Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Doll's House - UK Touring Theatre

Hawthorne Theatre, Welwyn Garden City
11 October 2014, 7.30pm

It is always a relief to find something to counteract the banality of Saturday night TV that I am usually sucked into watching and this week I found it at the Hawthorne Theatre.

Ibsen's 1879 drama A Doll's House is always thought-provoking - a fascinating study of how women, marriage and motherhood are viewed by a male world and mixed with a dose of financial shenanigans and his stalwart theme, "the sins of the fathers", so I was hoping for the best.

Thankfully UK Touring Theatre's take on it is a good solid production of a classic play that manages to create a sense of suspense even though I knew exactly what was going to happen.

Set in 19th century Norway, Nora Helmer seemingly has everything she needs, three children, a loving husband Torvald and secure finances thanks to his promotion.

Torvald sees her as a pet, a possession who just has to look pretty and admire him, but she is harbouring a secret, which if revealed would blow her marriage apart.

The arrival of an unexpected visitor on Christmas Eve threatens to do just that.

It is credit to the four actors, directed by Michael Woodward, that as it moved towards the conclusion I know so well, they kept me enthralled, and I ended up still willing Nora on as I did the first time I saw it - hoping that she would still actually make the decision she does.

The company's own new translation with more modern language allows the production to roll along at a lively pace and I certainly felt like I was on a runaway train on an inevitable path to destruction.

Felicity Rhys's Nora is an appropriate mix of skittish, playful and frantic which makes her change to more serious, steely and measured when making her final decision all the more stark.

Laura-Kate Gordon is a fine solid Kristine Linde who depicts well how she has been worn down by her own situation which, while very different, is still a result of a male dominated world.

Adam Redmayne as Torvald, the symbol of 19th century male society, is appropriately unseeing and annoying, showing weakness under his pride, and I think the fact I wanted to slap him meant he probably got it right!

The doubling up of the Dr Rank and Nils Krogstad parts undoubtedly showed the versatility of Christopher Llewellyn's acting skills especially as I had to double take to make sure the same actor was playing the two very different men - but once I realised this, my mind kept wondering to how he was managing his quick changes and was a little distracting.

Perhaps the fact one man played both made you ponder whether they both manipulated Nora albeit in very different ways - or maybe it just cut the costs for a touring production!

The simple set, also designed by Woodward, adds to the feeling of instability with separate standalone frames indicating the marriage is not solid - that it is made up of parts that are not linked and these are used to great effect to highlight the state of Nora's world.

At the end of the first half, the actors tilt the doors towards Nora to hint at a world closing in on her and the collapse of her relationship with her husband.

When you come back after the interval these frames and those on the wall are slightly skewed showing that everything that surrounds her world is deconstructing.

As I sat there pondering over whether things had actually changed, whether women were still judged with a male eye, the hollow laughter from the audience at Torvald's torrent of outrageous references to her subordinance made me realise that to some extent they have.

And as I inwardly whooped at Nora's final decision I wondered how many of my 19th century female counterparts had done so too - even if they couldn't express it.

But to me Nora Helmer is not just an heroic feminist she is an example to us all in finding out who we are and trying to be that person, whatever it may cost.

I therefore hope one day my four-year-old daughter - who thought I was going to see a real doll's house - will appreciate this play as much as I do.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Northern Ballet

Milton Keynes Theatre
22 May 2014, 2.30pm

This production was the first one that I ever saw Northern Ballet do and firmly established me as a fan of the company.

I thought it gave fantastic new life to A Midsummer Night’s Dream then, and now it's just as good as I remember.

The classic Shakespearean comedy is always an audience favourite but this production transports the quarrelling lovers and feuding fairies into a setting which the company will be all too familiar with.

The characters are now all part of a touring dance company and the shenanigans that are usually played out in a forest all take place on a sleeper train between London and Edinburgh as the dancers travel to their next show.

Twilight world
The company's final rehearsal has been a disaster and as they get on the train, the arguments continue.

As the train speeds north it enters a tunnel, tension grows and the company find themselves in a strange nocturnal world where they have to resolve their disputes.

Entering a tense twilight world where numerous disputes are played out may sound like a normal long distance train journey in this country, but let’s face it, if this show was based on that, then all the action would have to take place on a replacement bus as damage to the overhead lines would have long since rendered any train useless!

But this scenario really works for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Not only do the characters translate well into this new setting - Theseus becomes the Artistic Director, Hippolyta his prima ballerina who he wants to retire, while the four lovers are competitive soloists - but the idea of hierarchy and battles of ego could relate to any working situation.

