When? Thursday 8th November 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Neil Morrissey, Samantha Barks, Iain Fletcher, Sebastian Croft, Daniel Huttlestone, Stephen Moore, Jack Edwards, Claire Machin, CJ Johnson, David Langham, Emma Dukes, Stevie Hutchinson, Victoria Hay, Sophie Caton, Alison Connell, Sarah Cortez, Beth Davies, Hadrian Delacey, Lee Dillon-Stuart, Nicholas Duncan, Paul Farrell, Kade Ferraiolo, Mary Fox, James Gant, Matt Harrop, Lincoln Hudson, Kara Lane, Joe Maxwell, Mikaela Newton, Ryan O’Gorman, Claire Parrish, Annie Wensak
2012 has been a truly defining year for the Leeds Grand Theatre. Under the ambitious leadership of General Manager Ian Sime and his team, the venue has steadily grown in stature and is now rightly recognised in the industry as one of the largest and most prestigious receiving venues in the country. Following a record-breaking sell-out run of The Phantom of the Opera – which followed equally noteworthy visits of AAA touring shows Dirty Dancing, Sister Act and South Pacific - Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver! revival, which is playing the Grand for five weeks, is arguably the pick of the bunch in the theatre’s breathtaking 2012 calendar.
Oliver! is many people’s favourite musical for a reason; the songs are catchy, numerous and memorable – the show running order reads like a list of musical theatre standards: ‘Food, Glorious Food’, ‘Oliver!’, ‘Where is Love?’, ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘I’d Do Anything’ and ‘Be Back Soon’ are some of the well-known songs which feature in the first act alone. Oliver! is ageless, Lionel Bart’s book is poignant and entertaining in equal measure, the characters are instantly recognisable and wonderfully intriguing – the material is simply a godsend for the right production. And this is certainly the right production!
This 2011/13 tour, adapted from the 2009 London revival, is a joy from first to last – and I left the theatre beaming. The production numbers, in particular, are an absolute joy to behold with the teams – nay hoards – of talented children performing to an exceptional standard. A synopsis for such a well-known show is unnecessary; the only real variations from the original 1960 production – or the iconic 1968 movie – come in the form of minor directorial tweaks and the aesthetics of the staging, rather than in the plot or any aspect of character development. Laurence Connor takes the directorial helm and does a sterling job in balancing the importance of the plot with accessibility – of course, it helps when the book provides a showstopping production number every ten minutes, should the attention begin to wander! As it is though, the acted scenes are equally entertaining thanks to the weird and wacky cast of faintly menacing characters which fill the Oliver! universe.
Young Sebastian Croft, playing Oliver, sang with clarity and power throughout. Opposite him Daniel Huttlestone, set to feature as Gavroche in the 2013 Les Misérables movie, makes a very cheery and cheeky Artful Dodger. The highly experienced and hard-working adult cast are a match for the youngsters; David Langham gave an amusing turn as the mildly sinister Child-Catcher-esque undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and Stephen Moore shone as the kindly Mr. Brownlow. Samantha Barks, a runner-up in the BBC I’d Do Anything search for a Nancy, possesses a superb voice and belts with the best of them. ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ and the subsequent reprise proved arguably the stand-out number of the evening. Iain Fletcher is perhaps bordering on the panto as the villainous, psychotic Bill Sikes – indeed, he was roundly booed at the curtain call – but comes into his own in his final, dramatic moments leaving his performance feeling stronger than expected.
In my previous visit to Oliver! in the West End, I had seen stage legend Russ Abbott don the famous Fagin rags to great success and, initially, I had doubts about lead Neil Morrissey’s musical theatre credentials. However, after a nervy start, I am delighted to say Morrissey was terrific as a very bona fide Fagin. Thankfully shunning early slapstick for a much ‘smaller’ – and certainly more sincere – second act performance, by ‘Reviewing the Situation’, Morrissey had the audience rapt – the eruption of appreciation at the end of the number was one of the loudest and longest I have heard at the Grand.
