance. Other notable displays of angst and power struggles come from Matthew Bulgo as Casca and William Robinson who seems to avoid the grappling but grabs the power as a wide-eyed Mark Antony.
It is bold, it is an interpretation for today, and will surprise and stretch its audience, particularly when it sets out on a national tour next month. Some will be satisfied, some will long for a different road to Rome.
The article will appear in The Midlands Arts Magazine this week. David will also be talking about it on his radio show on Box Office Radio
The Rocky Horror Show
The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham
Runs until Saturday, 1st April
**** Four Stars………. “Unbridled Joy”
It is and has been for half a century a production of starkness, sensuality, bawdiness, and unbridled joy, all of which is driven with power and a sack full of fun. It hits you right between the eyes, and you can’t keep your eyes away from it. It may well be celebrating half a century, but it shows no obvious sign of slowing down or losing any of its cult status. It is a delight and is attracting new followers at every new venue. What was clear at the press night at The Alexandra this week was that the auditorium was well populated by loyal fans. It shocks still, despite its middle age, and may even embarrass but laughter and plenty of it is very much guaranteed.
Janet and Brad have the misfortune on calling on the home of Frank N Furter and the gang after their car malfunctions. And then the outrageous adventure begins, courtesy of the residents, Frank, Riff Raff, Magenta, and Rocky and co. Christopher Luscombe directs with a whip like pace cleverly utilising a simple but smoothly effective set from Hugh Durrant.
Stephen Webb dominates in every sense of the word as Frank N Furter a superb, energetic, and brazen performance brimming with brashness.
Philip Franks delivers a pleasing portrayal as the Narrator, as smooth and silky as is jacket, coping effortlessly with the barbed comments from the audience members who helpfully shout out cues and lines at regular intervals. All part of its cult following. Franks deals with it all with a consummate style.
Haley Flaherty and Richard Meek capture Janet and Brad perfectly a nice mix of casualness and innocence, capturing the early awkwardness that blossoms to enthusiastic acceptance beautifully. Kristian Lavercombe is a contorted and finely observed Riff Raff, as is Suzie McAdam as Magenta.
It is a production that seduces and summons you in with a persistent charm and no lack of chaos.
Enjoy that blaze of chaos if you can, whether for the first time or the 50th you won’t be disappointed.
The Midlands Arts Magazine
Box Office Radio
David will be talking about the show this Thursday on Box Office Radio.
Death drop: Back in the Habit
Alexandra Theatre Birmingham until Saturday 18th March.
**** 4 stars “The stage is alive with the sound of cheeky laughter.”
This current franchise scooping up the great and the good from the world of drag is proving a popular night out full of fun, frolics, and cheeky innuendos galore. This new incarnation is on the road after a successful dash in the west end. The huge draw of Ru Paul’s Drag Race has made some of the alumni box office hits, donning the nun’s habits are amongst others JuJubee and Kitty Scott Claus. It’s a habit that is difficult to kick.
We are promised Scary Movie meets The Sound of Music, with a bit of The Exorcist thrown in for comic measure! It takes some doing but we are in the hands of some classy artistes who parade and perform superbly in equal measure. Father Alfie Romero is tasked with visiting St Bab’s to sniff out a holy relic and investigate a series of unusual happenings. And with that the sniggers and the scares begin. The Mother Superior and her band of nuns are determined to stand in his way and deflect him from getting to the truth.
If you are seeking a gentle Julie Andrews sing along with pleasant little story to follow, then I suggest leaving those possibilities at the abbey door. It is so long farewell to that and a warm welcome to physical gags, feisty humour, and a sprinkle of some well-choregraphed routines.
LoUis CYfer crafts his performance as Father Romero beautifully, great timing and the right balance of audience interaction and physicality. The sparring with the Mother Superior is a delight, the Abbess is delightful turn by Victoria Scone. The rest of the ‘nunsense’ comes from the hugely entertaining supporting nun’s chorus courtesy of Kitty Scott-Claus and Cheryl Hole. JuJubee is charming and engaging as the rather frustrated Sister Maria Julie Andrews.
