Category Archives: Musicals

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

(reviewed at the Watford Colosseum on 10 February)

It’s the first of the great Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborations – and it’s stood the test of time. This new tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has a fresh cast headed by X-Factor finalist Lloyd Daniels in the title role. Bill Kenwright’s production has been designed for touring by Sean Cavanagh with a double staircase taking up most of the stage, perhaps rather too much of it for the performers’ comfort.

Daniels radiates the right sort of boyish energy coupled with naiveté as Joseph and acts as well as sings his numbers. We have to wait until Act Two to encounter Matt Lapinskas’s Elvis-inspired Pharaoh, but it’s worth the wait. Also noteworthy are Henry Metcalfe (the choreographer) as patriarch Jacob and pontificating Potipher (two men alike blinkered) and Camilla Rowland (the possessor of legs which certainly make their point) as Potipher’s wife.

Rebekah Lowings as the Narrator links the scenes as well as providing some of the best singing in the show. There are stand-out cameos by Andrew Bateup as Pharaoh’s butler and Marcus Ayton as his cook, initially facing the same bleak future. Bateup also plays Reuben and Ayton is Judah. The children’s chorus in the Watford performances came from the Stagecoach schools.

This is the piece of through-composed music theatre in which Lloyd Webber relaxes and has great fun – which the audience fully shares – with different popular genres. So, as well as the rock numbers for Pharaoh, we have the country’n’western “One more angel in heaven” and the second act calypso, complete with appropriate costume accessories. “Any dream will do” is, of course the show-stopper.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 2 and 6 June.

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 13 October)

Recycling is generally considered to be a good thing. There are however moments when one feels that the musical theatre is just overloading the system. I’ve lost count of the number of musicals just over the past decade which have been based on films, let alone actual stage plays or indeed novels.

The latest to come my way is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, based on a 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin. The music and lyrics are by David Yazbek and the book by Jeffrey Lane; the original story – about conmen preying on rich women holidaying on the French Riveria – has been tweaked and updated. Yazbek’s lyrics have some clever line endings and allusions.

One of the conmen is a middle-aged smoothie Lawrence Jameson (Kevin Stephen-Jones at the performance I saw) who is well practised in his “art”. His first victim is Muriel Eubanks (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who drifts from Laurence to his factotum André Thibault (Gary Wilmot). Then along comes tyro Freddy Benson (Noel Sullivan), eager not just to learn the tricks of the trade from a master but to surpass him.

if Lawrence is happy to shake off Oklahoma heiress Jolene Oakes (Phoebe Coupe), all gun-toting and boot-stomping, both men fall for Christine Colgate (Carley Stenson). Stephen-Jones is most effective as the Viennese “doctor” Shüffhausen in one of Lawrence’s more desperate ploys to get the girl; otherwise he’s convincing enough without taking as much of the centre-stage as he should.

Sullivan somewhat over-eggs Freddy – you don’t feel that he deserves even a half-share in Christine. Stenson and Fitzgerald both come over well, though for me the most interesting and convincing performance was that of Wilmot. Jerry Mitchell’s direction and choreography are both fast-moving. Costumes are by Peter McKintosh, and some of those for the women principals and dance ensemble are very attractive. The ten-piece band is directed by Ben Van Tienen.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 17 October. It also plays at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend between 10 and 14 November.

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Parkway Dreams

(reviewed at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 2 September)

Inspiration for a musical can come from some odd places, but Eastern Angles’ artistic director Ivan Cutting is probably correct when he suspects that Parkway Dreams is the first to take town planning as a theme. Newly revised and about to launch itself on a national tour, this is an altogether tauter show than in its previous incarnation.

The story revolves around the evolution of Peterborough, when the then Ministry of Town and Country Planning – seeking to solve the post-war housing crisis – latched upon the ideas of garden city movement pioneer Ebenezar Howard (unlike most theorists, Howard’s vision had actually translated into reality, in the shape of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities).

Selected for one of these overspill schemes was the ancient cathedral city of Peterborough, known to the Romans and housing the tomb of Catherine of Aragon. We follow the dispute and Council wranglings as consultant planner drew up his draft plans and gradually won support. Robert Jackson makes him a sympathetic visionary, not the easiest type of character to pull off.

