Q&A - Freddie Tapner (London Musical Theatre Orchestra)

On Sunday 6th November the London Musical Theatre Orchestra will be performing Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical State Fair at London's Cadogan Hall. The performance will be the first professional production of the musical in London, and also the orchestra's first ever full scale production, after it's inaugural gala in June of this year. The performance will be conducted by Freddie Tapner, the London Musical Theatre Orchestra's founder and principal conductor. As the production enters its final week of rehearsals, Freddie Tapner took some time out to answer a few questions about the how the London Musical Theatre Orchestra was formed, why State Fair was chosen as the first ever production, and what audience members can look out for in the future...
Photo credit - Nick Rutter
Hi Freddie, thanks for taking the time to take part in this interview. As the conductor of State Fair you must be very busy. It's interesting that you chose to study engineering at university, and yet now you work in the arts. Did you always have an interest in musical theatre? 
I was brought up around the theatre, around musicals particularly. I specifically remember, when I was about 5 years old, in long car journeys we'd always be listening to Phantom of the Opera, or Chess, or some of the other great musicals. I was also very lucky at school, I was on stage a lot in plays and musicals, and then when I got to university I found that I identified a lot more with the music team, because really that's what I love about musicals. The dancing is amazing, the acting is amazing, but for me it's all about the music and the lyrics.
What made you want to pursue a career in music?
When I left Cambridge I knew that it was what I wanted to pursue, and because it's an inherently unstable career path to go down, I thought that if there was any time to attempt it, the time would be straight after university. I suppose I had the lowest height to fall from! 
When you started the London Musical Theatre Orchestra did you expect that a lot of people would be interested in the idea, and willing to take part? 
Well if I'm completely honest I really didn't think that many people would be interested in it. When I started it it was much more of a passion project, and one which I always hoped that people would like, but I didn't set out imagining it would become a success. I set out to do it because I thought it would be fun for a group of people who love musicals to get together and play through a show. The thing which sort of showed me that there was a real desire to play musicals was when I posted a facebook post asking if anyone wanted to come and play through a musical just for fun, and in 24 hours I had 250 replies. At that point I realised that my idea did have some legs!
So originally it was formed as a way to bring together musicians who loved and wanted to play musical theatre for fun. How was it decided that the professional orchestra would be created, and that the concerts would be open to the public? 
As the play-throughs began to grow in popularity and quality, we realised that all of that talent was behind closed doors and it was a waste. We wanted to invite people in. Of course, at that stage you have to step up a gear in terms of your aspirations for the quality of what you're doing, and so the LMTO is packed with the very best players that we can find in London, and importantly, within those very top players at least 25% are developing musicians. Very highly trained, highly skilled musicians who have just graduated and are in need of their big break. 
It sounds like an excellent opportunity...
We're aiming to provide musicians with their first big professional credit, and on top of that the experience of sitting next to the very best players in London. We're incredibly lucky with the orchestra we have. For example, we have Pablo Mendelssohn who played trumpet on Legally Blonde, The Book of Mormon and Groundhog Day, and now he's lead trumpet on Dreamgirls, so for a recent graduate trumpet played to sit next to him and watch him at work, that's a really unique experience which I am pleased to say that all of the developing players have grasped with both hands and really relished.
State Fair is the London Musical Theatre Orchestra's first concert musical. It's such a wonderful musical with a beautiful score. How was it selected? 
James Yeoburn (executive director), Stuart Matthew Price (artistic director) and I sat down and sifted through catalogues looking for something which we could bring something to. Something which hadn't been done to death, but had been written by someone with a great number of musical theatre scores behind them. When came across State Fair we each knew one of two songs from it but we went away and listened to the album and we were just blown away by how astonishing and just enormously groovy the score was! Half of the show is a big band show with these huge swing numbers, which Emma Hatton is singing with a six piece brass section (four saxophones, two French horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones and a tuba). The sound that they create is astonishing, absolutely astonishing.
It sounds like it's going to be amazing! it's interesting that you bring up Emma Hatton... the well known musical theatre names attached to this production are no doubt going to be an exciting draw for musical theatre fans (soloists include Wendi Peters, Oliver Saville, Richard Fleeshman, Celinde Schoenmaker as well as the aforementioned Emma Hatton). Were the soloists already attached to the orchestra or did come on board especially for this project? 
They're new to us for this concert, but we love building relationships with all singers and so it's very much hoped that there will be a continued relationship. We're having such a ball rehearsing because there is just so much to get your teeth into and I'm thrilled with all of the soloists and all of the chorus.
Are there any musicals which you'd personally love the London Musical Theatre Orchestra to perform at some point in the future?
Oh my goodness, there's a list as long as my arm! But one which we are particularly keen to do is Candide, which I think would be an enormous privilege to work on, and to give it full orchestral works, because it's got such an orchestral score. I think The Fully Monty is another where the music is just virtuosic in what it sets out to achieve and then does achieve, and I'd love at one point to do something really new that's just come from Broadway or just come from the West End. Something like a Jason Robert Brown show with a full orchestra would be so exciting, or to take a Stiles and Drewe show and do that in concert, or take a Brunger and Cleary show and give it the full orchestral works. 
It certainly sounds like there is lots to potentially look forward to! Thank you to Freddie Tapner for taking the time to answer these questions. Be sure to book your tickets for Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair at Cadogan Hall on Sunday 6th November. 

