Category Archives: Family & children’s shows

Awful Auntie

reviewed at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich on 19 September

Ghost legend? Morality tale? Horror story? All and any of these for a young audience? It was to be David Walliams’ Awful Auntie. The title character really does live up to her name as she tries to take over the ancestral home from its rightful owner.

Neal Foster’s stage adaptation doesn’t try to simplify the issues involved. Young Lady Stella Saxby wakes from an induced coma to find her parents dead and her father’s sister Alberta trying just a little too obviously to obtain the deeds to the family estate – we’re in the 1930s, by the way.

Doors creak, Alberta’s tame Bavarian owl Wagner menaces, there’s an elderly butler Gibbon straight out of Dracula and a 19th century chimney-sweep materialises in the coal store.

Set and costume designer Jacqueline Trousdale, sound designer Nick Sagar, special effects designer Scott Penrose and puppet maker Sue Dacre make sure that we’re caught up in the drama.

The setting is basically four towers which revolve to display various locations and their rabbit-warren of secrets. Visually it makes the actors work pretty hard to make their own impact, especially when Wagner ((Roberta Bellekom) and an enormously long (and lazy) dog are concerned.

Georgina Leonidas makes a sparkish heroine, every bit as obstinate as Richard James’ ferocity as Aunt Alberta. Harry Sutherland dodders engagingly as Gibbon, and Ashley Cousins’ Soot offers a sense of what his short life must have been like, passed from an orphanage to an inhumane master.

Touring shows, such as this Birmingham Stage Company one, have to adapt rapidly to the acoustics of the theatres they visit. For my taste, on the opening night in Ipswich, the actors were over-miked  almost to the point of distortion.

This is a pity, because it’s one of those shows which give pleasure in many ways to the older members of the audience as well as to the youngsters.

Four star rating.

Awful Auntie runs at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich until 23 September with matinées on 22 and 23 September. It also plays at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 10 November.

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Madagascar: A Musical Adventure

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 3 September

“Be careful what you wish for…” runs the wise old saying. This musical stage adaptation of the animated film Madagascar directed by Kirk Jameson is a visual treat while gently sounding a hot of ecological and sociological messages.

As lion Alex (Matt Terry, zebra Marty (Antoine Murray-Straughan, hippopotamus Gloria (Timmika Ramsay and giraffe Melman (Jamie Lee-Morgan) discover when they make their initial escape from New York’s Central Park Zoo, human-beings react differently towards wild animals on display and when on the loose.

Duly sedated and crated up, they find themselves on Madagascar, where food doesn’t just deliver itself and there is a distinct animal pecking-order. This is headed by ring-tailed lemur King Julian (Jo Parsons), who makes up in ferocity for his diminutive size.

The dancing is very good and suitably athletic – Fabian Aloise is the choreographer. Tom Rogers’ designs for the animal costumes and puppets, and his simple but effective crate-based settings, suggest the different species and locations with a clarity which leaves room for the audience’s imagination to elaborate.

Mischievous monkeys and platoon-regimented penguins manoeuvre their own ways to security, whether within the confines of a zoo or returned to their native habitat. It’s one of those shows aimed at children which adults can also appreciate. Proper family entertainment.

Four star rating.

Madagascar: A Musical Adventure runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 8 September with matinées on 4 and 8 September. It is also at the Regent Theatre, Ipswich between 16 and 18 October.

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Much Ado About Nothing

reviewed at  the Theatre in the Forest, Wherstead on 3 August

Outdoor theatre attracts mixed-age audiences. That can prove problematic when the show in question is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. The Red Rose Chain has made a specialisation of small-cast visually updated versions; Joanna Carrick’s new production is the latest.

With two global conflict anniversaries hovering in all our backgrounds, this one (like Colchester’s 2016 production) has a Second World War setting. Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick are all fighter pilots. Leonata is a Woman’s Auxiliary Force officer.

Her daughter Hero is a nurse and her niece Beatrice is a land-girl. Of course, the men of the town’s constabulary and all Dad’s Army clones. The set by Carrick, Jack Heydon, David Newborn and Rob Young shows a camouflaged tunnel entrance, a watch-tower and a Red Cross station. Kathryn Thorogood’s costumes allow for all the required quick changes.

