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!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

In The Night Garden Live

The Pinky Ponk Show

Showdome, Woburn Abbey

18 June 2011 (1pm)

A real trip to a surreal world!

The thought of taking a toddler to the theatre is enough to fill anyone with a sense of dread, especially when you are the parent of a child who is only still for any length of time when she's asleep - or watching In The Night Garden on the telly!

Would the live version have the same soporific effect?!

Well, I am delighted to report that V's long-awaited first trip to the theatre was a resounding success, no crying, no running around at 100mph and, thankfully, no demolishing of the set!

This is probably because the it's not just the show that's for children. The entire theatre, which is an inflatable dome, is designed for children. There is a buggy park, a microwave for heating up baby food and loads of baby changing facilities.

The "seats" are rows of steps which are tiered perfectly so that if an excitable toddler wants to stand up they can still see, and there's also lots of room between the rows for children to move about if they need to. This may sound like a nightmare to some but if you're there with kids you'll understand how good this is and you wouldn't really be there without them would you!

The inflatable showdome also looks exciting as you arrive. I thought it looked like a giant white maggot but Mr FB was kinder as he thought it resembled meringue nests. As you walk in there are projections on the ceiling as the Pinky Ponk flies by and you do really feel like you're going INTO the Night Garden.

The show itself is excellent and children see all the characters that they know and love - Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy, Makka Pakka, the Tombliboos and the Pontipines which all appear either as costumed characters or human animations. There is also a Ninky Nonk and Pinky Ponk while the Titifers and Hah Hoos appear as projections on the ceiling and back wall.

The perspective that you get on the telly is reproduced really well. For example when Makka Pakka first appears, he (????) is huge, but when he is in a scene with the larger Iggle Piggle, a smaller puppet is used so you really get a sense of each character's size in relation to each other.

It's all very clever and well thought out and intelligently brings to life the world that is so familiar on the telly. There are also very high production values that sadly are sometimes skimped upon in other shows because it's "just for children".

But the most important question to answer is what did a 16-month-old think of it? Well, she loved it! It really warmed my heart to see her little face as it all began - sheer wonderment at the magic of it all. In fact at one point I even found myself fighting back the tears at seeing her so happy. I had wondered if she would be un-nerved by the noise and lights but not at all, she took to it all straight away.

The show is 50 minutes long which is quite a while for a child of her age to sit for but, amazingly for her - and tellingly - she sat really well for well over half of it and it was only in the last 20 minutes that she wanted to get up. Even then, it was just to stand and watch - and dance - so enthralled was she!

There was also some delightful shouting out on her part which was a joy because it showed how engaged she was with the show. There was pointing, waving, clapping, the shouting out of characters names and bidding farewell to each of them as they left the stage. (I'm sure she'll grow out of this though - shouting out "Bye, bye Hamlet" may not go down too well at the National!

And it wasn't just her. I'm afraid that I couldn't really contain myself either. I cheered when the characters came on and sang along with the songs - and this is from someone who won't even clap along to the music at a curtain call of a normal musical. I have no idea what's happened to me, but I'm not complaining!

As I had done a few interviews on the show in the week before, we were lucky enough to join some competition winners on the stage afterwards to meet the cast. This was the icing on the cake as for V it was like meeting a popstar!

She stroked Iggle Piggle and immediately engaged in conversation with Upsy Daisy - touching the character's nose and saying "nose". Upsy Daisy then also touched her nose and nodded - I think that this may have been V's first attempt at an interview! If so, she's a natural!

I had been really looking forward to this trip but at the same time was slightly worried about how it would go. It turned out that choosing this show for her first taste of dramatic art was a very smart move, and I only hope that it's just the start for her and that a lifelong appreciation of the theatre will follow!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Blood Brothers

Grove Theatre, Dunstable

23 May 2011

Blood, sweat and many tears

It happens every single time. I have actually lost count of the number of times that I have seen Blood Brothers. I know exactly what is going to happen and many of the lines but I still flipping cry my eyes out.

I am not normally one for multiple visits to shows unless it is truely special or has a particularly impressive cast but I make an exception for Willy Russell's wonderful piece of drama. For I'd rather call it that than a musical. It is a very powerful and emotional play, it just so happens that most of the lines are sung.

So - why is it so special?

Well, although the opening scene hints that it’s not exactly going to be a happy ending, to start with the simple, witty lyrics and lighthearted scenes imply that it is a feel good musical. It draws you into the world of the families it portrays, lulling you into a false sense of security, until it twists in the second half and turns into tragedy. But by then it’s too late - you’re completely sucked in. It really is an emotional rollercoaster!

