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.

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.

Review - Summer and Smoke (Duke of York's Theatre)

In Glorious Hill, Mississippi, childhood friends Alma Winemiller and Doctor John Buchanan Jr. reunite after several years apart. Although Alma is an unassuming and upstanding member of the community and John has a rather scandalous reputation for gambling and romancing, the pair rekindle a smouldered flame and are drawn to each other almost instinctually.

Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Although Summer and Smoke is a delicate and powerful drama, it'd be hard to argue that this is Tennessee Williams' best play. But that's hardly surprising considering the other dramatic juggernauts he penned. Summer and Smoke feels looser and more meandering that its siblings, but nevertheless there's still an awful lot to enjoy, especially with Rebecca Frecknall's witty and surgically precise direction to shape the piece into something more sparky and volatile than the text alone suggests. William's dialogue masterfully captures moods and moments, and Frecknall's direction shines a spotlight on those moments, flaying them before the audience's eyes. 
 
The theme of conformity and rejection of societal expectations are common to many Tennessee Williams plays, but it seldom as heavily signalled than in Summer and Smoke. John is a doctor and the son of a respected medical professional, but far from portraying his professionalism outwardly, he is louche and scruffy, with a hungry look in his eye. Matthew Needham plays his sulking rage and simmering passion to perfection, as he stalks the stage, slowly but surely peeling away Alma's ultra-refined and poised exterior. Meanwhile a revelatory performance sees Patsy Ferran disappear into Alma Winemiller entirely.
 
Patsy Ferran in Summer and Smoke
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
From her first appearance, gasping and suffocating into a microphone centre stage, surrounded by a septet of pianos, all eyes are on her. Every severe glance, anxious inhalation and soulless smile is etched out precisely on Ferran's face as Alma tries her best to reject her urges and conform to expectations. She's constantly on edge; a product of her mother's unfortunate mental breakdown several years prior to the events of the play. Forced to grow up too soon, she's evidently afraid that her carefree youth has passed her by. She's an elastic band, squeaking and stretching as she resists her wants and desires in order to maintain control and conform to the expectations put upon her. But of course, it's only a matter of time before she snaps.
 
As the direction of the play becomes clearer and the ending becomes more obvious, the inevitable trajectory of Alma and John becomes almost unbearable to watch, as their ideals slowly twist inside out. It's evident from the start that they are too different to ever work as a couple, and yet it's difficult not to root for Alma's liberation and John's redemption.

Matthew Needham in Summer and Smoke
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Tom Scutt's purposefully threadbare design has the characters confined to centre stage, for the most part, surrounded by the tinkling ivories of seven pianos. Undoubtedly a metaphor for the tattling, self-involved inhabitant of Glorious Hill, the pianos underscore much of the play with a pretty, cloying tune which fills the air like a saccharine summer haze. It's easy to see why John and Alma are forced to both extremes in terms of societal convention, when they are constantly being put on a pedestal and inspected by their neighbours and peers. 
 
The suffocating atmosphere of small-town Mississippi is conjured perfectly in this stifling, completely engrossing production. Gorgeous design, attentive direction and a pair of incredible lead performances transform this lesser performed Williams play into a glimmering gem!  
 
I was invited to review Summer and Smoke thanks to seatplan.com

Review - Fanatical (Playground Theatre)

There’s a new Marvel movie out every week, Star Wars has returned with a vengeance, and even Star Trek is having another moment in the sun right now thanks to Netflix. There’s no doubt about it. What was once a geeky subculture has now infiltrated pop culture in a massive way. Sci-fi is officially cool.

Suanne Braun in Fanatical
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
Fanatical, a new musical, takes place at the inaugural fan convention for a fictional comic book turned sci-fi show called Angel 8. Although the show seemingly only had one (unfinished) season, its fan base is a rabidly passionate throng who descend upon a convention centre cosplayed up to the nines, ready to meet the Angel 8 creator Scott Furnish. However, there’s a spy within the ranks; a reporter from the sleazily named Pump Magazine, who is tasked with reporting back on the nerdy atmosphere, and Lycra clad cosplaying women.

