Review - Doctor Zhivago the Musical in Concert (Cadogan Hall)

Based on a Nobel Prize-winning novel by Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago tells an epic and ultimately heartbreaking tale of love and duty, which descends into chaos as the Russian Empire begins to fall. The musical, with music by Lucy Simon, and lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, has been produced around the world, but had yet to make it to the UK until Lambert Jackson Productions announced a high profile concert, featuring an impressively starry cast.

Ramin Karimloo and Celinde Schoenmaker in Doctor Zhivago
The concert provided an excellent opportunity for UK audiences to experience a rarely performed gem, presented at its best, with an extraordinarily talented cohort of performers and musicians highlighting the strength of the score. 

In the title role, Ramin Karimloo utilised the easy stage presence and impressive vocals which have earned him international acclaim to great effect, giving the doctor turned poet a quiet and compelling intensity. 

Admittedly, the plot’s focus on Zhivago’s extramarital romantic relations with the musical's guarded heroine Lara make him a difficult character to love at times (perhaps in a fully staged production the doctor’s guilt and conflict would be elaborated on further?), but ultimately he’s the sort of epic romantic hero that audiences have come to expect from musicals with the operatic tone and scale of Doctor Zhivago

The cast of Doctor Zhivago
Another notable performance came from Charlie McCullagh, whose commanding presence made his Pasha, an angry student revolutionary and rival to Zhivago in pursuit of Lara’s affections, a worthy adversary. 

However, despite the musical’s title, the story unquestionably belonged to Lara. Radiant and assured, Celinde Schoenmaker’s performance transcended the concert format, bringing the fiery and resilient heroine to life. Karimloo and Schoenmaker's performance of the haunting duet Now, in which they quietly admit their love, was a musical highlight which exemplified the lush and emotive musical heart of Doctor Zhivago

Celinde Schoenmaker in Doctor Zhivago
Admittedly, without the benefit of familiarity with the musical, the exclusion of the majority of Michael Weller’s book did make the concert feel slightly choppy and detached at times, despite the helpful narration offered by presenter Lucy Drever. However, the music provided plenty of atmosphere, and helped to adequately translate the emotions of certain scenes to the audience.  

Concerts such as this provide an excellent opportunity to introduce lesser known musicals to UK audiences, and if the standing ovation at the end of the performance is anything to go by, they're exactly what musical theatre fanatics desire. 

Edinburgh Fringe Review - Vulvarine: A New Musical

If you’re heading up to Edinburgh this summer then the number one company not to miss is Fat Rascal Theatre. Founded in 2016, the mischievous new musical theatre heroes have produced one hit after the other, and their Vulvarine: A New Musical is no exception. It returns to the Fringe this year alongside brand new musical parody Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch, and if you want to call yourself a musical theatre fan you'd better buy a ticket to both shows ASAP.

The cast of Vulvarine: A New Musical
Photo credit - Lidia Crisafulli 
Set in the painfully ordinary town of High Wickham, Vulvarine: A New Musical tells the story of overqualified and disaffected desk jockey Bryony Buckle, whose life is turned upside down when a mysterious vaccination and a shock from a rogue lightning bolt transform her into a kick-ass super powered action hero. 

With the fate of the world at risk thanks to her new found nemesis The Mansplainer, Bryony must join forces with her best friend Poppy and workplace sweetheart Orson Bloom, to do something extraordinary and save all of womankind.

Katie Wells and Allie Munro in Vulvarine: A New Musical
Photo credit - Lidia Crisafulli 
As with all of Fat Rascal Theatre’s productions, Vulvarine: A New Musical is hysterically funny, and the entire cast have their whizzbang line delivery down to a tee. Allie Munro exudes Bridget Jones-esque charisma as the musical’s endearing protagonist, meanwhile Robyn Grant displays bucketfuls of roguish irreverence as Vulvarine’s mortal enemy, whilst also multi-roling as Bryony’s foulmouthed cat Elton.

The cast of Vulvarine: A New Musical
Photo credit - Lidia Crisafulli 
The musical fizzes over with brilliant musical numbers, courtesy of Grant, co-writer Daniel Foxx, and James Ringer-Beck. By now they’ve mastered their own unique sound; bubbly, toe tapping contemporary musical theatre fare. The songs drive the production from start to finish, and the musical’s 75 minute run time zips along nicely as a result.

Smart, wickedly funny, and completely unique, Vulvarine: A New Musical is an Edinburgh Fringe must-see.

Going Out - Gingerline's Chambers_

Leave behind the world you know and journey into the multiverse this summer with Gingerline’s Chambers_, a completely immersive experience which sees audiences take on the role of universe hopping cartographers, dining on 5 courses of flavoursome food while traversing through a vast and sprawling interdimensional playground.

Photo credit - David Greig
As my friend and I arrive at the clandestine location of Gingerline’s latest culinary concourse (having received instructions on how to get to the location earlier that day), we trade in our earthly belongings for a hip and very functional bum-bag and a muddled-up map, which gives us our first hint as to what we’ve gotten ourselves into. More hints are dropped as we’re cryptically asked if we have any phobias. After replying in the negative, we’re allowed up into the bar to await the start of our gastronomic journey.

Photo credit - David Greig
After enjoying a cocktail or two in the dimly lit headquarters of the Dimension Centre, we’re shunted into what looks like the belly of a rickety spaceship, and expulsed into the first of our dimensional destinations. From then on it, there’s nowhere to go but onward. We clime, crawl and slide through a web of extraordinarily immersive worlds (Stripeland Productions have created a set so vast and intricate that it’d be difficult to describe even IF we were allowed to reveal the secrets of Chambers_), sampling the delicacies of each location we visit. 

