Friday, 14 April 2017

42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London 8/4/17

When the film of 42nd Street first came out in 1933 America was experiencing the Great Depression, with stock markets depressed, millions out of work and businesses closing. The film itself was a huge success, with its optimistic feel good tone, it allowed people to escape their troubles and revel in a world where the good guys succeed. Of course the world has moved on and we've all become wiser with no need to worry, but if for some strange reason one feels the need for a night of unashamed feel good glitz, glamour and full on showbiz, where you can forget all the troubles of the world for a couple of hours, then 42nd Street will definitely deliver.

This latest revival makes its intentions clear from the start. The curtain of the huge stage at the Theatre Royal starts to rise, and then pauses, revealing a stage full of feet energetically tapping away and filling the theatre with sound (helped by the clever tactic of lead dancers legs being miked! ) 

The story itself is well known, a new musical is being prepared, the livelihoods of many people depend on its success, a star (but not much of a hoofer) has been chosen, mainly to bring in the backing money of her paramour, but is incapacitated and at the last minute. Step forward a plucky and talented chorus girl who is thrust into the spotlight to save the show. But to be honest this show isn't about the story, it's about the songs, the spectacle, and the total dazzling glamour. Subtle it ain't, but who cares when the entertainment factor is this good. 

The stage version is packed full of familiar songs (surprisingly the film actually only had four), and additional ones have I believe been added to show off the powerful voice of Sheena Easton playing the diva Dorothy Brock. Easton was excellent in the part, really nailing the comedic aspects of the role, and what a fantastic voice. Claire Hulse, as the out of town hopeful Peggy Sawyer, had a lovely eager innocence, and boy can that girl dance! 

The huge stage at the Theatre Royal is used to full effect, the cast is almost 50 strong and in the many big numbers it is chock full of energetic and talented performers, coupled with beautiful and breathtaking costumes, and oh so much sparkle! Each big set piece seems to be trying to outdo those that have gone before. Particular highlights included a Busby Berkeley style number where a huge mirror reflected the overhead view of the dancers to the audience, and the largest and most glamorous staircase I have ever seen (also one of the only shows I've been to where the set got a gasp and a round of delighted applause from the audience) 

This is a show that is unapologetic about its intentions to entertain and dazzle, and sometimes in life that is exactly what is required. It's toe tapping, outrageously sparkly and totally feel good and I imagine sign ups to tap classes will be soaring as a direct result of this revival. Glamour with a capital G and so much fun. Pure escapism. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Half a sixpence, 7/4/17, Noel Coward Theatre London

One of my favourite film musicals is Half a Sixpence. Many a rainy Sunday growing up was spent watching it, and I had a definite soft spot for Tommy Steele, so I was very excited to see this latest staging which had transferred to London from the renowned Chichester Festival Theatre.

In creating this new production, the writers revisited the original HG Wells novel, Kipps,  on which the show was based. This allowed them develop some of the characters further, and add new songs, adding depth to the show without losing its charm.

A massively hard working and talented cast work exceptionally well together to bring the story to life. In the big set pieces such as early number Look Alive, and old favourite Flash Bang Wallop, the lively and complex choreography is deftly delivered and joyous to behold. There is so much detail built in to the set pieces it could easily take multiple viewings, with each cast member really individualising their characters. In fact the only down side to this is the stage at the Noel Coward feels a little too small for such a lively, detailed and exuberant production. I would love to see it somewhere bigger like the Crucible in Sheffield.

The clever set quickly and effectively transforms into the various settings of the production, with extremely skilful but unobtrusive use of back projection blending seamlessly into the 'physical' set. 

Of an excellent ensemble, Bethany Huckle, as Flo, particularly shone with a comedic and warm hearted portrayal. Devon-Elise Johnson, was wonderful as Ann, but I did feel her character had room to be developed a little more in the writing.

Taking on the lead role of Arthur Kipps was the simply amazing relative newcomer Charlie Stemp. In the programme his biography was tiny compared to every other cast member, but his talent was huge. So athletic and energetic in the big numbers, a layered and engaging characterisation, incredible timing and a fantastic voice. He reminded me a little of Lee Evans in a way, which I know is a bit of a strange comparison. The posters had used phrases like 'a star is born' and it really was deserved here. An absolute privilege to witness this star turn from start to finish, yet he never overshadowed the production as a whole.

I would defy anyone not to have a smile on their face and a 'simple tune' in their heart after watching this joyful production, with a final hurrah ending that had the whole audience on their feet clapping and dancing along. Just wonderful stuff, and dare I say it, much better than my beloved film (sorry Tommy!) 

Monday, 2 January 2017

Failed Resolutions and a round up of my year!

Every year I start off with good intentions when it comes to my theatre adventures – I ­will do a blog for everything I see. Every year these good intentions fall by the wayside. 

