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.