A fictional human story is introduced with Jack (Matt Ray Brown) and his wife Mary (Polly Naylor). They’ve been bambed out of their London home, jobs for de-mobbed ex-servicemen are thin on the ground and they both want a better future for their son Peter. Not that new-build Peterborough is all sweetness and light, for all its grassy spaces, educational opportunities and leisure facilities. Factories, even new ones, do close and have to lay-off staff.

“The Peterborough Effect” goes the slogan and turns into the best musical number in Simon Egerton’s score. The fast-moving script is by Kenneth Emson, based on eye-witness testimony treated by him and Cutting with just the right lightness of touch. Documentary theatre this may be, but it manages to wear that pedigree with carefree aplomb. Charlie Cridlan is the designer with Robert Hazle (who has a nice sideline in politicians of various hues) is the musical director.

Parkway Dreams
runs at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich until 7 October. The tour takes in Harlow Playhouse Studio (15-16 October), Braintree Arts Theatre (17 October), Hemel Hempstead Arts Centre (20 October), the Tameside Theatre, Thurrock (21 October), the Luton Hat Factory (22 October), the Mercury Theatre Studio, Colchester (23-24 October) and the Weston Auditorium, Hatfield (26 October).

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Miss Nightingale

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 1 October)

Last year’s Peter Rowe-New Wolsey Theatre production of the wartime-set musical Miss Nightingale has been re-imagined by the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal artistic director Karen Simpson. Matthew Bugg’s story may have a singing entertainer as its title character but, as one of the numbers makes plain, it’s far more a Mr Nightingale drama.

!942 in London was a frenetic time and place. Bombs were falling, morale could easily have crumbled, refugees sought to find themselves a place of safety (both intellectually and physically) and morals were loosened, though the law was liable to come down heavily on those who transgressed – such as homosexuals.

We meet two of the three main characters in a dim street. Sir Frank (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) picks up Polish Jew composer and songwriter George Nowodny Conor O’Kane), but the transaction is interrupted. When they next meet it is at an audition by Maggie Brown (Clara Darcy) who her boy-friend and agent Tom Fuller (Christopher Hogben) hopes to place as a star attraction in Frank’s nightclub.

O’Kane’s gives the stand-out performance and his first act number “Meine Liebe Berlin” is the best in the show. You believe in his displacement agony as he contempates the fate of his parents, academics who couldn’t believe that they were vulnerable, and the complexities of his relationships with Maggie, who achieves success as Miss Nightingale, and the ever-more devoted Frank.

Frank and George’s “Mister Nightingale” duet and the quarter which ends the first half are also very effective. I wish I could say the same for Darcy, who has the right sort of gamine spark but somehow fails to radiate the charisma such a cabaret star should surely generate. Hogden makes an effective villain as he sinks into blackmail and Bugg makes a small-scale but credible sketch of Harry, Maggie’s soldier brother. His score is played by the cast, displaying skill with a wide range of instruments

From being not particularly sympathetic through his attempts to balance his three separate worlds to his admission of two quite different but equally sincere types of affection, Coutu-Landmead grows in out understanding. The set by Carla Goodman makes the right sort of tawdry-until-lit impression and is suitably flexible as the action shifts between the various locations.

Miss Nightingale runs at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 3 October and then tours nationally until 20 February. It can also be seen at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon between 13 and 16 January.

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The Smallest Show on Earth

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 30 September)

Ah, but is it? I don’t think so. This stage version of the much-loved 1957 film has a total cast of 14 and a deceptively scaled-down set. But The Smallest Show on Earth integrates a host of Irving Berlin numbers, some ferociously energetic choreography by Lee Proud and a script and direction by Thom Southerland which captures the essence of the period without ever seeming to be a pastiche.

David Woodhead’s settings – complete with some highly ingenious location shifts, and costumes, beautifully detailed down to the seams in the stockings and skirt lengths – take us from London to provincial small-town in a fashion which mirrors the interior journey of the two main characters.

These are young husband and wife Matthew and Jean Spenser (Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford). He’s a would-be script-writer, she’s the rock for their relationship. The story concerns his inheritance from a dimly remembered great-uncle of the run-down Bijou Kinema, formerly a music-hall. Locally it’s usually referred to as “the fleapit”.

