My Favourite Shows of 2016

Hasn't 2016 just flown by? And what a fabulously stagey year it's been! Personally, this year I visited New York for the first time ever and caught three Broadway shows (Allegiance, The Color Purple and Finding Neverland), put my German AS level to use in Austria while watching Anatevka (aka The Fiddler on The Roof) at the Volksoper Wien, and travelled up to Edinburgh to review new musicals as part of the Network of Independent Critics!


As always, with January just around the corner it's time for me to look back on the last year and pick out my top five favourite shows of the year. Last year I selected Matthew Bourne's The Car Man as my number 1. 

This year it's been so difficult for me to collate a personal top 5 list because I've seen such a wide range of shows ranging from million dollar Broadway productions to tiny productions in back rooms. However, after careful consideration I've finally managed to come to a decision, and so without further ado, here are my personal top 5 shows of 2016...

Amber Riley's performance as Effie White quite simply flawed me. The power behind her vocals literally brought me to tears and I can see many awards coming her way in 2017! The production itself was just gorgeous to look at, with so much sparkle courtesy of the Swarovski crystal embellished costumes and sets. West End musicals don't really get much bigger than this one.

A beautiful, sumptuous production of a really sweet if a little bit dated musical. Seeing it in December provided a wonderful bit of pre Christmas warmth to my theatregoing. Scarlett Strallen and Mark Umbers were hugely likable leads, and the supporting performances were totally first rate.  

Groundhog Day was incredible.... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible.... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible...Groundhog Day was incredible.... Groundhog Day was incredible... Groundhog Day was incredible...

Despite receiving a number of less than favourable reviews from many critics, no show this year made me laugh, gasp and recoil quite as much as Hand To God did! Sure, there was a lot of gleeful violence, bad language, and some audacious themes, but underneath its irreverent exterior there was a lot of heart and some important messages. Plus the cast, led masterfully by Harry Melling, were uniformly excellent! It was a shame to see Hand To God close as I'd recommended it to so many people. Maybe one day we'll see the show back in the UK in some capacity. Fingers crossed!

Gut wrenching, tragic, uplifting, and triumphant all at once! Titanic at the Charing Cross Theatre is a show which I wish I'd seen again and again. A hugely talented cast worked incredibly well, switching between their main, supporting and ensemble characters seamlessly in order to make the Charing Cross Theatre's tiny stage appear to bustle with life. I still think back to this incredible, heartbreaking show from time to time, and it never fails to make my heart flutter! Without a doubt, Titanic was my favourite show of 2016.

So there we go! I've loved looking back over my theatregoing year, and reminiscing about all the excellent shows I've seen, because there have been so many. I still find myself humming the title song from Paper Hearts, a new musical which I reviewed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Legally Blonde at the Leicester Curve was always going to impress me as the musical itself is one of my all time favourites, and undoubtedly Lazarus at the King's Cross Theatre has been my most discussed musical of 2016. I saw it twice and I'm still not 100% sure I understand what was going on during it, but it was certainly a spectacle, and one which almost everyone is eager to compare theories about! 

All in all 2016 has been a great year for theatre, and next year is already shaping up to be just as good, with shows like 42nd Street, An American In Paris, oh and a little old musical named Hamilton all due to open. No doubt there'll be tons of surprises in store for theatre fans up and down the country! 

Review - Peter and the Starcatcher (Royal and Derngate, Northampton)

Rick Elice's kooky Tony Award winning Peter Pan prequel, set in the Victorian era, introduces Pan fans to Molly Aster, a 13 year old apprentice Starcatcher who runs into a trio of mischievous but lovable orphans on board a ship called The Neverland. When pirates attack and Molly's father is kidnapped, Molly and the boys gang up and embark on a fantastically outlandish adventure together! 
The company of Peter and the Starcatcher
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
Although it does take a little while to find its feet, Peter and the Starcatcher is ultimately a fun piece of theatre. Elice's script is full of wit and peppered with references to J.M Barrie's classic text, and the cast really savour each of the multiple characters they are required to play throughout the show. Greg Haiste's dastardly Black Stache is a total scene stealer who chews the scenery like nobody's business and stops the show multiple times with his hilarious and gleefully malevolent line delivery. Evelyn Hoskins' intrepid Molly Aster is tenacious and likable, while Peter is played with great depth by Michael Shea, especially in act two when the character really comes into his own. The rest of the cast is fantastic, and portray a multitude of delightful characters with precision and clarity. 

The world which the characters inhabit is brought to life on a fairly empty stage, with ropes hanging from the ceiling and a large loading door at the back. Scenery is creatively formed out of random objects, such as green umbrellas which represent a forest, and an assortment of doors, frames and ropes which come together to create the belly of a ship. Additionally, the iconic Neverland crocodile's jaws are made out of a step ladder, while birds are fashioned out of feather dusters. David Woodhead's set design is resourceful and its playfulness echoes the themes of childhood and freedom which the play touches heavily on. Meanwhile, evocative lighting design by Howard Hudson gives the piece a magical, mystical feel. 

While the production feels deliberately rough around the edges, Luke Sheppard's direction is slick, ensuring that despite the constant multirolling, somewhat dense dialogue, and inventive use of props which often require imagination to reach their fullest effect, the plot is almost never muddied or unfocused. The whole play feels fluid and inevitable, thanks to sharp and clever scene transitions involving lots of physical theatre. As such, the audience is swept along with the story as if they are a part of it. 

At times though Peter and the Starcatcher does seem to lose steam a little, thanks in no small part to a number of innuendos which seem too blatant and shameless for parents to enjoy, and which fly over the head of younger audience members. The piece shines brightest when it is at its broadest, with over the top double act scenes between Black Stache and his first mate Smee, and a particularly bizarre musical number at the top of act two which features a gaggle of serenading mermaids. 

In the season where pantomimes dominate family theatre outings, Peter and the Starcatcher is a quirky alternative. It's a zany, offbeat escapade which feels fresh and revels in its outlandishness before delivering a poignant and sentimental conclusion. Family theatre doesn't get much more magical!

Review - Puss In Boots (Drayton Arms Theatre)

It's Christmastime! Tis the season for demolishing mince pies 24/7, last minute Christmas panic buying, and fraught family outings to the local theatre to take in a panto. Be it Cinderella, Mother Goose,  Aladdin or some other classic panto tale, there's no doubt that a family pantomime trip spent observing a sea of primary colour tights and dodging projectile Quality Streets for an hour or three is a pretty unmissable part of the holiday festivities. However, while the average pantomime may be touted as fun for all ages, for those who like their pantos with a little bit of extra filth, Rat Rascal Theatre's audacious adult take on Puss In Boots is the perfect solution. 


Just as any panto worth its salt features a couple of cheesy, jazz hand embellished musical numbers, Puss In Boots features a number of witty original songs, with hummable music and hilarious lyrics by James Ringer-Beck and Robyn Grant. 