OK, the plot may sound a bit corny. Set in Liverpool. Twins separated at birth and brought up in different environments, one rich and one poor. They grow up different – but also the same. They meet by chance and, guess what, become firm friends!

But the mothers try to keep them apart because, in fear that she will lose her son, the adoptive mother has told the real one that if the boys ever find out, they will die. It could therefore easily dissolve into cliché and sentimentality but it doesn’t. It’s heartbreaking.

It doesn’t sound very cheery does it? But it is, it’s also very funny!

In Willy Russell’s own inimitable style, the Scouse wit is beautifully timed and some of the most enjoyable scenes are where the adult actors play seven-year-olds in all their innocence. But ultimately it is the humour of the piece that makes the finale all the more shattering.

The character that embodies this change is Mickey, and in this production, as it has been many times before, he is played by Sean Jones who puts in a performance that can only be described as blimming marvellous!

I was so pleased to find that Blood Brothers was coming to Dunstable but I was ecstatic to find that Jones had returned to the cast, for in my opinion he is the best Mickey ever!

I first interviewed him about it in 2004 after seeing his performance and he had already been in the show a while. Since then he has appeared on tour and in the West End on and off for years - to me he IS Mickey!

His transformation from a lovable and witty scally to a man totally broken by his circumstances is nothing short of brilliant! His delivery and timing is flawless, his breakdown heartrending, and it is mostly down to him that I have to scurry through the foyer at the end to the safety of the
darkness of the car park at the end of every show I've seen him in!

In this production Mrs Johnstone is played by Nikki Evans, the 2007 X Factor finalist. As the mother who has to separate her twins so that her family can survive, she put her all into the role and it is clear that in musical theatre she has found a better niche than pop superstardom. And as Leon Jackson won that series, I definitely think she got the better deal - pop superstardom didn't await the winner anyway!

I thought at the start, that showing the end first could spoil things but I was wrong. It just heightens the tension, because throughout the ‘we’re poor but we’re happy’ atmosphere, there is also a foreboding feeling of inevitability, that they are tumbling ever faster towards disaster.

Like the secret that hangs over the families, the Narrator (Craig price) lurking in nearly every scene, not in the forefront, but nevertheless there, also gives you the feeling that the past just won’t go away.

There are other little clues to the final conclusion throughout the show, as the imaginary guns turn to toy guns and eventually real and deadly ones.

On the face of it, one may be tempted to think that it is all about the class divide. It is a bit, but I think it’s more than that. As the two mothers try desperately to keep the twins apart for the rest of their lives, the more they seemed forced together.

It is a good example of self-fulfilling prophecy, showing that if you believe in superstitions enough they will come true, especially, if it’s you that’s made them up in the first place. It’s a good study in how much control we actually have over our own lives.

What playwright Willy Russell has always done so well is combine being critically acclaimed with being populist. This is because he not only puts together well-crafted plays with layers of meaning, he also writes about real people with all their humour and their tragedy.

We can empathise with them because we understand them. In Blood Brothers they may have a firm Liverpudlian voice, with its dry wit and bare humanity, but the emotions that they experience can be recognised by anybody.

Another thing that I like about this as a musical is that you don’t get bits of speech that sound like a cue for a song. The dialogue and the music melt seemlessly into one another as if this was totally natural. This is probably a result of one man doing the whole thing, book, lyrics and music.

And most importantly, after a big "number" as such, the next piece of action starts immediately, there is no interuption for applause which serves to keep the rollercoaster on track with no respite.

The show has been running for over 20 years in the West End and on tour, it simply doesn't date. Even if it is set in the 60s/70s, the costumes are pretty generic, situations, such as umemployment, are still recognisable and the emotions are universal.

Think I'd better stop now - although I could wax lyrical for a few more hundred words given the chance!

Interview with Sean Jones in 2004:

Sunday, 20 March 2011

King Lear

Milton Keynes Theatre

Saturday 19 March 2011 (MAT)

The king of Lears

I am embarrassed to admit that I spent a good ten minutes at work last week, explaining how the tunes to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep and the Alphabet song were essentially the same. (Bet you're all singing them now?!)

I have officially turned into the sort of person that I used to want to slap - very hard - so when one of my colleagues said that he thought I was in desperate need of seeing some Shakespeare, he was relieved to hear that I was actually going to see King Lear this very Saturday! And I was relieved to be going!

This wasn't just any old King Lear. Oh no. This was probably the best version of it that have ever seen. It had the fabulous Sir Derek Jacobi in the title role, the perfect antidote to Cbeebies - or so you would think!