It is Pitt-Pulford who is the real star of the show, though she has a runner-up in the shape of Christina Bennington as Marlene Hardcastle, the thoroughly pleasant daughter of the thoroughly unpleasant Ethel and Albert Hardcastle (Ricky Butt and Philip Rham). Actually, she’s Mrs Hardcastle’s step-daughter, as this troublesome go-getter never ceases to remind everyone.

Then there’s Matthew Crow as the (very) junior solicitor Robin Carter, with twinkling toes and a delicious line in high camp and drag. The two other character parts are former silent-movie pianist, now box office “manager”, Mrs Fazackalee (Liza Goddard) and the cantankerous projectionist Percy Quill (Brian Capron). Capron grows Quill into a real human-being but, for me, there was an edge of eccentricity lacking in Goddard’s performance.

Mark Aspinall’s six-person band lurks right at the back of the stage, only to be revealed – and deservedly applauded – at the curtain-calls. The Mercury audience was genuinely enthusiastic. So, I suspect, will be audiences around the country when The Smallest Show on Earth launches itself on tour in 2016leaves Colchester for a national autumn tour.

The Smallest Show on Earth runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 October.

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Dickens Abridged

(reviewed at the Westacre Theatre, West Acre on 18 September)

A spin-off from the original Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) company, is on the road with Adam Long’s take on Charles Dickens. It encompasses in 90 minutes the novelist’s fast literary output as well as his somewhat disjointed life. It’s fair to describe Dickens Abridged as a musical, though Long’s clever use of projections might also quality it as a multi-media experience.

Whatever its artistic category, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp through mid-19th century fiction. With the aid of a guitar apiece, quick costume (and gender) changes and a nice balance of fact with comedic elaboration, the four-strong cast take us from Dickens’ own fraught childhood, through marriage, success, 10-strong fatherhood to his late romance with the actress Ellen Ternan and the physical crumbling partly occasioned by his dramatic recounting of Nancy’s murder from Oliver Twist.

Some of the novels are dismissed in four-line jingles while others are afforded a slightly more extended – if still elliptical – treatment. Great Expectations (you’ve never seen Miss Haversham’s immolation staged quite like this), A Tale of Two Cities with an applauded guillotine scene and a romp through A Christmas Carol which had Cratchit and Scrooge as overcome by laughter (aka corpsing) as the audience.

An apocryphal encounter at Dickens’ graveside between Ternan and the discarded Catherine Dickens née Hogarth works very well to demonstrate that Dickens the writer may be a national treasure but Dickens the man was of more tarnished metal. The projections include photographs and engravings as well as story-boards to fix our attention and remind us of the realities of 19th century London.

Martin Sarreal makes Catherine sympathetic as well as revelling in Agnes Wickfield’s virginal simplicity, such a contrast to Matthew Hendrickson’s lapdog-clutching Dora (Hendrickson is also Miss Haversham). Matt Bateman plays Dickens, as well as some of his creations and Andrew Gallo takes on many of the male fictional characters derived from Dickens’ own story as well as from his fertile imagination.

Dickens Abridged runs at the Westacre Theatre until 20 September. It can also be seen at the Arts Centre, Hatfield University (19 October) and at the Mumford Theatre, Cambridge (20 October), Harlow Playhouse (21 October), The Cut, Halesworth (22 October) The Norwich Playhouse (2-3 November), the Hertford Theatre (6 November), the Arts Centre, Hemel Hempstead (24-25 November) and the Maltings, Ely (28 November) as part of a national tour.

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Sweet Charity

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 September)

Happy endings don’t always occur, even in fairy tales. At one level the musical Sweet Charity by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Neil Simon and Bob Fosse is a variation on the Cinderella myth. it is also a wry study of the way in which a woman can be her own worst enemy, something which Peter Rowe’s radical new production for the New Wolsey Theatre emphasises.

The Ipswich theatre is one of those which specialise in actor-musicians, as opposed to using a more conventional pit orchestra. Musical director Greg Last has some good instrumentalists in the acting-singing-dancing performers who keep to the sides of Libby Watson’s deceptively simply framing set when not occupying centre stage.

It is Katie Birtill in the title role of dance-hall hostess Charity Valentine who really dominates. She has the kookiness of the small-town girl who is hopelessly adrift both in New York and in her relationships with the various men she repeatedly views ‘from the off” as The One – only to be let down each time.