Grant also narrates the piece, about a hapless young boy peasant named Colin who hears a mysterious voice urging him to put a pair of boots on his cat's feet in order to achieve greatness. Her bawdy yet affable narrator ensures that the audience is on board with the panto's crude comedy even before the show has begun, chatting to audience members and even making up impromptu ditties about some of them. A select number of audience members even find themselves inserted into the piece in some way or another, thanks to an improv game which is woven into the plot cleverly and involves a lot of audience participation. 

The cast as a whole are very likable, with each actor bringing energy and humour to a myriad of characters. Puss, the grungy titular anthropomorphic cat, is brought to life boisterously by Rosie Raven, while Allie Munro plays Puss' dopey owner Colin and Phoebe Batteson-Brown is delightful as Princess Fififi, a character who really comes into her own in act 2! 

Of course, all pantos need a good villain, and Fat Rascal Theatre's Puss In Boots has perhaps the most entertaining yet repulsive villain of all, the obnoxious King George. Father of Princess Fififi and master of James Ringer-Beck's long suffering squire Busby, King George is a detestable villain, who fills both the other characters and the audience with abhorrence. King George is a very blatant parody of one of 2016's most controversial figures. From the navy suit and red tie,  down to to an obsession with 'tweeting' (via a small toy bird), the parallels to Donald Trump are innumerable, and somewhat worryingly accurate. In fact, many of his jokes are comprised solely of actual Trump quotes, which naturally gives many punchlines an uneasy undertone. Nevertheless, the character is the source of many laughs and is played excellently by Katie Wells. 

The panto itself is totally uninhibited entertainment (a lot of mileage is gotten out of 'pussy' jokes!) but with a surprisingly sincere finale! Featuring many references to this year's most talked about topics, the script is full of razor sharp observational humour which results in a lot of shared laughs and knowing looks between audience members. 

A riotous laugh-a-minute adult panto, filled with clever twists and turns, brilliantly catchy songs and excellent comedic performances, Fat Rascal Theatre's Puss In Boots is unmissable Christmas entertainment!

Visit www.fatrascaltheatre.com for more information and to buy tickets

Review - A Christmas Carol in Concert (Lyceum Theatre)

Just when it seemed like London couldn't get any more Christmassy, London Musical Theatre Orchestra's jubilant one night only concert production of A Christmas Carol lights up the Lyceum Theatre like a glorious dusting of snow on a winter morning. 

Robert Lindsay as Ebenezer Scrooge
Photo credit - Jamie Scott-Smith
Based on Charles Dickens' famous novel, A Christmas Carol features music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Ahrens and Mike Ockrent. 

The famous story takes place on Christmas eve. Old miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of an old friend, who warns him that if he doesn't stop his selfish ways he'll end up doomed. The sceptical scrooge is then called on by three other spirits, who show him his unfortunate past, the miserable present he has created for his overworked and underpaid employees, and the harrowing future he has in store unless he changes his ways. The story itself is a classic, having been told in many different forms over the years, but there's no doubt that transporting the story into musical form works brilliantly. Filled with jovial group numbers, lively instrumentals and gorgeous choral sections, the score more than justifies the existence of a musical adaptation of such a well known story. 

The orchestra itself, conducted by musical director Freddie Tapner, is absolutely first rate. The rich, sumptuous sound produced by the musicians, notable right from the overture, is extremely satisfying. Especially when they are playing with a such an impressive cast of singers, both principal and ensemble. 

The star casting of London Musical Theatre Orchestra's A Christmas Carol was no doubt a key factor in the show's sold out status. Robert Lindsay brings a smile to the face as Ebenezer Scrooge. Despite seemingly having a few timing issues throughout the show, his snide scrooge has a comedic vein and is impossible to hate entirely, despite his miserly ways. Meanwhile Alex Gaumond's gangly Bob Cratchit instantly endears, and a suitably unnerving and impressively voiced Norman Bowman as Jacob Marley elevates the music even further. Additionally, as the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, Madalena Alberto, Hugh Maynard and Carrie Hope Fletcher are well cast, with Maynard in particular bringing infectious enthusiasm to his role. 

Despite being presented in concert form, London Musical Theatre Orchestra's A Christmas Carol has just enough theatricality to make it an engaging performance to watch as well as listen too. With a stage bookended by two dazzling Christmas trees, and wreaths adorning the music stands too, while Mike Robertson's lighting design gives the whole piece a warm, intimate feel. 

The London Musical Theatre Orchestra is an exciting addition to the London theatre community. Unbelievably, A Christmas Carol is only their second public concert, but with a new season already in the works, they're undoubtedly going to be an exciting addition to theatregoing in 2017!

Find out more about the London Musical Theatre Orchestra at www.lmto.org

Review - Dreamgirls (Savoy Theatre)

35 years after it first opened on Broadway, Dreamgirls has finally shimmied onto the West End. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw helms a slick and polished production with all the makings of a dazzling theatrical success. 

Featuring songs such as One Night Only, Family, and of course And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, Dreamgirls' strength undoubtedly lies within its music. The musical, which follows an up and coming trio of female singers called The Dreams who experience the highs and lows of show business in the 1960s, is fairly compelling despite some slightly clunky dialogue, but is to some extent a victim of its own strengths. The songs of Dreamgirls crackle with such dynamism and are performed to such a show stoppingly high quality that at several points the characters' spoken exchanges feel almost superfluous. Although notably the frank portrayal of racial prejudice within the music industry does form the basis for a plot line which gives the musical a more gritty and grounded undertone. 

Any arguably weak points within the book do very little to hinder the ultimately moving narrative which Dreamgirls tells.

Ibinabo Jack, Liisi LaFontaine and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls
Photo credit - Brinkhoff-Moegenburg 
The glitz and mystique of the showbiz world in which The Dreams move is perfectly portrayed on stage thanks to Hugh Vanstone's impeccable lighting design and Gregg Barnes' glorious, glamorous costumes, which are adorned with hundreds of thousands of Swarovski crystals, giving each gown an elegant sparkle. The production design really is heavenly, with a particularly noticeable serene azure permeating the dazzling showbiz numbers! 

Equally divine is American import Amber Riley, who is a force of nature in the iconic role of Effie White. The Glee star takes on the role with all the fierce power and calculated poise of a musical star in the making. Given her Glee character's penchant for iconic show tunes, it's easy to forget that Dreamgirls is not only Amber Riley's West End debut, but also only her second ever professional theatre credit. She is joined on stage by Liisi LaFontaine as the beautiful and sweet voiced Deena Jones, and Ibinabo Jack whose impeccable comedic timing as giddy Lorrell Robinson gets her plenty of laughs. Meanwhile Lily Frazer's Michelle Morris is a great final addition to The Dreams. The cast which has been assembled for this production of Dreamgirls showcases some of the best talent the West End has to offer, with supporting performances by Tyrone Huntley as Effie's songwriting brother C.C and Joe Aaron Reid as The Dreams' conniving manager Curtis Taylor Jr. both delivering superb performances, while Adam J Bernard is electrifying as zany R&B star Jimmy Early.