Oliver! is also a particularly beautiful production and the sets and super-slick staging are a marvel. Very reminiscent of past Cameron Mackintosh productions such as his outstanding 2001 My Fair Lady or 2005′s Mary Poppins, the evening simply glides by as sets are flown in from all angles with such smoothness and symmetry as to leave you open-mouthed at the technical wizardry on show. Totie Driver/Adrian Vaux’s set designs are beautiful, the vast backdrops of London are living, breathing environs. The orchestrations (William David Brohn) are of the highest order, as one would expect from a tour of this quality. From the cheery bounce of ‘Oom Pah Pah’ to the swelling orchestral arrangement of ‘As Long As He Needs Me’, Oliver! boasts a particularly strong, classy band of fifteen, under the strong leadership of musical director Toby Higgins.
A fantastic, upbeat end to a year to remember at the Leeds Grand with Oliver! providing a West End experience in the heart of Yorkshire.
- Harry Zing
When? Monday 14th March 2011
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? James Gaddas, Jodie Prenger, Todd Carty, Robin Armstrong, Samuel Holmes, David Langham, Simon Lipkin, Graham MacDuff, Eric Idle (video), Philip Catchpole, Rachel Knowles, Kit Orton, Amy Papa, Tim Bonser, Paul Bullion, Persephone Fitzpatrick
If you like Monty Python, you will love Spamalot.
Spam, as it is affectionately known, is a hilarious re-working of the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the stage. Originally written for a Broadway audience, the material is snappy, funny and uncomplicated with great original musical comedy numbers from John Du Prez & Eric Idle. The subsequent West End production (of which I endured many hundreds of performances backstage) was a replica of the Broadway production, making this the tour the first ‘British’ Spamalot to be staged.
Director Christopher Luscombe – something of a specialist in ‘adapting’ larger productions for tour – keeps the focus on the cast, and it is their talented and enthusiastic performances which make the evening what it is. Jodie Prenger – fresh from her performance at the Olivier’s on Sunday night – stands out as the Lady of the Lake, her voice is strong and her performance is definitely worthy of those who preceded her in the role, the likes of Sara Ramirez and Hannah Waddingham. Filling in for the indisposed Phill Jupitus as King Arthur was television regular James Gaddas. Gaddas has an excellent comic timing – as do the entire cast – and his rendition of ‘I’m All Alone’ with Patsy (Todd Carty) was the strongest number of the night. Graham MacDuff is excellent as ever in all of his roles, as are Robin Armstrong as Bedevere and Samuel Holmes (who bears a remarkable resemblance to fellow thesp Olivier Thornton) as Robin.
The running time is considerably shorter than the West End production, running 25 minutes lighter at exactly two hours including interval. Luscombe’s cuts are generally successful, but some are enforced due to staging requirements on tour; the end of Act I was particularly noticeable in comparison to the lavish West End staging. Which brings me on to the design aspect of the show, namely Hugh Durrant’s sets and costumes, which simply aren’t of the required standard of a major touring production. They would be fine perhaps for an ambitious high school production, but when the first set wobbled just minutes in, I had serious doubts whether they would even last the distance. I am sure this is not the fault of the experienced Durrant, but rather the meagre budget this aspect of the production has been afforded. The cast features just 12 (exactly half the size of the West End production) and an orchestra of seven. This became a problem especially in the ‘Knights of the Round Table’ segment which calls for a kick line – only four cast could be spared for this including the ‘full’ female ensemble of just two.
The show has often be labelled ‘adult pantomime’, a moniker it is hard to refute. There are a constant stream of pop culture references and even audience participation at the end; the second act finale in particular and the use of a planted audience member was awkward to say the least.
But despite the perhaps overly thinned-out aspects of this tour, it is a great production and very enjoyable from start to finish. The performances are all very good and Prenger in particular has a whale of a time munching on the set and feeding off the audience’s laughter. The camptastic outing of Sir. Lancelot is a riot, Eric Idle’s new cameo is hilarious and the all-new version of ‘You Won’t Succeed in Showbiz’ is a massive improvement on the original un-localised version; ‘celebrities’ from Susan Boyle to Simon Cowell get the Python treatment to the delight of the audience.
As a fan of the show, I strongly recommend this current touring production of Spamalot, which is playing at the Bradford Alhambra until Saturday 19th March.