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. 

Review - Honour (Park Theatre)

Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour is a tough watch in 2018. The play, which was first performed in 1995, offers a bleak look at the deterioration of a 32 year long marriage between acclaimed journalist George and his writer wife Honour, when George meets and falls in love with ambitious up-and-coming journalist Claudia. 

Katie Brayben and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
Curiously, the play opens on a scene between Henry and Claudia, with the latter interviewing the former about about his career. The scene verves with energy, Henry's life experience feeding Claudia's hunger for success. The audience is instantly endeared the pair, as intellectual equals if not lovers, as they bounce and buffer off each other. So when George returns home and is met by the mundane predictability of his married life, for a split second the audience longs for the sparky dialogue of the previous scene. And in that moment, George's spontaneous rejection of marriage to Honour is signalled and contextualised. It's a nasty trick on Murray-Smith's part, and brilliantly directed by Paul Robinson, it works to drive a partition between the trio at the centre of the play. 

Imogen Stubbs puts on an impressive display of emotional gymnastics as Honour. One of the downfalls of Honour is that it is realistic to a fault, and Murray-Smith has characters mull over the same points, the same arguments, the same heartbreaks, again and again. Yet Stubbs brings so much truth to the titular character, and watching her navigate George's bombshell announcement and reboot her life as a response is extremely empowering.

Imogen Stubbs and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
But Honour isn't just the name of the character at the heart of Murray-Smith's play. It's also the thing which is meditated on heavily throughout. Should George honour his decades long marriage to a wife he has fallen out of love with? Looking at the play in black and white terms, the answer should be a simple yes, but the characters have more nuance than that, and so it's hard to take any character's side. 

Henry Goodman is so annoyingly charming as adulterous George that it's hard to hate him for what he does. At times it seems that even the script is keen to give him the benefit of the doubt and villainise Claudia instead. 

In fact, Honour paints a rather nasty picture of ambition in its female characters. George's wife is put down by others for losing her ambition and settling, and yet Claudia's ambition is so laser focused that she becomes rather two dimensional in her ruthlessness. Whilst Honour's love for George is based on their shared experiences and their history, Claudia seems so conniving and false in her feelings for George that her ruthlessness quickly morphs into her defining feature.

Natalie Simpson and Henry Goodman in Honour
Photo credit - Alex Brenner
You get the sense that if the play was written today Claudia might be at the centre of it, allowing for a more three dimensional study of female ambition in a male dominated profession. Katie Brayben certainly ingeniously moulds the script around the picture of a woman hardened by a sphere which refuses to embrace her ambition, and she radiates a bold addictive energy in every one of her scenes, but there's only so much she can do to humanise Claudia. 

The strength of the cast is what elevates Honour, an otherwise slightly regressive drama. It's a fascinating conversation starter of a play, and the subject matter is still very relevant today, but attitudes have changed in the 23 years since it was first performed, and a fairer exploration of what drives Claudia and George to their affair would elevate the piece enormously. 

Review - A Very Very Very Dark Matter (Bridge Theatre)

In Martin McDonagh's latest dark comedy, beloved storyteller Hans Christian Andersen is outed as a fraud. The writer of fantastical children's stories is framed a bumbling, fame hungry buffoon, whose creations are penned instead by a 'one-footed, Congolese pygmy woman' named Ogechi, or as Andersen renames her, Marjory. Much nonsense ensues, as time travelling Belgians stalk Andersen and his enslaved ghost writer, and Charles Dickens is even brought along for the ride too.

Jim Broadbent in A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
The elements of a parodic romp are all present, but unfortunately the story is weighed down by too much padding which aims for daring and provocative, but lands somewhere a bit closer to mind bogglingly scattergun and, at times, downright insensitive.  