I have seen and loved Sir Derek in many productions in the past including Richard III, Twelfth Night, Lear and Beckett but I have to confess that I couldn't help hearing him in my head saying "Iggle Piggle's not in bed" while he was proclaiming "I am a man more sinned against than sinning" as his chief role in my life at the moment is as the narrator of "In the Night Garden", the saviour of parents everywhere!

But I soon forgot about his other job and remembered that he is a GREAT classical actor - if not the greatest living one at the moment - as I became fully immersed in the plight of this arrogant, cruel yet tortured character.

I had also worried that having three hours sitting quietly in the dark was such a novelty that I may use it as a chance to drop off but when you are confronted by fine actors, skillfully producing a very moving rendition of what is ultimately a pretty harrowing play, the last thing I wanted to do was sleep! Not everyone's idea of a fun Saturday afternoon but my goodness, I needed it!

The play focuses on an old English king who suffers a reversal of his fortunes at the hands of his daughters after he divides up his kingdom amongst them.

What I really liked was the effect of the set which was just dappled white boards. There was no fussy furniture except for the odd stool, and props were at a minimum so your full attention was on the words and the acting. The play could create its own world through the words of Shakespeare and the performances of the actors.

There was no room for mistake or tedium and there was neither because Michael Grandage's production moves at quite a pace with no messing about and the performances are detailed and strong.

The production of course is driven by Jacobi's Lear who clearly shows the contadictions of the character while still managing to gain a certain sympathy from the audience. He is arrogant, self-indulgent and cruel but ends up broken and there's a real poignancy to his decline, his fear of madness is touching and his reunion with Cordelia, played by the wonderful Pippa Bennet-Warner) is tender.

While Jacobi is the natural centre of things, he is fully supported by an excellent cast. Gina McKee's Goneril is cold and calculating but somehow sensual while Justine Mitchell's Regan seems on the face of it to be a bit of a goody goody but at the same time is rather TOO excited by Gloucester's blinding.

Paul Jesson as Gloucester perfectly captures that irony of the man who really begins to see when he loses the use of his eyes and there's a touching sadness to Ron Cook's Fool.

Sadly the phrase "great tragedy" has been used often in these past weeks to mean something undeniably painful. I want to reclaim the phrase. This production is GREAT tragedy, which ironically is incredibly uplifting.

And one of the most uplifting things about this production is that actors of such magnitude are prepared to appear in the regions rather than stay holed up in the safety of the big smoke.

I got home just in time for Sir Derek to announce that everybody in the surreal and enchanting world of the Night Garden was now in bed - the man is a legend!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Great Expectations

Watford Palace Theatre

25 February 2011

Expectations fulfilled

Charles Dickens is such a fabulous storyteller that the less an adapter does to his work the better so I was pleased that Tanika Gupta kept to the same basic story in her version of Great Expectations - just put it somewhere else.

In Dickens' novel, Pip has an encounter with a convict and is then given the chance to better himself when asked to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham.

He begins to dream of being more than the working class boy that he is and when he is told he has an anonymous benefactor he begins to pursue his dream of becoming a gentleman, because he thinks that this will win him the heart of Miss Havisham's adopted daughter, the heartless Estella.

In her stage adaptation, Gupta has picked up this story and put it down in India during the time of the British Raj of 1861 and in doing so imparts a more specific message than just a critique of the British justice system that Dickens original work is often thought to be.

Instead of being a poor English boy, Pip is now a poor Indian boy - except with a Northern accent!

Magwitch is now a black convict instead of a white one, Miss Haversham is the same but represents colonial harshness and the haughty Estelle is mixed race.

It is the same tale but the emphasis is on Pip becoming an English gentleman, rather than merely a gentleman. Therefore the message at the end is pretty clear. In his desire to move up a class, improve his status and therefore become more socially acceptable, he has left his heritage and cultural identity behind and not been true to himself.

Nikolai Foster’s production for the English Touring Theatre is well-performed and moves on a pace from scene to scene although I did feel that the energy dipped at the beginning of the second half - or maybe that was just mine!

Tariq Jordan handled the role of Pip with great care, skillfully maturing from 12-year-old to young adult, to young adult with a posh English accent! He was rarely off the stage but his performance never flagged.

He was supported by a strong ensemble cast. Jude Akuwudike’s Magwitch commanded the stage in every scene he was in while Tony Jayawardena's lovely, caring Joe Gargery and Giles Cooper’s very posh Herbert Pocket also stood out for me.