All six actors play two parts. Fizz Waller doubles a mercurial Beatrice with a show-stealing Dogberry. Ricky Oakley’s urbane Benedick reverses into the uncouth Conrade. Haydon’s pliable Claudio becomes an over-the-top Margaret, given to strip-tease.

Oliver Cudbill is an ecclesiastical Don Pedro and pedantic constable Verges. Captive Don John, who sets one of the play’s plot themes running, is a combat-crippled eyesore; a good contrast in characterisations with authoritarian Leonata for Claire Lloyd. Joanna Sawyer gives as much spark as possible to the abused Hero.

“I didn’t write the words” mutters Oakley’s Benedick at one point. No, Shakespeare did – but certainly not all of them in Carrick’s staging. The slapstick, music and jitterbugging both ornament and distract from the drama. But what else can you expect when even the forest birds join in on cue?

Four star rating.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Theatre in the Forest, Jimmy’s Farm, Wherstead until 26 August. There are matinées on 4 and 11 August.

 

 

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Plays, Reviews 2018

Babe, the Sheep-Pig

reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 2 August

It’s not surprising that Dick King-Smith’s book The Sheep-Pig has won hearts since 1983. The eponymous hero Babe is a heart-stealer, well personified in the realistic puppet ably manipulated by Jonathan Cobb in Katie Posner’s new production of the David Wood stage adaptation for the Mercury Theatre.

You may never have been within touching proximity to a sheep or a pig until it reaches your plate, but farm animals of all kinds have parading before us from earliest childhood, in picture books, bedtime stories and television animation.

Sheep-dog trials have become a television favourite. Is it the unpredictability – so much depends on animal as well as human behaviour?  Or is it that they blend a unique combination of scenic location with hard-learnt skills?

Babe’s mentor on Mr and Mrs Hoggett (Gareth Clarke and Heather Phoenix)’s farm is sheep-dog Fly (Jessica Dyas). Dyas establishes a rapport with the young audience  from her first entrance as she introduces the bewildered piglet to the other animals.

These include the supercilious cat (Rachel Hammond), the blowing-his-own-trumpet cockerel (Joseph Tweedale and the strutting turkey (James Peake). Not that country life is all sunshine and fodder. it also harbours both human and animal predators.

Among the victims is old ewe Ma (Ebony Feare). The picture-book settings and animal costumes by Sara Perks work well, as does Alexandra Stafford’s lighting; the catchy score is by Richard Reeday.

There are occasions when one feels that adult audience members are there as a sort of penance. This is one of those shows which appeals on all age levels, clever enough to hold grown-up attention while subtly draping the central philosophy of courtesy as well as skill with an almost hypnotic rhythm.

Five star rating.

Babe, the Sheep-Pig runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 26 August with daytime performances.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Reviews 2018

Sleeping Beauty

reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 29 March

Reminding young people, and their elders, that there’s more to a traditional tale than its Disney version is an excellent idea. The sequence of spring musicals devised by Catherine Lomax shows just what can be done if you strip away any pantomime and animation elements.

This Sleeping Beauty is the joint creation of Lomax (direction), Phil Dennis (musical direction) and Khiley Williams (choreography). Connor Norris’ permanent set is medieval with soaring gothic arches and flambeau-bearing towers.

Lisa Hickey’s costumes contrast period realism for the court and townspeople with flower fantasy for the immortals. The good fairies represent spring flowers – Natalie Harman’s Tulip has a jolly-hockey-sticks personality, Francesca French’s Primrose is more sedate while Rebecca Gilhooley’s Bluebell (akin to the Lilac Fairy familiar from the ballet) is quietly authoritative.

In opposition stands Ellen Vereneiks’ withering Narcissus, the Carabosse of this musical. All four have strong voices, easily coping with Dennis’ mixture of bravura singing and close harmony. Abigayle Honeywill’s Beauty, Oliver Stanley as King Favian and Glenn Anderson as Prince Rowan make the most of their individual and concerted numbers.

This production is due to be seen in Chesterfield, Middlesbrough and Skegness when the short Stevenage run closes. This is the sort of small-scale but stylish staging of new work which deserves a wider audience; that in turn means that more attention (which includes money) can be alloted to casting and overall production values.

Four and a half-star rating.

Sleeping Beauty plays matinée and late afternoon/early evening performances until 2 April at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage.

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Filed under Family & children's shows, Music Music theatre & opera, Reviews 2018