It’s not a Sunday School outing but it can give you a good laugh. The nuns are on the run until Saturday at The Alexandra Birmingham.
David will be talking about the show on his radio show this Thursday.
The Musical Magazine Show on Box Office Radio.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Alexandra Theatre Birmingham until the 25th of February.
***** Five Stars. “A hotel that deserves to be fully booked for the foreseeable”
A novel, a film, a TV documentary and now a theatrical and updated outing for Deborah Moggach’s delightfully warm tale. It is a new and refreshing treatment that once again sees a motley crew of British senior citizens searching for a new life and a well of happiness at The Marigold a hotel in Bangalore an establishment that saw its better days many a year ago.
The switch from a drizzly evening in Birmingham to the heat and humidity of Bangalore is revealed to us courtesy of the stunning set design by Colin Richmond, we are eagerly transported there, to the tawdry reception, the gardens and much used courtyard all beautifully depicted with enviable detail.
It is a narrative ploughed on a stately pace by the characters, the hotel guests, and their hosts. The first half gently paints the background to them all and their reasonings for their extravagant journeys. They have their issues, problems, foibles and a few aches and pains.
Hayley Mills is a subtle delight as Evelyn casting a caring and gentle eye to her fellow travellers as well as the hapless employees of the local call centre. She is warm and engaging throughout, and an ideal foil to Madge played with an enjoyable spark and relish by the superb Rula Lenska. She is seeking fun and if possible a rich maharaja. Marlene Sidaway highlights her delightful comic timing as Muriel, she digs deep and uncovers some poignant sympathy within which is a joy. Paul Nicholas and Eileen Battye arrive as those type of Brits abroad you try and steer away from particularly Jean played with acerbic zest by Eileen Battye. Nicholas is more understated and sensitive as Douglas his scenes with Hayley Mills are lovingly observed.
The transportation in the second half slows a little, and then zips along at the end to deliver an uplifting and exuberant finale.
The Marigold Hotel has many good days ahead and deserves to be fully booked for the foreseeable.
The Midlands Arts Magazine Reviews
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Birmingham Hippodrome until the 25th February
***** Five Stars….” A sumptuous production, a Swan Lake with hidden depths.”
Despite it’s initial failure Tchaikovsky Swan Lake has become a staple of most ballet company repertoires across the world and is arguably the most popular classical ballet of all time. Helped in no small amount by sparkling productions such as this current outing by Birmingham Royal Ballet, choregraphed with style, breadth, and no small dash of grandiosity by Sir Peter Wright. The company are very much at home on the vast stage of the Hippodrome, and the courtiers and swans alike make wonderful use of every inch.
Prince Siegfried is mourning the loss of his father and is told in no uncertain terms that he must marry to be crowned King. He becomes despondent over his lack of freedom, and so some entertainment is arranged to cheer the lad up. A present of a handy crossbow is given to the young Prince and they dash off to go in search of some passing swans. He comes across Odette who has been transformed into swan form by the evil Baron von Rothbart. She is only human during the night hours. We go from the lakeside to the castle ballroom, where a bit of cunning disguise work by the Baron deceives the young Prince. But finally with a quick return to the lake the rightful lovers are reunited, and eternal love for the duo is guaranteed. Yes, you guessed it the story is not the key driver here, but the narrative is crystal clear and the engagement with the characters is real and heartfelt.
That in the main is down to Siegfried and Odette themselves, performed with patience, and accuracy and with enviable care and with huge talent by Cesar Morales and Miki Mizutani. They both serve up a classical treat worthy of the majestic production. Haoliang Feng provides delightful and excellent support as Benno the Prince’s friend.
Philip Ellis keeps the orchestra swimming along with an elevated and fresh style, and the choreography of Sir Peter Wright is as thrilling a feast as ever. Go and dip in if you can, it runs until the 25th of February at the Hippodrome and then on tour.
