Edinburgh Fringe Review - Vulvarine: A New Musical

If you’re heading up to Edinburgh this summer then the number one company not to miss is Fat Rascal Theatre. Founded in 2016, the mischievous new musical theatre heroes have produced one hit after the other, and their Vulvarine: A New Musical is no exception. It returns to the Fringe this year alongside brand new musical parody Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, and if you want to call yourself a musical theatre fan you'd better buy a ticket to both shows ASAP.

The cast of Vulvarine: A New Musical
Photo credit - Lidia Crisafulli 
Set in the painfully ordinary town of High Wickham, Vulvarine: A New Musical tells the story of overqualified and disaffected desk jockey Bryony Buckle, whose life is turned upside down when a mysterious vaccination and a shock from a rogue lightning bolt transform her into a kick-ass super powered action hero. 

With the fate of the world at risk thanks to her new found nemesis The Mansplainer, Bryony must join forces with her best friend Poppy and workplace sweetheart Orson Bloom, to do something extraordinary and save all of womankind.

Katie Wells and Allie Munro in Vulvarine: A New Musical
Photo credit - Lidia Crisafulli 
As with all of Fat Rascal Theatre’s productions, Vulvarine: A New Musical is hysterically funny, and the entire cast have their whizzbang line delivery down to a tee. Allie Munro exudes Bridget Jones-esque charisma as the musical’s endearing protagonist, meanwhile Robyn Grant displays bucketfuls of roguish irreverence as Vulvarine’s mortal enemy, whilst also multi-roling as Bryony’s foulmouthed cat Elton.

The cast of Vulvarine: A New Musical
Photo credit - Lidia Crisafulli 
The musical fizzes over with brilliant musical numbers, courtesy of Grant, co-writer Daniel Foxx, and James Ringer-Beck. By now they’ve mastered their own unique sound; bubbly, toe tapping contemporary musical theatre fare. The songs drive the production from start to finish, and the musical’s 75 minute run time zips along nicely as a result.

Smart, wickedly funny, and completely unique, Vulvarine: A New Musical is an Edinburgh Fringe must-see.

Going Out - Gingerline's Chambers_

Leave behind the world you know and journey into the multiverse this summer with Gingerline’s Chambers_, a completely immersive experience which sees audiences take on the role of universe hopping cartographers, dining on 5 courses of flavoursome food while traversing through a vast and sprawling interdimensional playground.

Photo credit - David Greig
As my friend and I arrive at the clandestine location of Gingerline’s latest culinary concourse (having received instructions on how to get to the location earlier that day), we trade in our earthly belongings for a hip and very functional bum-bag and a muddled-up map, which gives us our first hint as to what we’ve gotten ourselves into. More hints are dropped as we’re cryptically asked if we have any phobias. After replying in the negative, we’re allowed up into the bar to await the start of our gastronomic journey.

Photo credit - David Greig
After enjoying a cocktail or two in the dimly lit headquarters of the Dimension Centre, we’re shunted into what looks like the belly of a rickety spaceship, and expulsed into the first of our dimensional destinations. From then on it, there’s nowhere to go but onward. We clime, crawl and slide through a web of extraordinarily immersive worlds (Stripeland Productions have created a set so vast and intricate that it’d be difficult to describe even IF we were allowed to reveal the secrets of Chambers_), sampling the delicacies of each location we visit. 

Dietary requirements are catered for deftly, and although our vegetarian options do feel slightly less robust than their omnivorous counterparts, there’s more than enough food to keep us fuelled throughout the expedition.

Photo credit - David Greig
By the time we reach the end of our journey, our fellow audience members feel like friends. We’ve shared a remarkable night out, the likes of which we’re unlikely to experience again. Until, of course, Gingerline announces a follow-up.