In a year which has seen many exciting musicals hit London, Dreamgirls is a striking example of just how extravagant the West End can be. Visually stunning and filled with unmissable performances, Dreamgirls is a lavish musical which deserves to keep sparkling at the Savoy for the foreseeable future!  

Don't miss Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Visit www.dreamgirlswestend.com to buy tickets. 

Review - Muted (The Bunker Theatre)

Muted is the third show in The Bunker Theatre's inaugural season. The venue, converted from a disused carpark into an intimate 110 seat theatre, is effortlessly atmospheric, and the perfect home for Muted, an edgy yet surprisingly subdued new musical. 

Directed by Jamie Jackson, Muted tells the story of Michael, an exceptional young musician whose band was on the brink of stardom, until his mother was suddenly killed in a hit and run accident, after which he stopped talking altogether. Muted features a book by Sarah Henley and music and lyrics by Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin, with the latter also co starring.

Tori Allen-Martin and David Leopold in Muted
Photo credit - Savannah Photography
Despite a slightly slow start, Muted is not short on surprising twists and heartstopping, lump-in-throat moments, as well as some genuinely uncomfortable scenes which tease at darker themes. However, paramount to the success of Muted is the strength of the cast. David Leopold gives an incredibly moving performance as Michael, delivering intensity and vulnerability without uttering a single word. Equally affecting is Tori Allen-Martin as down to earth Lauren, who feels so real and relatable that she's impossible not to love. Meanwhile Jos Slovick has some menacing moments as Jake, Michael's old bandmate and Lauren's boyfriend. The cast is completed by Mark Hawkins as Michael's flippant uncle Will, who was left to care for Michael after his mother's death, and in flashback form Helen Hobson gives a frighteningly raw performance as Michael's mother, while Edd Campbell Bird is charmingly winsome as young Michael.

As is to be expected from a musical about music itself, the pop and rock inspired songs of Muted are moving at times, featuring some haunting lyrics and gorgeous harmonies. The cast tackle each song with ease, and are accompanied by a wonderful little band, whose skillful and enthusiastic playing further emphasises the extent to which music is an integral part of the story. 

Another of Muted's more striking elements is Sarah Beaton's production design. A moat of water surrounds Michael's bedroom , which is represented by a small platform in the middle. Suspended from the ceiling behind it is a wooden swing. The use of water and the island-like platform in the middle are both interesting elements which are clearly symbolic of the isolation Michael feels, meanwhile the swing is used as a representation of Michael's youth and his relationship with his mother. The use of these set pieces is perhaps a little overzealous at times, but the splashing of water and soaring of swings create some undeniably striking images throughout the show.

Despite a sometimes meandering plot, Muted is a promising new musical. Impeccably cast and meticulously directed, it delivers a punchy and satisfying finale which will leave audiences breathless. 

Buy tickets at www.bunkertheatre.com

Review - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Having charmed audiences since it premiered on Broadway in 1963, She Loves Me is an irresistible a gem of a show which centres around Amalia Balash, a young woman who is hired as a clerk at Maraczek's parfumerie, much the the dismay of fellow clerk Georg Nowack. The pair can't seem to see eye to eye on anything at work, however, unbeknownst to them, they are actually both writing to each other as anonymous pen pals.
Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen in She Loves Me
Photo credit - Alastair Muir
Those familiar with the Menier Chocolate Factory have come to expect the highest quality productions, with a top notch creative team and starring the cream of the musical theatre crop, and in that respect She Loves Me does not disappoint. Matthew White directs the show, led by Scarlett Strallen as Amalia and Mark Umbers as Georg. The two leads are a perfect match for each other, both exuding an endearing nervous energy. They are joined by a fantastic supporting cast, featuring Katherine Kingsley who steals the show as Ilona Ritter, a ditzy sales clerk whose supposedly secret relationship with sleazy co worker Steven Kodaly (Dominic Tighe) results in an entertaining subplot. 

It's impossible not to be charmed by She Loves Me. The music and lyrics of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick exude glorious warmth and lyricism, with numbers like Tonight At Eight and Vanilla Ice Cream being especially good examples of this. Young star Callum Howells as enthusiastic delivery boy Arpad Laszlo also brings boundless energy to the already frantic and fast paced act 2 opening number Try Me, a song which exemplifies just how irrefutably charming and joyful the music of She Loves Me is.

Despite the Menier Chocolate Factory's somewhat tiny stage, this production feels rather grand and lavish. Designer Paul Farnsworth has created an absolutely gorgeous set which fully encapsulates the sumptuousness of the dreamlike 1930s Budapest in which She Loves Me takes place. Similarly, Choreographer Rebecca Howell makes good use of the intimate venue, especially during standout ensemble number A Romantic Atmosphere, in which the patrons of a discrete rendezvous cafe cut loose to hilarious and thrilling effect! 

She Loves Me is a warm hug of a show, filled with glorious musical numbers, a delightfully fluffy plot and lashings of good natured humour. It's impossible to resist such a downright delectable musical, and with a wintry finale which makes the whole piece feel particularly fun and festive, She Loves Me is the perfect show for Christmastime! 

Visit www.menierchocolatefactory.com to buy tickets.

Interview - Jamie Jackson (Director of Muted at The Bunker theatre)

New British musical Muted is coming to the The Bunker theatre from December 7th to January 7th. An earlier version of the musical received rave reviews and garnered several award nominations, with The Stage critic Mark Shenton even going so far as to call it 'the British equivalent to Rent'. 

Muted tells the story of Michael Brookman, an exceptional young musician whose band was on the brink of stardom, until his mother was suddenly killed in a hit and run accident, after which he stopped talking altogether. With a book by Sarah Henley and music and lyrics by Tim Prottey Jones and Tori Allen-Martin, as well as an exciting and talented cast, Muted looks is definitely one to watch. 

With the show opening soon director Jamie Jackson took some time to answer a few questions about Muted and why, despite the seemingly upsetting subject matter, it's the perfect show to see this Christmas!

Muted is premiering at The Bunker as part of its inaugural season. It’s exciting to see a wealth of new writing being staged on the London Fringe. Do you think audiences are becoming more adventurous and taking more risks with the theatre they see and the venues they attend nowadays?
Ultimately I think audiences want to be told brilliant stories. They'll go wherever those are being produced. The Bunker is a wonderful space - in a great location. Their first two shows have been terrific, so it's a real honour to be a part of the inaugural season. So I'm not sure it's all that much of a risk to come to the Bunker when the work so far has been this exceptional! Tonight with Donny Stixx is one of my favourite shows I've seen this year. 