The Mirror Crack’d
By Agatha Christie adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff
Alexandra Theatre Birmingham until the 18th of February
***** Five Stars
“The cast and crew ‘Crackd’ this case… it’s a smash hit!”
This new adaptation, by Rachel Wagstaff, is a wonderful example of why Agatha Christie’s legacy endures. Not only is this plot captivating and entertaining, but this production’s subtle touches on issues will resonate with modern audiences making the story even more compelling. A list of suspects is drawn for movie star Marina Gregg, as it is unlikely the sad death of the poisoned Heather Leigh was truly the target of a murderer.
Heather Leigh (Jules Melvin) has been poisoned and killed but everyone is certain the tainted strawberry daiquiri was intended for movie star Marina Gregg (Sophie Ward) who has a whole line of suspects each with plausible motives. With the case being so high profile, the recently promoted Chief Inspector Craddock (Oliver Boot) has been sent from Scotland Yard to preside over the case himself. He makes a courteous call on his ‘aunty Marple’ but he nor a sprained ankle can hold the infamous Miss Marple (Susie Blake) back from pursuing her own line of inquiry.
Susie Blake’s performance is everything you want from a Miss Marple and more; warm, witty and whip smart. Her stage relationship with Veronica Roberts is a joy to watch, Roberts is superb as Dolly. It is a strong ensemble, Sophie Ward and Oliver Boot are marvellous, but the whole cast deserves a mention.
The second act is where it really takes off. The scene when Dolly questions Marple on her past is beautifully poignant and makes the unfolding plot feel even more touching. The only thing I could say is that the opening movement montage wasn’t executed to its full potential, and understandably it takes time to establish the points of view of each witness. Although we are rewarded as the motives unfurl, with some clever staging, the half heats up with the scene just in before the interval leaving us eager for more.
A thoroughly brilliant production of Marple and a great night of theatre.
On the 15th of February
Wolverhampton Grand. Runs until 18th February
**** Four Stars.
Take your partners, a wonderful and spectacular treat.”
The ballroom glitter and glamour continues to spread its magic, courtesy of this new production of Strictly Ballroom, currently waltzing around the country on its extensive tour. Based on the popular film by Baz Luhrmann, this new take is directed by Craig Revel Horwood, with the sparkling choreography by Jason Gilkison and Revel Horwood. A winning dance partnership.
Scott Hastings Kevin Clifton) is anxious to add his new and distinctive stamp to the traditional dance competitions, to do this he must coach and encourage a new and hopeful partner Fran (Masie Smith). The fun is in the preparation, the spectacle is in the execution and its finale. The dance styles are varied and wide, at times perhaps a bit to widespread for the Grand stage, the songs are sharply and superbly delivered, particularly by Masie Smith, who will no doubt have a musical stage career ahead of her should she so desire. The ensemble of dancers had a lot of fun and enthusiasm with the show list of dances to navigate. Jose Agudo giving us a standout moment as flamenco dance pro Rico.
And then there is the presence of Kevin Clifton as Scott, he owns the dance floor and seems to revel in his dream role, a brilliant and hugely energetic portrayal. The plotting and villainous Barry Fife is safe in the capable hands of Gary Davis, who displayed some impressive vocals.
A show that keeps rolling, the songs are protracted, and it is the dances that are kept very much in the limelight under the ever-present glitterball. The staging and production values are not the most stunning you will ever see, but the warm feeling you have as you foxtrot out of the theatre is worth the ticket. Take your partners and get along to the Grand. Runs until Saturday the 18th of February.
RSC Stratford upon Avon runs until 4th March
**** Four Stars “Reimagined, recycled and remarkably good.”
The RSC stage props department no doubt had an inventive and fun session sourcing the large number of twisted and recycled items scattering the mainstage throughout this bright and contemporary version of The Tempest. This late offering from Shakespeare is given a green and voguish slant from director Elizabeth Freestone.
