Review - Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre)

On September 11th 2001, one harrowing terrorist attack changed the course of history irreversibly, sending shock waves across the world and ushering in a new era of suspicion, anxiety and insularity. It's in the shadow of that unforgettable day 18 years ago that Irene Sankoff and David Hein's surprisingly jolly musical sensation Come From Away flourishes, proving that even in moments of unimaginable horror, human kindness will prevail.

The cast of Come From Away
Photo credit - Matthew Murphy
Rarely do such infectiously heart-warming musicals arrive on the West End, drawing audiences in with genuine warmth and heart, and leaving them feeling utterly fulfilled. 

Come From Away explores what happened when 38 planes from all over the world were forced to land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, during the shut down of American airspace following the 9/11 attack. Telling the true stories of the almost 7000 displaced and overwhelmed ‘plane people’ and the Gander natives who welcomed them with open arms, Come From Away is a heartening musical which exemplifies the absolute best of humanity, from its infectiously catchy opening number Welcome To The Rock, right up until the spirited on-stage band plays the audience out at the end. 

The cast of Come From Away
Photo credit - Matthew Murphy
Stitched together by an earthy folk rock score, Come From Away is a patchwork of different stories, told by an incredible ensemble cast. Every character bursts with life, from Gander's gruff yet amicable mayor Claude Elliott, to budding romancers Nick and Diane; a Brit and a Texan who meet whilst trapped on the tarmac at Gander International Airport. Rachel Tucker shines as Beverley Bass, American Airlines’ first female captain, who gives the audience a glimpse into the work of the heroic airline crew rallying together to get people home. Bass' gutsy solo Me and the Sky is just one of the musical's many heart stopping moments. 

The remarkably frank and human script demonstrates the mushrooming dread felt by Gander’s permanent and temporary dwellers, of course, but the friendships and romances formed in the small town in the days after the 9/11 attack take precedence, and so there’s no shortage of roistering song-and-dance numbers to drive the musical’s message of love and kindness home. 

Review - West End Women (Cadogan Hall)

It may only be February, but 2019 is already looking set to be an amazing year for musical theatre, with Broadway showstoppers like Waitress, Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen on the horizon, and home-grown musicals such as Six and the recently announced & Juliet making waves too. Aside from showcasing the breadth of the musical theatre genre, this theatrical line-up shares one other notable trait; they all feature an assortment of strong female characters in their ranks. And what better way to celebrate this vital leap in the right direction than a look back at almost 100 years of women in musical theatre?
 
Enter West End Women, Lambert Jackson Productions’ one-night-only celebration of some of musical theatre’s most memorable female characters, brought to life by an assortment of musical theatre superstars. 
 
The cast of West End Women
Photo credit - Michael Xavier
Headlining the concert were Rachel John, Lauren Samuels and Celinde Schoenmaker, three of the West End’s most dependable, versatile and spectacularly talented names. All three were given plenty of chances to shine in solo and group numbers. Rachel John delivered a hair raising rendition of Summertime from Porgy and Bess, whilst Lauren Samuels performed Never Enough from the 2017 hit film The Greatest Showman, and former The Phantom of the Opera star Celinde Schoenmaker revisited the mega musical to treat audiences to its ingénue Christine Daae’s star-making aria Think of Me.

Not only was West End Women a stunning showcase for the talents of its headlining performers, it also shone a spotlight on the stars of the future. Several up-and-coming musical theatre voices were on display, including Lauren Shields, Kayla Carter and Martha Boon, who opened the concert’s second act with Chicago’s vicious Cell Block Tango, Brady Isaacs who commanded the stage singing A Piece of Sky from Yentl, and Talia Robens, whose rendition of Everything I Know from In The Heights was a striking tearjerker.
 
The students of MX Masterclass, West End favourite Michael Xavier’s musical theatre training school, were equally impressive, bringing buckets of energy and pizazz to Blow Gabriel Blow from Anything Goes and America from West Side Story, accompanied by a peppy orchestra under the baton of Adam Hoskins.

