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 

Review - A Christmas Carol in Concert (Lyceum Theatre)

Spirited musicianship has always been a hallmark of London Musical Theatre Orchestra, and nowhere is that made clearer than in its returning musical production of A Christmas Carol, in concert.
 
Griff Rhys Jones and Miriam-Teak Lee in A Christmas Carol
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent’s merry musical is a London Musical Theatre Orchestra favourite, which returns to the Lyceum Theatre this December, having played to sold out audiences in both 2016 and 2017. Of course, with Christmas just around the corner, the popularity of A Christmas Carol in concert is hardly surprising, and yet its return is favourably received.

This sprightly retelling of Charles Dickens’ beloved novel brims with warmth and humour, and a fair share of big ensemble numbers keep toes tapping as Scrooge embarks on his revelatory jaunt into the supernatural. From Jacob Marley’s intense yet eerily jaunty Link By Link, performed with fascinatingly dark charisma by Jeremy Secomb and an ensemble of long-imprisoned souls, to the uplifting Christmas Together, led by the Cratchit family, A Christmas Carol is a musical which revels in rousing choruses.
 
Griff Rhys Jones and Jeremy Secomb in A Christmas Carol
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Musical Director Freddie Tapner’s enthusiastic conducting is a pleasure as always, and the 32 piece London Musical Theatre Orchestra sound richer and more jubilant than ever before. A starry cast of musical theatre performers add another layer of pizazz to the already glittering production, and Griff Rhys Jones is the epitome of Scrooge, the mean and miserly moneylender, and gives a masterfully characterful vocal performance, combining confidant singing with the brisk and blithering persona that has made the character such an enduring and unforgettable one.
 
Miriam-Teak Lee, Cedric Neal and Lucie Jones are spooktacular as the trio of Ghosts sent to save Scrooge’s soul, and the multi-roling of Lucie Jones as both the silent, stoic and bone chilling Ghost of Christmas Future, and Emily, the fiancé Scrooge drove away with his greed and selfishness, is an inspired move. Lee’s motherly Ghost of Christmas Past may have given Scrooge a glimpse into the trauma of his childhood, but his bitterness, self-hatred and regret over the loss of Emily clearly haunts Griff Rhys Jones’ Scrooge more unrelentingly than any of the three spectres who pay him a visit of Christmas Eve.
 
Freddie Tapner of London Musical Theatre Orchestra
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
This December, there’s no better way to escape the cold for an evening than by enjoying the big-hearted joy of London Musical Theatre Orchestra’s A Christmas Carol; a festive five star success.

Review - Seussical (Southwark Playhouse)

Who knew a musical based on the fantastical tales of Dr. Seuss could be such a delight?

First seen on Broadway in 2000, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Seussical is a warm and fuzzy musical adaptation of children’s author Dr. Seuss’s most beloved stories, narrated by none other than The Cat In The Hat.

Marc Pickering and the cast of Seussical
Photo credit - Adam Trigg 
In the Jungle of Nool, Horton the Elephant finds a clover inhabited by an entire city of microscopic beings called Whos. The only problem is, none of his neighbours can hear the tiny people, which leads to trouble for both Horton and his miniscule new friends.

James Tobias directs this charming production at the Southwark Playhouse, which evokes a sense of childlike wonder and joy at every turn. Running at a youngster friendly 75 minutes, it’s a fast paced frolic with a heart of gold, set within a candy striped, and kaleidoscopically lit world.

The music is relentlessly cheery, with groovy earworm Oh The Thinks You Can Think setting the tone for the whole musical; snappy, if simplistic (and often purposefully nonsensical) lyrics, a bouncy tune, and tight vocals from the excitable ensemble cast. Combined with Chris Whittaker’s frenzied choreography, the number explodes into the audience just as Doctor Seuss' writing leaps of the page.

The cast of Seussical
Photo credit - Adam Trigg
Marc Pickering is a cartoon come to life as The Cat In The Hat, showing an excellent rapport with audiences of all ages and he bounds around the stage. Scott Paige is a lovable Horton and Amy Perry is brilliant as Gertrude McFuzz, Horton’s besotted next door neighbour. Meanwhile Adam Dawson and Daisy Steere are a kooky couple as the Mayor and Mayoress of Whoville, amusingly waspish despite their sunshine yellow attire and quirky mannerisms.

This family friendly version may be a tad short, and a bit too busy at times, but all in all Seussical is a high spirited musical, with morals to teach audiences of all ages. Family shows don’t get much more entertaining than this.

Review - Striking 12 (Union Theatre)

Striking 12 is a musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, set in early-noughties New York. Brendan is newly and unhappily single, and slogging away at a desk job on New Years Eve, when, after an inundation of party invites from his overbearing colleagues, he runs into a cheery light bulb seller on his way home. After sending her away into the cold, he is inspired to read The Little Match Girl, and is struck by the idea that he may be taking life for granted.

Declan Bennett and Bronté Barbé in Striking 12
Photo credit - Tom Grace
Oliver Kaderbhai's pared down production makes good use of the actor-musician trend which is very much en-vogue right now, and the cast is well up to the task of playing and singing the story to life. Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda's music is played charmingly by the ensemble of five, with Andrew Linnie accompanying on piano, and although the music occasionally drowns out the vocals, the folksy pop score feels snappy and modern.

Declan Bennett perfectly inhabits Brendan, disguising sadness behind a wall of grumpiness that occasionally gives off one or two flickers of anger before extinguishing. Even his posture seems proud and confident, with just a hint of slouchiness giving away a dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, Bronté Barbé is radiant as The Match Girl. Sparky and effervescent, she wields a powerful voice which perfectly suits the score.

Declan Bennett in Striking 12
Photo credit - Tom Grace
Natalie Johnson's set design tells us everything we need to know about Brendan. His small apartment looks cozy but unkempt. The are books and candles adorning shelves on every wall, making the place feel lived-in, and giving us a sense of Brendan's life pre-break up. But there's a messiness too, reinforcing the apathy and discontent that Brendan expresses with his life, there's a takeaway carton sitting as if camouflaged on a haphazardly organised shelf, and at one point Brendan throws a leaflet onto a shelf to join a stack of assorted bits and bobs. The set tells us as much about Brendan's life as the story does, and paints a clear picture of his mindset at the start of the musical. He's got his life together, but only just about.

Lighting design is equally transportive, contrasting the warmth of Brendan's apartment with the cool whites and blues of the icy winter night outside. A noughties inspired display of hanging light bulbs gives the space added character.

Kate Robson-Stuart in Striking 12
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The story is interesting in premise, and the tone of the piece is well conveyed through music and design,  the only thing that prevents Striking 12 from reaching its full potential is the plot, which feels underdeveloped in some key areas. With a zippy 70 minute run time, there is little room to explore the characters at the heart of the story, and Brendan's chance encounter with the light bulb seller (an encounter which changes his life in a small yet very significant way) isn't a significant enough defining moment. The character traits which drive Brendan down a spiral of self-pity in the first half of the story seem to disappear much too conveniently, allowing for the plot to progress, and subsequently the retelling of The Little Match Girl, although the musical's most compelling aspect, comes into the story too late and feels rushed.

Nevertheless, Striking 12 is a bright musical, beautifully performed by a talented group of actor-musicians. Its optimistic message, rallying for care and compassion as an antidote to the selfishness and single-mindedness of modern society, feels extremely apt this year as the cold winter nights draw it. This is a little gift of a musical which has plenty to give its audience.