Prospero the “duke” of Milan is exiled on a remote island with little company. The “duke” in this case is portrayed with a non-conformist spirit that is a freeing delight by Alex Kingston. Her fellow islanders prior to the storm are her daughter Miranda (Jessica Rhodes) Ariel an athletic spirit (Heledd Gwynn) and despondent slave Caliban delivered with a superb mix of awkwardness and defiant integrity.
The visitors are washed up and come slowly to terms with their new surroundings, and hosts. The young Ferdinand is quickly taken with Miranda, all choreographed closely by Prospero, Joseph Payne and Jessica Rhodes are a refreshing and touching pair, nicely observed. Simon Startin does an entertaining and bracing turn as Stephano, who is never too far from his petrol can of liquor.
The character work is clear and rigorous throughout and without exception, which is needed, much like the effective set the storyline for The Tempest is a little unkempt and muddled at times, but the islanders keep us enthralled and Kingston particularly is a revelation and an inspiring piece of casting.
A Tempest for today and for quite a few tomorrows I would suggest.
Until 3rd March at the RSC Stratford
Girl from the North Country
Alexandra Theatre Birmingham | Until the 11th of February and then on the national tour.
***** FIVE STARS. “A rare musical full of depth and beautiful shades.”
Girl from the North Country allows an exhilarating breath of fresh American air to be punched through the jukebox genre of musicals, thanks in the main to writer and director Conor McPherson, and not forgetting the genius that is Bob Dylan. That high bar is sustained by a hugely talented company of actors, singers, and musicians.
At his core Dylan is an accomplished storyteller full of reality and depth, McPherson’s talent is to weave them into intriguing characters all of whom stumble into a rather seedy boarding house in Duluth Minnesota. The atmosphere is a bleak as are some of the guests, they seem to have their heels well and truly caught in the mid-west depression, with no sign of a cheery exit any time soon.
The Dylan back catalogue unfolds with ease in front of Rae Smith’s simple yet evocative design, and the song arrangements from Simon Hale allow for a variety of colourful styles, from psalmed spirituals to catchy dance numbers. A superb mix of sounds.
The company work hard, and it is very much an ensemble piece, with admirable care taken with each crafted song. Frances McNamee is worthy of note for her thoughtful and beautifully observed portrayal of Elizabeth Laine a woman battling dementia and surrounded by some with a lack of understanding and sympathy. Joshua C Jackson as boxer Joe Scott and Justina Kehinde as Marianne bring a touch of tenderness and no small amount of real emotion to their roles and songs. Some real highlights to savour.
The Birmingham Hippodrome until 29th January 2023
***** FIVE STARS: A pantomime that is paved with gold, go, and find some festive fun.”
The hugely successful Commonwealth Games in the summer brought lots of joy and dished out a lot of pleasure as well as gold silver and bronze. It put the sporting focus very much on Birmingham. And now the pavement is gold this Christmas all the way to the doors of the Hippodrome. A sparkling, extravagant and lush Michael Harrison production courtesy of Crossroads pantomimes. They have become known for glamour, and glitz and the occasional wow moments. Once again, they do not disappoint, this is a pantomime production with West End values threading all the way through it.
Dick Whittington himself is in the hugely capable hands of Hippodrome favourite, Matt Slack. The narrative and indeed the standout moments centre around his perfected pantomime skills, which are considerable and not easy to deliver with such warmth and connection. It is a masterclass in pantomime hosting. The story as ever in this genre is somewhat secondary, but basically Dick is charged with seeing off the Ratman and his rats from the town, whilst at the same time endearing himself to his potential love interest Alice Fitzwarren. His guide along the way is the sympathetic and amiable Spirit of the Bells, played with a pleasing innocence and truth by pantomime newcomer Dr. Raj. The gaps in any storyline allow Slack to show off his variety skills brilliantly on one of the biggest seasonal stages, impressions, the “12 days” number, the chat in front of the tabs with the children, a touch of gymnastics and he even dabbles with a bit of bus driving to give a breath-taking end to Act One.