Lynn Farleigh’s Miss Havisham was the epitomy of faded glamour and Simone James was suitably irritating in her coldness towards Pip, but still not half as annoying as Becca in EastEnders, a role for which, at the moment, she is chiefly known.

This really is a very interesting and enjoyable version of the tale which also highlights how many of its themes are universal and can be relevant to any place and time. Gupta has also brought out the comedy of the story which is always a winner in my book!

It makes for a very entertaining evening but, as with all stage adaptations of great works of literature, it doesn't come close to the enriching experience of reading the original prose.

Read my interview with Tariq Jordan:

Legally Blonde

Savoy Theatre

24 February 2011 (Mat)

Pretty in pink!

Omigod! Legally Blonde is camp and preposterous but purely and simply a lot of fun! And it's also a vast improvement on the film - and MUCH funnier!

Somehow you can get away with what is basically a fairly ludicrous story if you sing and dance your way through it with boundless enthusiasm while keeping your tongue firmly planted in your cheek! And use LOTS of pink. Everywhere!

"Blonde" Elle (Nicola Brazil) is heartbroken when her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Simon Thomas) is accepted by Harvard to read law. So she gets accepted there too by doing a bit of work but mostly, it seems, by doing a cheerleader routine! She then goes about trying to win him back, befriending older student Emmet (Alex Gaumond) and Paulette (Sorelle Marsh), a hairdresser obssessed with the Irish, along the way! Even the final case is decided after a lesson in hair care rather than precedent!

The tunes are chirpy, the lyrics genuinely funny, the terrific dance routines embrace a number of styles from a skipping rope number to spoof Riverdance and there are two very cute dogs who do what they're told, much to the delight of an audience who seemed to have never seen an obedient dog before!

Director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell makes sure it's pacy and frothy. As far as the music, by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, is concerned, there isn't a big anthem that you remember and I couldn't sing any of the tunes now but they are all really enjoyable and fit the story well. And I can remember what I enjoyed - "Gay or European?" was a particular fave!

As the lead, Nicola Brazil was perky and had bags of vitality and warmth. Sometimes I don't think that understudies get the recognition they deserve. They are not second best, they are often just "not a name" - yet! The same goes for Lincoln Stone as Professor Callaghan who was just the right combination of suave yet harsh.

Sorelle Marsh was the "alternate" Paulette, (I don't know why they don't just say understudy to be honest - I'm sure Denise VO isn't off that much!) and she was fun and sassy. Her falling for UPS man (Chris Ellis-Stanton) was one of the highlights of the show, even if he did steal every scene he was in!

The rest of the main characters also didn't disappoint. Who couldn't have failed to fall for the slightly dishevelled, kind and caring Alex Gaumond? Simon Thomas as Warner as suitably self-centred although I would have fallen for his singing voice every time.

They were all ably suported by a well-drilled and talented ensemble who all looked as though they were having the time of their lives and believe me, this DOES make a difference!

It was also good to see a lot of young people in the audience - even if they were mostly girls! Although I did wonder why two of them spent ages before curtain up, in their seats in front of me, carefully doing each other's make-up. Oh to be that age again, when you make the effort to look good even when the lights are about to go out!

It's funny, feel good and fizzes pink like once of those pink bomb things that you put in the bath! In short, a brilliant pick me up for this day and age!

But the message at the end of "To thine own self be true" is one that couldn't fail to touch me. Elle may have originally followed the path to Harvard because of a man but she followed her heart, and what can be more truthful than that?!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella

Milton Keynes Theatre

22 February 2011

Cinders sets stage alight!

I love Matthew Bourne.

He is probably most famous for subverting the traditional and making dance accessible to those who might think it too high-brow. In his Cinderella, he does all this again in great style.

so, forget Pumpkin coaches, Ugly Sisters, little ponies, and, in my view a rather petulant and shallow heroine who spurns the warm-hearted Buttons for the riches and looks of Prince Charming, Matthew Bourne has set his Cinderella during the London Blitz and in doing so has, unlike pantomime, got a story firmly planted in realism with characters that you care about.

In this production, a grey and dowdy Cinders (Kerry Biggin) is downtrodden not by just two ugly sisters but a plethora of stepbrothers and stepsisters, one of whom seems to be doing a very passable impression of David Walliams as he rather unsettlingly pursues her with his strange obsession with sparkly shoes!

The dysfunctional family are led by Michela Meazza's vampish stepmother. She is made temporarily glamorous by a "fairy godfather" or guardian angel (Christopher Marney) and falls for an RAF pilot (Sam Archer) who gets wounded.

