Review - An Inspector Calls (UK Tour)

An Inspector Calls was one of the first plays I ever really studied, and yet still to this day I find it as interesting and multi-faceted as I always did.

The story seems simple enough; a family sitting down to dinner receive a visit from a mysterious police inspector named Goole, investigating the suicide of a young girl, who mysteriously seems to be connected to every party member. However, as the play goes on, it becomes clear that the Inspector may not be who he says he is, and his inspection of the family may not be happening for the reason they think it is. The brilliantly gripping plot, and interesting social commentary presented by playwright J.B. Priestly is surely the reason behind why An Inspector Calls is considered a classic today. 

Therefore when the UK tour of Stephen Daldry's staging of An Inspector Calls visited my local theatre, I was excited to see it. Especially given the countless 4 and 5 star reviews I had read before I attended. However, while the plot was just as shocking as always, I sadly found myself a little let down by the production as a whole. 

Firstly, the set seemed unfit for a theatre with a curved seating area. For the first 10 minutes approximately, the family scenes took place inside what looked like a large dolls house dining room, with all four walls intact. I think the idea was that the audience is supposed to only catch glimpses of the action from through the windows, however, from my side view seat I could see nothing almost nothing. Additionally, the walls muffled the actor's voices, meaning that throughout the whole of the first establishing scene I could neither see or hear much of anything. 

Unfortunately, when the house finally opened up (a very clunky moment in the plays opening third) my issue with the visibility of characters didn't improve very much, as it seemed that no character's monologue was deemed perfect unless they ran to the back of the stage and then ran forwards again to exaggerate their point. This direction got tiring and repetitive very quickly and also made many of the moments much more melodramatic that they needed to be. 

In fact, I think the main issue I had with this production overall was its lack of subtlety. Of course the play is full of clever hints and allusions, but in this production all of symbolism etc. seemed heavy handed. It almost seemed like the whole production was designed with GCSE English students in mind (the play is still on the syllabus). Some of the elements were admittedly quite clever, and as a 16 year old wannabe A* student I would be having a field day. But sadly I'm a bit older than 16 now and so was quite a lot of the audience, and therefore this symbolism just didn't seem subtle enough. 

Not even the spot on performances of Liam Brennan as the abrasive inspector, or Caroline Wildi's humorous take on the detestable Sybil Birling could detract from the larger faults in this production. As one of my favourite plays, I was really hoping to love An Inspect Calls, but sadly I personally found it unsubtle and by-the-numbers.  

Review - Grey Gardens (Southwark Playhouse)

Despite it's huge cult following, until about a week ago I had never seen the 1975 Maysles brothers documentary Grey Gardens, nor did I know much at all about the story of the people it followed, however, when it was announced that the tony award winning musical based on the documentary would be playing at the Southwark Playhouse, my interest was piqued, and when a further announcement listed Sheila Hancock and Jenna Russell as the show's stars, I quickly realised that this show would be one to catch!

"Based on the iconic film, Grey Gardens tells the spectacular real life rise and fall of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale.

Starting in 1941 at an engagement party at Grey Gardens, the Bouvier’s mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, the musical tracks the progression of the two women’s lives from American aristocrats to reclusive social outcasts living in such squalid conditions, in a home overrun by cats, that the Health Department deemed the mansion ‘unfit for human habitation’."

Firstly, I must say that what immediately struck me about this production, was the amazing intricacy of Tom Rogers' set design. Old, disheveled props lay scattered around the stage throughout the whole performance. It act 1 as the scenes were so brightly lit and the costumes by Jonathan Lipman were so beautifully vintage the dishevelment was downplayed and yet obviously foreshadowed the character's futures, while in the more gloomy atmosphere of act 2, it became rather glaring and repulsive, and perfectly set the tone for the act. Overall, the set was definitely the most striking element of the production, especially given how much semiotic detail was included in such a small set.

However, despite the production's impressive design elements, overall I didn't enjoy Grey Gardens as much as I had hoped I would, and this is mostly down to how flat the show fell in the second act. Fortunately, The first act (a large portion of which I later discovered was fabricated for the show) was enjoyable for the most part, as it gave the audience a glimpse into Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale's pasts. The act was filled with colourful supporting characters such as Edith's charismatic live-in accompanist friend Gould (Jeremy Legat), and Edie's fiance Joseph Kennedy, played charmingly by Aaron Sidwell, whose crooning voice perfectly suited the show's time setting. However, Rachel Anne Rayham and Jenna Russell gave the stand out performances of act 1 as Young Edie and Edith Bouvier Beale respectively. The pair's dynamic was unique and they shared fantastic chemistry as the bickering mother and daughter duo. In short, act 1 was a treat to watch. 