Dietary requirements are catered for deftly, and although our vegetarian options do feel slightly less robust than their omnivorous counterparts, there’s more than enough food to keep us fuelled throughout the expedition.

Photo credit - David Greig
By the time we reach the end of our journey, our fellow audience members feel like friends. We’ve shared a remarkable night out, the likes of which we’re unlikely to experience again. Until, of course, Gingerline announces a follow-up.

Gingerline’s Chambers_ is an otherworldly trip like no other. Throw yourself into the action and you’ll have a truly unforgettable experience. Oh, and make sure you wear flat shoes. Even the most experience interdimensional travellers will struggle to navigate the multiverse in heels…

Review - Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Harold Pinter Theatre)

This summer, if you're not planning a holiday abroad then why not immerse yourself in the stage adaptation of Rona Munro’s adaptation of Louis de Bernières’s classic 1994 poolside read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which has transferred to the West End after a well received UK tour. 

Alex Mugnaioni and Madison Clare in Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
The emotionally charged story, set in idyllic Cephalonia during the Italian and German Occupation, sees a cheery Italian army captain with a love for music form an uneasy bond with headstrong and understandably hostile local woman. In spite of the forces threaten their budding romance, the pair find solace in each other’s company, not knowing what the audience gets a sense of from the play’s very beginning; that their time together is limited, and that eventually fate will tear them apart.

Director Melly Still has created a soft focused, halcyon world for the characters to inhabit, which feels almost dreamlike in contrast to the chaos and violence of the war which threatens to encroach them. Tranquil lighting, set design and sound elements create a beautifully serene atmosphere, which washes over the production in waves.

The cast of Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Yes, aesthetically Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is quite beautiful, and the cast of actor-musicians tasked with bringing the tale to life is uniformly excellent. However, where the production falters is in its pacing. With so much content provided by the source material, the play feels fragmented and unfocussed at times. In fact, the titular character doesn’t even appear until the curtain is ready to come down on act one. Much of the time spent before the interval focuses on Pelagia’s small-town life and how she dreams of greater things for herself, all which being courted by the ill-fated local Mandras.

Starkly interspersing Pelagia’s relatively carefree days, are the harsh wartime memories of Italian soldier Carlo and his close friend turned lover Francesco, the former of which is stationed alongside Captain Corelli in act 2.

Alex Mugnaioni and the cast of Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Photo credit - Marc Brenner
Both storylines offer useful insights into the life of ordinary people during the war, but feel long winded and slightly aimless. Not to mention that by shunting the relationship of Captain Corelli and Pelagia to act 2, there is significantly less time to solidify the bond between them. Actors Alex Mugnaioni and Madison Clare give touching performances, and their chemistry is completely tangible, but what should be a slow burning journey from hate to adoration feels far too rushed.

Nevertheless, when the full force of the war arrives on the shores of Cephalonia, the play switches gears and becomes surprisingly brutal and engrossing. The aftermath is equally emotionally exhausting, as the survivors come to terms with the agony they have lived through, and try their best to move on.

The play's languorous first act may tread water for a bit too long, but there are moments of beauty, horror, romance, and terror throughout which totally mesmerise.

I was invited to review Captain Corelli's Mandolin thanks to London Box Office 

Review - On Your Feet! (London Coliseum)

After an impressive run on Broadway and a lengthy US tour, director Jerry Mitchell's production of On Your Feet! has arrived at the London Coliseum, featuring a fantastic cast, lively band, and zazzy choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

The cast of On Your Feet!
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Following Cuban-American singer and former  Miami Sound Machine frontwoman Gloria Estefan and her musician turned producer husband Emilio as they come up against barriers in the form of Gloria's overprotective mother, as well as closed-minded record producers, before eventually beating the odds to become the international superstar power couple they are today, On Your Feet! is a hot new arrival which pulses with rhythm from start to finish. Featuring plenty of fantastic tunes including Dr. Beat, Rhythm Is Gonna Get You, and of course Conga, it's bound to have have audiences dancing in their seats. Especially with breakout stars Christie Prades and George Ioannides at the helm. The duo at the heart of the musical may not be as instantly recognisable to UK audiences as they are to those in the US, but that doesn't dampen the musical's vivaciousness, and neither does its admittedly shaky book, which utilises every trope in the musical biography toolkit. 

Christie Prades and George Ioannides in On Your Feet!
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Of course, Estefan's life story is an inspirational one without a doubt, and the musical does cover some surprising territory; exploring the after-effects of the Cuban revolution, and touching on the prejudices faced by immigrants in America. But the bare bones of the story too-closely resemble so many other biographical musicals which have hit the West End in the last couple of years. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and Sunny Afternoon did it first. And so, as strange as it is to say, although Estefan is easy to root for, On Your Feet! is at its best when the story melts away and the musical numbers take front and centre.

Estefan's eclectic songbook overflows with irresistible dance hits and pop ballads which are interspersed with lesser known numbers, and even one new song written specially for the show by Gloria and her daughter Emily Estefan. Conga is the big act 1 closer, and it does and excellent job of getting everyone up out of their seats, meanwhile act 2 culminates at the 1991 American Music Awards with heart-rending soul ballad with Coming Out Of the Dark. And of course, a finale megamix sends everyone home with a smile on their face. EsteFAN or not, sit back and enjoy the show, because the rhythm is going to get you either way! 

Review - Bare: A Pop Opera (The Vaults)

Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo’s Bare: A Pop Opera is something of a cult favourite amongst musical theatre aficionados. Set in St Cecilia's Boarding School, a close-knit Catholic school in America, a pulsing score accompanies the complex and ultimately tragic story of two closeted students whose relationship is strained when they are cast in a school production of Romeo and Juliet.

Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand in Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
First performed in 2000, Bare: A Pop Opera could almost be described as a period piece in 2019 (and certainly one or two scenes and songs feel dated in a pleasantly nostalgic way, despite attempts to modernise – mostly down to the inclusion of mobile phones). Sadly, director Julie Atherton’s new production at The Vaults highlights the fact that themes of homophobia, body image, and bullying are just as pertinent now as they ever were.

Darragh Cowley and Daniel Mack Shand star as Jason and Peter, the schoolboys at the centre of the Bare: A Pop Opera’s main drama. Both actors are believable in their roles, and sell the pain of their joint and individual struggles, although the romantic spark between the pair doesn't fully flare up until they share the show’s titular duet as the story nears its end. The book doesn't offer much of a glimpse into their relationship during happier times, and so as the plot evolves rapidly, its sudden jolt into high drama feels a little disjointed, and as a result the Shakespearian tragedy of the ending falls slightly flat. That being said, watching the couple steal secret kisses between classes as they dodge the ever watchful eyes of their gossipy school friends offers a sobering look at the reality of their relationship.

The cast of Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The production is bolstered by an almighty supporting cast, with the cohort who make up the St Cecilia's student body being excellent without exception. Lizzie Emery is sympathetic as Ivy, the misunderstood school beauty who turns Jason’s head and offers him a chance at (what he perceives to be) normalcy. And she sings the hell out of All Grown Up, an electrifying musical gut punch which stands out as a musical highlight in the show. Meanwhile as Jason’s sister Nadia, who also happens to be Ivy’s reluctant roommate, Georgie Lovatt brings humour and pathos in spades.

However, the most compelling supporting performance comes from Tom Hier, who brings an extra dimension to Matt, a classmate who becomes the Jason’s rival both in theatre (he is usurped of the lead role in the school play despite well-rehearsed audition) and in romance (his unrequited feelings for Ivy transition from sweet to malicious at a terrifying pace). Hier shows how Matt’s rocky relationship with religion conflicts with his own internal moral compass impressively throughout, and shines vocally during Are You There?, an angst and alcohol fuelled duet with Daniel Mack Shand’s Peter.

The cast of Bare: A Pop Opera
Photo credit - Tom Grace
The onstage band, led by MD Alasdair Brown, rocks the electric pop score throughout, but at times vocals are drowned out almost entirely by the sound of moving scenery in addition to the unavoidable rumble of trains from train station above. This is unfortunate, as the pop opera is sung-through with very little spoken dialogue, and therefore occasionally vital dramatic moments are diluted. Happily though, the enthusiasm of all involved shines through, and No Voice, one of Bare: A Pop Opera’s most chilling musical moments, is an incredibly affective send-off. As haunting harmonies ring out around The Vaults, the audience is left with plenty to think on.

Review - The Light in the Piazza (Southbank Centre)

The English summer may not have materialised as planned, but over at the Southbank Centre the sun in beaming down on Daniel Evans’ production of romantic musical The Light In The Piazza, which is currently making its debut in London some 14 years after an acclaimed run on Broadway.

Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen in The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Renée Fleming stars opposite Dove Cameron as Margaret and Clara Johnson, an American mother and daughter duo holidaying in sunny Florence in the 1950s, who become intertwined with the local Naccarelli family after Clara meets the young and charming Fabrizio Naccarelli. Although there is a language barrier, Clara and Fabrizio fall almost instantly in love, despite the love-extinguishing efforts of Margaret.

The Light in the Piazza’s Tony Award winning score, written by Adam Guettel, has been long admired by musical theatre fans, and for good reason. Sweeping strings envelop the every scene, casting a dreamy haze over the proceeding. Robert Jones' simple yet evocatively Tuscan set ensures that the sumptuous Orchestra of Opera North, breezily conducted by Kimberly Grigsby is always in full view.
 
The cast of The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
The radiant Dove Cameron, a newcomer to the London stage, is well matched by Rob Houchen, and the pair make the musical’s central romantic plot sing. Clara and Fabrizio seem drawn together by destiny, and it must be said that Houchen, who makes deft work of the musical’s extensive Italian portions and is beautifully expressive and utterly charming throughout, seems fated to have played the role. His breathtaking rendition of the passionate and angst filled Il Mondo Era Vuoto is a masterclass in musical theatre. Cameron is a similarly engaging presence, bringing sweet voiced innocence and joy to Clara, and perfectly encapsulating the rush of first love.
 
Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen in The Light in the Piazza
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton

With such an absorbing central romance plot, and gorgeous orchestrations underscoring every moment, it’s easy to allow yourself to be swept up in the emotions of the piece, but although Craig Lucas’ book is brisk and witty throughout, it never really finds its way to a satisfying or dramatic conclusion. However,  that isn't to say that the musical is all fluffy sweetness and romance; there are some darker turns courtesy of Celinde Schoenmaker’s Franca Naccarelli, the scorned wife of Fabrizio’s brother Giuseppe, played by the always charismatic Liam Tamne. Meanwhile the poised Renée Fleming, whose dexterous vocals have earned her four Grammys and a Tony nomination, brings a thrilling edge to Margaret as the root of her high-stung nature is slowly revealed.
 
Despite being semi-staged, the production is totally transportive, with Daniel Evans’ fluid direction keeping the production moving steadily along. Honestly, there’s no doubt about the fact that The Light in the Piazza will make you want to jump on a plane bound for Italy this summer, and find a love of your own. Spellbinding and sun kissed, it’s the perfect summertime treat.