It therefore shows a modern understanding of some of the themes and shows once again how Shakespeare really understood human nature.

The comic fighting between Lysander and Hermia and Helena and Demetrius as they each fail to win the object of their desire is intricate, physical, clever and extremely funny.

And I have to say, that the men's skimpy boxer shorts that made such an impression on me the first time thankfully remained, and once again I was amazed that they didn't spilt - it was real edge of the seat stuff I can tell you! Hurrah for the wardrobe department!

Then there’s also the fact that it looks fantastic. Set in the late 1940s, the glamorous costumes reflect Dior’s post-war New Look, and range from the stylish black and white of the rehearsal room to a riot of colour in the ‘dream’ sequence.

But for anyone with even a passing interest in stage design and the machinations of the set, Duncan Haylor’s creation is very clever. It’s a real joy just to see the rehearsal room turn into the train and then the train move off the platform!

Northern Ballet have done a superb job once again. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is witty, vivacious, stylish and a lot of fun!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

I Can't Sing: The X Factor Musical

London Palladium
Saturday 15 March 2014, 2.00pm (preview)

I Can't Sing is absolutely bonkers.

What a treat, in what are sometimes depressing times, to watch a show that will just make you giggle.

This show is a colourful, fun and technically fascinating homage to what is now, love it or loathe it, a British institution - the X Factor TV show.

It depicts a trail of hopefuls as they move from auditions to live shows, but none can compete with heroine Chenice who cannot only sing but the fact she has to unplug her grandfather's iron lung in order to use the toaster gives her the most important of qualities to be a winner - a heart-wrenching back story.

She also believes she can't sing - although I don't believe anyone who enters the X Factor thinks this - it's usually the other way round and they really can't!

But this isn't a cruel parody. It packs in all the show's cliches in such an affectionate way that it made cynical old me, someone who had long fallen out of love with the TV show, want to love it all over again.

A host of other misfits with voices which pay homage to former TV contestants including a "Tesda" checkout girl, Irish twins, Wagner and bizarrely, a rapping Quasimodo. This seems maddest of them all - until the ending, when you realise his role.

I Can't Lie - I have always been a Nigel Harman fan and he could probably just have stood on the stage doing nothing and I would have thought it wonderful just to be in his presence.

But thankfully he puts in a great performance as a heightened caricature of the original - slightly more camp - and of course better looking than the real thing. A true triple threat - Harman sings, dances and acts and generally looks fabulous, even with a preposterous set of dazzlingly white teeth.

Cynthia Erivo's Chenice is a mixture of feisty and sweet. She has a tremendous voice to boot and her relationship with Alan Morrissey's boy next door Max is a vehicle for the show romance story.

Simon Bailey's Liam O'Deary is just a fantastic parody of X-Factor presenter Dermot O'Leary - every nuance of his movement is captured. I didn't even realise Dermot did that until Bailey heightened it in an impression. His song - I Love Hugging People I don't Know - was just genius!

Other favourites for me were Barlow the Dog, cleverly worked by Simon Lipkin, Jordy, the Geordie judge and a brilliantly understated but perfect Louis (Walsh).

Charlie Baker's hunchback was another highlight simply because it was so ludicrous!

Complemented by a very strong ensemble cast, everyone just looks like they are having the time of their lives - while gently poking fun at some of the technical problems the show had in preview.

It just needs interactive voting during the interval to make it complete but that would probably be a technical headache too far!

The final Simon Cowell reveal is just mad - but strangely appropriate - and to be honest all you would expect of the hilarious writer - Harry Hill.

If you have never seen the X Factor, you may well wonder what the heck you are watching, and I'm sure some critics will get on their high horse about it but I'd just say chill out, appreciate the madness and just laugh!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Peppa Pig's Treasure Hunt

Grove Theatre, Dunstable
Sunday 19 February 2012, 10am

Peppa Pig is a phenomenon. I don't know what it is about the little pink creature that will stop V doing whatever she is doing in her tracks and stare, but I can report that the stage production has the same effect!

She not only sat and watched the whole show intently but also, for the first time, sat on her own seat throughout.

Peppa Pig's Treasure Hunt is a simple story about, yes, you've guessed it, Peppa and her friends going on a treasure hunt! Danny Dog, Zoe Zebra and Pedro Pony join her and brother George as they all follow a map which takes them from the bushes to mountains, a wood, a pirate island and home again.

The TV characters are escorted by "Daisy", a friend of Peppa, played by real life actor Charlotte Sullivan, who drives the action and instructs the audience.