From the very beginning, A Very Very Very Dark Matter feels unfocused. Tom Waits cameos as a prerecorded narrator, rumbling out some slow, teasing narration, as a small box is revealed on stage, surrounded by a cluttered mess of puppets, toys and other random artifacts. Inside the box sits Ogechi, the author of every one of Andersen's greatest works, according to McDonough. Hell-bent on travelling through time to prevent the colonisation of the Congo, she sits and waits for her fate to kick into motion, writing fairy tales partially to pass the time and partially as the insistence of Andersen, her captor. 

The cast of A Very Very Very Dark Matter
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan

What is most frustrating about A Very Very Very Dark Matter is that it feels like a missed opportunity. Tonally, it balances its over-the-top dark fun very well. Jokes about Hans Christian Andersen leaving Marjory 14 sausages to eat whilst he jaunts off to London for a fortnight feel particularly apt, as they mock the performative benevolence of Andersen, and by extension, seem to hint towards the unapologetic advancement of the West running parallel to the late 19th century colonisation in the Congo.

Andersen's extended visit to the home of Charles Darwin and his foul mouthed family is also rather entertaining, thanks in no small part to the excellent combination of Phil Daniels as an exasperated Dickens and Jim Broadbent as the oblivious Andersen, who seems completely unaware of the nuisance he causes within the fractured Dickens household. Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles is also a complete delight as Ogechi, a rough and tough foil for the rather more childish, oblivious Andersen.

Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles in A Very Very Very Dark Matter 
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
The story is just too bizarre to be meaningful though. During the nineteenth century, Europe was embroiled in all manner of atrocities around the globe, therefore it feels rather belittling to fabricate such an absurd fiction around Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens, as opposed to the real life historical figures who had a real tangible hand in the colonisation of the Congo. 

A Very Very Very Dark Matter tries far too hard to come across as clever and knowing, and just ends up thoroughly confusing its audience. 

Review - Girlfriends in Concert (Bishopsgate Institute)

Every November, since the end of World War I, Remembrance Day has been observed, as a tribute to those who served in the armed forces, and way of remembering those who lost their lives. What better time, therefore, for London Musical Theatre Orchestra to revive Howard Goodall's musical Girlfriends, which follows a group of young women plucked from normality and dropped onto the front line as part of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II. 

The cast of Girlfriends in Concert 
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
The musical in concert, which played three performances at Bishopsgate Institute where LMTO is orchestra in residence, featured a large, mostly female, ensemble cast. Heading up the gang of women was Lou and Amy, a couple of pals from home who join the WAAF together. Whilst Lou takes a rather more hopeful view of the experience to begin with, Amy is much less impressed with the rather unglamourous, unforgiving military lifestyle, until Lou introduces her to pilot and self-appointed Errol Flynn lookalike Guy. Lou and Amy were played sweetly by Lucie Jones and Lauren Samuels. Both sang the score beautifully, and perfectly portrayed the youth, inexperience and hopefulness of the young WAAF women they were embodying. Meanwhile, as the love interested who tore Lou and Amy apart, Rob Houchen was vocally spectacular, inflecting his vocals with 40s inspired stylings which helped emphasise the wartime setting. Houchen and Jones' act two duet Remember You Wanted Me was a thrillingly sung high point in the concert.

Outside of the central trio, interesting characters came in all shapes and sizes; young war widow Jane, played by Bronté Barbé, was given a bleak and subtly emotional solo in the form of The Chances Are. Meanwhile Jasmin, a young women from Scotland, soured towards the WAAF and war in general after the death of her brother in action and the denial of her request for leave by her tough leader Woods (a small yet pinnacle role, played with ferocity by Lizzie Wofford). Meanwhile Natasha Barnes and Chris McGuigan played Sally and Gareth, a couple who were drawn to each other out of a need for love against a violent and unforgiving background, where every night could be their last.