Gingerline’s Chambers_ is an otherworldly trip like no other. Throw yourself into the action and you’ll have a truly unforgettable experience. Oh, and make sure you wear flat shoes. Even the most experience interdimensional travellers will struggle to navigate the multiverse in heels…

Review - Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Harold Pinter Theatre)

This summer, if you're not planning a holiday abroad then why not immerse yourself in the stage adaptation of Rona Munro’s adaptation of Louis de Bernières’s classic 1994 poolside read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which has transferred to the West End after a well received UK tour. 

Alex Mugnaioni and Madison Clare in Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
The emotionally charged story, set in idyllic Cephalonia during the Italian and German Occupation, sees a cheery Italian army captain with a love for music form an uneasy bond with headstrong and understandably hostile local woman. In spite of the forces threaten their budding romance, the pair find solace in each other’s company, not knowing what the audience gets a sense of from the play’s very beginning; that their time together is limited, and that eventually fate will tear them apart.

Director Melly Still has created a soft focused, halcyon world for the characters to inhabit, which feels almost dreamlike in contrast to the chaos and violence of the war which threatens to encroach them. Tranquil lighting, set design and sound elements create a beautifully serene atmosphere, which washes over the production in waves.

The cast of Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Yes, aesthetically Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is quite beautiful, and the cast of actor-musicians tasked with bringing the tale to life is uniformly excellent. However, where the production falters is in its pacing. With so much content provided by the source material, the play feels fragmented and unfocussed at times. In fact, the titular character doesn’t even appear until the curtain is ready to come down on act one. Much of the time spent before the interval focuses on Pelagia’s small-town life and how she dreams of greater things for herself, all which being courted by the ill-fated local Mandras.

Starkly interspersing Pelagia’s relatively carefree days, are the harsh wartime memories of Italian soldier Carlo and his close friend turned lover Francesco, the former of which is stationed alongside Captain Corelli in act 2.

Alex Mugnaioni and the cast of Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Both storylines offer useful insights into the life of ordinary people during the war, but feel long winded and slightly aimless. Not to mention that by shunting the relationship of Captain Corelli and Pelagia to act 2, there is significantly less time to solidify the bond between them. Actors Alex Mugnaioni and Madison Clare give touching performances, and their chemistry is completely tangible, but what should be a slow burning journey from hate to adoration feels far too rushed.

Nevertheless, when the full force of the war arrives on the shores of Cephalonia, the play switches gears and becomes surprisingly brutal and engrossing. The aftermath is equally emotionally exhausting, as the survivors come to terms with the agony they have lived through, and try their best to move on.

The play's languorous first act may tread water for a bit too long, but there are moments of beauty, horror, romance, and terror throughout which totally mesmerise.

I was invited to review Captain Corelli's Mandolin thanks to London Box Office 

Review - On Your Feet! (London Coliseum)

After an impressive run on Broadway and a lengthy US tour, director Jerry Mitchell's production of On Your Feet! has arrived at the London Coliseum, featuring a fantastic cast, lively band, and zazzy choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

The cast of On Your Feet!
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Following Cuban-American singer and former  Miami Sound Machine frontwoman Gloria Estefan and her musician turned producer husband Emilio as they come up against barriers in the form of Gloria's overprotective mother, as well as closed-minded record producers, before eventually beating the odds to become the international superstar power couple they are today, On Your Feet! is a hot new arrival which pulses with rhythm from start to finish. Featuring plenty of fantastic tunes including Dr. Beat, Rhythm Is Gonna Get You, and of course Conga, it's bound to have have audiences dancing in their seats. Especially with breakout stars Christie Prades and George Ioannides at the helm. The duo at the heart of the musical may not be as instantly recognisable to UK audiences as they are to those in the US, but that doesn't dampen the musical's vivaciousness, and neither does its admittedly shaky book, which utilises every trope in the musical biography toolkit. 

Christie Prades and George Ioannides in On Your Feet!
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Of course, Estefan's life story is an inspirational one without a doubt, and the musical does cover some surprising territory; exploring the after-effects of the Cuban revolution, and touching on the prejudices faced by immigrants in America. But the bare bones of the story too-closely resemble so many other biographical musicals which have hit the West End in the last couple of years. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Sunny Afternoon did it first. And so, as strange as it is to say, although Estefan is easy to root for, On Your Feet! is at its best when the story melts away and the musical numbers take front and centre.