Review - Hotel For Criminals (New Wimbledon Studio)

An unnervingly robotic tableaux welcomes audiences into the intimate New Wimbledon Studio. Amid an array of seemingly props and set pieces a blindfold toting gentleman stands, grasping a notebook and pen in string-bound hands. On his right an ominous figure is seated stoically, face obscured by a large paper fan, meanwhile tucked away in the corner of the stage a maid tries in vain to tame a coffin which won't stop swinging open. It's a macabre image, made all the more unsettling once the lights go down and an ear piercing hotel buzzer rattles the small auditorium into subdued submission.
Photo credit - Alessia Chinazzo
An ominous disembodied narrator introduces the audience to the Hotel For Criminals, the Parisian lair of notorious arch criminal Fantomos. The looming figure with a penchant for over the top disguises is brought to life by actor Niccolo Curradi, whose almost serene presence is at odds with Fantomas' dastardly reputation.

But Fantomas isn't the hotel's only nefarious occupant. One by one a barrage of dastardly inhabitants are revealed, each identified by their own unique pose, gait or grimace. Actors Nick Brittain, Ben Rawlings, Louis Rayneau and Tom Whalley make a disturbing barbershop quartet of dadaesque villains, each of whom are intriguing in their own way. Their discordant harmonies ring throughout the show, perfectly amplifying the already jarring and uneasy atmosphere.
Photo credit - Alessia Chinazzo
But arguably the real Big Bad in Hotel For Criminals is vampy Irma Vep, played by the beguiling Kate Baxter . Her intense glares and sultry glances make her a magnetic performer. It is Irma too whose motivations seem clearest, and whose presence seems most threatening. Plainly and simply she's after Fantomas' daughter Helene, and her intentions are that of the blood sucking kind. While Irma Vep's pursuits make up a large part of the overall plot, the other main plot line follows the innocent Helene as she becomes engaged to Max, the blindfolded fellow from the beginning of the show, who happens to be an American journalist keen to discover the hotel's secrets.

Alistair Fredrick and Madelaine Jennings as Max and Helene are like Tim Burton's Anthony and Johanna dialled up to eleven. The former wears a furrowed brow for the entire show, while the latter floats around stage, a virtuoso of whimsical posturing.
Photo credit - Alessia Chinazzo
While each of the characters in Hotel For Criminals is gloriously eerie, the musical itself is a little more polarising.  Although initially quite intriguing, as the plot descends rapidly into disarray it becomes clear that Hotel For Criminals is less about the story (which is entertaining but altogether too fractured to be satisfying in a traditional sense), and more about the imagery, the drama and the scenarios which characters find themselves in. Scenes transition awkwardly, musical numbers come out of nowhere and for whatever reason a giant bird keeps appearing left right and centre. However, despite its disjointedness, you can't help but get sucked in by Hotel For Criminals' engrossing oddness, which is encapsulated by Stanley Silverman and Richard Foreman's complex and dissonant tunes.

Director Patrick Kennedy's production of this American cult classic really a spectacle to behold. Fans of the traditional musical may be left scratching their heads at this dadaesque fever dream, but for those who are seeking something new and obscure Hotel For Criminals is an experience like no other.

Hotel For Criminals runs at the New Wimbledon Studio until the 29th October. Buy tickets here.

Review - King Lear (RSC Live)

Live theatre broadcasts are always exciting, and for Shakespeare fanatics nothing beats the RSC live screenings. The experience of sitting in a cinema hundreds of miles away from Stratford-Upon-Avon and yet still being able to experience the intimacy of an RSC production is a testimony to the advancement in technology which live theatre broadcasts have been experiencing ever since the RSC's Richard II was broadcast live in 2013. 