Matt Slack being in the unfamiliar titular role does mean that several of the supporting cast are a little under used, Suzanne Shaw as Alice has little to do, and even Marti Pellow who has star billing as Ratman could do with a little more stage time. Hippodrome regulars Doreen Tipton as The Cat and Andrew Ryan as Dame Felicity make the very most of their limelight and are as ever a reliable delight.
Ian Westbrook’s set design is a sparkly cracker, with some eye-catching costume design from Teresa Nalton.
The golden glow will shine bright in Birmingham in the hands of this incredibly talented cast and hard-working ensemble. Find the festive fun on stage until the 29th of January 2023.
The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham until the 31st December 2022
“Dazzles and sparkles, the place to go if you are dreaming of a musical Christmas.”
Five Stars *****
This is a touring production that doesn’t skimp on the glitz and the glamour, there is more than enough festive sparkle on display at The Alexandra, and you have until New Year’s Eve to catch it. And I would say that in amongst the normal seasonal fare on offer this is well worth your consideration. This current tour of Dreamgirls follows acclaimed success on both Broadway and in the West End.
The dreamers are Effie, Deena and Lorrell who together are hopeful contestants in a local talent show, they rub shoulders with new folk who claim to have all manner of plans and new dreams for the girls. James ‘Thunder’ Early and Curtis Taylor Jnr. are looking to elevate the girls and maximise their potential as well as looking to make a quick dollar if they can. Pursuit of fame and power doesn’t always dovetail with happiness and creative satisfaction for the trio, and a split is inevitable. Effie is without doubt the centre on which the show spins and is played with enviable power and heart by Nicole Raquel Dennis, a voice of unswerving clarity and command and worthy of the plaudits and standing ovations. Natalie Kassanga and Paige Peddie as Deena and Lorrell plot their journeys respectively both showing considerable warmth and raw honesty and again displaying superb vocals. Matt Mills carves out a crafted performance as the driven but flawed Curtis, shaded with a flavour of vulnerability that was deftly portrayed. Brandon Lee Sears as Jimmy Early is hugely watchable and on first class form throughout.
Casey Nicholaw’s direction is pacey and slick, and the choreography mirrors the time, and the mood brilliantly as does the smooth and uncomplicated set from Tim Hatley, and his costume designs are outstanding.
The music is in vary capable hands courtesy of the pit orchestra and leader Simona Budd, persuasive, robust and yet at times touchingly gentle.
If you are dreaming of a musical Christmas then this is very much for you, it dazzles and sparkles in all the right places.
Reviewed by Stephen Robinson on the 7th of December
Runs until the 31st of December
David Robinson will be talking about the show on The Musical Magazine Show on Thursday at 8pm on Box Office Radio.
And it will feature in The Midlands Arts Magazine this week.
An Inspector Calls
On National tour until May 2023
**** Four Stars “Still visually stunning and socially significant.”
This revival of the JB Priestley classic produced by Stephen Daldry opened at the National Theatre in 1992, it was arguably responsible for rediscovering Priestley and launching a renaissance in his catalogue. The concept is to reference two eras, post war 1945, when the play was written and its historical setting that is pre war 1912. The production garnered many awards and has since toured regularly and returned to the West End on many occasions as well as a trip to Broadway. Goole is the inquisitive Inspector in question, who observes with a critical eye the behaviour of the Birling family, whose attitude to those in other social classes was far from acceptable not only to Goole but to Priestley himself. The mysterious caller is played with a cool and comfortable presence by Liam Brennan, persistent, sharp, and convincing with his enquires.
The plaudits for this production begin before a word has been spoken, the set design from Ian MacNeil has a foreboding living existence that is tangible, coupled with the lighting design from Rick Fisher and the forceful and authoritative music from Stephen Warbeck all combing to make a stirring and unforgettable opening.