Review - The Woman in Black (Fortune Theatre)

The Woman in Black is now celebrating 30 bone-chilling years on the West End. Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, The Woman in Black sees an elderly former lawyer named Arthur Kipps recounting a fateful trip he made many years earlier, during which time he encountered the titular woman in the derelict Eel Marsh House and fell victim to her curse. Kipps enlists the help of an actor to assist him in putting his story down in a play, but as the two men work to bring the haunting tale to life, a dark prescience lurks in the wings. 
 
Stuart Fox and Matthew Spencer in The woman in Black
Photo credit - Tristram Kenton
Stuart Fox and Matthew Spencer star as Kipps and The Actor, and do a miraculous job of bringing all of the play’s various eclectic characters to life. Within the intimate auditorium of the Fortune Theatre, which stands in for a cosy Victorian stage, the play is utterly engrossing from beginning to end.

Every tiny bump in the dark rings out across the audience and sends shivers down the spine, with Stephen Mallatratt's script amping up the unease as the story builds towards its chilling conclusion. Matthew Spencer’s portrayal of fear and confusion as he re-enacts the younger Kipps’ encounters at Eel Marsh House are so focused and animated that the entire audience can’t help but be pulled in to the world of the play. Yelps of fear from theatregoers are unsurprisingly common, and only help to stoke the energy in audience.

With 30 year reputation for inducing nightmares in audiences of all ages, and a place on the GCSE Drama curriculum, it’s no surprise that The Woman in Black remains as frighteningly fresh as ever.

Review - Our Town (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

This summer, director Ellen McDougall has brought a bit of olde worlde Americana to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre with Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning drama about birth, life, and death in the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners.
 
The cast of  Our Town
Photo credit - Johan Persson
The play is a thought provoking one, although it begins rather slowly. Using meta theatrical techniques which were undoubtedly rather innovative when the play first premiered, a twinkly eyed Stage Manager talks directly to the audience, introducing them to several key personalities within the town. There are plenty of characters to get to know, but at the heart of the story are childhood sweethearts George and Emily, whose rocky courtship marks the beginning of a much more focused and streamlined tale. Actors Arthur Hughes and Francesca Henry make a sweet couple, and their awkward first date over ice-cream sodas is an endearing scene which encapsulates the play’s fly-on-the-wall set-up extremely well.

However, the production doesn’t really ramp up until the final act, running at a brisk 30 minutes compared to 1 hour and 20 minutes in the first half. Taking place after the untimely demise of one of the town’s beloved residents, the play delves into the ephemerality of life, dishing out a didactic message about making the most of every second of every day. It’s rather profound, and excellently acted all round, especially when aided by the eerie silence of the outdoor setting post-sunset.

Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town fits perfectly into the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, with its messages about life and themes of introspection reflected in Rosie Elnile’s homespun set design, which mirrors the auditorium’s tiered bleachers, placing the audience well and truly within Grover’s Corners. Structurally Our Town may be a bit of a slow burn, but those who persevere as the story stretches into the chilly summer evening will be rewarded with a conclusion to leave a lump in anyone’s throat.

I was invited to review Our Town thanks to London Box Office

Review - American Idiot (UK Tour)

I can still remember hearing the iconic opening bars of American Idiot for the first time. Looking back the moment feels life changing, in a way. At age 9 I was way too young to understand the meaning behind the song’s subversive lyrics, denouncing the way the Iraq war was being turned into a spectator sport for rabid public onlookers thousands of miles away, but even at age 9 I knew a great song when I heard one. A great song which would go be Grammy nominated, become the band’s signature song, and eventually, share its name with a Tony Award winning rock musical.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
Of course, the fact is, when Green Day dropped their 7th studio album back in 2004, the world was in chaos. The Iraq War was making headlines every night, a global recession was affecting billions, and the USA was still reeling from the September 11th terrorist attacks which had shaken the world just 3 short years earlier. American Idiot was a direct response to this chaos – a punk rock opera telling the story of the Jesus of Suburbia; a restless kid coming of age in a harsh and hostile world. That storyline became the basis of the album’s 2009 stage adaptation, with the central character Johnny, the self-proclaimed Jesus of Suburbia, and his friends Will and Tunny setting out to escape the mundanity of their hometown, each coming up against barriers as they discover that the world is a pretty hostile and unforgiving place.
 
It’s a pretty profound and often uncomfortable watch, and in the 10th Anniversary UK tour director Racky Plews has done something extraordinary with it. The grandiose fist pumping Green Day anthems (the musical comprises of the entire American Idiot album, plus additional songs from 2009's 21st Century Breakdown, and one original song)  are just as hair raising as they’ve always been, but each feels surprisingly intimate and internal, and the book by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Broadway director Michael Mayer, although undeniably thin on the ground, ties the whole thing together and elevates it. Designer Sara Perks’ squalid sets bring the grim and hopeless world into even clearer view, casting a grimy haze over the production.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
The musical’s anti-hero Johnny documents his year in defiant letters; to his parents, his friends, himself. At times he’s funny, even charming in an odd way, possibly thanks to Tom Milner’s astute performance, but he’s also teetering on the edge of terrifying. He’s our narrator, yes, but far from taking us by the hand and leading us through the story, he’s constantly chomping at the bit, pulling away, losing himself on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Especially once he meets the swaggering rocker St Jimmy, who (spoiler alert) is later revealed to be nothing more than Johnny’s drug laden alter ego.

Johnny’s desperation to escape the claustrophobia of his small town is a familiar one. Especially to today’s millennials, promised the world by their parents, who find themselves instead inheriting a bleak, violent, hostile planet, which also happens to be dying at an alarming rate. With that in mind, plus the context of Bush-era America, is it any wonder that all we can do is watch in horror as Johnny’s dream decays, and he’s pulled into a self-destructive spiral of festering nihilism?