The cast of King Lear
Photo credit - Ellie Kurttz
The most recent production to receive a cinema broadcast is King Lear, directed by RSC artistic director Gregory Doran. The production stars acclaimed British theatre actor Antony Sher as the titular character, alongside a myriad of exciting talents such as David Troughton as Glocester, Nia Gwynne as Goneril and Paapa Essiedu as Edmund.

The production itself is not lacking in spectacle either. At the very beginning of the play Lear enters carried aloft in a glass box, swathed in fur and modelling a muted golden crown adorned with gilded feathers and acorns. Designer Niki Turner ensures that decadence juxtaposes coarseness at every turn during the first act, and warm golden tones give the piece an autumnal glow, which slowly ebbs away as the play goes on. Rather jarringly, this godlike grandeur is missing from the second act almost entirely, and paganist imagery is replaced with a harsh contrasting monochrome aesthetic. Despite this drastic switch in tone, the second act is really where this production of Lear comes in to its own, with the more clinical, harsh production design reflecting the sharpness and brazenness of the characters as their deeds become colder and more heartless. 

The cast are uniformly excellent in act two, and some outstanding performances more than make up for the slightly overindulgent first act. Nia Gwynn's Goneril is hard-hearted and yet vulnerable, Graham Turner plays an entertaining fool who at times seems almost like a foil for Sher's Lear, and Paapa Essiedu, whose mastery of Shakespearean language was showcased so well during his time as Hamlet at the RSC earlier this year, yet gives a compelling and captivating performance as Edmund. Meanwhile, David Troughton and Oliver Johnstone share several truly touching scenes together as Gloucester and Edgar. The pair's scenes as father and son are so delicate and intimate, with Troughton in particular giving an understated tour de force.

Contrastingly, as the mad king, Sher gives his all and reaches for a level of godlike malignancy to match the empyrean design of the production, notably raising his hands to the sky as if to beseech the heavens at several points, at other points using the same melodramatic gestures to command those in his court. However, his Lear never quite reaches the thundering level of drama that the text promises, and several notable scenes feel a little too under emphasised. 

It has to be said though, that a less frenzied, more disturbed Lear is certainly a refreshing step away from the typical raving monarch seen in several past incarnations, and while a few of the grander scenes seem to miss the mark at times, Sher shines in the more internal moments, especially when he shares the stage with Troughton's Gloucester. 

While hardly the most subversive or revolutionary production of King Lear, several affecting moments make this piece an exciting one. It's definitely a play of two halves, and the drastic change in tone between acts may polarise some, but the consistently impressive performances are what really make Doran's production of King Lear stand out.

Q&A - Robyn Grant (Buzz: A New Musical)

Up and coming theatre company Fat Rascal is currently shocking audiences at the Drayton Arms Theatre with their audacious show Buzz: The Musical, a feminist piece which celebrates women's independence and sexuality. The show has already made waves, having received a slew of positive reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, and it looks set to wave waves in London too. 

Having just opened the show, Robyn Grant (actress and writer of Buzz: A New Musical) talks about her 'naughty little world changing musical' and perfectly sums up the ongoing need for feminist theatre which celebrates woman and normalised women's sexuality.

It’s so exciting to see a young theatre company producing such interesting, socially relevant content. How did Fat Rascal Theatre form?
Fat Rascal Theatre was formed by myself and a collection of East 15 graduates in 2015. A fat rascal is a large scone popular in the north of England and we hold the same values. Affordable, hearty and soul filling. We're using the very accessible mediums of musical theatre and comedy to get more people engaged in thought-provoking theatre. So often people are put off by political theatre as they feel it's not for them and we hope to change that!

How did the history of a vibrator become the basis for a new musical?
I started research on the vibrator after watching the 2011 film 'Hysteria' and was amazed that I had never heard this incredible story before. As I dug deeper I discovered research on the dildo all the way back to the Stone Age. So often I get asked 'why do we need a musical about the history of the vibrator?' I'll tell you why. Because it's about so much more than that. It's about the untold story of female sexual oppression through the ages and how finally, in 2016, it's beginning to be ok for a woman to stand up and say "I am a sexual being and I don't have a man". And it's a musical because we're British and if it wasn't done through silly songs we'd all run away and cry and make cups of tea just to do something with our hands.