Estefan's eclectic songbook overflows with irresistible dance hits and pop ballads which are interspersed with lesser known numbers, and even one new song written specially for the show by Gloria and her daughter Emily Estefan. Conga is the big act 1 closer, and it does and excellent job of getting everyone up out of their seats, meanwhile act 2 culminates at the 1991 American Music Awards with heart-rending soul ballad with Coming Out Of the Dark. And of course, a finale megamix sends everyone home with a smile on their face. EsteFAN or not, sit back and enjoy the show, because the rhythm is going to get you either way! 

Review - Bare: A Pop Opera (The Vaults)

Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s Bare: A Pop Opera is something of a cult favourite amongst musical theatre aficionados. Set in St Cecilia's Boarding School, a close-knit Catholic school in America, a pulsing score accompanies the complex and ultimately tragic story of two closeted students whose relationship is strained when they are cast in a school production of Romeo and Juliet.

Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand in Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
First performed in 2000, Bare: A Pop Opera could almost be described as a period piece in 2019 (and certainly one or two scenes and songs feel dated in a pleasantly nostalgic way, despite attempts to modernise – mostly down to the inclusion of mobile phones). Sadly, director Julie Atherton’s new production at The Vaults highlights the fact that themes of homophobia, body image, and bullying are just as pertinent now as they ever were.

Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand star as Jason and Peter, the schoolboys at the centre of the Bare: A Pop Opera’s main drama. Both actors are believable in their roles, and sell the pain of their joint and individual struggles, although the romantic spark between the pair doesn't fully flare up until they share the show’s titular duet as the story nears its end. The book doesn't offer much of a glimpse into their relationship during happier times, and so as the plot evolves rapidly, its sudden jolt into high drama feels a little disjointed, and as a result the Shakespearian tragedy of the ending falls slightly flat. That being said, watching the couple steal secret kisses between classes as they dodge the ever watchful eyes of their gossipy school friends offers a sobering look at the reality of their relationship.

The cast of Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The production is bolstered by an almighty supporting cast, with the cohort who make up the St Cecilia's student body being excellent without exception. Lizzie Emery is sympathetic as Ivy, the misunderstood school beauty who turns Jason’s head and offers him a chance at (what he perceives to be) normalcy. And she sings the hell out of All Grown Up, an electrifying musical gut punch which stands out as a musical highlight in the show. Meanwhile as Jason’s sister Nadia, who also happens to be Ivy’s reluctant roommate, Georgie Lovatt brings humour and pathos in spades.

However, the most compelling supporting performance comes from Tom Hier, who brings an extra dimension to Matt, a classmate who becomes the Jason’s rival both in theatre (he is usurped of the lead role in the school play despite well-rehearsed audition) and in romance (his unrequited feelings for Ivy transition from sweet to malicious at a terrifying pace). Hier shows how Matt’s rocky relationship with religion conflicts with his own internal moral compass impressively throughout, and shines vocally during Are You There?, an angst and alcohol fuelled duet with Daniel Mack Shand’s Peter.

The cast of Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The onstage band, led by MD Alasdair Brown, rocks the electric pop score throughout, but at times vocals are drowned out almost entirely by the sound of moving scenery in addition to the unavoidable rumble of trains from train station above. This is unfortunate, as the pop opera is sung-through with very little spoken dialogue, and therefore occasionally vital dramatic moments are diluted. Happily though, the enthusiasm of all involved shines through, and No Voice, one of Bare: A Pop Opera’s most chilling musical moments, is an incredibly affective send-off. As haunting harmonies ring out around The Vaults, the audience is left with plenty to think on.