It all takes place on another amazing Lez Brotherstone set full of bombed, skeletal buildings. The scene where the bombing of the Cafe de Paris happens in reverse so that the smoking ruins become, once again, an elegant, glittering dance hall is just brilliant - a little reminiscent of the opening scene of Titanic.

In that hall, the ensemble dance almost as if their lives depend on it, high kicking and falling in wild abandonment.

This evocative setting works brilliantly with the sombre score - which was actually written during the war - and if you think that you can't jive and lindy hop to Prokofiev, then you'd be wrong! The sounds of bombs falling and anti-aircraft fire all add to the atmos.

In the lead roles, Kerry Biggin is touching and vulnerable in glasses and a cardy and Sam Archer is full of both tenderness and panache. Angel Marney is just terrific and joy to watch.

Their post-coital love duet was a new one on me because they hadn't "done the business" in any version that I'd seen before! But it really captures the heightened emotional feeling of a time where people knew that life was precarious and so acted on impulse.

Also, in a new twist, after the ball, instead of wandering the land trying to find a foot that fits the shoe, the airman wanders through a world of women of the night and ne'er do wells searching for his lost love before they are reunited in a hospital.

All in all the magical elements of a familiar story are stripped away, leaving a more believable story that still has that fairytale feel.

Bourne says that the show is a tribute to his dad who survived the Blitz but died in 2010. I like to think it's also a fitting tribute to all those who sat through the nightly assaults in their homes across the UK.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Milton Keynes Theatre

25 January 2011

Chess not stale, mate. Yet!

Before I start, I just want to explain the 19 month gap in proceedings! The arrival of Forest Chick last February and the 8-9 months before that meant that I have been virtually nowhere or done anything and – what I have done, I haven’t had time to write about!

But now – I’m back! And here’s my first offering since “Never Forget” in June 2009 – a production that I felt sick throughout, and only realised why a week later!

Chess is one of those shows where you have to separate your thoughts about the actual production with your thoughts about the story / concept.

With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA fame, this touring production directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, looks great, is stylish, has a handful of good songs and very strong performances – but the show itself – well, frankly it’s a bit tedious. I thought that the game of chess was an odd choice for a musical when I first saw it 20-odd years ago and my perception hasn’t really changed.

I’m pretty sure that the game is somehow used as a metaphor for life, about strategies and how one action can affect another but to be honest I wasn’t inspired to consider this like I would an Ibsen, because I didn’t really care!

The Cold War element that was in recent history in the early 80s seemed to be really played down in favour of the love story.

It’s not until about 15 minutes before the interval that the love triangle angle emerges (always a winner!) so before that I was beginning to think that another game might have provided more interest and tension – Buckeroo perhaps!

Nevertheless, because I wasn’t interested in the story for the first hour, I was able to concentrate on the staging which I loved.

It’s all black and white (obv really!) but the costumes and feel are like a cross between Kafka and Tim Burton and are in a bondage type style which I felt updated the 80s musical well, as did the video wall which helps to set the location for each scene. (Or you can look in the programme!)

The performers also play all the instruments as well, something which always fascinates me, and rather than this looking clumsy, which it can do sometimes, it is seamless.

You can definitely hear the ABBA influence throughout, especially as some of it could be Eurovision material, but the handful of good songs really are good – “Anthem”, “Pity The Child”, “Heaven Help My Heart”, “Nobody’s Side” and the most famous, “I Know Him So Well”. The rest is more operatic than rock musical so if that’s your bag, you’ll love it!

There are some very strong performances by the principle characters, with the actors all being solid and experienced performers rather than big names who can’t cut it.

James Fox was excellent in the role of Freddy Trumper, and his performance of “Pity The Child” nearly took the roof off, as did Daniel Koek’s rendition of “Anthem”.

He has an amazing voice and is much better suited to playing Anatoly, a Russian chess player than he was when he played Tony in West Side Story where, if I remember correctly, I described him as being a bit like a school teacher.

Shona White who plays Elaine Paige – sorry, Florence - also had a voice that travelled to my very core.

Luckily the voices deflected from the story – maybe I over analyse things too much but Florence seemed to bin Freddie for Anatoly rather TOO quickly! And personally - I would have stuck with Freddie!

The rest of the cast all provided excellent support although I was a little disappointed that in some of the ensemble numbers I couldn’t always hear the words, which kind of spoiled my main sport in a Tim Rice musical, which is spotting the unfeasible lyrics. But luckily I picked out his rhyming of “consul” with “response’ll” which made my evening!

This is production proves that the show isn’t stale – but could probably be an hour shorter!

But – while I have mixed feelings about the show, whatever I saw on the stage, it was really nice to be out!