Despite the omission of several famous female-led musicals, West End Women was a magical musical theatre celebration. The concept was solid, the performances were uniformly faultless, and the audience was left tapping their toes at the joyful and empowering finale, I’m A Woman!

Review - Avenue Q (UK Tour)

Its closing number may reassure audiences that “everything in life is only for now”, but Avenue Q, the uproarious comedy which infamously beat musical monolith Wicked to the Best New Musical Tony Award back in 2004, has been doing the rounds in the UK since it first premiered in London 13 years ago! And now it’s back, touring the UK under the director of Cressida Carré, and fuzzier than ever.
 
The cast of Avenue Q
Photo credit - Matt Martin
Telling the story of 22 year old graduate Princeton, who moves to New York’s to figure out his purpose in life and finds himself living amongst a host of zany humans and puppets, Avenue Q is a pretty unique beast. Positioning itself as x-rated The Muppets or Sesame Street parody, it’s ingeniously zany and riotously racy, but there’s a surprisingly touching moral buried deep amongst all of the fur.

Like it’s notorious sibling The Book of Mormon (songwriter Robert Lopez co-wrote the music for both, before bashing out the tunes for a little Disney film called Frozen), Avenue Q makes fun of just about everybody, and does so with abandon. But it feels loving, in a way, and definitely prompts a bit of self-reflection from its audience, after they’ve finished wiping away their tears of joy.
 
The cast of Avenue Q
Photo credit - Matt Martin
With such a reliance on the use of puppetry, Avenue Q is a show which lives or dies on the ability of the actors to breathe life into their primary coloured puppet counterparts. Thankfully, Lawrence Smith, who multiroles as both the musical’s protagonist Princeton, and his neighbour Rod, a closeted republican banker, undoubtedly has a brilliant grasp of the physicality the role requires, and is completely hilarious and a fabulous singer to boot. Likewise, Cecily Redman is endearing and sweetly voiced as Kate Monster, a Kindergarten Teaching Assistant who catches Princeton’s eye.

Avenue Q is the ultimate laugh-out-loud musical, with catchy songs aplenty, and a book chock-full of cheeky jibes. Deliriously funny, it’s the perfect antidote for the grey malaise of 2019.

Review - Kinky Boots (UK and Ireland Tour)

Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein's bubbly, big-hearted musical hit, has been entertaining audiences in London since 2015, and after a massively successful West End run, it’s now heading out on tour to bring its timeless story of love and acceptance to the masses.
 
The cast of Kinky Boots
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Inspired by a true story, Kinky Boots follows the exploits of Charlie Price who, after a chance encounter with a vivacious drag queen named Lola, sets out to save his family’s shoemaking factory from ruin.

From start to finish, Kinky Boots is a complete delight. Led by the remarkably talented Joel Harper Jackson and Kayi Ushe as Charlie and Lola, the entire cast brim with effervescence. Jackson brings boyish charm to the musical’s everyman role, and Ushe is a pillar of magnetism as Lola, the metaphorical sun around which the rest of the characters orbit.
 
The cast of Kinky Boots
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Radiating an infectiously joyful energy, Kinky Boots is both a tantalising musical hit and a glitzy catwalk, which parades Gregg Barnes' bedazzled costumes remarkably. Lola is constantly kitted out in eyepoppingly vibrant designs, as are the Angels, Lola’s troupe of bubbly drag queens.

The touring production more than stands up to its recently departed West End counterpart, filling every inch of the stage with life. Sure, the plot is pure cotton candy fluff, but combined with Cyndi Lauper’s sparkling tunes, the resulting cocktail is simply irresistible.

If there’s one musical which is guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s face, it’s Kinky Boots.

Going Out - West End Brunch at Studio 88

Musical theatre lovers who aren't content with just enjoying musicals at lunch and dinner time will be pleased to hear that Studio 88 has launched a West End Brunch which combines a tasty two course brunch menu and bottomless prosecco with performances from wonderfully talented West End stars.