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
Similarly horrifying is the ease with which Tunny is seduced into enlisting in the army. Ross William Wild’s Favourite Son, appearing via TV to advertise the military as a glamourous and glorious pursuit, is more akin to a rock star than a military recruiter. Joshua Dowen sings the heck out of the role throughout, making a standout moment out of Are We The Waiting; a rare slow, reflective moment in the musical, which shows Tunny and his fellow recruits, stumbling uncertainly into a route march.

The third member of the trio, Will, doesn’t even make it out of town. His girlfriend Heather tells him that she is pregnant and he decides to do the right thing and stay with her. Will and Heather’s storyline is an interesting one, showing the struggle young people experience when they’re forced by circumstance to mature before they’re ready. Heather handles the situation significantly better than Will to begin with, but in the end they make up for the sake of their child. It’s a slightly more uplifting story on the outside, but of course it’s seeped it sadness, because it represents a cycle. Another generation destined to be raised, as the doctrine of the Jesus of Suburbia foretells, ‘on a steady diet of soda pop and Ritalin’.

The cast of American Idiot
Photo credit - Mark Dawson Photography
There’s a reason Green Day’s American Idiot resonated with so many when it was released. Beyond the fact that every song is a killer, the album encapsulates the anger, frustration, and loss that kicked off the 21st century. And to be honest we’re still living in the shadow of that time now. Which is probably why the musical continues to feel relevant, and why it affected me so deeply. American Idiot is a high octane musical middle finger, and in today’s rocky political climate when it seems as if the world is destined to repeat its past mistakes all over again in addition to making a tonne of new ones, it’s never been more necessary!

Review - Matilda the Musical (Cambridge Theatre)

Oliver, Annie… Matilda?
 
The cast of Matilda the Musical
Photo credit - Manuel Harlan
 Almost 10 years after its premiere in Stratford-upon-Avon, Matilda the Musical is still as fresh and fun as ever, and with a film adaptation rumoured to be in the works, it surely won’t be long until the Royal Shakespeare Company’s golden goose becomes as ubiquitous as the likes of family favourite musicals Annie and Oliver.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s book, Matilda the Musical tells the story of a 5 year old genius named Matilda Wormwood, who seeks refuge from her TV and microwave dinner loving parents with the kindly Miss Honey, and rallies her classmates to help take down the school’s bullish head teacher Miss Trunchbull.

Before the show even begins, the world of Matilda the Musical is already apparent, thanks to Rob Howell’s sprawling set design, which covers the proscenium arch with scrabble tiles which spell out little Matilda the Musical themed clues. The whole stage is a pop-up book come to life – kooky, primary coloured, and well matched by some pretty zany costume designs. Matilda’s mum, an amateur ballroom dancer and box-dye enthusiast, is kitted out in an eye-popping pink and purple number, whilst Miss Trunchbull’s drill sergeant-chic blazer and culottes cast a foreboding shadow over the otherwise vivid world.

And the musical isn’t all style over substance (contrary to the doctrine of Matilda's appearance-obsessed mum, who isn't afraid to assert that 'looks are more important than books!). Dennis Kelly’s book is endearing, with some moments of excellent comedy alongside the standard child friendly toilet humour. And the vibrant music by Tim Minchin solidifies Matilda the Musical as a cut above the rest. From Matilda’s synonymous solo Naughty, to the fist pumping heck-yes war cry of Revolting Children, when Matilda and her classmates finally stand up to the tyrannical Trunchbull, there’s not a song in the show that doesn’t jump out off the stage.

There may be plenty of family shows to entertain audiences in London right now, but few radiate the megawatts of joy that Matilda the Musical produces night after night. It's well and truly a must-see musical!
 
I was invited to review Matilda the Musical thanks to seatplan.com

Review - Rosmersholm (Duke of York's Theatre)

Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm is a politically charged tragedy swelling with a melancholy which seeps from every nook.

Hayley Atwell and the cast of Rosmersholm
Photo credit - Johan Persson
In a small Norwegian town, on the eve of an election which sees the conservative status quo challenged by radical new liberalist thinking, widowed atheist John Rosmer, formerly a well-respected pastor, wavers between embracing modern thinking, and buckling under the history and tradition which his family name, and home, is built on. On one side of the argument is his friend, and former companion to his deceased wife, Rebecca, whose intellect and self-sufficiency is at odds with the patriarchal thinking of the old. However, on the other side Rosmer’s brother-in-law Andreas Kroll campaigns for the ruling class to remain in what he sees as its rightful place. As both sides’ campaigning increases in ferocity, Rosmersholm becomes an epicentre of chaos, both personal and political. 

Tom Burke and Giles Terera in Rosmersholm
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Ian Rickson, former artistic director at the Royal Court Theatre, has done an extraordinary job of bringing this rarely performed Ibsen gem to the stage. Really, it could have been written yesterday. Rosmersholm is the perfect play for 2019, capturing the utter chaos of post-Brexit Britain, and the fervent tidal wave of fake news which notably swelled up in the run up to the 2016 US presidential election and has continued to wreak havoc politically ever since. 

Rae Smith's production design brings the bleakness of Rosmersholm to life; dozens of portraits hang on the walls and act as a constant reminder of the house’s proud history, meanwhile a grim line of grime and peeling paint trailing the bottom of the walls betrays the ghost of a flood which ravaged the house a year ago. That waterline, and the house’s accompanying disarray, acts as a constant symbol of guilt for Rosmer, as it betrays the upsetting and somewhat scandalous conditions of Rosmer’s late wife’s death; suicide by drowning, in the house’s adjacent millrun.