On their journey they use a wide range of transport - car, train, pirate ship and hot air balloon - all piloted, of course, by Miss Rabbit who, with her neverending plethora of jobs, is the Peppa equivalent of Myleene Klass.

As the story progresses, there are loads of catchy tunes with plenty of opportunities for the audience to join in with the words and actions and I was particularly pleased that they had worked in the Bing Bong song, my personal favourite.

They also manage to shoe horn a UV light scene into the tale. Peppa idly searches in a rock pool for the treasure - as you do - which leads to a full on under the sea scene with colourful fluorescent ocean creatures floating around a black stage.

It's a real skill to faithfully translate a cartoon onto the stage and make it believable, but this production successfully does it using puppets.

You might wonder if children, who are always very sharp about these kinds of things, would realise and / or care that they were puppets, especially as you could see who was operating them.

However, it does work, and if you've ever seen the adult show Avenue Q, you will know why.

That show makes you realise, even as adults, that while you know how the puppets are being operated, you just forget about it and enjoy the show because the story enthralls you and this Peppa show is exactly the same. The children MUST realise that they are puppets - but it doesn't bother them. It helps that the voice of Peppa is very faithfully recreated by Hannah Lucas.

V never once mentioned the people with their hands up Peppa and George's bum (and believe me she is the sort of child who would mention it!), she was more concerned about where the train and the map had gone and how "that's not treasure, that's a crab!"

"I enjoyed the show" she said.

This is all I need to class the trip as a triumph! It doesn't matter what I might have thought, as long as the person who the entertainment was aimed at, got a lot out of it!

Luckily, I enjoyed it too!


The show was the perfect length for us. A first half of around 35 minutes with a 15 minute interval and then another 25 minutes or so. Given that the TV episodes are usually no more than five minutes each, it is testimony to the power of the character that Peppa can hold a child's attention for a much longer time as well.

Age range

V has just turned two and she sat all the way through it and "got" the story enough to be asking questions about the plot. Basically if your child is at an age where they really enjoy Peppa they should enjoy this version. As always, younger siblings should also do OK - it's a children's show, it's never a completely silent audience!

Other stuff

Merchandise was, as always, pretty overpriced but if you want to get something, I would go for the souvenir brochure / activity book. It's a fiver, which though expensive is not much dearer than a pre-school children's comic these days and it is very good quality.

The spinning windmill lights that are de rigour at a panto, that we paid a fiver for at In the Night Garden, were a wopping £7.00!! Sadly I felt the need to get one as we hadn't brought her comforter "toppy" with us and we needed a back up distraction! I have stopped taking "toppy" with us on trips like this as she doesn't need to sleep but I think I will take it again in the future - it really doesn't do any harm, it's not drink or drugs and it will save us a pile of cash!

As it turned out, she didn't need a distraction as the show held her full attention.

T-shirts are £10, again they are good quality but still pricey for toddler sizes. However, I preferred to get one of these than a toy because you at least get a lot of use out of it.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Numberjacks Live

Grove Theatre, Dunstable
Saturday 26 November 2011, 2.30pm

Wow, wow, wow, wow was all V kept saying as we took our seats and she saw five small numbers on the stage and the Numberjacks logo on a screen - so to be honest, it doesn't really matter what I think!

The TV series is a playful introduction to numbers for pre-schoolers and won the Royal Television Society Award for Best Pre-school Educational programme two years in a row. This is the first time that the CBeebies favourite has come to the stage in their first live mission - called Saving Brain Gain.

The Numberjacks are ten numbers - 0-9. On TV they are animated superheroes who solve problems for special agents, which are children who phone in to report strange goings on.

These problems are usually caused by any one of five Meanies and the colourful number characters then decide which number will help. That's the general gist of it anyway I think!

I will sum up the plot of the live show in the words of my 21-month-old daughter who has been repeating it since we left the theatre - "Number Taker. Number 4 caught in net. Rescued."

Anyhoo - in short, the number 4 was taken, appropriately enough by the Number Taker, and rescued by the Numberjacks, with the help of the audience.

The rescue involved something called Brain Gain which I think means thinking a lot! Apparently the last bit of Brain Gain left in the world anywhere was in Dunstable - which frankly made my head spin!

Personally, as an adult who doesn't really watch the show much (it usually coincides with 'dad time') I didn't always understand fully what was going on and could pick holes a mile wide in the plot - but it wasn't aimed at me so my judgement of this show comes from the look on V's face which was wonder and excitement and her engagement with it which was total!