Buzz: A New Musical is a feminist piece of theatre which explores female sexuality. Despite progress in this area, it is still quite a taboo subject. To what extent do you think that female sexuality is a controversial topic today?
The British attitude to sex is ridiculous. We're still generally an embarrassed nation, especially when you get out of our big cities. We need to talk about sex and sexuality, women need to feel like they can be sexual beings in the same way that men can. The difference in acceptance of male masturbation and female masturbation is odd. Funnily enough, it's mainly women that have the problem with it! There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment around the topic. Some girls I spoke to told me ‘Well I don’t need to masturbate, I have a boyfriend”. Female sexuality is always associated with the pleasure or approval of a man. If a woman dresses provocatively or openly discusses her sexuality she is seen as an easy target for men or to be desiring their attention. 

How will Buzz: A New Musical help to challenge the negative and tabooed perceptions of female sexuality?
Buzz explores the little known fact that women have been masturbating since the beginning of time. As technology has advanced so has our ability to do so. People have to know that in the 70's the magic wand wasn't just thought up it was developed after thousands of years of prototypes. The clitoris hasn't suddenly popped out recently. Our grandmothers didn't wake up one morning and think 'gosh what's that between my legs'. Only recently has the clitoris been properly studied. Why in sex education aren't kids taught about it? Why do we watch cartoons of women laying on their back, taking a few hefty pumps to make a baby when our bodies are so much more capable than that? If anything women are designed to be able to have more sex than men and for pleasure rather than just function! Buzz explores the sexual women of history and will hopefully make the women of today feel a little more comfortable about it all knowing that it is and always has been perfectly normal. 

Do you think that the subject of female sexuality becoming more visible in theatre today?
I think that feminism is currently a 'hot topic' and thus we are seeing more work on female sexuality. However it's still seen as, 'a feminist work' rather than just 'a show about a woman and not a man'. Until there are just as many female parts and feminist theatre is just the norm there is a problem. At the moment it all still feels a little "I went to see a feminist play, aren't I cultured, now off I pop to watch five west end shows with majority male casts where a woman with nice legs might appear for the men to fight over and I won't bat an eyelid because that's normal'. But that's commercial theatre for you! It sells. The Brits like their classics. And until investors and producers become brave enough to put on risky 'feminist work' in a commercial setting this won't change. 

And as such, is feminist theatre is becoming more accessible? 
Slowly yes. However there's still a major problem within our industry. From the second you start drama classes in school it’s blatantly obvious there are more girls interested in acting than boys, this continues at drama school auditions and then into the industry. Despite this however there are far fewer opportunities for women and therefore we have become very disposable in modern theatre. This is not true only for actors, but for technicians, writers, composers, directors, and producers. In professional theatre there are hardly any women in positions of power. Women not only compete for less jobs but are judged on an entirely different scale. Because of the sheer number of women, casting directors can be as picky as they like and sadly it all comes down to appearance. Things are changing slowly, we are seeing more and more fantastic female artists emerging and I just hope that by creating a show for women, about women, by women, I can do my little bit.

The musical’s protagonist Angie seems like an everywoman, who audiences will relate to. Is she based on anyone in particular?
Angie is a little bit of me and a little bit of what I feel represents a woman of 2016. She's a voice for our generation of women, a real, honest one. A 22-year-old Miranda Hart. Allie Munro who plays Angie is a wonderful comedic actress who pours a lot of herself into the role too. She's gorgeous and she's hilarious and she doesn't have to self deprecate to be so. I think everybody will be able to see a bit of themselves in Angie and will at least once turn to their friend and say 'Oh my god I've done that!"

What’s next for the musical? 
I'd love to tour Buzz around the UK, especially up to the North. London is so spoilt with its vast variety of theatre whereas the rest of the country is treated to another revival of Oklahoma. When Buzz went to Leeds in Edinburgh previews we got such an amazing response. Theatre in every variety needs to be accessible for everyone. But in short nothing's confirmed yet. Pretty certain we're gonna get loads of dollar and arena tour it by January, but every day at a time. In the words of Cher, 'You haven't seen the last of me' or my naughty little world changing vibrator musical.

You can catch Buzz: A New Musical at the Drayton Arms Theatre, Tuesdays to Fridays until 29th October. Visit the Drayton Arms Theatre website for more information and to book tickets.

Interview: Ottilie Mackintosh (The Level of Being)

This weekend Martin Arrowsmith's one woman play The Level of Being makes its London debut at the Hen and Chickens. The dark comedy follows Louise, a modern woman whose relationship, friendships and career are falling apart. Struggling, she turns to Dr Doreen McDonald's inspiring self-help bible The Level of Being for help. 

The Level of Being stars Ottilie Mackintosh, who took a little bit of time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about the show... 

