Review - Caroline, Or Change (Playhouse Theatre)

It's 1963 and revolution is in the air in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Outside the courthouse in the middle of town, a plinth sits newly empty. Someone stole the Confederate Soldier statue which used to live there. But whilst the world changes and grows, Caroline stays just the same. A black maid and divorced mother of 4 who works for the barely-functioning clarinettist Stuart Gellman and his new wife Rose Stopnick Gellman, she spends her days in the family's basement, with only the washing machine, dryer, and radio to keep her company until Mr Gellman's young son Noah returns home from school and lights Caroline's daily cigarette.

Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
 The heat and the moisture in the thick Louisiana air is tangible as Caroline sweats away. She is statuesque, imposing, and yet she sings about drowning 16 feet below the sea, as the washroom appliances come to life and serenade her, bother her, torment her. Sharon D. Clarke has immeasurable presence as the titular character. She wears Caroline's pain, love, and conflict, perfectly. It's etched into her face. Every fearsome glower is tinged with sadness. Every tiny smile, although seldom seen, feels like daybreak. And although Caroline's rebellious daughter Emmie is, for all intents and purposes, Caroline's foil, Abiona Omonua carries herself with a similar aura; one of purposefulness, and self assuredness. However, a standoff between Emmie and the Rose's father during Hanukkah shows that whilst Caroline is resistant to change, Emmie revels in it.

Omonua's rendition of one of the musical's most poignant and touching songs, I Hate the Bus is a soaring, tear jerking Disney Princess style ballad. It's an I Want song, scored with beautiful piano and strings, and in it Emmie wishes for financial security, and the freedom to live on her own terms. Omonua's vocals, a mixture of bluesy belting and fluttering high note, impeccably conveys the optimism and confidence which characterises Emmie throughout the musical, and the number as a whole feels subdued yet immensely powerful.
Sharon D. Clarke and Abiona Omonua in Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Meanwhile, Lauren Ward's waspish and worn out Rose Stopnick Gellman is a piece of work, but a sympathetic one. As she tries to take on a maternal role with her new stepson Noah, by telling Caroline to keep any change she finds in any of Noah's trouser pockets, in order to teach Noah the value of money, she inadvertently places a wedge between Caroline and the Gellman family, which tears apart the household dynamic which has always been in place.

Tony Kushner's musical book is a mammoth to dissect. There's more characterisation in the first 10 minutes than most musicals manage in 2 and a half hours, and the cast do a fantastic job of breathing life into menagerie of Lake Charles inhabitants who play a part in the story.
The cast of Caroline, Or Change
Photo credit - Helen Maybanks
Michael Longhurst's direction is complimented by Fly Davis' set and costume design, and the whole production comes together to capture the weariness of the script and wring it out on stage. Often a revolve is used to keep the action swirling and brewing. Lives change, lessons are learned, relationships are made and broken, and yet everything feels quiet, compact and commonplace.
Caroline, Or Change is a musical which captures the personal and intimate, but the tremors of rebellion incited by those fighting against racial inequality quake through from start to finish.

I was invited to review Caroline, or Change thanks to London Box Office 

Review - A Christmas Carol in Concert (Lyceum Theatre)

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

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

Review - Seussical (Southwark Playhouse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review - Striking 12 (Union Theatre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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.

Review - The Distance You Have Come (Cockpit Theatre)

Songwriter Scott Alan's creations are a cornerstone in many musical cabarets, and so it may come as a surprise that he has never written a musical. Until now. The Distance You Have Come is a song cycle of Alan's work, directed by Alan himself, which turns some of his best known songs into musical exultations for a sextet of strangers. 
Emma Hatton in The Distance You Have Come 
Photo credit - Darren Bell
Starring six talented vocalists, The Distance You Have Come is a musical patchwork which stitches together the lives of individuals as they tackle all the love, loss, joy and fear in their lives. 

What's immediately evident is that an immensely talented cast has been assembled for The Distance You Have Come. All six cast members are uniquely talented, and represent a different emotion, attitude and journey, which audiences will undoubtedly be able to relate to. 

Andy Coxon and Adrian Hansel are charismatic as Brian and Samuel, a pair whose sweet journey blossoms from an awkward first date into an all encompassing romance. Alexia Khadime is in excellent voice as Laura, whose journey is one of loneliness and heartbreak, meanwhile Emma Hatton's Maisey represents optimism and light as she follows her dreams of becoming an actress, Dean John-Wilson's Joe experiences bleak and overwhelming darkness after a break up, and Jodie Jacobs' Anna travels on the rollercoaster that is modern dating post split. 