The first of these is Charlie, who steal her cash and lets her half-drown in the Central Park lake. Her encounter with film star Vittorio Vidal (Jeffrey Harmer) leaves her less bruised. Harmer has a very good voice as well as the right sort of flamboyant personality; his ballad number is deservedly applauded.

Just before the interval, Charity meets Oscar (James Haggie), an introverted youngish man with acute claustrophobia – just one of his multiple hang-ups. But he’s no Price Charming, not even a Frog Prince. it’s a tribute to Haggie’s performance that the character (as opposed to the performer) was roundly booed at the first night curtain calls.

Choreographer Francesca Jaynes has devised some good routines for Charity’s fellow hostesses – Katia Sartini, Sophie Byrne, Nicola Bryan, Giovanna Ryan, Elisa Boyd and Lindsay Goodhand – as they await their customers and then have to entice them to dance and the stylised movement for the various New Yorkers work very well.

Perhaps, though Rowe uses the space and cast cleverly throughout, the fault in the production lies in the show being tuneful enough but without real stick-in-the-memory show-stopper numbers, “Big spender” and “The rhythm of life” apart. It’s all properly slick with some nice visual touches and good performances, especially that of Birtill, but the only heart in which you can believe is that of Charity herself. And that’s pretty bruised by the end of the evening.

Sweet Charity runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 26 September.

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Roll Over Beethoven

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 24 August)

Forget the Chuck Berry 1956 hit and even the Beatles’ 1963 version. Bob Eaton’s full-length musical called Roll Over Beethoven, now premièred at Hornchurch’s Queen’s Theatre, has snatches of Beethoven as well as a variation on Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the story line, iambic pentameters and all.

We are in a northern town in the mid-50s. Johnny Hamlet is in the middle of his National service; his school-friends Larry (Laertes) and Horace aka Waltzer (Horatio) have secured postponements – Larry through being at university and Waltzer by flourishing his homosexuality at the selection board.

One of the most interesting things about Eaton’s plot is that Eaton makes the Ghost into a malevolent downright vindictive figure. Fred Broom revels in the part as he seeks to manipulate his son towards murder. The not-quite grieving widow Gertie (Sarah Mahoney) and her new husband Claud (Antony Reed) are partners in a faltering music-shop business with Henry Polonius (Steven Markwick), whose attitude to changing tastes is mirrored in his repression of his lively 17-year old daughter Ophelia (Lucy Wells).

Wells has one of the best first-half numbers in “Seventeen” and the “Ghost train” sequence with Broom, Markwick and Wells is also effective. So is “Murder by silhouette”, when Rodney Ford’s lego-style design becomes a major actor in the sequence and Mark Dymock’s lighting complements this admirably. Matt Devitt’s direction keeps the pace going briskly while allowing breathing space between the numbers and the dialogue exchanges.

Ben Goddard is the musical director though, as usual with the cut to the chase… c company, all the cast play keyboards, strings, brass and percussion as appropriate. As in the original tragedy, it is Hamlet on whom we focus. Cameron Jones makes this mixed-up and angry young man very real as he struggles to find his own path through a tangle of lies and other people’s emotions.

Roll Over Beethoven runs at the Queen’s’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 12 September.

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Sister Act

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 20 August)

Twice-yearly musicals with a broad appeal have become something of a trademark for Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre’s artistic manager Catherine Lomax. This August she has chosen Sister Act, the fast-paced stage musical based on the film of the same name.

it’s star is indubitably Michelle Chantelle Hopewell who plays Deloris, so badly entangled with the gangland club owner Curtis (Trevor A Toussaint) that her former classmate, would-be suitor and police officer Eddie (Darren Charles) needs to tuck her away in a convent to save her life.

Curtis may have pooh-poohed her musical talents, but the Mother Superior (Pippa Winslow) finds herself letting them take hold on her less than perfect choir of nuns. To say that Deloris spices up the plainchant is an understatement – and she sets quite a number of cats loose amid the habited pigeons while she’s about it.

Jade Davies plays the postulant Mary Robert, a young woman suddenly unsure of her true vocation. That Mgr O’Hara (Arthur Bostrom) is all set to sell the nuns’ church for secular development simply adds to Mother Superior’s woes. Both Winslow and Roberts have strong voices and personalities which make their individual dilemmas credible in secular terms.

The costumes – no designer is credited – look good, especially the show-girl feathers and sequins and the white and silver glitter of the nuns as they perform for the Pope in the final scene. The settings, whether in the club, the police station, the church or within the convent, are clever and hold up the action as little as possible.