Can you tell us a bit about your career up until this point, and what it was that attracted you to this show and role?
My biggest role so far was playing Joanna Lumley in Little Crackers on Sky One. It was a show about her early life as a model in the 60s, which she directed and performed in herself. It was amazing to be performing alongside so many incredible actors, and Joanna is a really lovely person. We're still in touch a bit. She even emailed me to wish me luck for The Level of Being. She said she'd try to come see it if she could make it so here's hoping! I've also appeared in a new feature film, Petroleum Spirit, which is in post production. The character I play in the film is a little closer to me I hope- I find I often get cast as slightly more psychotic characters! 

With The Level of Being I auditioned and performed it in Nottingham with the writer Martin Arrowsmith directing. It was meant to transfer to London with the same team, but for various reasons that didn't happen, so I decided to take it on myself!

Your character Louise seems to be going through a lot at the beginning of the play, and her life sounds oddly reminiscent of the lives of many people today. To what extent do you relate to her and her situations?
I think everyone has those moments in life when things just seem to escalate, mount up and turn against you. I've never been divorced, so I can't personally relate to that, but we all know what it's like to be at your lowest ebb. We've all had a 'soul destroying' job, or been in debt. When that happens it's very easy to focus on all the negatives and convince yourself everything's against you. You can trick yourself into thinking you need to change your life completely, which is what Louise does.

Do you think this story will resonate with audiences? How do you think audiences will react to such a familiar yet dark story?
One of the things a lot people have said is that they know somebody "just like Louise". It seems everybody has a Louise in their life. And I think it must be cathartic in a way to see somebody they recognise do all the things that infuriate them on a stage.
Louise says she's depressed, but it's up to the audience to decide for themselves whether that's true or not. Is she really suffering from depression or is she just saying that to draw sympathy? It will be interesting to see how the audience reacts to that. 

The show features three actors, two of whom are silent mime performers. What is it like to play the only speaking role and how does this affect how the show is rehearsed? 
I think at first yes, the two other people, called "X" and "Y", don't appear to be very helpful and it puts the audience on Louise's side. But gradually as she starts creating problems for yourself you begin to feel more sorry for X & Y, who are sort of helpless spectators in her car crash life - a bit like the audience.

I think it would have been possible to do it as a completely one woman show, but (writer) Martin Arrowsmith was quite specific about having two silent actors on stage, and I think he was right. Eliott Keefe and Stephanie Houtman are playing X & Y. It's been great having them because although they don't say anything, I've had someone to react to and bounce off in rehearsals. Rehearsals have been interesting in themselves. We've been using a storage unit behind where I work in London. It's freezing cold and there's no natural light! 

If you could give your own piece of self-help advice, what would it be?
That it's okay to be flawed and not have it all together, and in a society that's obsessed with presenting ourselves at our absolute finest and hiding the hard parts of our lives, it can be easy to suppress those things - but Louise is a fine example of the rage, resentment, and insecurity that can build up as a consequence of that!

What’s next for the show after its run at the Hen and Chickens?
I think first of all I'll see what reaction we get at the Hen and Chickens before deciding what to do. There has been talk of a tour, or doing it again in London for a longer run. I've been with this character for half a year now, but I still think there's more of her to explore.

Canterbury Festival 2016

From the 15th October to the 5th November, the city of Canterbury (which is already well known for its arts and cultural events) hosts a festival in celebration of theatre, music, the visual arts, and much more.

Canterbury's festival history began all the way back in 1929. Today the Canterbury Festival is well established as a major arts organisation in the South East. 

One of the most exciting things about the Canterbury Festival is how the the whole city feels steeped in culture. Some of the most exciting performance venues in Canterbury this year include the Festival Spiegeltent (a travelling 1920s dance hall), the opulent and eccentric Ballroom and even Canterbury Cathedral itself!

Every year the Canterbury Festival programme is packed with exciting shows, from both UK and international artists. With such a broad and diverse range of shows and events on offer there is definitely something for everyone to enjoy, but if you can't decided on what to book for at the Canterbury Festival this year then take a look at these unmissable shows...

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical
Friday 21st October 2016, 7:30pm at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

If you're a fan of musical theatre then Showstopper is a must-see show. Unfortunately no synopsis can be provided for this show, because there isn't one! The plot and songs are improvised completely from scratch every night.

Take a look as this review from the Showstopper! tour earlier this year and visit the Canterbury Festival website for more information about how to book tickets.