To be fair, due to the nature of the TV series it is nigh on impossible to produce a seamless transition to the stage, not without a huge budget anyway!

So, the animated characters appear on a screen while two actors, playing characters called Jamie and Astra, tell the story and really throw themselves into it, keeping the action moving and getting the audience involved at every stage, singing, dancing and shouting. When the numbers do appear they are large padded shapes which don't talk but the young audience didn't seem to mind in the slightest.

However, what makes it a good children's show is that there's loads of audience participation - even for the adults - and when things go wrong, it's up to the children in the audience to solve the problems and put things right.

There are also a lot of pantomime elements such as "he's behind you" and even an ‘oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is’ so plenty of things to keep a boisterous audience busy.

Only two of the Meanies actually appear as characters in this show - Spooky Spoon, who keeps mixing things up and the Number Taker, who is exactly like the TV character and the spoon is a kind of puppet which appears to float thanks to the classic puppeteer in black effect.

The only thing I had been worried about beforehand was the fact that there are 'baddies' in this show and that they might be too scary.

I find the Numbertaker rather sinister myself and Spooky Spoon a bit strange but V is not bothered by them on telly so I hoped she would be OK seeing them in the flesh - so to speak. She was - although she still spoke about them all the time - and didn't stop talking about them afterwards and went to bed still talking about Spooky Spoon.

It's not a lavish production and don't expect to see the TV show completely recreated on stage but it's lively and fun and in my experience, if your child likes the TV series and/or enjoys the interactive elements of going to the theatre, it definitely does the job!

Perfect - Each half was just 30 minutes with a 15 minute interval.

Age range
The show is advertised at 2-5 and I think this is fair although there were older ones there - and younger ones too as V is not yet two and was fine. There were even younger ones there who had come with older siblings and there was nothing in it inappropriate for them.

V is now 21-months-old. She last went to a show three months ago and those few months have made a world of difference to her experience. At previous shows, she has always been enthralled but after about 15/20 minutes wanted to run around as well as watch. She watched this show either from her own seat (she looked so grown up - although I did have to hold the seat flap down with my leg to stop her getting folded up in it!) or from my lap and was totally into it from the word go, pointing, clapping, joining in the actions and, in true toddler style, giving 'mummy' a running commentary on everything that was going on! A job at News24 beckons I think!

Other stuff
I think they missed a trick with having no show merchandise for sale. As usual we were expecting to be fleeced and had budgeted for it. In some ways I'm pleased we weren't but pester power means that the show itself could have raked it in.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Justin Live!

Royal Spa Centre, Leamington Spa

27 July 2011 (11am)

Justin is something special!

Well, he has to be if he can get me sitting in the middle of a packed theatre full of pre-schoolers at 11.oo in the morning! Not on my own obv!

Four years ago today I was preparing for our wedding tomorrow with not even the slightest inkling of where I'd be sitting four years later! But there I was - with Mr FB and a toddler - at show watching a CBeebies fave! Who'd have thought?!

OK - I admit that I did get a hysterical fit of the giggles when Justin Fletcher burst onto the stage to an upbeat musical number and shouting "Hello Leamington Spa, are you ready to party?!" And I did mumble to Mr FB, "He's not flipping Robbie Williams, is he?!"

But as we settled into a show of songs and jokes, I saw the look on my littl'uns face and got 'with it', throwing myself into (well singing a little bit and clapping my hands) favourites such as If You're Happy and you Know It, The Hokey Cokey and Old MacDonald - my baa-ing sheep was a particular triumph!

I think if you don't have a child under three, the name of Justin Fletcher will mean diddly squat, but if you do, then he's likely to be a bit of a legend.

He is known for his slapstick routines and a wide range of characters in programmes such as Something Special - which was created for youngsters with learning difficulties but loved by all and Gigglebiz - a kind of pre-school Little Britain. He also won the first BAFTA ever given to a presenter of pre-school programmes for Something Special and in 2008 was awarded an MBE for services to children’s television.

He also voices Tweenies characters and Timmy Time and is pretty ubiquitous on CBeebies.

Indeed, my 17-month-old recognised him immediately on the stage and watched transfixed. Within minutes he was amongst the audience, standing on a chair two rows in front of her, singing and clapping as she looked up at him open mouthed, not quite believing that "Mr Tumble" was just feet away.

Justin has been recorded as saying that most children, including his own niece, think Mr Tumble is a separate character but he hasn't fooled my daughter - "Tumble dancing" she pronounced, even though he wasn't dressed as the clown - not much gets passed her and frankly freckles and a clown nose is not a heavy disguise!