In the pit, musical director Chris Keen has a 12-piece ensemble. The slick choreography is by Khiley Williams. But, above all, it’s Hopewell’s evening, dominating from her first appearance – an untidy blend of naïveté and stroppiness – through her attempts to accommodate herself to being where and what she doesn’t want to be through to her final recognition not just of her own but of other people’s self-worth.

Sister Act runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 29 August.

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Annie

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 3 August)

Little orphan Annie is not a newcomer to UK stages, though this production by Nikolai Foster for Michael Harrison and David Ian is something of a radical re-think. Yes, it’s still a razzamatazz of a musical, set in Depression-era New York with a cameo roll-on part for President Roosevelt, but Foster has injected just a touch of grit into the syrup.

Our heroine, at the performance which I saw, is Madeleine Haynes, all ginger pigtails and attitude. Balancing the sound system at the first date in a new theatre is always slightly problematic, and her words didn’t come into proper focus until the second half. The eight-piece band under George Dyer make the most of the score and there is real dymamisim in Nick Winston’s choreography, with its cheeky salute to Jerome Robbins and Gene Kelly.

Annie’s would be nemesis is the trio of Miss Hannigan (Craig Revel Horwood), her brother Rooster (Jonny Fines) and his moll Lily (Daljenga Scott). Horwood’s drag-act is as accomplished as ever, though never quite show-stopping. “Easy street” shows them at their best, that is to say worst. “Daddy” Warbucks, the billionaire who discovers that he has a heart as well as a fortune, and his secretary Grace Farrell come over as thoroughly believable people in Alex Borne’s and Holly Dale Spencer’s characterisations.

Callum McArdle is the wheel-chaired president who tries to find Annie’s parents and somehow in the process thaws Warbucks’ stalwartly Republican convictions. Colin Richmond has designed an effective all-purpose set, based on jigsaw puzzle pieces with just the odd piece of necessary furniture – a desk, orphanage beds, a table, sofa or art déco doorway – signalling a change of location.Ben Cracknell’s lighting is equally clever.

Annie runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 8 August and at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 17 and 22 August.

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Christine: The Musical

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 25 June)

It’s one of the defining photographs of the 1960s – the 20-year old Christine Keeler astride a black plywood chair. The whole murky tangle of high living and low morals, of drug-dealing, cold war espionage which n the end wrecked a Ministerial career and several lives is a familiar one, though books, stage shows and film.

There’s however something subtly different about Tony Franchi and Marion Wells’ musical take on the story. In 16 short scenes we are taken from the teenage Christine’s first foray into London nightlife to the luxury of the Cliveden estate and the traumas by the Old Bailey courtroom. Lindsay Lloyd’s direction uses projections, a minimum of furniture and some nifty choreography by Irene Lincoln to keep the story as lively as the events it unfolds for us.

What’s more, it has tunes. Real catchy tunes put over with aplomb by the 14-strong cast and six-piece stage band under John Chillingworth. “Pops” Murray’s introduction to the world of cabaret switches effortlessly between 3/4 and 2/4 time to notable effect. “Make love not war” is another near-show-stopper, as is “Vodka”, the pseudo-Russian number for Ivanov, the Soviet attaché.

Originally premièred at Colchester’s Headlong Theatre, these performances form part of the Lights Up! festival, the Mercury Theatre’s own new showcase for local dramatic and musical talent.

Lights Up! continues at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 12 July.

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Shrek

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 10 June)

“Once upon a time…” usually leads to an ending along the lines of “…and they all lived happily ever after”. It’s the bits in between, of course, which make the real story – not its bookends. Shrek, as you probably know, started off as an illustrated children’s book in 1990, was turned into an animated film by DreamWorks in 2001; this is turn became the stage musical currently on a national tour.

Film into theatre doesn’t always work. The production values which tour director Nigel Harman has harnessed for the David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori piece are, to put it mildly, lavish. Tim Hatley’s sets, costumes, masks and puppet design are all splendid and the hard-working cast do them justice.

Dean Chisnall is the ogre who eventually does find his princess – but not by metamorphosing into a handsome prince. The audience is on his side right from the start. Faye Brookes as Fiona, slightly underpowered vocally, is a red-haired spitfire, the cantankerous side of feisty. Idriss Kargbo plays the street-wise, know-all Donkey, Sancho Panza to Shrek’s Don Quixote.