Muted is playing at The Bunker during the Christmas period. What can audiences expect from the story?
An emotional roller-coaster. It's hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure. I think it's the first time we've seen a completely mute character in a musical too. So that's a first! The songs are fantastic, and the story has a number of twists and turns. At the centre is a powerful love story, which feels perfect for Christmas.

What was it that attracted you to the project to begin with?
I've worked with Sarah Henley (playwright) before so it was an exciting opportunity to reunite with her. I've long been a fan of Interval Production's work so I was really keen to work with them plus Tim's (Prottey-Jones, music and lyrics) music is stunning. Musicals were what first got me into theatre and I've always wanted to direct one. I couldn't think of a better show or theatre to be directing my musical debut in!

The production is being funded in part by a Kickstarter. What has that been like?
It's been wonderful to see just how much support and anticipation there is for Muted. I know Interval have had continued support from fans of the show for nearly seven years - so it's a real privilege to be involved and to be making a show with them in mind. 

The workshop version of Muted received several award nominations including a Broadway World nomination for Best Fringe or Regional Musical and a Whatonstage nomination for Best New Musical. By the sounds of it, the show is poised for success. How much reworking has gone on since its initial run?
This production has a new cast and creative team so we're all interpreting and interrogating the show as if it were the first production. There's some additional songs for this run, and Sarah's made some changes to the story too. Our ambition is to build on the fantastic success of the last production - to take their brilliant work and make it even better. Our hope is that this a version of Muted the old fans will love, as well as bringing a brand new audience to the show. 

Are there any plans for the show after its month-long run this Christmas? 
At the moment, I'm just focused on making the best production possible for the Bunker. It's such a wonderful space, and we've had incredible support from Joshua (McTaggart – Artistic Director) and Joel (Fisher – Executive Director) at the theatre in helping realise the show to this point. I'm privileged enough to be working with a fantastic cast and creative team so at the moment I'm enjoying that too much to think about the future! 

Many thanks to Jamie Jackson for answering these questions. 

If Muted has caught your attention then visit www.bunkertheatre.com to buy tickets!

Review - Dick Whittington (Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury)

Well, it's that time of year again... fairy lights are popping up left right and centre, you can't move for tinsel, and quality street sharing boxes are stacked up higher than the Eiffel tower. Yep, the countdown to Christmas has officially begun, which means families will be heading down to their local theatre to enjoy the age old British tradition of pantomime!
The cast of Dick Whittington at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Photo credit - Paul Clapp
This year, the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury is housing Dick Whittington, a panto full of festive fun for the whole family. Kids will love the show's slapstick comedy while parents will revel in the more mature (and sometimes extremely raunchy) jokes, and everyone, regardless of age, will enjoy the irresistibly electric atmosphere during the audience participation sections! 

Dick Whittington himself is brought to life by the charming Ben Carruthers, who leads several brilliant musical numbers excellently, and holds his own amongst his more larger-than-life co-stars. Not an easy task when the outrageously funny panto dame Dolly The Cook is never far from the spotlight! As Dolly, Marlowe pantomime stalwart Ben Roddy (who has appeared in 7 Marlowe Theatre pantos over the years) is extremely sharp and develops a brilliant rapport with both the audience and his fellow cast mates! During one particularly messy scene, Dolly teams up with Captain Crabstick (Lloyd Hollett) and the pair embark on a no holds barred routine, featuring a tilting stage platform, tons of slime and a boatload of innuendos.

The fun doesn't stop there either! There are some astonishing magic tricks, courtesy of TV personality and magician Stephen Mulhern, a staggering slapstick trampolining routine by professional gymnast and circus artist Vladimir Georgievsky, and more musical references than you can shake a magic wand at. It's also particularly amusing to hear Lisa Davina Phillip's Fairy Bow-Bells narrate the show using a rewritten version of Broadway phenomenon Hamilton's title song, as she tells the story of 'Richard Henry Whittington'. Additionally, the act 2 opening number is a brilliantly enthusiastic version of classic Guys and Dolls tune Sit Down You're Rocking The Boat, and John Barr as the Rat King gives numbers such as And I Am Telling You from Dreamgirls, and Don't Rain On My Parade from Funny Girl a sinister twist during the show too. 

The production itself is big, bright, and beautifully gaudy! The sets and costumes are colourful and kitschy, and the production really goes all out with gimmicky yet undeniably exciting elements such as the use of 3D glasses in one particularly fun scene. Another, a big, cheesy love duet between Dick and his love interest Alice (Jemma Carlisle), is played in front of a gauze onto which dozens of lovehearts are projected, while behind the gauze their love story is acted out in dreamlike dance form. There are so many unashamedly showy moments, each of which simply strengthens the hugely enjoyable panto tropes which audiences know and love!  

As far as pantos are concerned, bigger is always better, and it's hard to imagine a bigger panto than the Marlowe Theatre's Dick Whittington. Like all the best family shows, there is something for everyone to enjoy. Audiences are guaranteed to leave with a smile on their faces, and at the end of the day that is exactly what pantomimes are all about.

Oh yes they are! 

Visit www.marlowetheatre.com for more information and to book tickets.

Interview - Devon-Elise Johnson (Half A Sixpence)

After a hugely successful run at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Half A Sixpence has hit the West End with a flash, a bang and a wallop. Actress Devon-Elise Johnson, who also starred in the show in Chichester, is currently appearing as Ann Pornick, the adorable and down to earth love interest of protagonist Arthur Kipps. Devon was kind enough to chat to us about her role in the show, the incredible audience reaction, and why Half A Sixpence is still such a popular story today. 

Flash Bang Wallop is SUCH an iconic musical theatre song that everyone seems to know somehow. How familiar were you with Half A Sixpence before you auditioned for it?
I didn't have a clue quite frankly! I'd heard Flash Bang Wallop before because when I was about 13 I did a charity event and one of our numbers was Flash Bang Wallop! We wore sequined coats and it was all very classy, as you can imagine, but I didn't really think anything of it. I knew I enjoyed the song, but I had no idea where it came from. Especially at 13 years old. 

My agent phoned at half past ten on a Saturday night and said "Devon, stop what you're doing. You have an audition on Tuesday morning for Half A Sixpence!" I said "what's that?" and she said "for goodness sake, research it, girl!". I had 9 pieces of material to learn for the audition- 5 songs and 4 pieces of script. I had no way of playing the songs because I don't play piano, but I was attending a singing lesson on Monday night and so I managed to learn 5 songs and 4 pieces of script for Tuesday morning. And I watched the film and absolutely loved it! It's just good old fashioned musical fun.That's the thing about older musicals... you don't need swearing and you don't need a harsh subject matter to get the musical across. It's just a good old fashioned love story.