The cast of Girlfriends in Concert 
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
The score, which was reworked for the concert by Goodall and Simon Nathan, was extremely evocative of the time period in which the musical was set, and conductor Freddie Tapner brought out the best in a slick orchestra packed with passionate players. A couple of jaunty band numbers such as In the Messes and Clubs offered swinging toe tapping fun. They made a drastic change from the majority of the songs with more swoony swooping melodies, shot through with streaks of wartime panic and paranoia, signalled by repetitive counterpoints and terse, clashy harmonies. The music was spine tingling at times, but did begin to feel rather repetitive. 

Outside of the excellent performances of both the cast and orchestra, Girlfriends was disappointing though. For a musical which touted itself as a celebration of women's contribution to the war effort, the plot very much centred around the men of the story, despite them being outnumbered drastically on stage by a whole host of potentially fascinating female characters. It was rather dispiriting to hear so many songs in which the girls did not much other than moon over the men. The relationships formed between the WAAFs would've been more than sufficiently interesting and enlightening, and so putting a conventional love triangle at the musicals heart felt misjudged. Perhaps this was partially due to the complete lack of book in the concert setting, which may have fleshed out the characters between musical numbers, but whatever the case, it felt like a waste of a brilliant premise. 

Review - Soldier On (The Other Palace)

Inspired by the real life stories of service men and women, Soldier On is a brutally honest look at the effect a life in the military has on a person, their friends, and their family.

The cast of Soldier On
Photo credit - Tom Grace
Soldier On takes the form of a play within a play, which sees a variety of members of the military community coming together to share their stories. Coaxed on by passionate director Harry, they share the ups and downs of their relationship with the military, and chip away at each other's stories in order to reveal the unspoken truths at the heart of each tale.

It feels right that such an intimate story, which carries a remarkable resonance and truth, is performed by a cast is made up of ex-service personnel alongside professional actors from the Soldiers' Arts Academy. The characters, a rather ragtag mix, feel extremely real and lived-in, and bolster the play's starkness excellently.

With such a large ensemble, each with their own very different history to tell, and their own problems to face, the story becomes a little formulaic at times. At the beginning of the acting company's first rehearsal they sit in a circle and each person takes it in turns to recount why they wanted to be a part of the play in the first place. The stories are all touching and knowing that they are based on real testimonial makes them really quite interesting, but as the rest of Soldier On focuses on the translation of their stories from real life to the stage, at times the plot feels a little repetitive and formulaic.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with particularly devastating performances from Ellie Nunn as Sophie, the wife of a soldier with PTSD, who is struggling to keep her family together. Her bubbly, overly smiley exterior, showcased at the very beginning when she auditions to be a part of the play singing Taylor Swift's Shake It Off, is chipped at as she opens up to her fellow castmates, as the results are extremely cutting. Nicholas Clarke is equally impressive in the dual roles of Jacko, a fellow cast mate and ex serviceman, who takes on the role of Sophie's husband Donny throughout the piece too.

Writer and director Jonathan Lewis has tapped a story which is as hopeful as it is harrowing. There's certainly no sugarcoating, but the play is full of humour and light, and whilst it tells some frankly unbelievably distressing stories, it's an ultimately very uplifting piece.

Going Out - After Hours Tour at the National Theatre

Ever wanted to sneak around backstage at your favourite theatre? Well I got to do just that when I was invited to explore the National Theatre after dark on an After Hours tour. 

Photo credit - Philip Vile
After enjoying a few drinks at The Understudy, the cozy National Theatre bar, my fellow tour goers and I headed out to the front of the theatre, where our tour guide for the evening Alison Rae gave us a little introduction to the history of the building and the land it was built on. Alison, Head of Tours and Visiting at the National Theatre, explained that the large imposing concrete National Theatre building was constructed on the south bank of the River Thames because the land was cheaper than anything north of the river, especially in the West End. And besides, the building houses three separate theatres (The Olivier, Lyttleton and Dorfman) and would have been a pretty tight squeeze anywhere else anyway. 