There are many reasons for this, lack of time being the main one, but also others. If I found a production just OK its sometimes a bit hard to think of anything to say. If it was downright awful, as a blogger rather than a paid critic I can choose to say nothing at all. If I’ve left it a while after seeing a show it is hard to get started, no matter how good the show was. And sometimes it can begin to feel distracting when you fall into the mindset of ‘what can I say about this’ during the performance rather than enjoying in the moment. 

I do tend to put more effort into smaller productions, as it is sometimes harder for them to get the publicity from the ‘proper’ critics. Although the Manchester Fringe scene seems to be getting better at this, particularly Hope Mill Theatre, which is getting some well-deserved attention from the big names, and has an exciting programme to look forward to in 2017. 

2016 has been an extremely poor year for blogging, I’ve personally had a lot on my plate, but I’ve also been a bit lazy with it. I've had a gradually increasing pile of theatre programmes and tickets scattered by my bedside trying to shame me in to pulling my finger out, but it hasn't worked!

But I do regret the ‘ones that got away’ because this blog serves as a useful reminder to me of the theatre jaunts I experienced. So I’m going to attempt a whistle stop tour of the year  in the next few posts, with links to those that actually got ‘properly written up’ (some of which I’m only now getting round to pressing ‘publish’ on) and maybe a line or two on others.

So here goes - read on for

2016 Round Up Part Four - September to December


A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal Exchange was another star vehicle for Maxine Peake in her portrayal of the complex but fragile Blanche Dubois on a very minimalist set. I wrote about it here.

Later in the month I had to go down to London for a work trip so extended the stay by a night so I could shoehorn in some theatre. On the Friday on a whim I decided to go and see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before it closed. Not my normal type of thing for a solo visit, but I did enjoy it and my hearing has just about recovered from the over amplification. I wrote a post about it here.

Then the next day, I was walking past the Theatre Royal and noticed that they did tours. They were very cheap; I think it was about £10, and excellent value. An actor took us round many areas of the theatre, gave us loads of history, folklore and backstage secrets – a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable hour.

Before I travelled home that day I managed to fit in a second visit to The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre. I saw this in 2015 originally, just before it won all its awards and before Mischief theatre embarked on their world domination plan (currently three shows in the west end, one on Broadway, one due to tour next year and Christmas shows on Radio 2 and BBC1!) It was just as funny second tie round with a different cast, even knowing what disasters were about to befall the ‘amateur production’.


I don’t appear to have gone to the theatre in October – how unexpected!


Another trip to Hope Mill Theatre in November to see writer / performer Laura Lindsay’s latest work Parallel.  Superb three hander that I discussed in full here. I Would have loved to have seen that show more than once.

I also experienced an excellent work in central Manchester that was put on in conjunction with the Contact Theatre, Lookout. Such an interesting and thought provoking concept that is hard to describe but I had a go here

Breaking the Code at the Royal Exchange theatre was seen that same afternoon. Focussing on elements of the life of Professor Alan Turing this was an interesting show. Daniel Rigby was excellent in the role of Alan, with a strong supporting cast. The set was very inventive and worked well to keep the pace engaging. The narrative was structured as a number of snapshots of Turing’s life; his introduction to Bletchley, his relationship with his mother and colleagues, elements of his post Bletchley life and the impact of his death on his mother. But each just felt like a fleeting glimpse and I longed for it to explore one or more of the themes in more depth. 

Finally in November a new play from two first time playwrights Jackie Thompson and Anna Wood, Fallout, at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. This was an interesting, moving, funny but at times unsettling play about the relationships between a group of women who have gathered for the hen night of one of them. The first half covers a drunken night of partying, revelations and resentments, the second half deals with the fallout from the night before, and then a threat of a very different kind that draws them all together. It was a really strong cast and an interesting premise, which had been devised and delivered by an all Northern, all female cast, crew and creative team.


I rounded off the year with a trip over to Sheffield to see this year’s offering at the Crucible, Annie Get Your Gun.  Sheffield always put on a great Christmas musical and this year was no exception. The fantastic sets, wonderful music and talented, hard working cast combined to deliver a barnstormer of a show telling the tale of sharp shooter Annie Oakley’s rise to stardom and her rivalry and romance with showman Frank Butler. It’s one of those musicals that, even if you’ve never seen it, like me, you know most of the songs. Anna Jane Casey was wonderful in the role of the gunslinger Annie, playing nicely off the somewhat pompous Frank (Ben Lewis). A true festive treat that rounded off my theatre year nicely.

2016 Round Up Part Three - July and August


The Mighty Walzer at the Royal Exchange was a fun adaptation of Howard Jacobson’s novel about growing up in the Jewish community in Manchester in the 1950s that billed itself as a ‘riotous tale of growing up, sex and ping pong’. There were some lovely performances in this production, especially from Elliot Levey as Oliver Walzer and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Sadie Walzer.