And the choreography is really stunning...
Innovative, isn't it? Andrew Wright's choreography is incredible. I couldn't wait to get my hands on. Especially when he told me that I was allowed to dance in Flash Bang Wallop. I couldn't contain my excitement! Of course, when he showed me the things I'd be doing I stood there open mouthed, asking "are you sure you want to put me at the front?" But he's incredible. His choreography is absolutely seamless, and it compliments the show so well because it's so quirky and innovative.

You mentioned that Half A Sixpence is a good old fashioned British musical. Why do you think that now is such a great time to bring it to the West End? 
Because there's nothing else like it in the West End right now. If you look at all the older musicals that are on at the moment, most of them are American. They may very well be old fashioned but Half A Sixpence has got something special. I know that Cameron [Macintosh] had been hoping to bring Half A Sixpence to the West End for approximately 10 years, if not more, but he had to try and get the rights, he had to go through the Henekers, and Julian Fellowes adapted the book. It's classic British musical theatre and I think the West End has needed something like that for a long time. We've got a lot of modern musical theatre, which I adore, but I think for our culture and history it needed to come it. It will show tourists a little insight into what it was like in England way back in the 1800s. It's good old fashioned family fun and I think it's lovely! 

It's such a feel good show, you come out grinning... 
Yes! There's no sadness in it really! And everyone at the stage door is really positive and some people have been saying that they're going to come back, which is incredible! We must be doing something right! 

Have you noticed much of a difference between the Chichester run and the West End run, in terms of the audience or general atmosphere? 
Absolutely! Chichester was beautiful and I adored it down there. The audiences were much older there actually, but even so, every single day at every single performance we had a standing ovation, which is incredible! It was magical to see them leap to their feet after a few hours of Half A Sixpence. The magic of musical theatre is just insane! But I think it is quite different here in London. We're in a much smaller venue, which is much more intimate. Although it's got 4 tiers it is a smaller audience, but I think it works because you get drawn into the story, and even from the balcony you can still see every single facial expression, move, breath even, which is incredible! London audiences are different too because they're much more diverse. We've got people coming over from different countries, visiting the West End. We've got a lot of children also coming to see the show. But in terms of the reaction we're getting, it's pretty similar. Everyone seems to be really, really enjoying it! 

What's your favourite thing about playing Ann?
Ooh good question... what I love about Ann is that she's so feisty! And she's so normal. I don't know if you know this, but the whole show is seen through the eyes of Arthur Kipps, so that's why in Pick Out A Simple Tune the characters are all in a bright green colour because it churns his stomach to be there, and he doesn't know how to react. But when you see Ann she's so normal and so grounded. And I can relate to her even in the 21st century, she's so relatable and normal. She's like an old fashioned Essex girl! 

If you could play any other role in Half A Sixpence, who would you want to play? 
I'd love to be Flo. I think she's such an adorable character and Beth [Bethany Huckle] plays her so well. She's so sweet! My favourite number in the show is Touch Of Happiness with her, and we have such a giggle on that stage and get on so well together, so I'd definitely like to be Flo... because she's cute! 

And finally... in keeping with the name of this blog, what is the stagiest thing about you? 
Oh...I have posters all over my walls, of shows that I like and shows that I've been in. That's quite stagey! And I've got a couple of spotify playlists that are pretty stagey too, but they only come out on special occasions of course. I've literally got stage stuff all around my room... I've got Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia, Taboo and Half A Sixpence on the wall now too! I'm not overly stagey, but I do like a poster! 

Thanks so much to Devon-Elise for taking part in this interview! 

You can read my review of Half A Sixpence here, and visit www.halfasixpence.co.uk  for more information and to book tickets. 

Review - Half A Sixpence (Noël Coward Theatre)

After a well received run at the Chichester Festival Theatre, a new stage adaptation of Half A Sixpence has opened at London's Noël Coward Theatre. 

While audiences may be familiar with the 1967 film of the same name, this new production features a completely new book, adapted by Julian Fellowes from the semi-autobiographical HG Wells novel Kipps, and a new score by songwriting duo Stiles and Drewe. Fans of David Heneker and Beverley Cross' original score need not be disappointed though, as it has been tweaked and incorporated  into the production alongside a litany of new tunes. 

Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
The story itself is a fluffy affair. Julian Fellowes' book is full of adorable archaisms, but also features an abundance of humour and warmth more suited to modern audiences' tastes. Similarly, a couple of racier references elicit a few giggles from the audience but still fit believably into the musical's Edwardian setting.

Young sweethearts Arthur Kipps and Ann Pornick grow up together in a small Kentish village, but are separated when Kipps is offered an apprenticeship in a drapery in a Folkstone. Years later Kipps inherits a large sum of money and starts rubbing shoulders with the higher classes, in particular the family and acquaintances of local beauty Helen Walsingham. However, the longer Kipps spends in the company of wealthy but banal members of society, the more he starts to miss his old life. 

There can be no doubt that an absolutely first rate cast has been assembled for this production. The ensemble works incredibly hard and sells one group number after the other. Pick Out A Simple Tune and Flash, Bang, Wallop are particularly fun, and showcase the incredible energy and enthusiasm of the company, as well Andrew Wright's lively and dynamic choreography.

Devon-Elise Johnson makes the audience fall in love with her delightfully self-assured Ann Pornick almost immediately. Meanwhile dependable musical theatre star Emma Williams, who received an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in Mrs Henderson Presents earlier this year, is once again in fine voice as Helen Walsingham. Although the role itself is ultimately a little bit bland, Williams portrays the role with a hint of subdued sadness which offers a subtle but affecting insight into the realities of life in Edwardian England, and all-consuming importance of class and social standing.

Additionally, Alex Hope, Sam O'Rourke, Callum Train and Bethany Huckle make a fantastic quartet as Kipps' pals from the drapery, who each imbue their roles with distinctive personality and exude a wonderfully convivial dynamic in every scene they share. Similarly, Williams' Mrs Henderson Presents costar Ian Bartholomew is energetic and amiable as Kipps' whimsical friend, actor and aspiring playwright Harry Chitterlowe. 

Without a doubt though, the star of the show is Charlie Stemp as Arthur Kipps. He injects the role with tons of boyish charisma, and has the audience enraptured from beginning to end. Every second of his charismatic performance is simply joyous to watch. To see a young actor so at ease on stage is hugely impressive, and no doubt Stemp will be one to watch from now on. 

The production itself has a wonderfully vintage aesthetic, which perfectly complements the old fashioned charm of the Half A Sixpence book and score. Sets and lighting help to create an idyllic pastel coloured playground for the characters to inhabit, and each character is costumed correspondingly. Costumes also ooze archaic loveliness, featuring plenty of patterns, plaids and stripes. Every element of Half A Sixpence radiates a carefree, dreamlike softness, which makes the whole piece feel airy and enchanting, a feeling which encapsulates the extent of it's utter gloriousness. 