Giles Terera and Hayley Atwell in Rosmersholm
Photo credit - Johan Persson
The spectral canvas of the house is adorned with vivid, impressive performers in the play’s central trio. Hayley Atwell's Rebecca West is as enthralling & unreadable as characters get, engaging Tom Burke's disengaged John Rosmer in a precarious tug-of-war; do what's right or do what's safe. Meanwhile Giles Terera’s Kroll exudes an agitated energy as a member of the ruling class who intends to keep the lower societal classes subjugated. Yet another aspect of the play which feels uncomfortably familiar today. 

Holding a mirror up to modern day issues, while providing a glimpse into gender, society and politics of the late 1800s, Rosmersholm proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ibsen’s smart, sophisticated dialogue is in good hands with the trio of star leads, in a production which captures today’s rocky political climate scarily well.

I was invited to review Rosmersholm thanks to London Box Office 

Review - Mamma Mia! (Novello Theatre)

If the grey London evenings are getting you down, head down to the Novello Theatre and take a trip to sunny Greece with Mamma Mia! Catherine Johnson, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ irresistible jukebox musical hit.

The cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo credit - Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
The sunny West End staple, which has been running for 20 years on the West End, has most definitely reached icon status, inspiring two movies, and countless international productions around the world. And it’s easy to see why.

Mamma Mia! is an easy musical to love. The fun and fairly lightweight plot is bursting with ABBA bangers, and the cast certainly revels in the musical’s over the top energy and zest. From wetsuit clad groomsmen dancing in synchronicity to Lay All Your Love On Me, to a neon hazed dream sequence accompanied by the cool synthy Under Attack, Mamma Mia! is certainly not short on zany musical numbers, choreographed for peak dancefloor copycattery by Anthony Van Laast. Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out is a vivacious highlight, and the musical’s concert-like finale seals the deal, ensuring that the audience leaves on a high.

The cast of Mamma Mia!
Photo credit - Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
At 20 years old, Mamma Mia! is one of the oldest musicals on the West End, and at times it does show its age. Mark Thompson’s Ionian blue and white set design perfectly evokes Grecian summer on the fictional island of Kalokairi but looks a bit washed out. The glaringly 90s costumes however are delightful and add massively to the musical’s overall nostalgia factor.

This is a musical which shows no sign of slowing down. At this point it’s basically part of the fabric of London’s West End; a delight from start to finish. Seen it before? (Here we) go again!

I was invited to review Mamma Mia! thanks to London Box Office 

Review - 9 to 5 the Musical (Savoy Theatre)

This year, 10 years after it opened on Broadway, Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick’s 9 to 5 the Musical has finally made it to the West End. Based on the 1980 film of the same name, it tells the story of Violet, Doralee and Judy, three exasperated colleagues who join forces to try and banish sexism from their office.
 
The cast of 9 to 5 the Musical
Photo credit - Craig Sugden
Patricia Resnick’s book offers plenty of laughs, but also addresses, amongst other things, the gender pay gap, workplace harassment, and the bias against working mothers. All of which are issues which continue to make headlines today. The script’s puerile humour won’t be for everyone, but 9 to 5 the Musical certainly has its moments.

It also, obviously, puts its female stars front and centre, and wisely so as they are undoubtedly 9 to 5 the Musical’s strongest asset.
 
Caroline Sheen, Natalie McQueen, and Amber Davies in 9 to 5 the Musical
Photo credit - Pamela Raith
Amber Davies is sweet as young soon-to-be divorcee Judy, showing up for her first day of work looking like a child who raided her mother’s wardrobe, and with the naivety to match. She starts off unassuming, but ends up lifting the roof off the Savoy Theatre with Get Out and Stay Out, an empowering up tempo war cry which Judy delivers to her skeevy ex-husband.

Natalie McQueen is just as tremendous as Doralee, a “Backwoods Barbie” who has to prove that there’s more to her than meets the eye after facing relentless hostility from her female co-workers as well as relentless sexual abuse at the hands of Brian Conley’s lascivious CEO Franklin Hart Jr (Perfectly slimy and extremely gravelly voiced, so much so that at times he’s barely comprehendible). Bold, brassy, and hysterically funny, McQueen’s Doralee is a total scene stealer.
 
Brian Conley and Natalie McQueen in 9 to 5 the Musical
Photo Craig Sugden
Caroline Sheen completes 9 to 5 the Musical’s central power-trio as Violet, a strung out yet assertive single mother trying to make it to the top in her male dominated workplace. Her budding romance with a younger male colleague may not be the most compelling side plot, but she’s otherwise a fantastically well-rounded and dimensional heroine, and foil to the inimitable Bonnie Langford’s waspish Roz Keith.

The production is bolstered by comically 80s production design. The set which is bright and visually appealing, if a little bit sparse on the Savoy Theatre’s deep stage, with roll-on set pieces which betray the production’s past life on tour but are otherwise perfectly functional. Video design by Nina Dunn is sleek and vibrant, and while a Dolly Parton video cameo is evidently shoehorned in where it isn’t necessarily needed, having her pop up to sing a little bit of the title song is an undeniably upbeat crowd-pleasing moment.
 
It may not be the most robust or profound musical on the West End right now, but 9 to 5 the Musical offers a huge dose of girl power, which is sorely needed in 2019.

Review - West End Live Lounge: WOMAN (The Other Palace)

To coincide with International Women’s Day, West End Live Lounge presented WOMAN; a powerful celebration of women in the world of music.