Photo credit - Paul Torode
Set within the heart of Theatreland, Studio 88 is a perfect host for West End Brunch. The venue is sleek and swanky, and when my friend and I arrived for the inaugural brunch, a Wicked themed affair, we were met with the sound of musical theatre tunes blasting out whilst excited brunchers perused the menu and sang along to their favourite songs. 

We were seated on a table at the side of the stage, offering a fantastic view of the band, and the dancefloor. Unfortunately a pillar blocked the front of the stage area, meaning that the performers were slightly obstructed from view, but after I'd finished eating I happily perched myself at the bar to get a better look.

Brunch was utterly delicious. I opted for avocado toast with a poached egg; a brunch staple which really impressed me. The avocado was seasoned well and the egg was perfectly poached, and we were even offered some orange juice alongside it, in addition to the bottomless prosecco on offer. After the main brunch course we were offered dessert and I opted for a sweet key lime pie. The dessert menu was decidedly less expansive than the brunch course, which had included options such as pancakes and maple syrup, eggs benedict and yoghurt and granola, but nevertheless I enjoyed my key lime pie very much.

Photo credit - Paul Torode
Our compare for the afternoon was ditsy drag cabaret artist Topsie Redfern, who entertained all of us brunchers with a few jokes and dazzling showtunes, before introducing the three Wicked alumni performers for the afternoon. Elphaba understudy Laura Emmitt was first on stage, and what a fantastic way to start. In addition to her rendition of intense Wicked classic No Good Deed, we wowed us with songs from other shows she'd previously appeared in, as well as some of her all time favourites. Her Don't Cry For Me Argentina from Evita was particularly impressive. 

Kane Oliver Parry was up next, duetting with Laura Emmitt on As Long as You're Mine, Elphaba and Fiyero's romantic act 2 duet. He also got the crowd bopping along to Queen's power ballad I Want To Break Free. Parry shared that he understudied the role of Galileo in a We Will Rock You arena tour, and told a story about the first time he got to play the role in front of an audience. It was an added treat to hear anecdotes from the performers as well as just performances, as it made the brunch feel more casual that a regular concert or cabaret.

Photo credit - Paul Torode
The final performer was Steph Parry, who is currently understudying the lead role of Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, and made headlines recently when she was called to understudy Donna in Mamma Mia whilst she was performing in 42nd Street, when the lead and understudies all fell ill. Parry previously understudied the role of Morrible and so while she didn't give us any Wicked (well, she jokingly sang Morrible's preamble to The Wizard And I, much to everyone's amusement), she did knock everyone's socks off with Mamma Mia hit The Winner Takes It All. 

A West End themed brunch is an excellent idea, brilliantly executed at Studio 88. Although I was caught off guard by the sometimes overwhelmingly loud music, which made any brunch conversation a struggle, and found sightlines an issue at times too, the execution of the event was seamless in all other aspects. The food was first rate, as were the performances, and the prosecco never stopped flowing. 

Review - True West (Vaudeville Theatre)

It’s the 80s, and somewhere in the oppressively hot suburbs of SoCal, Ivy League educated screenwriter Austin sits hunched over a typewriter, penning his latest screenplay and periodically stopping to give the potted plants surrounding him an obligatory spritz of water.

Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn in True West
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
It’s in this environment of simmering pressure, where life (and livelihoods) balance precariously on the precipice, ready to give in at any moment, that True West blooms and wilts. Sam Shepard’s family drama, a 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist, explores the rocky reconnection of two estranged brothers. The aforementioned Austin is a mousy type, dressed in variations on beige, he’s nervy and dweeby, and thoroughly intimidated by Lee, his older brother. Lee has a prickly feline quality to him, like an alley cat on the prowl. And he’s got an idea for a screenplay too.