The Birling family are visited by the Inspector, who tells the unfortunate story of a young girl called Eva, who has just died in the infirmary, the questions circle around her suicide and the connections the family have with the deceased. It is unashamedly a swipe at English Edwardian society, and a scathing attack on the class system, which Priestley was convinced was something that had not dissipated. The copious numbers of school parties around me in the stalls underlines its continued relevance and its established place on the list of texts for English Literature GCSE.
George Rowlands shone as the young, troubled son Eric, a nicely observed and crafted portrayal, with admirable control. Christine Kavanagh worthily demanded our attention as Sybil. Jeffrey Harmer, as Sybil’s husband Arthur stoically attempted to keep a steady hand on proceedings as his life and his home literally slipped away from him. Kavanagh and Harmer gave hugely enjoyable performances. It is a drawing room drama which has been transformed to something quite extraordinary.
It was at the time of writing considered one of the classics of mid twentieth century theatre, now well into the next century this production will no doubt go some considerable way to prolonging that status. And so, it should.
This performance was reviewed at The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham on the 29th of November it runs in Birmingham until the 3rd of December.
David will be talking about the production on The Musical Magazine Show this Thursday at 8pm on Box Office Radio.
The Wizard of Oz
The Leicester Curve
***** Five Stars “pure gold at the end of the rainbow.”
The wonderful Leicester Curve continues to solidify its reputation for producing big and bold musical productions, and long may it continue. Artistic Director Nikolai Foster this time links arms with a wonderful production team to guide us down the yellow brick road to the weird and wonderful world of Oz. Colin Richmond’s all out design is a visual treat ably assisted by some eye-catching animation by Douglas O’Connell and some hugely commendable costume design courtesy of Rachael Canning. Nothing is ever quite what it seems in the wonderful world of Oz, and Foster’s direction capitalises on it with vigour, freshness, and a touch of the zany…lots to admire and applaud. We have a moving Route 66 style yellow brick road, dashing motorbikes and huge cans of corn to contend with, your attention is perpetually being pulled from one side of the huge Curve stage to the other. The company for the road trip are wonderfully entertaining companions, led by the homesick Dorothy a beautifully crafted performance by Georgina Onuorah oozing with hope and optimism. The other travellers, The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion are a delightful trio carrying most of the humour and lightness, played deftly with the right dash of vulnerability by Jonny Fines, Paul French, and Giovanni Spano, and not forgetting the faithful Toto touchingly brought to life by Ben Thompson.
The respective witches dash on via low flying motorbikes, the pink one belonging to Glinda, Christina Bianco in brilliant form vocally as well as having bags of fun with the character. The other scooter belongs to the Wicked Witch of the West, for press night played by 1st cover Ellie Mitchell, she grabbed the broomstick for all its worth and gave us a wonderfully powerful and greedy portrayal. “Red Shoe Blues” from the new Lloyd Webber and Rice version is a superb opener to the second half. All the other familiar songs from the 1939 classic film are on display, as are some nice little nods to the Judy Garland movie. The story has had many a transition and adaptations since the book was first published in 1900, this is another commendable staging post, and the obsession will continue, Wicked: Part One the movie is due for release in 2024.
The plaudits are widespread and deserved, the pace is a little frantic at times, we are at the gates of Oz before you know it, and the demise of the Wicked Witch is a wee bit rushed, although it is true to say our attention is never lost for a moment.
All in all, I was blown away by it, a visual Christmas treat for all the family, all roads lead to the Leicester Curve.
Birmingham Royal Ballet
***** FIVE STARS
“Pure class, a sumptuous and sparkling production. First class”
You know the big day is getting closer when you take up the invite to attend the seasonal classic The Nutcracker. The snowflakes, Christmas Trees and sugar plums are all on display here courtesy of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, gracing the Hippodrome stage until the 10th of December. This new reimagining has choreography by Peter Wright and a production dripping in style and class. And it is first class. All the traditional ingredients, much like a plum pudding are there to see and enjoy and indeed contribute warmly to a festive feel drifting across the stalls. And yet it is a couple of things not normally listed at the top of the ingredients list that add a much-appreciated taste to the delights, mainly the superb and evocative lighting from David Finn, which complement and enhance John MacFarlane’s elegant and alluring set design. The design is simply sumptuous and sparkling and at times breath-taking.