Emma Hatton at West End Live Lounge
Photo credit - Nick Brittain (Brittain Photography)
Featuring an eclectic song list ranging from evergreen musical sensations like Carole King, to modern day chart toppers such as Little Mix, there was definitely something for everyone to enjoy. West End Live Lounge creator Shaun McCourt assembled a line-up of talent that could any musical theatre fan’s attention, featuring headliners Louise Dearman and Emma Hatton alongside a whole host of outstanding vocalists.
 
Accompanied by the Live Lounge Band under the musical direction of Sam Coates, the performances were invariably jawdropping, with highlights included recent Bat Out Of Hell alumnus Simon Gordon’s rendition of Lady Gaga’s Oscar winning Shallow and Jennifer Tierney's performance of All By Myself which began as a beautiful yet unassuming ballad before building to a face-melting finale. Finally, sensational vocal trio Divalution’s rendition of Little Mix jam Power ensured that the concert ended on the highest of a high notes!
 
It may have been nice to hear more mainstream female pop offerings, as a number of iconic 00s performers were notably omitted, but with the runtime pushing 3 hours already, and a set list which kept audiences guessing from start to finish, a follow-up concert ought to be considered in order to squeeze in the likes of Rhianna, Lily Allen and Beyoncé.

Presented by the indomitable affable Samuel J Holmes, whose panto inspired patter kept the concert running slickly, West End Live Lounge’s latest offering was a resounding Sunday evening success.

Going out - Gingerline's The Grand Expedition

At 4pm on an unusually sunny February day, I receive a clandestine text message. Its contents is fairly cryptic; just the name of a tube station and a set of walking instructions to guide me towards the location of my fast approaching evening adventure.
 
Photo credit - Rob Greig
Gingerline’s latest immersive dining venture The Grand Expedition is shrouded in secrecy, but when I arrive at a rather shady looking carpark with a tentative friend in tow, I know immediately that we’ve come to the right place. We’re met by a small gathering of equally clueless fellow ticketholders, who are slowly but surely being ferried in to an unassuming warehouse building. I’m given a green wristband to dictate my vegetarianism (my friend, an omnivore, is given a different colour) and then we too are ushered inside.

Like stepping into Narnia, the drab outdoors melts away, and we’re welcomed warmly into a pastel coloured storybook world. A small but mighty team of hosts work with military precision to seat us and our awestruck fellow diners beneath a canopy of vintage hot air balloons, and then just like that we’re off on a grand expedition…
 
Photo credit - Rob Greig
Over the course of the evening, we traverse the world from the comfort of our seats, as a small army of gibberish waffling aeronauts entertain us with dancing, slapstick comedy and mime, and even a couple of silly games to get us out of our seats and mingling with our fellow adventurers. The performers, who double up as waiters, work tirelessly to preserve The Grand Expedition’s madcap foodie fun, and although their flying goggle sporting aeronautical adventurers do occasionally resort to cultural stereotypes in order to convey a sense of place, their committed performances are certainly worthy of plenty of praise.
 
Photo credit - Rob Greig
Interspersed with the fun and games, we sample 5 courses of delectable cross continental fodder, served up in increasingly kitschy ways. Our plates burst with flavour, whilst our surroundings shift and evolve, immersing us deeper into the expedition. We’re even called upon to do a bit of DIY food presentation at one point; serving up our own pelmeni dumplings on a bed of borscht ketchup. As a result, we’re soon chatting chummily with our fellow dining companions, as we’re whisked further and further from home.

Every mouth-watering course brings something new to the dining experience, with each plate building on the one that came before it, despite drawing on culinary influences from every corner of the world. From the quaint to the downright otherworldly, by the time we come down from our indulgent gastronomic high, our taste buds have clocked some serious air miles!

Review - [title of show] (Above The Stag Theatre)

First produced off-Broadway in 2006, [title of show] is a post-modern musical with music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen and a book by Hunter Bell, which documents its own creation in preparation for entry into the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
 
The cast of [title of show]
Photo credit - PBG Studios
One interesting aspect of [title of show] is that its four central characters are based entirely upon the musical's original cast; creators Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, and their collaborators, actors Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff. In Director Robert McWhir’s production, actors Jordan Fox, Michael Vinsen, Kirby Hughes, and Natalie Williams take on the roles of Jeff, Hunter, Heidi and Susan. Uniformly charming and extremely funny the quartet of actors bring the autobiographical musical to life remarkably well, transporting the audience back to 2004. Their onstage chemistry as an ensemble is pitch perfect, rooting the unusual and at times rather unstructured material in reality, and giving the audience something to latch on to as the events of the musical unfold.
 
The cast of [title of show]
Photo credit - PBG Studios
[title of show] revels in its parred down, stripped back nature, placing its actors centre stage at all times and demanding a constant air of spontaneity from them. Happily, the performers bring it in spades. Fox and Vinsen make a snappy duo as the bickering yet brotherly leading men, whilst Hughes and Williams are equally entertaining as self-professed secondary characters Heidi and Susan, whose self-aware second act duet is a musical highlight. A special mention must also go to Associate Musical Director Oli George Rew, as [title of show]’s long suffering musician.

This is a meta musical which musical theatre aficionados will love. As well as delivering plenty of laughs, it also offers an insightful glimpse into the process of creating a new musical, from its inception all the way through to opening night… and beyond.

Review - Come From Away (Phoenix Theatre)

On September 11th 2001, one harrowing terrorist attack changed the course of history irreversibly, sending shock waves across the world and ushering in a new era of suspicion, anxiety and insularity. It's in the shadow of that unforgettable day 18 years ago that Irene Sankoff and David Hein's surprisingly jolly musical sensation Come From Away flourishes, proving that even in moments of unimaginable horror, human kindness will prevail.

The cast of Come From Away
Photo credit - Matthew Murphy
Rarely do such infectiously heart-warming musicals arrive on the West End, drawing audiences in with genuine warmth and heart, and leaving them feeling utterly fulfilled. 