Jazz at the Movies
Sunday 23rd November, 8pm in the Festival Spiegeltent 

This hugely popular show has sold out venues up and down the country, and now they're coming to Canterbury for one night only! They'll be playing iconic tunes from The Pink Panther, From Russia with Love and The Fabulous Baker Boys among others. 

If Jazz at the Movies sounds like your sort of thing then visit the Canterbury Festival for more information about how to book tickets. 

Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets - Two Gentle Socks of Verruca
Thursday 3rd November,7pm in the Festival Spiegeltent 

If that title doesn't lure you in then nothing will! This hilarious company combines comedy and puppetry to side splitting effect. A clever, inventive show, not to be missed. 

If you fancy a bit of sock based Shakespeare humour then walk on over to the festival spiegeltent on Thursday 2rd November. But don't forget to book your tickets in advance by visiting the Canterbury Festival website. 

A Shakespeare Miscellany - A Celebration of Songs Associated with Shakespeare
Monday 24th October, 7:30pm at St Gregory's Centre for Music

It's no surprise that a city with such a rich history relating to the arts and literature should attract a number of Shakespeare related shows, but if potty mouthed puppets are a bit too off the wall for you, then you may very well be interested in A Shakespeare Miscellany. Robin Blaze and Elizabeth Kenny are joined by actor Dickon Tyrrell in a recital of music, readings and songs associated with the works of William Shakespeare. 

Don't miss out of what is sure to be a wonderful evening. Visit the Canterbury Festival website to book your tickets. 

Roller Disco
Saturday 15th October, from 1pm at St Thomas’ Hall, Burgate

Something a bit different, which exemplifies just how much there is going on in Canterbury this autumn, is the roller disco event. Suitable for all ages, this roller disco is sure to be fantastic. No need to bring your own skates as they will be provided on the day (shoe sizes available range from child size 8 to adult size 12), just come along an have fun! 

The first session runs from 1:30-3pm, while the second runs from 3:45-5:15, so why not spend a few hours at the roller disco before heading off to an evening show? Book tickets on the Canterbury Festival website.

Review - In The Heights (King's Cross Theatre)

October is officially upon us, but while the weather gets colder and London begins to look more and more bleak and autumnal, the King's Cross Theatre is still sizzling with summer heat thanks to In The Heights! Lin-Manuel Miranda's creation has just celebrated 1 year at the King's Cross Theatre, and while the show may have experienced some cast changes since it first opened in October last year, the show is still as fresh, vibrant and full of talent as ever.
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Set in Manhattan's Washington Heights during a summer heatwave, In The Heights follows the lives of the inhabitants as they struggle with their own individual plights, as well as the larger issue of gentrification in the area. While there is an overarching storyline, the plot is a combination of several different characters' stories, and as such the audience is inevitably able to identify with at least one of the characters' predicaments. 

Several of the original cast members remain with the show, the most notable of which being Sam Mackay who plays the lead role of Usnavi. Mackay has received rave reviews for this role, and it's easy to see why. He exudes a likable dorkiness which really endears him to the audience. Add to this his mastery of rap and easy charisma and he is the perfect man to lead the cast of In The Heights

Despite Usnavi being the central character, the plot really revolves around the community of the Barrio, with Usnavi himself pointing out that his role is to 'illuminate the stories of the people in the street'. In fact, the show is very much an ensemble piece, with a cast which is faultless without exception. Some notable new additions to the cast include, Sarah Naudi as Vanessa, Juliet Gough as Camilla, and Arun Blair-Mangat as Benny. Blair-Mangat brings a likable swagger to the role and has beautiful chemistry with Gabriela Garcia's Nina. 
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Central to this production of In The Heights is Drew McOnie's award winning choreography, which perfectly compliments the pulse pounding Latin and hip hop inspired score. Almost every song is accompanied by heart stopping choreography, but it never distracts from what is being sung, nor does it look overcrowded or cramped on the King's Cross Theatre's traverse stage. Instead it draws attention to the theme of community which is central to the story. 

However, no doubt for many audience members the biggest draw of In The Heights is the music. With music and lyrics by man of the moment Lin-Manuel Miranda, those biding their time until Hamilton arrives in London next year will no doubt enjoy the clever, witty and sometimes gut wrenchingly ratable lyrics of In The Heights

From the opening number onwards, every song grabs the audience and forces them to sit up and listen. There is a delightful urgency to many numbers which echoes the bustling and relentless community within the Barrio, and nowhere is this more relevant that in 'Blackout', the act 1 finale. It's a showstopping number all round, with ingenious lighting design and sizzling vocals, all of which emphasise the amazingly affecting melodies and motifs of Miranda's music. Contrastingly, more simplistic solos such as Nina's first song 'Breath' still elicit an incredible reaction, thanks in no small part to actress Gabriela Garcia whose spine tingling vocals capture the essence of the song perfectly. Unfortunately, occasionally this level of emotion is not reflected in the book, which does seem overstuffed and over-sentimental at times. However, this is a minuscule nitpick in such a multifaceted show!