Reina Hardy and Matt Board’s Fanatical is clearly a musical made by sci-fi fans for sci-fi fans. It perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be part of a niche fan group, and doesn’t hold back on Tumblrific dialogue and geek-culture references. Suanne Braun is entertaining as frazzled con organiser and Angel 8 superfan Trix, whose love for the show is plain to see.

Sophie Powles in Fanatical
Photo credit - Scott Rylander
The book is a fun if extremely predictable one. There are no big surprises or shocking moments, and the first act in particular is a little slow and directionless, whilst the pace picks up significantly in the more dramatically engaging act two.

The cast is clearly having great fun with the show, and the script allows for every possible type of fan to be represented within the ensemble. Amy Lovatt is endearing as a fanfiction artist, alongside Amber Sylvia Edwards as a cosplayer, and Theo Crosby as a podcaster in the earworm Look What I Made. However, the score does seem to play it a bit safe and peaks early with the bubblegum unrequited love song Me Slash You, hilariously performed by Eddy Payne’s Baxter, leaving the audience longing for similarly catchy pop inspired numbers. The finale features another musical highlight; a feel-good song which encourages audiences to embrace their passions, whatever they may be. But the middle of the musical lacks a number punchy enough to rival those that sandwich it.

Despite its faults, Fanatical is a lovingly crafted musical creation, and with a few tweaks, like several other sci-fi musicals seen in recent years, it could be on its way to cult status.

Review - Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody (King's Head Theatre)

Fat Rascal Theatre have done it again.

After a stonking run in 2017, Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody returns.

Robyn Grant and Jamie Mawson in Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Beau wants adventure in the great wide somewhere, and that's exactly what he gets when his mother is captured by a mysterious beast, who lives in an enchanted castle on the outskirts of Beau's hometown. 

Forget what you know about the Disney classic, Robyn Grant and Daniel Elliot's hysterically funny parody is the only version of the Beauty and the Beast tale that matters anymore. Weaving razor sharp wit in with bawdier sight gags and quips, the script is an expertly crafted patchwork of comedy. Jokes come thick and fast, leaving very little breathing space, and resulting in one hundred minutes of howling fun.

Jamie Mawson in Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Music by James Ringer-Beck and Nicola Chang brilliantly pastiches the pomp and grandeur of Alan Menken's Beauty and the Beast tunes. One standout moment sees the cast parody the famous showstopper Be Our Guest to hilarious effect, as the enchanted household objects invite Beau to Have A Brunch. Sadly whilst the anthropomorphic teapot, clock and candlestick Beauty and the Beast fans know and love are all in attendance, Beast's talking toilet is occupied elsewhere. The musical it outrageous fun in its own right, but those especially familiar with the 1991 Disney film will enjoy the lovingly executed lampooning in the script. 

Fans of the Disney film may also recognise Madame Ouef, a townsperson who appears intermittently throughout the musical, desperately hunting for eggs. An excellent homage to the egg enthusiast seen in the film's opening number. 

Allie Monro and the cast of Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
The cast of 5, who multirole as an assortment of familiar characters, know just how to wring every drop of comedy out of Grant and Elliot's writing. Grant herself takes on the role of Beast, who learns to overcome her self-confidence issues and let love and friendship into her life. Jamie Mawson is brilliantly funny as doe-eyed Jane Austen novel enthusiast Beau, and Allie Monro is a glorious scene stealer as Beau's bohemian, beturbaned mother 'crazy old' Maureen. Monroe is equally brilliant as La Fou Fou, the under appreciated stooge of Katie Wells' brash and preppy fox hunting enthusiast Siobhan. Meanwhile, amongst other roles, Aaron Dart is a scream as a trio of angry villagers.

Put simply, Beauty and the Beast: A Musical Parody is almost impossibly good. So funny, you'll have tears of laughter streaming down your face by the end, this production is a rip-roaring success.