The foyer of the National Theatre is usually buzzing with life 24/7, packed with excitable audiences, busy staff members, and an assortment of artsy creatives sipping coffee and utilising the free wifi. However, when we stepped into the building after hours, we were met with an eerie stillness and silence, despite the fact that in one of the theatres audiences were enjoying a show that very night. We'd already been assured that, unlike many other theatres in London, the National Theatre has no resident grey lady, ghoulish theatre manager's ghost, or any other spooky spectres for that matter, but that didn't stop us from speculating, and thrilling with excitement as we filed one at a time through a shadowy door which led us backstage. 

Our guide Alison led us all through a labyrinth of corridors and staircases, until we reached the first stop on our tour; a rehearsal room, in which the cast of upcoming play The Tell-Tale Heart had been rehearsing earlier that day. It was fascinating to see that a variety of props had already been brought into rehearsals in order to help the actors to get into character. We were all drawn to a vintage typewriter, which sat on its own table in one corner of the room. Just one of many, we were informed, which had been used in past productions and then packed away and stored until next time typewriter from the same era was required.

As we left the rehearsal room and continued on our journey we stumbled upon a blood splattered wall; a remnant from National Theatre Artistic Director Rufus Norris' recent production of Macbeth, which featured Rory Kinnear and Anne Marie Duff as the murderous married couple at the play's heart. We also strolled past the dressing rooms of actors such as Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes, the stars of Antony and Cleopatra, as well as the cast of upcoming musical Hadestown. We learned that the National Theatre's 48 dressing rooms (which house an acting company of 100 to 120 on average) are arranged in such a way that there is no number 13. Just one of many theatrical superstitions observed in the building.

We crept into another rehearsal room, where we were able to view some Frankenstein costume sketches, as well as a full costume recently worn in Marianne Elliott's Olivier and Tony award winning production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. After telling us a little bit about the costumes and the productions they appeared in, Alison produced a bag of rather more gory objects, including a dismembered foot and a decapitated head! Gruesome stuff! 

Feeling thoroughly grossed out, we left the rehearsal room and headed towards the workshop where sets are constructed. It's unusual for a theatre to build sets and props on site, but the National Theatre has a deceivingly large backstage area, with plenty of room for all sorts of creativity to flow. We took a peek into a The Tell-Tale Heart model box and saw that the talented craftspeople of the National Theatre had already begun to make the full scale set. A full sized door frame (and other structures yet to take shape) were propped up around us, mirroring the doll-sized pieces seen in the model box.

Sadly, after much sneaking about backstage, our tour came to an end. We thanked our guide Alison profusely for both her time and her knowledge, and walked back out into the real world, armed with more National Theatre factoids that we could ever have hoped for. 

There's really no better way to understand what goes on behind the scenes at a huge theatre like the National Theatre than to actually get inside and take a look for yourself, and on the National Theatre After Hours tour we did just that. And so much more! 

Going Out - Gin & Markets Ride (Tally Ho Cycle Tours)

Is there anything more idyllic than hopping on a bike and pedalling through London's quiet back roads, as the golden autumn sun casts long shadows on the cobble pavements? 

That may seem like an extremely specific scenario, but thanks to The Indytute and Tally Ho Cycle Tours I got to experience it personally, and I can honestly say that there may not be a more picturesque way to spend an afternoon in London.

Tally Ho Cycle Tours in a London based cycle tour company who run a variety of quirky tours, including the tantalisingly named Gin & Markets Tour. For Dutch Courage lovers, the tour provides an excellent introduction to the history of the drink once nicknamed Mother's Ruin, as well as ample opportunities to sample the stuff. Meanwhile those new to London and those familiar with the city will enjoy exploring some of the city's most beautiful and photogenic areas. 