Andy Coxon and Adrian Hansel in The Distance You Have Come
Photo credit - Darren Bell
The strength of the material in The Distance You Have Come lies in its relatability, and Alan's talents as a songwriter are on particularly impressive display during the musical's brighter, more upbeat numbers. Jodie Jacobs' take on the hilarious Your Name, in which Anna tries in vain to remember the name of a man she's just started seeing, is a particularly warm bright spot. 

However, in act one in particular, the stark depiction of the low moments in life bring the production to a bit of a standstill, as one slow melancholy number follows another and another without reprieve, or thematic variation. The songs are heartfelt and honest but frequently maurose and a little too similar to follow after each other in such quick succession. What little book there is also feels a little fumbling, and as a result the first act feels slightly overlong.

Dean John-Wilson and Jodie Jacobs in The Distance You Have Come
Photo credit - Darren Bell
Act two is a considerably lighter yet equally touching experience, which ultimately leaves the characters and the audience on a high. Minimal set and lighting design by Simon Daw and Andrew Ellis respectively helps to establish a feeling of quaint comforting familiarity which further emphasises the musical's relatable storylines, and as the six characters come together to sing a hopeful rendition of the title song euphoria most definitely swells. 

The Distance You Have Come is a functional showcase of Scott Alan's songwriting accomplishments, but could do with a more balanced and even plot which would allow characters to explore a wider range of emotions and life experiences on their own before crashing together for the finale.

Interview - Alexia Khadime (The Distance You Have Come)

The creativity in the rehearsal room is always bubbling over like crazy’

Alexia Khadime’s CV reads like a dream. Having made her West End debut in The Lion King, the London based actress has since starred in some of the biggest musicals in London, taking on the role of Eponine in Les Miserables, playing the third ever principle Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked, and breaking hearts as Nabulungi in the original London cast of The Book of Mormon. Add to that a number of high profile voice over jobs and TV and film work, and it’s easy to see why she is considered one of the West End’s most reliable leading ladies.  

‘When I was younger I did drama classes after school but I never thought of acting as a career’, Alexia Khadime divulges. ‘I studied English Literature, Psychology, and Maths, and I thought I would do something with Psychology.’ But, she explains, her affinity for performing led to a number of television appearances, and a tour which took her away from school and introduced her to the career which she would go on to pursue. ‘I’ve always kind of felt, as cheesy as it sounds, that my career picked me’.

Now, she is preparing to appear in award winning composer Scott Alan’s song cycle The Distance You Have Come, having been asked by him personally to be a part of the cast. ‘He sent me a message saying “I’m doing a show and I want you to be part of it” and of course I said yes!’ She gushes. The pair had worked together on concerts before and Khadime admits, ‘I think I spent most of my time crying during rehearsals because his lyrics are so honest and raw’. Delving further into this idea, she explains ‘it follows these six different people and how they juggle the challenges in life, and love. So, it taps into all of that and people can relate to it.’

The actress is excited too, by the prospect of being involved with a project from its very first iteration. ‘You're the first one doing it. So you’re very much a part of the process and part of the beginning stages of it. And because you are creating a character, a part of you is injected into it’.

The cast of The Distance You Have Come
Photo credit - Darren Bell
We discuss the idea of new musicals versus established classics in terms of attracting new audiences, and Khadime posits that canny musicals today are tapping into ‘The Now’ in order to remain relevant. Listing The Book of Mormon, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and Hamilton as just a few examples she explains that ‘for people who don't really go to see musicals and think that maybe theatre is not really their thing… it's opening up the gates for them to come and enjoy themselves’. Focusing on The Book of Mormon, she says ‘it's not your classic musical. It’s written by two guys who write South Park. You’re belly laughing the entire time!’
She also thinks that the music of Scott Alan in particular is attractive to new audience members due to its grounded and relatable content. ‘It's very honest. It's the honesty, the rawness that, I think, pulls people in. And that is very much the case in The Distance You Have Come’.

And of course, as the sentiment goes, nothing beats live theatre. For Khadime, that is a sentiment which resonates as both on stage and off. ‘You can press rewind on your TV and stuff like that, but to watch live theatre is amazing. Even the same show eight times a week is slightly different every time for the actors.’

The cast of The Distance You Have Come
Photo credit - Darren Bell 
I ask about what life is like when the actress is not on stage. After all, appearing in such physically and emotionally demanding shows eight times a week is undoubtedly exhausting. ‘Day to day I'm a home girl’ she laughs, revealing that although she enjoys going out occasionally, balance is vital.

For young and upcoming performers Khadime also stresses that it’s important to always be practicing and improving. ‘Your Denzel Washingtons, your Meryl Streeps, your Viola Davises, they are still constantly sharpening their tools, and that's really important.’ But she also warns against pushing too much. ‘Eight shows a week is not easy! You need to make sure that you're rested so you can be alert and good to go. I might go to the gym or see if I can get to a singing class, but rest is also very important. So don't burn the candle at both ends because it will catch up with you!’