Review - The Light in the Piazza (Southbank Centre)

The English summer may not have materialised as planned, but over at the Southbank Centre the sun in beaming down on Daniel Evans’ production of romantic musical The Light In The Piazza, which is currently making its debut in London some 14 years after an acclaimed run on Broadway.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen in The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Renée Fleming stars opposite Dove Cameron as Margaret and Clara Johnson, an American mother and daughter duo holidaying in sunny Florence in the 1950s, who become intertwined with the local Naccarelli family after Clara meets the young and charming Fabrizio Naccarelli. Although there is a language barrier, Clara and Fabrizio fall almost instantly in love, despite the love-extinguishing efforts of Margaret.

The Light in the Piazza’s Tony Award winning score, written by Adam Guettel, has been long admired by musical theatre fans, and for good reason. Sweeping strings envelop the every scene, casting a dreamy haze over the proceeding. Robert Jones' simple yet evocatively Tuscan set ensures that the sumptuous Orchestra of Opera North, breezily conducted by Kimberly Grigsby is always in full view.
 
The cast of The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
The radiant Dove Cameron, a newcomer to the London stage, is well matched by Rob Houchen, and the pair make the musical’s central romantic plot sing. Clara and Fabrizio seem drawn together by destiny, and it must be said that Houchen, who makes deft work of the musical’s extensive Italian portions and is beautifully expressive and utterly charming throughout, seems fated to have played the role. His breathtaking rendition of the passionate and angst filled Il Mondo Era Vuoto is a masterclass in musical theatre. Cameron is a similarly engaging presence, bringing sweet voiced innocence and joy to Clara, and perfectly encapsulating the rush of first love.
 
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen in The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton

With such an absorbing central romance plot, and gorgeous orchestrations underscoring every moment, it’s easy to allow yourself to be swept up in the emotions of the piece, but although Craig Lucas’ book is brisk and witty throughout, it never really finds its way to a satisfying or dramatic conclusion. However,  that isn't to say that the musical is all fluffy sweetness and romance; there are some darker turns courtesy of Celinde Schoenmaker’s Franca Naccarelli, the scorned wife of Fabrizio’s brother Giuseppe, played by the always charismatic Liam Tamne. Meanwhile the poised Renée Fleming, whose dexterous vocals have earned her four Grammys and a Tony nomination, brings a thrilling edge to Margaret as the root of her high-stung nature is slowly revealed.
 
Despite being semi-staged, the production is totally transportive, with Daniel Evans’ fluid direction keeping the production moving steadily along. Honestly, there’s no doubt about the fact that The Light in the Piazza will make you want to jump on a plane bound for Italy this summer, and find a love of your own. Spellbinding and sun kissed, it’s the perfect summertime treat.


Review - The Woman in Black (Fortune Theatre)

The Woman in Black is now celebrating 30 bone-chilling years on the West End. Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, The Woman in Black sees an elderly former lawyer named Arthur Kipps recounting a fateful trip he made many years earlier, during which time he encountered the titular woman in the derelict Eel Marsh House and fell victim to her curse. Kipps enlists the help of an actor to assist him in putting his story down in a play, but as the two men work to bring the haunting tale to life, a dark prescience lurks in the wings. 
 
Stuart Fox and Matthew Spencer in The woman in Black
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Stuart Fox and Matthew Spencer star as Kipps and The Actor, and do a miraculous job of bringing all of the play’s various eclectic characters to life. Within the intimate auditorium of the Fortune Theatre, which stands in for a cosy Victorian stage, the play is utterly engrossing from beginning to end.

Every tiny bump in the dark rings out across the audience and sends shivers down the spine, with Stephen Mallatratt's script amping up the unease as the story builds towards its chilling conclusion. Matthew Spencer’s portrayal of fear and confusion as he re-enacts the younger Kipps’ encounters at Eel Marsh House are so focused and animated that the entire audience can’t help but be pulled in to the world of the play. Yelps of fear from theatregoers are unsurprisingly common, and only help to stoke the energy in audience.

With 30 year reputation for inducing nightmares in audiences of all ages, and a place on the GCSE Drama curriculum, it’s no surprise that The Woman in Black remains as frighteningly fresh as ever.