All in all In The Heights is still one of the most exciting and unmissable musicals in London. Be sure to catch it before it closes on January 8th 2017.

In The Heights has extended its London run at the King’s Cross Theatre for the third and final time and is now booking until Sunday 8 January 2017. Tickets start at £22.50, with a selection of best seats available for Under 25s at a special rate of £15 at every performance. Visit www.intheheightslondon.com for more information and to purchase tickets.

Interview: Sarah Naudi (In The Heights)

Sarah Naudi was part of the original cast of In The Heights at the Southwark Playhouse, where she played the role of Carla. She has recently taken over the role of Vanessa.

You started off in the role of Carla, how did you end up playing Vanessa?
Basically when I first auditioned, I auditioned for Vanessa and thankfully got cast in the show, but got Carla. And it was amazing actually. Especially working with Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (who originated the role of Daniela in the London cast of In The Heights). I was obsessed with her already and I thought 'great, I get to be your sidekick!' it was amazing! And then we moved here (to the King's Cross Theatre) and I was still playing Carla which was such a fun role. I was understudying all of the other girls, so I got to play all of them too. But there was something inside me that was like 'I really want to play Vanessa'. I just get her. And then at the cast change it happened! It was a dream come true!

What was the transition like?
The transition was... it's weird because I feel like coming from the ensemble to then playing the lead role, which blows my mind, I can appreciate how much work the ensemble have to do. We come on and sing a few songs and get lovely praise, but actually people are dancing and give their hearts, you know? I love that I now get to do this but have experienced that as well. And Drew McOnie's choreography! I don't get to do a lot of that now, but I can't complain!

The choreography in the show is amazing, a real highlight! 
Yes! And that's the core. I feel like the whole show is run by that.

Absolutely! It's a shame that your new role doesn't require as much dancing, but what's your favourite thing about playing Vanessa? 
I think she is quite different from me. One thing we have in common is that I'm from a tiny island, and Vanessa has a goal of getting out of the Barrio and doing something with her life, well I was exactly like that. Growing up I always said 'I'm going to be someone, I'm going somewhere', so I moved here on my own when I was a teenager. And I guess it's fun, you know, when everyone in the show is shouting 'Vanessa, Vanessa'. They kind of give you that status when you walk on (during The club scene)!

What is your favourite song to perform in the show? 
Definitely Champagne. She has a moment when she realises she's too late and goes 'oh my god, I've known Usnavi for so long, and I get it now'. And he's leaving. I find it so sad that he doesn't stay for her. He stays when he sees the graffiti on the grate. So it's sad. But I think my favourite song in the show is 96000. I used to get to dance in it a lot more and I love the pounding music. I could listen to it forever.

It's interesting that you talk about how the end of the show is a little bit sad for Vanessa. Where do you see her character going after the show has ended? 
That's a really good question actually! I feel like she probably does get out but I think she'll go back every now and then. I don't know what will happen with the romance, but I think she'll always have a sense of home there and that's what makes the finale so beautiful. I'm exactly the same. Yes I wanted to leave, but my home will always be my home. Every time I go back I feel... well, Benny has one of my favourite lines in the show, he says 'the street's a little kinder when you're home', and it's true. I think that everything's a bit easier and a bit more safe when you're home, and I think Vanessa probably needs that.

Thank you to Sarah for answering these questions. Be sure to catch her as Vanessa in In The Heights at the King's Cross Theatre!

In The Heights has extended its London run at the King’s Cross Theatre for the third and final time and is now booking until Sunday 8 January 2017. Tickets start at £22.50, with a selection of best seats available for Under 25s at a special rate of £15 at every performance. Visit www.intheheightslondon.com for more information and to purchase tickets.

Interview: Arun Blair-Mangat (In The Heights)

Having appeared in the original London cast of Kinky Boots (playing one of the Angels and covering the role of Lola), Arun Blair-Mangat talks about joining the cast of In The Heights and playing the role of Benny. 