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for act two, which takes place 32 years later in the now dilapidated wreck of Grey Gardens. The plot was disappointingly uneventful, and the story tonally uneven. Sheila Hancock did a good job of conveying the shrunken yet strong physicality of Edith Beale, but due partly to her constantly wistful line delivery, and her seemingly unwillingness to acknowledge the audience the way Jenna Russell did as Edie, her characterisation felt a little off. 

Thankfully, Jenna Russell shone again in act 2, this time as Edie, a slightly delusional yet engaging character. Clad in a a makeshift mini-dress, a headscarf fashioned from a cardigan, and not much else, she dominated the stage and captivated the audience, conveying warmth and humanising the rather outlandish character. Additionally, she was given possibly the best songs in the show, including the hilarious act 2 opener The Revolutionary Costume For Today. All in all though, the music was rather unmemorable for the most part, which is perhaps another reason why I never really warmed to the show. 

Despite the fact that the story was tragic and thought provoking and the cast was fantastic, I sadly felt myself let down by Grey Gardens. It'll be interesting to see if it has a life beyond the Southwark Playhouse, as the current run is completely sold out, but honestly I think that this musical may really only appeal to those who were already fans of the documentary. 

Review - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (West Yorkshire Playhouse)

Despite having been released 27 years before I was born, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was one of the definitive family films of my childhood, and therefore I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see a new production of this family favourite at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, ahead of it's UK tour.
In a slight variation to the pre-war setting of the film, this production was set in post-war England, which compliments both the themes of the story, and the characters involved. The story begins when two young children beg their father, the widowed inventor Caractacus Potts, to buy them a dilapidated race car from a scrap yard so that they can play with it. Once the car is fixed it proves to be much more than just a toy, and the family, along with their new motorcycle enthusiast acquaintance Truly Scrumptious, are whisked away to the mysterious Vulgaria on an unbelievable adventure.
Photo credit - Alastair Muir
Jon Robyns put his own winsome stamp on the role of Caractacus Potts, and struck a perfect balance between madcap inventor and doting father to his two children Jeremy and Jemima (played wonderfully by Oscar Ward and Lucy Grundy at the performance I attended). Meanwhile Amy Griffiths was a brilliantly mettlesome Truly Scrumptious. I loved the changes made to Truly which reflected the character's place in the new post-suffragette movement setting. I was also thrilled with the inclusion of the song Lovely Lonely Man, which was did not feature in the 2002 Palladium production and yet is one of the most poignant songs in the show.

The whole cast was top notch, and during big numbers like Me Ol' Bamboo (which was ingeniously reinvented as an electric tap number by choreographer Stephen Mear) and the rousing song Teamwork, this was particularly apparent!

But what about Chitty herself? Well, she really was more than spectacular! Seeing her fly for the first time was incredibly exciting. The prop itself was gorgeous and when combined with projections and accompanied by the unmistakable Chitty Chitty Bang Bang motif, the flying scenes honestly took my breath away. It was wonderful to see so many people, age regardless, gaping open mouthed as the car ascended into the air!

What made this show so brilliant was that it had something for everyone. The story was entertaining, the script was filled with comical moments (Sam Harrison and Scott Paige were hilarious as a bumbling duo of Vulgarian spies), the production design was slick, and the Sherman Brothers' beautiful and instantly recognisable music was performed by a first-rate band of musicians. It had everything you could want from a family show, and I enjoyed every second of it!

Fortunately, although the show ends its run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on January 30th, it then sets off on a UK tour! I really couldn't recommend Chitty Chitty Bang Bang enough and I'll definitely be seeing it again and bringing my family along when it visits Birmingham's Hippodrome this summer. It really was fantasmagorical!

My favourite shows of 2015

Happy new year! 

Wow, is it just me or has 2015 flown by? It doesn't seem that long ago that I was looking back on 2014 and reflecting on the wonderful shows I'd seen that year, and now here we are in 2016, and wow do we have some exciting shows to look forward too! 

2016 looks like it's going to be an amazing year for theatre, but as this post's title suggests, rather that looking to the future, I'm going to be reflecting on some of what I consider to be the best shows of 2015 (I know I unfortunately never got to see dozens of hugely successful and well reviewed shows this year, but I've also been lucky enough to catch some absolute gems). I've loved reading loads of #LDNtheatrebloggers' picks and so I hope you enjoy mine...