Harkening back to the time of the pioneers, who headed West in search for land and gold, the play’s title acts as a metaphor for the dilemma each character faces. Austin is financially stable but craves freedom, whilst Lee is a roaming criminal who seems to harbour a secret desire for financial security and normalcy. Austin’s screenplay is a romance, described as a period piece. It’s leagues away from the wild adventure of the blockbuster Western Lee pitches, and leagues away from the sort of life Austin comes to realise he wants.

Johnny Flynn in True West
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
As the warring brothers Austin and Lee, Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn respectively hold the piece together with strong, charismatic performances, but both characters feel rather two dimensional, as does the force which drives them. Shephard’s script suggests that the brothers are on the verge of trading places, as Austin discovers a vicious reckless side to himself, but the idea never fully forms.

As a result, the play ambles towards its finale, with no clear sense of where it is going. Although each individual scene is entertaining enough, they all connect rather disjointedly, and beyond the surface levels of humour and angst, haphazardly stitched together, there’s not much to latch on to in True West.

Review - Caroline, Or Change (Playhouse Theatre)

It's 1963 and revolution is in the air in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Outside the courthouse in the middle of town, a plinth sits newly empty. Someone stole the Confederate Soldier statue which used to live there. But whilst the world changes and grows, Caroline stays just the same. A black maid and divorced mother of 4 who works for the barely-functioning clarinettist Stuart Gellman and his new wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, she spends her days in the family's basement, with only the washing machine, dryer, and radio to keep her company until Mr Gellman's young son Noah returns home from school and lights Caroline's daily cigarette.

Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
 The heat and the moisture in the thick Louisiana air is tangible as Caroline sweats away. She is statuesque, imposing, and yet she sings about drowning 16 feet below the sea, as the washroom appliances come to life and serenade her, bother her, torment her. Sharon D. Clarke has immeasurable presence as the titular character. She wears Caroline's pain, love, and conflict, perfectly. It's etched into her face. Every fearsome glower is tinged with sadness. Every tiny smile, although seldom seen, feels like daybreak. And although Caroline's rebellious daughter Emmie is, for all intents and purposes, Caroline's foil, Abiona Omonua carries herself with a similar aura; one of purposefulness, and self assuredness. However, a standoff between Emmie and the Rose's father during Hanukkah shows that whilst Caroline is resistant to change, Emmie revels in it.

Omonua's rendition of one of the musical's most poignant and touching songs, I Hate the Bus is a soaring, tear jerking Disney Princess style ballad. It's an I Want song, scored with beautiful piano and strings, and in it Emmie wishes for financial security, and the freedom to live on her own terms. Omonua's vocals, a mixture of bluesy belting and fluttering high note, impeccably conveys the optimism and confidence which characterises Emmie throughout the musical, and the number as a whole feels subdued yet immensely powerful.
 
Sharon D. Clarke and Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Meanwhile, Lauren Ward's waspish and worn out Rose Stopnick Gellman is a piece of work, but a sympathetic one. As she tries to take on a maternal role with her new stepson Noah, by telling Caroline to keep any change she finds in any of Noah's trouser pockets, in order to teach Noah the value of money, she inadvertently places a wedge between Caroline and the Gellman family, which tears apart the household dynamic which has always been in place.

Tony Kushner's musical book is a mammoth to dissect. There's more characterisation in the first 10 minutes than most musicals manage in 2 and a half hours, and the cast do a fantastic job of breathing life into menagerie of Lake Charles inhabitants who play a part in the story.
 
The cast of Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Michael Longhurst's direction is complimented by Fly Davis' set and costume design, and the whole production comes together to capture the weariness of the script and wring it out on stage. Often a revolve is used to keep the action swirling and brewing. Lives change, lessons are learned, relationships are made and broken, and yet everything feels quiet, compact and commonplace.
 
Caroline, Or Change is a musical which captures the personal and intimate, but the tremors of rebellion incited by those fighting against racial inequality quake through from start to finish.

I was invited to review Caroline, or Change thanks to London Box Office