The villain of the story is Lord Farquaad, cleverly played on his knees with puppet legs and much cloak-swirling by Gerard Casey. The Dragon, manipulated by four bunraku-style handlers, is a triumph while Josh Prince’s choreography takes full advantage of the padded, glittering and gleaming nature of the dancers’ costumes.

Children of all ages who have grown up with the book and the film will love it. I rather suspect that their seniors will also enjoy it.

Shrek runs as the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 28 June.

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Little Shop of Horrors

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 29 May)

“Don’t feed the plants!” warns director Gareth Machin in his introduction to this new staging of the Howard Ashman-Alan Menken musical, a shared production between the Mercury Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse. As Audrey II (made by Accord Stage Works and frighteningly well manipulated and voiced by Andrew London and Leon Craig respectively) swells to take over James Button’s set, one definitely takes the point.

It’s strongly cast as well. Ben Stott is the shy, be-spectacled flower-shop assistant Seymour who creates Audrey II, names it for his colleague (Frances McNamee), who is in an abusive relationship with leather-clad dentist Orin (Jez Unwin) and finds himself its slave – Audrey II being distinctly carnivorous.

You sympathise throughout with Stott as well as with McNamee, whose voice is admirably suited to the lyricism of her numbers, notably “Somewhere that’s green”. Unwin is thoroughly unpleasant as Orin, which is just as it should be. Simeon Truby seizes his school of Fiddler on the Roof moments, especially in “Mushnik and son” (the five-piece band is led by Richard Reeday).

There’s an effective trio of Skid Row street kids – Gbemisola Kumelo, Karis Jack and Carole Stennett – who act as a sort of chorus as the tragedy (which it fundamentally is, for all our laughter) reaches its climax. The finale, with the trio and Audrey II meal victims high above the acting area and transformed into clones, emphasises this. Game, set and match to Audrey II, I fear.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 13 June.

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Hot Stuff

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 26 May)

You could run a debate which would go on for even longer than the recent General Election campaign on precisely what the time lapse is – a decade? two? three? a half-century? – before the soft, warm glow of nostalgia settles on a period of history.

Take Hot Stuff, given a spankingly bright and brash new staging by director Matt Devitt and his team – music: julian Littmann, lighting: Chris Howcroft, costumes: Lydia Hardiman and choreography: Valentina Dolci and Karl Stevens. Maggie Norris and Paul Kerryson devised it over 25 years ago; it’s a variation on the Faust legend.

Our want-it-all, want-it-now hero is Joe (Matthew Quinn). His ambition is to be a pop star but his girl-friend Julie (Sarah Mahony) just wants to get married – and to win a ballroom dancing competition in spits of Joe’s less than enthusiastic partnering. Diabolus ex machina is Lucy Fur – the deliciously over-the-top drag artist Lady Felicia in a sequence of costumes to pit any pantomime dame to the blush.

In fact, there’s a strong pantomime element about the whole thing, including a cow who seems to have wandered in from Jack and the Beanstalk and, like that bovine, elicits our full sympathy. As with many pantomimes, one is conscious of an element of padding, often supplied through interaction with the audience.
That’s not to belittle Dolci’s dance routines, in which she leads her six ensemble members with verve and inventiveness, or Cameron Jones’ sinister narrator.

it is interesting to follow the mutation of popular music in the 70s (a political parallel is implied at several points). The melodic and harmonic ballads dissolve into something altogether more raucous as the decade progressed. Joe, of course, manages to top each trend as it assumes popularity with considerable help from his Lucy Fur-supplied girl friend Miss Hot Stuff (Hollie Cassar).

“Happiness was not in the contract” he’s told brusquely when he begins to yearn for Julie. In the meantime, Julie has made her own life emerging into flower-power and the flame of awakening feminism. Mahony, Cassar and Quinn all give good performances. I think the first-night audience would have been happy to sit through it all again. The performers must have been exhausted.

Hot Stuff runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 13 June.

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Avenue Q
(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 23 April)

This new staging of the US puppet show for adults has an intriguing set by Richard Evans. We are confronted by a row of brownstone houses which, quite frankly, have see better days. The skyline behind is one of skyscrapers and two surtitle boxes from time to time show video of various kinds.