You joined the cast a few weeks ago, what's it been like performing in the show so far?
They had a cast change at the beginning of September. I left Kinky Boots and joined this company. It's been a lot of fun. A very quick turn around, but I think it's better that way. You get to know the show really quickly and you can fill in the details afterwards.

Benny is such a great character. How are you enjoying playing the role? 
I love Benny's journey! I love being able to fall in love every night. It's a really great role to play actually.

In The Heights is full of amazing music. What's your favourite song in the show? 
Ooh, the music's so good! It's so rich and there are some beautiful motifs throughout the piece. I think my favourite song is actually a song that Gabby (Gabriela Garcia) sings as Nina. It's the second song in the show and it's called Breathe. It's so well written and she performs it incredibly. It's quite an intense song to happen so early in the show, but it instantly connects you and you understand her journey, and where she's going to go. It really establishes quite a lot.

The show has been compared to Rent on several occasions...
Yeah definitely. I think that the creators were very much inspired by it. There are definitely a couple of parallels.

Usnavi could be considered the main character but all of the characters have their own individual journeys...
Yes, there's lots of different arcs, all interlinking, but I think the main character is probably the Barrio. It's very much about the people and the community of Washington Heights. They're all interconnected and that's what makes the show seem more real, I think.

Many thanks to Arun for answering these questions. Be sure to catch him as Benny in In The Heights at the King's Cross Theatre!

In The Heights has extended its London run at the King’s Cross Theatre for the third and final time and is now booking until Sunday 8 January 2017. Tickets start at £22.50, with a selection of best seats available for Under 25s at a special rate of £15 at every performance. Visit www.intheheightslondon.com for more information and to purchase tickets.

In The Heights Celebrates 1 Year at the King's Cross Theatre

On Friday 30th September 2016 In The Heights celebrated its first birthday at London's Kings Cross Theatre. Lin Manuel Miranda's Tony and Olivier Award winning show opened at the Southwark Playhouse in 2014, where it received rave reviews. As a result it transferred to the King's Cross Theatre in October 2015, and has been running there ever since. At the 2016 Olivier Awards In The Heights was nominated for 4 Olivier Awards and won 3 for Outstanding Achievement in Music, Best Choreographer and Best Supporting Actor for David Bedella.

Photo credit - Johan Persson
The show is a personal favourite of mine, and so I was excited to be invited to its 1st birthday party. The evening began with drinks in the King's Cross Theatre foyer. It was nice to mingle with other theatre bloggers and reviewers, and also just enjoy the vibe of the room. 

The foyer is decorated with New York inspired signage, which is taken down and replaced with archaic Victorian signage before every performance of The Railway Children, which runs in rep with In The Heights. This attention to detail is important, as it means that the audience is already immersed in the atmosphere of Washington Heights before the show even begins. 

Having chatted to the other guests for a while it was time to move into the auditorium, where we were greeted by cast members Raffaella Covino and Johnny Bishop. The pair informed us all that we would be learning some of choreographer Drew McOnie's choreography, specifically a move called 'The Arm Breaker' which features in the show during the club scene at the end of act 1. As someone with a notorious pair of left feet, I was a little bit apprehensive to say the least. However, we were taken through the choreography step by step and shockingly Emily (my sister, dance partner and plus one for the evening) and I actually nailed the steps in the end. So much so that Raffaella gave us some advice on how to finesse our performance! Once everyone was fairly confident in what we were doing, some more of the show's cast members joined us on stage, and we all performed the dance together! Learning a little bit of salsa dance was fantastic fun, and getting to dance with some of the amazingly talented cast was brilliant too. We all tried our best but they made every step look effortless!

Once we'd all caught our breath we made our way back into the foyer to enjoy a buffet of lovely food (there was hummus, there were tortilla chips... I was in heaven!) and have a little chat to some of the cast members. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Arun Blair-Mangat, who recently joined the show as Benny, as well as Sarah Naudi who is currently playing Vanessa, but had been with the production since its Southwark run, where she played Carla.

Finally the rest of the audience began to arrive and we took our seats. The theatre was buzzing with excitement. In The Heights is a show with a very dedicated and vocal fanbase, and it was clear that many of those fans were in the audience, which only made the atmosphere of the show more enjoyable. In The Heights is a story about family, community, hopes and dreams, themes which resonate universally. Perhaps that is why it is received so positively night after night!

In The Heights has extended its London run at the King’s Cross Theatre for the third and final time and is now booking until Sunday 8 January 2017. Tickets start at £22.50, with a selection of best seats available for Under 25s at a special rate of £15 at every performance. Visit www.intheheightslondon.com for more information and to purchase tickets.