I'm no stranger to shedding a tear or two in the theatre, but normally I'm weeping tears of sadness, not hilarity. However, when I saw Peter Pan Goes Wrong on its UK tour in January 2015 for the first time in my theatregoing life I found myself laughing so hard I couldn't breathe!

In Peter Pan Goes Wrong the jokes came thick and fast and the mishaps were ingenious and largely unpredictable. I enjoyed every single second of Peter Pan Goes Wrong and would return to see it in a heartbeat, which is fortunate as it playing at the Apollo Theatre in London until the 31st of January 2016.

4) Gypsy 

I didn't actually write a review of Gypsy for this blog, because I saw it in its very final week on the West End and by then everything that needed to be said had been said. As I expected, Gypsy STUNNED me! Imelda Staunton's performance as bullish stage mom Madame Rose was dynamic, inimitable, and frankly more than a little bit terrifying.

Although the BBC recording of Gypsy which aired during the Christmas holidays was fabulous, nothing could replicate the electric atmosphere which I experienced while watching it live. I am incredibly grateful to have experienced this show, which I'm sure will be remembered for years to come!
This creepy immersive production of Sweeney Todd was just as dark and terrifying as I'd hoped it would be. In other productions of Sweeney Todd, Todd's throat slitting has been gory and grotesque and perfectly grizzly, but of course, in the intimate pie shop setting of this production the use of fake blood would've looked unauthentic, so instead most of the murders happened offstage, and were signified by the sound of a piercing whistle being blown. A far cry from the norm, but chillingly effective nonetheless. Some of the grizzly murder moments still haunt me to this day!

This show was a dream. The cast was superb, the set and costume design was gorgeously gritty and the concept in general is so calculable but so, so unique! After all, I can't see myself getting threatened by an actor wielding a cutthroat razor inches from my face again any time soon.

Given how much everyone raved about In The Heights when it first arrived in London, I deeply regretted missing this show at the Southwalk playhouse, and so when it transferred to the Kings Cross Theatre earlier this year I booked a ticket immediately, despite being completely unfamiliar with the story or music.... but I am so glad that I did! The energy and enthusiasm of the cast was infectious, the set and lighting design was gloriously evocative and the choreography was just sizzling!

I had such an incredible time watching this show, which can best be described as joyous. And it's still running at the moment! I'll absolutely be returning to the Kings Cross Theatre see In The Heights again in 2016, and if you've not yet experienced it then I recommend you pay it a visit too!
I've seen some absolutely incredible shows this year, but without doubt the most enthralling, visceral, and spectacular one was Matthew Bourne's The Car Man. This may come as a surprise given that I mostly review musicals (it certainly came as a surprise to me!), but honestly, The Car Man was just about as slick and perfect as you could hope for! Mathew Bourne's choreography completely reinvented the characters I thought I was familiar with from the Carmen opera, but did it with such ingenuousness that now I can't imagine seeing Carmen performed differently.

The Car Man also featured a cast of truly phenomenal performers. Zizi Strallen was extraordinary as the conniving Lana, while Dominic North was both endearing and unnerving as Angelo, the man who Lana frames for the murder of her husband, so that she can be with her new lover, Luca. The role of Luca was played by the incomparable Jonathan Olliver, whose jaw dropping dance virtuosity, incredible acting and irresistible charisma fit together to form an utterly flawless performance. This show was so good that the moment I got home after my first trip, I logged on to my computer and purchased a ticket for the next days performance. Utterly, utterly stunning!
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So there we have it! It was honestly so difficult to pick just 5 shows, as there have been so many brilliant ones. I was wowed by the choreography in the Top Hat UK tour, Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory totally lived up to my high expectations, Katie Brayben's performance in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical was remarkable, and Di and Viv and Rose totally took me by surprise as one of the most emotional, relatable plays I've ever seen. I thought long and hard though, and I'm very happy with my list. It just goes to show what a brilliant 2015 I've had. I'm looking forward to finding out whether 2016 can top it! 

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful new year!

Charlotte xx

(Tragically, as you may know, dancer and star of The Car Man Jonathan Olliver lost his life earlier this year in a motorbike accident. A sold out event celebrating his achievements, which is entitled Mr Wonderful, is happening in January, with profits being placed in charitable trust funds for his two sons Lucas, 6 and Issac, 12 months. If you didn't manage to obtain a ticket to the show but would still like to make a contribution then you can visit this page