The corps, and supporting dancers are flawless and the principals are on point, full of style and individual brilliance. Worthy of mention amongst many are Celine Gittens, Brandon Lawrence, Rory Mackay, Reina Fuchigami and Yijing Zhang.
The ingredients for a pre-Christmas treat are all there to be seen as well, and the result is a treat to indulge yourself and your family and friends with this December. It will do you good. The production values are amongst the highest I have witnessed in many a year.
***** FIVE STARS
“A warm festive feel and a pre-Christmas treat,”
Birmingham Hippodrome until the 10th of December.
Saturday Night Fever
The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham until 26th November
**** Four Stars “Making all the right moves, a great party night out.”
The room is swaying and singing to the unmistakeable tunes, the strutting begins and the 70’s flares are neatly pressed. Welcome to the dazzling stage version of Saturday Night Fever. The Bee Gee style trio are in pace and the disco is open once again and all the wonderful hits are on display. This touring Bill Kenwright production hits all the right falsetto notes, it honours the iconic film and yet establishes its own style and relevance. It is a great party night out, and the party is on at The Alexandra until Saturday.
Dance shows and tributes continue to be all the rage, in many ways due to the huge success of Strictly Come Dancing, this is high quality dance with more than a few strokes of nostalgic paint brushed in for good measure. Worthy of some “10’s” from the judges are the leading couple, Jack Willcox and Rebekah Bryant rightly come away from the floor with plenty of plaudits, they guide us ably out of a gloomy November night and into the joys of disco and competitive dance at the very high end of quality, they are both a joy to watch.
There are some bleaker moments to the storyline, but as often the case the storyline is a little superfluous and at times crafted a little awkwardly. But Willcox remains hugely watchable and convincing. The choreography by Bill Deamer carries the show to at times enviable heights and the music transports us back to by gone often unfashionable 1970’s. The Bee Gee’s trio were superb with one or two stand out acoustic moments.
So, look out your flares and head down to the Alex and join a great party.
Noughts and Crosses
The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham
Runs until 19th November and then on national tour.
*** 3 stars “Vital and relevant lines are drawn.”
A hugely successful and lauded book by Malorie Blackman is adapted for the stage by Sabrina Mahfouz and directed for Pilot Theatre Company by Esther Richardson. Pilot aim to create a cultural space where young adults can encounter, express, and interrogate the big ideas that are relevant to our lives right now. This is certainly a relevant story; it depicts a world segregated by race and social divides. With a nod to Romeo and Juliet we are introduced to Sephy from the Crosses played by Effie Ansah who is falling in love with her long-term friend Callum from the Noughts depicted by James Arden. Their affection for one another is not warmly accepted particularly from both of their dysfunctional families. Ansah and Arden draw us in to their worlds with believability and almost wide-eyed desire to see the best in our fellow men and women despite any preconceived differences.
The world closes in slowly on the young, crossed lovers, as does at times the hugely effective walled set designed by Simon Kenny. The layers of sound and stark lighting together with efficiently used video effects build a harshness and an almost Orwellian tone to the piece.
The script seems not only to be in the two worlds but also seems in two minds, the dialogue battles between stark realism and a rather abstract poetic nature and sadly falls between the two. The company without any doubt commit fully and admirably to the production and the cause behind it, and there are some inspiring physical moments with their use of the set around them, particularly when it comes to the constant and clever use of the ever-present desks. But the foreboding danger and peril and indeed risk required to play what was considered such a dangerous game never quite peaked. But those vital and relevant lines drawn are hugely important, and Pilot are to be congratulated for continuing to interrogate the big ideas. Stark truths are faced and some searching questions asked.