We began our tour at the Tally Ho London base, a few minutes walk from Lambeth North tube station. After a quick and informative safety talk, we were introduced to our rides for the afternoon; beautiful Pashley bicycles complete with little baskets on the front to store any bits and bobs that we might have brought with us, or any market purchases. We were also offered bicycle helmets and I accepted one gladly. Although I used to be an avid cyclist, I'd not dared venture out on the roads in London before, and was willing to accept any protection I could get against angry motorists, competitive cyclists and straying pedestrians.

The bikes took a while to get used to, and as we set off in a long caravan there were a lot of rattling bike frames, squeaking brakes and surprised exclamations! But after a while everything settled down and we all gained a bit more confidence as we travelled down scenic roads and alleyways towards our first stop; Trinity Church Square, where we sampled our fist gin of the day. Or rather, we sampled some jenever, the spirit dutch juniper based spirit which would become known as gin to the English when soldiers returned from battle overseas in the early 17th century. 

Having tasted the (slightly unpleasant) first gin, we continued on, safe in the knowledge that our next beverage would be a much more flavoursome one. We had our first brush with car related danger as we approached the St Mary Magdalen church in Bermondsey, but everyone escaped unscathed and we parked up in the grounds surrounding the church to sample some pretty unusual tonic water. Unusual it that instead of being the typical clear liquid we all know and love, it was a rusty brown colour. We didn't let the unusual colour scare us off though, and it's a good job we didn't, as the tonic water had a lovely warming quality which complimented the gin extremely well.

Thoroughly impressed, we moved on. By now, all of our stomachs were rumbling slightly, as having been cycling (and drinking) for a rather long time, we stopped off at Maltby Street market to refuel. The market was a delight for the senses. Everywhere we looked, food was frying, poaching, stewing, and the aromas were blending together to create an almost overwhelmingly delicious perfume, which drifted through the air and attracted the noses of many a passer by. We hand little over half an hour to have a look around and grab something to eat, so after shuffling my way through the crowds and perusing every stall, I settled on an incredible waffle adored with goats cheese, figs and blueberries. Even just reading the name it sounds completely delicious, but to taste it was something else entirely! I was slightly sad when our lunch break ended and we had to move on, as I'd spotted some absolute gems in the market and quite fancied a second course. Definitely a little spot to return to at a later date. 

The tour took a bit of a radical turn when we stopped off at Leake Street tunnel and engaged in a bit of (legal) graffitiing! Theatre fans may know the area as the home of the atmospheric underground performance space The Vaults, and the whole tunnel has been designated as a safe space for spray paint artists to display their work. and is always full of frankly stunning murals and designs by a whole host of creatives. We were lucky enough to arrive just as one artist was putting the final touches on his own design. When our tour guides produced a couple of spray paint cans from their bike's basket the whole group got a bit excited, but the best we could muster were a few hearts and stars and some wobbly initials. I certainly gained an extra layer of respect for the graffiti artists whose masterpieces surrounded us. 

The sun was low in the sky as we pulled up outside The Kings Arms pub in Waterloo. On our 4 hour journey across London, and through the history of gin, our little tour group had gotten pretty friendly with one another, and the stop was the perfect opportunity to chat more over a gin based cocktail. The group was comprised of both tourists and locals, and it felt like the tour catered for all.

By the time we arrived back at the Tally Ho Cycle Tours' base, I felt slightly bittersweet. I'd had a fantastic time pootling around on my little bike, and although it screeched and shook quite a bit, it'd really grown on me, and I was sad to see it go. We all said thank you to our fantastic guides, and bade each other good night as we parted ways. 

The tour was fantastic for a number of reasons, not least because it marked my first experience of cycling in London, and although we stuck mostly to quiet back roads, I felt my confidence grow throughout the journey. Who knows, I may try cycling to work some day soon now? For just £45 pounds, the value for money was incredible. Our guides were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about both gin and cycling, and our historical gin knowledge was most definitely bolstered. For a slightly unusual afternoon out and about in London, there's really not much to compare.

I was invited to review the Gin & Markets Cycle Tour thanks to The Indytute.