August proved a bumper month, mainly because I used my birthday as an excuse for a few treats which started with a trip to London for a whole weekend of theatre shenanigans.

First up was the new Tim Minchin musical, Groundhog Day at the Old Vic which I loved! I really wished I’d written up my thoughts about this at the time (actually I did but I can’t find them so a longer blog may follow one day!) I wondered how they would adapt the film for stage, if anything they made it better. The story is the same, albeit darker at times when weatherman Phil Connors realises his predicament and goes from confusion, to exploitation, despair and finally acceptance and learning. The writing is as clever as you would expect from Minchin, and the cast worked so well together with such clever choreography to portray the repetition. The staging and set were excellent, there was some very impressive sleight of hand, and what appeared to be one of the most complex revolves I’ve ever seen (I was below stage level, but people seemed to be going in all kinds of directions!)

Andy Karl in the lead role as Phil was charismatic and hilarious; the whole cast so hard working and tightly rehearsed. I saw it at preview and had a minor quibble about the sound balance as the words were a bit drowned out in some of the livelier numbers, and Minchin’s lyrics should never be drowned out, but I’m sure they would have sorted that for opening. I’d really love to see it again so here’s hoping it returns to the UK again. 

Next on the London list was a 'booked on the day at half price' visit to see Hobson’s Choice at the Vaudeville. The lead actor Martin Shaw was indisposed, but his part was more than adequately taken by John Vernon. This was a funny, unchallenging play and I particularly enjoyed Bryan Dick as Willie Mossop.

Next up to round off the trip a Sunday matinee to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see the Fiasco Theatre production of Into The Woods which had come over from New York. The Menier is a very intimate space and this production suited it perfectly. It was a perfectly pared back production, the set was like the backstage area at a theatre, or an attic, and the small cast of ten brought the story to life, including providing all the music, quite magically and inventively. Of all the versions of Into The Woods that I have seen this was the funniest, most moving and delightful and the cast were so talented and totally broke down the wall between performers and audience. Very special indeed.

Away from London, the last of my birthday excuse trips was over to Sheffield to see Magneto and Xavier (ok McKellen and Stewart) do Pinter in No Man’s Land at the Lyceum. I wrote it up here. I did enjoy this masterclass in acting, but I’m afraid I hadn’t a clue what was going on at times. Maybe you have to be a certain type of educated person to ‘get’ Pinter!

Part Four here

2016 Round Up Part Two - April to June


King Lear at the Royal Exchange starring Don Warrington was excellently done, but I didn’t find it as striking as the version I saw a few years ago with Derek Jacobi in the lead role. I remember finding the King’s decent into madness a little one level, but this production was raved about in the press and it was filmed by BBC 4 and broadcast over Christmas so maybe I should watch it again. It was certainly easy to follow which not all Shakespeare productions are.

In total contrast to the seriousness of Lear, April also saw a jaunt down to London to see The Book of Mormon, something I’d wanted to see for a while but baulked at the ticket prices. It truly was worth every penny, totally hilarious from start to finish, very rude and amazing production values. I have written this one up fully as a separate post. 

Just before travelling home from London I managed to fit in a matinee of The Comedy about a Bank Robbery at the Criterion. It was in early preview and personally I thought it could have been pacier in the first act, but knowing the pedigree of Mischief Theatre I’m sure it has evolved further since then. It had all the trademark humour and inventiveness I have come to expect from the company together with clever stunts that make you wonder how no one gets hurt! A lot of the original cast that I saw from The Play That GoesWrong in 2015 were in this new show, but it was different in that this was a ‘proper’ narrative not a play within a play. Highly entertaining.


May saw my first visit to the new and very lovely Manchester Venue, Hope Mill Theatre, to see Parade, quickly followed by my second to see it again. I apologise to anyone who had to deal with the sight of my crying proper snotty tears during the second performance. It was a truly stunning production of a heartbreaking show. The full blog is here


The Night Watch, at the Royal Exchange was a very engaging adaptation of the Sarah Waters book. Jodie McNee’s central performance was mesmerising. I wrote about the production briefly here.

June also saw a return visit to Manchester from Anu Productions, who presented On Corporation Street at Home. Like their previous production Angel Meadow, this was a site specific promenade performance, but this time based around the Home site, often in hidden backstage spaces. It was based on people’s experiences of the 1996 Manchester bomb, both those impacted by it – nurses, wedding parties, workers etc, and those who helped to orchestrate it. The audience were split into groups and each group had a slightly different route and experience. It was an interesting and intimate experience, although it was hard not to compare it with Angel Meadow where I felt completely immersed, here I always felt like an observer.

Part Three here