Come From Away explores what happened when 38 planes from all over the world were forced to land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, during the shut down of American airspace following the 9/11 attack. Telling the true stories of the almost 7000 displaced and overwhelmed ‘plane people’ and the Gander natives who welcomed them with open arms, Come From Away is a heartening musical which exemplifies the absolute best of humanity, from its infectiously catchy opening number Welcome To The Rock, right up until the spirited on-stage band plays the audience out at the end. 

The cast of Come From Away
Photo credit - Matthew Murphy
Stitched together by an earthy folk rock score, Come From Away is a patchwork of different stories, told by an incredible ensemble cast. Every character bursts with life, from Gander's gruff yet amicable mayor Claude Elliott, to budding romancers Nick and Diane; a Brit and a Texan who meet whilst trapped on the tarmac at Gander International Airport. Rachel Tucker shines as Beverley Bass, American Airlines’ first female captain, who gives the audience a glimpse into the work of the heroic airline crew rallying together to get people home. Bass' gutsy solo Me and the Sky is just one of the musical's many heart stopping moments. 

The remarkably frank and human script demonstrates the mushrooming dread felt by Gander’s permanent and temporary dwellers, of course, but the friendships and romances formed in the small town in the days after the 9/11 attack take precedence, and so there’s no shortage of roistering song-and-dance numbers to drive the musical’s message of love and kindness home. 

Review - West End Women (Cadogan Hall)

It may only be February, but 2019 is already looking set to be an amazing year for musical theatre, with Broadway showstoppers like Waitress, Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen on the horizon, and home-grown musicals such as Six and the recently announced & Juliet making waves too. Aside from showcasing the breadth of the musical theatre genre, this theatrical line-up shares one other notable trait; they all feature an assortment of strong female characters in their ranks. And what better way to celebrate this vital leap in the right direction than a look back at almost 100 years of women in musical theatre?
 
Enter West End Women, Lambert Jackson Productions’ one-night-only celebration of some of musical theatre’s most memorable female characters, brought to life by an assortment of musical theatre superstars. 
 
The cast of West End Women
Photo credit - Michael Xavier
Headlining the concert were Rachel John, Lauren Samuels and Celinde Schoenmaker, three of the West End’s most dependable, versatile and spectacularly talented names. All three were given plenty of chances to shine in solo and group numbers. Rachel John delivered a hair raising rendition of Summertime from Porgy and Bess, whilst Lauren Samuels performed Never Enough from the 2017 hit film The Greatest Showman, and former The Phantom of the Opera star Celinde Schoenmaker revisited the mega musical to treat audiences to its ingénue Christine Daae’s star-making aria Think of Me.

Not only was West End Women a stunning showcase for the talents of its headlining performers, it also shone a spotlight on the stars of the future. Several up-and-coming musical theatre voices were on display, including Lauren Shields, Kayla Carter and Martha Boon, who opened the concert’s second act with Chicago’s vicious Cell Block Tango, Brady Isaacs who commanded the stage singing A Piece of Sky from Yentl, and Talia Robens, whose rendition of Everything I Know from In The Heights was a striking tearjerker.
 
The students of MX Masterclass, West End favourite Michael Xavier’s musical theatre training school, were equally impressive, bringing buckets of energy and pizazz to Blow Gabriel Blow from Anything Goes and America from West Side Story, accompanied by a peppy orchestra under the baton of Adam Hoskins.

Despite the omission of several famous female-led musicals, West End Women was a magical musical theatre celebration. The concept was solid, the performances were uniformly faultless, and the audience was left tapping their toes at the joyful and empowering finale, I’m A Woman!

Review - Avenue Q (UK Tour)

Its closing number may reassure audiences that “everything in life is only for now”, but Avenue Q, the uproarious comedy which infamously beat musical monolith Wicked to the Best New Musical Tony Award back in 2004, has been doing the rounds in the UK since it first premiered in London 13 years ago! And now it’s back, touring the UK under the director of Cressida Carré, and fuzzier than ever.
 
The cast of Avenue Q
Photo credit - Matt Martin
Telling the story of 22 year old graduate Princeton, who moves to New York’s to figure out his purpose in life and finds himself living amongst a host of zany humans and puppets, Avenue Q is a pretty unique beast. Positioning itself as x-rated The Muppets or Sesame Street parody, it’s ingeniously zany and riotously racy, but there’s a surprisingly touching moral buried deep amongst all of the fur.

Like it’s notorious sibling The Book of Mormon (songwriter Robert Lopez co-wrote the music for both, before bashing out the tunes for a little Disney film called Frozen), Avenue Q makes fun of just about everybody, and does so with abandon. But it feels loving, in a way, and definitely prompts a bit of self-reflection from its audience, after they’ve finished wiping away their tears of joy.
 
The cast of Avenue Q
Photo credit - Matt Martin
With such a reliance on the use of puppetry, Avenue Q is a show which lives or dies on the ability of the actors to breathe life into their primary coloured puppet counterparts. Thankfully, Lawrence Smith, who multiroles as both the musical’s protagonist Princeton, and his neighbour Rod, a closeted republican banker, undoubtedly has a brilliant grasp of the physicality the role requires, and is completely hilarious and a fabulous singer to boot. Likewise, Cecily Redman is endearing and sweetly voiced as Kate Monster, a Kindergarten Teaching Assistant who catches Princeton’s eye.

Avenue Q is the ultimate laugh-out-loud musical, with catchy songs aplenty, and a book chock-full of cheeky jibes. Deliriously funny, it’s the perfect antidote for the grey malaise of 2019.