She loved the nursery rhymes and the impressions of Gigglebiz faves (the time demands on a kids show wouldn't allow for full costumes and make-up) and seemed particularly entranced by his four backing dancers, dressed brightly and performing with an enthusiasm that only those in kids' shows seem to have!

He also went through all the animals using the Makaton sign language for children with learning difficulties which is used in Something Special and his slapstick humour had all the kids and a lot of the adults too laughing hysterically.

The show is just a presentation of sheer joy and I take my hat of to anyone who can sing and dance - and smile while they're doing it - at that time of the morning!

For those who have commented that I have changed - I haven't - as sitting in a theatre watching a show that is sold out and full of boisterous youngsters is not usually my ideal morning out.

But I thought the show was great and Justin is "something special" in terms of children's entertainment but I would rather it had been performed to just the three of us!

However, to see my little girl amazed by what she was seeing and not at all phased by three-year-olds running up and down the aisles, made it all worthwhile and I will put up with hundreds of screaming kids any time - just for her!

I am very pleased and proud at how well she's taken to live theatre although I think it will be a number of years before she's ready for Shakespeare as the RSC don't tend to look kindly on members of the audience giving a loud running commentary on what's happening on stage!

But bring on panto season - she's ready!!

Monday, 25 July 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

Wyndham's Theatre

23 July 2011 (Mat)

Much Ado about Tennant and Tate

It wasn't until I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream by the RSC at the Barbican at the age of 14 that I realised that Shakespeare's comedies might actually be funny. Reading them off the page in the classroom I thought that the words were very pretty but they certainly weren't hilarious. The RSC changed that for me.

Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndhams will surely do the same for anyone who feels the same as my young teenage self.

It's vibrant, fresh, funny (obv) and a genuine feel good production that is highly likely to bring a smile to even the sourest of faces.

Putting David Tennant and Catherine Tate together as Beatrice and Benedick works superbly. The chemistry they developed in Dr Who continues on the stage (so I'm told anyway as I gave up on the inexplicable plots of that series circa 1983!)

But Mr FB assures me that they made a good team on the telly and they certainly did in this Shakespeare as the comedy revolves around and between them with large dollops of well-timed slapstick in the eavesdropping scenes and fantastic timing and intonation of the lines throughout.

Tennant looks like he is clearly enjoying himself from the moment he enters in a golf buggy and donning a blonde wig and micro mini for the masked ball to the slapstick of the scene where he is tricked into thinking Beatrice loves him - the copious amounts of paint are worthy of any panto! But he also transforms superbly into a man in love - and someone that you would really want to love back!

Tate uses all her comedy talents and timing to the full to cleverly portray a woman who uses jokes as a defence against becoming emotionally detached. She teeters on the edge of looking like she might come out with an “Am I bovvered?” at any moment but thankfully she doesn't - although I'm sure that much of the audience would have howled with laughter in much the same way they did at anything remotely funny David Tennant did, be it spoken or merely a comic glance!

Director Josie Rourke has set the action in early 1980s Gibraltar where dashing Richard Gere in An Officer and A Gentlemen-esque navy officers - presumably high-spirited post-Falklands - trick B & B into falling in love.

I loved the 80s vibe, the clothes I thought I'd forgot, the characters at the masked ball from Adam Ant to Thatcher, Hero's replica Lady Di wedding dress, the music which very cleverly sounds like famous 80s tunes but aren't quite. Who'd have thought that "Sigh No More" and a "Hey Nonny Nonny" to a disco beat would actually work!

The plot, as so often in Shakespearean comedies is preposterous in parts, but the more modern setting actually makes part of it more believable than I have ever seen before.

Beatrice's cousin Hero has supposedly betrayed her fiance Claudio with another man the night before her wedding and because the action takes place mere decades ago as opposed to centuries, it allows for a raucous hen party scene which makes the whole thing more plausible, as Hero's maid, wearing her mistresses hen veil gets off with someone else at the disco!

Among the supporting cast Tom Bateman and Sarah MacRae are an attractive Claudio and Hero and John Ramm is another comic highlight as an actually funny Dogberry played as a jobsworth who thinks he's Rambo!

Sure there will be purists who will scoff and sneer but the fact is the theatre was full and the audience were enjoying themselves immensely on a day when laughter was in short supply elsewhere. It's a lot of FUN and if it gets more people to enjoy Shakespeare then that can only be a good thing!