Half A Sixpence is an irrefutably enjoyable bit of good old fashioned entertainment, which is guaranteed to leave audiences grinning from ear to ear. It's heartening to see such an archetypically british musical open amid a sea of broadway transfers and long running West End stalwarts. Having hit London with a flash, a bang and a wallop, let's hope it's here to stay!  

Half A Sixpence at the Noël Coward Theatre is currently booking until mid February 2017. For more information and to book tickets visit www.halfasixpence.co.uk

Review - Sunny Afternoon (UK Tour)

Following a 2 year run on the West End, Olivier Award winning musical Sunny Afternoon embarked on a UK tour earlier this year. Featuring hit after hit, Sunny Afternoon is the perfect musical for anyone feeling nostalgic for the 1960s. The costumes are groovy, the set is loud and garish in a charmingly retro way, and the script is jam packed with little nods to the past, as well as more than a few ironic and self-aware winks to future events.
Photo credit - Kevin Cummins 
The story follows the rise and fall, and rise and fall, and rise and fall of British rock band The Kinks, from their beginnings in Muswell Hill in 1964 to the release of Waterloo Sunset at the end of the 1960s. They certainly packed a lot of excitement into a couple of years, as while act 1 follows the band as they conquer the UK music charts, act 2 touches upon their involvement in the British Invasion, and the infamous subsequent ban from the USA. As well as the band's antics as a whole, Sunny Afternoon also packs in lots of references to the personal lives of the band members, and offers a glimpse into the struggles and pitfalls of fame.

Actor Ryan O'Donnell takes on the complex lead role of singer, guitarist and songwriter Ray Davies, having previously understudied the role in London. He gives a charming and understated performance, and his vocals in particular sound very similar to those heard on The Kinks albums, but his performance is far from an impersonation. O'Donnell captures the subtleties of the role, and is a delight to watch onstage.

In contrast to O'Donnell's pensive performance, Mark Newnham is unabashedly raucous as Ray's younger brother Dave 'the rave' Davies. His energy and commitment is evident, and he captures the nonchalance and unconventionality of the character perfectly. 

Meanwhile Andrew Gallo is hilarious as drummer Mick Avory, and Garmon Rhys is endearing as underappreciated bassist Pete Quaife. The cast has great onstage chemistry, which really helps the dialogue to pop, a hard feat in a musical which features one hit song after another. 

There is an undeniable crackle of excitement in the air the first time the unmistakable You Really Got Me riff is played, and even more so once Dave tears up an amp and cranks up the volume in order to achieve a more raw, distorted sound. The importance of the iconic moment is not squandered, as the scene transitions quickly to the BBC's Top of the Pops show, where the song is played in full, accompanied by 3 gogo boot wearing backing dancers, and blinding concert style lighting. It's the first in a string of familiar hits featured in the musical, and later songs include All Day And All Of the Night, Waterloo Sunset and of course, Sunny Afternoon! There's also a rendition of Lola (which was released several years after the events of the musical) after the bows, as well as an encore mashup of popular hits. The Kinks songs are so ingrained in popular culture today that each song seems somewhat familiar, and in that way Sunny Afternoon will appeal to audiences regardless of their familiarity with the band itself. 

Although Sunny Afternoon is a purposefully over the top feel good musical, it's not without its fair share of drama. Tensions between the band members, as well as in the wider world, are very evident throughout the show. There are plenty of references to class divide, the hardships of the working class, and the ongoing repercussions of World War 2, all of which make Sunny Afternoon more poignant than other comparably sentimental pieces.

The Kinks is one of the most iconic British rock bands ever, and Sunny Afternoon perfectly captures their epic successes, but maintains an intimate charm too. A perfect musical for rock and pop fans, Sunny Afternoon is guaranteed to have audiences dancing in their seats by the end! 

Don't miss Sunny Afternoon on its UK tour. Find out more about the tour by visiting sunnyafternoonthemusical.com/uk-tour.

TheatreCraft 2016

The free annual TheatreCraft careers event is the biggest non-performance careers event in London. Taking place in the beautiful Waldorf Hotel and with workshops going on in a number of nearby West End theatres, there is no doubt that all those who attend leave feeling inspired by the electric atmosphere of theatreland, as well as the unbridled enthusiasm exuded by the theatre professionals who give up their time to come and talk to young arts enthusiasts. 


This year's TheatreCraft was bigger and better than ever, with loads to be getting on with throughout the day. 2016 TheatreCraft ambassador Adam Kenwright from ATG launched the event at 10am with a passionate speech wherein which he outlined his own career history and touched upon the importance of young people in the industry. He urged everyone to ask 5 questions every day, before sending us on our way. 

The TheatreCraft marketplace was bustling with hundreds of young and excitable theatre enthusiasts making the most of the sheer variety of theatres and education providers exhibiting in the hall. I spoke to many different companies and organisations throughout the day, and picked up loads of different flyers and information sheets too. It was particularly useful to be able to ask the people manning the stalls about their own jobs and how they got to be where they are now, and as a result I was also able to gather lots of information about a variety of work experience opportunities and internships too. All in all a very productive perusal! 


The wealth and variety of different workshops was also someone overwhelming. No matter which area of theatre was of interest, there was a relevant workshop for it. I personally attended two workshops, the first of which was entitled Learn How To Market A Show From Scratch with Dewynters, a world leading arts and live entertainment marketing company. The workshop began with a tour around the different departments at Dewynters. We got a glimpse into the inner workings of the company, and saw loads of different examples of marketing materials produced by Dewynters for a myriad of past and current West End shows! We were then taken through the creation of a logo/poster for a West End show, using the upcoming 42nd Street revival as an example. It was exciting to see each step in the process, from mood board to finished product, and what a beautiful finished product the 42nd Street logo is! Who else is excited for that show to hit London next March? After the talk was over, we were split into smaller groups and invited to plan a marketing campaign for a fictional upcoming musical named Downton The Musical! My group was in charge of the Audience element, and so we mind mapped ideas about which demographic would be most likely to book tickets to Downton The Musical, and how we could entice different audiences in too. The activity was brilliant fun, and by the end of the session we'd managed to plan the beginnings of what looked like a pretty brilliant marketing campaign! Honestly, I didn't want to leave the session at the end. The Dewynters office was very swanky and the staff who led our workshop were so knowledgeable that I'd have liked to pick their brains some more, but we had to leave because there was so much more to explore at TheatreCraft, and I personally had another workshop to attend. 


The second workshop I attended was called Critical Condition - Is There A Future In Theatre Reviewing? This workshop was led by freelance theatre critic Tom Wicker, whose writing has featured in many different publications both in print and online. He had lots to say about the future of theatre criticism, and the way in which it must change and evolve in order to keep up with today's shift towards digital as the norm. He spoke in praise of the younger writers at publications like The Stage, and also expressed a wish to see more reviews written by non white, male, middle class critics. I was also thankful to hear him encourage young aspiring critics to start their own blogs, contribute to pre-existing theatre review sites or write for their school or university newspapers, as in the past some professional critics have been rather scathing about the criticism produced by bloggers. I came away from the session feeling refreshingly positive about the state of theatre criticism and its future. It's certainly got a lot of updating to do, but there's no way good quality criticism is going to die out anytime soon. If nothing else, the amount of people in attendance at the workshop proved that a hunger for quality criticism is very much alive within younger theatregoers. 