The house frontages let down to reveal miniature rooms as appropriate. The storyline is simple enough. A graduate who has all the right paper qualifications and yet is still unemployed lights upon Avenue Q as somewhere comparatively inexpensive yet central to rent an apartment.

Its residents include the janitor Gary, once a child celebrity, a frustrated spinster teacher, a would-be stand-up comic, a Japanese girl (who lives with the fact that everyone thinks she’s Chinese), a porn addict, a gay who is “out”, another still “in the closet” and a whole host of hangers-on and stirrers of trouble.

Love does find a way, of course, for the three principal couples – but it takes a variety of misunderstandings and false moves to get there. It’s no criticism of the actors who play Christmas Eve (Arina Il), Gary (EtisYal Philip) and Brian (Richard Morse) to say that they are roundly upstaged by Paul Jomain’s rod-and-glove puppets and their human alter-egos – Sarah Harlington, Jessica Parker, Stephen Arden and Richard Lowe.

As my neighbours commented to me during the interval: “You don’t know whether to concentrate on the puppet or the puppeteer; they seem just to be a single person”. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’ score is all-but through-composed and their lyrics are witty; it’s all tuneful enough but not particularly memorable. The hard-working musical director for this Sell A Door tour is Daniel Griffin. Overall direction is by Cressida Carré.

Puppets have always been able to say and do things, even under the most repressive of régimes, which would earn dire penalties for actual actors in a straightforward play. So these colourful puppets can indulge in positive orgies of inventive sex to the audience’s delight (and never a wriggle of embarrassment anywhere) or spout racist, politically incorrect and religious mockery with absolute impunity.

That’s also due to the deft manipulation by Arden and Harlington in particular, both completely at one with their characters. Harlington’s sex-bomb Lucy and uptight Kate are marvellous studies in contrast. You forget about the garish head colours and torso disproportions – they just become natural, and right for the personage being presented to us.

Avenue Q runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 25 April, at the Norwich Playhouse between 26 and 30 May, at the Watford Colosseum from 2 to 4 July and at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff between 18 and 22 August.

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Charlotte’s Web
(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 15 April)

The Stevenage theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax has been building up an impressive portfolio of in-house productions over the pa few years. The latest is a new staging of the Joseph Robinette and Charles Strouse’s musical version of the well-loved children’s story Charlotte’s Web by EB White, first published in 1952.

Set in White’s Maine, this is the story of a piglet who escapes slaughter, thanks to the feisty Fern, and is sent to be reared at the nearby Zukerman farm. There he makes the acquaintance of an assortment of farm animals, including an exceptionally greedy and know-all rat called Templeton (well, when did you last see a rat on stage cast as other than a devious specimen?) and the generous and intelligent spider called Charlotte (who lives in the same barn).

It is Charlotte, spinning ever more intricate webs, who saves Wilbur from the knife, much to Fern’s delight – though less so in the case of her stroppy brother Avery, their parents the Arables and the Zukerman household. White deals subtly but firmly with the sacrifice which Charlotte’s labours and her need to provide the next generation of spiders will exact.

The staging is very good with a succession of farm sets and some eye-catching costumes for the animals (Lisa Hickey), notably the geese (with goslings), the sheep (fleecy lambs by their side), great-coated Templeton and Charlotte’s bustled black with pendulous legs and extra eyes perched on her head like an aviatrix’s goggles. The country ‘n’ western-derived score is tuneful, if not memorable, and Khiley Williams has provided some energetic choreography for it.

Cameron Leigh’s Charlotte is a clever portrayal and well-sung as well as acted. Will Breckin’s Wilbur is as perky as such a prize porker ought to be with the forceful Harriet Payne as his human advocate and Matthew Collyer as a Templeton who has a distinct whiff of Animal Farm in his deviousness. Ed Court is quite funny as the Zuckermans’ clumsy farmhard Lurvy and Alistair Higgins stomps around as the archetypical teenage grump.

The five-piece band is led by Phil Dennis, and sounded at time a little under-powered. At the opening performance, Luke Hyde’s sound team hadn’t quite got the balance right, so that the opening numbers and verbal exchanges were over-miked while Leigh’s final scene and song seem to fade rather more than the spider’s own fragility at that point really warrented.

Charlotte’s Web runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 19 April.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015