*** Vital and relevant lines are drawn.
A Christmas Carol
Royal Shakespeare Company
Runs until 1st January 2023
***** Five Stars. “It is the very best of times, a warm Christmas treat.”
The RSC sure fire festive winner is back. Following huge success in 2017 and 2018, David Edgar’s hugely popular adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic is back for another welcome return to the Stratford stage. It may only be November, but the carols are playing in the shops, the décor is up in the restaurants and now we have the perfect accompanying guest, the timeless tale of pity and redemption in the company of the antithesis of festive cheer…Ebenezer Scrooge. The master of the misery is in the delightful hands of Adrian Edmondson a superb portrayal full of mischief and open-eyed wonder as his past present and future is laid out before him on the Christmas table. Edmondson creates a warming and hugely enjoyable characterisation delivered with a twinkle through the lens of darkness and reality embedded in Victorian poverty.
Rachel Kavanaugh’s direction doesn’t shy away from the abjectness and hopelessness of the social support system of the time, indeed it is pointed out at length at times, which in turn allows the lighter moments to shine brightly along with the featured and sparkling dance routines. Scrooge must learn in a limited time to turn away from his desk and his accounts and look towards his needy neighbours and employees.
The design from Stephen Brimson Lewis evokes all we need to transport us not only to the foreboding surrounds of the urban Victorian city but gives up enough hopeful Christmas indications to keep us content and cheerful to the end. This is very much a brilliant company effort, with incredibly slick scene changes and indeed some admirably smart and quick character switches. Some wonderfully crafted characters worthy of note are portrayed by Rebecca Lacey (Ghost of Christmas Past, Lady Tibshelf, Jane’s Aunt), Mitesh Soni as Bob Cratchit and Clive Hayward as the effusive Mr Fezziwig. Gavin Fowler is a likeable and confident Charles Dickens keenly observing and penning his own best-selling short story before our eyes. His tale of care and sympathy and justice continues to resonate.
It brings the very best of times to the Stratford stage and serves up a fulfilling Christmas treat for all ages.
It runs until the 1st of January 2023. Don’t miss out.
The Shawshank Redemption
The Alexandra Theatre Birmingham until 12th November
***** Five Stars “A story of hope, freedom and worth that soars high.”
The Shawshank Redemption, based on a novella by Stephen King, and adapted and directed for the big screen by Frank Darabont, broke free (and box office records) in cinemas worldwide with resounding praise in 1994. You can imagine the curiosity surrounding this stage adaptation, and what the company felt they could offer in reprising this much-loved story for a theatre audience.
Reservations be damned, this is a play well worth watching! The creative team have struck the vital balance between creating something new which also honours the moments people hold close from the original.
The play follows Andy Dufresne, a hot shot banker, who is served a double life sentence and sent to Shawshank Penitentiary for the alleged murder of his wife and lover. The adaptation is excellently penned by Owen O'Neill and Dave Jones. The star of the show is the story itself, and David Esbjornson's direction, the actors and design elements work together to serve this timeless classic. The themes of hope, freedom and worth at the core of the play soar higher than any prison wall.
The 12-man production has a cast that play well, led by Joe Absolom (Andy) and Ben Onwukwe ('Red'), with each of the ensemble carving out a unique and engaging take on their characters. Absolom plays Andy's dignity and honesty, self-worth, and reserve superbly and sensitively. Onwukwe's 'Red' is charismatic and our friend and holds a lens up to 'the shank'. A special mention goes to Joe Reisig who plays the ice-cold Hadley, the "meanest prison guard Shawshank has ever seen." And another positive note to Leigh Jones and Samarge Hamilton who stepped into their understudy roles with assurance.
The set design (Gary McCann) and lighting design (Chris Davey) worked hand in hand, creating a realistic brutal prison and all the rooms within it. The costuming (Johnny Palmer) and music (Andy Graham) were also excellent, setting the historical context and playing into the tonal elements of the show.
To anyone who holds the story dear, this is a must-see, you will be enthralled, and be assured that the narrative is still as powerful and told with as much heart as the original.
Reviewed by Jonathan Loren on the 7th of November at the Alexandra Theatre, it runs until the 12th.