However, perhaps the most valuable part of TheatreCraft was the one to one Ask The Experts sessions, which took place throughout the day. Demand for spaces was high, and for good reason. TheatreCraft attendees were given to opportunity to have their CV checked over by a theatre professional from within their chosen section of the industry, an invaluable opportunity, especially for those about to graduate from college or university. My Ask The Experts session was arts marketing and PR expert Ryan Grimshaw, the marketing coordinator for Pavilion Dance South West. I was given loads of brilliant advice about what else I could do to make my CV stand out, as well as suggestions of further training opportunities and work experience advice. I was thankful for the opportunity to be able to pinpoint exactly which skills I needed to develop. Having a CV looked over by a careers adviser at school or university is useful of course, but having it critiqued by an expert in the field I hope to work in is an unparallelled opportunity. 

Evidently TheatreCraft is an unmissable event for anyone thinking about a career in the arts. The chance to get stuck into a wide array of workshops as well as chat and network with theatre industry professionals is an opportunity like no other. Follow TheatreCraft on twitter (@theatrecraft) for more information about the event, as well as a heads up when the 2017 event is announced. Many thanks to Theatre Bloggers for securing me a press pass so that I could cover the event in more detail.

Review - Lazarus (King's Cross Theatre)

After a sell out run at the New York Theatre Workshop, Lazarus has opened in London, in a purpose built auditorium at the King's Cross Theatre. As one of the last projects Bowie worked on before his passing, this was always going to be a poignant piece of theatre. Based on Walter Tevis' sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell To Earth and the subsequent film adaptation which starred Bowie himself, Lazarus tells the story of Thomas Newton, an alien who finds himself stranded on earth after embarking on a mission to help bring water to his dying planet. Unable to find his way back to his family, and pining or his blue haired beloved, Newton chooses to while his days away drinking gin and watching TV in a stark beige Manhattan apartment. Drowning in alcohol, Newton dismisses everyone around him, from his old colleague and friend to his besotted assistant. But when an ethereal young girl manifests herself and vows to help him get home, Newton is finally pressed to face his reality and allows himself to express the anguishes he's been drinking away for years. But unfortunately Newton is also being preyed upon by a menacing man named Valentine who stalks ever closer as the story goes on, leaving a string of bloodied corpses in his wake. 
Photo credit - Johan Persson
American star Michael C. Hall, best known for his work on the popular crime drama Dexter, takes center stage in Lazarus as Newton, and gives a focused and intense performance as the miserable alien. His slightly stilted gait and mannerisms pair perfectly with David Bowie and Enda Walsh's pondering, omnipotent script. Meanwhile his distinctive voice perfectly captures the aching pain behind every word sung. Most affecting are his scenes with the Girl, played by waifish young American actress Sophia Anne Caruso. The pair share several touching moments, and their rendition of Heroes is a welcome moment of gleeful joy in an otherwise rather barren tale. Contrastingly, Michael Esper, the third and final American star to have transferred with this production, is chillingly convincing as Valentine, an initially unassuming presence who switches from lurking but reticent figure to deranged and compulsive murderer and back again with breakneck changeability. Each character is occupied with their own agenda, and at times it feels as if Newton's story is a small part of a much bigger series of events, echoing Lazarus' overall theme of helplessness and the way in which it affects every character in one way or another.

In addition to the unanimously exemplary cast, Lazarus also wows on several other levels. Designer Jan Versweyveld's abyss-like yet impressive canvas of a set and extreme and evocative lighting pair bleakness with abrasiveness to great effect, and fantastically inventive projection by Tal Yarden steals more than a few scenes. Lazarus is nothing if not in-your-face. 

It does seem at times as if the characters are simply occupying a piece of art, rather than telling a story set in the harsh version of reality which this sci-fi tale inhabits. In actual fact though, Lazarus is a spectacle set to music. Both a product of and an homage to one of the most iconic performers of the last fifty years, and in that way it is an irrefutable success. 
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Interestingly, the band in this production is placed purposefully on stage behind glass panels representing apartment windows, and although curtains are occasionally drawn in front of them, they are visible for a large portion of the show, thus making clear that despite all of the theatricality, it is music that is at the heart of Lazarus. Many classic Bowie songs have been reworked and re imagined with varying degrees of success. Changes fits perfectly into the narrative, as Newton's assistant Elly harangues her husband and expresses the detatche of her thoughts and feelings towards her own existence, all while she struggles with unrequited romantic feelings for her boss. Similarly, a gut wrenching rendition of Life of Mars lands perfectly when performed in simple yet evocative style by Sophia Anne Caruso's Girl as she sits staring out of a window and up into the night sky. And when Valentine declares Valentine's Day as an initially easy going tune subsides into something more manic and aggressive a real sense of awe is elicited. Even when songs fail to fit congruously with the story being told, the beauty and poignancy of each lyric, and the imagery which accompanies it, is palpable. 

It is hard to know how to respond to Lazarus at times. But perhaps that's the point? Newton himself is, after all, self imprisoned in what is effectively a box, surrounded on all sides by the hubbub of a city which has no concern for its inhabitants, disconnected from the world outside, and in that way the audience can definitely relate! 

Lazarus runs at the King's Cross Theatre until 22nd January 2017. For more information and to purchase tickets visit lazarusmusical.com

Review - The Last Five Years (St James Theatre)

The Last Five Years is perhaps composer Jason Robert Brown's most famous and beloved song cycle musical, ever since its 2001 off-Broadway run was immortalised on a cast album featuring Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz, songs such as Summer In Ohio and Moving Too Fast have been stalwart numbers in auditions and concerts all over the world. The musical's popularity was further bolstered in 2015 when Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick starred in a movie adaptation. As far as contemporary musical theatre goes, The Last Five Years is a must-see. 

Photo Credit - Scott Rylander 
The story charts the doomed relationship between successful young author Jamie and aspiring actress Cathy, and uses a unique structure to embellish the tale. While Jamie's scenes are told in chronological order, the audience first witnesses Cathy reflecting on the end of the couple's marriage after their 5 year long relationship. This clever structure reminds audiences that for each happy or triumphant moment there is an undercurrent of sadness and futility.  

If the opening line of The Last Five Years' wasn't 'Jamie is over and Jamie is gone' then the form would still immediately highlight the incongruity of the relationship, as the only time Cathy and Jamie share the stage is during their wedding day. At all other times they are completely separate from each other, thus constantly reminding the audience of the ways in which they are missing each others signs, and neglecting one another in order to follow their own personal ambitions and whims. 

Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey are exemplary in their roles as young lovers Cathy and Jamie. Barks is an engaging performer whose powerful and soaring voice effortlessly navigates Cathy's belty numbers such as I Can Do Better Than That and Climbing Uphill. meanwhile she brings a touching vulnerability to quieter moments and punctuates moments of silence with long lovelorn looks.

While Barks' Cathy is rather restrained, Jonathan Bailey bursts into his earlier scenes with boundless energy and an adorkable lovableness. He attacks many of his numbers in a controlled frenzy, puts on silly voices, emotes, dances and laughs with abandon, and is evidently the polar opposite of his sweet, witty yet reserved other half. Although his voice is not exactly that of a typical leading man's he injects songs with charm, and wins over Cathy (and the audience) through goofy numbers such as The Schmuel Song. It is heartbreaking therefore, to see his sleazy side develop, and the last couple of numbers are emotionally tiring tearjerkers as a result. In particular, the slow, languishing Nobody Needs To Know signals an irrefutably heart stopping revelation. The Last Five Years is an ultimately dispiriting musical, which Barks and Bailey navigate faultlessly from joyous to painful or vice versa, proving themselves pitch perfect leads. 

Nowhere is this perfection clearer than in the final scene, wherein Cathy tells Jamie Goodbye Until Tomorrow, while Jamie sadly reflects on the shortcomings of the pair's love in I Could Never Rescue You. Although the audiences has been privy to the entire relationship from beginning to end, there is still something in the way Cathy dreamily sings about her hopes for a future with her new love which gives the audience a sense of hope that maybe things will turn out differently, however much the inevitability of their incompatibility has already been established. It is therefore gut wrenching to see a rare moment of connection between characters in the musical's final moments, and there is no denying the fact that they are well and truly over. 

The musical battles with a number of universal emotions and ideas, such as ambition, rejection, longing and self doubt, which only serves to make each moment all the more affecting. Even more notable is the role gender plays within the piece, the young and ambitious man is rewarded with success and reaps the rewards of his skills, meanwhile the woman is subjected to cattle call auditions, where she is judged first and foremost on her age and appearance rather than her talent, and is chiefly concerned with avoiding becoming a housewife, and haunted by the idea that she may never be able to have the career she always dreamed of. The fact that this issue remains as relevant today as ever is extremely disheartening. For this reason it is impossible not to relate at least one of the characters at some point or another, and the intimacy of the two-hander in such a cosy space really helps to drive the poignancy home. 

The Last Five Years is an intimate story, and the St James Theatre is the perfect London venue to stage it at. That being said, the production is a little bit busy at times, and features lots of moving pieces, and somewhat superfluous screens, used only to give the audience an indication of location. The beauty of The Last Five Years is in its simplicity and therefore at times the production does feel a little bit fussy, however, for the most part the minimal sets and props are of no consequence.

The fact that composer Jason Robert Brown is the director of this production is very interesting for several reasons, not least because The Last Five Years contains some semi-autobiographical elements. Famously Brown based Jamie off of himself, and therefore his direction of this cast is also an exciting insight into the way in which the character was intended to be played. Despite this, it it Jamie who ends up coming off worse in the end, while Cathy remains a far more sympathetic character. That being said, Jonathan Bailey does his best to try and inject some likability into his older Jamie, and plays later scenes much less stony faced and cold than is often seen in productions of this musical. 

The Last Five Years is a musical which every musical theatre fan should see. Not only is it a modern standard, its influence can also be seen in countless new musicals today. With such an impressive cast, and a director who knows the piece better than anyone else, this is an unmissable production which will resonate on some level with everyone! 

The Last Five Years plays at London's St James Theatre until 3rd December. For more information and to book tickets, visit the St James Theatre website.

Review - The Woman in Black (UK Tour)

The Woman in Black is a tale which is so ingrained in popular culture that even the mention of its name has people jumping behind their sofas in fear. Originally published as a novella in 1983 by author Susan Hill, the story was later adapted into a stage play by Stephen Mallatratt. The play opened in London in 1989 where it has played ever since. Not content with having terrified audiences in London for 27 years, the production is currently touring the UK for over the dozenth time, and chilling audiences up and down the country in the process. 
The story is framed as a play within a play. Set inside a Victorian theatre, an elderly lawyer named Arthur Kipps seeks out the the assistance of a young actor to help him tell a story which he's kept to himself for many years. Despite Kipp's initial resistance to the idea of staging his horrific tale in the form of a play for entertainment's sake, he eventually relents and allows the young actor to assume the role of Kipps in the retelling, while Kipps himself takes on the supporting roles within the story. 

The audience is then transported back to many years before, and the story of The Woman in Black begins. It is revealed that the woman is a ghostly presence which resides within the neglected grounds of Eel Marsh House, in the North Eastern town of Crythin Gifford. Kipps recalls a time many years ago when he was sent to the bleak town to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs Alice Drablow, and to get all of her papers in order. However, upon his arrival he senses a feeling of foreboding in the town, and soon discovers why. Alice Drablow's house is seemingly haunted by a mysterious woman with a wasted face, dressed all in black, whose presence signifies an unspeakable danger to all those residing in Crythin Gifford! 

The play is executed well by actors David Acton as Kipps and Matthew Spencer as The Actor. Their ability to evoke a sense of uneasiness and dread is paramount to the success of the play, and they exercise incredible stamina in the roles, sustaining just enough tension throughout to ensure that the finale is an intense and jarring explosion of terror. An amazing feat for two actors who spend the majority of the play alone on an almost bare stage. Of course, they are aided by shapes and shadows half seen, noises half heard, and the audience's imagination itself. Half of the fun and horror of The Woman in Black is trying to establish what is real and what is just a trick of the light or senses being mislead.  

The production does therefore make great use of lighting and sound design. Despite most of the action taking place on a stage adorned with just a coat rack, stool as wicker basket, the production uses a gauze to cleverly convey the shadowy crevices of Eel Marsh House. The stage magic seen in The Woman in Black is delightfully archaic and helps to plant the production clearly within the Victorian era. It's a nice touch to see Kipps and The Actor marvel at recorded sound playing in the theatre, and indeed the sound design, while simplistic, is very effective. 

In fact The Woman in Black is at its spookiest when it's at its subtlest. The sound of a rocking chair listing rhythmically in the next room, the mystery of an ominous locked door, and the haunting screams of ghostly unseen figures all cause an eeriness which is much more unsettling than any sighting of the woman herself. Nevertheless, some outright jump scares also serve to startle. 

Although at some points the scares do seem a little bit obvious, there's no denying that The Woman in Black is a chilling night out with jumps aplenty and an ending which will send a shivers down the spine! 

The Woman in Black is currently playing in London's Fortune Theatre as well as touring the UK. For more information on tour dates and to book tickets visit the show's website.